Posts Tagged ‘ancient Rome’

A tour of my library – part three

August 10, 2019

61TD2aaM3XL._AC_UL436_SEARCH212385_ It’s only relatively recently that I’ve begun to take a serious interest in art, and it’s a pretty eclectic one, given that I have no formal training or study of the subject: it’s a bit ‘this is what I like’, really. I’ve long liked photomontage, having come across the work of John Heartfield when I was quite young; I fell in love with the romantic visions of Caspar David Friedrich, and actually went off to Rügen to see the famous chalk cliffs which he painted: they are quite stupendous, although have not survived in the same configuration today. Turner I came to like when I went on spec to a major exhibition of his paintings of Italy in Edinburgh about ten years ago; since then I have sought out other exhibitions and acquired books of reproductions of his watercolours too. If there’s a particular movement I really enjoy, it’s Expressionism. The one book I will rave about is actually the catalogue from an exhibition I visited in Berlin a few years back, which set great works with similar themes and subjects from the impressionists and the expressionists side-by-side. It was an absolute eye-opener and I spent hours, completely engrossed.

Currently there is a shelf in my study dedicated to Poland and things Polish, including a good number of history books, particularly those of Norman Davies. I have also collected a number of memoirs written by Poles who underwent similar experiences to those of my father during the Second World War, as well as diaries of writers and other cultural figures from that period. The most interesting and curious book in this collection I inherited from my father, who was presented with it on a visit to Poland in communist times, and it’s a very odd book for them to have allowed to be published: a facsimile of – I translate – Index of the Names of the Gentry, originally published a couple of centuries ago. Our family name is listed and we have (had, rather, for one of the first acts of the reborn Polish state in 1919 was to abolish the gentry) a coat of arms! What you need to know, contextually, is that it was the name that mattered, not wealth, status, social standing… you could be a poor peasant family (like us) or stinking rich with an estate.

400px-POL_COA_Rogala.svg

I gave up the study of history after O Level, taking up English Literature instead, telling myself I could read as much history as I liked when I liked, and have done just that. My reading hasn’t been structured or systematic. Particular interests have been ancient Rome, the Reformation, the Soviet Union, Poland and modern history generally. Roman history I studied at school, and it’s such an important part of the background to European life and civilisation it’s hard to avoid; I also remind myself that the Roman Empire lasted for far longer than the British or American ones… The interest in the Reformation links back to my Catholic childhood and the cultural vandalism that was the English Reformation, as well as my current interest in theology, as I attempt to make sense of my existence. And Polish and Russian history – well, that’s obvious.

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de roma antiqua

April 4, 2019

91DQfIqHqrL._AC_UL436_I found this slim volume a few days ago when I was having my annual clearout; I bought it twenty years ago, and it’s still marvellous, a book all about ancient Rome written entirely in Latin. Usborne is/was a publisher of books for children and this one is illustrated with coloured drawings in the same style. But I can’t figure who the target audience would be, as you need a decent level of Latin, particularly vocabulary, to access it. And although some state schools in this country – including the one I used to teach at – offered Latin two decades ago, you’d never have reached the level you’d need to read it. So maybe it was one for the teachers?

All aspects of Roman history, society, civil life, government, warfare, daily life are briefly and comprehensively covered – it’s a gem of a book, really. It appealed to me in the same way as my copy of Winnie the Pooh in Latin – which I really must find again – does, in that I can appreciate someone taking the trouble to write and produce such a book for such a tiny potential audience. I’ve had the argument about the irrelevance of teaching Latin more times than I care to remember, and I will still defend it as a school subject as valid as any other, and an important key to our retaining real connections with part of our history, language and cultural background.

All things considered, in many ways the Romans were a pretty cruel civilisation, but I never cease to be astonished by how much they achieved and how long their empire lasted: far longer than any of our more modern ones to date. O tempora, o mores…

De Roma antiqua

September 17, 2018

I seem to be having a binge on Romans, Roman history and Latin at the moment; I had a week up on Hadrian’s Wall the other month visiting all the sites at the limes, the frontier of the Roman empire, and have just come back from travelling in Provence, where a lot of my focus was on the history of the Roman province and the sites that you can visit there. I’ve also been reading quite a lot about the subject.

