The Roman Republic by Michael Crawford (second edition, 1992)

No, not the Michael Crawford, star of the 1970s TV series Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em. His version of the Roman Republic would have been hilarious. “Ooooh, Brutus!”

No, this Michael Crawford is the English historian, born in 1939 and still with us, privately educated (like most classicists – St Paul’s and Oxford) who nonetheless takes a solidly socialist view of history. Page two of his preface states that:

I continue to believe that the principal reason for the destruction of Republican government at Rome was the neglect of the legitimate grievances of the population by the governing classes…

The use of ‘continue to believe’ implies that he valiantly persists in his views despite stiff opposition, an impression he goes on to compound by telling us, rather naively and over-earnestly:

…just as I continue to believe that a socialist framework offers the only eventual hope for the survival of our own world. (page vi)

‘Eventual’ is a funny choice of word and, like ‘continue’, hints at an embattled state of mind, of taking a heroic stand against a sea of opponents. (This is also an early indication of Crawford’s often idiosyncratic prose style and oblique way of describing important events.)

Crawford’s earnest socialism might have made sense in 1978 when the first edition of this book was published, but had gone out of style by 1992 when this second edition arrived – a year after the Soviet Union collapsed and the oppressed nations of Eastern Europe were freed from Russian tyranny. Mrs Thatcher had been stabbed in the back by her own MPs in late 1990 but it wasn’t until 1997 that John Major’s useless Conservative government was replaced by Tony Blair’s pazazzy New Labour – which proceeded to destroy forever the kind of socialism Crawford believed in, aligning the left with globalising neo-liberal economics, financial deregulation, public-private partnerships, university tuition fees and the galloping inequality which has brought us to our present happy situation.

Reading Crawford’s little preface makes me sad for all the good people who thought they could make the world a better place and have resoundingly failed. As a result, although the events he describes took place over 2,000 years ago, an air of forlornness hangs over the entire text.

The Roman Republic

It’s not a very good book. Crawford rushes. He squeezes too much information into gangling sentences or long paragraphs. Nothing is gone into in enough detail. Take this example:

Not altogether surprisingly, there were those in Carthage who did not regard the verdict of the First Punic War as final; the creation of an empire in Spain and the acquisition thereby of substantial military and financial resources were followed by Hannibal’s invasion of 218 (the Roman tradition attempted to make the entirely justified attack on Saguntum by Hannibal into the casus belli, in order to salve its conscience over the failure to respond effectively to the appeal by Saguntum to Rome). (p.50)

Bloody long sentence, isn’t it? And useless as factual exposition. With just a little bit more effort Crawford could have given us a separate sentence or two describing the establishment of the Carthaginian empire in Spain by Hannibal’s father, Hamilcar Barca, how Hannibal assumed the mantle of command when his father died in 228 BC, and how a series of clashes with the Romans eventually led the Carthaginians to conclude that the only way to solve the ‘Rome problem’ was a direct attack on Italy, which Hannibal launched in 218.

One more sentence could have explained the importance of the battle of Saguntum a lot more clearly. As it is Crawford devotes nearly 40 words to it but somehow manages to not only not explain what happened, but to make it more obscure than if he’d never mentioned it.

Most of Crawford’s book is like this: it contains plenty of facts but a) you can tell that a lot of context and explanation and details are missing, and b) it’s all told arsey-versey, meaning in a ‘wilfully confused and disorderly’ way.

Because I already know the outlines of the story from the other three histories of Rome I’ve read I am able to decipher Crawford’s clipped and contorted references, but it became very tiresome. He gives no sense of Hannibal’s campaign in Italy; he gives no sense of the civil war between Marius and Sulla; he gives no sense of why Gnaeus Pompeius (Pompey) was such a spectacularly successful general; his account of Caesar’s command in Gaul is so brief as to be non-existent; his coverage of the Catiline conspiracy is risible; his explanation of Cicero’s exile is impenetrable unless you happen to already know the facts and issues; his mentions of Clodius give no sense at all of the street violence unleashed by his gangs or why it led to Pompey being awarded sole power to bring peace to the streets of Rome; and so on and so on. All this is mentioned but nowhere properly explained. As a narrative history of the Roman Republic, this book is rubbish.

The Fontana History of the Ancient World

This volume is the first part of The Fontana History of the Ancient World so maybe Crawford was given a specific period and a tight page limit and this explains the text’s cramped contortions. The book has just 200 pages into which to cram a history which theoretically covered 720 years from the legendary founding of Rome in 753 BC through to the rise of Octavian in the 30s. It also has to contain a timeline, four appendices, half a dozen maps, a list of further reading and 4 separate indices. Maybe that’s why it feels so rushed and superficial. But the lack of space doesn’t explain Crawford’s strange style and often crabbed and obscure way of trying to explain events. That’s just crap.

Schematic

If the book’s weakness is its lack of narrative depth or proper full explanation of events, its strongest parts are where it is most schematic – brief and pithy as a PowerPoint presentation. The chapter headings give a sense of this high-level, schematic approach:

  1. The sources
  2. Italy and Rome
  3. The Roman governing classes
  4. From Italian power to Mediterranean power
  5. The conquest of the East
  6. The consequences of empire – the governing classes
  7. The imperial power
  8. The consequences of empire – the governed
  9. Reform and revolution
  10. Rome and Italy
  11. The end of consensus
  12. The world turned upside down
  13. The embattled oligarchy
  14. The militant dynasts

Good titles, aren’t they? But each of these chapter is too short – 10 pages on the sources, 5 and a half on early Rome’s rise to eminence among the patchwork of Italian tribes, 8 and a half on the ruling class. And the same goes for the four appendices:

  1. The Roman assemblies
  2. The Roman army
  3. Equites
  4. The special commands

They look good but they are 3-and-a-half, one-and-a-half, two-and-a-half and one-and-a-half pages long, respectively. Too short, too allusive to explain anything properly.

Main themes

Crawford tell us his main idea is that the collapse of the Republic was caused by “the neglect of the legitimate grievances of the population by the governing classes” but already in the introduction he undermines his own thesis when he attributes the collapse to two other causes, both of which are more persuasive to me, namely:

1. “The failure to develop communal institutions for the maintenance of order” – when the Senate and the tribunes or popular assemblies fell out there was no institution or way to arbitrate the disputes. Together with the absence of any police force or independent judiciary, this meant whoever ruled the streets or led the biggest army could a) seize power, as in the civil war between Sulla and Marius in the 80s BC or b) more insidiously, create an atmosphere of lawlessness and hooliganism as created by Publius Clodius Pulcher in the 50s.

2. The mad competitiveness between very rich, very ambitious members of what Crawford, throughout the book refers to as the Roman ‘oligarchy’. (Oligarchy is defined as: ‘control by a small group of powerful people.’)

Crawford quotes Aristotle as saying that, so long as it remains united, an oligarchy is impossible to overthrow – but once members fall out with each other, then collapse can come very suddenly. In Crawford’s view, the collapse came about because of:

1. The wealth generated by the hugely expanded Roman empire was unprecedented and put unprecedented power for bribery and corruption into the hands of the super-rich.

2. The long periods for which eminent generals (Marius, Sulla, Lucullus, Pompey, Caesar) led their men created super-generals, super-leaders, whose rivalries involved entire armies, and, as per point 1, the Republic simply had no way to arbitrate between them (p.25).

In the last forty years of the Republic, the Senate found itself having to award more and more special commands to leading generals (Pompey received most) to allow them to deal with logistical or military problems which were too large, spread out over too long a time period or too far away, for the existing machinery of one-year consuls and regional governors to handle.

Thus Pompey was given a special command to deal with the ongoing pirate problem in 67, immediately followed by a special command to deal with the unending war against Mithridates VI in Asia. The growing reliance on special commands was symptomatic of how the institutions of the republic couldn’t cope with the challenge of running an empire.

Who was the Roman oligarchy?

So who were the “governing classes” which Crawford refers to in his introduction? Chapter 2 gives a pithy overview.

Soon after the overthrow of the monarchy in about 510 BC, the Roman ruling class decided to ensure they were never again ruled by the caprices of one man, so they took two steps:

1. they divided executive power between two officials, the consuls and

2. they had them elected, and for one year only – enough time to carry out official duties and for one military campaign season, then their time was up and someone else took over

Those seeking election generally had to have held more junior positions in what developed into a ladder or stepping stones of official positions. These offices of ‘magistracies’ evolved over the years but, given the human tendency to multiply bureaucracies, remained surprisingly few.

They were, in rising order of responsibility, the posts of quaestor, aedile and praetor. These positions were referred to collectively as the magistracies. This sequence of public offices was called the cursus honorum. Candidates for the magistracies had to canvas the people at annual hustings. They were elected by all adult males who had property enough to be included in the regular census carried out for this purpose which had originally been established to assign men to appropriate ranks in the citizen army.

Hence another elected post, that of censor, responsible for keeping the list of citizens a) eligible to vote and b) assigned to the appropriate rank in the army, up to date.

To be eligible to join the army a citizen needed to be a member of the assidui i.e. to achieve a basic property qualification (p.97). The assidui were divided into five classis or ranks, according to their assets, and it was the job of the censors to keep this list of citizens, their property and their ranking up to date.

The senate consisted of all the men who had previously held office as a magistrate. Senate derives from the Latin word senex which simply means old man, on the assumption that mature men who had held office gave good advice.

The single most important thing to grasp about Roman politics is that the senate did not make laws. It was a solely advisory body – although it arrogated to itself certain policies, specifically financial policy and military strategy. Anybody intending to create legislation was expected to consult the senate, which could and did hold extensive debates for and against legislation, suggesting amendments, improvements or that laws be rejected. But the senate didn’t actually pass the laws. It relied on the popular assemblies to propose and vote on actual laws.

Members of the same small group of families held magistracies and eminent positions in the state for hundreds of years. These were the patricians who monopolised the important magistracies and the various religious offices and half a dozen priesthoods (which were also elected).

The patricians distinguished themselves from the plebs or plebeians, who supposedly came from more recent, less ancient and venerable families. But within a century or so of the overthrow of the kings the plebs agitated to have a say for themselves, campaigns which eventually led to the creation of an assembly where the plebs could discuss their issues, the concilium plebis, and the creation of the post of tribune of the plebs. The tribune’s original function was to protect citizens from arbitrary actions by the (mostly patrician) magistrates. Over the years the number and powers of the tribunes slowly expanded.

In 342 BC the plebs broke through a glass ceiling and won the legal right to stand for the consulship  alongside patricians. The consequence was the growth of a mixed patrician-plebeian nobility because, by the 300s, the leading plebeian families were not at all common working people but had developed into a class of very wealthy families in their own right (‘the plebeian leadership was rich and ambitious’, p.28).

This mixed patrician-plebeian nobility is what Crawford means when he (frequently) refers to the ‘oligarchy’ (‘control by a small group of powerful people.’)

The history of the Roman republic is the history of the fierce rivalry between a relatively small number of men at the core of this patrician-plebeian oligarchy, as they were forced to express it through the channels of a) election to a magistracy b) success as a military commander c) success as governor of an overseas province.

It was a complicated and sensitive mechanism which, by its last century, was riddled with bribery and corruption and, as mentioned above, fierce competition between its members for power and status which repeatedly spilled over into street violence. In the final 50 years it escalated into armed rebellion and civil war between Roman legions loyal to rival Strong Men.

Roman flexibility

Although they went on about their legends and traditions, one of the most notable things about the Roman state and culture was their flexibility.

Constitutional flexibility As provinces were acquired and something like an empire came into being, the Roman oligarchy expanded the number of magistracies sitting under the consulship, increasing the number of quaestors and praetors i.e. they were flexible in adapting their constitution.

Cultural flexibility From about 200 BC onwards the Roman elite took an increasing interest in Greek art, architecture, literature and philosophy, and frankly copied it (as in the plays of Plautus and Terence), and slowly developed their own versions and distinct styles.

Citizen flexibility But both these aspects rested on the ancient Roman custom of incorporating peoples into their state. Thus the conquest of the many tribes of Italy by one city state didn’t result in their miserable subjugation, but by the carefully calibrated award of Roman citizenship to tribes and communities around the country. When Rome went on to conquer foreign lands (starting with Sicily in the 240s) she made no demands that the population change their religion, culture or laws – they simply had to offer up young men for the Roman army (p.74).

The openness of Rome to outsiders was one of the sources of her strength in Italy (p.78)

It was this ability to incorporate foreign lands, foreign peoples, the best of foreign cultures and even their gods and religions, which underpinned a thousand years of success.

The impact of empire on the Roman ruling class

It’s worth making the minor point that all the historians talk about Rome having an ’empire’ well before the end of the Republican period and before they had actual emperors. In the talismanic year 146 BC the Romans crushed Carthage in the west and Corinth in the East, thus confirming their hegemony over the Mediterranean. The defeat of Carthage handed over the latter’s territories in north Africa and Spain to Rome, and after Rome defeated the Achaean League in 146 BC she used Greece as a jumping off point for greater involvement in ‘Asia’ (modern day Turkey) and across the sea in Egypt.

