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Roman Empire Misconceptions

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Rome: The Battle of Philippi

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Late Roman/Early Byzantine Infantry

Rome: City + Empire contains wonderful objects but elides the bloody cost of imperialism

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Coins from the Hoxne Treasure,
Hoxne, England, late 4th – early 5th century CE.
© Trustees of the British Museum
© Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

Caillan Davenport, Macquarie University and Meaghan McEvoy, Macquarie University

“What have the Romans ever done for us?” asks Reg from the People’s Front of Judaea in Monty Python’s comedy classic, Life of Brian. Rome: City + Empire, now showing at the National Museum of Australia, offers visitors a clear answer: they brought civilization.

This collection of more than 200 objects from the British Museum presents a vision of a vast Roman empire, conquered by emperors and soldiers, who brought with them wealth and luxury. Quotations from ancient authors extolling the virtues of Rome and the rewards of conquest stare down from the walls. This is an exhibition of which the Romans themselves would have been proud.

Portrait head resembling Cleopatra.
Italy, 50–30 BCE
© Trustees of the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

Indeed, the major issue is that the displays present a largely uncritical narrative of Roman imperialism. One section, called “Military Might,” features a statue of the emperor Hadrian in armour, a defeated Dacian, and a bronze diploma attesting to the rewards of service in the Roman army. An explanatory panel informs us that resistors were “treated harshly” while those “who readily accepted Roman domination, benefited”. This is especially troubling to read in an Australian context.

The exhibition is beautifully laid out, with highly effective use of lighting and colour to emphasise the different themes: “The Rise of Rome”, “Military Might”, “The Eternal City”, “Peoples of the Empire” and “In Memoriam”. And it boasts impressive busts and statues of emperors, imperial women, priests and priestesses, gods and goddesses, most displayed in the open, rather than behind glass. This allows visitors to view them up close from many angles.

Mummy portrait of a woman.
Rubaiyat, Egypt, 160–170 CE
encaustic on limewood
© Trustees of the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

The use of imagery is one of the exhibition’s greatest strengths. Close-ups of coins and other small artefacts are projected against the wall, while enlarged 18th-century Piranesi prints of famous monuments such as the Pantheon provide a stunning backdrop.

There are some excellent curatorial choices. The number of images of women is commendable, enabling the exhibition to move beyond emperors, soldiers and magistrates to emphasise women as an intrinsic part of the life of Rome.

Stories of key monuments, such as the Colosseum, the Baths of Caracalla, and the Pantheon, are accompanied by busts of the emperors who built them as well as associated everyday objects such as theatre tickets and strigils. However, there is no map of the city of Rome to allow visitors to place these buildings in context. And the evidence for the true cost of Roman conquest is not sufficiently highlighted.

Where are the slaves?

Coins show emperors subduing prostrate peoples, including one featuring Judaea, where Vespasian and Titus cruelly crushed a revolt between 66-73 CE. The accompanying plaque refers obliquely to Roman “acts of oppression”, but one has to turn to the exhibition catalogue to find the true list of horrors, including the thousands enslaved and the sacking of the Temple of Jerusalem. Nor is there any mention that the construction of the Colosseum, profiled just a few feet away in the exhibition, was funded by the spoils of the Jewish War.

Relief showing two female gladiators.
Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum), Turkey, 1st–2nd century CE
© Trustees of the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

The walls are covered with quotations extolling the Romans’ own imperialistic vision. “The divine right to conquer is yours”, a line from Virgil’s Aeneid, greets visitors at the start. Even more troubling is a quotation from Pliny the Elder which looms over the “Peoples of the Empire” section:

Besides, who does not agree that life has improved now the world is united under the splendour of the Roman Empire.

Toothpick from the Hoxne Treasure.
Hoxne, England, late 4th – early 5th century CE
silver and niello with gold gilding
© Trustees of the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

This section is full of objects displaying the luxurious lifestyle of provincial elites under Roman rule, from the stunning decorated spoons and bracelets of the British Hoxne treasure to beautiful funerary reliefs of rich Palmyrenes. The exhibition trumpets the “diversity” of Rome’s peoples, but this curious set of objects does not tell any coherent story beyond the comfortable lives of the privileged.

Slavery – the most horrifying aspect of Roman society – is all but absent. There are incidental references (a gladiator given his freedom, the funerary urn of a former slave), but they are presented with little context. Scholars have estimated that slaves composed at least 10 per cent of the empire’s total population of 60 million. They undertook domestic and agricultural labour, educated children, and served in the imperial household. Their stories remain largely untold.

Read more:
Mythbusting Ancient Rome: cruel and unusual punishment

Alternative narratives

The absence of any counterpoint to the Romans’ story in this exhibition is all the more surprising given that the catalogue contains an essay from the NMA that does show awareness of these problems. Curators Lily Withycombe and Mathew Trinca explore how the narrative of Roman conquest influenced imperial expansion in the modern age, including the colonisation of Australia.

