Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Review: Lion of the Sun by Harry Sidebottom

Dr. Harry Sidebottom's "Lion of the Sun" continues the story of Marcus Claudius Ballista, a courageous "Warrior of Rome" born to the Angles but raised as a hostage in the Roman imperial court .

When we left Ballista at the end of "King of Kings" he, along with his emperor Valerian, had fallen victim to a treacherous plot by the emperor's treasurer, T. Fulvius Macrianus, known as Macrianus the Lame, who had betrayed the emperor and his field army  to Sassanid King of Kings, Shapur I.

Sassanid Persian King Shapur I with the captive Roman
Emperor Valerian at Naqsh-e Rustam. Image courtesy of

Fortunately, although Ballista's prospects looked pretty grim, especially considering his past victories against the Persians and his practice of cremating the Persian dead despite the knowledge that it was viewed as a desecretion of holy fire by the enemy Zoroastrians, Ballista's famillia including his devoted Hibernian body guard Maximus, his lovingly irrascible Caledonian guardian Calgacus and his poetic Greek secretary Demetrius had escaped. So I wondered how they would rescue him from what looked like certain death.  Having met the revolting Macriani in "King of Kings" I also hoped Ballista could avenge himself and his emperor as the tale unfolded.

But it was not Ballista's famillia that came to his rescue.  It was the frail old emperor who finally remembered who he had always been able to trust.

Historically, Valerian apparently had a high regard for Ballista, as illustrated by the following communication from Valerian to a prefect of Illyricum quoted in the Historia Augusta:

 "From Valerian to Ragonius Clarus, prefect of Illyricum and the provinces of Gaul. If you are a man of good judgement, my kinsman Clarus, as I know that you are, you will carry out the arrangements of Ballista. Model your government on them.  Do you see how he refrains from burdening the provincials, how he keeps the horses in places where there is fodder and exacts the rations for his soldiers in places where there is grain, how he never compels the provincials or the land-holders to furnish grain where they have no supply, or horses where they have no pasture?  There is no arrangement better than to exact in each place what is there produced, so that the commonwealth may not be burdened by transport or other expenses.  Galatia is rich in grain, Thrace is well stocked, and Illyricum is filled with it; so let the foot-soldiers be quartered in these regions, although in Thrace cavalry, too, can winter without damage to the provincials, since plenty of hay can be had from the fields.  As for wine and bacon and other forms of food, let them be handed out in those places in which they abound in plenty.  All this is the policy of Ballista, who gave orders that any province should furnish only one form of food, namely that in which it abounded, and that from it the soldiers should be kept away. " - The Historia Augusta, The Lives of the Thirty Pretenders, Volume III:18, p113.     

But the old emperor had been seduced by Macrianus into believing his seemingly loyal courtier acted upon reliable intelligence about the whereabouts of Persian forces and ignored Ballista's repeated warnings about the army's precarious position.  Now that it appeared all was lost, Valerian realized the ambitious Macriani had inadvertently left him an instrument of redemption.
The anachronistic "Humiliation of Valerian" by Hans Holbein the
Younger, 1521 CE.  Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Without a hint to Shapur that Valerian had finally realized the ambitious author of the treachery, the old Roman asked Shapur to send Ballista to Macrianus' headquarters to negotiate a ransom, knowing full well that Macrianus would refuse any suggestion of ransom.  But Valerian's  best general would then be free to first, drive out the Persians, then deal with the imperial traitors.

But is Ballista being snatched from the frying pan only to be delivered to the fire?

Much of the ensuing story is based on the few fragments of history that survived Rome's brutal Third Century.

"The plague throughout these years was still rampant over the empire.  Zosimus sets it alongside the invasions as if in doubt which was the worse.  Inflation was raging.  The normal course of bourgeois economic life was dislocated.  Famine was endemic around the theatres of war, though the wheat fleets of Egypt and Africa still fed the Roman populace.  The Christians had as much to fear from the imperial officials as from the Germans or the Persians.  The social tension between the old senatorial class, tenacious in its grasp on its traditional preserves of office, and the new aspiring officer class, mainly Illyrian in origin, called for resolution.  Loyalty in high places was far to see; provincial governorships and provincial high commands were potential focuses of usurpation; the soldiers tended to be sullen and mutinous.  To some minds the complete dissolution of society might have seemed to be imminent." 
"Spiritually and culturally too things were at an impasse.  The old traditional forms of religion had long since lost their credibility outside the peasantry.  There were the mystery religion, Greek and oriental.  There were for the educated and intellectual the various schools of philosophy, the Stoic in decline, the neo-Platonist in the ascendant. Those in authority sought desperately, and sought in vain, for some cohesive belief or principle capable of welding the various classes of peoples of the empire into a spiritual unity and inspiring a common purpose and a common devotion." - Gallienus: A study in reformist and sexual politics by John Bray.

