Monday, August 31, 2009

The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens.

I recently read Matthew R. Christ's (MC, from now on) excellent and well researched study "The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens". I picked it up for a few reasons. Primary among them was that I wanted to do something on a period of ancient history before the coming of Rome, but up there was also the fact that I'd heard this book was a really fine one. That turned out to be true.

MC's aim in writing this book, as he states in his introduction, was to offer some balance to the discussion over the "Athenian experience" (that is, how it was to be an Athenian living in the 5th century B.C.E) by way of highlighting the "bad citizen", i.e. the citizen that shirked military duties, the paying of tax and other civil payments or "donations".

Essentially the argument is for us to eschew the romanticised portrait of Athenian citizens of being overwhelmingly patriotic and concerned more with public than self interest, and realise that the truth was a great deal murkier. In his introduction MC argues that the Athenian citizen (especially a wealthy one) was particularly adept at working his way around financial and civic obligations.

The work is accordingly separated into four sections covering three different ways in which a "bad citizen" shirks Athenian civic obligations. They are entitled: "The Self Interested Citizen", "The Reluctant Conscript", "The Cowardly Hoplite"and finally "The Artful Tax Dodger". The ways a bad citizen may manifest themselves are outlined as the following: attempting to avoid conscription, cowardice when on military duty and also the avoidance of financial obligations that the wealthiest citizens were subject to.

M.C argues in the "Self Interested Citizen" that the "Athenian Experience", as it were, was much more self-centred than is commonly said. He points towards certain anxieties apparent in our sources (comedy, tragedy and oratory) regarding the dichotomy within an Athenian citizen with respect to self interest and common duty to the civic body.

He claims that the entire Athenian system acknowledged the "self-interested" citizen, and so only aimed to enforce civic obligation when absolutely required. He rests this argument on the idea that Athenian democracy promoted individualism and equality, which promoted self interest but had certain inbuilt mechanisms for coercing civic duties out of the reluctant.

The next two chapters ("The Reluctant Conscript" and "The Cowardly Hoplite") cover MC's arguments regarding the bad citizen in relation to the military. MC argues that many were reluctant to be conscripted into the army, pointing towards the anxiety apparent in tragedy of this fact, and also the more straight forward notion that conscription was required because not enough would volunteer.

The latter chapter consists of M.C's quite excellent description of Athenian military life, and how it left much room for the bad citizen to manifest himself, be it via cowardice, desertion or a myriad of other ways.

The final section is an analysis of how the wealthiest Athenians actively avoided (or tried to reduce) the financial obligation put upon them by the state. M.C claims these Athenians practically made a full-time job out of tax evasion. He points towards the obligation placed on the richest citizens to fund public shows (the chorus in the theatre, for example) and also exceptional financial expectations put upon them during times of strife (such as the Persian Invasion, the Peloponnesian War and the loss of the Athenian Empire in the 4th century B.C.E).

The book is excellently argued, and nicely detailed. It's intensely difficult to disagree with M.C significantly at any stage - he paints a very convincing picture of the "Athenian Experience", and an altogether more convincing one the romantic norm. There is perhaps an element of wishful thinking (or jealously/envy) when those of us from the 20th and 21st Century imagine the patriotic and selfless Athenians and compare them to the intensely self interested citizens of today's wealthy nations, and attempting to see through this is a thoroughly worthy enterprise.

To that end M.C presents an excellent study, which has plenty of depth and strikes a chord as being full and sensible in it's conclusions regarding Athenian life. It remains thoroughly useful to question what is accepted, and in doing so here I believe M.C has managed to uncover something vital and interesting about the "Athenian Experience", and while there is much room for debate, that is of great service to us all.


Relevant bibliography:

Christ, M.R, "The Bad Citizen in Classical Athens", Cambridge (2006)


Interestingly, M.C recently reviewed a work by Peter Liddell which takes a profoundly different view of the interaction between individual and his city than the one M.C advocates. The review can be found here at Bryn Mawr and is extremely interesting, as M.C takes a 3rd person view, so to speak, and has to defend his work and criticise Liddell's different view. Read with his book, it can be seen as a sort of meta-self-commentary, which is both useful and interesting.

The debate here continues as M.C also reviewed Gabriel Herman's "Morality and Behaviour in Democratic Athens: A Social History", to which Herman has replied (all at Bryn Mawr).

M.C on Herman here.
Herman's response here.

For what it's worth, I'm still with M.C, because I think he's more convincing. Although I may have further thoughts to add to this after I chew it over a bit more.

Update: It's been chewed over, and I still agree with M.C. On the whole he's more agreeable, and he's certainly right when he mentions the very polemical nature of Herman's prose. That said, Herman makes some interesting points, especially with regards the uniqueness of Athenian society in so many ways. He's rather unforgiving, and although I would need to read his work fully to make a proper judgement, I'm leaning towards the more pessimistic view (as it's called - but is it?) of Athenian society.

Mary Beard on BBC 4.

Mary Beard was on BBC 4's Saturday Live this past weekend, and she was as entertaining as usual. Lots of interesting chit-chat and, of course, Beard's ruminations on the classics (and other things!).

The show lasts an hour, but it's quite worth listening to, even if it's just on in the background. There is some topical chat about drug addiction, and much more about the classics - her love of Latin, the enduring relevance of the the ancient world and some great tidbits about herself and her life.

Here is the link to the BBC Online player: Mary Beard on BBC 4.

Her blog online at the Times (called a Don's Life) is linked in my bloglist to the right of this post ----------->.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Syme and an "Augustan Party".

The following is a little edited version of an essay I wrote during my masters on the topic of whether or not the term "Augustan Party" is useful when talking about the period of Rome's history when The Divine Augustus (Son of the Divine Julius Caesar!) was Princeps.

The essay title was initially:

“Can we usefully talk about an Augustan Party, and if so, of whom did it consist and why did they support Augustus?”

Although, as was my terrible habit, I didn't necessarily answer the question. I think what comes is best considered a review/brief analysis of Ronald Syme's "The Roman Revolution" and the ideas therein, specifically with reference to an "Augustan Party".

Generally, as with the other old essays posted here, I'm quite happy with it. It contains some phrases that I wouldn't use now, a notion which can be applied to several aspects of it's style (i.e. I wouldn't employ them now) but I'm quite happy with the content, and while I'd perhaps posit something a little different now (Syme did, afterall, publish some follow up works, such as "the Augustan Aristocracy" which showed his views had evolved somewhat), I think it's an OK (if not first rate) essay on an interesting topic.

I do apologise for how lengthy this is. In the event that anyone does read it, I hope it was not too painful.


In 1939 Ronald Syme released a book entitled “The Roman Revolution”. Unapologetically and somewhat abrasively, he set out to challenge the conviction that the Augustan Age was one of overwhelmingly successful cultural, social and political change, smoothly implemented and controlled. This view, Syme rightfully claims, I think, is “simply panegyric” (Syme, Preface, pg.8) and he then sets out to prove Augustus as despot and tyrant. The impact of Syme’s work cannot be understated, indeed the difficult questions about exactly how Augustan power was manifest have been coloured by his work since its release. One of the specific claims that Syme makes is that there existed an “Augustan Party” that oversaw the successful change from Republic to Principate. Syme dedicates a chapter to the topic, arguing for the existence of such a party on the basis of German scholarship on the prosopography of the period. It’s the aim of this short essay to discuss Syme’s assertion that there was a “Party of Augustus”, to see whether that term is useful or not and if so, to consider whom it consisted of and why they supported Augustus.

Syme begins by saying that the “modest origins” of the Octavian faction are betrayed by its founders name [Syme, pg.349]. Although he’s not too clear at this juncture what exactly he means, the fact that Octavian was provincial in origin comes full circle by the end of the chapter. Nevertheless, Syme is attempting to illustrate that Octavian and his party come from somewhat humble backgrounds, indeed Syme makes mention that prior to his marriage to Livia, only one supporter of his faction comes from a Consular family (Cn. Domitius Calvinus) [Syme, pg.368]. This talk of Octavian’s origin crops up later when Syme attempts to justify his view of latter Augustan policy, and so it’s worth bearing in mind for the time being. Syme moves on to a commentary of the senatorial purges of 28 B.C under the Consulship(s) of Octavian and Agrippa. Syme, quite reasonably, considers this a preparatory move for the coming restoration of the state in early 27. B.C. Dio tells us that some two hundred “undesirables” had retirement firmly suggested to them. [Dio, 52.42.1]. Syme considers it clear, and most modern scholarship agrees, that this purge was very much dealing with the three hundred senators that had sided with Antonius prior to Actium, or at the very least the ones from that group that were unrepentant [Syme, pg.349]. Those left, Syme says, were the “Caesarion partisans and successful renegades” [Syme, pg.350]. He claims they were aware of the true purpose of Augustus’s reforms and the irony therein [Syme, pg.351]. The damage done to the aristocracy was to be healed by the creating of a new one, which Syme goes on to discuss.

