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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Aeneas 1200 BC

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

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

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

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

2. Romulus 750s BC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. The monarchy 750s to 509 BC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some of the main constitutional reforms from the period include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. Consolidating power in Italy – Rome’s wars

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

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

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

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

Conquest of Veii 396

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

Gauls take Rome 390 BC

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

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

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

Latin War 341 to 338 (p.158)

The Samnite wars (p.158)

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

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

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

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

Pyrrhic war 280 to 275

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

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

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

First Punic War 264 to 241

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

Second Punic war 219 to 202

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

First Macedonian war 215 to 205

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

Second Macedonian war 200 to 197

Syrian war 192 to 188

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

Third Macedonian war 172 to 168

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

War in Iberia 155 to 133

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

Third Punic war 149 to 146

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

War with Jugurtha 118 to 106

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

The Social War 91 to 87

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

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

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

Civil wars

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

First Mithradatic war 89 to 85

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

Second Mithradatic war 83 to 81

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

Third Mithradatic war 73 to 63

Revolt of Spartacus 73 to 71

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

Pompey the Great

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

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

Julius Caesar

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

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

P.S.

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


Credit

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

Roman reviews

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam, the battle the changed the course of the American Civil War by James M. McPherson (2002)

The 160 pages or so of this tidy little book are like a pendant to ‘Battle Cry of Freedom’, McPherson’s vast 860-page history of the Civil War Era, which I have reviewed at length.

Crossroads of Freedom is part of a series called Pivotal Moments in American History. In his introduction McPherson says that, as you might expect, there were numerous important moments in the American Civil War, before going on to explain why he thinks the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862 justifies his focus.

Why Antietam?

Closest the South ever came to victory

In a nutshell it’s because Antietam was the closest the South came to taking Washington DC, an event which would have not just demoralised the North and possibly fatally weakened its army. Far more importantly, it would have a decisive step toward achieving the South’s primary war aim which was Recognition by the International Community. The French followed Britain’s lead and Britain hesitated to recognise the South as a separate nation until it proved itself economically viable and secure. Seizing the opponent’s capital city would have been the most dramatic proof possible that the Confederacy was indeed a nation in its own right. And Antietam was the closest they came. And they failed.

Robert E. Lee’s army of Northern Virginia lost about a quarter of its number and he decided to abandon the attempt to take the capital and withdrew back into Virginia. The South’s defeat at Antietam not only weakened them militarily, but also psychologically. Despite two and a half more years of war and many more victories on their own soil, they would never again come so close to striking one decisive blow.

The war for freedom

A year earlier President Lincoln had begun seriously considering declaring that one of the North’s war aims was to liberate the South’s slaves and abolish slavery as an institution, but had decided not to do so so as not to jeopardise the uneasy allies in the Northern Camp such as some factions in the so-called borderline states (for example Missouri and Kentucky) and the entire Democrat Party (Lincoln and the American government when the war broke out, were Republican).

Republican President Abraham Lincoln

The crushing defeat of the South’s forces at Antietam emboldened Lincoln to go ahead and make his declaration, on 1 January 1863, converting the war from one which merely wished to reincorporate the rebel states back into the Union to an all-out attempt to crush the South, to abolish the central element of its economic system, to abolish slavery and completely remould the South on the model of the free market, capitalist North.

Casualties

In fact the most consistent argument McPherson uses is the appalling casualties of the battle. A staggering 23,100 men were wounded, killed or missing in action during the battle. In a move which made sense in 2002 when the book was published, but itself looks like a historical curio, McPherson opens his text by comparing the estimated 6,000 deaths at Antietam (September 17 1862) to the (then) recent atrocity of September 11 2001, when 2,997 died; and goes on to point out that the number of casualties at Antietam was four times greater than American casualties on the Normandy beaches on D-Day Jun 6 1944, more than the war casualties of every other war the US fought in the nineteenth century put together (the War of 1812, the Mexico-America War, the Spanish-American War and all the Indian wars). It was ‘the bloodiest day’ in American history.

‘No tongue can tell, no mind can conceive, no pen portray the horrible sights I witnessed.’ (Pennsylvania soldier in his diary, quoted on page 129)

So those are the reasons McPherson adduces for choosing the Battle of Antietam as his ‘Pivotal Moment in American History.’

What is Antietam?

Antietam is a small river which runs south through Maryland into the River Potomac near the hamlet of Sharpsburg. The battle took place across the river in the sense that some of the largest casualties occurred when Union troops attempted to cross narrow bridges or ford the 30 metre-wide river. The North refer to it as the Battle of Antietam, the South the Battle of Sharpsburg.

It is pronounced Ant-eat-em, or, in American, Ant-eed-em.

Key learnings

Secession not civil war

In a sense it wasn’t a civil war. A civil war breaks out all over a country, for example in Britain in the 1640s where the Roundheads sought to overthrow Charles I’s rule over the nation. So that was a struggle between competing factions for control of one nation.

