Sono stati pubblicati da poco due libri davvero molto belli - e diversissimi tra di loro nello stile - sulla storia della Roma antica: S.P.Q.R della simpaticissima Mary Beard, che prende in esame la storia di Roma dalle origini fino al 212, anno in cui i'imperatore Caracalla concesse la cittadinanza romana a tutti gli abitanti "liberi" dell'impero; e Dynasty dell'altrettanto simpatico Tom Holland, che si concentra sulla cosiddetta dinastia "giulio-claudia", cioè i primi cinque imperatori romani (Augusto, Tiberio, Caligola, Claudio e Nerone) che governarono l'impero dal 14 d.C. al 68 d.C. Questa non è certo la prima volta che i due storici si occupano della Roma antica. Infatti Mary Beard è una classicista inglese che insegna all'Università di Cambridge e ha pubblicato numerosi libri e ha presentato alcuni bellissimi documentari sulla storia romana antica; Tom Holland è presentatore del programma radio della BBC4, Making History, ed è autore di un bel libro del 2006, Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic, nel quale prende in esame gli eventi che portarono al tramonto della Repubblica romana. Ecco, in basso, alcune interessantissimi recensioni dei due libri:
Dynasty by Tom Holland review – the soap opera version of history
Orgies, sadism, matricide … this overblown account is ancient Rome for the age of Donald Trump
Dynasty, the TV series from the 1980s, told the story of an obscenely wealthy, overprivileged and self-obsessed set of people, always dressed in peculiar and expensive clothes, who devoted their lives to shoring up their own wealth and power while scheming against one another and behaving in entertainingly terrible ways. Tom Holland’s book of the same name is set in a different time and place, but it tells a very similar story, in a similarly overblown style.
We begin with an account of the reign of Octavian, who became Augustus, the first emperor in the Julio-Claudian dynasty after defeating Antony and Cleopatra at Actium in 31BC. Historians have struggled over how to interpret the man who liked to title himself First Man of Rome. Was he genuinely less power-hungry and corrupt than his successors – as ancient commentators, following his own self-presentation, liked to suggest? Or should we see the age of Augustus as analogous to the age of Hitler, as Ronald Syme famously did in his 1939 account? Holland steers somewhere in the middle, following many scholars in presenting Augustus primarily as a master of strategy and public relations. He understood that, as Rome shifted from republic to empire, it was essential to pretend that nothing essential was changing at all. Hence the importance of “traditional values” in the ideology of the regime. The “sphinx-like” ambivalence cultivated by Augustus allowed him to have everything both ways, as Holland plausibly observes, such that he could pose as a “being almost at one with the gods and simultaneously a man of the people”. Holland is good at summing up historical figures as recognisable character types, and presents Augustus as an “operator” with an “eye for the main chance”, devoted to his company (the empire and the Julio-Claudian brand) but struggling to control his own family (including his wayward and adulterous daughter, Julia), and his succession.
Holland emphasises that the rhetoric that made Augustus only first among equals, not king, raised peculiar problems for his successors. The fiction of equality could not be maintained once power passed down to the emperor’s closest male relative. Augustus also had difficulty finding anybody to fill the role of son. He turned in desperation to the son of his wife, Livia, by her previous husband, and did what he could to integrate him into the family, first by marrying him to his daughter, and then adopting him as his son. But Tiberius was not a particularly good man for the job. In a characteristically bold metaphorical leap, Holland notes that Tiberius was “badly prone to spots” and that his record, too, risked being “spotted”. He traces a sympathetic portrait of this second emperor as a man out of place and time, a genuine believer in the old school elite values to which Augustus paid ambiguous lip service. One wonders how Holland knows that Tiberius was a “man of duty” whose retreat to the island of Capri should not be seen as an “abdication”, and why he insists so firmly that this spoiled rich man “despised himself” for the orgies that he organised while absent from Rome. No evidence is given, but it is useful for the book’s narrative pace to make Tiberius seem a relatively benign figure, so we have a less shocking episode before we turn to one of the most notoriously monstrous emperors – Caligula.
“Little boot” is presented here, as in the ancient gossip, as a sadist who loved to watch people suffer and whose only loyalty was to his sisters. Holland does not pause to wonder whether the psychotic Caligula might be a construction of much later authors, who had particular reasons to present this safely dead emperor as insanely cruel – not least, to make favourable comparison with current emperors. This is a disappointment, since Holland promises in the preface that his method of “narrative history” will help us address such puzzles as whether Caligula really forced his soldiers to gather shells beside the Channel, and if so, why. No explanation is given, beyond the suggestion that the story was “propaganda” caused by Caligula’s hostility to the Senate – and to any other threat posed to his own autocratic rule. Holland’s technique is to subordinate all interpretative debate, and to write as if he has total knowledge of each of his characters’ inner lives. He tells us, inviting no questions, that all the cliches about Caligula are true: he was constantly “amused” by humiliating, torturing and killing other people, especially the elite class of men who would otherwise threaten his own power. Perhaps he is right, but the claims to such knowledge are more suitable for a work of historical fiction than a book presented as factual.
After Caligula’s assassination, the Praetorian Guard (the Emperor’s own bodyguard) foisted power on Claudius, the forgotten, stammering, limping nephew of Tiberius. Holland presents Claudius somewhat less sympathetically than the BBC TV series and Robert Graves novels, I, Claudius: he was, like Augustus, a “shrewd operator”, who played a similarly complex game: constantly paying homage to the old traditions of Rome while at the same time innovating and expanding the empire. But Claudius is here presented as somewhat more selfless than Augustus, in that we are told he was concerned for “the long-term security of the Roman people”, who was “earnest” in his “respect for the traditional values of his fellow citizens”. As so often, one wants to know how Holland knows all this; but no reason is ever provided.
The last member of the Julio-Claudian dynasty was Nero. In the familiar pattern, Holland turns from a relatively good emperor to a thrillingly insane cartoon character. Purple prose excitedly retells the scandal of Nero killing his own mother, his love of spectacular displays, the narcissism that led him to perform on stage as actor and singer, the Great Fire of Rome, and the last emperor’s grisly death. Nero’s assassination is presented as the end of a dynasty characterised by unparalleled “mystique and potency” – nouns whose vagueness hints at how difficult Holland finds it to decide exactly what he is saying.
