An introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps (1969)

sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
(‘There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind’)
(Aeneid Book 1, line 462)

The Aeneid’s structure

The first six books describe wandering, the second six books describe war.

The first six books are set on or near the sea, the second six books are set on land.

The first six books copy a lot from Homer’s Odyssey, the second six books copy a lot from Homer’s Iliad.

The first half focuses on Carthage, leading to the death of Dido, the second half focuses on Latium, leading to the death of Turnus. (In fact, it’s not quite as neat as that because Dido dies at the end of book 4, leaving book 5 to describe the funeral games for Anchises and book 6 the journey to the underworld, so the deaths of Dido and Turnus don’t perfectly bookend each half.)

Historical background

Virgil lived through stormy and decisive political times. He was born in 70 BC only 15 or so years after the end of the Social War, a 4-year-long bitter and needless fight between Rome and various tribes and peoples of Italy who demanded full Roman citizenship. In the end Rome acquiesced and gave it them. The precise relationship between Rome and the other local tribes is implicit in the whole idea of Aeneas coming as an immigrant and stirring up a huge ruinous war between its existing inhabitants, and then is specifically addressed right at the end of the Aeneid when Juno demands equal rights for the Latins vis-à-vis the newcomers from her husband Jupiter, as a condition of giving up her vicious vendetta against the Trojans.

Then Virgil was 21 when civil war broke out in 49 BC between Caesar and Pompey. He saw what it was like for the Roman ruling class to be split right down the middle and many men die pointlessly, as, arguably, all the terrible deaths in the second half of the Aeneid are, ultimately, pointless and unnecessary.

Then Virgil was 26 when Caesar was assassinated and Rome plunged into a further 15 years of instability and recurring civil wars, before Octavian finally brought peace by defeating Antony in 31 BC, as Virgil turned 40.

The price of peace

Virgil composed the Aeneid over the 10 or so years from 29 BC to his premature death in 19 BC. After a life lived against a backdrop of unending civil strife you can see why Virgil would desperately have wanted peace and order to be restored and pinned his hopes for that outcome on the new rule of Augustus. But you can also see why one of the Aeneid‘s main themes is the price that has to be paid for the final arrival of peace and order, and it is a very, very high price in tragedy and bloodshed. Hecatombs of the dead. So many brave young lives cut short. Aeneas wins his place in the promised land of Hesperia, but my God what a trail of death and destruction he leaves behind him.

Aspects of patriotism

All elements in the poem are multi-levelled and dense with allusiveness. Thus the poem’s patriotism is plain for everyone to see, and yet is effective because it works at so many levels. Central is the plot itself, Aeneas’s journey to Italy to found a new city and new people. The gods repeatedly reassure him of the future greatness of the Roman people. He sees a procession of eminent Romans in the underworld at the end of book 6. The figure of Augustus appears here, and as the central figure on the shield his mother gives him at the end of book 8, as well as being invoked several other times, crystallising the hopes of the world.

But it also works in a host of other ways. Most poignantly and hauntingly when we discover that King Evander’s little township is built on the site of the future Rome and that he and Aeneas are walking through the landmarks of the greatness that is to come. But also in the mention throughout the poem of beliefs and customs which first came with the Trojans or, conversely, are already practiced by the Arcadians or the Latins:

  • they Latins are referred to as ‘the people of the Roman gown’
  • the Roman custom of covering the head at sacrifice is enjoined on Aeneas by the seer Helenus before his arrival in Italy (3.403)
  • the exhibition of horse drill known to the Romans as lusus Troiae is demonstrated by Ascanius and the young horsemen during the funeral games for Anchises (5.596)
  • Aeneas promises to inaugurate the tradition of the Sibylline Books (6.71)
  • the practice of opening or closing the doors of the temple of Janus in times of war already exists in Latium (7.601)
  • the worship of Hercules at the great altar in the cattle market which existed in Virgil’s time is said to already exist when Aeneas arrives in Latium (8.268)

So the poem’s patriotism is shouted from the rooftops in the shape of the plot and in the multiple predictions but also threaded subtly into a fabric of hints and allusions.

A political poem?

Camps surprises me by claiming the Aeneid is not a political poem. He deploys the kind of sentimental humanism found throughout post-war Anglophone literary criticism, deflecting analysis off into fancy fondling about morality or spirituality:

The Aeneid is in no sense political propaganda, for it is not in its nature a political poem. The Rome that is its inspiration is not conceived in terms of a political system; and the background against which the humans in the story act and suffer is provided not by contrasting political ideas but by the working of the historical process and the conflict of spiritual powers. (p.2)

This is plain wrong, isn’t it? It’s as if someone who wrote a long poem in praise of Nazi rule over occupied Europe claimed that it wasn’t a political poem because the Nazi rule it praises ‘is not conceived in terms of a political system’. Well, it doesn’t need to be. If politics in the broadest sense is defined as how a society chooses to run itself, then this poem explicitly says that Rome will reach its height when it is ruled by the enlightened dictator Augustus, and that the Roman people are destined to rule the entire known world – and are justified in doing so because of their unique skill at ruling justly.

Roman, remember by your strength to rule
Earth’s peoples — for your arts are to be these:
To pacify, to impose the rule of law,
To spare the conquered, battle down the proud.
(6.1,151 to 1,154)

This prophecy of Anchises is only the most famous of several passages which justify Roman conquest and rule over the entire world. The Aeneid is a hymn to Roman hegemony. Nothing could be more political. Claiming it is ‘not in its nature a political poem’ because it doesn’t go into the nitty-gritty of the constitution or describe any particular ‘political system’ or discuss political parties is being disingenuous or naive. Try telling any of the peoples Rome had conquered, whose towns they had destroyed and populations they’d sold into slavery (read Caesar’s Gallic Wars) that writing an elaborate poem justifying Rome’s eternal rule over the entire known world was not a political statement and watch them laugh in your face.