The American ‘civil war’ was more a secession. The 11 southern slave states seceded or withdrew from the nation called the United States and declared themselves a new country, with a new capital at Richmond Virginia, a new flag, and a new president, Jefferson Davis.

Confederate President Jefferson Davis

It was more comparable to events in other post-colonial countries where a province wanted to secede but the central government fought a war to hang onto and control the seceding territory, for example Biafra in Nigeria or Eritrea seeking independence from Ethiopia, the struggle of South Sudan to become independent of North Sudan, and so on.

This meant that, militarily, the North had to conquer the South in order to force it back into the country called the United States – which in practical terms meant seizing the Southern capital, Richmond, ideally along with its government – whereas all the South had to do was maintain its territorial integrity i.e. sit back and repel the North’s attacks.

As with many secessions the impartial observer is tempted to ask, Why not? Why shouldn’t Biafra seceded from Nigeria, Eritrea from Ethiopia or the Confederate states from the Union?

President Abraham Lincoln thought he had been elected president of all of America and it was his duty to maintain the nation’s integrity. He thought the South must be compelled to return back into a state they wished to leave. It’s very tempting to ask, Why?

Expansion West – would the new states be slave or free states?

One reason may have been that the US was a very unfinished nation, with most of the Western half of the continent far from settled, with much of it divided into territories which had yet to attain the legal status of ‘states’. At the time of the war the US consisted of 34 states i.e. 16 of today’s 50 states did not yet legally exist.

Therefore it wasn’t an act of secession taking place within a fixed and defined territory. Above all, the chief cause of the war was whether the new states being defined to the West – states such as Kansas, New Mexico, Arizona and so on – would be slave states of free states.

The American Civil War was a war fought against the expansion of slavery into the territories acquired after the Mexican-American War. It was not about the moral rectitude of Lincoln or the North. Although he personally found slavery abhorrent, he believed in the innate superiority of the white race. His paramount goal was not the freedom of over four million black slaves but to save the Union at all costs. He once said:

‘My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and it is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would do that. What I do about slavery and the colored race I do because I believe it helps to save the Union, and whatever I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union.’

(quoted on Richard Lawson Singley’s blog)

So it was not only a struggle to define what the country called the United States would consist of in the 1860s, but the result would determine whether the just-about-to-be-created states would belong to the existing union or join the Confederacy. In one sense the North and the South were fighting over who would own the West.

By ‘own’ I mean which social and economic model the Western states would adopt, slavery or non-slavery. Both sides were determined that the about-to-be-created states should adopt their social and economic system. You can see why this was a really fundamental problem which was almost impossible to decide by political means.

How the expansion of slave states would permanently alter the political balance in the US

Moreover it had a direct impact on the nature of the politics of the USA. Each American state sent two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there was a naked power struggle whenever a new state was admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators would be pro or anti slavery, the decision of each state threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

American politicians managed to defer the multiple aspects of the issue from the 1830s through the 1850s but as the nation expanded westwards it became ever-more pressing, until the series of expedients and compromises were finally exhausted by the start of 1860 and the election of President Lincoln brought the issue to a head.

International recognition

Because it was more of an act of secession than of civil war explains why the issue of international recognition was so important. At that time the ‘international community’ more or less amounted to Britain, led by the wily 70-something Lord Palmerston, and France, led by the buffoonish Emperor Napoleon III. McPherson brings out how vital it was for the South to demonstrate to Britain in particular that she was a viable independent nation. To do that she had to repel Northern attacks and, ideally, win victories herself.

McPherson describes in some detail the diplomatic manoeuvring in London where both North and South had ambassadors working at every level of the British government to sway it to its side (Charles Adams for the North, James Mason for the South).

James Murray Mason, one-time senator for Virginia and Confederate emissary to London (he wasn’t officially recognised as ambassador) where he tirelessly lobbied for British recognition of the Confederacy

By and large the British establishment, the aristocracy and the better off middle classes, supported the South. This was not out of love for slavery, for most Britons had long been against slavery, having fought a long campaign for the abolition of the slave trade at the turn of the nineteenth century and then the abolition of the legal status of ‘slave’ throughout the British Empire in 1833. Britons and prided themselves that the Royal Navy patrolled the world’s oceans to combat slavery.

No, on the whole Britain’s ruling classes favoured the South for three reasons:

  1. fear of North America’s growing industrial and economic power, combined with dislike of the North America’s crude, no-holds-barred industrial capitalism
  2. a preference for a romanticised view of the more ‘leisurely’, agricultural society of the South, which airbrushed out the slaves sweating in the fields, or chose to believe Southerners’ preposterous claims that the slaves benefited from their enslavement. (The many, many statements by Southern politicians explaining why the slaves loved their slavery or benefited from it, have to be read to be believed.)

