Tag Archives: roman empire

Empires: Old, New, Near, and Far, Far Away (May the Fourth Be with You)

I am in the midst of applying for academic jobs for next year. Although it is a tiring task, I have no doubt a job will come. (But the sooner the better!) I have had employment all three years since my Ph.D., after all. One part of the job application process is pitching to prospective departments fresh and exciting courses you could offer — although introductory Roman history courses seem to be the most well-attended in Classics, overall.

Then again, maybe my course on the reception of Classics in science fiction could change that statistic. Now, there are some obvious points of reception to consider when you turn your eye to sci-fi and the Classics — Battlestar Galactica and Virgil’s Aeneid, for example. Or time travel programmes that go to ancient Rome or Greece. Or any time there’s a gladiator fight.

Less obvious would be making them read Dan Simmons’ beautiful, gut-wrenching, space opera Hyperion, a multi-layered reception of classics, of theology, of theoretical physics, and of John Keats.

On the more obvious side are empires.

The most obvious empire, of course, is the evil Galactic Empire of Star Wars, with a dark magician Sith Lord as emperor. Here, empire is evil. In Rogue One, I finally felt the actual evil and oppression of the Empire. In Star Wars, we saw their brutality in the wanton murder of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru. In The Empire Strikes Back, we saw how they used force and economics to manipulate Lando Calrissian to their own ends. In Return of the Jedi they killed Ewoks. The rest of any evil perpetrated by the Empire in the original trilogy was largely confined to battle. Is killing ‘good people’ in battle any more evil when done by an evil Empire or a Rebel Alliance?

Anyway, as I say: Rogue One. I felt that here we finally felt the arbitrariness of their oppressive system and the suffering of ordinary people who weren’t harbouring fugitives from the Sith or buying droids formerly in Rebel possession. Just people. Suffering at the hands of a largely faceless government. Also, I really felt that Darth Vader was a violent, evil threat in that final scene.

Back to Classics: pitted against this Empire is the Rebel Alliance who wish to bring back the Old Republic. The ideals of this republic are modern-Americanised versions of ancient republican ideals, of freedom for local societies and individuals to serve beneath the big government in a mutually self-serving way.

What is interesting here is the fact that both the Roman Republic, as a transnational Mediterranean state, and the Roman Empire as the same, combine elements of republicanism and evil imperialism. They oppress at times. They leave local cities to be essentially self-governing at others (save, of course, the levying of taxes). They might wage a devastating war against your city and almost obliterate it (Republic: Corinth and Carthage, 146 BCE; Empire: Jerusalem 70 CE).

Coruscant is not the only world-city capital of a galactic empire, of course. Before Coruscant in a galaxy far, far away, there was Trantor, here in our Galaxy, the seat of galactic empire in Isaac Asimov’s Empire and Foundation novels. The original Foundation trilogy — FoundationFoundation and Empire, and Second Foundation — won the Hugo for Best Series Ever, FYI. So go and read it.

Asimov’s galactic empire, by the time of Foundation, at least, is a Good Thing. Or at least a Thing. Largely neutral as far as being an empire is concerned, but able to bring good things to its citizens. However, it is not far from its own fall. And in the wake of the fall of the empire will come galaxy-wide de-stabilisation. There will be chaos and a fall into ruin and a setting back the clock to an earlier time. Kind of like how we can’t tell if some Welsh archaeology is Stone Age or Post-Roman. Or the inferior quality of some Anglo-Saxon pottery, famously used as an illustration of this fact by Bryan Ward-Perkins in The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization.

The Foundation of the title is the foundation of a new empire, with the goal of lessening the impact of decline and fall, with the goal of keeping chaos at bay and gently directing history towards a beneficial conclusion for all humanity. For Asimov, empire is not necessarily good — he is the son of immigrant Russian Jews, after all. But he is aware enough of nuance to envision an empire as a good.

Asimov, then, is also inspired by the Classics in his empire — by the Fall of Rome more than by the transfer of power from the Senate to the Augustus.

What about the Romulan Star Empire in Star Trek? Obviously, the names of their home planets — Romulus and Remus — are classical. And the terminology of their governmental apparatus is itself Roman, with prefects and all that jazz. But what else is Roman about them?