Dynasty is concerned only with the great men of Roman imperial history; there is no sustained discussion of any non-elite people, there is no explicit discussion of sources (though Holland has done his homework and cites from a wide range of material), and there is no serious attempt to consider any of the obvious analytical questions raised by these stories (such as why and how Rome became an empire, why the Julio-Claudians were so horrible, and how this nasty bunch of lunatics, narcissists and sadists managed to hang on to one-man rule over a nation that once prided itself on liberty). Instead, Holland gives us a soap opera, in which each scandalous new development is treated as inevitable by the all-knowing narrator. And the whole thing is delivered in a prose that always wears the literary equivalent of shoulder pads, orange lipstick and stilettos. Perhaps this is what it takes to turn boring old ancient Rome into a page-turner for the contemporary reader, though Tacitus managed to do it with a lot more literary panache. The more troubling aspect of Holland’s writing is his insistent use of free indirect discourse, taking us inside the shallow imaginary minds of the various unpleasant characters he evokes. We are told, for example, that Claudius’ wife Messalina “remained on the loose”: the narrator is not quite committing himself to the idea that wives ought always to be locked up, since the sentence channels the supposed thoughts of Claudius – but we are also not told outright that this is only Claudius’ view, not Holland’s. Similarly, we are told a few pages later that Nero’s head bodyguard, Sextus Afranius Burrus, was “irredeemably provincial”: again, the snobbery is through the perspective of Nero’s mother, not Holland himself, but again, the irony may not seem to create quite enough distance. The technique allows Holland to deliver his story with a constant sneer at his own awful elite subjects. But sneering falls short of actual critique, of which there is none.
AdvertisementThe original Dynasty was a show for the era of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, which fed into a tangle of emotions about 1980s capitalism: viewers were required to feel a mixture of envy, horror, fascination and admiration for beautiful Joan Collins, her wicked ways and her much-emulated fashions. Holland’s book, likewise, invites us to put ourselves into the sandals of Nero and Caligula, and assumes that, if we let ourselves off the hook with a dash of sarcasm, we will want to do so – as if signing up to be their apprentices. Depressingly enough, this is ancient Rome for the age of Donald Trump.
• This story was amended on 31 October: ‘grandson of Tiberius’ was corrected to ‘nephew’ and a reference to Caligula having sex with his sisters was removed.
Emily Wilson, author of Seneca, published by Allen Lane.
Thursday 29 October 2015
Inside the Emperors' Clothes
The empire of ancient Rome spanned the entire Mediterranean world. It included two of the world’s great monotheist religions, Judaism and Christianity, and it provided the environment for the creation of a third, Islam. Historians from antiquity to the present have struggled to comprehend how a small Italian town grew from modest beginnings into a republic and then, after a succession of civil wars, into a great empire. Edward Gibbon was not the only one to recognize that the market for Roman history was huge. It still is, not least because of its colorful and larger-than-life rulers but above all because it embraced so many different and yet interconnected peoples. From the Atlantic to the Euphrates, from the Rhine and the Danube to the edge of the Sahara, Rome transformed and refashioned the cultures it absorbed, and we live today with the aftermath of its conquests.
Rome’s achievement was as paradoxical as it was immense. It seems to have happened without any design or master plan. Gibbon was the first to see that this global transformation could be explained neither by listing dates and sources nor by appealing to divine intervention. The antiquarians who preceded Gibbon not only failed to explain Rome’s rise but failed to perceive, as he conspicuously did, that Roman history had all the ingredients for a great work of literature. Gibbon set the gold standard for literary history, which not even Johann Gustav Droysen on Alexander the Great or Francis Parkman on France and England in America could match. His success was arguably due as much to his great theme as to his tireless industry in composing his work. The three books under review prove that the appetite for Roman history continues unabated to this day.
Anglophone readers have every reason to rejoice that Gibbon, the first and greatest of modern Roman historians, wrote in their language. Theodor Mommsen, who won the Nobel Prize for writing about ancient Rome in German, knew perfectly well that he was no Gibbon. He steadfastly refused to bring his Roman history into the imperial period, where he would have had to compete with his admired eighteenth-century English predecessor. Apart from Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution of 1939, which distilled the irony and insight of Tacitus’s Latin into lapidary English prose, no histories of Rome in English have achieved Gibbon’s unique combination of deep scholarship and literary style.
Yet by an astonishing coincidence two contemporary English authors who write often and well about ancient Rome, Mary Beard and Tom Holland, have simultaneously produced readable histories of Rome. It would be patronizing and wrong to speak of their work as popularization, but there can be little doubt that both writers are deservedly popular. Between them they have done more to promote classical studies than all the professors who try to reach thousands through the electronic programs currently known as massive open online courses (MOOCs).
The new books by Beard and Holland overlap most closely in their treatment of the end of the Roman Republic and the first century of the empire, but they also look backward as far as Romulus and Remus. Both show the experience of the two writers in communicating with a general audience by beginning in the middle of the narrative, to engage the reader’s attention, and then circling back to fill in what came before. Beard starts with Cicero’s exposure in 63 BC of the conspiracy of Catiline, and Holland starts in 40 AD with Caligula sitting on a beach on the coast of France looking out toward Britain. These opening pages draw the reader inexorably into the complex web that the authors are spinning.
But the books could not be more different. Beard expressly calls SPQR “a history of ancient Rome,” and her opening sentence bluntly asserts, “Ancient Rome is important.” Her title is the standard ancient abbreviation for Senatus Populusque Romanus, “the Senate and People of Rome,” and as she points out, it still adorns manhole covers and rubbish bins in Rome today. No one could doubt that what she has written has contemporary relevance. Her history evokes a past that visibly impinges upon the present, as modern travelers in Europe, the Balkans, Anatolia, North Africa, and the Near East are constantly made aware.
By the time Beard has finished, she has explored not only archaic, republican, and imperial Rome, but the eastern and western provinces over which it eventually won control. She deploys an immense range of ancient sources, in both Greek and Latin, and an equally wide range of material objects, from pots and coins to inscriptions, sculptures, reliefs, and temples. She moves with ease and mastery through archaeology, numismatics, and philology, as well as a mass of written documents on stone and papyrus.
Not unreasonably Beard brings her history to a close with the conferral of Roman citizenship by the emperor Caracalla in 212 AD upon virtually everyone who lived within the confines of the Roman Empire. What historians have traditionally called the Crisis of the Third Century was just about to begin. This brought the devastating replacement of the Parthians—an Iranian empire that had, since the first century BC, fought occasionally with the Romans—by the Sassanian Persians, who would soon invade Syria. The crisis also included barbarian invasions from the north and a great plague. The conversion of Constantine to Christianity was still a century away. Beard could not have covered those tumultuous times without writing another large volume, but she rightly looks ahead to Constantine just as she looks back to Romulus.
Holland’s book is not like this. His title, Dynasty, tells us at once, with the aid of a subtitle, The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, that this is a story rather than a work of history. It is a novel about historical events and personalities that will be familiar to most readers from Robert Graves, but it is not fiction. It reproduces, with marmoreal grandeur, what Holland has learned directly from ancient sources, above all Tacitus and Suetonius, about the court intrigues, sexual scandals, and monstrous personalities that dominated the Julio-Claudian age—the period of the first five Roman emperors—Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero. The frightful eccentricities of the last of the Julio-Claudians included murdering his mother and presiding over a vast conflagration at Rome that has been thought to have wiped out many of the Christians in the city.