The third reason was cruder. The core of Britain’s industrial revolution had been breakthroughs in powering and managing the textile trade and this relied entirely on cotton imported from the American South. It was in Britain’s clear economic interest to support the South. Hence McPherson is able to quote liberally from The Times newspaper which wrote numerous editorials sympathising with the Confederate cause.

But ultimately, the great prize the Confederacy sought, recognition by Britain, boiled down to the decision of one man, savvy old Lord Palmerston, and McPherson quotes conversations between the man himself and advisers or members of his cabinet or ambassadors for either side in the war, in which the canny Lord delays and prevaricates and insists he just needs to see a bit more proof that the South is a viable, standalone state.

In the autumn of 1862 his own Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone, started a cabinet debate on whether Britain should intervene. Like many in the British ruling class, Gladstone favoured the Confederacy (in fact his family wealth depended on slavery in the West Indies). The strongest argument for British intervention was humanitarian, to try to bring to an end the increasingly horrifying levels of bloodshed.

This was something the Confederates devoutly wished for, since it would place them on the same legal status as the North and amount to international recognition of their independent statehood.

But while personally sympathetic to the South, Palmerston killed Gladstone’s suggestion and maintained his temporising position right till the end of the war in April 1865, dying a few months later in October 1865, having maintained Britain’s good relations with the state that ended up winning, Lincoln’s North.

Types of freedom

In the introduction and in passages throughout the book McPherson explores the idea that the war was about different definitions of ‘freedom’.

The South was not totally incorrect in describing the North’s approach as a kind of tyranny i.e. trying to keep the 11 Confederate states inside a country they had all elected to leave. On this view the Confederacy was fighting for the principle of the states’ freedoms to choose their own laws and social systems according to the wishes of the local people and in defiance of central, federal power. Hence you read no end of rhetoric in southern newspapers and southern speeches about their aim to be free of despotism, escape the heel of tyranny, achieve deliverance and so on.

This view underplayed two factors:

One was the issue defined above, that the war wasn’t just about the present, but about the future, because whoever controlled the Western states was set to, ultimately, emerge as the larger and more powerful player in the divided continent. I.e. it wasn’t pure tyranny on the North’s part. In a roundabout way it was about the long-term survival of the North’s view of what the 1777 revolution had been about.

The second is the one you hear more about in these woke times, which is the breath-taking hypocrisy of the South to make fancy speeches about ‘freedom’ while basing its entire economy and society on the forced labour of some 4 million slaves.

McPherson indicates some of the twisted logic this led Southern politicians and commentators into:

  • some denied that there was anything wrong with slavery, declaring that Africans were happier being mentored and tutored by their superiors
  • some declared slavery as old as the Bible and justified by God
  • others bluntly said the slaves were not fully human and so couldn’t enjoy rights and freedoms reserved for whites

Any way you cook it, Southerners tended to downplay slavery, preferring to emphasise the ‘nobility’ of their fight for independence and play up the same kind of ‘freedom from tyranny’ which their great grandfathers had fought the British to achieve.

By contrast Northerners had at least two definitions of freedom. One was the obvious one of anti-slavery which associated the South as a culture of slavery and oppression. The other was a more complicated notion around the idea that no democratic nation can afford to be held hostage by the extreme views of a minority, in this instance the insistence on slavery of 11 states continually bogging down the political process of the other 23 states. It was freedom for the elected government to enact the policies it was elected for, without the endless filibustering and obstructing of the South.

Around page 100 I came across a variation on this idea, which is the notion that the government of a country cannot be held hostage by the continual threat that any region of the country which doesn’t like this or that policy will simply secede and walk away. Two things.

  1. This obviously threatens the very notion of the integrity and identity of a country (cf modern Spain’s refusal to countenance the independence of Catalonia, which would be fine for Catalans but seriously weaken Spain as a country).
  2. With each of these potential splits a nation becomes smaller, weaker and more unstable.

I was struck by the editorial in the New York Herald which pointed out that if the North gave in to secession, where would it end? The entire nation might fragment into a pack of jostling states which would fall prey to instability, rivalry, wars and weak government like the nations of South America. If the North lost Maryland (which Robert E. Lee’s army invaded in September 1862), he thought the North might:

be broken up…not into two confederacies, but into ten or twenty petty republics of the South American school, electing each a dictator every year at the point of the bayonet and all incessantly fighting each other.’ (quoted on page 102)

So that’s why the book is titled ‘Crossroads of Freedom’ – because, seen from one angle, the entire war was fought to decide whose definition of ‘freedom’ would triumph. And McPherson designates the Battle of Antietam ‘the crossroads of freedom’ because it was, in his opinion, the decisive moment in the war, the crossroads at which men died in huge numbers to contest these definitions of ‘freedom’ and out of which a massive new definition of freedom, the emancipation of all the slaves, emerged.

