Three substantial books on the world of ancient Rome, each in a different idiom. A critic of G.K. Chesterton said that he had a style in which it was impossible to tell the truth; in what style, indeed, can truth be told? Perhaps that aim is altogether too high, and the question should be ‘What style does not condemn us to tell lies?’ To put it in a friendlier way, which sort of sentence do you enjoy reading? There is the Gallic style: ‘The genealogy of ancient education was as follows: from culture to the will to culture, from there to the school, and from the school to the scholastic exercise as an end in itself.’ And: ‘It does not follow that law actually governed daily life in Rome. Legalism merely introduced into the chaos of Roman affairs an additional complication, not to say a weapon: chicanery.’ And: ‘Smiles are rare in ancient art. Tranquillity was bought at the price of tension and renunciation – hallmarks of the ancient world as much as of the world of the samurai or of Queen Victoria.’ And: ‘The puritanism of the upper class did not rest on sexuality: it rested on sexuality as a possible source of moral contagion. For sexual indulgence could erode, through the effeminacy that could result from excessive sexual pleasure with partners of either sex, the unchallenged superiority of the well-born.’
Those epigrammatic generalisations, from the pens of Paul Veyne and Peter Brown, are fairly typical of the History of Private Life at its best: a book which makes the reader think, teasing and encouraging with spicy details, long views, a capacity for the unexpected insight. Now for something completely different: ‘The goose is a northern bird which however had reached Italy by the early fourth century BC and was being reared in Egypt under the Ptolemies. The Romans preferred the white variety, but the German goose is described by Pliny. Specialists often have difficulty in distinguishing between the bones of wild and domesticated birds.’ And: ‘The expansion of the glass industry is particularly well documented, but it is probable that the process by which it and the fine pottery industries grew, namely by the movement of workmen closer to the new markets created by the initial success of their products, was the normal one by which such industries developed in the Roman world.’ And even, on the pay of Roman soldiers: ‘At this date there were ten sextantal asses to the denarius, which would leave the infantryman with three and a third asses a day. A daily rate should be one easily reckoned and this is a most unlikely number. The alternative is to adopt the suggestion that two obols represented two libral asses, i.e. two sestertii (the denarius then being the equivalent of four sestertii or ten sextantal asses).’ So speak the contributors to The Roman World. The third example, in its opacity, is an extreme, but the tone of the whole work is factual, informative, on the whole eminently British in its abstinence from generality. ‘To generalise is to be an idiot,’ said Blake, most sublimely insular of geniuses.
A third idiom goes more like this: ‘Finley’s critique of the ancient sources is not to be mistaken for blanket condemnation, while his models are by definition simplified and capable of refinement and emendation, largely by reference to the primary evidence. But the contrasts between existing methodologies are as striking, and the fragility of much conventional historiography is as genuine, as he has indicated.’ Or: ‘A computer simulation incorporating the Roman demographic variables suggests that the average difference in age between father and child was about forty years.’ Or: ‘The personal exchange relationships described above effectively mitigated cross-order conflict and tension, the importance of which has often been exaggerated.’ Or, to allow myself a slightly malicious selection: ‘At Claudiopolis Pliny had to exact entry-fees from some newly admitted city councillors so that a massive bath-project could get off the ground.’ The Roman Empire by Garnsey and Saller, from which these samples are drawn, is explicitly hostile to ‘the patient collection of stray items of evidence from diverse sources’ and the ‘mere antiquarian listing of discrete data’, but where Veyne and Brown take off from the details towards suggestive and brilliant but personal generalisations, Garnsey and Saller aim at a more rigorous and self-conscious method, and so at general views which shall be objective and command the respect of the reader with some sociological sophistication. The difference in style is remarkable, and it accompanies and in part dictates the content.
Both the other books have a certain amount to say, in one context and another, about military policy: only in The Roman World can we look for explicit treatment of the structure of a legion, the different ways in which the different frontiers were developed, the vicissitudes and purpose of Hadrian’s wall (not a defensive barrier in the Medieval sense, nor even the actual boundary of Roman Britain, but a form of frontier control). With 872 pages, 33 contributors, nine bibliographies, 167 illustrations and 195 figures, mostly maps and charts, this handsome book covers a vast amount of material. One or two chapters have a slightly musty feel to them, both in the formulation of questions and in the literature cited, but a number of chapters are excellent. The imperial army, urbanisation (a vast subject), the Roman villa, trade, transport, labour, the rise of Christianity: these are among the important subjects on which the writers succeed in combining respect for detail with a reasonable level of explanation and interpretation.
