Ancient History & Civilisation



Is my wife having a baby? Am I going to see a death? Will I become a councillor? Am I going to be sold? Am I about to be caught as an adulterer? These are just a few of the ninety-two questions listed in one of the most intriguing works of classical literature to have survived: the Oracles of Astrampsychus, a book which offers cleverly randomised answers to many of ancient life’s most troubling problems and uncertainties. The method is relatively straightforward, but with just enough obfuscation to make for convincing fortune-telling (‘easy to use but difficult to fathom’ as one modern commentator nicely put it). Each question is numbered. When you have found the one that most closely matches your own dilemma, you think of a number between one and ten and add it to the number of your question. You then go to a ‘table of correspondences’ which converts that total into yet another number, which directs you in turn to one of a series of 103 lists of possible answers, arranged in groups of ten, or ‘decades’ (to make things more confusing there are actually more lists of answers than the system, with its ninety-two questions, requires or could ever use). Finally, go back to the number between one and ten that you first thought of, and that indicates which answer in the decade applies to you.

Confused? Try a concrete example. Suppose that I want to know if I am about to be caught as an adulterer, which is question 100. I think of another number – let’s say five, giving a total of 105. The table of correspondences converts this to the number 28. I then go to the twenty-eighth decade, and pick out the fifth answer, which brings good news: ‘You won’t be caught as an adulterer’ (and in some versions adds the extra reassurance: ‘Don’t worry’). If I had chosen the number six, the same procedure would have offered me only a temporary reprieve: ‘You won’t be caught as an adulterer for the time being’. Number seven would have brought bad news of a different kind: ‘You’re not an adulterer, but your wife loves another man’.

The introduction to this little book of oracles – it amounts to some thirty pages in modern editions – claims that its author was a fourth-century-BC Egyptian magician, Astrampsychus, who used a system first invented by the famous philosopher-cum-mathematician Pythagoras. Not only that: by way of an advertisement, it also claims that the book had been the vade mecum of Alexander the Great, who relied on it to decide matters of world governance, ‘and you also will have unwavering renown among all people if you use it too’. In fact, however wayward Alexander’s decision-making processes may have been, they could not have depended on this system of oracles, which was almost certainly nothing to do with any fourth-century magician or with Pythagoras, but was a product of the Roman Empire of the second or third centuries AD. Our best guess is that the book was not so much an early self-help manual but part of the equipment of professional, or semi-professional, fortune-tellers – who would probably have invested the mechanical process of consultation with some impressive ad-lib mystery and mumbo-jumbo.

However this oracle book was actually used, it seems to give us a rare glimpse into the day-to-day anxieties of the ordinary inhabitants of the Roman Empire. For (never mind the publicity yarn about Alexander the Great) this is not elite literature, or certainly not literature aimed exclusively at the elite; in fact, the question about ‘being sold’ implies that slaves were among the intended clientele. It looks as if we have here a long list of the kinds of problems that made ordinary Roman men (and they do seem to be exclusively male questions) anxious enough to resort to fortune-tellers.

Some of these are the perennial issues of sex, illness and success (‘Will I split up from my girlfriend?’ ‘Will the one who is sick survive?’ ‘Will I be prosperous?’). But other questions reflect much more specifically Greco-Roman concerns about life’s fortunes and misfortunes. Alongside worries about the wife’s pregnancy, we find questions about whether or not to rear the expected offspring: a vivid reminder that infanticide was one orthodox method of family planning in the ancient world, as well as being a convenient way of disposing of those who emerged from the womb weak, sickly or deformed. Debt and inheritance also bulk large among the topics of concern, accounting for at least twelve of the ninety-two questions (‘Will I pay back what I owe?’ ‘Will I inherit from a friend?’). So do the dangers of travel (‘Will I sail safely?’) and the potential menace of the legal system (‘Am I safe from prosecution?’ ‘Will I be safe if informed against?’). Even illness may be thought to be the result of crime or malevolence, as the question ‘Have I been poisoned?’ shows.

Jerry Toner, in Popular Culture in Ancient Rome, is excellent at squeezing the social and cultural implications out of this material. As well as reflecting on the perilous, debt-ridden, short and painful human lives that the oracle book reveals, he notes some surprising absences. There is nothing here (poisoning apart) to suggest a fear of violent crime, despite the fact that we often imagine that the Roman Empire was full of highwaymen, pirates and muggers. Nor is there anything on the institution of patronage. Modern historians have written volumes on the dependence of the poor on their elite patrons – for everything from jobs, to loans or food. Toner speculates that the intended users of these oracles were so far down the Roman social hierarchy that they were below the reach of the patronage system (which only extended so far as ‘the respectable poor’). Maybe. Or maybe the whole system of patronage was far less important in the life of the non-elite than the Roman elite writers, on whom we mostly rely, liked to imagine. Or, at least, maybe it was far less important in whatever corner of the Roman Empire this strange little book originated.

