Friday, January 27, 2006


Palmyra: "Little is known of the Palmyrene community before 41 BCE. Its wealth was enough to excite the cupidity of Mark Antony, who ordered a cavalry raid against it. All that the Palmyrenes did was to evacuate their city and flee with their valuables across the Euphrates. This was the first recorded contact between Rome and Palmyra.

When the Emperor Valerian was conquered and captured by the Persians, his unworthy son left him in the hands of the conquerors; but Odeinathus, a citizen of Palmyra, marched against them, defeated them, and took the whole province of Mesopotamia. The services thus rendered to Rome were considered so great that Odeinathus was associated in the empire with Gallienus. This brave man was poisoned at Emesa; but he bequethed his power to a worthy successor - Zenobia, his widow. Unfortunately, ambition prompted her to usurp the high sounding title 'Queen of the East'. But Rome could brook no rival. Her army was defeated, her desert city laid in ashes, and she herself in fetters to grace the victor's triumph.

The expansion of the Parthian empire into the Euphrates region in the mid-second pre-Christian century created a new situation in the Near East. So did the annexation of Syria by Rome about three-quarters of a century later. Between these two world empires stood Palmyra, it's isolated location in the heart of the desert put it outside the reach of the Roman legions as well as the Parthian cavalry. Its merchants benefited by its unique position as the main halting-place on the trans-desert crossing of the north-to-south and east-to-west routes. Its politicians shrewdly exploited its strategic situation between the two great rival powers and, by siding one time with Rome and another with Parthia, kept the balance of power and profited by neutrality. By playing one adversary against the other, they maintained the independence of their city as a bufffer state.

It was not easy for the desert city to preserve full sovereignty in face of the growing ascendancy of the empire on its west. By the start of the Christian era Palmyra must have acknowledged the suzerainty of Rome, judging by imperial decrees of 17-19 CE, under Tiberius, regarding its customs duties, but never surrendered its independence. About the same time the city apparently received a resident representative of Rome and allowed one of her citizens, Alexandros, to undertake a mission on behalf of Rome to Sampsigeramus of Hims. Trajan incorporated it in the province he created in 106 and Hadrian on his visit in 130 granted it the name Hadriana Palmyra as a vassal of Rome. Palmyra's dependent cities also became Roman vassals. At the beginning of the third century Palmyra received colonial rights from Septimius Severus or some other empror of the Syrian dynasty in Rome."

*Thumbnail image "Zenobia Queen of Palmyra" by Howard David Johnson, illustrator.

Friday, January 20, 2006


by William Cecil Headrick, 1941

"The legal and political rise of plebeian elements: The extension of political rights to commoners has tended to monopolize the attention of social theorists; they have frequently lost sight of the social classes because of the dramatic aspects of the political struggle.

From the social class point of view the significant fact during this period was the division of the plebs, clearly and markedly, in high class plebs and the masses. The introduction of money, which could be passed from hand to hand without religious ceremony, enabled some plebs to remain or become wealthy. 23 They displayed their riches, arranged themselves into social ranks in true social class fashion. 'Some [plebeian] families were prominent, some names increased in importance. A sort of aristocracy was formed among the people . . . . ' 24 The plebs 'followed the lead of this new aristocracy, which they were proud of possessing.' 25 Not all plebs could aspire to high position; not all did. 'If the plebs were somewhat indifferent, there was a plebeian aristocracy that was ambitious.' 26 There are the upper class commoners who conspired and struggled to abolish political and connubial disabilities, as a matter of pride. Tenney Frank designates those plebeians who gradually won approximate equality with the patricians as 'property-holding plebeians.' 27

Out of these ambitious and prominent groups, in addition to the overwhelming majority of persons related to the ancient nobility, the new nobility of office was formed. Many of the newly ordained official nobility were patricians, many were the younger branches of old patrician gentes, some were descendants of aristocratic plebeians. The artisan class of plebeians and the amorphous mass of Roman proletarians did not present candidates for judgeships or the senate in numbers great enough to arouse comment even in socially class conscious Rome.

