Posts Tagged ‘History’

Beard: SPQR

August 1, 2021

SPQR
A History of Ancient Rome
Mary Beard
(Profile, 2015)
600 p.

A feature of my ongoing Roman reading project has been that I read primary sources only: ancient Roman history as told by the ancient Romans. But this strategy, sensible as it is, does have one drawback: the ancient Romans didn’t always fill out the context adequately for readers twenty centuries removed from them. So, as a concession to such shortsightedness, I decided to choose one good, modern history to give me a high-level overview and background, and I chose this fat volume by Mary Beard.

I think I chose reasonably well. She covers roughly the first millennium of Rome’s history: from the city’s beginnings down to about 200 AD, when the city ruled a far-flung empire, hitting the main historical highlights, and providing interesting context from archaeological evidence.

She relates the development of Roman law, from its rudimentary beginnings in the Twelve Tables; she discusses the strategies the Romans used as they expanded to bring new peoples under their political control (they focused on establishing dominion over “people, not places”, and never did really gain strong territorial control over the periphery of the empire); she describes the shape of the Roman political system, which, in the offices of consul, senator, and tribune combined elements of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, respectively; and of course she talks about the transition from republican Rome to imperial Rome, and the personalities of the most famous, and infamous, emperors. (She makes a modest attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Caligula, on the plausible but weak grounds that he probably wasn’t quite so black as he was painted.)

The archeological evidence she brings to bear I found quite interesting, on account of its being new to me. She claims, for instance, that the famous burning of Rome by the Gauls in about 390 BC, which Livy relates, is not well supported by evidence. Archeology also reveals much to us about the living conditions in the city over time. I was interested to learn that in Roman “high-rises” (of a few floors) it was, opposite to today, the poorest people who lived on the top floors on account of their being at greater risk in case of fire. And physical evidence, in statuary and inscriptions, also survives that gives us insight into what “being Roman” meant as one went further and further from the city.

Later chapters, expanding on this theme, delve into what she calls “Rome outside Rome”: what was it like, and what did it mean, to be “Roman” to the people — the great majority — who did not live in and around the city? The Romans made modest demands on those whom they brought into their empire: pay taxes, honour the emperor and the Roman gods, but retain your local customs, language, and religion. We can imagine that to those in the far-flung corners of the empire, “being Roman” might have been little more than a formality.

But there were some for whom even the modest Roman demands were too much. The Jews, of course, refused to honour the Roman gods and famously refused to admit a representation of the emperor into the Temple in Jerusalem. The Romans seem, for the most part, to have treated this intransigence with bemused toleration, at least until there was outright revolt in the late 60s AD, which occasioned a siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70.

Christians, likewise, were a problem for the Romans, for not only did they inherit from the Jews a fierce rejection of Roman religion, but they were not confined to a particular ethnic tradition: they spread, and converted people as they went. At first, of course, they were little more than a curiosity, but popular animus developed, so much so that Nero thought it a winning strategy to blame the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome. Beard reminds us that the persecution of early Christians was sporadic and on a modest scale, for the most part; this may be true, but it was nonetheless formative for the fledgling faith. A litany of those killed in Rome is still part of the prayers at every Mass throughout the world.

These difficulties notwithstanding, the success of Rome, Beard argues, is in no small part due to the modest demands they placed on those whom they conquered. There were distinctions, of course, between slaves, and free men, and citizens, but these distinctions very gradually declined in importance. Her history ends, in fact, with Caracalla’s decision to grant citizenship to every person in the empire — the apotheosis of Roman expansion, as it were. Naturally the story continues — all histories do — but this seems a fitting way to conclude her account of how a great thing called Rome arose from humble beginnings.

Tacitus: Histories

April 11, 2021

The Histories
Tacitus
Translated from the Latin by Church and Brodribb
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.100]
250 p.

Though written first, Tacitus’ Histories begins where his Annals ended: 69 AD. Originally consisting of more than a dozen Books and covering the years up to the death of Domitian in 96, we unfortunately have only the first third or so, which treats just two years: 69-70. They were, however, years rich in incident, stuffed to bursting with short-lived emperors, a time, says Tacitus, “rich in disasters, frightened in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors.” (1.2)

*

Nero’s death in 68 had brought an end to the Julio-Claudian dynasty that had ruled Rome since the time of Julius Caesar more than a century earlier. It was unclear who would rise to the imperial throne, and, as is common enough in such circumstances, there were multiple claimants, and a threat of civil war. In four parts of the empire, four men gathered support: on the Iberian peninsula, Galba, a governor with a fairly distinguished track record of civil service; in modern Portugal, Otho, an ambitious governor; in the north, patrolling the Rhine, Vitellius, a popular general; and in the east, Vespasian, a general currently preoccupied with putting down a rebellion in Judaea. The history of these first Books of Tacitus’ Histories is the history of how these four men contended for power.

It was Galba who occupied the throne first. He came to power in the middle of 68 with the support of the Praetorian Guard. He had gained their support because his assistant had bribed the soldiers with the promise of a big payout in return – a bribe Galba knew nothing about, and which, when once he had been named emperor, he felt no need to honour. For this reason, by January 69, when Tacitus’ history begins, Galba was strongly disliked by the Praetorian Guard, a perilous position for any emperor since Tiberius. He was also increasingly hated for his evident cruelty – toward Rome’s soldiers for his revival of the practice of decimation, and by the senatorial and equestrian classes in Rome for his policy of purging not only his enemies, but their families as well.

The camel’s back, in other words, was already quite heavily loaded when Galba made an important announcement on 10 January 69. To ensure a smooth transition in power at the end of his reign, he said, he was adopting as his son, and successor, one Lucius Calpurnius Piso. This news greatly offended and angered Otho, who had had a long relationship with Galba and had expected that he would be named heir. Otho moved quickly, and on 15 January Galba was murdered in the Roman Forum:

“About the actual murderer nothing is clearly known. Some have recorded the name of Terentius, an enrolled pensioner, others that of Lecanius; but it is the current report that one Camurius, a soldier of the 15th legion, completely severed his throat by treading his sword down upon it. The rest of the soldiers foully mutilated his arms and legs, for his breast was protected, and in their savage ferocity inflicted many wounds even on the headless trunk.” (1.41)

Piso, the heir-apparent, was also targeted for assassination. He took refuge in the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, but the soldiers were not pious: they dragged him out and killed him on the steps. The grisly scene was the stage for Otho’s triumphant arrival:

“The Forum yet streamed with blood, when he was borne in a litter over heaps of dead to the Capitol” (1.47)

Of Galba’s character and success as emperor Tacitus makes this judicious appraisal:

“His character was of an average kind, rather free from vices, than distinguished by virtues… He seemed greater than a subject while he was yet in a subject’s rank, and by common consent would have been pronounced equal to empire, had he never been emperor.” (1.49)

**

Otho, however, fared no better than Galba. Already the legions in Germany had rallied behind Vitellius and were marching on Rome. That the emperor was now Otho and not Galba mattered little to them; the sticking point was that the emperor ought to be Vitellius. A confrontation was inevitable, and Otho directed the legions around Rome to prepare and march north. Outright civil war had arrived.

The armies clashed in northern Italy, near modern Genoa. There were skirmishes and sieges, but the decisive battle occurred at Bedriacum on 14 April. Vitellius’ forces were victorious. When the news arrived in Rome, Otho was philosophical. Though he was urged to continue the fight, he decided to cede power to Vitellius rather than sacrifice more lives to his personal ambition:

“By this let posterity judge of Otho. Vitellius is welcome to his brother, his wife, his children. I need neither revenge nor consolation. Others may have held the throne for a longer time, but no one can have left it with such fortitude. Shall I suffer so large a portion of the youth of Rome and so many noble armies to be again laid low and to be lost to the State? Let this thought go with me, that you were willing to die for me. But live, and let us no longer delay, lest I interfere with your safety, you with my firmness. To say too much about one’s end is a mark of cowardice. Take as the strongest proof of my determination the fact that I complain of no one. To accuse either gods or men is only for him who wishes to live.” (1.47)

On 16 April he committed suicide, having been emperor for just three months. Vitellius was proclaimed the new emperor.

*

Vitellius arrived in Rome, accompanied by his rough and wild soldiers from the German frontier, many of whom had never seen Rome before. He was a man, Tacitus tells us, of “shamelessness, indolence, and profligacy,” and under his leadership the city quickly descended into decadence:

“The sole road to power was to glut the insatiable appetites of Vitellius by prodigal entertainments, extravagance, and riot. The Emperor himself, thinking it enough to enjoy the present, and without a thought for the future, is believed to have squandered nine hundred million sesterces in a very few months.” (2.95)

Rumours began to reach Rome that far off, in Judaea, support was rising for Vespasian as a rival to imperial power, but Vitellius seems to have preferred to enjoy, rather than defend, himself:

“Buried in the shades of his gardens, like those sluggish animals which, if you supply them with food, lie motionless and torpid, he had dismissed with the same forgetfulness the past, the present, and the future.” (3.36)

Urged by his advisors, he did finally order an army to march north to protect Italy against Vespasian. Meanwhile, Vespasian’s brother, who lived in Rome, tried to begin negotiations with Vitellius. But he was attacked and took refuge on the Capitoline Hill. Vitellius’ men continued their assault and, in the process, burned the Temple of Jupiter to the ground — a great sacrilege, for the temple was one of the oldest and most sacred sites for Romans:

“This was the most deplorable and disgraceful event that had happened to the Commonwealth of Rome since the foundation of the city; for now, assailed by no foreign enemy, with Heaven ready to be propitious, had our vices only allowed, the seat of Jupiter Supremely Good and Great, founded by our ancestors with solemn auspices to be the pledge of Empire, the seat, which neither Porsenna, when the city was surrendered, nor the Gauls, when it was captured, had been able to violate, was destroyed by the madness of our Emperors” (3.72)

Vespasian’s brother was captured and executed, which effectively cut off all hope of negotiation with Vespasian. Although Vespasian himself was still in Egypt, generals loyal to him arrived in northern Italy and encountered Vitellius’ armies. The city of Cremona, which had been established as a defensive bulwark against Hannibal during the days of the Punic wars, centuries earlier, was destroyed. The emperor’s forces were failing, but Vitellius was indolent:

“The Emperor’s ears were so formed, that all profitable counsels were offensive to him, and that he would hear nothing but what would please and ruin.” (3.56)

To the astonishment of the Roman people, on 18 December 69 Vitellius abdicated the throne in an official announcement, but then, instead of retiring to private life, returned to live in the imperial palace. With little taste for ambiguity, Vespasian’s forces arrived in Rome a few days later, seized Vitellius, and executed him in the Roman Forum. Vespasian, though absent, was declared emperor, the fourth in less than 12 months. There followed a frenzy of violence in the city that surpassed anything the Romans had seen in many years:

“When Vitellius was dead, the war had indeed come to an end, but peace had yet to begin. Sword in hand, throughout the capital, the conquerors hunted down the conquered with merciless hatred. The streets were choked with carnage, the squares and temples reeked with blood, for men were massacred everywhere as chance threw them in the way. Soon, as their license increased, they began to search for and drag forth hidden foes. Whenever they saw a man tall and young they cut him down, making no distinction between soldiers and civilians. But the ferocity, which in the first impulse of hatred could be gratified only by blood, soon passed into the greed of gain. They let nothing be kept secret, nothing be closed; Vitellianists, they pretended, might be thus concealed. Here was the first step to breaking open private houses; here, if resistance were made, a pretext for slaughter. The most needy of the populace and the most worthless of the slaves did not fail to come forward and betray their wealthy masters; others were denounced by friends. Everywhere were lamentations, and wailings, and all the miseries of a captured city, till the license of the Vitellianist and Othonianist soldiery, once so odious, was remembered with regret. The leaders of the party, so energetic in kindling civil strife, were incapable of checking the abuse of victory. In stirring up tumult and strife the worst men can do the most, but peace and quiet cannot be established without virtue.” (4.1)

When Vespasian did finally arrive in the city, he re-established law and order. Tacitus describes him in this way:

“Vespasian was an energetic soldier; he could march at the head of his army, choose the place for his camp, and bring by night and day his skill, or, if the occasion required, his personal courage to oppose the foe. His food was such as chance offered; his dress and appearance hardly distinguished him from the common soldier; in short, but for his avarice, he was equal to the generals of old.” (2.5)

The Romans always loved a ruler with a distinguished military record, and Vespasian fit the bill. He was comparatively moderate in his governance. Purges of enemies were common in Roman history following transfers of power, and Vespasian, too, “cleaned house,” but he did so more on the basis of character than of political allegiance. Those whom he considered to have acted faithfully and honestly, regardless of which side they had taken in the civil war, he elevated; those whom he deemed unreliable or malicious were exiled or executed. He undertook major building projects in the city, rebuilding the Temple of Jupiter, and, down the road, beginning construction on an amphitheatre that would become one of the most famous buildings in the world. And his policies seem to have been largely successful, for he remained in power for a decade, and, through his two sons, Titus and Domitian, established a new imperial dynasty that was to rule Rome until 96 AD.

**

A year before he became emperor, Vespasian had been in Judaea attempting to put an end to a rebellion among the Jews. When he departed for Rome, he left his son Titus in charge of the operation. Tacitus gives us some background on the conflict, and, in a fascinating section (5.2-5), provides a brief anthropological introduction to the Jewish people. This must be taken with some reservations, for it is obvious that he dislikes them intensely, but it is still interesting. He notes their Sabbath observance, use of unleavened bread, circumcision, and, of course, monotheism, which was a continual source of friction between the Jews and Rome. He sees their unwillingness to pay worship to the emperor as an impiety, a determination “to despise all gods, to disown their country”, and he finds their conception of God peculiar:

“The Jews have purely mental conceptions of Deity, as one in essence. They call those profane who make representations of God in human shape out of perishable materials. They believe that Being to be supreme and eternal, neither capable of representation, nor of decay. They therefore do not allow any images to stand in their cities, much less in their temples. This flattery is not paid to their kings, nor this honour to our Emperors.”

Early in Book 5 he describes how Titus drew up his forces and began a siege of Jerusalem, but unfortunately that is where it ends, for the rest of the Histories is lost. We know what happened, of course: the city was taken, the Temple was destroyed, and the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world, an event of incalculable importance to world history.

**

So ends my voyage through the principal historical works of Tacitus. He is a fine historian, with a blunt and manly style, a commitment to sifting truth from fiction, and a talent for forthright moral judgment. It is true that the most important events that occurred in the Empire during the period he covered – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, and the founding of the Christian religion – were almost entirely missed, and he certainly did not appreciate their importance for Rome and for the world. Nonetheless, as an imperial historian of the first century, though he has rivals, he has no betters, and I have greatly enjoyed reading him.

Very Short Napoleon

July 16, 2020

Napoleon
A Very Short Introduction
David A. Bell
(Oxford, 2015)
160 p.

The Napoleonic Wars
A Very Short Introduction
Mike Rapport
(Oxford, 2013)
144 p.

I’ve been aware for some time that my knowledge of European history, which is fair to middling through the medieval and early modern periods, and passable to half-decent in the past two centuries, scrapes to a low ebb in the eighteenth century. What better way to set about plugging this gap than by learning about the man who bestrode the age like a short colossus? So, at least, was my reasoning, and so I’d been on the hunt, in a general way, for a good biography of Napoleon.

The trouble is that though biographies of Napoleon are plentiful, they are also bountiful: readers can choose from volumes of 600 pages, 800 pages, 1000 pages, and 2000 pages. I needed something briefer. Then, gently and sweetly, these two books came into view, and I seized on them.

**

David A. Bell gives a very nice potted history of Napoleon’s life and legacy. Beginning from his childhood in Corsica, he relates his startling rise to prominence in the years immediately following the French Revolution.

Napoleon’s early genius was in military affairs: he had apparently boundless energy, fierce determination to win, and a rare talent for crafting and executing complex and effective military tactics. At age twenty-six this ability had already made him a French general; by age twenty-nine he was one of the most powerful men in Europe. “That little bugger scares me,” was the assessment of one of his commanders. He fought in Austria, Italy, and then, casting about, in Egypt, which he intended to turn into a French colony.

Things became more complicated as his star rose. He was an adept at cultivating a public image, and the people of France fell in love with him, but the presiding powers, both in France and in neighbouring nations, were harder to convince. And Napoleon himself began to change as his power waxed: “I am the French Revolution” was his claim on the way up, but, as is well known, in time he came to embrace the trappings of power, assumed at least some of the signs and privileges of the aristocracy, and declared himself Emperor. Many have seen this as a betrayal of the principles he originally espoused, understandably, though Bell cautions that at least some of the showmanship may have been a calculated effort to cultivate better relationships with the monarchs who surrounded France.

So long as Napoleon kept moving, expanding, and fighting, he seemed unstoppable, but it was less clear what he could or would do if peace should come. He made plans to invade England, but a few tussles and it was clear that he could not compete with the British navy. (Hurrah for Jack Aubrey!) Eventually, and famously, he amassed an army of 650000 men and plunged eastward toward Moscow in the summer of 1812. But it was a long march, and time passed, and winter came early, and his army was destroyed as they tried to get home; I was shocked to learn that only 85000 men returned from this campaign.

His downfall, which came in the years shortly after this disaster, would have been nearly as swift as his rise but for a surprising coda. On April 20, 1814 he bid farewell to his remaining army and was taken to the isle of Elba. It is unclear to me if he was a prisoner at this point, or merely in exile. In any case, a year later he did the unexpected: left Elba and landed unannounced in France. The people rallied to him, the army rallied to him, and he entered Paris in triumph once again. It didn’t last long — just one hundred days — but it showed the tenacious hold he still had on the hearts of his countrymen. Imprisoned on St Helena, he lived the last years of his life quietly and died in 1821, aged 51.

*

His was obviously an exceptionally interesting, and even dazzling, life. He marked French politics and culture in ways that endure. A couple of specific points stood out to me.

Bell stresses that Napoleon pushed European warfare toward a model of “total war”; no longer would armies fight it out neatly on a battlefield, but whole nations mobilized to fight one another. In this way he was able to amass huge armies, the likes of which had never been seen before. The size of his army helped him to win battles, but also affected his tactics in a regrettable way, for in later years he was willing to sacrifice many lives in mass charges at the enemy, an approach to warfare that would return, on a massive scale, in the First World War.

Second, I was forcefully struck by the authoritarian streak in his consolidation of political power. He folded up almost all of the free press in France, replacing them with papers dedicated to praising him. He commissioned artists to create works praising him. He created a sophisticated network of domestic surveillance, and established an agency that read people’s mail. He knocked foreign dignitaries off their chairs and put his family members in their places. All in all, he cut an unbecoming figure of boastful self-aggrandizement and obvious nepotism. The contemporary politician whom I was most reminded of was Trump, and that was something I did not expect. In fact, in these respects Trump is not nearly so bad.

While acknowledging his authoritarian tendencies, it would be unjust to the man to equate him with the murderous dictators of the twentieth century. He built no gulags and had no systematic policies to execute his opponents. Yet it is certainly true that a great many people — a great many — died as a result of his ambitions. These military affairs are well covered by Mike Rapport in his little volume on the Napoleonic Wars. Rapport sets the stage for these conflicts, describing the powder-keg that existed in the international tensions between France, Britain, Prussia, and Russia (principally) before Napoleon came to power, and relating how he ignited it. He doesn’t go into much detail about the tactical course of individual conflicts, but he does do a very nice job of describing what it was like to be a soldier or sailor or civilian impacted by these wars, how nations recruited soldiers (and the lengths to which people would go to avoid conscription), and, finally, how the Napoleonic wars changed European, and world, politics. I found the book a helpful adjunct to the potted biography.

The tidal flood beneath the lunar sway…

April 20, 2020

… but in Latin.

Reading Seneca’s essay On Providence I came across a surprising passage in which, in an aside, he says:

If anyone observes how shores are laid bare as the sea withdraws into itself, and yet are covered again in the shortest of time, he will believe it is some unseen fluctuation that causes the waves now to diminish and flow inwards, now to burst forth and with a great surge reclaim their former home; but in fact the waves increase by degrees, approaching to the hour and day proportionately larger or smaller in volume as they are attracted by the star we call the moon, whose power controls the ocean’s surge.

