It’s enjoyable to be writing today on one of my favorite days of the year. It’s not the date, precisely, which is accidentally New Year’s Eve, but rather the event that happens every year on this same day: the big annual firing of football coaches.
If you haven’t been paying attention, each year — on the day after the last regular season football games have been played — the ignominious sackings, the shock-firings, player tweet-storms, retirements, finger-pointing, succession-planning, and analysis-in-minutia go suddenly hog wild, chewing up valuable internet bandwidth and precious ink in the nation’s media. On this day, once-revered giants and saviors of the gridiron are ingloriously dumped on the curb or booted from their command posts, and must begin anew the scramble for Legions to Command, or learn quickly how to sit in front of the camera and provide snappy analysis to the hungering plebeian masses.
I can’t be certain what it is about this ritual that amuses me so much, except that it coincides with my annual fall leap into readings on Roman civilization, and there is an undeniable “bread and circuses” aspect to the NFL that pairs nicely with the ways of the ancients.
I fall into the Romans every year at this time because something about the cold and the snow and the short days – to say nothing of our own contemporary palace intrigues — puts me in a mind to study the workings of empire. I nurse an obsession with the ancients, particularly the Romans, and particularly the Romans who ventured out from Rome, did their work on the edge of their world, and left us a record of it.
This has been a rewarding pursuit. Tacitus (who suggested that true Roman virtue was to be found in the barbarians of Scotland and not in Rome itself), Caesar, Cicero, Pliny, Polybius (a Greek who asked early on ‘Who controls Rome’), Livy (who’s writings on the War with Hannibal are irresistible) were frontier partisans all, and wrote marvelously about the world they were living in and how they saw it — if always mindful of audience, and with an eye on reputation. Which is important to remember while we read them and learn of their dealings, because that too is insight, and their voices remain a fascinating window into ancient times.
Caesar’s writings hold a special interest if only because they offer some of the only descriptions we have of actual warfare between Romans and Germans from an immediate, man-on-the-ground perspective, visions of the world offered up from a man who would one day be anointed as a living god over the largest empire in the world, and who would finally be murdered in a botched and bungled prison-style shanking beside the Theater of Pompey.
It really doesn’t get much better than that for interesting first-hand accounts of history.
Caesar’s descriptions of battle, from throwing a pilum into the wooden shields of barbarians – where they would stick and bend on their thin shanks, thus encumbering the shieldman – to the disciplined advance into a thrusting and stabbing close-quarters hell fight, never fail to raise a few shorthairs in the small winter hours when Rullman can’t sleep.
2018 has been a particularly good one for those of us who are interested in old Rome, as new discoveries of letters, and even boxing gloves from a camp near Hadrian’s Wall – a strange wall for a host of reasons – and in fresh diggings at Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Oplontis, all destroyed by Vesuvius back in 79 – have given us valuable new information about Roman life, culture, and reach, and indeed have overturned some apple carts.
For instance, the discovery of congenital syphilis in two bodies, found among 54 bodies in a cellar, lumped in their death throes in two distinct groups (rich and poor) after hiding from the eruption in a cellar at Oplontis. This discovery alone may smash assumptions that syphilis was introduced to Europe by men who returned with Columbus – by 1400 years. What that ultimately portends for our understanding of history isn’t known, yet, but it certainly changes the story we’ve been hearing our entire lives, which is that syphilis was an exchange of gifts from the new world to the old. Except that apparently it wasn’t, exactly.
It’s also a reminder to be suspicious of anyone who claims science is “settled” on any particular subject.
This winter I stumbled into one of the better books on Rome and Roman life that I’ve read in a while: Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.
Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge, a genius in the mode of one of my other favorites, Lady Antonia Fraser, and an expert on all things Rome. What resonates for me in her work is a certain skepticism, and often disdain, over academic assumptions and tropes about Roman life that are far too often left unchallenged. She blasts confidently away at those assumptions and returns us to the state of actual, unadulterated knowledge. She knows – she speaks Greek and Latin and has read as much of the surviving record as any human being on earth, and in its original language — how to cut through the bullshit and present the reader with the score of what is known, what can’t possibly be known, and therefore what we can realistically understand, and with reasonable accuracy, about how Roman civilization worked, and what it may have been like to live in it.