Sorokin, although documented history does not corroborate his statement, says:

The period after 449 BC . . . . . to the middle of the fourth century BC . . . . could be regarded as the period of an intensive circulation because during this period the plebeians obtained almost a complete equality with the patricians, and in this way passed from a lower to a higher stratum.

Whatever circulation was approved in that century had already taken place; law ratified a de facto situation. Furthermore, the plebeians, at least the great mass of them, obtained no semblance of equality with the ancient patrician families. The mass of plebs lived very lowly existences indeed. Finally, it is absurd to state that a whole mass, such as the majority of plebs were, could "pass from a lower to a higher stratum." This is somewhat equivalent to saying that the workers in the Soviet Union rose and inherited the places of the ousted nobility, or that the blacks after 1865 took their places as the equals of their former masters. (The situation of the ordinary plebs was less disturbed, changed, or improved than that of these remotely analogous illustrations.) Sorokin's confusion of social equality with limited political rights illustrates the kind of error into which even prominent sociologists can fall.

The Republic reaches middle age. Tenney Frank 29 reports that the Punic wars enhanced the prestige of the senatorial nobility. Furthermore, this "new aristocracy" performed so well that it entrenched itself in power. He also notes the depletion of the ranks of free farmers and the growth of large estates. These data indicate that the middle age of the Republic was not one of social class mobility upward, except, to a limited extent among the equites, that is, the capitalists, merchants, and contractors.

Of upstarts nothing is heard during this era. The new aristocracy, made up almost altogether of two old aristocracies, froze as fast as it formed, entrenched its clique in office, and provided places for its sons. They, with their love of the land, took an active part in grabbing up the land of fallen soldiers and in obtaining parts of the leased ager publicus. 30

Mommsen is quoted as saying that "the overthrow of Junkertum did not take from the common life of Rome its aristocratic character in any way." 31

The significant social class fact concerning the middle period of the Republic is that aristocratic sentiments were exceptionally strong. At the time of the Gracchi, for instance, 32

The aristocracy, drawing its livelihood from slave labor on large estates, not infrequently from a general's share in booty, and occasionally from a shrewd marriage, and basing its claims for social distinction upon ancestry and political office, remained a closed corporation of less than a hundred outstanding families living in one city.

In agriculture, and perhaps in the trades, the introduction of slaves and the conditions of war had begun to depress parts of the lower classes.

The only important movement on the social scale in an upward direction was to be found among the equites. They did not accomplish what bourgeois elements in parts of Western Europe were destined to do centuries later, however; they did not rise to the top.

The rĂ´le of wealth -- the equites. In the third and second centuries BC. wealth per se did not divide man from man, class from class. The older orders of Rome, the aristocrats, did not lose their hold on social prestige. In fact, when the capitalists and other business and governmental elements threatened them, they struck back. On this point the record is clear: 33

Before the Gracchi the knights had not yet formed a separate social caste of peculiar distinction. That some were wealthy and kept elaborate households in imitation of the senators is probable. They provided well-dowered daughters now and then to save noble families from financial ruin, and after a few such connections had been formed with the influential, a member of an equestrian family occasionally succeeded in gaining enough support to dare to be a candidate for aristocratic office. But during the Republic the road to social distinction was always difficult for the financial group. The Gracchi gave them some political recognition and prestige, but also a hostility toward them that cost them dearly whenever -- as under Sulla -- the nobility was secure in the saddle. Rarely has a capitalist class as such suffered the disasters that it did at Rome.

Sulla "organized a terrible butchery among the financiers, from which as a class they never recovered. After Caesar they completely disappeared as a political element." 34

The equites, instead of rising to the highest positions, intrenched themselves in the middle groove. The age of the Republic at its height was not an age of any significant social mobility. This, too, is in the record: 35

For reasons not wholly clear the ranks of the nobility seem not to have been threatened to any extent by parvenus. Between 200 and 146 BC. there were one hundred and eight consuls elected. Only about eight of these belonged to families that had not been represented in consular office before . . . the people were satisfied to continue the old families in positions of dignity.

