Ancient History & Civilisation



I shall not perish utterly, for a great part of me will escape Death. I will grow, swollen with the praise of future generations, for as long as the priest leads the silent virgin up to the Capitol.

(Horace, Odes 3.30.6–9)

The words are those of the poet Horace, composed in the reign of Augustus. As you read them, you surpass his wildest expectations. No pontiffs or vestal virgins are attested after the end of the fourth century AD. The Capitol has been ruined and rebuilt several times since Horace wrote. And yet we do still read Horace’s Odes. Like the rest of Roman civilization, he has not perished utterly.

My final chapter is about survival and about how we know so much about the Roman Empire. Accident and chance both play a part in this story, and more recently our own research on which most of this book is based. But there is design as well, and not just Horace’s. For the Romans have sent us many messages in bottles, consigned by generation after generation to remote posterity. We cannot take all the credit for the discovery of ancient Rome: the ancient Romans wanted to be found.


Few empires lasted as long as that of Rome, or made such an impact on those they ruled. I have struggled throughout this book with metaphors, my own and those of others. The Roman Empire has been likened to an epidemic, a machine, a balloon, a vampire bat and a great resonating vibration, a tsunami and a tide, an organism known only through its fossil body, and a single human life. At times imperial society has seemed like a great dance too, one that drew in more and more dancers, and then was carried on by fewer and fewer until the music was quite different. My last metaphor is an ice age. Tides sweep over beaches and then retreat: fascinating flotsam and jetsam are left behind, but only after a great storm does the beach really look different. But if we consider what the Roman Empire did to tradition and identity, culture and religion, lifestyles and beliefs, we find much more fundamental change. The empire grew like an ice cap, sending glaciers down in all directions. When those glaciers retreated, back to Byzantium rather than Rome, they left entirely new landscapes gouged out, and great moraines of boulders around which their new inhabitants had to accommodate themselves. Those peoples were no longer those that Rome had originally conquered: some were new arrivals, and almost all the rest had forgotten what it was like before the ice.

When we examine the monumental art, the inscriptions, and written texts that are our main sources for the identities assumed by Rome’s provincial subjects, we find that in most parts of the former empire, all memory of earlier times had been lost. Western peoples, both those the Romans had conquered like the Gauls and Spaniards, and those who had conquered Rome like Vandals and Goths, had no reliable memories of their pasts before Rome. From early in the empire, many in the western provinces had come to think of themselves as descendants of Trojan refugees and Greek heroes.1 Ancient place names and the ancestral gods had been forgotten, many of their languages had been lost forever, and the only history they knew was that of Rome. Half a millennium later, Cassiodorus and others helped the new barbarian arrivals create new genealogies, often along the same lines, although now biblical figures jostled with Brutus the Trojan and other legendary figures at the start of their genealogies.2 Nor was this situation unique to the west. Many of the peoples who inhabited the vast arc of the Roman Near East seem to have preserved almost no earlier memories either.3 The Jews still had their scriptures, and the history contained in them. Traces of Babylonian and Phoenician and Egyptian historical traditions survived in works written in Greek in the Hellenistic and early Roman periods. Like the western traditions, they had been remodelled to suit Greek norms of memory and tradition.4 For the most part their identities too had been accommodated to their long subjection to Macedonian and Roman empires. Only the Greek historical tradition, which Roman scholars had long accepted, persisted. Yet even among the Greeks empire had reshaped collective identities and the memories they preserved.5 There was no alternative tradition, subversive or otherwise, apart from what the Christians were busy creating. It follows that almost everything that has survived, even by accident, preserves traces of a consciousness of empire.

