Riots in Athens. Click for credits and larger picture

Here’s the promised conversation between Douglas and myself about the Greeks, the ‘dark side’ of the ancients and much much more.

Read the original conversation at the Hannibal blog where Andreas Kluth, a wonderful host, is btw the first German I stumbled upon – important to me – although Andreas is very Anglo-Saxon too.

He’s innocently unaware he’s like a perfect-to-me specimen from the German Roman Limes area … 😉 A great point of observation, kidding apart, for a blog like mine (read Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds.)

Now our vague-logic conversation, but let me say I’ve got another great tool for brain re-juicing outside blog dialectic: my Haman, or thermae, or simply my ‘thermal’ bath(room.)

No big deal, just a small place of comfort to test the effects of cold and hot water (& steam showers plus gymnastics,) and where many of the things I ponder get unexpected solutions (see Relax & Creativity.)

Roman Bath sign found in Sabratha, Libya. Click for credits and to zoom in. ‘Salvum lavisse’ was a greeting after a bath: ‘Well washed in health’.

The Ancients, Do We Idealize Them?

Andreas: Cheri speaks as though from my own heart in lamenting the Greeks. How, oh how, to reconcile their ancient grandeur with their Euro-busting, book-cooking financial profligacy of today?”

[Cheri, another great blogger and about to go to Athens, had expressed preoccupation for the riots etc. See the picture at the top, MoR]

Thomas Stazyk: “One of the Greek protesters was interviewed on BBC and said: “They [gov’t officials] stole all the money. Then they borrowed more money and stole that!”

MoR: “Allow me to disagree a bit here. I won’t discuss here the Greek failure – linked to Greek sins surely, but also to problems created elsewhere.

As I said over at Cheri’s, the beauty of going to Greece, to parts of Southern Italy (even to Rome), Turkey, Northern Africa etc. is the time machine thing. We don’t go there to see things working – if we want just that we should keep going to Sweden, North Germany or the US. When we go to the Med – or even more to India etc. – we go to see places and especially people – not only monuments – caught in the past, living remnants of an ancient world we are not always satisfied to admire from a library. This is the beauty of such trips. Of course there is a price to be paid. My daughter, 26, is now working in Mumbai for a month. She has started to love Mumbai immensely, but she is also paying a price for it.

This for today’s survivals of the past. As for the ancients themselves, Cheri suspects she is idealizing them a bit. I do it often too. But if we read attentively the ancient Greek texts (the Roman ones are no different) we don’t have only Pericles or Aristotle, but horrible poverty, thousands of slaves abused or, even worse, dying slowly in the Athenian silver mines, child prostitution widespread in ways not easily imaginable, the Macedonians (Alexander and his father included) ending up their dinners in wild and drunken orgies most of the time.

Greek adult with a slave boy. Click for credits

In the oration against Neaira, [pseudo] Demosthenes reconstructs with horrifying details 50 years of the life of a prostitute. It is a depiction of what could have been the life of an outcast in 4th century BCE Greece.”

[oration’s text at Perseus Digital Library]

Life of the Common Citizen

Douglas: “MoR, it is always the elites we are told of in the histories. Those who ruled, who were influential, who owned property, who were the ‘movers and shakers’ of whatever society (or culture) we delve into. The life of the common citizen is seldom mentioned.”

MoR: “Douglas, there’s not only the histories (and often even the histories are non conventional, like Herodotus and Suetonius, or even Plutarch) but all sorts of comedies, and novels, Greek and Roman, that depict everyday life (upper and lower classes and slaves too), plus, as I said, the speeches of the lawyers full of realistic details, & satires mocking follies (Juvenal etc.) or epigrams like Martial’s, so colourful but also shocking for their details on brutality in Rome. I mean, there’s plenty of records of the ancients’ everyday life, which may sounds often disgusting to us (they had different ethical codes) and totally non puritanical. I am not that expert in any case, I am just a dilettante having fun connecting the modern and ancient – a very ‘edgy’ place antiquity. My problem is this language. I write in English with all sort of dictionaries. Fascinating, but painful.”

