Toward the end of SPQR, her survey of ancient Roman history, Mary Beard writes, “I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans—or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilization.” Quite an admission, this, on the part of an English classicist who has spent the better part of her adult her life acquiring as much knowledge as possible about Rome and its empire and whose splendid book traverses its story from 750 B.C.E to 212 C.E. She does avow that indirectly we have much to learn, for so “many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.”
Theodor Mommsen, the great 19th-century historian of Rome, would seem, at least in part, to concur. “History, as such, cannot reproduce the life of a people in the infinite variety of its details; it must be content with exhibiting the development of that life as a whole,” he wrote. “It is in [history] alone that we acquire some idea of the breadth of the gulf which separates our modes of thinking and feeling from those of the civilized nations of antiquity.”
If these two superior classicists find deep historical understanding a mug’s game, what chance have I, an amateur without rank, to derive profit from reading about Rome, its republic, and its empire? And yet here I am, on a binge these past few years, reading vast writings both by Romans and later commentators on Rome. I began with Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, went on to Tacitus, Sallust, Polybius, a fair amount of Cicero, Seneca, the letters of Pliny the Younger, lots of Plutarch, Suetonius, Livy, Appian, Cassius Dio, Cornelius Nepos, Montesquieu, Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, and other such scraps and oddments as I could find. I cannot vouch for my intellectual profit, but I can report the immense pleasure this reading has brought. I cannot say that I, unlike Beard and Mommsen, have learned much directly about the Romans—except that I am glad not to have been a Roman.
In the study of Western antiquity, finer minds might be drawn to Greece and its superior culture. The Greeks produced genius in art, in drama and poetry, in philosophy, in science. None of these major categories of human endeavor was of much interest to the Romans, though they availed themselves of them when it was useful. The artist in Rome was little more than a despised worker; art itself was of subordinate significance. Mommsen reports that “physics and mathematics were not much studied in Rome,” and that “for centuries there were none but Greek physicians in Rome.” Wealthy Romans with intellectual aspirations went to Athens to put the polish on their education. The reigning cliché when comparing Greece and Rome has is that “conquered Greece vanquished her rude conqueror by art.” Conquered by Rome, Greece indubitably was, and the reason is that, as Mommsen had it, “Rome was, what Greece was not, a state.”
The Greeks, with all their high culture, were endlessly disputatious, and, apart from their twice having staved off the Persians, all their wars during their great era, the fifth century B.C.E., were intramural. Greek polities could neither unite in concert nor for long fall under the sway of a single power. Not long after the conclusion of the Peloponnesian War (427–409), Greece, as a political entity, had exhausted itself and would come under the yoke first of the Macedonians and then the Romans.
Whatever they lacked in the realm of culture, the Romans achieved what the Greeks could not: empire, which, in however increasingly attenuated a form, they held on to for more than seven centuries. How were they able to do so? Decline and then fall may have been the fate of the Roman Empire, as it has been of all empires, but the decline of Rome was slow in its descent, its fall gradual.
In The Early History of Rome, Livy writes: “I hope my passion for Rome’s past has not impaired my judgment; for I do honestly believe that no country has ever been greater and purer than ours or richer in good citizens and noble deeds; none has been free for so many generation from the vices of avarice and luxury; nowhere have thrift and plain living been for so long held in such esteem. Poverty with us went hand in hand with contentment. Of late years wealth has made us greedy, and self-indulgence has brought us, through every form of sensual excess, to be, if I may so put it, in love with death both individual and collective.” The Alexandrian historian Appian notes he has taken the pains to write about the Roman civil wars because “it is a story well worth the attention of any who wish to contemplate limitless human ambition, terrible lust for power, indefatigable patience, and evil in ten thousand shapes.”
EVERY GREAT NATION that achieves empire has its foundational myths. In the case of Rome, these are lodged in the early days of the Roman Republic, which began in 509 B.C.E., when Tarquinius Superbus, the last of the kings of the Tarquin dynasty, was removed from power. Thenceforth Romans devised their elaborate code of laws, and not long thereafter the early years of the Republic were regarded not merely as the good but as the great old days. The early Roman Republic set the standard for virtus, the Roman ideal of manliness, which was acquired through military prowess and sacrifice for the larger community. These were the years when Rome defeated the Etruscans, the Celts, and the Samnites, fought off Hannibal and demolished Carthage, and won supremacy in Italy. Throughout Roman history, Romans harkened back to these earlier times and measured all conduct by this earlier standard.
In this sense the Romans were in good part a backward-looking people. “[As late as] the early empire the Roman mind sluggishly vegetated on its own past,” wrote the English classicist J.B. Bury. Most famously, Marcus Cato (95–46 B.C.E.) is said to have modeled his own life on that of his great-grandfather, the earlier Marcus Cato (232–147 B.C.E.). The larger community, the state, was always primary in Rome, the individual secondary. Mommsen, setting out the difference between Greek and Roman character, noted that the Greeks “sacrificed the whole to its individual elements, the nation to the township, and the township to the citizen,” while Romans “solemnly bound the son to worship the father, the citizen to reverence the ruler, and all to reverence the gods, which required nothing and honored nothing but the useful act, and compelled every citizen to fill up every moment of his brief life with unceasing work; … which deemed everyone a bad citizen who wished to be different than his fellows; and regarded the state as all in all, and a desire for the state’s extension as the only aspiration not liable to censure.”