Now, it is true that the translator (John Davie) does not use the word “tide” here, but that must be what he is talking about. This is fascinating to me, because I had thought that the connection between the moon and the tides was a post-Newtonian discovery.

For instance, in his defence of a heliocentric model, Galileo argued that the tides are caused by the rotation of the earth. This was wrong; I’d thought it was put forward in the absence of a better explanation. But apparently not. Fascinating.

Hicks: Norms and Nobility

August 20, 2019

Norms and Nobility
A Treatise on Education
David V. Hicks
(University Press of America, 1983)
167 p.

When one begins reading around in educational literature, one comes, from time to time, upon “classical education”. What is meant varies, or at least appears under different descriptions. Sometimes it means an education focused on appropriation of the Greco-Roman inheritance; sometimes it seems to be used to describe an education emphasizing a mastery of language, and the art and craft of writing and speaking well; sometimes, following the medieval model (and Dorothy Sayers), it refers to an educational programme divided into stages — grammar, logic, rhetoric — suitable for age-stratified progression as students develop.

Hicks, too, is writing about classical education, but he largely avoids these common approaches to the subject. His approach is deeper; he is working on the foundations. For him, classical education is, among other things,

“a spirit of inquiry and a form of instruction concerned with the development of style through language and conscience through myth.”

As this description makes plain, it is an education concerned not only with knowledge — though certainly that — but also with ethics and aesthetics. Entering on this terrain, therefore, we find ourselves enveloped by pre-modern habits of thought, in which a full human rationality involves truth, goodness, and beauty, all three, because this corresponds to our nature, but also because these three are, at the deepest levels, unified.

This pre-modern orientation is indeed a key to Hicks’ project, which draws on the ancients not so much as to subject matter, but as to sensibility and manner. Much of his exposition unfolds as a dialectic between ancient and modern, to the general detriment of the latter, but this method is itself instructive, and indeed illustrative of the kind of education he champions.

*

We do not know how to educate a child unless we have in mind the kind of person we want the child to become. From this modest beginning Hicks draws out several key features of classical education.

One has already been stated: we want the child to develop and flourish fully as a human being, exercising rationality in the fullest and richest sense, and therefore we instruct and discipline her in what is true, and what is lovely, and what is good. It is likewise true that we will address and honour all dimensions of the child’s being: personal, social, and religious. We will not construct an education simply around the future economic value of the student to society; this can be a legitimate consideration, but not an organizing idea. We will not pretend to teach “value free”, as though the child did not possess an inner life and stand in need of moral guidance to live well. We will not claim that religion is a private matter, not susceptible of public, rational inquiry, or a matter of negligible importance, not worthy of public recognition. Instead, we will do our best to cultivate an integrated life in the student, in which each of these dimensions is given due weight and treated with appropriate seriousness.

Since classical education is, therefore, necessarily in the business of teaching virtue, it considers how best to do so. The tradition proposes, broadly speaking, two methods: the philosophical and the rhetorical, logos and mythos. The former is didactic, argumentative, seeks clarity, and draws conclusions; the latter is imaginative, aspirational, and alluring. Both methods are important, and they co-exist in a fruitful dialectical tension. The rhetorical tradition, Hicks argues, is especially important for classical education on account of its reliance on what he calls “the Ideal Type”, an exemplar of virtue, “a metaphorical incarnation of wisdom and truth” — in brief, a hero. In the Ideal Type a student sees a man or woman who is better and wiser than he, but whom he can and should emulate, and, by emulation, become. And not just one man or woman, but many, exemplifying the many varieties of excellence:

“Classical education eventually fills the young person’s head with the sound of voices: the impassioned debate of the great figures of myth and history concerning what is good, beautiful, and excellent in man. Through his imagination, the student participates in this dialectical confabulation, and his thoughts and actions become literally involved with the Ideal Type.”

Most of these exemplars the student will encounter in stories, and the stories in books, but there is, ideally, one example closer to hand: the teacher. Hicks places great personal demands on the teacher: he is to be living in the light of the Ideal Type as well, and is, we hope, further advanced along the path that leads to it. He is not dispassionate, but deeply involved in the very questions with which his students are contending. They wrestle together, and he learns alongside them. Classical learning thus cultivates a kind of friendship between teacher and student, for they are together focused on something of interest and importance to both, yet without undoing their unequal status.

Furthermore, Hicks argues, in one of the book’s most challenging sections, that the relationship of teachers and students in a classical school embodies the dialectical structure of classical education, and indeed the dialectical structure of thought itself. This dialectic is Socratic, and it is dogmatic in the sense that it requires both teachers and students to be committed to certain positions in order to test those commitments against experience. It is precisely the dialectical challenging of commitments that leads to intellectual and moral growth in students. This kind of teaching, and this kind of learning, is intrinsically personal, not analytic or abstract. It teaches students to read, for instance, not just to understand an author’s motivations, or to discover the main outlines of an argument, or to identify a leading theme — though these activities might legitimately form part of the process — but in order to become a better person, wiser, more sensitive, more courageous, or more just. A book is engaged with not at arm’s length, but intimately, as having personal significance.

There is a danger lurking here, of course. We are familiar with the habit of mind that merely “challenges authority” or “sees through things”. If indulged, it will strip-mine students’ souls and leave nothing behind. The point of the dialectic that Hicks advocates, as I understand it, is not to undermine dogma and personal commitment, but to search and find those dogmas worthy of committing oneself to, those founded most firmly in friendship with what is truly good, beautiful, and rational, and then, having found them, to hold to them tenaciously. Absent that transcendental posture, if pursued merely in a revolutionary distemper or out of cynicism, the dialectical method, precisely because of its effectiveness, leads on to disaster.

*

I was struck by Hicks’ stress on the normative, dialectical, personal nature of teaching and learning because I don’t know that I have ever experienced it myself. No, that is not quite true. There are certain books that, as I have read them, I have felt were reading me. Their effect on me has gone deeper than the merely intellectual. I can also think of one or two occasions on which a teacher — not a classroom teacher, mind you, but someone to whom I was disposed as student to teacher — posed a personal, existential challenge to me, exposed me to the penetrating, alluring light of the transcendentals, when I could sense the deep waters beneath my little lifeboat. But I wish this happened more often, and I believe that I do have an habitual analytic approach to what I read, and, for that matter, experience, that places a barrier between myself and the world. Hicks, I think, regards this as a vice, not in itself, but when not joined to a more passionate, rounded engagement with those from whom I could learn. And, quite honestly, I think he has a point.

If I flip it around, putting myself in the role of teacher, I see the value of his position more clearly. What teacher would not want to touch the souls of his students rather than just instruct them? Who would not be grateful to offer his students what he truly believes to be beautiful, good, and true, and to find his students receiving it with gratitude, finding himself a humble instrument in the service of something that falls on teacher and student alike as a benediction? Well, I don’t know that it would be possible to do this kind of thing consistently – the wind blows where it will – but that there could be an educational approach which aims at it, prepares the sails, and waits in readiness I did not suspect.

**

I believe that I have rounded out the main qualities of classical education as Hicks describes it: aiming at full human flourishing along both relational dimensions (personal, social, religious) and transcendental (knowledge, ethics, aesthetics), normative, dogmatic and dialectical, anchored to an Ideal Type. Such was, he argues, the best of the educational practice of the Athenians and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Romans.

**

It is worth asking about how Christian culture appropriated, or failed to appropriate, this tradition. We know from our readings in the history of Catholic education that early Christian thinkers, especially the Church Fathers, were themselves educated in the classical tradition. They didn’t think of it as ‘the classical tradition’; it was just ‘education’, and so they largely adopted it. In fact, Hicks argues that in several important respects the Christian tradition resolved long-standing issues that had dogged classical thinkers.

A principal problem for Greek educators was that the Ideal Type, around which so much of the education orbited, though beautiful and inspiring, lacked a transcendent justification or warrant. It was, in important respects, a merely human work of art, a beautiful dream, a creation of the mind, not something real or given. It was therefore fragile, vulnerable to doubt. Without the Ideal Type, however, the highest thing was merely the realm of the human, all too human, which bred in students a self-centeredness that undermined the development of virtue and fostered uncertainty in teacher and student alike. Hicks argues that though in some ways Christian culture in Europe failed to generate its own convincing heroes – the closest it came, he believes, was the chivalric knight, the legends of saints being too fabulous and simple – it did provide educators with the ultimate Ideal Type: Jesus himself, a real man, not an imaginative creation, having Divine authority, on whom the whole educational project could be focused.

A second problem for classical educators had been the problem of desire: an Ideal Type was all very well, but some positive force was needed to spur students toward it:

“The greatest part of education is instilling in the young the desire to be good: a desire that sharpens and shapes their understanding, that motivates and sustains their curiosity, and that imbues their studies with transcendent value.”

Plato had proposed eros as this positive force, the longing for goodness, truth, and beauty. Christianity agreed that love was the key, but went further by uniting love to faith, uniting knowing the good to doing the good, and, by understanding both as infused virtues, acknowledged both as having a transcendental source and warrant outside the will.

*

If the Christian tradition was not responsible for the loss of the classical tradition, what did happen to it? Modern education in the West springs from different sources; the thread has been cut. What happened?

The story is complicated, but for Hicks the dismantling of the classical tradition began in the early modern period. Descartes inaugurated a passion for clear, distinct ideas, and classical education’s Ideal Type, whose power was rhetorical rather than analytical, could not meet the standard. Modernity preferred a statistical mean to a Golden Mean. Rousseau, of course, was a watershed figure; he attacked directly the Ideal Type: if all men are equal, how can one be better than another? “What need has he of correction, to say nothing of conversion?” If, in a democratic society, each person is to be his own authority, the Ideal vanishes.

The advent of science also undermined classical habits, shifting the aim of education from self-knowledge to power over the world. The moral, aesthetic, personal, and religious aspects of a classical education were hard to align with this project. Indeed, as the sensible methodological limitations of the sciences began to morph into metaphysical blinders the sciences rendered European society increasingly unable to address moral, aesthetic, etc. issues rationally.

