The thing that I know most about in this world is Romans. I love the Romans with the kind of fiery passion that most people reserve for their children, pets and members of One Direction. I started studying Romans by chance, because my Sixth Form College offered trips to Greece and Italy as part of the A-Level course and that seemed like fun (it was), and in the first couple of weeks was introduced to Suetonius, Bob Guccione’s Caligula and the first Triumvirate and I was falling. By the time we went to Italy six months into my A-Levels I had fallen so hard for the Roman world that I could never be saved. Twice since then I have tried to stop studying my beloved Romans. I tried to do a psychology degree, and lasted a mere 8 weeks before I quit to return to Augustus’s sweet embrace. At the end of my BA, I tried to be a librarian. I hadn’t even started the MA course before I realised that I needed the Romans more than libraries would ever need me and did a Masters and a PhD in Late Antiquity instead.
The Romans have everything I like about humans and the world. They are brutally ruthless, to an extent most people can’t believe; they have an ambition and belief in their own greatness which is awe-inspiring; they have an inventiveness and verve and fizzing, continual activity throughout the empire that – to me – gives them a level of humanity that is exciting and hilarious and frightening. They are nothing like us and everything like us. They complained about the young people, and wrote novels about men becoming donkeys. They crucified dogs and buried men and women alive. They wrote poetry and philosophy and terrible plays. They accused their leaders of everything from incest to forgery to the premeditated murder of houseflys (trufax). They conquered the world in the first century and, in so many ways, they still rule it today. I named my fish after the First Triumvirate (they died in reverse order). I have a cat named after Augustus’s wife. I visit the bust of Augustus in the British Museum as often as possible, sometimes weekly, just for a chat. I like them, is what I’m saying.
Now, I’ve completed a PhD on the end of the Roman empire, written a bunch of articles, given more than enough conference papers, bored anyone who’ll stop to listen to tears talking about my research, read thousands of books and articles, am writing two books and have consumed every piece of Roman themed media I can get my tiny little hands on and I can’t stop. So, I thought, one day at my desk (bed), why not turn this into entertainment. I get a lot of odd questions when people find out that I am a Roman historian and I answer them as best I can while tipsy or eating or on OKCupid. But here, I can do that with references! And who doesn’t love references, right? So bring me your questions, your queries, your huddled misconceptions and I shall apply my years of education and angry devotion to answering them. It won’t be funny, but it will be fun.
Some of you may know that my PhD covers the period of the “fall” of the Roman Empire in the west. Which means that I had to spend a lot of time wrestling with racist narratives, actual Nazi narratives, pseudo-historical narratives and straight-up fictions about Western Europe during these centuries. As a result, my blood is immediately boiled when these narratives appear in modern newspapers and once again I have had my lunch ruined by a completely rubbish article about how refugees caused the collapse of the Roman empire in a mainstream news outlet. And once again the article was composed of outright misrepresentations and bizarre anachronistic terms. Like refugee.
A few years back, these articles used different words. They used immigrants and migration. Plenty of British historians who will remain nameless centralised the notion that “barbarian” immigration caused an otherwise stable, happy and racially homogeneous Roman empire that had survived for 500 years to suddenly keel over and die, writing sentences like “the connection between immigrant violence and the collapse of the western Empire could not be more direct.”
As the incomparable and brilliant Guy Halsall has written many many times, these words and these narratives are dangerous and deliberate. They seek to legitimise the idea that migrants and refugees fleeing appalling violence or merely seeking a new place to live are barbarians. They seek to tell us that these people, these human beings, destroyed an empire once with their violence, their demands for living space, and they will do it again.
Refugees did not destroy the Roman empire. Migrants did not destroy the Roman empire. The Roman empire was flawed to begin with and began wobbling a long time before any Goth or Frank looked at it. Yes there were new peoples entering the empire. Some of them entered by force. There were battles and kidnappings and the sacking of cities. But these things alone did not destroy the empire. These things were not carried out by barbarians (quick, picture a barbarian and then question how you got that image and just how uncomfortable that picture might be) because barbarians only exist in the imaginations of those who want to maintain an us vs them opposition: civilisation vs barbarism.
The article that started this was well-intentioned. We should treat refugees better than the Romans did or our empire will fall, it says. As if the maintenance of western hegemony is a better reason to protect families fleeing war than, you know, basic humanity. But it buys into and reproduces a vile narrative: these refugees are barbaric and they will destroy our way of life if we are not careful. And I won’t let that stand.
The fall of the western empire was a very long, very complex process that reached a tipping point in the 5th century. It is not a convenient historical proof for any argument you want to make about the modern world.
On 18th October 33AD, on a tiny island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, a 47 year old woman who had been imprisoned for four years quietly and finally passed away. She died of starvation, although it is unclear whether it was suicide or murder. Either way it must have been a relief. The last decade of her life had been increasingly difficult in many ways, and the four years of her imprisonment had been hell. She had protested violently and constantly to her imprisonment. At one point, she had been beaten so badly by guards, on her step-father’s orders, that she had lost an eye. Back in Rome, her death was welcomed by the emperor, who was at the same time her step-father, father-in-law and uncle. He slandered her name and made her birthday a day of official day of bad luck.
