Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Sarah Palin. Click for credits and to enlarge

This is the end of a series on Antonio Gramsci. I am beginning here where I left in my previous post.

The title and the post are meant to provoke a bit, and I know I risk being considered a snobbish, or a chauvinist, European.

The United States – I was saying – exert today a cultural hegemony over the planet at a high and a popular level of culture [for the high level, suffice it the sheer excellence of their universities in the scientific, technological and humanities fields, not to mention the number of Nobel prizes attained by Americans]

One can speak of a new American Renaissance, with fantastic contributions offered to the world – the Internet, a great revolution, being just one of them.

Which affects both the American culture and those cultures exposed to American influence – basically ALL of them, at diverse degrees.

[By culture I mean both:

1) the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a group (the Unesco definition);

2) the general knowledge, values etc. an individual can attain through education (linked to the Ancient concepts of Humanitas & Paideia.)

Also culture quality has to be considered. If I enjoy Shakespeare better than soap operas, I am not a snob, I am simply better educated and my mind is more powerful]

Gramsci, reflecting on the US soon after the 1929 depression, considered America culturally hegemonic already at his time (the 1930s) although to him such world-wide hegemony presented a few cracks for being, the US, too virgin and too young as a nation, with a melting pot of too many ‘cultures’ (see above the meaning 1 of the term.)

Now, following Gramsci’s reasoning – and considering his notions of ‘intellectuals’, ‘cultural hegemony’ and ‘national-popular’ culture (see our posts on Gramsci 1, 2 and 3)– we can ask ourselves:

In our rapidly changing world, with powerful civilisations about to re-surface, is America seductive enough at a world-wide scale [ie ‘culturally hegemonic’ world-wide]?

I’ll say my opinion right away: the cracks Gramsci was mentioning seem today particularly evident (at least to many Europeans) at a pop culture level [update: whatever the reasons for this.] A civilization doesn’t export its high culture only. It exports the sentiments of its whole people with its books (quality works and blockbusters), films, TV serials etc. and when its tourists, business people, soldiers & the men of the street wander about the planet.

[A Gramscian national-popular notion of culture is where the intellectuals – artists, writers etc. – express at a higher level the elementary sentiments of the common people who thus emotionally and intellectually participate. The examples he indicates of ‘national-popular’ may clarify this Gramscian crucial concept: the Elisabethan theatre, the Greek tragedy or the Italian opera.]

I mean, when Rome conquered Gaul, Romanization occurred deeply without any organized effort by the Romans. That is, the Roman ‘culture’ was felt as superior and seduced the Gauls who became the French – not only the culture of the ‘intellectuals’ (big politicians, generals, writers etc.) was seducing, but that of the merchants, of the soldiers, of the simple citizens as well.

Do you also think that American world-wide hegemony’s weak point is a low-level and too pervading pop culture (due to consumerism, to making money being what only matters nowadays etc.) and also the “erasure of any high-pop culture distinction”? [see Lichanos comment on this]

Trekkies at Baycon, 2003. Click for credits

Do you also think that, to quote Andreas Kluth, a ‘high culture’ perceived as snobbish only “is a tragedy” and that – I’d add – the tea parties, the Sarah Palins and US widespread anti-elitism will make America pay a price in the long run in terms, again, of world cultural hegemony?

Finally – be patient, I dislike Star Trek – what do the Indians, the Chinese, the Persians, the rest of the world population – often belonging to ancient civilizations – think of the thousands of Star Trek conventions and clubs that have spread all over the globe? Will it benefit America’s image?

Note. I had discussed ‘West and US Seduction’ with my commentators (among other themes) at the time of Culture, Kultur, Paideia and The Last Days of the Polymath. Those discussions were among the best in this blog in my opinion.

Here just a few ideas from those discussions.

As for culture (in the sense of individual general knowledge & refinement) Lichanos had lamented the erasure of a high-pop culture distinction in the USA. To him more than the ‘youth factor’ a role may be played by America being often “the first to represent trends that are going world-wide”, ie America is just ahead of Europe in mass-culture and consumerism, which explains why a superficial pop culture is so pervasive in the US.