Emancipation of the slaves

A casual acquaintanceship with the history of the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln leads many to think that war was fought about the issue of slavery and led directly to the emancipation of the slaves.

Slave owners disciplining their belongings

A closer reading of events teaches you that Lincoln resisted making emancipation the central issue for several years. This is because of the time-honoured, central nature of democratic politics in a large state, which is that to form a government which can pass laws and get things done you always have to form coalitions of interest. And so Lincoln was reluctant to make emancipation the central issue because:

  • he knew it would alienate many Democrats even in the North (Lincoln was a Republican)
  • it would alienate slave owners in the all-important borderline states between the Union and the Confederacy
  • it would spur the Confederacy to fight harder

One of the things that emerges most clearly from McPherson’s account is how it was a series of Confederate victories in the summer of 1862, with much loss of life on the Northern side that finally made Lincoln decide he had to ‘take off the gloves’ and go all out to win the war by any means possible. In this regard the declaration that the North would emancipate the slaves, while it contained a humanitarian motive, was also motivated by Realpolitik. It:

  1. acknowledged the reality on the ground where more and more Afro-Americans were fleeing their bondage to the nearest Northern armies where they were happy to volunteer to work as cooks and ancillary staff or be drafted into a fighting regiment
  2. put clear blue water between the two sides and their war aims
  3. unequivocally seized the international moral high ground

It marked a Rubicon. Previously Lincoln, many in his cabinet, many soldiers and civilians had hoped there could be some kind of reconciliation. The initial declaration was announced on 22 September, 1862, just five days after the battle of Antietam, and gave the South 100 days to return to the Union or lose all its slaves. The South rejected the offer and so Lincoln made the second and definitive declaration on 1 January 1863. Now it would be a war to the death, a war of conquest and domination.

Details

War aims

War aims always escalate. Abraham Lincoln reluctantly engaged in the war with the relatively narrow aims of securing US government property and ensuring its excise taxes were collected. That is why the commencement of the war with the Confederates attacking Fort Sumter near Charleston, South Carolina by the South Carolina militia was so symbolic. Fort Sumter was held by forces loyal to the North but was clearly on Southern soil. The questions of who should control it, whether the Union garrison should abandon it and ship north or hold onto it as a legitimate property of the US government went right to the heart of the issue of whether a new government (the Confederacy) existed and what rights it had.

Anyway, back to the escalation theme: For the first 2 years Lincoln repeatedly promised that if the South returned to the fold, all would be forgiven and nothing would be changed. McPherson’s account covers the period during which the Republican government realised that it couldn’t win this conflict by cajoling and coaxing, that it had to ‘take off the kid gloves’ (a phrase McPherson tells us quickly became an over-used cliché) and fight the Confederacy with every tool at his command.

It’s in this context that must be understood the proclamation of the emancipation of the slaves on 1 January 1863. It marked a seismic shift in the North’s war aims from merely reincorporating the South ‘as before’, leaving it its own institutions and laws, and a new, thorough-going determination to destroy the central pillar of the Southern economy, slave labour, and remould the South in the North’s image.

Contraband

As soon as war broke out slaves began running away from their Southern masters, fleeing to the nearest Northern centre or garrison. Northern generals in some regions let them stay, others insisted on returning them to their Southern masters. On 23 May 1861 an event took place which slowly acquired symbolic and then legal significance. Major General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union forces at Fort Monroe, Virginia, refused to return three runaway slaves who had arrived at the fort. Butler argued that, since their former owner was in revolt against the United States, his slaves could be considered ‘contraband of war’ and so were not subject to return.

General Butler refuses to return three slaves who have escaped to Fort Monroe in what came to be seen by both sides as a symbolic moment

Butler’s opinion on this issue eventually became Union policy. Two Confiscation Acts were passed by Congress in 1861 and 1862 by which all slaves used by the Confederate military for transportation or construction work could be freed if captured by Union forces. As these populations increased they were put to work behind the lines, working as labourers, teamsters (‘a person who drives teams of draft animals’), servants, laundresses, or skilled craftsmen, as well as serving as scouts, spies, soldiers or sailors. Some were recruited into all-black military units.

This explains why term ‘contraband’ came into widespread use to describe escaped slaves at the time but I admit I was surprised that it seems to be widely used by modern historians including McPherson. In these sensitive times I’m surprised that it hasn’t been replaced by a less derogatory and objectifying term such as ‘runaway slaves’.

Race war

Threaded throughout the book is the contemporary concern among Americans of both sides and even foreign commentators, that liberating the South’s slaves would lead to a Race War. Many sensible people thought the civil war would be followed by a much bigger struggle of white against black which would engulf the whole continent. Although this seems mad to us, now, we must understand that it was a real concern at the time and added to the reluctance of even very intelligent people to support unqualified emancipation.

