Over at the Hannibal’s. Can We Really ‘Know’ the Greco-Romans? (2)

The Ancient Roman ‘Temple of all gods’ (Pantheon,) Rome. Click to zoom in

[continued from part 1]

Opinion and Knowledge (of the Ancients)

MoR: “Douglas, you are a friend and you raise here a big philosophical question: whether man can reach truth. I’m not qualified, my wife is the epistemologist of the family (she has a degree on philosophy of science) and all I understood (from our quarrels) is that ‘scientific’ research is all about trying to go beyond doxa, ie biased opinion, so you hit the nail on the head I believe.

By ‘research is progressing’ I meant: ok, we will possibly never ‘know’ these folks (Saxons invading Britain, Macedonians at the times of Alexander etc.) but the various ‘pictures’ we have of them are enriched day by day, researchers communicating more (such ‘pictures’ are interrelated), and, our sources being not only ancient literary texts (which reflect the view of the writer) but of course also the (less biased?) ‘data’ from archaeology, biology, from studies on agricultural techniques, fossil seeds etc.

As an example (also of various doxas coexisting), the ‘picture(s)’ of Rome’s fall – the period 300-600 CE, ‘late antiquity’ ie between antiquity and middle ages – have changed dramatically in the minds of many specialists, I believe, although the public still thinks in terms of a Gibbon’s progressively decadent, imploding empire (Gibbons mentioned Rome’s ‘immoderate greatness’ so that “the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight” plus he blamed Christianity for Rome’s weakening) which received the last blow by totally ‘rough’ Germanic barbarians.

Who is right? I don’t know, these younger historians though surely profiting from a lot more of multi-disciplinary data I think.

The Barbarian Kingdoms, ca. 526 CE. By the 6th century the Western Roman Empire had been replaced by smaller kingdoms. Click for credits and to zoom in

Feeling Too Superior, Was Rome ‘Murdered’?

It seems the news is ‘electric’ (as Peter Heather put it in his The Fall of the Roman Empire) for both the descendants of the Romans and of the Germans – I belonging to both a bit, as I said in my mystical (and emphatic) *first post*.

Basically:

  1. the ‘late’ Roman empire was a total success story.
  2. Germanic, non Roman, Europe was a two-speed reality (no new thing lol,) one portion being much more civilised than we had thought, surely influenced by Rome but absolutely non Roman (so this doesn’t include Bavaria or Austria, that were romanized, and, not by chance, when ‘Nordic’ Luther arrived, they said: no thanks).

So what the hell happened? Why healthy Rome fell?

Possibly because, blinded by her sense of superiority, Rome made fatal mistakes, and was murdered by the German Goths. Within though a period of ‘collaboration’ with the Germans.

[No easy topic the fall of Rome. Here's a big list of theories on it.]

[I believe Christianity helped a bit (love your enemy blah blah, Gibbon in this was right imo), but I still have to figure out to which extent.]

Even the German Women were terrific fighters

J. Caesar Admired German Valour

MoR: PS. Excuse my logorrhea, such ‘collaboration’ between Germans and Romans was started by Julius Caesar the Myth. One reason he conquered Gaul [today's France, Luxembourg and Belgium] was that the Germans, much stronger than the Gauls or Celts, were crossing the Rhenus (Rhine) in flocks and invading Gaul (so Caesar by conquering Gaul postponed an invasion that occurred much later with the German Franks, thence the name of France.)

Therefore Caesar, after defeating the Germans of Ariovistus, said to the toughest prisoners: “I admire your valour, so I give you a choice: either to be sold in the slave markets or to become my personal guard”. I think the Germans preferred the latter also because it was in their culture to follow the leader that proved most valorous.

Julius Caesar

Caesar took a risk, but not that much I believe. He belonged to the impoverished nobility and was a son of the slums of Rome (Subura) where he probably had lived in contact with Germans and Gauls long enough to understand their mentality. And surely, in the conquest of Gaul that ensued, the Germans proved much more faithful to Caesar than the Celts allied to the Romans. From that day many Roman emperors had German gorillas protecting them – not to mention foot soldiers and Cavalry, also used by Caesar.