To Andreas Kluth a ‘high culture’ perceived as ‘snobbish only’ is “a tragedy” and due to many factors among which a too widespread anti-elitism (“Sarah Palin and all the rest”).

ψ

Other posts on Gramsci:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought
America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath


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

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*.

Basically:

  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

MoR:

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.

Douglas:

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.

ψ

Read part 1 of this conversation

Themes from Man of Roma

The Roman Forum. Click for credits and larger image

I’d love to know
How things got to be
How they are.

[Marilyn Monroe]

Ψ

Here is a first selection of themes from Man of Roma. Each link leads to pages with excerpts from our posts that illustrate the chosen themes. I couldn’t get much into the conversations kicked off by the posts for lack of time. You can have a look yourself since lots of additional materials are in the comments area of the linked posts.

This page is meant for those interested in finding their bearings in the ideas of this blog. You will notice leitmotivs that circulate and I have also chosen themes related to one another.

Another theme selection – to be published not immediately, I don’t want to lose all my readers – will regard the relationships between South and North Europe, Europe and North America, East and West, Great Britain and the Continent and much more.

Ψ

The Human Mind is Like a Museum
The human mind is like a museum since it contains almost infinite traces of past conceptions, from Stone Age onwards. Words, language are an important portion of this museum, but lots of things are there that go way beyond words. In short, a huge disorganized archive we have in our heads and that we should inventory. It’s the activity of this blog, a little bit.

The Legacy of Rome
Rome is the city of the soul (as Byron and Victor Hugo put it,) of our authentic Western soul, since Europe and the West were shaped here, and Rome’s legacy is greater than we think.

Folks of the Mediterranean Sea
The Italian and Roman soul is intimately tied to the folks of the Mediterranean. We are all related. Food, plants and plenty of traditions are similar. On a long-period perspective we belong to the same historical stream, to the same area from which some of the great civilizations have germinated on this side of the planet. Of course there are differences among us, but we are not so dissimilar as someone might (or likes to) think. Many behaviours, defined for example as Islamic, actually belong to the ancient past of Mare Nostrum, the context and stage of all that made us the way we are.

Influences of the Classical World
The Greco-Roman classical civilization has moulded the world we live in today. Influences and survivals can be seen in behaviours, arts etc.

Sex and the City (of Rome)
An exploration of Greco-Roman sexuality and of what is left today of such different mores. I have dedicated a series of 5 posts (out of 105) to this theme but the series is always in the ‘top posts’ list on the right column. I wonder why.
I have tried to understand how alien Greco-Roman sex can be vis-à-vi contemporary sexuality, and why things have changed so much since then.

Dialogue Among Civilisations
Some communication has occurred with non Western people, very enriching though not always easy. Great civilizations tend to close-up a bit – noble gases, Ashish, one witty commenter of this blog, called them –  they being like complete in themselves. We had good connection with the Indians. Their good English has helped. Rediscovering one’s heritage doesn’t exclude others, quite the contrary. It means having something peculiar to transmit, in order to be able, in our turn, to receive.

“The deeper one goes into one’s own experience – argued Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – […] the more does one’s experience have in common with the experiences of others […]. The most unique is the most universal. The dialogues of Buddha or of Plato, the dramas of Sophocles, the plays of Shakespeare are both national and universal. The more profoundly they are rooted in historical traditions, the more uniquely do they know themselves and elicit powerful responses from others.”

Survivals of Roman Religion
When talking about religion it is important to understand that history and faith, science and theology fly on different planes and shouldn’t be confused. By Roman religion we mean any cult that was followed in ancient Rome, also foreign ones. As an example, the cult of the Anatolian Kybele, the great mother-goddess, was established on the Palatine Hill in 210 BC, according to Livy. To the historian, anthropologist etc. the number of Roman religion survivals is impressive.

Crisis of Values in Affluent Countries
We all here in the West must encourage a totally new different attitude which can enable us to better face both our present crisis of values and the radical changes ahead which might cause our swift decline. In Europe especially religion is waning and people sometimes embrace weird beliefs (see below Neo-pagan underground temples in Northern Italy.) Rich countries should be full of happy people, all the requirements for happiness (or serenity) being present. Nonetheless one has the impression that often void rules and that people don’t know any more which are the right choices in everyday life.