‘“Abe Lincoln’s Last Card’, a cartoon in the British magazine, Punch, showing a ragged and possibly devilish Lincoln playing the ’emancipation card’ against a confident Confederate with the aim of detonating the powderkeg which the table is resting on, implying that the Emancipation Proclamation was a desperate and cynical move by a defeated North designed to spark a bloody insurrection. (The cartoon is by John Tenniel, famous for illustrating the Alice in Wonderland books.)

In the event we know that what followed was nothing like a ‘race war’; instead black people in America were to suffer a century of poverty, immiseration and discrimination until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s began to effect change.

Illustrations

And it has pictures, lots of them: 17 contemporary photos of key players in the drama including Union President Abraham Lincoln, the ex-slave and writer Frederick Douglas, the great generals George B. McClellan, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses Grant, the diplomats James Mason and Charles, the Secretary of State for War, the ironclad USS Cairo and so on.

Frederick Douglas who pressed Lincoln in 1862 to turn the war for Union into a war for freedom

And photos taken after battle by enterprising documentary photographers from New York such as Alexander Gardner to feed the newspapers. (McPherson informs us that America at this date had more newspapers per capital than any other country in the world.)

The war dead look like the war dead everywhere, same as in photos of the Indian Mutiny (1857) or the Crimean War (1853 to 1856), after the Boxer Rebellion (1899 to 1901) or the Boer War (1899 to 1902) let alone the calamitous wars and genocides of the 20th century. In all of them human beings are reduced to a compost heap of rags and putrefying flesh. Death reveals there is no mystery to human life. To the earth we return after a short period of preening, just like all the other organisms on the planet.

Confederate dead lying in ‘Bloody Lane’ after the intense fighting there at midday 17 September 1862

There are some 14 newspaper etchings and illustrations, of historic and dramatic scenes such as Commodore Farragut’s fleet passing the Confederate forts below New Orleans on 24 April 1862, specific incidents during the battle itself, and newspaper cartoons and caricatures of politicians.

And, crucially, there are maps, seven beautifully drawn and beautifully reproduced maps which help you make sense of the complex military manoeuvres and operations between Spring and September 1862, the period the book really focuses on.

This is a beautifully written and beautifully produced book which helps you follow the build up to the battle in detail but also interprets the meaning and significance of events in a highly intelligent and thought provoking way. 10 out of 10.

A video

Here’s a handy video which summarises the whole thing in 5 minutes.


Other posts about American history

Origins

Seven Years War

War of Independence

Slavery

The civil war

Art

Klimt / Schiele @ the Royal Academy

This exhibition is much more varied and interesting than the Royal Academy’s promotional material suggests. The main poster shows two female nudes with prominent nipples and, of the eight images further down the page, all but one are nudes, leading you to expect a festival of bottoms and boobs.

There certainly are plenty of nudes in the show, but there’s considerably more to it than that, and it’s the fuller, broader context which makes it so interesting and rewarding.

The pretext

Both Gustav Klimt (born July 1862) and Egon Schiele (born June 1890) died in 1918, Klimt 27 years older and much the more famous and successful figure, having developed a style which combined beautiful draughtsmanship with a fin-de-siecle and semi-symbolist fondness for placing his human figures within two-dimensional sheaths of glittering colours, most famously in 1908’s The Kiss. (Be warned: there is nothing this finished and this glamorous in this exhibition.)

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1908)

The Kiss by Gustav Klimt (1908)

Schiele was much under the older man’s influence throughout the 1900s (they first met in 1907) until around May 1910, when he himself realised he had broken through to find his own voice and style – basically Klimt unplugged, the same addiction to the human figure, to sensuous depictions of nudes, but with a ferociously modern, twisted, angular, abrasive sensuality.

To some extent, as the gallery notes make clear, this was the sensuality of poverty. Whereas Klimt ran a successful studio which won public commissions – painting complex ceiling schemes for grand buildings of Vienna’s Ringstraße, did a series of commissions for Vienna’s high society ladies and was married to Austrian fashion designer Emilie Louise Flöge who ran a successful fashion business, and so had access to all manner of sumptuous fabrics, in the latest designs, for his drawings and paintings – Schiele was barely 20 when he hit his stride, and lived in poorly furnished flats with a succession of ‘companions’, most of them even poorer than him, which is why so many of his women are wearing basic kit, stockings, a blouse, and not much else.

To mark the coincidental centenary of their deaths the Royal Academy has arranged to borrow 100 or so portraits, allegories, landscapes and erotic nudes by Klimt and Schiele from the Albertina Museum in Vienna, allowing visitors an amazing opportunity to see these powerful, skilled and stimulating works.

Six rooms

The exhibition is upstairs in the Sackler Wing of the Academy, and is divided into six rooms.