Douglas: MoR, thus began the Praetorian Guard (under Augustus, successor to Julius) which became the controllers of the fates of emperors for 300 years until Constantine disbanded them. Perhaps that had something to do with the fall of Rome? Hitler seemed to have read his history well and created his own guard but tried to control them utterly and was quite successful in maintaining their total loyalty. Did il Duce? Certainly, he had his personal guard but they failed to protect him in the end from the citizens.

I think (to get back to history and understanding the common citizen of any culture or state) that with the expansion of literacy came more understanding. One source of great insight into American history is the correspondence between its citizens. These are the thoughts of the average citizen, not merely the hopes and dreams of the elite. Ancient Rome (and Athens, Egypt, and so forth) are known by what its rulers (for the most part) decided was important (and, often, flattering). To learn about the average citizen, we must make guesses and extrapolations based on myths and legends and on relics found. Do we taint these guesses and extrapolations with our own biases? Probably so.

But my bias is that history was, for centuries, the tales of kings and it was told as they wanted it told.

Old Temple of Athena at the Acropolis of Athens. Click for credits and to enlarge

MoR:

my bias is that history was, for centuries, the tales of kings and it was told as they wanted it told.

It certainly was Douglas.

MoR: [talking to both Douglas and Phil] “That you mentally associate the emperors of Rome with Hitler & Mussolini, is interesting. There’s not much linking to be made imo, apart from the masquerade etc. I explain it with the great tradition of democracy in your country, which, we Latin people, do envy.

As for the Praetorian guard, I just now read in the Wikipedia that their role – according to who wrote the article – was of stability to the Empire on the whole. I don’t think though the Praetorian guard (a substantial army) were Germans (I only believe a few gorillas around many emperors were). And maybe some of the Praetorians were, I don’t know. I’m sure instead the legions who fought against the enemies of Rome had a progressively increasing number of Germans, which in the end became a problem possibly.

Rome is an Idea

Rome was more an idea, she was pretty international. The emperors themselves (Spanish, Arab etc.) could come from any land of the empire (like the Popes.)

It is little known that Caesar’s legions who conquered Gaul came mostly from Gallia Cisalpina, today’s northern Italy (80% sure). Big difference was there between these Italian Gauls and, so to say, the French ones. The former were Celts too (though with doses of Roman & Latin blood) but wore the toga (Gallia Togata is another name for it), eg were deeply romanized (Virgil, Pompey the Great etc. came from there), hence immensely more faithful to Rome than any other external people.

They only lacked regular Roman citizenship, which was given them as a prize by Caesar at the end of his Celtic wars. So Caesar – no Hitler or Mussolini indeed – had also the merit to create the unity of Italians, re-attained only 150 years ago!

The Roman legion was a perfect and disciplined war machine. Click to zoom in

Do We Know the ‘Average’ Roman?

One source of great insight into American history is the correspondence between its citizens. These are the thoughts of the average citizen, not merely the hopes and dreams of the elite.

True, but pls, allow me, we know something (I’d say a lot) about the average Roman too (who btw exchanged letters – the middle class – but we have lost most of them). Comedies were for the common people as well, or they would have been unsuccessful – there were no cinema or TV, thence theatre was terribly important – plus we have thousands of graffiti – whole sentences, poems etc. – written by the upper middle and lower classes: you probably under estimate the complexity of ancient society, no less structured than ours. Yes, the lower classes could be literate too, although, ok, the rate of illiteracy was higher, but, since religion touched the middle and the lower milieus especially, and we knowing A LOT about it (by Roman religion I mean ALL the cults present in Rome, Christianity included) I can infer that:

We know a lot about the poor people as well. The whole (monumentally documented) history of the progressive success of Christianity tells tons of things about the lower classes of the whole empire from the times of early Christians onwards. Just think of the letters by Paul of Tarsus: he had to persuade the non Pagan populace of the Empire – slaves included: see image below – but most of all he had to inspire & guide the faith of the already Christian elements – his message hence being directed to ALL social classes, it goes without saying.

Places visited by Paul. His letters tell about the life of the common people of the empire

I mean, we even know – due to the translations of the Bible – the Greek & Latin language actually spoken by the populace: for the reasons you mention the language of the poor and of the rich differed in sophistication.