Cato, one of the commoners to play a stellar role, was not a democrat, certainly. "Though a novus homo himself he seems not to have aided other 'new men' to office." 36

The middle age of the Republic was one of less mobility than the era preceding it; in the earlier period the rich plebeians were able to merge themselves with the older aristocrats. In the middle period the equites were stopped short of that goal; they had to be content with an entrenched middle position. Yet this is the period of "open" classes, as opposed to other eras of "closed" classes, a distinction intimating freedom of movement on the social scale and repeatedly emphasized by Sorokin and Fahlbeck.

Race Mixture in Ancient Rome

By Tenney Frank, July 1916:

THERE is one surprise that the historian usually experiences upon his first visit to Rome. It may be at the Galleria Lapidaria of the Vatican or at the Lateran Museum, but, if not elsewhere,
it can hardly escape him upon his first walk up the Appian Way. As he stops to decipher the names upon the old tombs that line the road, hoping to chance upon one familiar to him from his
Cicero or Livy, he finds praenomen and nomen promising enough, but the cognomina all seem awry.

L. Lucretius Pawzphilzts, A. Aemilius Alexa, M. Clodius Philostorgus do not smack of freshman
Latin. Atld he will not readily find in the Roman writers now extant an answer to the questions that these inscriptions invariably raise. Do these names imply that the Roman stock was completely changed after Cicero's day, and was the satirist recording a fact when he wailed that the Tiber had captured the waters of the Syrian Orontes? If so, are these foreigners ordinary immigrants, or did Rome become a nation of ex-slaves and their offspring? Or does the abundance of Greek cognomina mean that, to a certain extent, a foreign nomenclature has gained respect, so that a Roman dignitary might, so to speak, sign a name like C. Julius Abascantus on the hotel register without any misgivings about the accommodations?

Unfortunately, most of the sociological and political data of the empire are provided by satirists. When Tacitus informs us that in Nero's day a great many of Rome's senators and knights were descendants of slaves and that the native stock had dwindled to surprisingly small proportions, we are not sure whether we are not to take it as an exaggerated thrust by an indignant Roman of the old stock. At any rate, this, like similar remarks equally indirect, receives totally different evaluation in the discussion of those who have treated of Rome's society, like Friedlander, Dill, Mommsen, Wallon, and Marquardt. To discover some new light upon these fundamental
questions of Roman history, I have tried to gather such fragmentary data as the corpus of inscriptions might afford. This evidence is never decisive in its purport, and it is always, by the very nature of the material, partial in its scope, but at any rate it may help us to interpret our literary sources to some extent. It has at least convinced me that Juvenal and Tacitus were not exaggerating. It is probable that when these men wrote a very small percentage of the free plebeians on the streets of Rome could prove unmixed Italian descent. By far the larger part-perhaps ninety per cent.- have Oriental blood in their veins.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

J.J. O'Donnell, "The Career of Virius Nicomachus Flavianus"

J.J. O'Donnell, "The Career of Virius Nicomachus Flavianus":

Was the "last pagan revival" more than late Roman politics?

"First, the only persons recorded to have acted openly on behalf of the 'pagan' cause in 392-394 are Arbogast and Flavianus. No other name occurs anywhere in our sources.

Second, the only support given 'paganism' by Eugenius according to our sources was the money which he tried to 'launder' by channelling through private hands.

Third, the only other 'pagan' behavior reported under Eugenius' reign was connected with Flavianus: his haruspicial activities. Rufinus' text may indicate that sacrifices were offered at Rome, but if so his text still associates those activities closely with haruspicy and with the name of Flavianus. This point will be discussed again in connection with the Carmen below.

Fourth, upon leaving Milan for battle, Argobast and Flavianus were reported to have made an indiscreet remark about what they would do with Ambrose's basilica when they came back victorious.

Fifth, the troops of Eugenius set up objects at the field of battle which hostile eyes read as images of the ancient gods.

Sixth, historians who wrote from a strictly eastern point of view (i. e., Socrates for the Christians, Zosimus -- that is, Eunapius -- for the opposition) said nothing of the religious overtones read into the events by western Christians closer to the scene.

