Tag Archives: Rome
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
Every two years, when the Winter or Summer Olympics comes around, we hear about how the games staged at Olympia in Greece since 776 B.C. came to a sudden end in the late fourth century A.D. The finger is pointed at the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I (A.D. 379-395), who is said to have banned the Olympics in the 390s as part of a wider political program directed against pagan religion, its rituals, and its festivals.
The idea that the athletic contests – held in honour of the Greek god Zeus for over a thousand years – were shut down by a puritanical Christian emperor makes for a good story. But is it actually true?
Theodosius I did issue a series of edicts against pagan sacrifice in the years A.D. 391-392. These have been preserved in a collection of laws known as the Theodosian Code, which was compiled in the fifth century A.D. by the emperor’s grandson. An excerpt from one of these edicts states:
No person at all … shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place at all or in any city. He shall not, by more secret wickedness, venerate his lar with fire, his genius with wine, his penates with fragrant odours; he shall not burn lights to them, place incense before them, or suspend wreaths for them.
Neither this passage, nor any of the other edicts in the Theodosian Code, actually mentions the abolition of the Olympic Games, as the historian Ingomar Weiler has pointed out. Sacrifices and libations to the gods had long been a part of the ancient Olympics, as with other Greek festivals. But the evidence suggests that sacrifices had largely ceased to take place at these events by the mid-fourth century as a result of changes in religious practices.
The games at Olympia remained popular throughout the Roman period, with athletes competing both for their personal fame and for glory for their home city. A recently discovered inscription listing victorious athletes demonstrates that the games were still going strong through to Theodosius I’s reign. The court poet Claudian then refers to the Olympics in A.D. 399, after the emperor’s death.
The most conclusive evidence of the games’ survival after Theodosius I issued his ban on sacrifice can be found in the work of an anonymous literary commentator. He states that the Olympics ceased to be held in the fifth century A.D., during the reign of Theodosius I’s grandson, Theodosius II (A.D. 408-450):
Since the Temple of Olympian Zeus had caught fire, both the Elean festival and the Olympic Games came to an end.
Olympic festivals (named after the original games at Olympia) continued to take place elsewhere in the Roman empire as well. The Olympics at Ephesus are attested until A.D. 420, and they continued at Antioch in Syria until the early sixth century A.D. Even though public entertainments were often criticised by Christian clerics, a prominent Christian senator, Leontios, intended to stage his own Olympics in Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century A.D. He would not have dared to do this if the imperial administration had banned such festivals.
What did cause the games at Olympia to end in the fifth century A.D.? Archaeological evidence shows that the site and the infrastructure for the contests (such as the buildings used to house athletes) fell into disuse. The statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the world, was removed from the temple and taken to Constantinople. The workshop of Phidias, who built the statue, was converted into a church. This evidence suggests a gradual decline and re-appropriation of the space at Olympia.
The historian Sofie Remijsen has argued that the end of the games was not the result of an imperial edict against paganism, but a change in economic circumstances. Long-term developments in the administration of the empire during the fourth century A.D. meant that rich elites increasingly had to sponsor contests out of their own pockets, and the civic funds set up to support the games were used for other purposes. The contests at Olympia ended because no one could afford it. Such a fate may eventually befall the modern games, as spiralling costs make hosting the Olympics an unattractive proposition.
Let the games continue
The notion that Theodosius I banned the Olympics has quite a history. Back in the 11th century, the Byzantine author Georgius Cedrenus cited the now familiar story of the ban, but it came back into the popular imagination with the advent of the modern Olympic Games under the auspices of Pierre de Coubertin in the late 19th century.
De Coubertin, a French aristocrat, had an inherent belief in the “character-building” capacity of sport. Alongside English educator William Penny Brookes, he formed a committee with a mission to restore the Olympic Games to their former glory, minus tripods, incense, and sacrifices. Athens was the place and 1896 was the year. Following the games, de Coubertin reflected upon his achievement in Century Illustrated Magazine:
It was a thrilling moment. Fifteen hundred and two years before, the Emperor Theodosius had suppressed the Olympic games, thinking, no doubt, that in abolishing this hated survival of paganism he was furthering the cause of progress; and here [opening the games] was a Christian monarch, amid the applause of an assemblage composed almost exclusively of Christians, announcing the formal annulment of the imperial decree; while a few feet away stood the archbishop of Athens, and Père Didon, the celebrated Dominican preacher, who, in his Easter sermon in the Catholic cathedral the day before, had paid an eloquent tribute to pagan Greece.
De Coubertin highlights a problem: for centuries newspapers, periodicals, and literature had propagated the belief that pagan practices, including the Olympics, had rightly been stamped out by the rise and spread of Christianity. Yet the modern Olympic founder was taking pleasure not only in the fact that the games had been revived but also that a Dominican preacher (who was, incidentally, also the inventor of the Olympic motto) had paid tribute to pagan Greece.
The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in de Coubertin’s wider modern Olympic message, which itself was based on an idealised version of Classical Greece. However critically Greek and Roman paganism were viewed, the status of Classical Greece as the home of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had always confirmed its place at the centre of European education. For physical educationalists such as de Coubertin, nothing topped the pinnacle of the Olympic Games, Greece’s oldest and most popular sporting event.
The key was to adapt the games to “the needs and taste of the age”. This meant no more trappings of religious cult. Thus, when Père Didon praised “pagan Greece”, it was as the home of “beauty, grace, and strength all in one” (de Coubertin’s words); the perfect, philosophical place to educate the energetic youth of any era.
Ending with a whimper not a bang
Ultimately, the blame for ending the Olympic Games was laid at the feet of Theodosius I because it was difficult for people to believe that the festival – a defining cultural symbol of antiquity – simply fizzled out after more than a thousand years. The conflict between paganism and Christianity in the later Roman empire became an easy way of explaining the end of this great athletic contest.
By the time de Coubertin came to revive the Olympics in the 19th century, this story was set in stone. In restaging the games in a modern world, he drew inspiration from the athleticism of the Classical Greeks, but left the pagan rituals of the ancient world far behind.