Neo-pagan stunning temples secretly carved out below ground in Northern Italy. Click for source file (Daily Mail)

The Greco-Roman Roots of the West
Similar to the ‘Influences of the Classical World’ but seen from a different viewpoint.

Traces of Paganism in Italians
Sometimes Italians, especially from the South, are considered superstitious. Whatever we mean by this word, these superstitions seem often remnants of the Greco-Roman past. Italians were highly civilized long before Christianity arrived (9-10 centuries earlier,) while many Northern Europeans became civilised together with, and thanks to, Christianity. This couldn’t be without consequences.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome

The Roman Empire at its peak. Rome, via dei Fori Imperiali

Rome’s legacy is greater than we think – “language, literature, legal codes, government, architecture, engineering, medicine, sports, arts, etc.” – and the Roman Empire has been a powerful myth in the course of the centuries.

After Rome’s fall in 476 CE, the Holy Roman Empire, thus called since 962 CE, started to develop in 800 CE when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in Rome as ‘Emperor and Augustus of the Romans’.

Such Empire, Frankish, Germanic (and later Austrian, dissolved in 1806 only) considered itself as the heir of the “First Rome” (the Western Roman Empire,) while the Hellenized Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, was called the “Second Rome” and remained unconquered until 1453 CE.

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When also Byzantium (Constantinople) fell, even the Islamic conqueror Ottoman Mehmed II thought he was continuing the power (and idea) of Rome and tried to “re-unite the Empire” although his march towards Italy was stopped in 1480 CE by both the Papal and Neapolitan armies.

After the fall of the Second Rome someone began to refer to Moscow as the “Third Rome“, since the Russian Tsars felt they were the inheritors of the Byzantine Empire’s Orthodox Christian tradition.

[2014 update: allow us to remind that the sovereigns of the two great continental empires dissolved in WWI, the German and the Russian, both bore the name of Kaiser and Tsar, id est Caesar.

ψ

So many heirs of Rome! Seems like a futile historical game.

It is not.

Let us see how other nations went on claiming the Roman heritage.

The Victorians, the Italians and the USA

Benito Mussolini. Wikimedia. Public Domain

The British Victorians, for example, who felt they were somewhat the spiritual successors of the Romans.

Or both the Italian patriots, who unified Italy, and later the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

They felt like the heirs of ancient Rome and the creators (again) of a “Third Rome”: after the capital of the Pagan world – they argued – and after the capital of Catholicism, Rome was now to become the capital of a totally New World.

A disproportionate idea, without a doubt.

ψ

And the Americans? They also like today to find similarities between their might and the superpower of the ancient times (try to google America, new, Rome: you’ll get an interesting number of results.)

ψ

We will though today talk about France (skipping Spain for the sake of brevity.)

Can’t France in fact lay claims as well?

The First French Empire

France inherited many elements from Rome, after the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar: language, food habits, behaviours, genes, technologies and a fundamental aestheticism, among the rest.

We have already mentioned the connection between Charlemagne and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire. Less obvious are similarities like that between the French Foreign legion and the Roman legions as for training, combat habits, management of terrain (construction of roads etc.) and so on.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Wikimedia

Much more significant though is the state tradition of Rome which, according to some scholars, has been preserved in the French monarchic centralism and in the state national spirit of the French people.

The person who shaped this centralism (later continued by Napoleon) was probably Louis XIV (1638 –  1715, see image above,) one of the greatest kings ever. He was called the Sun King (le Roi Soleil) and was associated with Apollo Helios, the Greco-Roman god of the Sun. He also encouraged classicism in the arts and Voltaire compared him to the Roman Emperor Augustus.

Other great personages such as Napoleon Bonaparte (or even Charles de Gaulle, why not) bear the traces of the Roman heritage. Napoleon was inspired first by the Roman Republic. Roman-like, he became First Consul of the French Republic.

Then, after receiving the crown from Pope Pius VII (in Paris, this time) on December 2 1804, he became Emperor of the French people and encouraged a classicist Empire style in architecture, decorative arts, furniture and women’s dresses based on Ancient Hellenic attire (see below,) a style soon popular in most parts of Europe and its colonies.

