Rome began with a bloody beginning: Mars raped the king’s sister, who gave birth to twins. Since the king had deposed his brother, he ordered the babies drowned in the river to get rid of the heirs, but the man did not do it. Conveniently, a lactating she-wolf nursed the twins (lupa was also slang for “prostitute”), and when they grew up, the deposed king recognized them. They helped him back to his throne, and then went off to found their own city. Romulus killed Remus over a quarrel about where to locate the city, and then had to invite outlaws to populate his city. Finally, they stole the daughters of the Latines and Sabines for wives. Some Roman writers wondered if the civil wars were because Rome was founded on violence, and whether the difficulties in marriage were because the first marriage was rape. The origin story also sets the foundation for inviting foreigners into Rome; Rome was always fairly welcoming of foreigners, much more so than the rest of the ancient world.
Archeological evidence shows that people were living in Rome by 800 BC, and that it was much like the other small towns around. The seven Roman “kings” would have ruled over 10 or 20 thousand people, more like what we would call chieftains. Beginning a pattern, some of the kings were foreigners (Etruscans) and one was a slave; most had a bloody end. One of them created the system of centuries, which provided men armed according to their wealth (more wealth required better armament); this later became the voting categories. The last straw was when the princes argued over whose wife was more beautiful, so they went to look at them all, with one prince being taken with the one whose wife was acclaimed most beautiful and asked her to sleep with him. She refused, he said he would do it in a way that would frame her, so she acquiesced, then told her husband and killed herself to maintain her honor.
Roman writers saw the first two hundred years after the kings as a struggle by the plebians for inclusion in the political process. By means of a series of strikes the plebians gained the right to elect tribunes to represent their interests. Gradually they won the tribunes' laws being binding over all citizens of Rome, the right to not be sold into slavery for debts, the right for laws to be made public, and for political offices and priesthoods to be open to plebians. By 367 BC Rome seems to have become a Republic. Before that date many of the titles recorded for the consuls sound like a temporary dictator, but that does not happen afterwards. Also, a dictionary records that before that time the Senate was the consuls’ advisors, but after that it became a permanent body with a lifetime membership to everyone who had been elected Quaestor or higher.
About 400 BC Rome made the decision that probably was most responsible for their eventual conquering of the Mediterranean. Prior to that the nearby cities all raided each other regularly. Rome did two things differently. First, conquered cities kept their own government, which reduced the amount of manpower required to govern. Second, all they were required to do was provide fighting men at their own expense. This ensured that Rome had a bigger army. So Rome could lose battles but keep sending out legions until they won.
The expansion of Rome was largely not the result of a master plan, but happened on its own. Family culture strongly encouraged sons to live up to the glory of their forebears, and one way to do that was to win victories and bring back plunder. Defeating Carthage also substantially increased Roman power. And eastern kingdoms would frequently lobby Rome to intervene on their behalf. It probably helped that Rome generally ruled with a light hand; imperium initially meant “the ability to give orders that are obeyed” rather than “we tell you how to live your life”, so conquered regions mostly governed themselves. Polybius in his history of 246 BC - 146 BC attributes Roman success to the stability of the government due to the consuls acting as the monarchy, the Senate as the aristocracy, and the tribunes representing the people (the people also elected the consuls).
Beard asserts that the empire is what created the emperors. Eventually things got big enough that their system could not adequately govern, so they tended to elect people who got the job done, and since autocracy is efficient, they tended to elect authoritarians. The patricians did not welcome outsiders, so they had a shortage of available talent. Starting in 146 BC, the political system broke down, with violence becoming the way to settle political differences. The Gracchus brothers attempted populist reforms, which ended in their bloody death by their opponents. Some military crises led to generals exercising power, either directly or indirectly, including Pompey who could arguably be the first emperor. Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus formed a triumvirate to advance their interests together. Caesar’s interest was military victories, and he spent 10 years killing one million Gauls, and adding western Europe to the empire. After his campaign ended, he would need to step back into civilian life where he could be prosecuted for alleged crimes while in office. Since no one, including Pompey, offered him any assurance of support, he decided to “roll the dice and see what happens” and marched on Rome. Caesar made the mistake of looking like a king: he was made dictator for life, and allowed to wear the same costume Jupiter wore in his temple (supposedly Caesar liked to wear the laurel wreath because it covered his bald spots). This latter represented Jupiter’s actions through the general, and was worn only by the general during his triumphal procession; the right to wear it suggested divinity. Brutus and several dozen other conspirators stabbed Caesar to death (incompetently) after asking to present a petition as he left the Senate. Their goal was liberty—of Senators—any such liberty might have had little effect on the lives of plebians or slaves. However, Brutus’ liberty was shown to be fairly autocratic when he started minting currency using his own head (also a sign of divinity) while ruler in his province in the east later on.
Cicero advised the Senate to convene immediately after Caesar’s, but they did not. As a result Caesar’s great-nephew, and heir, Octavion, rushed back to Rome on hearing of Caesar’s death, and gained political power in a sort of coup, eventually winning the ensuing civil war. Octavion had a rather bloody reputation, and he changed his name to Augustus, which was not a real word but had the flavor of “glory”. He made a point of refusing to be made dictator; rather he was given the power of the tribunes (but was not one) and the rights of a consul (but was not one). There were still elections, but he exercised such control that his candidate always won. The Senate remained, and started becoming more administrative than legislative. He was called princeps (“first citizen”), not “emperor”, and he still lived in a relatively normal patrician house. His wife still spun wool. He also made at least 250 statues of himself—all in an idealized style—so that the empire had a visible ruler. His own words summing up his rule were: he brought military victory (e.g. over “foreigners” like Cleopatra, even though Egypt was already within the Roman sphere); he spent lots of money on the people: hosting gladitorial events once a year, as well as some cash handouts; and he built many magnificent public buildings. These three things were the template of a “good emperor” for the next 200 years.
Dividing emperors into “good” and “bad”, however, is not very helpful, because the evaluations that have come down to us were one-sided. Roman politics tended to demonize one’s enemy, and so the stories about various disgraced emperors may be propaganda. Austerity was a key Roman moral virtue, so in the Republican period the eastern rulers were seen as decadent and morally weak as a result of their lavish lifestyle. Corruption, amassing political power to become a king, sexual profligacy, and other moral failings were frequently written about enemies. For instance, despite the accusations that Nero set Rome on fire to build his decided un-austere palace—with revolving dinning room floor!—even his enemies admitted that he gave substantial money to families displaced by the fire, which tends to lessen the strength of the idea that he was a harsh dictator burning the city to build his palace.
We get limited pictures of what daily Roman life is like, and what is written is from the patrician perspective, with archaeology supplying the rest. We get a lot of information from Cicero’s letters, like that his house on the Palatine Hill cost 3 million sesterces. (It is unclear how all that money was transferred; presumably not in actual coin!) Generally the wealthy and the poor lived right next to each other; the poor lived on the outside of the block and the wealthy had their house more on the interior, further away (but not entirely removed from) from the noise of the street. The poor lived in tenements called insula, which were not good places to live; Cicero said of one of his insula that the rats had fled it. The better and more spacious rooms were on the lower floors, with the rooms getting smaller the higher you went. They also got less safe: the upper rooms were harder to exit safely in case of the occasional fire. Restaurants and bars were cheap and plentiful, so most people spent their time out of their flat, although the wealthy would cook their own food in the privacy of their home. Judging from the artwork on the bars, including scatological puns based on seven Greek sages’ philosophies, and the clever poetry on some gaming boards, people had a fairly wide level of basic literacy and basic cultural education—the philosophical puns are not very funny if you do not know the sages’ philosophy. There was no police, and the courts were expensive, so most people had to resort to buying curses at the temple to get justice.
About 20% of the empire were slaves. One might become a slave to pay debts, because you were captured in war, or because pirates captured and sold you. However a large amount of slaves were eventually freed (if the master was a Roman citizen, the slave also became one), and slaves could buy their freedom as well. Slaves could also run away to a part of the empire that did not recognize them and claim to be free. Generally the lot of a slave was hard—that idea that slaves deserved to be whipped was fairly endemic, in addition to the fact that most masters were not living very well themselves—although slaves in a patrician house might live better than free men. In the imperial times, the emperor’s several thousand slaves were the administration of the empire (under patrician direction).
