Wednesday, July 25, 2007
331 B.c.,when a high mortality, the result, probably, of a pestilence,
was attributed to poisoning. Even Livy doubted the validity of the
charges, but he gives the whole account as found in his sources. After
many leading citizens had died from the same disease, a slave-girl gave
information to the curule aediles that the reason for this high mortality
was the poisons prepared and administered by the Roman matrons.
On investigation they found about twenty matrons, including patrician
ladies, in the act of brewing poisons, which they declared were
salutary. On being forced to drink their own concoctions to prove
the charges false, they perished by their own wickedness. Following
this, a hundred and seventy more were found guilty of the same
offense." - Poisons and Poisonings Among Romans by David P. Kaufman
As I continue to search for references to the women involved in the widespread poisonings of their spouses and male relatives in ancient Rome, I stumbled across a excerpt from a fascinating paper about Roman women and their "Private Lives and Public Personae" by Dr. Susan Martin of the University of Tennessee. She explains the cultural and political context that surrounded the life of a courageous woman named Turia in 1st century BCE Rome that is eulogized by her husband on her funerary monument. The eulogy has become known as the 'Laudatio Turiae'.
"Let me tell you a bit about what we can reconstruct about her life from her epitaph. Turia left as her chief mourner her husband of 40 years. We know from other facts in the story that they were married between 49 and 42 B.C. - she died in the years 8-2. The couple's courtship and marriage took place during a period of extreme political instability that we - and the Romans - refer to as the civil wars. This young woman came of age in a time when civil strife in the Roman world was comparable to that in Bosnia or Palestine, except that instead of different religious groups fighting each other, we have factions of the Roman upper class engaged in armed conflict over who would control the Roman Republic. In brief, these struggles pitted the Optimates - the most noble families and members of the senatorial order led by Pompey the great (and Cicero) against the Populares - led by Julius Caesar. By the time of her death, Rome had been ruled for almost 30 years by the Emperor Augustus and had traded the tumultuous Republican form of government for imperial calm.
Both spouses clearly came from wealthy families - whether they belonged to the very highest rank in society, is unclear. The good news about this is that they had lots of money and property. The bad news is that they were enmeshed in the thick of the civil wars. Their connections at birth and as they grew would meant that they had powerful friends and powerful enemies as well. Unfortunately for them, both Turia's parents and her husband's family were on the losing side, the side of Pompey who fled Italy in advance of Julius Caesar's army after he crossed the Rubicon river in 49, and was finally killed at the end of this series of civil wars in 48 B.C.
It is realistic to suppose that Turia married at a young age. Studies of Roman evidence have shown that young women in the upper classes married young, even as early as 12. But variation was possible: Cicero's daughter Tullia was betrothed at 12, married at 16 and widow at 22. If Turia married this young, she died in her mid 50's, not a bad age for a Roman whether male or female. Life expectancy was abysmal in this era. From her behavior, we may wish to suppose that this woman married at a slightly older age, perhaps at 18 or so. It seems equally clear that she was educated, probably by tutors at home.
Bridegrooms were typically older, sometimes as old as thirty, which created a considerable age difference and has several interesting implications. First of all, women, if they survived childbirth, would frequently have been widows and therefore suitable for a second marriage. It also ensured that a considerable gap in life experience characterized these marriages. From the inscription we know that Turia was younger, but not by how much. Her husband bemoans her early passing - he should have been the first to go.
Their marriage was probably arranged by their parents. While consent was desirable, it was not necessary for the girl to give hers, and silence was interpreted as consent, a meaningless concept for 12-year-olds in any case. It is likely that the partners would have known each other; we know that in some cases, they may have even maneuvered to encourage the marriage. Usually, however, political alliance or financial interest dictated marriage partners.
The couple was childless - unusual in a society in which marriage functioned as a vehicle for preserving and further family name and fortune. They did not attempt to adopt a son into the family, a fairly common tactic to preserve families. The husband only mentions that Turia devoted herself and her money to raising and marrying off female relatives otherwise unspecified - and that this offered them advantages they would otherwise not have had.