As for simple-to-the-masses Latin the first translations of the Bible – Jerome’s not by chance is called ‘vulgata’, from vulgus, populace – appeared in the 4th century CE if I’m not wrong. They were written in non literary, ‘vulgar’ Latin, – eg that everyone could understand – to the extent that today’s Italians with a high-school diploma can more or less read them, vulgar Latin and Italian being closely related (whatever you Phil may think about it lol :-) ).

I have to stop this, Douglas. Thanks for obliging this lazy old man to work.

Douglas:

That you mentally associate the emperors of Rome with Hitler & Mussolini, is interesting. There’s not much linking to be made imo, apart from the masquerade etc. I explain it with the great tradition of democracy in your country, which, we Latin people on the whole, do envy.

Actually, it is both of those men who made the association. Not unusual for more modern despots to see themselves in the same light as men whom history has portrayed as great.
(Gen. Patton saw himself as a reincarnation of soldiers of the past and, I suspect, great generals and military leaders)

Julius took control of the political structure of Rome and turned it away from being a true republic of the times. He had himself declared dictator. He took total control of both the political and military structures. And was assassinated for it. But he laid the groundwork for Augustus to become Emperor. In some ways, he created the Roman Empire. First, by expanding the territory under its control and, second, by changing its political structure and laying the groundwork for dictatorial rule.

As I understand it, the literacy rate of Rome was ~15%. This would be the elite ruling class and the “middle class”. The “middle class” would be better described as the merchant class. This would be where the graffiti came from, as well as the letters.

When I spoke of the correspondence of American citizens, it began with the literate classes. But later it expanded into the general public as education expanded. We were fortunate that we began as a country after the invention of the printing press and at the beginning of the expansion of literacy. It is more the good fortune of our time period than anything else.

Try to understand, I am not denigrating Rome’s history. I am trying to explain my scepticism of history in general before the advent of the spread of literacy.

ψ

Read part 1 of this conversation

Julius Caesar’s Trapped Legion

Part of a display seen at Old Sarum in Wiltshire, 1998. Click for credits

54 BC, November. A typical grey rainy day in eastern Belgium. One of Julius Caesar’s legions plus 5 additional cohortes are wintering in the land of the Eburones, a German tribe. The other Roman legions are scattered far away in Gaul in their fortified camps, as was Caesar’s habit during winter. Caesar is heading towards Italia in order to take care of political matters.

The Eburones, commanded by their two kings, Ambiorix and Cativolcus, wipe out with a sudden attack a small group of Roman soldiers foraging for wood not far from their camp.

A parley thus began. Ambiorix (see below a statue dedicated to him in Tongeren, Belgium) told the Romans that a revolt was occurring in Gaul and that many Germans were about to pass the Rhine ready to join the Gauls against the Romans. He offered a safe passage towards other Roman camps fifty miles away.

The two Roman commanders, Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta, began a heated discussion within the council. Cotta was for staying: they had enough food and the legion was well entrenched. Sabinus was instead for leaving. Caesar would never arrive in time, he said, and their only opportunity was following Ambiorix’s advice. Around midnight Cotta had to give up since Sabinus’ opinion had prevailed in the council and even the soldiers were for leaving the camp.

These soldiers were the least experienced among Caesar’s legions, enrolled just a few months earlier and used only as baggage guards in important battles.

At break of day the Roman force, more than seven thousand men, quit the camp marching not in battle order but in a very extended line and with a very large amount of baggage. This showed that Sabinus’ idea, that the Germans must be trusted, had prevailed among the Roman commanders except Cotta. The Eburones were concealed in a thick wood waiting for the Romans. When the Romans entered the wood they let them pass through and descend to a deep valley where they abruptly showed up on either side of it. The Romans realised they were encircled and trapped.

Statue of Ambiorix, on the Great Market of Tongeren in Belgium. Click for credits

Statue of Ambiorix, on the Great Market of Tongeren, Belgium. Click for credits

The Eburones, fearing to attack the Romans directly went high above them on both sides and started pouring down missiles and rocks on the heads of the Romans. Sabinus lost his head, since he knew he had led the Romans into a mortal ambush. But Cotta kept his cool and quickly had the column pulled into a square. The Roman force held on for an extraordinary 8 hours though the casualties augmented.