Marriage was a fairly simple affair. You were married if both people said they were, and not if one or both of them said otherwise. A girl’s first marriage was generally around age 16, with men marrying in the early twenties. Patrician families often married to cement relationships, such as when Pompey married Caesar’s daughter. Multiple marriages were not uncommon for men and women; Cicero got married twice, and his daughter Tullia was married three times. If a man got unmarried, though, he had to return the dowry. A virtuous wife was one who had children (to keep the population steady required an average of nine children per woman), was faithful to her husband, kept the home, and spun wool.
The structure Augustus created worked well, but after 200 years its flaws started creating problems. The relationship between the emperor and Senate was never really resolved; in theory the Senate had its own authority, but obviously that conflicted with the emperor having ultimate authority. As the emperors spent more time in the east there was no longer the personal interaction between emperor and Senate to keep peace. Another problem was that the emperor claimed to be divine, but clearly he was not in the same league as the real pantheon (and had to be ratified as a god by the Senate after his death), leading to some awkward contradictions. Finally, Augustus had tried to remove the army from deciding his successors by stationing them at the edges of the empire, away from Rome, and by promising them a plot of land after twenty years of service. But paying the army was very expensive, and the private guard was still in Rome. Successful succession required careful political alliances and the physical presence of the successor at time of death. By the time the book ends, in 212 AD when Caracalla made everyone in the empire a citizen, the system had started to break down. The first 200 years had 14 emperors; the next 100 years had 80. By that time things had changed to be a very different state.
Beard summarizes 1000 years of history in 600 pages or so, which is a daunting task. SPQR gives a high-level overview of the important events and personalities in Roman history, the structural forces behind the events, and a feel for what it was like to live in the Roman empire. She livens up the history with relevant personal vignettes, which also serve to illustrate the points she makes. She also brings a wide range of archeological information, including from digs she participated in, to inform daily life, as well as to interpret Roman writers who were frequently loose with the facts. I found the daily life sections most interesting, as they were completely new to me, and covered the basics in a way that I can imagine what life is like.
The difficulties with such an enormous summary is that it is necessarily high-level. If you are looking for a detailed chronology of the history of Rome you will be disappointed. There are actually plenty of details, but only about selected events. However, missing events are made up in the accessible length of the book, but more importantly in discussion of more fundamental forces. She answers why it was Rome of all the cities in Italy that conquered the world. She offers an answer to why the Republic fell apart and became an Empire. She discusses how Augustus managed to be a king without getting himself killed like Caesar did.
One thing that drove me nuts, especially in the early period of Rome where the source information is fairly scanty, is that Beard frequently says “of course, what [this Roman writer says] cannot possibly be what actually happened”. One problem is that often she does not say why she thinks this. The second problem is that it is really arrogant of us moderns to think that we know better than they do, even though we are over two millennia farther away from the event. Maybe they are, in fact, wrong. But modern historians have a history of saying things like “of course the Illiad cannot possibly have happened” and then we dig up Troy, or “of course the Bible’s mention of Pontius Pilate must be made up because we have not found anything referencing this guy” and then we dig up a monument with his name on it. I can understand why you would have limited trust in ancient sources, but the fact is, they are the most reliable source you have. It seems like you should have a pretty solid reason why the ancient sources are wrong about their own history that happened within several lifetimes of the writer.
But that is a minor annoyance. Beard has written a great overview of the Roman empire. She covers the essential information, and discusses the essential questions. In so doing she gives a foundation for the reader to know what to research further, since ancient Rome is much too big a topic to cover in one book. At the same time, she gives many details about the specific situation, so that you know that she is condensing from a lifetime’s worth of source material. As much as I wished for more details, I also realized that to get them would require reading thousands of pages of Roman writers. Beard has done a great job of distilling the essences of the Roman empire and its history.
Ch. 1: Cicero’s Finest Hour
- In 63 BC, Catalina organized a revolution. He came from a distinguished aristocratic family that traced their lineage to companions of Aeneas, but he had tried to get elected consul (an expensive endeavor) twice and had failed. Coupled with a money supply shortage, he and probably other people had a cash shortage and/or debts. He organized a revolution; Cicero, consul at the time, having defeated Catalina, found out about it, and denounced him to the Senate, which voted to exile him. Catalina fled to his army that was gathered, and was killed as he lead his men against Cicero’s attacking Legions.
- Then a woman who had turned spy on Catalina provided letters identifying many of the conspirators. Cicero arrested them and had them executed without trial, to the cheers of the crowd.
- In 58 BC, the people of Rome voted to exile anyone who had condemned a Roman citizen to death without a trial, and, specially, Cicero, although they brought him back a year later.
- The Consuls were the ones who could create laws, and they were elected by the Roman people: male citizens of Rome. Although a million people were eligible, the author estimates that only a few hundred to a few thousand people actually voted.
- The Senate could only pass declarations, although these were usually obeyed. The Senate had about 600 people, and tended to meet in temples. At this time Rome didn’t have lots of marble, so the areas they met in would be brick, small, and dark (owing to the lack of windows). Anyone who had been elected to Quaestor (20 per year) had a lifetime membership in the Senate.
- The author introduces Rome with this event because the documentation of this era of Rome is considerable. In addition to many histories and copies of speeches, we also have personal letters and financial records. Cicero is the first ancient person with enough information about to write a modern biography, the only one until Augustine.
- Poor people lived in overpriced, horrible flats owned by people like Cicero, who once said that the rats in a particular set of buildings of his even the rats had left.
Ch. 2: In the Beginning
- Rome had three foundation stories. One was founding by Greeks (which gave Rome a way to tie in to Greek culture), one was the founding by Aeneas after escaping from Troy, but the most widely used is Romulus and Remus. Livy says that in the town of Alba Longa (south of Rome a bit), the king’s brother deposed him and took over the throne. The rightful king’s daughter became a temple virgin so as not to produce any heirs, but ended up giving birth to twins. Traditionally the god Mars had raped her, although Livy thought it might have had more natural origins. The usurper told a servant to throw the babies in the river, but he left them in a basket instead. Conveniently (as some ancient writers noted) a lactating she-wolf happened by and fed the babies until a shepherd saw them and adopted them. The word for wolf (lupa) was also used as slang for “prostitute”, and Livy thought that perhaps a prostitute was the real creature. The boys grow up and are eventually recognized by the deposed king. They restore him to the throne and then set off to found their own city. They quarrel about the site and Romulus kills Remus. Romulus invites the outlaws and slaves from Italy to join him to build up the population. But since it is all men, he invites the Latines and the Sabines (neighboring tribes) to a feast, and then men carry off their daughters. The Romans easily defeat the Latines, but not the Sabines. Eventually the wives implore them to stop fighting, since they did not want to be both widowed and fatherless.
- Roman writers saw the stories as a least partly factual (and going through some contortions to get their assumed dates for Aeneas and Romulus to work out, given that they different by several hundred years). Some also used the Greek olympiads to date the founding of Rome to 753 BC.
- The writers used the story to talk about issues in Roman culture. Was Rome doomed to civil wars because it had started out as murder? Was marriage doomed to be harsh because the first marriage had started out with abduction and rape?
- The author sees the stories as incorporating Roman values into a founding myth. The Romans were aggressive (but so was everyone else, and besides, Rome always did it in response to others so it was “just”). They were also relatively welcoming to outsiders, especially by ancient standards. Some in the ancient world saw Rome’s willingness to extend citizenship to foreigners (initially limited, but increasingly broadly over time) as one of its strengths.
- Slaves were better off in Rome than other places. They were often freed after a certain period of time or after saving enough money to buy themselves out, and if their master was a citizen, they also became a citizen.
- The limited archeology that we have suggests that the Roman hills were inhabited by about 800 BC, about the same time as, and very similar to, the other settlements in the area. Which means that, at some point, Rome became different.
Ch. 3: The King’s of Rome
- In 1899 the area under a set of black stones in the Forum was excavated, and they found what looked like an old shrine. They also found a column, which included the word “for the king”, demonstrating that the Romans’ inclusion of kings in their history was real.
- Traditionally there were seven kings, each of which instituted a piece of classical Rome’s organizations. Romulus founded Rome; Numa Pompilius founded the religious institutions; Tullus Hostilius fought a lot; Ancus Marcius founded the seaport at Ostia; Tarquinius Priscus created the Forum and the Circus and games; Servius Tullius was a reformer and created the census; Tarquinius Superbus built so much that it impoverished the people of Rome and they rebelled and exiled him.