Clearly your answer to the question, ‘Is the Aeneid a political poem?’ depends on how you define ‘politics’, but there’s also another level or type of definition of politics in play here: this is the issue of taking sides during a civil war. This, also, is a glaring ‘political issue’: whether one is on the side of, say, the nationalists or the republicans during the Spanish Civil War could hardly be a more political and politicised decision.

Well, in the civil war with Antony, Virgil hugely comes down on the side of Augustus and writes it into his poem. In the epic scene where Vulcan forges a mighty shield for Aeneas he depicts on it the Battle of Actium where Augustus defeated Antony and Cleopatra, and the narrator throws in criticisms of the doomed lovers. And the shield then goes on to celebrate Augustus’s unprecedented three triumphs over his political and military opponents.

It beggars belief that Camps thinks that this hugely committed work of propaganda is ‘in no sense political propaganda’ solely because it ‘is not conceived in terms of a political system.’ As I’ve been writing this I’ve realised I myself am missing another way to argue against him, which is to point out that he is wrong even on his own terms: that the entire poem is ‘conceived in terms of a political system’, namely – the imperial rule of Augustus. Rule by an emperor emphatically is a political system and this poem consistently and repeatedly predicts and celebrates this political system.

Copying the Greeks

Virgil wrote three great works. In each of them he copied Greek originals. The Eclogues copy the Idylls of Theocritus, the Georgics copy the Work and Days of Hesiod, the Aeneid very closely copies the Iliad and Odyssey of Homer. Camps claims Virgil is not stealing – he is reconciling the two cultures.

Camps lists some of the major plot devices he is indebted to Homer for:

  • an extended sea journey packed with adventures – the Odyssey
  • enmity of a god who hates the hero drawing out the journey to extended length – the Odyssey
  • councils of the gods in heaven – both Odyssey and Iliad
  • descent to the underworld – the Odyssey
  • funeral games – the Iliad
  • massive, sustained war featuring a siege and many detailed battle scenes – the Iliad
  • the aristeia in which a warrior reaches the peak of their excellence before being cut down – the Iliad
  • the blacksmith god creating a suit of armour and a shield decorated with emblematic events for the hero – the Iliad
  • strong female warrior (Camilla) – the Iliad
  • a foray into the enemy camp by night – the Iliad
  • retirement of the protagonist in whose absence the other army comes right up to the allies’ base and threatens to storm it and win the war – the Iliad
  • hero’s beautiful young friend killed by the main antagonist, a loss which drives the hero to psychopathic vengeance – the Iliad
  • climactic single combat between two epic heroes – the Iliad

(Camps gives a much longer list of direct copying on page 81.) Camps says that Virgil used Homer to supply ‘a deficiency in the possibilities of his own imagination’ (p.9) but it’s bigger than that: the Aeneid doesn’t borrow elements from Homer’s epics, it couldn’t have existed without them. They provide the entire historical background, the entire worldview of gods interfering in the lives of mortals, the entire concept of a long poem focusing on an epic hero, and almost all the significant events. ‘Borrowing’ or ‘copying’ aren’t adequate enough words for the wholesale reincarnation of Homer’s epics in Virgil’s work, and in a later chapter Camps seems to acknowledge this:

To a very large extent the story told in the Aeneid is made by remoulding Homeric materials, as well as owing to Homer the broad motifs which govern its design. (p.82)

The process of composition

Camps devotes an appendix to describing some of the short biographies of Virgil which were written after his death. Suetonius wrote one, now, unfortunately, lost. The best early one which survives is by Aelius Donatus and Camps presents a translation of the full text (6 pages long).

Donatus and fragments from other biographies tell us that Virgil’s method in composing poetry was to make a complete prose summary of the entire story before he began writing any verse. Donatus says that every morning Virgil dictated some verses to a secretary for as long as inspiration lasted, then, after lunch, spent the afternoon working over what he had dictated, sometimes whittling a mass of verses down to just a handful of lines, sometimes just one. Apparently, Virgil compared the process to the ancient folklore notion that a mother bear gave birth to formless lumps of life and then literally licked them into shape (p.117).

(In fact, Donatus describes this as Virgil’s method in writing the Georgics but everyone has silently agreed that this is probably how he composed the Aeneid as well.)

Crucially, Donatus says that Virgil did not compose the poem by starting at the beginning and working through. Instead, he was inspired to versify particular ad hoc scenes as the inspiration took him, sometimes composing later scenes years before earlier ones. This explains all sorts of discrepancies which a close reading of the poem brings to light, notably the lack of linking and smoothing passages, for example the abrupt ending of the famous book 6, and the even more abrupt ending of the entire poem.

Moreover, Donatus tells us that the poem contains many lines of poor quality, as well as lines which are metrically incomplete which Virgil deliberately left in because he needed the padding and structure to get onto the more finished sections, but would have returned to improve had he lived.

The violence

I think my view of the poem has been very strongly skewed by the hyper violence of the second part of the poem. The orgies of testosterone-fuelled slaughter which it describes with such relish strongly affect my impression of the first half, so that I remember mainly the violence – for example, the extended description of the fighting at the sack of Troy. Camps wants us to feel soft and sentimental about the book-long love affair with Dido but what I mainly remember from book 4 is:

  • the murder of Dido’s husband and the unhappiness of his ghost
  • the self slaughter of Dido, who does it in the Roman way, falling on her sword
  • Dido’s extended curse on the Romans and getting her people to swear eternal enmity, an enmity which will lead to three ruinous wars and then the eventual sack of Carthage, the killing of tens of thousands of soldiers and the selling of her entire people into slavery

Similarly, I take the point that the journey to the underworld is genuinely weird and spooky, and Aeneas encounters many strange sights, that his pity for suffering humanity especially aroused by the sight of the pitiful shades waiting to be ferried across the river Styx and then his doleful reunion with the shade of his father.