Perhaps — and this is a spur-of-the-moment speculation — they represent a Gibbon-esque Byzantine Empire. Romulans are famous for speaking out of both sides of their mouths. They are notorious for being untrustworthy. They have secrets buried in their secrets. They are also the same species as Vulcans, but their governments are now divided after all these years.

Just a thought that needs more reflection.

These are only a few ways in which science fiction has represented empires. One of the important questions in reception is how does the cultural moment of the piece you are considering affect its representation and use of the classics. In a post-colonial, post-imperial — indeed, anti-imperial — climate, it is no great surprise that Firefly‘s Alliance is the faceless, exploitative villain. And, in a pre-World War I USA, are we surprised at John Carter’s union of the city-states of Barsoom as what is essentially an empire under Helium in The Warlord of Mars?

I do wonder how Solo in a few weeks will portray the evil Galactic Empire, living in a post-truth, fake news era with Trump as President of the USA and Putin acting like the latest Tsar? How does this political moment affect our reading of ancient Rome and empire’s reception in fiction?

The Baths of Diocletian – more from Late Antique Rome

In my series (original post here) on my quest for Late Antique Rome, which has made halting progress, I have already tickled your ears (or eyes, I suppose) with the Mausoleo di Santa Costanza and a few basilicas. One of the largest Late Antique edifices in the city of Rome is the Baths of Diocletian:

Baths of Diocletian

Baths of Diocletian, from Best of Rome, Italy by Wikimedia user Joris

In my other halting series, ‘Discover Late Antiquity’, I recommended that one first discover Rome before discovering Late Antiquity — that everything in the late and post-Classical world has roots and references in the history and culture of the Roman Empire. Baths are a key element of that tradition. Nothing is more (stereotypically) Roman than baths. As the famous graffito writes:

‘Baths, wine and sex ruin our bodies, but what makes life worth living except baths, wine and sex’ -CIL VI.15258, quoted in Latrinae et Foricae, p. 142

Although they came to Rome from the Greek world, baths went through their own transformation on Italian soil, and went from hot rooms with individual tubs to communal bathing full of lots of naked dudes all wet together. The basic Roman bath had a changing-room (apodyterium), a frigidarium (cold pool), a tepidarium (lukewarm pool), and a caldarium (hot pool), this last in a room also with a water basin on a stand. After 100 BC, hypocausts were invented, and things could really heat up in the baths. A hypocaust is basically central heating, running beneath the floor and even through the walls. Here are some photos my wife and I got of hypocausts at baths in Ostia Antica, Rome’s port:

Baths with the basic design can be found throughout the Roman world — as far afield as Jerash, in modern Jordan (where I’ve not been), and Bearsden, a suburb of Glasgow (we have some in Edinburgh at Cramond, but I’ve not yet found them, despite two trips out there):

My photo, complete with archaeologists!

My photo, complete with archaeologists!

Anyway, big baths, such as those at Ostia Antica or the Baths of Diocletian under discussion, typically come equipped with saunas, and exercise grounds. The really big ones in Rome, not just those of Diocletian but also of Caracalla and Trajan, if not others of which I know less, also had big, public, ‘basilical’ halls, gardens, lecture-halls, libraries, and more. They evolved into large spaces for public and civic activity in Rome and the other cities of the Empire.

Evidence that ‘Late Antiquity’ is still ‘Antiquity’, still Roman, is the building of the Baths of Diocletian ca. 306 as well as the maintenance of the other city baths into the fifth century — indeed, they are mentioned as being mended as late as Theoderic the Great (Ostrogothic King of Italy, d. 526).


