The Gallic War by Julius Caesar – 1

I’d just bought the Oxford University Press edition of Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars off Amazon when I walked into my local charity shop and found the old Penguin edition going second-hand for £2. So I snapped it up and am now reading the two editions interchangeably.

The OUP edition (1996)

The OUP edition (1996) is translated and introduced by Carolyn Hammond. She began to put me off almost immediately when, in her preface, she writes:

The subject-matter of The Gallic War is potentially distasteful, even immoral, for the modern reader. The drive to increase territorial holdings, high civilian as well as military casualties, and the predominance of economic motives for organised aggression – all these belong to an accepted norm of international activity in the ancient world, and hence need careful introduction and explanation…

This begs all kinds of questions. For example: Why are you devoting so much time to translating a work which you find ‘distasteful and immoral’? It’s the same question as arose when reading Mary Beard’s history of Rome: Why has an ardent feminist dedicated her life to studying a world of toxic men?

Second problem is Hammond’s assumption that war to increase territory and incur high casualties for economic motives is somehow unique to, and restricted to, the ancient world and so needs ‘careful introduction and explanation’. Really? Had she not heard of the Yugoslav wars or the Congo wars, which were ongoing as her book went to press? Or the Second World War, possibly? Korea, Vietnam, Biafra, Afghanistan. The world always has wars. Not understanding them means you don’t understand the world you live in.

In fact Hammond’s statement that the concept of ‘war’ needs explaining is rather patronising, isn’t it? Her attitude bespeaks a certain kind of academic condescension, a voice from the bosom of woke academia telling people who have bought a book about a famous war that she needs to explain what ‘war’ is, and that some readers might find ‘war’ ‘distasteful, even immoral’. Maybe her edition should have warning stickers on the cover: ‘This book about an eight-year-long war may contain scenes of a violent nature’. Just in case the purchaser of a book titled ‘The Gallic War’ hadn’t figured that out for themselves.

In her introduction Hammond covers a lot of material but in a consistently confused way. She tells the story (which I’ve read so many times I am now heartily sick of it) about Publius Clodius Pulcher being found in Caesar’s house dressed as a woman and trying to infiltrate a women-only religious ritual. She refers to it mainly to lead up to Caesar divorcing his wife and making his ‘famous’ declaration that Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion. But she tells the whole thing in such a cack-handed way that I was left dismayed by her inability to tell a simple story.

Hammond refers to key aspects of ancient Rome, such as the consuls, in an oddly throwaway manner as if we all ought to know about this already. Frequently her prose is, well, questionable:

This was the year of the conspiracy of Catiline. It was also the year in which the sacrosanctity of the people’s tribunes was raised once more, this time through the prosecution of an old man called Rabirius, a prosecution behind which Caesar’s hand was detected. (p.xvi)

a) That last phrase doesn’t inspire confidence in her ability to express herself, does it? b) This is all she tells you about both Catiline and Rabirius. I don’t care about Rabirius but if she’s going to mention the Catiline conspiracy, surely it deserves a decent explanation rather than a nine-word sentence. And why does she write the elaborate and clunky phrase ‘the conspiracy of Catiline’ rather than the more smooth and usual ‘the Cataline conspiracy’.

It feels very much like Hammond has a bullet point list of issues to get through but doesn’t have the space to explain any of them properly, instead cramming them into clunky, broken-backed sentences which shake your confidence in her ability to translate anything by anyone into decent English prose.

As happens with many writers, Hammond’s uncertain grasp of English phrasing reflects a clumsiness in conceptualising the ideas she’s trying to express:

In 60 BC Pompey, Crassus and Caesar formed an unofficial pact which came to be known as the ‘first triumvirate’ (on the analogy of the triumvirate of Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus in 43).

I know what she’s trying to say but it’s badly phrased because it’s badly conceived. The first triumvirate wasn’t formed on the analogy of the second triumvirate because the second triumvirate, quite obviously, hadn’t happened yet; it only happened 17 years later. She means something like, ‘this pact is now referred to as the first triumvirate because the same kind of deal was arranged 17 years later between Anthony, Octavian and Lepidus. Historians came to refer to them as, respectively, the first and second triumvirates’. I see what she’s trying to say, but her phrasing literally doesn’t make sense. Again it feels like a) an item on her checklist which she had to cram in but b) didn’t have the space to explain it more clearly and so ends up doing it clumsily.

It doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in her ability to understand and translate complex content from the Latin if, when given free rein to express herself in English, she produces such mangled ideas and tangled-up sentences.

Hammond’s account of the politicking around the triumvirate ticks it off her checklist but isn’t as clear as Beard, Holland or Scullard. You need to understand what the first triumvirate was: that Caesar brokered a deal between the rivals Crassus and Pompey whereby Crassus used his money to bribe voters and Pompey used his influence in order to pass laws and get decisions they each wanted:

  • Pompey wanted land and money awarded to his veterans who’d returned from his wars in Asia Minor in 62
  • Caesar wanted to be made governor of Gaul where he scented an opportunity to acquire military glory and, thereby, political power
  • and Crassus wanted to be awarded governorship of Syria, from where he planned to launch a military campaign into Armenia and Parthia which would bring him not only glory but troves of Eastern loot

It was a deal between three uneasy rivals to manipulate political elections behind the scenes using Crassus’s money and to ensure they each got their way. They didn’t abolish the tools of the Roman constitution; they took them over for their own purposes. Many contemporaries (for example, Cicero) and later historians took the signing of this pact in 60 BC as the defining moment when the old forms of Roman politics were eclipsed by the power politics and rule of Strong Men which was, after 30 years of increasing instability and civil war, to lead to the rise of the ultimate strong man, Octavian.

It would have been nice to have learned something about ancient Gaul but instead Hammond wastes the last seven pages of her introduction on another tick box exercise, an examination of Caesar’s posthumous reputation and influence. She produces a huge list of European historians and poets, not to mention later generals or theorists of war, who she claims were influenced in one way or another by the great dictator but rattles through them at such high speed with barely a sentence about each that you learn nothing.

How much does it help you understand Caesar’s Gallic Wars to learn that Dante placed Brutus and Cassius in the deepest pit of hell next to Judas Iscariot? Not a whit. This kind of thing should either be done properly or not at all.

In summary Carolyn Hammond’s introduction so put me off her ability to think, instruct or write plain English that I hesitated to even begin her translation.

On the plus side, the OUP edition has one big map of ancient Gaul and five other maps of regions or specific battles, scattered through the text as needed; a 3-page timeline; a 15-page glossary of names; and 21 pages of notes, three times the number in the Penguin edition.

The Penguin edition (1951)

Unlike the OUP edition, the blurb on the back of the Penguin edition (titled The Conquest of Gaul) offers a crisp, useful summary of the subject:

  • Between 58 and 50 BC Julius Caesar conquered most of modern France, Belgium and Switzerland along with parts of Holland and Germany and invaded Britain, twice.
  • Caesar’s texts are an invaluable source for these events.
  • Caesar’s texts are the only narratives written by any military leader from the ancient world about his own campaigns.
  • Caesar’s writings were not disinterested academic histories but part of Caesar’s ongoing campaign for power, designed to promote his achievements and forward his political career with his peers and the Roman people.

Good. Feels like we are among adults. As to the extras, this edition also has a big map of Gaul, plus one of southern Britain and a useful one of the crucial siege of Alesia. It has a 17-page glossary, 8 pages of notes (far fewer than the OUP), but on the plus side, a useful 3-page appendix on the Roman army of Caesar’s day.

The Penguin translation was made by Stanley Alexander Handford (born in 1898) and first published in 1951. It was revised and given a new introduction by Jane Gardner in 1982. It would be a relief to report that it is a model of lucidity but the introduction, alas, also reveals an odd way with the English language. For example:

Political necessity, rather than military or than his personal irreplaceability in command, required that he continue in post.

That adjective, ‘military’, in normal English would require a noun after it. I fully understand that it refers back to the noun ‘necessity’ and can, after a moment’s confusion, be understood that way. But it would be clearer to use a synonym such as ‘need’ or maybe just write ‘Political rather than military necessity…’ And the second ‘than’? Delete it. And then ‘continue’? I understand that this is a subjunctive following the conditional preposition ‘that’ so that it is technically correct. But it is not, nowadays, standard English. We’d probably just say ‘continued’ or make it crystal clear with ‘should continue’:

Political necessity rather than military need or his personal irreplaceability in command required that he continued in his post.

The point is that all three of these dubious elements reflect Latin rather than modern English usage. Instead of spelling out the precise relationships between parts of speech it leaves some implicit in ways which are technically correct but strongly influenced by the highly inflected nature of Latin in which grammatical relationships are shown by changes within words rather than prepositions or word order.

In fact this make the third book in a row I’ve read (A.J. Woodman’s Sallust, Carolyn Hammond’s Gallic War, S.A. Handford’s Conquest of Gaul) in which the English translators struggled in the introduction to write in plain English – before I’d even started reading the translation. Instead all three betray an addiction to Latinate ways of thinking, Latinate ways of forming sentences, and to odd, unenglish phraseology.

Anyway, Gardner’s introduction (once you acclimatise to her occasional Latinate phraseology) is much better than Hammond’s directionless ramble – it is direct, straightforward, factual and clear. She establishes the basic fact that Caesar spent 9 years away from Rome, campaigning in Gaul.

The Roman constitution

She has a good stab at explaining the complicated Roman constitution. Theoretically, legislative and electoral sovereignty was vested in popular assemblies. In practice the state was dominated by the Senate which consisted of 300 or so men who had held any of the four ‘magistracies’ (aedile, quaestor, praetor, consul) which were elected for one-year posts These posts were arranged in the so-called cursus honorem. There were quite a few other posts such as censor or pontifex maximus, and elections to other priesthoods, such as the College of Augurs. Surprisingly, the Senate could not propose legislation: this was proposed (and vetoed) by the ten or so tribunes of the people elected every year.

Marius

Then Gardner recaps the military and political background to Caesar’s career: Caius Marius saved Rome from invasion by Germanic tribes around 100 BC but at the cost of holding seven successive consulships and developing a close relationship with his army which looked to him to provide money and land for veterans. I.e. he created the template for the Strong General which was to bedevil Roman politics for the next 70 years.

After a decade of political disturbance (the 80s) Lucius Cornelius Sulla seized power (82 to 78 BC) and implemented reforms designed to prevent the rise of another strong man.

Pompey and Crassus

But just eight years later most of Sulla’s reforms had been cancelled, mostly in the people’s enthusiasm to award the boy wonder general Gnaeus Pompeius extraordinary powers to prosecute wars against a) the pirates who bedevilled Rome’s overseas trade (67) and b) against King Mithridates of Pontus who was terrorising Asia Minor (66).

Back in Rome, ambitious young Julius Caesar (born 100 BC) attached himself to the richest man in Rome, Marcus Crassus, and they were both associated with an attempt to set up a hugely powerful land reform commission (ultimately rejected).

Their names were also mentioned in connection with the notorious conspiracy by Lucius Sergius Catilina to overthrow the state (the Cataline conspiracy which Hammond refers to in one half-sentence, quoted above) although nothing, in the end, was conclusively proved.

In 62 Pompey returned from the East and, despite everyone’s fears that he might use his loyal army and widespread popularity to mount a coup in the style of Sulla, he disbanded his army and returned to civilian life. He was unhappy, though, to discover that this weakened his power in the state and that his requests to have land granted to his veterans kept being delayed. Meanwhile Marcus Crassus was having various business ventures blocked. And when Caesar returned in 60 BC from service as governor of Further Spain and wanted to be awarded a triumph, this wish also was blocked by the Senate.

The first triumvirate

So the three men, each in their separate ways stymied by the Establishment, came to a shady, behind-the-scenes agreement to advance each other’s ambitions. Pompey got his land reform, Crassus got his business ventures approved, and Caesar got himself elected consul for 59 BC and secured legislation appointing him governor of Cisalpine Gaul (northern Italy) and Illyricum (the east coast of the Adriatic Sea). He then bribed one of the ten tribunes of the plebs to propose a law giving him governorship of Transalpine Gaul, the Roman province along the south coast of France. Both posts started in 58 BC and were to be held for an unprecedented five years, ending on 1 March 54.

This is where the narrative of the Gallic War commences, with Caesar arriving to take up command of his provinces.

Back in Rome

Gardner doesn’t stop there but goes on to describe the political shenanigans in Rome following Caesar’s departure for Gaul. After just one year his political opponents began lobbying for him to be relieved of his command and return to Rome as governors traditionally ought to. But if he did this, Caesar knew he would almost certainly face prosecution by his political enemies. He continued in his command until 56, when the political crisis intensified.

Luca

So he organised a meeting in the summer of that year in Luca, in north Italy (in his governorship of Cisalpine Gaul), attended by Pompey and Crassus and a third of the Senate, at which they recommitted to their pact. As a result:

  1. Caesar’s rule in Gaul was renewed for a further five years.
  2. Crassus and Pompey arranged for themselves to be elected consults in 55 BC and then…
  3. for Pompey to be awarded governorship of Spain which he would, however, administer in absentia while remaining in Rome,
  4. and for Crassus to be given command of an army to be sent to Parthia out East in 54.

Clodius and Milo

Meanwhile, escalating street violence between political gangs led by Titus Annius Milo and Publius Clodius Pulcher led to a breakdown of public order and in 52 BC the senate appointed Pompey sole consul in order to bring peace to the streets.

Should Caesar give up his command?

Gardner then gives a day by day account of the complicated manoeuvres around attempts by his enemies to get Caesar to relinquish his command and return to Rome a private citizen – and by Caesar and his supporters to try to get him elected as a consul, in his absence. The aim of this was so that Caesar could transition seamlessly from military governor to consul, which would guarantee he’d be exempt from prosecution for his alleged misdemeanours in Gaul.

It was this issue – whether he would lay down his governorship of Gaul and whether he would be allowed to stand for consul in his absence – which led to complex manoeuvring, proposal and counter-proposal in the Senate and the failure of which, finally, convinced Caesar that he would only be safe if he returned to Italy with his army.

Crossing the Rubicon

When he crossed the river Rubicon which divided Cisalpine Gaul (which he legitimately ruled) into Italy (where his presence with an army was illegal and a threat to the state) Caesar triggered the civil war with Pompey who, whatever his personal feelings, now found himself the representative of the Senate and the constitution. But this latter part of the story is dealt with in the book by Caesar now known as The Civil War and so it is here that Gardner ends her summary of events.

Gaul and its inhabitants

As with the Hammond edition, I wondered why Gardner was going into so much detail about events in Rome which we can read about elsewhere, but her summary of Roman politics only takes 6 pages before she goes on to write about the actual Gauls:

Rome already controlled the South of France whose major city was the port of Massilia (modern Marseilles), founded by the Greeks around BC. Over the 9 years of his command Caesar was to extend Roman control to all of France, southern Holland, Belgium, Germany west of the Rhine and most of Switzerland.

Caesar grouped the inhabitants of this huge area into three tribal groupings. This was an over-simplification but modern scholars still debate the complex ethnic, cultural and political relationships between the many tribes he mentions in his account. Ethnic and cultural similarities connected peoples living across a huge area of north-west Europe, from Britain to the borders of modern Turkey, but to the Greeks and Romans they were all ‘Gauls’ or ‘Celts’, terms they used interchangeably.