Much of the epitaph deals with a recitation of Turia's deeds. We expect language of praise, much of it extremely conventional. These conventions are observed here although you can tell that this isn't the part of the story he is interested in:
"Why should I mention your domestic virtues, your loyalty, obedience, affability, reasonableness, industry in working wool, religion without superstition, sobriety of attire, modesty of appearance?"
To these qualities he adds one other, of special importance: She is unparalleledin her devotion to and defense of the family. Few women, he remarks, have been as challenged in this regard as she. Here we come to the truly exceptional part of this epitaph.
He relates a series of episodes in which Turia was called upon to take extraordinary action to defend her own or family interests. These actions required her to cross the boundary of her threshold, so to speak, and to act in ways which may have been unprecedented for women before this age of uncertainty. As you will have gathered by now, this was not women's appropriate sphere of activity: they had no political rights. But the women of Turia's generation were challenged differently, and she, at least was prepared to meet the challenge.
The first situation happened when she was betrothed but not yet a bride. As he puts it, "You became an orphan suddenly before the day of our wedding, when both your parents were murdered together in the solitude of the countryside. It was mainly due to your efforts that the death of your parents was not left unavenged. For I had left for Macedonia and your sister's husband Cluvius had gone to the Province of Africa. So strenuously did you perform your filial duty by your insistent demands and your pursuit of justice that we could not have done more if we had been present. But these merits you have in common with that most virtuous lady your sister. While you were engaged in these things, having secured the punishment of the guilty, you immediately left you own house in order to guard your modesty and you came to my mother's house, where you awaited my return."
The murder of her parents, certainly the most shocking event of this woman's young life, may have been linked to the political climate. The fact that the murderers appear to have been easily identified enhances this interpretation as does the surrounding context of violence. The were probably killed by political enemies who hoped to profit in some way. This event must have directly coincided with the flight from Italy of those allied with Pompey after Caesar's invasion. Both the sister's husband Cluvius and the fiance take off for the east - as did many of Pompey's supporters. With the deaths of their parents, the two sisters are left on their own. Whatever fight they engaged in, it is vaguely worded - we hear only of the "punishment of the guilty." Notice that Turia immediately enters the house of her future inlaws, an act he commends as proper. Her behavior is characterized by pietas and devoted to the custodia pudicitiae.
An insight into the murder of her parents might also come from the next part of the text where he alludes to a legal fight which ensued in the aftermath of the death of both parents. This is a complicated business: On the death of her parents, Turia was named, along with her fiance, as heir to her father's will. This is not insignificant since wills were the primary means of transferring wealth in this society. She stood to become a very wealth woman and her fiance also would benefit, perhaps in an equal share. The sister was presumably mentioned in the will as a legatee. The reason for this may be that she had married with manus and became technically part of her husband's family.
The will was attacked on extremely technical legal grounds. The attackers claimed that the father's will had become invalid. Under the rules of intestate succession, only Turia would have been an heir. But she would have required a guardian. The attackers claimed to be distant family relations - gentiles - and as such, were petitioning to be named her guardians according to the rules on intestate succession. These people had one purpose: to claim guardianship of Turia and control her fortune.(2)
Once again, she fights and wins. Her husband describes her steadfastness and resolution in the face of this challenge and in asserting the truth of the situation: The will had not been broken and even if it had, the attackers had no standing as members of any clan or extended family of hers. Again, the details are left murky. Whatever means she took to achieve these ends are suppressed.
Let me pause for a moment to discuss important institutions revealed by this episode. First of all, this family is explicitly old-fashioned in its ways. Marriage with manus was falling out of favor as far as we know: it created a marriage in which the wife entered a legal state of dependence on her husband who had legal control of her property. The preferred form of marriage in Turia's day was the so-called "free marriage" in which the woman remained part of her own family and, on her father's death, achieved control over her property. (This type of marriage favored keeping family fortunes with the family. Gifts between husbands and wives were not valid.) (It is possible that Turia's family had intended for her to marry with manus, therefore the provision of her fiance as co-heir. He was being readied for the marriage that would give him control over her affairs. But this may not have been the case.)