A good angle of the Baths of Diocletian

Anyway, after visiting some basilicas and the Museo Nazionale Romano in Palazzo Massimo, I visited one of its sister sites, housed today in the Baths of Diocletian (Terme di Diocleziano). Built, as I said, around 306, these are the largest bath complex ever built in Rome. When you walk around the neighbourhood, you can sometimes see a ruinous brick structure amongst the modern — bits and pieces of Diocletian’s legacy. This was more than a series of pools as found in Roman camps such as Bearsden. It covered over 13 hectares, over 32 acres. Small for an Albertan farm, perhaps, but gigantic for a bath complex. Here’s one of my shots to give you an idea of scale:

IMG_1762Besides their ground coverage, the Baths of Diocletian also have some good height:

IMG_1747 IMG_1748 IMG_1749The exhibits are worth seeing — a variety of Roman statues, sarcophagi, tombstones, etc., arranged throughout the bath complex as well as in the Carthusian cloister built by Michelangelo. There is also a very excellent gallery of Roman inscriptions, where I got to see these (amongst others):

Fragment of the 'Forma Urbis Romae', a stone map of the city. Here you can see a bit of the Forum, the Temple of Castor and Pollux

Fragment of the ‘Forma Urbis Romae’, a stone map of the city. Here you can see a bit of the Forum, the Temple of Castor and Pollux

An inscription with a letter invented by the Emperor Claudius to represent consonantal 'u'

An inscription with a letter invented by the Emperor Claudius to represent consonantal ‘u’

After the museum, I recommend going into the bit of the Baths of Diocletian that has been transformed in the church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. Here, I think, you will get a better sense of the ancient grandeur of the place, with its marble floors and stone-lined walls and elegant grace and beauty. If you take out the Christian altars, it is probably much as the baths were in Diocletian’s day.

IMG_1767 IMG_1768 IMG_1775I enjoyed my visit to the Baths of Diocletian, and I think they are a unique witness to the monumental architecture of imperial Rome. In my next post of this series, whenever I get around to it, I’ll look at the little things of Late Antiquity that I found in Rome’s museums.

Rome: Engineering an Empire

The documentary Rome: Engineering an Empire (apparently the first in a doc series called Engineering an Empire on the History Channel) is mostly good, and not only because Robocop does the commentary. The history of Rome from Julius Caesar to Caracalla is highlighted through its engineering feats, beginning with Caesar’s temporary bridge across the Rhine (an artefact any evidence of which I wonder remains), although jumping back to tell us all about the Via Appia (a road) and the Cloaca Maxima (a sewer). Showcased are aqueducts, Nero’s Golden House (Domus Aurea), the Flavian Amphitheatre (Colosseum), the Forum of Trajan (including the Column), Hadrian’s Wall, the Pantheon, and the Baths of Caracalla.

I think something more may have been said on the subject of Claudius, but I was loading the laundry at that point.

The monuments are used to demonstrate something about the men who built them, a documentary conceit I quite like. The Domus Aurea reminds us of Nero’s egotism and reckless, profligate spending. Hadrian’s Wall reminds us of Hadrian’s task of demonstrating himself a great general while at the same time maintaining, not expanding, Rome’s borders. That sort of thing.

Each architectural piece is discussed from an engineering point of view, including CGI blueprints and cross-sections, which are very helpful in helping the uninitiated (i.e. me [I do history, not engineering]) understand what is being discussed.

I know this sort of thing is currently out of fashion in documentaries, but they also used computers to reconstruct ruined monuments, often superimposed over real footage of what they are like today — so Hadrian’s Wall is seen at (estimated) full height in Northumbria, or the glittering interior of the Domus Aurea is spliced in between shots of the building as it is right now. There are also costumed re-enactors, who have never bothered me, although as to why they are always using such wrinkly parchment instead of smooth papyrus — or even smooth parchment — is beyond me.

For those reasons alone, it is worth an hour and a half of your time, if you ask me.

Just watch out for usual American republicanisms, such as referring to the Senate as ‘elected’ or the Principate as ‘tyranny.’ And ignore the last few minutes about the Later Roman Empire entirely, where the whole period from Caracalla’s death in 217 up to the 500s is seen as Rome spiralling towards her own demise (a very slow spiral if it takes 300[?] years) and completely ignoring the architectural and engineering feats of the period, as well as the military strength and stability of the fourth century — and the cutting of the aqueducts by the Ostrogothic forces in their siege of Rome in 537 is referred to as being the action of ‘one tribal group.’ Right. The Ostrogoths were just a bunch of marauding savages in skins, I imagine. Certainly, that’s what their art tells us:

Theoderic the Amal, Ostrogothic King of Italy

Anyway, I own a copy on DVD (a gift from my lovely parents), but it seems to be available on YouTube if you’re interested.