Holland’s novelistic approach enhances a story that he has not invented. This means that his account is gripping and occasionally eloquent, but sometimes the larger historical setting vanishes as he concentrates on vivid personalities at the expense of the vast empire within which all the domestic horrors were taking place. The Gibbonian miracle had been the felicitous union, in a single writer, of a thoughtful historian and a memorable narrator, but this was possible because Gibbon brought an uncommonly large vision to his scholarly and literary gifts. He famously called his work The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, whereas Holland seems to like single-word titles--Dynasty for the new one on the Julio-Claudians and Rubicon for an earlier one on Julius Caesar. This seems to be part of a current fashion, to judge from the work of another expert writer on Rome in a novelistic style, Robert Harris, who shows a similar predilection for single-word titles: Imperium, Conspirata, and now his forthcoming Dictator.
By contrast, in SPQR—not a single word, of course, though admirably concise—Beard spreads out the uncertainties and inconsistencies that every historian must face in sorting out what really happened in the past. She has no hesitation in breaking the continuity of her account by jumping backward and forward to illuminate her argument and by wandering freely across the entire Mediterranean world to provide glimpses of provincial life. She is not telling a story.
Near the end of her book, in a close-up for which she draws on personal knowledge of the site, she suddenly transports her reader to the monuments and history of the city of Aphrodisias in modern Turkey—a city named for the goddess of love that, in the Christian empire, would become Stauropolis, “the city of the cross.” Splicing of this kind is indispensable in writing good history, and Beard gives her readers a master class in historical analysis, with due attention to the reliability of sources, the corruption of traditions, politically motivated myth-making, and the mysterious process by which perceptions of the past determine the course of subsequent events.
Beard begins simply enough by declaring that her account of the Senate and people of Rome will begin in the year 63 BC, the year of Catiline’s great conspiracy to overthrow the Roman Republic dominated by Julius Caesar, a plot that Cicero prided himself on exposing. She even asserts, “Roman history, as we know it, started here.” Why this should be is not at all obvious to me. Although 63 is not a bad place to start an account of the collapse of the Roman Republic, it must be said that a thoughtful eyewitness, Asinius Pollio, who wrote an influential, though now lost, account of the end of the republic, opted to begin in 60, when Pompey and Caesar became allies. This was famously the year with which the great modern historian of Rome, Ronald Syme, began his classic history, The Roman Revolution, and it was Pollio’s example that inspired him to do so.
By starting with 63, instead of 60, Beard must have known that she was repudiating the date that Syme and Pollio had adopted. She does not address this issue, but unexpectedly in the middle of her book she gives a reference to the first poem in Book Two of Horace’s Odes, where the year 60 is named as the launchpad of civil war. It was precisely in this poem that Horace celebrated the audacity of Asinius Pollio in writing a history about inflammatory events that were so recent the embers were still glowing.
To my eyes Pollio rightly marked the beginning of the civil war that brought down the Roman Republic, and it would have made more sense to start here. But even had Beard begun with this date, she would still have had to provide background from centuries before in order to give her readers the necessary perspective to understand what was going on. Beard is an experienced scholar, teacher, and communicator, and she enriches her history by preventing it from becoming a more or less chronological register of events. Her many years in front of students, colleagues, and television cameras have accustomed her to convey a wealth of information and ideas in a chatty style that no one should mistake for a lack of substance, erudition, or insight.
Beard’s relatively brief account of the Julio-Claudians is more than supplemented by the detailed narrative that Holland has provided in Dynasty. His story, though essentially centered upon Rome and its court, provides many lubricious details for which Beard has no space. Apart from the outrageous conduct of Caligula, whom professional historians scrupulously call Gaius, it is Nero who dominates the final years of the Julio-Claudian dynasty that descended from Augustus. This paranoid emperor, who loved to act and sing on stage, felt himself at heart more a Greek than a Roman, and he proceeded relentlessly, after a few tranquil years at the start, to commit crime and engage in depraved acts until his suicide in 68. Yet his reign left its mark through the magnificent Latin literature of his own time and subsequently in the retrospective literature of Western Europe down to the present.
In a wide-ranging book that is more about the perception of Nero after his death than the character of the man in his lifetime, a talented French writer, Donatien Grau, interrogates the sources for the emperor’s reign not only from Nero’s own time but from many centuries after. His book begins, as it should, with a review of the Latin masterpieces that Neronian writers, such as Seneca the philosopher, Petronius the novelist (author of the Satyricon), and Lucan the epic poet (author of the Pharsalia), have left behind. They were writing in the very years when Nero presented himself with increasing flamboyance as a Hellene, performing on stage and competing in the Olympic games.
Grau subtly creates an illuminating counterpoint between the undoubted achievements of Neronian culture and the delusions of the emperor himself. In this respect he can offer interpretations that neither Beard nor Holland attempts to provide, and he does so with an engagingly Gallic rhetoric that serves to highlight the differences between the ways Roman history is practiced on the two sides of the Channel. Grau, for example, questions Syme’s total confidence in the veracity of Tacitus by observing that in Roman studies reactions to ancient claims of accuracy and good faith have been “absolutely contradictory.”
What emerges above all from a comparison of the Nero of Beard, Holland, and Grau is that none of them really tries to get at Nero himself, beyond the caricature and criminality that appear so often in the ancient sources. Since we actually possess several letters from Nero and one long speech, it might have been useful to consider what the man reveals in lines that he may have composed himself.
We know from Tacitus that Seneca sometimes served as a ghostwriter for Nero’s speeches, and he may also have served in that capacity for letters and administrative communications. But a major speech at Corinth, coming after Seneca’s suicide, which was demanded by Nero, and composed in pretentiously florid Greek, seems obviously to transmit the emperor’s authentic voice across two millennia. Its discovery in modern times on an inscription from Akraiphia in Boeotia, north of Athens, was first made known in 1888, as Grau is aware, by the great French epigraphist Maurice Holleaux, who immediately recognized the highly personal tone of the emperor’s Greek: “le style précieux et sentimental à faux, l’emphase egoïste [the precious and falsely sentimental style, the emphatic egotism].”
Eighteen lines of text present Nero in 67 AD at Corinth, at the time of the Olympic competition nearby, when the emperor granted freedom to Greece, or rather, as it was then known, the province of Achaea. Nero was obviously very pleased with what he was doing, and his training in a style of Greek that was often described as Asian served him well. Nero’s generosity had no future, because only a few years later the emperor Vespasian revoked Nero’s gift and restored the Greeks to their prior provincial status. But the speech itself furnishes a unique glimpse into a brief moment of triumph and self-satisfaction near the pathetic end of a monarch who reportedly declared as he was dying, “What an artist dies in me!” Here is Nero to his beloved Hellenes:
For you, men of Greece, it is an unexpected gift which, even though nothing from my generous nature is unhoped-for, I grant to you—such a great gift that you would have been incapable of requesting it. All Greeks inhabiting Achaea and what is now known as the Peloponnesus, receive freedom with no taxation—something which none of you ever possessed in your most fortunate of times, for you were subject to others or to yourselves. Would that Greece were still at its peak as I grant you this gift, in order that more people might enjoy this favor of mine. For this reason I blame Time for exhausting prematurely the size of my favor. But even now it is not out of pity for you but out of goodwill that I bestow this benefaction, and I give it in exchange to your gods whose forethought for me on land and sea I have always experienced, because they granted me the opportunity of conferring such benefits. Other leaders have liberated cities, only Nero a province.
