Ancient History & Civilisation


Rome was a city founded on murder. In 753 BC the twin brothers Romulus and Remus – at the head of a small band of exiles and malcontents – dug the defences of the tiny village that was to become the capital of an empire that stretched from Scotland to the Sahara and beyond. But excitement soon turned to tragedy. The brothers quarrelled, and Romulus killed his twin.

More problems were soon to follow. Romulus had only a handful of supporters. So where were the citizens for the new city to be found? The answer was: from all-comers. Romulus declared his city an ‘asylum’, and welcomed any exiles, refugees, runaway slaves and criminals who chose to take up residence. Rome was a city populated entirely by, in the ancient sense of the term (which is not so very far from our own), asylum-seekers.

That took care of the men. But where were the women to be found to make the wives and mothers in his new state? Here Romulus resorted to mean trickery. He invited some of the neighbouring peoples to a religious festival and, when he gave the signal, had his lads run off with the young female guests. This so-called ‘Rape of the Sabine Women’ has appealed to writers and artists ever since as a story of violence, lust and hard-headed political expediency.

We have no idea how much of this lurid tale is actually true. The precise date of 753 is the result of an elaborate and frankly unreliable calculation more than five hundred years later by Roman scholars, who were as interested as their modern equivalents in working out when exactly Rome began; but it does fit roughly with evidence that has been recovered by archaeologists for the earliest phases of the city. Romulus himself was no more or less an historical person than King Arthur of Britain.

But, accurate or not, this is how the Romans for the rest of their history, over more than a millennium, told the story of Rome’s origins. They saw in the story many of the questions that were to dominate their political life ever after, and for that matter still dominate ours. These are the exciting themes that underlie this book. How should a state be governed? Can violence ever be justified in politics? Who has a right to citizenship and to benefit from its privileges?

When Romans reflected on the civil wars that sometimes scarred their political life, they looked back to the quarrel of Romulus and Remus and saw their city as destined from the very beginning to suffer the nastiest kind of internecine strife. The death of Romulus also provided them with food for thought. They could not agree whether he had in the end been taken up to heaven by the grateful gods, or hacked to death by angry citizens. This was a story debated with even greater intensity after the murder of Julius Caesar (see Chapter II) in 44 BC – hacked to death by his enemies in the name of liberty for becoming an autocrat, yet made into a god by his supporters and honoured with his own temple in the heart of the city.

This book concentrates on six pivotal moments in the history of Rome, from the second century BC to the fifth century AD – a time of dramatic, sometimes revolutionary, change. During this period, Rome came to be the dominating power around the Mediterranean and much further afield (traces of the presence of Roman traders have been found as far east as India). It turned from a more or less democratic republic into an autocratic empire. And – most dramatic of all perhaps – Rome was finally transformed from a pagan to a Christian city. Formally baptized only on his deathbed in 337, Constantine (see Chapter V) was the first Roman emperor publicly to sponsor Christianity. Indeed, he was the original founder of several of the churches and cathedrals that define the sacred landscape of Rome even today, including the first St Peter’s.

Each of the pivotal moments touches on big questions of political change and conflict. The story of Tiberius Gracchus (see Chapter I), for example, and his controversial attempts to redistribute land to landless peasants, raises issues of the gap between rich and poor and who should benefit from the profits of a wealthy state. The story of Nero (see Chapter III) explores the consequences of autocracy gone mad. But these particular moments have been chosen for another reason too. For they offer us a vivid glimpse of some of the key personalities in Roman history. They let us get close to individual characters, their human motives, their political dilemmas, and their attempts to change the world in which they lived.

Modern professional historians tend to stress how little we know about the Roman world. True, we are almost completely in the dark about what life was like for the slum dwellers of the city (though we can make a fair guess!) or for peasants struggling to find a livelihood in the countryside. And we are not much better off when it comes to understanding the feelings of women or slaves, or how the Roman empire’s balance of payments actually worked, or – for that matter – what Romans wore under their togas or how they disposed of their sewage (the miracles of Roman drainage have, I am afraid, been grossly exaggerated). But on a wide range of other aspects we are probably better informed about Rome than about any other society before the fifteenth century. We have direct access to the writings, the thoughts and feelings of Roman politicians, poets, philosophers, critics and commentators.