Secondly, there is the institution of guardianship. A woman whose male ancestors (males in her father's line of his generation or before) had died was required to have a guardian throughout her life if her father wasn't living. The tutor was required to approve the woman's business dealings, women being regarded as not having the seriousness of mind necessary to conduct business. This institution had weakened substantially by this time, and became weaker so that women could name their own tutors or under certain circumstances be allowed not to have one. However, the sort of adverse guardianship that would have been created by Turia's opponents would surely have been neither tolerant nor beneficial to her interests.
Concerning her fiance's - or perhaps husband's - absence on this occasion, more should be said, as this circumstance sets the stage for her further extraordinary acts. As mentioned earlier, it seems likely that his alliance was with Pompey. After Pompey's death in 48, all of his followers were forbidden to return to Italy without special permission. Turia saves the situation: She talks him into hiding himself and he follows her superior judgement. She organized his finances during this exile, and managed to sneak money, servants and provisions to him. This saved his life. As if this weren't enough, during his absence, a gang attempted to break into their house - purchased from T. Annius Milo, a famous politico and peter-do-well, known to us principally because of a speech Cicero composed in defense of Milo on a charge of murder. Her husband describes her as warding them off and defending the house.
In his absence, his troubles increase. Caesar's successors, including his great-nephew, the future emperor Augustus, Marcus Antonius, and the much less accomplished Marcus Lepidus became the new force to reckon with, as partners in the 2nd Triumvirate. They immediately set about solidifying their control and getting rid of their enemies. It seems clear that her husband, as one of these, was "proscribed." This means that his name appeared on a list of enemies of the triumvirs - there were thousands of them, Cicero being the most famous. These individuals were marked for death and their property was Confi scated. Her last, and from his point of view, greatest act of heroism, occurred when he was proscribed. She worked assiduously to persuade the future emperor to recall her husband. He proved persuadable, but another of the triumvirs, Lepidus, disagreed, and he actually had the administration of Italy at this time. She implored him, an act her husband calls, "The bitterest thing that happened to me in my life."
"You lay prostrate at his feet, and you were not only not raised up, but were dragged away and carried off brutally like a slave. But although your body was full of bruises, your spirit was unbroken and you kept reminding him of Caesar's edict... you pronounced the words of the edict in a loud voice, so that it should be known who was the cause of my deadly perils. This matter was soon to prove harmful for him."
Of course, Lepidus was discarded by his two colleagues within a few years, although we can't attribute it to this episode.
In all of these episodes, we can see Turia's extraordinarily resolute and effective behavior in confronting violence, legal trickery, brigandage, political enmity. She must have repeatedly been called upon to act aggressively outside the home. Her main weapons are her courage, tenacity, and conviction; these traits, along with the confidence and education her status gave her, her apparent persuasiveness, and her family connections brought about her success in each case. The vague wording of the epitaph conceals the rest."
Thursday, July 19, 2007
I just finished listening to the unabridged version of Steven Saylor's new epic novel "Roma". I was particularly intrigued by a reference to a court case involving a significant number of Roman women who conspired to poison their husbands and male relatives. After an extensive investigation that reached into the villas of the wealthy, a number of the women were found guilty and executed. Knowing how carefully Steven researches his books, I felt certain that this incident must have been based on fact. So I began researching it. Although I haven't found this particular incident I did find an article about women who had the force of will to personally take on the Roman courts discussed as part of a larger work on The Parable of the Feisty Widow and the Threatened Judge (Luke 18.1–8) by Wendy Cotter of Loyola University that I found quite interesting:
"A. J. Marshall’s article ‘Ladies at Law: The Role of Women in the Roman Civil Courts’ 23 focuses attention on the evidence found in an essay of Valerius Maximus (c.14–30 ce). The title of the essay, ‘Women who Pleaded before Magistrates for Themselves or for Others’, is sufficient to indicate its oddity in that society, and his introduction explains why:
Nor should I be silent about those women whose natural condition and the modesty of the matron’s robe could not make them keep silent in the Forum and the courts of law.24
Women’s ‘natural condition’ belonged in the domestic, private sphere of the
home, not in the public male domain of the courts, and any woman who frequented
public male space would be seen to be inviting male attention and violating
‘the modesty of the matron’s robe’.25
There are three examples given of women who broke these codes of social
decency: a heroine, a charmer, and a scandalous busybody. First, Hortensia, the
daughter of a deceased senator-friend of Valerius, is said to have strode into court
interrupting the triumvirs to challenge their ruling that Roman women whose
husbands were at war should pay a war tax. The astonished judges sat dumbfounded
while she argued before them. Valerius shows himself benign towards
her as he recalls his friendship with her father,26 but Appian’s record of the same
event is devoid of that sentiment:
'While Hortensia thus spoke the triumvirs were angry that women should
dare to hold a public meeting when the men were silent; that they should
demand from magistrates the reasons for their acts, and themselves not so
much as furnish money while the men were serving in the army. They
ordered the lictors to drive them away from the tribunal.'27
The triumvirs are incensed that the women held a ‘public’ meeting, since women
belong in the private sphere and should be modestly unassuming in public.
