Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Augustus: family and succession

For this post, I am particularly indebted to Werner Eck, The Age of Augustus, 2nd edn (Blackwell, 2007)

It is misleading to think of Augustus as an ‘emperor’ who was free to leave the succession to a member of his family. He owed his power to the various offices given him by the Senate and People, from his immense private fortune and from the number of clients who owed everything to his patronage. It was important to Augusts that he preserved the appearance of republican rule and that the succession should be chosen not by him but by the Senate and People.  In wishing the position he had achieved to be passed down to his family, he could claim to be simply following republican precedent.

Julia Augusta
'Julia the elder'

It was a problem for Augustus that he had no son to whom he could pass on his powers in a way that contemporaries would have thought natural. His only child was his daughter, Julia, born to his second wife, Scribonia, in 39 BC. On the day of her birth Octavian (as he then was) divorced Scribonia and married Livia Drusilla, a member of the gens Claudia, an old political family. Livia had been married to Tiberius Claudius Nero, she was the mother of a four-year-old son, Tiberius, and was pregnant at the time of her second marriage. This meant that Octavian had to obtain permission from the college of pontifices. The ceremony took place on 17 January 38 BC, and was the cause of much gossip. Three months after the marriage she gave birth to her second son, Drusus.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Roman slavery

Female slaves attend their mistress

The Digest of Roman Law, the Code of the Emperor Justinian,  drew a fundamental distinction between the liber homo, the free person, and the servus, or slave.  A slave was defined as someone in potestate, in the power of a master, whereas the free person is sui juris, able to act in his own right.

Slavery was universally accepted. Apart from a few Stoics, no-one thought it was wrong. There was no concept in the ancient world of individual human rights. 

Roman society relied heavily on slaves. From the 3rd century BC onwards slaves flooded into Rome from all quarters –for example, there   were 75,000 enslaved prisoners from the first Punic War.  During the last two centuries BC Sicily, North Africa and Italy possessed economies that were firmly grounded in slave labour. Unless poverty- stricken, every free man owned at least one slave.  But many Romans were poor, and it is unlikely that those living in the cramped tenements in Rome could have owned even one slave.  However, important Romans may have averaged four or five hundred slaves apiece. Romans of good family were brought up by slave nurses, and as children played with slaves of their own age. Their teachers and coaches were slaves. Their suicides were aided by their slaves. The relationship between free and slave was one of close physical proximity. Slaves worked alongside citizens not separately from them- there were no specifically slave occupations. They were defined not by their labour but by their legal status.  

Roman women

Eumachia, priestess of Venus at Pompeii


Roman marriage was a simple and private business. A man and woman were assumed to be married if they claimed to be married.
The wealthy often had formal marriage ceremonies, in which the bride traditionally wore yellow clothes, but these were not essential.The purpose of marriage was the production of legitimate children.

Women often married young, at around fourteen or fifteen. Their husbands were usually in their mid to late twenties. Cicero’s daughter, Tullia, was betrothed to her first husband when she was eleven and married at fifteen. Early marriage seems to have applied to the lower classes as well: girls in their mid-teens married men ten years older than they were. 

‘Whatever the relative freedoms of Roman women, their subordination was surely grounded in that disequilibrium between and adult male and what we would call a child bride.’ Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile Books, 2015).

However, Cicero went too far when in his sixties he married a girl forty-five years younger!

Childbirth was the biggest killer of young adult women. Two prominent deaths were those of Cicero’s daughter, Tullia, and Caesar’s daughter, Julia.

The republican matron: the ideal
There was a constant tension between the ideal of the Roman matron and its reality. The ideal was a life of chastity and simplicity, in which a woman put the needs of her husband and her children before her own, and spent much of her day spinning and weaving. The reality was a world of enormous wealth, aristocratic indulgence and display, and the exercise of leadership during the absences of men on campaigns.