And, in a kind of bliss only afforded us by the mysteries of negative capability, it’s the dark maw of the unknown, and perhaps unknowable, that helps make the study of Rome so endlessly fascinating, that enlivens an endlessly churning storm of new discovery and analysis that may change our way of seeing and understanding the ancients, and therefore ourselves, as we observe the creaky machinations of our own empire.
Beard is adept at dropping gems throughout her 536 page masterpiece, small bits of evidence of a life that rings true to our own in perhaps far too many, and far too many uncomfortable, ways. With considerable skill she breaks down not only what is possible to know about ancient Rome, but leaves tantalizing hints as to why they might remain important today. Little nuggets, such as the observation that for many Romans “Cultural anxieties were often the privilege of the rich,” or this one from Cicero’s well known celebration of his own consulship: “O fortunatam natam me console Romam,” or “Rome sure was a lucky state, born in my great consulate”, which are actual words we might hear issued from the presidential rostrum in the White House briefing room any day this week.
Even the word rostrum, itself a Roman invention, from the word “beak,” but meant to represent the battering rams of defeated warships, which in Roman times were piled up as war bounty and bonafides at the foot of wartime heroes making speeches to the Senate.
All of which detail is enormously important for me as I try to recreate, in my own mind, a clear picture of what life may have been like for people in Rome, those distant people who preserved a fabricated “Hut of Romulus” even before the Republic came to life, or in the Republic when the Hut of Romulus became a ridiculous and fraudulent birthplace spectacle, and in the dark days when the origin story was tossed and Republican leanings were thrown off to a succession of emperor-gods and endless palace intrigue. And all of that seems important to help find my own place in our own empire, in our own time, knowing full well that as a species we have not outpaced or evolved beyond our past behaviors.
And of course there is just the gift of language, and words from the era that we still use. I’ve shown you rostrum, but there are dozens of others — the word palace, for instance, derived from the Palatine Hill where the emperors lived. Palatine. Palace. Palatial. And so on down through the ages.
Beard’s book is really a powerful attempt to refocus our contemporary view of Rome, to blow up some of the “wisdom” we think we know — from how Romans collected taxes, to the behaviors of Gaius (Caligula). They aren’t always what we think they are, at least so far as they can be proven, and Beard is at pains to remind us who was telling us tales of men such as Gaius, and how those tales were almost certainly tainted by the victors of internecine struggle for enduring political purpose.
It is a weakness of Cullen Murphy’s otherwise fantastic book, Are We Rome, that he doesn’t pay enough attention to interpretations of the information, as Beard does. It likely would have wrecked his book, at any rate, as the rendering of Nero or Caligula into symbols was necessary for the purpose.
Beard’s reminder to be cautious about what we think we know is valuable as we observe our own palaces and palace intrigues, and listen to the tales told about what happens behind those walls. Because who is telling the tale and who they are serving is just as important as the tale itself – particularly as contemporary journalism backslides into unabashed pandering.
But also, having once served in the American Legionary Forces, far out on the edge of our empire, I’m often drawn to renderings of life on the edge of the Roman empire. Beard indulges my interests. Roman life out there on the edge is…
“…vividly illustrated by the letters and documents, recovered over the pasty forty years, from excavations at the small army base of Vindolanda, just south of Hadrian’s Wall, which housed one unit of the wall’s Roman garrison. Originally scratched on wax, and preserved by the still faint traces on the surviving wood underneath, they date to the early second century CE. This is the other side of the Roman world, but they are roughly contemporary with the correspondence of Pliny and Trajan.