Moreover, the anger of the triumvirs relates to a sort of sexual role reversal that
had taken place, for Hortensia was lecturing while the triumvirs, taken by surprise,
were silent and appeared passive. Their command that the lictors ‘drive
them away’ is an effort to reestablish the proper social and sexual roles, with men
inside the courts and women outside.
In the second story, Maesia of Sentinum seems to have possessed a charming
manner so that she impressed the judges with her well-formed arguments. They
sought to compliment her with the epithet of ‘Androgyne’ because, they reasoned,
‘she bore a man’s spirit under the form of a woman’.28 That is, to their
minds, the only reason that Maesia was able to argue rationally and fittingly was
because, in effect, she had a man’s spirit in spite of having a woman’s form.
Finally there is Carfania, the dreaded wife of a senator, who used her position
to attend court constantly and argue her own cases, ‘not because she could not
find advocates, but because she had impudence to spare’. Valerius Maximus calls
her ‘a notorious example of female litigiousness’, so that ‘women of shameless habit are taunted with the name Carfania by way of reproach’.29 In fact, Carfania’s
behaviour was never forgotten by Roman lawyers or magistrates, as seen in
the Ulpian Digest III.1.1.5, which forbids women to appear before a praetor,
specifically mentioning Carfania by name.30 Juvenal’s Satire 6 uses just such
a Carfania-like character called Manilia as an extreme example of social
There was never a case in court in which the quarrel was not started by a
woman. If Manilia is not a defendant, she’ll be the plaintiff; she will herself
frame and adjust the pleadings; she will be ready to instruct Celsus [a
fashionable lawyer] himself how to open his case and how to urge his
These examples demonstrate the intolerance in Roman culture of women’s
involvement with the courts... - The Parable of the Feisty Widow and the
Threatened Judge (Luke 18.1–8) WENDY COTTER C.S.J.Loyola University, Chicago, Illinois, USA.
23 A. J. Marshall, ‘Ladies at Law: The Role of Women in the Roman Civil Courts’, Studies in Latin
Literature and Roman History V (ed. Carl Deroux; Brussels: Latomus. Revue D’Études
Latines, 1989) 35–54.
24 Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings (trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey; LCL;
Cambridge, MA/London: Harvard University, 2000) VIII.3.1–3.
25 See the examples offered by Valerius Maximus on ‘The Punishment of Wives in Early Rome’, among which he sites the decision of Gaius Sulpicius Gallus to divorce his wife ‘because he had caught her outdoors with her head uncovered: a stiff penalty but not without a certain logic. “The law,” he said, “prescribes for you my eyes alone to which you may prove your beauty. . . . If you with needless provocation invite the look of anyone else, you must be suspected of wrongdoing.”’ Another case involves Publius Sempronius Sophus, ‘who disgraced his wife with divorce merely because she dared attend the games without his knowledge’. Valerius Maximus concludes his review with the approving comment: ‘And so, long ago, when the misdeeds of women were thus forstalled, their minds stayed far from wrongdoing.’ - Valerius Maximus, Memorable Deeds and Sayings, VI.3.9–12.