The Roman revolution that ended monarchy was, like the Roman state itself, inherently conservative. In place of a monarch, two consuls were appointed for the term of a single year. One dealt with the administration of justice, the other commanded the military; former consuls, known as proconsuls, governed conquered provinces. The senate, largely aristocratic in its composition, with its members elevated through lineage and appointed for life, assumed the main powers of government, entering into treaties, declaring wars, managing and distributing land, and controlling finances. Two tribunes, drawn from the plebeian class, were added to represent the interests of that class and to veto legislation felt injurious to it. The offices of aedile and praetor were added later, the former in charge of public buildings and festivals, the latter with a wide authority, both military and municipal, that rendered them, in effect, deputy consuls. Quaestors, able men, mostly from good families, rose up the ladder to the consulship and spent their later days in the senate.
If this system did not encourage genius, it did make for solidity and sound government. Lauding the Roman senate in its best days, Mommsen writes: “The Roman people was enabled by means of its senate to carry out for a longer term than is usually granted to a people the grandest of all human undertakings—a wise and happy self-government.” This system, with changes over the years in the disputes over power between patricians and plebs—through the reforms of the brothers Graachus, the counterrevolution of Sulla, the rise to power of Julius Caesar—ended only with the ascent of Caesar’s grand-nephew and adopted son Octavius Caesar in 27 B.C.E. to the office of princeps, or primus inter pares, first among equals. He held it until his death in 14 C.E., and his tenure, as Ronald Syme has set out in impressive detail in The Roman Revolution, reinstated the Roman monarchy.
Literature was not high among Roman priorities. Albert Camus, visiting Pompeii in 1954, noted “the comedy of false grandeur of Roman culture,” and added, “my heart which has never beaten for a single Latin poem (not even Virgil is admired nor loved) and which has always ached for the flash of a tragic stanza or lyric hailing from Rome.” The Romans had no Homer, no Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides. Virgil and Horace wrote under the protection of the patron Maceneas, friend and adviser to Augustus, as Octavius Caesar became. Catullus was no Pindar. The national theater was second-rate at best. Seneca and Cicero were neither Plato nor Aristotle.
The intelligence of the Romans, according to J.B. Bury, “was solid and commonplace, moving rigidly on old lines; they were incapable of striking a new vein or of conceiving a new idea. From the days of Augustus to the triumph of Christianity they invented absolutely nothing in political science or in finance, in warfare or in mechanics, in religion or in literature or art. Their greatest achievement was the brilliant development of law in the second and third centuries, but that was merely the able elaboration of ideas which had been formulated in earlier days of Roman vigor. In literature they merely imitated either the Greeks or their own ancestors; their merits are purely merits of form. We must not let their notable instinct for administrative details, or their equally notable instinct for literary style, blind us to their poverty in ideas.”
Rome needed an Aristophanes to record and properly satirize the machinations of Romans in their ceaseless struggle for power. The insufficiently determined Pompeius, the master calculator Julius Caesar, the greedy Crassus, the moralizing Cato, the quavering, wavering Cicero, the ambiguously virtuous Brutus, the rancorous Cassius—these men required a brilliant artist to capture them in their richly fascinating characters.
THE ANCIENT WORLD produced the greatest of philosophers, grand playwrights, astute political leaders, and brilliant generals, yet all lived easily enough with slavery. Roman society, and especially the Roman economy, was built on it. Estimates of the number of slaves in Rome run from 4.8 million to 8.4 million, or anywhere between 10 and 25 percent of the population. Slaves were chiefly acquired as part of the spoils of war and were considered property, dealt with by Roman law as no different than cows and oxen and other four-legged creatures. They could be traded or otherwise dispensed with in any way their owners wished, all without legal punishment. If a slave rose up to kill or even attempt to kill a cruel owner, not only he but all the slaves in the same household, which often meant scores of men, women, and children, were likely to be put to death, which explains why few slaves rose up against their Roman masters.
A wealthy Roman named Vedius Pollio, having had among his dinner guests Augustus, ordered the execution of one of his slaves for dropping and smashing a crystal goblet. The form of his execution chosen by Pollio was to be by lamprey, or giant eel, which meant a slow and excruciating death, one that made crucifixion seem a month in the country. In one version of the story, Augustus had his slaves break the rest of Pollio’s glass goblets, and by including his own slaves in the misdemeanor, thereby spared the slave of the hated Pollio. But generally slaves could be beaten, starved, drowned, thrown from cliffs, or otherwise tortured or killed by their Roman masters. It would end only with the accession of Constantine, the first Christian emperor (306–337 C.E.), who set in place laws against killing slaves, though not against beating, torturing, or otherwise treating them as their owners desired.
