The Ancient Roman ‘Temple of all gods’ (Pantheon,) Rome. Click to zoom in

[continued from part 1]

Opinion and Knowledge (of the Ancients)

MoR: “Douglas, you are a friend and you raise here a big philosophical question: whether man can reach truth. I’m not qualified, my wife is the epistemologist of the family (she has a degree on philosophy of science) and all I understood (from our quarrels) is that ‘scientific’ research is all about trying to go beyond doxa, ie biased opinion, so you hit the nail on the head I believe.

By ‘research is progressing’ I meant: ok, we will possibly never ‘know’ these folks (Saxons invading Britain, Macedonians at the times of Alexander etc.) but the various ‘pictures’ we have of them are enriched day by day, researchers communicating more (such ‘pictures’ are interrelated), and, our sources being not only ancient literary texts (which reflect the view of the writer) but of course also the (less biased?) ‘data’ from archaeology, biology, from studies on agricultural techniques, fossil seeds etc.

As an example (also of various doxas coexisting), the ‘picture(s)’ of Rome’s fall – the period 300-600 CE, ‘late antiquity’ ie between antiquity and middle ages – have changed dramatically in the minds of many specialists, I believe, although the public still thinks in terms of a Gibbon’s progressively decadent, imploding empire (Gibbons mentioned Rome’s ‘immoderate greatness’ so that “the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight” plus he blamed Christianity for Rome’s weakening) which received the last blow by totally ‘rough’ Germanic barbarians.

Who is right? I don’t know, these younger historians though surely profiting from a lot more of multi-disciplinary data I think.

The Barbarian Kingdoms, ca. 526 CE. By the 6th century the Western Roman Empire had been replaced by smaller kingdoms. Click for credits and to zoom in

Feeling Too Superior, Was Rome ‘Murdered’?

It seems the news is ‘electric’ (as Peter Heather put it in his The Fall of the Roman Empire) for both the descendants of the Romans and of the Germans – I belonging to both a bit, as I said in my mystical (and emphatic) *first post*.


  1. the ‘late’ Roman empire was a total success story.
  2. Germanic, non Roman, Europe was a two-speed reality (no new thing lol,) one portion being much more civilised than we had thought, surely influenced by Rome but absolutely non Roman (so this doesn’t include Bavaria or Austria, that were romanized, and, not by chance, when ‘Nordic’ Luther arrived, they said: no thanks).

So what the hell happened? Why healthy Rome fell?

Possibly because, blinded by her sense of superiority, Rome made fatal mistakes, and was murdered by the German Goths. Within though a period of ‘collaboration’ with the Germans.

[No easy topic the fall of Rome. Here’s a big list of theories on it.]

[I believe Christianity helped a bit (love your enemy blah blah, Gibbon in this was right imo), but I still have to figure out to which extent.]

Even the German Women were terrific fighters

J. Caesar Admired German Valour

MoR: PS. Excuse my logorrhea, such ‘collaboration’ between Germans and Romans was started by Julius Caesar the Myth. One reason he conquered Gaul [today’s France, Luxembourg and Belgium] was that the Germans, much stronger than the Gauls or Celts, were crossing the Rhenus (Rhine) in flocks and invading Gaul (so Caesar by conquering Gaul postponed an invasion that occurred much later with the German Franks, thence the name of France.)

Therefore Caesar, after defeating the Germans of Ariovistus, said to the toughest prisoners: “I admire your valour, so I give you a choice: either to be sold in the slave markets or to become my personal guard”. I think the Germans preferred the latter also because it was in their culture to follow the leader that proved most valorous.

Julius Caesar

Caesar took a risk, but not that much I believe. He belonged to the impoverished nobility and was a son of the slums of Rome (Subura) where he probably had lived in contact with Germans and Gauls long enough to understand their mentality. And surely, in the conquest of Gaul that ensued, the Germans proved much more faithful to Caesar than the Celts allied to the Romans. From that day many Roman emperors had German gorillas protecting them – not to mention foot soldiers and Cavalry, also used by Caesar.