An empire in fact well before it became an empire in name.

Extreme wealth

Crawford’s thesis is simple: the phenomenal wealth which could be extracted from these overseas territories (‘generals and governors abroad had almost limitless opportunities for illegitimate enrichment’, p.74), plus the prestige attached to military success and the public triumphs awarded to victorious generals, led to increasing disparities among the ruling elite: some became phenomenally rich and successful, others less so.

The enormous power wielded by Roman magistrates operating far from senatorial oversight led to grave abuses; the wealth acquired from office by some members of the oligarchy separated them spectacularly from the rest and enabled them to bribe their own way and that of other members of their family to further office. (p.84)

The conquest of the Greek East from 200 BC onwards provided ready access to Greek artistic and intellectual skills and techniques and to wealth on a staggering scale. (p.85)

He quotes the Roman saying that a provincial governor needed to screw not one but three fortunes out of his unfortunate subjects: one to repay the money he borrowed to pay his election expenses; one to bribe the jury at the trial for corruption he would inevitably face when he got back to Rome; and the third one for the traditional reason – to have the wherewithal to fund the conspicuously rich lifestyle demanded by his class (p.171), a particularly conspicuous example being the successful general Lucius Licinius Lucullus. By the 60s:

Provincial government not only provided men with wealth and connections on a scale unimagined a generation earlier; the great commands placed in their hands for a time almost regal power and led to their being showered with symbolic honours appropriate to that power. Here again Pompeius surpassed all his predecessors. (p.176)

So, as the first century BC progressed, at the very top of the Roman oligarchy, competition for the consulship, for governorship of a province or generalship of an army overseas, became increasingly fierce and bitter because the rewards became increasingly mind-boggling.

It was bitter rivalry about who would lead the Roman military campaign against Mithridates VI of Pontus in modern-day Turkey, which precipitated the civil war between Gaius Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla starting in 88 BC. It was failure to agree a mechanism whereby Caesar could lay down command of his army in Gaul and transition to being a consul in 49 which led to the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. It was the failure of the centuries-old institutions of the Republic to control and mediate the rivalry between these super-powerful men, and then between Octavian and Mark Antony after Caesar’s assassination, which led, after repeated collapses, to its complete replacement by the rule of one strong man.

Seen in this light, the domestic policies of the oligarchy throughout the 2nd century and into the 1st century, consisted of the oligarchy’s attempts to moderate and police itself, to hold this power in check. It had created a machine of awesome power which it could no longer control.

The decade 59 to 49 saw competition between the leading members of the oligarchy reach such an intensity that it destroyed the framework in which competition operated or had meaning. It burst out as the naked use of force. Might could only be met with might and could only lead to the triumph of one man only, Octavian.

The land problem

This much is maybe obvious. Crawford’s left-wing perspective comes out in his insistence that the ‘people’ played a leading role in the process. He claims they did this in two inter-related ways. First, was the land problem. In a nutshell, in the last 150 years of the republic the ordinary peasant farmer was driven off the land in ever-increasing numbers. The richest patricians relentlessly bought up land, exploiting the harsh money-lending and debt laws which penalised ordinary farmers.

This explains why there were so many attempts to redistribute land and to enact some form of debt relief over those 150 years. Take C. Laelius’s proposal in 140 that land be redistributed to the needy in order to raise them up to the property qualification required by recruitment into the army, thereby improving it, (p.91). Or Tiberius Gracchus’s proposals for redistributing land from the wealthy to the landless in 133. Crawford devotes a chapter to describing in detail the process of land appropriation by the rich and the various attempts by reformers to stem the tide (pages 94 to 106).

They mostly failed and the net result was the creation of huge estates (which came to be called latifundia) owned by very rich landowners, and the driving of hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers off the land and into the towns, where they created shanty towns and formed the mobs susceptible to popular rabble rousers.

Thus the rise of the super-rich not only destabilised their own class, the oligarchy, but indirectly contributed to the rise of the mob mentality which increasingly dominated Roman politics in the last 50 years of the republic.

The lynching of Tiberius Gracchus

Crawford goes along with all the other historians I’ve read who say that the public lynching of the reformer Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BC marked a turning point because for the first time laws, justice and deference gave way to brute violence. His younger brother was similarly massacred along with hundreds of his followers a decade later, but it was really the long and bitter Social War of the 90s which led directly into the civil war of the 80s, and to the appalling politically motivated murders commissioned by both Marius and Sulla, which made politicised street violence an accepted event.

A generation later, the street violence between the gangs led by Clodius and Milo destabilised politics throughout the 50s. And it was Mark Antony’s speech in the forum the day after Caesar’s assassination, displaying Caesar’s body and reading out his will, which roused the mob to a fury and to go off and torch the houses of the conspirators, thus driving them to flee from Rome, putting them on the back foot and guaranteeing that Antony and his group in the oligarchy would triumph.

The point is these successive outbreaks of constitutional collapse were partly enabled by the growth of a large class of urban proletariat, mobs of the unemployed or underemployed, former farmers driven off their land, embittered and ready for anything. It explains the appeal of Catalina’s vague promises to overthrow the entire state and start again to large numbers of the urban poor.

And we know from Cicero’s letters that even Octavian, who was to be the last man standing at the end of this series of ruinous civil wars, went out of his way to make himself liked by the mob.

In a sentence: the population displaced from the land and herded into the cities provided the raw material of aggrieved proles which the unprecedentedly powerful and homicidally competitive oligarchs were able to manipulate for their advantage.

Slavery

There was a third element: slavery. As conquest followed conquest in the 2nd century, as entire cities and peoples were conquered and some (not all) sold into slavery, there developed a tidal wave of slavery. This had two effects: one was that the economy didn’t need the peasant farmer any more; slaves could farm huge latifundia virtually for free. Second was a ratcheting up of the luxury living of the urban rich, and even the well-off middle classes, once their houses became full of slaves who did all kinds of work and services for free. The Roman historian Appian wrote:

‘So the powerful became very rich and slaves spread all over Italy.’ (quoted on page 102)

There was probably a third effect as well, which was the slave trade itself, which Crawford says really got going in the 140s i.e after the destruction of Carthage and Corinth. Easy to overlook the slaves and the simple fact that they created a vast amount of economic value for little overhead. The trade made slave traders very rich, but transformed the lives of Roman citizens of all but the lowest classes. (p.102).

‘When the Romans became rich after the destruction of Carthage and Corinth they used enormous numbers of slaves…’ (Roman historian Strabo quoted on page 131)

The growing use of slaves led to three slave wars or risings, in 135 to 132, 104 to 100, and 73 to 71. The Greek island of Delos became the centre of the slave trade in the eastern Mediterranean . It was said it could receive, sell and dispatch tens of thousands of slaves every day! (p.131).

Conclusion

This is a poor book, which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. Its take-home message is straightforward: it is bad, sometimes fatal, to the peace and viability of a society to let some of its members become disproportionately rich or powerful. Extreme wealth not only corrupts individuals but destabilises entire societies. A largely ignored message still relevant to us inhabitants of the ‘advanced’ economies of the West.


Roman reviews

On Old Age by Cicero (44 BC)

‘Of what immense worth is it for the soul to be with itself, to live, as the phrase is, with itself, discharged from the service of lust, ambition, strife, enmities, desires of every kind!’
(On old age by Cicero)

Cicero wrote De senectute or ‘Of old age’ to disabuse people of their negative stereotypes about old age, to defend old age, to make it less feared. It’s a relatively short treatise by Cicero’s standards. It is dedicated to his good friend Titus Pomponius (who gave himself the nickname ‘Atticus’ because he loved Athens so much).

Cicero sets it, like De republica and De amitia, back in the time of Scipio Aemilianus, about 130 BC, and has the characters in the dialogue be Scipio, his friend Caius Laelius, and the stern moralist Cato the Elder, who lived a very long life (234 to 149 BC) and so was eminently qualified to talk about age.

In De senectute Cicero, like the defence lawyer he was, mounts a defence of the state of old age against its alleged disadvantages. He has Cato tell Scipio and Laelius how foolish general attitudes to old age are. The best way to live is to ‘follow and obey Nature, the surest guide, as if she were a god,’ (which my recent reading has taught me to see as pure Stoicism). Hence the Stoic insistence on Virtue:

CATO: “The best-fitting defensive armour of old age, Scipio and Laelius, consists in the knowledge and practice of the virtues, which, assiduously cultivated, after the varied experiences of a long life, are wonderfully fruitful, not only because they never take flight, not even at the last moment, — although this is a consideration of prime importance, — but because the consciousness of a well-spent life and a memory rich in good deeds afford supreme happiness.”

Those who criticise old age are often simply projecting their own vices and shortcomings onto an inevitable part of life.

About a quarter of the way into the text, after this fictional Cato has given us profiles and anecdotes about quite a few eminent Romans of his time, he gets round to tabulating the four main criticisms people make of old age.

“One, that it calls us away from the management of affairs; another, that it impairs bodily vigour; the third, that it deprives us to a great degree of sensual gratifications; the fourth, that it brings one to the verge of death.”

The essay consists of him examining and refuting each of these claims in turn:

1. Old age withdraws us from active pursuits

It’s true old age prevents activities which are appropriate for youth and strength of body. But there are many activities appropriate to maturity and statesmanship, and he gives a list of eminent Romans who played decisive roles at key moments of Roman history:

The old man does not do what the young men do; but he does greater and better things. Great things are accomplished, not by strength, or swiftness, or suppleness of body, but by counsel, influence, deliberate opinion, of which old age is not wont to be bereft, but, on the other hand, to possess them more abundantly…Unless these were the characteristics of seniors in age, our ancestors would not have called the supreme council the Senate.

The word senate derives from senex, the Latin for old man, implying that with age comes wisdom and decision.

If you see fit to read or hear the history of foreign nations, you will find that states have been undermined by young men, but maintained and restored by old men.

Rashness, indeed, belongs to youth; prudence, to age.

Indeed, the crowning glory of old age is authority.

Old age, especially when it has filled offices of high public trust, has so much authority, that for this alone it is worth all the pleasures of youth.

Old men are said to forget, but Cato insists this is only true among those who do not exercise their memory or were slow-minded to begin with. No, old men remember everything that they care about and:

Old men have their powers of mind unimpaired when they do not suspend their usual pursuits and their habits of industry.

Examples of men who excelled at their craft well into old age include Sophocles, Homer, Hesiod, Simonides, Stesichorus, Isocrates, Gorgias, Pythagoras and Democritus, Plato, Xenocrates, Zeno and Cleanthes and so on. Did these men not continue working at the top of their bent till the end of their lives?

Some say old age is repellent to the young, but it need not be so if is considered with respect to the wisdom age has to offer:

As wise old men are charmed with well-disposed youth, so do young men delight in the counsels of the old, by which they are led to the cultivation of the virtues.

And so another of the benefits of age is the respect of the young and he details the respect afforded successful elder statesmen, such as being saluted in the morning, grasped by the hand, received by the rising of those present, escorted to the Forum, escorted home, asked for advice.

What pleasures of body are to be compared with the prerogatives of authority?

2. Old age makes the body weaker

It is becoming to make use of what one has, and whatever you do, to do in proportion to your strength

But the eloquence that becomes one of advanced years is calm and gentle, and not infrequently a clear-headed old man commands special attention by the simple, quiet elegance of his style

You can at least help others by your counsel; and what is more pleasant than old age surrounded by young disciples? Must we not admit that old age has sufficient strength to teach young men, to educate them, to train them for the discharge of every duty? And what can be more worthy of renown than work like this?

If you know someone stronger than you, does that make them better than you? No, each of us has the strength appropriate to our bodies and exercise, so:

Provided one husbands one’s strength, and does not attempt to go beyond it, one will not be hindered in one’s work by any lack of the requisite strength.

Accept the course of nature.

Life has its fixed course, and nature one unvarying way; each age has assigned to it what best suits it, so that the fickleness of boyhood, the sanguine temper of youth, the soberness of riper years, and the maturity of old age, equally have something in harmony with nature.

But do what you can to remain fit.

Exercise and temperance, then, can preserve even in old age something of one’s pristine vigour.

Live a healthy life.

Old age, like disease, should be fought against. Care must be bestowed upon the health; moderate exercise must be taken; the food and drink should be sufficient to recruit the strength, and not in such excess as to become oppressive. Nor yet should the body alone be sustained in vigour, but much more the powers of mind; for these too, unless you pour oil into the lamp, are extinguished by old age. Indeed, while overexertion tends by fatigue to weigh down the body, exercise makes the mind elastic.

Cato lists the intimidating roster of activities he is undertaking in his 84th year, including:

  • he is writing a history
  • he is collecting memorials of older times
  • he is writing out the speeches he gave in all his law cases
  • he is treating of augural, pontifical, civil law
  • to exercise his mind he recalls every evening whatever he has said, heard or done during the day
  • he often appears in court on behalf of friends
  • he attends the senate and still has motions he wants to propose

These are the exercises of the mind; these, the race-ground of the intellect.

