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 By the 6th century the Western Roman Empire had been replaced by smaller kingdoms.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

The Roman Jews (1). Are They the Most Ancient Romans Surviving?

An image of the Roman Ghetto. Giggetto restaurant and Augustus' Porticus Octaviae behind
An image of the Roman Ghetto. The famous Giggetto restaurant on the left with Augustus’ Porticus Octaviae in the background

“Who’s more Roman than the Roman Jews? Some of us date back from the times of Emperor Titus [39-81 AD]” – Davide Limentani told me in the early 80s.

Limentani was (and perhaps still is) at the head of a big wholesale and retail glass and silver company in Rome. I had phoned him three days earlier for an interview that had to be published on the Roman daily La Repubblica.

Ditta LimentaniI remember a lovely spring day in the old alleys of the Roman Ghetto, with swallows crying over a glorious blue sky. He was sitting at his desk in the aisle of an impressively ramified, catacomb-like store in via Portico d’Ottavia 47 (look at its stripped-down sign above,) crammed with an immense variety of crystal, pottery, silver, china, pewter, anything one can think of – his swift and bright eyes looking in every direction.

The firm had / has among its clients popes, cardinals, celebrities and governments, including the White House. Davide is descendant of Leone, who in 1820 started the most ancient wholesale glassware store in Rome which still bears his name: Leone Limentani – 1820 Roma.

“Leone er cocciaro” [coccio = fragment]: that’s how they called him” Davide said smiling. “He had in fact started with glass junk and had accumulated a big credit with the S. Paolo Glass-works, whose effigy was on every glass – the old Roman bibitari [sellers of drinks] remember it well. The S. Paolo Glass-works were having difficulties because of some faulty articles, and, since a 1514 papal edict allowed the Jews to trade only in commodities “of secondary importance” Leone exclaimed: “The edict doesn’t forbid me!” so he bought out the second rate articles from the S. Paolo thus laying the foundation of his new activity.”

An image of the Ghetto. Courtesy of Hidesideofrome. Click for source

“The Roman Jews are almost 20,000” Davide continued “and only at the Portico of Octavia they live in a community. A love-hate relationship with the ghetto, they have” he confessed handing some pictures of his family to me. When the Piedmontese [who unified Italy 150 years ago] opened the Ghetto’s doors in 1870 many Jews left with the desire of forgetting all they had suffered here. But they soon came back because the rione Sant’Angelo represents all their roots. In the summer evenings the elderly sit in the open air and speak a vernacular almost dantesco, dantesque, in its character: ‘Guarda che vituperio!’ [ = ‘watch all this vituperation!’.]”

The Arch of Titus. Click for credits and larger picture
The Arch of Titus, with the panel depicting the spoils from the temple of Jerusalem. Click for credits and larger pict

They Never Passed Under the Arch of Titus

Titus Flavius Vespasianus, Emperor of Rome. Traditionally the Roman Jews never passed under the arch of Titus. There’s a reason. This ‘delight of the human kind’, as the historian Suetonius called him, didn’t turn such a delight to the Jews, who saw Jerusalem sacked and its temple destroyed by Titus’ armies in 70 AD. Domitian, Titus’ younger brother, built the arch to commemorate the victory and on one side panel of it [see the image above,] carved in Pentelic marble, we see the spoils of the temple during the triumphal procession in Rome.

The first Jewish-Roman war (66-73 AD), this is how historians call it, saw many Jews die (Josephus claims 1,100,000 during the siege) which greatly intensified the Jewish diaspora all over the Mediterranean.

From that war we know that a group of Jews ended their lives as gladiators in the circus at Caesarea, the Roman stronghold in Palestine. Others died in the Sardinian or Spanish mines. A large number though were brought to Rome.

Menorah

Now it turns the Romans needed labour to build the Colosseum. So the stones of the most famous Roman monument were wetted by the sweat of many slaves among which were the Jews captured by Titus. This group had been though greeted by an already flourishing Jewish community – merchants, freedmen and slaves – who had come to Rome 130 years earlier together with Pompey the Great at the end of his wars in the East.

Today’s Roman Jews seem to be the descendants of these two Jewish settlements in Rome – and of others arriving I don’t know when and where from.

Therefore what Davide Limentani said is probably true: the Roman Jews are the most ancient Romans surviving. The origin of their roman-ness appears to be prior to the Flavian era. Actually “Jews have lived in Rome for over 2,000 years, longer than any other European city” (!) [Jewish Encyclopedia.]

Triumph of Titus by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1885). Click for larger picture
Triumph of Titus by Sir  Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1885), a Dutch painter active in Victorian Britain. Wikimedia. Click for a larger picture

Not the place here to discuss the reasons of the clash between the Romans and the Jews, which gave birth to many wars and ended up with the Jews leaving Palestine. As for the Roman Jews, we know that they had been treated benevolently by Julius Caesar who had also exonerated them from any tax during their sabbatical year. From Suetonius we know that at Caesar’s death the Jews in Rome flocked to his funeral with big lamentations, and it is even possible that some of them identified Caesar with the Messiah” (read livius.org on this, note 6.)

During the Middle Ages the life of the Roman Hebrews had its ups and downs but basically was not too bad. When though in 1517 Luther nailed the 95 theses that will split Western Christianity into Protestants and Catholics, a dark epoch of religious wars and fanaticism began.

On the 14th of July 1555 Pope Paul IV promulgated a Bull where all the rights of the Jewish community were cancelled and the Jewish Ghetto was walled and provided with gates.

ψ

See part 2:

The Roman Jews (2). ‘Segregated In The Ghetto Because Of Their Own Guilt’

Related posts:

A Discussion on Romanness Past and Present (1) The Roman Jews
A Discussion on Romanness Past and Present (2). Is a Roman ‘Race’ Surviving?