Douglas: MoR, thus began the Praetorian Guard (under Augustus, successor to Julius) which became the controllers of the fates of emperors for 300 years until Constantine disbanded them. Perhaps that had something to do with the fall of Rome? Hitler seemed to have read his history well and created his own guard but tried to control them utterly and was quite successful in maintaining their total loyalty. Did il Duce? Certainly, he had his personal guard but they failed to protect him in the end from the citizens.

I think (to get back to history and understanding the common citizen of any culture or state) that with the expansion of literacy came more understanding. One source of great insight into American history is the correspondence between its citizens. These are the thoughts of the average citizen, not merely the hopes and dreams of the elite. Ancient Rome (and Athens, Egypt, and so forth) are known by what its rulers (for the most part) decided was important (and, often, flattering). To learn about the average citizen, we must make guesses and extrapolations based on myths and legends and on relics found. Do we taint these guesses and extrapolations with our own biases? Probably so.

But my bias is that history was, for centuries, the tales of kings and it was told as they wanted it told.

Old Temple of Athena at the Acropolis of Athens. Click for credits and to enlarge


my bias is that history was, for centuries, the tales of kings and it was told as they wanted it told.

It certainly was Douglas.

MoR: [talking to both Douglas and Phil] “That you mentally associate the emperors of Rome with Hitler & Mussolini, is interesting. There’s not much linking to be made imo, apart from the masquerade etc. I explain it with the great tradition of democracy in your country, which, we Latin people, do envy.

As for the Praetorian guard, I just now read in the Wikipedia that their role – according to who wrote the article – was of stability to the Empire on the whole. I don’t think though the Praetorian guard (a substantial army) were Germans (I only believe a few gorillas around many emperors were). And maybe some of the Praetorians were, I don’t know. I’m sure instead the legions who fought against the enemies of Rome had a progressively increasing number of Germans, which in the end became a problem possibly.

Rome is an Idea

Rome was more an idea, she was pretty international. The emperors themselves (Spanish, Arab etc.) could come from any land of the empire (like the Popes.)

It is little known that Caesar’s legions who conquered Gaul came mostly from Gallia Cisalpina, today’s northern Italy (80% sure). Big difference was there between these Italian Gauls and, so to say, the French ones. The former were Celts too (though with doses of Roman & Latin blood) but wore the toga (Gallia Togata is another name for it), eg were deeply romanized (Virgil, Pompey the Great etc. came from there), hence immensely more faithful to Rome than any other external people.

They only lacked regular Roman citizenship, which was given them as a prize by Caesar at the end of his Celtic wars. So Caesar – no Hitler or Mussolini indeed – had also the merit to create the unity of Italians, re-attained only 150 years ago!

The Roman legion was a perfect and disciplined war machine. Click to zoom in

Do We Know the ‘Average’ Roman?

One source of great insight into American history is the correspondence between its citizens. These are the thoughts of the average citizen, not merely the hopes and dreams of the elite.

True, but pls, allow me, we know something (I’d say a lot) about the average Roman too (who btw exchanged letters – the middle class – but we have lost most of them). Comedies were for the common people as well, or they would have been unsuccessful – there were no cinema or TV, thence theatre was terribly important – plus we have thousands of graffiti – whole sentences, poems etc. – written by the upper middle and lower classes: you probably under estimate the complexity of ancient society, no less structured than ours. Yes, the lower classes could be literate too, although, ok, the rate of illiteracy was higher, but, since religion touched the middle and the lower milieus especially, and we knowing A LOT about it (by Roman religion I mean ALL the cults present in Rome, Christianity included) I can infer that:

We know a lot about the poor people as well. The whole (monumentally documented) history of the progressive success of Christianity tells tons of things about the lower classes of the whole empire from the times of early Christians onwards. Just think of the letters by Paul of Tarsus: he had to persuade the non Pagan populace of the Empire – slaves included: see image below – but most of all he had to inspire & guide the faith of the already Christian elements – his message hence being directed to ALL social classes, it goes without saying.

Places visited by Paul. His letters tell about the life of the common people of the empire

I mean, we even know – due to the translations of the Bible – the Greek & Latin language actually spoken by the populace: for the reasons you mention the language of the poor and of the rich differed in sophistication.