Pollice Verso, by Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824 –1904). Public domain, click to zoom in

Douglas: “Please do not misunderstand me but who wrote those histories? All writing, all observations, reflects the perspective of the writer. In that, they are written as they are seen, not as they perhaps are.

Take any given incident, collect the witnesses, ask them what happened. Only by a collection of perspectives can one gain a knowledge of what actually occurred. Even in that there is an element of bias on the part of the one piecing it together.

So, yes, I am sure the life of an average Roman was not all orgies, high living, and wine-soaked afternoons at the Colosseum. Life was cruel for those who had no family connections, money, or position of power. It does not take a genius to figure this out.

But histories do not reflect the average person’s life. They reflect the life of those in power, those with influence, and those who achieved.

Or, put another way, you do not learn how the scribe lived but how his patron did.

I could ask you, what is the life of the average Roman today? You would answer from your perspective. You might not understand how life is for the people who deliver the goods to the market or keep the phones working or whose family must all work in order to pay the bills.

In the end, it comes down to what is the ‘average person’ and how that status is determined.”

Augustine and Monica, (1846), by Ary Scheffer. Click to enlarge


“But histories do not reflect the average person’s life.

Of course they don’t, although I don’t get what you mean by histories. Surely life of the ancients was not all orgies or wine soaked days spent at the Colosseum, but it seems likely it did not know the sexual repression of Christianity [see above Augustine, too an ‘open-minded’ Pagan first, too a strict Christian later], at least at certain periods, conditions, places. And, frankly, I don’t see what’s the big deal about it.

I could ask you, what is the life of the average Roman today? You would answer from your perspective.

The ancients we will probably never know who they really were but what is certain is, they were VERY different. Take a god like Dionysus Bacchus, worshipped by the poor and the rich alike, almost all around ritual madness, ecstasy and, basically, eroticism: it is painted sculpted carved EVERYWHERE in both Rome and Greece.

The term ’the ancients’ is of course too vague. There are plenty of scholars’ books depicting everyday life – for different classes – in 5th century Athens or Augustus’ Rome or Alexandria at the times of this or that monarch. They are just guesses based on the sources we have which is not much but it is growing because research is progressing (for example we see the reasons of the Fall of Rome quite differently now from what we thought, say, 50 years ago, but I am shifting).

We will never know what was the real life of a Roman at Caesar’s time, for example, like, even for today, you are right, my testimony of contemporary Rome is certainly subjective and partial, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

Douglas: “Let me put it another way, my friend… What do you suppose the literacy rate was in, say, ancient Rome?
Of current times and high (comparatively to ancient times) literacy rates, what percentage of people visit our vast array of museums, operas, ballets, and such?I say we can only know what we are told and what we are told is dictated by the mindsets, biases, and consciences of those that can pass the knowledge on. We cannot know what is true.”

[to be continued; read part 2]

34 thoughts on “Over at the Hannibal’s. Can We Really ‘Know’ the Greco-Romans? 1

  1. I am proud to be a specimen of liminality.

    BTW, that picture at the top is hilarious. The perfect post-modern expression of the place. The woman’s expression juxtaposed against the faux-Roman-shield battle readiness…. priceless.


    1. A specimen of liminality?
      Ah ah ah, well, you possibly are. When we first met I remember me mentioning ‘the last Italian city’ (or were you?). I thought that, by your knowledge of such tale it was unlikely you were from, say, Hamburg.

      That pic’s detail, hadn’t noticed it. Great, yes.


  2. Andreas beat me to it, so my reaction is a Kluth facsimile…he’s younger and quicker..

    I was going to say that viewing the hilarious picture two days before I leave for Athens brings a saucy smirk to my expression. The woman on the phone…is she unaware that a phalanx is upon her?

    I enjoyed this amalgamation of many posts, thoughts, people, and of course, Man of Roma’s historical wisdom.

    Thank you.


    1. The woman on the phone…is she unaware that a phalanx is upon her?

      Ah ah, you people make me younger at each laugh. Possibly evidence those phalanxes are not that dangerous.

      It is always a pleasure to have you here, my sweet Hyperborean.

      I’m sure your vacation will be wonderful. Hope you will not visit only Athens. Greece is terribly romantic. You and Judge Blah will be delighted.


    2. The woman on the phone…is she unaware that a phalanx is upon her?

      Imagine the conversation:

      Hi Mom, Athens is beautiful. But there’s a strange, biting smell to the air.

      Where are you, dear? There seems to be a lot of shouting near you, I can’t hardly hear what you’re saying.

      It’s nothing, Mom, just a re-enactment of some war or something. I’ll call later, something just exploding nearby with flames spreading all over the road. Maybe there’ll be fireworks later.


      1. Ah ah ah, that was funny too! And the phalanx, inexorable, approaching. But she might not be totally crazy. Possibly she knows the riots are elsewhere, where the phalanx is heading.


  3. “But if we read attentively the ancient Greek texts (the Roman ones are no different) we don’t have only Pericles or Aristotle, but horrible poverty, thousands of slaves abused or, even worse, dying slowly in the Athenian silver mines…”

    How very true and sad. Slavery plays a big role in Xenophon’s plans to revive the Athenian economy in his day. The importation and cruel exploitation of slaves. Even at so much later a date, Justinian’s Institutes spends a great deal of ink on laws governing slavery and slaves. This was the institution upon which so much of our history, such a large part of our human culture is built in its very early days, and it can be read about and known of with a careful reading.


    1. Bravo, yes, the *Corpus Juris Civilis*. I have the digest or *Pandects* at home. A codification of over 1,000 years of jurisprudence by the Romans. Whether it is at the base of modern civil law – I am Roman, but not Italian, nationalist lol – little matters in the discussion, but that it provides all sort of information on the lives of any kind of people as for testaments, marriages, divorces etc., I believe it does matter.
      I wish Richard were here to explain us a bit though.


      1. I have a fine translation of this law book that I found in a used bookstore in Bangor, Maine while visiting family about a year ago.

        I would suggest that St. Justinian, soldier, law-giver, statesman, and more was probably in the category of a moderate polymath himself.


      2. While I dislike reading books online, this is a link to an online copy of the translation of the Institiones that I have in printed form. I have actually, in blog discussions and other conversations found this work useful and worthy of quote on a few occasions. No, I am not a lawyer, but I actually did read this law book with interest.

        Here is a document from the Romano-Byzantine world that does give us powerful insight into the lives of common people and how society worked (or was supposed to work) for the various classes and professions of the time. Since the work cites legal edicts and legal precedence from older times, we even get a look at much older generations of people than in just the 6th Century.

        Another place where we get a lot of information about the regular people of the past is in archeology and art. In our time, museums and exhibitions as well as text books do a much better job of integrating and presenting art, architecture, archeology and the written works of antiquity in an integrated context. As a lover of liberal learning and polymathy, I like this multi-disciplinary, integrated approach that can’t help but to give a better understanding of life for everyone during earlier periods.


        1. Interesting. But, in my view, it tells us little about who the average person was and what his life was like. I prefer to read what a person lived like, what his desires were, what he thought of his own life and its prospects, how he felt about his rulers and how they affected his life. This, I contend, is not possible to know about ancient Roman (or Greek or Egyptian and so on) average life because literacy was extremely limited and, for the most part, found only among the ruling class and at times in the merchant class.

          We, therefore, imagine what it might have been like based on what the literate of those days tell us. And when we do that, we also apply our own biases.

          That is all I am saying.


        2. Douglas, you’re repeating your point over and over. I have *understood* it and it is not entirely wrong as I can see it, but, I wonder if you have listened to my points.

          So I’ll repeat a few of them. How about the comedies that were made for the illiterate people also and had to reflect their moods and tastes? And you forget the ancient ‘art’ concept – statues, paintings, comedies, tragedies, poems, novels, pantomimes etc. – had to follow the rules of mimesis, that is, exact imitation of nature and men and society.

          So, even if most of the artists came from literate classes, they tended to be realistic (the Romans even more), they often representing how society and people really were, from ALL classes (Petronius, Martial, Juvenal, Catullus etc.).

          [Catullus for example, he didn’t only talk of the high classes, but of the underdog: like that red-head Rufa who had no bread and was stealing food, and gave head to red-haired man Rufulus (Rufus in Latin is ‘red-head’) hiding behind tombs in Italian Gaul graveyards (many red-heads in Celtic Northern Italy, not by chance). Is THAT the life of the senators and of the literate only?]