Her full name was Vipsania Agrippina, though she is remembered as Agrippina the Elder, and she was Roman royalty. She was of the first generation to be raised without any knowledge of a time before Augustus was emperor, and Augustus was her granddad. Her mother was Augustus’s only biological child, Julia, and her father was his right hand man and closest friend Agrippa. Her elder brothers, Gaius and Lucius, were lined up as Augustus’s heirs before their early deaths. After Agrippa died, Agrippina’s mother Julia married Tiberius, Augustus’s stepson. Agrippina and her brothers, however, were primarily raised by their grandmother, the empress of Rome, Livia.
Agrippina grew up at the absolute centre power, wealth and privilege in the Roman empire. She grew up a princess and absolutely secure in her position. Unlike most of the others at the centre—like her stepfather Tiberius—she had Julian blood in her veins. She was a biological descendant of the already semi-divine Augustus, the divine Julius Caesar and all the way back to Venus herself. The rest were just Claudians: distinguished by not divine. Without Julian blood or Julian approval, no Claudian could yet hold true power. Like her mother, Agrippina knew after the death of her brothers that her hand in marriage was the key to becoming emperor. Her husband would be emperor, her sons would be emperors. She would be the next Livia.
Of course, that’s not what happened for her mother Julia. Her mother’s first two husbands pre-deceased her, and she was exiled for immoral behaviour before her father’s death. She never saw her last husband Tiberius take the throne. Julia seemed to lose patience with her role as the Great Augustus’s daughter, wife and mother, and pawn in her father’s power games. She took to drinking, affairs, and allegedly plotting against her father with a descendant of the Gracchi and Mark Antony’s second son. She died in exile, from starvation, after Tiberius became emperor.
Agrippina, on the other hand, never achieved her destiny through no fault of her own. She did everything right, but the hands of others meant that no matter how hard she fought and how perfect her morality and her bloodline and her birthright, she was denied. And the first sign that her destiny might slip away was the death of her husband.
Agrippina was married somewhere between the age of 14 and 18 to her second cousin Germanicus. Germanicus was the son of Antonia and Nero Claudius Drusus. Antonia was the daughter of Augustus’s sister and Mark Antony, Drusus was Livia’s son from her first marriage. After Tiberius had been marked as Augustus’s heir, Germanicus was marked as his. His marriage to Agrippina lay alongside his adoption by Tiberius as a clear public sign that he would be the next Roman emperor. And that Agrippina would be the next empress.
Agrippina was a spectacularly good wife to Germanicus, and it seemed that they really loved each other in a way that is both adorable and impressive. People loved them too. They were absolutely the Will and Kate of their time, but fightier. The Roman people would line the streets to see them and fling flowers at them. During their marriage they had nine children in 14 years, of whom six survived infancy. Agrippina’s fertility during a time when birth rates were very low among the Roman aristocracy was staggering and made her the queen of everyone’s heart. It’s also terrifyingly impressive, mainly because she didn’t have these children comfortably in a Roman palace. She had several of them in camps among soldiers, while accompanying her husband on campaign on the German frontier.
But Agrippina didn’t just sit around and have babies. She was also active and proactive in public life and in Germany started to show just how well she had inherited her grandfather’s flair for propaganda and showmanship. She began by dressing her youngest son Gaius up as a tiny toddler soldier and encouraging the troops to call him Caligula—little boots. She understood that the love of the army was more important than just about anything when one became emperor and she encouraged them to love her children.
She used this to best effect to put down a mutiny that her husband could not quite control. Germanicus cried, threatened suicide and made weak attempts at grand gestures to calm angry, neglected and overworked legions and still faced violence. So Agrippina, while heavily pregnant (with a child she seems to have lost), made a stand herself. Having initially refused to leave because she was “a descendant of the deified Augustus, and danger would not find her degenerate” She packed her bags and, with maximum fuss, weeping and attention drawing, left the camps with wee Caligula. The troops were appalled that the granddaughter of Augustus and the daughter of Agrippa was being forced to seek sanctuary with non-Romans and the stunt calmed the mutiny.
Germanicus went on to have a glorious career with the German troops, avenging the tragedy of the Battle of Teutoburg Forest and being enormously popular with Agrippina at his side. Agrippina was the good and faithful wife, but when needed she had astonishing mental and physical strength. One of her most staggering deeds occurred in the middle of Germanicus’s time in Germany while she was heavily pregnant yet again (she was basically always pregnant until Germanicus died to be honest. Just assume she’s always pregnant), during a battle a panic set in among the troops who began to plan to destroy the Rhine bridge, cutting off fighting troops on the German side. Agrippina stepped into a general’s role, calming the panic, directing the men, preventing the destructing, tending those who were wounded and encouraging those who were afraid. She sat on a horse and oversaw the return of her husband’s troops, safely over the Rhine bridge, offering congratulations and thanks,
If that image, of Agrippina, princess of Rome, mother of (at this time, 7) and pregnant, general of the Roman army, doesn’t stir your feminist heart, then I don’t know what to do with you.
