Out of Time

13 July 2008

On Hadrian and Being Harried

History is battleground of ideas, a terrain laid with hidden dangers and the sad remains of methods passed beyond the pale. You might imagine – or even remember – the dull drag of history across the page, but the dates and happenings are never just there, ready formed, waiting to be relayed. Historians take positions, form perspectives, dash in, out and around conventions that the reader may never recognise and would rarely care to know. History is, after all, a profession for some and carries with it the arcana of half forgotten lore.

But a feature of history on the run – magazine articles, television interviews, newspaper columns – is that the traces of skirmishes past, of major shifts in thinking, just barely show through, if at all. Take Robin Lane Fox’s account of the Roman emperor Hadrian in yesterday’s Financial Times, for instance. It’s a battle fought against the shadows of opponents long since gone.

Lane Fox is a long established historian at New College in Oxford and knows well the intricacies of ‘classical’ Europe. He has written with authority on Alexander the Great and published his Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian to a very favourable reception. Spend even a moment reading his Financial Times article and you’ll see why – his style is fluid but clear, his logic straightforward and his capacity to engage the reader in considering the relationship between past and present exemplary in a field that has elevated waffle to a high art.

Writing to coincide with the opening of an exhibition on Hadrian at the British Museum, Lane Fox argues that ancient history “is both powerfully near to and far from our own world”. His case for Hadrian as “a thoroughly modern emperor” is not entirely personal – it flits agilely between the emperor’s enthusiasm for hunting to address the recent hunting ban in England, his love of a younger man, which Lane Fox reminds us was by no means the same as contemporary homosexuality, an invasion of what is now Iraq and the always troublesome problem of Jerusalem. Hadrian solved the problem brutally, by levelling the city and forbidding Jews entry to the site.

There’s pause for reflection in that for us all.

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Wild and Wiley Romans

24 March 2008

Ruminations on Anthony Everitt’s Augustus and Tacitus’ Annals

Trash People @ Rome 1, by robie06, with Creative Commons licenceCelebrity sex scandals, marriage and remarriage, the convolutions of temporary, loveless relationships – they’re all the trashy hallmarks of our day and age, right? Well, yes . . . but we shouldn’t think we’re unique, that civilisation is somehow tipping towards moral catastrophe. Next time you reach for People magazine, read the latest episode of Britney Spears’ sad derangement or wonder how happy Woody Allen is a decade into marriage to his ex-wife’s adopted daughter, remember that the Romans did it first. And, yes, they did it much better.

Sure, everyone knows the Romans weren’t saints. Most of you have probably heard of Roman orgies, even though they had more to do with gluttony than libido. Caligula, by all accounts, was fond of fornication – and we’ll meet him again soon – but even for him it wasn’t just sex and sweat.

Reading Anthony Everitt’s biography of Augustus Caesar recently I was struck by the melodrama in his account of the machinations between the First Citizen himself, his co-ruler and former son-in-law Mark Antony, and Egypt’s Macedonian queen, Cleopatra. In Everitt’s defence, he relies heavily on the writing of Cassius Dio and Appian, who are still the best we’ve got. And the situation was, even for the standard of the times, a little tawdry.

Leiden-RMO Roman box, figures ERL1007 web, by CESRAS, with Creative Commons licenceEveritt makes the point several times that sex, love and social relations were intertwined but by no means inseparable as the Roman Republic breathed its last. That Cleopatra was a sexual conquest for Augustus and Antony was largely incidental to her role in the politics of the coming Empire. She was both a chattel and a subordinate ruler: one did not necessarily imply the other.

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