26 Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, VIII.3.3. See also the praise of Quintilian:
‘In parents I should wish that there be as much learning as possible. Nor do I speak, indeed
merely of fathers; for we have heard of that Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi (whose very
learned writing in her letters has come down to posterity), contributed greatly to their eloquence;
. . . and the oration of the daughter of Quintus Hortensius, delivered before the
Triumviri, is read not merely as an honor to her sex.’
27 Appian, The Civil Wars (trans. Horace White; LCL; London: Heinemann/New York:
Macmillan, 1913) IV.5.34.
28 Valerius Maximus, Memorable Doings and Sayings, VIII.3.1.
29 Ibid., VIII.3.2, emphasis mine.
30 ‘origo uero introducta est a Carfania improbissima femina, quae inuerecunde postulans et
magistratum inquietans causam dedit edicto.’ For this reference I am indebted to Marshall,
‘Ladies at Law’, 44.
31 Juvenal, Satires (trans. G. G. Ramsay; London: Heinemann/New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons,
Monday, July 02, 2007
I mentioned in a post about Steven Saylor's new novel "Roma" that I was surprised at how long the Gauls "sacked " Rome - almost seven months. It's no wonder the threat of a Gaul invasion remained in the Roman consciousness for centuries. However, politicians of the late Roman Republic did not overlook the opportunity to exploit this common fear either to accomplish their goals. Both Cicero of the Optimates and Julius Caesar of the Populares manipulated this "organizational memory" to their advantage:
"Most of the migrating Gauls who invaded the Italian peninsula in
the early fourth century B.C. had settled down to farm the Po valley;
the sack of Rome in about 390 B.c., whose memory stayed vivid in
Roman national tradition, was the work of outlying stragglers, a roaming
band of Senones. Intermittent conflicts with the Po valley tribes
ended with the whole area coming under Roman control c.190 B.c.;
even Hannibal had raised only belated and partial support there. It
was not Celtic tribes but Germans coming from further afield, the
Cimbri and Teutoni, who in 109-101 B.C. invaded the Transalpine
province, defeated three Roman armies, and finally were defeated by
Marius, the Teutoni at Aix-en-Provence and the Cimbri in northern
Italy at Vercellae. Twenty years later, Romans apparently felt secure
enough to own and operate farms in the Province (Cicero, pro
Quinctio 12ff.; cf. Varro R.R. 3.12.1), though there are some signs of
restlessness. Pompey encountered some obstruction from tribesmen on
his way through Transalpine Gaul in 76 B.C. (Cicero, de imp. Cn.
Thus, there had been little real danger since the early second
century; however, the lurking fear remained and was exploited by
Roman politicians. As is well known, Cicero made use of a group of
envoys from the Allobroges as double agents, and possibly to some
extent agents provocateurs, to secure evidence for the arrest of the
Catilinarian conspirators. These envoys were in Rome to make
representations about the exactions of the Roman governor and
Roman money-lenders (Sallust, Cat. 40). They evidently failed to
obtain satisfaction, because in the following two years there was an
uprising amongst them (Caesar B.G. 1.6, 44).' At the time in 63 B.c.,
however, they were willing to help the Roman consul, perhaps because
he had given them some sort of undertaking as the price of their help.
His own explanation of the reason for their cooperation is no explanation
at all. The cause, Cicero surmises, was divine intervention
(In Catil. 3.22). For the purposes of his indictment of the conspirators
the Gauls must not be allowed themselves to have any sentiments
towards Rome other than hostility and aggression. They are 'unknown
and barbarous' and Lentulus and his associates would never have
confided in them if the gods had not robbed them of their commonsense.