Room 1 Photos, early sketches and the Secession

Photos of Klimt as a middle aged man, in his trademark blue smock, early and very Victorian realist drawings. Next to early photos of Schiele adopting one of his art school poses.

Egon Schiele in Front of the painting ‘Shrines in the Forest’ (1915) by Johannes Fischer

Egon Schiele in Front of the painting ‘Shrines in the Forest’ (1915) by Johannes Fischer

This rooms explains Klimt’s rise to dominance of the Vienna art scene and his leadership of the ‘Secession’ of new young artists set up in 1897. There’s a Secession poster which Klimt designed, with a graceful image of Athena in 1903, next to the bitingly Expressionist picture of the selection board around a table which Schiele created for the 1918 Secession exhibition, after Klimt’s death.

Room 2 Klimt’s drawing process

This room is devoted to several sets or series of drawings Klimt made for grand allegorical projects. In 1894 he was commissioned to create three paintings to decorate the ceiling of the Great Hall of the University of Vienna and chose the subject of Philosophy, Medicine, and Jurisprudence. On display are a series of preparatory drawings for ‘Medicine’ which he conceived as a naked woman floating in space, feet towards us.

In 1902, Klimt finished the Beethoven Frieze for the Fourteenth Vienna Secessionist exhibition, and there are a number of sketches here for female figures. And several preparatory sketches for his 1905 oil painting, Three Ages of Woman, including a strikingly drawn naked middle-aged woman.

Standing older woman in profile (study for three Ages of Woman) by Gustav Klimt (1905)

Standing older woman in profile (study for three Ages of Woman) by Gustav Klimt (1905)

The most obvious thing about all the pieces in this room is none of them are coloured: they are literally just pencil drawings on paper. They allow you to examine and admire Klimt’s technique, and to understand better his interest in the surfaces and folds of the dresses his figures (almost all women) are wearing. But they lack all the exquisite finish and colour and golden luxuriance of his paintings.

It is, therefore, quite a shock and a pleasure to walk into the next room, which is packed with Egon Schiele’s vibrant colourful paintings.

Room 3 Schiele’s drawing process

You immediately notice that all the drawings in this room are coloured, very carefully and fully coloured. And I noticed that the strong angular outlines of Schiele’s figures are emphasised by often being drawn in black crayon as opposed to weak pencil. As if this wasn’t enough some of the most striking figures are outlined with a rough swathe of white gouache, which really makes them leap off the page. Exemplified in this nude.

Female Nude (1910) by Egon Schiele

Female Nude (1910) by Egon Schiele

Female nude also epitomises other Schiele traits:

  • the angularity of the anatomy – look at the painfully pointed hip and shoulderbone
  • the uncomfortableness of the pose – what’s happened to her right arm?
  • the attention to the hand which is long and heavily jointed, looking like a four-legged spider crawling up her side
  • the unashamed bluntness of the loins with their pubic hair
  • and the use of colour not so much to describe as to highlight and bring out the composition

The guide makes a central point:

Schiele frequently used watercolour and gouache in his works on paper, but rarely to create three dimensional modelling. Colour is employed expressively or as a graphic compositional device, similar to Klimt’s division of decorative surface pattern in his paintings.

Not all, but a number of the Klimt sketches in the previous room sketched in the face and body shape merely in order to allow him to create the characteristic series of whorls and geometric shapes across the fabric of women’s skirts and dress which obviously fascinated him. By contrast Schiele’s colours don’t even and smooth out, but create dramatic highlights which leap out of the image.

Not only is the shock of walking into this room like watching colour TV after black and white – it is also by far the most varied in subject matter.

Thus Schiele was arrested in April 1912 when a thirteen-year-old girl who had sought protection in the house he shared with his unmarried partner and model Wally Neuzil, was tracked down by her irate father. He was arrested on charges of seduction and abduction and ended up spending 24 days in Neulenbach prison before the case was dismissed. The exhibition displays five of the drawings and paintings he made during this brief incarceration, one is a full-body self-portrait, but four are of the interior of the prison and his cell. I liked the one of a chair with some handkerchiefs and a green scarf (?) draped over it.

Beside these were two striking and dynamic architectural studies of houses, showing how well Schiele’s strong black lines bring out the architectonics of anything, be it body or building. Alongside these a set of landscapes. I never knew Schiele painted landscapes, they tend to be eclipsed by the explicit nudes.

Field landscape (Kreuzberg near Krumau) 1910 by Egon Schiele

Field landscape (Kreuzberg near Krumau) 1910 by Egon Schiele

This reproduction doesn’t bring out how bright and vivid the greens of the field are. And next to these landscapes was a set of three drawings of chrysanthemums. Again, I had forgotten that Schiele made many flower studies.

