How it really was?
When you have studied the ancient world almost all your life, you sometimes wonder if it’s all a fantasy. I don’t mean that I nurture delusions that the Colosseum might have been built by moon-men. But I do wonder how much we can really believe of what ancient writers tell us about their world. How good a guide are they to that seductively old-fashioned question: “What was it really like?”
This came home to me a few weeks ago when I visited the Forum in Rome. Taking a break from the Forum itself, I walked up the Roman road to the top of the Capitoline Hill, where the main temple of Jupiter once stood.
This is very much my territory. I am just now finishing my book on the ancient Roman ceremony of triumph (a couple of thousand words into the last chapter, if anyone’s following) and this is exactly the path once taken by the conquering general in his chariot, surrounded by the admiring cheering crowds, preceded by wagon-loads of booty and followed by his riotous soldiery.
Pull the other one, I found myself thinking.
The gradient up to the Capitoline was tough, even on foot and even in pleasantly warm early summer weather (what on earth would it have been like in August?). How had I ever imagined that four un-shod ponies pulling an un-sprung two-wheeled chariot could have managed the climb up these steep slippery stones? Especially when the chariot carried not only the triumphant general himself, but his young children and a slave to boot – and when, to make matters more difficult, the general had his hands full not just with the reins, but with an ivory sceptre, a palm branch and a sprig of laurel. It just didn’t add up.
Some of my doubts I have discovered were shared by a marvellous nineteenth-century (and probably pseudonymous) Bavarian, Herr J. G. Ginzrot, who published a book in 1817 on “Carriages of the Greeks and Romans and other ancient peoples”. As an ex-Inspector of Carriage Building at the Bavarian Court” Ginzrot knew a thing or two about wheeled transport. He reckoned that the journey in a triumphal chariot would have been well-nigh impossible: the main passenger couldn’t sit down, and was standing directly over the axle for hours on end with no upholstery. Impossible for a Bavarian prince, at least.
No wonder that the down-to-earth emperor Vespasian -- the one whose death-bed quip was said to be “Damn, I think I ‘m turning into a god” – had a quip here too. After a particularly uncomfortable triumph celebrated late in life, he admitted, “I’ve got my come-uppance for being so stupid as to long for a triumph in my old age.” How on earth did HE make that final ascent to the Capitol?
And it’s not just the triumph. These problems of disbelief spread through a lot of ancient history if only you let them. A few issues back in the TLS, Peter Wiseman hinted at how impossible the standard story of Julius Caesar’s murder was. Do we really imagine that after they had done the deed, the conspirators hitched up their togas, brandished their swords and ran from the murder spot about half a kilometre to the Capitoline – the last stretch up the fierce gradient I’ve just been talking about.
I guess that studying the ancient world is all about squaring that circle – of working out how literally to take the evidence we have, and of balancing scepticism with gullibility. My guess, as far as the triumph is concerned, is that most occasions saw a slightly embarrassed general stepping down at the last lap and giving the chariot a speedy push up the hill, while his loyal Mum and Dad and a small posse of reluctant soldiers looked on. But all this was forgotten when the occasion was grandly written up in history books or commemorated in art.
As in our own world, the memory of ceremonies and pivotal events is always a trade-off between how it really was and how we would like it to have been. When they look back to Rome, there’s a nasty tendency among modern scholars to mistake the latter for the former.