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Veni Vidi Vici:
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Romans but Were Afraid to Ask
by Peter Jones
The Syllibine Books
These were instructions on how to placate the gods in times of crisis. The Sybils were prophetesses. One of them brought nine of the books to the Roman King Tarquinius Priscus and offered to sell them to him for 300 gold pieces. He thought that too high and turned her down. She burned three of the books, then demanded the same price for the remaining six. Again he refused, and so she burned another three books. Tarquinius caved in and bought the last three for the original price.
The Last King of Rome
The last Roman King was Tarquinius Superbus (539 - 504BC). His son Sextus Tarquinius raped a married woman named Lucretia, whose husband raised an army to drive Superbus out, and establish Rome as a Republic.
The ancient world knew how to make slaked lime (by burning limestone) which could be mixed with sand and rock to make concrete, but it took a long time to dry. But when mixed lime with volcanic ash it produced a quick-drying cement that was much harder and even set under water.
The Roman Census and Jesus
Augustus Caesar kept a regular check on his empire for tax purposes. St Luke recorded one of these as the background to his version of the nativity story. It went like this: Joseph of Galilee was of King David's line and David was born in Bethlehem in Judea, so Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem to be registered for the Roman census there. Wrong. Romans were taxed by property, not lineage, and Joseph owned property in Nazareth, not Bethlehem.
But there are more problems. Matthew said that the Judea of the day was ruled by King Herod, not a provincial governor. So the Romans did not control it. How then could they run a census there?
Luke is even more inaccurate. Joseph came from Galilee, and Galilee was not under Roman control at that time, either, so Joseph had no reason to pay a Roman tax.
So why are these stories included?
It's because the OT said that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. So Luke and Matthew had to find some reason to get Jesus born there. This was the best they could contrive.
(detailed analysis of problems with Luke's Bethlehem narrative here.)
Romans didn't think of homosexuality. What mattered was who did what to who. A man penetrated (a woman, a man, a slave, a youth) but if a man was penetrated in any way, he wasn't a real man.
Julius Caesar, as a young man, spent time in court of King Nicomedes of Bithynia, trying to persuade him to support Rome. In later life, JC never shook off the rumours that he had become Nicomedes catamite to get his help. As a statesman, JC had many affairs with Roman women. One opponent referred to him as 'Every woman's husband and every man's wife.'
Ancients thought slavery was part of the natural way of things - some people were born to be slaves and that was that.
Marcus Crassis (115 -53BC) took advantage of the daily occurrence of fires and building collapses. His team of 500 slave builders would arrive at a building and offer to buy it cheap.
Caligula quickly ran through Rome's budget and took to auctioning things. After some games he auctioned off the gladiators, who were usually worth a maximum of 15,000 sestari, depending on quality. Caligula told the auctioneer to keep an eye on a praetor named Aponius who had fallen asleep, literally 'nodding off'. At the end of the bidding Aponius woke up to find he'd bought 13 gladiators for 9 million ss.
Nero's mother Agrippina got rid of a competitor by serving him overheated mulled wine. The wine got past the taster, but the victim found the wine too hot, so water was brought in to cool it. And the poison was in the water.
Celtic druids in Britain carried out interesting human sacrifices to cure the sick or win victory. They constructed colossal "Wicker Men" and burning alive people within them. The druids were well respected as teachers and judges, but the Romans feared their potential to unite the tribes against them, so had exterminated them by second century AD.
Martial (40 -104) left 12 books of witty epigrams. He also delivered some direct insults in his poems.
When Galla for her health goeth to the Bathe,
She carefully doth hide, as is most mete,
With aprons of fine linen, or a sheete,
Those parts, that modesty concealed hath;
Nor onely those, but e'en the brest and necke,
That might be seen, or shown, without all cheke.
But yet one foul, and unbeseeming place
She leaves uncovered still: What's that? Her face.
(London Times review)
I have never met Peter Jones, but after reading this spirited introduction to the Roman world, I rather wish he had taught me Latin at school. Informative, casually erudite but engagingly unstuffy, he makes the classical world feel both beguiling and fresh. No teacher I remember could skip so happily from the crude graffiti on display in Pompeii ("I came here, had a shag, then went home"), to the entry requirements for the oligarchical Senate in the 1st century AD (property worth a thumping 1m sestertii, or some £20m in today's money). But Jones spans all 1,200 years of Roman history with seemingly unstoppable enthusiasm, all the time urging caution about the sources and the particular motivations of individual classical writers.
A former classics lecturer at Newcastle University who writes the Ancient & Modern column in the Spectator, Jones makes no great claims for his book, which he points out is unashamedly for the general reader. The format is simple - a brief overview of individual periods, from 753BC to the 5th century AD, followed by mini essays on particular topics or people. But despite the light tone, the book is full of fascination.
His Rome is one that few of us would be unfamiliar with, where the venality of emperors is matched by the citizen sturdiness of their republican forebears. Here we have the odious Tiberius, hiding away on his pleasure island of Capri, and (so gossip had it) training "small boys to swim between his thighs, licking and biting him playfully". Here, too, we have Commodus, obsessed with gladiatorial combat and happy to wave decapitated animals threateningly at senators, boasting all the while of being "the only left-handed fighter [Gladiator got it wrong] to conquer 1,000 men 12 times". Contrast that with the story in Livy (a historian keen to offer models of self-sacrifice for Augustan-era Romans) about the modest Cincinnatus, who in 458BC left his ploughing to become dictator, defeated the Sabines and Aequi, handed over his booty to his troops, resigned the dictatorship, and "went back to find his plough where he had left it" - all in 15 days.
The nature of the sources means, of course, that Jones's focus is most often on the men at the top rather than anything below. As he points out, being an emperor was a precarious occupation; only 28 of 130 (the exact total is a little muddy) died peacefully in office or from illness. But he is just as intriguing on, say, the production of papyrus (a laborious process) or on the degraded status of women who, if they made it into the historical record at all, were often - like Claudius's nymphomaniac third wife Messalina, who was said to frequent whorehouses - viciously derided.
Jones is keen to puncture myths. He points out that, according to Suetonius, Julius Caesar's last words were Greek, not Latin, and were "You too, my child?" rather than "Et tu, Brute?" And he is happy, too, to contrast modern popular culture with the Roman reality. Chariot races, which he suggests were as tribal then as football is today, didn't feature the lumbering vehicles of Ben Hur, but small wood, leather and cloth affairs (belonging to one of four different clubs), which each weighed no more than 66lb. Charioteers wrapped the reins around their bodies, and carried a knife to cut themselves free if they fell.
The book's breeziness does of course carry dangers. Jones rarely tarries on a subject for more than a page (the poet Martial, for some reason, gets four), and often jumps so quickly from one to another that the drama - and the history of Rome is full of drama - is lost. The book, too, cannot help but feel superficial (intense argument about topics is alluded to but not often made plain), and the lack of notes and sheer baldness of some assertions can be problematic. Does "Caesar" really give us the word sherry, for instance - from Xeres, or Jerez, a Spanish city named from Caesaris ("Caesar's city")? Or is the word Xeres, as others contend, Arabic in origin? Jones at times can be too cavalier.
But the nature of his project - to pen an introduction that will entice readers to explore further - makes some of these caveats inevitable. Mostly, his book succeeds - engrossingly. I suspect it is not only the general reader who will be drawn to his infectious enthusiasm and style, but school children and, whisper it, even university students.
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