One of the central tenets of Syme’s conception of an “Augustan Party” is the new role of the Equestrian order in public affairs. He considers promotion into and above the order to have been made vastly easier during the Augustan age [Syme, pg.352], with the primary justification for such promotions being military service. He illustrates the process by hyperbole when saying “sons of knights, knights themselves and finally Thracian and Illyrian brigands became Emperors of Rome” [Syme, pg.352]. “The Roman Revolution”, Syme contends, “opened up a path of promotion, which the new state perpetuated, for the common soldier” [Syme, pg.353]. He makes mention that it was feasible to be promoted or to gain Equestrian status through finance prior to the Augustan period, but that there was no organised and established dynamic for promotion from Centurion to Equestrian posts [Syme, pg.353]. Syme tells us that promotion to the Equestrian ranks happened in two ways [Syme, pg.354]. Firstly, that a soldier or soldier’s sons earned the rank through military service – he uses an example, from Suetonius’s live of the Divine Vespasian [Sue. Div. Vesp. 1] that illustrates how Vespasian’s grandfather was a Pompeian veteran who had a son that was of Equestrian status, and whose son, in turn, became Emperor. The second mode of promotion was through being a freedman. Augustus was to employ a great deal of freedmen as secretaries, especially in financial duties [Syme, pg.354]. The natural step up from this process was that the “choice flowers” of the Equestrian ranks could be promoted to the senate (Syme, pg.354). Syme thus labels knights as the “cardinal factor in the whole social, military and political structure of the new State” [Syme, pg.355]. Under Augustus, then, Syme considers the Equestrian order somewhat divorced from the murky politics it may have engaged in during the Republic (primarily in tax gathering and the various dishonesties arising from it) and granted it a new “dignity and usefulness” [Syme, pg.355]. For Syme this part-stratification of the Equestrian order under Augustus was manifest in the practice of giving the Latus Clavus (a mark of senatorial birth) to promising young Equestrians (notably among them, although he decided not to pursue such an end, was the poet Ovid). The result was that loyalty and service now allowed the able of humble origin to “ennoble their family for ever” [Syme, pg.359]. Thus this process allowed Augustus to ensure that the senate was filled with “good, opulent men from the colonies and municipia” [Syme, pg.359]. These men, Syme claims, were the “backbone” of the Augustan faction [Syme, pg.359]. This order of promotion and senatorial establishment reverberated into the provinces as it was now possible to truly make something of oneself - an early Roman incarnation of the American Dream, to put it in crude terms. Syme concludes his chapter by going back to the beginning. He asserts that Augustus was no more than “a small town bourgeois, devoted and insatiable in admiration of social distinction” [Syme, pg.368]. The upshot of Syme’s argument here is that Augustus desired to have the old aristocracy support him, but when it was obvious that would not happen like he may have imagined (many of them were dead, many had supported Antonius) he set about re-creating the aristocracy, outsourcing it, so to speak, and developing it into a new body that owed everything to the system he had set in place.

Thus, this was Syme’s conception of an “Augustan Party”. In search of a balances narrative, I’d now like to pass over the question regarding the veracity of Syme’s argument, assume it sound for the time being, and consider the departure question of who was in this party and why did they support Augustus?

The striking point of Syme’s argument is that initially Augustus had few supporters, indeed the “Augustan Party” was a deliberate creation to fill this gap. The period of civil strife prior to the Augustan Age had much depleted the traditional aristocratic talent pool, leaving any Augustan Party rather empty. As mentioned earlier, Syme considers this problem solved by Augustus’s streamlining of promotion into and above the Equestrian class. The rub of this very deliberate act, Syme contends, was to create a new aristocracy, a group of “novis homines” that would have standing in the Empire yet also support Augustus. It’s perhaps a little crude, but Syme’s sentiments can be echoed by saying that the Augustan party initially contained no-one of real note and eventually contained everyone, with “everyone” representing, of course, the elite only. In summation, then, Syme considers the Augustan Party to comprise of the new aristocracy. This new body consisted of senators and equestrians that owed their status to him. The make up of this new aristocracy, and indeed the creation of it, was very much a product of the depleted aristocracy of the late Republic, Syme claims:

“The old families had been decimated by a generation of civil wars: the sons of the slain were found willing to make their peace with the military dynast. Augustus bent all his efforts to attaching these young ‘nobiles’ to his person, to his family and to the new system” [Syme, pg.368].

Syme is typically interested in depicting Augustus as tyrant, but nonetheless I think the make up of the Augustan Party, that Syme advocates, is now somewhat clearer: Able soldiers capable of promotion to equestrian rank; equestrians themselves capable of achieving senatorial rank through loyalty and service and also, interestingly, the new generation of the old aristocracy - now unable to rely on their forebears and instead reliant on Augustus for status, and so the party consisted of, Syme says, “diverse elements, the most ancient Patrician houses and the most recent of careerists” [Syme, pg.368]. Still, it is important to stress that, for Syme, the aristocracy was new, and was an Augustan creation. He did not force the elite to join his party, but rather created a new elite altogether that was inherently Augustan from its very conception. Syme is also at ends to point out that this new aristocracy was able to rely heavily on the provincial elite for its numbers, a fact that he attributes to Augustus as the “small town bourgeois” [Syme, pg.368] orientated towards his own class. The question thus arises of why These men allowed their crafting into an Augustan party - why did they support him? Syme’s answer is a natural continuation from his argument regarding who was in the party. This new created “Augustan Party” owed its aristocratic status to Augustus, he is, as Syme argues in a later chapter, the “master of Patronage” [Syme, pg.369ff]. That, then, was the reason they supported him - he had been the arbiter of their fate and it was thanks to him that their status has been gained. As Syme states:

“The Princeps controlled access to all positions of honour and emolument in the senatorial career, dispensing to his adherents magistracies, priesthoods and provincial commands. The Quaestorship admitted a man to the highest order in state and society, the cons ululate brought nobility and a place in the front ranks of the oligarchy” [Syme, pg.369].

This situation is how Syme articulates the support for the Augustan Party - they supported him because their status and livelihood depended on it. Syme very much emphasises the dynamic of patronage. Augustus assumed the role of patron to the members of his party and so their dependence on him ensured their support. Although on a grandiose scale compared to earlier times, Augustus was the most powerful patron there had ever been and so the patron relationship as an explanation for support for the Augustan Party remains a fruitful one.

In the almost 70 years since the release of “The Roman Revolution” the concept of an “Augustan Party” has rightfully been debated. The scholarly force and abrasiveness of Syme’s account has ensured its legacy, but nonetheless many have taken issue with his arguments for the existence of any kind of “Augustan Party”. These criticisms cover a vast amount of interpretations of Syme’s work from the veracity of prosopography, to the overwhelmingly Tacitean distaste he has of the Principate. Having discussed Syme’s chapter, it’s now my intention to discuss these criticisms and attempt to see whether or not Syme’s term “Augustan Party” remains a useful one.

One of the most interesting criticisms of Syme is that the context he was writing in (the so-called Inter-War period, between the Two World Wars) has very much coloured his account. This is, of course, the nature of any writing, but the distinction here is that the atmosphere of the 1930s is so very overt that it in someway affects his arguments for the existence of an Augustan Party. One of the startling things read into The Roman Revolution is that Syme’s portrayal of Augustus metamorphosis into “gambler and terrorist, into the most exalted father of the fatherland, Augustus Pater Patriae, invoked comparisons with the dictatorships of Mussolini and Franco, Hitler and Stalin” [Galsterer, pp.2-3]. One doesn’t need to look far to find terms associated heavily with that period, either. For example Syme labels Augustus’s rise to power as being based upon “the seizure of power and redistribution of property by the revolutionary leader” [Syme, pg.2]; he constantly refers to Augustus as the “military dynast” or “tyrant”. On the surface, it’s not difficult to see the parallels between the use of these terms and the atmosphere the book was written under. Syme consistently argues for a picture of Augustus as dictator and despot, which very much broke from previous tradition. When one considers why he perhaps places such vast emphasis on Augustus as negative, it is possible that he was being swayed by his understanding of tyranny, dictatorship and despotism in 1930s Europe. The consequences for this, if it is indeed a just criticism, are that his understanding of how the political process worked during the Augustan age is based heavily upon how the same processes worked in 1930s Europe, which at best leaves Syme guilty of anachronism and at worst throws his entire conception of an Augustan Party into jeopardy. For example, it has been argued that Syme eschewed the old methods of historical interpretation (those based on ideology and constitutions) because they had been dominant in the political discourse that followed the First World War, and instead focused on the individual, as increasingly it was the individual that dominated the world stage – Hitler, Stalin etc. [Galsterer, pg.4]. His goal here would be to reconstruct Augustan politics based on the players involved in it.

The shift of emphasis he employed here is not problematic in itself, but if it was a move influenced by the political processes of the 1930s then it becomes problematic. To elaborate: understanding Augustan Politics with a framework used to understand 1930s European politics is to anachronistically apply a method that is detrimental to the veracity of ones understanding. I think it’s easy to sympathise with this criticism. The 1930s was an immensely thick period of ideology and politics in Europe, and elements of it do seem manifest in Syme’s approach to the Augustan period. Nevertheless, use of such a method by Syme does not necessarily preclude it being useful. The shifted emphasis to the individual in Augustan politics that Syme employed has proven widely influential. It has facilitated discussion regarding the Augustan political processes that might not have happened to the same degree otherwise. For example, his contentions have forced serious discussion on how Augustan politics truly worked. As he stated was his intentions, he has provoked discussion and criticism [Syme, preface, pg.9]. Strictly, then, the criticism is valid. Syme does seem to have allowed 1930s politics to have permeated his work, especially in how he conceives of an Augustan party through emphasis on the individual. While the criticism may call his reasoning into question, it leaves his argument standing. His use of modern political processes to understand Augustan ones is a useful exercise, and as such the idea that an Augustan Party existed remains a useful one.