If you remain alert and active:

One who is always occupied in these studies and labours is unaware when age creeps upon him. Thus one grows old gradually and unconsciously,

3. Old age deprives us of almost all physical pleasures

This is a positive thing, considering that the lure of physical pleasure is one of the most harmful things to youth. He quotes a violent speech against pleasure by Archytas of Tarentum:

“There is no form of guilt, no atrocity of evil, to the accomplishment of which men are not driven by lust for pleasure. Debaucheries, adulteries, and all enormities of that kind have no other inducing cause than the allurements of pleasure.

“Still more, while neither Nature nor any god has bestowed upon man aught more noble than mind, nothing is so hostile as pleasure to this divine endowment and gift. Nor while lust bears sway can self-restraint find place, nor under the reign of pleasure can virtue have any foothold whatever.”

If reason is the greatest gift of the gods and the highest faculty of man, and if indulgence in physical pleasure overrides or extinguishes it, then thank God for old age if it means all these harmful forces leave you.

For pleasure thwarts good counsel, is the enemy of reason, and, if I may so speak, blindfolds the eyes of the mind, nor has it anything in common with virtue.

Plato called pleasure ‘the bait of evil’, and so:

It is not only no reproach to old age, but even its highest merit, that it does not severely feel the loss of bodily pleasures.

It is said that old men have less intensity of sensual enjoyment. So I believe; but there is no craving for it. You do not miss what you do not want.

Sophocles very aptly replied, when asked in his old age whether he indulged in sensual pleasure, “May the gods do better for me! I rejoice in my escape from a savage and ferocious tyrant.”

So one can feel grateful for it:

I am heartily thankful to my advanced years for increasing my appetency for conversation, and diminishing my craving for food and drink.

Speaking personally, I’m glad I’m middle aged. When I was a young man I felt I had a raging fire burning in my mind which could only be extinguished by intoxicants and inebriants, I hurtled round London feeling like I might explode at any moment. Now the fires of testosterone have banked right down and I am content to read literature and tend my garden, like the best of the ancients. It is an enormous relief not to be young any more.

it is to Solon’s honour that he says, in the verse which I just now quoted, that as he advanced in age he learned something every day, — a pleasure of the mind than which there can be none greater.

He then has a passage about the joys of what he calls agriculture, but is nearer to horticulture, with an extended description of the joy of growing grapes and watching the vines grow and spread.

What can I say of the planting, upspringing, and growth of vines? It is with insatiable delight that I thus make known to you the repose and enjoyment of my old age.

I know what he means. This year I have planted seven trees, set up 10 trellises and planted five climbers to grow up them, and sown wild flowers seed along 20 metres of border. There is no pleasure like the calm pleasure of planning, planting, watering and tending your own garden.

He introduces some further accusations against old men 1) that they are morose, uneasy, irritable and hard to please, 2) that they become avaricious with age.

But these are faults of character, not of age itself.

He defends (some) old men from being uneasy and irritable because this is, in fact, a justified response to the way they are sometimes treated – when they are scorned, despised, mocked. Who can blame old people from being grumpy about being badly treated and neglected.

Also, if you have a weaker body, sometimes undermined by chronic health problems, then any cause of vexation is felt more keenly. But such infirmities of temper should be corrected by good manners and liberal culture.

As to old men becoming greedy, he can’t understand it at all. With less of life to live, why bother devoting your energies to acquiring wealth you won’t have time to spend. Better to cultivate a calm but active mind.

4. Old age is liable to excessive solicitude and distress because death is so near

But one of the key achievements of wisdom is to overcome your fear of death and learn to despise it. There are, after all, only two scenarios: either the soul / mind ceases to exist at death (in which case there is nothing to worry about) or we pass to an immortal realm (which is highly desirable). Win-win, either way.

In fact, young people are more liable to fatal incidents than old people: young people commit suicide, are killed in car or motorbike crashes, in fights or murders and, in Cicero’s time, in battle, much more than old people.

Young people hope to live to a ripe old age. An old person should rejoice because he has achieved that wish.

Each one should be content with such time as it is allotted to him to live.

In order to give pleasure to the audience, the actor need not finish the play; he may win approval in whatever act he takes part in; nor need the wise man remain on the stage till the closing plaudit. A brief time is long enough to live well and honourably.

But if you live on, you have no more reason to mourn over your advancing years, than the farmers have, when the sweet days of spring are past, to lament the coming of summer and of autumn.

What can be more natural than to die old. It is those who die young who are the tragic waste. Dying old is part of the natural cycle of things.

Old men die as when a spent fire goes out of its own accord, without force employed to quench it…This ripeness of old age is to me so pleasant, that, in proportion as I draw near to death, I seem to see land, and after a long voyage to be on the point of entering the harbour.

And:

Because old age has no fixed term, one may fitly live in it so long as one can observe and discharge the duties of his station, and yet despise death.

Old age, fearless of death, may transcend youth in courage and in fortitude.

As to the actual pain of dying:

There may be, indeed, some painful sensation in dying, yet for only a little while, especially for the old; after death there is either desirable sensation or none at all.

It is possible to have had enough, to have lived well and done everything one wanted so as to reach a stage of being ready for death:

satiety of life, as it seems to me, creates satiety of pursuits of every kind. There are certain pursuits belonging to boyhood; do grownup young men therefore long for them? There are others appertaining to early youth; are they required in the sedate period of life which we call middle age? This, too, has its own pursuits, and they are not sought in old age. As the pursuits of earlier periods of life fall away, so in like manner do those of old age. When this period is reached, satiety of life brings a season ripe for death.

Cato ends by sharing his personal thoughts about the soul. He believes, with the Pythagoreans, that each human soul is a fragment of the Divine Mind forced, for a while, into the prison of an earthly habitation. Indivisible and immortal, human souls knew things before we were born (as per Plato).

The wise soul knows it will live on after death:

Since men of the highest wisdom die with perfect calmness, those who are the most foolish with extreme disquiet, can you doubt that the soul which sees more and farther perceives that it is going to a better state, while the soul of obtuser vision has no view beyond death?

Cato is looking forward to meeting the great men he knew in life, as well as legendary figures from earlier days. And so, after a lifetime of toil for his nation, Cato is ready to move on for a better place, the abode of bliss and the company of heroes:

I depart from life, as from an inn, not as from a home; for nature has given us here a lodging for a sojourn, not a place of habitation. O glorious day, when I shall go to that divine company and assembly of souls, and when I shall depart from this crowd and tumult!

Thoughts

Unlike Cicero’s treatise on friendship, which was impossibly high-minded and deformed by Cicero’s obsession with Stoic philosophy, his insistence on spelling out the belief in God which underlies his belief in a God-given Human Nature and therefore God-given Moral Laws – this essay is far less theoretical, and therefore a genuinely useful, insightful guide to how to age gracefully and well.

Once or twice he mentions the Stoic nostrum that virtue can fortify the mind against all vicissitudes, but the philosophy is tamped right down in favour of the many practical, real world examples of fellow Romans who Cato has known or whose grace and wisdom and ongoing energy in old age offer genuinely inspiring examples, both to him and to anybody who reads it.


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Roman reviews

Feminine power: the divine to the demonic @ the British Museum

This is the first major exhibition ever held at the British Museum focusing solely on goddesses – on female spiritual beings from mythological traditions from around the world – and it is absolutely fabulous!

Queen of the night relief, c. 1750 BCE, Iraq, painted clay © The Trustees of the British Museum

Questions about women and femininity

The exhibition sets out to ask questions about images and ideas of the divine: How do different traditions view femininity? How has female authority been perceived in ancient cultures? Are sex and desire the foundations of civilisation or their disruptors? To what extent do female deities reinforce patriarchal social systems or subvert them? What relevance to goddess from ancient or remote cultures have for us, here, today?

To ‘answer and explore’ these questions the exhibition brings together female divine and demonic figures feared and revered for over 5,000 years from traditions all round the world. It includes painted scrolls from Tibet, Roman sculpture, intricate personal amulets from Egypt, Japanese prints, Indian relief carvings, statuettes and figurines, alongside contemporary sculptures.

Ancient and modern

It’s important to realise that the exhibition combines ancient and modern. It brings together historical artifacts – ancient sculptures and sacred objects relating to female goddesses from all around the world – but also includes modern and recent works of art by contemporary female artists such as the renowned American feminist artist Judy Chicago, and the creations of less well-known woman artists from various cultures, such as this fearsome headpiece from India.

Dance mask of Taraka, workshop of Sri Kajal Datta (1994) India, papier mâché © The Trustees of the British Museum

The aim is to explore the multitude of ways in which femininity has been perceived, conceived, created and depicted across the globe, from the ancient world to today. The exhibition explores the embodiment of feminine power in deities, goddesses, demons, saints and other spiritual beings, associated with the widest possible range of human experiences and attributes, from sex and fertility, through wisdom, passion and nature, to war, mercy and justice.

18th century Chinese porcelain of Guanyin, the Chinese translation of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion, with child and attendants © The Trustees of the British Museum

Treasures

What makes the exhibition so enjoyable is not necessarily its feminist aims (although many visitors will, of course, identify with these) but a much simpler factor. Recent British Museum exhibitions about Nero or Stonehenge featured fabulous objects but also a lot of run-of-the-mill coins or skeletons or shards of pottery. These were important because they tell us about the subject’s archaeology and history, but sometimes they can get a bit, well, boring.

Here, by contrast, having selected 50 or so of the most interesting, relevant or thought-provoking goddesses from traditions around the world, the curators were free to pick only the very best objects to represent them. Almost all of the objects are from the museum’s own collection and they showcase its extraordinary breadth and range. But more importantly, lots and lots of them are really beautiful or, if not beautiful, then striking and fascinating.

Statue of Venus, 1st to 2nd century Rome © The Trustees of the British Museum

I studied the labels and read the extensive feminist commentary but then I have read the same kind of thing thousands of times, and read it every day in the papers and hear it every day on the radio and TV. Discussions of gender and sexuality and gender stereotyping and #metoo and the gender pay gap and female empowerment and strong independent women and women pioneers in culture and science and sport are now part of the permanent background hum of modern life.

What is not an everyday experience is to be able to take a walk through the mythologies of the world, to savour the beauty and force of a carefully curated selection of exquisite and surprising and fascinating historical and cultural artifacts.

Not all the objects on display are masterpieces, but many of them are really, really beautiful, and all of them have fascinating stories to tell and many of them shed lights on countries and cultures I knew little or nothing about. The exhibition amounts to a kind of David Attenborough odyssey through the weird and wonderful products of the human imagination.

Mami Wata headpiece, Nigeria, early 1900s, painted wood and metal © The Trustees of the British Museum

Five themes

One of the curators explained that they went out of their way to consult far and wide, with heads of departments across the museum, with stakeholders and members, in order to draw up a long list of themes and subjects relating to female power. Alongside this they drew up a long list of objects to illustrate the themes, at the same time drafting a list of feminist commentators who might be interested in commenting on them.

The outcome of this long process of consultation and consideration has been to divide the exhibition into five themes, each of which is introduced and explained by the curators – and then a leading contemporary feminist was invited to contribute thoughts on the theme and reflections on the objects.

The five themes are:

  • Passion and Desire, introduced and analysed by Classics Professor Mary Beard
  • Magic and Malice, commented on by writer and podcaster Elizabeth Day
  • Forces of Nature, commented on by psychotherapist and campaigner against violence against women, Dr Leyla Hussein
  • Justice and Defence commented on by human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique
  • Compassion and Salvation commented on by writer, comedian and podcaster Deborah Frances-White

Thus each section each of the individual exhibits has two panels, one a factual description by the curators and one a subjective and thoughtful comment by the contributors. There are also some standalone video ‘thought-pieces’ of the five commentators giving their thoughts about women and power.

Creation and nature

To give an idea of the sheer number and range of goddesses and deities involved, this is a list of some of the exhibits in just the first section, devoted to ‘Creation and nature’.

  • Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes with flaming red hair and a fiery temper
  • Sedna, the Inuit mistress of the sea
  • Lashmi, the Hindu goddess of abundance
  • Oshun, the Yoruba orisha of water, coolness and healing
  • Mami Wata, the mother water of African spiritual traditions
  • Izarami-no-mikoto, a creator deity of both creation and death in Japanese Shinto mythology
  • sheela-na-gigs, the primitive stone figures found in the Middle Ages across Britain, France and Spain
  • Papatūānuku, the mother earth figure of In Māori tradition, who gives birth to all things, including people

You get the idea. Not so much about the goddesses as such, but the impressive range and diversity of cultures represented.

Kali

The exhibition includes a newly acquired icon of the Hindu goddess Kali by contemporary Bengali artist, Kaushik Ghosh, the first contemporary 3D representation of Kali in the collection.

As one of the most prominent and widely venerated goddesses in India, this devotional image of Kali reflects the living tradition of her worship, important for millions of Hindus around the world today.