- The list of kings also incorporates Roman themes. One is violent succession: all but two had a bloody succession. Another is the multi-ethnic nature: several of the kings were Etruscan, and one was a former slave. Yet another is that a king is tyranny—even the emperors refused to be known as kings (although some writers wondered what the difference was).
- Roman writers paint Rome under the kings as a great state, but the reality is that Rome could not have been larger than about 10,000 - 20,000 people. Such cities do not have a king in the modern sense, they have “big men” or warlords or chieftains. Likewise, the battles fought by the kings are all within about 12 miles of Rome. So these chieftains are leading private militias, there is probably shifting allegiances of these militias, and the wars are likely more like cattle raids.
- Inland, the Etruscans (a set of fairly ethnically homogenous city-states) were wealthy. Their graves had large quantities of bronze, and more Athenian pottery than found in Athens. Rome neighbored the Etruscans, and probably benefited from their wealth and its seaport. There was probably also people moving between the two areas.
- Some have suggested that the Etruscans took over Rome at one point, as evidenced by the Etruscan kings, but the author thinks that this did not happen, as there is no evidence of a large cultural shift.
- The Romans saw their success as due to their faithful observation of the proper rituals and the correct reading of omens. The goals of these rituals were to maintain good relationships with the gods. “In general, it was a religion of doing, not believing.” (103)
- There is a Roman calendar from the first century BC that lists out festivals, and they are largely agricultural festivals, which is entirely expected in a small agricultural city.
- Servius Tullus was supposed to have created the system of centuries. Each century was segregated by wealth, with the wealthier centuries needing to arm themselves more robustly. The eighty first-class centuries had full bronze armor, but the thirty fifth class centuries were only required to provide slings and stones. There were another 18 centuries of cavalry, then some centuries of musicians and engineers, and one century of the poorest who were exempt from military service. In Cicero’s time, each century got one vote in the elections of senior positions (like consul). So the richest people got eighty votes, while the poorer got substantially less. Cicero lauds this, stating that as a principle the wealthy, and not the rabble, should have the most power.
- The drainage system of Rome (the Cloaca) might have been started by the last king. It was quite massive, and built over many years, but we don’t know how much was from the sixth century BC when the last king was supposed to have ruled. (They figured it out because they kept records of who all the consuls were, and counted the years)
- The trigger that ended the kingdom was not the overwork, but the rape of Lucretia. A group of nobility were arguing over whose wife was best one night while at war, and one of the princes suggested they just ride back home (it was only a couple of miles) and check them all out. His wife was acclaimed the best, but one of his brothers was smitten with her. He rode back some time later and threatened her with death if she did not sleep with him. That did not move her, so he said he would kill her and a servant so that it would look like she had committed adultery with him. She agreed to sleep with him to avoid the shame. Then she told her husband and killed herself.
- The Brutus who killed Caesar traced his family lineage back to the Brutus that led the rebellion against the last king.
Ch. 4: Rome’s Great Leap Forward
- Roman writers think of the Roman State as coming into being fully formed in the fifth century BC in its modern complexity. The reality is probably different. Rome was a small, agricultural city. The Twelve Tablets that codified early laws indicate a simple conception of laws and are concerned with very small-town things (like what to do if your neighbor’s tree overhangs your property). And there are several fire layers that, while they could be unfortunate burnings, they could also be the result of violence as Rome transitioned from rule by aristocrat to full participation by the plebians. Also, the list of consuls in the Forum has a number of entries for which the title is something more like temporary dictator. (It is also highly likely to have involved some guesswork in its creation)
- Roman writers saw the first 200 years of the Republic as the struggle for inclusion by the plebians. The first fifty years or so of consuls includes plebian names, but not after that. The plebians went on a series of mutiny/strikes over the years that got them an assembly to defend their interests: the tribunes. It also had block voting, but the blocks were geographical, not wealth-based. Subsequent conflicts gave the tribunes decision force of law over all Romans, which mean that non-nobility could now legislate over nobility and on behalf of the state. The political offices and priesthoods gradually became open to plebians. In 367 BC plebians could become consul, and in 342 BC both consuls could be plebian. In 326 BC selling people into slavery for debt was abolished. (Establishing that citizens had the right of liberty of their persons)
- The most dramatic was when the plebians demanded that the laws be public. So a committee was established and got 10 tablets done, but there were still more to go, so a second committee was appointed. This committee did finish them, but added in a clause that plebians could not marry patricians, which, combined with another attempted rape (an ancester of the guy who built the Appian Way wanted a girl, brought legal action against her father saying she was a slave, which he decided in favor of himself as he was the judge, but the father stabbed her to death after the decision was reached, in order to protect her), the second committee was abolished and the law quickly repealed.
- The lack of laws about patricians/plebians in the Twelve Tablets (which are no longer extant, we only know of the ones that have been quoted) suggest that their origin was not so colorful and much more in the ordinary process of codifying laws that every ancient society underwent as they grew larger.
- 367 BC seems to be a crucial date for the creation of the Republic. The list of consuls has a lot of temporary dictatorships for the prior half-century, but that completely stops after 367 BC. Plebians could become consul. Also, an entry in an ancient dictionary states that before the middle of fourth century BC the Senate was a collection of friends of that years’ officials to advise them and was new every year; after that it was permanent and membership was for life.
- In 400 BC, Rome appears to have been just another normal town on the Italian peninsula. Prosperous, but not different. In 396 BC, Rome annexed Veii, a prosperous Etruscan town ten miles away. (Livy claims that this campaign marked the first time Roman soldiers were paid, from taxes.) In 390 BC some Gauls sacked Rome. (The story goes that a plebian named Marcus Caedicius [“disaster-teller”] heard a voice warning him, and he passed on the warning, but the patricians ignored him because of low rank; a lesson that the gods also talked to low ranks). Rome built an enormous wall afterwards.
- There was probably yearly fighting since time immemorial by every tribe in Italy, but the Romans did two things differently. First, generally the only thing they required of conquered cities was that they supply soldiers (at their own expense). This required a lot less Roman manpower than taxation or direct control would, and it gave Rome access to a lot of manpower. In the ancient world, the relative size of an army was the most important factor in who would win. Rome might lose battles, but it could keep sending legions, so it didn’t lose the war. It also aligned the incentives of the conquered city with those of Rome, since the soldiers would share in the plunder they took. Second, Rome extended citizenship to many of its conquered cities, either with or without voting rights. In the ancient world you were usually a citizen of whatever city you were in, but now you could be a citizen of your home city and also a citizen of a broader, more abstract concept of Rome. “Latin” became a political status, not an ethnicity.
Ch. 5: A Wider World
- In about one hundred years Rome went from ruling a piece of Italy to much of the Mediterranean.
- The first war was when the Greek king Pyrrhus fought against Rome in aid of Tarentum. He won, but the victory cost him so much that he joked he couldn’t afford another one.
- Soon after, Rome conquered the Greek colonies in Sicily and Corsica.
- In the Second Punic War (Punic = Carthaginian), Hannibal decisively defeated the Romans at Cannae, but did not follow up with an attack on Rome. One possibility is that he realized that Rome’s power came from its allies, and certainly he tried to whittle down that base in Italy. Rome had lost a lot of men at Cannae, and the State had a cash shortage. So they asked the people of Rome to finance it. Any other state would have had to surrender, but Rome still had the cash (albeit in private hands) and the people to continue fighting.
- A large part of Roman power came from defeating Carthage: it got a lot of land and a large number of slaves, which it used to grow crops and mine silver.
- Rome is seen as aggressively conquering the world, but it seems to initially been something that happened rather than was planned.
- Roman traditions, such as the funeral, where the family dressed up (and wore face masks) as the deceased’s ancestors and told all of their achievements, inspired the younger generations to achieve something worthy of the family. Great Roman families had a lot of ambition and competition. (A large number of sons killed their fathers, so possibly some were squashed by the weight of expectations rather than rising to the challenge.)
- There was also a lot of lobbying by states on the eastern edge of the Mediterranean for Rome’s involvement on their side: they would send delegates to lobby the senators, sometimes meeting with them daily, to persuade Roman intervention on their behalf.
- Initially Rome ruled with a pretty loose hand. They either adopted the existing tax structure or required a payment, but generally they let the conquered region govern itself. Imperium meant “the ability to give orders that are obeyed” not “imposing our government on you”.