The few ancient sources we have to decipher the events of this tumultuous period is the much maligned and historically suspect Historia Augusta.

The Historia Augusta says Maeonius Astyanax claimed Ballista openly supported the usurpation of the Macriani saying:

"As for myself, my age and my calling and my desires are all far removed from the imperial office, and so, as I cannot deny, I am searching for a worthy prince.  But who, pray, is there who can fill the place of Valerian except such a man as yourself, brave, steadfast, honourable, well proved in public affairs, and — what is of the highest importance for holding the imperial office — possessed of great wealth?  Therefore, take this post which your merits deserve. My services as prefect shall be yours as long as you wish."  - The Historia Augusta, The Lives of the Thirty Pretenders, Volume III:12, p97.

What? His age precludes him from seeking the purple himself? Ballista was only in his thirties!  Although his military calling and personal ambitions may not have included the purple, he was hardly too old.  In fact, he was probably not that much older than the sons of Macrianus.
Quietus the usurper, son of Macrianus the Lame.
Courtesy of The Classical Numismatic Group, Inc.
via Wikimedia
Sidebottom's novel, instead, has Ballista publicly accept the office of Prefect only after a henchmen of the Macriani makes veiled threats about Ballista's family in Antioch that was essentially at the mercy of the Macriani  if Ballista refused to support the regime.  I think this is a far more believable scenario as there is nothing in the histories to suggest Ballista was ever one to personally exploit a political situation.

But, either way, Ballista once more ends up in command of much of the Roman army in Syria and he once more inflicts serious losses on the invading Persians.  Sidebottom's gritty descriptions of 3rd century warfare leave you breathless and his excellent characterizations makes you worry about not only Ballista (who captivated me in the very first novel of the series) but loyal (and virile!) Maximus, cranky old Calgacus and even gentle Demetrius.  Ballista's wife, Julia, gets her moment to shine too as she confronts Persian warriors in a surprise attack on the city of Antioch.

The Persians, though, are not the ultimate enemy.  To restore the imperium, Ballista must kill the Macriani pretenders but not until he can find a way to safeguard his wife and two sons.
Bust thought to resemble the emperor Gallienus. 
Photographed at the Walters Art Museum 
by Mary Harrsch.

When Macrianus the Lame and his namesake, Macrianus the Younger, leave for Europe to challenge Valerian's son Gallienus for the throne of the entire Roman Empire, Ballista is ordered to remain with Quietus.  Now, at least, the odds for Ballista's opportunity to exact retribution improve.

However, when Quietus receives word that his father and brother have been defeated and killed in Thrace, he becomes paranoid and imprisons Ballista and his family.  Now Ballista must place his trust in an old acquaintance from Book 1, "Fire in the East" and "The Lion of the Sun", Odaenathus, King of Palmyra, to save all that Ballista holds dear.

"...while Valerian was growing old in Persia, Odaenathus the Palmyrene gathered together an army and restored the Roman power almost to its pristine condition.  He captured the king's treasures and he captured, too, what the Parthian monarchs hold dearer than treasures, namely his concubines.  For this reason Sapor [Shapur I] was now in greater dread of the Roman generals, and out of fear of Ballista and Odaenathus he withdrew more speedily to his kingdom." - The Historia Augusta, The Two Valerians, Volume III:4 

The Historia Augusta only includes a couple of brief paragraphs about Quietus but those few lines reveal why historians often find themselves so exasperated when trying to piece together the events of the period using the Historia Augusta as a source.

We read that Ballista was killed along with Quietus when Odaenathus captured the city of Emesa.  But in the very next section of the Augusta Historia about Odaenathus himself, the Historia Augusta says while Odenathus was defeating Quietus at Emesa, Ballista claimed the purple for himself to avoid being slain.

Then under section 18 of Volume III describing Ballista, the author of that portion (if it is not the same as the rest of the work) details yet another fate of Ballista but admits that he really doesn't know what happened to Ballista since most ancient sources only refer to his prefecture not any reign as usurper.