The statuette was commissioned especially for the exhibition, together with the London Durgotsav Committee, who run the annual Kali Puja festival in Camden, in Kali’s honour.

According to the curators: ‘Loved and feared for her formidable power and aggression, Kali is the goddess of destruction and salvation, who transcends time and death, destroys ignorance and guides her followers to enlightenment. Although superficially terrifying, the bloodied heads that she wears and carries represent her power to destroy the ego, setting her followers free from worldly concerns, and the belt of severed arms signifies that she liberates them from the cycle of death and rebirth, by the many weapons she wields.’

Kali Murti, Kaushik Ghosh, India, 2022. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

Ancient and modern

There’s a kind of doubled or paired approach to everything. I’ve mentioned the way many of the exhibits feature a panel giving the historical and cultural facts, as written by the curators, and next to it a panel giving the more subjective view and reflections of the guest commentator. Doubling. Two perspectives.

But I mean it in another way as well, which is the curators’ deliberate juxtaposition of the very old and the very contemporary. This is announced right at the beginning of the exhibition (although it was only when the curator pointed it out that I understood it).

Right at the beginning of the ‘Creation and nature’ section they have two exhibits, not quite next to each other, a bit more subtly placed than that. One is a trio of Cycladic figurines of women, those primitive, flat faced half-abstract figures which date from as long ago as 3,000 BC.

A figurine of a woman, from the Cyclades, over 4,000 years old.

These are so beautiful as objects and shapes that I could look at them all day. Anyway, just round the corner from them the curators have hung a print titled ‘The Creation’ by the American feminist artist, Judy Chicago (born in 1939 and still going strong).

I needee a bit of help deciphering this but it is an image of a woman giving birth, taken from between her parted thighs, with her two breasts as hills on the horizon, one a volcano exploding. Obviously it’s heavily stylised, and features strata of creation on the right including sea life and, above them, lizards and apes and humans.

The Creation, Judy Chicago, USA, 1985, coloured screen print in 45 colours on black paper. Image © The Trustees of the British Museum

In other words, it’s a stylised image of the creation of life on earth. An interview with Chicago is quoted in which she jokes that Michelangelo’s famous image of the ‘Creation’ depicts a man (Adam) lying lazily on his back while a complacent God reaches out and touches his finger. Chicago wanted to counterpoint this patriarchal fantasy with a depiction of the more effortful, bloody and seismic moment of creation in a woman giving birth, but at the same time give it modern mythic overtones, reflecting our knowledge of geology and evolution.

So far so interesting and both works are examples of what I meant by saying that all of the exhibition’s artefacts are powerful and beautiful. It also exemplifies the juxtaposition of ancient and modern I was talking about.

History and art

But it is a dichotomy or duality on another level, as well, which is that the Cycladic figures are conventionally thought of as being of predominantly archaeological and historical interest whereas the Chicago piece is clearly a modern ‘work of art’.

So the curators are enacting another form of doubling: they have deliberately mixed together works which come from the staid academic world of history and anthropology with living works of art.

So there are, arguably, three sets of pairing or doubling going on throughout the exhibition: ancient and modern, curator and commentator, history and art.

These juxtapositions set up forcefields of energy between ancient objects of worship and veneration whose purpose was clearly ‘religious’ and modern works of art whose purpose is, well, what?

In her speech the curator said she was explaining the difference between the consciously ‘sacred’ objects (depicting goddesses and ritual) and the modern ‘profane’ art works to an exhibition sponsor, and the sponsor asked: ‘Is there a difference?’

Good question, and the exhibition provides a fascinating field of study for similar questions and reflections, either prompted by our own impressions as we stroll among these weird and wonderful objects, or by the factual summaries of the curators, or by the reflections of the feminist commentators, or by the vibrant juxtaposition of objects from such different times, places and cultures.

The visitor strolls not only between beautiful objects but amidst a complex matrix of factual information, aesthetic experiences, and intellectual discourses, jangling and buzzing, prompting all manner of thoughts and feelings.

Lilith

Take the figure of Lilith. Since the late first millennium AD, Lilith has been known in Jewish demonology as the first wife of Adam and the consort of Satan. Her origins are thought to lie in Mesopotamian demons. The exhibition includes several representations of this talismanic figure, including a ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD), featuring a rare early image of Lilith in female form. Buried upside down under the thresholds of houses these bowls were inscribed with charms to protect the owners (who are named in the text) from demonic forces. They regularly name Lilith as a demon to be warded off, sometimes as grammatically singular and feminine, but also masculine or plural, one among many indications of the gender fluidity found in many mythologies.

Ceramic incantation bowl from Iraq (500 to 800 AD) © The Trustees of the British Museum

So far, so historical or archaeological. But the exhibition also includes a very striking sculpture of Lilith by American artist Kiki Smith, made in 1994. Smith’s sculpture is cast from the body of a real woman and the striking thing is that this life-size black metal sculpture is attached half way up the gallery wall. This would be a striking installation in a gallery of contemporary art but in the staid world of the British Museum with its glass cases carefully spotlighting tiny coins and bits of pottery, it makes a huge statement, visually and physically. The artist herself writes of her work:

Lilith becomes this disembodied spirit that goes off and wreaks havoc and doesn’t want to be subjugated. Here she is transcending gravity and the constraints of her body.

Yes, the legends about Lilith and the havoc she wrought we may or may not be familiar with. But it’s the fact that she is a life-size sculpture hanging upside down on the gallery wall which makes the statement.

Lilith by Kiki Smith (1994) image © Pace Gallery

The exhibition poster

Of all the objects in the exhibition, the Lilith sculpture is the one the curators chose to go on the poster and promotional material. Personally, I think that was a mistake. I think it would have been better, more accurate, to use a montage of 3 or 4 of the most striking objects to give a true sense of the exhibition’s breadth and diversity. It’s also a bit boring that out of all the cultures of the big wide world, the curators have chosen an artist from America. Disappointing. As if we don’t hear enough about American artists already. Would have been more genuinely diverse to promote a work by a Hindu or Nigerian or Inuit artist.

But then again, it is a strange and disturbing object. Maybe it recaptures, in our blasé culture, some of  the shock and mystery and weirdness that many of the more obviously ‘religious’ objects on display conveyed to their contemporaries, long ago and far away.

Lots of goddesses

If nothing else, the exhibition shows that there have been lots of goddesses and female spirits, in all societies, at all times. In the second half of the show I noted a fourth kind of doubling, which is where the curators have a panel describing an important goddess in a general sense, and then introduce a specific instance of the goddess, drawn from their vast collection.

So there’s a curator panel describing the figure of Eve, explaining her provenance and significance in Christian theology; the curators then give an example of the iconography of Eve in the form of a striking woodcut by Renaissance artist Cranach the Elder. Then one of the feminist commentators gives a more subjective assessment of the importance of Eve in shaping and projecting ideas of femininity in the Christian tradition.

A similar two-panel treatment (general explanation, then specific artifact) was meted out to (to name just the ones that really struck me):

  • Radha (Hindu)
  • Ishtar (Babylonia and Assyria)
  • Aphrodite (Greece)
  • Lilith (Jewish-Christian)
  • Tlazo Iteotl (Aztec)
  • Hekate (Greek)
  • Circe (Greek)
  • Cihuateteo (Aztec)
  • Rangda (Bali)
  • Taraka (Hindu)
  • Sekhmet (Egypt)
  • Athena (Greece)
  • Luba (Congo)
  • Mahadevi (Hindu)
  • Kali (Hindu) Isis (Egypt)
  • Maryam (Islam)
  • Mary (Christian)
  • Guanyin (China)
  • Tara (Tibet)
  • Medusa (Greece)
  • witches (Christendom)

Women and gender identity

The curators assert that the representation of feminine power in world belief and mythology has played – and continues to play – an important role in shaping global cultural attitudes towards women and gender identity.

I suppose this is true of many places, still, but…. there’s something not quite right with that statement. On reflection I think it’s that the curators are pushing it a bit far when they say the exhibition explores or investigates the role religion, and female deities, goddesses and spirits have played in representing, defining, limiting and empowering women through the ages. To really properly do that would require a library full of books and studies of religious sociology and anthropology. To be blunt the exhibition, big and broad though it is, only scratches the surface of a vast, global, pan-historical subject.

As an example, the exhibition includes a section devoted to the Virgin Mary who is (obviously) the most prominent female figure in Christianity, itself the most widespread religion on earth. This section contains five artefacts connected with her veneration, which is more than most of the other goddesses get, but, still… It would obviously need quite considerably more than that to amount to a proper ‘investigation’ or ‘exploration’ of the role of Mary in defining and limiting women’s roles in Western society over the past 2,000 years. Vastly more. Thousands of books and objects. A huge exhibition could be devoted to Mary alone. And that’s just one among the 50 or 60 female deities on display here.

And that thought brings out the exhibition’s weakness, which is that a lot of the very broad (and very familiar) generalisations which the feminist commentators make about gender and identity are not really supported by the exhibits.

The curators tell you the facts about Rangda (Bali) or Taraka (Hindu) or Sekhmet (ancient Egypt) and then the commentators shoehorn onto them one of the handful of familiar feminist concerns about gender stereotyping or gender fluidity or the power of desire or women as strong independent figures and so on. Sometimes it works, sometimes it’s spot on. But sometimes it feels…contrived. You feel the unknowable weirdness of some of these objects, the strange worlds they inhabit and the fearsome spirits they represent are being hijacked to pad out a Guardian editorial.

A friend of mine, a designer, goes to lots of exhibitions and makes a point of never reading the labels. She likes to engage directly with the objects on display, unmediated by the curators’ editorialising. The commentators opinions are over familiar and tend to drag you into the squabbling world of the modern media and culture wars and twitter and so on.

Whereas the exhibition’s great strength is the way the objects themselves open doors in your head to weird and wonderful otherplaces and otherminds, leading you through the looking glass, through the back of the wardrobe, into a huge range of times and places and cultures.

And the way these beautiful or fascinating objects have been carefully juxtaposed with notable works of contemporary art to set up all kinds of resonances and vibrations. This – the often strange, haunting beauty of the objects themselves, and resonances set off by their artful positioning – is what I responded to, what I found very stimulating and rewarding.

(To be fair, the exhibition is accompanied by a big heavy catalogue packed with essays by feminist academics, and this does go into considerably more detail about the issues around women and gender and sexuality which the exhibition references. Read the catalogue blurb to get the publishers’ summary of it. ‘The publication concludes with a discussion of contemporary feminism…’)

The curators speak

Here are the voices of two women closely involved with the exhibition. Belinda Crerar, curator, British Museum, writes:

This exhibition is a tour through history and around the world to see the different ways that female power and authority have been perceived in spiritual belief. The diversity of these goddesses, spirits, enlightened beings and saints, and their profound influence in people’s lives today and in the past, gives us pause to reflect on how femininity – and indeed masculinity – are defined and valued now and in the future.

Muriel Gray, Deputy Chair of Trustees of the British Museum, writes:

The Citi exhibition Feminine power: the divine to the demonic is brimming with magic, wisdom, fury and passion. I am very proud that through the breadth and depth of the British Museum’s collection, alongside special loans, we can tell such powerful and universal stories of faith and femininity from the most ancient cultures to living traditions around the world. I would like to thank Citi, whose ongoing support has allowed the Museum to realise this ground-breaking exhibition.

A word from our sponsor

The exhibition is sponsored by Citi. Citi is the swish new name of what used to be Citigroup Inc, an American multinational investment bank and financial services corporation headquartered in New York (where Kiki Smith lives and works). A spokesman for the bank writes:

As a global bank, our mission is to serve as a trusted partner to our clients by responsibly providing financial services that enable growth and economic progress. Success in our mission is only possible if we can continue to foster a culture of equality and inclusion that enables and encourages diversity of thinking. To drive that message of equality and the power and influence of women over time, we are delighted to see the Museum use its collection, along with some spectacular loans, to create a thought-provoking look at the diversity of representations and complex meanings of the divine female over time.

So the exhibition, which the curators and contributors like to see as ‘subverting’ the patriarchy and ‘questioning’ masculinity and ‘interrogating’ gender stereotypes etc – is wholeheartedly aligned with the values of American multinational investment banks and financial services corporations.

Whether you like it or not, ‘equality’ and ‘inclusion’ and ‘diversity’ are now fully integrated into the lexicon of international capitalism, and it is money from American capitalism which makes possible exhibitions like this, makes possible the curators’ good intentions and the feminist commentators’ ‘subversive’ comments. What do you think of that, O goddesses of fire and flood and fury?

Tiare Wahine, Tom Pico, Hawai’i, 2001, Ohi’a wood © The Trustees of the British Museum

I’m not especially singling out this exhibition. It’s the same kind of irony which meant that the huge sculpture lamenting the transatlantic slave trade made by the American artist Kara Walker (also based in New York) was hosted at Tate Modern, a gallery founded by sugar plantation owner Henry Tate who, although he never owned slaves, made a fortune out of black labourers descended from slave in the Caribbean, whose name the Tate organisation insists on retaining despite protests.

