Posts Tagged ‘Roman Empire’

Catherine Nixey: The Darkening Age

June 4, 2019

91nwQ0TuJhL._AC_UL436_ Some of my readers may be aware of my interest in the early history of Christianity: my wider reading has led me to explore how what seems to have been the original message of the teacher was developed and given a different spin by Paul and others as the new religion gradually spread across the ancient world, and how it gradually moved from an allegedly persecuted creed to one which took over the Roman Empire, and became as intolerant as it accused its predecessors of being…

The Christian world gradually replaced the classical one, and Nixey charts this process in her book. I’m not sure of how academically valid it is, in the sense that she seems to rely on not very many sources very heavily to advance her case, and to follow the modern and somewhat deceptive process of providing reams of notes at the end of the text, most of which merely give the source of a detail, rather than illuminate anything further. However, the general lines of her enquiry are most interesting and I learned a good deal.

Firstly, early Christianity destroyed far more of the classical world than it preserved, and this was for me an unknown story; the deeds of religious bigots and fanatics, egged on by early ‘saints’, were on a parallel with the more recent depredations of the Taliban – destroyers of the Buddhas of Bamiyan – and ISIS, destroyers of the city of Palmyra in the Syrian desert. The entire Graeco-Roman religious system was regarded as a creation of demons and therefore to be eradicated completely. The whole picture makes Henry VIII’s cultural vandalism of Catholic England in the sixteenth century seem rather petty…

Secondly, Roman persecution of Christians was far less deliberate and official than we think we know it to have been, largely due to effective Christian propaganda. Martyrdom was attractive, particularly to fanatics (no change there, then) and according to Nixey, possibly fewer than ten tales of martyrdom from the early Church may be considered reliable. On the contrary, Roman officials apparently went to considerable lengths to avoid executing Christians. A good deal of sanitising of history took place, and the lives of many ‘saints’ of the Church were actually full of intolerance and brutality, racism and anti-semitism, rather than their being the exemplars of the holy life that many believe them to be.

Literature suffered as well as the more obvious buildings and statuary; perhaps ten per cent of classical literature has survived, and maybe only one percent of Latin literature. What survived was censored: that of writers such as Catullus endured well into the twentieth century, and I can recall the classics teacher at school jumping over passages that were not considered suitable for mere schoolboys to read… This anti-intellectualism, this cult of ignorance reminds me of what I have read of the appalling behaviour of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s. Back in the past, anything was deemed acceptable if it was labelled in the service of Christ; like the later Spanish Inquisition, such behaviour was above and outside the law.

I came across the names of a number of classical writers and historians of whom I had not heard – not for want of looking – in whose writing the other side of the history of those times is recorded. As I mentioned above, it may be that the writer has over-egged the pudding in her enthusiasm for telling her story, but all of this material does need to be much more widely known, researched and documented. It’s a necessary read, a profoundly depressing reflection on knowledge and ignorance, tolerance and intolerance; it shows that human beings do not seem to have grown any wiser two thousand years later, either. And lest anyone should feel that the book is an anti-Christian diatribe on her part, or this post one on mine, it is not so; it is the wilful cultivation and worship of ignorance, and the intolerance which flows from that, that is, and must always be, challenged.

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Marguerite Yourcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian

May 29, 2019

51MaV5P65oL._AC_UL436_91rR4LYMI5L._AC_UL436_ I’ve just re-read this novel, which is regarded as a minor classic. The dying emperor recounts and reviews his life in a document addressed to his adoptive grandson, who will one day become the well-known philosopher emperor Marcus Aurelius. He has reached the advanced – for Roman times – age of sixty, and is able to be calm and reflective as he becomes aware of the narrowing of his world, and the things he is renouncing forever as he weakens and the end approaches.

The novel is a major effort of the imagination, not least in that it’s by a woman trying to be inside the mind of a man, as well as going back over the centuries to an age when beliefs and attitudes were so very different.

Hadrian recounts his life story and what he thinks he has learned from his experiences. We gain insight into the constant manoeuvrings and machinations behind the scenes of the empire. He exudes the confidence of power and entitlement to that power, whilst being reflective, self-critical at times and also self-indulgent (he was the emperor, after all). We learn of his growing up under Trajan, a warrior emperor, and how he (Hadrian) gradually comes to see the advantages of consolidation rather than expansion, which will come to be the characteristic of his reign. We see and come to appreciate his love of Greece and all things Grecian.

Then there is the plotting, his adoption and nomination as Trajan’s successor and the secret and underhand deeds that took place – which he never learns the truth about, or even seeks to know – at the time of Trajan’s death, and which ensured a smooth transfer of power.

He is interesting on slavery, deciding that it will never truly be abolished, but the name of the condition will probably be changed; this struck a chord even today, for me. He never questions the idea of emperor, advocates democracy, or says anything about what might have been the golden days of the republic. We gain the impression of a busy and tireless man with clear ideas about the maintenance and preservation of the empire as a duty to which he dedicates himself entirely.

His relationship with the boy Antinous, and the boy’s mysterious death, plays a central part in the novel and in Hadrian’s life, obviously. Because of the time when the novel was written (1950s), we are given no insight into the sexuality of that relationship, and we gain the impression that love was perhaps an emotion regarded rather differently at the time. But we can be in no doubt of the deepness of the attraction and attachment.