"This man [Ballista], then, while resting in his tent was slain, it is said, by a certain common soldier, in order to gain the favour of Odaenathus and Gallienus.  I, however, have not been able to find out sufficiently the truth concerning him, because the writers of his time have related much about his prefecture but little about his rule." -The Historia Augusta, The Lives of the Thirty Pretenders, Volume III:18, p113

 Fortunately, Sidebottom sorts this out in a much more satisfying conclusion that sets us up for the next novel in the series, "The Caspian Gates".

Note: This review is based on the unabridged audio version of this book produced by Blackstone Audio with an outstanding performance by Stefan Rudnicki.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Review: Claudius by Douglas Jackson

"Claudius" by Douglas Jackson really isn't about the emperor Claudius but about his invasion of Britain as seen through the eyes of his elephant handler, a slave named Rufus and the opposing chieftain of  of the Catuvellauni tribe, Caratacus.

The story begins shortly before one of the decisive battles at a crossing of the River Medway near present-day Rochester.  We learn that Rufus is not just an experienced slave but an animal trainer for the arena once mentored by one of Rome's most famous gladiators, Cupido.  His skill attracted the attention of the Roman emperor, Caligula who gives Rufus the task of caring for the emperor's elephant.  A position he was allowed to retain after Caligula is assassinated and the emperor Claudius ascends the throne.

After I had already started  reading "Claudius", I discovered it had a prequel, "Caligula".  However, enough of Rufus' back story is provided so "Claudius" can be read stand alone without any lapses in story continuity. (I was suitably impressed by "Claudius" and have now purchased "Caligula" so will review it in the near future.)

Rufus winds up in Britain along with Beersheba (the elephant) when Claudius' freedman, Tiberius Claudius Narcissus, develops an invasion strategy to provide Claudius with a crucial military victory to strengthen his hold on the imperial purple. As part of the invasion force, however, Rufus is viewed with disdain by some of the legion's veterans.  Although his position shields him from such mundane camp chores as digging defensive ditches, a disgruntled centurion assigns him to a foraging party that is subsequently ambushed by the Britons.  Rufus is knocked senseless in the fighting and wakes up in the belly of a dreaded wicker man.
A Wicker Man photographed at the 2011 Beltain festival
by AngusKirk 

But before he can be consumed by the flames made sacred by the wild gestures of a demonical Druid, he is spotted by Caratacus, recognizing Rufus as the handler of the beast so feared by his fellow tribesmen, and is wrenched from certain death.

We find Caratacus is a thoughtful leader consumed with intellectual curiosity.  Although Caratacus doubts he can learn much about the impending battle from Rufus, he questions him for hours about the Romans, particularly the Roman emperor, in an effort to learn as much as he can about his enemy.
We also discover Caratacus' position as war leader is a tenuous one with other tribal kings jockeying for position to ensure a generous portion of any spoils that might result from future clashes.  One of the most troublesome of his coalition is his own brother, Togodumnus.

In this novel Togodumnus is in an inferior position to his brother Caratacus but historically Togodumnus is thought by some scholars to have been the king of the Catuvellauni and the kingship only passed to Caratacus after Togodumnus was killed early in the invasion.  Caratacus is shrewd and calculating here where his brother, Togodumnus, is painted as brashly impulsive, thinking little of strategy. Placing little value on unit discipline and group tactics, Togodumnus is convinced that brute force alone will ensure victory.  So Caratacus must use every relationship with other tribal chieftains he can call upon to restrain the Britons until a plan can be set into motion that will give the Britons the edge they need to overcome the Roman war machine.

Sculpture of a Druid photographed at the Louvre
by Paul Kohler 

Jackson also portrays Caratacus as politically forced to tolerate the blood-thirsty Druid priests because of their influence with many tribesman, but not particularly superstitious or appreciative of their ritual sacrifices.  This may be Jackson's way of incorporating the fierce Druids into the narrative without giving them much sway with Caratacus since there are persistent legends about Caratacus' conversion to Christianity before he is ultimately taken to Rome.

The legend with the most historical evidence surrounds one Claudia Rufina, a historical British woman known to the poet Martial ( Martial, Epigrams, XI:53 (ed. & trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey, Harvard University Press, 1993).  Martial describes Claudia's marriage to a man named Pudens thought to be Aulus Pudens, a friend of Martial's.  Since the 17th century, this pair have been identified with the Claudia and Pudens mentioned as members of the Roman Christian community in 2 Timothy of the New Testament (2 Timothy 4:21 - "Eubulus saluteth thee, and Pudens, and Linus, and Claudia, and all the brethren.") . Some biblical scholars have further claimed Claudia was Caratacus' daughter, and that the historical Pope Linus, described in an early church document as the "brother of Claudia" was Caratacus' son. These scholars point to the basilica of Santa Pudenziana in Rome, and with which St. Pudens is associated, which they say was once called the Palatium Britannicum and was the home of Caratacus and his family.