As for simple-to-the-masses Latin the first translations of the Bible – Jerome’s not by chance is called ‘vulgata’, from vulgus, populace – appeared in the 4th century CE if I’m not wrong. They were written in non literary, ‘vulgar’ Latin, – eg that everyone could understand – to the extent that today’s Italians with a high-school diploma can more or less read them, vulgar Latin and Italian being closely related (whatever you Phil may think about it lol 🙂 ).

I have to stop this, Douglas. Thanks for obliging this lazy old man to work.


That you mentally associate the emperors of Rome with Hitler & Mussolini, is interesting. There’s not much linking to be made imo, apart from the masquerade etc. I explain it with the great tradition of democracy in your country, which, we Latin people on the whole, do envy.

Actually, it is both of those men who made the association. Not unusual for more modern despots to see themselves in the same light as men whom history has portrayed as great.
(Gen. Patton saw himself as a reincarnation of soldiers of the past and, I suspect, great generals and military leaders)

Julius took control of the political structure of Rome and turned it away from being a true republic of the times. He had himself declared dictator. He took total control of both the political and military structures. And was assassinated for it. But he laid the groundwork for Augustus to become Emperor. In some ways, he created the Roman Empire. First, by expanding the territory under its control and, second, by changing its political structure and laying the groundwork for dictatorial rule.

As I understand it, the literacy rate of Rome was ~15%. This would be the elite ruling class and the “middle class”. The “middle class” would be better described as the merchant class. This would be where the graffiti came from, as well as the letters.

When I spoke of the correspondence of American citizens, it began with the literate classes. But later it expanded into the general public as education expanded. We were fortunate that we began as a country after the invention of the printing press and at the beginning of the expansion of literacy. It is more the good fortune of our time period than anything else.

Try to understand, I am not denigrating Rome’s history. I am trying to explain my scepticism of history in general before the advent of the spread of literacy.


Read part 1 of this conversation

26 thoughts on “Over at the Hannibal’s. Can We Really ‘Know’ the Greco-Romans? (2)

  1. You knew you were going to reel me into that post with the picture of the German warrior women, weren’t you?

    I won’t comment more till I’ve had more time to be thoughtful. I’ve frequently puzzled over the need of European power-seekers through the centuries to define themselves as the heirs of the Roman emperors.


    1. Of course I knew Sled 😉 And I’m looking forward to your points. As for your ‘heirs of the Roman emperors’ I’ll think of that too.


    2. “I’ve frequently puzzled over the need of European power-seekers through the centuries to define themselves as the heirs of the Roman emperors.”

      It says something about how important the legacy of Rome and the Roman Empire is perceived by Europeans (and by extension by North Americans).

      Charlemagne tried to wrest this legacy away even though the Empire was alive and well, ensconced in the Second Rome. Moscow would come to be called the Third Rome. The important conduit for the transmission of that legacy was, I believe, the adoption by these people (over time and through different missionary efforts) of the Roman state religion of Christianity.

      Yes, they once had other commonly shared religions, but the one state religion was also the one that deeply influenced the two great law codes (those of Theodosius and later of Justinian), and was often a transmitter of what that law code stood for and preserved (including much from before Christianity existed) in a working form and for a Europe that would eventually reassemble itself. That religion (which generally absorbed the pagan culture and transformed it and added to it), and the law codes would provide a framework for everything else in the later Middle Ages and beyond.

      Certainly, the Germans, the French, the Russians even, were deeply influenced, inspired and they received so much of the law, learning, their faith via the Empire. Eventually the Germans gave up their Arian version of Christianity and adopted that of the Roman world, and the people of Rus (and eventually Russia itself) would adopt that religion (the Greek or Latin, once united practices now rather far apart notwithstanding), and again I emphasize they also inherited a sophisticated law code that helped them establish their own. Europe owes the Romans much.


    3. @Sledpress

      Allow me to integrate what Zeus is saying. It’ll also be a reply to Sledpress.

      An aim of this blog is that of discussing all sorts of legacies (and survivals) of the ancient Greco-Roman world.

      ‘To be the heir of Rome’: Rome was a myth for centuries but she also transmitted concrete things.