- The best political analysis of Rome at the time is by Polybius, who was a Greek taken to Rome as hostage after Aemilius Paullus defeated King Perseus. He met Scipio Aemilianus (adopted) and ended up being his tutor. He could see Rome from the perspective of both an enemy and an insider. He said that the strength of Rome was that it was a stable mixture of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. The consuls functioned as monarchy. The Senate functioned as aristocracy. The people were represented by the tribunes, but also by the fact that they voted for the consuls and certain laws. While one could not stand for elections without being wealthy enough to be in one of the top centuries, getting the support of the poor people was usually essential to winning. The wealthy could, in theory, carry the election, but they were rarely united, and so the popular voice mattered. Roman politicians routinely shook hands with plebians and canvassed them for their votes.
- Antiochus Epiphanes spent ten years as a hostage in Rome before being swapped out for a younger family member. When he went back, he had on Roman political sensibilities. Even though he was not standing for election, he visited craftsmen, gave presents to commoners, and even dressed in a toga to shake hands with commoners and ask for their vote. (The latter mystified his eastern contemporaries.) “It is clear that one lesson that Antiochus had drawn from Rome was that the common people and their votes were important.” (191)
- The triumphs displayed a lot of new and exotic things (like elephants), as well as riches (one conquest brought back so much silver that it took 3,000 men to carry it, and the procession over all took three days). Rome’s increasing exposure to the world brought up questions of what does it mean to be Roman. They could see the difference in culture between themselves and the Greeks, and they knew the Greek opinions that Romans were uncultured, and although they generally did not agree with the Greeks, there was a persistent thread in Roman writing wondering whether the barbarians were really on the inside. When they brought back the Mother Goddess from the area around Troy (supposedly the origin of Rome in the Aeneid), it turned out that her image was a black meteorite, and the priests were self-castrated men who wore long hair and flagellated themselves. This did not seem at all Roman.
- Romans tended to value austerity, seeing the eastern comfort as decadence. So there was a strain of Roman politics that wanted to return to the—probably non-existent—former days of austere moral living.
- There were at least 300,000 Romans living outside of Rome at all times: soldiers and merchants, mostly. And there were streams of foreigners coming to Rome for various reasons. Slaves tended to become free over time, so the population of Rome had a lot foreign former-slaves that were now Roman. So what did it mean to be Roman when there were all these foreign influences?
Ch. 6: New Politics
- From 146 BC to 44 BC (the assassination of Julius Caesar) saw a steady erosion of political decorum to the point where violence was a common tool of political disagreement. It was also a time of flowering of Roman arts: Catallus wrote love poems to a Senator’s wife, Cicero wrote the speeches that became the backbone of rhetoric; Julius Caesar wrote of his campaigns in Gaul; the city of Rome started becoming planned and architecturally notable.
- Pompey had defeated Mithradates VI, and come home with 75 million drachma in silver, enough to feed two million people for a year, and equivalent to one full year of taxes.
- Roman writers wrote about the steady political decline.
- In 133 BC, Tiberius Gracchus, saw lack of smallholding farmers in Italy as responsible for Rome’s ills (archaeological evidence, however, suggests that there were still many smallholding farmers). As a tribune, he created a plan to distribute the state lands, which the rich tended to use as their own, to the poor. The tribue Marcus Octavius vetoed his reforms, so Gracchus got the people to vote him out. The Senate refused to finance it, so he got the people to vote to use the money that King Attalus III of Pergamum had left, along with his kingdom, to “the Roman people”, to finance the commission. When Gracchus ran for election a second year (partly to be immune from prosecution for the alleged crimes of seeking to be a king), he was killed by some members of the Senate during the election (bludgeoned with a chair leg), but without the Senate’s approval.
- Roman elections of the Plebian Assembly required all voters to assemble in one place and cast their ballots one by one. This sometimes took more than a day. In 139 BC a tribune introduced a law making voting by secret ballot. (Cicero said “everyone knows that the ballot law robbed the aristocrats of all their influence”).
- This crystallied two views of government: one faction thought that Rome should be governed by the “best men” (usually, the rich); others thought that the people should be able to do whatever they wanted, including electing whoever they wanted.
- In 123 BC, Gaius Gracchus was elected tribune, and he instituted subsidized grain for the city of Rome, which made it the only city in the ancient world where the government took responsibility for basic food supplies. But Gaius was the first tribune to have what we would call a “platform”: a set of legislation that had a unified aim (in this case “a systematic attempt to reconfigure the relationship between the people and the senate.” ) His political opponents thought that it looked like he was gathering power to become a king. He was elected tribune twice, but some of his supporters were taunted by one of the consul’s men and they stabbed him with their styluses (so not premeditated since they didn’t use weapons, but definitely murder). The senate reacted by giving the consul, Lucius Opimius emergency powers (“to make sure that the state should come to no harm”). Rome didn’t have a police force, but Opimius conveniently found some archers lying around and some others, and killed 3000 of Gaius’ supporters. The emergency powers act had a way of rebounding against those who used it, and Opimius was tried and acquitted, but his reputation had been permanently stained.
- The Italian allies of Rome seemed to have growing desire for independence, and in 90 BC the arrogance of a Roman envoy in one town resulted in the murder of all Romans living there and started a civil war (the Social War, named because socii was the word for allies). Roman writers said that they just wanted citizenship (which is how the war ended: Rome offered citizenship to everyone still fighting), but they had set up their own capital and their own coinage. But it was too late to be independent; the coinage was made using Roman denominations. With now a million citizens, there was a logistical problem of recording them, and also figuring out what centuries they fit into, although since you had to vote in person in Rome, that limited the number of people who could use the right.
- In 88 BC, Sulla was elected consul, and he marched on Rome (the first general to do so) to claim the commission to fight Mithradates which had been taken from him. All but one of his commanders resigned when he told them his intentions. Then in 83 BC he came back and occupied Rome for two years while he got control back from his enemies. He was made dictator without a time limit, during which he drew up a list of enemies and put bounties on them, burned the Temple of Jupiter, and generally presided over a period full of violence. He boasted that he had taken revenge on all who had wronged him. He also instituted a lot of reforms (calling them, as was always done, a return to the past), such as neutering the power of the tribunes, although those were repealed within a decade. After three years he resigned and retired to write a history.
- His disbanded legions settled in the area, but not all were good farmers. So when Spartacus revolted, he must have been able to acquire a lot of local support from disaffected Romans, because his forces held out for two years against the Roman legions. However, it could also be seen as the final battle in a civil war that had started somewhat earlier than the Social Wars and continued afterwards.
Ch. 7: From Empire to Emperors
- As Rome conquered more and more land, it had to solve problems of how to govern it. Rome’s typical approach was to contract things out (such as tax collection) to private companies (who bid on the job; highest bid got to collect the taxes plus any extra they managed). Governance was done on a one or two year bases, eventually as a rotation that consuls did the year or two after their office ended in Rome.
- This did not result in excellent government. When Cicero did his service he found that his predecessor’s location was unknown, as were three legions which had gone missing. One other legion was supported Marcus Junius Brutus’ (illegal) 48% loans; Cicero withdrew the support, but did not press the matter. And he tired of the job and was happy to leave the position to someone else.
- Cicero had earlier prosecuted Verres for abusing his office. He did not even get to give all his planned speeches before Verres fled in self-imposed exile. So if Cicero’s governance was so haphazard, what about the others?
- Verres was particularly egregious, but it seems from complaints that he was by no means unique. In fact, Gaius Gracchus had created very detailed laws, as part of his reforms, detailing what things people from the provinces could sue for (money), the damages (2X), the location (Rome), and the jury (50 equites who were not Senators), which indicates that there were already problems.
- The jury was problematic, because it created a division between Senators and the rest of the equites which tended to distort justice. The equites tended to side with the tax collection companies and some Senators who were quite likely innocent of crimes under the Gracchus law were convicted. Various people adjusted the jury between the Senators and equites, but it is indicative of the unsolved problems of Roman government.
- “Even more controversial, and central to the eventual collapse of Republican government, were questions of who could be trusted with the command, control and administration of the empire. Who was to govern the provinces, to collect the taxes, to command, or serve in Rome’s armies? Was the traditional governing class, with it’s principles of shared and short-term power, capable of handling the vast problems, administrative and military, that the empire now threw up?” (256)
- Beard’s view is that the empire created the emperors, not the other way around. The structure was insufficient to govern well, so the people chose people who would get the job done, essentially electing autocrats.