White chrysanthemum by Egon Schiele (1910)

White chrysanthemum by Egon Schiele (1910)

Klimt may, for all I know, be the finer artist of the two, but in this exhibition, in this selection of their works hanging side by side, Schiele comes over as vastly more colourful, inventive, varied and dynamic.

Room 4 Klimt portraits

By the 1890s Klimt was a sought-after portrait painter for society ladies. He made his rich women appear tall, statuesque, elegant, often with fashionable dresses buttoned right up to the chin, and a carefully styled bouffant haircut. In the ten or so pencil drawings and sketches for portraits presented here, Klimt is obviously interested in the overall shape and, in some of them, the potential of the dresses to be turned into his trademark fantasias of geometric shapes and mosaics. This approach is exemplified in this study for the sumptuous portrait he eventually painted of Frau Fritza Riedler. Note the absence of eyes. it is the patterns and shapes of the dress which take up most of the space, with just enough outline of face to make it human.

Study for a painting of Fritza Riedler by Gustav Klimt (1904)

Study for a painting of Fritza Riedler by Gustav Klimt (1904)

The curators have artfully hung this eyeless sketch next to a penetrating study by Schiele of his younger sister, Gerti Schiele. You immediately see the difference: the brim of the hat and the ruff around her chest are confidently sketched in, but the rest of the body, for example her right arm, just tapers away. Schiele’s real interest is obviously in the intense black eyes of the sitter, which are staring right out at you.

They are hung right next to each other and looking from one to the other you realise that The Klimt is a design, whereas the Schiele is an intensely felt portrait.

Gerti Schiele by Egon Schiele (1911)

Gerti Schiele by Egon Schiele (1911)

Maybe the difference can be explained in terms of tradecraft – the Klimt sketches were never to be intended to be anything more than preparations, try-outs for what would be the very labour-intensive process of creating finished luxury paintings. By contrast, the Schieles are what they are, not many of them are preparations for paintings, they are pencil, crayon, gouache and watercolour works in their own right.

Maybe there’s a sociological explanation: Klimt could afford to make numerous preparations of expensive works for rich clients; Schiele never became that financially successful, so most of his portraits are of people he knew, models, lovers, friends and family, so they come out of more intimate and close relationships. Maybe that explains why almost all the Schiele knock you for six.

Room 5 Schiele portraits

This is really rammed home in the room devoted to Schiele portraits which, once again, demonstrates his versatility. There are one or two nudes but the emphasis is on his ability to capture the features and character of perfectly respectable, fully dressed citizens of Vienna. There’s a little set of portraits of middle-class men like Heinrich Benesch, the railway inspector who became an important collector of Schiele’s work.

One wall displays a set of portraits of his family, including touching portraits of his sister, his mother and his father-in-law. Set amid these is a staggeringly evocative face of his wife, Edith Harms, who he married in 1914. The guide tells us a bit of gossip about their marriage, namely that nice, middle-class Edith insisted Schiele cut off all contact with his working class mistress and muse, Wally Neuzil. Seems cruel. Needs must. But what remains of Edith is Schiele’s staggeringly evocative portraits of her, like the one featured here. A face, hair, a hand – and an entire personality is before us. It is a staggering testimony to what art can do.

Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)

Edith Schiele by Egon Schiele (1917)

Yet another aspect of Schiele’s vision is displayed across two walls of this room – his numerous, inventive and varied self-portraits. Klimt never did a self portrait in his life, Schiele did hundreds. Maybe, again, partly out of poverty. But mostly because, whereas the Symbolist, fin-de-siecle art of the 1890s reached beyond itself to some secret realm trembling on the brink of revelation, the Expressionist art of the 1910s explored the self, and the fracturing of the self, into anguished fragments.

It’s an oddity or irony of the German Expressionists that so many of them considered themselves spiritual leaders, heralding a great spiritual awakening of humanity – and yet, to us, so many of their paintings look hard, heavy and anguished. Same here, with Schiele – the commentary tells us that he identified with Francis of Assissi, wrote about the artist being a spiritual leader, gave his self-portraits titles like ‘redemption’ – and yet to us they seem to anticipate the acute and anguished self-consciousness of the twentieth century, which didn’t decline after Schiele’s death, but achieved new heights of neurotic panic after the Holocaust, the atom bombs and the spread of nihilism and existentialism across mid-century Europe.

It is that tormented self-consciousness which Schiele’s countless experimental self-portraits seem to communicate to us today, not songs about birds.

Nude Self-Portrait, Squatting (1916) by Egon Schiele. Pencil and gouache on packing paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

Nude Self-Portrait, Squatting (1916) by Egon Schiele. Pencil and gouache on packing paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

By no means all of these self-portraits are nude; the one above is the most naked and explicit. In many others he’s wearing clothes but posing in one of his characteristically agonised, ungainly stylised positions. This angularity prepares us for the last room.