But for me this all tends to be eclipsed by the shiny vision of the procession of his Roman descendants and, when you look at this list of Great Romans, what are they famous for? What all Romans are famous for, their military victories. David West in his 1991 Penguin edition has a handy little appendix which lists the figures Aeneas sees in the procession of Great Romans:

  • Silvius the warrior king
  • Brutus, famous for expelling the last kings and executing his two sons when they tried to restore them
  • the Decii, father and son, famous for giving their lives to win victory in two wars
  • Torquatus, led an army against the Gauls and executed his own son for disobeying orders
  • Lucius Mummius who not only sacked Corinth in 146 but utterly destroyed it as an example of Roman power
  • Aemilius Paullus credited with the conquest of Greece for defeating Pyrrhus king of Epirus
  • Cornelius Cossus defeated a foreign king in single combat
  • Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus, the reforming tribunes, both of whom were murdered in the streets of Rome along, in the latter case, with thousands of their supporters
  • Scipio Africanus Maior defeated Hannibal at the Battle of Zama
  • Scipio Africanus Minor leading the army which sacked, utterly destroyed Carthage and sold its 50,000 inhabitants into slavery
  • Fabricius who led an army against Pyrrhus
  • Fabius Maximus Cunctator, the general who delayed and delayed confronting Hannibal in Italy
  • M. Claudius Marcellus killed a Gaulish chieftain in single combat

This is (not quite all) the people who feature in Aeneas’s vision of his glorious descendants, and what do they all have in common? Violence and killing. Slaughter. Rome was hyper-violent state, engaged in almost non-stop war (the Gallic Wars) and when they weren’t destroying other peoples’ cities (Corinth, Carthage, Gaul) they fought with terrible ferocity among themselves (Pharsalis, Philippi, Actium).

If any contemporary Roman set out a pageant of their glorious history, what would it consist of? Except a litany of wars and battles. It was a phenomenally militaristic state. Even the humanist’s favourite, Cicero, not only went to serve as governor on Cilicia but led his army in a siege and battles. Even the sternly principled Cato sided with Pompey in the civil war and was made governor of north Africa where he managed the military campaigns. Holding a senior magistracy at any time in Roman history almost inevitably entailed leading a Roman army.

Camps’s attempts at a moral interpretation undermined by the violence

Maybe I’m getting this way wrong, but I read Camps’s introduction from end to end and I think it gives a deeply misleading impression of the Aeneid. He devotes a chapter to Aeneas, then one to Dido and Turnus, and these overflow with sensitive empathy for their sufferings and the deeply ‘moral’ choices which they face.

But the poem I read venerates power, might, military strength, masculinity, supreme ability in battle and its centre stand two awesome killing machines, terminator-figures, Aeneas and Turnus who rampage across the battlefield beheading, belimbing, skewering and butchering anyone who stands in their way.

This is one of the reasons I dislike the moralising tone of humanist literary criticism, because it distorts the facts, it deceives and lies. You can read Camps’s book from end to end and get no sense of the piles of bodies, bloody gore and funeral pyres which clot the poem, and end up thinking it’s a Henry James novel making sensitive discriminations about moral scruples. It really isn’t.

At the end of Camps’s chapter about Aeneas, he does, eventually, concede, that there is a bit of fighting, and, OK, Aeneas is a bit brutal. He lists some examples. On the battlefield at the height of his rage Aeneas taunts a victim with the thought that his body will lie unburied; he consigns some of the prisoners they’ve taken to be executed in cold blood to adorn Pallas’s funeral.

There’s more like this but Camps deliberately omits it. Instead he goes out of his way to exonerate his vision of a caring, sharing, sensitive hero, these brutalities:

are altogether at variance with the hero’s usual humanity, and indeed with the standards of the poet’s civilised contemporaries.

Rubbish. A quick checklist of Augustus’ behaviour refutes this, not to mention a scan of Caesar’s record in Gaul, Roman behaviour in Carthage or Corinth or in the Wild East of Asia Minor. Camps limply goes on to concede that ‘the Roman world was not a gentle one’ [sic], and then devotes a paragraph to trying to justify Aeneas’s brutal, bloody execution of an unarmed prisoner on his knees at the end of the poem. He claims that this execution ‘would seem to Virgil’s readers poetically just’. Right at the end of his introduction, he returns to the fact that the entire poem builds up to this ominous and disturbing conclusion, the enraged murder of Turnus, and finds it:

strangely discordant with the normally disciplined humanity of Aeneas (p.142)

But reading Camps’s efforts to explain away this glaring, brutal event I thought: ‘But what if…what if the brutal killing, maiming and taunting, the sending for execution and murderous mayhem Aeneas enacts at the end of the Aeneid is NOT the temporary aberration Camps tries to explain away? What if it is the real Aeneas coming through and showing his “civilised contemporaries” what the real Rome is really like and it is – a killing machine?’

To be really crude, Camps is an apologist for a poem glorifying a mass killer and a violent empire.

The animal sacrifices

You don’t have to be a vegetarian to be disgusted by the vast number of animals who are ritually slaughtered on almost every page of the Aeneid, led to the place of sacrifice and having their throats cut so their hot blood splashes over the altar by the gallon. Thousands and thousands of animals are butchered in the name of religion, in fact, in practical terms, animal butchery is their religion, both Trojans and Latins.