Napoleon identified himself with Caesar, was continuously studying his works and succeeded in becoming one of the greatest generals ever, like Caesar and Alexander.

Empire silhouette Dresses. 1804. Metropolitan M. of Art. Fair use
Two dresses, ca. 1810. Courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org

The French and the Italians.
Who Envies Who?

Antonio Gramsci, in Notebook IX of his Prison Notebooks, reflects on some words written by Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) in Histoire d’un crime:

“Every man of heart has two fatherlands in this century: the Rome of the past and the Paris of today … This ancient fatherland – Gramsci argues – associated with the modern one supposes that France is the heir of Rome. Something that was said, and is especially said, today, to displease no small number of people.”

Well, something said to displease whom? Our philosopher probably referred mainly to the Britons and to the Italians.

Focusing on the Italians, one can wander and wonder with Gramsci whether a real francophilia ever existed in our country (Notebook XXVIII.)

France was always admired in Italy – Gramsci observes. France meant the French Revolution, the participation of a large share of the population to the political cultural and state life, it meant a decorous parliamentary activity and many other things that the young Italian state could not exhibit. The Italian francophiles have often concealed a strong dislike and a substantial envy.

I would add that some envy is also felt today by our French cousins when they behold our historical richness, the beauties of our towns etc.

This envy surfaces every time we do something better: with soccer, Ferrari, with the world-wide diffusion of our cuisine & fashion – and so forth.

But let us do ourselves a favour. Let us be honest.

If the French may envy us, we envy them more.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

Stress and Joy. Conquest and Sorrow
Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When West / North Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)

Sex and the City (of Rome). 4

Ancient women wrestling. Or a man and a woman?
Ancient women wrestling. Or a man and a woman?
Italian version

Let us then have a look at a collection of the erotic artefacts found in the ancient Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

We already know that these frescoes, mosaics, statues etc. shocked the Victorians so much (see our first Post on Roman Sex).

Additionally, an interesting account in French of the best of them (60, with corresponding beautiful lithographs) was written by an unknown author, a certain ‘Colonel Fanin’ (or Famin? A Mistake in the English translation? see later) and published I guess illegally in 1816 in a limited edition by a French antiquarian (Stanislas Marie César Famin: ‘Colonel Fanin’ himself I guess) with the help of the Neapolitans (this French guy and Rome’s Greek cousins were such terrible brats, weren’t they.)

[On the matter, a History today‘s take; a good French blog’s take]

It is revealing (and funny) how 19th Century Europe got so scared of this book. All known original copies were destroyed by the French government though two at least survived. One was hidden in the private case of the British Museum, another ended up in the Library of Congress in Washington. I am pretty sure some billionaire possesses some other copy somewhere in the world.

Roman Sex scene
One of those ‘abominable monuments to human licentiousness’. Click for source at a French blog

In 1871 the book was translated into English and went through many pirate (and forbidden) editions. It can now be viewed in the Internet, the problem of the English copy it comes from being the horrible colour separations of the reproduced lithographs.

We do not need to show you all the lithographs and the corresponding comments since you can browse them yourself. These comments seem to me both highly cultivated and captivating. The author appears torn between aroused curiosity, admiration and condemnation.

Below you can see Plate VI (Invocation to Priapus) reproducing a bas-relief which depicted a married couple performing a home sacrifice to this God of fertility.

Plate VI (Invocation to Priapus)

Here is the comment by the author:

“EVERYTHING in this bas-relief indicates an interior scene, an act of candour and piety, and not a disgusting orgy. The a married pair, clad as decently as the nature of the sacrifice to which they are about to proceed will allow, seem to be asking the god who presides over generation to put an end to a grievous sterility; the expressive gestures of the woman, especially, bear out this explanation. The husband is occupied in stretching out a curtain which is to veil from profane eyes the mysteries of the sacrifice”…

“The god, represented with the figure of a bald-headed and bearded old man, reposes on a little column, before which we observe a kind of altar erected in haste by the married pair, on which they have placed some oak-leaves and the pine-apple which surmounted the thyrsus of the priestesses of Bacchus.”