Or that until recently Tate, whose exhibitions routinely campaign for a better world, was funded by BP, the oil corporation, which is actively engaged in destroying the world.

Ditto the National Portrait Gallery, which is only ending its funding by BP this year, having only just noticed global warming and oil companies’ role in creating it.

Or that the Serpentine Gallery in London has only just (2021) dropped ‘Sackler’ from its name because of the Sackler family’s involvement in selling the opioid painkillers which have made large numbers of Americans into addicts, wrecking hundreds of thousands of lives. (A link I was making two and a half years ago, Patrick Staff: On Venus @ Serpentine Sackler Gallery.)

In fact I attended a press launch of an exhibition at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery which was addressed by its Chief Executive, Yana Peel, and I squirmed a bit as she imperiously lectured us about sexism and racism (it was the exhibition by African-American female artist Faith Ringgold). So I was all the more surprised and amused when Peel was then forced to step down from her post after the Guardian revealed her involvement in ‘the NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents’.

And then, of course, there are the many, many art galleries and cultural institutions which have spent the last 30 years deeply entwining themselves with the money or support of Russian oligarchs. Russia. Oligarchs. Putin. Nice company to keep.

So I’m just adding this exhibition to the many which promote high-minded values about gender and race, and advocate for sweeping social change, while being funded by money from harmful or immoral  or deeply reactionary sources. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to find this kind of irony hilarious. There’s no point getting upset, it’s the way of the modern world. But you are allowed to smile at the ironies.

For young readers

There is, of course, a sumptuous catalogue accompanying the exhibition, but a book has also been written for younger readers, what the press release describes as a ‘fascinating and empowering introduction to 50 female figures from around the globe’, entitled Goddess: 50 Goddesses, Spirits, Saints and Other Female Figures Who Have Shaped Belief, written by Janina Ramirez and illustrated by Sarah Walsh.


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Other British Museum reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) – 3 Historical overview

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard is divided into roughly three parts – the early legendary period (1200 to 500 BC), the republic (509 to 30 BC) and the empire (30 BC to where Beard chooses to end her account, in the year 212 AD).

It’s sort of predictable that most of the earliest history of ancient Rome, its foundation and early years, would be shrouded in legend and probably mostly fictional. It’s a more interesting point, and one Beard repeats a number of times, that a good deal of what you could call the early historical period, the 600s, 500s, 400s and even 300s BC, were still heavily distorted and fictionalised and glamorised by the authors of the first centuries BC and AD.

They projected the administrative ranks and classes and issues, the epic battles and even the grand architecture of the Rome of their own time, back onto earlier periods which probably consisted of little more than chieftains living in basic huts and leading cattle raids against nearby communities.

It was a world of chieftains and warrior bands, not of organised armies and foreign policy. (p.117)

For a fundamental learning to emerge from the first 200 pages of this book is that the first century BC and the first century AD were the classic period for great Roman writing, including the first extensive historical writing (Livy), detailed discussions of the Roman constitution and politics (Cicero),  Catullus’s love poetry, Caesar’s accounts of his war in Gaul, plays, poetry and so on (p.214).

The point being that modern historians think that many aspects of the accounts written during these centuries about the founding and early history of Rome hundreds of years earlier are very misleading. The rulers, warriors, wars and battles of the early centuries were exaggerated to heroic proportions, mixed with legend, and highly moralised to provide improving, educational stories to a 1st century audience.

It is clear that much of the tradition that has come down to us, far from reality, is a fascinating mythical projection of later Roman priorities and anxieties into the distant past. (p.100)

(This core idea, and the word ‘projected’, recur on pages 97, 100, 108, 141, 205).

The traditional, grand and impressive history of the founding and early years of ancient Rome, as it was written up by Rome’s first century propagandists, was repeated for centuries afterwards, inspiring all subsequent histories, countless poems and paintings and plays throughout the Western tradition. It was only in the twentieth century, with the advent of modern archaeological techniques, that virtually all these stories came, not so much to be questioned (historians had been sceptical about some of the taller tales even at the time) but to be definitively disproved by the evidence in the ground.

This process goes on to the present day, with ever-more advanced technology and computer analysis (and DNA analysis of bones and remains) contributing to a comprehensive overhaul of our image of ancient Rome. If you Google books about ancient Rome you’ll quickly discover that ones published even as recently as 2000 are now considered out of date because the archaeology is moving at such a pace and shedding ever-newer light on Rome’s origins and early development.

Now, Beard does take a lot of this on board. Her narrative frequently grinds to a halt while she tells us about important, recent archaeological discoveries, complete with photos and descriptions. The problem for the reader is that Beard doesn’t give a good clear detailed account of what the traditional story actually was before setting out to question and undermine it. She’ll write that the famous story about x has been thrown into doubt by recent finds under the Forum and you, as the reader, go: ‘Hang on, hang on, what famous story about x?’

In fact she uses the word ‘famous’ very liberally and often to describe things I’ve never heard of. I appreciate that this is because they are ‘famous’ in the world of Classics and ancient history, but surely the whole point of the book is to try and bring this world to outsiders, to people who know very little about it apart from the handful of clichés and stereotypes we call ‘general knowledge’.

What follows is my notes for myself on the key events from the traditional version.

1. Aeneas 1200 BC

Ancient legends associate Rome with the arrival of Aeneas, exile from Troy, around 1200 BC (ancient Greeks and Romans dated the Trojan War to what we now call the 12th or 11th centuries BC). Aeneas settled in central Italy and founded the line which led, centuries later, to King Numitor the maternal grandfather of the twins, Romulus and Remus.

Numerous variations on the Aeneas legend exist and were extensively reworked in the historical period i.e. from the 2nd century BC onwards. The version best known to the post-Roman world derives from the Aeneid, the great epic poem by Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC to 19 AD). The Aeneid is maybe the most influential poem in Western literature (p.76).

The first six of the poem’s twelve books describe Aeneas’s journey from Troy to Rome, the second six describe Aeneas’s settlement in Italy in the region of what would (a lot later) come to be Rome. This process of settlement involved Aeneas in fierce fighting against local tribes (the Rutulians led by their king, Turnus) until he finally won the war, gained the territory and the hand of the beautiful Lavinia, daughter of another powerful local king, Latinus.

But Aeneas was not the actual founder of Rome. He founded a town he named Lavinium after his wife. It was his son, Ascanius, who was said to have founded another town in the area, Alba Longa, whose king, Numitor, some 400 years later, was to the maternal grandfather of the twins Romulus and Remus (p.77).

2. Romulus 750s BC

Beard speculates freely about the origins and meaning of the Romulus and Remus legend about the founding of Rome. Characteristically, she doesn’t explain it very well so I had to look it up on Wikipedia to get a clear understanding. Various versions are found in ancient texts, many of which contradict each other, but the consensus story is that:

Numitor was king of Alba Longa, a town a little south of what was to become Rome. He was overthrown by his brother Amulius. Numitor had a daughter, Rhea Silvia, who was a vestal virgin. She was made pregnant by the war god Mars and gave birth to twins. Seeing as they were descendants of the rightful (overthrown) king, Numitor, Amulius ordered the twins to be abandoned on the banks of the river Tiber (as Moses, Oedipus, Paris and so many other figures of legend are abandoned as children). Here they were discovered by a she-wolf who suckled them and kept them alive in a cave (later known as the Lupercal) until they were discovered and adopted by Faustulus, a shepherd and raised (like Paris) as simple shepherds. In time the twins grew into natural leaders of men and found themselves caught up in a conflict between Numitor and Amulius. They joined the forces of Numitor and helped restore him to his rightful throne of Alba Longa, during which process they were recognised as Numitor’s grandsons. Then they set off to found a city of their own, deciding to build it on the defensible hills by the Tiber where they founded Rome. They each set about building a citadel of their own, Romulus preferring the Palatine Hill (above the Lupercal cave), Remus preferring the Aventine Hill. When Remus mockingly jumped over the early foundations of Romulus’s wall, Romulus killed him (various versions supply other reasons why the pair fell out so badly). Romulus then went on to found the city of Rome, its institutions, government, military and religious traditions and reigned for many years as its first king.

Interpret this legend how you will. The story of founding brothers who fall out, with one murdering the other, is as old as Cain and Abel (p.64). And on this telling, Romulus and Remus are repeating the fraternal falling out of their grandfather and his brother, Numitor and Amulius. In my opinion these myths may be attempts by ancient peoples to structure and rationalise the kind of civil strife early societies were prone to.

Did any of this actually happen? Almost certainly not. The earliest written record of the legend dates from the late third century BC i.e. some 500 years after the events it purports to describe. Far from being a real person who founded Rome, Romulus is almost certainly a legendary invention and his name the result of what historians and linguists call ‘back formation’ i.e. starting with an established place and inventing a legendary figure who you claim it’s named after. Almost certainly ‘Roma’ came first and Romulus afterwards (p.71).

The suckling by the she-wolf is precisely the kind of odd, distinctive and uncanny detail of ancient myth which defies rationalisation. A quick amateur interpretation for a self-consciously warrior race like the Romans would be that the twins imbibed wolfish aggression and ferocity from their animal wetnurse. Same with their parentage, a vestal virgin (holiness and piety) impregnated by the God of War (speaks for itself).

Incidentally, what Beard refers to as the ‘famous’ statue of Romulus and Remus suckling from the she-wolf is a fake, in the sense that the figures of the suckling boys were made in the fifteenth century, a thousand years after the sculpture of the wolf.

Statue of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, currently in the Capitoline Museum. The statue is thought to be Etruscan, maybe from the fifth century BC while the twins are from the 15th century AD.

By the 1st century Roman historians had calculated a year for the founding of their city (in the third year of the sixth cycle of Olympic Games, p.71) and dated events ab urbe condita (AUC) or ‘since the city was founded’. Six hundred years later, in 525 AD when the monk Dionysius Exiguus first devised the system of dating events around the birth of Christ, into either ‘before Christ’ (BC) or ‘in the year of our Lord’ (anno domini or AD), he calculated the AUC date to be 753 BC, a Christian-era date which became enshrined in later tradition.

By contrast, during the republican period itself, historic events were dated by referring to the name of the consuls in power during a particular year. In the imperial period, government officials date events as in year 1, 2, 3 etc of each individual emperor. You can see why both these methods would eventually become very cumbersome, complicated and confusing. It’s surprising it took so long for the Christian authorities, in the shape of Dionysus, to come up with what, to us, appears the obvious, improved system.

3. The monarchy 750s to 509 BC

Seven improbably long-lived kings are said to have filled the period from 753 (the traditional date for the founding of the city) to 509 (the traditional date for the overthrow of the monarchy) (p.93, 96). Maybe seven kings to match the seven hills the city is supposedly founded on (?). Archaeologists and historians think the last 3 in the list were real people, but there’s debate over whether the first 4 were real or figures of legend:

  1. Romulus
  2. Numa Pompilius
  3. Tullus Hostilius
  4. Ancus Marcius
  5. Tarquinius Priscus
  6. Servius Tullius
  7. Tarquinius Superbus

4. End of the monarchy / founding of the republic 509 BC

The outrageous behaviour of the last king, Tarquin the Arrogant, prompted the population of Rome to rise up, overthrow him, and establish a republic. The spark for the revolution was, from an early point, associated with the legend of the rape of Lucretia.

Lucretia was a noblewoman in ancient Rome. She was raped by the son of the last king, Sextus Tarquinius and, out of shame, committed suicide by stabbing herself (p.122-3). Lucretia’s noble family and their allies rose up against Tarquinius and drove him and his family out of Rome although he didn’t give up without a fight, sparking a war against him and his followers which lasted up to a decade (p.125). As with other early legends there are no contemporary accounts, in fact the first written accounts of the story are only given by the Roman historian Livy (born 60 BC) and Greco-Roman historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (born 59 BC) 450 years later.

There followed a period of transition during which it was agreed that the new republic would be ruled by an elected leader called a ‘consul’, himself advised by a ‘senate’ of elders and aristocrats. This quickly evolved into the notion of two consuls, each elected to serve for one year, a system Rome was to keep for the next 1,000 years. Collatinus, the husband of the raped suicide Lucretia was one of the first consuls (p.127).

Quite soon the Senate invented another innovation, the ability to elect a single leader, a ‘dictator’, to manage the republic during time of war. This was necessary because the early accounts describe how Rome was plunged almost immediately into a long series of wars with neighbouring tribes and people in Italy, for example the Etruscans, the Samnites, the Aquians, the Veii, the Senones, Umbri, Picentes and the Marsi.

5. The Conflict of the Orders 400s to 200s BC

In its earliest days political power was held by the wealthiest families, described as ‘patricians’ (Latin patricii) and sharply distinguished from the majority of the population who were described as ‘plebeians’ or ‘plebs’. Membership of the patrician class was hereditary and could only be achieved by birth.

