When Rome Conquered Italy

Emma Dench

  • Rome’s Cultural Revolution by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill
    Cambridge, 502 pp, £29.99, November 2008, ISBN 978 0 521 72160 8

We used to be told that Rome rose to imperial greatness through the native wit and lean frames of its farmer soldiers. And that if it wasn’t lead poisoning, orgies and overindulgence of every kind, it was race-mixing that brought about its fall, the descendants of Oriental slaves having weakened the native stock. As for Roman culture, that was a contradiction in terms: Roman art consisted almost entirely of thefts or copies of Greek masterpieces, while Roman literature was translated, generally rather badly, from Greek classics. The Romans were a capable people, there was no doubt about that, but their capabilities lay in more practical pursuits: conquest, engineering – roads, aqueducts and drains – and getting the barbarians to take a bath and appreciate a little solid urban architecture. For all the snobbery of Cicero, with his habit of dropping the Greek equivalent of le mot juste into his correspondence or of writing conceitedly about his art collection, to attribute creativity, originality or sophisticated ideas to the Romans would have been laughable.

We knew all this because we could demonstrate that the Romans had said it themselves. If one glosses over the unfortunate anti-democratic tendencies, the story of Cincinnatus called from his plough to save Rome from the Aequi, triumphing and then going back to the plough, sent the right sort of no-nonsense message. Moral decline inevitably accompanied the acquisition of empire, though different authors chose different turning points to mark the beginning of the end. Among the souls of Romans yet to be born in the epic underworld of the Aeneid, Anchises instructs his son Aeneas on the ‘arts’ that would distinguish Rome, the ‘arts’ of imperial rule that lay in making war and peace, leaving to ‘others’ the creative arts of working in bronze and marble, and the intellectual arts of rhetoric and astronomy. No contemporary would have missed the implication that those ‘others’ were Greeks.

The Romans had a good line in hagiographical accounts of their own past, before they had achieved (as they thought) mastery of most of the known world, or at least the parts that really mattered. They also located themselves in relation to the Greeks: we owe to the Romans the propagation of the name ‘Greek’ itself, the concept of something approaching a Greek national dress, the pallium, and a whole range of persistent stereotypes about the Greeks, including their inclination to sit around and talk rather than get down to business. This dichotomy between Romans and Greeks didn’t so much describe or prescribe behaviour, talents or tendencies, as assign roles that could serve useful purposes in the management and manipulation of power. Individuals and states continue to identify themselves either with the Greeks (inevitably Athens or Sparta) or the Romans. Harold Macmillan notoriously imagined a role for the British as the Greek educators and civilisers of Americans when the US seemed to be on its way to becoming ‘the new Roman Empire’. For the British to give up their starring role as imperialists and adopt a supporting role as intellectuals was perhaps less of a comedown at a time when it was increasingly embarrassing for Europeans to play at being Romans, Mussolini having claimed Roman roots for himself (‘civis Romanus sum’), taken pride in the fasces, and ‘re-created’ the Passo Romano, an Italian goose step.

Instead of focusing narrowly on the individuals and events that made Rome great, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill is concerned with the way Italy became Roman and Rome became Italian. This process, which began with the Roman conquest of Italy in the fourth and third centuries BCE and was accelerated by the enfranchisement of peninsular Italy after the Social War of 91-89 BCE, was inextricably tied to the breakdown of the Roman Republic, with its comparatively exclusive governing elite, and the emergence of the Augustan principate after the battle of Actium in 31 BCE.

The ‘revolution’ of his title signals that he is engaging in a conversation with a work written in the heyday of European appropriation of the symbolism of Roman power, Ronald Syme’s The Roman Revolution, a classic since its first publication in 1939. In Syme’s gripping and seductive treatment of Augustus’ establishment of a hereditary monarchy in Rome in all but name, the use of the word ‘revolution’ is deeply ironic. The processes that Syme depicts could hardly be further from an ideologically driven class struggle. Instead, the brave new world of Augustan Rome sees the faintly comic triumph of the Italian bourgeoisie and their reactionary values. Their champion, Augustus, emerges as a slightly priggish moral hypocrite with a tendency to be moved by stirring references to Romans wearing togas and ruling the world. Syme’s whole point is that there was no fundamental political change: ‘In all ages, whatever the form and the name of government, be it monarchy, republic or democracy, an oligarchy lurks beneath the façade.’