The whole of northern Europe was characterised be ceaseless migrations which had been going on since at least the 4th century BC, when one tribe penetrated deep enough into Italy to sack Rome in 390 BC, an event which left a lasting stain on the Roman psyche and an enduring paranoia about the ‘Gaulish threat’.

This fear had been revived at the end of the 2nd century, from 110 to 100 BC, when the two tribes of the Cimbri and the Teutoni threatened to invade north Italy. It was in order to defeat these enemies that the general Caius Marius was awarded the consulship for an unprecedented run and whose ultimate defeat of the threat made him a popular hero.

As Caesar took up his command at the start of 58 BC some tribes, the Helvetii and the Suebi, were once again on the move, threatening their neighbours and destabilising the Roman province. This was the justification Caesar used for taking aggressive military action against them.

Gardner’s introduction goes on to describe Gaulish culture, the existence of towns and trade, their fondness for Mediterranean wine (France didn’t yet cultivate grapes), their coins and art, the fact that some tribes had evolved beyond kings to elected magistrates and so on. Doubtless this would be dealt with more thoroughly in a more up-to-date history.

Last point to make is that Caesar consistently denigrates the Gaulish character. According to him the Gauls are impulsive, emotional, easily swayed, love change for its own sake, credulous, prone to panic, scatter brained and so on. Caesar links the Gauls’ instability of character to the instability of their tribal politics, where leaders routinely feud among themselves, assassinate each other and so on. (This often seems a bit rich coming from Caesar who was himself subject of the most famous assassination in history, representing a state which was about to collapse into a succession of civil wars.)

Gardner makes the simple point that what amounts to what we nowadays might call a ‘racist’ stereotyping of an entire people is deployed in an all-too-familiar tactic to justify conquering and ‘liberating’ i.e. subjugating them.

The Gallic Wars is a propaganda document: it is a set of commentaries, one for each of the eight campaigning years Caesar was in Gaul which a) justify his military conquests b) promoted his reputation as a spectacularly successful general. Each of the eight books might as well end with the same sentence: “So that’s why you ought to give me a triumph.”

His comments and reflections on Gaul and the Gauls or individual tribes or leaders sometimes strike the reader as reasonably objective and factual. But the fundamentally polemical, propaganda motive is never absent.

Which edition?

I started off reading the OUP edition because it was new and clean, the maps were embedded where they were needed in the text and Hammond’s translation, as far as I could tell, didn’t show any of the oddities of style all-too-apparent when she tries to write in her own name. About a third of the way in I swapped to the Penguin edition for no reason I can put my finger on except its prose style, and the physical object itself, felt older and cosier.

The decline in academic writing for a general audience

Older academics (from the 1950s and 60s) tended to have a broader range of life experience, vocabulary and phrasing. More recent academics, from the 1980s and 90s onwards, tend to have lived narrower academic lives and their use of English is marred by ideas and terms taken from sociology, critical theory and the inevitable woke obsessions (gender and race) which make their prose narrow, cold and technocratic.

Born in 1934, Gardner writes prose which is clear, factual, to the point and more sympatico than Hammond, born a generation later, whose prose is clunky, cluttered and confused, and whose sensitive virtue signalling (war is ‘distasteful, even immoral’) comes over as patronising.

There’s a study to be done about the decline in academic writing for a wide audience, the decline in academics’ ability to reach out and connect with a broader public. Immediately after the war, Allen Lane’s creation of the cheap paperback Penguin Classics was designed to bring the best literature from round the world, and from all of history, to the widest possible audience, accompanied by introductions by experts designed to widen their appeal.

By the turn of the 21st century many of the introductions to classic literature which I regularly read spend more time scolding the reader (or their authors) for not having the correct attitudes to race and gender which are absolutely required on their campuses and in their faculties, than explaining the world of the author and their text.

It gets boring being told off or patronised all the time. So I preferred the old Penguin edition and Jane Gardner’s intelligent, useful and unpatronising introduction. And she’s funny. Right at the end of her introduction she explains:

The glossary has been completely redone and now contains more than twice as many items as the original. There are a few additional notes and also a few changes to some of Handford’s more tendentious judgements. The editor has also seized the opportunity, in writing a new introduction, of being tendentious herself. (page 26)

🙂


Related link

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.


Related links

Other British Museum reviews

Andria (The Girl from Andros) by Terence (166 BC)

‘There’s scarcely a man to be found who’ll stay faithful to a woman.’
(Mysis the servant)

‘A father shouldn’t be too hard on his children whatever their faults.’
(Chremes)

The astonishingly detailed production notes, attached to the play in antiquity, tell us that Andria was first performed at the Megalensian Games in 166 BC. It is based on an original but unnamed play by the Greek playwright, Menander.

The set consists, as usual, of the front doors of two houses set next to each other, the house of Simo, father of the hero, and of Glycerium, the young female ‘love interest’

Back story

The play is set in Athens. There are two middle-aged men, Simo and Chysemum. Simo has a son, Pamphilus. Pamphilus has seduced and impregnated a young woman named Glycerium and has promised to marry her. But his father, Simo, has other ideas and has promised Pamphilus in marriage to the daughter of his friend Chremes, Philumena.

Everyone has always assumed that Glycerium was the sister of the girl she came to Athens with three years earlier, who was named Chryses. They came to Athens together from the island of Andros (hence ‘the girl from Andros’). Chryses set up as a courtesan and acquired a devoted following of young gentlemen. Sadly, she got sick and died just before the action of the play starts.

It was at the funeral of Chryses that Pamphilus first publicly revealed his loved for Glycerium when the latter ventured a little too close to the funeral pyre on which her friend was burning, and Pamphilus promptly leapt forward, embraced her, pulled her back and ended up kissing her in full sight of all the other mourners. His father, Simo, witnessed this and was appalled.

Meanwhile, young Pamphilus has a friend, Charinus, who is himself in love, with a young woman named Philumena, the daughter of Pamphilus’s father’s friend, Chremes. That’s what the ‘double plot’ means in practice – two young men in love with two young women; both in similar plights which are then ‘treated’ differently by the plot.

It’s worth noting that Glycerium, Pamphilus’s lady love and, in a sense, the crux of the plot, never actually appears onstage. She does, however, have one line – when she cries out from inside her house as she gives birth (exactly like Phaedria, another invisible love interest, does in Plautus’s Aulularis).

But this is one more line than Charinus’s lady love Philumena, the daughter of Chremes, is awarded, as she never appears at all. They are almost invisible cogs in the machine of the plot.

Rather than the love interests, the central figure of the play, as so often, is the canny slave, in this case Pamphilus’s slave, Davos, who devises a cunning plan to rescue his master and unite him with his girl. This plan goes badly wrong to begin with but he manages to recover it at the last minute, so that the play ends with a happy marriage.

The plot

Sosia and Simo

Simo, the father, explains the backstory of the play to the elderly family freed slave Sosia: the story of Chryses coming to Athens, her success in garnering lovers, how Simo knows that his son Pamphilus hung round in their set but wasn’t actually in love with her. How Simo’s neighbour Chremes has offered his daughter’s hand in marriage to Pamphilus, and that today is the day set for the wedding feast.

Simo goes on to say that a few days after he and Chremes sealed the deal, this neighbouring courtesan Chryses passed away. Simo attended the funeral and it was there that he saw his son dash forward to prevent Glycerium getting too close to Chryses’ pyre. Then Chremes got to hear about Pamphilus’ love for Glycerium and so called off the wedding of Pamphilus and his own daughter.

Sosia is confused: if the wedding has been called off, how come caterers are arriving and setting up for the wedding feast? Simo replies that he has two very specific aims: one, if Pamphilus refuses to take part in the wedding feast he’s staging, then he’ll have a real reason to rebuke him; two, if his rogue of a servant Davos has any tricks up his sleeve, Simo hopes he’ll deploy them here, at the fake wedding, rather than at the real one. [This slightly convoluted logic explains why a wedding feast is in preparation, even though the bride’s father, Chremes, has cancelled her participation in it.]

So the upshot of this rather complicated story is that Simo wants Sosia to supervise the setting up of the feast and keep his eye open for scams. So, with these instructions the freed slave Sosia goes through the door into Simo’s house.

Enter Davos

Davos is Pamphilus’s smart young slave who will emerge as the main driver of the play. Simo warns him that if he tries to pull off any smart tricks to help Pamphilus, Simo will have him whipped senseless then sent to the mills. As with all of Plautus’s plays, I am appalled at the way extreme violence is routinely threatened to all the slaves and for laughs! Simo exits leaving Davos alone onstage.

Davos soliloquises

Davos explains he wants to help his master, Pamphilus, but is understandably worried about getting into trouble with his actual owner, Simo – the man who just threatened him with a whipping!

Davos goes on to explain that Pamphilus and Glycerium are behaving like naughty children, specially as Glycerium is pregnant. They’re promoting the story that Glycerium isn’t Chryses sister at all, that she was shipwrecked as a baby off the coast of Andros. She was in the care of a merchant and they were both taken in by a kindly local. The merchant then died leaving the local to raise the orphan girl Glycerium alongside his own daughter, Chryses. But – and this is the important point – not only are the girls not sisters, but Glycerium is a freeborn Athenian. This, apparently, really matters. If she was the daughter of a slave and had grown up to become a courtesan, she would be no fit wife for a wealthy man’s son like Pamphilus. But if it can be proven that she is freeborn, that changes everything. She would be a worthy bride.

Having explained all this to the audience, Davos exits.

Enter Mysis

Mysis is a maid of Glycerium. She comes out of Glycerium’s house, as so often in these plays, calling back something to someone inside. She is being sent to fetch a noted midwife, Lesbia, to handle the delivery of Glycerium’s baby.

Enter Pamphilus

Pamphilus has heard from his father that the latter has organised his wedding today, without even telling him! He rants and raves and says he is cursed since he can’t refuse his father but doesn’t want to go through with marriage to a woman he doesn’t love.

Mysis steps forward and Pamphilus asks how her mistress i.e. Pamphilus’s beloved, Glycerium, is. Mysis replies that Glycerium is scared to death of giving birth and that she’ll be abandoned by Pamphilus. Upset, Pamphilus swears he will stick by her. He quotes the deathbed scene in which ailing Chrysis left Glycerium to Pamphilus’s care to protect and look after.

PAMPHILUS: Oh Mysis, Mysis, the words Chryses used of her are forever written in my heart. (p.51)

Pamphilus regards it as a sacred duty. Exit Mysis to fetch the midwife, Pamphilus moves to the side of the stage.

Enter Charinus

Enter Charinus and his servant Byrria. Charinus is Pamphilus’s best friend. He is in love with Philumena, who is a) the daughter of Chremes, Simo’s best friend and b) the very woman Pamphilus is supposed to be marrying today. He has just heard the news about the wedding feast and is distraught. Byrria is his down to earth slave, delivering cynical punchlines to Charinus playing the distraught lover.

Charinus and Pamphilus

Pamphilus moves back to centre stage and Charinus confronts him. Begs him not to marry Philumena today, as he himself is in love with her. Tells Pamphilus if he married Philumena it is the last he’ll see of him. Pamphilus quickly assures Charinus he is not in love with Philumena and has no intention of marrying her if he can help it. They make a pact: Pamphilus will do everything he can to avoid marrying Philumena if, at the same time, Charinus does everything he can to win her.

Enter Davos

Davos is excited to find his master and Charinus. He thinks he has the solution to their problems. He’s been hanging round Chremes’ house and there’s absolutely no preparation for a wedding there. So he tells Pamphilus and Charinus that the wedding feast is a fake. Simo is faking a wedding feast so that, if Pamphilus pulls out, he can land all the blame on him.

Charinus is delighted to learn it isn’t a real wedding, but Davos points out that just because Pamphilus is not marrying Philumena doesn’t necessarily mean Charinus will win her. He needs to go and ‘canvas’ her father’s friends. [Interesting insight into ancient marriage practices.]

Davos now proposes his plan. He tells Pamphilus to agree to the marriage. That way his father can have absolutely no reproach against him. ‘But what if I end up accidentally being married to Philumena?’ Pamphilus protests. Davos insists there’s no danger of that, because Chremes won’t let her marry him, because of his public display of affection for Glycerium. With Davos’s plan,:

  • Pamphilus will gain his father’s good wishes
  • all the blame for the failed wedding will fall on Chremes
  • and his father will be all the more favourable to finding him another bride

At that point they’ll manoeuvre him into accepting Glycerium. Pamphilus is understandably very doubtful about all this, but Davos talks him into it.

Enter Simo, shadowed by Byrria

Pamphilus’s father enters, but he is being tailed by Byrria, who’s been told by Charinus to follow him about and report everyone’s actions and responses. So he spies on the others while himself invisible.

1. When Simo tells Pamphilus that today is the day of his wedding, Pamphilus astonishes him by saying he will be guided by him in everything and will marry whoever he wants. Simo is astonished and Pamphilus meekly goes into the family house.

2. Byrria spied all thus, unseen, and is horrified because he thinks Pamphilus is reneging on his deal with his master. Byrria goes off to tell his master the bad news, leaving just Davos and Simo onstage.

Simo cross-questions Davos, convinced something is going on but Davos remains straight-faced and says he’s sure Pamphilus will obey his father. Davos tries to throw Simo off the scent by telling his son does have one grudge against him – that he’s tight with money and scrimping on this wedding feast. That nettles Simo.

Enter Mysis and Lesbia

Things are going just right when enter Mysis the serving girl who’s fetched Lesbia the midwife. As they go into Glycerium’s house they chatter for just long enough to blow up Davos’s plan, because Mysis tells Lesbia what a lovely young gentleman Pamphilus is, how he has sworn to remain loyal to her, and how she is about to have his baby!!!!

They enter the house and Simo explodes with indignation. But…at that moment Glycerium calls out in her labour pains to the goddess Juno Lucina and…Simo decides it’s all a con. It’s too contrived. She isn’t really having a baby, this is all some scam of Davos’s to horrify Chremes into cancelling the marriage.

Davos takes advantage of Simo’s misinterpretation to say that, ‘Yes, Simo is correct, it’s all a cunning scheme hatched by Glycerium to wreck the marriage and steal Pamphilus. Her next step will be to borrow a baby from somewhere and place it on Simo’s doorstep as if it is hers and Pamphilus’s.’

Simo thanks Davos for his loyal service and the latter goes into the house, leaving Simo to tell the audience that his next step is to ask Chremes to agree to hand over his daughter for the wedding.

Enter Chremes

Simo describes how he and Chremes have been friends since boyhood, and now he wants his daughter to marry Pamphilus. Chremes is sceptical, what about the foreign woman. Simo assures him that the young couple have fallen out, been trading insults, and so now is the time to quickly marry him to Philumena, and get him to redirect his affections into a respectable channel. Chremes asks how he knows this. Simo replies that Davos told him and he calls Davos out of his house.

