Tag Archives: roman history

Scholars of later Rome know earlier Rome, too

Nothing says ‘Later Roman Empire’ like giving the Tetrarchs a hug

I was thinking about how a certain amount of knowledge of earlier Rome is an important ingredient in being able to interpret the Later Roman Empire and the fall of its western portion. As my previous post about the Age of Augustus observes, knowing Augustus helps you interpret Constantine.

This point illustrates itself very well in Bryan Ward-Perkins, The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. In order to demonstrate that the sort of complex society and economy that typified the Roman world ceased to exist as a result of the dismemberment and manslaughter of the western Roman Empire at the hands of invading barbarians, Ward-Perkins had to marshal the evidence for just such a complex society. By showing what sort of economy and standards of living people had before the fall of the Roman Empire, Ward-Perkins is able to show us the final years of Late Antiquity and on into the Early Middle Ages were less economically stable with a lower standard of living.

But you need the evidence from earlier, imperial Rome to be able to do that.

For example, to discuss common, everyday literacy in the Roman Empire, you need evidence of common, everyday literacy in the Roman Empire. And Ward-Perkins finds it, from Pompeii to Britain.

If your concern is not the fall of Rome, the rest of the Roman world is still important for understanding Late Antiquity. One of the realities that stands out in late antique Latin verse, for example, is its awareness that it is not ‘classical’. Even if they might at times wish to rival the greats of the past, the poets of the Later Roman Empire know that they live in a different age. There is perceptible distance between them and Virgil, and they make it known.

If you don’t know Virgil, it is much harder to interpret Prudentius and Claudian, let alone Macrobius.

If you don’t know Cicero, Jerome is harder. If you don’t know Livy, Augustine’s City of God is interpreted differently. And on it goes.

Furthermore, Elsner’s art history book Imperial Rome and Christian Triumph makes an important point about the monumental art of Late Antiquity — it has models and precursors from the High Empire, at least as early as Antoninus Pius. That is to say — reading Late Antiquity as a hermetically-sealed cultural entity will miss the connections it has with the Roman past.

I do hope this is no surprise for anyone else who studies Roman history! It would be a great shame if colleagues who study Republican Rome or the empire from Augustus to the third century thought we knew nothing of those epochs of the grand Roman story. It is also worth mulling over if you want to get into the history and culture of the Later Roman Empire — how well do you know what came before it? This, I think, has sometimes contributed to some of the clashes over interpreting the fall of the West.

Anyway, we late Romanists enjoy the rest of Roman history! It’s part of our education and training, essential to our research.

The Age of Augustus

Writing job applications makes you think not only about what you are good at but about what you’d like to do. I have always wanted a position that would allow me to research ancient Christianity and the Later Roman Empire while teaching Roman history and Latin. This includes crafting a course on the age of Augustus. I like the age of Augustus. Here I am with the Prima Porta Augustus (I really did come close to crying upon seeing it):

Why the age of Augustus?

Augustus was the ‘first emperor of Rome’. He blazed onto the scene at age 19 in 44 BC when his great-uncle Julius Caesar was assassinated and adopted him as his son posthumously. He consolidated power unto himself by 31 BC and acquired the title ‘Augustus’ from the Senate in 27 BC. He then proceeded to rule the Roman Empire until AD 14. Politically, what sets Augustus off from people like Uncle Julius, besides his longevity, was his formal acquisition of powers, authorities, and titles from the Senate. He didn’t simply aim for something like ‘Dictator for Life’. He gathered into himself a variety of constitutional powers that no single man had previously held, and his successors managed to hold onto them, turning Rome into a monarchy. This is a reason for such a course.

As a result of this, and here my late antique expertise adds weight to the importance of teaching the early empire, Augustus becomes sort of a ‘model emperor’. Consider the image above, of the beardless emperor, as opposed to:

Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus, British Museum

Augustus’ beardlessness thus makes Constantine’s ‘look’ of particular political importance:

Augustus boasted that he had found Rome a city of brick and left it a city of marble. Monuments from his era can still be seen in the city of Rome, such as the Ara pacis. Besides such monumental art and the shift in the city’s grandeur, a lot of great surviving Roman art comes from the Augustan era, such as the wondrous frescoes from his wife, Livia’s, villa, now on display in the Palazzo Massimo in Rome. Art and architecture from the age of Augustus, then, provide another reason.

The Laocoon Group, now in the Vatican Museums, may date to this period

Furthermore, this same era, from 44ish BC to 14ish AD is a productive time in Latin literature — at least, Latin literature that survives. In prose, we have here the last years of Cicero and the work of Sallust, Livy, and the later works of Cornelius Nepos and Varro. Poetry is a larger domain, however — all of the famous elegists, Tibullus, Propertius, and Ovid, as well as the lyric achievement of Horace, not to mention the great epic poet Virgil.