Rome is better documented than most of the other early empires to which I have been comparing it. The explanation includes ecological and economic factors as well as historical and cultural ones. Empires of the tropics, like that of the Vijayanagara emperors of medieval India or the Mayan kingdoms of the Yucatan peninsula, were rapidly swallowed up by vegetation. By contrast the Mediterranean heartland of the Roman Empire is— geophysically at least—a relatively stable environment, one in which stone buildings and tombs can stand for centuries if they are not disturbed by humans. Benign neglect has derived too from the poverty of many Mediterranean lands in the centuries after Rome. Renaissance Italy and early modern Spain notwithstanding, Rome has had few rivals in subsequent centuries. The leading edge of economic power moved in the Middle Ages, north to the lands of the Franks and east to Baghdad. The cities of Spain and Italy and southern France and Greece preserve elements of their Roman street plans partly because few of them were subject to the spectacular rebuilding projects lavished on north European towns in the late Middle Ages and after.

So Roman city walls and gateways became encrusted with houses that preserved them, sometimes completely concealing them for centuries. The amphitheatre of Roman Arles was given towers and made into a castle, the Porta Nigra of Trier became a church, the great palace Diocletian built for himself at Split became a warren of homes and shops. Sometimes only the shadow of a Roman monument survives in a maze of medieval streets. It is possible to walk around the curve of Pompey’s great theatre in the centro storico of Rome even though none of the original construction survives above ground; the amphitheatre of Lucca has left an oval space in the city which was cleared in the 1830s to create a piazza; the great civic fora and temples of Seville and Lisbon were replaced first with magnificent mosques, and then after the reconquista with baroque cathedrals. Things were quite different in London and Paris, where great campaigns of building have obliterated major Roman cities. There are only a few sites like Silchester where a break in occupation has allowed something like the whole city plan to be revealed. The ancient cities of Africa and Syria, many of them, survived even better because they were buried in the sand. To be fair, many of the cities of the peripheral provinces were never as grand as those of the central provinces, and some were built more of wood and tile than of stone. All the same, it is still true that the best places to see Roman monuments today are in the poorer countries of southern Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.


Fig. 24. The amphitheatre at Arles

Some Roman relics were enveloped not by medieval houses or the desert sands, but by the political designs of Rome’s many would-be heirs. I described in Chapter 2 how successive regimes have made use of Roman symbols of power to develop their own imperial imagery. European history has been characterized by successive ‘renaissances’ in which groups of scholars or artists self-consciously claimed a new status for their creativity with reference to the Roman past. Carolingian monks, the translators of the caliphate, the clerical scholars of the twelfth century, the artists of the Italian Quattrocento, the first humanists, the fathers of the Enlightenment, and many others have recuperated various Roman texts, buildings, and artefacts in this way. The relics of empire have been passed on through history like batons in a long relay race.

Finally there are the objects that lasted simply because of their durability. Early empires were above all great systems of accumulation. By force and the threat of force they drew matter and energy from all over their domains to be consumed and deposited in their capitals. Rome gathered treasure, marbles, and rare beasts from all over the world: the precious metals are long gone, the exotic animals were slaughtered in the arena, but the hard stones remain: brilliant white marble was from Proconnesus in north-west Turkey and Luni in Italy; dark yellow stone from the quarries of African Chemtou; porphyry and rare granites from the eastern deserts of Egypt, and green brescia from the Aegean.6 The Pantheon and the Baths of Caracalla are genuinely extraordinary even today: at the time of their construction, before they were stripped of their precious facing stones, they would have put the Taj Mahal to shame. The Elder Pliny’s Natural History includes long accounts of sculpture and bronze statuary. Despite his attempt to order this into a systematic history of art, he is constantly diverted into noting in which temple or portico or garden in Rome a masterpiece may now be seen. For conquest and purchase had assembled the treasures of antiquity—Greek, Egyptian, and other—in the capital.7 Much has gone, of course, and most bronzes were melted down long before the revival of interest in classical art during the Renaissance. The core of modern collections survived thanks to the energy of Renaissance collectors, who gathered a vast number of marbles which—by various routes—found their way into the royal and later national collections of Europe, there to be supplemented by aggressive acquisitions policies during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Archaeology has added just a few pieces to this body of work, but some are very precious. Our knowledge of ancient bronzes depends substantially on underwater finds, like the Riace Bronzes, two magnificent warriors made in classical Greece but found by a scuba diver off the coast of Italy in 1972. Current excavations at the cities of Aphrodisias and Sagalassos in Turkey have produced wonderful examples of marble sculpture from the imperial age.