Particularly revealing is their statement: “While the Classics may have once been in the service of British ideas of empire, they are now more likely to be taught using a critical postcolonial lens.” Yet this nuance does not make it into the exhibition itself.

Ring with sealstone depicting Mark Antony
probably Italy, 40–30 BCE.
gold and jasper
© Trustees of the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

A very different narrative about the Roman world could have been presented. Even in their own time, Roman commentators were aware of the darker side of imperialism. In his account of the influx of Roman habits and luxuries into Britain, the historian Tacitus remarked:

The Britons, who had no experience of this, called it ‘civilization’, although it was a part of their enslavement. (Agricola 21, trans. A. R. Birley).

The colossal head of the empress Faustina the Elder from a temple in Sardis is a spectacular object, but its overwhelming size should remind us of the asymmetrical power dynamics of Roman rule. Emperors and their family members were meant to be figures of awe to peoples of the empire, to be feared like gods. Tacitus memorably described the imperial cult temple at Colchester in Britain as a “fortress of eternal domination”.

Read more:
Guide to the Classics: Virgil’s Aeneid

The Rome of the exhibition is a curiously timeless world. The grant of Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire in 212 CE goes unmentioned, and the coming of Christianity is presented almost as an afterthought.

There are some spectacular items from the vibrant world of Late Antiquity (3rd-7th centuries CE), such as the gold glass displaying Peter and Paul and parts of the Esquiline treasure. But this section is marred by factual errors and it misses the opportunity to explore the dynamics of fundamental religious and cultural change.

Horse-trappings from the Esquiline Treasure.
Rome, Italy, 4th century CE
silver and gold gilding
© Trustees of the British Museum

© Trustees of the British Museum, 2018. All rights reserved

Rome: City + Empire is a wonderful collection of objects, displayed in an engaging manner, which will be of interest to all Australians. The exhibition is likely to be a hit with children – there is a playful audio-guide specifically for kids and many hands-on experiences dotted throughout: from the chance to electronically “colour-in” the funerary relief of a Palmyrene woman on a digital screen, to feeling a Roman coin or picking up a soldier’s dagger.

But visitors should be aware that it presents a distinctly old-fashioned tale of Rome’s rise and expansion, which is out of step with contemporary scholarly thinking. The benefits of empire came at a bloody cost.

Rome: City + Empire is at the National Museum of Australia until 3 February 2019.The Conversation

Caillan Davenport, Senior Lecturer in Roman History, Macquarie University and Meaghan McEvoy, Associate Lecturer in Byzantine Studies, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Mythbusting Ancient Rome – the emperor Nero

Caillan Davenport, The University of Queensland and Shushma Malik, The University of Queensland

If asked to think of a single individual who epitomises the decadence, destruction and debauchery of Ancient Rome, the name Nero would surely be on many people’s lips.

Attaining power in A.D. 54 at the tender age of 16, over the next 14 years Nero allegedly murdered his two wives, his mother, and his aunt while also marrying two different men and sleeping with his mother and a Vestal Virgin.

As if these sexcapades and murders weren’t enough to keep the youthful emperor busy, he is also supposed to have set fire to Rome, played (or fiddled) while the city burned, and then blamed the Christians in order to deflect attention from himself. The image of the capricious and crazed Nero is immortalised in films and TV series such as Quo Vadis and I, Claudius, not to mention in the computer software Nero Burning ROM.

Nero by Abraham Janssens van Nuyssen (1620)
Wikimedia Commons

But are any of these stories that feed our popular conception of the emperor Nero actually true? We’d like to tackle two of the most pervasive misunderstandings about Nero’s reign – that he was responsible for setting fire to Rome and that he had a sexual relationship with his mother, Agrippina the Younger.

These tales can be found in our ancient historical sources (all of which were written at least a generation after Nero’s death) but should not be taken at face value. This is because they are reported by sources as rumours, rather than facts.

Did Nero set fire to Rome?

Nero had a reputation as an arsonist even in antiquity, with rumours that he started the Fire of Rome in A.D. 64 appearing in the histories of Tacitus and Cassius Dio and the biography of Nero by Suetonius. While most scholars now agree that Nero was not responsible for the fire, the modern-day rumour mill (as represented by the Internet) is loath to exonerate the emperor.

There are two reasons usually given for why Nero set fire to Rome. The first is that he was a mad megalomaniac who burned down the city simply because he could. There is a story told by Suetonius that when a man said to Nero, ‘When I am dead, let the earth be consumed by fire’, the emperor replied, ‘No, while I live!’