A course on more than just politics, then

Take these elements, couple them with studies of ‘daily life’, and a course on the age of Augustus would be a wonderful glimpse of the Roman world as it existed for 58 years. The political narrative could be woven together with art and poetry, and how these interacted with each other could be part of the dialogue between professor and students.

Imagining this as a course with two lecture slots per week, I would divide it between narratives bringing history forward from the Ides of March 44 BC to the fourteenth day before the Kalends of September AD 14 (August 19). Parallel to the narrative lectures would be sessions combining lectures with discussions, moving through the art, architecture, and literature.

The primary learning outcome would be to see the transformation of the Roman world from the self-embattled Republic to the Early Empire, seeing Augustus and the culture that thrived during his reign in context. It would provide a background to understanding the rest of Roman history as well as later imperial aspirers, such as Charlemagne whose biographer Einhard used the biography of Augustus by Suetonius as a model.

Briefly revisiting Julius Caesar

In my recent post, “‘Julius Caesar was not Emperor.’ – Or was he?”, I may have come off a bit hard on the now-traditional reading of Roman history that Augustus, not his Great Uncle C. Julius Caesar, was the first emperor. If we ask ourselves what, legally and constitutionally, the emperors have in common, it is clear that Augustus has it and Julius does not. That I never doubted.

What I wanted to do was to engage with the idea of Julius Caesar as emperor — an idea that most ancient Romans themselves believed. Even if our vision of Roman history is clearer than theirs, their vision was still, well, theirs.

The Roman and mediaeval belief in Julius Caesar as emperor demonstrates to us a few things:

The pro-Julius campaign of his immediate successors and then of the dynasty that bore his name seems to have been successful. Rather than being just another Late Republican dictator — even if dictator perpetuus — Julius Caesar is raised to the status of an emperor among emperors, alongside the luminaries such as his illustrious successor Augustus and the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius — not to mention the less shining holders of Roman imperium such as Caligula or Commodus.

Augustus pretended to restore the Republic, and future generations would see him as the legitimate successor to the first emperor rather than the creator of something entirely new. Fictions both, but powerful ones.

Second, we are blessed with clearer vision than our forebears. This is not say that they were bumpkins who knew no better than just to simply say, ‘Oh, Julius Caesar. First Emperor of Rome.’ They believed a falsehood — but doing history for them was a lot harder than it is for us.

The necessary primary source documents for Roman history are available to us in the same wording with indices at the back, for one thing (that is, in modern printed editions). We are not confronted with inscribed laws scattered all over the Mediterranean. When we go to a library, we are not looking through a series of papyrus scrolls stored in leather tubes. Our chronicles are manageably published in codices. The Roman imperial archive has been shown to be efficient enough to draft laws in Late Antiquity, but not very efficient by modern standards; finding what exactly you want could be a very difficult labour, indeed. The task of the historian would have been very, very different and difficult back then.

Furthermore, our goals are different. Tacitus is one of the few Roman historians who claims to be seeking just the truth without malice or bias. As inevitable as all bias is, most ancient writers did not try very hard to tone theirs down. There is always an ulterior motive to ancient and mediaeval history writing — conveniently, they tend to let it out (whereas we try to hide our bias and ulterior motives). Thus, some truths get lost in the thick of the thrill of the fight, in the midst of the moralising tales, in among the desire to flatter some men and scorn others.

As a result, for whatever reason, it was perfectly normal for ancient Romans to consider Julius Caesar the first emperor. We usually stop there and say that they were wrong. But if we consider why they were wrong, we find a few more insights into the Roman world and mindset. These are just the insights from some general remarks about Roman society — imagine what a proper study of the sources about Julius Caesar would find us!

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.

Documentaries:

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.

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.

The Emperor Julian and Divination

Julian in the ‘Thermes de Cluny’ — not my photo because my blog still won’t actually display uploaded media in posts

I just finished the second volume of J C Rolfe’s Loeb Classical Library edition of Ammianus Marcellinus’ (d. AD 390) history, the Res Gestae. What caught my mind the most in this volume was the Emperor Julian (called ‘the Apostate’), who died in AD 364 during his invasion of Sassanian Persia. Julian is called ‘the Apostate’ because of his conversion to paganism from Christianity in his youth. I am no Julian scholar, but there is a possibility that his conversion was in part driven by his response to the slaughter of his entire family and extended family save himself and his brother Gallus by the Emperor Constantius II when he was a boy in the ‘Summer of Blood’ (which is the title of a good article by R W Burgess). Whatever the causes, he was a strong adherent to traditional Graeco-Roman religion, the thing he is best remembered for.