The fifth century i.e. the 400s BC, were marked by a series of administrative reforms which slowly and arduously gave the plebeians equal power and say with the patricians (although it wasn’t until 366 that the first plebeian consul was elected).

The conflict between the patricians and plebeians in Rome is referred to as the Conflict of the Orders although, as Beard points out, the Latin ordines translates better as ‘social ranks’ (p.146). In our post-Marxist times it’s tempting to call it the Class War but that would also be wrong because a key point that emerges from Beard’s account is that the plebs in question weren’t necessarily poor: in fact many of them were richer than the patricians, it was more a question of nouveaux riches ‘new men’, who’d acquired military glory and/or wealth but were excluded from running the city by virtue of not being born into the right families.

The conflict took place over a very long period, from soon after the foundation of the republic, around 500 BC, down to 287 BC when patrician senators finally lost their last check over the Plebeian Council.

Really major moments were marked by a secessio when the entire population of plebeians left the city causing what was, in effect, a general strike. The first of these took place in 494, prompted by the plebeians’ widespread indebtedness to rich patrician lenders, and it successfully led to the establishment of a new body, the Concilium Plebis, and a new office of state, the tribunes of the people (tribuni plebis). There were at least five secessios.

Some of the main constitutional reforms from the period include:

450 BC drafting of the Twelve Tables, an early code of law (pages 139 to 145).

445 Lex Canuleia removing the ban on marriage between patricians and plebeians (lex is Latin for law, hence English words like ‘legal’)

443 BC The offices of the Tribuni militum consulari potestate were established. A collegium of three patrician or plebeian tribunes, one each from specific Roman tribes (the Titienses, the Ramnenses, and the Luceres) would hold the power of the consuls from year to year, subject to the Senate.

367 BC one of the consulships was opened to plebeians (p.148).

342 BC law passed making it mandatory for one of the two consuls to be a plebeian.

339 BC law passed making it mandatory for one of the two censors to be a plebeian

326 BC the system of enslavement for debt was abolished, establishing the principle that the liberty of the Roman citizen was an inalienable right (p.148).

300 BC half of the priesthoods (which were also state offices) must be plebeian.

287 BC Third Secession led to the Hortensian Law stating, among other things, that all plebiscites (measures passed in the Concilium Plebis) had the force of laws for the whole Roman state, removing from the Patrician senators their final check over the Plebeian Council. By depriving the Patricians of their final weapon over the Plebeians, it ensured that the Roman state didn’t become a democracy but rested firmly under the control of the new Patricio-Plebeian aristocracy.

The conflict marked the breakdown of the old aristocracy of birth and its replacement by an aristocracy based on i) the holding of political offices and ii) wealth, particularly land-based wealth. In Beard’s words, the Conflict of the Orders:

replaced a governing class defined by birth with one defined by wealth and achievement. (p.167)

The upshot of the Conflict of the Orders was not popular revolution but the creation of a new governing class, comprising rich plebeians and patricians. (p.189)

So it didn’t remove the hierarchical, class-based nature of Roman society, nor did it significantly improve the lives or prospects of the poorer members of society.

6. Consolidating power in Italy – Rome’s wars

This was a world where violence was endemic, skirmishes with neighbours were annual events, plunder was a significant revenue stream for everyone and disputes were resolved by force. (p.162)

Military campaigning was a defining feature of Roman life…the Roman tradition [viewed] war as the structuring principle of history…The Romans directed enormous resources to warfare and, even as victors, paid a huge price in human life…somewhere between 10 and 25 per cent of the Roman adult male population would have served in the legions each year…(pages 176 to 177)

It was a world of political conflict, shifting alliances and continuous, brutal interstate violence…(p.194)

The ancient world consisted of tribes, kingdoms and empires almost continually at war with each other. Rome was to eventually emerge as the most effective fighting state in the Mediterranean region. But first it took a century of fighting their neighbours to emerge as the strongest power in central, and then all of, Italy. And then the series of Punic Wars (264 to 146) to wear down and eliminate their main rival in the central Mediterranean. Carthage. Here are some of the key moments:

Conquest of Veii 396

396 BC Roman forces led by the dictator Marcus Furius Camillus conquered the nearby town of Veii. This probably involved relatively small numbers on both sides but was mythologised by later writers as a heroic conflict up there with the Trojan wars. For Beard its significance is that Rome didn’t just beat another city, it annexed it along with all its land. Soon afterwards, the Veii and three local tribes were included in the list of tribes who were allowed to become Roman citizens. Conquest and assimilation were to be the basis for Rome’s winning formula. It is no coincidence that around the same time as this Roman soldiers first earned a salary (from the Latin for ‘salt’) i.e. they stopped being glorified private militias and became something much more organised, centrally funded and administered (p.155).

Gauls take Rome 390 BC

Brennus was a chieftain of the Senones tribe of Cisalpine Gauls (where Cisalpine means this side of the Alps i.e. in Italy, as opposed to transalpine meaning the other side of the Alps i.e. in modern France) (incidentally that explains the newish word cisgender, meaning someone whose sense of personal identity aligns with their birth gender, as opposed to transgender meaning someone whose sense of personal identity is different from their birth sex: you can see how cis and trans retain the sense they had in ancient times of this side and that side of a border, in this case a psychological one to do with gender identity.)

Back to Brennus: in about 390 BC he defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Allia and went on to take Rome, holding it for several months (pages 138 and 155).

Brennus’s sack of Rome was the only time in 800 years the city was occupied by a non-Roman army before the fall of the city to the Visigoths in 410 AD and beard spends some time describing the how the memory grew in shame and trauma over the years, was exaggerated and lamented by 1st century writers, and routinely used as a benchmark of scandal and humiliation with which to attack contemporary politicians.

Latin War 341 to 338 (p.158)

The Samnite wars (p.158)

Fought against communities in the mountainous parts of central-south Italy (p.158).

  • First Samnite War 343 to 341
  • Second Samnite War 326 to 304
  • Third Samnite War 298 to 290

By the end of the Samnite wars over half the Italian peninsula was under Roman control, either directly or through alliances (p.159).

(334 to 323 Alexander the Great conquers from Greece to India, p.158)

Pyrrhic war 280 to 275

From the incursion of Pyrrhus in 280 BC to the final crushing of Carthage in 146 Rome was continuously at war with enemies in the Italian peninsula or overseas (p.175).

The Greek king Pyrrhus invades southern Italy but, despite a series of victories, his forces become so depleted that he moved on to Sicily (278 to 275) before returning to the mainland and being conclusively defeated by the Romans. He survived the final battle and withdrew the remnant of  his forces back to Greece (p.174).

The Pyrrhic War was the first time that Rome confronted the professional mercenary armies of the Hellenistic states of the eastern Mediterranean. Their victory sent waves around the eastern Mediterranean. As a result of the war, Rome confirmed its hegemony over southern Italy.

First Punic War 264 to 241

Rome against Carthage, fought almost entirely in the contested island of Sicily (p.175).

Second Punic war 219 to 202

When Hannibal Barca marched a Carthaginian army from Spain around the south of France and then over the Alps. This is covered in detail in Richard Miles’s book, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, from which I was surprised to learn that this wasn’t a one-year campaign, but that Hannibal and his army criss-crossed Italy for fifteen years (p.175). The campaign was most famous for the epic Battle of Cannae in 216 where Hannibal destroyed a Roman army, inflicting a reputed 70,000 casualties (p.180-2).

First Macedonian war 215 to 205

The Macedon wars were triggered by fears that their king would cross the short stretch of sea to Italy to come to Hannibal’s aid. So a Roman army was sent to fight him (p.176).

Second Macedonian war 200 to 197

Syrian war 192 to 188

Under Scipio Asiaticus the Romans defeated Antiochus ‘the Great’ of Syria (who had, as it happens, given a refuge to Hannibal in exile from Carthage) (p.176).

Third Macedonian war 172 to 168

Final Roman victory in this war effectively gave Rome control over all mainland Greece (p.176 and 196). The Greek historian Polybius commented that, in the 50 years up to 168 Rome had conquered the entire known world (p.199). When Aemilius Paulinus returned from defeating king Perseus of Macedon, was given a ‘triumph’ in 167, it took three days for the procession of loot to pass through Rome, including so much silver coin that 3,000 men were needed to carry it in 750 huge vessels (p.201).

War in Iberia 155 to 133

Carthage occupied southern Spain, not least to exploit the vast silver mines there which were worked by up to 40,000 slaves (p.196). Hannibal was the son of the Carthaginian general who first conquered it, which explains why he set out from Spain, not Africa, to attack Rome. During these years Rome sent legions to finally defeat and expel the Carthaginians from southern Spain.

Third Punic war 149 to 146

Short struggle which ended with the Romans under Publius Cornelius Scipio breaking into Carthage, burning and razing it to the ground, carrying off the population that survived into slavery. For which Scipio acquired the name ‘Africanus’ i.e. African (Carthage being in north Africa, under what is the modern city of Tunis) (p.209).

War with Jugurtha 118 to 106

Described on pages 264 to 268 as an example of the way Rome’s old constitution struggled to cope with managing a Mediterranean-wide empire. The mismanagement of the war led Sallust to compose The War Against Jugurtha a devastating indictment of Rome’s failure to quell this north African ruler.

The Social War 91 to 87

From the Latin bellum sociale meaning ‘war of the allies’, when Rome went to war with its several of its autonomous allies or socii (pages 234 to 239). The allies had for some time wanted full Roman citizenship, an issue which became more and more bitterly divisive. Things came to a head when the consul Marcus Livius Drusus suggested reforms grant the Italian allies Roman citizenship, giving them a greater say in the external policy of the Roman Republic. The Roman senatorial elite rejected his ideas and he was assassinated. At which point the allies realised there was no hope of reform and communities across Italy declared independence from Rome. When the rebels took Asculum, the first city to fall to them, they slaughtered every Roman they could find. The wives of the men who refused to join them were tortured and scalped. To which Rome replied with equal brutality. And so four long years of what, in many places, was in effect a civil war. According to Beard, the Social War was:

one of the deadliest and most puzzling conflicts in Roman history (p.234)

After defeating the various allies, Rome did indeed grant citizenship to all of peninsular Italy, at a stroke trebling the number of Roman citizens to about a million. The Social War led to a complete Romanisation of Italy (p.217) and the nearest thing to a nation state that ever existed in the ancient world (p.239).

Civil wars

Which brings us to the era of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78 BC), Roman general and statesman who won the first large-scale civil war in Roman history and became the first man of the Republic to seize power through force. He was the first Roman general to march on Rome and take it by force, in 88, doing so to outlaw his enemy Gaius Marius. He did it again on his return from campaigning in the East, installing himself as dictator in Rome and embarking on a reign of terror which involved issuing proscriptions, or prices on the heads of thousands of men including a third of the Senate (pages 217 and 243). The point is that a general occupying Rome by force and bloodily wiping out his political opponents set a terrible precedent for the decades to come.

First Mithradatic war 89 to 85

The Greek king Mithradates VI of Pontus was to prove a comically irrepressible and obstinate foe (p.242).

Second Mithradatic war 83 to 81

It was during this war that General Sulla was appointed dictator by the Senate.

Third Mithradatic war 73 to 63

Revolt of Spartacus 73 to 71

Beard refers to Spartacus’s slave revolt three or four times (pages 217, 248, 249) but is not interested in the details of battles or outcomes. She uses it mainly to demonstrate modern ideas about the social make-up of the Italian countryside, in the sense that the rebellion can’t have lasted as long as it did if it was just slaves. Quite a lot of the rural poor and maybe lower middle classes must have joined it (page 217 and again on page 249).

Pompey the Great

During the 70s Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was manoeuvring to become the most powerful Roman general. In the scope of his ambition based on his enormous achievement in remodelling Rome’s entire possessions in the East, Beard thinks ‘Pompey has a good claim to be called the first Roman emperor’ (p.274). Complex politicking led in 60 BC to Pompey joining Marcus Licinius Crassus (the man who led the army which finally defeated Spartacus) and Julius Caesar in a military-political alliance known as the First Triumvirate (p.218 and 279). The point about it was the way it aimed to circumvent all the careful checks and balances of the old republican constitution in order to vest absolute and permanent power in the hands of just three men.

The 50s were a decade of complex jockeying for power as the two main players fought for Rome in their respective arenas, Caesar conquering Gaul, Pompey in the East. Crassus died at the disastrous Battle of Carrhae in 53 against Rome’s long-time eastern enemy, the Parthian Empire. His death began the unravelling of the uneasy partnership between Pompey and Caesar.

Julius Caesar

In 49 Caesar marched his army back into Italy and crossed the river Rubicon, committing to war with Pompey, a civil war which led to Pompey’s death in 48 but which dragged on until the last of his supporters were vanquished in 45.

At which point Caesar had emerged as by the far the most powerful politician and military figure in Rome and was looking forward to consolidating his power and implementing a widespread programme of reforms, when he was assassinated in March 44, plunging Rome into another 15 years of civil war.

P.S.

