Last week, the Delphic oracle was shown to have acted in large part like a Citizens' Advice Bureau, with a strong rational streak to it; stories about a foaming, ranting Pythia were simply not true. But that is not the whole story.
The more thoughtful ancients were indeed drawn to rational accounts of religious belief, since they felt that the physical world had been rationally constructed and therefore the deity who was responsible for it must be able to be rationalised. Ancient Stoics, for example, pointed out that the world obeyed certain predictable physical laws and human behaviour followed certain predictable patterns, all capable of being understood by reason. If the world reflected its Maker, as logically it must, reason must therefore hold sway: reason was the divine in us. But that is not to deny the legitimate role of the mysterious, miraculous and numinous in ancient and modern religion. Despite Stoic assumptions, there is still much in the world that seems to make no sense, and if the purpose of religion is to confront ultimate mysteries, beyond the ken of human understanding, it is not surprising if it calls up concepts and images that will not bear strictly rational scrutiny. It has been pointed out here before that religion is like a language. To those who speak it, it makes perfect sense. To those who do not, it sounds like nonsense. The 'language' that is religion is as subtle and delicate as any human language - and just as incomprehensible to those who cannot understand it.
So when the oracle at Delphi did come up with something ambiguous or hard to interpret, no Greek was surprised. This was, after all, a god speaking. The god could also speak (as he did at other oracles) through the flight of birds, the clashing of the metal bowls and the murmuring of trees. This is 'speech', but of a different kind - one which did not communicate through verbal but through non-verbal means, and therefore needed even more interpretation by fallible humans. As the sixth-century BC philosopher Heraclitus said of the god of the oracle at Delphi, 'he neither speaks nor hides: he uses signs'.
Plato talks of certain types of behaviour as driven by MANIA: the lover, the artist and the prophet were all subject to it. It does not mean 'madness'. It means 'inspiration'. The Pythia knew all about it. So did JS Bach. In other words, some phenomena are beyond explanation, rational or irrational. It is at such points that the ancients tended to insert the divine.
Simon Heffer has been arguing that Enoch Powell's 'rivers of blood' speech was warning against the dangers not of racism but of multi- culturalism. But what does multi-culturalism mean? If its opposite is mono-culturalism, no westerner has lived in a mono-culture for a very long time.
In about AD 58, Paul was arrested by the Roman authorities in Jerusalem for causing a riot. Claudius Lysias, garrison commander, ordered him to be flogged. As he was being tied up, Paul revealed that he was a Roman citizen, who had been found guilty on no charge. Claudius was summoned, and in the ensuing exchange revealed that he (Claudius) had bought his citizenship. Paul replied 'It was mine by birth'.
Paul was a Jew. He had been born in Tarsus, an important city in the province of Cilicia (south-east Turkey) which had become part of the Roman empire from 102 BC, and had inherited his status as a citizen from his father, by birth. We have to reconstruct Claudius Lysias' history, but he was probably a Greek, from the eastern Mediterranean, who had been a slave under the emperor Claudius. He must have done well in that position, bought his freedom and thus inherited the status of his master, as was normal in such cases. He had continued to prosper - freed slaves who had flourished in the emperor's service usually did - and been appointed to the garrison in Jerusalem.
The exchange is a fascinating one. Here were two Roman citizens. One, born or made a slave and so denied any legal status, had eventually bought his citizenship and been given a position of some authority in the Roman imperial system. The other, from one of Rome's rougher, bandit-infested provinces, a strict Pharisee and tent-maker by profession - Jewish teachers were expected to be able to support themselves - was a Roman citizen by birth but had never been near Rome in his life. One wonders what they both thought it meant to be Roman, and what they would have replied if they had been asked who they were - and what that reply would have indicated. The language of the majority in Rome, incidentally, was probably Greek.
If Enoch Powell really was arguing that we should all be mono- culturalists now, in a world where an Indian, living in Newcastle, wearing Nike trainers, can study Homer when she is not searching the world-wide web on her Sony computer, he was being even more monophthalmic than usual.