Just a few great buildings were also durable enough to survive as more than traces in the street plan of Italian towns. Rome did not acquire its empire as some modern powers did through major technological advantages over its competitors. But by creating a vast space within which architects and engineers could move about and exchange ideas, and by concentrating wealth in such a way that grand projects could be funded, Rome presided over significant advances in construction techniques. This is evident from technical writing, especially Vitruvius’ book On Architecture, and also from the study of standing remains.8 Greek stylistic models remained phenomenally important. But the invention at the end of the last millennium BC of concrete and the increased use and production of bricks and of tiles, along with ever more sophisticated techniques of surveying and design, all combined to make possible buildings on a scale never before seen. Vaults and domes made possible enormous enclosed spaces for basilicas, temples, imperial baths, and palaces. Even today the Pantheon and Haghia Sophia take our breath away. Aqueducts too consumed vast energy to build and required amazing engineering skills. A few still functioned into the Middle Ages, and others survived as bridges or simply because they were too well built to crumble, and too difficult or remote to dismantle.

Buildings like the Colosseum and the Pont du Gard seem at first sight bound to fascinate.9 In fact, not all ages have been so entranced by antiquity. The sense that Roman buildings should be preserved whenever possible is relatively recent.10 Many are now known only through sketches and descriptions made by earlier travellers, architects, and Grand Tourists. Up until the nineteenth century, when campaigners like Prosper Mérimée in France first began to demand the preservation of ancient monuments as national treasures, it was not unusual for Roman arches or temples to be demolished to make way for projects of modernization. During the twentieth century the struggle moved to trying to secure legal protection for archaeological material that was not visible on the surface. That battle has been largely won in Europe. But there are occasional scandals, and the cost of conserving sites like Herculaneum and Pompeii still gives major concern.


Today we use the term ‘monument’ almost interchangeably with ‘remains’. The Royal Commissions for Historical Monuments have responsibility, in the UK, for any site of human activity that has survived from the past. But the Latin term monumentum had a much more specific meaning. It was a thing deliberately created to commemorate a particular person or event in the past, and it was intended to project that memory into the future.

When a society makes monuments it reveals a lot about collective attitudes to time and the community. First it affirms the importance of history. Second it asserts—however nervously—confidence in posterity, that there will be a future audience or readership. Finally it imagines a community stretched out in time, those to whom this event or this person mattered, and those to whom it will still matter, both groups connected to the original event. Community, it says, is about continuity. A Roman monument captures, in a moment, that sense of the Roman People, fellow travellers on a common journey from their mythic past to their future destiny. Horace was not talking directly to us, in other words, since we are not part of that community. But we can listen in on the messages Romans sent to their imagined descendants.

Not all societies are so concerned with posterity. One reason we know Rome so well is that monumentality came for a while to be almost a cultural obsession. But things were not always that way. Before the middle of the fourth century BC, Rome was a great power in Italy. Yet very little in the way of monumental architecture was created. Temples are often monuments, of course, but they were also homes for the gods, and their construction seems to have been part of a dialogue in the present between the city’s divine and human members. The mid-Republican city seemed unimpressive to many visitors. Writing too had been used for mundane purposes for centuries, but it was hardly ever given a monumental form, whether in great public inscriptions designed to last or in literary works of any kind. Romans were not unusual in this respect by the standards of antiquity. But the decisions not to build great monuments, set up inscriptions, and write great books were choices consciously made: Romans were well aware of the monumental architecture of nearby Greek cities, and perhaps of Greek literature and history as well, and they could certainly have afforded to mimic either. Instead booty was more often spent on elaborate festivals that spoke to the present not the future, and although there must have been many traditions about the past there seems to have been no real concern to develop a common, collective, history of Rome.11