This glimpse into the emperor’s unbridled megalomania is far more precious than any attempt to deduce his character from the ancient authors who wrote about him. It is not part of later reportage or a novelistic invention, as Holland clearly recognized when he chose to cite a brief excerpt from it in his account of Nero’s Greek tour. It is a raw historical document, almost without parallel. Only the surviving text of a rambling speech by the emperor Claudius to the Senate is comparable in its immediacy, but not in its extravagant language. What Gibbon would have done with Nero’s speech if it had been known to him is hard to imagine, because in this case reality itself goes far beyond any irony.
It is of course natural to wonder what the Greeks themselves might have made of this imperial flattery of their gods and their culture through the medium of their own language at its most artificial. But the sober Plutarch, writing a decade or two after Nero’s great gesture, leaves us in no doubt that, however ridiculous Nero may have appeared at Corinth, the Greeks genuinely appreciated him as an emperor who admired their ancient traditions. Plutarch declared that for all Nero’s crimes the Hellenic peoples owed him some measure of gratitude for his goodwill toward them, and a century later Philostratus, the biographer of the legendary miracle-worker Apollonius of Tyana, said that Nero showed unusual wisdom in freeing the Greeks.
Mary Beard observes that after Nero’s death several pretenders to the imperial throne arose in the eastern Mediterranean world by claiming to be the still-living Nero. Beard astutely remarks of these so-called “false Neros” that their deception “suggests that in some areas of the Roman world Nero was fondly remembered: no one seeks power by pretending to be an emperor universally hated.” This was a strange fate for the last of the Julio-Claudians, whose memory was so detested generally that his name was systematically gouged out in most of the inscriptions in which it appeared.
Over the centuries after Nero’s death the greatest example of his megalomania undoubtedly remained the fire at Rome in 64, in which, according to Tacitus, Christians were crucified and burned alive. The authority of Tacitus has conferred upon this horror a degree of credibility that has even led historians to assume that the fiery deaths of Christians at Rome were but part of a more general policy of persecution launched by Nero. Although few now believe that the emperor promulgated some kind of institutum against the Christians, most historians, including Beard, Holland, Grau, and myself, still believe that Christians died, as Tacitus says they did, in the fire of 64.
But even this apparently solid testimony for early Christian persecution has now been forcefully challenged. Our view of Neronian Rome and early Christianity would be dramatically altered if the crucified and flaming Christians in 64 turned out to be mythical, as the Princeton historian Brent Shaw now claims they are. His recent and carefully reasoned article in support of this view rests essentially upon a conviction that it would be anachronistic to refer to Christians in 64, since he questions whether they were then identified as such. Therefore he believes that Tacitus’s version of the fire derives from a fiction, Christian or otherwise, that was devised and disseminated at some point between 64 and the time when he was writing, more than five decades later.
Shaw’s argument is well made and persuasive at many points, but I still find it hard to believe that there were no Christians in Neronian Rome, when, at least according to the Acts of the Apostles, they were already known under that name at Antioch in the 60s. Suetonius, who was a contemporary of Tacitus and, like him, more than half a century removed from the events he was writing about, even believed that the name of Christ, whom he calls Chrestus, was known at Rome in the 40s when Claudius expelled the Jews from the city. But this may be no more than a vestige of reports that Jesus’s first followers were Jews. Nevertheless it is both important and humbling to recognize that the history with which we have all grown up can change in the twinkling of an eye when a scholar as acute and deeply read as Shaw detects cracks in an edifice we thought we knew well.
Beard is absolutely correct in her opening manifesto that Roman history is important. The world she evokes, through its material culture as much as its textual sources, is a world in which we are, as Grau insists, deeply rooted. Holland conveys its excitement and its fascination in a way that no scholarly tinkering with details can possibly diminish. All three books testify to the enduring appeal of Roman history, but in different ways. Gibbon’s theme for his great work remains as indestructible, varied, instructive, and relevant as it was in the eighteenth century. Yet when it is addressed anew, in the light of discoveries that constantly emerge from every corner of Rome’s ancient empire, Roman history itself subtly changes. That in turn means that all of us who read it and write it change too.
G.W. Bowersock (The New York Review of Books; December 17, 2015)
The Secret of Rome’s Success
Mary Beard’s sweeping history is a new read of citizenship in the ancient empire.
A british college student named Megan Beech recently published a poetry collection called When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard. Beech is not alone in her admiration for Beard, who was for a time the only female classics lecturer at Cambridge University and has since become the most prominent representative of a field once associated with dusty male privilege. In 2013, Beard was appointed to the Order of the British Empire for “services to Classical Scholarship.” A prolific authority on Roman culture, she construes those services broadly. Her academic work ranges from studies of Roman religion and Roman victory practices to reflections on Roman laughter, and she has written lively books about Pompeii and the Colosseum. As the erudite docent on a BBC series three years ago titled Meet the Romans, Beard introduced a bigger audience to a bigger Rome: a citizenry far beyond the handful of Latin-speaking men who populated the Senate, served as emperors, or wrote (often dictating to their slaves) the books that we call “Roman literature.” Whatever the context (she also writes a blog, “A Don’s Life,” for the Times Literary Supplement), Beard does precisely what few popularizers dare to try and plenty of dons can’t pull off: She conveys the thrill of puzzling over texts and events that are bound to be ambiguous, and she complicates received wisdom in the process.
Her magisterial new history of Rome, SPQR (which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, “The Senate and People of Rome”), is no exception. Every history of Rome has to tackle the question of how the Romans—a people who once lived in a ramshackle collection of wooden huts on a muddy river in the middle of Italy, surrounded by other groups that were at least as prosperous and cultured—created one of the largest empires in the ancient world, and among the most enduring empires in all of world history. Many accounts, including some by the Romans themselves, have emphasized the internal divisions that doomed the empire to “decline and fall,” as the 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon put it. Beard is much more interested in what made Rome succeed. Her fresh undertaking—aimed primarily at a general readership but sure to engage and provoke professional classicists, too—covers the whole story.
Her sweep is impressively large, starting with the (mythical) tales of the city’s foundation in the eighth century B.C., and taking in the conquest of most of the Italian peninsula in the fourth and third centuries B.C. as well as the defeat of Rome’s main Mediterranean rivals, Carthage and Greece, by the middle of the second century B.C. More than a century of civil wars followed, along with yet more foreign conquests (in Gaul, Spain, North Africa, and the East). In the wake of the political turmoil surrounding Julius Caesar’s rise to power and eventual assassination in 44 B.C., the Romans submitted to an imperial mode of government under Octavian, who defeated Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C. and renamed himself Augustus, the first Roman emperor. The empire held sway for about 500 years in the West, and 1,400 in the East, under the Byzantine emperors. How did the Romans do it?