It’s worth reiterating and emphasising that Beard’s book is not a military history. She doesn’t give detailed descriptions of any battles, doesn’t detail the progress of any specific campaign or war. She only mentions wars as ammunition for discussions about the historical and social questions and issues which is what she’s far more interested in. So to repeat an example given above, she refers to the Spartacus rebellion 3 or 4 times but gives hardly any detail about the man himself, about the life or conditions of gladiators, doesn’t give any sense of the campaigns or battles involved in the three-year-long conflict. Instead it’s only briefly mentioned in the context of broader discussions of poverty, social ranks, relationships with Rome’s Italian allies and so on. If you’re looking for good accounts of ancient Roman wars, battles, generals and so on, this is emphatically not the book for you.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) – 1

SPQR is a long book – including the notes and index, it totals a chunky 606 pages. I picked it up at the British Museum’s Nero exhibition, my mind fired up by a couple of hours looking at exhibits illustrating all aspects of ancient Roman life in the first century AD.

Mary Beard’s ubiquity

By the bottom of page one I was disappointed. Dame Mary Beard DBE FSA FBA FRSL is a tiresomely ubiquitous presence across all media:

  • she has a regular column in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘A Don’s Life’, columns which have been gathered into not one but two books
  • she has fronted seven TV documentary series – Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town (BBC 2), Meet the Romans with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Caligula with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard (BBC 1), Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit (BBC 2), Julius Caesar Revealed (BBC 1), she wrote and presented two of the nine episodes in Civilisations (BBC 2) and she hosts a new BBC arts programme Lockdown Culture
  • she regularly appears on Question Time and other BBC panel shows
  • she is very ‘vocal’ on her twitter account and has been ‘controversial’ enough to trigger a number of twitterstorms
  • she’s written nineteen books and countless articles and reviews

To churn out this huge volume of content requires compromises in style and content, especially when making TV documentaries which have to be lucid and simple enough to appeal to everyone. Listing her enormous output is relevant because it helps to explain why this book is so disappointingly mediocre. What I mean is, SPQR is a readable jog through all the key events and people of ancient Rome – and God knows, there are thousands of them. But it contains few if any ideas worth the name and is written in a jolly, chatty, empty magazine style.

Compare and contrast with Richard Miles’s book about Carthage which combines scholarly scrupulousness with teasingly subtle interpretations of ancient history, propounding interesting and unusual ideas about the cultural struggle waged between Rome and Carthage. Well, there’s nothing like that here.

On the back cover there’s a positive review from the Daily Mail:

‘If they’d had Mary Beard on their side back then, the Romans would still have an empire!’

and this jolly knockabout attitude accurately captures the tone of the book. Beard is the Daily Mail‘s idea of an intellectual i.e. she’s at Cambridge, she knows about a fairly obscure subject, and she can speak a foreign language. She must be brainy!

And she’s outspoken, too. She’s what TV producers call ‘good value’. She can be relied on to start a twitterstorm by being outspokenly ‘controversial’ on statues or black lives matter or #metoo or any of the usual hot topics. Indeed Beard first came to public notice when she wrote in the London Review of Books in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that America ‘had it coming’, an off the cuff remark which prompted a storm of abuse. More recently she sparked ‘controversy’ through with her apparent defence of Oxfam workers practising sexual exploitation in Haiti, and so on.

Like so many other people on social media, Beard mistakes being provocative for actually having anything interesting to say; in which respect she is like thousands of other provocateurs and shock jocks and arguers on social media, all of whom think they are ‘martyrs to the truth’ and ‘saying the unsayable’ and ‘refusing to be silenced’, exactly the kind of rhetoric used by Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage. She is the Piers Morgan of academia.

Mary Beard’s reasons to study ancient Rome

The superficiality of her thinking becomes horribly clear on page one of SPQR where Beard gives us her reasons why ancient Rome is still relevant to the present day, why it is important for us all to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

As a lifelong specialist in Classics you’d hope these would be pretty thoughtful and persuasive, right? Here are her reasons, with my comments:

1. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world, and think about ourselves.

No it doesn’t. I imagine you could study economics and international politics, biology and geography, climate science and sociology and psychology without ever needing to refer to ancient Rome. Marx, Darwin and Freud go a long way to defining how we understand the world. Cicero a lot less so.

2. After 2,000 years, Rome continues to underpin Western culture and politics.

No, it doesn’t. Brexit, Boris Johnson’s current problems, Trump’s popularity, modern music, art and design; all these can be perfectly well understood without any knowledge whatsoever of Roman history.

3. The assassination of Julius Caesar… has provided the template… for the killing of tyrants ever since.

Has it?

4. The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond.

Well, yes and no. Italy and France and Spain are undoubtedly similar to the Roman territories of the same name and many cities in western Europe have Roman origins – but everywhere north of the Rhine or Danube was untouched by the Romans, so the borders and cities of modern-day Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Czech republic, Slovak republic, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Croatia have bugger-all to do with ancient Rome. It’s a tendentious fib to say ‘modern Europe’ owes its political geography to Rome.

5. The main reason London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province of Britannia.

Well a) after the Romans left in 410 London, like all other British cities, fell into disrepair. The reason London slowly rose again as a trading centre during the early Middle Ages has more to do with the fact that it is the logical place to build a major city in England, being close to the continent and at the lowest fordable point of a major river which reaches into the heart of the country and is thus a vital transport hub; b) London is capital of the United Kingdom because of political developments vis-a-vis Wales, Scotland and Ireland which took place a thousand years after the Romans left.

6. Rome has bequeathed us the ideas of liberty and citizenship.

This is true, up to a point, although these ideas were developed and debated in ancient Greece well before the Romans came along, and have undergone 1,500 years of evolution and development since.

7. Rome has loaned us catchphrases such as ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’.

It was when I read this sentence that I began to doubt Mary Beard’s grasp on reality. Is she claiming that ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’ is by any stretch of the imagination a ‘catchphrase’ which anyone in Britain would recognise, who hadn’t had a classical education?

She’s closer to the mark when she goes on to mention a couple of other catchphrases like ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ or ‘bread and circuses’, which I imagine a large number of people would recognise if they read them in a magazine or newspaper.

But lots of people have given us comparable quotes and catchphrases, from Shakespeare to the Fonz. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes over 20,000 quotations. Citing just three quotations as the basis for persuading people to study an entirely new subject is far from persuasive. If the number of quotations which a subject has produced is taken as a good reason for studying it, then Shakespeare would be a hugely better relevant subject for everyone to study, to understand where the hundreds of quotations which float around the language deriving from him come from (Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? To be or not to be? Is this a dagger I see before me? All that glitters is not gold. The be-all and end-all. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.)

And then came Beard’s showstopper claim:

8. Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were.

Is Mary Beard seriously claiming that ‘Ancient Rome is important’ (the first sentence in the book) because ‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’? Let’s ponder this sentence and this argument for a moment.

Can Beard possibly be saying that actual gladiators, trained professional warriors who fight each other or wild beasts to the death in front of huge live audiences, ‘are as big box office now as they ever were’? I wish she was. I’d definitely pay to see that. But of course she isn’t she must be referring to the entertainment industry. I’m guessing it’s a throwaway reference to any one of three possible items: the television show Gladiators, which started broadcasting in 1992, some of whose expressions became jokey catchphrases (‘Contender ready! Gladiator ready!!’); to the 2000 movie Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, that was very successful and won five Oscars; and possibly to the 2010 American TV series Spartacus. Two TV shows and a movie about gladiators in 30 years. Hardly a deluge, is it?

Beard’s argument appears to be that, because a successful game show, movie and TV series have been made on the subject of ‘gladiators’ that is a sufficient reason for everyone to drop everything and study ancient Rome.

a) That’s obviously a rubbish argument on its own terms, but b) it ignores the wider context of modern media, of the entertainment industry, namely that there is a huge, an enormous output of product by film and TV companies, all the time, on every subject under the sun. If your argument is that, because a subject has been chosen as the topic of immensely popular movies or TV shows this proves that we must study that subject, then we should all be studying the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The reality of modern media is that it chews up and spits out any subject which it thinks will make money. In the last twenty years I have been dazed by the enormous explosion in the number of science fiction movies and TV shows, about alien invasions and artificial intelligence and robots and androids, which have hit our screens. Does this mean we should all study artificial intelligence and robotics? No. These are just entertainment products which we may or may not choose to watch.

Placed in the broadest context of western cultural products, then, gladiators, or even the overall subject of ancient Rome, pale into insignificance. Ancient Rome is just one of half a dozen hackneyed historical settings which TV and film producers return to from time to time to see if there’s some more profit to be squeezed from them, up there with Arthur of the Britons, Henry VIII and the Tudors, Regency-era dramas like Bridgerton, Dickens adaptations, the Wild West, not to mention the perennial subject of the two world wars which never go out of fashion.

If you base your case for studying an academic subject on its TV and movie ratings (‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’) then it follows that a) subjects with higher ratings are even more necessary to study (the Edwardian society of Downton Abbey, say) and b) low ratings for the subject you’re promoting undermine your argument. My son told me about an HBO series titled simply ‘Rome’ which only ran for two series (2005 to 2007) before it was pulled due to huge expense and disappointing ratings. Maybe ancient Rome isn’t as popular a subject as a professor of Classics likes to think.

Summary

Anyway, the eight sentences I’ve listed above constitute the list of the reasons given by ‘Britain’s leading Classicist’ for studying ancient Rome.

Not very persuasive, are they? Every one of these instances sounds plausible enough at a first glance, if you read it quickly, skimming over it as you skim over a magazine on a plane flight or listen to the script of a big budget documentary about Pompeii you’re half paying attention to.

But stop and ponder any of the eight arguments for more than a moment and they disintegrate in your hands. They are all either factually incorrect or laughably superficial, and they strongly indicate the fluent but facile nature of the mind which selected and wrote them.

Missing obvious arguments

In passing, it’s odd that Beard misses several obvious arguments from her list.

Because I’m interested in language, I’d say a good reason for studying Classics is because Latin forms the basis of a lot of contemporary English words. If you grasp a relatively small number of principles about Latin (such as the prefixes e- for ‘out of’ and in- for ‘into’ and ab- for ‘from’) it can help you recognise and understand a surprising number of English words.

Easily as important as Rome’s impact on political geography is the obvious fact that three major European languages are descended from it, namely Italian, French and Spanish. That’s a really massive lasting impact and people often say that studying Latin helps you learn Italian, French or Spanish.

In fact, having studied Latin, French and Spanish I don’t think it’s true. The main benefit of studying Latin is that it forces you to get clear in your head the logical structure of (western) language, understanding the declension of nouns and the conjugation of verbs, the arrangement of adjectives and adverbs – in other words, it gives you a kind of mental map of the basic logic of western languages, a mental structure which then helps you understand the structure of other languages, including English.

My son studied Latin at school and remembers his teacher trying to persuade his class that Latin was a ‘cool’ subject by telling them that the Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard had studied it. Beard’s efforts t opersuade us all to take ancient Rome more seriously are on about the same level.

But maybe I’m missing the point because Beard is talking about history and I’m talking about languages.

Once we got chatting about it, my son went on to suggest that arguably the most obvious legacy of ancient Rome is its architecture. All over the western world monumental buildings fronted by columns and porticos, sporting arches and architraves, reference and repeat the Architecture of Power which Rome perfected and exported around the Mediterranean and which architects copy to this day.

But again maybe I’m missing the point talking about architecture when Beard is determined to focus very narrowly on the history, on the events and personalities of ancient Rome.

Then again, having discussed it with my son made me realise that how narrow that focus is. If we agree that the biggest legacy of Rome was its political geography, the founding of important towns and cities in western Europe, its ancestry of widely spoken languages, and its hugely influential style of architecture, then this places the actual history of events, long and colourful though they may have been, in a relatively minor role – in terms of direct enduring influence on our lives, now.

Feminists can be boring old farts, too

Just because she makes a point of not wearing make-up and makes a big deal on the radio, on TV, in the TLS, in countless reviews and in all her books about being a ‘feminist’ doesn’t make Mary Beard any less of a privileged, out of touch, Oxbridge academic than hundreds of fusty old men before her. She attended a girls private school, then the all-women Newnham college Cambridge, and went onto a long and successful academic career at Cambridge, rising to become Professor of Classics.

This is all relevant to a book review because I am trying to convey the powerful impression the book gives of someone who is fantastically pleased with themselves and how jolly ‘radical’ and ‘subversive’ and ‘outspoken’ they are and yet:

a) who is apparently blind to the fact that they are exactly the kind of out-of-touch, white privileged media figure they themselves have expended such effort in books and articles criticising and lambasting

More importantly:

b) who mistakes sometimes dated references to popular culture or trivial ‘provocations’ about gender or race on twitter, for thought, for real thought, for real deep thinking which sheds new light on a subject and changes readers’ minds and understanding. As the Richard Miles’ book on Carthage regularly does; as this book never does.