Take Julius Caesar, for example, and his decision to march on Rome – a decision that launched the civil war that effectively ended democracy and ushered in the one-man rule of the emperors (see Chapter II). We still have his own autobiographical account of these events, published in his multivolume memoirs, On the Civil War. In some ways it makes strange reading; for example, he refers to himself throughout in the third person: ‘Caesar decided. . .’, not ‘I decided’. In other ways it is a stirring story, and a clever justification of his actions.

But not only that. From the run-up to the outbreak of war and through the conflict itself we can still read a series of private letters written by – and sometimes to – one of Rome’s most weighty statesmen (or so he would have liked to think). This was Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was also a notable philosopher and orator, as well as a supporter of Pompey, Caesar’s rival. It is still something of a mystery how these letters were preserved and published. But they certainly give us an extraordinary insider’s view of a man wrestling with his doubts and indecisions about whom to support and how to make the best of it when he found himself on the losing side – all interspersed with the day-to-day problems of disloyal slaves, divorce, the death of a daughter, and shady property deals.

As it turned out, Caesar was characteristically generous to Cicero; whatever his political ruthlessness, ‘clemency’ was one of his slogans. But after Caesar’s assassination, his apparatchik Mark Antony (of ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen. . .’ fame) had him summarily ‘removed’. The story was that after Cicero’s death, his hands and tongue (his most powerful political weapons in writing and speaking) were pinned up on display in the Roman Forum, and that Antony’s wife took particular pleasure in piercing them with her hairpins. It’s a story that speaks as much about Roman views of women as about the hatred of Antony and his wife for Cicero.

Of course, none of these accounts is as simple as it seems. Neither Caesar’s own memoirs, nor Cicero’s published correspondence, are any more reliable than the equivalents penned by a modern politician. We cannot take them straightforwardly on trust. But they do bring us directly to the heart of Roman history and politics. And they are not alone. We get our most detailed and vivid information about the unsuccessful Jewish Revolt against the Romans (see Chapter IV), which ended with the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in AD 70, from the history written by one of the participants – Josephus – a Jewish rebel and then notorious turncoat, who ended up living comfortably in Rome under the patronage of the emperor Vespasian. Most stories of unsuccessful rebellions are told by the winners. There is, in fact, no other such detailed account by a rebel against an imperial power from any empire before the modern period.

And even if nothing significant survives from the mouth or pen of the emperor Nero himself, there are still extraordinary pieces of writing by members of his court circle and by key players in the politics of that notorious reign. We have, for example, a philosophical treatise addressed to Nero by his tutor Seneca, giving some clear and level-headed advice on how to be an emperor. Clemency usually works better than cruelty was the general message – following the example of Julius Caesar. As we shall see, Seneca did not in the end win clemency from his old pupil; in fact, he was to die a slow and agonizing death at Nero’s behest.

Some people think that a hilarious skit on Nero’s predecessor, the emperor Claudius, becoming a god was also written by Seneca while he still enjoyed Nero’s favour. Claudius was apparently an unpromising candidate for immortality by Roman standards (he limped, stuttered and was believed to be a fool). And the satire – which now goes under the English title The Pumpkinification of Claudius (a pun on ‘deification’) – pokes cruel but hilarious fun at him in particular and, more generally, at the whole Roman institution of making ‘good’ emperors (and some not so ‘good’ ones) into gods. One of the characters in the skit is the first emperor Augustus, the gold standard against whom all future emperors were measured. He was made a god on his death in AD 14, but decades later, Seneca jokes, he still hasn’t nerved himself to make his maiden speech in the heavenly senate, so in awe is he of all the ‘proper’ deities. It is one of the very few pieces of ancient comedy that can still make you laugh out loud. Humour doesn’t usually travel well across cultures, but The Pumpkinification works for me at least.