Enter Davos

Simo tells Davis he has now, reluctantly, come round to trusting him and believes him when he says his son, Pamphilus, is a reformed character and definitely wants to marry Philumena. And that he’s just persuaded Chremes, here, to marry her off today! (Chremes exits to go home and prepare Philumena for the wedding.)

Davos keeps up a running commentary of asides to the audience in which he comically reacts to this disastrous news. Chremes agreeing to marry off his daughter?! The wedding going ahead?! This is a catastrophe. What can he do?

Exit Simo, enter Pamphilus

Simo goes into his house to tell Pamphilus the good news, while Davos laments that he’s going to get the blame for everything. And sure enough a few moments later Pamphilus bursts out of the house, furious. He accuses Davos of screwing everything up and asks him what punishment he thinks he deserves? Davos astonishes me by saying ‘Crucifixion’ (p.69). The casualness with which these violent punishments of slaves are tossed about never ceases to flabbergast me.

Enter Charinus

Charinus has just received Byrria’s mistaken report that Pamphilus intends to go ahead with the wedding, and now runs onstage to deliver a soliloquy on the perfidy of friends. Now he intends to find Pamphilus and heap abuse on him.

Pamphilus hears all this from the side of the stage then steps forward and apologises to Charinus. Charinus accuses Pamphilus of only falling in love with Philumena after he, Charinus, had declared his love for her. Pamphilus tells him he’s got it all wrong. It was Davos who persuaded him to agree to the marriage. They then both turn on poor Davos, who tries to defend himself, saying he’s a loyal slave and works day and night in his master’s best interests. Anyway, has anyone else got a better plan?

Enter Mysis

Mysis comes out of Glycerium’s house [the reader tries to ignore the absurdity of everyone discussing the inconvenience of Pamphilus’s foreign lover when her house is right next door to Pamphilus’s.] Mysis tells Pamphilus her mistress is desperate for him. Pamphilus assures Mysis that he will remain loyal to Glycerium no matter what.

During all this Davos comes up with another plan. He tells the two men he’s in a hurry to implement it so Pamphilus goes into Glycerium’s house to see his beloved. Charinus then pesters Davos to help him. Davos says his first loyalty is to his master but he’ll see what he can do. And Charinus exits, going home.

Davos tells Mysis to wait here for him and pops into Glycerium’s house. He re-emerges with the newborn baby and gives it to Mysis and tells her to lay it on Simo’s front door. He wants her to do it so that, later, if anyone asks him whether he did it, he can answer with a clear conscience that he didn’t.

Enter Chremes

But his cunning plan is interrupted when along comes old Chremes, father of the bride. Davos runs off, leaving Mysis alone.

Chremes is congratulating himself on having made all the preparations for the marriage of his daughter when he sees the baby on Simo’s doorstep. What is all this?

At this point Davos re-enters, talking out loud and pretending to have just come from the busy market. He spots the baby on the doorstep and loudly asks Mysis who the baby is and what it’s doing there (in order to persuade Chremes he has nothing to do with it). Davos cross questions Mysis very loudly for the benefit of Chremes who is listening. Mysis is bewildered by Davos asking questions he knows the answer to but he hisses at her to play along.

And so Chremes overhears Mysis explain that this baby is Glycerium’s and that Pamphilus is the father. Davos denies it and pretends to accuse Mysis of being part of a monstrous plot, saying the baby was smuggled in by the midwife and is not Pamphilus’s and is part of a plot to discredit Pamphilus and put Chremes off allowing his daughter to marry him.

Of course Chremes has overheard all this, in fact Davos staged the loud dialogue for his benefit. Now he steps forward and Davos play acts surprise that he’s been here all along. Chremes is predictably outraged by all he’s heard and insists on going into Simo’s house to confront him.

Enter Crito

At just this moment when things are hanging in the balance, enter Crito. He is a middle-aged man from Athens, cousin to the dead Chryses. He tells us that Chryses’ friend Glycerium appears to have inherited Chryses’ property but it should really go to him by rights. This is because Glycerium has always been thought of as Chryses’ sister but she isn’t. Crito is here to prove the story that she is not Chryses’ sister but an unrelated foundling. Of course he’s got a vested interest in doing so because then, as her nearest kin, he’ll get Chryses’ inheritance.

He’s already known to Mysis, who welcomes him and then takes him into the house to see Glycerium.

Simo and Chremes

Simo and Chremes come out of Simo’s house. Chremes is upset by what Simo is asking him, namely to marry his daughter to Pamphilus who is clearly in love with another woman – to marry his daughter into a loveless marriage, purely in an attempt to ‘reform’ young Pamphilus.

Chremes was willing to go along with it out of their old friendship, but now he hears rumours that the woman is a free citizen of Attica (the wider region surrounding Athens) and not only, that, but has had a baby by Pamphilus!

Enter Davos

At just this moment Davos comes out of Glycerium’s house rubbing his hands with glee because of the impact Crito’s arrival is going to have on everything.

Davos comes out the front door and stumbles into Simo and Chremes who promptly accuse him of lying when he said Pamphilus had argued with Glycerium, lying about their baby, and lying about Glycerium’s status as an Attican citizen.

Davos stutters with excuses and then blusters on about Crito having arrived and declaring that Glycerium is a free citizen of Attica, but Simo has had enough and calls out another one of his slaves, big lumbering threatening Dromo, to grab Davos and ‘string him up’ ready for a whipping. Dromo hustles Davos off into Simo’s house to be tied up.

At all these moments of physical threats to slaves I remember Mary Beard’s words that a working definition of a slave was someone you could offer physical violence to with no comeback (as long as it was your slave, that is).

Enter Pamphilus

Simo yells into Glycerium’s house for his son who comes out. They are both ready to give up. Simo is exhausted and tells his son that, since he is ready to disobey his father and shame his homeland in his infatuation with this woman, then why not just do it. He washes his hands of him (p.83).

SIMO: Why harass my old age with the folly of a boy like this?

Instead of yelping with joy, Pamphilus is overcome with remorse and offers to give up his beloved and do whatever his father wishes (p.84).

Simo accuses him of having arranged for this witness to appear to prove that Glycerium is freeborn as if it’s a really big deal. Pamphilus swears he hasn’t, that it’s only a coincidence and asks to call Crito out to prove so.

Chremes persuades Simo to accede to this wish. In fact it’s really notable how mellow and forgiving Chremes becomes. As father and son recriminate each other, Chremes intervenes to tell Simo he ought to be more forgiving. All the characters are, deep down, nice and well meaning.

Re-enter Crito

Turns out that Crito and Chremes know each other, so Crito’s bona fides are established from the start. Nonetheless, Simo is witheringly scornful and accuses him of being paid to bear witness that Glycerium is a freeborn woman because that makes Pamphilus’s marriage to her socially acceptable.

For his part, Crito gets very cross at being treated like a liar and proceeds to tell the key backstory which transforms the situation: 20 years ago a citizen of Attica was shipwrecked on the coast of Andros. With him was a small girl. The traveller lost everything in the wreck and the first person to offer help was the father of the little girl who grew up to be Chrysis. Well, this benefactor who helped the shipwreckees out was a relative of Crito (who is telling the story). The shipwrecked man died.

Suddenly Chremes becomes very interested and begs Crito to tell him the name of the shipwrecked man. When Crito reveals it was Phania, who claimed to be a citizen of Rhamnus, Chremes is thunderstruck: Phania was his brother! And he was taking Chremes’s young daughter to come and meet him (Chremes) when they were shipwrecked.

The identification is clinched when Pamphilus tells Chremes that Glycerium is not the girl from Andros’s original name – her original name was Pasibula. In other words – Glycerium is Chremes’s long-lost daughter!!!

At a stroke:

  1. Simo is reconciled to his son marrying Glycerium (‘The truth has reconciled me to everything’)
  2. Chremes is delighted to be reunited with his long-lost daughter
  3. Chremes is double delighted to have such a worthy son in law, Pamphilus, and offers him a dowry of 60,000 drachmas on the spot, which he accepts
  4. and Pamphilus:

Oh, I’m beside myself, my head’s in a whirl with hope and fear and delight at this marvellous, unexpected, immense good fortune! (p.86)

Pamphilus says Davos must help Glycerium over to their house for a celebration. ‘Oh, er, well, he’s a bit tied up,’ his father replies. He runs inside to get his slaves to untie him and a few moments later Davos comes out rubbing his arms and shoulders.

Charinus enters but unobserved by the other two, while Pamphilus is telling Davos that all his troubles are over – that Glycerium has been revealed as Chremes’s long-lost daughter and that both Chremes and Pamphilus’s dad have agreed to their marriage.

Davos is delighted, but not as much as Charinus for this means Pamphilus won’t be marrying Philumena after all, leaving her free for him!

Rush ending

The play ends in a spectacularly hurried flurry of phrases because Pamphilus announces they can’t wait for Chremes to come out of the house and have to go through the whole fol-de-rol of Charinus asking for the hand of his other daughter in marriage. Instead Pamphilus and Charinus both hurry into Glycerium’s house to fetch her to the feast, leaving Davos onstage to wind up with the extremely brief words:

You needn’t wait for them to come out again; the other betrothal and any other business will take place in there. Now give us your applause! (p.90)

Thoughts

Double plot

I’ve read that Terence’s contribution to dramaturgy was developing the ‘double plot’ which a) makes the plays more complicated and sophisticated b) gives more scope for comedy. But as you can see, although there’s a sort of parallel between the two young men Pamphilus and Charinus being in love with two young women, Glycerium and Philumena, it’s very one-sided. All the emphasis is on the Pamphilus-Glycerium story and Charinus only has a handful of scenes, in most of which he whines unattractively, and Philumena never makes an appearance.

Above all, none of it is very funny, certainly not as laugh-out-loud funny as Plautus. Probably in performance a lot of the scenes which feature asides, especially the ones featuring Davos, these might be funny if done well by a good comic actor. But there is nothing intrinsically funny in any of the scenes. It’s cleverly and elaborately constructed, it moves at a cracking pace, but it lacks the wisecracking, rackety, gagfest feel of a Plautus play.

Related to this is the way the characters are all, at bottom, nice and well meaning. Their opinions, like the two I’ve quoted as epigraphs to this review, are eminently sensible. This explains why Terence’s plays were recommended to be taught in schools by no less of an earnest figure than Martin Luther. The ending doesn’t come as a shock and comic surprise – it feels more like the inevitable conclusion given that everyone is so basically nice. There is no wicked baddie driving the action, just a few genuine misunderstandings and misaligned intentions which take a little sorting out and then everyone can be happy.


Credit

Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition of Terence: The Comedies edited and translated by Betty Radice.

Roman reviews

Captivi (The Prisoners) by Plautus (c.200 BC)

Prologue

Hegio is a wealthy man living in the Greek city of Aetolia. Years ago his slave, Stalagmus, stole Hegio’s four-year-old son and ran off, never to be seen again. Hegio had one other son, Philopolemus.

Now, years later, Philopolemus is grown up. But Hegio’s city is at war with the Greeks of Elis and Philopolemus has gone off to fight in the war and gotten himself captured. He is a prisoner of war with the Elisians. So Hegio has been buying up prisoners of war from Elis with a view to finding one who is of such high status that he can be exchanged for his son.

Plot

This explains why the play opens outside the house of Hegio with the sight of two prisoners of war chained to the wall. These Elisian prisoners are Philocrates and his slave Tyndarus. Before the action of the play started they exchanged clothes with the idea that the noble master might be safer if he’s disguised as a slave. The play opens with them exchanging noble sentiments and respect for each other. In fact the play is dominated by very uncomedic sentiments of nobility and dignity from all involved, more like one of Shakespeare’s problem plays than a comedy.

Philocrates-posing-as-Tyndarus goes on his mission

Anyway, when Hegio lets Philocrates and Tyndarus know that his son, Philopolemus, is now a slave in Elis belonging to a doctor named Menarchus, the Elisian pair excitedly declare that they know this doctor and should be able to easily ransom him if one of them is sent back to Elis to bargain (p.68).

They keep the pretence of having each other’s identities so that when Hegio decides to send the slave, Tyndarus, while keeping the (more valuable) noble Philocrates with him, he is, in fact, all unknowingly, actually sending Philocrates and keeping the slave Tyndarus.

Once the decision is made and Hegio has left the stage, there is a great deal of noble ‘it is a far, far better thing I do’ kind of speechifying between the two noble Greeks, master and servant. And so Philocrates-posing-as-Tyndarus is sent back to Elis. Then Hegio declares he is going off to his brother’s to check on some of the other POWs he’s bought.

Ergasilus

The gap is filled by the arrival of Ergasilus. He is described in the text as a parasitus. E. F. Watling in his introduction explains that the straight English translation of this term, ‘parasite’, is too harsh. Ergasilus is a social type who has disappeared, a kind of professional table companion, a man who makes a living by hawking himself around in the forum as a dining companion available for hire, who has ‘nothing but his witty conversation to live on’. As a comic stereotype, because his main aim in life is to get invited to dinner, the parasitus‘s stock conversation is fantasies of gluttony.

(He reminds me a bit of the character John Beaver in Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust, who is always available for society hostesses when someone drops out of a dinner party at the last minute; a quick phone call to Beaver and he’ll be round in 20 minutes to make up the numbers, grovelling and grateful.)

Anyway, Ergasilus gives a comic soliloquy about what a wretched day he’s having trawling round the forum for work and how everyone’s ignoring him. He comically fantasises about bringing criminal proceedings against all the fine gentlemen who have ignored him in the forum, demanding they each give him ten dinners for free!

Enter Aristophontes

But really his scene was a filler to cover Hegio’s departure and return, for now Hegio returns with a fine  Elisian prisoner of war who he’s recently bought, one Aristophontes. Aristophontes has told Hegio that he’s a good friend of old Philocrates (the master of the pair of Elisian POWs at the heart of the story) and would love to see him.

Except that Aristophontes is, of course, astonished when Hegio introduces Tyndarus as being Philocrates. Not being in on the ruse, Aristophontes begins to protest, telling Hegio that this isn’t Philocrates, this is his slave Tyndarus. Tyndarus, in a panic at having his cover blown, comes up with a comic excuse on the spot: he claims that Aristophontes is mad! Famous for it. Has epileptic fits. Once attacked his family with a spear! Don’t believe a word he says (p.76).

Hegio starts out by believing Tyndarus but Aristophontes’ indignation and anger and repeated impassioned oaths, swearing on his life that Tyndarus is not Philocrates, eventually wins him round and persuades him that he has been duped by the pair and sent the master back to Elis, not as he had intended, the slave.

Hegio punishes Tyndarus

Tyndarus is eventually forced to admit it’s the truth, he is Tyndarus, it was Philocrates the master who Hegio sent back to Elis. But he points out that he did it out of love for his master, ensuring his master Philocrates was sent home safe and sound to be reunited with his family while he, Tyndarus, bore the risk that he might not return even at the risk of his own life.

Tyndarus asks Hegio if he wouldn’t reward a slave who showed the same fidelity to him? Hegio grudgingly concedes that maybe he would, but nonetheless he is furious at being deceived. He has Tyndarus tightly bound with ropes and swears he’ll be sent off to have iron shackles set on him and then sent to the worst fate possible, forced labour in the underground stone quarries (p.82).