At one level it is all quite astonishing: an empire built up over two thousand years ago, which endured for far longer than the British empire or the Soviet empire did, and will surely outlast the hegemony of the United States. The level of organisation and construction was amazing, given the technology of the time; the colonisation of the Sahara and bringing it into cultivation for the grain supply of Rome was an achievement which has never been equalled since those days…

The Roman history I learned at school was all about personalities and conflicts, wars and conquests and conspiracies, with little about the life of the average Roman citizen. That has been changing over recent years, through archaeological excavations and discoveries, and through newer generations of historians taking a radically different approach: Mary Beard’s SPQR was the first book out of this new approach that I read, and it was quite an eye-opener. She was not debunking all of the things I’d learned all those years ago at school, but broadening the perspective and bringing Rome to life in a different way, showing the economic and social aspects of the society. One of the most wonderful things I saw in the museum at Arles on my recent trip was a complete Roman river barge which had been recovered from the Rhone about a dozen or so years ago and meticulously preserved: it was 30 metres long, three metres wide and had a draught of two metres; it could carry tonnes of stone, as was shown in the museum. The merchantmen would have had a cooking fire on board… once you start seeing objects like this, your perspective develops quite quickly. Similarly, I’d never known that Roman traders had traded with China, and India.

When you stand inside the colossal theatre at Orange, or the amphitheatre at Arles, or – perhaps most impressive of all – stare at the Pont du Gard, you realise the scale of achievement that is perhaps only matched by the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, at which time all was in the service of God, whereas the Romans were building an empire and a civilisation for all their citizens. And so much of what was built in the Middle Ages was pillaged from Roman remains, anyway.

In these days when the UK is about to take its most disastrous political step for I can’t think how long, leaving the European Union, I find myself considering the parallels with the Roman empire: when the Romans left Britannia in the early fifth century, things fell apart pretty quickly. But in a way the EU is a similar project, a Europe-wide construction where people travel freely and work wherever they need to, just as people moved from one end of the Roman empire to another, whether officials, managers, or common legionaries. There was a common currency, a common language and civilisation, a sharing and exchange of ideas and products, and within certain limits, freedom: you had to sign up to the Roman ‘project’ as it were, and respect the emperor, but you could live as you liked and worship your own gods…

Yes, I know that there was slavery – I didn’t know, until recently, that slaves could and did own slaves – and that the Roman army was brutal in its suppression of revolts, but all armies are brutal: Rome didn’t have a monopoly. My travels and my reading have given me a lot to think about…

Alberto Angela: Empire

September 13, 2018

513gjr37JhL._AC_US218_51e2Ocif+5L._AC_US218_I bought this book from a bookshop called De Natura Rerum on my first day in Arles: a bookshop devoted to Latin, and things Roman, was too good to pass up. And it was an amazing book; I really enjoyed it and was pretty much gripped throughout.

The premise itself seems a pretty cheesy one: a journey around the Roman empire following the ownership of a one sesterce coin; it’s the kind of thing we used to be made to write essays about at school: ‘A Day in the life of a Penny’ and such tosh. But Angela does it well: the coin passes from hand to hand and travels far and wide, no respecter of social class or place in this EU of two millennia ago. You can have a similar experience in any European country examining your small change and seeing which country it was minted in… and Angela recognises that he is describing the first globalisation in history, a real precursor of the EU.

So, it’s actually an imaginative way of visiting, exploring and describing the different parts of the empire, detailing customs and practices, daily life and routines, all taking into account the latest historical and archaeological researches in many different countries.

It’s a really good read, not too heavy and yet avoiding the trivialising and chattiness so often evident in works that seek to popularise. Angelo knows where to pack in the interesting detail: for instance, he makes really good use of the Vindolanda finds – I know because I visited recently. He’s very thorough on the methods and tactics of the Roman army and how it became such a formidable fighting machine, how it controlled through intimidation and sheer ruthlessness. All very different from the personalities and battles and conflicts as I learned about them in Roman History at school over forty years ago. Clearly so much more information has been coming to light in recent research: there’s fascinating stuff on daily life, roles, emancipation, childbirth, all evidenced in case we suspect him of fantasy. Literacy was clearly widespread, especially in the towns and cities of the empire.