The Roman house

This post owes a great deal to Mary Beard's briskly sceptical and extremely readable, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (Profile Books, 2010)

The so-called House of Pansa, Pompeii

House and shrine
Unlike the modern house, the Roman house was a shrine. It was the dwelling of the pater familias, the head of the family. It was also the place where the household gods were celebrated.

Three kinds of deity were venerated:
1. The lares: these were the gods of settlement, who resided where men had taken possession of the land and cultivated it. They were offered fire.
2. The genius was the god of the male line - each citizen received it from his father and passed it on to his son. They were offered pure wine.
3. The penates were the gods of the larder; they turned the house into food store (corn, beans, wine, bacon, salt meat). They were offered incense.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016

Roman baths

The Baths of Caracalla
AD 206
For this post I have been particularly indebted to J. P. V. D Balsdon, Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome (The Bodley Head, 1969) and Mary Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (Profile Books, 2010)

In Rome there were two types of baths. The thermae were the large imperial bath complexes, while balneae where the smaller baths, public or private, that existed in great numbers throughout the empire. Both words are derived from Greek and the more austere Romans disapproved of bathing as a degenerate Hellenistic practice. The association with luxury can be seen in a tombstone inscription put up at the entrance to the tepid bath in the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in the first century AD. This was to a freedman, Tiberius Claudius Secundus by his partner Merope: 
‘Wine, sex and baths ruin our bodies but they are the stuff of health – wine, sex, and baths.’ 

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Circus and spectacle

For this post, I have been indebted, among other sources, to Robin Lane Fox, The Classical World: An Epic History of Greece and Rome (Penguin, 2006), Mary Beard, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (Profile Books, 2010), Robert Knapp, Invisible Romans (Profile, 2013), and Florence Dupont, Daily Life in Ancient Rome (Hachette, 1989, Blackwell, 1992). There is also an excellent discussion here.

Mosaic of a chariot race, from Lyon. T
he four teams (Red, Green, Blue, and White) can be clearly seen

'Bread and circuses'
In his Tenth Satire the poet Juvenal (c. 100 AD) stated: 
‘Time was when the plebiscite electedGenerals, Heads of State and commanders of legions: but nowThey’ve pulled in their horns, there’s only two things that concern them Bread and circuses.’
He was referring to the corn dole and to the constant entertainments put on for the population.

In her review of Jerry Toner's The Day Commodus Killed a Rhino: Understanding the Roman Games (Johns Hopkins, 2015) Catherine Nixey writes: 
'The games were not some frivolous sideshow to Roman society: they were Roman society: financially, socially and politically they were at its heart.' The Times, 7 February 2105.

Life in Rome was punctuated by great festivals: ancient religious festivals, anniversaries of victories, celebrations of important dates in Rome's own history  - in total, probably over 130 a year. They were originally religious festivals - such as the Ludi Romani dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva - but they gradually lost their religious significance for many people. About half these festivals were celebrated by a wide variety of games and spectacles: chariot races in the Circus Maximus and wild beast fighting in the amphitheatres. In AD 80 the Colosseum was opened by the Emperor Titus.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Roman religion (2)

A scene from the Villa of the Mysteries, Pompeii

Mystery religions

Syncretism was the chief characteristic of all Roman religion. This is seen most clearly in the assimilation of mystery religions.

Though the state religion was effective in stirring patriotism, it had little to offer those who lacked a share in the state, especially women and slaves. In addition, it did almost nothing to soothe the almost universal beliefs in Fate or Chance. Some Romans turned to astrology, others to a passionate belief in certain saviours who would comfort them in this life and give them a happy life in the next world. This explains the popularity of eastern mystery religions and the partial Hellenization of the official religion. The promise of a better life in the world to come was especially appealing to the poorer and more oppressed elements in Roman society. The mystery religions of the East catered for individuals, rather than for the state. Thus they could be seen as potentially subversive. They offered positive rewards of personal satisfaction.