Closely connected is the criticism of prosopography as a discipline. Syme makes his debt to prosopography clear:

“It will at once be evident how much the conception of the nature of Roman politics here expounded owes to the supreme example and guidance of Münzer: but for his work on Republican family-history, this book could hardly have existed” [Syme, preface, pg.8].

Prosopography is the study of individuals in a collective sense that can facilitate historical understanding that would otherwise be hidden. The method is heavily based on the scant evidence we have for individuals, inscriptional and literary, although usually the former. This method features heavily in Syme’s work, and his whole basis for an Augustan Party is argued upon the evidence prosopography provides. Generally speaking, Prosopography is a useful field. It allows one, as it did Syme, to consider a collective group of individuals and perhaps come up with some historical insight. Syme uses prosopography to paint a picture of Augustan politics as large and connected political family – a party, so to speak. Syme’s employment of prosopography allows him to identify the individuals of Augustan politics and to interconnect them, that is to say that he uses prosopographical evidence to establish a Party for Augustus. As Syme says in the opening line of his chapter on the topic:

“The modest origins of the faction of Octavianus stand revealed in the names of its foundation-members: and subsequent accessions have been indicated from time to time. It grew steadily in numbers and in dignity as Caesar’s heir recruited followers and friends from the camps of his adversaries until in the end, by stripping Antonius, it not merely swallowed up the old Caesarian party but secured the adhesion of a large number of Republicans and could masquerade as a national party” [Syme pg.349]

This is a clear statement of how Syme uses prosopography. He analyses the extant evidence of individual careers and ties their achievements into their involvement in an Augustan Party. An example is that Syme conceives the Augustan party to have only one supporter from a consular family before Augustus marries Livia [Syme, pg.368]. The method at work here is somewhat hidden, but Syme has used prosopography to look for links between Augustus and consular families and came to the conclusion that few links existed prior to his marriage. The problems of how Syme incorporates prosopography into his arguments are vast. Firstly, prosopography is a method that can only be as useful as the evidence it utilises. Although we have much inscriptional evidence, there is easily as much that is lost to us. The gaps could indicate conflicting evidence, but that is unknown to us. Furthermore, prosopography is notably divided in veracity along Republican/Imperial lines [Galsterer, pp.10-11]. An example is that we have almost no inscriptional evidence for the career of Marcus Crassus, the Triumvir and large character of the late Republic, prior to his Spanish proconsulship in 72/71 B.C, despite the fact that he likely spent time climbing the cursus honorum prior to that [Galsterer, pg.10]. On the converse, we know every office held by the Senators Iulius Severus and Lollius Urbicus during the 2nd century A.D, despite them being much more minor characters [Galsterer, pg.10]. That the Augustan age falls right on the “crossroads of republican and imperial prosopography” [Galsterer, pp.10-11] presents us with a problem, for the prosopographical evidence could be somewhat lacking in one respect, but present in others. As such, any argument based on the prosopographical evidence we have for the Augustan age would be tainted. Syme’s argument very much loses some veracity owing to this problem, for if the evidence is lacking then his argument will similarly be left wanting.

Related is how Syme interprets the prosopographical evidence. Much has been made of the “mechanical” [Galsterer, pg.11] understanding of the evidence. Galsterer makes the useful point that “if a Fabius had married an Aemilia and was consul together with a Sempronius Gracchus, this should indicate an alliance among the Fabii, Aemilii and Sempronii. Moreover, if, two generations later, a Fabius and a Sempronius Gracchus were once again colleagues, this would indicate that such an alliance had continued through all this time” [Galsterer, pp.10-11]. Galsterer admits that this may be an overstatement, but I think the rhetorical force of his objection remains quite strong. The lateral way that Syme interprets the prosopography that allows him to conjecture for the existence of an Augustan party is questionable. The work of Christian Meier, “Res Publica Amissa” specifically, has further rejected the idea of straight links between individuals, for Roman politics is far too complex for such alliances, and indeed the factional theory altogether, to endure. An offshoot of this is that Syme overlooks individual agency in order to see the “mechanical” prosopographical links, when indeed the role of the individual and their personal aims and political alliances was surely important in following Augustus. Furthermore, another fault of the prosopographical approach is that it is very much elite oriented. The nature of the evidence it uses – inscriptional – means that other elements of society are excluded because they are not the subject of inscription. On this occasion one of the most obvious omissions is the rank and file of the army. The fact that much of Augustus’s power was military based – and Syme stresses his role as military dictator – makes the omission of the army rank and file as a central element of any Augustan Party somewhat suspicious. Syme does make mention of the army in how he conceives of promotion through the Equestrian class, but that emphasis lies on how such promotion develops a new aristocracy – the army in general is very much left out in “”The Roman revolution”. Syme has remedied this to an extent is more recent work, the “Danubian Papers” specifically, but how the army fits into the conception of an Augustan Party is still not clear.

The criticism of Syme’s use of prosopography is quite convincing, I feel. The problems presented by limited evidence and questionable methods of interpreting that evidence leave Syme’s idea of an Augustan Party quite damaged. That prosopography, as he admits himself, underpins his entire argument means that any weakness in it necessarily means a weakness in his argument itself. In light of this, it would seem that the term “Augustan Party” is somewhat misleading, and not especially useful for really describing Augustan Politics.

Related, again, is the overwhelmingly Republican character of the work. Syme admits himself that Tacitus, Pollio and Sallust are his main literary sources and inspirations, all of them “Republican in sentiment” [Syme preface, pg.7]. The Tacitean quality of the work has been recognized by many. Michael Comber, for example, called Syme and Tacitus the “two great Roman historians” [Comber, pg.214] in an article on the topic. The problem that this presents is that Syme is liable to fall into the same limitations and overt prejudices of those historians, Tacitus especially. As the most Republican of men, Tacitus was very distasteful of the entire Principate, Tiberius most notably. His lack of zeal of the Augustan Age also shone through in the opening parts of his “Annals”, as he briefly describes Rome being subjugated by the first Emperor. The negative focus on Augustus, and the Tacitean method more generally, that Syme readily adopts has some consequences for his argumentation. Syme would have us believe that Augustus created for himself such massive prestige in the lamentable absorption of every available power that the only available career path for the aristocracy was under his aegis. It was through the necessity of his support that the Augustan Party developed. Tacitus found this situation incredibly saddening. A familiar vein running through his works, from the Annals to the Agricola and the Dialogus is that the men of the Republic could be great owing to their skills and talents, which they received great acclaim for. All great men under the Principate were subservient to the greatest man – the Emperor. The Tacitean, and consequently Republican, character of Syme’s work presents a quandary. It obviously creates a very strong bias, but that hardly makes Syme’s theories less powerful, no more than they do that of Tacitus. Rather, I think, they present the historian with something to keep in mind while reading Syme. He wanted his work to truly jostle the established order, and the abrasive qualities of his writing often have one questioning how bias he truly is, yet the quality of his work still shines through these possible indiscretions. The criticism of his work having a Republican bent, much like the criticism that the 1930s permeated much of it, is very much something to be aware of, but ultimately leave the edifice of his theory still standing. The usefulness of the term “Augustan Party” is somewhat affected, to its detriment, by this fact, for it now holds within it not just the influence of the 1930s political process, the problems of prosopography but now also the possible Republican bias inherent in conceiving of its existence.

Assessing whether or not Syme’s use of the term “Augustan Party” is useful is notoriously difficult. The sheer impact of Syme’s work on the topic has lead to his being called “The Emperor of Roman History” [Bowerstock, pp.8-13]. The term can be misleading. For example, using the term “party” seems to be being used somewhat anachronistically, for it relies somewhat on an understanding of more modern political processes. Syme’s characterisation also suffers the same criticism for it seems very much informed by the ferment of 1930s Europe, where Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini dominated the stage. As a consequence, Syme is unapologetically Republican in sentiment, using Tacitus very much as a base and such bias in his assumptions makes one question them. Furthermore, the serious problems that his reliance on prosopography presents are difficult to overcome. The nature of the method as being based on very limited evidence, in scope and possibly number, and also the “mechanical” interpretations that reading prosopography laterally provides have called Syme’s reliance on it into question. These criticisms are quite strong, and as such they make Syme’s conception of an Augustan Party quite weak. In this sense the use of the term “Augustan Party” is certainly not useful, for they make understanding Augustan politics even more difficult than they may be initially. In some respects, though, Syme’s use of the term has been resolutely useful. Much of this reasoning lies in the fact that Syme’s work has been so influential that even in parts where he errs, the sheer fact that he unapologetically posited a theory on the topic has forced the hand of historians ever since to truly think about Augustan politics. It’s been remarked that:

“a classic work is a classic precisely because of its lasting value and its ability to offer at least partial answers to questions that one would not originally foresee” [Galsterer, pg.2].

That sentiment seems very apt when applied to Syme’s work. It’s a testament to how important, and indeed how useful, his use of the term “Augustan Party” is when discussion over it is being set as an essay – almost some seventy years since the book was initially released in 1939. In this respect, then, it’s very easy to consider the “Augustan Party” a useful term, for it has spurned discussion over the intricacies of Augustan politics no end. In concluding, then, it seems that the answer is, as with all elements of Augustan Rome, not entirely simple. In some aspects the term is not useful at all, and indeed is quite misleading, however in another it is vastly useful, stimulating fervent discussion. Thus, the only conclusion I can come to in reference to the departure question is that it’s a little useful and a little misleading, and in some ways that dichotomy altogether renders itself quite useful in the scope of Roman historiography.