Room 6 Erotic nudes

Bang! the room explodes with some of the most erotic paintings and drawings ever made. They are erotic because they are so candid. You feel like you are in the room, with a good-looking young woman who is happy to share her body with you, no shame, no false modesty, no recriminations. For me, at any rate, it’s this spirit of complete, unashamed, naked complicity which makes them emotionally or psychologically powerful.

Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee (1914) by Egon Schiele. Graphite and gouache on Japan paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

Seated Female Nude, Elbows Resting on Right Knee (1914) by Egon Schiele. Graphite and gouache on Japan paper. The Albertina Museum, Vienna

But having looked carefully at all the works which precede them it is also possible to set aside their erotic charge altogether and consider them as compositions. In this respect the most successful of them vividly bring together features we’ve already noted:

  • the stylised pose, deliberately not classical, not a nude woman carefully standing so as to conceal her loins, but a real woman squatting, lying back with her legs open, gazing at the viewer, completely unembarrassed
  • the angularity of the anatomy – note the weirdly pointed hips, the visible ribs, the jagged angles around the shoulder, the accurate depiction of the lines made by the tendons of the inner thigh just next to the pubic hair, the pointed chin – the human figure as sharp angles
  • the use of colour not to describe naturalistically, but as expressive highlighting – much earlier Klimt had coloured the nipples of his nude paintings, but they were set amid an entire composition of gleaming rich colours: Schiele repeatedly uses the trick of painting the labia, nipples and lips a bright orange colour, on one level highlighting the erogenous zones, but on another making the figures almost into painted puppets, marionettes, an unsettling ambiguity

Note, also, the use of the colour green. By her breast, and armpit, and under her eyes and, the more you look at it, the more you see that Schiele has used that very unhuman colour, green, just touches and flecks of it, which… which do what, exactly? They make this woman’s body look a bit more emaciated than it already is: but the sparingness with which it’s used also makes you look closer, lean in, get drawn in.

Once I started looking, I noticed a very fleeting use of green in many of the nudes, creating just a hint of a kind of heightened, floodlit, hyper-vividness. There’s even green in the self-portrait wearing a yellow waistcoat. I’ve read scores of articles about Schiele and nudes and pornography and the male gaze and so on. It would be interesting to read just one good article about his very sophisticated use of colour.

Schiele’s nudes, hundreds of them, were notorious in his day and now are widely known and admired. I had no idea that Klimt did quite so many nudes and that, in their way, they are more sexually explicit. The wall opposite Schiele’s green-flecked nudes is covered with the detailed pencil drawings Klimt made of nubile young women naked and very blatantly masturbating.

In 1907 Klimt provided fifteen avowedly erotic drawings for a luxury edition of the Roman classic, Lucian’s dialogue of the courtesans. The title of one drawing – shown in the original pencil version and then as an illustration in a copy of the book which is on display here – says it all: Woman reclining with leg raised. She is lying on her back on a bed with one leg pulled up and back by her left arm while she is masturbating with her right hand. Art doesn’t come much more explicit than this. Although even when he’s being as rude as an artist possibly can be, it’s amusing that Klimt can’t stop himself drifting off to think about the decorative spots and patterns on the fabric she’s lying on (her dress? a blanket?)

Reclining nude with leg raised by Gustav Klimt (1907)

Reclining nude with leg raised by Gustav Klimt (1907)

The commentary suggests that, because Klimt’s nude women have their eyes closed they are somehow passive victims of the male gaze, whereas Schiele’s explicit female nudes generally have their eyes open and are often looking straight at the viewer – and so are therefore empowered, have agency etc – an issue of vital concern to female art curators.

I don’t think it’s quite that simple: it’s certainly not that a consistent rule, because some Klimt women have their eyes open and some Schiele women have theirs closed.

In my opinion the scholars are over-explaining something which is more obvious: not only Schiele’s female nudes but the male nudes and most of the fully-dressed portraits as well, are simply more powerfully drawn and more vividly coloured than any of the Klimt drawings on show here.

Klimt’s masturbating women may have their eyes closed, but more importantly (for me, anyway) – although they are just as explicit, in fact in the way they are actively masturbating, they are more explicit than the Schiele – nonetheless, they are drawn with much finer and paler lines, lines which almost fade away into nothingness, as the left leg of the model, above, dwindles from the heft of her buttock and hip down to a small foot which is merely an outline.

In other words, in my opinion, it is not the model, the human being depicted – it is Klimt’s technique or style which is passive and mute. As pencil drawings, the Klimt nudes in this final room are probably better, more accurate draughtsmanship, than the Schiele. But the Schiele erotic nudes, with their strong black outlines, weird angularities, piercing black eyes, and coloured highlights, are incomparably the more powerful and bracing works of art.

Video introduction to Schiele

By Tim Marlow, Artistic Director of the Royal Academy.

//player.vimeo.com/video/298238498


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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