A new concern with posterity appears at the turn of the fourth and third centuries BC. Appius Claudius Caecus, who was censor in 312 BC, commissioned an aqueduct and a great southern road, known after him as the Aqua Appia and the Via Appia respectively. The inscribed elogia of the Scipiones in their elaborate tomb complex constructed at the start of the third century BC explicitly addresses future readers. Who were these imagined readers? The location suggests family members, but when the inscriptions speak of individual Scipiones holding office ‘among you’ it is difficult not to conjure up the image of the Roman People. During the early second century BC more and more grandiose building projects began to incorporate the names of those who had commissioned them. Cato named the great covered hall he built beside the forum in his censorship the Basilica Porcia, an allusion to the royal (basilike) stoa given to Athens by Attalus, King of Pergamum, and to the gens Porcia, the clan to which Cato belonged. The first aqueduct to approach Rome on a series of great arches was named the Aqua Marcia after the urban praetor Quintus Marcius Rex who built it in 144 BC. Lucius Mummius had his name placed on triumphal monuments in the many communities on which he bestowed a share of the booty plundered from the sack of Corinth. From this point on the association of public buildings with individuals became absolutely regular. The great generals of the late Republic developed the idiom further. From the middle of the last century BC, a whole new series of monumental types appeared. Theatres, amphitheatres, and circuses are the best known. More than 1,000 were constructed between around 50 BC and AD 250.12 To this can be added the Saepta Julia, imperial thermae, public gardens, libraries, porticoes filled with captured art, and so on. Not all senators were fortunate enough to win booty with which to build victory temples, and only a few held offices like the censorship that allowed them to build with public funds. Besides, it became increasingly difficult to compete over the last century BC, at least as far as public buildings were concerned, once Pompey had set new standards with his great theatre. Tomb building offered a cheaper mode of monumentality. The tombs of the late Republic grew ever more elaborate and varied, including great towers along the Appian Way, and the pyramid built by Cestius now straddling the Aurelianic Walls.

Eventually the emperors drove their competitors out of the city. But the effect was just to move monumental building to the towns of Italy and the provinces.13 The origins of this movement lay in a growing interest in monumentality that coincides, at least chronologically, with the origins of Roman hegemony and continued up until the crisis of empire. But when we visit Roman ruins today, we are mostly looking at monuments created in a long second century. Over most of the empire this building boom gathered pace over the first century AD, reached a peak around the year 200, and collapsed in the generation that followed.

Plot that pattern on a graph, and it pretty much coincides with the curve made by the rise and fall of Latin epigraphy.14 Most inscriptions were gravestones. That habit of commemoration seems to have spread from the senatorial aristocracy to other sectors of society, especially lesser aristocrats and former slaves. The freeborn masses were largely excluded, the peasantries of the empire are more or less invisible. Hundreds of thousands of these inscriptions survive from the Roman period, even though we probably have less than 5 per cent of those originally set up. The greatest numbers are found in the city of Rome and surrounding areas, but the habit also spread through the cities of Italy and the provinces, and was even taken up by soldiers on the frontier and traders far from home. These too are monuments, deliberate attempts to record human lives for posterity. And they are now a precious source of information on Roman history too, since many record the achievements and ranks of the deceased along with his or her closest relationships, with parents and children, masters and slaves, fellow soldiers and friends. They speak to us of an age when Roman society was at its most energetic, when levels of social mobility were greatest and the urban network of the empire reached its peak. Naturally it is the success stories that are most often commemorated—the slaves given their freedom, the soldiers who won citizenship after long service, the town councillors who collected the set of municipal priesthoods and offices. Their individual pride and anxiety plays against a confidence that there will be future readers; that the world in which they had succeeded would continue in roughly the same form as the present.