The second reason often proffered is that Nero wanted to rebuild Rome according to his own plans, which included a sumptuous new residence for himself, the “Golden House” (Domus Aurea). There is a modern myth that the new palace was built solely for parties and orgies.

The Fire of Rome by Hubert Robert (1785)
Google Art Project/Wikimedia

If we examine our historical accounts closely, the only evidence for Nero the arsonist comes from rumour and hearsay. This is freely admitted by the historian Tacitus: even though Nero was out of Rome when the fire started, a rumour spread that the emperor had sung of the destruction of Troy from his palace stage.

Cassius Dio describes chaos in the streets as the fire took hold, as people ran about asking each other how the blaze started. In such a desperate situation, without reliable channels of information, it is easy to see how rumours could start.

Did Nero commit incest with his mother?

Nero has not only earned an undeserved reputation as an arsonist, but also as an incestuous deviant. His alleged sexual antics with his mother Agrippina have earned him a place on a list of the “most sexually depraved things Romans ever did” and in news stories about his “pleasure palace”. As with the story of the Fire of Rome, this image of Nero derives solely from ancient rumours, not from facts.

Agrippina the Younger from Stuttgart
Wikimedia Commons

The Roman people loved to speculate about the emperors and their sex lives. One story involves Nero and his mother being carried through Rome in a litter (a portable couch concealed by curtains), only for the emperor to emerge with suspicious stains on his clothes. People started to whisper that the pair had been doing more than reviewing imperial legislation behind the curtains.

Even more scandalous was the fact that the emperor took a mistress who turned out to be the spitting image of his mother – a situation which got tongues wagging throughout Rome.

These rumours can be explained as responses to an unusual political situation. Nero was only 16 when he was acclaimed emperor, and his mother Agrippina asserted herself as the emperor’s guardian by appointing men loyal to her in key positions. Her extraordinary influence is demonstrated by contemporary coins with busts of both the emperor and his mother on the “heads” side. This coin made Agrippina look like she was Nero’s equal.

Gold coin showing facing busts of Nero and Agrippina.
Wikimedia Commons

Agrippina’s unprecedented position was the subject of continual speculation throughout the city of Rome, according to Cassius Dio, because the people could not obtain accurate information about affairs inside the palace. Without reliable information, rumours spread based on cultural preconceptions: in the Roman world, it was believed that a woman could not exert political power unless it was gained by underhanded or immoral means.

One particularly pervasive rumour developed after Agrippina began to lose influence over Nero, as he began to pay more attention to his comely courtier Poppaea Sabina. Agrippina allegedly dressed herself up to the nines and propositioned her son as he lay in a drunken stupor after a long liquid lunch.

Cassius Dio remarked:

Whether this actually occurred, now, or whether it was invented to fit their character, I am not sure.

The fact that our ancient historians do not believe such tales should give us pause.

The purpose of rumour

Sociological studies of rumours have shown that they develop in situations when people do not have good information to explain current events. The rumour that Nero started the fire of Rome can be explained as an attempt by people to make sense of a confused, traumatic situation during which little or no official information about what actually happened was available.

The sight of the Domus Aurea being built so soon after the fire undoubtedly fanned the flames of rumour, pointing the finger at the emperor himself. The same point can be made about Nero’s alleged incestuous relationship with his mother. The stories about the sexual relationship developed as a way of explaining both Agrippina’s extraordinary power and prominence as well as her fall from favour.

Our ancient sources are clear about the fact that they are reporting rumours and innuendo. Suetonius, the biographer of Nero, reports that the emperor was merely thought to have desired his mother, but was persuaded not to act on his feelings. Similarly Tacitus reveals that, while some believed in the rumour that Nero started the fire, there were also those who did not.

If our ancient authors knew these stories were just rumours, why did they record them? There are various reasons for this. There was certainly a tradition in ancient historiography of reporting different versions of events and allowing the reader to make up their own minds. The stories are also very entertaining: we should never forget that these histories and biographies were designed to bring pleasure to their readers.

Finally, the salacious rumours served a political purpose. An emperor’s sex life was not simply juicy gossip for the masses: his private peccadilloes were believed to reflect the character of his government. Rumours, even if ultimately untrue, helped to define the expectations of a good emperor in the minds of the readers.

Slightly different motivations underlie the circulation of these rumours about Nero as facts in the modern world. They are enjoyable and entertaining to read, appealing to our cultural preconceptions of ancient Rome and its emperors as corrupt and morally bankrupt.

But perhaps most significantly, they enable us to impose a moral distance between ourselves and our ancient forebears. Making the past seem strange and unfamiliar helps to forget that the same problems still exist in the present.

The Conversation

Caillan Davenport, Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History and ARC DECRA Research Fellow, The University of Queensland and Shushma Malik, Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History, The University of Queensland

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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