At this point Sabinus tried to parley with Ambiorix, but was slaughtered by the king himself during talk. The Eburones then charged down en masse and many other Romans died, including Cotta.

Some still kept formation and succeeded to get back to the camp fighting.

“There the survivors kept the Eburones out until nightfall, and then, to a man, committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the enemy.”

“If the baggage guard would fight all day with no hope of success and commit mass suicide rather than surrender, Rome’s enemies were going to be in serious trouble.”

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Note. Freely inspired by the The Fall of the Roman Empire – A new history, by Peter Heather, Macmillan 2005, where the last two paragraphs are taken from; the episode is narrated by Julius Caesar in chapt. V of his De Bello Gallico. Here the English Gutenberg text)

Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

In some posts we tried to identify the cultural traits common to the people whose ancestors were subjects of the Roman Empire. One of the themes of this blog is in fact any possible remnant of the Ancient Roman world still surviving today.

The borderline or Limes of the Roman empire meant also the separation between what was Roman and what was non Roman. Particularly interesting is the central European Limes along the Rhine and the Danube, a sort of natural frontier of the empire since 7 C.E. onwards.

Ok, Roman and non Roman. Where are hence the traces of this disjunction in today’s societies?

Well, a lot of traces are there, since for example when Christianity breaks in two during the XVI century C.E. “is it by chance – argues French historian Braudel – that the separation of the fields occurs exactly along the axis of the Rhine and the Danube, the double frontier of the Roman Empire?” Really a good point, not many doubts about it.

Protestants and Catholics Split along the Limes

Luther in 1529 by Lucas Cranach.jpg

In 1517 the Protestant Reformation began with Luther nailing his 95 theses that will split West Christianity into Protestants and Catholics. “From 1545 (Wikipedia) the Counter-Reformation began in Germany ….Central and north-eastern Germany were by this time almost wholly Protestant, whereas western and southern Germany remained predominantly Catholic”.

This has to do with the Roman Empire border: namely the descendants of the romanized Germans mostly stayed with the Roman Catholics, which is amazing, while the descendants of the non romanized ones, plus other northern folks, left. From this fracture sprouted Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, Presbyterian, Calvinists, Puritans etc.

Above you can see Luther in 1529 portrayed by the German painter Lucas Cranach.

The Ultimate Roman Border.
Attachment to a Heritage

UNESCO World Heritage LIMES logo

Some land reconnaissance now. First a nice map of the Roman Empire and its provinces. Then Wikipedia infos on the German Limes (Wikipedia is always a good initial info source, but nothing more). Also this map of the Roman provinces of Raetia and Germania Superior is not bad. And finally some info on the German Roman Limes, ultimate protection against the external Germanic tribes (Limes is Latin for Limit, border). A web site that now is no more was kept by those German federal states that actually were/are inside the Roman Empire. In it we did read:

“The Upper German-Raetian Limes (“Obergermanisch – Raetischer Limes” = ORL = Limes of the Roman provinces of Raetia and Germania Superior: see a map) marked the ultimate Roman border line in the north of the Roman Empire. It was erected against the Germanic people who were a constant threat to the antique world. Over a length of 550 km from the river Rhine in the northwest to the river Danube in the south-east the Limes extends across the four German federal states Rheinland-Palatinate, Hesse, Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria.”

Kastell Welzheim, near the Limes, Porta Praetoria

These people are greatly attached to this heritage and have succeeded in getting a certain number of UNESCO-world heritage recognitions, like Regensburg (Ratisbona), and even the Projekt Weltkulturerbe Limes (project for the world heritage recognition of the German Limes) seems to have been accepted.

In the web site of the Deutsche Limes-Strasse Verein (the German Alliance For the Limes Roads) we read:

“the outer Upper Germanic-Rhaetian boundary wall (“Limes”) is one of the most outstanding archaeological monuments in Central Europe and has recently been put on the world cultural heritage list of the UNESCO. Many of the installations associated with the wall were unearthed as the result of excavations recently carried out by the different Regional Offices for the Protection of Ancient Monuments and have been conserved because of their excellent state of preservation.”