- The ruling class did not like to incorporate outsiders, even if they were talented. (Although about 20% of consuls were “new men”.) But the ruling class was not large, so it lacked the necessary resources.
- By the early 100s BC, some parts of the empire were directly governed and some parts were governed by the older allies. One of these allies, Jugurtha, went rogue in 118 BC, and since he had served with Scipio Aemilianus, he knew how the Roman army worked and had connections in the Roman system (“Rome’s a city for sale and bound to fall as soon as it finds a buyer” he supposedly said). The Senate was ineffectual in bringing him to task. Gaius Marius ran for consul eyeing a military command, and efficiently resolved the matter.
- The legions had a problem of manpower, because only landowners could serve in the army. (This may have motivated Gracchus’ reforms to give out land to people.) Marius took anyone who wanted. But the consequence was that it was now the commander’s responsibility to find land for them at the end of their service, which engendered a loyalty directly to the commander rather than to the state. Over the years, Rome basically had a bunch of generals with private armies.
- Marius was elected by direct proposal to the assembly instead of the Senate’s nomination. This became a right of the people as a whole to choose generals (and Marius was assigned again after his success with Jugurtha to defeat German invaders the previous general had failed [the city was so panicked that they even did a rare human sacrifice])
- Pompey followed in Marius’ footsteps as a general, but was definitely an autocrat. He had defeated Mediterranean pirates in three months (perhaps they were not as serious a problem as had been thought), and gave them small pieces of land far enough inland so that they could make an honest living without temptation. There were requests for aid against Mithradates in the long-running war, and Cicero argued that new problems required new solutions. Mithradates was threatening Rome tax incomes and citizens commercial income, so they should give a competent general an assigned of unlimited duration and over whatever area was necessary. Pompey solved the Mithradates problem, and then unilaterally adjusted some political boundaries, presumably to keep the problem resolved. He wore (allegedly) Alexander the Great’s cloak, and was even given the right to wear the Triumph costume at the circus.
- At a Triumph a general wore the same outfit that Jupiter in the Capitoline temple wore; it was a ritual suggesting that Jupiter brought the victory through the general, and supposedly a slave stood behind the general, frequently whispering in his ear reminding him that he is a man. So to wear Jupiter’s outfit outside the ritual is to claim deity—something that Pompey already had offered to him in the East. (Pompey only wore it to the circus once.)
- Pompey could arguably be called the first emperor. Some cities named themselves after him, there was a group that worshiped him. He even had coins made with his image, albeit in the East. Previously coins always had long-dead heroes on them.
- “How to balance individual achievement and celebrity with the notional equality of the elite and the principles of shared power had been a major dilemma throughout the Roman Republic. Many mythical stories of early Rome pose the problem of dashing heroes who step out of line to take on the enemy single-handedly. Did they deserve punishment for disobedience or honour for bringing victory to Rome?” (277)
- Pompey, Crassus, and Julius Caesar formed an unofficial agreement to pool their resources and influence in achieving their different aims. Crassus wanted to enable the renegotiation of the bid of a tax-collection company that had wildly overbid, Pompey wanted to get land for his soldiers, and Caesar wanted to be given generalship in Gaul.
- Caesar slaughtered around one million Gauls. They were definitely not innocents—one Greek writer was astonished that they put the heads of their enemies around their towns—but it was too much for many of his contemporaries: Pliny the Elder says that the number of his victims constituted a “crime against humanity”. Caesar did bring a large amount of land into the empire, and even crossed the symbolic boundary of the sea—beyond which was the Unknown—by landing briefly on Britain.
- The problem was integrating Caesar back into politics. He had been gone for 10 years, and there were many people who wanted to settle scores and/or bring him down to size. If he did not hold an office, he could be prosecuted for some irregularities of one of his years in office (which is unclear what/who caused them, it may have just been the general fractiousness). Pompey did not involve himself, and when an agreement was not forthcoming, Caesar quoted a Greek play saying essentially “roll the die and see what happens” (rather than more final “the die is cast”), crossed into Italy and marched on Rome.
- After being made dictator Caesar did not stay in Rome much over the next ten years, he was involved settling the civil war, including defeating Pompey. When he was in Rome, though, he acted very autocratically, like the king that Rome had rebelled against. He revised the calendar to 365 days plus one day every four years (which he got from Egypt) because the priests, whose job it was to adjust the calendar, had not done a good job of it. He wore Jupiter’s costume frequently (the laurel wreath covered his bald areas, among other reasons) His Triumph was over Romans (Pompey), not foreigners. He had coins made—in Rome—with his image on them. He granted clemency to many of his enemies, but clemency can only be granted by one who has the power to withhold it. So on the Ides of March, several dozen Senators killed him, to free Rome from the king again, as a coin that Brutus minted makes clear
Ch. 8: The Home Front
- Much of what we know about Roman daily life comes from the letters of Cicero
- In 49 BC, Cicero eventually decided to join up with Pompey against Caesar in the civil war. He apparently went around scowling a lot and cracking bad jokes and got a bad reputation. On the day of the battle where Pompey lost, Cicero was conveniently sick. Afterwards he returned to Italy in anticipation of the general amnesty that Caesar offered.
- Caesar came to dinner at his Naples home several years later. He wrote that it was definitely not the sort of thing you would invite him to come back again; he had a retinue of at least 2000 soldiers, not to mention slaves, all of which had to be put up and fed. Following custom, Caesar had a bath, then a massage, and then reclining at the formal meal, for which he had quite the appetite, having been on an emetic detox regime.
- In the five years before Caesar’s assassination, Cicero divorced his wife of thirty years (Terentia) and remarried quickly, to Publilia, a girl of fifteen (he was about sixty), which lasted for about six weeks before he sent her back. His daughter (Tullia), pregnant, had been divorced from her third husband, and died in childbirth, throwing Cicero into severe grief.
- The purpose of marriage in ancient Rome was to produce legitimate children. The virtuous woman is summed up in the grave of a woman named Claudia: “Here is the unlovely grave of a lovely woman. She loved her husband with her heart. She bore two sons. One of these she leaves on earth, the other under the earth. She was graceful in her speech and elegant in her step. She kept the home. She made wool. That is all there is to say.” (304)
- Having children was a primary responsibility of the wife. The woman was universally blamed for failure to conceive. Because of the likelihood children would die before age 10, each woman would have to have five or six children just to keep the population static, but if you factor in sterility, early death from childbirth, etc. each woman would need to have about nine children.
- There wasn’t really any way to prevent having children other than abstinence, and the fact that Roman ideas one when a woman was most fertile were completely wrong did not help.
- Once a baby was born, if it seemed weak or disabled it was “exposed”.
- One might think that the death of a child might be looked on prosaically because of its frequency, but that seems to not have been any different than today; parents were greatly grieved.
- Marriages in wealthy families were arranged for political alliances/monetary benefit, although some of the couples worked out well. (Anthony married Caesar’s daughter Julia to cement their triumvirate, for example) The girls were married early; Cicero’s Tullia was engaged at 11 and married at 15. Men generally married between 25 - 30.
- The marriage ceremony was simple. Ending a marriage was also simple: you were married if both of you said you were, and you were not married if one or both of you said you weren’t. If you got divorced, the former husband had to return the dowry.
- There were women who had a more licentious reputation, some justified, some probably accusations by people trying to discredit their wives or male enemies.
- Cicero appears to have owned about twenty properties. Senators were forbidden from commercial ventures (although some did through an intermediary), so they used land. Cicero owned properties in Rome, Astura, Tusculum, Puteoli on the Bay of Naples, and others. Some were essentially a place to stay along the way, and others were villas. In total they were worth some 13 million sesterces (enough to feed 25,000 families for a year, or to pay for the substantial minimum wealth requirement for public office 30 times over). His large house on the Palatine Hill cost 3.5 million sesterces. People like Crassus, though, were worth 200 million sesterces, which could pay for a private army.
- One assumes that there was some sort of banking system, otherwise how would you pay 3.5 million sesterces for a house? Cart wagonloads of gold around the city under armed guard?
- Cicero’s money came originally from rents from his agricultural lands, augmented by Terentia’s dowry of insula in Rome. He claimed to have inherited 20 million sesterces from people outside his family, likely quite a few of these were in exchange for his legal services (lawyers were forbidden from receiving a fee). After he defended Publius Sulla, the latter loaned him 2 million sesterces for the house on the Palatine and “repayment seems not to have been demanded” (328). Cicero also seems to have acquired 2 million sesterces for his year in the Asia; while he claims not to have extorted anyone, it’s not clear how he came by this money (but in any case he lent it to Pompey to finance the civil war).
