Societies dug up and studied the bones of ancient Rome for wisdom, but those bones come from an alien cultural body. As a result, those societies didn’t always interpret them correctly. Whether they know it or not, today’s students could fall into the same error. Unfortunately, we tend to assume that historical worlds are either incomprehensible, something too distant to care about, or identical to our own.
The Rome of a distant past is more foreign than we think. Distance distorts cultural values, but time distorts them even more. Reading about Rome without any clues feels like assembling a human skeleton with instructions delivered over telegram. This article will prime you on some of the stranger concepts within the world of ancient Rome. Some of those ideas belong to the Republic and others belong to the Roman Empire. All of them factor into the very fabric of daily life under Roman rule.
The Church Lives Within the State
European history’s relationship to religion has been . . . fraught at best. Papacies, religious communes, theocracies, crusades, inquisitions, etc. set state sovereignty against the spiritual. Religious relationships in Europe have been hierarchical. Political bodies exist separate from the church or below the church — for example, Christendom’s fealty to the pope and the Holy See transcended nationality. The Church placed itself above earthly affairs and would hand its dictates down to governments.
Later on, this “two worlds” idea gives rise to our present separation between church and state. In the words of Jesus himself, the modern world “[Gives] to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
Roman law and practice was not strictly hierarchical in that way; religion was a function of the state. Indeed, senators, consuls, and other officials would simultaneously perform priestly rites and offices would confer religious duties.
Consider the position of consul, the highest political position during the Roman Republic. Two reigned at any one time and they were elected annually. The most famous consulships (or infamous, depending on your opinion) belonged to Julius Caesar and Pompey the Great. Among their sizable commander-in-chief roles and legal powers, consuls made sacrifices before battles, dedicated temples, and performed the sacred task of marking the age of the Republic.
That last practice is especially peculiar. According to the historian Livy, consuls would fasten nails to the walls of the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (a title for an aspect of the god which translates to “Greatest, Most High Jupiter”) to represent the passage of years since the Republic’s founding. This was dedicated to Minerva, goddess of numbers (among other things).
There is perhaps no better example of the synthesis between Rome and its religions than the doors of Janus, the two-faced god of beginnings and endings. The set of double doors to that god’s temple represented Rome’s status abroad: open, Rome was at war; closed, it was at peace. A holy icon represented the spirit of the state.
It’s also the best example of Rome’s relationship with the rest of the world. The doors of Janus were only closed twice over the course of a thousand years.
Students and popular culture often mischaracterize the ancient Greek and Roman pantheons, giving the impression that their gods and goddesses are somehow identical, that Zeus and Jupiter are essentially the same god with different names. In truth, this is the result of something called syncretism.
Rome assimilated regions like the British Isles into its empire, and it assimilated belief systems as well. Some of the reasons behind these assimilations could be personal, as in the case of Cybele and women’s increasing infertility, or an instrument of dominance. The blending of Roman and Greek pantheons is an example of the latter.
These data show a major difference between Rome’s treatment of religion and our own. The spiritual did not live apart from daily life and surfaced in surprising ways.
History as Character Building
Bear with me.
Publius Cornelius Tacitus was a Roman historian who lived from 56 AD to 120 AD. He is one of the most entertaining and influential of Roman historians for his cynicism and salacious word-portraits of emperors.
In Agricola, Tacitus recounts the exploits of his father-in-law, famous general and governor of Britain. At one point, he provides a three-paragraph speech for Calgacus, chieftain and part of the resistance against Roman encroachment.
To a skeptic seeking empirical truth, this beggars belief. Not only did Tacitus supposedly locate a word-by-word transcript of a speech in a foreign dialect, but that transcript came from the enemy. Coincidentally, Calgacus comes across as a classically trained orator.
That’s because “the truth,” as we commonly understand it, was never the goal.
The reasons for straying from fact vary. Sometimes they’re for commentary on modern issues or the underlying themes of the work. Sometimes they’re poetic — Livy’s writings on the founding of Rome straddle the line between performance art and oral history. They were usually pedagogical. Privileged boys who read works like Tacitus’ were expected to become statesmen. Agricola’s speeches acted as tools for practicing diction or for constructing one’s own speech.
To properly read Roman history, then, these possibilities must be accounted for. It isn’t enough to either swallow historians’ writings whole or spit them out. You must examine them for character building, oral value, and general wisdom. Romans read history for those, not for accuracy alone.
In terms of conveniences, the biggest differences between Rome’s culture and ours lie in childbirth and medicine. Even then, they solved many problems that would take Europeans centuries. Baths and running water? A common luxury due to aqueducts and reservoirs which funneled water downhill. Information gathering? They had regular censuses and access to a vast bureaucracy which stretched across the Mediterranean. Contraception? They cultivated a plant named silphium, which was so effective that they farmed it out of existence. In fact, birth rates dropped so low (due to silphium or possible lead additives, it’s difficult to say) that Augustus levied a tax on bachelors and childless marriages. Vacations? The island of Capri and the town of Baia were the Las Vegases of their day. Housing? They had apartments called insulae.
Even the ravages of time and mortality rates encounter exaggeration. Infant deaths, essentially a zero when calculating life expectancy, weigh down popular assessments of lifespan. Adjusted numbers show that a child who reached five years of age would reach 60.
This isn’t meant to glamorize the past — slavery, for instance, was omnipresent — but it strips away our pretensions. We share the same struggles with our forebears. Yes, technology transforms the trappings of society, but the past holds many different approaches to the universal human condition. Some of those approaches are even worth a second look.
Many conceptions of history envision on their simplest level a line trending upward, a collection of improvements. Gutenberg made the printing press, so literacy must have improved. The Industrial Revolution introduced mass machining, so goods must have been better.