The anecdote about Vedius Pollio, along with a great many others, is recounted in A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum: Murder in Ancient Rome by Emma Southon. What makes Southon’s book extraordinary is its author’s tone, which is simultaneously authoritative and jokey, serious and frivolous. One doesn’t expect to come upon the word “schtupped” in a book about Rome; nor to see the wretched emperor Commodus, son of Marcus Aurelius, described as a “twat.” Southon’s pages are studded with references to Taylor Swift, Netflix, Monty Python, and Games of Thrones.
Profanity comes readily to Southon, who refers to the young Nero as “the little prick he was,” Domitian as a “dickhead,” and reports that educated Roman politicians as uninterested in gladiatorial shows but only “in good wine, good f—ing, and philosophy, for the most part.” She writes that she does not wish her narrative “to be distracted by things like the emperor Caracalla getting stabbed while having an outdoor piss and then trying to run away while bleeding everywhere and also presumably still pissing with his willy flopping about and then his assassin getting wanged with a javelin, because it happened in 217 C.E.” She gets away with this, and much more, because her subject is intrinsically so interesting and because she has much fascinating information to convey about it.
Violent death was always on the menu in Rome, in the Republic and under the Empire both. In the country’s founding myth, after all, Romulus murdered his brother Remus. Nearly half the Roman emperors died by assassination, and roughly a tenth took their own lives. Emma Southon sets out various ways deaths were arranged, tried, and punished. Rome never had to defund the police, as many progressives now desire we do in the United States, because it never had an official police force or a long-term prison system. In Rome, murder, and the apprehension of murderers, was for the most part a family affair. Plutarch cites Cato the Younger bewailing the fate of his country and cursing “the fatal ambition which made so many Romans murder one another.” Cato himself took his own life after the defeat of Pompey at Pharsalus.
In Rome a distinction had to be made between homicide and murder. The distinction is that homicide wasn’t murder; it was merely killing a human being, and everything depended on who that human being was. The enslaved did not qualify as human beings; since they were regarded as property, they could be disposed of as their owners wished. Southon writes that in Rome “murder was not technically a crime, in that it was not investigated or prosecuted by the government. The Roman state, at least until the dawn of the Imperial period, did not consider itself to be harmed, threatened or challenged when a man stabbed his wife or stabbed a rival.” Families that suffered loss through the killing of their members fell back on that old standby, vengeance. And vengeance could be expansive: If you killed a man who had killed your brother or father, then while at it, you would probably do well to kill that man’s entire family so that its members wouldn’t return to kill you or your family.
Romans did fear parricide, especially patricide, and set out the severest punishment for it. After being beaten with rods, the parricide was put into a sack with a dog, a rooster, a monkey, and a snake, and the sack was then thrown into the sea. Crimes other than murder could also entail horrendous punishment—being thrown off the Tarpeian Rock into the Tiber, for example, for giving false testimony.
Then there was crucifixion, reserved largely for those who fell under the category infamia, or people who had no legal standing. Crucifixion combined death and suffering, with the suffering very much a public matter, so that others could witness the victim’s agony on his way to a slow death. “It was,” writes Southon, “a spit in the eye as well as a punishment for the victim, and a terrifying, very loud warning for other people who might be tempted to commit really bad crimes, like banditry or practicing Christianity.” Southon doesn’t mention it, but when the revolt of Spartacus was ended in 71 B.C.E., 6,000 of Spartacus’s followers were crucified, their crosses set up along the Appian Way from Capua to Rome.
Or consider gladiatorial games, the pro football of the day in Rome. Watching slaves and criminals kill one another or be killed by beasts or in staged battles in which real weapons were used—bloody fêtes put on by wealthy political figures to entertain the masses—made for a diverting afternoon in old Rome. No one knows how many men died in gladiatorial arenas. Once restricted to events commemorating funerals, Julius Caesar turned gladiatorial combat into a form of pure public entertainment, which became, to quote Southon again, “a nightmarish mishmash of the Kentucky Derby, a Premier League football match, and a political rally, with more blood.” Caesar, “the noblest Roman of them all,” may also have been the greatest killer of them all, responsible in his military campaigns, gladiatorial events, and proscriptions for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, a pile of corpses equaled only by Alexander the Great’s. And Caesar, be it noted, was known for his clemency.
Hobbes wrote that life was “nasty, brutish, and short,” but in ancient Rome, alongside the vast luxury enjoyed by the upper classes, owing to the persistence of violence, it was even nastier, more brutish, and often shorter. Life itself was not all that highly valued among the Romans. Under the Roman Republic and then the Empire, peripeteia, or reversals of fortune, were fast and often furious. One’s town could be besieged, with all the males in it having their hands cut off or put to death, the women and children sold into slavery. Even if one were among the aristocratic class, or a senator, one could wake to find oneself on a proscription list, forced into exile, one’s wealth seized and one’s death ordered.
Doubtless Mary Beard and Theodor Mommsen were right in arguing that we don’t have all that much to learn from the Romans. What we can learn, though, is that it is best not to do as the Romans did.
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