Far too late Aristophontes realises what a noble thing Tyndarus has done and how his insistence on blowing Tyndarus’s cover has consigned him to a wretched fate, but Hegio orders that Aristophontes, also, is bundled away.

Hegio’s disappointment

It’s maybe worth emphasising that Hegio’s towering rage has two sources: one is that he has been made a fool of; he had told his brother and his friends about how he’d released Philocrates-as-Tyndarus and sent him back to Elis to reclaim his son – so now he fears that he will exposed as a ‘laughing stock’ (p.84).

But the other spur to anger is that he had genuinely got his hopes up about his son – and now believes his one chance at getting him released has been foiled by these rascals. So it is bitter disappointment that he won’t be seeing his son again which also fuels his anger, and the audience can understand that. For a farceur, there are surprising depths of characterisation and feeling in this play.

Guess what Ergasilus has seen

He’s in the middle of explaining all this in a soliloquy when the parasitus Ergasilus comes bustling in very pleased with himself. Ergasilus insists that Hegio sends out for the best food available and whips up a huge feast and treats him as his best friend, puzzling Hegio who asks him what the devil he’s on about. Plautus has Ergasilus drag out his explanation of what’s going on for pages and pages until the audience becomes as restive and cross with Ergasilus’s obfuscation and delay as Hegio does.

Eventually Ergasilus bloody spits it out: down at the harbour who has he just seen getting off a boat but Hegio’s son Philopolemus!! And not only him, but also Hegio’s old slave Stalagmus, the one who ran away with Hegio’s first son when he was just 4 years old!!!

Ergasilus gets his reward

At first Hegio can’t believe it but when Ergasilus keeps swearing it’s true in a series of escalating oaths, Hegio finally believes it and tells Ergasilus to go into his house and run riot in the kitchen and stuff his face – in fact he makes him his butler! So Hegio exits, running down to the harbour, while Ergasilus goes into his house.

In scenes of broad farcical comedy, Ergasilus’s ingress is followed by sounds of mayhem coming from within until a boy runs out of the house to deliver a description of the chaos Ergasilus is causing, breaking down the pantry doors and ransacking the place for goodies. Again, like Ergasilus’s interlude earlier in the play, this is really just stage business, an interlude, to cover the notional time required for Hegio to make it down to the harbour and now, as he does, to return onstage.

The return of Philopolemus

For Hegio now enters accompanied by his beloved son Philopolemus, by the notorious slave Stalagmus and by Philocrates the noble POW, who has kept his word, freed his son and brought him home.

Hegio is, of course, overjoyed. But the finale of the play has an oddly unemotional feel: it is more by way of being a kind of logical distribution of just deserts. It is a sort of dramatised lesson in ethics. So:

For keeping his word and delivering his son to him, Hegio grants Philocrates anything he wishes which, of course, is his loyal slave Tyndarus. Hegio apologetically admits he’s had him consigned to the quarries (although, as this was only about 8 minutes ago, we can’t imagine he’s got very far; another example of the way the plays work in a kind of imaginary time, not real, logical time at all).

Mary Beard described Plautus’s plays as stereotypical ‘boy meets girl’ stories, but none of the ones I’ve read are like that. It would be more accurate to describe them as ‘master frees slave’ stories. The master-slave relationship is much more central to Plautus’s plays than ‘romantic’ love.

Stalagmus’s secret

Anyway, the noble Elisian Philocrates accompanies the recently freed Philopolemus into Hegio’s house, leaving the stage to Hegio and the surly slave who stole his son all those years ago, Stalagmus.

Hegio tells Stalagmus that if he speaks the truth he may avoid the heinous punishment which is otherwise looming over him. So Stalagmus, briefly, makes the startling revelation that he stole Hegio’s son, ran off to Elis and there sold him to a man named Theodoromides…who we know from conversation earlier in the play is none other than Philocrates’ father. For a split second I thought this meant noble Philocrates was Hegio’s long-lost son, but Stalagmus goes on to confirm with Philocrates that the latter received a little playmate-slave when he was 4, a boy known everyone knew as ‘Laddie’ but formally named Tyndarus (p.93)!

So that explains why Tyndarus has since the start of the play behaved (and spoken) with such super-aristocratic nobility – it is because, as in so many fairy stories, he is of aristocratic blood and good breeding always shows.

Tyndarus is released – happy ending

At which point Tyndarus arrives back onstage, shackled and carrying a crowbar and looking rough and dirty from what is implied has been years of suffering in the terrible stone quarries (which we saw him depart for only 15 minutes ago; we are operating in imaginary theatrical time).

And so Hegio and Philocrates tell a startled Tyndarus the full story: that he is Hegio’s son, stolen all those years ago, and now they are going to release him from the quarries and make him a free man and restore him to his father.

Stalagmus turns to the audience and makes the final speech. He points out the qualities of the play, namely that it contains no wenching, no intriguing, no exposure of a child, no cheating out of money, no young man in love without father’s knowledge or permission. On the contrary, it is founded on chaste manners, a rare example of a drama showing how good men might become better. And so he asks for the audience’s applause.

THE END.


Credit

Page references are to the Penguin paperback edition of The Rope and Other Plays by Plautus, translated by E.F. Watling and published by Penguin in 1964.

Related link

Roman reviews

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland (2003) – 1

High speed and racy

As the corny ‘triumph and tragedy’ subtitle suggests, Holland isn’t aiming at originality or depth. He is aiming at writing a gripping, gung-ho, boys’ own adventure narrative history of the Roman Republic, and he does it very well indeed. Rubicon won a history prize, was shortlisted for several others, and opens with no fewer than five pages of laudatory reviews from a host of famous historians and authors (Ian McEwan, A.N. Wilson, Beryl Bainbridge Joanna Trollope), many of whom chose it as their book of the year. It was even described as ‘gripping’ by Boris Johnson, than which there can be no higher praise.

Despite all this puffery, for the first 40 or so pages I was quietly horrified at the casual speed with which Holland skips through Rome’s prehistory and early history:

In a memorable manoeuvre on page 6, we are in the 360s BC in one sentence and then, two sentences later, in the 260s BC. A century flashes past in the blink of an eye.

Rome’s epic conflict with Carthage, the three Punic wars which lasted off and on from 264 and 146 BC, are dispensed with in just two pages (7 and 8) with the third and final Punic war and the destruction of Carthage knocked off on just one page (page 34). By page 10 it is already the 140s BC and Rome has conquered Macedon (the most important kingdom in Greece), Sicily and a good deal of Spain i.e Holland has skipped over400 years of history in a few pages.

The Achaean War, which marked the final ascendency of Rome over Greece and climaxed in the brutal destruction of Greece’s most prosperous city, Corinth, in 146 BC (the same year Carthage was razed to the ground) is dealt with thus:

Meanwhile, just in case anyone was missing the lesson, a Roman army spent the same spring of 146 rubbing it into the noses of the Greeks. That winter a ragbag of cities in southern Greece had presumed to disturb the balance of power that Rome had established in the area. In a war that was over almost before it had begun, a Greek army was swatted like a bothersome wasp, and the ancient city of Corinth reduced to a heap of smoking rubble. (p.35)

As you can see, instead of detail or analysis the reader gets a cheerfully brisk, slangy summary, which sounds like a stagey narrator of a novel, mixing a kind of tabloid journalism with dated schoolboy slang (‘rubbing their noses in it’). ‘A Greek army was swatted like a bothersome wasp.’ How would you characterise that sentence? Prep school patois? Anyway, the book is like this from start to finish, written in a deliberately irreverent, casual, prep school slang and hyper-vivid vernacular. No wonder Boris liked it so much.

I thought Mary Beard’s history of Rome often skipped through military and political events without fully explaining them, but Beard feels like the Encyclopedia Britannica compared with Holland’s speed of light race through Rome’s early history.

The last century of the Republic

Things begin to make sense around page 40 when you begin to realise that Holland is very much not writing a complete history of the entire Roman Republic (509 to 31 BC). Indeed, Holland has skipped through the 650 or so years between Rome’s (legendary) founding in 753 down to the 90s BC in little more than 40 pages. (An approach confirmed by the timeline at the end of the book: this is seven pages long and whereas the first page covers the 620 years from 753 to 133 BC, the remaining six pages settle down and cover 123 BC to 14 AD in granular detail. There’s the strategy of the book, right there.)

No, it’s not at all a history of the Roman Republic – it’s a racy account of the Republic’s final century from, say, the murder of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 down to Octavian’s victory over Mark Anthony in 31 BC.

Why? Because:

  1. the last 100 years of the Roman republic is the period we have by far the best documentation for
  2. during which we know most about the characters of political leaders, because they and their supporters or enemies left copious writings, histories, speeches and letters
  3. and it’s also by far the most dramatic period, when then republican system began to break down, leading to a series of dictators and civil wars

The last twenty years of the Republic are the best documented in Roman history… (p.xxv)

Holland’s account deliberately skips the legendary founding (753), the era of kings (753 to 509), the expulsion of Tarquin the Proud (509) and the long evolution of Rome’s complex political and military administration (500s to 140s), in order to get to the juicy stories, melodramatic events and larger-than-life characters of its ill-fated last century.

Thriller style

Holland or his publishers realised there was a gap in the market for a history of Rome written as page-turning thriller. It really is written in a kind of prep school variety of lurid airport novel prose. As well as processing the content, it was entertaining to try and categorise some of the effects involved:

Ending paragraphs with a sentence. Then completing it in the next paragraph, for dramatic effect

  • No wonder that Sulla loathed him. / Loathed him and dreamed of winning the same greatness that Marius had won. (p.65)
  • Free Gaul prepared itself for war. / As did Caesar. (p.245)
  • Whatever happened the Republic would endure. / Or so everyone assumed. (p.257)
  • It was Caesar who had taught the Gauls what it meant to be a nation. Now that achievement threatened to destroy him. / Or so it seemed. (p.278)

Melodrama

  • Devastation shadowed the Mediterranean. (p.34)
  • The legions moved in for the kill. (p.34)
  • It was a moment pregnant with menace. (p.73)
  • The resulting goldrush was soon a stampede. (p.42)
  • Long-held grudges, never entirely extinguished, flared back into flames. Warfare returned to the Samnite hills. (p.50)
  • Various tribunes began to strip Lucullus of his provinces one by one, snapping at him like wolves on the trail of a wounded beast. (p.165)
  • The news spread like wildfire. (p.256)
  • Senators on the make, their nostrils filled with the scent of power, scrabbled for advancement. (p.260)
  • But still the whisperings would not be silenced. They could be heard throughout the feverish, troubled capital. (p.289)
  • As the Republic tottered, so the tremors could be felt throughout the world. (p.313)

Bombastic descriptions

  • Throughout the monarchies of the East, assorted royal poodles would jump whenever the Romans snapped their fingers… (p.37)
  • The arteries of empire were hardening with gold, and the more they hardened, so the more Rome squeezed out. (p.42)
  • The cities groaned under punitive exactions; the social fabric was nearing collapse; along the frontier, petty princelings snarled and snapped. Over the wounds of the ruined province [Asia in the 80s BC] Roman flies buzzed eagerly. (p.155)
  • The longing of the Romans for glory, which burned brightly within them and lit their city and indeed their entire empire with its flame, also cast flickering and treacherous shadows. (p.206)
  • The scent of [Pompey’s] failure hung like carrion-perfume over Rome. In the Senate scavengers whined and snarled with excitement. (p.256)

Pop psychology

  • Sulpicius was not a man lacking in principle. Causes mattered to him, even to the point of destruction. (p.67)
  • Pompey always had a nose for where the richest opportunities might lie. (p.91)
  • As ever with [Sulla], opportunism was the obverse of an icy conviction. (p.101)
  • Little could happen in Rome of which Crassus was not immediately aware, sensitive as he was to every tremor, every fluttering of every fly caught in his web. (p.140)
  • Pompey could fuss with territories as though they were counters on a gaming board, rearranging them as he pleased, handing out crowns, abolishing thrones, the still-boyish master of the fates of millions. (p.179)
  • As the two rival armies sparred nervously with each other, jabbing here, feinting there, [Anthony] was always in the thick of the action, dashing, tireless, the most glamorous and discussed man on either side. (p.319)
  • The female of the Ptolemaic species had always been deadlier than the male. (p.328)

And the sometimes obsessive iteration of stock phrases

  • The Venetian fleets, taken by surprise, were wiped out. (p.273)
  • The invaders were summarily wiped out. (p.273)
  • The garrison of one legionary camp was ambushed and wiped out. (p.277)
  • The senators in Pompey’s train, impatient for action, wanted Caesar and his army wiped out. (p.320)

Above all Holland’s really obsessive reiteration of his central idea, repeated literally hundreds of times, that all Roman aristocrats were bred and trained and lived for ‘glory’ – a word which appears on every other page.

It is Roman history rewritten by Lee Child. Or maybe by the scriptwriters of Dallas, with an occasional dash of Barbara Cartland or Jilly Cooper or writers who glory in posh, stereotyped and simplified characterisation.

A tiny epitome of this is Holland’s frequent use of the word ‘whore’. In the olden days we described these as ‘prostitutes’ and I remember the good work of the English Collective of Prostitutes back in the 70s and 80s in trying to change the law to protect its members. In our value-neutral, woke times we nowadays refer to them as ‘sex workers’. Holland’s insistence on using the word ‘whore’ is a small symptom of his determination not to write some fuddy-duddy, academic tome but a rollicking Texas barnstormer of an airport novel, where men are men and women are either high society hostesses or whores, goddamit!

  • The necropolises that stretched towards the coast and the south, along the Appian Way, were notorious for muggers and cut-price whores. (p.14)
  • [Naples] ancient streets had recently begun to fill with tourists, all of them keen to taste the Greek lifestyle – whether by debating philosophy, complaining to doctors, or falling in love with a witty, well-read whore. (p.48)
  • Throughout his life Sulla deployed his charm as a weapon, on politicians and soldiers as much as on whores. (p.70)
  • Sulla, who had spent his own twenties running after whores… (p.103)
  • It would have been as insulting for Cato to be labelled a demagogue as for a matron to be confused with a whore. (p.233)

Key players

But precisely because he does focus entirely on the action-packed 1st century BC, and dwells on the lurid and blood thirsty and over-the top personalities of the key players, you do certainly emerge (slightly punch drunk) with a much more vivid sense of the characters of the successive strong men who plunged the Republic into civil wars and internecine bloodshed.

In Holland’s account the swing year is 89 BC, a year of two wars. In Italy the widespread revolt of the Italian allies and confederates against Rome, demanding equal rights and freedoms under the law, had amounted to a cruel civil war, with ethnically identical Italian people massacring each other the length and breadth of the peninsula.

But the so-called Social War coincided with the revolt of King Mithradates of Pontus in Anatolia, which hugely raised the stakes. For a ruling class constantly athirst for glory, the prospect of victory in the Social War overlapped with the potentially huge riches to be won by whoever was chosen to go and reconquer the East.

Gaius Marius makes his first appearance on page 56 as the 60-year-old leader of the Roman army sent against the Italian rebels during the Social War, 91 to 87 BC. Marius was fabulously rich and successful, having held the consulship a record six times (p.65).