In addition to this rich and varied evidence from some of the leading characters themselves, there are also detailed accounts by later Roman historians of the incidents discussed in this book. In the forefront is the cynical analysis of the early years of the Roman empire, written in his Annals and Histories by Tacitus, himself a Roman senator of the late first century and early second century ad. This account is as much a meditation on corruption and the abuse of power as an historical narrative. It contains, for example, the chilling tale of Nero’s murder of his mother, Agrippina, with which Chapter III opens. After an unsuccessful attempt at doing away with her by sending her out to sea in a collapsible boat, Nero resorts to sending in some armed thugs. As matricide, this was one step worse than the fratricide that marked the very beginning of Rome.

But Tacitus is only one point of access to the ancient historical tradition. From roughly the same period as Tacitus we have a series of racy ‘Lives of the Emperors’ by Suetonius, who worked for a time in the palace bureaucracy and seems to have had some access to the imperial filing cabinets, or their ancient equivalents. Then there are the moralizing biographies by Plutarch, a Greek inhabitant of the Roman empire, who produced a series of life stories of famous Romans going back to Romulus. Most of these were paired with an appropriate figure from the Greek world. Julius Caesar, for example, pointedly turns up as the biographical twin of Alexander the Great, the most successful conqueror the world had ever known, with a similarly tragic end, and – admittedly unproven – suspicions of assassination.

All in all, we have a lot for which to thank those medieval monks who painstakingly copied these ancient texts in an unbroken tradition since antiquity, and thus kept them alive to be rediscovered in the Renaissance – later to be interpreted and reinterpreted by us.

It is these precious survivals from the Roman world itself that have made it possible for the BBC television series to re-create in a compelling and dramatic way some of the key turning points in Rome’s history. Of course, we shall never know exactly what it was like to be there, or be able to reconstruct all the complicated motivations and aspirations of the characters concerned. And we have to recognize that the ancient historians on whom we partly depend were themselves sometimes resorting to imagination and guesswork; after all, how could Tacitus possibly have known what actually happened at the secret murder of Nero’s mother? But we have enough evidence to let us begin to get inside Roman heads, and to see the problems, dilemmas and conflicts from their point of view. We can tell a very good – and historical – story indeed.

This book complements the television series, as well as being a marvellous read in its own right. Focusing on the same pivotal moments, Simon Baker has put them into a broader context. He has filled out the historical background to each, and exposed some of the intriguing problems of the evidence on which the dramatic reconstructions are based. Sometimes we are confronted with conflicting versions of the same event. How do we choose between them? Sometimes the evidence simply dries up. Then, like Tacitus and all historians, we are forced to make good guesses and to use our imagination. The result is a history of Rome that combines vivid drama and a gripping story-line with a keen alertness to bigger historical questions, and to the challenges of drawing a clear narrative thread out of the evocative, but complicated and diverse, ancient evidence.

Ever since ancient times, people in the West have been retelling the history of Rome and re-creating it for their own purposes in fiction, painting and opera, and latterly in film and television. There have always been good and bad versions of this – cheesy clichés as well as powerful and arresting images and narratives. The figure of Julius Caesar has been a particular catalyst of such reconstructions. For centuries he has prompted some of the sharpest analyses of the nature of autocracy and liberty, and raised a question that remains with us even now: can political assassination ever be justified?

William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, itself loosely based on a translation of Plutarch’s Life of Caesar, is only one of many reflections on the rights and wrongs of the case. The audience’s interest is divided between the title role of Caesar, killed less than halfway through the play, and the fate of his assassins, which dominates the second part. Do we feel that we are on Caesar’s side – a legitimate ruler illegally put to death? Or is the killer Brutus our hero for being prepared to murder even a friend in defence of popular liberty? How far do patriotism and political principles demand that we sometimes flout the law and ride roughshod over personal ties of friendship and loyalty?

Predictably enough, the answers proposed for these particular historical and literary conundrums were especially loaded around the period of the French Revolution. Voltaire, for example, presented a dramatic version of the events, which clearly had one eye on the execution of the French royal family when it unequivocally backed the assassins’ deeds as honourable. But twentieth-century politics also found good food for thought in the dilemmas raised by the events of the Ides of March, 44 BC. Orson Welles’s debut production at the famous Mercury Theatre in New York in 1937 was a staging of Julius Caesar, which (in a then daring experiment with modern dress) had the cast of Caesar’s supporters kitted out as Mussolini’s fascist thugs.