“The documents give a very different impression of Roman barracks life from the usual image of an exclusively male, highly militarized regime. To be sure, they include hints at armed skirmishes and some dismissive comments about the natives. Where Trajan referred to ‘Greeklings (Graeculi) loving their gymansia’, some soldier from the wall referred to ‘Little Brits’ (Brittunculi, a similarly patronizing dimunitive) throwing their javelins without getting on horseback.’ But it is the everyday domestic and the housekeeping side of of Vindolanda that is especially interesting. One letter is an invitation to a birthday party from the camp commandant’s wife to a female friend, and – despite legal prohibitions on marriages for serving soldiers in the ranks – the discovery in the excavations of a significant number of women’s and children’s leather shoes confirms the presence of women on the base…”
There are other details of course, close enough that any modern NCO anywhere can feel their echoes when compiling what we now call a “Morning Report,” which happens every morning on American bases, and also in the field, everywhere:
“Equally telling is a ‘strength report’, a register of the soldiers on the base and those off on other duties. More than half of the 752 were absent or unavailable for work. Of those, 337 were at a neighboring camp, 31 were sick (eye inflammation being a bigger problem than wounds) and almost 100 were busy with other responsibilities: 46 were 300 miles away in London as the governor’s bodyguard; one or more had been assigned to an unspecified office; and several centurions (NCOs) were on business in other parts of the country. This fits perfectly with one of Trajan’s worries in his letters to Pliny: too many soldiers were off doing other things and were absent from their units.”
A complaint which, in modern terms, accounts for the explosion of contractors who work beside American Legionnaires wherever they may be fighting anywhere in the world. In expeditionary warfare, at least, the demands on troops have changed very little, and warriors are now, as then, stretched very thin.
Beard also blows up assumptions about relative mobility in the ancient world, which seems to have been far more mobile than we often suspect or attribute to a time when nothing moved faster than the pace of a horse or fast sailing ship. Beard writes:
“Some of those journeys can be traced in the stories of the people who ended up near Hadrian’s Wall. The picture often conjured up of a miserable bunch of soldiers from sunny Italy being forced to endure the fog, frost and rain of northern Britain is very misleading. The garrison was largely made up of forces recruited in equally foggy places across the English Channel, in what are now Holland, Belgium and Germany. But at all levels of the Wall community, individuals came from much further afield, even from the opposite ends of the empire. These range from Victor, an ex-slave of a cavalry soldier, whose tombstone identifies him as a Moor, to one of the grandest Romans in the province, Quintus Lollius Urbicus, the governor of Britain between 139 and 142 CE. Thanks to some lucky survivals we can still identify both the building work he sponsored in northern Britain and the family tomb he commissioned at the other end of the Roman world, in his town (of Tiddis, as it is now called) in northern Algeria.
‘Most evocative of all is the story of a man from Palmyra in Syria, Barates, who was working near Hadrian’s Wall in the second century CE. It is not known what brought him the 4,000 miles across the world…it may have been trade, or he may have had some connection with the army. But he settled in Britain long enough to marry Regina (Queenie), a British woman and ex-slave. When she died at the age of thirty, Barates commemorated her with a tombstone, near the Roman fort of Arbeia, modern South Shields. This depicts Queenie – who, as the epitaph makes clear, was born and bred just north of London – as if she were a stately Palmyrene matron; and underneath the Latin text, Barates had her name inscribed in the Aramaic language of his homeland…”
How I travelled from the NFL to Barates is a mystery, particularly to me, but I will leave with you some images and graffiti found in the many, many bars and fast-food joints uncovered in ancient Pompeii. Perhaps they will help explain. It is important to know that in Roman times eating-out was something done by the poor, eating at home a luxury of the elite. And so, in Pompeii, presumably as it was all over the empire, the streets are lined with eating joints and bars, easily identifiable, and in some places loaves of Roman bread and other abandoned meals were perfectly preserved. The tale told by these discoveries reveals our links, always stronger than we think, to these ancient people. Images depict wine being delivered in vats – much like a beer truck pulling up behind the bar — and men playing a dice game who get into an argument, call each other cocksuckers, and are chased out by the owner.
One priceless piece of graffiti announces that “I fucked the landlady,” and elsewhere one finds an inscription, in an ancient latrine, of a slave and doctor to the emperor who announces proudly that he took an excellent shit in that place. There are warnings against gambling and bravos to good sportsmanship, and boasts and patriotic boosterism: “The Parthians have been slaughtered, the Briton conquered, play on, Romans,” or “The circus is packed, the people shout, the citizens are having fun,” and finally and perhaps my favorite: “Hunting, bathing, gaming, laughing: that’s living.”
And those are the excellent windows I like to peer through here in winter, on the eve of a New Year for our tumultuous Republic.