Gaius Pompeius ‘Strabo’ (p.58) ‘treacherous and brutal’ (p.117) very unpopular in Rome but led successful campaign against the Italians and so was a necessary ally for Sulla.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla (p.62) took over command in the Social War from Marius, leading a huge army of 13 legions which besieged and massacred the Italian rebels.

It’s with this cast that series one of Rubicon – having scooted through the previous 500 years of Roman history in the blink of an eye – really gets under way. For as Sulla brought the Social War to an end he fell into rivalry with his old commanding officer, Marius, about who would lead the army to Asia to defeat Mithradates. Sulla was elected war leader, but Marius politicked against him.

Sulla’s first march on Rome Briefly, Sulla was still campaigning against the Italians when he received the news that command of the army about to be sent to the East to fight Mithradates, and which he had lobbied hard to be given, had been rescinded and given to his arch rival, Marius. Not only that, but the staff officer who brought the message was to replace him in his command against the Italians. When Sulla announced this to his assembled troops and introduced the staff officer his men promptly stoned the messenger to death and clamoured for Sulla to lead them on a march on Rome. No Roman had done this before. Armies were meant to be in the trust of a consul, until he was replaced and handed over command.

The model of insurrection Sulla marked the advent of a completely new type of conflict, war, leadership and politics. The later civil war between Caesar and Pompey and then between Caesar’s assassins and the second triumvirate, followed the model of military insurrection, seizure of the capital and paying off of personal scores established by Sulla. There are two eras in the history of the Republic – Before Sulla’s march on Rome in 88 BC, and Afterwards (p.71).

Sulla’s coup Sulla busted laws and conventions by a) leading his legions on Rome b) crossing the holy boundary, the pomerium, within which no Roman was meant to bear arms (p.72) c) actually sacking the city, commanding his troops to retaliate with fire arrows against civilians chucking roof tiles down on them. And once he had established martial law and set his soldiers at all key points d) he set about executing his opponents. Lists were published and opponents hacked down in public buildings or the streets.

Sulla’s arch enemy Marius fled south and then across the sea to Africa, where he planned a comeback and revenge.

Lucius Cornelius Cinna was one of the two consuls elected in 88 BC after Sulla had taken Rome. Cinna publicly criticised Sulla but then was forced to make a pledge, along with his fellow consul Octavius, not to remove any of Sulla’s legislation (p.70).

Having massacred his opponents or driven them into exile, Sulla finally sailed with his army for the East to deal with Mithradates’ rebellion. Cinna, one of the two consuls he left behind, promptly reneged on his promise not to tamper with Sulla’s laws but was forced out of Rome by his fellow consul Octavius who stayed loyal to his absent master. Once Sulla was out of Italy, Marius returned, joined forces with Cinna, and they marched on Rome and seized power. Cinna’s fellow consul, Octavius, was hacked down in his consul’s chair and his head brought to Cinna who displayed it from the public Rostrum. These were not the ways of the old Republic.

Having returned to Rome, Marius arranged to hold an unprecedented seventh consulship but was an old man, exhausted after a life of fighting, took to debauchery and was dead in a few weeks. And so Cinna now emerged as the regime’s new ‘strongman’ (p.117). He arranged, contrary to all the rules, to hold the consulship for three years in a row, precisely the kind of sustained grip on power which the constitution was supposed to prevent.

In other words, all restraint had been lost and Roman politics had descended to warlordism and gang warfare. Political life had been ‘brutalised’ says Holland, in a phrase which reminds me of the immediate post-war years in the Weimar Republic. Once that element of street violence has entered the political domain it is very hard to remove it because you’ve shown people who are prepared to use it, that it works.

When, after three years of campaigning against Mithradates and rebellious Greek cities, Sulla wound up his affairs in Greece and gave notice of returning with his legions to Italy, Cinna tried to rouse Rome’s home legions to resist him, but the troops mutinied and, in confused circumstances, Cinna was killed. So both Marius and Cinna were dead.

On Sulla’s second march on Rome he was joined by the glamorous and fabulously successful young general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, who was to become known as Pompey the Great (p.90).

Also to his side came the scion of one of Rome’s most noble families, Marcus Licinius Crassus (p.89). Crassus’s father had opposed Marius and been murdered, as had his brother, and his entire family estates confiscated.

Marius had died but had been replaced by his confident and able son, who had rallied the anti-Sulla forces. In other words Rome’s ruling class was by the late 80s BC completely polarised between the group Holland calls ‘the Marians’ and Sulla and his supporters. The conflict between the two parties got mixed up with a final rebellion by the Samnites in the mountains east of Rome who took advantage of the confusion to launch an attack on Rome itself. Sulla hastened his march and, with crucial help from Crassus’s wing of the army, defeated the Samnites at the Battle of the Colline Gate, before marching into Rome for a second time, posing as its saviour and its undoubted ruler (p.92).

About 6,000 Samnite fighters had been taken prisoner or turned themselves in. Sulla ordered them penned up in the Field of Mars an then systematically slaughtered. Then he set about executing all his political opponents, first and foremost every member of the Marian party (p.99). An entire section of Rome’s political class was annihilated. Bounty hunters were paid to track down abscondees, who brought back their severed heads for Sulla to inspect before releasing the fee.

Huge estates were confiscated or passed into the hands of leading figures in Sulla’s party, most notoriously his vital left-hand man at the Colline Gate, Crassus. Sulla himself became the richest man in Roman history (p.101).

Sulla’s conservative revolution

Throughout his course of actions Sulla was convinced he was reforming the Republic and returning it to its purity. Holland describes how he set about trying to purify and rationalise the constitution. He did this by redefining the cursus honorum. He change the numbers of the main posts of office which aspiring politicians had to progress through (aedile, quaestor, praetor, consul, censor), set age limits under which they could not be held, defined the number of years gap between holding them. Since one of the political attacks on him had come from a tribune he passed a law declaring that anyone could still be elected tribune, but that anyone who had held the tribunate was ineligible for any further office In this and numerous other adjustments to the rules, he tried to ensure that the kind of bitter conflict which had led to his own rise, could never take place again.

In 81, with no warning, Sulla resigned his posts and abdicated his authority. He served as a conventional consul for one more year and then abandoned public life altogether. So feared was he, and so thoroughly had he extirpated his enemies, that he felt safe to abandon power, a move which puzzled later generations and historians to this day. He returned to the hard living of his youth, holding huge parties, frequenting the demi-monde, before dying, possibly of liver failure, in 78 BC (p.111). At which point the baton was passed on to a new, younger generation, two leading luminaries of which were Pompey and an ambitious young man named Julius Caesar.

Competition and glory

‘The clash of wits, the fight for pre-eminence, the toiling day and night without break to reach the summit of wealth and power…’ (Lucretius)

One massive point which comes over again and again is that Roman society was based on unbridled and unrelenting competition, especially for the ‘glory’ associated with victory in war.

  • It seemed self evident to them that the entire course of their history had been an evolution away from slavery, towards a freedom based on the dynamics of perpetual competition. (p.24)
  • Competitive elections were crucial to the self image as well as the functioning of the Republic. (p.25)
  • A system that encouraged a gnawing hunger for prestige in its citizens, that seethed with their vaunting rivalries, that generated a dynamism so aggressive that it overwhelmed all who came near it. (p.30)
  • …a state where ruthless competition was regarded as the basis of all civic virtue. (p.34)
  • the Roman desire to be the best (p.34)
  • Traditional Roman morality…fostered competition as the essence of life. (p.62)
  • In Rome a man was reckoned nothing to be nothing without the fame that accrued from glorious deeds. (p.64)
  • …a society where prestige was the principle measure of a man’s worth. (p.76)
  • Competition for honours had always been the lifeblood of the Republic (p.
  • …the Roman appetite for competition and glory. (p.109)
  • Hardness was a Roman ideal. The steel required to hunt out glory or endure disaster was the defining characteristic of a citizen. (p.111)
  • Child rearing, like virtually every other aspect of life in the Republic, reflected the inveterate Roman love of competition. (p.115)
  • Because he had simultaneously neutralised the tribunate and doubled the size of the Senate, [Sulla’s] legacy was one of increased competition. (p.123)
  • As they had always done, established families dominated the competition. (p.123)

Competition for military glory and the prestige of holding high office was drummed into every upper class boy from the youngest age. This culture of unrelenting competition served Rome well for centuries, transmitted to its army which never gave up, accepting defeat after defeat but always coming back with more men and arms and, ultimately, conquering all enemies.

However, Holland repeatedly makes the obvious point which arises from the Sulla era which is that, in the bitter rivalry which developed between Marius and his successful general Sulla, somehow this all-consuming competitiveness which had once been such a positive motivating force, turned rotten, spilled over from politicking into military coup, seizure of the capital itself, bloodbaths of enemies, and so on.

And once all these taboos had been broken, once all restraint had been lost, the same pattern was to recur again and again during the Republic’s last half century.

The Roman constitution

Holland regularly stops his headlong narrative to give explanations of various aspects of Roman political and social culture and the Roman constitution. Obviously, Mary Beard refers to this from time to time in her chronicle of Rome but, as is her way, often only explaining an isolated aspect of it in order to illustrate a broader point, more often than not leaving the reader frustrated. Holland is much more straightforward. He stops the narrative and explains stuff. I found this surprisingly useful.

And the way he does this – intermittently – is probably wise because the whole point of the Roman constitution (we learn) was that it was a chaotic, rickety inheritance of roles and positions and posts and elections, which had accumulated over the centuries, which the Romans themselves didn’t fully understand and outsiders found baffling i.e. you couldn’t really sit down and write one definitive description, it’s best approached from different angles and perspectives. And it changed over time. And during the period Holland describes, new laws were continually adjusting and tinkering with it.

  • The Republic was as full of discrepancies and contradictions as the fabric of the city, a muddle of accretions patched together over many centuries…the Republic was structured by rules as complex and fluid as they were inviolable. To master them was a lifetime’s work…The constitution was a hall of mirrors… (pages 24 to 25)
  • It was the nature of the Republic to thrive on complexity (p.94)
  • Then constitution, subtle and finely modulated as it was, had evolved to restrain any violent change. (p.99)
  • The Republic had many different traditions, confused and confusing and defying codification. (p.137)

Central to the system was the hierarchy of posts the politically ambitious could seek, the cursus honorum (course of offices), mentioned above, the one which Sulla comprehensively reformed.

The cursus honorum

Military service Anyone seeking political office was expected to have seen military service. The aspiring politician would serve in the Roman cavalry (the equites) or in the staff of a general who was a relative or a friend of the family. Military promotions or honours would improve his political prospects. A successful military career might culminate in the office of military tribune to which 24 men were elected by the Tribal Assembly each year.

Consuls Having ejected kings, the Romans took steps to ensure power was never again vested in one individual who ruled for a lifetime by vesting the most senior power in the state as residing in two consuls who were elected to serve for just one year (p.2). The minimum age was 42. Years in Rome’s history were identified not by a number but by the names of the two consuls elected for a particular year. Consuls were responsible for the city’s political agenda, commanded large-scale armies and controlled important provinces. They were accompanied everywhere by a bodyguard of twelve lictors who bore on their shoulders the bundle of strapped rods called fasces, symbol of their power (p.64). Candidates for the consulship had to put their names forward by the start of July (p.224). Every consul, once he had finished his year in post, was given a governorship aboard (p.225).

Aedile Aediles were responsible for maintenance of public buildings and regulation of public festivals.

Quaestor A quaestor served for a year as assistant to a more senior magistrate (p.101). Twenty quaestors served in the financial administration at Rome or as second-in-command to a governor in the provinces. They could also serve as the paymaster for a legion. Some of the quaestors were tasked with supervision of public games (p.198).

Praetor Junior in rank only to the consuls, a praetor was charged with administering the city’s laws, convening and presiding over sessions of the Senate (p.104). During the republic, six or eight praetors were elected each year to serve judicial functions throughout Rome and other governmental responsibilities. In the absence of the consuls, a praetor would be given command of the garrison in Rome or in Italy. Also, a praetor could exercise the functions of the consuls throughout Rome, but their main function was that of a judge. They would preside over trials involving criminal acts, grant court orders and validate ‘illegal’ acts as acts of administering justice.

A praetor was escorted by six lictors. After a term as praetor, the magistrate would serve as a provincial governor with the title of propraetor, commanding the province’s legions, and possessing ultimate authority within his province(s).

Two of the praetors were more prestigious than the others. The Praetor Peregrinus was the chief judge in trials involving one or more foreigners. The Praetor Urbanus was the chief judicial office in Rome with the power to overturn any verdict by any other courts, and serve as judge in cases involving criminal charges against provincial governors.

Tribune The tribunes has right of veto over bills they disliked and power to convene public assemblies to pass bills of their own. The post was considered sacrosanct and so tribunes were not allowed to leave Rome during their tenure (p.27).

The Senate A body of about 300 older men, elected to the Senate because they had held one of the other ‘magistracies’. The Senate didn’t actually make any laws but debated legal and political matters and issued decrees which had no binding force but the magistrates did well to take into account (p.37). During Sulla’s reign of terror he executed or drove into exile so many senators that the number fell to 100 but during the period of his reforming rule, he packed it with new blood, expanding its number to 600, and demolished the old Curia building and had a grand new Senate House built.

Censor The censorship was the single most powerful and influential position or magistracy, responsible for overseeing the census, held every five years to produce a detailed assessment of every household, its wealth and income and number of slaves and dependents, on which the elaborate hierarchies of Rome were based (p.96).

N.B. This series of posts is only one part in the jigsaw of the constitution. I haven’t mentioned the priesthoods, for example the priest of Jupiter, the father god of Rome, a post Julius Caesar held while still a boy. Or the pontifex maximus, the most prestigious post in the entire state, which a man held for life and came with a mansion on the Via Sacra, in the Forum, in the heart of Rome (p.199).

Nor any of the assemblies with their various rules for elections, the importance of ‘tribes’, tribunes or tribunals, or the densely structured economic and social hierarchies which applied to every citizen and determined their rights and votes and place in the grand scheme.

As Holland’s narrative proceeds, the scale of the bribery involved in each subsequent set of elections grows and grows in scale (e.g. p.225).

Other learnings

Rome was a squalid maze

Surprisingly, ancient Rome was a shambles of narrow dirty alleys and wiggly roads packed with people, horses and carts. Since the consuls only ruled for a year there was no long-term town planning which meant the city became a byword for narrow roads and alleys, temples, houses and tenement blocks called insulae looming over alleys full of mud and excrement (pages 15 to 18).

Clutter was the essence of the Republic. It spread everywhere that Sulla cared to look. It could be seen in the very appearance of Rome itself. (p.106)

Cicero has a famous quote on the state of Rome, when criticising the senator and moralist Cato the Younger (born 95 BC) which Holland translates as:

‘He addresses the Senate as if he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’s shit-hole.’ (quoted on page 196)

[The more restrained H. H. Scullard translates this as Cicero complaining that ‘Cato talked as if he were in the republic of Cato, not in the sink of Romulus’, From the Gracchi to Nero: A History of Rome from 138 BC to AD 68 by H. H. Scullard, page 117. L.P. Wilkinson in his translation of Cicero’s letters gives it as: ‘He talks as if he were living in Plato’s Republic rather than Romulus’s dunghill‘, page 39.]