Gaul is a race imperfectly pacified, the only nation remaining
which appears to have the power - and not to lack the will - to make
war on Rome. In the fourth Catilinarian, Cicero speaks in terms that
recall, without actually mentioning, the sack by the Senones. The aim
of the conspirators' activity has been to set up the tribe of the
Allobroges amid the ruins of Rome and on the ashes of the government
overthrown (4.12 - compare the way in which in the third
Catilinarian 3.9, the Gauls' evidence that they had been told to supply
cavalry is sandwiched between references to the conspirators' alleged
intention to commit wholesale massacre and arson). In short, Cicero
trusted the Allobrogic envoys; but he represents them as untrustworthy.
Caesar represents the danger to Rome from the Gauls as arising in
part from the nature of the Gauls themselves and in part from the
pressure they were experiencing from Germanic peoples. Different
areas of Gaul varied in their degree of political development. Those
areas nearest the Province show most signs of having come under the
influence of Roman political institutions, those further away progressively
less so. The Celtic tribes in particular, of whom Caesar
singles out for mention three important sections - the Arverni, the
Aedui, and the Helvetii - had already abandoned hereditary kingship
and instead had magistrates, annually elected and answerable to
councils, and public codes of law (see, e.g., 1.3-4, 16, 19; 7.4, 32ff.).2
The tribes further away, the northern Celts, the Aremorican tribes,
and the Belgae, both those on the mainland and those in Britain, still
retained kingship. The Germanic tribes beyond the Rhine, according
to Caesar, were still pastoral, without settled agriculture, and accepted
a centralized authority only in time of war (6.22-23).
The first of these groups, i.e., primarily the Celtic peoples, were
evolving a type of government that was familiar to the Romans and with
which they could deal by familiar methods. Treaties and promises of
friendship already existed between some of them and the Romans.
However, these governments, according to Caesar, were still far from
stable. Of the Gauls in general he remarks (6.1 l), 'Not only every
tribe, canton, and subdivision of a canton, but almost every family,
is divided into rival factions'. This, he says, is an ancient custom,
providing the common people with patrons and protectors among the
more powerful. The same factions, however, could be and were used
to support attempts to seize monarchic power. Powerful men, says
Caesar, and those who could afford to hire mercenaries, commonly
usurped thrones (2.1). In the context, he appears to be referring to
the Belgae, but in his narrative elsewhere we find monarchic ambitions
imputed to the Helvetian Orgetorix (1.2), the Aeduan Dumnorix
(1.9ff.), and hinted at in Vercingetorix (7.4, 20), while the anxiety
shown in the treatment of suspected usurpers is reminiscent of Livy's
accounts of the hypersensitive reactions of citizens of the infant Roman
Orgetorix' kingly ambitions are said to have induced him to organize
a conspiracy and to persuade his people, by holding out prospects of
conquering the whole of Gaul, to emigrate en masse. He then persuaded
Dumnorix the Aeduan and a Sequanian named Casticus to
make similar attempts to seize royal power. Their ultimate aim, according
to Caesar, was to set up an empire, under their joint control,
over the whole of Gaul. Caesar, then, in moving against the Helvetii,
was warding off the imminent rise of a strong, united, and imperialistic
power in Gaul. The Helvetic invasion, on this view, had nothing
to do with the Aedui and their problems as a people, but originated
in the personal treasonable ambitions of the individuals named. Yet
the unmasking of Orgetorix apparently does not lead to Dumnorix'
fall from influence among the Aedui, and the Helvetii still persist
with their invasion - as they naturally would, had they in fact been
answering an appeal for help from the Aeduan nation.
The Aedui, to whom the Senate had accorded the title 'Brothers
and Kinsmen of the Roman People' (1.33) had in 61 B.C. approached
the Romans for help against the Sequani and Ariovistus, but without
success (6.12). Caesar as consul in 59 B.C. had secured for
Ariovistus the titles 'King' and 'Friend of the Roman People', possibly in the hope of delaying the eruption of trouble for Rome's clients
beyond the frontier of the Transalpine Province, while he pursued his
original intention, using the legions based at Aquileia (1.10), of an
Illyrian campaign. The campaigns against the Helvetii and Ariovistus,
being beyond the frontier of the Province, needed justification, and
this Caesar is at pains to provide. The Helvetii were a threat to the
Province (1 .lo, 30) -not very plausible geographically, had they really
been bound for the country of the Santoni; injuries to Rome's allies
(1.11, 14) and to the Romans themselves in the past (1.7, 12, 13, 30)
are also cited. The defence of loyal allies is also mentioned as a reason
for opposing Ariovistus (1.45), despite Caesar's previous fobbing-off
of those same allies. Since Ariovistus was a 'Friend' the case against
him is harder to establish. In the end, Caesar lays most stress on
Ariovistus' arrogance and truculence and on the 'German menace'.