One think I particularly appreciated was the ease and helpfulness with which he draws parallels between specific aspects of life in Roman times and nowadays. And I also learned just how far Romans had got via their traders, doing business as far afield as China – for silks – and India.

Although I read the French version of this book, I did discover that it has been published in English as The Reach of Rome if anyone feels moved to hunt down a copy. I really recommend it.

Mary Beard: SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome

January 16, 2016

51NyAcHeyJL._AA160_This wasn’t what I was expecting; in some ways it was less good, but in many ways a lot better.

My memories of learning Roman History are from upwards of forty years ago; it was very serious stuff, highly academic, packed densely with names of important people and dates, quite a few of which I still remember. At the end of a couple of years I had a pretty clear understanding of the last century or so of the republic and the first four emperors. Things have moved on rather since them, and Mary Beard makes this clear in a lively, wide-ranging and thought-provoking book.

Obviously she can draw on new material, discoveries and research; equally, she is aware that most people will have very little knowledge of the field, so she is concerned to give an overview that her readers can build on. She writes in a rather livelier style than her predecessors of the nineteen-thirties, eschews names and dates, apart from the key ones, and gives a fuller picture of what it might have been like to live, not just in the tempestuous times I studied all those years ago, but at various other moments in Roman history. She separates fact from myth, and debunks quite a lot of hoary old chestnuts long accepted and believed about Roman times (challenging some aspects of the apparent dreadfulness of Caligula for instance, so I found myself learning quite a lot, and also understanding people and events in rather different ways.

Ancient Rome comes across as even more brutal and violent than I remembered it, and many of the heroes of the time are revealed to have been far less heroic than the past painted them. I was also surprised at just how much source material from the times had survived, in letters and books written by the Romans themselves. Beard draws widely on all this material, as you’d expect, but I do have one criticism to make here. I don’t know whether it was her decision or one by her editor, but I certainly didn’t find the section of general notes and references on each chapter, at the end of the book, terribly helpful, because they weren’t linked to the body of the text with superscript numbers, as they usually are in history books; this meant that whenever I was curious to know the source of a fact or a detail, I had to search about in a section of several pages till I uncovered what I wanted. I do hope this method doesn’t spread: inconvenience in order to avoid little numbers in the text, plus the absence of a proper bibliography…

I saw even more clearly how the institutions of the early republic just weren’t up to managing a huge empire; not were the politicians themselves (no change there then!), and that the problem with emperors was largely the succession. Once you attained power, you often set about vilifying your predecessor, and this means we are unsure about various emperors’ real reputations. Shakespeare played even more fast and loose with his Roman history than I had been aware of, too.

There are messages about governance and empire from those times which are still relevant today: where are the people and the institutions of the necessary calibre to manage an ever more complex world? The Romans failed to find the answers, and we don’t see to have done any better, really. And their empire lasted longer than any of the Western ones has done so far…

In sum, this is a good book if you’re new to Roman history, or want to re-kindle an old interest. I think I shall be going back to some of my old textbooks.

Elizabeth Bowen: A Time in Rome

February 11, 2015

51Ye+XnR8TL._AA160_At some point reasonably soon, I intend to go and explore Rome seriously, so when I came across this in a secondhand bookshop, and because it’s in the generally reliable Penguin Travel Library, I thought it might be worth a read. I suppose it was…

It wasn’t really what I expected, though. The writer clearly has a great feel, and enthusiasm for Rome: she writes about a three-month stay at some point in the 1950s. What was good was the maps, which seem to be a useful help to negotiating some of the main antiquities in a helpful and sensible way, and her thoughts and reactions to much of ancient Rome, which is the part that interests me most, from my studies of Ancient History at school…

But, in the end, it’s a ‘me, me’ travel book, I felt, much more about her and her feelings about Rome than the place itself, and far less about the city itself; there’s a lot of emoting about the place, a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of vagueness that in the end is lost on someone not familiar with the city: you have to know the city as well as the writer fully to appreciate her portrait of it.

So, ultimately moderately disappointing, although she hasn’t in any way weakened my resolve to spend time there.

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