- (Wealthy) Roman houses had a large atrium for receiving public visitors, and increasingly private spaces. Close friends of the family might be received in the more private space. The atrium was decorated with trophies acquired in victory, but the tradition was that the trophies stayed with the house, not the victor. Other rooms had frescoes consonant with their usage.
- The house needed to be decorated well, and Cicero tried to get the appropriate statues. One letter complains that you cannot use a statue of Mars for a room for peaceful alliances. One also could not be too opulent, or you would be criticized.
- Slaves were some 20% of the Italian population, and were from diverse sources. Some were defeated in war, some trafficked from the edges of the empire, some the children of slaves, some rescued from the trash as babies.
- Slaves of poorer owners were likely to lived harsh lives in confined spaces. Slaves of wealthier masters might live better than free men.
- Corporal punishment was frequent; “Whipping Boy” was a common nickname.
- Romans disdained slaves but were also afraid of them. At the same time, they did not want to make a visible mark of slavery, because that would show slaves how numerous they were. Furthermore, slavery was often temporary; master frequently freed slaves. And familia included both free and non-free members of the household.
- Master often married a slave girl.
- Slaves often ran off, and if caught in their destination they could claim that they were freed.
Ch. 9: The Transformations of Augustus
- Some twenty Senators came to Caesar ostensibly to give him a petition, but then pulled out their daggers and attempted to kill him. Their aim was terrible, and Caesar unsuccessfully fought back with his stylus. Seeing Brutus, he said—in Greek, not Latin—"you too, child”, which could be a threat, or sadness for disloyalty. The other Senators fled, but were blocked by the crowds coming out of the nearby theater; these also tried to flee when they figure out what was happening, only to meet soldiers coming the other direction, along with three of Caesar’s slaves trying to carry the body back to the house.
- Cicero advised the conspiratorial Senators to immediately summon the Senate, but they did not and so Caesar’s allies took the initiative. The people liked Caesar’s reforms and cash handouts, and “liberty” might not have been a realistic option for them as it was for the Senators.
- Caesar had no children, did not adopt his child with Cleopatra (which she named Caeserion as a hint). His heir was a great-nephew, Gaius Octavius, who was 18 at the time. Octavius abandoned his preparations to invade Parthia and hastened to the capitol. He muscled his way into politics using “tactics that were not far short of a coup” (340), and as Octavian he had a pretty bloody reputation.
- Brutus and Cassius were assigned eastern provinces and a triumvirate of Octavian, Anthony, and Lepidus ruled Rome via control over elections. There were periodic lists of aristocracy to be killed, including Cicero, who had his head cut off at the end of 43 BC because he was too vocal in his opposition to Anthony. The triumvirate broke up soon afterwards in 42 BC when Anthony’s wife Fulvia and his brother Lucius rebelled, but was patched up after they surrendered due to a starvation siege in 40 BC. Lepidus was removed in 36 BC. For a while Octavian operated in the west and Anthony in the east, shacking up with Cleopatra, who had left Rome after Julius was assassinated. She needed to Roman support to maintain her position as ruler of Egypt, as one of the “friendly allies”, and she found Anthony. Theirs was the likelier army to succeed, but the first naval battle in Actium gave them the initiative. The victory was partly Octavian’s second-in-command who cut off their supplies, partly due to information from deserters, and partly due to Anthony and Cleopatra fleeing when the going got tough, which did not give much incentive for the men to keep fighting.
- Julius Caesar got killed for acting like a king, how did Augustus pull it off and become the model emperor for a century, especially given his bloody and authoritarian history?
- First of all, there was plenty of dissent that he had pulled it off, even almost fifty years later at his death.
- His triumph paraded a wax figure of Cleopatra (who had committed suicide) and emphasized the victories over people in Asia led by the armies of Cleopatra; it neglected the part that it was Roman legions they had fought. This exploited the view that Asians were decadent and excessive, compared to Roman austerity.
- He changed his name to Augustus (which was not a real word, but roughly meant “Revered One”), to rid himself of the connotations of Ocatavius
- There was a strong view among people that it did not matter who one, the end result would have been the same. Even Brutus, who killed Caesar in the name of liberty, was making coins with his image on them.
- He did not do away with any of the Roman institutions, there were still Senators, tribunes, consuls, etc. But he “exercised such influence over elections that the popular democratic process withered” (354) and these officials gave him what he asked for. He publicly rejected being made “dictator”; instead he was given “the power of the tribunes” but was not a tribune, and “the rights of a consuls” but was not a consul. The Senate essentially became the administrative body of the empire, rather than the governing body.
- He was referred to as princeps, “first citizen”, not “emperor”
- He did not live in a palace, he lived in a normal aristocratic house on the Palatine, and his wife still spun wool.
- He made himself visible: there are over 250 statues of a youthful Augustus—all pretty much the same image—implying that he had a specific propaganda image. This give people an image of their ruler, even though it did not reflect what he really looked like. It was also a change from the traditional Roman style of making people look wrinkly and old.
- He created a mythology for himself: he commissioned poems, from Virgil. Virgil’s Cartheginian queen Dido has strong similarities to Cleopatra.
- Some ancient writers decided that Augustus was intentionally vague and acting one way sometimes and another way other times.
- He presented himself as inevitable, a natural part of history. This was partly through the arts, like Virgil, and partly through things like naming a month of the calendar after Julius’ “July, “August”.
- He ensured that the army was loyal to him. He, not the Senate, controlled the appointment of generals, and the State paid either a cash sum or a grant of land to soldiers after they served their 16 (later increased to 20) year service. This was hugely expensive.
- Augustus’ own record of what he did highlighted that he:
- he brought military victory (i.e. victory over people like Cleopatra)
- was generous to the people. He gave cash to at least 250,000 men, sponsored yearly gladiatorial spectacles and a legendary naval battle on an artificial lake. He was generous to the people and in response they were to understand him as patron, protector, and benefactor.
- he built a lot of buildings. “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble.”
- These three things became the standard for emperors for the next 200 years.
- There were plenty of setbacks. Augustus suffered a great defeat in Germany. Marcus Egnatius Rufus tried to gain independent support during his time in office as an aedile in 22 BC by setting up a fire department with his own money, and then tried to run for consul without Augustus’ approval (and too young); he was executed by the Senate. Ovid wrote critiques. Even Virgil is a little unsettling: at the end ancestral Aeneas, in rage, brutally kills an enemy who had already surrendered.
- Augustus had problems finding a successor, trying various machinations involving marrying his daughter Julia to various people, as his wife Livia had no children by him. (This may have resulted in Julia’s “notoriously rebellious sex life”, 379). None of it worked, and in the end, he had to settle for Livia’s son by previous marriage, Tiberius.
- On Augustus’ death, Livia may have delayed the announcement until his son could return to Rome. At any rate, the succession went smoothly.
Ch. 10: Fourteen Emperors
- Historians, even in Roman times, had a tendency to view things in terms of good emperors and bad emperors. This obscures the more complex reality, and is not really helpful.
- Nero, despite being blamed for setting fire to Roman, undeniably contributed large amounts of money to people homeless from the fire. And after his death there were three rebels in the Eastern provinces claiming to be Nero. This implies that he must have been popular in places, since one does not claim to be someone unloved and vile to gain power...
- Vespasian had a reputation for self-deprecation (reportedly saying “oh dear, I think I am becoming a god” as he was dying) and was seen as a “good” emperor, but despite the literary outrage at Nero’s sumptuous and excessive golden palace with its rotating dining room, Vespasian had no compunctions about moving in.
- Marcus Aurelius is held up as a wise ruler, yet he brutally killed the Germans (as detailed graphically on his column—built just a smidge higher than Trajan’s).
- Gaius had lots of stories told about his imperial abuse, but Hadrian, seen as a good ruler, was reported to have killed his architect over a building disagreement and even Gibbon, who liked Hadrian, admitted that he was vain, capricious, and cruel at times.
- Romans had a tendency to villify and erase those who were out of favor, even pulling down their houses.
- The imperial system was pretty stable over the two hundred years from Augustus, but there were changes.
- When Julius was assassinated, only he was, not his wife. By the time Gaius was assassinated, they assassins felt the need to take out the imperial family, too.