Facebubble

A Facebubble is what is created among groups of friends or colleagues on Facebook who all befriend each other, share the same kinds of values, are interested in the same kind of subjects and choose the same kinds of items from their newsfeeds. Over time, Facebook’s algorithms serve them what they want to read, suggesting links to articles and documentaries which reinforce what they already know and like. After a while people become trapped in self-confirming facebubbles.

It is a form of confirmation bias, where we only register or remember facts or ideas which confirm our existing opinions (or prejudices).

Again and again Beard’s book confirms your sense that, despite her rhetoric about making the subject more accessible and open, she is in fact addressing a relatively small cohort of readers who are already interested in the history of the ancient world. The oddity is how she again and again gives the impression of thinking that these already knowledgeable readers are somehow representative of the broader UK population.

Of course this is true of more or less any factual book which addresses a specific audience for a specialised subject – it assumes a tone of general interest. What makes Beard’s book irritating is the references to the notion that ‘we’ are ‘all’ still fascinated by ancient Rome, that ‘everyone’ ‘needs’ to be engaged with the subject. That ancient Rome ‘demands’ our attention. Those are the words she uses.

But no, ancient Rome does not ‘demand’ our attention and no ‘we’ are not ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome. My Chinese postman, the three Albanians who put up my new fence, the Irish labourers who took away the wreckage of the old fence, the Asian woman on the checkout at Tesco, the Jamaican guy who blows leaves out the road for the council, the Turkish family who run the delicatessen round the corner – are they ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome? Does it ‘demand’ their attention? It feels as if she’s writing for a white, middle class, university educated Radio 4-listening public and badly mistaking them for representing the big, complex, very diverse population of modern Britain.

On page two she tells us how:

SPQR takes its title from another famous catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus (p.16)

Is this a famous catchphrase, though? Roughly how many people know what SPQR stands for? What percentage of the population do you think could translate Senatus PopulusQue Romanus? Maybe people with degrees in the humanities, particularly in the arts and literature, probably ought to. And anybody who’s been to Rome as a tourist might have noticed the letters SPQR appearing on letter boxes and manhole covers. I know what it stands for and what the Latin means because I happen to study Latin at my state school and went on to do a history-based degree, which is precisely why I bought and am reading this book. But I have the self awareness to know that I represent a fairly small, self-selectingly bookish percentage of the total population.

Myth busting

On page 3 of the introduction, Beard says her book will set out to smash some of the ‘myths’ which ‘she, like many’ grew up with’ (p.17). These are:

  1. that the Romans started out with a plan for world domination
  2. that in acquiring their empire the Romans trampled over peace-loving peoples
  3. that Rome was the thuggish younger sibling of classical Greece

Are these myths which you grew up with? Is it very important that ‘we’, the British people, have these ‘dangerous’ myths corrected? No, not really. They are only remotely important in the mind of someone who specialises in the subject.

All this rhetoric of ‘need’ and ‘must’ and ‘demand’ builds up an impression of special pleading, defined as when someone ‘tries to persuade you of something by only telling you the facts that support their case’. Beard is a Professor of Classics. Her job is to teach students Classics. She has taken it upon herself to make Classics more ‘accessible’ to a wider public, which may well be admirable. She tries to persuade us that everybody ought to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

But the arguments she uses to do so are weak and unconvincing.

I am not attacking Beard or her subject. I am critiquing the poor quality of her arguments.

First impressions

All these arguments and my responses to them occurred in the first few pages of the book. I hope you can see why, before the end of the 5-page introduction to SPQR, I realised that this was not going to be a scholarly book, and was not going to show much intellectual depth. It is a long, thorough and competent Sunday supplement-level account of its subject, stuffed with interesting facts, with some novel spins on things I thought I knew about (for example, the latest thinking about the legend of Romulus and Remus).

But it is disappointingly magaziney, features article-y, lacking in real depth. Instead of really unsettling and disrupting your ideas, of opening new vistas of understanding, as Richard Miles’s book does, Beard’s ideas of ‘controversy’ are on a disappointing twitter level – telling us that ancient Rome was a very sexist society, that its political debates about freedom versus security are very like our own, that there’s a lot we still don’t understand about its origins, that the archaeology is still much debated.

These are all ideas you could have predicted before you opened the book. That’s what I mean by comparing it to a very long magazine article which is packed with the latest knowledge and hundreds of dates and historical personages, but doesn’t really change your opinion about anything.

Very disappointing.


Credit

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

The Flies by Jean-Paul Sartre (1943)

Sartre had been interned in a German prisoner of war camp (Stalag 12D) immediately after the fall of France, in the summer of 1940. There he wrote and staged a play (with a surprisingly Christian theme, set on Christmas Eve and titled Bariona, or the son of thunder).

After nine months he was released in April 1941 and returned to his job in Paris, teaching philosophy while also writing fiction and essays, but he had caught the theatre bug. More precisely, he had seen how theatre could dramatise a plight shared by the author and audience. However, no play which even remotely criticised the German occupation could get past the censors, so he had to look for a subject which would be officially acceptable, but still provide a vehicle for his sentiments.

Historical subjects were safe, the classics even more so. Sartre settled on the ancient Greek legend of Orestes, the centre of a cycle of stories which had been dealt with in plays by the famous ancient Greek playwrights, Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.

The original myth

The Trojan prince Paris is asked to judge which of the three great goddesses is most beautiful. Hera (goddess of power) promises him kingdoms and empire, Athena (goddess of wisdom) promises him wisdom and Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) offers him the most beautiful woman in the world.

He gives the award to Aphrodite who then helps him undertake a friendly tour of the Greek kingdoms. In In Sparta he is entertained by the city’s king, Menelaus, whose wife, Helen, just happens to be the most beautiful woman in the world. That night Paris, with Aphrodite’s divine aid, steals Helen down to the ship and he and his comrades sail back to Troy.

Next morning Menelaus is outraged and contacts his brother, Agamemnon, chief among Greek kings. Agamemnon calls for an alliance of all the Greeks to sail 1,000 ships to Troy and besiege it till the Trojans return Helen.

The entire fleet is assembled and ready to sail but there is no wind. A soothsayer tells Agamemnon he must sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, to please the gods and so – shockingly – Agamemnon does, a wind arises and the fleet sails to Troy, which they besiege for ten long years.

The Greeks eventually win the war due to Odysseus’s clever ruse of the Trojan Horse and Agamemnon returns to Mycenae. But his wife, Clytemnestra has never forgiven the murder of her daughter and so, along with the lover she has taken in Agamemnon’s absence – Aegistheus – she murders Agamemnon.

Before he left for the war, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had had three children. Iphigenia was, as we saw, sacrificed. Electra has stayed with her mother. But their son, Orestes, by now a young man, was not present in Mycenae for the murder of his father. When Orestes does return some years later, he avenges his father by killing his mother and Aegistheus. He is then pursued by the Furies, who hound all evil-doers.

In the last of the trilogy of plays on the subject by Aeschylus, the goddess Athena intervenes between Orestes and the Furies to institute the first ever trial, in which Orestes is spared. It is a fascinating text in which the playwright uses the story to examine and defend the social structures of his day.

Sartre’s play

The outline of the plot is the same. Orestes turns up in the city ruled by Aegistheus and Clytemnestra 15 years to the day after Agamemnon’s murder. He quickly bumps into his sister, Electra, who is fed up with being forced to skivvy for the raddled and haunted queen. After initial hesitations Orestes proceeds to kill Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, then flees with Electra to seek sanctuary in the temple of Apollo.

There are two key differences: the city has been plagued by an infestation of flies ever since the murder; and Aegistheus has instituted a religious festival, the Day of the Dead, in which the town’s dead are meant to rise from their graves and haunt the living for 24 hours. This encourages the living to fall on their knees and acknowledge all their crimes and sins. Act two takes place at the mouth of the cave where these dead ghosts appear, in a ceremony overseen by king Aegistheus in his pomp, to which a reluctant Electra has to be dragged.

That’s the action, but the play actually consists of a lot of dialogue and discussion between the characters, thus:

  • Zeus king of the gods is a leading character (unlike the ancient versions) who introduces himself as ‘Demetrios’ to both Orestes and Aegistheus, before dropping his disguise and speaking openly about the nature of kingship and rule.
  • Orestes’ slave is also his tutor, meaning the pair can be left alone to have philosophical dialogues, allowing Orestes to speak his thoughts out loud – the same function as Horatio to the prince in Hamlet.
  • Electra is initially reluctant to acknowledge Orestes as her brother, then becomes keen to kill the king and queen, then suffers fierce remorse, ageing overnight.
  • In the final and third act the Furies appear and speak, as in the original plays, explaining their role and the punishments they have in store for the errant children.

Issues

There’s a lot of words about murder, killing, justice, revenge, retribution and so on, which could keep moralists talking for days.

But the central ‘existentialist’ message seems relatively straightforward. Orestes ‘develops’, ‘evolves’, ‘changes’ from a hesitant and curious visitor to his home town, to a man reluctant (in conversation with Zeus or Electra) to intervene, into his final position of a free man who Strikes For Justice.

In a pivotal scene between Zeus and Aegistheus, the god explains what they both know, that the great secret of kingship is that men are free but are frightened of their freedom. This is just as well as he and Aegistheus both like Order. It explains why Aegistheus has instituted the utterly bogus Day of the Dead – it helps weight people down with their guilt, it makes them look backward, it makes them feel in thrall to their past actions and incapable of breaking free.

Zeus also offers another vision of unfree human nature to Orestes when he paints himself as the god of Nature and Good. Orestes defies him, in a sequence of speeches which, I think, we can be confident are the Author’s Message:

Neither slave nor master. I am my freedom.

Suddenly, out of the blue, freedom crashed down on me and swept me off my feet. Nature sprang back, my youth went with the wind, and I knew myself alone, utterly alone in the midst of this well-meaning universe of yours. I was like a man who’s lost his shadow. And there was nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong, nor anyone to give me orders.

Zeus tempts him: come back to me, believe in me, I will give you peace and forgetfulness. But Orestes is having none of it.

Outside nature, against nature, without excuse, beyond remedy, except what remedy I find within myself. But I shall not return under your law; I am doomed to have no other law but mine. Nor shall I come back to nature, the nature you found good; in it are a thousand beaten paths all leading up to you – but I must blaze my trail. For I, Zeus, am a man, and every man must find out his own way. (p.119)

That’s the existentialist message: man is hopelessly, irredeemably, unavoidably free. He has no excuses but bears full responsibility for all his actions. Full acceptance of  this crushing weight is the only authenticity.

Zeus says, ‘tut tut I won’t give up without a fight,’ and exits. Electra is distraught at the plight her brother has thrown her into, and runs after Zeus begging his forgiveness i.e. she gives in to religious belief.

The slave enters to tell Orestes that the mob is at the door baying for his blood. Orestes heroically declares that he murdered Clytemnestra and Aegistheus to set them free, to abolish silly superstitions like the Day of the Dead which are meant only to keep them in their place. Orestes confronts the mob and says he will willingly, consciously bear the responsibility and the guilt of the deaths and take away the punishment, the ghosts and the flies. And so Orestes exits pursued by the Furies.

That’s the end, so we never find out what the reaction of the puzzled populace is.

You can see how, not far at all beneath the superficial classical storyline, is the narrative of a man who freely and fully accepts the responsibility for committing murder in order to free his people.

On a philosophical level, it is about a man who rejects all the consolations of false beliefs and ‘bad faith’ in order to act out his freedom.

And, on a political level, about a man who is a Resistance fighter prepared to accept the guilt of murder in order to free his people from the plague of flies i.e. the German occupation.

The diagrammatic nature of Sartre’s intent explains his changes to the traditional story, the most obvious of which is the downplaying of Clytemnestra’s role; in the myths she is the prime mover for the murder of Agamemnon and it is her murder – the terrible crime of matricide – which triggers the advent of the Furies to torment Orestes. But Sartre has no interest in the ‘crime’ of matricide which carries with it a huge freight of basic emotional, let alone Freudian, overtones.

He is more interested in political philosophy and so Aegistheus – a shadowy figure in the myths – is much more prominent in this play: as the figure of the (Nazi) tyrant, as the figure of the man imposing a spurious superstition on the people (the Day of the Dead), as the king Zeus debates the arts of kingship with, and then as the representative of all the repressive forces in the play (and occupied France) which Orestes must slay.

Thus Orestes kills Aegistheus onstage and it takes several blows with a sword during which they continue to have a philosophical dialogue; whereas Clytemnestra is slain off-stage: we only hear her piercing screams while Electra gives us a running commentary on her own feelings.

I’m no feminist but Sartre’s play is much more masculine that the original. In the Aeschylus plays, Clytemnestra, the Furies and the goddess Athena all play key roles in a text which explores femininity, law and society. Two and a half thousand years later, for Sartre, justice and freedom are essentially men’s talk.

Clytemnestra, 1882, oil on canvas by John Collier (1850-1934) Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London

Clytemnestra [having just murdered Agamemnon] (1882) by John Collier. Image courtesy Guildhall Art Gallery, City of London


Credit

Les Mouches was first performed in Paris in 1943. This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

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