These were the best days of Agrippina and Germanicus’s careers and lives. They were the beloved, semi-divine children of Augustus, heirs to the Empire and glorious conquering generals. They had five living children and three were sons. They were the golden couple.
In this light, Tiberius sent Germanicus to Syria to begin his political career with some complex negotiations surrounding who would be the next client-king of Armenia. Agrippina, of course, followed him and gave birth to her last child in Athens on the way. Having completed his mission successfully, Germanicus took a solo sightseeing tour to Egypt and returned to Syria to discover that the governor of the province, Piso, had begun interfering with his affairs. A quarrel began which ended only when Germanicus fell suddenly and drastically ill.
The primary sources are pretty clear that Piso was an agent of Tiberius and his mother Livia, that Tiberius loathed and was painfully jealous of Germanicus, and that Piso murdered Germanicus on Tiberius’s orders. However, the sources are also very clear that Piso used magic to kill Germanicus, which is why we take primary sources with a tiny pinch of salt. Indeed, sober sensible Tacitus says it was “the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, leaden tablets engraved with the name Germanicus,charred and blood-smeared ashes, and others of the implements of witchcraft by which it is believed the living soul can be devoted to the powers of the grave” that killed him. Which is gross, but probably not deadly.
However, both Germanicus and Agrippina believed that he had been killed and that Tiberius was to blame. And Agrippina’s anger and sense of injustice at her husband’s death never seemed to subside. She immediately, and outside the normal sailing months, embarked for Rome with her children and her husband’s ashes clutched to her chest. She arrived in Italy to widespread Princess Diana levels of mourning. People lined the streets as she proceeded to Rome on foot, still holding the urn. And adored her: “they called her the honour of the country, the only blood-relative of Augustus, the one surviving model of the old values; as they turned to the sky and the gods, they prayed that her children might be unharmed and survive their enemies.”
At the point that Agrippina arrived in Rome, she immediately began advocating for her sons. It had been her birthright as Augustus’s blood to grant the throne of the Empire to her husband or son. Tiberius had loathed her mother and probably killed her, held her grandfather’s throng, had taken away her husband and she was determined that he would not rob her sons of their right to rule. She agitated constantly against Tiberius, made allies to the extent that there are references to the “Agrippina party” in Rome and did everything she could to fight Tiberius.
At one point she stormed into see Tiberius as he was sacrificing privately to his adoptive father Augustus (which is quite a sweet image I think), to object to his agents falsely prosecuting her friends. In the ensuing argument she demanded of him how he could dare to sacrifice to the inanimate statue of Augustus while abusing his true descendants. “His divine blood does not flow in statues” she spat “but in me.” Showing that she also had an incredible flair for good lines and an ego to match.
The constant clashes did little to endear Tiberius to her, he treated her as a nuisance and a threat, and Tiberius did not warm to her sons. This was compounded by the rise of Sejanus, Tiberius’s right hand man, who plotted to take the throne for himself after Tiberius’s self exile to Capri and accordingly did his absolute best to destroy Agrippina and her sons’ claim to the throne.
Attacks from all sides, the bearing of nine children, her husband’s death, all the travelling and the constant failures to advance her sons took their toll, and at 40 Agrippina began to weaken. She finally caved and asked Tiberius to allow her to marry again, to restart her life. She asked from a sickbed, ill and exhausted. She wanted a companion. Tiberius refused. Her hand in marriage was too powerful to give away. She would die a widow.
It is at this point that the sources go dark. Several years of Tacitus’s Annals of this period are missing, and during that time, something dramatic happened. Sejanus fell, and Agrippina did too. Not just her, her eldest sons Drusus and Nero were also arrested and imprisoned for treason. Agrippina’s destiny was shattered: her sons would never take their rightful place on Augustus’s throne. She and they would die horribly in exile after years of suffering. Tiberius had won.
What Agrippina would never know as she was dying on that island was that her youngest son, tiny Caligula, would fulfil his mother’s dreams and become emperor. Or that her eldest daughter, Agrippina the Younger, would embody her mother’s self-belief, strength and brains and shape the world around her to become the first active Roman empress, and that her grandson Nero would be the last Julio-Claudian. Or that both her son and daughter would rehabilitate her, would rebury her in the Mausoleum of Augustus and commemorate her as a glorious woman and a paragon of Roman virtue. Or that 1,983 years later we would remember her as a wronged woman, and a brilliant one.
A couple of weeks ago, the discovery of Chinese skeletons in a Roman cemetery in London attracted a flurry of headlines.. More than one news outlet chose to run with the blaring headline that this discovery would “rewrite history.” “The findings promise to rewrite the history of the Romans,” claimed the Daily Mail (while simultaneously spelling Seneca wrong. Unbelievable). The Times said the same.