You know the line they’ve been putting on movie credits for decades, ‘No animals were harmed in the making of this movie’? Well, thousands of animals were slaughtered, had their throats slashed while they were alive and fully conscious, in the making of this poem.

Two points. 1. Again, this is the kind of really obvious in-your-face aspect of the text which a ‘moralising’ critic like Camps completely ignores. It’s just not there for him, because his ideology that literature must be about humanistic morality and sensibility simply prevents him from registering what is in front of him. As soon as I see a critic (of literature or art or film or whatever) mention the words ‘moral’, ‘morality’, ‘moral choices’ etc I know they are going to give a distorted and inaccurate account of the work under consideration, because their obsession with ‘moral values’ restricts them to just one narrow aspect of the characters and the text and blinds them, like the blinkers on a carthorse, to everything else which is going on around them, to the totality of the work.

Anyway, Camps doesn’t have the ‘moral’ awareness to even register that the cruel slaughter of thousands of sentient animals might be wrong.

But 2. The relentless animal slaughter plays a really important role in the fabric of the poem by making the human slaughter seem natural. It desensitises you. If you’ve already waded through lakes of animal blood, spurting from slashed throats, it makes the butchery of human beings just that bit more assimilable. The entire poem becomes a welter of blood and gore.

As I said, I’m aware that this is also a biased and partial view and that there are plenty of passages of delightful description, Aeneas’s sensitivity and sea nymphs frolicking in the waves etc. I am just pointing out what Camps’s supposedly thorough introduction to the poem completely omits from its account.

Virgil’s multi-levelled and holey theology

Christian theology has spent 2,000 years trying to reconcile the paradox that, while on the one hand God is all-knowing and so knows the future as well as the past, on the other hand, the theology of reward and punishment only makes sense if humans have free will. If everything is foreordained, then I have no free will, and therefore cannot be guilty or innocent of my actions. Therefore cannot be sent to hell or heaven. Whereas Christian theologians and hierarchies and organisations, very much do want to emphasise our free will precisely in order to threaten us with punishment in the afterlife and keep us in line.

Now the same problem is raised by the Aeneid only in a much more intense form because at every step of the way, at almost every decisive moment, it is the gods’ intervention which makes things happen. Venus makes Dido fall in love with Aeneas, going to some lengths to do so, luring Aeneas’s son into a copse where she puts him asleep and replacing him at Dido’s reception feast for Aeneas with her other son, Eros god of love, assuming the form of Eros entirely to soften her spinsterhood and make her fall for the Trojan. And then it is Venus who, at the end of their affair, comes to Aeneas in a dream and tells him he must get up and rouse his companions and load his ships and leave Carthage right now.

Similarly, the entire action of the second half of the book, the entire war between the Trojans and the Latins, with the enormous destruction and loss of life on both sides, only takes place solely because Juno makes it happen, commissioning the Fury Allecto to fire up the Latins against the peace treaty with the Trojans.

And yet, throughout the poem, the narrator also assigns praise and blame to individual actors, and they themselves debate their guilt and responsibility. For example, Aeneas tells Dido it is not his fault that he is running off and abandoning her: sed me iusa deum – the nasty god made me do it.

It would be interesting to read a clever analysis which explained what we know of Roman theology and sets Virgil’s depiction of the issue within that framework of belief. Camps sketches out the issues in his chapter 5 but doesn’t tell us anything which wasn’t already obvious from the poem.

For me the key to thinking about this problem is suggested by something Camps explains at the start of his book, which is to do with Virgil’s method of composition. Namely, it was episodic. (Camps uses the Latin word particulatim which means ‘piecemeal’, p.125). According to Donatus’s Life of Virgil, the poet first wrote out a prose version of his story but then chose not to work through it in order, but to work up particular ad hoc scenes from different parts of the narrative into verse.

And in doing so, he focused on producing as intense and vivid a scene as possible for the scene’s sake and we know that this sometimes led to discrepancies between episodes; characters behave inconsistently or say one thing in one scene, another in another; characters are introduced who we have already met and so on.

(Camps mentions the two apparently different deaths of Palinurus, who, at the end of book 5, plunges down into the sea, drowning, but in book 6 is said to have swim to shore, p.125. Or there are the two completely different versions of how Helen reacts to the sacking of Troy a) hiding in terror 2.567, or b) out confidently leading the Greeks around the city in book 6. He gives more examples of this kind of contradiction in appendix 4.)

Well, Virgil’s theology can be thought about in the same way as his method of composition, namely that he is not expounding a consistent and thought-through theology in the manner of Tertullian or Augustine; rather he is writing a dramatic poem and all that matters is the intensity of particular episodes. The momentary impact is the thing. Therefore it creates a great dramatic effect to show Juno or Venus interfering almost all the way through the narrative. But at other moments, on the human plane, mortals may discuss their decisions and implications in human terms of agency and responsibility. And because Virgil is concerned with creating whatever is most effective at any particular point, he isn’t concerned with trying to reconcile the theological contradictions thrown up by these different approaches.

In fact there are at least three levels at work in the poem, because above the continual interfering of the gods, which is continually described, sits another force – this is the power of fate or the Fates. This isn’t described but referred to at various points, mainly by the gods themselves. Nothing at all, not even Jupiter, can change what is destined and fated. He and the other gods can only interfere with what, in the end, are details, but the overall Fate and Destiny of everyone is fixed and unalterable.

Thus Juno herself is made to admit that she cannot change Aeneas’s ultimate destiny to settle in Italy and found the Roman race; she can only delay it. Which she does, at the cost of thousands of needless deaths including, ironically, that of her own favourite, Turnus.

On this view, you can pray to the gods, and the gods are depicted answering some (though not all) prayers (mortals can never be sure which ones will be answered and which ones won’t). But no prayers can alter the fixed outlines of Fate.