A general view of some aspects of the Empire does emerge. The Empire as a whole was ‘an aggregate of autonomous city-states under the hegemony of the supreme city-state, which was Rome’. There were astonishingly few élite administrators in this vast realm, perhaps one to 350,000 inhabitants: something like a twentieth of the ratio in the Chinese empire of the 12th century. The two facts go together. Most of the running of the Empire was done by the authorities of the cities, which meant in practice by the local upper class; the cities dominated and exploited the countryside. The aims of government were minimal: ‘above all the regular exaction of taxes and the maintenance of internal order’.
The more aggressive styles of the other works make the experience of reading them very different, but their conclusion on these points is strikingly similar. Garnsey and Saller lay repeated emphasis on the unconventional nature of their work: ‘This is not a conventional history ... the conventional picture ... economic historians, more even than those of traditional interests ...’ But in the end the story is not much different: ‘The goals of the government were twofold: the maintenance of law and order, and the collection of taxes’ (no significance seems to attach to the different order in which the two books list these two goals). And: ‘The secret of government without bureaucracy was the Roman system of cities which were self-governing and could provide for the needs of empire.’ Even the comparison with the number of administrators in 12th-century China duly reappears (it was introduced by Keith Hopkins, himself a great one for calling other historians ‘conventional’). Veyne, for his part, has much to say about the ‘thousands of autonomous cities that formed the fabric of the Empire and were controlled by local notables, the governing élite which stood out by its opulence’. We can take it that the Roman Empire, which in the days of the Raj was naturally seen as administered from the central metropolis, will indeed present that decentralised appearance to scholars of our time. It also seems agreed that there was no straightforward end to the Empire. There was no sudden overwhelming invasion of barbarians, no abrupt withdrawal from the Western provinces. Rather, the old upper class found itself unable to go on as the self-conscious and dominant force that it had been; it gave up the struggle to maintain the style which had distinguished it, and became submerged in a new culture based not on the city but on the tribe, not on the state but on the person of the king.
The Roman World is fundamentally archaeological in its interests, and the contributors are archaeologists and historians. ‘Society’ comes in as Part Nine, and Chapter 29 is about society and the artist, but what is conspicuously absent is any serious treatment of Roman literature. The arts are tacitly assumed to be the visual arts, to such an extent that of Nero’s last words, ‘What an artist dies in me,’ we read that he ‘could fairly describe himself as “artifex” because he practised painting and sculpture’, whereas in fact it certainly referred – whether or not Nero actually said it – to his notorious public perfomances as a musician. Literature, even more than music, was an art which the Romans took seriously, and about which we know quite a lot: its absence is a shortcoming in an account of the Roman world.
Although their work has the subtitle ‘Economy, Society and Culture’ – ‘Culture’ being the title of their tenth, last and weakest chapter – Garnsey and Saller, too, have little to say about literature, and what they do say suggests that they were prudent to keep off it, important though it was in that ostentatiously literate society. ‘Augustus required nothing less from those authors patronised by Maecenas,’ we read, ‘than the organisation of opinion in support of his regime.’ That really is rather crude, and the authors seem to show an awareness of this when they go on to say that ‘the response of the Augustan poets to pressure from above is difficult to measure.’ That is to say: we possess the complex and subtle poems which these men produced, poems which do not bear out this Stalinist picture. Pressure there was, but that Augustus did not ‘require’ such straightforward propaganda is clear from the fact that he did not get it.
The method of Garnsey and Saller raises important questions. They make a strong case for denying that agriculture in Italy under the early Principate was dominated by a few great landowners, for believing that peasant landowners continued to be significant, for believing in higher crop-yields and more productivity (a modest increase) in Italian production. It is on matters which involve the human heart that they sometimes fail to convince. On a central point about ancient Rome, it has been argued that there is a potent nexus of ideas and emotions connected with parricide. Roman law gave fathers unparalleled power over their sons: the Greeks were much struck by finding that a Roman father could put his son to death; he could force him to marry or to divorce, and as long as the father lived the son could own no property and not be independent. Two other facts about Rome are that there was a national neurosis about parricide, with a spectacular punishment, much dilated upon; and that Romans attached enormous importance to pietas, dutiful feeling, which was symbolically embodied in the figure of the pious Aeneas carrying his helpless father out of the destruction of Troy. The resentment caused by such paternal domination, it is argued, caused unassuageable guilt and anxiety, with over-compensation and feeling of inferiority towards the past and earlier generations (the ‘way of the ancestors’).