Anyway, back to our story.  Caratacus decides Rufus will best serve the Britons by setting Rufus free to return to the Roman lines so he can report the strength of the tribes in the hope that the sheer numbers will convince  Aulus Plautius, the Roman commander, to withdraw.  But Plautius does not give withdrawal a second thought and formulates a master plan with his legates the Flavian brothers, Vespasian and Sabinus.  Rufus, as a slave,  is not privy to any of the strategy and is once more subject to the whims of Narcissus who decides Rufus and Beersheba will be part of a "river rat" Batavian cohort that is being sent upriver to outflank the Britons.  Beersheba is the lynch pin in a dangerous river crossing where she will pull leather leads tied to rafts bearing the Batavian armor and equipment.  Obviously the author decided to use a ploy mentioned by Vegetius (De re militari III.7) in the 4th century describing how the Batavians were able to ford rivers with full armor (although an elephant was not mentioned).

A Batavian cavalry mask in the collections of
the Nijmegen Museum.
The flanking maneuver was to be supported by Vespasian's Legio II Augusta but Vespasian is delayed by  fierce resistance and Rufus must join the battle line as the Batavians numbers dwindle after repeated assaults.  [SLIGHT SPOILER AHEAD] Fortunately, Rufus is a skilled swordsman thanks to his earlier friendship with the gladiator Cupido and he not only stands firm but kills Togodumnus.

As for the actual historical record, there is some confusion about the fate of Togodumnus.  Cassius Dio says Togodumnus was killed in a battle along the Thames River.  Other scholars, including Barry Cunliffe of Oxford University, point to references in Tacitus that indicate a war leader with a similar name submitted to the Romans and became a client king over the territories of the Regini, the Atrebates, the Belgae and the Dobunni with a headquarters at Chichester, the site of Fishbourne Roman Palace.  (I've actually visited the Roman remains in Fishbourne and they are very impressive!) Jackson handles this discrepency by having another British leader who sided with the Romans against Togodumnus and Caratacus formally take the name Cogidumnus as part of his alliance pact.

Claudius finally makes his appearance and symbolically leads the legions in a string of followup skirmishes where he is hailed imperator and seals his place in history.  In Jackson's story, Claudius is not the drooling, stammering, frail individual portrayed in other tales.  Claudius actually assumes an imposing military posture, looking every bit the brother of the famous general Germanicus.  Jackson also portrays Claudius as able to address the Senate without a hint of a stammer and easily able to bend the assembly to his will.

The emperor Claudius photographed at
the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli by
Mary Harrsch.
Apparently, Jackson has chosen to take Suetonius' description of Claudius with a major dose of salt and instead present a character capable of drafting authoritative legislation regulating commerce, slavery, taxes and marriage, envisioning comprehensive public works such as the development of the port of Ostia  as  well as roads, canals and tunnels and utlimately dodging numerous assassination attempts while maintaining a firm grip on the reins of power.

However,  Jackson is not as generous in his portrayal of Claudius' freedman, Narcissus, who is revealed as cunning, manipulative and utterly. The ambitious courtier uses everyone around him, including Rufus, to promote his own ends although he protests that such actions are ultimately for the good of Rome.   This portrait of Narcissus as essentially faithless to all except Claudius is consistent with his behavior reported in the ancient sources.

The ancient sources say that Narcissus conspired with Messalina to convince Claudius to execute certain individuals that Narcissus may have deemed too powerful or too influential.  But later Narcissus turned on Messalina, reporting her infidelity to Claudius and when Claudius wavered about her punishment, gave the order for her execution himself.  Afterward, fearing Messalina's son, Britannicus, Narcissus tried to convince Claudius to remarry the emperor's second wife, Aelia Paetina, so Claudius would name Faustus Cornelius Sulla Felix, the husband of Claudius' daughter with Aelia, Claudia Antonia, as heir instead of Britannicus.  But when Claudius chose to marry Agrippina instead and named her son Nero to be his heir, then Narcissus allied with Britannicus against Agrippina and Nero.  So, as in this novel, he was truly a friend to no one, only an opportunistic courtier ultimately concerned only with his own future.