- Augustus had tried to remove the army from politics, but the Praetorian Guard was still in close proximity to the emperor, and so occasionally made politics.
- Augustus lived roughly like the other Roman aristocrats. The largest house in Pompeii (79 AD) was roughly the size of the palace of one of Alexander the Great’s generals who became kings when he died. In contrast, Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli was was larger than the entire town of Pompeii, and included replicas of all the important monuments from around the Empire. Augustus’ handful of houses on the Palantine in Rome among the other aristocrats had taken over the entire Hill, excluding anything else.
- Augustus’ administrative staff is roughly on the order of a couple thousand slaves (a mass grave of roughly 1000 slaves and ex-slaves of Augustus’ wife Livia, complete with plaques describing their jobs, was found). Just thirty years later there were entire departments each with their own hundreds of slaves. Originally ex-slaves were the division managers (they were, of course, loyal to the emperor), but when the equestrians complained, they became managers. It was similar to a modern civil service, but with just one level of hierarchy.
- Almost no one in the empire had ever seen the emperor, but his likeness was ubiquitous: on coins and statues, even molded into the tops of biscuits for sacrifices.
- This image was carefully crafted, and somewhere along the way the marketing department decided that smooth-shaven was out and facial hair was in. Unfortunately we don’t know the reason for this change.
- All emperors continued flaunting building campaigns (they were criticized otherwise) and military victories.
- The problems with the structure that Augustus created remained:
- Succession was troublesome (although if succession went well, the rest tended to be peaceful). Roman rules of inheritance were fairly fluid, which made it difficult to create a dynastic system of passing on to the eldest son (even if there had been one). And anyone, the eldest son is not necessarily a good successor. Anyway, the emperor’s successor had to be approved by a lot of factions for it to really work.
- Without accepted inheritance rules, any member of the extended family was a potential successor, hence the idea of the dangers lurking in the imperial court. However, “the Roman elite was not by nature particularly cruel and ruthless”, so the stories might not be reliable.
- Marcus Aurelius was the first emperor in 70 years to have a son survive to adulthood, and this son was accepted without bothering looking someone who would do a good job, and he was a disaster (Commodus, whose assissination sparked another civil war)
- “[Roman emperors’ succession plans] were defeated in party by biology, in part by lingering uncertainties and disagreements about how inheritance should be operate. Succession always came down to some combination of luck, improvisation, plotting, violence and secret deals.” (420)
- The role of the Senate (which had traditionally ruled) under the emperor who now ruled was ill-defined.
- Augustus’ successor Tiberius tried to get the Senate to act on its own initiative, but the senators refused because it was dangerous to be on the wrong side of the emperor. “‘Men fit for slavery!’ he was reputed to have frequently said. “If so, he failed to see that the free senate he claimed to want was incompatible with his own power.” (421)
- Emperors tended to start off with the emperor trying to repair the relationship, and then degenerating into putting senators to death and sometimes open hostility.
- In addition to the distinct possibility of a death sentence for getting on the wrong side of the emperor somehow, the senators also sometimes were ridiculed by the emperor. This did not improve the relationship.
- Some senatorial families were principled about the notion of liberty (these did not end well), but most the newer families were able to serve multiple emperors. Pliny the Younger, for instance, worked his way up starting with Domitian. He complained about emperors in his letters, but the safely dead ones. So for the most part the senators complained about their treatment, but they were also pragmatic about serving the current emperor.
- It was not clear how the divinity of the emperor fitted in.
- Clearly the emperor was not the equivalent of Jupiter, despite any claims to the contrary. And when the emperor’s family and little dead baby became gods, that was a bit much.
- However, the near east had a long tradition of “represent[ing] overwhelming political power using language and imagery cast in divine terms.” (429). These people had clearly transcended ordinary humans in their power; from the ordinary person’s perspective, they might be effectively superhuman.
- Generally the emperor was like a god, but not actually a god. And sacrifices were performed on the behalf of the emperor but not to him. “In Rome, it was usually the numen, or the ‘power’ of the living emperor that received sacrifice, not the emperor himself.” (431)
- The Senate held the power to deify the emperor after his death. Some writers wanted some proof, and “stories of Livia’s suspiciously large cash reward to the senator who was prepared ot say that he had seen Augustus ascend to heaven suggest some uncertainty about the process.” (432)
- A skit by Seneca suggests that deified emperors had a pretty low rank among the gods.
Ch. 11: The Haves and Have-nots
- There were about 300,000 wealthy people in the Roman Empire (more if slaves/servants were included), out of 50 - 60 million.
- Pliny the Elder was sharply critical of extravagance. Pliny the Younger describes his villa humbly as “fit for purpose and not too expensive to maintain” and then describes a sumptuous villa with windows onto the sea, dining rooms for each season, private baths, running water, heating, and even a gymnasium. Wealthy Romans built large and comfortable houses, insulated from the noise and smells of the city. They also tended to cook their own food.
- The wealthy typically donated lavishly. Pliny the Younger built a library for his hometown that cost 1 million sesterces (the minimum fortune to be a senator).
- The wealthy lived next to the poor, and took the same streets that smelled of excrement dumped out of chamber pots, and heard the same noise of heavy carts at night (they were banned from Rome during the day).
- Disease killed emperors more often than poison, and the wealthy experienced it as well as the poor.
- We don’t know much about the poorer people in the empire, because it was the really rich ones that had the time to write or buy stone monuments.
- Most of the people in the empire were smallholder farmers. Change in rule to Roman rule probably did not affect them much.
- The cities definitely had a homeless population. Roman writers advised not giving to beggars, there are some paintings of people interacting with beggars. Some homeless would sleep in the large, wealthy tombs, because there was a law that anyone could prosecute them for it.
- There were probably shantytowns outside the cities and around aqueducts, as one law said that such temporary dwellings could be removed if a fire hazard, otherwise they could be charged rent.
- The corn dole in the city of Rome only applied to 250,000 male citizens, so it would not have helped the homeless.
- The next step up ranged from people on the verge of homelessness to fairly secure. These people would live in the tenement buildings, the wealthier ones on the spacious lower floors, with the poorer ones in the increasingly small rooms as one went higher. (These upper rooms were also more unsafe in the not-infrequent fires) Judging from Pompeii, their diet was fairly diverse, and some even had jewelry that could get lost in the toilets.
- There was a lot of need for temporary unskilled/manual labor. Just the food requirements for 1 million people would require 300,000 man-hours for unloading it. These people would be at the lower levels of economic stability.
- People living in the tenements would spend most of their time away from their room. Restaurants were cheap and plentiful, and there were lots of bars. Gambling (“board games”) was common, although frowned upon by the upper classes.
- People worked hard. We can tell from children’s bones that they also worked hard.
- People frequently defined themselves by their craft, featuring pictures of it on their tombs. There were collegia of crafts that would band together for increased power as a voting block. It is unclear how strict these rules are. They did not act as medieval guilds, though, as they did not regulate prices, quality, or who could perform the profession.
- There was no police, and no effective way to redress ills. So if you were robbed or a wife was assaulted and miscarried, the best most people could realistically do was go to the temple and curse the person. The courts were out of reach for most people, and generally looked on as a danger to avoid. One could definitely petition the governor or emperor, but as one governor of Egypt was documented getting 1,800 petitions in three days, it was unlikely that your petition would be heard.
- There was probably more conflict between classes than the lack of reported suggests, but it was probably not open conflict, more like throwing rotten eggs at the curtained sedan chairs of the rich, or mocking the elites with scatalogical jokes in the mouths of sages.
- Only about 20% of people were estimated to be literate, but there must have been a much larger number who were functionally literate.
- One popular form of board games involved moving along a sequence of letters, which were often arranged into six, six-letter words. Presumably this would not be so popular if none of the players could read.
- There is a mural at a bar that asks scatalogical questions of the Seven Sages. However, the questions/replies also incorporate the philosophy of each sage, and would not make much sense if you did not know anything about them, which suggests that there was some base level of cultural knowledge. Likewise, many people inscribed the first line of the Aeneid on things, implying some cultural knowledge.
Ch. 12: Rome Outside of Rome
- Pliny the Younger governed the province of Bithynia from 109 AD for several years before his death. His correspondence with Emperor Trajan, like Cicero’s letters, is useful because it covers many details.