One answer, which many Romans themselves favored, gives all the credit to their virtus, a word connoting both strength of character and masculinity. A related interpretation, popular among scholars a generation ago, portrays Rome as an exceptionally belligerent and imperialistic society that rose to power by bullying and massacring its neighbors. More recently, historians have proposed that the Roman empire’s growth was fueled by an evolving combination of hard and soft imperialism, and Beard builds on this current work. To be sure, the Romans slaughtered and enslaved huge numbers of people. The prosperity of Rome depended on loot, tribute, and taxes from conquered tribes and cities, as well as the manual and domestic labor provided by non-Roman slaves. (In the second century B.C., more than 8,000 new slaves a year—the bounty of overseas conquest—were transported to the peninsula.) But we have scant evidence that the Romans were any more warmongering than the various other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.
What was exceptional about this particular Italian tribe, as Beard explains with welcome clarity, was the way the Romans combined military prowess with a radically expansive notion of what it meant to be Roman—a notion that enabled them to spread the tendrils of Romanitas all over the Mediterranean world. Beard, who recently suffered some nasty sexist abuse for her sensible remarks in defense of immigrant workers in the United Kingdom, leaves the contemporary resonances mostly implicit. Her focus is on the historical evidence, which, as always, leads her to deft readings of traditions and myths as repositories not of exact facts about the past but of clues about how a culture imagines itself in the present. The Romans’ sense of their society as a hybrid one, Beard finds, is folded into their founding legends. Virgil’s Aeneid celebrates the Trojan hero who founded the city—a foreigner who, though he kills some of the native inhabitants, also unites the warring tribes. And without downplaying the horrific violence in the tale of Romulus and Remus and the rape of the Sabine women, Beard notes that the mass rape is portrayed not just as evidence of Roman aggression but as a way of creating a mixed society.
The pattern of absorption was set in the aftermath of the battle of Veii, a settlement 10 miles from Rome, in 396 B.C. Subsequent Roman legend played up the heroic action of the leading general, Camillus, who supposedly razed the town. The story was useful for a people eager to emulate the heroes of the Iliad, who sacked Troy. But Beard draws on existing scholarship to note that archaeological evidence suggests no wholesale destruction. Instead, the Romans seem to have allowed the town to operate more or less as before, but under their authority—thus increasing the size of their territory by 60 percent and expanding the pool of potential army recruits. This approach was repeated in the series of skirmishes through the next century that established Roman dominance over the Italian peninsula. Those who were, in Beard’s nicely cynical language, “forced, or welcomed, into some form of ‘alliance’ ” had one essential obligation to their new friends, the Romans: to provide soldiers for the army. By the end of the fourth century B.C., Rome could call on half a million troops. Its power was founded on people power.
Some readers may feel that Beard overemphasizes the gentler aspects of imperial rule. The newly subjugated were allies in name but not entirely in legal and political fact. But she is right to stress that the Romans pioneered a revolutionary understanding of citizenship, and in making the concept more central to the whole story of Rome than previous historians have, she highlights its truly distinctive facets. The idea that one could be a citizen, even a partial citizen, of a place where one did not live, and had perhaps never been, was virtually unprecedented. So was the idea that one could have a dual identity, as both Roman and Mantuan, Roman and Sicilian, or Roman and Oscan (when the Romans conquered the peninsula), or—later—Roman and Greek, Hispanic, Gallic, or British.
Most ancient societies assumed that being a citizen of a particular place meant not just living in that place, but also speaking the language and sharing in the common culture. Romans, by contrast, could be people who might well not even speak Latin. As Beard notes, in the later periods of the Roman empire, Greek was the lingua franca (or rather, the koine glossa—“common tongue”) in its eastern half. In contrast to many slave-owning societies, both ancient and modern, the Romans allowed large numbers of their slaves to become free, and to acquire at least limited forms of citizenship.
The flexible vision of Romanitas also meant that Roman women, at least in the elite classes, had access to far greater freedom and more legal rights than women in many other ancient societies. In ancient Athens, women were legally under the control of their fathers and husbands, whereas elite Roman women were allowed property rights, albeit with certain restrictions. But Beard takes care not to extrapolate too rosy a view of the lives of the Romans who left no literature behind, and calls attention to how little we can reconstruct about them from the surviving evidence. She warns, for example, against taking at face value the image of the “liberated woman” that became a stereotype in the literature of the first century B.C. The elite adulteress featured in the poems of Catullus and Propertius, who sleeps around and throws wild parties, says more about patriarchal anxiety than about women’s liberty.
Beard’s title hints at her central interest in a familiar but compelling historical question: How did the various classes interact in the radically inclusive society that was Rome? How, in particular, did the elite men of the Senate navigate power-sharing with the people (represented by the tribunes) during the time of the republic? And what power—if any—did the Senate or the people retain once Rome was under the command of a single emperor, who had control over the army? Beard’s well-balanced answers, in step with the most up-to-date scholarship, reflect a turn away from a top-down or “great man” approach. Reconciling the various social interests at stake in the Roman Republic, she argues, was ultimately impossible—beyond the capabilities of even the most impressive leader—given the new demands and opportunities of empire. She sums up the situation in a characteristically brilliant one-liner: “The empire created the emperors.”
Still, Beard does not disappoint the reader who opens a history of Rome hoping for tales of the daring battles and thrilling excesses at the pinnacles of imperial life. SPQR includes the never stale stories of lascivious Tiberius (who supposedly turned his Capri estate into a pleasure palace, complete with hired boys to nuzzle his genitals while he was in the swimming pool), crazy Caligula (who supposedly slept with his sisters), and extravagantly sadistic Nero (who killed his mother and fiddled while Rome burned). But Beard tells these stories with a finely skeptical tone and a sense of humor, alert to the ways in which the empire remained structurally very much the same, no matter whose carefully tended image happened to be stamped on the coins.
Beard’s book allows us—as did her television series—not only to “meet the Romans,” but also to acknowledge that we can never really meet them and that, in many ways, we may not want to. The problem goes beyond the limitation of our sources; it lies in the vast cultural gaps that separate us from their world, and the profoundly repellent facts of daily life in ancient Rome: slavery, filth, slaughter, illness, “newborn babies thrown away on rubbish heaps.” Yet Beard finds in Rome, if not a model, at least a challenge. Other histories of Rome have ended with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in A.D. 337, marking the end of pagan antiquity, or with the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in A.D. 410. Beard closes instead with the “culminating moment,” in A.D. 212, when the emperor Caracalla declared every free inhabitant of the empire a full Roman citizen, eroding the distinction between the Romans and the people they had conquered, colonized, and ruled. Beard is far too clear-minded to treat this moment as the end of social hierarchies. It was, rather, a moment when distinctions of class and wealth became increasingly important. The ancient Romans, Beard shows, are relevant to people many centuries later who struggle with questions of power, citizenship, empire, and identity.
Emily Wilson (The Atlantic; December 2015)
La recensione di Emily Wilson in alto è stata ripubblicata anche in The Australian Financial Review del 22 gennaio 2016. La recensione è accompagnata da una simpatica caricatura di David Rowe che ritrae una Mary Beard togata, e un titolo e sottotitolo molto diversi da quelli apparsi su The Atlantic: "Tribes of Rome: Diversity. The secret of the Roman Empire's success lay in a broad concept of citizenship that has relevance to the migrant challenges of today, writes Emily Wilson".