Fate has built the matrix with bands of steel. Nothing can change or alter them. But within the matrix, individual gods are free to mess about with details, to delay, to alter, to bend – but never to change the fundamental ends.

It’s in this context that Camps makes the shrewd point that the gods themselves pursue their own ends. The gods are as selfish as mortals, maybe more so. Only Jupiter rises above their endless squabbles and tries to adjudicate fairly but, as many readers have observed, he is only an intermittent presence in the poem: Juno and Venus are much more prominent, Juno most of all. The Aeneid could accurately be called the Book of Juno, or The Book of Juno’s Anger.

To anyone who takes this mirage, ‘morality’, seriously, the gods in Virgil are quite demonstrably monsters of immorality, cruel, thoughtless, heartless, irresponsible – like children. Any real consideration of the pagan gods of antiquity eventually suggests why they had to be superseded by the Christian god. They were just not worthy of serious intellectual consideration. And they are fundamentally indifferent to human life, breath-takingly callous. Serious consideration of the pagan gods led philosophers to sets of beliefs like Epicureanism or Stoicism, very different ideologies but alike in their aim of trying to eliminate the role of the gods in human life. Paganism tends towards a brutal indifference to human existence.

Compare and contrast that with the intense feeling of personal salvation which Christianity offered its believers. As Camps puts it, ‘the promise of the new kind of religion is evidence of the terrors of the old’ (p.49).

Anyway, the existence of these three levels of action allows Virgil to switch between them as it suits his narrative ends. Jupiter apologises to Juno, saying his hands are tied by Fate. Aeneas apologises to Dido, saying his hands are tied by the gods, and so on.

How are humans meant to know what the devil is going on? Via the welter of omens, signs and prophecies which the text is full of. These are the channel of communication between the three levels.

Sometimes a god personally explains something to Aeneas, but far more often it is the shade of a dead mortal (Hector or Anchises) who can explain things up to a point but not the full picture. This up-to-a-pointness is really striking: ghosts and spirits are continually telling Aeneas just so much of his future and, when he wants to know more, fading into smoke.

At other times it is the mute symbolism of some sign or portent like a comet in the skies or a swarm of bees or the eagle carrying off a swan who is beaten off by all the other birds – in other words, portents which mortals are forced to interpret and guess at.

My position is that none of this amounts to a worked-out theology on the analogy of Christian theologies. The opposite. Although these elements fill the text to bursting, they don’t indicate a coherent worldview, but one that is cheerfully incoherent: one which is ragged and flexible enough for the characters and narrator to switch between at least 3 levels of belief: belief in a Fixed and Unchangeable Fate, belief in the continual intervention of the gods, and belief in man’s free will which is sufficient to allow him to carry out free actions which can, accordingly, be judged within a ‘moral’ framework.

The overlap and interplay of the different systems is one of the things which keeps the poem dynamic and varied, keeps the reader in a continual sense of flux and uncertainty.


Alongside the multiple levels of destiny, goes a kind of dualistic theory of human nature. Dido and Turnus have two modes of being: their ‘normal’ selves and themselves possessed. In their states of possession they are associated with a range of frenetic adjectives, to wit: amens, turbidus, fervidus, ardens, furens, trepidans, in a state of inania, furor and violentia.

Furor in particular is applied to Dido a dozen times and Turnus half a dozen times. And Aeneas, after the death of Pallas, becomes a man ‘possessed’ on the battlefield. If you felt so inclined you could read the entire poem through the vector of frenzied possession just as much as by Camps’s limp metric of ‘morality’.

The poetry

It’s difficult to follow Camps’s chapter about the verse itself (chapter 7) unless you can not only read Latin but have a good feel for it as a medium of expression. I did Latin GCSE but have nowhere near the ability to judge it as poetry. Some key points which come over from Camps’s account are:

Vocabulary Virgil used a consciously ‘poetic’ diction, on the model of Milton in Paradise Lost or Tennyson in Idylls of the King, with a sprinkling of words from earlier poetry and archaic forms to give it sonority and authority.

Syntax Flexible, sometimes an adjective whose meaning attaches to one noun is grammatically attached to another; two nouns related by a verb have their normal relationship inverted; a phrase is compressed by omitting a term of meaning, letting the reader supply it; sometimes grammar as well as meaning is understated or omitted and the reader needs to supply it, too. These and other tactics create:

  • flexibility in writing lines and passages
  • compactness

But Camps says that, more distinctive than either of these is Virgil’s coining of highly expressive original phrases out of very basic words. Alongside their power goes a certain ambiguity. This has meant that many phrases of Virgil’s can be extracted from their original context and acquire new, more powerful meanings. Take lacrimae rerum.

Aeneas has been washed up on the coast of Africa and welcomed into the new city of Carthage and now he is looking at a mural in a Carthaginian temple dedicated to Juno that depicts battles of the Trojan War and the deaths of his friends and countrymen. He is moved to tears and says ‘sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt’.

Apparently, even in the original Latin, this phrase is grammatically ambiguous and can equally mean, ‘There are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind’ or, ‘There are tears of things and mortal things touch the mind.’

Either way, the phrase went on to have a tremendous afterlife, being widely quoted in later writers as pithily summing up the sadness of human existence. Then, in the early twentieth century, it began to be used on Great War memorials, thus entering wider consciousness. It’s one example of the way Virgil’s just-so selection of very ordinary words was done in such a way as to pack an eerily powerful – and enduring – punch.


