Perpetuating stereotypes. Jan Syka Nero at Baiae, c. 1900 (photo by M0tty, Wikimediacommons)
I have enough.
I am an immigrant. I have already to endure Brexit, so I am sorry but I cannot possibly endure the rhetoric on Trump and Roman emperors on top of all this. I forgot to add that I am not only an immigrant, but an Italian immigrant, which means that I already had Mussolini and the Fascist fascination with Roman imperial history, and Berlusconi and his Cinecittà version of Hollywood Trumpland.
We live in the big world of Absurdistan, I know, but this does not entitle members of the British establishment to continue brutalizing Roman history as if we were still living in Edward Gibbon’s glorious days, with the downside, it must be admitted, of not having the same proficiency in Greek and Latin. This is the twenty-first bloody (indeed) century and Ancient History and Classics cannot be treated as a museum collection of white marble portraits from where politicians, journalists and any other establishment member can freely pick up samples to throw in the face of the public as pieces of their historical alternative facts.
This time it is a glorious column of the Guardian, a newspaper that I love deeply so it is even more depressing. Few days ago Mr Jonathan Jones has warned us that “to understand Trump, we should look at the tyrants of ancient Rome” (… why am I not surprised?) And what does this specifically imply? Well, going through some marble portraits (actually just one and an eighteenth century drawing of another). Whose portraits? What a stupid question: of Commodus and Nero, who else? Gladiator and the Anti-Christ. There is also some Latin literature that might help: Suetonius Lives of the Twelve Caesars, “written in the reign of the ‘good’ emperor Hadrian.”
Now the mention of the adjective “good” together with Hadrian (to be fair to the others, a brutal murderer too…) clarifies what is going on. Mr Jones is the average product of a certain British traditional education in Roman Imperial history: just let us read together some Tacitus and Suetonius in good Oxbridge translation and make this story straight. Empire was good and gave the world civilisation up to a certain point. That is until when the “bad” emperors outnumbered the good ones and everything went to Decline-and-Fall mode, with the help of corrupting superstitions from the East, and foreign invasions from all sides, except for those glorious Anglo-Saxons who – thanks God – resisted and brought civilisation back to the world through the Middle Ages and beyond. (For some people the British Empire never fell apart, as we all have learnt too well recently.)
I am afraid, but things did not go that way and as we patiently find out with our students in class, the Roman Empire was a much more interesting place than what few literary sources, written by the male elite, and some decontextualized emperor portraits pretend to sell. Archaeological discoveries and sophisticated methods for interpreting the extant evidence have disclosed a world populated by people of different sex, gender, ethnicity, age, religion and socio-economic backgrounds. People who found their way through the political imperial system, despite widespread poverty, massive inequality, diffuse injustice, and the many life threats typical of pre-modern societies. I invite you to look at this people in order to understand the Roman Empire and eventually modern societies, not just at their rulers as seen through the eyes of the male elite.
So how was the Roman Empire for those who lived there? What did they make of the emperor? Do we know? Yes, we do. This, for instance, is a letter sent by a young recruit in Italy to his father in their hometown in second century AD Egypt (you can find further information and a picture of the original here):
Apion to Epimachus, his father and lord, very many greetings. Before all else I pray for your health and that you may always be well and prosperous, together with my sister and her daughter and my brother. I thank the lord Serapis that when I was in danger at sea he straightway saved me. On arriving at Misenum I received from Caesar [i.e. the emperor] three gold pieces for travelling expenses. And it is well with me. Now I ask you, my lord and father, write me a letter, telling me first of your welfare, secondly of my brother’s and sister’s, and enabling me thirdly to make obeisance before your handwriting, because you educated me well and I hope thereby to have quick advancement, if the gods so will. Give many salutations to Capiton and my brother and sister and Serenilla and my friends. I have sent you by Euctemon a portrait of myself. My name is Antonius Maximus, my company the Athenonica. I pray for your health. [Postscript] Serenus son of Agathodaemon salutes you, and …, and Turbo son of Gallonius, and …
On the back: [Addressed] To Philadelphia, to Epimachus from Apion his son. [Additional address] Deliver at the camp of the first cohort of the Apameni to Julianus, vice-secretary, this letter from Apion to be forwarded to his father Epimachus.