Ma il concetto di cittadinanza dei Romani è davvero rilevante, come suggerisce il sottotitolo di The Australian Financial Review, all'Europa di oggi? Nel bel video in basso, trasmesso dalla BBC Newsnight il 13 ottobre 2015, Mary Beard risponde a questa domanda e la sua conclusione è davvero molto bella: "Maybe we too should be wondering whether we can deliver on the privileges, rights and protection that citizenship claims to offer."
Ecco in basso due brani interessantissimi tratti da S.P.Q.R in cui la Beard parla della cittadinanza romana: nel primo, partendo dalla figura di Romolo; nel secondo, parlando dell'imperatore Caracalla ("Citizenship, once granted to all, became irrelevant").
Edgy in a different way was the idea of the asylum, and the welcome, that Romulus gave to all comers - foreigners, criminals and runaways - in finding citizens for his new town. There were positive aspects to this. In particular, it reflected Roman political culture's extraordinary openness and willingness to incorporate outsiders, which set it apart from every other ancient Western society that we know. No ancient Greek city was remotely as incorporating as this; Athens in particular rigidly restricted access to citizenship. This is not a tribute to any 'liberal' temperament of the Romans in the modern sense of the word. They conquered vast swathes of territory in Europe and beyond, sometimes with terrible brutality; and they were often xenophobic and dismissive of people they called 'barbarians'. Yet, in a process unique in any pre-industrial empire, the inhabitants of those conquered territories, 'provinces' as Romans called them, were gradually given full Roman citizenship, and the legal rights and protections that went with it. That culminated in 212 CE (where my SPQR ends), when the emperor Caracalla made every free inhabitant of the empire a Roman citizen.
Even before then, the elite of the provinces had entered the political hierarchy of the capital, in large numbers. The Roman senate gradually became what we might now describe as a decidedly multicultural body, and the full list of Roman emperors contains many whose origins lay outside Italy: Caracalla's father, Septimius Severus, was the first emperor from Roman territory in Africa; Trajan and Hadrian, who reigned half a century earlier, had come from the Roman province of Spain. When in 48 CE the emperor Claudius - whose avuncular image owes more to Robert Graves' novel I, Claudius than to real life - was arguing to a slightly reluctant senate that citizens from Gaul should be allowed to become senators, he spent some time reminding the meeting that Rome had been open to foreigners from the beginning. The text of his speech, including some of the heckling that apparently even an emperor had to endure, was inscribed on bronze and put on display in the province, in what is now the city of Lyon, where it still survives. Claudius, it seems, did not get the chance that Cicero had to make adjustments for publication.
There was a similar process with slavery. Roman slavery was in some respects as brutal as Roman methods of military conquest. But for many Roman slaves, particularly those working in urban domestic contexts rather than toiling in the fields or mines, it was not necessarily a life sentence. They were regularly given their freedom, or they bought it with cash they had managed to save up; and if their owner was a Roman citizen, then they also gained full Roman citizenship, with almost no disadvantages as against those who were freeborn. The contrast with classical Athens is again striking: there, very few slaves were freed, and those who were certainly did not gain Athenian citizenship in the process, but went into a form of stateless limbo. This practice of emancipation - or manumission, to follow the Latin term - was such a distinctive feature of Roman culture that outsiders at the time remarked upon it and saw it as a powerful factor in Rome's success. As one king of Macedon observed in the third century BCE, it was in this way that 'the Romans have enlarged their country'. The scale was so great that some historians reckon that, by the second century CE, the majority of the free citizen population of the city of Rome had slaves somewhere in their ancestry.
The story of Romulus' asylum clearly points to this openness, suggesting that the diverse make-up of Rome was a characteristic that went back to its origins. There were insiders who echoed the view of the king of Macedon that Romulus' policy of inclusiveness was an important part of the city's success; and for them the asylum was something to be proud of. But there were also dissenting voices that stressed a far less flattering side to the story. It was not only some of Rome's enemies who saw the irony of an empire that traced its descent back to the criminals and riff-raff of Italy. Some Romans did too. In the late first or early second century CE, the satiric poet 'Juvenal' - Decimus Junius Juvenalis - who loved to pour scorn on Roman pretensions, lambasted the snobbery that was another side of life at Rome, and he ridiculed those aristocrats who boasted of a family tree going back centuries. He ends one of his poems with a sideswipe at Rome's origins. What are all these pretensions based on, anyway? Rome was from its very beginning a city made up of slaves and runaways ('Whoever your earliest ancestor was, he was either a shepherd or something I'd rather not mention'). Cicero may have been making a similar point when he joked in a letter to his friend Atticus about the 'the crap' or 'the dregs' of Romulus. He was poking fun at one of his contemporaries, who, he said, addressed the senate as if he were living 'in the Republic of Plato', referring to the philosopher's ideal state - 'when in fact he is in the faex (crap) of Romulus'.
In short, Romans could always see themselves following in Romulus' footsteps, for better or worse. When Cicero gestured to Romulus in his speech against Catiline, it was more than a self-aggrandising appeal to Rome's founding father (though it was certainly that in part). It was also an appeal to a story that prompted all kinds of discussion and debate among his contemporaries about who the Romans really were, what Rome stood for and where its divisions lay. [pp. 66 - 69]
In 212 CE the emperor Caracalla decreed that all the free inhabitants of the Roman Empire, wherever they lived, from Scotland to Syria, were Roman citizens. It was a revolutionary decision, which removed at a stroke the legal difference between the rulers and the ruled, and the culmination of a process that had been going on for almost a millennium. More than 30 million provincials became legally Roman overnight. This was one of the biggest single grants of citizenship - if not the biggest - in the history of the world.
For centuries, defeated enemies had become Romans. Slaves had been granted Roman citizenship at the same time as their freedom. And, as time went on, provincials in vast numbers, both soldiers and civilians, were made citizens as a reward for loyalty, service and collaboration. This was not entirely without controversy or conflict. Not all of those who were given citizenship wanted it. Some Romans did not conceal their suspicion of outsiders, citizens or not ('I can't bear a city full of Greeks', as the satirist Juvenal voices the complaint). And the desire of some of Rome's Italian allies to gain the citizenship from which they felt excluded partly drove one of the bloodiest wars in Roman history, the so-called Social War in the early first century BCE. But the underlying pattern is clear. Caracalla in 212 CE completed a process that in Roman myth Romulus had started a thousand years earlier - that is, according to the conventional date, in 753 BCE. Rome's founding father had been able to establish his new city only by offering citizenship to all comers, by turning foreigners into Romans.