The tone of all the coverage of the skeletons is the same: “good grief, there were people of colour in the past! England wasn’t a snowy homogeneous festival of whiteness back then!” They even use the language of modern day immigration concerns to discuss the skeletons. Both the Mail and the Times call them foreigners, using the language of the nation state to describe them and to mark them out as unusual, out of place and other.
That the ancient world wasn’t an Aryan wet dream of pure whiteness should be obvious. Mary Beard gives a quick overview in her Times Blog of some of the various ethnicities of bodies that have been found in Roman England. And in doing so she highlights something else about the coverage of all these non-White bodies: no matter how many are found, the narrative of a white, homogeneous past will still remain.
Take, for example, the Bangle Lady found in York in 1901, and identified in 2010 as being of sub-Saharan African ethnic origin. This is a Black woman, young—18-23— and very very very rich. She is the 1% of Roman Britain in the late 300s AD. Now, try your best to fit a Black woman into your image of late Roman Britain. It’s a struggle, because you have never seen a representation of a Black person in the pre-Modern world that showed them as anything other than a slave.
We see that discomfort with the idea of a Black woman existing outside of slavery in this article about another Black Roman woman found in Beachy Head. And the same is happening with the Chinese skeletons; journalists assume they must be traders and merchants, because how else would an East Asian person end up in London? The implied image in these assumptions is that the norm is white people, while people of colour exist in the past only to serve and cater to them. People of colour are not the norm, they are a surprising exception. So surprising that their existence deserves international newspaper coverage every damn time they are identified.
But why does this matter? So the Roman cities of England were multi-ethnic. Who cares? Well, you should care. Because it is the fundamentally incorrect vision that before 1950, England was a pastoral paradise of cultural homogeneity and flavourless food that reinforces, and seeks to justify, the ideology underpinning the BNP and UKIP and Britain First and “legitimate immigration concerns” and Brexit.
At the weekend, the former director of the British Museum highlighted just this about the British (and then referred exclusively to English history, but that’s another debate). He said: “In Britain we use our history in order to comfort us…This sort of handling of history is dangerous as well as regrettable”. We pick the bits we like, he says, the bits that represent the good, strong people that we think we are. The good, strong, white people. We erase the Prussians who were instrumental in defeating Napoleon and the Gurkha troops who have fought for Britain for 200 years, and the rich Black women who lived in York in the fourth century.
This erasure means that people (some nefariously, some not so much) get to present British traditions, British “ways of life”, Britishness in and of itself as being fundamentally white. They get to present people of colour and European workers and refugees and the Irish and everyone who deviates from this vision as being new, foreign and dangerous. As threatening “traditions” and “Britishness”.
But here’s the truth, the truth that these Roman skeletons reveal over and over again: Britain has never been homogeneous. Britain has never been a racist’s white paradise. There have always been British people of colour, and Roman people of colour and medieval people of colour living normal, free, British lives before the concept of Great Britain ever emerged.
The Chinese skeletons are “rewriting history” in the sense that they force us, as the general public and as historians, to confront how artificial our visions of the past are, how much they have been constructed in the image of our own idealised selves and how powerful those artificial pasts can be in shaping the present. History is a dangerous subject when it is handled without care.
Two week things to shout about. First, I have set up a week newsletter about Roman finds, and facts and anecdotes and things that cross my path to do with the Romans. You can sign up here http://tinyletter.com/Agrippinilla
Second, for those who haven’t been badgered yet, I am crowdfunding my first book about Agrippina the younger at Unbound.co.uk/books/Agrippina. The book will be great (I think) and the more people who share and pledge, the better!
Today’s question comes from Katherine McDonald, who is a scary smart historical sociolinguist and Greek classicist and blogger herself, and I strongly recommend that you all follow her. And she asks a very good question, because Roman emperors spent an awful lot of time getting killed. Just thinking of the first 12 of them, Caligula, Nero, Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Domitian are all assassinated or driven to suicide by a coup. That’s a 50% death by violence rate at the START. And that’s before we even make it to the third century crisis, where emperors’ reigns are so short that they managed to get through 26 of them in 50 years, a period which included the laughably named “Caran Dynasty”, which lasted 3 emperors and a full 4 years (and one of them was struck by lightning).
In this regard, the Romans were extremely weird. I had never really considered how weird they were – having been immersed in Roman history for the past 17 years I’ve lost all perspective on them – until Katherine sent me this excellent lecture by Stanford historian and very smart quantitative man Walter Schreidel which gives a statistical analysis of how the Roman monarchy compares to 31 global dynasties across human history in terms of reign and dynastic lengths and death by violence (which Schreidel pleasingly terms “premature termination”). Now this lecture is really very good, but it’s also 45 mins long and quite methodologically dense and I am aware that most people don’t find academic lectures to be the super-great-fun-time that I do, because they have lives. So I will summarise for you.
How weird are the Romans anyway?
This chart was floating around a bit last year, produced by a redditor and it summarises fairly neatly how good Roman emperors were at getting themselves a bit stabbed or beheaded. But how do they compare to the rest of the world?