As well as pausing his narrative to describe various aspects of the culture or constitution of Rome, Holland also stop periodically to give a page or two on the history and social and political function of various famous locations around the city. These are always interesting and the vivid thriller style which sometimes seems out of place in his political history works very well to bring these Roman places and the milling noisy crowds who filled them to life.

The Circus Maximus (pages 20, 122)

Right at the start of his account Holland explains how the legendary Romulus was said to have built his camp on what was to be named the Palatine Hill while Remus built his on the Aventine Hill a few hundred yards south. The triumph of Romulus marked the Palatine as the seat of Rome’s richest, later the hill of the emperors, while the Aventine became associated with the poor. It was to the Aventine that the disgruntled plebs went during the series of secessios – in effect, general strikes – when they were campaigning for equal civil rights.

The shallow valley between the two hills had been the site of games and then chariot races from time immemorial. It was the first and largest stadium in ancient Rome, measuring 2,037 feet in length and 387 feet in width and could accommodate over 150,000 spectators. As such it was one of the two big spaces in the city where citizens could meet and mingle and enjoy a sense of civic community. It was where politicians in power, magistrates or victorious generals could receive the cheers or boos of huge crowds (p.20). Games were organised by the class of magistrate called the aediles.

On page 122 Holland gives a brief but vivid description of the chariot races held in the circus. Although the building was huge the track itself was quite narrow with only width for four chariots and the turn at the end of each lap required the charioteer to steer close to the huge metal poles which defined the turn, the metae, without actually touching them with his chariot’s wheels, which would almost send chariot and him ricocheting to certain death.

The Forum (p.85)

Along with the Circus Maximus, the Forum was one of the two open spaces in the city where citizens could mingle freely. Originally a marsh, it was drained to provide a meeting place for squabbling tribes from the hills and so could be said to be the place where Romans learned to sort out their differences through political means. Like the rest of the city it was a jumble of discordant monuments. (p.85)

The Field of Mars (p.93)

Holland gives an excellent description of the Campus Martius and its central role in the republic’s political processes. It was originally, in this plain outside the city walls that citizens were taken and administered the oath which turned them into soldiers. Here they were ranked by wealth and status. At the top were those who could afford their own horse and so were named the equites. Below the equestrian class were five further classes ranked by wealth until you reached the lowest class, people who couldn’t even afford a slingshot and were named the proletarii.

Worth stopping a moment to consider this word: in the census the poorest citizens were defined as those who had little or no property except for their children. The Latin term for these was proles or ‘offspring’. So while the richest citizens could offer horses and arms, the poorest could only offer their proles as future Roman citizens available to colonise conquered territories – and so this class was called the proletarius (producer of offspring), singular, or proletarii in the plural.

Anyway, Holland explains how the Field of Mars evolved into the location of elections for the many magistrate positions or assemblies. The key building was the Ovile or ‘sheepfold’, an enclosure with gates and barriers, where citizens lined up to vote, richest at the front, poorest at the back. Exemplifying the Roman love of complexity, the precise order or procedure for voting was different in the case of each election or magistracy, with strict rules and protocols to be observed.

Holland gives a vivid description of the scene at a typical election, the hoisting of a flag, the blowing of trumpets, the enormous queues of shuffling citizens, the dust raised in the hot air, the tension for election days creating ‘one of the greatest excitements of Roman civic life’ (p.95). Then appearance of the candidates in their specially whitened togas (as Mary Beard tells us the word ‘candidate’ derives from the Roman for white, candidus, referring to these specially whitened togas). The milling crowd, the jeers and chatter and then, when the winning candidates were announced, cheers from their supporters and they were escorted off from the Ovile to the Capitol Hill to take up office.

In passages like these, Holland’s strategy of eschewing scholarly detail in favour of vivid description and atmosphere works very well indeed.

The Rubicon

The River Rubicon which Julius Caesar so grandly crossed with the Army of Gaul, thus decisively plunging the Republic into civil war, thus giving us a phrase we have used for centuries to indicate taking an irrevocable decision…this river was in fact so small and insignificant that nobody in later centuries, and even today, knows where it actually is.


Credit

Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic by Tom Holland was published in 2003 by Little, Brown. All references are to the 2004 Abacus paperback.

Roman reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 9. Greek democracy versus Roman liberty

A theme which threads through Mary Beard’s history of ancient Rome, SPQR, is the difference between Greek notions of democracy and Roman ones of liberty.

Although Romans had lots of elections, for a wide range of officials, starting with the annual election of consuls, although the Romans voted on the passage of laws, voted for or against wars and so on – Rome was never really a democracy and the Greek word δημοκρατία or dēmokratia was never central to its political culture (p.189). That role was played by the concept of libertas or liberty (p.291).

Romans fought for, and about, liberty, not democracy. (SPQR p.189)

Politics was the province of privileged, rich and literate Romans (the only people who have left extended texts which we can study). To stand for election to any political office in Rome you had to be phenomenally rich and pass a financial test that comfortably excluded most citizens. The fundamental value of Roman politics was not anything like the voice of the people, but the liberty of the citizen against any form of oppressive government (even if ‘citizen’ mostly meant, in practice, the relatively small number of wealthy citizens who made up the intricately interlinked ruling elite. This was the group Cicero referred to the optimates, derived from optimi, meaning ‘the best’ men in the state, in other words, the wealthiest and best connected, p.227).

Against kings

The fundamental meaning of libertas as being against oppression went back to the Romans’ overthrow of their kings in the early 500s and the establishment of their republic. 450 years later, a cabal of assassins murdered Julius Caesar in the name of this ‘liberty’, fearing that he was about to become a dictator for life, little less than a king. They had coins struck which showed the daggers used to kill Caesar alongside the pileus, the cap worn by newly freed slaves, and the words Ides referring to the Ides of March when the assassination took place (p.295). Daggers and freedom. The assassins called themselves the liberatores, the liberators. Assassinating the tyrant was, in their view, vital to preserving libertas.

The EID MAR denarius issued by Marcus Junius Brutus in 43/42 BC showing, on one side, Brutus’s profile, on the other the freedom cap, the daggers and EID MAR denoting the Eidibus Martiis or the Ides of March, 15 March, the day Julius Caesar was assassinated (p.295).

Liberty means different things

The trouble with libertas as a slogan, though, is that ‘freedom’ means different things to different people. It is one thing to rally huge crowds in city centres chanting for freedom and the overthrow of dictators from Caesar to Ceaușescu. But once you’ve overthrown the tyrant, what do you do next?

Because libertas is an empty slogan onto which people project their own fantasies and desires – millions of conflicting wishes and hopes – it is inevitable that revolutions in the name of a liberty in which everyone has vested their deepest hopes will turn out to be disappointing. You cannot fulfil everyone’s dreams and fantasies of a better life, especially in exactly the kind of turbulent, crisis-ridden times which give rise to revolutions in the first place.

Inevitable, too, that in the chaos of conflicting wishes and plans and parties which follow a revolution, someone will eventually have to step in and establish order – as Caesar tried to do as the Roman Republic collapsed, was assassinated before he could make the attempt, and as his adopted heir, Octavian , finally succeeded in doing.

Greek demokratia

For the Greeks, by contrast, dēmokratia was in intrinsic part of the administrative system of their states (well, some of them; ancient Greece was divided into numerous city states and not all of them implemented ‘democracy’ as it was understood in ancient Athens). The Athenians believed that their democratic system was created after the expulsion of the last in a series of ‘tyrants’ at the end of the 6th century BC (at pretty much the same time as the Romans had expelled their last king, Tarquin the Arrogant – p.128).

But without getting bogged down in a mass of historical detail, the basic point is clear: Democracy is a practical, implementable policy and everyone knows what it means: it means all adults get to vote for their leaders and key policies of state. Liberty, on the other hand, is a great rallying cry for revolutions to overthrow kings and tyrants and dictators (‘Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood’, the French revolutionaries said they were fighting for, p.129). But once this is achieved, what next? Unlike democracy, liberty is not a practical, implementable policy – it’s just a rallying cry and a slogan.

The liberators

The conspirators assassinated Julius Caesar in the name of libertas, thinking they were eliminating a tyrant in order to restore the values of the Republic. Instead they ushered in 14 years of bitter civil war which, after a series of unstable power-sharing arrangements, led to the rise of Octavian, a ruler much stronger and more ruthless than Caesar would ever have been. Murder in the name of liberty led, in fact, to the decisive overthrow of the Republic they set out to preserve.

The French revolutionaries executed Louis XIV in the name of liberté but instead created an ever-intensifying Reign of Terror which, after a series of unstable constitutional experiments, led to the rise of the Europe-wide dictator Napoleon, a ruler far more sweepingly dictatorial than any king had been.

The paradox of liberty

The paradox that overturning a dictator in the name of ‘liberty’ often leads to the rise of an even more repressive ruler than you got rid of, is captured by a quote from Tom Holland’s history of the Roman Republic, Rubicon. He quotes the lawyer, orator and politician Cicero expressing puzzlement that Caesar’s assassins had definitely overthrown the Tyrant – and yet, the Republic and the ‘Freedom’ they claimed to be reviving went on to collapse:

“Freedom has been restored,” Cicero noted in perplexity, “and yet the Republic has not.” (quoted in Rubicon, page 352)

Something like this happened 2,050 years later during the so-called Arab Spring, when liberals and intellectuals and disaffected crowds in Libya and Egypt and Syria set out to overthrow their repressive rulers (Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and Bashar al-Assad) but ended up with political chaos,  a collapse into warlordism, or a ruler tougher and more repressive than the one they overthrew.

Moral of the story

If you’re marching in the streets to overthrow a dictator don’t do so in the name of ‘Liberty’, because the idea will be hijacked by the canniest political operator or strongest warlord or toughest general on the scene, who will then twist your ideas out of recognition, twist them till they’ve turned your idea of liberty to fit into their idea of Order and Security.

Write ‘Democracy’ on your banners because the simple call for regular elections to chuck out corrupt leaders and elect new ones cannot be talked away, reinterpreted or redefined. It is a clear, simple, practical programme, and so likelier to be achieved.


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) 8. Assimilation

The key learning from the entire book is that the secret of Rome’s success can be summed up in one word: assimilation. Already, by the 300s BC, Romans had perfected a system which was unprecedented in the ancient world and was to give them unparalleled power and success. It was that they did not conquer and destroy their enemies then retire to their core territory: they assimilated both the people and the territories they defeated into the Roman state. They extended Roman-ness to the conquered peoples, thus extending Roman territory and Roman population, eventually to a vast and unparalleled extent (page 67).

1. An endless supply of soldiers

Instead of setting Roman administrators over a defeated tribe, the only tribute the Romans asked for was for the defeated to provide soldiers for the Roman army, to be funded by local taxation. These soldiers, regardless of tribal affiliation or ethnic origin, were fully assimilated into the Roman army and given the privileges of Roman citizens and, in the later Republic, offered full citizenship at the end of a fixed term of service.

Although military tactics counted for something when it came to winning battles and wars, Beard says that what counted most in 4th, 3rd and 2nd century warfare was sheer numbers of men: the biggest army generally won, and the Romans invented a way of continually augmenting their armies by incorporating soldiers from conquered peoples on conditions of complete equality (p.164).

It became a technique for converting former enemies into part of Rome’s military machine. Unlike almost all other polities in the ancient world, when Rome conquered a people it didn’t increase the number of its enemies, it increased the ranks of its army. And it gave the newly co-opted soldiers ‘a stake in the Roman enterprise’ by promising glory and booty.

2. Extending Roman citizenship

Similarly, all the regional tribes in Italy which the Romans fought and defeated in the 3rd and 2nd centuries were not crushed and sold into slavery etc. Within a short period they were offered inclusion in the Roman state. The precise nature of the deal varied, from full citizen rights and privileges, including the right to vote or stand in elections, to ‘citizenship without the vote’.

Rome also established ‘new towns’ in conquered territory (misleadingly named ‘colonies’) and the inhabitants of these colonies were then given ‘Latin rights’ – rights to intermarry with Romans, to make contracts, free movement around Roman territory (p.165).

Thus Rome was unique in the ancient world in breaking the link between citizenship and a specific city. Obviously Rome remained the capital of the system, but you could live in any one of a growing number of Italian cities and towns and enjoy full Roman legal rights. In his book Blood and Belonging Michael Ignatieff explains the crucial difference between ‘ethnic nationalism’ – where people identify primarily with their town or tribe or race or ethnic group – and ‘civic nationalism’ – where all citizens owe allegiance to a state under whose laws they are all equal regardless of race, creed or gender.

Alone of all polities in the ancient world, the Romans made the decisive step from ethnic to civic nationalism, thus stumbling, as Beard describes it, rather haphazardly, and over a long period of time, upon the winning formula which eventually gave most people living round the Mediterranean a sense that whatever their ethnic origins, they were Roman citizens; that whether they were born in Northumberland or Numibia they could utter the famous tag, civis Romanum sum, ‘I am a Roman citizen’, and expect to be accorded all the rights and liberties of a Roman citizen. The Romans:

redefined the word ‘Latin’ so that it was no longer an ethnic identity but a political status unrelated to race or geography. This set the stage for a model of citizenship and ‘belonging’ that had enormous significance for Roman ideas of government, political rights, ethnicity and ‘nationhood’ (p.166)

Other factors, economic or technological or military, played a part. But just these two constitutional and administrative strategies go a long way to explaining why what started out as just one town among many in central Italy in 400 BC had, by about 50 BC, created and integrated the largest Mediterranean empire that ever existed. And then, of course, during the imperial period (after 30 BC) was to go on and expand it even further.

Map of the Roman Republic in 40 BC

Why end with Caracalla?

This central thread of the ability of Rome to extend its territory, armies and power by incorporating conquered peoples into the state partly explains why Beard decides to end her account, not with a standard end point like the decriminalising of Christianity by the emperor Constantine in 313 AD, but in 212 AD with the decision by the emperor Caracalla to give full citizenship to everyone living in the Roman Empire, an event she references on pages 17, 67, 334 and, in the conclusion, on page 527.

Other examples of assimilation

Never one to let a good idea go unrepeated, Beard repeatedly references two other striking examples of Rome’s openness and inclusivity.

Ethnic emperors

One is that, among the first dozen or so emperors, several were not ethnically Roman at all. The emperor Trajan came from Spain and the emperor Septimius Severus from Africa. Now these guys might have been descended from ethnically Italian settlers in those places or they might have been ethnically Italian and (north) African, but we don’t know because no-one, not even their enemies writing against them, thought it worth commenting on. That itself is a good demonstration of how even the highest levels of Roman society were indifferent to ethnicity (this fact is mentioned on pages 67, 418 and 521).

Claudius defends the Gauls

She also likes the story about the emperor Claudius (ruled 41 to 54 AD) who made a speech to the Senate in which he argued that citizens from the only-recently pacified Gaul should be allowed to become senators. The speech was recorded (written on a bronze plaque which was discovered in Lyons) so we know that Claudius argued that right from the date of its foundation Rome had been open to foreigners so long as they abided by its laws and customs (Beard mentions this story on pages 67, 114, 156 and 522). The result was, by Claudius’s time, a decidedly multicultural population and state (p.67).