By the nineteenth century it was obvious that the sciences provided unprecedented control over nature, but equally obvious that they could not justify how that power should be used. The technological project therefore began to assume the qualities of an ideology: power not allied to reason. Materialists asserted that man is a wholly material being, and that therefore whatever defects he suffers are material and technology can improve them. In this way, technology can create a more perfect and orderly world. A grand social project was launched to do just this, and of course it has brought us many benefits, but things were lost too. The move from prescriptive and transcendent educational goals to immanent and technological severed us from the classical tradition. The power of the sciences does not extend so far as to make normative questions disappear, of course; each new generation of students continues to ask them. Teachers have just lost the means to answer them.

Given the damage that modernity did to what had, for thousands of years, been a consistent educational tradition, why were teachers, in particular, so ready to adopt the modern project as their own? If knowledge is really about power, then education is just a means to enhancing power, and this, on the face of it, is not noble or inspiring. Hicks identifies three reasons. One was simply that teachers, too, were members of society, and felt the allure of the technological project as others did. A second was that revolutions, whatever their ultimate outcome, will draw on a rhetoric of liberation, and Hicks argues that Europeans experienced the overthrow of the Ideal Type as a kind of liberation, a relief of responsibility. Finally, and perhaps paradoxically, a technological ideology gave a new power to the teaching vocation, making it a key enabler of the continued progress of society toward a more rational, comfortable, and free future by technological means.

A good case study of the sea change is the place of mathematics in the curriculum. In classical education mathematics was essential because it moved the mind from lower to higher levels of being, from the contingent and changeable to the necessary and immutable. It was evidence that the mind could know realities beyond the empirical, and it trained the mind to think clearly and systematically about abstractions, which ability was a preparation for the study of philosophy and other high matters. But in modern education the vertical dimension of mathematics has been flattened as the subject has been turned to technological ends, at least for most students. We study math so that we can calculate and build this or that.

Perhaps the clearest difference between classical and modern education can be stated this way: classical education educated for leisure, and modern education educates for work. The classical ideal was to cultivate in the student the ability to think and wonder about high things, to know the good and serve it, to act virtuously in the world, to accept responsibility for governance of himself and his affairs. Modern education, like modern society, has lost the capacity to speak about normative ideals; making a virtue of necessity, it adopts the pretense of ‘value-free’ education. It speaks instead about social utility, economic advantage, and democracy, justifying the educational project itself on largely utilitarian, and wholly immanent, grounds.

*

Given this state of affairs, what place can there be in the modern West for classical education? In a democratic, utilitarian society, classical education is asked to justify itself on democratic and utilitarian grounds:

“Of what value to society is an elite culture anyway? How does culture further the chief ends of modern industrial democracy, ensuring prosperity, security, and equal opportunity for all? … How does culture prepare him for the complications of day-to-day living in a highly bureaucratized, technological society?”

The truth is that the charges against classical education – that it is elitist and impractical – are true. But Hicks, in a neat turning of the tables, argues that it is, precisely for those reasons, what our democratic society needs. Athens, after all, the birthplace of classical education, was also a democracy. In his famous funeral oration, Pericles boasted that an Athenian citizen

“is able to show himself the rightful lord and owner of his own person, and do this, moreover, with exceptional grace and exceptional versatility.”

In what way is this inconsistent with the modern democratic ideal of self-governance? In fact, Hicks argues, what democracy needs to function effectively and wisely is citizens with elite, aristocratic souls. A society in which classical education were extended to as many students as possible would be one with citizens well-equipped to participate in democratic governance, precisely because they were rounded, thoughtful, conscientious, and articulate.

The sense of this paradoxical proposal becomes clearer if we look at from the other side: what kind of education would be especially apt to produce citizens who cannot govern themselves? Hicks argues that it would be precisely one which stressed rights, for if rights are seen as prior to duties (rather than dependent on them) they produce people who feel entitled to freedoms that they can exercise without need for justification. It is the old story with which we are all too familiar, because this is the kind of education we give, and the kind of political culture we get in consequence.

A second reason why classical education is especially suitable for modern society is that the modern industrial state has created the conditions in which a large proportion of the population has the leisure which, in ancient Athens, was available only to the aristocracy. It would make sense, therefore, for us to educate our citizens as the ancients educated their aristocrats:

Education, therefore, must impress on the citizen a lively sense of the responsibilities attending these privileges; his responsibility to the past, his obligation to govern and discipline himself, to contribute in every way he can to the preservation and development of his society’s purpose and sense of values, his duty to love the law and to carry himself before his compatriots in an exemplary manner, and the opportunity to use his leisure for the realization of his marvellous human potentials.

Those who argue that classical education’s elitism is inconsistent with our society – either from the elitist or populist side – both wrongly see the individual as having value principally in relation to society and the state – whether as custodian or worker – whereas in fact her value is intrinsic, and it is on the basis of that dignity that she merits the fullest, richest, most humane education that we can muster.

*

Another objection comes to mind. Even if we are convinced of the superiority of classical education, surely this whole project is quixotic? The entrenched powers are so formidable as to be invulnerable. It’s just not going to happen.

Hicks sees this objection as sophistical, in the sense of Sophistical:

A Sophist tended to accept the “givens”: an advocacy system that had lost the understanding of justice, a mob opinion no longer sensitive to the demands of truth and beauty. He taught his students simply how to do what had to be done to get along: how, when necessary, to make the weaker argument the stronger.

In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, therefore, he recommends critique and a refusal to limit the discussion to the terrain where the opponent is most secure. The ‘givens’ are contingent, and vulnerable in the long term.

**

Such is, I believe, a fair summary of the argument, although I have left out much of secondary or tangential interest. In broad outlines, we have a presentation and defence of classical education, and an unflattering contrast with modern education. The positive case is the most valuable; I’ve learned a good deal from it. Like Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty in the Word, which is the only other book on classical education known to me that is of comparable depth, the approach is learned and humanistic, in the best sense. More superficial treatments of classical education might lead one to think it’s a matter of curriculum materials or staging (‘first teach them about the world, then how to argue, then how to persuade’), but these two books flesh out the deeper ideas and implications.

Of the case against modern education, I think it sound in its broad outlines. That modernity was a rupture with the classical and medieval traditions is hardly a new idea; that science has metastatized in the meantime from methodology to ontology is likewise a commonplace; that education has become less normative and personal and more technological and practical is touted in the public square by politicians who see it as a virtue. But I am concerned that he has drawn the contrast too sharply. Even granting that we are comparing apples and oranges, and prefer apples, one still must be careful not to compare only the ripe apples to only the rotten oranges. My education was partly in the modern tradition, and although I readily grant that it had defects – what I have been doing in this space for the past decade or more could be reasonably understood as an attempt to remedy those defects – I also believe that it gave me much of real value. I never understood myself to be a mere economic cog in a machine; no particular ideal for emulation was given me, but then school was not the whole of life, and I received that kind of inspiration elsewhere. My children have been in the public schools for a few years, and their experience has been, by and large, reasonably good. Not great – not so great as to keep them there, at any rate – but not terrible either. The truth is that schools founded on the modern principles are probably better than they have a right to be, just as our society at large is. Yes, at a theoretical level modernity has laid waste the intelligibility of beauty, denied itself the transcendental horizon of the good, and boxed itself into an immanent frame, but in practice people are still people, still prone to flourish along Aristotelian lines, still sensitive to the cross-currents of the wind that blows where it will. There is a crack in everything, as the poet said. That’s how the light gets in.

It is also worthwhile, I think, to consider a caution along the lines of ‘Be careful what you wish for’. It may be good and right to call for a normative education that challenges and forms the conscience of students, but if we try to imagine what might happen were it actually tried today, I think we would simply turn our schools into factories for social justice activists, the likely outcome so long as the ethical imperatives are confined, along with the rest of the school’s business, to the social, political plane, and not founded comprehensively on the Tao.

**

All this, believe it or not, in the first 100 pages or so. It is an exceptionally concentrated book, written in a terse, closely argued style. In the latter part of the book, practical matters are addressed. If one were actually to have a school founded on the principles of classical education, what might it look like? Hicks gives a curriculum proposal for grades 7-12, and then adds a number of essays on integration and cohesion of the curriculum across subjects and grade levels, preparation of teachers, and other matters. Were I starting or running a school, these sections would be valuable, but it seems to me that the centre of gravity of the book is found in the earlier, theoretical sections I have outlined here.

Unfortunately the publisher has slapped a steep price on the book, so that only those with deep pockets or generous spouses casting about for gift ideas are likely to get a copy. The publisher would do a good service to issue a new edition at lower cost.

***

[The ‘why’ and ‘what’ of education]
All wanted their instruction to bring man to a knowledge of his abiding self — a knowledge making man both wise and virtuous and enabling him to win insights into the lower levels of being. One fundamental principle guided this endeavour: why one studied, not so much what one studied, determined one’s level of achievement.

[Truth and beauty]
Whenever truth comes to man by way of beauty, it necessarily transforms his character and ennobles his behaviour.

[Rights and duties]
A man without the knowledge of the truth — a man ignorant of his obligations to himself, to his neighbours, and to God, and whose education has not aimed at instilling in him a sense of good and evil and a sense of the holy — has no use for rights. He has no knowledge of how to use them.

[Love and education]
Love is the principle of truth in philosophy and of beauty in art that draws the spirit of man off center to participate imaginatively in the object of beauty or truth. Love provides man with the means for answering the mandates of conscience and for breaking out of his egocentric prison. Unlike self-denial or self-negation, love is a positive force, but it requires an object above the self for which the self is transcended. Once the knowledge of this transcendent object is established, whether by reason, by example, or by faith, love binds a person to this object. This binding is the supreme aim of classical education, the union of knowledge and responsibility tantamount to the formation of the virtuous man; but without eros, even the best pedagogy is helpless to achieve this aim.

[Tocqueville]
Do you want to give a certain elevation to the human mind, and teach it to regard the things of this world with generous feelings, to inspire men with a scorn of mere temporal advantages, to form and nourish strong convictions, and keep alive the spirit of honourable devotedness? Is it your object to refine the habits, embellish the manners, and cultivate the arts, to promote the love of poetry, beauty, and glory? Would you constitute a people fitted to act powerfully upon all other nations, and prepared for those high enterprises which, whatever be their results, will leave a name forever famous in history? If you believe such to be the principle object of society, avoid the government of the democracy.”