Jackson employs and interesting literary device in his story that I had never seen before, too.  Narcissus betrays a minor character in the novel and the way that the plot point is injected into the story reminded me of the execution of Anne Boleyn.  I have read that when the French swordsman prepared to cut off Boleyn's head, he signaled to an assistant who made a small commotion that caused Anne to turn her head in the direction of the disturbance therefore (mercifully?) distracting her at the moment the fatal blow was administered.   In this book, the author distracts the reader with a minor little battlefield drama just before assassins deal the death blow to a character not involved in the mini-drama, jarring the reader with its unexpected suddeness.  I'll have to remember that tactic if I ever write a novel myself!

The book closes with an epilogue describing Caratacus' entry into Rome.  A passage from an epic poem by William Mason came to mind:

I was born A king and 
Heav'n who bade these warrior oaks 
Lift their green shields against the fiery sun 
To fence their subject plain did mean that I 
Should with as firm an arm protect my people 
Against the pestilent glare of Rome's ambition 
I fail'd and how I fail'd thou know'st too well 
So does the babbling world and therefore 
Druid I would be any thing save what I am
Caractacus by William Mason, 1759

Despite years of defeat by superior forces and betrayal by a queen many thought may have been his former lover, Caratacus still walks proudly among the shouting crowds, awestruck by the magnificent architecture and opulence.  He courageously approaches the palace where he expects to be ritually strangled like the hapless Vercingetorix all those years before.  There he finally meets the emperor Claudius, and is surprised to find a rather frail-looking old man.   He must have thought:

Ye never felt the sharp vindictive spur 
That goads the injur'd warrior the hot tide 
That flushes crimson on the conscious cheek  
Of him who burns for glory
- Caractacus by William Mason, 1759

But this old man holds a defeated enemy's life in his withered hands and Caratacus has no doubt that a signal will be given to end his.   Instead Claudius gives him a chance to address the crowd expecting him to plead for his life.  But, Caratacus  simply asks "With all of this,  you covet our  huts?"

 Caractacus at the Tribunal of Claudius at Rome
Engraving by Andrew Birrell of a painting by Henry Fuseli, 1792
Historically, Caratacus was brought before the Senate where he made such an impression he was pardoned and allowed to live out his life peacefully in Rome after saying:

"If the degree of my nobility and fortune had been matched by moderation in success, I would have come to this City as a friend rather than a captive, nor would you have disdained to receive with a treaty of peace one sprung from brilliant ancestors and commanding a great many nations. But my present lot, disfiguring as it is for me, is magnificent for you. I had horses, men, arms, and wealth: what wonder if I was unwilling to lose them? If you wish to command everyone, does it really follow that everyone should accept your slavery? If I were now being handed over as one who had surrendered immediately, neither my fortune nor your glory would have achieved brilliance. It is also true that in my case any reprisal will be followed by oblivion. On the other hand, if you preserve me safe and sound, I shall be an eternal example of your clemency." - Tacitus, The Annals, translated by A. J. Woodman, 2004;

However, after he was freed, Cassius Dio says the famous Briton asked, "And can you, then, who have got such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor tents?" - Dio Cassius, Roman History, Epitome of Book LXI, 33:3c

Obiviously, the author thought a paraphrase of just the last quote would make a more elegant ending and I agree.

A note about the author:  Douglas Jackson is the assistant editor of The Scotsman in Edinburgh, Scotland.  He has spent 30 years working for various local and national newspapers around the UK.  His first up-close-and-personal experience with the Roman Empire came to him while he was a young student and spent a summer restoring a Roman marching camp at Pennymuir in the Cheviot Hills.  He has followed "Caligula" and "Claudius" with a series featuring Gaius Valerius Verrens, a tribune of the 20th Legion who faces off against Boudicca in "Hero of Rome".   In Jackson's latest novel,  "Defender of Rome,"   then Verrens is charged by Nero with capturing the leader of a new religious sect, the followers of Christus.
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Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Were Sparta's "Happy Helots" a template for Roman slavery?

Lacedaemonian furniture appliqué depicting
a nude swordsman 550 - 525 BCE, Bronze.
Photographed at the Getty Villa in Malibu, CA
by Mary Harrsch.
While doing some housekeeping up on Blogger I happened to notice a post by historian Helen P. Schrader entitled "Sparta's Happy Helots: A Closer Look at Helot Society".  Of course I was intrigued because I have always envisioned Sparta's helots as a generally downtrodden lot always looking over their shoulder for an up and coming Spartan youth out to make his first kill.  But Schrader paints a much different picture of helot society and as I read the article I immediately recognized similarities in the slavery practiced by the Spartans in comparison to Roman slavery.