The Image in Plate XLVIII ( 48 ) reproduces a fresco from Pompeii. It is much more erotic and equally unconventional compared to today’s sexual manners.

Plate XLVIII (48). Spinthria

“A YOUNG and beautiful married couple are amorously toying on a small bed. A lighted lamp shows that the scene takes place at night-time … the young man is carelessly stretched on his back, while his obliging companion, seated astraddle over him, is left to perform the principal part. In the background may be seen the cubicular slave, who is attentively watching the voluptuous pastime, and seems to be even looking on it with a lustful eye–

Masturbabantur phrygii post ostia servi,
Hectoreo quoties sederat uxor equo.”

Well, I won’t translate these two verses by the Roman poet Martial, but the cubicular ( = in bedroom) slave was common and had to serve his/her masters whenever requested.

Scenes like this have been realised in the 2005 HBO/BBC TV series Rome, “a fictionalized account of Caesar’s rise and fall” (Wikipedia.)

People were mainly shocked by these and other sex scenes, also those who praised the TV series (many did, critics included.) I think it was a pretty good experiment aiming at showing some Roman history together with pre-Christian sexual (and non sexual) habits. The latter didn’t save the series since the former was too heavy for contemporary audiences.

I liked the series though – one of the finest reconstructions of Ancient Rome I’ve ever saw- and I highly recommend it.

HBO/BBC television series Rome

“This fresco – we are getting back to our mysterious author – is not without merit as regards its execution. The woman appears strong and well-formed; her fair hair falls over her shoulders in wavy curls. The man is beardless, but his stature is tall, and everything about him denotes a youth full of vigour and fire. The bed, a very inconvenient one for such sports, is … supported by four legs, too slender to resist long if they were not made of iron, a custom which has been perpetuated down to our own day in the south of Italy. It is, nevertheless, possible that this piece of furniture … was composed of a substance more precious than gold, for at the period of the decline, to which this painting belongs, luxury was carried to such a degree among the Romans, that it surpassed even the most marvellous stories of Eastern poets.”

Colonel Fanin tries here in my view to justify such unrestrained manners with the concept of decline but it must be noted that Rome at the times of Pompeii was instead at her apex from every point of view.

He then makes another mistake about the colour of Roman women’s hair (historians having proved that Roman hair was of any colour.)

“The Roman ladies attached great value to fair hair, though Nature had given them such beautiful black hair. It was indeed their habitual custom to have their heads shaved, and to cover them with light hair, which the young girls of Germany or Gaul sold them at fabulously high prices.”

It is true though that the fair and red hair colour was appreciated. Romans were open to a wide world of possibilities, being at the head a vast world.

He here gives us a lively image of Roman unrestrained wealth:

“Every part of the known world at that time contributed to subserve the reckless and mad luxury of the Romans. India sent them fine pearl necklaces, valued at several millions of sistertii; Arabia, her sweetest perfumes; Alexandria, Tyre, and Asia Minor, precious stuffs worked with gold and silk; Sidon, its metal or glass mirrors. Other countries sent to Rome purple, gold, silver, bronze, all the productions both of art and nature, the choicest wines, and the rarest animals. Under the later Scipio, men of high authority at Rome were seen wasting their substance with favourites, others with courtezans, or in concerts and costly feasts, having contracted, during the Persian war, the Greek tastes; and this disorder grew into a madness among the youths.”

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain


Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 2

Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion.

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Stress and Joy. Conquest and Sorrow

Marble bust of Julius Caesar. Wikipedia
Marble bust of Julius Caesar. Wikipedia
Italian translation

“He felt alive with the thrill of the fight”: it is a typical discharge of adrenaline and the English expression “thrill of the fight” well depicts this sensation of feeling alive. Stress can in fact be one of the joys of life in that it can make us feel terribly vital.

A similar feeling can be experienced before (and while) facing an audience, something teachers and lecturers (or musicians and actors) know very well.

“Adrenaline (Epinephrine) is a fight or flight hormone which is released from the adrenal glands when danger threatens or in an emergency. When secreted into the bloodstream, it rapidly prepares the body for action in emergency situations…” (Wikipedia).