In short, the Romans are unique. According to Schreidel’s analysis, the Romans are entirely unique in their wildly unstable monarchy. His analysis is pretty dense and he includes a lot of figures, but the most important are as follows: First, the average reign length for the best bits of the Roman Empire (Augustus to Theodosius) was 7 years. That’s half as long as the global average and a third as long as the non-Roman European average. That’s rubbish.
Secondly, the longest Roman dynasty is the first, the Julio-Claudians who run for about 100 years from Augustus to Nero and last about 4 generations. Which doesn’t sound bad. Except the global average dynasty length is 300 years and 10 generations. In addition, two are brutally murdered and one is possibly killed by his wife. For five emperors, that is poor. But for the Romans, that is about as good as it gets. If at any stage in Roman history you can get three emperors in a row who don’t get murdered, that’s a winning streak. The absolute record is six in a row from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius and that’s because all those emperors adopted their successor. As soon as Marcus A let his biological son get in on the ruling act, we got Commodus who actually ruled for 15 years but is mainly remembered for being a berk and getting killed.
So the Romans ARE odd in terms of how unstable and violent their monarchy was. Which brings us then to Katherine’s question…Why was being Roman emperor so damn dangerous?
Shreidel offers only very brief answers to this question in his lecture – his business is what not why – so this is 90% me from here on in. I’m going to expand on his answers and offer you two good reasons why the the Romans were so stabby.
Reason One: The Emperors are Warlords
There is basically no time in Roman history when the emperor wasn’t in the army, backed by the army, or the winner of a civil war. The best way that an emperor could maintain a good long reign and and be remembered well was to keep the army busy conquering things and violently subjugate a someone.
This starts at the very beginning. Julius Caesar and Pompey get to face each other down because they both conquered so much. Augustus gets to be consul at 19 and the father of the country etc because he has JC’s army behind him and then he violently, militarily crushes everyone else and captured Egypt. Claudius conquers Britain, Vespasian and Titus conquer Jerusalem, Trajan conquers basically everything he has ever heard of or can see. After that, virtually every single emperor that lasts is a successful general who leads his regional troops against Rome. Even dear darling Marcus Aurelius, of the Meditations and the Gladiator hagiography and the philosopher-king beard, led a brutal war against Parthia and another against the Germans that was memorialised on his own column in Rome with scenes of slaughter, domination and war. Truly, tip top gory stuff.
If we look at the first assassination we can see this very clearly. Caligula is murdered along with all his family and the senate attempt to reinstate the republic. But Claudius is backed by the Praetorian Guard and by extension the armies. And Claudius threatens his way to the throne in the same way that Augustus threatened his way to the consulship. All winks and nudges and hints of a sword.
For all our terribly high-minded ideals of the Romans, and our Western, super-racist perceptions that warlords are a thing of African post-colonial states and World of Warcraft (seriously, googling for a picture for this bit was a racist horrorshow, which is why I went with Immortan Joe), that’s exactly what the majority of Roman emperors were. They were a military backed dictatorship from the very beginning that did its damn best to present as a peaceful dynasty a of divinely chosen family. Augustus does everything he can to turn his family into something superhuman. He emphasises again and again their descent from Venus. He has his adopted dad deified and worshiped. He gets himself called Augustus which is basically “most holy one”. He encourages the imperial cult. He gets Virgil to write the Aeneid to really hammer home the special chosen one descended from gods and Trojans idea. And it does not work. It impressively fails to protect them because no matter what he does…
Reason Two: Being Emperor is Just a Job
For all the effort that Augustus pours into trying to differentiate his family from all the other families, it just never sticks. In part I think that this is to do with his own bad luck at not having a son or a surviving grandson that he can coat in semi-divinity through the Julian bloodline. Instead he gets stuck with Tiberius who comes from the Claudian bloodline and can only just about be aligned to Augustus’s goals. Also Tiberius doesn’t come across as the most demi-god-like bloke. He’s the kind of guy that might make you question your faith if someone told you he was divine. And on top of that, Augustus put very little effort into divinely legitimising him, possibly because he hated him and possibly because it was a waste of time. So, already by his second move Augustus’s ambitions for his dynasty were scuppered.
The other reason is that the hatred of kings was so deeply embedded in Roman cultural DNA that they basically refused to admit that they had one for 1500 years of having one. They let emperors call themselves Imperator, Augustus, Caesar – literally anything that eventually came to mean king – except the actual word king (rex). They let both JC and Augustus be half-divine, but the second JC looked at a crown that hinted rex, they stabbed him 46 times. Not having kings was their cultural USP and they were not planning on letting that change just because they happened to have kings. No siree bob.
And that means that the job of emperor is never allowed to take on a cultural meaning that is more than just the biggest job in the empire. It’s a job that comes with the coolest palaces, the hottest slaves and the best parties but it is still, no matter what, just a job that can be done by anyone. While Chinese and Japanese emperors, Egyptian pharaohs, Incan emperors and basically everyone else got to be living gods, and even English kings until pretty recently got the Divine Right, Roman emperors were always just dudes with swords who were willing to do the paperwork. The imperial cult involved sacrifice to the emperor, but at no point did the idea that emperors were literally divine or special in any way take off. And if the emperor is just a dude, then his job is open to anyone.