Cassius Dio, “Roman History”

Suetonius, “Life of Vespasian” in his "Lives of the Caesars"


Bowerstock, G, “The Emperor of Roman History”, New York Review of Books (1980) pp.8-13

Comber, M, a review of Luce, T.J and Woodman, A.J, “Tacitus and Tacitean tradition”, Journal of Roman Studies (1996) pp.214-215

Galsterer, H, “Syme’s Roman Revolution after 50 years”, in “Between Republic and Empire”, Ed. Raaflaub, K.A and Toher, M, Oxford (1990)

Syme, Ronald, “The Roman Revolution”, Oxford (1939)

Syme, Ronald, “Danubian Papers”, Bucharest (1971)


On another note, I'm currently reading some work on Classical Athens and the role of the "bad citizen", which I'll post about soon, I hope.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, Where Art Thou?

I've recently been watching the HBO/BBC TV series ROME (perhaps for the 6th or 7th time, I must admit), and as I mentioned in my "future plans" post, I intended to discuss the portrayal of Marcus Agrippa and how he differs from the historical Agrippa. Therefore, that is the topic I will discuss today.

I should preface this by saying I very much like Rome. I think it's a well written show, with excellent acting, dialogue and set design. Generally the departure from historical fact does not bother me whatsoever, as I can understand why it's done. One such exception is with the character of Agrippa (played by the Irish actor Allen Leech). My plan here is to list the differences between the character in the TV show and the historical Agrippa (as much as one exists), and then discuss why the writers chose to depict Agrippa as they did.

SO...the differences! There are a great number. First of all, let's consider Agrippa's family. In the TV show both Agrippa and Octavian make mention of his "low plebeian" status. It is conjectured (realistically, I believe) that Agrippa's father was a certain Lucius Vipsanius Agrippa, and that they were a family of Equestrian rank.

There is a rather strong focus on Agrippa's low status, as it's used on several occasions to drive forward the narrative. My personal feelings are that it's overemphasised, in order to support the characterisation of Agrippa as a "loyal Lieutenant" and not much else. Plebeian he may be, but he was to ascend to the highest ranks of Roman public life, and he was after all, of sufficient birth to be educated alongside Octavian (which is how they became friends).

Further to this, there is no mention of Agrippa's marriage to Caecilia Pomponia Attica (daughter of Cicero's friend, Atticus) in the early 30s (very much in the shows timeline), and as an offshoot of this there is, of course, no mention of their child born soon after the wedding (Vipsania Agrippina). In the show Agrippa is very much unmarried throughout.

Somewhat related is an affair, depicted in the TV show, between Agrippa and Octavian's sister, Octavia. This is entirely fictional, and serves only as a dramatic device in the show. Although the love affair is finished by Agrippa after Octavian finds out (an example of his being the ultimate Loyal Lieutenant), there are hints that their feelings continue throughout the 30s B.C.E, and again there is no single mention of that fact that the historical Agrippa was both married and a father.

On the topic of his public life, the show, again, fails to mention almost anything. He remains the loyal lieutenant of Octavian, but seems to hold no public office himself. The historical Agrippa entered the Senate as a Tribune of the Plebs (perhaps 43.B.C.E), and served both as Consul (37.B.C.E) and Aedile (33.B.C.E) during the timeline represented by the show, but he is not shown to explicitly hold any of these offices.

On the topic of his character and his abilities, again the character of the TV show differs greatly from the historical Agrippa. It's a well documented fact that Agrippa was an excellent General, and it was through his leadership that Octavian and his armies could establish sole control over Rome. At Mutina, and more specifically Actium, it is Agrippa's military genius that won the day. In the show, he is seen briefly at Mutina, and he's nowhere near Actium (the only mention of him is by a newsreader in Rome reporting the battle).

Agrippa as a great General is barely seen in the TV show, and one must ponder why (more on this later). A few fleeting mentions to his celebrated military talents are all he gets.

The difference in character is perhaps the most striking thing of all, however. The historical Agrippa, through virtue of his accomplishments, was a commanding General, respected and forceful magistrate and strong leader. The Agrippa on the TV show, is rather meek, somewhat bumbling, a little insecure and nothing more than a loyal servant of Octavian. It's also difficult to escape the notion that he's also a little "boyish", in both manner and appearance.

On the topic of the later, Allen Leech does not strike the same robust figure that the busts of Agrippa suggest that he was. While this is not necessarily a hindrance (James Purefoy is not the bull-like man Antony is said to have been, but he plays the role superbly), in combination with the meekness of the portrayal, it's hard to ever believe that the character is Agrippa.

Given the legion of differences, I now ask the question: why?

The matter of Agrippa's family is perhaps the easiest to answer. The series omits many historical figures for the sake of simplicity and smoothness of narrative (Crassus, although dead when the series begins, is never mentioned, Octavia's husband Claudius Marcellus, and their three children, are never never seen, Brutus' wives are never seen - Claudia Pulchra, nor Porcia Catonis, and these are just some of the many historical figures not in the show).

Given the immense complexity of Roman families, allegiances, marriages and so on, it's quite reasonable to expect, for the sake of a cohesive story, that many of them will never appear. Agrippa's family is never mentioned primarily because they were considered "extra". They do not serve the storyline and would therefore just confuse matters, and so they were omitted.

The affair with Octavia was invented for similar reasons, I think. This time is does serve the story (it's dramatic and when Octavian finds out it helps give him leverage in forcing Mark Antony to leave Rome, for Octavia was his wife and she was cheating on him with a "low born Pleb").

As regards Agrippa's public career, his offices are never mentioned for a few reasons. The foremost is that Agrippa plays the role of Lieutenant, and in most cases he's simply an advisor to Octavian, in that respect the character needs no office of his own, for he's not the focus. In most ways it doesn't matter what office Agrippa holds, for his role in the TV show remains the same.

Further to this, is that the second season (the timeline when Agrippa would hold the offices of Tribune of the Plebs, Consul and Aedile) plays thick and fast with history - the many events of the early 30s and squashed or skimmed over somewhat, and so Agrippa's consulship and activities of this time are given short thrift.

The character's lack of great military abilities can also be partly explained in this way. Many of Agrippa's achievements are not mentioned in the show - it basically goes from Caesar's murder, through Philippi and then jumps very much to the later 30s and the struggle between Octavian and Antony near it's conclusion. Agrippa's defeat of Sextus Pompeius in the seas around Italy, as well as his time fighting the Germanic tribes while Governor of Transalpine Gaul are never mentioned - and so there is no opportunity to focus on his military acumen, other than brief mentions after Mutina and Actium (which are relegated from importance because the series cares more for Octavian/Antony and their power struggle than what the "Loyal Lieutenant" Agrippa is up to.

Related to this is why he's depicted as a somewhat meek and bumbling character. Without need for focus on his military achievements, but unable to really remove him from the picture, what role can Agrippa really play? The only answer is really that of advisor, and so immediately he's relegated from the status of the historical Agrippa. Again, though, why so meek? I have a few ideas, but it's still not especially obvious.

Perhaps most obviously, he plays a lover to Octavia, and his bumbling "I would tear down the skies if you asked me to" act allows a certain amount of sympathy to be felt for him, and as a consequence the love affair. He is acutely aware of his lower status throughout the relationship, and this is brought to the fore when it's used to coerce Mark Antony into leaving Rome. In essence, he plays a character who knows his social position and has no ideas beyond his station.

Another idea I've considered is that the character was designed to play foil to Gaius Maecenas, as they both advise Octavian (Maecenas being the darker, more inclined to lies style of advisor and Agrippa the excessively loyal and honest type). I'm not sure how much mileage this idea has, but I think it's valid enough.

After discussing it with my girlfriend a little, she made the interesting observation that Agrippa is required to fill the role as the only "purely nice and honest" character in the show. This may be a case when the most obvious solution is the best one, and as a mode for explaining the very different Agrippa it works very well.

Overall, I think his meekness is a result of his role in the show (a fiercely loyal and honest Lieutenant, not equal to Octavian) and the need for him to be a sympathetic character in both his love for Octavia (a women well above his social status, and he knows it) and his contrast to the more nefariously depicted Maecenas as advisor(s) to Octavian.

It's worth at this point conceding that the creator of the show (Bruno Heller) never intended the show to be 100% historically accurate, but that the aim was to show:

"Much more about how the psychology of the characters affects history rather than simply following the history as we know it".

In this respect, Agrippa is merely a facet of this. He is changed so considerably so that the character's psychology may fit the requirements of the narrative. To me, the change is so drastic, and it's perhaps simply a result of there being too many other psychologies driving the show forward, and so Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa was changed so that his could fit in somewhere.

The show's historical advisor, Johnathan Stamp, adds that the series was more about "authenticity" than "accuracy", but I think in the case of Agrippa especially neither category is fulfilled. The character is definitely not an accurate portrayal of the historical Agrippa, but accuracy has not been sacrificed and authenticity retained, for there is nothing authentic about the character of Agrippa in the show - he's almost pure creation.