Although there were obvious differences such as the fact that in Sparta the state owned all slaves that in turn were attached to particular governmental activities or particular parcels of land managed by a Spartiate elite while Roman slaves were the property of individual Roman patriarchs, I was astonished to learn that the ancient sources report that some helots became wealthy and were able to purchase their freedom just as in Roman society.

I have studied Greek history to some degree but this is the first time I had heard this.  Schrader explains that Spartan helots, although unable to own land, were often entitled to up to 50% of the produce from the land that they worked.  She also pointed out that helots were able to maintain a family unit and may have benefited from inheritance laws that channeled family wealth to the "tenant-in-chief" who in turn passed it on to a single recognized heir.  If a helot had more than one son, the younger sons were forced to seek employment elsewhere within the boundaries of Lacedaemon to support themselves and their families.

"Some younger sons would have been apprenticed to learn crafts scorned by the perioikoi and prohibited to the Spartiates. Through apprenticeship to those that had taken this path before them, they would have become tanners and tinkers, cobblers and coopers, masons and dyers. As a master craftsman, able to retain 100% of their earnings, these helots would have been in a position to found families, build houses and accumulate wealth." 
"Other young men unable or unwilling to embark on such a slow, hard career, would have sought employment as laborers for the Spartan army or state, or to individuals. Thus they could have become the personal attendants to Spartan hoplites or agricultural day-laborers, going from estate to estate.  Others would have worked for wages as teamsters and mule-drivers for the Spartan army or as construction workers, bath attendants, gardeners and repairmen for the Lacedaemonian government. Still other could have found employment in perioikoi factories and business - as miners, quarry workers, rowers, etc." - Helen Schrader, Sparta's Happy Helots: A Closer Look at Helot Society
This ability for helots to accumulate wealth and purchase their freedom is clearly reflected in the Roman approach to slavery and manumission.  Schrader did not delve into Spartan laws that may have regulated such manumissions, however.  The Romans, being consummate legislators, developed over time an exhaustive body of laws regulating not only when manumission could be granted but the social status of those manumitted.  One such law was the Lex Aelia Sentia of 4 CE.  Portions of it were cited in a textbook written by an unknown jurist named Gaius in the 2nd century CE.  I found the sections on the manumission of gladiators and former gladiators particularly interesting:

"The Lex Aelia Sentia requires that any slaves who had been put in chains as a punishment by their masters or had been branded or interrogated under torture about some crime of which they were found to be guilty; and any who had been handed over to fight as gladiators or with wild beasts, or had belonged to a troupe of gladiators or had been imprisoned; should, if the same owner or any subsequent owner manumits them, become free men of the same status as subject foreigners (peregrini dediticii)."

" 'Subject foreigners' is the name given to those who had once fought a regular war against the Roman People, were defeated, and gave themselves up."
"We will never accept that slaves who have suffered a disgrace of this kind can become either Roman citizens or Latins (whatever the procedure of manumission and whatever their age at the time, even if they were in their masters' full ownership); we consider that they should always be held to have the status of subjects."


"But if a slave has suffered no such disgrace, he sometimes becomes a Roman citizen when he is manumitted, and sometimes a Latin."
"A slave becomes a Roman citizen if he fulfils the following three conditions. He must be over thirty years of age; his master must own him by Quiritary right; and he must be set free by ajust and legitimate manumission, i.e. by the rod (vindicta) or by census or by Will. If any of these conditions is not met, he will become a Latin." - Gaius, 2nd century CE, - More 
It would be interesting to compare and contrast the development of manumission over time between the Spartans and the Romans!

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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Excellent princes, ridiculous sophists or jealous tyrants? Gibbon's take on some of Rome's good emperors

Caesar Augustus by Boschetti Italian
Bronze 19th century  CE after Prima Porta
 Augustus 2nd century CE.  Photographed
at the University of Utah Museum of Art by
Mary Harrsch.
In my ongoing readings of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I was surprised to learn that Edward Gibbon maintained a rather harsh opinion of three of Rome's most respected emperors.

Gibbon claimed Vespasian's merit was "more useful than shining" and his virtues "disgraced by a strict and even sordid parsimony."  He declared Hadrian to be, in turn, an excellent prince, ridiculous sophist and, eventually, jealous tyrant.  But most surprising was his blistering assessment of Gaius Octavius Thurinus - the emperor Augustus.