One final kind of monument can be set alongside tombs and aqueducts, amphitheatres and gravestones, and that is literary texts. Not long after the first monumental tombs appeared, the same Roman aristocracy that built them set out to create a literature in Latin.15 Like the sarcophagi of the Scipiones, the first works created had clear Greek models. Like them they were immediately put to new purposes in Rome’s very un-Greek social order. Horace’s poem, with which I started, begins by borrowing from the Greek poet Pindar the conceit that a poem is a more effective monument than a physical statue. In practice we do not need to separate monuments and texts too sharply, since Roman monuments were from the start covered in writing. The earliest of the sarcophagi in the Tomb of the Scipiones were inscribed with a new verse form developed from Greek models.16 When Cato created his literary monumenta he was also fixing his name— quite literally—on the vast basilica that flanked the forum. Fulvius Nobilior patronized the epic poet Ennius, as well as building his temple of Hercules of the Muses. These associations only intensified in the early empire, by which point some of the poets and historians are themselves senators, or even emperors.

An empire where the elite write poetry is a very unusual thing. All early empires made use of writing, but mostly just for administrative purposes. Many empires contained within them literary groups, monks and court poets, priests and scientists. But few of these were close to the levers of power. Perhaps only the scholar bureaucrats of medieval China come close to the erudite senators and equestrians of imperial Rome, although in Rome this sort of activity was one cultural option among many open to the elite.17Roman writers sometimes cast Athens as the civilizing counterpart to martial Rome. Yet Athenian festivals in the Roman period were focused on commemorating the battles of the Persian wars,18 and Aelius Aristides’ speech in honour of Athens flattered it with its imperial past. The Roman Empire, on the other hand, created conditions in which education and literary culture of all kinds flourished. Poets and orators were fêted at court, and the emperors endowed positions for teachers of philosophy and rhetoric in many provincial cities. Great libraries were built by emperors in the capital, and by senators and town councillors in other cities. Probably more literary texts were created in the early empire than at any other point in classical antiquity. Most were in Greek, and they covered a huge range of subject matter from medical texts and poems about geometry to erotic epigrams and civic histories. Once again, only a fraction has survived, but through these monuments too we can listen in to the Romans talking to their future selves.

The Futures of Rome

What did the Romans want to tell posterity through their monuments? Many kinds of message can be put in a bottle. Most obvious is the author’s desire to preserve his name, not to perish utterly. Imperial monuments were associated with the names of dynasties and individual emperors and their relatives. So the Porticoes of Octavia and Livia, the Forum of Trajan, the Baths of Caracalla made permanent marks on the cityscape of the city of Rome. The great marble plan of the city created in the Severan period is written all over with the names of generations of the Roman powerful. Greek and Latin inscriptions on the wall of gymnasia, theatres, libraries, and other civic buildings commemorated their founders. Even temples, where the names of the gods were most prominent, bore records of those who had paid for their building and successive restorations. Poets often began their works with letters addressed to their patrons. Tombstones listed ranks achieved, priesthoods and magistracies held, the profession, tribe, and age of the deceased, and the names of those left behind who had seen to the burial. All this is completely comprehensible to us now.

All monuments present an ambiguous attitude to the future. The act of creating a monument is an act of faith that there will be future readers, yet the need for one betrays a fear that all will be forgotten. That fear seems reasonable even when we think of the empire at its most secure. What of the period that followed? No agreement yet exists on the reasons for the end of monument building. Did the powerful lose faith in the future, or simply run out of the funds needed to communicate with it? Many were certainly impoverished as the imperial economy contracted and as the weight of government pressed harder on those who were not well connected. If the building industry collapsed perhaps this had knock-on effects for the production even of modest monuments. Yet the rich villas of the fourth century and growing expenditure on churches suggest no simple economic explanation will do. Inscriptions continued to be produced, if fewer and now for the rich alone. Perhaps we should imagine a loss of faith in the existence of a future audience, specifically that audience of fellow citizens that in the cities of the early empire had provided spectators for shows and viewers for urban monuments. Perhaps the wealthy had reimagined posterity not as the continued existence of the civic community, but as the persistence of a community of readers like themselves. Was that who Sidonius was writing for in the fifth century in his villa in the Auvergne?