'If the Germans gradually formed a habit of crossing the Rhine and
entering Gaul in large numbers, he saw how dangerous it would be for
the Romans. If these fierce Barbarians occupied the whole of Gaul, the
temptation would be too strong for them; they would cross the
frontier into the Province, as the Cimbri and Teutoni had done before
them and march on Italy' (1.33; cf. 1.40). Ariovistus is allowed in
1.44 to suggest that to be a Friend of the Roman People ought to
be the basis of advantages for both parties. Caesar does not pursue the
implications of this. The answer he provides for his Roman audience
(1.45) is that Rome had the prior claim to the area, should she choose
to exercise it." - Greece & Rome, 2nd Ser., Vol. 30, No. 2. (Oct., 1983)
Sunday, July 01, 2007
I was thrilled to see that The Teaching Company has added a 36-lecture series on the Roman Emperors to their Classics offerings. I've already received mine and look forward to listening to it.
"They are said to be the most powerful rulers who ever lived—a checkered mix of the wise, the brutal, and the unhinged. For more than five centuries they presided over a multi-ethnic empire that was nearly always at war, if not with neighbors then with rebellious factions within the empire itself. The full scope of their powers was not systematized in constitutional law, a fact that tempted many of them to overreach disastrously; and the lack of clear rules of succession meant that most of them died violently.
Yet, on balance, the emperors of Rome served as a stabilizing influence in a realm that straddled three continents and covered more than 32 modern nation-states, with a population numbering about 60 million souls at the height of Roman prosperity.
Rulers Treated as Gods
How did this system of rule come about? What did it replace? And who were the colorful, cruel, and crafty men who filled this almost omnipotent post? Television series such as I, Claudius have explored the complex personalities of several of the better-known emperors, whom you will meet in depth in this course:
- Augustus: Known as Octavian during the long civil wars that extinguished the Roman Republic, he titled himself "Augustus," the first emperor of Rome, after vanquishing all rivals and becoming the undisputed strong man of the sprawling empire.
- Caligula: Supposedly the most deranged Roman emperor of all, Caligula executed people indiscriminately, sent his troops on nonsensical maneuvers, and famously invited his favorite horse to dinner and planned to make him consul. But were his crimes exaggerated by ancient sources?
- Claudius: Reputedly a halfwit who was named Caligula's successor by the imperial guards on a whim, Claudius may actually have connived in Caligula's murder and arranged his own elevation. Whatever his route to power, his reign was surprisingly successful.
- Nero: As emperor, Nero performed in chariot races, dramas, and poetry recitals. The "fiddle" he reportedly played while Rome burned was actually a lyre, but the mystery remains: Did he set the fire himself, was it an accident, or were the Christians really responsible, as he claimed?
- Trajan: Moderate at home and warlike abroad, Trajan was the perfect mix of Roman virtues. His reign inaugurated the period of the empire's greatest strength and stability, when emperors adopted their successors from among able army commanders. But that sensible policy did not last.
- Commodus: The son of the esteemed philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius, Commodus believed himself to be Hercules reincarnated—a role he enacted in the Colosseum in combats with wild beasts and gladiators. He renamed Rome and all the months of the year after himself.
- Diocletian: The Roman Empire seemed doomed to disintegration until this general rose to the top job. He subdivided imperial authority, established a new system of succession, and institutionalized the despotic powers of his office, giving the empire a new lease on life.
- Constantine: The first Christian emperor was apparently reluctant to forsake the old pagan gods; they continued to appear in official iconography. But Constantine's endorsement of Christianity and his founding of a new capital called Constantinople opened a new era of Western history.