Adrenaline

Talking again of fight (more than flight) I have always fantasised about how Julius Caesar might have felt at nearly 50, while, often at the head of his soldiers, he was attacking the fierce and brave Gallic tribes and actually conquering Gaul, a region a bit larger than modern France, comprising “Belgium, the German lands west of the Rhine, southern Holland, and much of Switzerland”.

I am sure he felt this tremendous thrill who made him like a young man in his twenties, hormones being highly effective drugs (as any teenager well knows.)

Caesar had greatness in all he did (see one of his busts above) no matter what we can think about him.

Even his most exciting literary work, De Bello Gallico

“is a genuine historical treasure. Rarely are we fortunate enough to have historical accounts written by eyewitnesses. Caesar was not only an eyewitness, but the lead player. It’s as though we had accounts of Alexander’s campaigns written by Alexander himself. Or Charlemagne‘s life in his own words. And, not only is it a first-hand account, but it is brilliantly written. Caesar’s commentaries, whether of the Gallic campaigns or of the Civil War that followed, are considered masterpieces of Latin prose. The writing is concise and straightforward. Caesar’s writings are still used today to teach Latin.”
[quote from the Amazon web site]

Let me just add that Caesar’s words were clear and ordinate and comprehensible”. I mean, they were as crystal-clear as his rational mind and conduct were, probably the best specimen of Roman rationality ever appeared, different from Greek rationality: the Greeks taught the world to think more efficiently, but strangely enough they were much less rational than one might think.

lupaottimigut1.jpg

I will finish this post with the tragic picture of the sad surrender to Caesar of the Gallic hero Vercingetorix, by the French painter Lionel-Noel Royer (1852-1926).

Vercingetorix tried to collect sparse Gallic tribes in a fierce and desperate effort to both unify Gaul and to escape from the yoke of a technologically-superior, more civilized (and disciplined) superpower. To be noted that the Romans, in the painting, look barbarous and stupid, while Vercingetorix appears elegant and civilized, which seems typical of 19th century nationalism.

Vercingetorix though proved to have been an extremely noble knight and soul.

Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar
Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar. Public Domain image

Caesar had reasons for conquering Gaul that cannot be discussed here (see a list of related posts below).

What we can say, this tragedy having brought France into existence, we admit we enthusiastically adore the final result but we cannot forget all the sorrow and the atrocious price paid: 1 million people killed (according to Plutarch) – probably 1 out of 5 Gauls -, another million enslaved, 300 tribes subjugated and 800 cities destroyed (Plutarch;) last but not least, the quasi annihilation of the Gallic culture, to which we here pay our humble tribute.

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Note 1. The terms Gaul (Latin: Gallia, thence Gallus) and Celt (Celtus, Κέλτης) stem more or less from the same root. I have always thought – a personal opinion – that Galli is possibly how the Romans mispronounced the Greek term Κέλται, although they also used the terms Celti or Celtae preferred by the Greeks and probably derived from a native Celtic name.

The discussion on these words (and other Celtic stuff) is in truth immense and can provide an idea of how the descendants of the Celti are trying to fathom the mysteries of a culture almost totally wiped out by the Romans and other nations.

Waterloo Helmet

Why the Celtic heritage – not only in France – left so scanty traces? French (hence ‘Gallic’) Braudel is blunt: when a culture is erased by another culture, it means it was not so great in (relative) comparison [see some long comments on this topic in French].

Reversely, it is not by chance that the Romans deeply shaped the North West areas of their empire (eg Western Europe) while they less affected the East (and South) regions of it.

Additional infos on both the Celti and on the etymology of the term can be found in the Wikipedia, here and here.

Note 2.
In Book 5, Chapter 44, de Bello Gallico “notably mentions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo, two Roman centurions of the 11th Legion. Vorenus and Pullo are dramatized as main characters in the 2005 HBO/BBC original television series Rome, a fictionalized account of Caesar’s rise and fall” (Wikipedia).

ψ

Related posts:

Vercingétorix, le dernier roi des Gaules

Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When West / North Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)
[at the foot of this post three other installments on the same theme are linked]

Permanences. Rome and Carthage
France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome
Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)