The single most striking thing in Camps’s book is not by him but is in Aelius Donatus’s short Life of Virgil which Camps includes in its entirety in an appendix. In the early section about his appearance and nature, Donatus writes:

He was somewhat inclined to pederasty, [his particular favourites being Cebes and Alexander, whom he calls Alexis in the second Eclogue. Alexander was given to him by Asinius Pollio. Both of them were well-educated and Cebes wrote poetry himself.] (p.115)

Donatus then goes on to report the rumour that Virgil had a relationship with an apparently notable woman named Plotia Hieria, but that she denied it in later life. Apart from that ‘his conduct and demeanour were so respectable’ that at Naples he acquired the nickname Parthenias, an adjective applied to Athena and meaning chaste and virginal.

Three points. 1. This entirely chimes with several of the Eclogues which describe passionate love between  some of the poems’ idealised young shepherds and are plainly homoerotic. 2. The fact that ‘Alexander’ was a gift shows that the young men in question were slaves. Virgil had gay relationships with his male slaves. Slavery.

3. It’s interesting how Donatus’s description moves easily from describing his fondness for male slaves to his rumoured affair with a Roman matron. I.e. the homosexuality had the same kind of value or scandal value as a rumoured ‘straight’ affair i.e. merited a sentence or two, but not worth making any fuss over.

It’s a demonstration of the point made in M.I. Finley’s essay about women and marriage in ancient Rome, that what mattered more than anything else was the legal integrity of the official family, and in particular the legal status of sons and daughters to ensure the efficient heritance of property, titles and lineage. As long as these legal forms were observed, then there was considerable leeway in how citizens (mostly men) (mis)behaved.


An Introduction to Virgil’s Aeneid by W.A. Camps was published by Oxford University Press in 1969. All references are to the 1984 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Pro Archia by Cicero (62 BC)

Pro Archia is the shortest of the five speeches contained in the excellent Oxford University Press edition of Defence Speeches of Cicero, edited and translated by D.H. Berry (2000). It’s barely 12 pages long and yet even this slip of a thing requires a detailed three-page introduction from Dr Berry. In it he explains that: Aulus Licinius Archias was born plain Archias in Antioch in Syria in the mid-120s. As a young man he established himself as a poet and travelled round the eastern Mediterranean writing poems to order. In 102 he arrived in Rome and was welcomed into the home of Lucius Licinius Lucullus where he tutored the two young sons. He was sought out by other noble Roman families.

During this period Cicero himself took instruction from Archias (among his other achievements, Cicero was no mean poet) and explains in the speech that gratitude for his old teacher was one reason why he took the case.

As a result of the Social War, most of the tribes and towns of Italy were granted Roman citizenship, under a series of franchise laws. Archias took advantage of these laws to adopt full Roman citizenship, taking the Roman style name Aulus Licinius Archias, the Licinius a tribute to the family who took him in and sponsored him.

Archias accompanied the general Lucius Lucullus to Asia when the latter was put in charge of managing the war against King Mithridates, 73 to 67 BC. Although successful Lucullus lost the confidence of his troops and was replaced, much to his chagrin, by the charismatic general Gnaeus Pompeius (generally referred to as Pompey in English), who wound up the campaign and claimed the credit. Lucullus commissioned Archias to write a poem praising his conduct of the war.

In 65 the tribune Gaius Papius passed a law expelling from Rome all non-citizens who did not have a fixed residence in Italy. In 62 Archias was named in a prosecution alleging he was not a proper citizen and so should be expelled.

Berry explains that Archias had, in fact, done everything necessary under the social laws to gain full citizenship and that therefore scholars have seen the prosecution as politically motivated. it is thought the prosecutor, Grattius, was an agent of Pompey’s who was continuing his vendetta Lucullus by attacking the latter’s pet poet. Alternatively, maybe Grattius undertook the prosecution on his own initiative to curry favour with Pompey.

Therefore, as so often, the case was not a narrowly legal matter, but was embedded in the fraught power politics of the time. The case for Archias’s citizenship was so straightforward that Cicero deals with it in the first few pages. Thereafter he shifts the entire debate away from laws or politics and onto the subject of literature. Thus he was deftly able to avoid alienating either side in the feud – doing the Lucullus family a favour by defending their poet, but without casting any aspersions on Pompey, who is mentioned only once, in a deliberately flattering way (24).

Cicero’s self-centredness and patriotism

This is the third Cicero speech I’ve read and I’ve gotten used to what I at first thought was his immense self-centredness but I’m coming to realise must have been the accepted style – that the speaker dwells at inordinate length on his own experiences and character and his motives for taking the case, his relationship with the accused and so on.

The other thing which is becoming apparent is the immense amount of space devoted to naming famous Romans. These Romans may be forebears of the prosecutor or accused, or people involved in the case for one reason or another, but, as a rule, Roman literature involves an inordinate number of references to previous generations of eminent Romans. If a lot of Cicero’s texts repeatedly refer to himself, this self-centredness is mimicked, at a higher level so to speak, by the way the texts are so very Roman-centric (see below).

The modern reader is tempted to skip past these sections in order to get to the meat, but I am coming to realise their importance in creating a kind of fabric of authority in a text or speech. It is often blatant name-dropping but with the purpose of adding weight and lustre to a client’s case by associating him with great men from the past.

Section by section synopsis

(1) Cicero tells the jury he owes a great deal of his ability as an orator to early training with Achias.

(2) It may seem illogical, given that Achias is not an orator but a poet, but Cicero tells the jury he has always been interested in all branches of culture, which are ‘linked by a sort of common bond’.

(3) He flatters his auditors, describing the magistrate as an excellent man, the jury as a most excellent jury and apologises that he is using a style not conventionally used in a law court, to ‘speak more freely on cultural and literary matters’ than is usual.

(4) He gives a brief resume of Achias’s life: born in Antioch (‘to high ranking parents’); as soon as he reached maturity, devoting himself to literary composition; then plying his trade around the Med, exciting admiration wherever he went.