Of Augustus, Gibbon declared, "A cool head, an unfeeling heart, and a cowardly disposition, prompted him at the age of nineteen to assume the mask of hypocrisy, which he never afterwards laid aside."

Whoa!  That's certainly an extreme assessment of the man ultimately responsible for ushering in the Pax Romana!  I doubt Octavian was particularly likable since he appeared to calculate the political advantage in every move, but despite concessions that he had to make to his ill health, I would hardly call him a coward.  It took a lot of brass for a 19-year-old stripling to go up against a man with the military experience and following of Marc Antony or the Roman world's most renowned orator and formidable politician, Cicero.

Cicero, 1st century BCE.  Photographed at the
Capitoline Museum by Mary Harrsch
Gibbon seems to blame Octavian for authorizing Cicero's proscription but that was really done at the insistence of Antony.  Octavian pragmatically didn't have any particular reason to oppose it.  It's very much like the recent debt ceiling negotiations.  Some programs were ultimately considered expendable in the overall "game of thrones".

Cicero had been so openly hostile to Antony, his appearance on Antony' hit list must have surely been a foregone conclusion.  Cicero had also arrogantly miscalculated Octavian's political astuteness and assumed he could simply dispose of Octavian after he had served the purposes of the power brokers in the Senate - also a fatal error.

As for hipocrisy, Augustus, like many politicians today, maintained power and control by telling people what they wanted to hear while quietly disposing of those deemed a threat to his position through political maneuvering or outright assassination covered by some socially engineered construct.  Scholars point to Augustus' blatant philandering while enacting morality laws to dictate the behavior of the people of Rome.  But as I pointed out in an earlier post on Roman infanticide, perhaps these laws were meant as deterrents to abortion and infant abandonment and to encourage larger Roman families because Roman birthrates were falling noticeably and there was administrative concern that the economic system was in jeopardy.

A decidedly different view of Rome's first emperor was presented by author John Williams in his novel "Augustus".  It is a novel written in the form of a collection of correspondence between the emperor and various members of his family and his imperial courtiers - much like Thornton Wilder's "Ides of March".  Williams, in contrast to Gibbon, was relatively kind to Octavian and seemed to gloss over some of his shortcomings, like his false promises of military support to Marcus Antonius during the latter's Parthian campaigns.  I think Williams did a good job, though, of demonstrating the overwhelming turmoil Octavian faced when he assumed the reins of power upon the death of his uncle, Julius Caesar.
Livia, 1st century BCE.
Photographed at the Palazzo
Massimo by Mary Harrsch.

Unlike Robert Graves, however, Williams also spared  the empress Livia from any insinuations of overt murder in relating the deaths of many of Octavian's would-be successors.  Instead, however, he surprisingly portrayed her as a cold, rather loveless individual who ran Octavian's household but did not command his heart.  In Williams novel, most of Augustus' later years were spent in the company of Terentia, the wife of Octavian's close friend and advisor, Maecenas.  I knew Octavian reputedly engaged in adultery in flagrant violation of his own morality laws, but I guess I didn't realize much of his philandering was targeted at the wife of one of his closest friends.  Williams portrays Maecenas as openly homosexual and willingly supportive of his friend's dalliances but other scholars point out that the relationship between Maecenas and Augustus appears to have become more strained in later life probably due to the emperor's indiscretions.  Marcus Velleius Paterculus said Maecenas was "of sleepless vigilance in critical emergencies, far-seeing and knowing how to act, but in his relaxation from business more luxurious and effeminate than a woman." Perhaps Williams relied on that reference to support his development of Maecenas' character.

At Maecenas' reception room by Stepan Bakalovich (1890)

Williams also had a decidedly different take on Octavian's banishment of his daughter Julia as punishment for her licentiousness.  This has often been a sticking point with scholars who, like Gibbon, decry Octavian's hypocrisy.  Instead of the traditional approach to this incident, Williams portrayed their father-daughter relationship as one that was quite close even to the point that Augustus simply ignored the string of lovers his daughter entertained in her efforts to display her contempt for her husband, the future emperor Tiberius because Augustus despised Tiberius as well. 
Julia Livilla, daughter of Germanicus, like
Julia the Elder, daughter of Augustus, also
suffered exile to the island of Pandataria
after being accused by the emperor Claudius
of adultery with Seneca.  Photographed at
the Palazzo Massimo by Mary Harrsch.