Assimilating the gods

Less belaboured but still mentioned quite a few times is the way that Rome was tremendously open about its gods and religion. This had two aspects.

1. One was the free and easy way the Romans assimilated foreign gods into the original Roman pantheon so that by the time of the empire the city was packed with temples not only to Rome’s own original gods and imports from Greece, but to deities borrowed from all over the Mediterranean. Like many of Beard’s points, this one is repeated half a dozen times, on pages 179, 205 and:

The range of deities worshipped in Rome was proudly elastic. (p.207)

Roman religion was not only polytheistic but treated foreign gods much as it treated foreign peoples: by incorporation…As the Roman Empire expanded so did its pantheon of deities. (p.519)

2. The second aspect was the authorities’ relaxed attitude to religious practice in the lands they conquered and assimilated. They Egyptians, the Jews, the Persians, the various peoples of Asia Minor or Gaul were all allowed to continue worshipping their own gods in their own ways, so long as it didn’t break the law or threaten the peace. The druids of Britannia were an exception because they were (misleadingly) reported to practice human sacrifice which the Romans considered beyond the pale of civilised practice. And the Christians ended up being persecuted because they obstinately refused to pay lip service or do simple obeisance to local gods or shrines to the deified emperors i.e. they subverted the very minimal requirements the Romans asked of their subject peoples. This is because, as Beard usefully explains:

Ancient Roman religion [wasn’t] particularly concerned with personal salvation or morality. Instead it mainly focused on the performance of rituals that were intended to keep the relationship between Rome and the gods in good order…It was a religion of doing, not believing. (p.103)

Co-opting, enrolling, enlisting, including and assimilating – these were the techniques which underpinned Rome’s phenomenal success for centuries.


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) 7. The empire

If you’re looking for a chronological history of the Roman Empire, or an account of the military campaigns and battles which led to its territorial expansion, or an account of the organisation and administration of the Roman army, during either the republican or imperial eras, forget it. None of that is in this book.

Beard’s interest is in exploring themes or aspects of Roman social, cultural and political history. Hence, although the final chapter in SPQR is devoted to ‘Rome Outside Rome’ i.e. the wider Roman empire, it is nothing like a chronological history of the empire, or of the wars of conquest and putting down of rebellions which consolidated it, or a really thorough examination of Rome’s administrative bureaucracy. Instead it is an entertainingly meandering essay which considers some selected aspects of Roman rule beyond Italy. Beard starts the chapter, as usual, with a flurry of academic questions:

  • how were the cultural differences across the empire debated?
  • how ‘Roman’ did the empire’s inhabitants outside Rome and Italy become?
  • how did people in the provinces relate their traditions, religions, languages and literatures to those of imperial Rome, and vice versa?

Beard uses biographies of Roman administrators such as Pliny the Younger (61 to 113 AD), touches on the Roman attitude to religion – especially the troublesome new religion of Christianity – uses Hadrian’s Wall as an example of the limits of empire, and generally delves into other topics which take her fancy.

So, as a reader, as soon as you abandon any hope of getting a thorough or even basic chronological overview of the main events of the wider Roman empire, and settle down for a chatty meander through  some selected aspects of a fascinating subject, then Beard is an enjoyable and informative guide.

The limits of imperial expansion

Augustus called a halt to the expansion of imperial Rome following the disastrous Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD in which Publius Quinctilius Varus lost three legions massacred by barbarian Germans led by Arminius (p.480). Fascinatingly, Beard tells us that Augustus had fully intended to extend Roman power into Germany, and had begun construction of a town at Waldgirmes, 60 miles east of the Rhine, complete with forum, statue of the emperor and all the trimmings. After Teutoburg he ordered all building work abandoned and withdrawal of all Roman forces to the Rhine and in his will instructed his successors not to extend the empire.

But they did. Claudius sent legions to conquer Britannia, which they’d seized enough of by 44 AD to justify Claudius awarding himself a triumph, although the Romans took a long time to extend their power right up to the border with Hibernia. In the east, in 101 to 102 Trajan conquered Dacia, part of what is now Romania and in 114 to 117 invaded Mesopotamia to the borders of modern Iran.

Emperors less competitive than consuls

But overall the pace of territorial acquisition slowed right down. Beard makes the interesting point that this was at least in part because under the Republic you had two consuls who competed with each other for military glory, rising to the epic rivalry between Julius Caesar, busy making a name for himself conquering Gaul in the West, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known in English as Pompey, redrawing the map of the Roman East.

By contrast, the emperors had no rivals and no-one to beat. Their only rivals were the previous emperors so they could take their time, make a few strategic ‘conquests’, award themselves a nice triumph and relax. Most of the wars of the first 200 years of empire were against internal rebellions or border skirmishes.

Governor Pliny in Bithynia

Slowly the focus of administrators and emperors switched from conquest to good administration. It’s to examine this that Beard gives the example of Pliny the Younger who in 109 was sent to become governor of the province of Bithynia along the southern coast of the Black Sea in what is now Turkey. Next to Cicero Pliny is one of the most knowable ancient Romans because of the 100 or so letters he sent directly to the emperor Trajan, reporting back on all aspects of Roman administration, from taxes to statues, to the nitty gritty of local legal cases.

What the Romans wanted was peaceful administration, avoidance of flagrant examples of corruption, good regular supplies of taxes. They made little or no attempt to impose their own cultural norms or eradicate local traditions. Instead the East, in particular, remained a mostly Greek-speaking fantasia of different religions, gods, festivals, dress, traditions and so on.

Small number of imperial administrators

In a striking similarity to the British Empire, Beard tells us the number of imperial administrators was vanishingly small: across the empire at any one time there were probably fewer than 200 elite Roman administrators running an empire of more than 50 million subjects (p.490). So how was the empire managed?

1. The most obvious answer is the substantial Roman legions posted around the borders of the empire and Beard mentions the insight we have into one such garrison from the amazing discoveries which have been made at Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall.

2. Building new settlements was another strategy. In the north and west in particular the building of Roman settlements on the classic, standardised Roman town layout was one of the most enduring legacies of empire. Roman policy resulted in ‘urbanisation on an unprecedented scale’ (p.492).

3. Also, just like the British, French and other European empires 1,800 years later, the Romans co-opted the local elites. Local rulers who came over to Rome were awarded formal titles, new Roman names, rights and privileges. They took to wearing the toga, they sent their children to Roman schools to learn Latin, rhetoric and civics. Over generations these became embedded and Romanised elites did the work of ensuring peace and lack of rebellions among their subjects.

The 1st century efflorescence of Greek literature

In the East, the Greeks didn’t need to take any lessons in ‘civilisation’ from the Romans and no Roman would have dared suggest it. Nonetheless, Beard points out that the early imperial period saw an extraordinary florescence of Greek literature, much of it addressing, skirting, questioning the impact of Roman hegemony on the Greek world. In a striking example, she tells us that the output of just one Greek writer of this period, biographer and philosopher Plutarch (46 to 119 AD) fills as many modern pages as all the surviving literature from the 5th century BC put together, from the tragedies of Aeschylus to the histories of Thucydides (p.500).

Three typical rebellions

Surprisingly, maybe, there were only a handful of major rebellions against Roman rule in the first century (although it may be that these were under-reported, as both regional governors and emperors weren’t keen to record dissent).

Anyway, Beard makes the interesting point that the three major rebellions we know about weren’t standalone nationalist uprisings of the kind we’re familiar with from the end of the modern European empires. In the three biggest instances they were not popular uprisings but rebellions by members of the collaborating class felt they had, for one reason or another, been badly treated by their Roman allies.

1. Thus the leader of the German forces in the Teutoburg Forest, Arminius, was a solid ally of Rome and personal friend of the general whose forces he massacred. Modern thinking has it that Arminius was a rival for leadership of his tribe, the Cherusci, with his brother, Segeste. When a revolt began among the auxiliary troops for an unknown reason, it may be that Arminius thought he stood more chance of becoming paramount leader of his people by betraying his Roman allies (and brother) and it seems to have worked.

2. In Britannia, Queen Boadicea or Boudicca rebelled after terrible treatment by the Romans. When her husband Prasutagus died he left half his tribal kingdom to the empire and half to his daughters. But when Roman forces moved in to take their territory they ran amok among the Britons, plundering the king’s property, raping  his daughters and flogging Boudicca. Hence her armed revolt, and you can see why her tribe would rally to her standard, whose first steps were to burn to the ground the nearest three Roman towns, murdering all their inhabitants, before the governor of the province, 250 miles away on the border of Wales, heard the news, marched across country to East Anglia, and exterminated the British forces (p.514).

3. The First Jewish War or Great Jewish Revolt (66 to 73 AD) is also attributable to bad behaviour by the occupying Romans. The middle classes protested against heavy Roman taxation and there were some random attacks on Roman citizens. In response the Roman governor, Gessius Florus, raided the Second Temple (where no non-Jew was allowed to enter) for back payment of the taxes, then arrested senior Jewish figures some of whom he had crucified for disobedience. Bad idea. The rebellion spread like wildfire and pinned down Roman legions in Palestine for the next seven years.

Free movement of goods and people

Another massive effect of the Roman Empire was the free movement of goods and people on an unprecedented scale. Among the ruins of Pompeii has been found an ivory figurine from India, the soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall were buying pepper brought all the way from the Far East. Vast amounts of olive oil (20 million litres per year) were imported to Rome from southern Spain and the province of Africa became the breadbasket for the capital (250,000 tonnes of grain).

Not only goods but people moved vast distances, making lives and careers for themselves thousands of miles from their birthplaces in a way that was unprecedented for most of world history before. Beard exemplifies this astonishing freedom of movement in the story of Barates who was working near Hadrian’s Wall in the second century AD, and built a memorial to his wife who predeceased him and came from just north of London. The point is that Barates himself, as his memorial  records, originally hailed from Syria, 4,000 miles away.

Trade and administration, imports and exports, sending soldiers and administrators to the ends of the known world, involved a huge amount of bureaucracy and organisation, many fragments of which have survived to build up a picture of the empire’s multi-levelled commercial and administrative complexity.

The people, group or ideology this free movement around the entire Mediterranean basin was ultimately to benefit most were the Christians. Familiarity with the life of St Paul shows just how free they were to travel freely and to spread their word to the ‘godfearers’, the groups who attached themselves to Jewish synagogues but couldn’t become full Jews because of their lack of circumcision and/or the food and ritual restrictions, so who were an enthusiastic audience for the non-ethnic, universalising tendency of  the new religion.

It is this principle of openness and assimilation, which characterised Rome from the earliest times when Romulus incorporated members of neighbouring tribes into his nascent settlement, that I briefly describe in the next blog post.


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) 6. Social history

Having covered the rule of the pivotal figure in Roman history, the emperor Augustus, in chapter 9, and the rule of the 14 emperors who followed him in chapter 10, Beard has finished with her chronological account of the Roman empire and moves on to consider the social history of the period. Here are some highlights:

The Roman emperor had more wealth than anyone in human history, derived from huge landholdings right around the Mediterranean, including not only vast farms, but mines and ports and harbours which paid taxes and customs duties (p.435).

Property qualifications for office: to be eligible for the Senate one had to have a fortune of at least 1 million sestercii. To be a local councillor one needed a house with at least 1,500 roof tiles (p.436). The purpose of the well-organised censuses held in Rome was not to provide data for the provision of all kinds of social services, as in the modern world, but at least in part to assess the wealth of the property-owning classes in order to clarify who was, and was not, eligible to serve in various offices of local and central government.

Of Rome’s seven hills, the Palatine Hill had for some time been associated with the houses of the rich. During the imperial period it was steadily taken over by the emperors with their plans for grandiose palaces Lower down the scale, and in the provinces, the very rich vied to build themselves into history by commissioning extravagant buildings and entire developments in cities around the Mediterranean (p.436).

That said, Rome was not the city of grand boulevards lined with elegant buildings of the modern imagination. It was a warren of dirty alleys, occasionally opening onto squares, chief among them the Forum. There was no organised rubbish collection so the streets were full of rubbish and human waste. As a result disease was rife, even in the famous public baths. In 160 AD the entire empire was swept by an epidemic, possibly a form of smallpox, which caused a large death toll (p.439).

At its height the Roman Empire probably had a population of between 50 and 60 million. The rich, who lived in fine houses, took part in political and cultural life, and among whom all the writers we know about can be counted, numbered maybe 300,000 i.e. less than 1% (p.440).

The majority of the population were peasant farmers, smallholders struggling to make a living off the land for them and their families (p.442). In cities and towns we know there were large numbers of homeless or squatters, living wherever they could find a nook. Many Roman towns and cities must have looked like modern Third World shanty towns (p.444). One of the many paintings preserved in Pompeii shows a homeless man with a dog begging from a rich lady. Could be the West End of London, any day during my lifetime (p.444).

The Cura Annonae was the term used to describe the import and distribution of grain to the residents of  Rome. Inaugurated under the Republic, the number receiving the dole swelled to an unmanageable 300,000 before being set at 200,000 by Augustus (p.445). This combined with the spectacular public gladiator fights and other displays put on by the emperors lie behind the satirist Juvenal’s comment that the Roman population was only kept in line, obedient and compliant, by the provision of panem et circenses meaning ‘bread and circuses’ (p.440).

The seating capacity of even the enormous Colosseum was only 50,000, at the huge Circus Maximus it was a whopping 250,000 – for the population of Rome which, at its peak, reached about one million (p.462).

The well preserved ruins of Pompeii are a goldmine of social history. Among many other findings they demonstrate a surprisingly large number of bars and cooked food outlets, and that gambling at a wide variety of games was endemic (p.459).

Rome had no police force at all – if someone did you wrong, you had to apply to a law court for justice, take matters into your own hands, or the hands of friends and family, or let it go. In reality, the sophisticated world of Roman law and law courts and sophisticated lawyers, was the preserve of the rich (p.465). Another way of getting your own back was asking the gods for revenge. We know this because so many votive offerings have survived in which individuals call down curses on people who have wronged them. Or you could ask any number of fortune tellers and seers and so on to do the same (p.465).

There was only a small, basic fire service which helps explain why the Great Fire of Rome during Nero’s reign, in 64 AD, was so ruinous (p.463).

Summary

As with her discussion of the issues and problems surrounding the figure of the Roman emperor, so again in this chapter, once Beard is liberated from the constraints of chronology i.e. from history as a sequence of dates and events, once she is free to explore themes and ideas, then she is an entertaining and instructive guide.


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) 5. The emperors

The Roman Emperors

The last 200 pages of SPQR (pages 330 to 530) cover the first 250 years of the Roman Empire, from the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 AD to the reign of Caracalla (formally known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) who reigned from 198 to 217. Beard chooses the reign of Caracalla to end her book because he took the revolutionary step of granting the entire free population of the Roman Empire full Roman citizenship thus bringing to a kind of completion the process of assimilation and integration of foreign peoples which she has singled out as, from the start, one of the distinguishing features of the Roman state (p.334).