I should say that I'm not altogether annoyed by the character of Agrippa in the show (historical accuracy does not always need to be the primary aim of such shows), but simply that I find the vast difference between the character and the historical figure to be curious, and so I was interested in exploring those differences and the reasons for them. In actual fact, I rather like Allen Leech as an actor, and the role of the "new" Agrippa is actually rather likeable in most ways.

I also think it's wise to realise that this small analysis is tainted by the notion that it's impossible to know the "real" Agrippa anyway, and that perhaps commenting on his character is a false enterprise from the off. Nevertheless, I think the historical Agrippa we can infer, grasp or leap at is so substantially different form the character of the TV show, that this endeavour remains thoroughly worth it.

In summing up, I think all I can say is that the driving force behind writing this article was the feeling that the character Agrippa is just not Agrippa. One conjures an image of all classical figures that is quite unique (the Caesar in my mind may be different from the one in in yours, and this in turn is hugely important in the "reception" of historical figures), and so my Agrippa, based on my studies of him and the period more generally, mixed with my own imagination, leads me to believe nothing but the conclusion that "this" Agrippa is an imposter.

Two events of note...

On the 24th of August 79.C.E Mount Vesuvius erupted, sealing the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum (among others) under volcanic ash, essentially "pausing" everyday Roman life, which would give us, almost some 2000 years later (1748), one of our most important windows into Roman society. It's difficult to overestimate how important they are to us.

Among the victims was the Elder Pliny, writer of the huge Natural History encyclopedia. Interestingly his nephew, Pliny the Younger (a prolific letter writer) wrote a letter to his friend, Tacitus, detailing the events of that day and his uncle's activities, which has survived. Conventionally numbered Letter 6.16, it ends with the rather haunting line:

"When daylight returned on the 26th—two days after the last day he had seen—his body was found intact and uninjured, still fully clothed and looking more like sleep than death".

August 24th (this time in 410. C.E) was also the date in which Alaric the Goth sacked Rome, setting the Western Empire ever more on it's doomed path. It had been almost 800 years since Rome had been subdued, causing St. Jerome to say (in a letter labelled Letter CXXVII):

"My voice sticks in my throat; and, as I dictate, sobs choke my utterance. The City which had taken the whole world was itself taken".

His words here go somewhere to explaining the magnitude of these events. Rome - traditionally founded in 753 .B.C.E, Master of the world from at least the mid 2nd Century, had fallen.

Arguably the latter event is the more important for where we find ourselves now, but I wonder how many people know of Pompeii, but couldn't say when the Western Empire fell, or who was behind it.

Interestingly, Vesuvius is getting some news coverage, while the sack of Rome gets very little.

On This Day: Vesuvius Erupts.

I should note that the exact date of Vesuvius' eruption is still up for debate. August 24th is usually the accepted date, but some varying versions of Pliny's letter, and also some archeological evidence (clothes, among other things) suggest it was somewhat later - perhaps as much as two months.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A review (of sorts) of a review of Gideon Nisbet's "Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture".

The Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews blog (great for keeping up with newly posted reviews) recently brought my attention to the recent 2nd edition of Gideon Nisbet's "Ancient Greece in Film and Popular Culture".

Having studied under Nisbet at the University of Glasgow, I'm always keen to read his output. During my undergraduate degree, I recall reading a reworking of (what I believe was) his doctoral thesis (Martial's Forgotten Rivals) and enjoying his zesty approach and sense of humour. I've continued my interest in his publications, having read the 1st edition of the work I'm posting about now when it was a released initially a few years ago.

I thoroughly enjoyed that work - I thought it was full of fanboy passion and keen wit for the subject matter, but it also held a remarkable amount of interesting argumentation. The central idea that Greece was always mediated through Rome in both film and culture more generally resonated with me greatly, and even moreso after settling down to watch some of the movies in question.

The 2nd edition has allowed for an updated chapter on the phenomenon that was "300" (released in 2007, after the 1st edition's publication), and given the status of that work, the chapter was absolutely required to make the book relevant.

The review of the new edition is quite positive, generally commenting on the continued worth of the work, which, for me, can be fully summed up in the line:

"Avowing that academics are neither neutral nor outside observers in this area, Nisbet adopts the subjective stance of a scholar-fan toward his material"

Having seen Nisbet lecture, I can confirm that he his perhaps the ultimate "scholar-fan", and it is precisely for this reason that his work is vital and enjoyable. The reviewer (Seán Easton) points out that the work tends to prefer "big ideas" and "provoke" rather than "settle" questions, the resultant conclusion is that this work best serves as an introduction or discussion starter.

I disagree insomuch as I think both the "big ideas" and provoking of questions stems from Nisbet's fanboy wonderment at his subject material, and - having seen him lecture - his having fun with that same material. His writing style is unique and manages to capture his animated nature on paper well, transmitting all the elements I've just mentioned.

I'm yet to read the 2nd edition, but based on the strength of the 1st and combined with my experience thus far with Nisbet's knack for presenting material (I can imagine "300" gave him a lot to worth with), I think I can recommend this work to anyone.


Seán Easton's review at Bryn Mawr here.


A few qualifications: I know the term "fanboy" is often considered negative, but I am not using it in that way. I'm using it as the best label for someone who is excited by particular forms of media, and spends a significant amount of time with them. The connotations of being a "Geek" or "Nerd" inherent in the term "fanboy" are also something I'm aware of, and so I use the word deliberately.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Today is the anniversary of...

Augustus's death. He died on August 19th 14.C.E, at the age of 76 (he was born in 63.B.C.E - Cicero's year as Consul) and by the time of his death had effectively been sole ruler for almost 45 years (beginning after the Battle of Actium in 31.B.C.E, although often his rule is dated from 27.B.C.E, when he was given the title of Augustus and he proclaimed the Res publica restored).

Although it had been coming for quite some time (Tiberius had been effectively sharing his powers, but not his auctoritas for a while), it was still an immense shock to a society and city that had been crafted (nay completely overhauled) in the first Princeps' image.

Augustus himself had been visiting Nola, place of his fathers death, when he died - Suetonius even has it that he died in the same room. Tiberius and Livia were both present and the latter proclaimed Emperor. Suetonius tells us that among Augustus' last words he said:

"If I have played my part well, clap your hands, and dismiss me with applause from the stage"

and with his freshly combed hair (also from Suetonius) he reminded Livia to stay true to their marriage and he peacefully died. It's unknown whether he was applauded off the stage, so to speak, but it's almost certain that, with hindsight, one can say Augustus did indeed play his role of Emperor well.

The Pax Romana that he had initiated, lasted over 200 years after his death, and through his remoulding of the Roman state in his image he had transcended the role of a normal mortal man - embodied in his ascension to the Roman pantheon just immediately after his death (again from Suetonius).

Christian Meier claims in his biography of Caesar claims Augustus had to be an actor, as his aims could never have been achieved unless he could be many things to many people. I happen to agree. It's partly because of this that it's truly difficult to know the real Augustus (as far as one exists).

It's difficult to overstate the impact of Augustus on the Roman state and it's subsequent history and so Requiscat in Pace.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Birthplace of Vespasian?

A news story that's been doing the rounds internationally recently has thrown up some rather interesting questions regarding the practices of archaeology and as a result, what the readers of news sources want to know about classics and what is simply not newsworthy for the average reader.

That story is regarding the recent discovery of a sumptuous villa near the (reported) birthplace of the Emperor Vespasian. Filippo Coarelli, the leader of the excavation, claimed:

"it was not marked as belonging to Vespasian's family, but its extravagant trappings were an indication of its ownership.

"It's clear that such things could only belong to someone with a high social position and wealth. And in this place, it was the Flavians," he said, referring to Vespasian's dynasty".

This has caused quite the furore in classical circles with the identification of the villa as Vespasian's birthplace, with most commentators considering it a mistaken (or perhaps mislead) identification. Mary Beard in a Times column titled "Vespasian's villa? Don't you believe it", highlighted the general worries of informed commentators:

"It's just a large Roman house of roughly the right date in roughly the right place".

The whole episodes highlights the fact that unless a find can be tied into the icons of the classical past (Emperors or famous men/events) - then people are usually just not very interested. Further to this, the fact that this year is the 2000th since the birth of Vespasian has caused cynical observers to label the find too perfectly timed and the leap to name it's owner too quick and ill thought out.

Beard also mentions the sad fact, which is tied into the above, that despite the advances of modern archaeology and what we can learn from it, there is still, to some extent, an obsession with finding a Vespasian "lived here spot", and in many respects that is a little tragic. When she labels this a "non-story", I don't think she's too wide of the mark.

Nevertheless, if one can remove the fantasy and wishful thinking, the discovery of any large villa should be interesting enough in of itself, for it may contain some previously unknown works, or some painting which may contain hitherto unknown information or evidence - one never knows. For me, at least, the true excitement lies there.

In other, less controversial news, a Roman ship wreck (5 in actual fact) has been found off the coast of the small Italian island of Ventotene (located between Rome and Naples). The ships are thought to be somewhere between 1600 and 1900 years old, which could place them anywhere from the reign of Trajan to the reign of Honorius, Emperor of the Western Empire.

Seemingly well protected by their situation in deep water, the ships have been labelled, rather unoriginally, as "underwater museums". Nevertheless, the discovery of their well preserved cargo - including wine, oil and the popular fish sauce Garum - is quite exciting.