Why Caracalla chose to take this step, at precisely this moment, has puzzled historians ever since. He was the second ruler in a new dynasty that came to power after the assassination of Commodus on 31 December 192 CE. In the first civil war at Rome since the brief conflict after the death of Nero in 68 CE, different units of the army, including the Praetorian Guard and legions in the provinces, attempted to install their own candidate on the throne. One of these was Lucius Septimius Severus, originally from Leptis Magna in North Africa, who marched into Italy backed by the army he had been commanding on the river Danube. His first years as emperor, until 197 CE, were spent eliminating the opposition. Caracalla was his son and heir, who ruled from 211 CE - and was officially known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. For, in a ludicrous twist on the use of adoption in imperial succession and in a desperate gambit for legitimacy, Septimius Severus arranged for himself and his family to be retrospectively adopted by the long-dead emperor Marcus Aurelius. 'Caracalla' was a nickname taken from the particular style of military cloak (caracallus) that he often wore.
Caracalla is not remembered as a far-Sighted, radical reformer. He is best known as the sponsor of the largest set of public baths then built in Rome, whose towering brick walls still provide the impressive backdrop for a summer, open-air opera season. But that hardly hints at the bloodier aspects of his reign. This started in 211 CE with the murder of his younger brother and rival, Geta. In a tawdry replay of the fratricide that marked the origin of the city of Rome, Caracalla apparently engaged a posse of soldiers to finish the young man off as he cowered in his mother's arms. It ended when Caracalla was just twenty-nine years old, in 217 CE, with assassination by one of his bodyguard, who took advantage of a private moment when the emperor was relieving himself by the roadside to plunge the knife in. The commander of the Praetorian Guard at the time, Marcus Opellius Macrinus, followed him briefly on to the throne. Probably implicated in the assassination, Macrinus was the first Roman emperor who was not by birth a senator.
This inglorious career of Caracalla has often suggested that there must have been sinister, or at least self-interested, motives behind the citizenship decree. Many historians, including Lucius Cassius Dio and Edward Gibbon, have suspected that it was prompted by a need to raise money, for these new citizens would automatically have become liable for Roman inheritance tax. If so, this was an extremely cumbersome way of going about it. There was no need to give citizenship to more than 30 million people if all you wanted to do was increase tax revenue.
Whatever lay behind it, this decree changed the Roman world forever, and that is why my story of Rome closes here, at the end of the first Roman millennium. The big question that had guided politics and debate for centuries, about the boundary between the Romans and those they ruled, had been answered. After a thousand years, Rome's 'citizenship project' had been completed and a new era had begun. It was not an era of peaceful, multicultural equality, though. For no sooner had one barrier of privilege been removed than another was put up in its place, on very different terms. Citizenship, once granted to all, became irrelevant. Over the third century CE, it was the distinction between the honestiores (literally 'the more honourable, the rich elite, including veteran soldiers) and the humiliores (literally 'the lower sort') that came to matter and to divide Romans again into two groups, with unequal rights formally written into Roman law. It was, for example, only honestiores who were exempted, as all citizens once had been, from particularly cruel or degrading punishments, such as crucifixion or flogging. The 'lower sort' of citizens found themselves liable to the kind of penalties that had previously been reserved for slaves and non-citizens. The new boundary between insiders and outsiders followed the line of wealth, class and status. [pp. 527 - 529]
A proposito di Romolo, vi segnaliamo un interessantissimo podcast del programma della BBC Radio 4, In Our Time, condotto da Melvyn Bragg, dedicato appunto a Romolo e Remo. Tra gli ospiti c'è anche Mary Beard! Ecco il podcast in basso:
Romolo e Remo sono il tema anche di questa bella puntata di Cronache dall'antichità, trasmessa recentemente su Rai Storia:
E a proposito di Caracalla invece, ecco un programma molto bello della RAI in cui Alberto Angela ci porta a visitare le spettacolari terme di Caracalla a Roma:
E ritornando a confronti tra l'Impero romano e l'Europa di oggi, recentemente un noto storico scozzese, Niall Ferguson, ha suscitato notevole scalpore paragonando gli attentati di Parigi del 13 novembre 2015 e l'enorme flusso di profughi in Europa, alle invasioni barbariche che portarono alla fine dell'Impero romano d'occidente. Ecco il suo intervento apparso in The Australian il 12 novembre 2015:
I am not going to repeat what you have already read or heard. I am not going to say that what happened in Paris on Friday night was unprecedented horror, for it was not. I am not going to say that the world stands with France, for it is a hollow phrase. Nor am I going to applaud Francois Hollande’s pledge of “pitiless” vengeance, for I do not believe it. I am, instead, going to tell you that this is exactly how civilisations fall.
Here is how Edward Gibbon described the Goths’ sack of Rome in August 410AD:
“ ... In the hour of savage licence, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed ... a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans; and … the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies ... Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless …”
Now, does that not describe the scenes we witnessed in Paris on Friday night? True, Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, represented Rome’s demise as a slow burn. Gibbon covered more than 1400 years of history. The causes he identified ranged from the personality disorders of individual emperors to the power of the Praetorian Guard and the rise of Sassanid Persia. Decline shaded into fall, with monotheism acting as a kind of imperial dry rot.
For many years, more modern historians of “late antiquity” tended to agree with Gibbon about the gradual nature of the process. Indeed, some went further, arguing “decline” was an anachronistic term, like the word “barbarian”. Far from declining and falling, they insisted, the Roman Empire had imperceptibly merged with the Germanic tribes, producing a multicultural post-imperial idyll that deserved a more flattering label than “Dark Ages”.
Recently, however, a new generation of historians has raised the possibility the process of Roman decline was in fact sudden — and bloody — rather than smooth.
For Bryan Ward-Perkins, what happened was “violent seizure ... by barbarian invaders”. The end of the Roman west, he writes in The Fall of Rome (2005), “witnessed horrors and dislocation of a kind I sincerely hope never to have to live through; and it destroyed a complex civilisation, throwing the inhabitants of the West back to a standard of living typical of prehistoric times”.
In five decades the population of Rome itself fell by three-quarters. Archaeological evidence from the late 5th century — inferior housing, more primitive pottery, fewer coins, smaller cattle — shows the benign influence of Rome diminished rapidly in the rest of western Europe.
“The end of civilisation”, in Ward-Perkins’s phrase, came within a single generation.
Peter Heather’s The Fall of the Roman Empire emphasises the disastrous effects not just of mass migration, but also organised violence: first the westward shift of the Huns of central Asia and then the Germanic irruption into Roman territory.
In his reading, the Visigoths who settled in Aquitaine and the Vandals who conquered Carthage were attracted to the Roman Empire by its wealth, but were enabled to seize that wealth by the arms acquired and skills learnt from the Romans themselves.
“For the adventurous,” writes Heather, “the Roman Empire, while being a threat to their existence, also presented an unprecedented opportunity to prosper ... Once the Huns had pushed large numbers of (alien groups) across the frontier, the Roman state became its own worst enemy. Its military power and financial sophistication both hastened the process whereby streams of incomers became coherent forces capable of carving out kingdoms from its own body politic.”
Uncannily similar processes are destroying the European Union today, though few of us want to recognise them for what they are. Like the Roman Empire in the early 5th century, Europe has allowed its defences to crumble. As its wealth has grown, so its military prowess has shrunk, along with its self-belief. It has grown decadent in its malls and stadiums. At the same time, it has opened its gates to outsiders who have coveted its wealth without renouncing their ancestral faith.