Again, second time around, I found the novel a tour-de-force of the imagination and the novelist’s art, although at times it did feel dry and monotonous in its evenness of tone. So much of it was also under the shadow of the speaker’s impending death and his awareness of that; the stoical acceptance I can understand, but the overall gloominess is a little hard to take at times.

I found myself reflecting on the advantages and disadvantages of first-person narrative, in the context of this novel. Here, we have constantly to be aware of the unreliable narrator, the selective narrator, the narrator whose sole perspective controls the reader’s impressions and responses, and the deliberate decision of the novelist to present the novel this way; we have to imagine the gaps and what is not said or considered, even though it’s only a novel. It is a good if challenging read, well worth the effort.

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.

James Wellard: The Great Sahara

August 11, 2018

51-uNw-CF8L._AC_US218_I’ve read a good number of accounts of travel through the Sahara Desert, but hadn’t come across very much at all concerning he history of the region until I found this in a second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh recently and snapped it up for that very reason. There are so many myths and inaccuracies about the desert that have been perpetuated because of our West-centred perspective on everything; no surprise there, then…

The Sahara region was well-populated and inhabited in prehistoric times. I learned rather more about the Carthaginians and their influence than I had in my Roman history course at school, and I was also astonished to discover the extent of Roman achievements in North Africa, which was, after all, their backyard as well as their bread-basket. The efficiency of the Roman army allowed a single legion to pacify and control vast areas for several centuries; Roman engineering focused on attempts to capture, retain and usefully use, the little rainfall which fell, and with a good measure of success. There are still whole towns and cities in ruins, preserved under the sands, unknown, unexplored and unexcavated, such was the extent of Roman penetration, unparalleled since. Nothing has been as well managed since the Arab invaders of the seventh century swept in…

Wellard is very detailed on the slave trade which existed for centuries, but it is evident that there is little detail or information available between the end of Roman occupation and the eighteenth century, when Europeans began to take an imperialist interest in the continent again. Surprisingly, he places little confidence in Arab travellers such as Ibn Battutah and Leo Africanus, who have quite a lot to say. Western interests began with exploration and a fascination with reaching the fabled city of Timbuktu, which usually proved (i) a disappointment and (ii) fatal…

The book dated from the 1960s, and at times the prejudices of those times show; the author has a fairly jaundiced picture to paint of contemporary Arab life, religion, sexuality and poverty; sadly Western interference and colonialism means there is a certain amount of truth in some of his observations; local geography, and social and religious attitudes also contribute. But what came across most strongly to me was the uniqueness of the Roman civilising enterprise, which even the French in their control of most of the region for a century or more came nowhere near matching.

The author – of whom I’d never heard before – is evidently well-travelled and highly knowledgeable about the entire region, and provides an excellent (though now dated) and annotated bibliography; it’s a pity that the end-wrapper map is so cursory and the only one in the book…

My travels: H is for Hadrian’s Wall

July 20, 2018

I studied Latin and Roman history at school; I almost ended up reading Classics at university. But that was in another existence. However, I’m still fascinated by them both, and took a week’s holiday in Northumbria to visit the Hadrian’s Wall sites properly.

There are a lot of ruins, mainly of military camps used by the Romans to control and pacify the country, and one ruined camp is very similar to another, although different buildings remain in differing degrees of ruin. And there are stretches of wall: sometimes it’s almost buried under turf, sometimes it’s almost at full height and width in short stretches; occasionally you can actually walk along the top of it and imagine the legionaries…

I’ve learned that Romans didn’t recycle building materials when they rebuilt; they just levelled and started again on top. Early Christians did, however, and the crypt of Hexham Abbey is made of recycled stone from nearby Corbridge (Corostipitum) – you can see the decorative marks in the stonework randomly in the crypt walls. I learnt that the troops worshipped all sorts of different gods, and saw a wonderful little temple to Mithras in the middle of a field of sheep. I also discovered that vast areas are still awaiting the eventual attentions of archaeologists, and that so much about what went on at the ‘limes’ (frontier) is still to be revealed.

Vindolanda was particularly impressive, partly because it’s a very active site archaeologically, and the excavators will talk to you about what they’re doing. Also, it has a truly stunning museum stuffed with artifacts that have been preserved in oxygen-free conditions since the Romans threw them away or lost them: shoes and sandals, tents, wooden pots with lids, a toilet seat…

I find it astonishing that so much remains from 2000 years ago, and also that the Romans managed to conquer and rule an empire that lasted far longer than our more recent British, Soviet or American empires, and that it was common for troops and commanders to be posted from one end of the empire to another – from Syria to Britannia, for instance. People able to move all over Europe, wherever work and duty took them, often taking their families with them, and settling in a new place: now what does that remind you of, dear reader?

I have to add that the countryside around here, even forgetting the Wall for an instant, is pretty stunning, and having done quite a few different walks along and around various sections of the Wall, I’m coming to the conclusion that, although they may have been shut out from the joys of Roman civilisation, the barbarians enjoyed the best views.

If you follow me on Instagram, you’ll know I’m currently reading a history of consumption – not tuberculosis but our obsession with buying stuff; some of the objects and artifacts I’ve seen on display at various sites have got me thinking about our relationships with desirable objects, which clearly goes back a long way…

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.

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