The discovery location has spurred the belief that the ship was engaged in trade between Italy and Rome's African provinces, as it falls on a common trade route. Finds such as these are, of course, not altogether uncommon, but this one is especially well preserved and every discovery hints at new information or evidence, and that makes each one special enough.


Sources for "Vespasian's" Villa:

The BBC: "Roman Emperor's Villa Unearthed".

Mary Beard's Times Online column: "Vespasian's Villa? Don't you believe it".

Sources for the Roman shipwrecks:

The BBC: "Ancient Roman shipwrecks found".

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Some thoughts on David Shotter's "Tiberius Caesar".

As part of my effort to look at some slightly later periods of Roman history, I recently managed to find and read David Shotter's "Tiberius Caesar", which I found to be quite interesting, and owing to it's brevity, I managed to read it fully over just two sessions.

Shotter's short monograph (the main body of the work constitutes just 80 pages) on the Principate of Tiberius functions as a welcome and useful introduction to the man and his reign. The work is, of course, not meant to be all encompassing, but rather function as a starting point on any study of Tiberius. In that respect the work joins the ever increasing volume of monographs written by respected scholars that is both short enough and simplified enough to appeal to the general reader.

The work is separated into easy digestible chunks, covering Tiberus' early life, his accession to the role of Emperor, his relations to his contemporaries (the senate and Sejanus specifically), his administration and policies and finally his retirement and death. Treating the life of Tiberius under these headings (as opposed to studying his character outright) is, to my mind, the best way to try and understand the man and his reign, without becoming bogged down in gossip or exaggeration.

The analysis therein is generally of a high standard. Shotter's aim is to try and see behind the cruel and sadistic caricature that Tiberius is often portrayed as. Nevertheless, Shotter makes it abundantly clear throughout that Tiberius was somewhat of an awkward man, and the resulting depictions of him and his reign are an offshoot of the fact that he was misunderstood and not trusted by his contemporaries.

The illustrations are generally useful, although not referred to at all often. The images of coinage are fascinating, even if they feel a little tacked on. The stemma showing Tiberius' relations to the aristocracy is highly interesting, and the stemma of the Imperial family similarly so. Maps of both Italy and the Empire in 14 A.D are useful, although the former is clogged with cities never mentioned in the book and would benefit from a little simplification (Capri is discussed when the map is printed, although it's hard to find because of a plethora of towns around it).

The introductory sections are well written, and indicate the difficulty of pinning down Tiberius, as well as highlighting the topics that will be discussed later in the book. One bone of contention is when Shotter mentions the "inevitability" of the Republic's "disintegration" during his scene setting preamble (pg.7). Whether this is true or not is certainly up for debate, although Shotter doesn't mention it. I'm still to read his work on the end of the Republic, and so I will reserve judgement until I read that work and see if Shotter outlines his position more fully.

Shotter makes it clear from the offset that Tiberius was an odd character, especially in comparison to his predecessor, Augustus. He sets the scene for Tiberius' Principate well, indicating the early events that point towards his character (his forced divorce from his family, which he adored, and his reactions being such an example). Interestingly, Shotter also employs some modern psychology (pg.12) which is both welcome and interesting.

Coming out of the introductory sections Shotter makes one very much aware that Tiberius was a very private character, and while not "evil" as he is often painted, he certainly lacked a certain tact in his dealings with his contemporaries. Shotter uses examples to illustrate this, taking Tiberius's inability to hide his ultimate power in both a debate on rowdiness in the theatre and also sitting in court (pg. 30+31).

Shotter does well here to show the "square peg, round hole" nature of Tiberius in Augustan Rome, and not only the reluctance of Augustus to select him as a successor, but also the reluctant acceptance of it by Tiberius himself. All the while, Shotter manages to keep the readers conception of Tiberius away from the popularly slanderous ones, which is admirable.

One of the main focus' of the monograph is on the workings of the Imperial family, and especially the increasing factionalisation of it. This is evident in the fact that Shotter has two chapters named "Tiberius and the family of Germanicus" and "Sejanus" respectively. In the former Shotter makes much of the tension between the Claudian elements of the family (Tiberius himself, as well has his mother and Augustus' widow, Livia) and the Julian ones (Germanicus and his family). The discussion is light but fruitful, and serves to highlight the family politics of the period which Tiberius sincerely disliked.

The Sejanus chapter continues this discussion insomuch as it shows how Sejanus played Tiberius against Germanicus and his wife, Agrippina (especially the later), and how the increasingly factional nature of the Imperial family played into Sejanus' hands. Again the discussion is light, but very useful in understanding Tiberius and his role.

Shotter, by this point, has made his readers quite aware that Tiberius, if a little bumbling in his relationships, private and political, is not the deviant he is oft depicted as. Much effort is made by shotter to see behind the "dark hand" of Tiberius (pg.44) and that is a thoroughly worthy element of the work. On that topic, the later sections of the book, which correspond to Tiberius' later life, are refreshing.

Shotter pays little heed to rumours of sexual deviancy, rather he points out the relative modesty of the villa on Capri and mentions only once the skin condition that Tiberius exhibited in this period, and concluding that it was going around at the time, and not specific to Tiberius (pg.67). This is emblematic of Shotter's whole approach, as Tiberius skin condition and tales of it are intricately related to the stories of his perversions and maliciousness while in retirement.

The conclusions of the work are, in my opinion, decidedly fair. Shotter depicts Tiberius as a slightly tragic figure, one undeserving of how he is usually conceived. Shotter prefers to focus on Tiberius as an excellent administrator, a reluctant Princeps and someone who was ultimately uncomfortable in Augustan Rome, the two latter of which contributed significantly to how his Principate is conventionally understood to be negative.

Ultimately, Shotter calls Tiberius' reign a "stepping stone" (pg.80), that illustrated that Augustan policy could continue after Augustus and that essentially Augustan Rome could be Augustusless and still function. Arguably Tiberius unwittingly set the tone for the reigns of the later Julio-Claudians through his inability to hide his powers, but Shotter makes much effort to show that this was not from any active malevolence on Tiberius' part, but just his lack of tact. I agree with Shotter when he considers Tiberius' rule to both symbolise the continuation of Augustan Rome, but also it's inevitable consequences.

Like most of these such works, the book contains no referencing, but has a useful, if short, bibliography with recommended further reading. It also has a useful glossary of Latin terms, although the book itself is especially light on using them. Two useful sections are also tacked on at the end. One is a discussion of the primary sources for Tiberius' life and the other a brief discussion on numismatics.

The latter is short but interesting (it ties in nicely with the illustrations throughout the work, usually at the end of chapters, of coinage from Tiberius' reign) while the former is essential reading. Shotter summarises the inherent problems with Valleius Paterculus, Cassius Dio and Suetonius quite well, but it is in his short discussion of Tactitus that some excellent material can be found, which is perhaps expected considering Shotter's other extensive work on Tactitus.

I believe Shotter depicts Tiberius as the quintessential "Tacitean" Emperor. Tacitus was a senator with very strong Republican sentiments and so Tiberius' depiction in Tacitus' "Annals" is quite negative, but not excessively so. Tacitus exerts much energy showing how Tiberius had a terrible relationship with the senate, and in this respect Tiberius is the worst "Tacitean" Emperor - for he lacks the tact to deal with the senate effectively, and as a result his autocratic power is shown in the worst possible light. Tacitus longed for the Republic when the senate was so vital, and in Tiberius inability to deal with it correctly, he illustrated it's essential pointlessness under the Principate, and so Tacitus could do nothing but depict Tiberius negatively.

Admittedly, some of these thoughts are my own, but they are derived from Shotter's highly interesting discussion of Tacitus as a source.

Shotter's work is an interesting and thoughtful introduction to Tiberius. He admirably avoids the caricature, and rather seeks to understand the real Tiberius, who was altogether a rather more tragic and uncomfortable figure. One retains an overwhelming feeling of Tiberius' awkwardness, but also as a sense of sympathy for the man and his situation. Generally then, Shotter has given us a fair appraisal, and as much a taste of Tiberius' reign as such a short introduction can allow.


Relevant bibliography: Shotter, D, "Tiberius Caesar", Routledge (2004)

Monday, August 10, 2009

Some brief further thoughts on Lucan.

It occurred to me this past week, after my previous post, that Lucan was extraordinary in one way (many, actually, but this post is related to just the one) - he died extremely young (age 25 - 39-65 C.E - as a result of the Pisonian Conspiracy against Nero).

This means, in contrast to most of our other extant classical authors (Cicero, Caesar and Vergil, among many others), that he wrote such a mature work, The Pharsalia, as such a young man. Vergil composed the Aeneid in his later life, most of Cicero's great writing comes from his later years, and the same with Caesar (indeed some of his youthful compositions were suppressed by Augustus). That Lucan composed the Pharsalia before his 25th year was a remarkable achievement.

This is furthered when one realises the possibility that the work may have been published in parts, and thus begun that publication well before Lucan's 25th birthday. In this respect Lucan really is unique in the classical corpus.

Typically, writing was the concern of older senators with time on their hands or political ends in mind, which may explain why our extant work usually comes from writers in their "golden" age and not when they are much younger.

Back to Lucan, there is, of course, the question of whether, had he lived, would he have produced a "greater" work (or works) that would have eclipsed the Pharsalia, and as a result reduced the status of the latter to a more immature work. That said, the Pharsalia is a wonderful piece of poetry, and regardless of the work an older Lucan may have produced, but never could, it still stands high among the extant works for content and style, perhaps moreso for the fact that it was completed not by a Cicero, Caesar or Vergil at the height of his powers, but by a young man who had many years of artistic development ahead of him.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Lucan's "Pharsalia".