It was business as usual in the Roman Empire on that first Christmas, and it was not a pretty sight
The Christmas story comes as something of a shock to those whose knowledge of the ancient world derives from the Roman historians. The gospel world is one of shepherds, innkeepers and mangers, of carpenters, fishermen and widows with their mites, of the lives and expectations of the lowly and destitute in a difficult Roman province on the edge of a vast empire. But Roman historians like Tacitus, Suetonius and Pliny were members of the educated, elite, imperial inner ring. Tacitus had been consul and, like Pliny, governor of a Roman province, Suetonius a bureaucrat in the emperor’s court in Rome. History for them is power politics played out at the very centre of things, and the plebs feature in it only when their actions have political implications that the imperial court cannot afford to ignore.
But it was one world — SPQR, Senatus Populusque Romanus, meant what it said — and, by calling on non-literary sources in particular, we can get some sense of the lives, hopes and fears of that c. 95 per cent of the populus who did not form the Roman educated elite.
Graffiti tell us that some things at least do not change: ‘I came here, I had a shag, then I went home,’ scrawls one of the last great romantics on a wall in Pompeii. Workers in Pompeii formed co-operatives to support political candidates: graffiti record requests from groups like the fruit-sellers, mule-drivers, goldsmiths, carpenters, cloth-dyers, innkeepers, bakers, porters and removers, chicken-sellers, mat-makers, grape-pickers and late drinkers (!) to vote for this or that candidate for office. Indeed, even the humblest citizen could approach the mighty emperor with a request and expect a reply. We hear of one such response (many like it survive) from Antoninus Pius to a lowly worker:
If you approach the relevant authorities, they will give orders that you should receive upkeep from your father, provided that, since you say you are a workman, you are in such ill health that you cannot sustain your work.
An epitaph, popular enough for it to be known in two versions, says of the tomb:
All a person needs. Bones reposing sweetly, I am not anxious about suddenly being short of food. I do not suffer from arthritis, and I am not indebted because of being behind in my rent. In fact my lodgings are permanent and free!
The plight of thousands of back-street Romans is summarised in this ironic little text. Shortage of food was an obvious problem; so was ill health, though Rome was not filled with the sick and starving (they died). But accommodation created problems too. It was rented and expensive; overcrowding and violence were commonplace. The historian Suetonius tells us that Augustus derived special pleasure from watching groups of people brawling in narrow city streets. Legal texts tell us of a shopkeeper putting his lantern out on the pavement. A passer-by grabs it and the shopkeeper gives chase. The thief hits him with a lash, and in the brawl the shopkeeper knocks out one of the thief’s eyes. We hear of runaway wagons and building materials crushing people to death in the crowded streets.
Even when work was obtained, it was often organised on short-term contracts, especially during the harvest and vintage. We hear of a woman who gave birth while working on a day-contract in a digging gang. Fearful of losing her wages, she hid the child and carried on. She was spotted and, against all expectations, paid in full and sent home by a kindly manager.
The stercorarius (or ‘night soil man’, as he was known well into the Fifties in Britain) had regular, if rather more disagreeable, work. We can assume that the average Roman generated about 1.5lbs of body-waste a day. Imperial Rome, with a population of one million, would therefore generate more than 650 tons of daily sewage. Though we hear of the need for sewer-cleaners and the risk they ran of choking to death, little of this human waste would disappear down a sewer. Very few Romans were connected up since, in the absence of the S-bend, stench and vermin could find their way from sewer into house and, when the Tiber rose, sewage too (we hear of one house which an octopus nightly entered via the drain to eat the pickled fish stored inside). But, more importantly, Romans regularly used human excrement to supplement animal manure. Where there’s muck, there’s brass, and it was the job of the stercorarius to empty the cesspits and sell on the contents to farmers on city outskirts. A graffito from Herculaneum records a payment of 11 asses for the removal of ordure (the as being the lowest denomination of coin).