The distant shock to this weakened edifice has been the Syrian civil war, though it has been a catalyst as much as a direct cause for the great Volkerwanderung of 2015.
As before, they have come from all over the imperial periphery — North Africa, the Levant, South Asia — but this time they have come in their millions, not in mere tens of thousands. To be sure, most have come hoping only for a better life. Things in their own countries have become just good enough economically for them to afford to leave and just bad enough politically for them to risk leaving.
But they cannot stream northwards and westwards without some of that political malaise coming with them. As Gibbon saw, convinced monotheists pose a grave threat to a secular empire.
It is doubtless true to say that the overwhelming majority of Muslims in Europe are not violent. But it is also true the majority hold views not easily reconciled with the principles of our liberal democracies, including our novel notions about sexual equality and tolerance not merely of religious diversity but of nearly all sexual proclivities. And it is thus remarkably easy for a violent minority to acquire their weapons and prepare their assaults on civilisation within these avowedly peace-loving communities.
I do not know enough about the 5th century to be able to quote Romans who described each new act of barbarism as unprecedented, even when it had happened multiple times before; or who issued pious calls for solidarity after the fall of Rome, even when standing together meant falling together; or who issued empty threats of pitiless revenge, even when all they intended to do was to strike a melodramatic posture.
I do know that 21st-century Europe has itself to blame for the mess it is now in. Surely, nowhere in the world has devoted more resources to the study of history than modern Europe did.
When I went up to Oxford more than 30 years ago, it was taken for granted that in the first term I would study Gibbon. It did no good. We learnt a lot of nonsense to the effect that nationalism was a bad thing, nation states worse and empires the worst things of all.
“Romans before the fall,” wrote Ward-Perkins, “were as certain as we are today that their world would continue for ever substantially unchanged. They were wrong. We would be wise not to repeat their complacency.”
Poor, poor Paris. Killed by complacency.
Interessantissima la risposta a Ferguson di Mike Duncan, autore di una serie memorabile di 189 podcast, dalla durata complessiva di 74 ore, dedicati alla storia di Roma antica, The History of Rome, che troverete su iTunes. Ecco la sua risposta:
In the aftermath of the horrific attacks in Paris, politicians and commentators appear engaged in a dangerous contest to surpass each other in doomsday predictions. On Monday, eminent Harvard historian Niall Ferguson wrote an op-ed for the Boston Globe that seemed designed to beat them all: the events of last Friday are equivalent to the sack of Rome and we stand on the precipice of nothing less than the collapse of Western Civilization.
Ferguson begins with a graphic passage from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire describing the sack of Rome in 410 by the Goths:
In the hour of savage license, when every passion was inflamed, and every restraint was removed . . . a cruel slaughter was made of the Romans; and . . . the streets of the city were filled with dead bodies . . . Whenever the Barbarians were provoked by opposition, they extended the promiscuous massacre to the feeble, the innocent, and the helpless . . .
Ferguson then asks:
“Now, does that not describe the scenes we witnessed in Paris on Friday night?”
The answer is: No, it does not.
In fact, there are very few similarities between the two incidents. At about 9:30 PM on Friday a handful of Islamic militants unleashed a blast of murderous violence in northeast Paris. For a few nightmarish hours they controlled the Bataclan Theater and methodically murdered innocent civilians in cold blood. At about midnight French security forces raided the theatre. All the terrorists were killed. Order was restored. It was a shocking and awful crisis that lasted just over three hours, leaving 129 dead and hundreds wounded.
The sack of Rome in 410 saw an army of 40,000 Goths plunder the Eternal City totally unopposed. It had been more than a century since Rome had been the political capital of the Empire and it had no military or police force capable of resisting the intruders. The inhabitants of Rome were utterly helpless. When the Goths finished systematically looting every private home and public building, they loaded up their carts and left. Though the city itself still stood, it had been completely stripped of its moveable wealth. It was the first time Rome had been sacked in 800 years and was a watershed moment in the collapse of the Roman Empire.
I do not want to minimize the horror of the Paris attack, but what happened there does not equal the sack of Rome. The people of Paris still stand. The Louvre still stands. The shops of the Champs-Élysées did not lose a single piece of inventory. The banks still have all their money.
Beyond the specific differences between the two incidents, the analogy does not hold on wider level either. A detailed accounting of the history of Late Antiquity is unfortunately too complicated to be treated in full here, but the crucial thing to understand is that on the eve of the sack of Rome, the Romans and the Goths dealt with each other as near equals. They had been campaigning against each other off and on for 30 years and always seemed to wind up in a stalemate. The same group of Goths who sacked Rome had dealt Rome one of its greatest defeats as generation earlier: killing the Emperor Valens and two-thirds of the imperial army at the Battle of Adrianople. By the early 400s the two sides were wary of attacking each other because they were so evenly matched.
That’s vastly different from the power dynamic the West faces today. The truth is that the situation is so asymmetrical that Islamic State and their ilk are forced to attack civilians and “soft targets,” a tool always used by a very weak opponent to attack a very strong one. The wars of the late 300s and early 400s, on the other hand, were between near equal powers. The Goths did not send a few guys into Italy to set fire to Rome and murder whomever they happened to come across before inevitably succumbing to superior imperial might. They marched an entire army into Rome and looted the city at will.
As for comparing the larger breakdown of the Western Empire to contemporary geopolitics, here is a small sampling of what the Western Empire faced in the summer of 410: The central political authority was stretched thin and collapsing. A horde of Vandals had crossed the Rhine and now roamed Gaul at will — they would soon migrate across the Pyrenees and simply annex the Iberian peninsula. The imperial legions in Britannia and Gaul had revolted and were controlled by an ambitious general who no longer recognized the authority of the Western Emperor. The Eastern Empire had its own problems and could lend little support to their cousins in the West. The environment was so precarious that the Western capital had already been moved from Milan to Ravenna — protected as it was by a morass of impenetrable swamps.
When you look at the EU today — and the West generally — the Western Empire in 410 makes a lousy historical analogy. Francois Hollande hasn’t moved the French capital to a châteaux in the Alps because it is too dangerous to remain in Paris. No autonomous, well-armed Muslim army controls Provence. A completely different foreign army has not annexed Brittany. Lyon hasn’t revolted and declared independence from Paris.
It is one thing to be concerned about Western complacency, but to argue that a small and efficiently crushed attack is just like when Rome fell is dangerous. Raising the stakes to the level of civilization annihilation invites an irrationally disproportionate response that is all but guaranteed to make the situation worse.
At Italia 500 we've been offering Italian courses, in Sydney, since 1995 and one of the most beautiful aspects of learning Italian is that it opens the door to a culture of unrivalled richness and diversity. In this blog we'll be sharing some of our favourite books, movies, places in Italy to visit, music, links to podcasts, information about local and international Italian themed events, and the odd "personal" view, in the hope that it will encourage you to delve further into a culture which continues to inspire us and millions of people all over the world.