Julian sported a beard like a philosopher emperor of old – indeed, he is compared to the Stoic Marcus Aurelius (r. 161-180) by Ammianus on several occasions. He kept pagan philosophers around him and composed some of his own philosophical and poetical works of a traditional nature. He also sacrificed animals to the gods on a regular basis, besides reopening many of the temples closed in decades since Constantine (r. 306-337) converted to Christianity in 312. His zeal for traditional religion also involved the banning of Christians from teaching rhetoric, a move of which the pagan Ammianus disapproved.

What struck me throughout Ammianus’ narrative of Julian’s brief reign was divination, the foretelling of the future, whether through omens or haruspicy (examination of entrails) or augury, etc.

Before his rise to the principate in AD 360 by acclamation of his troops in Paris (hey, I’m there right now!) and his gaining of sole rule in 361 upon the death of Constantius II (r. 337-361), he was already secretly practising traditional religion, including the arts of divination which foretold that he would rise to become Augustus (the formal title of the Roman emperors).

However, in 363, Julian decided that the best move for him to take was an invasion of the Persian Empire, partly in retaliation for some Persian activities on the frontier, partly in a show of one-upmanship to the deceased Constantius, who had only engaged the Persians in defensive warfare. He would take the battle to the Sassanians themselves.

As a good pagan with interest in divination, he made his consultations, and the omens turned up bad. In fact, all sorts of bad omens turned up. Julian chose to ignore the official augurs and haruspices and listen to the court philosophers instead, who gave lucky interpretations to the variety of omens that kept on happening or dismissed them as simply natural phenomena.* Whether or not every single omen discussed by Ammianus actually occurred cannot be said for sure, but I think that if one lived in a culture with omens as a regular part of daily life and plan-making, they could be found anywhere and everywhere.

So, despite the omens, Julian set out. And as he went, time after time, bad omens fell, such as his horse falling down and scattering its royal raiment. Time after time, the official diviners told him to go home. Time after time, he ignored them and pressed further and further into Persian territory, going so far, eventually, to burn ships and supplies, thus effectively stranding his armies a vast distance from the Roman border (a move that St Augustine of Hippo decried as a very dull-witted move in The City of God).

And then, one night, there was a shooting star – which Ammianus rightly notes could not possibly be an actual star, but he had no concept of other pieces of space debris that could appear in the heavens. Anyway, Julian consulted the Etruscan haruspices, and they said that:

any undertaking at that time must be most carefully avoided, pointing out that in the Tarquitian books, under the rubric “On signs from heaven” it was written, that when a meteor was seen in the sky, battle ought not to be joined, or anything similar attempted. When the emperor scorned this also, as well as many other signs, the soothsayers begged that at least he would put off his departure for some hours; but even this they could not gain, since the emperor was opposed to the whole science of divination, but since day had now dawned, camp was broken. (Amm. Marc., Res Gestae 25.2.7-8, trans Rolfe, Loeb Classical Library)

The next day, the Emperor Julian was stabbed and died of his wounds later on, discussing philosophy with the court philosophers to the end, after the manner of Socrates.

The statement in the Ammianus passage above is interesting, that ‘the emperor was opposed to the whole science of divination’. This is by no means an accurate statement based on Ammianus’ other evidence for Julian’s behaviour, including a discourse about Julian’s own skills in that art. Rolfe says in his footnote that this opposition came only when divination conflicted with Julian’s plans.

And here’s what I think most interesting about Julian’s relationship with divination. This is a man wholly committed to his own philosophy and religion. He engaged during his rule in a campaign of reconsecrating temples, recommencing sacrifices, desecrating Christian churches, barring Christians from certain professions, fostering pagan philosophical schools, and making himself out as a mythological figure adopted by the gods themselves. His devotion to traditional Roman religion combined with the philosophical schools of Late Antiquity can not remain in doubt. He was as sincere a pagan as Augustine was a Christian, even if Ammianus felt him superstitious rather than a legitimate observer of sacred things.

Yet, when push comes to shove, personal desires can trump belief. Julian wanted to invade Persia. The auspices, the auguries, the haruspices, the various omens, the Sibylline Books – none of these mattered. All that mattered was his own wish, and he would ignore or reinterpret the omens to fit his own vision, regardless of his personal piety.

There is a lesson here, I’m sure. Certainly a lesson in human nature, that all of us, even the sincere, can trump our own beliefs by other passions and drives. And perhaps that is lesson enough.

You can read Ammianus Marcellinus online here.

*The dismissing of an omen as a natural phenomenon is to ignore the essence of what an omen is, if you ask me. The point of an omen is that the supernatural is impinging upon the natural world to send a message using the available stuff that we see all around us. Notably, this is why the Carolingian obsession with astronomical phenomena as omens is not the same as astrology per se nor necessarily a pagan holdover – they believed the God of the Christians was communicating with them all the time, and the heavens were amongst his methods. A good essay on Carolingian star-gazing is P E Dutton ‘Of Carolingian Kings and Their Stars’, in Charlemagne’s Mustache and Other Cultural Clusters of a Dark Age.