But when Augustus' spies reported that Julia's latest lover, Jullus Antonius, son of Augustus' dead arch rival, Marcus Antonius and his third rebellious wife Fulvia, was plotting a coup and the emperor's assassination, Augustus had no alternative except to condemn her. 

This may have been simply dramatic license on Wiliams' part - after all it is a novel not a text book - but this coup may have been more fact than fancy.  When Julia and her lovers were tried for their breach of Augustus' morality laws, all of the lovers except Jullus were exiled.  Jullus, however, was condemned to death as a traitor.  Williams proposes that Julia, although apparently not aware of the particulars of the plot, would have been found guilty of treason too and also sentenced to death if Augustus' had not engineered her conviction on the violation of his morality laws.  Thus, Julia's subsequent exile actually was an effort by her father to save her life, not severely punish her for moral indiscretions.  The thing I find puzzling, however, is if her exile was meant only to preserve her life, why did Augustus keep up the pretense of punishment for the rest of his life, as he reportedly refused to ever see her or speak of her again.  Had Tiberius already gained so much power that he could have pushed aside the aging Augustus whenever he chose to and exacted his revenge against Julia despite her father's acclaim as father of his country?
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Saturday, July 9, 2011

Hail Caesar: The evolution of family name to imperial title

"The princes who by their birth or their adoption belonged to the family of the Caesars, took the name of Caesar.    After the death of Nero, this name designated the Imperial dignity itself, and afterwards the appointed successor. - Footnote, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

However, scholars in Gibbon's time were unsure of the exact point in the Roman succession that the name transitioned to an imperial title.

Augustus as Pontifex Maximus
photographed at the Palazzo
Massimo in Rome by Mary
"The time at which it was employed in the latter sense, cannot be fixed with certainty. Bach (Hist. Jurisprud. Rom. 304) affirms from Tacitus, H. i. 15, and Suetonius, Galba, 17, that Galba conferred on Piso Lucinianus the title of Caesar, and from that time the term had this meaning: but these two historians simply say that he appointed Piso his successor, and do not mention the word Caesar.  [Actually, Galba himself assumed the title "Servius Galba Imperator Caesar" then passed it on by adoption to his successor.]

Aurelius Victor (in Traj. 348, ed. Artzen) says that Hadrian first received this title on his adoption; but as the adoption of Hadrian is still doubtful, and besides this, as Trajan, on his death-bed, was not likely to have created a new title for his successor, it is more probable that Aelius Verus was the first who was called Caesar when adopted by Hadrian. Spart. in Aelio Vero, 102.- W."   - Footnote, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Adoption certainly accounts for Augustus, who was adopted by Julius Caesar, and Tiberius, who was subsequently adopted by Augustus.  Claudius assumed the name of Caesar upon accession without previous adoption but he was a direct descendant of Caesar's bloodline.  Claudius later adopted Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus (Nero) thus transmitting the name Caesar to him. So Gibbon's initial observations are correct.  However,  Gibbon seems to become a bit confused with the successions occurring in the Year of the Four Emperors.

Roman emperor Otho in 69 CE.  
Photographed at The Louvre in Paris
by Mary Harrsch.
"Galba's reign did not last long and he was soon deposed by Marcus Otho. Otho did not use the title "Caesar", but occasionally used the title "Nero" as emperor. Otho was then defeated by Aulus Vitellius who acceded with the name "Aulus Vitellius Germanicus Imperator Augustus." Vitellius did not at first adopt the cognomen "Caesar" as part of his name, and may have intended to replace it with "Germanicus" (he bestowed the name "Germanicus" upon his own son that year).

Publis Septimus Geta 3rd century CE.
Photographed at the Palazzo Altemps
in Rome by Mary Harrsch.
Nevertheless, Caesar had become such an integral part of the imperial dignity that its place was immediately restored by Titus Flavius Vespasianus ("Vespasian"), whose defeat of Vitellius in 69 [CE] put an end to the period of instability and began the Flavian dynasty. Vespasian's son, Titus Flavius Vespasianus became "Titus Caesar Vespasianus". - Wikipedia

Following the Flavians, the emperor Nerva assumed the title as well then passed it on through adoption to his heir  Caesar Nerva Traianus who, supposedly, adopted his heir Hadrian, passing the title to him.  At this point our path once more converges with Gibbon.

I thought it was also interesting to read that to further distinguish the use of the name to designate the imperial heir, the title Nobilissimus (meaning "most noble") was added in the 3rd century CE beginning with  Publius Septimius Geta.

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