The following is an (almost) unedited essay written during the honours years of my masters. The topic is Lucan's "epic" poem Pharsalia, which covers the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey. The focus of the essay (the set question, in actual fact) was as follows:

“What difficulties do you think Lucan faced in writing an epic on recent history and how well do you think he coped with them?”

Generally speaking, I still quite like the essay, although re-reading it, I'm not all that convinced I answered the question specifically, but rather gave a summary of scholarship on the topic. In that respect it's not an exceptionally original piece, but I do recall giving it some serious thought, and the Pharsalia remains one of my favourite works of literature from the classical world.

Despite some faults (which I've decided not to rectify), I think it's an interesting topic, and my short essay goes someway to discussing it.


The difficulties that faced Lucan in the conception and production of his Civil War were, to my mind, legion. Writing a little more than a century after the civil war fought between Caesar and Pompey, Lucan would be presented with the problem of crafting a work of rhetorical ars about such a well known, pivotal and relatively recent period of history. If and how Lucan reconciled art with historical fact is the subject of this short essay.

It is my hope to summarise at least some of the quandaries Lucan faced in crafting his epic poem and to generate a personal opinion on how well he dealt with them. To do this I intend to utilise modern scholarship, which, given the indecisive nature of Lucan and how to conceive him (artist? Rhetorician?), is at times problematic. Nevertheless, I believe wandering the minefield of theories and perhaps never finding an ideal one brings one closer to the poem, a mode of understanding I hope will become clear as this essay progresses.

One of the most obvious problems Lucan encountered would be how to write an epic - not a historical treatise - on such a recent period of history and one so well known, no less. Reconciling his artistic vision with historical fact would be a major hurdle.

Frederick Ahl in his excellent work Lucan: An Introduction posits the idea that Lucan overcomes this problem with the simple but elegant solution of sticking to the history (Ahl, pg.71). Ahl understands Lucan’s narrative as following the history for a reason, namely that his adherence to historical fact gives his non-historical embellishments (such as his characterisation and unique rhetorical colouring of events) some force (Ahl, pg.70).

Ahl goes on to say that Lucan makes the decision not to dispute the history to suit his ends because he has other avenues available that allow him to retain his vision. Ahl believes that Lucan uses an exploration and embellishment of motive to communicate his message instead. Conceding that he can’t deny history that has became canon to reinforce his pointed message about, for example, Caesar, Lucan can re-examine Caesars internal and personal motives. Doing so allows an air of legitimacy to surround Lucan’s embellishments in his characterisation of Caesar as a destructive force (Ahl, pg.70).

Ahl continues by declaring:

“History is the raw material of the Pharsalia, not its purpose…It allows Lucan to give the semblance of reality to what he describes, a factual underpinning of his vision which makes the vision itself very hard to refute… [It’s] as much a means to an end as is Virgil’s use of myth…Thus Lucan’s rejection of certain epic conventions both enhances the illusion of fidelity to fact and at the same time allows the poet to manipulate fact to his own ends” (Ahl, pg.72)

So for Ahl Lucan is presented with a problem in deciding to write about the civil war, for it is such a recent chunk of history. Furthermore the enormous effect of it has ensured that it remains well known. Colouring this accepted historical narrative with his specific vision was Lucan’s aim and Ahl thinks to do so he retains the historical (public) fact and instead decides to explore the personal (private) motives of his protagonists in order to serve his vision. For example rather than re-telling the battle of Pharsalia with Caesar a monster he makes the internal motives of Caesar speak to his destructiveness and monstrosity.

As a coping mechanism I must concede that this is quite an interesting one and certainly with some merit. Focusing on the motives of his protagonists (which are open to embellishment and conjecture) - instead of the changing the history to explain how destructive the civil war was and how the evils of Caesar and the ineffectiveness of Pompey that lead to it - is an intelligent strategy. Given the overwhelming portrait of civil war as unnatural and monstrous without any absolute departures from historical fact apparent in the civil war it seems fair to understand Lucan as overcoming this particular problem quite well.

There are, however, some parts of the text where Lucan embellishes the history. The necromancy of book 6 for example serves a literary purpose but lacks a historical basis. It’s clear he uses this prophetic narrative for a purpose - to hint at the future - and in doing so doesn’t deny the history but rather festoons it with artistic force and verve - all ultimately to serve his purpose.

It can be charged that he manipulated his historical characters to fit his ends, making them essentially of his own invention. To counter this I feel Ahl would say something along the lines of he wasn’t denying the historical characters but rather focusing his attention on one aspect of their personas - Caesars malevolence, Pompey’s indecision in the face of it and the moral fortitude of Cato. Doing this allows him to create characters in his vision that have roots in historical fact - a parallel use of characterisation to fit his purposes. I think this is a nice move from Lucan - he can simultaneously confirm the historical Caesar - or an aspect of him - while fashioning his own credible version.

Related to my preceding point, but a bit more pragmatic, is the question of how Lucan could keep the reader interested in something so well known long enough to communicate his bleak vision?

His primary mode of overcoming this is his use of apostrophe, paradoxical epigrams and literary stalling. Susan Braund in her introduction to her translation of the work explains Lucan’s use of delay or obstacle (Braund, pg.47). She uses the opening to the poem as an example, arguing that the criticism Lucan receives for the constant reiteration and paraphrasing of Civil War is Bad in the introduction is invalid for the stalling provided by such use of language is exactly the desired effect. Forcing pause gives the reader a reason to consider what Lucan is saying and to feel its impact more roundly.

Similarly, as Braund continues, his use of paradoxical maxims such as the infamous “mighty structures collapse in on themselves” (Lucan, 1.81) force pause and reflection. As she concludes: “Lucan uses this technique to make the audience stop and confront the issue. He has no interest in wafting us swiftly, mellifluously along” (Braund, pg.48).

This stalling pervades his use of imagery to: “Rising from the ocean more slowly than eternal law summoned him” (Lucan, 7.1). Here the slow dawning of the sun symbolises Lucan’s desire for the reader to stop and consider the coming horrors - in this case the Battle of Pharsalus. M.P.O Morford in The Poet Lucan: Studies in Rhetorical Epic agrees with Braund’s assessment of Lucan’s use of apostrophe, in particular emphasising its rhetorical basis (Morford, pg.70).

I think this conflict between epic story and Lucan’s desire for us to truly think about it - between stalling and telling, so to speak - further symbolises the poem as civil war itself - something I intend to talk about later and a line of argument supported by Jamie Masters in his Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile.

Arguably this may be modern deconstructionist folly but I still consider it an attractive argument. In providing a vision of the civil war that reflects the history but forces a reappraisal of it on his own terms Lucan as succeeded in tangling with recent history through epic to quite some degree.

How to grapple with this epic tradition was yet another problem that Lucan had to overcome. With Virgil having set the standard of epic how was Lucan to deal with this ideal?

Given his pervading motif that the civil war was a human fault and its responsibility was mans, using the Gods as a mechanism for propelling his narrative was troublesome because human responsibility becomes diminished. Furthermore, unlike Virgil, Lucan deals with the recent past and this presented the question of how he could insert Gods into a historical narrative so close in chronology to himself and so far away from the age of myth that Virgil wrote about?

The short answer is that he removes them completely. That is to say he removes the divine machinery that normally permeates epic and instead leaves the emphasis for moral responsibility on human shoulders rather than simply the will of the Gods. Indeed the civil war is famously bereft of any divine machinations. Ahl argues that Lucan “had to expel the Olympians from Pharsalia to achieve the picture he desired, to bring moral issues to the foreground” (Ahl, pg.69).

W.R Johnson in the interesting study Momentary Monsters also considers Lucan’s ejection of the Gods as skilful and required (Johnson, pg.9). Ahl and Johnson reach a point of collusion in that they both consider Lucan’s heavy use of fate and fortune as a replacement for the Gods (Ahl, pg295; Johnson, pg.16-17).

Ahl interprets the use of fate and fortune as a way to explore moral positions (Ahl, pg.295). With the Gods now gone the narrative of history can be attributed to men. As the characters make choices to court fate/fortune or surrender to them then we glimpse their moral interior. For example, Caesar willingly courts fortune making the moral choice his and the responsibility for the consequences his too.

I’m not sure how much to trust in Ahl’s assessment here. Even if Caesar is to court fate or fortune the moral decision still seems somewhat external to him as fate is immutable. It’s almost as if Ahl’s argument seems sound but becomes shaky when the difficult notion of fate is introduced. Nevertheless the basic argument remains an attractive one to me even if it becomes bogged down at points.

A more solid, I think, approach comes from Johnson. He too considers fate and fortune as replacing the tradition divine machinery of epic but considers the effect of doing so to be slightly different.

Johnson posits the theory that Lucan replaces the divine machinery with a broken machine (Johnson, pg.16-17). This broken machine is Lucan’s confusing use of fate and fortune. Johnson believes that Lucan has no set system for the two, indeed they remain as liquid throughout the poem.

Johnson uses an example from book two to illustrate his point:

“..and bound himself in fates eternal chain; or whether fickle fortune leads the dance; nothing is fixed and all things come by chance”

Johnson asks if fate can be lead by fortune and if chance rules all the how are we to conceive of fate and fortune? He concludes that the poem contains “an erratic, violent feeling that oscillates between the two poles of fortune and fate and finds no equilibrium” (Johnson, pg.8).