Roman culture plays a minor role in The Roman Revolution amid the brutal machinations of Caesar and Augustus and their rivals. Syme only really discusses literature, which in his view was fairly tightly controlled by Augustus. Poetry and history served as a repository for the values and ideals on which the new regime’s ‘national programme’ was based, and Virgil, Horace and Livy, indebted to their princeps, helped foster the message of regeneration among the middle and upper classes of Roman society. For everyone else, Augustus turned to the spectacular, fostering consensus through handouts of corn, wine and oil, celebrations of the populace’s participation in the new regime’s family values, and carefully managed monuments to himself and the ideals of Augustan peace. Syme didn’t devote much space to what he called the ‘organisation of opinion’, perhaps because he regarded it as window-dressing, having little to do with the real business of acquiring power.

Wallace-Hadrill’s ‘revolution’ radically transforms the triumph of Syme’s bourgeoisie. At its core is the upward mobility of the ‘sub-elite’, a broad category (at times too broad, given the snobbish bickering over minute distinctions that characterised Roman society) that ranges from successful freedmen – the former slaves enfranchised by the Romans in numbers that shocked and impressed the rest of the Mediterranean world – to the families of knightly rank who would produce ‘new men’, members of the Senate who had not been ‘ennobled’ by ancestors achieving high office. Although they were Roman citizens, and occasionally very wealthy and well connected at that, freedmen suffered certain legal disabilities: they were ineligible to hold office in their home towns or indeed as senators in Rome. Among the famous ‘new men’ were the Elder Cato and Cicero, both of whom came from towns enfranchised earlier in the Republic. Their numbers and self-confidence increased dramatically after the universal enfranchisement of 91-89. Claiming virtues more authentically Roman than those of the old nobility, they started to make it into the Senate in sizeable numbers only in the Augustan age.

Members of this ‘sub-elite’ were one of the driving forces of Wallace-Hadrill’s ‘cultural revolution’. At the same time, their prominence provoked clashes that made for much of the dynamism of Roman culture in the late Republic and early Empire. One response was the tightening up of definitions of Roman culture and identity: the almost obsessive preoccupation with togas, with policing grants of citizenship, and even with notions of pure blood as attributed to Augustus by the imperial biographer Suetonius. While Rome’s Cultural Revolution eloquently insists on the bottom up transformation of Roman society and culture, the story it tells inevitably allows Augustus some of his traditional agency, as well as his pivotal status. We may not want to perpetuate Syme’s world-weariness, but any bottom-up treatment of Roman culture and politics will reach its limits trying to account for a society in which, even at best, the ideals of Athenian democracy tended to get a little lost in translation.

Wallace-Hadrill’s story begins during the heyday of Rome’s overseas conquests during the later third to early first centuries BCE. During this period, its cultural identity was constructed in sometimes tense, even xenophobic engagement with ideas of what constituted Greek culture and values. The Romans of the middle to later Republic had a deep knowledge of both the Greek language and the cultures of the Greek cities of south Italy, Sicily, ‘old’ Greece and the Near East. They also knew how to play sophisticated games with this knowledge in order to assert their own place in the world: the notion that the Romans mindlessly copied Greek models is far from the truth. Like other Italian peoples, the Romans were well aware of the Greek division of the world into ‘Hellenes’ and ‘barbarians’. They laughed at the conceit of the Greeks when, in comedies translated into Latin, they saw themselves portrayed as ‘porridge-eating barbarians’, and found it even funnier to think of their own Italian subjects as the real barbarians. They also exploited their status as descendants of the Trojans via Aeneas, a lineage that might suggest an effeminate, eastern and barbarian taste for bonnets, ribbons and castrato priests, but also gave them a lead role in the Trojan War, the starting point for every panhellenic history. As if that were not enough, their earliest prose and verse histories, which recall the substance or metre of Homer and were even on occasion written in Greek, thoroughly naturalised Aeneas in a hoary Latin landscape, marrying him off to Lavinia the daughter of ‘Latinus’ and, after filling in a few hundred years with some colourless ‘Alban kings’, making him the forefather of the abandoned twins Romulus and Remus, reared by a she-wolf in the almost virgin, pastoral world of the Tiber basin.