Once you have a desirable job, and no one thinks that you’re particularly special for having that job, then anyone can have a go at taking it from you. Especially if they have the exact same qualification and number of legions as you do. And that’s exactly how we end up with the third century crisis, where every general in every part of the empire thinks he have have a bash at being emperor. The third century crisis, at the most base level, is the year of the four emperor that follows Nero’s death writ large.
So there you have it. The Romans are unique in so many ways. Because they’re violent and nasty and love war more than anything, and because they refuse to accept that you have to be special to rule an empire. But at least so many of them have the kind of personal ambition and go-getting style that a Donald Trump would find admirable: to face down the current emperor and take his place.
This comes from my blog over on my book site. Head there to pledge for my book.
This is me doing clickbait titles. And by using a slightly out of date reference that people will only just remember I’m maintaining the tradition that ancient historians are always a little behind everyone else when it comes to modern events.If David Cameron Fucked A Pig is too 2015 for you, Ted Cruz Is The Zodiac Killer fits this too. Now most people won’t read past probably this bit (so my friends who know about how people read on the internet tell me) so maybe I should answer the question that I know you’re all asking now: what does David Cameron shagging a pig have to do with writing about Romans? Or maybe I should leave it to the end, so you keep reading. I’m not sure. I don’t know about these things. I just know about Romans.
The relationship between these two things – the Prime Minister of the UK putting his dick in the mouth of a dead pig and the entire civilisation of the Roman empire – is the importance of rumour and anecdote, and how they make life both really hard and really fun for historians like me.
Here’s the thing with the David Cameron Fucked a Pig story: we all know it’s not true. I was awake and on Twitter when the story broke in the middle of the night and the hysteria flowed through and the left-leaning journos and artists I follow (all brilliant, marvellous, smart, nuanced people) all fell about joking, laughing, retweeting, spreading the story that was too funny, too perfect. It encapsulated everything that educated lefties like me hate about Cameron: it had the exclusive university dining club setting, a dining club where they had a pig’s head – like Henry the Eighth! – the image of the braying, drunk mob of red faced posh boys, the peer pressure, the notion that Cameron will do ANYTHING for power, a literal penis going into a dead pig, and the almost too perfect intertextuality of David Cameron both looking quite a lot like a ham, and that this exact thing was the basis of an episode of a TV show a few years back. David Cameron Fucking A Pig epitomised why a significant subset of people just really hate David Cameron. So we wrote about it, laughed about it, spread it. But we all know it didn’t technically happen.
People are smart, they know the story is at absolute best a wild exaggeration of a drunk boy putting a flaccid dick in a pig’s mouth. At best. Most likely it was a half truth woven by a man who we know actively hates Cameron for denying him a job and who sold the story to the highest paying, lowest common denominator tabloid to publicise the book he wrote about Cameron. We KNOW this. We don’t believe that David Cameron fucked a pig. But still, there’s a PigGate wikipedia page, it was in all the papers, it was in Time magazine, the prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was forced to publicly deny that he had ever fucked a pig. It’s part of Cameron’s reputation, his legacy, even though it’s just a silly story no one believes. In 1000 years, it’s just possible that this is a thing people know about him. Brexit, phone hacking, and the pig fucking.
Which brings me to writing history, and especially history concerning the Julio-Claudian family. Because so much of what we have about Julio-Claudian emperors is stories just like this – stories about sex, about private habits, about things happening on islands that no-one ever visited, behind closed doors and even – when you’re Suetonius – inside emperor’s heads. Take this classic line about Caligula for example, probably one of the best known “facts” about poor old Gaius:
“…it is also said that he planned to make Incitatus [his horse] consul.”
This is written by Suetonius, about 80 years after Caligula dies and he’s pretty clear that the level of chat we’re talking about is the level that David Cameron Fucked A Pig fits into: a rumour, a story, something no one really believes but everyone thinks is funny because it fits what they think about Caligula: he’s a deranged, uncontrolled lunatic who likes his horse way too much and has no respect for the institution of the senate. But another 50 years after that, 130 years after Caligula had a favourite horse, we get this from Cassius Dio:
“he swore by the animal’s life and fortune and even promised to appoint him consul, a promise that he would certainly have carried out if he had lived longer.”
Certainly? Certainly would he? The rumour, the “it is said” has become fact. And by the time you get to now, it’s in Rotten Romans book with FACT! written next to it.
That’s an extreme example of course. But it’s indicative. So much of what’s known about Agrippina and her family, her world, everything that happened comes from rumour and is bracketed by “reliable sources say”, “it is said”, “historians report” or a personal favourite “the lecherous passion he felt for his mother was notorious.” But these stories are always GREAT. They’re always dramatic or sex filled or just plain WEIRD. They’re always the best ones to tell, which is how they survive. Except. Except there’s two levels of difficulty with that for a historian trying to write about these people: these are always the best, most entertaining stories, but what obligation do I have to any kind of truth?