New attitudes to antiquity emerged in the literature of the fourth century AD, but no new consensus, either about history or the future.19 Classicizing historians presented themselves as traditionalists, but of course they were not. Zosimus gives the game away when he alludes to Polybius’ account of Rome’s rise and immediately asks who could imagine it was not due to divine favour. The answer, of course, is Polybius, who had offered an explanation based on the comparative advantages of political institutions and the attitudes they inculcated. But the argument had evidently become one about religion. Yet even the Christians did not agree about the past. More than a century before Constantine, Melito, the Bishop of Sardis, had suggested that the birth of Christ at the origin of the Roman Empire showed the Roman world was a providential creation. Orosius tentatively suggested something similar. But this seems to us to deviate from his teacher Augustine’s position that the convulsions of the Earthly City had little relevance for citizens of the Heavenly One. Not all Christian futures had Rome in them, nor did all Christian pasts. Gregory of Tours’s ten-book History of the Franks, composed in the later sixth century, began with the creation of the world and went on to tell the story of Christian Frankish rulers. The western empire fell somewhere in the middle of book 2, but it was not important enough to merit a mention in Gregory’s account. For Christians this flexibility was an advantage. Nothing could catch them out, not the fall of the western empire, the thousand-year succession of Byzantium, or the terrible events of the Arab conquests.

What about the posterity of Rome today? Looking back down the telescope we see the worst is now past. Most classical literature ever written was lost between the fifth and eighth centuries AD.20 When cities contracted the libraries—public and private—were no longer maintained, and books burnt, rotted, or crumbled away. Many had probably never existed in more than a handful of copies anyway, given the cost of producing multiple versions in an age before print technology. The shift from papyrus scroll to a codex format, essentially that of the modern book, also acted like a filter. What was not transferred onto the new format was lost. For nearly two hundred years in the west almost no copies of any non-Christian text were made. But what survived to the Carolingian Renaissance had a good chance of being gathered by humanists and preserved until the invention of printing. Almost all classical texts are now available electronically, in the original and in many translations. For the moment those monuments seem safe.

We can be similarly optimistic about the archaeological heritage, at least its most prominent components. Conservation is firmly established in law and it is rare now for Roman monuments to be threatened with demolition. Popular interest in the past has saved it, making it an asset for those poorer countries that attract tourists and a symbol of national pride, too. Local activists defended Roman and other antiquities everywhere. Nor is it a dead heritage. I have tried in this book to indicate the many areas in which research is transforming our understanding of the Roman Empire. The philologists who established the science of classical antiquity in the nineteenth century have now been joined by archaeologists, art historians, and social scientists of every kind. New answers are being offered to old questions, and new questions are being asked and answered about every aspect of Roman antiquity. Neither the general public nor school and university students have lost that sense of excitement in piecing together a great movement through history that has left so many traces in the world we inhabit today. We are not the posterity that Romans of any age imagined—how could we be?—but in our hands the future of the Roman Empire is an exciting one.

Further Reading

No single book deals with all the issues rounded up in this chapter but there are several inspiring texts that touch on one aspect or another. The recovery of the past, including that of classical antiquity, is the subject of Alain Schnapp’s Discovery of the Past (New York, 1997) and of David Lowenthal’s The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, 1985). Edward Thomas’s Monumentality and the Roman Empire (Oxford, 2007) is a vivid and learned account of the most tangible of Roman remains. How the Romans saw ancient art is the subject of Jas Elsner’s Roman Eyes (Princeton, 2007). Key works on the later reception of Rome are listed under the Further Reading for Chapter 2.

A group of books have considered social memory: Alain Gowing’s Empire and Memory (Cambridge, 2005), Susan Alcock’s Archaeologies of the Greek Past (Cambridge, 2002), and Harriet Flower’s Art of Forgetting (Chapel Hill, NC, 1992) provide contrasting models, all of them interesting. James Fenton and Chris Wickham’s Social Memory (Oxford, 1992) also has a good deal to offer, even if it only concerns antiquity in passing. But the big book on Roman posterity lies in the future …

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