(5) Arriving in south Italy, Achias was celebrated wherever he went and awarded citizenship of various cities. Arriving in Rome during the consulship of Marius and Catulus he was taken in by the Lucullus household.

(6) A typical display of eminent names: Cicero says Archias was sought out by Quintus Metellus Numidicus and his son Pius, Marcus Aemilius, Quintus Catulus and his son, Lucius Crassus, and was on close terms with the Luculli, Drusus, the Octavii, Cato, and the Hortensii.

(7) Cicero tells that, travelling back from Sicily with Marcus Lucullus, they passed through the town of Heraclea where they took advantage of the law of Silvanus and Carbo to legally make him a citizen. He fulfilled all the requirements and presented himself before the praetor Quintus Metellus to be registered.

(8) Thus, by section 8 of this 32-section speech, Cicero has made his case: Achias cannot be convicted of fraudulently behaving like a citizen because he is a citizen which can be proved by reference to the register of Heraclea – and the citizens who have come from Heraclea to vouch for him – and to ‘a man of the highest standing and the greatest possible conscientiousness and honour’, Marcus Lucullus, who is here in court to testify. Cicero says he could rest his defence right there, after only 3 or 4 minutes of speaking.

(9) Cicero concedes that the town records of Heraclea were destroyed in the Social War but what need for them beside the witness of the town itself. If the prosecution wants proof of Archias’ residence in Rome then this can be presented thanks to the conscientious record-keeping of Metellus, which he goes on to describe.

(10) Two difficult-to-grasp points: Cicero sarcastically says that, when numerous other Greek towns were handing out citizenship to unworthy artisans, he supposes places like Tarentum were unprepared to grant citizenship to one who had gained the greatest glory! This is clearly a kind of exasperated sarcasm but its point is a little lost on us. Then Cicero says Archias didn’t take advantage of the other lists in which he was enrolled but insisted on being counted as a Heraclean – ‘under circumstances such as these, is Archias really to be driven out?’ It’s also a little hard to see the point of this fact, maybe it displays Archias’s nobility in not slipping in as a citizen of umpteen south Italian towns. Both points feel very secondary to the basic key facts he established in sections 7 and 8.

(11) He addresses a specific point of the prosecution that Archias’s name is missing from the census roll. Cicero simply states that at the last census Archias was on campaign with general Lucius Lucullus and that during the census before that he was also absent with Lucullus.

An additional fact: during the period the prosecution alleges Archias was not a citizen, he made a will according to Roman laws, took inheritances left him by Roman citizens and was nominated for a reward from the treasury – i.e. behaved in numerous ways as a Roman citizen and was accepted by other Roman citizens as such.

(12) It is at this point that the speech suddenly detours into a consideration of literature and Archias’s literary importance. Cicero does this, as so often, in a surprisingly personal way, baring his breast and speaking in a vainglorious way:

Yes, I for one am not ashamed to admit that I am devoted to the study of literature… Why should I be ashamed, gentlemen, given that in all the years I have lived, my private pastimes have never distracted me, my own pleasures have never prevented me, and not even the need for sleep has ever kept me away from helping anyone in his hour of danger or of need?

This is pure self-promotion, isn’t it? With a touch of wholly spurious self-dramatisation.

(13) Surprisingly, Cicero then goes on for another paragraph, saying no-one can blame him if he spends the time others devote to sport or games or pleasures on literary study – especially if the study results in the powers of oratory which he puts to the use of his friends in adversity. Why, you might reasonably think, is Cicero clogging up a short speech about Archias’s citizenship with a lengthy apologia of his own penchant for studying literature?

(14) More self promotion as Cicero explains that only the example of great men recorded in literature inspired him to expose himself ‘to so many great struggles and to the daily attacks of desperate men, which I have been facing for the sake of your security.’

(15) Cicero invents a rhetorical question from a fictitious critic, asking whether the great men he invokes were experts in literature. This allows Cicero to concede that many of them probably weren’t but that, nonetheless:

When a natural disposition which is noble and elevated is given in addition a systematic training in cultural knowledge, then something remarkable and unique comes about.

(16) As mentioned above, Cicero then gives a list famous Roman forebears as evidence of the importance of literature to leading Romans of times gone by. He names the younger Africanus, ‘a godlike man’ [who we know Cicero made the key figure in several of his philosophical writings, on the gods, on the republic and on friendship], Gaius Laelius [central speaker in On friendship], Lucius Furius and Cato the Elder. So the study of literature definitely added to the wisdom and honour of these great men.

But he adds a second point, that even if the study of literature did not lead to statesmanlike qualities, still it should be recommended because:

this form of mental relaxation broadens and enlightens the mind like no other.

Whereas other forms of relaxation may be appropriate for specific times and places and age groups, literature is universal:

The study of literature sharpens youth and delights old age; it enhances prosperity and provides a refuge and comfort in adversity; it gives enjoyment at home without being a hindrance in the wider world; at night, and when travelling, and on country visits, it is an unfailing companion.

(17) It may be that some have no taste for literary achievement but surely they can recognise it in others? The great actor Roscius had died earlier that year (62) and was universally mourned when he died and yet he only entertained with his body, with his external self. How much more should ‘extraordinary motions of the mind and quickness of intellect’ be celebrated?

(18) Cicero then testifies to having seen Archias on countless occasions extemporise poetry on the topics of the day. And his written compositions have been acclaimed as equal to the ancients.

Should I not love such a man, should I not admire him, and should I not think it my duty to defend him by every means possible?