The Roman World has no truck with such speculations, and indeed the family is, with literature, the great absentee from its pages. Neither ‘family’ nor ‘marriage’ even appears in the 23-page index (from ‘Aalen’ to ‘Zwammerdum’ – both places in Germany). The omission is a striking one, and these are certainly not subjects on which nothing can be said. The treatment of psychology and of human relations is the heart of Veyne’s book, and he is happy to say, at the outset, that ‘psychologically, an adult male whose father was alive found himself in an intolerable situation. He could do nothing without his father’s consent ... the father exercised sovereign authority in deciding the fate of his children ... the obsession with parricide is not surprising.’ Garnsey and Saller take a different route. I have quoted them as saying that ‘computer simulation’ suggests that the average difference in age between father and child was about forty years. It follows, in view of the high death rate, that ‘by the time children reached their late teens or early twenties ... more than half had already lost their fathers ... Only a fifth or so of men at the time of marriage in their late twenties or early thirties were still in their fathers’ power.’ Consequently there was no important problem of ambiguous or hostile feelings towards the father. Can this be the answer?
A mean difference of age between father and child of 40 years is surely too great: it would imply that as many fathers only succeeded in producing a surviving child at 50 as at 30. More specifically, the problem of paternal control existed only in the upper class. It is only a father with substantial property to bequeath who can hope to impose this sort of discipline on his sons; and, from another angle, being subjected to extraordinary but traditional restrictions is itself a defining quality, a boast indeed, of a self-consciously élite class. We might compare, in the 19th century, going to boarding-school to be flogged for mistakes in one’s Latin verses, when ordinary boys were playing happily in the street. Now, in the aristocracy the age of marriage was, from the time of Augustus, low: the early twenties seems to have been normal. That means that our model is assuming that these men produced offspring, on average, only after fifteen or twenty years of marriage: which suggests that the computer cannot have been programmed right. As with another startling deduction, that the rate of disappearance of families from the Roman Senate was as high as 75 per cent per generation, the reader is reminded of theories, now abandoned, giving a whirlwind rate of replacement of the English aristocracy in the 15th century.
Nor is it as easy as it seems to avoid, or to use, anecdotal evidence and ‘the collection of stray items from diverse sources’. Garnsey and Saller think it likely that young men, even those in their fathers’ power, had more say in choosing a wife than their sisters in choosing a husband. They support this generalisation by reference to a letter of Cicero, which shows that his nephew Quintus ‘appears to have made his own survey of the field of potential wives’. But, equally, we happen to know that Cicero’s daughter Tullia, with the help of her mother, considered several possible husbands during her father’s absence as provincial governor. In fact the father, returning at the end of the year, found himself confronted with a fait accompli: the choice of Dolabella, an unsatisfactory but personable young patrician.
The differences of approach can be multiplied. All three books have something to say about the rise of Christianity. In The Roman World, an ably written chapter by Jill Harries discusses the role of bishops and the increasing wealth of the Church, concluding that ‘ultimately, the rise of Christianity depended on the assertion of power and on its definition, or redefinition, in contemporary terms.’ That power rested on the ability to work miracles and exercise authority over demons; it enriched the Church and enabled it to dispense charity and other forms of patronage. For Garnsey and Saller, the explanation lies in ‘the ambivalent attitude of the Roman authorities to religious change, which was permitted in the private, but not the public, sphere. An ossified official religion fitted the image of changelessness and stability that Roman emperors were concerned to project. Meanwhile, however, they failed both to control the forces of innovation, pagan and non-pagan, that were active at an unofficial level, and to harness those operating within paganism against the challenge of Christianity.’ Both are interesting points, but it is hard to feel that they provide anything like a complete answer. Each is, in its rather different style, too worldly and commonsensical, suggesting that the new religion could, really, have been accommodated by the ancient world without drastic change.