This is a question that bothers me, and bothers lots of people. I’m a trained historian, trained not to make statements I can’t substantiate and to avoid using the past for my own ends. But is my job to peel back layers of rumour and story and lies and find out what’s underneath, only to see that there is nothing, or is it to pick through those rumours to find kernels that I can – for whatever reason of my own – decide are “The Truth”, or is it to report those rumours and leave you to make your own decisions? What criteria do I use to decide which stories are anecdotes and which stories are “true” and which are “rumour”? I mean some are seemingly obvious, like the Caligula horse one. Others are, in context, obviously bollocks too, like basically any accusation of incest because incest was a bizarrely common accusation in the 1stC and there are numerous examples of people making accusations in order to take out their enemies. So either the Romans were constantly fucking their siblings, or it’s a strange cultural quirk of the period to accuse your enemies of fucking their siblings. But others. Others are hard, and there are just so many of them. Just Suetonius’s Life of Claudius is 11,500 words of mainly weird anecdote, and Agrippina weaves through 5 emperor’s lives, always in the background, always obscured by layers of misogyny, genre tropes, narratives and different, unknown sources. Picking these layers apart, and then working out what is left, is a challenge. Because I don’t want to tell people that Ted Cruz is the Zodiac Killer or David Cameron Fucked A Pig, I want to be able to tell you the reader these stories and what they mean.
One of my favourite books of recent years is Laurent Binet’s HHhH, a part fictional, part historical, part memoir account of the assassination of Heinrich Himmler. As much of the book is about Binet’s research, decision making, thought processes and worries when writing his novel. Several pages for example deal with the colour of Himmler’s car and its representation in a number of sources, a car that Binet has both seen and touched. HHhH is incredibly personal (and brilliant, you should read it) but the thing I like most about it is how honest Binet is with his readers about the fudges, the guesses, the assumptions that make up telling history. I’m not writing a novel, I don’t have access to the sources that Binet has (the absolute luxury modern historians have and still they complain), but I still have to make decisions about what to believe and what not to, about hows and whys and wheres. And make this entertaining and not an unbearably tedious academic book which picks apart anecdotes until they just shrivel to boring, boring dust. It’s a careful tightrope to walk, the line between credulous – or knowing – reporting of the ridiculous, and the dissection of it into something meaningless.
This question comes from a philosopher (@PhiLoThough) and a physicist (@ThePhysicsMill). People interested in The Big Questions. Questions about the nature of reality itself. About the universe. About fundamentals. They think about gravitational waves and universal truths and everything in between. And both are (I assume, which I shouldn’t do but it fits where I’m going with this so I hope I’m broadly right) part of massive international academic systems, based on centuries old ideas of curiosity, inquiry, scientific philosophies and the unending desire of man to understand his world. And so, they wonder how the Romans thought about their questions and – perhaps – wondered why there are no Roman Pythagorases or Euclids or Archimedeses (there’s a word that was never meant to be a plural). Because there aren’t. You never learnt a formula in GSCE maths that was named after a Roman, or memorised a rule that was named in classical Latin. And why is that?
The short answer to this is very simple. They did no maths that wasn’t basically adding up, and literally did not care one bit beyond that. Indeed, a mathematician once said that if you read world history through contributions to maths, you’d not know that the Romans existed. And it’s true. The Romans had a staggering lack of interest in the fundamentals of mathematics, or of the universe or really of anything. The Romans were so poor at maths – and this is also the reason that we now use an Arabic number system and a Latin alphabet – that they didn’t have a zero. The mathematical concept of zero literally never occurred to them. No use for it. Admittedly the concept of 0 is bloody complicated. I’m certainly not touching it because – as I learnt from dating 2 theoretical physicists – maths scares me and makes me want to lie down under a blanket with a glass of wine and possibly cry a bit. But still, I’m just one woman with self diagnosed dyscalculia (like all the cool kids); an entire civilization and they didn’t even bother with it? That’s poor Romans. Poor.
Which answers that question doesn’t it. NOPE NO MATHS. Next. But there are two interesting things in that short answer. 1. Given that the Greeks were really good at fundamental maths, why were the later, superior (don’t @ me) Romans so bad at it? And 2. If they were so bad at maths, how were they so good at engineering?
So let’s deal with these shall we. Take up some of your afternoon.
Question 1. Given that the Greeks were really good at fundamental maths, why were the later, superior (seriously, don’t @ me), Romans so bad at it?
The Romans were bad at maths because they absolutely didn’t care about it. The Romans were a staggeringly practical people. Just astonishingly uninterested in Big Questions. As far as the Romans were concerned, there was absolutely no need to question things because God did it. Or more specifically, innumerable gods did it. Infinite numbers of big and little gods and spirits. If gods couldn’t be immediately ascribed something, then it was probably magic.