      The National Geographic Magazine thus described the legacy of Rome:

      “The enduring Roman influence is reflected pervasively in contemporary language, literature, legal codes, government, architecture, engineering, medicine, sports, arts, etc. Much of it is so deeply inbedded that we barely notice our debt to ancient Rome. Consider language, for example. Fewer and fewer people today claim to know Latin — and yet, go back to the first sentence in this paragraph. If we removed all the words drawn directly from Latin, that sentence would read: “The.”

      [I hope this legacy game doesn’t appear narcissistic. It partially may be. Let’s face it, here what is best it’s behind our (Italian) shoulders. The fact that 2/3 of Italy are rich & modern cannot be compared with the superpower that Rome was. Only America today is a sort of New Rome; read later]


      Myth plus contribution we were saying.

      After Rome’s fall in 476 AD, the Holy Roman Empire was established in 800 – Frankish, Germanic and later Austrian. This Empire considered itself the heir of the Western Roman Empire.

      When also Byzantium – the 2nd Eastern Rome – fell in 1453 CE, even the Islamic conqueror Mehmed II thought he was ‘continuing’ the power of Rome and tried to “re-unite the Empire”, but his march towards Italy was stopped by the Papal and Neapolitan armies in 1480. This sounds so weird today!

      And, as Zeus observed, after 2nd Rome’s fall someone referred to Moscow as the “3rd Rome“ – the heir of Byzantium’s Orthodox Christian tradition.

      So many heirs indeed! No futile game tho, and the list is not finished.

      The British Victorians felt they were somewhat the spiritual successors of the Romans.

      The Italian patriots who unified Italy too. And later Mussolini had the same idea (both ideas very disproportioned!)

      And the Americans? They also like today to find similarities between their might and the ancient superpower (I once tried to google ‘America’ ‘new’ ‘Rome’ and got a number of interesting results, like *this one*.)

      France and Spain also felt heirs of Rome. As for France I *wrote something* about it.


      1. That is one of the things that makes me apprehensive — America thinking of itself as New Rome. America is full of self-conscious Roman survivals — look at the architecture and public art of Washington, DC, to say nothing of the fondness for iconic Eagles, and a list that could go on and on. And America seems to want to repeat the adventures of Rome without learning from the pitfalls. Maybe it is all inextricable; perhaps you can’t have a network of commerce and intellectual exchange spanning continents without the lust for conquest, the temptation to set up puppet rulers abroad, the armies of occupation. I just wonder if our leaders get the picture that you can’t step in the same river twice, even the Rubicon.


      2. I think your observations to be very perceptive. I’ll link them to what you’ve said earlier.

        I’ve frequently puzzled over the need of European power-seekers through the centuries to define themselves as the heirs of the Roman emperors.

        There’s a dark side in such heritage. From the Italian Renaissance onwards European colonialism & humanism (ie Roman classical education) walked together.

        The case of France is very clear.

        During phases of intense colonialism French classical high schools were packed with students that studied Greek and Latin and got prepared to become the officials of an Empire whose goal what that of ‘educating’ (basically exploiting) the ‘barbarians’. After ww2, with decolonization, classical studies in France not by chance declined.

        But I’d say this concept applies to all European colonization – of Africa, for example – felt by almost all European folks kinda ennobled by the classical values and as a repetition of the Roman empire.

        Back to the French, they got inspired also by Roman combat ways in their conquest of North Africa. In their occupation of Algeria the French Foreign Legion behaved in ways similar to a Roman legion, not only for the terrific training but also for the habit of building roads, bridges etc. all over the place, like the Roman legions did (if I’m not wrong the first train & road infrastructure in Algeria was built by the French Foreign Legion).

        So France & Great Britain (even recent Tony Blair’s neo-colonialism) and of course the US may have somewhat used – or use – Rome as an inspiration to justify power over other folks.

        [Let me explode the topic as usual: the whole Indo-European ‘ideology’ – the Romans and the Greeks seen as Indo-European – and the boasted superiority that the Greeks invented all – philosophy, science etc. – with little contribution from Egypt, the Middle- and Far-East: this ALL was / is as a way of justifying colonialism and the right of the ‘white’ to rule]

        The case of Italy is both different and similar. Different because 1) humanism here is more ingrained, so it is not necessarily linked to colonialism – and 2) our Empire spanned a much shorter period.