I submit, therefore, that on the basis of this evidence, the 'last pagan revival' is reduced to a half-hearted attempt by Eugenius to buy support in Italy, some indiscreet actions of Flavianus, and an angry, overblown, propagandizing reaction by Christians, taking their lead from the influential patriarch of Milan, Ambrose.[[48]]"

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The Culinary Reality of Roman Upper-Class Convivia

American Council of Learned Societies

"For more than 600 years (from the early second century b.c.e. into the fifth century
c.e.), written texts describing table luxury (luxus mensae) at the banquets
of the rich and powerful corroborate, for the most part, the components of Roman
haute cuisine that were summarily noticed by Goody. Our literary sources
are explicit about the dishes that the Roman elite considered to be special delicacies,
about the ways in which these could be prepared and elaborately combined,
and about their ceremonial?and often spectacular?presentation. In the
last years of the Republic, Cicero, attacking crude Epicurean hedonism, makes
clear that those who regarded themselves as the most discriminating gourmets
looked to fishermen, to fowlers, and to hunters to provide the choicest and most
exotic provender.7 A contemporary member of the senatorial elite, Varro, confirms
this in detail, in a passage on villa husbandry ( pastio villatica) for the purposes
of both pleasure and profit: he observes that fish can and should be raised
in both the villa?s saltwater and freshwater ponds ( piscinae), that the products
of aviaries, too, come in two subdivisions: the peafowl ( pavones), turtle doves
(turtures), and thrushes (turdi) that are land-based; and the geese, teal and ducks
(anseres, querquedulae, anates) that all require water. The products of the hunt, Varro continues, need to be further divided between large game (boar, roe, and
hare), and the bees, snails, and dormice (glires) that are also to be found outside
the villa (De Re Rustica 3.3.1?4).

As I have argued elsewhere, nearly all of these comestibles appear among
the foods on offer at the most elaborate Roman private banquet in the record,
the cena aditialis (inaugural dinner) hosted by the Pontifex Maximus (Chief
Priest) Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius in August of 70 b.c.e., to celebrate the installation
of a new flamen Martialis (Priest of Mars), the young patrician L.
Cornelius Lentulus Niger.8 The menu, which the high priest himself scrupulously
recorded ?in the fourth register of his pontifical records,? and which has
been preserved and transmitted by the late-antique scholar Macrobius (Saturnalia
3.13.12), also featured notable quantities of fresh shellfish, including ?as
many oysters as the guests desired,? haunches of venison and wild boar (lumbos
capruginos aprugnos), and fattened fowls cooked in pastry (altilia ex farina

By providing fattened fowls at this inaugural dinner, Metellus was flagrantly
defying a provision that had been repeated in every piece of Roman sumptuary
legislation from the lex Fannia onwards: the stipulation that any dinner
be limited to only a single winged creature ?and that one not fattened? (by cramming:
Pliny Historia Naturalis [HN] 10.139). To be sure, these inaugural dinners
became and remained notorious for the high degree of their culinary experimentation,
for their exotic refinements, and for their astronomically high
costs: it was at one of these, about the same time as Metellus? dinner, that the
orator Hortensius first served a peacock.9 The solitary item on Metellus? entire
menu that derived from a domestically bred mammal were two dishes of sows?
udders (sumina, and a patina suminis): further evidence that at this banquet the
pontifex maximus was parading the culinary privileges restricted to the members
of this highly exclusive feasting group, while flagrantly defying prevailing
social and cultural norms. For sows? udders, too, were among the dishes
proscribed by the sumptuary laws (as must be inferred from Pliny HN 8.209).
Indeed, that they were considered to occupy an exalted place among elite culinary
delicacies is already clear by 191 b.c.e., when Plautus? comedy Pseudolus
was produced. In this play the pimp Ballio, intent on making a good impression
on certain grandees (viros summos) whom he has invited to dinner,
orders a kitchen slave to take special pains with the preparation of the ham (perna),
the pork rind (callum), the sweetbreads (glandium), and the sows? udders (sumen).10 If sumen had not by this time come to count as a delicacy at the tables
of the Roman rich, neither of these passages would have made sense to any
members of Plautus? audience."