- Cicero saw his province as an opportunity for military glory and found the low-level corruption something he could only mitigate. Pliny’s letters portray him as attentive to finances and the province running smoothly under the rule of law. (Of course, Pliny may have been overly ... optimistic ... about the situation in his letters) Unlike the governors under the senate, Imperial governors knew they reported to the emperor, and they also knew that the emperor had means of finding out what was happening.
- Pliny’s letters are most famous for being the first historical record of Christians. He asks Trajan if his approach of giving them opportunities to recant and offer sacrifices, but killed them if they remained obstinate; Trajan says yes but not to seek them out, only investigate accusations.
- (In both Greece and Rome, slaves’ testimony was only valid under torture)
- Governors did not get any training, so the newly arrived governor, who knew no one and might not speak the local language was on his own except for legatus (a deputy) and the procurator. He had to do a good job for five years, mostly on his own, so the new governor was probably pretty nervous when he arrived.
- The boundaries of the empire were originally fairly fuzzy, where Roman influence slowly became less. Over time, this became more solid boundaries.
- Augustus’ empire was founded on military conquest. But the armies lost a disastrous battle at Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD which prompted Augustus to write instructions to his successors not to continue trying to extend the empire. So there was a contradiction here.
- Unlike Republican Rome, the emperors only competed with their forebears, rather than other living senators, which made the competition less fierce.
- There were some natural limits. Strabo calculated that Claudius’ invasion of Britain was guaranteed to cost more than the tax revenues. (But Claudius was not very warlike, and needed the victory, even though Roman occupation of Britain advanced slowly.)
- Hadrian’s Wall was too low to prevent attackers from scaling it, plus it was made of earth and had no way to walk on top. This made it likely that it was not for military purposes. But less extension works would serve for collecting tax duties on commerce or preventing migration of people. So perhaps its purpose was to mark the edge of the empire.
- Images of victory were everywhere; diplomatic agreements and successful defences were hailed as victories, for instance. Nero persuaded the King of Armenia to receive his crown from the emperor, giving the emperor more of the appearance of control than a peace treaty would suggest.
- Imperial administration appears to have been mostly reactive, with little long-term planning. (Pliny asks all sorts of what seem to be trivial questions, “following the logic of Roman imperial administration, that you got no decision from the emperor unless you asked him for one.” (487))
- Quality of governance varied. The emperor appointed governors rather than the Senate’s previously very political process, which might have improved quality, but not necessarily. There were still trials for extortion. Probably low-level exploitation was considered fine, but it could not be too large. Emperor Tiberius said “I want me sheep shorn, not shaven”.
- Tax collections slowly moved from big companies to locals, which was cheaper and probably less extortionate.
- The Romans did not try to impose their culture or even change culture. They did outlaw Druids and Christians, but that was about it.
- The Romans also did not have the manpower to affect large cultural change; the entire empire of 50 million people only had about 200 top-level administrators, plus several thousand of the emperor’s slaves.
- The army seems to have become more administrative. Excavations of Vindolanda (near Hadrian’s Wall, and contemporaneous with Pliny) suggest that wives and possibly children lived on the base—not the military garrison one usually expects. Strength reports indicate that 50% of the soldiers were not available (at a nearby camp, in London, etc.), and Trajan mentions the army doing to many things away from their posts to Pliny.
- Locals were part of the governing system. Greece had a tradition of cities governing themselves, and elsewhere the Roman’s built cities and replicated their structure. Elites before occupation became integrated into the Roman hierarchy and thereby got a stake in Roman success. Eventually they tended to Romanize themselves.
- Romanization tended to be done by the locals themselves because it offered benefits to them.
- Being the military and cultural power, Roman things took on status. People tended to adopt the Roman versions of things: the Celtic upper classes started drinking wine, for instance.
- A pottery factory in southern Gaul made red dinnerware. We have the names of the locals who worked there, some of which were Latin and some were Celtic. But when stamped onto the pottery, many of the Celtic men used Latin names.
- Romanization went farther in the west than the east, because Greeks already had a civilization, which both Greeks and Romans felt was more civilized. Yet, Greeks started enjoying baths and bloody coliseum events. Some Greek writers praised Rome, others tried to turn the clock back, like Pausanias, who wrote a travel guide to Greece and omitted any mention of buildings built by Rome or its money. Plutarch organized his lives as pairs of one Greek and one Roman great man to compare and contrast what made them successful, and try to answer what it meant to be Greek or to be Roman.
- Romanization was a continuum: one person might have adopted mostly Roman was (like the wealthy elites), while others took some things from Roman culture but kept many things of their own.
- The Roman Empire had lots of movement of goods and people.
- Goods were shipped all over the empire. The oil and wheat that fed Rome itself were mostly from foreign parts. An ordinary house in Pompeii had a delicate ivory figurine from India. The Vindolanda garrison bought lots of pepper. The emperor imported large columns at great expense that only were found at a quarry in the desert in Egypt. One list of the goods in a merchant ship from India to Egypt (and presumably on to Rome) were worth 6 million sesterces after tax, which would buy a nice senatorial estate in Italy. Flavius Zeuxis, from southern Turkey, claims to have made 72 voyages to sell his fabric. Rome’s Monte Testaccio is an entire hill of used olive oil amphorae.
- Slaves would be transported from where they were conquered throughout the empire. Presumably many people came to Rome to seek their fortune. A man named Barates from Syria ended up going to Hadrian’s Wall and marrying a local slave girl from near London.
- There were periodic rebellions, usually when Rome did something that turned the local elites (whom Rome relied on to govern) against Rome. The rebellion of the Jews and of Boudicca in Britain were the most notable. Both involved Rome insulting the local aristocracy. Both were crushed.
- The Romans were not really sure how they should handle Christianity. One of Pliny’s letters suggests that Christianity was illegal, but there were only sporadic persecutions until about 200 AD. Vibia Perpetua’s memoir describes the procurator pleading with her to recant and offer a sacrifice, for the sake of her elderly father and little baby. Christians being thrown to the beasts was awkward, since it was strictly “animals and criminals and the slave underclass” who were killed in blood sports. Perpetua and her fellow marytr Felicitas were young mothers (Felicitas’ breasts were recorded as dripping milk), which were not the sort killed in blood sports, and people wondered why the Romans were killing them.
- Unlike other religions, Christianity didn’t have a home region, really, as God claimed to be god of everything, not just one area.
- One became a Christian by a spiritual conversion, which was completely new.
- Some Christian values, like poverty is good and the body is to be mortified not indulged went against Greco-Roman values of how the world worked.
- It was the mobility of the empire that allowed Christianity to spread and become so successful.
- Roman was fairly race-blind; people traveled from all over the empire. We don’t even know the race of the Septimius Severus, emperor from Africa. Eventually half the senators were from outside of Rome. However, elites in Rome were very elitist, and looked down on people from provinces, who couldn’t even find their way to the senate house. Supposedly Septimius Severus’ sister had a really bad Latin accent, which embarrassed him so much that he sent her back.
- The tomb of Zoilos is illustrative of a person of this era. He was probably born free sometime around 50 BC, taken into slavery. He was owned by Julius Caesar, set free by him, and also served Augustus, who apparently was very fond of him. He used the normal methods to turns his share of Augustus’ spoils into wealth, and was given a large tomb at public expense. On one side he is represented as a Roman, orating in a toga with a scroll. On the other he his represented in Greek clothes with a Greek hat. He was actually both Greek and Roman.
- This book ends with 212 AD, which is when Caracalla made every free person in the empire a Roman citizen, because this completed the project of citizenship started with Romulus, who gave citizenship to anyone who came in order to found his city. Turning foreigners into Romans had finally been completed. It ended decades of argument over what it meant to be a citizen of Rome.
- It also lead to social distinctions based on wealth rather than on citizenship, so it did not result in equality for everyone.
- The previous 180 years up to this time had seen 14 emperors (plus 3 immediately after Nero). The next 100 years saw 70. The army now chose the emperor. And the emperor lived mostly in Constantinople now, governing remotely, so the civilitas between the Senate and Emperor could no longer happen and the emperor became openly autocratic while the Senate became irrelevant.
- The author opines that it is not useful to “learn from the Romans” in the sense of trying to apply their thought to the present, because the present is nothing like ancient Rome. (Plus the Romans had so many different views that there is not a “Roman view” to apply, anyway.) “But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn—as much about ourselves as about the past—by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments. Western culture has a very varied inheritance. Happily, we are not the heirs of the classical past alone. Nevertheless, since the Renaissance at least, many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.” (535)