        BUT it is similar in that the classical heritage was utilized exactly in the same way. For example Libya from 1912 to 1943 was an Italian colony. When the first Italians soldiers arrived there they said to the local people (while they were disgustingly massacring them): “This was a Roman territory 2000 years ago! We have come back!”. Mussolini and Hitler even imitated the Roman salute etc. etc.

        I am happy today Rome doesn’t automatically conjures up Fascism and Nazism. This heritage, the Greco-Roman, even if it was – and possibly still is – utilized to ennoble imperialism, is our heritage, it is full of great values that are humane and noble, and it represents our roots, the roots of all the West or at least a part of it.

        Things have to be seen from different angles, they are not black and white.


        1. Of course, and the same thing happens on a smaller scale. America constantly has to deal with demagoguery from people who invoke Jefferson, Franklin and their fellows to legitimize culpably ignorant, vague and provincial forms of “Americanism.”

          Human beings have a talent for placing nobility, without permission, in the service of rascality.


  2. Historical maps always get me. I stare at them for minutes stretching into hours.

    Very thoughtful post on my subjects.

    Perhaps the most mysterious point is the fall of the Roman Empire. We understand so much about the fall of the Roman REPUBLIC and the fall of the EASTERN Roman Empire, and so little about the fall of the Western one. The fact that there is a Wikipedia list of theories says it all.

    One day I’ll read myself into and through all those theories and venture an opinion.

    Re the Germans and Gauls and Latins: As you said, there was so much blending. For instance, even Arminius (Hermann), the most Germanic of the whole bunch, apparently apprenticed in Rome and spoke fluent Latin, and only vanquished them in the Teutoburger Forest because he knew and understood the Romans so well.

    And then the mixing and blending continued down the ages. In your map the Germanic Lombards have their own area, but now Lombardy is part of Italy.

    I was told once that Dietrich von Bern, a hero of Germanic myth right up there with Siegfried, was actually from Verona — ie, that Bern is a spelling of Verona.

    MoR: I checked this Dietrich von Bern, a legendary figure, and possibly identified with Theodoric the Great. Yes, this ‘late’ world with Germans and Romans living together is fascinating.


    1. Perhaps the most mysterious point is the fall of the Roman Empire.

      Yes, 300-600 CE, covering the fall of the Western Empire, ie ‘Late Antiquity’, was traditionally like a black hole between ancient and medieval history.

      Many historians are rewriting this exciting period. According to archaeological, biological etc. data, we can infer – Peter Heather observes – that the agriculture was flourishing and the population augmenting, which contradicts the traditional picture of a ‘declining’ late empire.

      Symmetrically, the more civilised (non Roman) Germans were equally flourishing thanks to a bettered agriculture and augmenting too in their population.

      Now, I believe at present in a ‘violent death’ of a healthy body, but I may change opinion.

      When the Huns started to pour in and pushed these Germans westwards, the Romans suddenly saw the terrible spectacle of multitudes of Goths gathering along the limes, asking for refuge. Out of arrogance and scorn, mistakes began. They admitted them inside the Limes and were mean to them, exploiting them and selling their children. The Goths turned against Rome. A few big lost battles – where other mistakes were made – and the Western Roman world collapsed.

      But, real annihilation, at least in Italy, arrived with the Lombards – it is a memory of when I was teaching Ancient history, I’d have to check if still valid as a theory today. They were not as civilised as the Goths. Instead of collaboration they wiped out the Roman upper class that still survived. As for Italy the real dark ages may have begun at that time.

      But a lot of collaboration before and after that occurred nonetheless. When I go to parts of Northern Italy I hear the language is Italian, but the ‘melody’ of the sentences is not very far from Bavaria’s or Austria’s speech ‘melodies’.

      Of course, blending occurred also in the South of Italy and in Sicily, Italy’s jewel in some way. In Dante’s Commedia Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (in hell because Epicurean), his mother Constance (Paradise) and his son Manfred (Purgatory) are splendid characters. Not to mention Frederick was such a modern King, he fought the Pope and was patron of the Sicilian School of poetry, which influenced all our literature and Dante himself.