Pushing the evidence a little further, Toner suggests that we might see in these oracles a rudimentary system of risk assessment. He reckons, for example, that the answers on the fate of a newborn baby (where one in ten suggests that the baby will ‘not be reared’ – that is, exposed or killed – and two out of ten suggest that it will die anyway) more or less match up to the social and biological reality of infant survival. Referring to other similar sets of oracles, recorded in ancient inscriptions found in cities in modern Turkey, he points out that 18 per cent of oracular responses warn that a business venture will fail – roughly the same rate of failure implied by the rate of interest that was regularly charged on so-called ‘maritime loans’ (for shipping and trading expeditions). On Toner’s view, in other words, the oracular responses reflected real-life risks and probabilities.

I am not so sure. On that principle, there was an eight-out-often chance that a consulter of these oracles would become a local councillor. That would mean either that those who used these oracles were higher up the social hierarchy than Toner (and most other historians) would like to imagine, or that those who asked that particular question (‘Will I become a councillor?’) were a self-selected group, or that fortune-telling trades in over-optimism. Conversely, it seems sometimes to trade in gloom. Five out of ten oracular answers to the question ‘Have I been poisoned?’ suggest the answer ‘Yes’.

Popular Culture in Ancient Rome is, overall, a spirited, engaging and politically committed introduction to the culture of the ‘non-elite’ in the Roman Empire. Toner notes in his introduction that his mother, to whom the book is dedicated, was a ‘college servant’ in Cambridge; and the leading idea of the book – that there is a popular culture in the ancient world to be discovered beyond the elite literature that is the mainstay of modern ‘Classics’ – is driven by a political as well as a historical agenda.

Toner’s achievement is to open up the world of the Roman tavern, rather than the senate house; the world of the garret rather than the villa. Drawing on material out of the mainstream of classical literature, from the Oracles of Astrampsychus to the one surviving Roman joke book (the Philogelos or Laughter-Lover) or the book of dream interpretation by Artemidorus, he vividly conjures up a vision of Rome very different from the shiny marble of the usual image: it is a world of filth and stench (for Toner, Rome was basically a dung heap), of popular pleasures, carnival and the lower bodily stratum, of resistance, as well as submission, to the power of the elite. The only misjudged chapter is one on mental health, with its superficial modernising ideas about the stress levels that affected the Roman poor. Despite Toner’s denial that he is trying ‘to give retrospective diagnoses of the dead’, we are left with the strong impression that he thinks St Anthony of Egypt was a schizophrenic, and that rank-and-file Roman soldiers were likely to be victims of combat stress and PTSD.

The big question, though, is whether the Rome that Toner conjures up for us is as ‘popular’ as he suggests. Is this dirty, smelly, dangerous world the world of the peasants and the poor, or is it also the world of the elite? Maybe, whatever his political agenda, Toner has succeeded best not simply in taking us into the real life of the disadvantaged, but in showing us another side of the culture of the elite too. For it is still unclear how far the texts that we now choose to designate as ‘sub-elite’ or ‘non-elite’ (because that is where they fit on our hierarchy) were really ‘popular’ in the ancient world. There are more hints than Toner admits in the Oracles of Astrampsychus that, alongside the slaves and the poor, the intended customers may have included those who were relatively upmarket. ‘Will I become a councillor?’ (which could equally well be translated ‘Will I become a senator?’) is not the only question to hint at privileged consumers. An early Christian edition of the text includes the question ‘Will I become a bishop?’, with five out of ten answers indicating ‘yes’ (albeit one, with a realistic view of the problems of power in the early Church, prophesying ‘You’ll become a bishop soon and you’ll be sorry’). Much the same is true of the Roman joke book. We could not disprove any claim that thePhilogelos was a record of the kind of popular banter you would have heard at the ancient parish-pump or barber’s shop, but the compilation of jokes, as we have it, is more likely to be a desk-job encyclopedia by some relatively well-heeled Roman academic (p. 56).

Those dilemmas point at an even more fundamental issue in the cultural history of Rome. For it is almost impossible to identify – even if, like Toner, you are looking hard for them – clearly divergent strands of elite and popular taste. Rome was not a culture, such as ours, where status is paraded and distinguished by aesthetic choices (there is no sign in antiquity of any such markers of class as the Aga). Quite the contrary. So far as we can tell, cultural and aesthetic choices at Rome were broadly the same right across the spectrum of wealth and privilege: the only difference lay in what you could afford to pay for. This is strikingly clear at Pompeii, where the decoration of all the houses – both large and small, elite and non-elite – follows the same broad pattern, with roughly the same preferences in themes and designs. The richer houses are distinguished only by having more extensive painted decoration and by painting of greater skill: the more you paid, the better you got. Whether there was such a thing as ‘popular culture’ (as distinct from dirt, poverty and hunger) is a trickier issue than Toner sometimes acknowledges.