A History of Private Life lays great stress on the sexual fixations of Christianity: ‘Lacking the clear ritual boundaries provided in Judaism by circumcision and dietary laws, Christians tended to make their exceptional sexual discipline bear the full burden of expressing the difference between themselves and the pagan world.’ Parallels can indeed be found between much of Christian teaching and the sentiments of virtuous pagans in late antiquity, but this emphasis, and especially the Augustinian doctrine that all sexual activity without exception was tainted by the fall and could be seen as a paradigm of sin in general, brought in a radically new view of the place of man in the world, a world in which serious-minded pagans regarded sex as something potentially disruptive but capable of being rationally managed. In addition, innovations in doctrine were much less important than the creation of a new kind of community. It possessed an extraordinary solidarity and cohesiveness, and it cut right across the structure of ancient society. The ideal of the pagan empire was the educated, self-controlled, dignified and splendid man, of secure economic and social position, with which culture and high-mindedness were indissolubly connected. He was subject less to specific sexual taboos than to a general rule that such relationships, with either sex, should not be too voluptuous or overwhelming; he was generous, but to the citizen body of his city as a whole, as a part of patriotism and of personal display, and not specifically to the poor. The Christian community was indifferent to the city and its ancient hierarchies, practised a ‘democracy of sexual shame’, extolled asceticism and virginity, and regarded the poor as symbolic of the sinner and their care as a supreme obligation. Ultimately there could be no compromise in attitudes between civic man and inward man.
Such considerations seem to me to go altogether deeper. Cool rationality, admirable for so many problems, will not take us far enough in areas like this, and the work of Veyne and Brown does more to illuminate what it was actually like to live in that distant world. Wacher’s book tells the reader how farmers worked and where soldiers were stationed; Garnsey and Saller illuminate the terms of trade and the mechanism of feeding the city of Rome; Veyne brings to life the existence of the poor rustic, protected and exploited by notables who ‘resembled Mafiosi godfathers more than modern technocrats’, and the attitudes of the wealthy aristocrat, distinguished by his culture and his style, and lavishing corn-doles and gladiatorial spectacles on a populace whom he despised. This remains true of the Veyne book for all its disconcerting inventions of fact. One reads with astonishment that ‘all freed slaves were shopkeepers and traders’, or that the ostentatiously virtuous Brutus, the assassin of Caesar, ‘loved a boy so beautiful that reproductions of a sculpture of him could be seen everywhere’, or that Vespasian ‘took as his concubine his secretary’ (a marvellous anachronism), or that ‘one picturesque aspect of amorous customs among the Romans was that the female partner in a high-society affair was paid for her trouble. A matron who deceived her husband received a large sum or an annual income from her lover,’ or that ‘it was customary for the groom to forgo deflowering his wife on the first night, out of concern for her timidity; but he made up for his forbearance by sodomising her.’ The last of these takes seriously an ancient dirty joke.
In ancient Athens a set of three serious tragedies was followed by one boisterous satyr-play. Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt, a title irresistibly recalling Lucky Jim, can stand as light relief here too. Manniche sets out to show that Greeks and Romans were not, as is assumed, ‘pioneers in describing and depicting this aspect of human behaviour ... Along the banks of the Nile erotic life flourished at all levels of society.’ There are obscene graffiti, amulets, and even a few paintings: some of the illustrations are decidedly ‘curious’, in the bookseller’s sense as well as others. There are bizarre myths, stories, moralising texts. The author’s style has an ingenuous charm of its own: ‘The Egyptians did not always speak in a polite manner: some of their curses were inspired by sexual matters. There was no doubt, however, that ideally one should keep to decent language.’ ‘The girl who is painting her lips has positioned herself on top of an inverted vase with a pointed base. Her partner points his finger at her private parts. There can hardly be any doubt as to the purpose of this arrangement.’ The Egyptians went in for books that interpreted dreams.
If a mouse has intercourse with her, her husband will give her [lacuna]. If a falcon has intercourse with her, she will have a [lacuna] fate. If a ram has intercourse with her, Pharaoh will be benevolent towards her. If a baboon has intercourse with her, she will be benevolent towards people. If she dreams she is married to her husband, she will be destroyed.
And so on. Strange people, in some ways. But the author is surely right to conclude: ‘It is evident from the preceding pages that the Ancient Egyptians were real human beings ...’ Those who think they were not should certainly revise their ideas.