      Italians and Germans are neighbours and their respective histories are tightly intertwined.


  3. …the public still thinks in terms of a Gibbon’s progressively decadent, imploding empire almost dead when it received the last blow by totally ‘rough’ Germanic barbarians.

    Gibbon concluded his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with the surrender of Constantinople to the Turks in the early 15th century. That’s a thousand years after Rome ‘fell.’


    1. Well yes, but most Western Europeans, and certainly Most Americans who have even some knowledge still go along with the rather artificial view that the Eastern Empire was not “the real Roman Empire” in some strange sense and think of the fall of the Western half as the end, or at least the end as far as Western Civ. needs to care.


    2. True Lichanos. Constantinople lasted longer. But, as Zeus suggests – and it suffice to look at the map above – Western Europe identified herself a bit more with the ‘pieces’ of the Western empire for the reason that Greece went down and this eastern world culminated into tsarist Russia which Europeans consider only partly European. Moreover the Turks in Greece etc. and communism in Eastern Europe wiping out any religion for at least three generations – except for their ‘political’ fanaticism, a religion too – contributed to this ‘otherness’. Which is unfair, and Paul below justly emphasizes – ‘Roman empire(s)’ he says- the existence of 2 traditions, not one.

      [for example, it is not by chance that many Slav languages are written in Greek-derived Cyrillic, and some eastern behaviours are closer to ‘Athens’ than to ‘Rome’]


      1. I know that’s how we see it here in the West, but if you’re trying to understand the ‘fall’ of Rome, it’s not very helpful.

        I read an interesting book on attitudes in Byzantium towards the Goth’s sack of Rome:
        “Hmmm…look what’s in the new today. Barbarians rampagin in Rome. Hell, the world’s going to blazes, ain’t it? Well, time to go to my library, and meet my advanced students at the university…”
        At least, that’s how some of them took it.

        And, of course, for some Westerners, Rome hadn’t really fallen. Charlemagne was the Emperor of the West, seeing himself as the heir to a more or less unbroken tradition. The later Holy Roman Emperors were similarly unaware of the Fall of Rome.


        1. Well, yes, Rome being an ‘idea’, one can say it never fell. I am not qualified to speak about the eastern Roman empire and what followed after it. And I said what I think ‘now’ about the fall of the western empire. This blog is a lab in progress after all. And Paul maybe can tell us something of the differences between the Orthodox and the Catholic tradition, since he possibly knows both. It’d be extremely interesting.


          1. Unfortunately I was baptized in the Greek Church but raised in the Roman one.
            Besides the popes being able to marry but not the Metropolitans, I can not speak much about it.
            As I have often been told by the few Montreal Greeks I have met I am “a bad Greek”.


          2. Being Orthodox means we serve way better coffee after Sunday services 🙂 Services are also much longer, but we like it that way.


  4. The physical empires somehow end some time. However they also somehow survive. The Roman empire(s) are still with us, their influence is still felt, as this conversation proves clearly.
    Who can say Communism is dead when you still have maoists at work all over the world and youg nazis, young communists groupings in so many coutries, including my Canada?
    History is a continuum, physical entities may disappear, their souls keep on roaming.


    1. Yes Paul, it is the soul that remains, bearing all the traces of the past.

      And, it is interesting that you mentioned ‘the Roman empire(s)’, since your soul possibly bears the traces of both the West and the East (Greek orthodox) empire. Which of course makes everybody liking to bring you around in a purse. I advice Cheri’s purse or Sled’s. Much better than the boys’ suitcases.


  5. Very interesting comments (however, MoR, your link to the list of theories gives me a “404 Page not found” result).

    That there are many theories on why the Roman Empire ( and other empires) fell says something about our knowledge of the past: It is constantly evolving. But until we invent a time machine that would actually let us at least view the past in “real time”, all theories will be strongly tainted by the biases of the people developing them.

    As literacy and technology advance, we record history more and more accurately. Even then, it will be subject to interpretation. And taught that way.


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