Rob Hardy on books


Article Comment 

Fun with Ancient Roman History



Rob Hardy


They left the world stage almost two thousand years ago, but the ancient Romans left their marks all over the world and continue to do so. Our calendar, for instance, is theirs, and then there are the legal systems, vocabulary, architecture, and what is more, all those gladiator movies. If you didn't get enough Roman history when you were in school, or even if you did and you want to be entertained by the vast subject, get Veni, Vidi, Vici: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Romans but Were Afraid to Ask (Atlantic Books) by Peter Jones. He is an emeritus professor of the Classics at Cambridge University, but this fact-packed volume is informal and fun, the sort of history that even people who don't like reading history can find enlightening. Jones's chapters are basically chronological, from the myths of the foundation of Rome to those Huns who brought it down. Within each chapter are nuggets of a page or less on an important, trivial, but always interesting historical fact, told with enthusiasm and punning good humor. 




Right from the start Jones is captivating: "Romans came up with two stories about how they were founded. One (bewilderingly, we might think) was pure Greek." That was the one connected to the Trojan War, with Aeneas sailing off afterwards and reaching Italian shores, with the blessing of Jupiter. The other legend is of the twins Romulus and Remus, sired by Mars, who raped their human mother. Their wicked grandfather tried to drown the twins, but their basket floated down the river and they were found by a herdsman who raised them (one wonders if the Moses legend borrowed from this). You'd think the twins would have been good partners, but once they started building Rome, Remus made fun of the puny walls Romulus was putting up, and Romulus murdered him, and went on to build Rome which took his name. You can see how the Romans liked a bloody, vengeful, and belligerent story, including their descent from the God of War. We have our own myths (remember George Washington and the cherry tree) and Jones reminds us that any account of Rome before 300 BC needs to be taken "cum grano salis (with a grain of salt)," a phrase with origins in Pliny. The source of these foundation legends is mostly the Roman historian Livy, and "even the intensely patriotic Livy doubts the strict accuracy of his account of this early period." He thought as long as Romans accepted the poetic foundation of their country by Mars, others should accept it, too, and also accept Rome's domination. Case closed. 




Many of the stories here show an immediacy that demonstrates why studying the classics is still avidly performed by so many. Take for example the story of Pyrrhus, Greek king of Epirus. He is famous as the source of the phrase "a Pyrrhic victory." He won a battle against the Romans in 279 BC, but lost so many men and resources, he said, "If we win one more battle against the Romans, we shall be completely done for." Pyrrhus was interviewed by his wise advisor Cineas who wanted to know what he would do after conquering the Romans, which brought the answer that he would then conquer Sicily. And then? Why, Libya and Carthage. And then? Macedon and Greece. And then? Having conquered the world in his imagination, Pyrrhus finally answered, "Take it easy, drink every day, and talk to our heart's delight." Cineas then objected, "If that is the ultimate aim of all this effort, then what is stopping us enjoying it now? We can do it at once, without any bloodshed, toil, and danger of the sort you propose, which will entail harm for others and much suffering for ourselves." Pyrrhus understood the point, but admitted that he could not abandon his ambitions. This is a sad little exchange, with much still to tell us. 




The Roman system of religion was exceedingly strange. There was the usual pantheon of gods and goddesses ruled over by Jupiter, of course, but then there was a bafflingly huge number of gods to take care of all sorts of minutiae. Just in the agricultural realm, there was a specific named god of ploughing, of weeding, of protection from mildew and rust, and a god of spreading excrement on the fields. Cloacina was the goddess of the sewers. Terminus was the god of boundary stones. Upon death, emperors could turn into gods. How deeply these sub-gods were believed in, or the gods above them, is a matter of conjecture. "For ancient pagans it was not a matter of what you believed or felt, but what you did, i.e., how well you carried out the state and local rituals that would placate the gods." "Julius Caesar, a virtual atheist but knowing the political importance of the role [pontifex maximus], was elected (at vast personal expense) to this post in 63 BC, spent ten years conquering Gaul, defeated Pompey in a civil war, made himself dictator and was assassinated. He gave no moral or spiritual guidance, laid on no coffee mornings. He just performed the rituals for all to see." It made him popular; he was promptly deified after his assassination.  




Rome was built upon slavery. About 25% of the population at the end of the Republic were slaves, and there was never a shortage of them. Romans were liberal about freeing slaves, and once free they were full citizens, but could not hold public office, although their sons could. Unlike slavery in America, there was no racial component; slaves looked just like their masters. There was also never any abolition movement. No one questioned that some people ought to be slaves; it was accepted as a natural state. When there were slave rebellions, the slaves were in revolt over specific bad treatment; they never presumed to act against the institution of slavery. When Christianity came along, it didn't try to change this status quo. Jesus has no record of condemning slavery, and St. Paul advised slaves to obey their masters "with fear and trembling." 




There are some things that we take for granted about Rome that are not well supported by history. The Emperor Claudius designed a big commemorative display battle between 19,000 convicts, for the entertainment of thousands of Romans. The convicts lined up beforehand and shouted, "Hail, emperor! We who are about to die salute you!" Claudius came back with the enigmatic retort, "Or not." The grateful convicts thought that he had alluded to an alternative, and thus they refused to fight. Eventually, however, they were prodded to play their roles and some experienced post-salute deaths. Note, however, that these were not gladiators, but convicts. Not only that, but this is the exactly one instance recorded of the "We who are about to die salute you" farewell. Maybe gladiators did use it, but there isn't any other example than this one by the convicts. The other thing that everyone knows about gladiatorial combat is that a crowd, or a single judge, might be called upon at the end of combat, if the combatants had not finally destroyed one another, to be asked, "Thumbs up" or "Thumbs down" in judgement of whether they should live or die. Yes, the thumb signs happened, but the meaning is equivocal. "There is a slight balance," writes Jones, "in favor of the belief that 'thumbs up' actually meant 'kill' (i.e., drive the sword into him) and 'thumbs down' meant 'let be' (i.e, turn the sword away)." 




On the final page, Jones reflects that the of all the things the Romans handed down to us, "the enrichment of the Anglo-Saxon language is their most inescapable legacy." There are languages descended from Latin, but English comes from Anglo-Saxon, with a lot of Latinate words brought into England by the Norman French and other sources. So Jones often explains interesting word origins. He tells you how you can foretell the future just like the Romans did, standing to observe birds and seeing if the birds occupied a good side or bad side of the field of view. In other words, you could be an amateur auspex, a Latin word that comes from auis "bird" and specio "I inspect." And from this we get the word "auspicious." (Incidentally, if you think foretelling the future this way is a crock, Cicero would have agreed with you. Oracles he defined as those who gave "the foreknowledge and foretelling of events that happen by chance," and he knew that if something happened "by chance" it could not by definition be foretold.) But the origin of the word "salary" from sal "salt," because Roman soldiers were paid in salt, is a myth; it is, however, an old one. Jones says it is a folk etymology dating back to Pliny the Elder, who tried but failed to explain why the salarium pay got its name. (The related phrase "not worth one's salt" referring to someone who does not earn his pay is relatively new, from the nineteenth century.) 




Academics and those familiar with the history of Ancient Rome may object that Jones's book is choppy and in such short segments that it cannot present a coherent history. This is not the book for them. For those of us who just want to be informed and entertained, there is at least one bright fact to be found on every page of this well-informed but unstuffy history.



back to top




Follow Us:

Follow Us on Facebook

Follow Us on Twitter

Follow Us via Email