          AND, it is to be added the oral readings of works. It is a tradition we still have here in Italy. Dante was / is always READ aloud (lectura Dantis) to everybody, also when the rate of illiteracy was very low in this country (even alas 50-70 years ago).

          Getting back to the ancients, writers knew that many readers were not capable of reading (so they met their tastes too, which reflected on their works). This is why shrewd Caesar wrote his commentaries in a Latin so easy and with such clarity that also a baby from any milieu could figure out their content.

          I think you have an abstract view of the ancient world. No big fault man. A trifle to say the truth. We Italians, mummies from the past, like to indulge in our memories – while you people out there conquer the world!


          I mean, they were people like us, Douglas, they needed entertainment like us but had no radio nor cinema. Plus, the Romans, even the underdog, felt they were at the centre of the world (which made their grand children – us – braggart, spoiled & blasphemous).

          When Caesar’s commentaries on his conquests were brought to Rome – that man had cunning, every move was calculated – a craze burst from ALL the people (Caesar was like a pop star): almost ALL the people read them in the sense that the majority *listened* to them. The people of Rome even with no bread were proud to be Romans, and were excited to hear their hero had made Rome bigger.

          I am digressing, and you might not listen again. And I love you even more. 🙂 🙂

          It’s this tough core that has made you New World Anglo-Saxons conquer all. You don’t want to give up, and I don’t want you to Douglas. What the hell! I am only a decadent European compared to you. AND, as far as pointless on-Antiquity intellectual onanism…. call me MIO, Master Italian Onanist.



          1. We have operas and plays and symphonies and they get listened to and watched. But by the average person? Not here. Perhaps in Italy. We, the average people in the US (and I suspect most everywhere), watch movies and TV; mindless entertainment. Politicians speak profoundly about very important matters and maybe 10% bother to tune in while seemingly 60% form strong opinions which are ignored.

            We engage in sports, we go on picnics, we walk around shopping malls. That is what the average person may do. We have families and interact with them more than we do anything else. And the way we do that reflects our culture.

            But we are not visiting museums, attending operas, admiring sculpture. We are, by and large, ignoring these for what is called the “pop culture” of our respective societies.

            The thing is, you do not know:

            almost ALL the people read them in the sense that the majority *listened* to them.

            You have surmised that by what you have read and been told. And what you have read was written by people who had a mindset, a point of view, that is reflected in what they wrote.

            I do not say you are wrong. For all I know, the majority of the citizens and slaves of ancient Rome hung on every word and lived their lives as you say.

            I am merely a skeptic.


            MoR [I realised I hadn’t replied below to aspects of your sincere and beautiful post]:

            I think we have discussed ad nauseam *here* and *here* with you and Lichanos, Sledpress, Andreas, Paul, Dev, Rosaria, Zeus, Troutsky, Mr. Crotchety, Cheri, the Commentator etc. about this ‘anti-intellectualism’ and pop culture which seem pervading in the American society. Europe is a bit different but is changing fast and young people are becoming the same all over the world. On the whole I consider this to be *BAD*. Andreas said *here* this to be a tragedy, this pervading pop culture, this, as you say, wandering in shopping malls and watching Star Trek.

            I will not repeat things I’ve already said (*here*, for example, where I see a risk of America being not ‘seducing’ enough to more ancient people, which is the the biggest part of the world]. Fortunately there are many other positive influences from America, which can be summarized in this: less traditions = less paralysis, more freedom, more innovation etc. this regarding the economy, the (less backward) social structure, new sparkling ideas – take the Internet – and so on.

            Also, Americans, whatever you can think of them, have a purer heart, are younger inside, less cynical, and have more *faith* that things can be improved. This is terribly refreshing and much more important than visiting museums or listening to classical music. I have also repeated many times that, in another life, I’d prefer to be born in the ‘New’ rather than in the ‘Old’ world. But, in this life, I’m stuck here and it is my duty – for myself and the people around me – that I at least try to live these ‘traditions’ we have inherited at their highest possible degree.


