How thuggish were the Romans?
We have just made a trip north, to San Francisco. This was partly to give a his and hers, husband and wife pair of lectures at the University of Stanford. And it was partly to explore the University of Berkeley where I’m going to be giving some lectures in the autumn of 2008. I’m both hugely looking forward to it and terrified by the prospect. But the first thing was to think about was where I might live. The good news is (much as I love cruising around LA in my Rent A Wreck car) that Berkeley is a place with sidewalks, with every appearance of a good transport system as well as bicycles on the streets . . . so it look like there’s the prospect of finding a place from where I can bike if not walk to the university.
Back in Stanford – which also has a vast and lovely campus, much of it erected in the late nineteenth century in memory of a treasured 16-year-old only son who died, Leland Stanford (what a way to get immortality) -- my talk was on prisoners and captives in (unsurprisingly Roman triumphal processions. But the underlying message, which is quite a big theme in my book, was that the triumphal procession was a place where the Romans not only celebrated but also debated and questioned the idea of military glory. Roman stories about triumphs are full of incidents where things go wrong (for example, the axle of Caesar’s triumphal chariot broke half way through), where tragedy strikes the general at the very moment of his glory, or where his glamorous and exotic prisoners upstage him (in the triumph of Aemilius Paullus in 167 BCE, for example, all eyes were apparently fixed on the pathetic child captives, not on Paullus himself).
Then there was question time. Apparently it is a Stanford custom for students to have first go at questions (a good idea it struck me: it would stop all the big guns – me included, I guess -- marching straight in, as they do at home, with the “I have three related points of disagreement with your paper…” speech). One of the students, who had come from Women’s Studies, came in with a good question. Why had no one looked at the triumph like this before?
It was one of those fully frontal queries that students are much better at than professors that really make you think. My answer was probably longer than she expected or needed. But I tried to argue that all this really was there in the ancient literature, its just that no one had given it any importance . . . and that was because the triumph had often been looked at in a pretty blokeish way, as part of military history. There was also the fact that, in our standard division of the classical world into Greeks and Romans, no one wants the Romans to be quizzically anxious about military prowess etc. That is what the Greeks (well the Athenians) are supposed to do. For us Romans are road builders, engineers and thugs.
A few questions later, the “Romans as thugs” approach got a fine airing. The seniors now taking their turn, an old friend of mine, in a rhetorical tour de force, said words to the effect of: “Come on Beard, why cant you just accept that the Romans really liked all this, that for them there was nothing better than slavering over all that booty and those wretched prisoners, that the triumph was the acme of every little Roman boy's ambition? Why pretend that they were so damn anxious about it all?”
The discussion went on, with people weighing in on both sides (largely, but not wholly, men casting the Romans as unreflective bullies, women wanting to see much more questioning going on in Roman culture). But the best argument on my side came from another friend, who stressed the way that we are so committed to talk about the Greeks and Romans differently, and that we pick out different aspects of their culture to focus on.
Take the great Athenian festival of the Dionysia, for example, where the surviving tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were first performed. In the fifth century, this festival included some jingoistic imperialist display – with the so-called “Athenian allies” bringing their tribute onto the stage, a parade of war-orphans, and a good deal of ogling at the piles of loot. What do we see in this ceremony. Well, because it’s Athens, we stress the plays (with the imperialistic display just a footnote). If this was a Roman ceremony, we know exactly what historians would be banging on about.