The City In Late Antiquity

I picked up this collection from my local library.  It’s a series of short essays, edited by John Rich, from archaeologists and historians on cities in late antiquity (as the name would suggest).  As one would expect, this essentially tracks changes in cities as the Roman empire declined.  This is a mixed bag of behaviours depending on region and time period – the essays are thus divided by regions.

Generalizing is difficult, but we read about the continued prosperity of cities in Africa; the decline of the Curiales (a sort of oligarchic council) than ran the settlements, replaced by the church in Gaul and the later Byzantine governors in the Danube; the discontinuity or continuity of towns in Britain*; the use of classical art styles by the Lombards in Northern Italy.

There’s a lot of detail in here, but it still feels like its only scratching the surface.  It’s not the most up to date volume (from 1992) or the most readable (more down to the number of authors across the chapters rather than a lack of quality) but it does show the variety of interesting threads that come out of this period of history.

*Something that came up in books by Francis Pryor and Neil Faulkner.

 

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Greek and Roman Mythology on Coursera

As a spin off from my previous post, I had been doing an online learning course on Coursera, run by an Associate Professor at UPenn.  The actual tasks are fairly trivial – a series of 10 questions at the end of each section on the texts and the lectures – but the lectures were interesting and prompted me to think about of some of the classical texts I have been reading.

I’m sure none of it is new for anyone who has actually studied history, but it was nice to learn the basics about Euhemerism, functionalism, structuralism and common themes.  I would happily recommend the course to anyone else who is looking for a prompt while they read Homer, Hesiod, Virgil and others.

https://www.coursera.org/learn/mythology/

Roman Myths by Michael Grant

I have read a few of Michael Grant’s many books in the past.  They are generally okay, he is very readable and he clearly has a wide ranging knowledge of the classical world but they’re not always the most insightful or inspirational of books.  This book on roman myths from 1971 is probably the most engaging of his work that I have read so far.

Continue reading Roman Myths by Michael Grant

Crimes of Elagabalus by Martijn Icks

According to the author Neil Gaiman: “Heliogabolus was just a weird kid with a thing about animals and big dicks.”   As summaries go, this may not be far off – he’s that strange a character.  Elagabalus (officially Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus) was emperor for for years, starting at the age of fourteen.  In that time, he mostly concerned himself with religious matters – he had been brought up to be the priest of a Syrian sun god called Elagabal.  As emperor he continued in this role and promoted the sun god as the highest of the gods.  He was also, mostly famously, accused of shocking acts of decadence and sexual behaviour.  In the end, he was assassinated by guards and replaced by his cousin at the age of eighteen.

In this book, Icks starts by reviewing the historical sources and Elagabalus’ probable life.  Although the sources are heavily biased and reports of scandalous behaviour has to be taken with a pinch of salt, the emperor was unpopular enough to be killed after a short reign despite the lack of any military, natural or economic disasters.  The religious element too is exaggerated, despite stories to the contrary it does not seem that Elagabalus was planning on turning monotheist – but the religious reforms seem like the most likely source of discontent.

In the context of the 3rd century, Elagabalus could seem like a step in the transition from the Principate to Constantine – the shift of focus on to the Syrian sun god (Sol Invictus) was later carried out more successfully by Aurelian and certainly helped the later transition to Christianity under Constantine.  In fact, the religious changes seem more of a false start than a stepping stone, and only add to the feeling of a character ‘out of time’.

Much of the second half of this book is taken up with reviews of literature and historigraphy in the centuries after, right up to the modern day.  There is a transition from medieval and early modern works that treat the emperor as a generic decadent tyrant, to twentieth century works that play with his gender and sexuality.  Both of these have something to them, depending on which sources you wish to use – the stories give a lot of scope: five marriages including a vestal virgin; marrying a chariot driver who he referred to as his husband; killing guests by smothering them with rose petals; selling himself as a prostitute; harnessing naked women to his chariot; attempting to have his genitalia surgically changed.  Among all the myths and interpretations the one that actually sits best for me is Elagabalus as the young, insecure emperor – bullied by his mother and grandmother, not quite mature enough for his role.

In the end, despite the lurid tales he’s a somewhat peripheral figure in Roman history and even in the art and literature it has inspired.  Despite the number of works covered in this book, they are all relatively obscure – he may or may not have been a unique personality among the emperors of Rome, but he is far from the infamy of Nero or Caligula – and even Commodus has Gladiator.  Perhaps his story is just a bit too odd to make great fiction?

Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp

17248762This book, from 2011, tries to give a sense of what life was like for non-elite Romans: the poor, slaves, freedmen (outside the high profile imperial ones), soldiers, prostitutes, gladiators, bandits, and just ordinary men and women.  The sources here aren’t as dramatic as those for the trials and tribulations of the imperial family or high ranking senators.  There is a lot of reading between the lines in literature (Apuleius’ The Golden Ass and Petronius’ Satyricon for instance), more esoteric works (Artemidorus’s dream interpretations) or funerary inscriptions.

This meant that it ended up covering similar ground with other books I have read recently – Jerry Toner’s How To Manage Your Slaves (which I was sure I had posted on – that may have to be written), Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome, Jerry Toner’s Popular Culture in Ancient Rome, and Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians.  With this, the sections on “ordinary men” and slaves in particular rehashed a things I had already read.  The other books mentioned above have greater depth to them, and weaved the ideas and quotations into greater themes.  In comparison this book had a wider range, but skipped through each topic rather quickly.

Some of the chapters on society’s fringe groups were more interesting for me – much of the material on soldier, prostitutes and gladiators was new to me.  Again, it was rather dry compared to some other authors – the material is set out there and the reader is often left to come to their own impressions and conclusions.  This does have its advantages, being allowed to actually read through selected portions of the sources is rather nice.  There are interesting discussions on how to judge material based on its intended audience, especially on topics like sexuality or societal roles.

As with many of the other books mentioned, there are generalisations here – material is taken from across the span of the empire – in both time and space.  Often from 1st and 2nd century Rome or Greece, but also from Egypt or Palestine (the bible does pop up as an occasional source).  This is understandable.

Overall, it’s a very well put together work.  It’s probably more informative than enjoyable, but it is definitely an accessible and extensive introduction to an area that is only starting to come under the spotlight.

Juvenal

I am slowly trying to make my way through some of the old Greek and Roman sources.  Juvenal isn’t exactly a historian, but I decided to try my luck with him.  Some of the lines are famous:

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” – Who guards the guards themselves?

“panem et circenses” – Bread and circuses.

“Mens sana in corpore sano” – a healthy mind in a healthy body

It all seems so high brow!  I wasn’t really expecting the constant stream of sexual insults that fills up the rest of it.  He does tackle big issues: poverty, morality, immigration (he’s not a fan of Greeks), wealth and class; but he doesn’t pull many punches.  Some of the homophobic bits in there are particularly shocking (and intended to be so).  It’s actually quite an enjoyable read (I have Peter Green’s translation for Penguin Classics) but probably not for the fainthearted.

Sertorius and the Struggle for Spain

During the last days of Republican Rome, the battles in Spain between the rebel general Sertorius and the Roman legions of Pompey, Metellus and others are often relegated to a bit of a sideshow.  This book by Philip Matyszak puts them centre stage.

I rather like these books by Pen & Sword, they can occasionally be a bit uneven but they often cover topics that others don’t.  This is definitely on the better end of the scale.  The writing is accessible,   The maps are useful – with ones showing relief, rivers, settlements and ethnic groups – all relevant for the campaigns that follow.

The book begins with Sertorius as the focus, covering his earlier days as a Marian general and giving a sense of his character – loyal, honest and level headed.  After the return of Sulla, we see Sertorius forced out to Spain where he allies with local tribes and drives off the forces sent to remove him.

Without really delving into the politics of Rome, Matyszak shows how Sertorius could initially hold hopes of a shift in domestic politics allowing him home.  This was an interest thread, he was a Roman and presented himself as a legitimate Roman governor, but he fought alongside Spanish tribes and was linked with potential alliances to Mithradates and other enemies of Rome.  It was a thin line to walk, made possible only by continued military success.

On the military side of things, the high point was a series of brilliant victories against the young general Pompey (later to be “the Great”).  Rome however was able to resupply and replenish its armies, and Sertorius’ subordinates did not always perform as well as their leader.  Decline inevitably set in.  Matyszak sets this against the rise of Pompey, with his style marked by the memory of those defeats and his sons to later fight against Caesar in the Iberian peninsula.

This is a very readable account of Sertorius’ wars.  This topic is often skimmed over in popular histories of the late Republic, but there are plenty of wonderful details and the easy, relaxed tone of the book reminds me of Tom Holland’s Rubicon.  It probably doesn’t work as a stand alone book – too much about the politics and characters of Rome is left unsaid – but it is well worth reading if you have already enjoyed a more general history of this period.

Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision by Pierre Hadot

Plotinus has popped up a few times recently in my current reading (and listening).  He was a bit part of The Climax of Rome by Michael Grant that I posted on, underpinning much of the introspective shift in culture in third century Rome.  He was portrayed as instrumental in the intellectual development of Augustine in Robin Lane Fox’s superb biography Conversions to Confessions.  And I have been thoroughly enjoying Peter Adamson’s podcast The History of Philosophy (Without Any Gaps), in which his work also plays a major role.

However, through all that, I found Plotinus hard to pin down.  There is a big element of mysticism in his philosophy and it is difficult to tell how to take it, and how his contemporary and successors would have received it.  Pierre Hadot‘s short book is a great introduction to the man (what little we know of him) and his work.  In particular, Hadot manages to portray Plotinus as a teacher who was offering a spiritual way of life.

Basing his work on that of Plato and Aristotle, the pagan Plotinus developed ideas that would soon find their way into early Christianity.  His spiritual exercises and warnings against too much focus on earthly matters seems distant, but Hadot also shows a man who was grounded enough to join Gordian‘s invasion of Persia (in an attempt to learn more Eastern philosophy), teach lively classes with a wide range of influential students (there was even talk of the emperor Gallienus letting him start a Platonic city!), and show great kindness and awareness of those around him.

Hadot’s enthusiasm and admiration for Plotinus’ (and his student Porphyry’s) writing shines through, and although the book is a mere hundred pages I finished it with a lot more appreciation for the culture that surrounded these neo-Platonic thinkers.

The Empire Stops Here by Philip Parker

Subtitled A Journey Along The Frontiers of the Roman World.  Author Philip Parker describes the borders of the Roman Empire region by region, giving detailed descriptions of Roman settlements and the history associated with the region.  The initial chapters focusing on the Britannia and Germania are a bit of a blur of forts and long drawn out wars with raiders.  Further east and round the Mediterranean, however, things improved as Parker describes the clash of cultures and changing Roman military fortunes 51ymhrzutkl-_sy344_bo1204203200_with great colour.

Unfortunately I’d hoped for more of a travelogue in the style of William Dalrymple or Tim Mackintosh-Smith.  Parker has clearly viewed most of the remains himself, it shows in the vividness of his descriptions, but the few tales of modern travel that he tells add wonderful texture to the historical detail – being prevented entering a Bavarian forest by 21st century “barbarians” with hunting rifles, for examples.  It feels like a little bit of a missed opportunity.

There are various themes running through the book, archaeological evidence of religious changes reoccurs  – particularly the personal mystery cults, like Mithras or Isis, popular in the third century.  On the whole however, it can feel a little bit mixed up.  You could definitely learn a lot about the later Roman empire here, but it’s far from conventional in order.

Overall there is a grand sense of scale.  The photographs included in the book are beautiful and the detailed geographical descriptions bring the sheer size and variety of the empire into focus.  The sites that I am familiar with are there – the remnants of Roman Cologne, the Saxon Shore defenses on the south coast of England – and they are almost as impressive on page as they were in reality.  The sites that I have not visited (most it, to be honest!) are just moved further up my internal list of holiday ideas.

The Climax of Rome by Michael Grant

I’ve read a few of Michael Grant‘s books now, and this one begins in typical fashion.  Grant gives a brief overview of the history of the period (in this case, the Roman Empire from Marcus Aurelius to Constantine) before discussing the changes in architecture and art during that era.  His thesis is that the third century, often seen as nothing more than a period of military emperors, chaos and decline, is in fact a fascinating series of gradual changes – and not necessarily for the worse.

The first part of the Climax of Rome is a bit of a mixed bag.  The changes in artistic style are interesting, but the chapters come across as slightly disjointed with sudden jumps between eras (the book does cover a long period of time).  The military and political history (often the focus in this period) is rather skimmed over.  This all comes to make sense later.

The book really shines is the second half, when Grant gets onto the topic of philosophy, literature and religion.  He traces developments in style and genre, and manages to link them to the political situation.  In the face of ever more authoritarian government, the culture drifted towards more personal, self-reflective styles – Marcus Aurelius’ stoicism, Galen, the neo-platonic thought of Plotinus, early Christian thinkers, and the rise of the novel as an artform.

This was, in a sense, a form of climax for classical culture, in not necessarily a high point.  Alongside this, the success of legal writers in the 3rd century and developments in architecture would lay the groundwork for medieval Europe.  Was this the true peak of the Roman empire?  Grant admits this would have been a “gloomy place for the majority” and far from an egalitarian or democratic society, and the succession of military crises would make it hard to see the 3rd century (or even the revival under Diocletian and Constantine) as a military high point.  Yet, this period is hugely influential in the move out of the Classical world and into Medieval Christendom and I will definitely be looking for further reading on the subject.