In Resurrecting Pompeii, Estelle Lazer takes a different approach to the lives and lifestyles of ‘ordinary Romans’ with her meticulous analysis of the human bones of the victims, rich and poor, of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. It is an eye-opening book in many ways, not least for its description of the conditions in which she worked on these bones in modern Pompeii – about as far from the glamour of Indiana-Jones-style archaeology as it is possible to imagine. Apart from some celebrity skeletons and plaster casts of dead bodies on display to the public, most of the human remains that survived the Allied bombing raids on the site during the Second World War were piled up in two main stores, each in an ancient bath building not normally accessible to ordinary visitors. Lazer spent most of her research time, months on end over seven years, in these depots – ill-lit (she worked for part of the time with a handheld bicycle light) and infested by wildlife. The identifying labels once attached to the bones had long ago been eaten by rodents; many of the skulls had provided convenient nesting boxes for the local birds (covering the bones and what Lazer calls the key ‘skeletal landmarks’ with bird lime); in one store a ‘cottage industry’ had been established, which used the human thigh bones to make hinges to restore the ancient furniture on the site. ‘This has contributed’, as Lazer writes, with deadpan understatement, ‘a novel source of sample bias to the femur collection.’

From this very difficult material Lazer has drawn some very careful conclusions about the victims of the eruption and the population of Pompeii (and to a lesser extent Herculaneum) more generally. She has no time at all for the more sensational conclusions that have been based on the study of some ancient bones, and is particularly critical of the analysis of more than 300 skeletons that were found in the early 1980s in a series of so-called ‘boat sheds’ along the seafront at Herculaneum. The study of this material was financed by National Geographic, and the magazine got the vivid, personal details about the dead that it had paid for: one, with a skeleton that suggested highly developed muscles, must have been a slave; another, who happened to be carrying a sword and dagger, was called a ‘soldier’; another was identified as a helmsman simply because it was found near a boat.

Lazer not only points out how flimsy these identifications are (the boat turned out to be in a completely different archaeological layer from the ‘helmsman’, and the so-called ‘soldier’ also carried a bag of carpentry tools); she also underlines how tricky and contested the conclusions drawn from ancient skeletal material almost always are, no matter who is paying and with what sensationalist aims. Determining the sex of pre-adult skeletons is always a guessing game. There has been no reliable DNA sequence obtained from any of the human remains at Pompeii or Herculaneum. Most striking of all, two different studies of the bodies in the boat sheds have produced estimates of the average height of the victims that differ by a couple of inches. There is clearly something more involved here than getting out a ruler and just measuring the skeletons.

Despite (or maybe because of) her caution in drawing ambitious conclusions from the bones, Lazer has a great deal to say about the population of Pompeii – beyond the well-known fact, now repeatedly demonstrated from the analysis of hundreds of teeth and jaws, that the levels of oral hygiene in the Roman world were truly dreadful. (When the Roman poet Martial attacked some of his contemporaries for their bad breath, it was probably not poetic fantasy.) One important observation relates to the demographic profile of the victims. It is often said that those left behind in the city, as Vesuvius rumbled and eventually exploded, must have been the weaker section of the population: the very young, the very old, the disabled, or those in some other way incapacitated. In carefully going through the stored bones, Lazer has found no indication of any such bias: the surviving human remains seem to represent a typical distribution of age and sex that you would expect in a Roman town.

Even more important for our understanding of Roman society in general is the relative homogeneity of human remains. Pompeii was a port town, and to all outside appearances decidedly multicultural – from the famous temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis to the Indian ivory statuette found in one of the houses. Yet the telltale visible characteristics of the skeletons (for example, double-rooted canine teeth, or particularly distinctive formations of the tibia) suggest to Lazer a relatively homogeneous population, ‘either as a result of shared genes or a common environment during the years of growth and development’. More than that, the telltale characteristics of the skeletons at Herculaneum appear to be consistently and significantly different. This would imply that – whatever their multicultural trappings – these small towns around the Bay of Naples were more like inbred Fen villages than the homes of a mobile population, as we often assume.

Resurrecting Pompeii is a remarkable (if not always elegantly written, or meticulously edited) book, partly because Lazer is so careful never to go beyond what her most exacting standards of proof will allow. She also consistently writes with respect for the material she is dealing with, never seeming to forget that her material is all that is left of the human victims of a terrible natural disaster, albeit 2,000 years ago. The eruption of Vesuvius was, of course, an ancient tragedy of rare proportions. But in the calculations of the victims, in their decision whether or not to run for it or to stay put, it must remind us of the dilemmas of those who consulted the Oracles of Astrampsychus. As Toner suggests, the fact that seven out of ten answers to the question ‘Am I going to see a death’ say ‘yes’ tells us something of the realities of ancient life, for everyone.

Review of Jerry Toner, Popular Culture in Ancient Rome (Polity Press, 2009); Estelle Lazer, Resurrecting Pompeii (Routledge, 2009)

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