But history defies those crude ideas. Bans on non-religious texts limited literacy. Early machine work was shoddy and consequently higher quality goods were replaced. The wiser approach demands specificity and prudence. Every period holds different challenges and marvels, and it’s better to abandon the fable of progress when reality is so much more textured.
The Tyranny of Kings
Rome’s imperial history garners more interest and infamy in the public imagination than its republican years. It can be startling, then, to learn that the character of Roman ideology is strongly anti-authoritarian. No matter what chunk of time you focus on, a strong factor is the tug-of-war between power lust and a disgust for almighty rulers.
This section will detail the culmination of that battle: the shift from the Roman Republic to the Roman Empire.
The Last King
The last Roman king was Tarquin the Arrogant. His fatal mistake? The rape of a noblewoman named Lucretia. The rebellion which followed this heinous act marked the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the res publica, the “public thing” which we now recognize as “republic.” From Tarquin onward, a fear of monarchy dominated the thoughts of every senator. Any man who raised himself too high could precipitate a return to thrones.
And some tried. Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix, a general, took the emergency position of dictator by force of arms around 82 B.C.E. He would prove to be an invaluable example for Julius Caesar who would seize the same position with an army of his own.
That background is essential to understanding the famous death of Julius Caesar, the rise of his adopted son Augustus, and the emperors that reigned afterward.
HBO’s Rome has its flaws, but its portrayal of Caesar and the concerns surrounding him is both accurate and poignant. Sulla’s dictatorship was a recent memory, having taken place forty years earlier. Caesar was conquering Gaul and cultivating an almost cult-like status. He generously gave the spoils to plebeians (commoners) and his soldiers, which won him an almost fanatical devotion. He seemed poised to become a dictator like Sulla.
Peasants vs. the Aristocracy
Caesar’s generosity was rooted in a centuries-old class struggle between the upper and lower classes. There were two informally drawn camps: the populares (“favoring the populace”) and the optimates (“the best men”). The former empowered the people and the latter preferred to keep nobles in power. Despite belonging to one of the oldest and most distinguished families, Caesar threw his lot in with the populares.
This doesn’t mean that Caesar and “men of the people” had everyone’s best interests at heart or believed in democracy. Some populares no doubt wanted to elevate the lower class, but others saw a tactical advantage in goading the mob. Regardless of possible ulterior motives, the populares vs. optimates divide split the Republic in half and was coming to a head.
Ultimately, Caesar won a war, installed himself as dictator for life, and was stabbed by senators 27 times shortly thereafter. The Roman hatred for tyrants trumped those senators’ self-preservation instincts. The fury of his death spawned countless songs and stories.
But this small portion of his life illustrates a grander truth about Rome. The desire for, and fear of, one central power drove much of Roman political philosophy. Regardless of where you look in Roman history, that holds true. It’s a theme essential to anyone who wants to understand the nature of Rome.
Foundation and Empire
To put a cap on that story, let’s explore the formation of the empire from this point of view. How did a people so bent on rejecting authoritarians end up embracing them?
Augustus Caesar created an empire but never officially bore the title of emperor. Indeed, for the first two or so decades of his life, he didn’t bear the titles of “Augustus” or “Caesar” either. In the beginning, he was just “Gaius Octavius” (in English: Octavian). The assassination of his great-uncle Julius Caesar catapulted him to fame.
His struggle to wrangle a republic broken by class struggles is an epic in its own right, but we can focus on the broad strokes. He masterminded Rome’s metamorphosis into an empire — a chapter that would chart the course of the next 500 years.
Gaius Octavius Caesar
For personal reasons that remain somewhat obscure, he was Caesar’s sole heir. He inherited his money, influence, and, most importantly, the rabid loyalty of veterans from Caesar’s wars.
He did not, however, inherit Julius’ mistakes. Rather than install himself as a dictator for life, he engineered a propaganda campaign to sidestep the issue. Octavian insisted that he wasn’t his adopted father, that he wanted to restore the Republic. But he also was a grieving son. He wanted to avenge his father’s death, a reason that anyone could understand.
Luckily, it just so happened that his father’s killers were the most troublesome and stubborn senators. After some effort, he cleaned house and unified a republic tired of constant warfare, earning the title of “Augustus” and princeps (“the first man”). He bragged that he closed the doors of Janus for the second time in recorded memory.
Augustus set about making a puppet senate free of discord. He was no dictator in name, but he exerted a dictator’s control. He was scrupulous in avoiding the words “king” and “dictator,” given what happened to Julius. Throughout his life, he maintained the facade of a working republic. His monument and obituary, named the Res Gestae (“Deeds Done”), emphasizes the honors he turned down as well as his accomplishments.
The facade crumbled after his death. His successors couldn’t strike the balance between power and the illusion of popular rule. Arguably, no ruler has ever succeeded in this regard as well as he.
That was how an empire emerged from the ashes of a republic.
This is a personal pet peeve of mine. Please refer to my own article for more context.
All of these events and images might sound familiar to many, but educators often bury their lessons under an avalanche of terms, dates, and names. As a result, it can all feel like a bundle of dead ideas stacked like cordwood. We can’t imagine people inhabiting these rigid concepts.
Once upon a time, human beings viewed the death of Caesar as the death of hope — a despair Americans felt when they witnessed the Kennedy assassination. Once upon a time, human beings gathered, as they do in Times Square, around a venerable consul driving nails into temple walls and marking another year for the res publica.
Rather than fixate on dates, names, and places, it would be better to pull a thread — a thought, a fancy — and see how it unravels.
That will prepare you to read about Rome, about Romans, and about the wonders you can see there.
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