          2. Douglas, my friend Mario has found new insight possibly (he’s just phoned me):

            “We know better, we live among these people [ancient populace] every day, they are around us. Douglas is 1000 thousand miles away from this. But it is not a privilege, it is our a tragedy.”

            Well, a tad exaggerated, but true. Mario is from Naples, where an organized – & ancient – crime rules for example – have a check on Camorra – and where people are ‘puzzling’ – euphemism – but also very special.


      3. I was not often consulted on questions of Roman or Civil Law. A good thing, since I am qualified in neither.

        The profound influence of Roman Law on both Common Law and Equity cannot be denied, however, and there have been struggles over history as to which should prevail. That struggle continues to this day with the advent of the EU.

        In the parlance of the Common Law, “Civil Law” has a different meaning. It is those parts of the law which do not relate to crime.

        Roman Law, I believe, grew out of the needs of the people, whereas as Common Law, originated by Henry II, grew with the decisions of judges in individual cases. The Common Law is frowned on in some quarters because it is said to be a denial of democracy. But what else,I ask you, is statute and codification (even Justinian’s) other than a dumbing of the voice of the people?

        I have been told of three practical distinctions between Common Law and Civil Law (in the Napoleonic sense)

        1. The presumption of innocence.
        2. The need for a quid pro quo (“Consideration”) in an enforceable contract, which reflects the English emphasis on commerce and trade
        3. The Inquisitorial system of trial.

        Equity was introduced to relieve the rigours of the Common Law. It has developed into a mass of arcane rules itself. One aspect of this is the “Doctrine of Estates”, a remarkable concept which acknowledges that ownership is an abstract notion. We do not own land itself, the king does. It is these “Estates” that we buy, sell and transfer and which provide flexibility and adaptability to ownership and marketability. No such concept, I understand exists in the Civil Law.

        As to pure slavery,the idea that a human being is property, it is not, to my knowledge (limited, I have to admit), a concept which the Common Law ever recognised.


        1. @Richard

          No bother, really. And, consoling to know I’m not alone in such disease. What can I say … that British and American juridical texts have lots of Latin proves a Roman origin only superficially. Maybe what English Common Law and Continental Law have in common – possibly Roman-derived – is the central role of the Judge and of the trial.

          BUT, I here run the risk of “going around with a lantern in search of the traces of the Roman civilization in the world” as *Magister* phrased it with contempt. It would be narcissistic.

          Which brings me to this French guy who came to Rome for a brief vacation. He kept praising the beauty of the Roman monuments (“Ah, l’histoire, ici on voit vraiment l’histoire!”) but each time we went out together he spent almost ALL evening counting the French cars in the Roman streets, and whenever he saw one his pleasure was evident.

          Am I here to count the Roman cars? That is the question.


          1. Yes, the fact of the influence is unavoidable, although the making of non-statute law is exclusively in the hands of the judges trying actual issues here whereas under civil law systems it can also originate with academics concerned with hypothetical questions,I believe. I think the decisions of Civil Law judges are, theoretically, legislative acts.

            Taking rather too broad a view, perhaps, one can in one sense see the actual origins of the Common Law as resistance to the influence of Rome, all tied up with the martyrdom of Becket, the excommunication of England under John, the final break under Henry VIII and all the aftermath.

            Our divorce laws,succession and, I think, maritime law are in reality all rooted in Roman Law,since these were within the jurisdiction of the ecclesiastical courts.

            This general conflict was,I guess, at the heart of Henry’s quarrel with Rome over his divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

            Sorry to have drifted so far from the thread, but might it be true to say that the Common Law dealt with day-to-day matters supposedly relating to the lives of the majority,whereas those elements derived from Roman Law were concerned more with the lives of the privileged?


          2. I must not miss an opportunity to have explained to me by a Latin scholar this passage from a 1906 case concerning the so-called eiusdem generis rule, which frequently trips off lawyers’tongues, and can excuse practically anything. It is a rule of construction requiring words later in a list to be restricted to the general meaning of earlier ones.