“They include forts, baths and towers together with parts of the fortifications themselves such as ramparts, ditches, walls and palisades. Also taken into consideration are museum-like facilities such as protective structures covering Roman ruins which are explained by plans, photographs and finds as well as archaeological parks located in the neighbourhood of boundary wall structures with reconstructed or restored exhibitions. Many of these areas are called “archaeological reserves” ….

“The German Limes Road runs close to the Upper Germanic-Rhaetian Limes from the Rhine to the Danube. Most of the forts were founded at the beginning or middle of the 2nd century and existed until the end of the Roman occupation 260/270 A.D.. The “Limes” runs from Rhein-brohl to Regensburg ……We hope that you will get …a better understanding of the Roman past of this country and have a relaxing holiday …on the former borders of the Roman Empire.”

The Initial Battle of the Gladiator

For Roman-movies fiends (I am one of them) the Roman fortress Castra Regina (thence Regensburg) was founded in 179 A. D. for the Third Italic Legion during the reign of Emperor Marcus Aurelius (we are in the ancient Roman province of Raetia). Marcus Aurelius fought battles along the Limes against German (and non German) tribes.

Sounds like The Gladiator initial astounding battle scene doesn’t it? Well, that scene probably referred to the Marcomannic wars fought during the reign of Marcus Aurelius with battles mostly fought further north and beyond the Danube.

It doesn’t matter though since the area well corresponds to that film battle and its marvellously recreated atmosphere (see Regensburg in this map of Raetia and Germania Superior).

Pilgrimage

We are mentioning Raetia because we were there last August on a sort of pilgrimage along the Limes, and found out that Castra Regina is more or less the core of Regensburg‘s Old City or Altstadt. Thischarming city is located in north-eastern Bavaria, Oberpfalz.

Pfalz is German for Latin Palatium, which refers to the Palatine Hill in Rome (Latin Mons Palatinus). It is the hill where Rome started (according to legend and now also archaeology: first huts, then the town, on this and other hills) and where the Roman Emperors much later lived (the English palace, indicating an important building, comes from there).

From Palatinus derives Palatinate (Latin: Palatinatus), the area of the later German Holy Roman Empire, a sort of Middle Ages continuation of the Roman Empire. So it all fits together, as one can see.

The Last Italian City

Regensburg (Latin and Italian Ratisbona)

In Regensburg – right at the extreme (German) line of all this, the Limes going well beyond Germany – the population will later become Protestant, even though it has inherited this sort of Italian merry character, with people sitting in open-air cafés etc., like us in Rome.

“We are the last Italian city”, they say, which sort of angered some Munich friends of ours who said they were the real last Italians, not only because of the Catholic faith but also because of their even merrier festas with people dancing on tables in Oktober Fest.

They certainly said this to please us, but there is some truth, I believe: their elegance, their incredible love for Opera (more than us today alas) and good wine (like us) etc.

More on Regensburg arriving, which is a good observation point, and more of course on Bavaria and all, so to say, romanized Germany.

Ψ

Marcus Junkelman clad as a RomanPS. We cannot leave this topic without mentioning an incredible person:
Dr. Marcus Junkelmann from Munich (*), world-famous pioneer of experimental archaeology, living in a castle and speaking fluently Latin, we heard. Historian of Roman Legions and Army, he has reconstructed Roman weapons, infantry & cavalry techniques.

We see his picture on the left, this is his web site and Dr. Wilfried Stroh is one of his colleagues and possibly friend. People like them are getting numerous also in parts of the UK, who is also becoming very pro-Roman (also the organisation Nova Roma, “dedicated to the restoration of classical Roman religion, culture and virtues”, shows how Roman mania can be both weird and fascinating).

References. The Braudel quote is from La Mediterranée, Fernard Braudel, Flammarion 1985. Translation by Man of Roma. Fernard Braudel is one of the greatest French intellectuals. Here a few links, just to give an idea of his work:
A nice synthesis on Braudel in English, plus the Fernand Braudel Center, at Binghamton University, State University of New York (“founded in September 1976 to engage in the analysis of large-scale social change over long periods of historical time”).

Ψ

Other related posts:

Music, Politics and History
From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

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