Yet we should not imagine a population permanently struggling for work. One hundred and sixty different types of employment in Rome are attested from epigraphic evidence; and an insulting graffito (from Pompeii) says of its victim, ‘You’ve had eight different job opportunities — barman, baker, farmer, at the mint, salesman, now you’re flogging pots.... Just lick — and you’ll have done the lot.’
The point is that the Romans were a nation of shopkeepers. Raw materials poured into the city from the countryside to be processed and turned into goods in the myriad tabernae and officinae that crowded Rome. The historian Livy tells of Camillus visiting Tusculum, where he ‘found doors wide open, shops doing business with all their contents out on display. Each artisan was intent on his work. He could hear the learning games of children, voice against voice. He saw the streets were full of people, women and children wandering at will to do whatever they needed.’ Rome was full of workers turning wool, leather, metals, clay, timber, straw, oil, wine and grain into what people wanted — and many such workers made it very good, as huge tomb monuments like that of Eurysaces the contract-baker record.
At one level, the elite despised the plebs (while, naturally, owning the apartment blocks they rented). Cicero saw workers as liars and slaves — liars, because retailers marked up the ‘true’ value of the produce they received; slaves, because they worked for others for pay and were thus dependent on them for life. The elite, of course, had everything done for them in-house.
At the same time, the elite knew — none better than the emperor — that they ignored the people at their peril. ‘Bread and circuses’ (i.e. chariot races) were their answer, not because the people were lazy or feckless but because the culture of benefaction had long been the standard way of harmonising relationships between rich and poor. Races, gladiatorial combat, the theatre and a good, regular grain supply, all paid for by the wealthy or by the wealth that the state generated from its provinces, gave the people a taste of the high life and were seen as the rightful rewards of those who, as farmer-soldiers all those years ago, had made the empire possible.
So when the emperor entered the amphitheatre or circus to watch the games, it was to the cheers, or curses, of the crowd. And he paid attention. He knew which side his bread was buttered. So did the plebs. It was, indeed, one world.
As the happy people of Europe link hands, singing and dancing, to welcome the bright new dawn of the euro, they might consider the judgment of Tacitus on the British acceptance of Roman ways in the 1st century ad: ‘the ignorant called it civilisation: it was in fact a mark of their servitude’.
In the ancient world, only Athens in the 5th century bc and Egypt during the period of the Greek kings (‘Ptolemies’, c. 300–31 BC) attempted anything like the imposition of their own coin, to the exclusion of any other, on their subjects. In Athens’ case, it is quite unclear to what extent their efforts were successful; they were certainly short-lived. The Ptolemies were more successful, though even they allowed local issues to mingle with the royal coinage on the edges of their dominions.
The Romans were well aware that there might be something in a uniform currency. As Augustus Caesar’s adviser Maecenas is made to say, ‘None of the cities [of our empire] should be allowed to have its own separate coinage or system of weights and measures; they should all be required to use ours.’ In fact, it was only near the very end of the empire (under Diocletian, who abdicated in ad 305) that the Romans saw fit to impose a common currency on everyone.
In the Western empire, Roman coin came to be the standard simply because hundreds of city coinages petered out in favour of it (no local Western coinage was struck after ad 54). The probable explanation is that the conquered peoples had not been city dwellers but now, surrounded by Roman architecture and civic forms, they had come to see themselves as Roman. In the Eastern empire, however, Romans had taken over a powerful polis (‘city-state’) tradition, in which Greek consciousness of their identity and rich past was deep-rooted, and local coinage continued to be struck by the polis authorities out of a sense of pride and self-respect.
At least those nations of Europe that have chosen to adopt the euro have done so freely, albeit with a great deal of central bullying (vote and vote and vote again, you ignorant brutes, till you get it right). So we cannot say quite yet that Brussels is an empire, ‘a political system based on the actual or threatened use of force to extract surpluses from subjects’. Nevertheless, the issuing of a common currency, with all that implies in terms of ideology, autonomy, political identity and assertion of power, could be a useful first step in the servitude stakes, if nothing else.