Not all the characters discussed in this book have had quite such an enduring shelf life. Tiberius Gracchus, for example, is not exactly a modern household name. In fact, outside academic ancient history, posterity has served his mother Cornelia rather better than it has served him. A model of devoted (and ambitious) parenthood, she is supposed to have turned her nose up at the rich jewels being shown off by a friend – pointing to her sons instead as her ‘treasures’. In her doting maternal role she starred in a whole series of eighteenth-century paintings, usually depicted with a pair of (to us) rather priggish boys at her side, and looking decidedly sniffy at the strings of pearls and suchlike being trailed in front of her. And, again in her parental role, she makes a striking appearance alongside other Western heroes, from the Greek tragedian Sophocles to the emperor Charlemagne and Christopher Columbus, in the famous nineteenth-century memorial stained glass at Harvard University. But even Tiberius has recently enjoyed a certain celebrity, being used as a pointed comparison for the occasional modern politician (such as Hugo Chávez of Venezuela) known as a radical or revolutionary reformer.

The emperor Nero, however, has had almost as busy an afterlife in Western culture as Caesar. One of the greatest and earliest Italian operas, Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppaea (1642), explores the intense relationship between the emperor and his mistress Poppaea. A case study in devious manipulation, as well as in the power of passionate love, she is depicted cynically disposing of all the obstacles in her path towards marriage with the emperor – including the opposition of the moralizing but virtuous Seneca. The opera ends with Poppaea being gloriously crowned as empress of Rome. But a well-informed audience will already know that this victory will be short-lived, as Poppaea is destined soon to die after a vicious blow from Nero himself (a scene powerfully dramatized in the BBC series). It is a chilling and timeless exploration of passion, ruthlessness and immorality.

More often, though, Nero has found a decidedly lurid role in modern popular culture, especially in film. The classic image of a luxury-loving and decadent emperor, he has been portrayed countless times consuming unlikely foods (dormice and pretty little songbirds, as the usual cliché of Roman dietary habits would have it) amid grape-strewn orgies, cackling over his megalomaniac schemes to rebuild Rome after the great fire of AD 64 and ‘fiddling while Rome burned’.

Much of this is the product of modern elaboration and the projection of all our stereotypes of Roman luxury on to the convenient figure of Nero. But the theme of ‘fiddling’ (that is, ‘playing the violin’ – not, as it is often now taken to be, ‘footling aimlessly’) goes back to an ancient story that, while Rome was in flames, the emperor climbed up a tower to get a good view of the blaze and sang a song on the destruction of the legendary city of Troy. True or not, this was no doubt meant to portray the emperor as a self-obsessed artist, utterly out of touch with practical realities. In fact, as recounted in Chapter III, whatever his artistic ambitions, Nero seems to have taken eminently sensible steps to cope with the immediate aftermath of the fire.

There was also a story that he looked for scapegoats to blame for starting the fire, and picked on the early Christian community in the city – whose view that the end of the world was nigh may well have made the accusation more plausible. To make an example of the Christians, according to Tacitus, he crucified them or burnt them alive (using them, it is said, as lamps to brighten the night). It was the first Christian ‘persecution’, and St Peter may have been one of the victims.

This has given another distinctive theme to modern portrayals of Nero. Film and fiction have indulged in touching but entirely implausible fantasies of Christian heroism in the face of Neronian tyranny – often enlivening the picture with the subplot of a pretty young Christian girl converting her young pagan boyfriend, and taking him with her to a noble but gory death (usually involving lions). Many of these stories are versions of a best-selling novel, Quo Vadis, by the Polish writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, which was published in the nineteenth century and quickly translated into almost every European language (the title, meaning ‘Where are you going?’, is taken from words addressed by Peter to Jesus).