For all that, the emergent centre of empire could look a bit of a cultural backwater when compared with the vibrant communities of its largely self-governing Italian subjects. The latter were treated in an increasingly proprietorial fashion, and required to provide and pay on an annual basis for the military manpower on which Rome depended in the wars that made it ruler of the world. Yet these communities appear in many cases to have been more sophisticated and cosmopolitan than Rome itself; locals exploited the infrastructure, international connections and trading opportunities afforded by the empire, but showed little, if any, sign of looking to Rome for cultural inspiration.

The magnificent Hellenistic theatre-temple complex at Pietrabbondante, built 70 or 80 years before Pompey built Rome’s first permanent stone theatre (and at an altitude of more than a thousand metres in the Samnite mountains, the most remote example of the second-century BCE monumental building boom), puts Rome to shame. And yet this proudly international architecture, which evoked the monuments of Greek cities and the Hellenistic kings, was funded by an elite that advertised its gifts in Oscan, the language of much of the hinterland of southern Italy as well as of Pompeii, the epitome of uncouth barbarism for Greeks. Such architectural models were juxtaposed with local styles: with block walls of polygonal masonry, for example, a visual version of the Romans’ insistence on juxtaposing Aeneas with the she-wolf and the twins. The dynamics of co-option and incorporation in Hellenistic Rome and Italy (and subsequently in the Roman imperial world) are not typically manifested in hybrid imperial cultures uniting characteristics of both parent cultures: Hellenistic cultures are far more likely to show the gaps between Greek and local, and to reinvent these notions in the process.

The enfranchisement of peninsular Italy after the Social War undoubtedly had a profound effect on politics as well as on the whole question of what Roman culture and identity were. Most immediately, it created a vast new pool of citizens whose votes could be manipulated, and whose support could be solicited in more or less orthodox ways. Even for those whose horizons remained restricted to Perusia, Saepinum, Verona or Naples, it was hard to escape the presence of Rome, not least in the form of late Republican dynasts canvassing support or hounding and massacring communities who chose the wrong side. Strikingly, though, entry to the Senate – in theory never hereditary – remained relatively elusive for the Italian upper classes, whom even Cicero, when it suited his purpose, portrayed as morally upright, slightly rustic worthies whose support he hoped to get for his own campaigns.

Wallace-Hadrill’s account of this period emphasises two interconnected features. One is the challenge posed to the knowledge and authority of the old elite, as well as to more exclusive notions of Roman identity. This challenge was made not least through the antiquarian writings of Marcus Terentius Varro, whose Sabine roots placed him among a large and growing community of Roman citizens conscious of the fact that they or their ancestors (quite a few generations back, in the case of the Sabines) had once been outsiders, emphatically non-Roman. Varro’s prolific writings included his Antiquities, a work almost entirely lost to us but hugely influential in its time, which provided Augustine with some good material to bolster his argument that Romans had neglected the gods. The Antiquities was clearly intended to set out in relatively accessible form the recovery of essential knowledge about Rome’s beginnings and past, its topography, its religious and civil lore, and its customs – information that had traditionally been the preserve of the elite.

Varro’s On the Latin Language lays a new emphasis on the ethnically diverse roots of Roman culture. While Cicero (ironically, given his own origins) made the characters in his dialogues lament the decline of Latin and its ‘pollution’, Varro traced the Greek, Latin, Sabine, Etruscan and even Samnite and Lucanian etymologies of Latin words, a phenomenon that eloquently reflects the economic, social and political dynamics of change in the contemporary world. Thus Roman soldiers, learning sausage recipes from the Lucanians, brought the word lucanica into the Latin vocabulary, and the camelus himself arrived in Rome, bringing his Syrian name.