As so often, the client is the intended subject of the sentence and yet, somehow, the main presence is Cicero himself, booming his virtue. He goes on to give the standard account of a poet’s divine inspiration which was already, in his time, a stock cliché and would last another 2,000 years:

A poet is created by nature itself, activated by the force of his own mind, and inspired, as it were, by a kind of divine spirit. Rightly does our own great Ennius call poets ‘sacred’ because they seem to us to be marked out by a special gift and endowment of the gods.

(19) Even barbarian races respect their poets. Rocks and deserts have responded to the poet’s voice. Wild animals are turned aside by his singing. Cicero asks, in a typically plangent rhetorical question, whether the excellent race of Romans, alone, will ‘remain unmoved by the voice of a poet’?

He elaborates the point: various cities have competed to claim the great Homer as a citizen, long dead though he is. Is Rome to turn away a great poet who is not only alive, but belongs to Rome both by law and his own choice?

Third point: Archias has devoted much of his time in Rome to celebrating the Roman people. For he wrote a long poem about Marius’s war against the Cimbri, which the general, despite not caring about poetry, was said to like.

(20) And the value of poets is indicated by the way great men have vied to be celebrated by them. Themistocles wanted to hear his exploits celebrated by singers or performers; Marius thought his achievements would be made famous by the poet Lucius Plotius.

(21) Continuing the point, Cicero says that Archias has written a long poem celebrating the war against Mithridates, shedding glory not only on the commander in chief Lucullus, but also on the entire Roman people.

You can see how this is a convenient fact for Cicero because he then goes on to itemise some of the great victories, battles, sieges and so on of the war, all carried to success under the excellent Lucius Lucullus, mentioning his name four times. Sucking up is a crude term, but Cicero was doing it to the great general who was, of course, present in court. Maybe he turned and gestured to him at each name call. Maybe the crowd cheered each namecheck.

Back to the speech, Cicero draws the conclusion that all this writing up of heroic Roman military achievement means that Archias deserves the people’s gratitude:

Those who use their talents to write about such events serve therefore to increase the fame of the Roman people.

(22) It is really important to grasp just how patriotic Cicero was (see the deeply patriotic motive which runs throughout his tract De republica). Here he clarifies that the fancy words about a poet being created by nature and being ‘sacred’ are really only valid when he is praising Rome:

The praises of a poet shed glory not only on the person who is praised, but on the reputation of the Roman people also.

Because this is what all human beings desire:

We are all motivated by the desire for praise, and the best people are the ones who are most attracted by glory.

He repeats the idea that the Roman poet Ennius not only praised great men like Maximus, Marcellus and Fulvius, but shed glory on the whole Roman people and so their ancestors bestowed citizenship on him – are the jury, then, to disenfranchise this citizen of Heraclea who has been sought by so many cities as their own?

(23) A rather garbled passage in which he starts by saying that Greek literature is far more widely spread than Roman, then continues to say that literature not only records deeds of glory but thereby acts as an incentive to men to be heroic.

(24) Thus Alexander the Great kept a bevy of writers with him to record his deeds while in our own day Pompey conferred citizenship on Theophanes of Mitylene because he had written about him, and before his soldiers who shouted a great hurrah because they realised that they shared in the praise and glory of their leader.

(25) Cicero tells a funny story about Sulla who was handed a laudatory poem by the author, scanned it, then awarded him the value of the property he was auctioning at the time on condition that he never wrote another line. But the point is: would Archias have failed to gain citizenship from Sulla?

(26) Or would he have failed to gain citizenship from Quintus Metellus Pius who has given citizenship to so many others and once listened to some rather crude poets from Corduba? Because everyone is motivated by a desire for praise.

(27) More stories about great Romans: Decimus Brutus decorated the entrances to his temples and monuments with poems by Accius; Fulvius took Ennius with him when he went to fight the Aetolians and devoted the spoils of Mars to the Muses. How is this relevant? Because if generals have barely laid down their armour before they are honouring the names of poets, how much more so should jurors who wear the toga of peacetime.

(28) Characteristically, Cicero then decides to share even more about himself and let the jurors know that his exploits during the heroic year of 63 are even now being written up by Archias into an epic poem! For if you take away praise and glory what incentive does anyone have to get involved in great undertakings?

(29) If people had no concept of posterity they would never do anything great or crush themselves under obligations and work. It is the notion that our fame and glory will live on after our deaths which motivates the truly great.

(30) If great men take care to leave behind statues depicting their mere bodies, shouldn’t they take even more trouble to leave a record of their thoughts and deeds? As usual, Cicero adverts back to himself and his own sense that, even as he performed his heroic deeds, he was motivated by the thought that they would live on to aftercomers.

(31) A stirring peroration which summarises all the points to date.

(32) Cicero briefly explains that his speech has been in two parts: the technical part in which he dealt with the accusation, and then the slightly more unusual part where he digressed to discuss his client’s literary achievement and literature in general. He hopes the court will forgive his speaking on this subject.


Pro Archias is often considered important because of its discussion of literature but, as this summary indicates, that’s a little misleading; it would lead the reader to expect an essay about the origins or manner of Roman poetry, but there’s none of that, really. Instead what we get, in my opinion, is an explanation of the social function of poetry, and above all, the purpose of poetry in serving the Roman state, in praising great military leaders, in shining glory on Rome’s great military victories, in incentivising young men to emulate the great military deeds of their forebears.

Cicero is often talked about by his fans as if he is a sensitive, liberal figure and he often is – passages in this speech can be quoted out of context to make him sound like a completely contemporary professor of poetry. But surely, deep down, the evidence of De republica, De legibus and all these speeches is that Cicero has more in common with Kipling‘s notions of a hyper-patriotic literature designed to celebrate Victorious Generals and serve the Great Cause of Empire!


Defence Speeches by Cicero, translated and edited by D.H. Berry, was published by Oxford University Press in 2000.

Cicero reviews

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.


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

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