The most famous film version of this book was made in 1951, starring Peter Ustinov as a villainous Nero with an upper-class English accent (the goodies were American). But, as always, even if villainous, Nero did retain an aura of glamour too. In fact, the film’s makers, MGM, promoted it with a series of ‘tie-in’ products. These included some gaudy boxer shorts and pyjamas, advertised under the slogan ‘Make like Nero!’ Persecutor of the Christians he may have been, but – or so the implied message was – it was still fun to feel like ruler of the world by sporting Nero’s brand of underwear.

As we look back, some of the ways that past generations (even relatively recent ones) have re-created the Romans and Roman history can seem strange, unappealing or downright laughable. We can hardly see how Shakespeare’s actors strutting the stage in their own Elizabethan costume could ever have done plausible duty as Romans – though we are, I suspect, more sympathetic (inconsistent as it may be) to Orson Welles’s fascist thugs. It is almost equally hard to take seriously those wooden paragons of virtue in so many Hollywood movies, dressed up in white sheets, and orating in a pretentious fashion – as if they had jumped straight out of the nineteenth-century House of Commons or a schoolboy’s Latin textbook.

But we do still retain a soft spot for the marvellous images of Roman debauchery and cruelty set in luxurious baths, at dinner parties or the amphitheatre. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, for example, staged some really compelling scenes of butchery and mass crowd dynamics in the Colosseum; though, interestingly, these were largely based not on the ruins themselves, but on nineteenth-century paintings (which Scott found more convincing and impressive than the real thing). We can enjoy too those fictional re-creations of Roman life ‘below stairs’, such as the classic musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (which first appeared on Broadway in 1962, was made into a film in 1966, and was revived at the National Theatre in London in 2004). This drew on the traditions of ancient Roman comedy itself, but owed much of its appeal to the glimpse it offered of what might have happened beneath the glittering marble veneer of the city.

Part of the reason that some of these older visions of Rome now seem to us so unconvincing is that our understanding of Roman history and culture has changed in the interim. New information continues to be discovered. For example, our picture of life on a Roman army base has been enriched in the last few years by private letters and other documents (including the famous invitation to a birthday party from one officer’s wife to another) unearthed at the fort of Vindolanda in northern England. In Italy one of the most impressive discoveries of the twentieth century was the excavation of a large villa at Oplontis, near Pompeii, which seems to have belonged to the family of Nero’s wife, Poppaea, and allows us to reconstruct her background with much greater confidence. And it was only in the mid-nineteenth century that we obtained a full, reliable text of the autobiography of the emperor Augustus, which had been discovered inscribed on the wall of a Roman temple (dedicated to Augustus as a god) in Ankara.

No less significant are the changing interpretations of old evidence. One particular debate, which is acutely relevant to our account of Tiberius Gracchus and Julius Caesar, concerns the underlying motivations of Roman politicians, especially in the hundred years or so before Julius Caesar’s rise to power. One view, prevalent for much of the last century, is that there was very little ideological difference between the opposing political leaders. What was at stake was no more and no less than naked, personal power. If some (such as Gracchus or Caesar) chose to rely on the support of the people rather than the aristocratic Senate, that was simply because it offered the most direct route to the power they yearned for. Increasingly, this has come to seem to a new generation (as, in fact, it had already seemed to our predecessors of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) an inadequate way of seeing the debates and political struggles of the period. It is hard to make sense of the violent clashes around Tiberius Gracchus without imagining that a meaningful conflict about the distribution of wealth in the state was at stake. And it is this view that the television series and this book have followed.

In many ways, though, changing images of Rome are a consequence of each generation looking for something different in Roman history. True, some things remain fairly constant. It seems very unlikely, for example, that we shall ever shake off our notion of Rome as a culture that is somehow larger than life, for good or ill. The sheer extent of its empire and the size of its monuments, such as the Colosseum, will probably ensure that. But recent historians have tended to shine their spotlight on aspects of Rome that their predecessors left barely illuminated.

They have, for example, chosen to look beyond the monumental centre of the city. Certainly, from the period of Augustus onwards, the heart of Rome was packed with temples, theatres and public buildings of all sorts, constructed not just from white marble, but also from precious multicoloured marble embossed with gold and occasionally encrusted with jewels. It must have been a staggering sight to any visitor from more ‘barbarian’ provinces, such as Britain or Germany. But there was always a seedier side. This was not only the poor back-street world that A Funny Thing. . . tried to capture. But also, before the age of Augustus (who boasted that he had transformed Rome from a place of brick to one of marble), the whole city was much less glittering and grand, certainly not full of the planned urban spaces, promenades and porticoes of popular perception. Frankly, with the exception of just one or two neighbourhoods, it probably looked more like Kabul than New York. And it was about as violent.