Barzun: Classic, Romantic, and Modern

May 21, 2019

Classic, Romantic, and Modern
Jacques Barzun
(Little, Brown; 1961) [1943]
255 p.

“Romantic” is a complicated word. Even if we use it just in an historical sense, applying to the period covering, roughly speaking, the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, what do we mean? Do we mean that it was a period that exemplified

“a return to the Middle Ages, a love of the exotic, a revolt from Reason, an exaggeration of individualism, a liberation of the unconscious, a reaction against scientific method, a revival of pantheism, idealism, and catholicism, a rejection of artistic conventions, a preference for emotion, a movement back to nature, or a glorification of force[?]”

The word has been used to mean these and many other things. (This book has an entertaining chapter in which Barzun does nothing but compile usage examples and try to tease out the implied meaning.) Barzun’s purpose in this book is to clarify our understanding of the romantic period, to defend it against its critics, and, in the process, to set forth a theory of historical development in which romanticism, whether under that name or another smelling as sweet, plays an essential part.

**

Following conventional usage, Barzun takes ‘romanticism’ to refer to a movement in European culture by a group of artists and thinkers whose births fell roughly between 1770 and 1815. We are talking about Blake, Goethe, Keats, Kant, Byron, Schiller, Emerson, Beethoven, Shelley, Schopenhauer, Thoreau, Chopin, and Scott, among (of course) many others. This was a group that was far from united, but Barzun argues that they are all justly ‘romantics’ because of two essential features: first, they understood themselves to be doing something in contrast to the “dissolving eighteenth century”, doing something constructive and creative, in search of new ideas and new institutions; and, second, that they shared a double awareness that man is simultaneous both great and vulnerable, he is “created and limited, a doer and a sufferer, infinite in spirit and finite in action”. These two characteristics Barzun argues are basic to romanticism, underlying the welter of different ideas and forms that sprung from it.

As an effort to find common ground uniting these many different figures, this is worth considering. At the same time, the idea that man is an intersection of the infinite and the finite is hardly an idea distinctive of romanticism. You’ll find it in Dante and Augustine. It is in some sense just a Christian idea. And, indeed, later Barzun argues that romantic life was basically Christian in character, “for it [combined] the infinite worth of the individual soul in its power and weakness, the search for union with the infinite, and the gospel of work for one’s fellow men.” The argument, then, must be not that this duality was unique to the romantics, but only that it exercised a particular influence over their thought.

He discerns four main phases in the career of romanticism, and it is worth sketching them. The first, from roughly 1780 to 1850, was the heyday of the romantics, during which most of the most eminent figures did their most creative work. The subsequent phases were “efforts at specialization, selection, refinement, and intensification” of the paths forged in the first phase.

The second phase Barzun calls “realism”, which he dates to about 1850-1885. This was an exploration of the political ramifications of romanticism (especially in Marx) and involved a turn toward materialism and coercion, under the tutelage of the physical sciences: “realism meant force without principle, matter without mind, mechanism without life.” It was a simplification of the original complexity of romanticism, but shared the goals of the romantics: “nationhood, social order, intellectual unity, the improvement of the human lot”.

The third and fourth phases were more properly a split, as they occurred simultaneously. One was the symbolist movement originated by the pre-Raphaelites, rooted in Coleridge and Keats, that influenced Debussy, Verlaine, Rimbaud, and Whistler. The other was what Barzun calls naturalism, exemplified by Dostoyevsky, Zola, and Huysmans; it was humanistic, and retained an interest in political and social issues that the symbolists largely lacked. Both movements lasted into the early twentieth century but were eventually displaced by “the modern”, about which more anon.

**

Barzun is keen to defend romanticism against its critics, or at least against unjust criticism. Reading between the lines, for instance, I infer that a strand of criticism at the time of writing — during WWII — was that romanticism was to blame for the rise of fascism and totalitarian politics. The idea seems to have been that with its elevation of national, local character and its revolutionary attitude toward social institutions, romanticism enabled or even abetted the revolutionary politics that produced the Russian Revolution and the Third Reich. The charge has a certain plausibility, for the romantics generally lauded both the American and French Revolutions. But Barzun argues that the romantics’ commitment to variety and innovation and their rejection of authority make a poor case for them as nascent totalitarians; for him, “the romantic style of doing things is the precise opposite of the totalitarian”. It is a fair point, yet I am reminded of Eliot’s argument that cultural movements, precisely because of the energies they release, might well tend toward a terminus that achieves the opposite of what they intend. (Eliot thought this true of liberalism.) The course of a cultural and intellectual movement sometimes overflows the bounds foreseen by its founders.

Romantics, in part because of their interest in fable and supernaturalism, were sometimes charged with “escapism”; in the twentieth century Tolkien met with a similar criticism for similar reasons. Barzun vigorously contests the charge; he sees them as unprejudiced realists, like explorers and scientists who opened up new vistas and experimented with different possibilities, all in an effort to adopt forms and subject matter which could convey their meaning. “They tried to meet the claim of every existing reality, both internal and external” and “they admitted the widest possible range of experience as real”. For them, life was the test of thought, not the other way around, and they were willing to stress accepted conventions and push boundaries of good taste in order to clear space for adequate expression of lived experience. With the benefit of hindsight, I think we understand this better today than did their critical contemporaries.

*

The book is not called simply “Romantic”, so let me say a word about the two foils: Classic and Modern. Classicism is the (if I may so say) classic foil for romanticism. Where romanticism is restless, iconoclastic, and questing, classicism values stable norms and social unity, for “no matter how arbitrary, conventions are useful and can be relied upon in proportion as they are held inviolable”. If Berlioz is a romantic, Haydn, I suppose, could be an exemplar of classicism. Societies with a strong classicist tendency are strong on hierarchies and clear social conventions. Barzun is sensible of the appeal and very real strengths of classicism:

It calls for intelligence, discipline, unselfish renunciation of private desires, a sense of social solidarity, and punctilious behaviour towards other members of one’s own caste.

At the same time, classicism has a kind of brittleness that makes it vulnerable. The unanimity it presents can be more apparent than real, imposed by social expectations rather than organically grown. Tumult may be concealed beneath a smooth exterior. When new problems arise classicism has a difficult time adapting.

Romanticism, too, has its weaknesses of course: it is turbulent, disorienting, and disruptive. It may be irrational. Societies which feel a need to break free of the constraints of a classical order may soon enough come to wish it back again. For this reason, Barzun sets forth in this book a theory of social change in which classical periods and romantic periods alternate, like the boom and bust cycle of an economy:

Periods of absorption alternate with periods of elimination; after diversity, simplification. Though both tendencies are at times present together, one dominates. Man explores and is romantic; man wants repose and becomes classical.

The nineteenth century was romantic; the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe were classical; the Renaissance was romantic, the late middle ages were classical. I think we could argue that the High Middle Ages — say, the 12th and 13th centuries — were romantic by Barzun’s definition, with many innovations in literature, architecture, and music. It’s an intriguing theory with a certain prima facie plausibility.

If it were true, it raises a question about our own times: is modernism a romanticism or a classicism? If modernism has yielded to something else — call it postmodernism — is that classical or romantic? Or has something happened to disrupt the cycle?

Barzun was writing in the 1940s, and at that time modernism was still in full swing. It seems he saw it is a defective species of classicism: elite and perfectionist, as classicism often is, but unable to tolerate solidification of any conventions, morbidly self-conscious and distrustful of its own desires, and skeptical. “It looks for certainties, guarantees of permanence and safety without, often, believing that they exist.” It searched for new, unassailable grounds on which to build, but was afflicted by a sense of universal purposelessness. Hardly promising material on which to found a stable social order.

This second edition of the book also includes, however, an epilogue written in 1960, a vantage point which allowed Barzun more perspective on cultural and social developments after WWII. He discerned two principal lines of development worthy of comment: first, the wholesale rebellion of artists against the Western inheritance, and, at the same time, nearly the opposite movement in the general public, who evinced a fresh desire for “the classics”. Rather than counterbalancing one another, Barzun saw them as working together to destroy the artistic tradition of the past five centuries. The artists were revolutionary, aiming “to produce in man a wholly new consciousness — not a new outlook upon the old makings of life, but a life made of a new substance.” They looked on the artistic heritage with contempt, as an obstacle rather than an inspiration. And the public — well, the public has bad taste, and when their appetite fixes on “the classics” it can only corrupt them. One problem is the cheapening effect of promulgating art through the channels of middle class commerce:

All the new media make arbitrary demands on the materials fed through them… To see the works of the Impressionists twisted into backgrounds for advertising perfume; to hear the melodies of Bach, Mozart, Berlioz, and Chopin rehandled by Tin Pan Alley; to listen to absent-minded hacks giving the lowdown on high art, not solely in blurbs for books and discs, in mass media, or over the air, but also on the walls of museums and in the glass cases of propagandistic libraries — all this is destructive in the same measure that it is communicative.

and another is the sheer abundance of material and ease of access, which sickens and sours the aesthetic sensibility:

Too much art in too many places means art robbed of its right associations, its exact forms, its concentrated power. We are grateful for the comprehensive repertoire which modern industry for the first time puts within our reach, but we turn sick at the aggressive temptation, like the novice in the sweetshop.

In our own time the general public’s interest in classic literature, music, and art has subsided, eclipsed, I would argue, by new media, but the opportunities for over-saturation have only become more common and more tempting.

**

Barzun, even in his epilogue, was writing only at the beginning of the 1960s, and, astute as he was, he seems not to have foreseen the cultural upheavals just a few years in his future. How I wish that he could have written a third edition in, say, the 1980s. It’s pretty clear that the 1960s were, in his taxonomy, a romantic period, with a rapid development of new artistic expressions, and a general breakdown of norms in art, sexuality, and society. Its aftermath is all around us, though I wonder if there are, perhaps, nascent signs of a return to classicism? Many people have documented the marked contrast between the children of the 1960s and the new “millenial” generation, which is more likely to be risk averse, less tolerant of unfamiliar ideas and the free expression of them, and more narrowly moralistic, though its list of sins runs along novel lines. The efforts of the baby boomers, now occupying the heights of power, to shore up their revolution by legal means is also typical, says, Barzun, of classicism, the unanimity of which is more often imposed than grown:

To suppose that one can have classicism without authoritarianism is like supposing that one can have braking power without friction.