Johnson considers this conflict central to the poem, arguing that it is symbolic of the poem as a civil war itself: it is unsure which side to pick and what definitions to go for and as a consequence is torn by the two (Johnson, pg.16-17).

I find Johnson’s argument quite remarkable. Perhaps it is to wander in with the goggles of modern scholarship but the explanation of Lucan’s dropping of the Gods out of necessity and replacing them with such an eloquent but paradoxically discordant system renders itself quite believable to me.

That said, dropping the Gods from the epic equation still leaves Lucan with some other problems. Ahl argues that the rejection of the Gods means that Lucan is left with no traditional way of explaining the natural forces, nor how his characters take on certain moral tones and traits based upon their grappling with them.

Ahl continues by using the example of Cato in the desert in book nine as an illustration of the problems this causes. Lucan needs to stress the Herculean stoicism of Cato as a foil to the overwhelming destructive force that is Caesar and so he must find a method that excludes the Gods. For example, Cato cannot battle a dragon or a serpent to display his virtue for this use of myth would undermine Lucan’s seemingly apparent aim of making the civil war the full responsibility of man.

Ahl suggests that Lucan’s answer in putting Cato under the peril of snakes, and how his virtue eventually ensures he lives, is a little contrived, he claims that they were “real enough to have zoological names [but] fanciful enough to be preposterous” (Ahl, pg.74). In other words: just a little too much fantastic for the tone Ahl detects elsewhere in the poem.

Ahl believes that Lucan has fallen between two extremes (Ahl, pg.72). In annihilating the divine propaganda of Caesar (divine heritage etc) and rejecting the Gods from his epic he’s caught in a catch 22. This is because he can’t use such techniques to elevate Cato. So he deals with the problems posed by having no Gods, but it’s not perfect. The snake episode reads as a little forced.

So it seems to me that Lucan’s rejection of the Gods as an answer to the problem of how to lay responsibility for the war at the feet of men works in some respects for his epic, but not in others. Although Ahl concedes that Lucan usually overcomes the hurdles of having no Gods (Ahl, pg.74), he still occasionally fumbles. As he was bucking a well established tradition I think it’s not unrespectable to say that his inventiveness is occasionally a little flat.

Although this short essay means much must be excluded there is another theory I wish to discuss: that of Jamie Masters in his Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile. Masters put forward the - intrinsically modern - theory that Lucan dealt with his subject matter by allowing his poem to be consumed by it. That is to say: the civil war becomes civil war and in that sense Lucan transcends the problem of writing about such recent history by recreating it in the present of the text.

Masters thinks that Ahl has smoothed over Lucan’s politics a little too much and see the poem as a little more jagged. He construes it as about civil war but also a civil war itself (Masters, pg.10). He considers Lucan fraught with allegiances that give rise to conflict within the text.

Masters claims that “Lucan is Caesarean in his ambition but Pompeian in his remorse. The Pompeian in him condemns Caesar but the Caesar in him condemns - kills - Pompey” (Masters, pg.10).

Masters figures this conflict as being illustrated by Lucan’s ambition to tell the story of a bloody civil war (in this analogy, the Caesar) yet reluctant to explore it - fond of apostrophe and weak in the face of evil (the Pompey) (Masters, pg.10).

So, in essence Lucan responds to dealing with recent history by playing it out metaphorically within his epic.

It’s a challenging theory that Masters submits, for sure. The problem I have with it is that it is quite blatant in its reading between the lines, so to speak. It puts motive and purpose into Lucan that is perhaps not as evident as Masters would like. Nonetheless it’s an interesting idea and if we accept it as being Lucan’s aim then it’s quite masterful as a technique to overcome the problems of writing epic on such a recent period of history. Whether to tow this line or merely consider it a product of modern scholarship imposed on Lucan I’m genuinely unsure.

Shadi Bartsch in the study Ideology in Cold Blood: a Reading of Lucan’s Civil War, raises the point that more modern scholars tend to ascribe the belief to Lucan that his civil war was civil war and that the poem, for them “preserves the unconventional premises of its subject matter: evil without alternative; contradiction without compromise; civil war without end” (Masters, pg.259, Bartsch, pg.6-7).

In essence this school of thought considers Lucan to have no ideology, making him a sort of nihilist. Whether to believe this or the other side Bartsch mentions is a difficult question for they believe he has an ideology: that man is at fault for the civil war. Like much with Lucan the conflict here is difficult to resolve. Bartsch thinks trying to understand the poem through a juxtaposition of these two ideas is the way forward (Bartsch, pg.7).

I think sitting on the fence is a sensible position here, despite my thoughts that the latter camp seems the more attractive owing to the problems posed by deconstructionist modern scholarship (I think it imposes a will upon Lucan that I can’t comfortably agree with). Nevertheless, I think adopting either position still render Lucan an able manipulator of his troublesome subject matter.

These, then, are some of the main problems I believe Lucan encountered in writing about the civil war. To the greater extent I consider him to have coped with them quite well. He grappled with recent history by sticking to it and exercising his puppetry of his characters behind the scenes, in the realms of motive and morality, to communicate his vision. In the process he pragmatically dispensed of any epic tradition that couldn’t accommodate him - the rejection of the Gods being an example.

Johnson argues this problem (or criticism) of rejecting epic tradition comes primarily from the fact that Lucan is not Vergil (Johnson, pg.85) and indeed “epic changed in terms” (Johnson, pg.87). In Johnson’s eyes flying in the face of epic convention is not strictly a problem for Lucan as it was a required step, not a fault. Nevertheless I think he overcomes the problems it still poses quite well. I believe it best to agree with Ahl when he says “successes outnumber failures” (Ahl, pg.74) and consider Lucan’s ability to cope with writing an epic on recent history resilient, steely and, in general terms, quite successful.


Relevant bibliography:


Lucan, "Pharsalia", alt.title: "The Civil War", trans. Braund, Susan, H, Oxford (1999)


Ahl, F, "Lucan: an Introduction", Ithaca (1976)

Bartsch, S, "Ideology in Cold Blood: A Reading of Lucan’s Civil War" Harvard (1997)

Johnson, W.R, "Momentary Monsters", Ithaca (1997)

Masters, J, "Poetry and Civil War in Lucan’s Bellum Civile", Cambridge (1992)

Morford, M.P.O, "The Poet Lucan: Studies in Rhetorical Epic", Oxford (1967)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Roman Holiday.

As mentioned below, I recently was in Rome on holiday. I've visited many times before, and so I had only some small goals with regards to visiting historical sites. In actual fact I spent most of the holiday showing my girlfriend around (her first visit) and sometimes forcing upon her visits to places of historical interest.

This post is on that particular topic. In an attempt to stay thematically related to some of my older posts, this one is to be about Augustus. When in Rome I visited both the Ara Pacis and the Mausoleum, of which the latter I would like to speak about.

Although the Mausoleum is closed and regrettably hidden by construction barriers around it's full circumference, it's possible to find a few vantage points that can afford one the pleasure of seeing it. The building is in a rather unfortunate state, and while it should really be one of the central attractions in the city, it's actually rather forgotten. Nevertheless, I enjoyed seeing it anyway.

I derived particular pleasure from the fact that one can still see the holes near the main entrance that were originally used to mount the Res Gestae upon the mausoleum. Given the importance of this document, being able to see these holes gives one the ability to imagine the majesty of the mausoleum as it was after Augustus' death, and despite the general decay of the entire structure, that makes the visit worth every second. I have attached two pictures of the mausoleum to this post, one taken from from afar (it's as close as one can get these days) and another taken, using some considerable amount of sneaking about, showing a close up of the holes used to mount the Res Gestae. (Clicking on the pictures will make them full size).

Almost directly beside the mausoleum is the Ara Pacis Augustae (the Altar of Augustan Peace), which houses that very important and interesting piece of sculpture. What I found particularly interesting, though, was the building designed by Richard Meier to house it. Unexpectedly, I found that on one side of the building (appropriately the one facing the mausoleum) is the entire Res Gestae engraved elegantly on a single wall. Needless to say I was delighted to see it, and proceeded to take pictures for my own enjoyment/records and to post them here for those interested.

Given the importance of the Res Gestae as a historical document, I was very happy to see it, in it's entirety, somewhere in Rome, especially so given it's location. Sadly it's almost entirely overlooked (visited less than the Ara Pacis, which is usually quiet, and quiet enough for people to come here for peaceful lunch, as one of my pictures demonstrates), but that nevertheless allowed me some peaceful time to study the engraving and take these pictures.

Clicking on the pictures will render them larger, and ergo make the Res Gestae entirely readable, for those with some Latin. Failing that, I recommend, in book form, the P.G Brunt and J.M Moore translation, and if that is impossible the Thomas Bushnell version available online here. Having the English versions in companion with my pictures of the Latin text should make it very readable.


Permissions and relevant bibliography:

Bushnell, Thomas, "Res Gestae" available at the Internet Classics Archive.
(Copyright 1998, Thomas Bushnell, BSG. This translation may be freely distributed, provided the copyright notice and this permission notice are retained on all copies.).

Brunt, P.G and Moore, J.M, "Res Gestae Divi Augusti: The Achievements of the Divine Augustus", OUP (1967).