            (I am not sure whether what follows is blindingly obvious or impenetrable)

            “The generality of the maxim expressum facit cessare tacitum which
            was relied on renders caution necessary in its application. It is not enough that the express and the tacit are merely incongruous, it must
            be clear that they cannot reasonably be intended to co-exist…”

            and in another case on the same topic in 1887

            “… it never struck the draftsman that the thing supposed to be excluded needed specific mention of any kind.”

            (Some people!)

            And again, in 1889, “The maxim ‘expressio unius exclusio alterius’ has
            been pressed upon us … it is often a valuable servant but a dangerous master.”

            Help please!


          3. Richard! You are giving me homework!


            Tomorrow I’ll try to blabber something about things totally obscure to me. And I am not a Latin scholar unfortunately.


  4. “Hi honey! I’m on my way home now, but I’m stuck in some Phalanx over by the French embassy. Something about Sparta, Athens, entitlement spending…I don’t know but it’s got traffic tied up all the way to Fili.”

    “Just keep the roast in the oven on ‘Warm’ and don’t start steaming the peas until later. Bye!”


    1. Dear Douglas, you are used to a very innovative world, where the ‘can be’ attitude is widespread etc. A part of Italy is like that, another is ‘stuck in the past’ and like hibernated. I have mixed feelings about it.


      1. Yes, it probably has to do with a significant part of our heritage. But, like all nations, we change with the influx of other cultures if we do not adhere to that heritage. Italy was very innovative at times in her past. The rise of the Roman Empire was a result of it, the Empire itself was innovative, it became the seat of a great religious movement, it helped bring Europe out of the Dark Ages.

        But always, cultures must fight the forces of “we’ve done great things, let’s reap the reward and rest. Let’s adopt the ways of others.” crowd.

        I am fascinated as to why great civilizations fall. America will too. I hope not too soon.


  5. @Richard

    You ask me to explain some Latin but the problem is not the Latin – here easy – but the juridical ideas behind. In any case last night at a party I was lucky enough to meet The Jurist – who didn’t help me AT ALL, too busy to chat he was – with his wife (a lawyer: she helped me, but there was too much noise ) and The Jurist num 2 (he’s also teaching some stuff at a university a few km south of Rome).

    Basically I learned this:

    “The generality of the maxim ‘expressum facit cessare tacitum’ which was relied on renders caution necessary in its application. It is not enough that the express and the tacit are merely incongruous, it must be clear that they cannot reasonably be intended to co-exist…”

    That is: what previously had no juridical discipline because tacitum (tacit) when expressum (expressed, I imagine in a sentence or judgement) becomes disciplined. Possibly – it is my vague thought – each case once expressed becomes like a sort of law than can help further judgements. But, I repeat, there was too much noise for me to understand well. And:

    in 1889, “The maxim ‘expressio unius exclusio alterius’ has been pressed upon us … it is often a valuable servant but a dangerous master.”

    ‘Expressio unius exclusio alterius’, is corrupted medieval Latin, this is how we (they! not me!) formulate the concept in more classical Latin: “via data altra exclusa” (one way once given, the other is excluded) or “electa una via (once a way is chosen) non datur recursum ad alteram (the other cannot be trodden). Which might explain both the ‘valuable servant’ and the ‘dangerous master’, since, such a system – it is my guess – once things are disciplined that way, they cannot be changed, or sort of.

    Richard, I have NO IDEA if this makes sense or not. Law and Math, to me, are sibling nightmares.

    One note: as you may observe, Italians care more about the purity of Latin. The chaos of our legislation, little matters to them!


  6. Thank you so much, Roma for clarifying this question, and for all the time you have put into it.

    I shall now walk up to the office go through decades of files and write to all those clients I have advised wrongly over the years.

    Thank you again.



    1. Oh you can do that Richard. But pls be so kind to remember we love to misguide tourists asking for directions, students in our schools, and, of course, blog readers & commentators.


  7. @Richard: Could please, please, pretty please write a succinct post on your own blog on how you see the main differences, strengths and weaknesses of the inquisitorial (Civil Law) tradition versus the adversarial (Common Law) tradition?

    I’ve been meaning to write a post on this for a while. Your comments above make me want to read how you would think it through.

    In a separate post you might tackle the pros and cons of the jury system, which I’ve also got in my sights.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s