We shall see what we shall see. In the meantime, Classic, Romantic, and Modern is a thoughtful and learned reflection on the last quarter-millenium of our cultural history, and remains well worth reading.

Roman Civil War histories

March 10, 2019

Alexandrian War
African War
Spanish War
Anonymous
(Landmark, 2017) [c.45 BC]
150 p.

At the conclusion of his own account of the civil war, which brought the story up to the autumn of 48, Caesar had triumphed over Pompey at Pharsalus and, chasing him to Alexandria, had found him dead. Not content to rest on his laurels, Caesar had occupied the Alexandrian harbour and taken Ptolemy, the young Egyptian ruler, into custody.

We have no more history from Caesar’s pen, but we do have these three anonymous works — each by a different author — which relate Caesar’s consolidation of power in the years 48-45.

**

The most substantial of them is the Alexandrian War, which picks up where Caesar left off. We read about Caesar’s tactics, about his decision to permit Ptolemy to return to the Egyptian side as an ally, Ptolemy’s betrayal of Caesar, and the culminating battle at which Ptolemy was killed. In compliance with Ptolemy’s will, Caesar installed his sister Cleopatra in power. (Interestingly, the author says nothing about the romantic intrigues between the two.) Altogether, the Alexandrian campaign took about five months, ending in March 47.

The author then backs up and tells us what was happening elsewhere during the same time period: how Caesar’s deputy Domitius was defeated by Pharnaces in Asia Minor; how Caesar’s forces were triumphant in Illyricum; how Caesar’s men defeated the allies of Pompey the Younger (Gnaeus Pompeius) in Spain; and, finally, how Caesar, leaving Alexandria, went to Asia Minor and gave Pharnaces his comeuppance. The author is very well informed, and has largely succeeded in matching the quality of Caesar’s own historical books.

**

Late in 47 Caesar set sail for the northern African coast, where a trio of leaders loyal to Pompey — one of Caesar’s former lieutenants in Gaul, Titus Labienus; the Numidian King Juba; and the senator Metellus Scipio — remained at large with considerable forces at their command. The African War tells us what happened: how Caesar, in a series of brilliant strategic and tactical moves, emerged victorious over all three. The author, who demonstrates personal knowledge of Caesar and an understanding of his strategic decision-making, was probably a high-ranking officer under Caesar’s command. He does a good job of showing how Caesar gradually improved his position relative to his opponents, and how he responded in moments of crisis. (At the Battle of Ruspina, for instance, which took place on 4 January 46, Caesar was badly outnumbered and eventually completely encircled by Labienus, but improvised a new troop formation that allowed him to defend on all sides while simultaneously breaking the encircling ring at one point to permit escape.)

Interestingly, some of this activity took place during a period with no dates; Caesar had initiated calendar reform, including the insertion of an intercalary period to which no standard dates can be assigned.

**

Having returned to Rome in July 46 — the month of July, incidentally, was then still called Quintilus; it would not be named after Caesar until after his death a few years hence — Caesar again set out late in the year for Spain, where Gnaeus Pompeius, the son of Pompey the Great, remained at the head of an armed force opposed to Caesar. It is difficult to discern the shape of the campaign from the Spanish War, for not only is the text corrupted in many places, but the author has not the qualifications of those we’ve seen thus far; he may have been a low-ranking officer, and is more interested in army gossip — who was defecting, what happened in minor skirmishes, where camps were moved — than in the overall arc of the conflict. What is clear is that the forces of Pompey and Caesar established opposed camps near Corduba (modern Cordova), and finally met in a decisive battle near Munda (the location of which is disputed today) on 17 March 45, nearly a year to the day before Caesar’s final mortal reckoning. It was a massive battle, with over 100000 men on the field, and the fighting was fierce. (Caesar said of the battle, “I fought not for victory, but for my life.”) Caesar’s army was outnumbered nearly two-to-one, yet he emerged victorious. Pompey escaped, but was discovered a few weeks later in a cave, and died fighting. This battle may be said to mark the end of Caesar’s civil wars. His enemies in the field were vanquished — though his enemies back in Rome were alive and well.

**

They form a modest pendant to Caesar’s military chronicles, but nonetheless I appreciated the chance to read these shorter works, which fill in important gaps and are engaging on a number of levels. They are included in The Landmark Julius Caesar, which I have been praising at every opportunity, and continue to praise at this one. If you’re at all interested in this history, and cannot read Latin, this is the edition to get.

Caesar: The Gallic Wars

October 20, 2018

The Gallic Wars
Gaius Julius Caesar
(Landmark, 2017) [c.50 BC]
306 p.

In 59 BC Caesar had convinced Pompey and Crassus to form an alliance with him for power in the staggering Roman Republic, and had been awarded governorship of the province of Transalpine Gaul (that is, the south of modern France). The next year he departed to wage what turned out to be a decade-long contest to conquer the whole of Gaul — roughly, the area bordered on the south by the Pyrenees and in the northeast by the Rhine — and bring it under the governance of Rome. His success had the effect of nearly doubling the geographical size of Roman territory. He himself wrote this account of the campaign (with a slight caveat, below).

Caesar’s motive in undertaking the war is partly obscure. His stated reasons were that several peoples of northern Gaul had appealed to him for assistance as they faced violent incursions from Germanic tribes crossing the Rhine. He defended them and established Roman authority to maintain peace. But historians have not failed to notice that Caesar began the war deeply in debt and emerged immensely wealthy, and there is some natural suspicion that this prospect formed part of his motivation as well.

**

The war followed a fairly predictable pattern, year on year. Because the armies involved were immense (tens of thousands of men) and because, as always in ancient warfare, they survived by foraging from the lands through which they passed, they could fight only when food could be had. Thus they would begin in around June and wrap up by October; for the remainder of the year the army would hunker down in winter quarters, making weapons or building boats, while Caesar himself would cross southwards over the Alps to mind his other duties.

In the early years of the campaign the Romans enjoyed a marked military advantage. Their opponents had never seen discipline, technology, and expertise such as Rome possessed. A Gallic army might occupy a hill town — not a bad tactic against a near peer enemy — but the Romans, instead of charging uphill in a wild assault, would build a massive circumvallation to prevent any traffic in or out; they would dig great trenches filled with water; they would construct siege towers and massive earthworks by which to breach the enemy’s walls. It was no contest.

But, to the credit of the Gauls, they learned quickly, and by the midpoint of the decade the technological advantage of Caesar’s forces was less obvious. Countermeasures like fiery projectiles and collapsing tunnels were used against Caesar, and the Gauls adopted siege warfare tactics as opportunity allowed. Caesar does not stint to praise the ingenuity of his foes when, in his eyes, they earned it.

Still, the number of Roman defeats was small. Late in 57 part of the army was ambushed in the Alps and had to flee for safety. The winter quarters were attacked in 54, with many Romans killed. The following year the main supply camp, left on minimal manning while the main army was elsewhere, was surprised by a Gallic attack and routed. But these were exceptional; the Romans faced greater or lesser resistance, but mostly prevailed.

**

The campaign included several famous episodes. In 55 Caesar, keen to demonstrate Roman power to the Germanic tribes harrassing his Gallic allies, did what had been thought impossible: in just 10 days his engineers built a bridge across the Rhine strong enough to march his entire army across. The methods were quite amazing: footings were driven into the river bottom using dropped weights, stabilized against the current by being placed at angles, and the bridge surface was extended from footing to footing until the crossing was complete. They even built deflecting barriers upstream of the footings to prevent logs floated down by the Germans from causing damage. The feat was repeated in 53 at a different location. Once across, Caesar didn’t do much; this was military theatre with a message: don’t think you’re safe just because this paltry creek runs between us.

The other very famous episode, also in 55, and of special interest to English speakers, was Caesar’s crossing of the English Channel into Britain. He embarked in September with a relatively small force, mostly, it seems, from curiosity to see the island which was, in the Roman imagination, the very end of the earth. They first encountered the cliffs of Dover, and, being unable to land, sailed northeast up the coast until they found a beach (probably near modern Walmer). Naturally, the Britons were not overjoyed to see them, and opposed their landing. Nonetheless the Romans were able to establish a small camp, where they remained for about a week before attempting to return to Gaul. En route some of the Roman ships were forced back to Britain by a storm, and this contingent, including Caesar, was attacked again by the Britons, who were resisted only with great difficulty. Finally gaining the upper hand, Caesar imposed on the Britons an obligation to send hostages (a standard penalty for those whom he defeated), and departed. Apparently only one tribe did send hostages, the rest, presumably, hoping that they would never see the Romans again.

But this was wishful thinking. Caesar’s men spent the winter building boats, and in July of 54 he crossed the Channel again, this time with more than 600 vessels in his fleet. Astonished, the Britons failed to even contest his landing. Several conflicts ensued, as Caesar marched his men approximately 100 km inland over the course of a campaign lasting 2-3 months. On those whom he defeated he imposed financial penalties on the understanding — still a pretense, but soon enough a reality — that Britain was now under Roman control. It was Caesar’s last British hurrah; once departed, he never returned to Britain.

**

The overall arc of the Gallic Wars was of escalating conflict against progressively better organized foes. When first Caesar came to Gaul it was divided into many small tribes, but as the scale of the Roman threat became more evident the Gauls organized into larger groups to increase their chances of success. This resistance culminated in 52 with the formation of a pan-Gallic force led by Vercingetorix. He conceived a new strategy: scorched earth. Attempting to use the size of the Roman army against it, he directed that the Gauls burn their fields, farms, and towns in order to deprive the Romans of supplies. But this tack was only partly successful; yes, it made things harder for Caesar, but he simply foraged farther afield. Eventually he cornered Vercingetorix in the city of Avaricum (near modern Bourges). A difficult siege ensued, but the Romans eventually breached the walls.