The second feature is the proliferation among this ‘sub-elite’ of luxury or near luxury goods, either imported, or manufactured or finished in Italy. These included candelabra, bronze and pottery lamps, and ivory or bronze couches on which the dead could be laid and then buried or cremated, depending on local custom. In some cases, there was clearly a desire to emulate the traditional elite, whose tastes were advertised not least in the goods they brought home in their conquests. The proliferation in the later Republic of Greek loan words for luxury goods, such as monopodia (one-legged tables) and thymiateria (candelabra), of luxury pursuits such as cookery, and of Greek names for actors, mimes and prostitutes, suggests the naturalisation of the eastern Mediterranean in Roman society. In other cases, members of the sub-elite took the lead: according to Cicero, L. Cornelius Chrysogonus, a freedman and henchman of the dictator Sulla, paid the price of a farm for an authepsa, a new-fangled automatic boiler. Cicero’s disdain for Chrysogonus is palpable, and his alleged habit of doing well out of the misfortunes of his political enemies is criticised in terms that make his déclassé status part of the crime: paintings, statues, marbles and much more besides were crammed into his house, all stolen from the ‘illustrious’ families to whom they rightfully belonged. It is one thing to see Chrysogonus’ authepsa from the perspective of the sneering Cicero, who had made it to the top despite the occasional snub from the traditional elite; but we could also see it as an indication of a desperate desire to mark status by advertising wealth through connoisseurship, the only means available to a freedman who was barred from political office.

To begin a cultural history of Rome in the middle Republic, as Wallace-Hadrill does, is challenging, given the difficulties of a fragmentary literature, a not obviously resplendent city of Rome, the complex cultural interactions and the elusiveness of a distinctive culture. To end it with the Augustan age might be seen as a nod in the direction of the traditional emphasis on the reign of the princeps as a turning point, were it not for Wallace-Hadrill’s insistence that Augustan culture was markedly less vibrant than that of the late Republic. His Augustan age is one of regulation and stabilisation rather than innovation. Frustrations that had previously been eased by the acquisition of the newest exotic fashions now began instead to be satisfied by advancement to office, in the Senate, among the Augustales who primarily served the emerging imperial cult, or as one of the vicomagistri, the ‘neighbourhood magistrates’. Freedmen were eligible to hold either of these offices.

Roman culture continued to be characterised by its co-option of foreign styles, although the granting of citizenship to foreigners had only just begun. Augustus’ attempts to police the way citizens dressed in the Forum reveal a new insistence on seeing Romanness as a set of cultural characteristics rather than as a bundle of obligations to and benefits from the state. The example of ‘Arretine’ tableware, which is found far away from Rome and even outside Italy, suggests a new confidence that there could be characteristically Roman products and styles. Arretine ware took off in the aftermath of the civil war, around the time of Augustus’ own emergence as unrivalled leader. It took its name from its birthplace, Arretium (modern Arezzo), and, like all such luxuries, remained reassuringly expensive. Arretine ware might be the product of a cottage industry, but in its intricate decorations, including rather tasteful soft-porn images, it recalled high-end eastern silverware and the pottery of master craftsmen. If we map where Arretine ware is found in the imperial world, we can see that its chief customers included legionaries and veterans in military bases and overseas colonies.

In recent decades, scholars have been more interested in making the Romans seem like us than in claiming that we are the new Romans. The constantly updated empire has been depicted in the vocabulary of Marxism, postcolonialism or globalisation, and is all the richer for the new questions that have been asked of it. At the very least, this ought to encourage anyone who still wants to be an ancient Roman to think about which ancient Roman they want to be. Wallace-Hadrill’s Romans, once they get over the acute xenophobia of their heyday conquering, are quite uplifting role models in their social inclusiveness. But before we get too carried away it’s worth remembering just how nasty Roman society could be. Rome’s subjects and, increasingly, the residents of Rome itself, knew perfectly well what would happen to them if they didn’t play the game and remember their place. A shocking degree of snobbery went hand in hand with social mobility, as if everyone was desperate to cling to the place they had reached, often by generations of hard graft and networking. Anyone who looked or sounded different was liable to experience jokes at their expense that would have made Bernard Manning blush.