Tag Archives: greg woolf

Reflections on Episode 1 of Mary Beard’s ‘Meet the Romans’

For my birthday 10 months ago, my in-laws gave me The Romans Box Set, presented by Mary Beard. This morning I watched the first episode of Meet the Romans (which I’ve mentioned before).* I have a few reflections that follow my viewing of this documentary.

First, Monte Testaccio is amazing. I think it was the most startling new thing I learned about in the episode. Monte Testaccio is a hill made entirely out of broken olive oil pots. No joke. Olive oil seeps into the terracotta and thus these jars, amphorae, etc., are useless after the oil is gone. And would go rancid. So the Romans would break them up into bits and discard them on this heap that became an actual hill. Here it is:

Photo from rometour.org

Photo from archaeospain.com

These potsherds apparently come largely from Spain. Very cool.

Instead of looking at the classic Monty Python, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?‘, Prof Beard was looking at what the Empire did for Rome. Thus — olive oil from Spain. Indeed, the Empire supplied Rome, with goods coming from around the Roman world, from Spanish olive oil to Tyrian (modern Lebanon) purple dye.

A salutary move Prof Beard makes in this documentary is to seek to present a balanced view of the Roman Empire and the Roman system. She observes that the Romans were not a master race out to conquer and tame the world, but in fact a bunch of people of diverse origins who become Roman.

Previously, say a century ago, the Romans were viewed as a bunch of British aristocrats in togas out to civilise the world. More recently, they have been viewed through post-colonial eyes as simply an exploitative system out to grab whatever they can. This is not to deny the exploitative elements of Roman rule — they are real — but to see the subtleties such a view ignores in its attempts to be current and its inability to see ancient empire as a phenomenon distinct from modern European empire/colonialism.

Beard avoids these two extremes. As a good scholar should.

What made a Roman, despite the official and powerful draw of tradition, was ever changing and ever shifting. The empire contributed to this, as people from everywhere came to the city. Some came as slaves, some as immigrants, some as gladiators. Some became citizens. They have left behind their mark in tombstones found throughout the archaeology of the city.

This image of Romans assimilating new persons and peoples, of Roman culture, while not being interested in diversity, still being subtly changed by contact with cultural diversity, is vital to unravelling the course of Roman culture, and it is part of the heart of Roman success as an empire. I cannot help but think of Romulus’ legendary band of brigands stealing themselves wives, or the more historical process of people like Cicero and Pliny the Younger becoming as Roman as anyone.

One of the powerful facts Greg Woolf demonstrates in his book Rome: An Empire’s Story is that Rome’s is about the only ancient empire that goes from a conquest mode and settles down to some form of lasting stability. This is a good point — Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue in Daniel 2 may see the Medes and Persians as lesser than the Babylonians, but this staying power of Roman imperium must surely make Rome greater (feet of clay notwithstanding).

I don’t recall (sorry!) if Woolf makes this point, but is it not this changeability that makes Rome successful? Rather than keeping foreigners at a distance, as a city like Athens did, Rome made citizenship attainable and desirable. This meant that the composition of its citizenry was always changing, and an ‘ancient’ family of Late Antiquity may not have even been around before Augustus. It meant that Hadrian from Spain and Septimius Severus from Africa could become Emperor. It meant that, despite Augustine’s uneasiness about his own African accent, Augustine and Tertullian are about as Roman as it gets. It meant that fifth-century Berbers identified themselves Romans in the face of an occupying force of Vandals.

The story of Rome, its impact on the world, and the world’s impact on Rome is a fascinating one. I am glad for scholars like Mary Beard who are able to bring it to a wider audience, bringing knowledge and interest down from the ivory tower and into our televisions and living rooms.

*The set also includes Caligula and Pompeii: LIfe & Death in a Roman Town.


Discover Late Antiquity: Discover Rome first!

To keep from getting entirely lost when looking at Late Antiquity, it’s best to have some grasp of Roman history. Now, I’m not saying you need to know everything there is in great detail, but knowing about the Roman Empire and how it functions and what life was like is a good backdrop for knowing Late Antiquity.

When Augustine discusses minor Roman deities, it’s notably helpful to know a thing or two about Roman religion. When everyone references Virgil, it’s good to know about the Aeneid. When disaster strikes and late antique Romans read their Livy, it’s good to know about the history they reference. Many things changed in Late Antiquity, but the Empire was still Roman: it operated in the technical, legal Latin of earlier centuries, people went to the baths, people watched chariot races, emperors built monuments, they wore togas when required, and so on and so forth.

To facilitate navigation, I am giving a list of a few resources to help people navigate Roman history. I thought about giving a one-post run-through of Roman history, and then I realised it was impossible. Nevertheless, these resources, both online and offline, should help the reader interested in ancient Rome navigate the world of Roman history so as not to get lost by any back-references from Late Antiquity.

If you know of better resources, especially online ones, let me know in the comments!

3 books on history (not that I think you need to read all three to get the lay of the land; the first is probably the quickest read of them):

Greg Woolf, Rome: An Empire’s Story. Woolf gives the reader the big, sweeping story of Rome from the perspective of imperium, the power to command, from city-state to Mediterranean power and then loss of power. A lot of interesting facts in here I’d not known before, and it helps provide the backdrop for more narrow reading into Rome’s story.

Chris Scarre, The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome. This was a required textbook for the Introduction to Roman Civilization class I took in my first year of undergrad at the University of Ottawa. It gives you a succinct overview of Roman history with the geography to make it all make sense.

Ward, Heichelheim, and Yeo, A History of the Roman People.  This was my Roman history textbook in second-year undergrad and a great place to go to read the history of this great city from foundation to fall and legacy, from regal period to late antiquity. It is a bit textbooky, I admit, but its also fairly comprehensive.

Online history resources:

BBC History on the Romans. A brief overview of Roman history, with a special British focus.

Illustrated History of the Roman Empire. Another online runthrough of the history of Rome, with pictures!

Roman Emperors — The Imperial Index. A good reference listing every Roman Emperor from Augustus in 31 BC to Constantine XIII in AD 1453.

The Consular List. Like the above, this lists the consuls from L. Junius Brutus & L. Tarquinius Collatinus in 509 BC to Fl. Anicius Faustus Albinus Basilius Iunior in AD 541. Handy.

Here’s a map of the Roman Empire. History without geography is vague and almost meaningless.

A Timeline of the Roman Empire — This may be one of the more helpful reference tools, beginning in 753 BC and giving pretty good detail up to the 600s AD.


Rome: Engineering an Empire. This is a pretty good doc if you’re not looking for Late Antiquity. I’ve reviewed it here.

Meet the Romans with Mary Beard. Art historians tell me that some of Mary Beard’s interpretations of stuff are contested, and everyone who watched this three-part documentary on the BBC cringed when she kept manhandling ancient objects. Otherwise, quite good and a nice, three-hour entry into Roman culture.

Treasures of Ancient Rome by Alastair Sooke. Although I’m not an art historian and my study of material culture mostly involves books, I think it’s very important to know the art and precious objects of a culture if we are to know their history. In this fantastic three-part doc, Alastair Sooke blasts away the myth that Roman art is totally lame and derivative, showing us the splendours that await those who take a look.