Vercingetorix, however, escaped and took shelter in Alesia (modern Alise-Sainte-Reine), where the culminating battle of the Gallic Wars took place. The city was situated on a hill, with strong fortifications. A sizable Gallic army was inside, and another was outside at some distance. Standard procedure was to lay siege to fortified cities, but the presence of the second Gallic army, roaming about, complicated things. Caesar’s response was to make a double-facing circumvallation of the city: walls, towers, trenches, and booby traps facing both toward Alesia and away. Though he had few men to staff such an extensive fortification, the obstacles he installed allowed him time to concentrate his men where the attacks took place. Eventually, their hand forced by hunger, the Gauls broke out of Alesia and attacked, and the second army also assaulted the Romans in a co-ordinated effort. But Caesar and his men proved too strong. Vercingetorix was captured, and surrendered along with all the forces at his command. The conquest of Gaul was, more or less, complete.

More or less, because although Caesar’s own account of the campaign concludes after the siege of Alesia, one Aulus Hirtius appended an eighth and final book in which he recounts the events of the years 52-50, bridging the gap between Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars and Caesar’s account of the Roman civil wars (which I hope to read sometime soon). In these years, we learn, there were a variety of smaller skirmishes against pockets of resistance. But they have the feeling of being an aftermath, or a mopping up operation, and it is perhaps for those reasons that Caesar did not take the trouble to write about them himself.

**

As in most accounts of ancient warfare, the methods employed by Caesar (and his opponents) can be shocking to us. Even so standard a tactic as siege warfare, involving, as it does, civilians alongside soldiers, fails to meet ethical standards of modern warfare. There were rare occasions when Caesar was especially brutal — as at the siege of Uxellodenum, when he had the hands of the defeated soldiers cut off — and, as was standard, he gloried in reporting how many foes had been killed (often, modern historians suspect, greatly exaggerating the numbers). It is possible that a million Gauls lost their lives in the decade-long fight against Rome, so this was war on a large scale, and, we must admit, despite that fact that Caesar acquired in his own time a reputation for clemency, he would by modern standards be guilty of war crimes. The same, of course, could be said of other Roman generals, and of Persians, Greeks, and Gauls.

The people of Rome, though, had few qualms about Caesar’s methods or aims. Caesar would send back reports, and he tells us, with pride, that he was on several occasions awarded lengthy public celebrations in Rome that outstripped in lavishness and duration those of any previous military commander. When he did finally return to Rome in 49, it was, of course, an epoch-making (or, to be more specific, a Rubicon-crossing) event. His fame and power had waxed greatly, and although he faced powerful opponents, especially in the person of Pompey, it was clear that he was a man with whom the Roman Republic could not avoid a reckoning.

**

This was a tremendously enjoyable book. Being one of the few ancient accounts of a military campaign written by the responsible military commander, it has special historical value, but the importance of the story it tells has made it attractive to a wide swath of readers. Indeed, The Gallic Wars was for centuries one of the standard books that students of Latin would read in the course of their education, admired for the clarity of its style in addition to the interest of the story it tells.

I read a new edition published in the Landmark series, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. The text is enriched by a generous helping of maps, paragraph summaries, timelines, many explanatory notes, an excellent introduction, and a daunting set of essays on various aspects of Roman warfare, economics, and politics. An immense amount of work went into it, and we, the readers, benefit. It deserves to win every pertinent publishing award, and maybe a few others besides.

Appian: The Civil Wars

July 14, 2018

The Civil Wars
Appian of Alexandria
Translated from the Greek by John Carter
(Penguin Classics, 1996) [c.150]
xliii + 436 p.

Lives of the Noble Romans
Gaius Marius, Tiberius Gracchus, Gaius Gracchus, Sulla, Crassus, Pompey, Caesar, Cato the Younger, Brutus, Antony, Cicero
Plutarch
Translated from the Greek by John Dryden
(Modern Library, 1942) [c.100]

Livy’s surviving history broke off in the 160s BC. At that time the Roman Republic controlled the Italian peninsula, most of Spain, Asia Minor, and Greece, along with the swath of Northern Africa formerly held by Carthage. It was the end of a long period of consistent triumph for Rome. But fortune’s wheel turns, and the next 150 years were a time of tumult, trial, and war, a period, as Appian says,

well worth the attention of any who wish to contemplate limitless human ambition, terrible lust for power, indefatigable patience, and evil in ten thousand shapes. (I, 6)

It resulted finally in the collapse of the Republican government and the emergence of Imperial Rome.

Appian’s history of the Roman civil wars covers the period 133-35 BC in five Books; it is but a part of his more comprehensive history of Rome, but it attracts special attention, despite his defects as a historian, because it is our only surviving ancient source for the period 133-70 BC, years of great interest and import for what happened later.

“The hour calls forth the man” is a proverb (and, if it isn’t, it ought to be). In previous periods of Roman history one could usually focus on one or perhaps two main threads and major figures at any one time, but as the first century BC progressed and the political crises deepened they seemed to summon up a crowd of powerful personalities — in the year 50 BC, for example, a list of important political figures then living (if not all then in power) would include Crassus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Octavius, Marc Antony, Cicero, Brutus, Cassius, and Cato — so that any adequate account has to slow down and descend into the details — which Appian certainly does, devoting about half of his history to the two or three years surrounding the assassination of Caesar in 44 BC. Obviously I can’t do the same in this forum, but I will try to sketch, in rough outline, how things developed as the Republic slowly crumbled.

The faltering Republic was beset by an abandonment of political traditions and breakdown of the rule of law. We can look, for instance, at the careers of the Gracchi brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, who were grandsons of the great general Scipio Africanus. Tiberius became tribune and proposed a number of reforms — specifically to redistribute land from the wealthy to the poor and to extend Roman citizenship more broadly to the conquered peoples of the Italian peninsula — and, when his programme encountered resistance, broke with both longstanding tradition and law by standing for (and winning) a second term as tribune. When Tiberius was opposed by the Senate, he simply sidestepped them — after all, their ratification was only customary, not necessary. And when he was opposed by another tribune during a vote, Tiberius had his opponent forcefully removed from the Forum, in flagrant violation of the long tradition of holding the person of the tribune sacrosanct. Harmless enough, you might think, and in the service of a good cause, perhaps, but the Roman tradition of rotating political offices every year was one of the oldest and most venerable political traditions they had, and the immunity of the tribune from violence or prosecution was quasi-sacred in nature; both had always been understood as safeguards against political tyranny. His younger brother Gaius was even more radical in his political programme and in his conduct: he held the tribunate for three years. Both brothers met violent ends at the hands of mobs, another sign that Rome’s political life was straining.

These trends continued in the career of Marius, who was first consul in 107, but who went on to hold the consulship a record seven times. Marius was a military hero who rose to prominence from an undistinguished background on the strength of his generalship. His greatest military achievement was, perhaps, his reform of Roman military tactics; he abandoned the maniple system Rome had used for centuries in favour of a new, three-line system that ensured that fresh troops would rotate to the front on a regular basis, and he achieved great success in the field. When in 91 the so-called Social War broke out between Rome and the subject peoples of Italy — a war that sounds more genteel than it was — Marius led the effort to put down the rebellion. But then, for complicated reasons, he returned to Rome and allowed his army to pillage the city, taking up residence as something like a military dictator.

He was opposed by Sulla, one of the most intriguing men to enter this history. He too had military success, in battles against Mithridates in the east, but when Marius occupied Rome Sulla returned with the intention of dislodging — and, as it turned out, displacing — him. Comments Appian:

“In this way the episodes of civil strife escalated from rivalry and contentiousness to murder, and from murder to full-scale war; and this was the first army composed of Roman citizens to attack their own country as though it were a hostile power” (I,60)

As it turned out, his job was done for him: Marius died, and Sulla moved in, declaring himself — or having himself declared — dictator. The office of dictator had been an official political role early in Roman history, invoked in periods of crisis, but it had always been understood as being limited in term to about 6 months or a year. Sulla was declared dictator for life. It would be hard to come up with a more radical upending of the Roman political system, but for Sulla it was just the beginning. He published proscription lists of his enemies; they were to be captured and executed, along with anyone who might try to help them escape. Sulla’s was a reign of terror. The paradox is that he was essentially a conservative figure: his radical measures aimed to restore the proper functioning of the Republican system. He saw that system buckling under strain, overtaken by violence and revolution, and he sought unrestricted power to shore it up. He broke the law in order to restore the law. And, in one of the most surprising turns in this or any other history, once he thought he had achieved his goal he relinquished his absolute power, walked away from political life and retired to a quiet country villa. But he had not achieved his goal, for what the next generation took from Sulla were not his objectives, but his methods, and those could be used against the Republic at least as effectively as Sulla had used them for it.

In Sulla’s conflict with Marius for control of Rome, he had been assisted by two able men: Crassus and Pompey, and in the aftermath of Sulla’s rule a rivalry between them brought both to prominence in Rome’s public life. They collaborated to put down the slave rebellion led by Spartacus in 73-71, but were thereafter at one another’s throats, jockeying for political position.

Into this fraught conflict came one Gaius Julius Caesar, a man of relatively humble station (patrician, but poor), who convinced the two that they would be stronger in partnership than in conflict, and that he could help them to achieve together both wealth and power. Thus was born the ‘first triumvirate’ — a rather distinguished title for what Mary Beard opts to call The Gang of Three, and what Varro called The Beast with Three Heads — an alliance that Caesar was to use to propel himself not only to an equal rank with Crassus and Pompey, but to the first rank, and that would effectively bring an end to the Republican government of Rome.

It all happened fairly rapidly. The alliance was formed in 59. Caesar took an army to Gaul where, for ten years, he fought his famous campaign (recounted in his Gallic Wars) that nearly doubled the size of the Roman empire, and brought Romans to Britain for the first time (albeit briefly), bringing Caesar immense wealth and popularity in the process. Crassus led an army to Parthia where, however, he was killed in 53, leaving Caesar and Pompey as the leading men of Rome. And, on the principle that “Three is company, but two is a crowd”, the alliance degenerated into a rivalry once again. In 49 Caesar returned to Italy, crossing the Rubicon with his army in violation of Roman law and setting the spark to inflame civil war. (Parenthetically, I was surprised to learn that historians do not know which river was the Rubicon.) Pompey, taken by surprise, took his army and fled to Greece, there to regroup, and Caesar occupied Rome.