(You can read this and many other papyri in translation in Select Papyri, I, Private Affairs, ed. A.S. Hunt and C.C. Edgar. The Loeb Classical Library. London and Cambridge, Mass.1932; see also an electronic version available here)
It is clear what Empire meant to this family. The young son is proud to have first of all received an education through the efforts of his father, and then to be given the opportunity of a career in the Roman army. It is also clear that the Empire created the infrastructures to allow communication throughout its large territory. Apion, who has just changed his very Egyptian Greek name into a more appropriate Roman Latin Antonius Maximus, is still devoted to his Egyptian God Serapis, who protected him from the perils of the sea while sailing to Italy. Serapis actually conquered Rome so much to become a very popular deity even in the most remote parts of the Empire, including Britain.
But not everyone was happy in this Mediterranean world, globalised through empire, and voices of resistance and dissent are found in the sources too. Among the same local Greek communities of Roman Egypt, for instance, some felt deprived of their previous prestigious standing in Ptolemaic society, before Roman citizenship became the key to the highest political and socio-economic benefits. They produced and loved reading the so-called acts of the Alexandrian martyrs (a modern label, for their resemblance to the almost contemporary and similar Christian martyrdom literature.) This literature transformed Egyptian Greeks into brave opponents to the brutal Roman government: heroes who went as far as Rome to stand for their values and rights, and ended been put to death by the deaf Roman tyrants. The authors targeted not only the new Roman ruling class, but also local minorities such as the Jews, as a reaction to the fear of stepping down the social ladder of the new order, and see their own identity dissolving into the broader world they now belonged to. (Does this recall you something on current feelings towards immigrants and minorities? I bet it does…)
Examples of this sort can be multiplied, as it is easy to discover digging into Roman imperial history produced in this century, in this and other countries.
So do we need to look at antiquity to understand the present? Yes, we certainly do. Now more than ever we need to train our critical skills through the patient and careful exercise of deciphering, reading and interpreting with method this wide and composite corpus of sources the ancients left behind. This training could reveal extremely helpful for navigating through life, especially in times of post-factual journalism and politics informed by alternative-facts. On the other hand, the exercise of comparing different historical periods and figures can be meaningful only if it helps answering questions we are investigating: what is the point then of comparing Donald Trump’s tackiness and moody conduct to those of Roman emperors? Does this enlighten any aspect of the politics and behaviours of the leaders here compared? I do not believe so: it is just a pointless repetition of the British elitist tale of “good” and “bad” emperors. The tale of the “bad” emperor, in particular, enables their users to create a (false) distance from the ruler when he does not fully conform to their expectations. This tale gives the taletellers the very convenient illusion of not being part of the socio-political dynamics that empowered the emperor, in which, on the contrary, all of us are entangled.
A. Giardina, A. Vauchez, Il Mito di Roma. Dal Medioevo a Mussolini. Bari 2000.
R.K. Gibson, T. Power (eds.), Suetonius the Biographer. Studies in Roman Lives, Oxford 2014.
A. Harker, Loyalty and Dissidence in Roman Egypt: The Case of the Acta Alexandrinorum, Cambridge 2008.
N. Morley, The Roman Empire: Roots of Imperialism, London-New York 2010.
Katherine Blouin, Usama Gad, Rachel Mairs, Everyday Orientalism
Sarah Bond, History From Below: Musing on Daily Life in the Ancient and Early Medieval Mediterranean
And a podcast:
Shushma Malik, Ancient Rome’s most loved and despised emperor, Nero