Part and parcel of these changes of vision is a growing tendency to question the image of ancient Romans as somehow very like us (or perhaps more like our imperialist Victorian ancestors) – different only in the sense that they wore togas and, picturesquely but no doubt uncomfortably, ate their dinners lying down. Historians now tend to find their fascination with the Romans lies as much in their foreignness as in their comfortable familiarity. Their norms of sexual behaviour, of gender difference, of ethnicity were quite different from ours. They lived in a world (as one historian recently put it) ‘full of gods’, and the élite were served by battalions of slaves, a whole subordinate population of humans who lived outside the rights and privileges of humanity. The account given in this book, and in the television reconstruction, tries to incorporate some sense of that difference between them and us.

Of course, all reconstructions are inevitably provisional. And the implication of these changing attitudes to Roman culture (and they are bound to go on changing) is that our own modern version of Rome, however historically grounded it is, is likely to appear in a hundred years’ time as quaintly old-fashioned as nineteenth-century reconstructions now look to us.

But why bother with the Romans at all? Partly because, in Europe at least, they are still with us. Their precious treasures, artworks, bric-a-brac and kitsch fill our museums. The monuments sponsored by several of the key players in this book are still prominent landmarks in Rome: the great arches of Titus and Constantine are the best known of the city; the Colosseum, built with the profits of the Jewish War, is visited by millions of tourists a year; Nero’s extravagant Golden House can still be explored underground. Further afield, the traces of their activity mark the landscape across their empire – in our road networks, our town plans and our place names (it is almost certain that any British town or village whose name ends in ‘-chester’ is sitting directly on top of a Roman camp or castra). And, of course, their surviving literature – from elegant love poetry to thundering epic, from hard-headed history to self-serving memoirs – is as impressive, acute and provocative as any in the world, and it is worth all the attention we can give it.

The Romans also have a lot to teach us. I do not mean that in terms of direct relevance or comparability. Intriguing comparison though it is, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez is much more different from Tiberius Gracchus than he could ever possibly be like him. But we share with the Romans many fundamental political dilemmas, and can usefully watch them wrestling with solutions. They, after all, were among the very first to wonder how to adapt models of citizenship and political rights and responsibilities to vast communities that transcended the boundaries of a small, ‘face-to-face’ town. By the first century BC the population of the city of Rome alone, excluding Italy and the more remote territories of the empire, was in the order of a million.

One-man rule, in the shape of emperors good or bad, was only one of their solutions – but the best known and to us the least palatable. More crucially, they reformulated the idea of citizenship in the context of the nearest thing to a global state the ancient world ever knew. Unlike the exclusivity of, for example, ancient Athens, which restricted citizenship to Athenians born and bred, Rome came to unite its huge empire through sharing its political rights. Slaves who were freed by their masters, as many were, became citizens with political rights. Citizenship was gradually extended throughout the empire, until in 212 the emperor Caracalla granted citizenship to all free populations within the Roman empire. Rome, in other words, was the first multicultural megastate.

It was also the inspiration of those men and women who are more directly responsible for shaping the political world in which we live today. The founding fathers of the United States saw a model in the republican politics of Rome before the advent of one-man rule. Hence American ‘senators’ and the ‘Capitol’ (after the Roman Capitoline Hill) as seat of government. In Britain the Labour movement saw resonances of its own conflicts with a land-owning and industrial aristocracy in the struggle of the Roman people against aristocratic conservatism. Hence the left-wing Tribune newspaper (called after the office of tribune held by Tiberius Gracchus and other radical politicians), and the ‘Tribune Group’ of Labour MPs. To understand our world we need to understand how it is rooted in Rome.

In many ways we are still living with the legacy of Romulus’s murder of Remus.


June 2006



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