This is something that is vastly underestimated now about the Romans, now we’ve reconceptualised them as either sex crazed, syphilis ridden knobbers or white toga’d British men with neat hair, paragons (*cough*) of the Glorious Empire (*cough*). In our imaginations, they’re still basically like us, by which I mean academics of western history. They’re white, they’re middle class and they’re pretty secular. They’re completely wrong. The Romans were religious and superstitious as fuck. To a weird degree. You know that woman your mum knows who wears a lot of purple and reads books about crystal healing and says she has an angel on shoulder and that some places have bad energy? She’d be considered to be borderline atheist by the Romans. Religion – by which I mean a true faith in the existence of supernatural, immortal beings, spirits, and powers who interacted with the physical world – permeated every facet of Roman life whether we acknowledge it or not.
Pliny the Elder wrote the greatest scientific work of the entirety of Roman civilisation: the Natural History – considered science simply because it’s got no ACTUAL gods in it(1). It Does however contain 12 entire books on plants and trees, one on magic, one on how great painting is, and chapters titled things like“Remarkable Circumstances Connected with the Menstrual Discharge,” Instances of Striking Resemblance,” and “The Most Chaste Maidens”, and not one mention of numbers.(2) The Roman concept of science was pretty damn different to ours is what I’m saying, and included painting. And grammar. And cool anecdotes that predominantly come from mythology. But if you don’t straight up say God Did It then it’s science. As far as the Romans were concerned everything was already explained. Gods. Or magic. Or both. Probably both. The Roman view of the world is basically the same as that of Battlestar Galactica. And why bother asking any more questions than that! The Romans mostly thought that the Greek preoccupation with such things that seemed to have no practical application was more than a bit suspect and probably bad for you.
Which brings us to question 2:
If they were so bad at maths, how were they so good at engineering?
For all their embarrassing rubbishness at fundamental maths, Romans were spectacularly good at engineering and this is what I think is very cool and interesting about them. Without ever having the concept of 0 or any access to any maths higher than arithmetic, Roman civilisation invented spectacular feats of civil and military engineering, including aqueducts, dams, watermills, massive paved roads, hydraulic mining, and all kinds of mad shit for killing large amounts of foreigners as quickly as possible. In addition to this, they managed to work out some pretty impressive physics, basically inventing the freestanding arch and dome. The dome of the Pantheon in Rome, first built by Agrippa and rebuilt by Hadrian, is a staggering feat of architecture and engineering. It is a PERFECT 43.3m sphere made out of concrete. In order to reduce the load so it stayed up, the concrete gets progressively lighter as it rises, and hidden chambers throughout the dome support it. The Pantheon impresses civil engineers and physicists today as a work of brilliant engineering. But they did it without mathematically working out anything at all. Because fuck it, this is practical stuff, we can bludgeon our way through.
And just think of how COOL and impressive aqueducts are. Water is drawn out of a source – possibly many miles away – and run through miles of stone using gravity alone, supplied to homes through piping, then run back out again, put through a sewage system and dumped into a different body of water. The gradient were carefully worked out so that the flow of water didn’t overwhelm the aqueduct and to keep the speed slow and steady. All done with finger arithmetic and a dodgy looking spirit level. Could you do that? I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t do that if you gave me a youtube tutorial and a scientific calculator. And not just because I’m afraid of all the buttons on scientific calculators.
Engineering is the kind of problem solving the Romans liked. Theory and abstract concepts and intangible things were fancy-pants things that only rubbishers got involved in. Engineering a way to move water or make something cool or fire flaming balls of stone at a disobedient city was failing to recognise how much better it would be for them to be ruled by the Romans was the kind of thing REAL MEN did. In a way, Romans are like the people who write tabloid headlines that say BOFFINS or a deeply stereotypical “working man” who doesn’t see the point of university, deeply distrusts the concept of education or theory but by god can he put up a shelf. Basically, they’re a certain type of redditcommenter who thinks that certain types of education are just a waste of everyone’s time. Not painting though, that’s important.
So the Romans broadly ignored the underlying principles that allowed them to build arches and calibrate aqueducts and fling big flaming stones and small flaming clay thingys really far, they just worked out how to do them with knowledge of tools and materials and spaces and assumed it was magic if something confusing happened.
The other that is often mentioned is Lucretius’s Poem On the Nature of Things because it seems to have physics in it. Lucretius is an Epicurean and his aim was thus to demonstrate that the gods had no impact on human life or natural events (in contradiction with deterministic philosophies like Stoicism which denied free will). He does not argue against the existence of deities, merely that they don’t impact humanity on the observable world. He is a naturalist and his science is broadly at the level of a 6 year old or an internet fan of Richard Dawkins.
These are most of books 12-27, excluding the 5 about remedies; book 35; book 30. The chapters are 7.13; 7.10 and 7.35. It’s worth noting the Pliny himself was very sceptical of magic and astrology and considered it hokum, but the fact that he felt the need to include a discussion of it – and the striking similarities between the magic and medicine described – show how very pervasive it was amongst the Romans. The menstruation chapter is a great read for the ladies including insights about womb moles and the effects that menstruation have on women: