During a discussion on Roman naming conventions in the era of the late Republic, I mentioned that a professor of mine postulated that names such as Aemilianus and Octavianus are, in fact, modern constructions, and that they do not reflect actual use by Romans, in this case Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus Aemilianus — adoptive grandson of the first Scipio Africanus — and Gaius Octavius/Gaius Julius Caesar, i.e. “Octavian” (later “Imperator Caesar divi filius,” “Augustus”), grandnephew and adoptive son of the more famous Gaius Julius Caesar. It was my professor’s position — at the time — that such adoptive names which preserved the original patrilineal lines would not have been used since adoptions by noble Romans were intended to preserve the adopters bloodline and legacy and not the adoptees. Thus the future emperor Tiberius became Tiberius Julius Caesar upon his adoption by Augustus in 4 CE, but not Tiberius Julius Caesar Claudianus.
In the course of this discussion, someone I knew personally and well — and considered a friend — responded to my comment with the following message via private message:
The final years of the Roman republic were marked by waves of increasingly intense violence among the urban population of Rome. These waves of violence — co-opted for their political capital — became the battle standards of the ruling oligarchy, intensifying the urban violence of the city to a series of world-spanning civil wars likewise marked by increasing levels of violence. The primary factions which characterized these final stages of the republic are today conventionally divided between the optimates and the populares. These names reflect the source of power utilized by members of each camp, with the optimates relying on the “best practices” and power structures of the republic and the populares the favor of the Roman populace.
The origins of this divide can be traced to the aftermath of the the wars fought with Carthage, culminating in the destruction of the city of Carthage in 146 BCE. Lands and people previously under Carthaginian suzerainty passed to Roman authority: imperium Romanum. Prior to and between the first Punic Wars, Rome had accumulated a relatively small number of foreign territories, preferring the conservation of the “international” status quo of the Mediterranean basin to the ancient analog of “nation-building,” preferring instead to act as guides for the international community — an Italian hegemon among Hellenistic states. Such was the case when in 168 BCE, C. Popillius Laenas drew a circle on the ground around Antiochus IV and declared that the king would not leave the boundary until the Roman senate had their answer. The cause was ostensibly the preservation of peace, but peace here meant denying Antiochus the conquest of Egypt. At stake was nothing less than stability of the Italian economy — and thus the preservation of Roman hegemony — through the starvation of its communities, or so the senate might have put it. If the Seleucid king succeeded in the conquest of his southern rivals in Alexandria, it would be he and not the pliable, Roman-dependent Ptolemies who would set the price of grain exported to Italy. Whereas for a time the acquisition of Sicily (241 BCE) proved sufficient to feed the burgeoning population of Roman Italy, even before Carthage’s destruction in 146 BCE, Rome was well on its way to the reliance on Egyptian grain which would be leveraged to such great effect in the final civil war. Economic stability for the Romans was thus equated with Roman security and hegemony.
When you approach the New Testament – and the Bible as a whole – as though it were a single text, implicit to that approach is a belief in an ahistorical unity of composition, as though the individual books were written with the intention of becoming a single volume. But this was not the case, and as the individual books of the New Testament were being written, there is absolutely no evidence that there was any thought given to compiling them into a single volume. That single volume was assembled by others, centuries later, and in response to very specific and particular historical conditions – to say nothing of the fact that the texts were then edited to agree with one another doctrinally. One glaring example of this comes from the very opening lines of the Gospel of Mark, which in later versions of the text have the words υἱοῦ θεοῦ (“son of God”) added. These are notably missing from our earliest extant copy of Mark, the Codex Sinaiticus, which anyone can verify online.
It was represented to me that in my approach to the New Testament gospels I was missing the “core message,” and in the process I was seemingly denying the central tenant of Christianity, namely that Jesus is God. Although certainly central to Christian faith today, the notion that Jesus is God – that he was always and will forever be God – was not always quite so simple. Although it is evident that Christians believe Jesus is now God, there was at one point in time an extensive debate regarding the relationship between God and Jesus, a debate which ultimately culminated in the doctrine of the Trinity.
On the webpage you sent to me, it states the following regarding Aramaic primacy: “Textual scholars have examined the Peshitta and found clear evidence of influence from later translations. The dialect used in the Peshitta is from a later time period than that of Jesus and His disciples.” This is a fact, but it entirely ignores the fact that the earliest texts we have of the New Testament are dated precisely on the same methods they are using to criticize the Peshitta. Both the conclusion that the earliest preserved fragments of the New Testament are dated to the 2nd-3rd Centuries and that the dialect of Aramaic used in the Peshitta does not match that spoken by Jesus and his followers is based entirely on the study of handwriting styles.
Even in the darkest moments of the human condition, the desire for freedom and self-determination has never been extinguished. Even in societies which generation after generation kept others in bondage, time has preserved for us the aspirations of slaves seeking liberty and greater control over their fate. Roman society was particularly generous, granting the children of freedmen the full rights of citizenship, an especially coveted status that would enable the numerous descendants of freedmen to enter public life and eventually rise to positions of influence among the highest authorities in the Empire.
Individuals who today state that many slaves were “better off” in their servitude and even that they preferred bondage are sadly deluded, ignoring the evidence of history — and of their own eyes. Human trafficking in the present is simply the latest way of referring to the ongoing slave trade, one which may at times mirror low-wage employment. But any form of compulsive, imposed dependence is itself a form of oppression, and one which unwillingly restricts self-determination is nothing less than slavery. Indentured servitude is another such polite way of expressing the same basic idea, though in this case the promise of freedom is held out as motivation, like a carrot on a stick, but much like the cartoon analogy, the prize is all too often an illusion. Some see this reality, others do not or choose to ignore it, but all work towards a single common goal. Unlike most common goals, however, this particular goal is shared in name only, for despite the fact they all seek the same end-state, they work towards it individually rather than collectively.
Keaveny, Arthur. 2007. The Army in the Roman Revolution. London: Routledge.
In the late 2nd and early 1st centuries BCE, the Roman army underwent major reforms which changed both its organizational structure and ideological orientation. Foremost among these was the recruitment of men from among the capite censi, a class of landless urban peasants who had previously been exempted from military service. Although there is evidence to suggest that capite censi — like slaves — had previously been enrolled as soldiers in the army, it has become something nearing scripture to see the year 107 BCE as a watershed moment. In that year, Marius, having experienced difficulty filling the ranks of the army bound to fight Jugurtha, admitted members of the capite censi. It is as that moment, the narrative continues, that the aspirations of the peasant-soldiery for land first began to hold the state hostage to their demands in a cycle that would bring about the series of disastrous civil wars which ultimately undid the republic. Continue reading →
Biographies have fallen largely out of style among historians, particularly since they have been on the whole fetishized accounts of great men in history — or the exact opposite, polemical narratives aimed at “correcting” the historical record. There are, of course, exceptions, among them is Santangelo’s present account of the life of Gaius Marius, a controversial figure in history if there has ever been one — but one who has gained much by the greater controversies which followed in his wake under figures like Sulla and the two triumvirates. That Marius’ life and career have been in need of a new account is self-evident to students of ancient history: the last major appraisal of his life in English came in R.J. Evans’ 1994 biography. That recent history has demonstrated the pressing need for the study of demagogues and their abuse of popular politics makes this critical look at Gaius Marius all the more relevant to students and the public alike. Continue reading →
Hildinger, Erik. 2002. Swords Against the Senate. Cambridge: Da Capo.
At its core, Erik Hildinger’s 2002 book Swords Against the Senate seeks to recreate the events which shaped the first stages of the Roman Republic’s collapse, spanning the half century from before the tribunate of Tiberius Gracchus in 133 BCE to Sulla’s rise to the dictatorship in 82-81 BCE. In so doing, Hildinger is drawn in two directions in trying to tell a single narrative. The first is the social and political process whereby the Roman military became increasingly politicized as political violence became regularized in Roman society. Ultimately the land reforms and other popular measures which ultimately brought down the Gracchus brothers were directly tied the issues surrounding the Roman army in the years following campaigns in Spain, culminating with the sack of Numantia in 134 BCE. Having been away for so long, Roman soldiers returned to farms devastated by a lack of upkeep, forcing many to sell their lots to large estates and move to the urbs at Rome. This formed the basis of the popular “Roman mob,” whose fickle attention was both the weapon and ruin of popular leaders. The battle between those in power – particularly the senatorial aristocracy who held oligarchic sway in Rome – and the populists led to the rise of “strongmen” characters like Marius, Cinna, Carbo, and Sulla. Ultimately the people who cast their lot with these leaders who yield far less benefit than they were promised or had hoped to receive, particularly in the counter-revolutionary measures taken by Sulla during his dictatorship, measures aimed at tamping down on the power of populares and their vehicle, the tribunate.
Not that anybody asked, but I want to share my current personal reading list – much of which is motivated by current events. It obviously skews towards my personal interest in ancient history, particularly Roman history, but I hope that others might likewise find it useful. I welcome any suggestions, recommendations, and feedback. They are listed in the order in which I am planning to read them, though I am tackling a number of them concurrently and will undoubtedly change the order as I proceed. Continue reading →