Beard starts by describing in some detail the machinations following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, which led to the creation of the second triumvirate of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Lepidus (p.341). These three commanded armies which went after the armies led by the main assassins of Caesar, chief among them Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. These two had fled Italy to the East where they amassed armies and were assigned provinces to govern by the Senate. This led in quick succession to:

42: the Battle of Philippi in Greece where Octavian and Antony defeated the Republicans under Brutus and Cassius (p.342). Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide i.e. the assassins of Caesar were defeated and killed.

Over the next few years Octavian and Mark Antony remained in uneasy alliance, falling out then patching things up. In one attempt to cement their alliance, Anthony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia, in 40.

36: Octavian stripped Lepidus of all power but the purely ceremonial role of Pontifex Maximus (supreme priest), leaving Mark Anthony, allied with Cleopatra of Egypt, as Octavian’s main enemy (p.346).

32: Antony divorced Octavian’s sister. Partly in revenge, Octavian got hold of Antony’s will (it was stashed in the temple of the Vestal Virgins) and read it out in the Forum. He claimed it showed that Antony intended to bequeath his fortune to the twin sons he had just had by Cleopatra, and wished to be buried in Alexandria i.e. he had ceased to be a Roman patriot.

31: Open war finally breaks out between Octavian and Antony. At the Battle of Actium Octavian defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who flee to Egypt and commit suicide, leaving Octavian the most powerful man in the Roman world.

27: Octavian is given extraordinary powers and the invented title of ‘Augustus’ by the Roman Senate (p.340). Although many of its constitutional forms live on for centuries, the Republic is in effect dead, and historians date the start of the Roman Empire from either 31 or 27.

Beard makes the simple but powerful point that the Roman polity had been evolving towards power being wielded by one man for some time. Gaius Marius (157 to 86) who was given extraordinary powers to prosecute the Cimbrian and Jugurthine wars was maybe the first precursor. His subordinate and rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78), who twice marched his legions into Rome itself, causing civil disturbance and ordering the massacre of his political enemies (in 88 and 82), is an even more glaring precursor.

And Beard goes on to say that, after he had been awarded extraordinary powers to prosecute Rome’s wars in the eastern Mediterranean, Gnaeus Pompeius, known as Pompey the Great (106 to 48), had a strong claim to be ‘the first emperor’.

I imagine squabbling about who was the first emperor is a parlour game which can keep classicists entertained well into the early hours. For most of us non-experts, though, the empire started with the rise to complete power of Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus, by 31 BC.

The emperors

The emperors are often grouped into dynasties. Thus the first five emperors are referred to as the Julio-Claudian dynasty because they all belonged to one of two closely related families, the Julii Caesares and Claudii Nerones.

Julio-Claudian dynasty (31 BC to 68 AD)

  • Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37)
  • Caligula (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)

Year of 4 emperors

  • Galba (June 68 to January 69)
  • Otho (January to April 69)
  • Aulus Vitellius (July to December 69)
  • Vespasian (December 69 to 79) founded the Flavian dynasty

Flavian dynasty (69 to 98)

  • Vespasian
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)
  • Nerva (96 to 98)

Nerva–Antonine dynasty (96 to 192)

  • Trajan (98 to 117)
  • Hadrian (117 to 138)
  • Antoninus Pius (138 to 161)
  • Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180)
  • Lucius Verus (161 to 169) ruled alongside Aurelius
  • Commodus (177 to 192)

Year of the Five Emperors 193

Commodus was assassinated leading to a period of confusion when the title of emperor was contested by no fewer than five claimants, Publius Helvius Pertinax , Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus, the latter emerging as winner.

  • Septimius Severus (193 to 211)
  • Marcus Aurelius Antoninus known as Caracalla (198 to 217)

Augustus

The pivotal figure is Augustus who arrived in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar, a fresh-faced youth of 18 who had been adopted as Caesar’s legal heir, went on to defeat all his adversaries, emerged as the most powerful men in Rome, and went on to rule for longer (30 BC to 14 AD) than any other Roman before or since, longer than any of the legendary kings, longer than any succeeding emperor.

Beard devotes a long chapter to Augustus (chapter 9, pages 337 to 385) listing his extraordinary achievements yet highlighting the paradox that, although we know more about his official deeds than almost any other figure, yet he remains an opaque and mysterious figure.

More statues of Augustus survive than any other emperor (250). He was very effective indeed at spreading his image and imperium right across the empire, using coins, statues, inscriptions, public games and extensive new architecture and town planning to spread a consistent ideology and image of imperial rule. To him is attributed the famous saying: ‘I found the city made of brick and left it built of marble’.

Augustus oversaw elections with such precision that the democratic process withered. He assigned the Senate new perks and privileges but stripped it of real political power. Rather than an independent source of power in the complex constitution of the republic, the Senate became more and more just one wing of the imperial administration. He was elected consul an unprecedented eleven times, but in one of many unprecedented moves held the power of consul at the same time as holding the full power of a tribune. He took over complete and lasting power of the army by personally appointing all legionary commanders and making himself governor of every single province which had a military presence (p.355). Under the republic ‘triumphs’ had been awarded to victorious generals. Augustus changed the rules so that in future they could only be assigned to emperors or male members of the imperial family.

Augustus added more territory to the Roman empire than any ruler before or after (p.364). He was rich by an order of magnitude more than any previous man in Rome and personally paid for unprecedentedly lavish gladiatorial games and shows. And he patronised three of the greatest Latin poets, Horace, Ovid and above all Vergil, who created everlasting works of literature which, implicitly or explicitly, sing the praises of his rule.

It is an extraordinary achievement that this one man created the template which all subsequent emperors copied for 400 years (p.384). And yet his character and his intentions remain a mystery, even though, towards the end of his life, he wrote a ten page, official autobiography, the Res Gestae (pages 360 to 368). This amounts to a long list of his achievements but manages to shed no light at all on his character. Not for nothing did the signet ring which he used to impress on the hot wax sealing official correspondence carry the image of the sphinx (p.358).

Individual emperors didn’t really matter

After dwelling on the pivotal figure of Augustus at length, Beard’s account then devotes just one chapter to the fourteen or so successors who take us through to the emperor Caracalla (pages 387 to 434).

And Beard has OIne Big Idea about the emperors which, like a lot of her idées fixes, she repeats half a dozen times (on pages 336, 397, 398, 404, 406, 412 and 426). This is that, despite their superficial differences and all the garish stories told about them, the emperors who followed Augustus were all basically the same. By this she means that they performed the same political function working within the same centralised administrative system.

Whatever their idiosyncracies, virtues, vices or backgrounds, whatever the different names we know them by, they were all better or worse reincarnations of Augustus, operating within the model of autocracy he established and dealing with the problems that he left unresolved. (p.385)

She gives us a vivid description of the assassination of the ‘mad’ emperor Caligula in January 41 AD as he walked through a corridor of his palace on the Palatine hill after watching a morning of games held in memory of Augustus. He was murdered by three members of his Praetorian guard, apparently motivated by a personal grudge rather than any grand political conspiracy. Chaos ensued. Other, loyal, members of his bodyguard ran through the palace killing anyone suspected of involvement in the ‘plot’; in the Senate politicians swapped fine speeches about the overthrow of a tyrant and the restoration of ancient liberties. But the reality was that other members of the Praetorian guard had found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace, dragged him out and acclaimed him emperor. All sorts of complicated negotiations followed, with Claudius paying the guards handsomely for their support and negotiating a deal with the Senate to recognise him. But, in the end, under all the gory details – one emperor was replaced by another and, in a sense, nothing had changed.

Beyond making it absolutely clear that the emperors had become a permanent fixture, the killing of Gaius had no significant impact on the long history of imperial rule at all. That was one thing the assassins of 41 AD had in common with the assassins of 44 BC, who killed one autocrat (Julius Caesar) only to end up with another (Augustus). For all the excitement generated by the murder of Gaius, the suspense, the uncertainty of the moment and the flirtation with Republicanism, as brief as it was unrealistic, the end result was another emperor on the throne who was not at all unlike the one he had replaced. (p.397)

And:

The emperors were more similar to one another than they were different, and it took only some superficial adjustments to turn one into another. Assassinations were minor interruptions to the grander narrative of imperial rule. (p.398)

Certainly, the system evolved – the imperial administration staff grew enormously between 14 and 212 AD (pages 408 to 411) – but the fundamental role the emperor played in the imperial system remained the same. The vast majority of the empire’s population wouldn’t have noticed the rule of one emperor from another, apart from the face on the coins and scraps of gossip, if they ever got to hear them.

Whatever the views of Suetonius and other ancient writers, the qualities and character of the individual emperors did not matter very much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history and its major developments. (p.404)

And:

Outside the narrow circle [of the court] and certainly outside the city of Rome…it can hardly have made much difference who was on the throne, or what their personal habits or intrigues were. And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic or mad as they were painted, it made little difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes. Beneath the scandalous tales…there was a remarkably stable structure of rule and…a remarkably stable set of problems and tensions across the period. (p.406)

A more thematic account

Following the chapter of Augustus, in this final stretch of her book, Beard drops all pretence at providing a chronological account and comes fully into the open with what she had probably wanted to do all along, which is take a more thematic approach to her subject.

Her addiction to asking clusters of rhetorical questions comes into its own as she sets out to discuss, not the emperors themselves, their rule and achievements and military conquests etc, but to ask questions about the themes and issues, ‘the structures, problems and tensions’ (p.336) raised by the first 200 years of imperial rule, about ‘the problems and tensions that Augustus bequeathed’ (p.413) in what amounts to a series of essays.

If you are looking for a good chronological account of the emperors this is emphatically not the book for you. She has a little section considering the vices and scandalous stories, especially about the early emperors, peddled by later historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus (pages 398 to 403) – but only to dismiss them as tittle-tattle and tell us she aims to delve beneath the gossip to address the deeper structural questions about the way the empire was created and administered, how its evolution changed Romans’ identity and culture, and so on.

And you know what – her book is much the better for it. Once she’s stated she’s going to abandon chronology and proceed by examining themes and issues, she and the reader can both relax. Now she’s  explicitly said she’s not going to give a chronological account I’m not expecting one; instead I can enjoy her rambling, discursive discussions of various issues surrounding imperial rule, which are often genuinely interesting.

Problems with the imperial system

She focuses on three issues: arranging the succession, relations with the Senate, and problems defining the precise status of the emperor (p.414).

1. The succession

The main and obvious problem, which the Romans never really solved, was how to arrange the succession from one emperor to the next (p.420). In practice there was a range of mechanisms:

a) First born son

It’s a surprise to learn that, despite being such a patriarchal society, the Romans didn’t have a strong tradition of primogeniture i.e. that a father is always succeeded by his eldest son (p.415).

b) In the family

Certainly rulers liked to keep the succession within the family, hence the grouping of the emperors into a series of family dynasties. But lacking an insistence on the primacy of the eldest son, the exact relation of a succeeding heir was often fairly remote.

c) Adoption / assimilation (p.418)

A Roman aristocrat could — either during his life or in his will — adopt an heir if he lacked a natural son. The adopted son would replace his original family name with the name of his adopted family. The most famous example is Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius who thereafter referred to himself as Gaius Julius Caesar (p.339).

Augustus, Caligula and Nero failed to father biological and legitimate sons. Tiberius’ own son, Drusus predeceased him. Only Claudius was outlived by his son, Britannicus, although he opted to promote his adopted son Nero as his successor to the throne.

Thus adoption became the most common tool that Julio-Claudian emperors use to promote their chosen heir to the front of the succession:

  • Augustus — himself an adopted son of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar — adopted his stepson Tiberius as his son and heir.
  • Tiberius, in turn, adopted his nephew Germanicus, the father of Caligula and brother of Claudius (Germanicus himself dying before he could inherit).
  • Caligula adopted his cousin Tiberius Gemellus (grandson of the Tiberius) shortly before executing him.
  • Claudius adopted his great-nephew and stepson Nero.
  • It was Nero’s failure to have either a natural or an adopted son of his own which brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end.

d) Acclamation by army

Augustus had concentrated control of the army into his hands alone, but in the long term he failed to prevent the intervention of the army in politics. On a small scale, it was the Praetorian Guard who acclaimed Claudius emperor in 41 AD, but things got worse. After the death of Nero, in 68, four different military leaders laid claim to the throne in one confused 12 month period, each backed up by army units from different provinces (p.417).

e) Dumb luck – being in the right place at the right time

The classic example being Claudius happening to be in the imperial palace in the vital minutes after the murder of Caligula and so acclaimed by the Praetorian Guard, the most heavily armed group in the city, which gave him the authority to negotiate with the Senate, and so achieve the throne (p.416).

Interestingly, Beard reinterprets all the lurid stories about imperial wives poisoning their husbands, not as being motivated by a wish to get rid of them, as such; but to ensure the correct timing; to make sure they died when then chosen successor was on the spot and so best placed to claim the throne (p.416).

2. Relations with the Senate

Augustus gave the Senate more honours and extended its privileges, but sought to reduce its power. In a series of complicated constitutional adjustments he sought to convert the Senate from an independent body into an arm of the imperial administration.

A small number resisted imperial rule so vehemently that they managed to get executed or forced to commit suicide. Some left writings criticising various emperors, though the wise wrote as historians, safely criticising emperors from previous centuries or dynasties.

When they had opportunities to intervene at crisis points, after the assassination of Caligula in 41, after the death of Nero in 68, the Senate failed to act. Easier to moan and complain than to actually step up to the plate and assume power. Their failure in both instances proves how irrevocably the state had come under the rule of one man.

Over time the nature of the Senate (when generally numbered about 600 members) changed, with more and more members coming from provincial families. The values of the Republic receded into tales of the ‘good old days’ that no one alive could ever realistically think of reviving.

3. The emperor’s status

Was he a man or a god or something in between? Augustus was careful to pose as ‘the first among equals’, emphatically denying and censoring any reference to him as king or dictator, at most allowing the word princeps to describe his status.

As to divinity, Caesar was officially recognised as a god 2 years after his death, in 42 BC, so a precedent had been set. Augustus was recognised as a god after his death and so was Claudius after his (p.429).

Beard brings out several key points. Number one is that no-one venerated a living emperor as a god, that would have been considered a gross error. The emperors were only deified after their deaths, when their spirits were considered as having ascended into heaven.

But as the first century AD progressed the emperors were increasingly treated very like gods, especially in the superstitious east, with its confusing medley of divinities. Thus living emperors found themselves included in rituals to the gods and addressed in language which overlapped with divine language (p.431). In one town records survive which show that religious ceremonies were carried out to the gods and on behalf of the emperor. No matter how thin it became, a distinction was always made.

Summary

The two chapters, one about Augustus and one giving an overview of the emperors who followed him, are the best thing in the book, because they showcase Beard’s non-chronological, thematic approach to best advantage. There are dates and events, of course, but they are merely the springboards for Beard’s explorations of themes and issues, which include interesting references to a wide range of contemporary Roman writers’ opinions and gossip about the emperors, alongside thoughtful analysis of the structural problems and issues of imperial rule, listed above. These two chapters are interesting, informative and entertaining.


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.

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