Not resting on his laurels, Caesar pursued Pompey and they met in August 48 at the Battle of Pharsalus, at which Pompey went down to defeat. He fled to Egypt, where he was killed while going ashore by order of Egyptian authorities eager to get into Caesar’s good books. They, along with everyone else, could see the writing on the wall. Caesar was evidently the great man of the age, whom Appian describes as

“a man extremely lucky in everything, gifted with a divine spark, disposed to great deeds, and fittingly compared with Alexander.”

(Indeed, he goes on to compare Caesar and Alexander at some considerable length. [Book II,149-54])

But Caesar’s rule, as we know, was short. There were yet those in Rome who wanted to restore the Republic, and who resented these great men bent on treating Rome as their personal property, and of course Romans had a long-standing horror of kingship. Caesar appeared to them to be a king in all but name. And so it was that in 44 a conspiracy of about 10 men, led by Brutus (thought by some to be Caesar’s biological son, and certainly a man greatly favoured by Caesar) and Cassius, was formed to assassinate him. This assassination, narrated by Appian in Book II, 117, and in more detail by Plutarch in his life of Caesar, is of course well-known to us from Shakespeare’s play.

Following Caesar’s death, the conspirators fled, and much of Appian’s history is occupied with tracing what became of them, as, one by one, they were picked off. Brutus and Cassius met their end in 42, at the Battle of Philippi. Of them, Appian says in tribute:

“They were Romans of the highest nobility and distinction, and of unchallenged virtue, without a single stain…” (IV, 132)

which is slightly odd, because elsewhere he tends toward apologetics on behalf of Imperial Rome, and I would have thought that he would have consequently disapproved of Caesar’s assassins, as Dante did.

Meanwhile, back in Rome, the power vacuum left by Caesar’s death and the departure of the conspirators begged to be filled. The natural man for the part, in his own eyes at least, was Marc Antony, a man who, though given to drunkenness and debauchery, had a proven record of military prowess and had been Caesar’s protege. But when Caesar’s will was read it was discovered that he posthumously adopted as his son and heir his great-nephew, Octavian, then just 19 years old. Naturally this precipitated a rivalry between Antony and Octavian, a rivalry temporarily set aside in 43 by the formation of another alliance of convenience, the so-called ‘second triumvirate’, composed of Antony, Octavian, and Lucius Lepidus, one of history’s most notable third wheels.

This second Gang of Three began another, even more frightful, reign of terror to purge Rome of their enemies. Proscription lists were once again published in the Forum, and Appian devotes a long section (Book IV, 1-51) to stories, both happy and tragic, about what happened to those whose names appeared on these lists: betrayed by their wives, perhaps, or saved by their slaves. Perhaps the most famous name to appear on the list was Cicero’s; he had initially sided with Octavian against Antony, and with the formation of the triumvirate Antony insisted on his execution. He, who was by some reasonable measures the greatest of all the great men swaggering through this episode of history, was captured and killed in December 43.

In subsequent years the uneasy alliance within the triumvirate continued. Appian describes the relationship of Octavian and Antony in these terms:

“Their behaviour constantly swung between suspicion, arising from their desire for power, and trust, arising from their current needs.” (V, 94)

They fought together against Sextus Pompeius, the son of Pompey, who led an effective naval blockade against Rome that prevented grain reaching the city. Antony went east on campaign where he fell under the spell of the Egyptian queen Cleopatra.

Appian’s history of these civil wars comes to an end in 35, with the finale of the story yet untold. From other sources we know that, soon enough, open war broke out between the two, and in 30 Antony, seeing that he was beaten, committed suicide, leaving Octavian, at 28 years old, the unchallenged leader of the largest Empire the world had ever known.

It is said that Octavian went to Egypt after Antony’s death, and, like many before him, stood at the tomb of Alexander the Great. He was perhaps the only person in history who could do so without feeling humbled at the comparison. He returned home, and three years later took the name Caesar Augustus, the first unequivocal emperor of Rome.

**

Almost everything about this history has been fascinating. Of course I knew bits and pieces of it, but I had not before seen them all put together, with the gaps filled. I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. Appian is not a historian with the talents of Livy — how I wish Livy’s account of this period had survived! His account is sometimes disjoint and he makes mistakes of fact — the latter not such a problem in this Oxford edition, which is festooned with copious notes. My main complaint is that he is not good at conveying the character of the people whose actions he describes; they rarely come to life as real historical people. I supplemented my reading, therefore, with a number of Plutarch’s lives, and, for good measure, with Shakespeare’s plays on Caesar and Antony (and Cleopatra). I would recommend the same sensible and rewarding course to others interested in this period of history.

Cato the Elder: On Agriculture

January 20, 2018

On Agriculture
Marcus Porcius Cato
[c.180 BC]

Cato the Elder’s De Agricultura is, I believe, the oldest complete surviving work of Latin prose, and on account of this distinction I have included it in my Latin history and literature reading project. Were it not for this accidental distinction, it is probable that I would not have read it, for it is not the sort of thing one — not this one, anyway — normally takes up for either business or pleasure. And yet I found, to my surprise, that I read it with some appreciation, both because it put me in contact with a great man in an unusual way, and because it provided a glimpse of a side of history that is not often seen by non-historians: the normal, daily life of ordinary people going about their ordinary affairs.

The great man is, of course, Cato himself; he was one of the leading Romans of his generation, serving terms as both consul (195) and censor (184) and maintaining for decades a place at the centre of Rome’s political affairs. Rome’s political leaders in this period were also her military leaders, and Cato won glory leading a successful campaign in Spain during his term as consul. But he was best known for his role in Rome’s domestic politics, in which he earned a reputation as a formidable moralist. He famously opposed the repeal of the Oppian Law, which forbade Roman women owning jewellery and fancy dress, and he likewise opposed permitting Roman women to inherit family wealth. He was the political counterweight to, and critic of, the great but unconventional Publius Scipio Africanus. These commitments, and others, have not universally endeared him to modern readers — in his Roman Women (London, 1962), J.P.V.D. Balsdon described him as “that self-confident and boorish embodiment of austere moral rectitude”, but the ancients were kinder; Livy called him “a man of acknowledged integrity and purity of conduct” (XXXII, 27), and then went on to praise him in a passage that is worth citing at length:

“So great powers of mind and energy of intellect were in this man, that no matter how lowly the position in which he was born, he appeared capable of attaining to the highest rank. No one qualification for the management of business, either public or private, was wanting to him. He was equally skilled in affairs relating to town and country. Some have been advanced to the highest honours by their knowledge of the law, others by their eloquence, some by military renown; but this man’s genius was so versatile, and so well adapted to all things, that in whatever way engaged, it might be said, that nature formed him for that alone. In war, he was most courageous, distinguishing himself highly in many remarkable battles; and, when he arrived at the highest posts, was likewise a most consummate commander. Then, in peace, if consulted on a point of law, he was the wisest counsellor; if a cause was to be pleaded, the most eloquent advocate. Nor was he one of those whose oratory was striking only during their own lives, without leaving after them any monument of it. On the contrary, his eloquence still lives, and will long live, consecrated to memory by writings of every kind. His orations are many, spoken for himself, for others, and against others; for he harassed his enemies, not only by supporting prosecutions against them, but by maintaining causes in opposition to them. Enmities in abundance gave him plenty of employment, and he never permitted them to lie dormant; nor was it easy to tell whether the nobility laboured harder to keep him down, or he to oppress the nobility. His temper, no doubt, was austere, his language bitter and unboundedly free, but his mind was never conquered by his passions, his integrity was inflexible, and he looked with contempt on popularity and riches. In spare diet, in enduring toil and danger, his body and mind were like iron; so that even old age, which brings all things to dissolution, did not break his vigour.” (XXXIX, 40)

It is extremely rare, and even singular, for Livy to grant such a lavish encomium, and it speaks to the strong impression which Cato made on his imagination nearly 200 years after his (Cato’s) death.

In the passage above, Livy praises Cato in particular for his skill in management of private affairs and his knowledge of country life, and this is pertinent to De Agricultura, which is a kind of manual for the successful management of a Roman farm.

It is a very practical guide, full of down to earth advice on procurement of farm equipment, good practices for working with cattle, advice on caring for olives and grape vines, methods for producing good wine, instructions for medicinal uses of farm crops, and recipes for a variety of things. We learn how to make a wine press, how to best fertilize the fields, and what kind of soil is best for various kinds of crops. Although we do receive counsel on buying and selling the goods the farm produces, one gets the strong impression that this farm is independent, producing and making what it needs to continue operating.

For a modern reader it is interesting to see how closely intertwined farming, and, by extension, ordinary daily life, was with religion. The practical guidance includes a good deal of instruction on the religious aspects of farming: “Make an offering of cakes to Janus, with these words,” we are told; we are reminded that the spring ploughing should be preceded by a sacred feast; the prayers and sacrificial rites to be observed prior to thinning a grove are prescribed; times when the workers should fast are noted. There seems to be no clear distinction in Cato’s mind between this kind of advice and the other kind; for him, religion is a practical matter.

Advice that sounds to us superstitious might have been, from his point of view, just “tried and true”. We are told, for instance, that “Figs, olives, apples, pears, and vines should be grafted in the dark of the moon, after noon, when the south wind is not blowing”, or that, in order to prevent chafing when travelling, we ought to “keep a small branch of Pontic wormwood under the anus” (which, on first blush, I’d have thought would have the opposite effect).

Perhaps the most endearing section of De Agricultura is that in which Cato lauds the virtues of cabbage. He notes that it promotes digestion, is an excellent laxative, can produce an effective purgative, cures colic, makes a good poultice for wounds, treats boils, dislocations, and contusions, heals headaches and eye-aches, restores health to the liver, the lungs, and the diaphragm, remedies arthritis, and cures insomnia, among many other wonders.

As I said at the top, this is not the sort of document I would normally be inclined to read in my personal time, but certainly my other readings in Roman history have been nothing at all like it, and in that sense the time has been well spent.

[Virtues of farmers]
It is from the farming class that the bravest men and the sturdiest soldiers come, their calling is most highly respected, their livelihood is most assured and is looked on with the least hostility, and those who are engaged in that pursuit are least inclined to be disaffected.

[Waste not, want not]
Remember that a farm is like a man — however great the income, if there is extravagance but little is left.