Spectator readers need no introduction to Peter Jones. His Ancient and Modern column has instructed and delighted us for many years. Now he has written an equally delightful and instructive book with the alluring subtitle ‘Everything you ever wanted to know about the Romans but were afraid to ask.’ Well, it may not be quite everything, but it is a near as dammit.
He captures you from the start: ‘Romans came up with two stories about how they were founded. One (bewilderingly, we might think) was pure Greek.’ Well, all nations are uncertain and sometimes confused about their origins. So it’s no surprise to be told that ‘any account of Rome up to 300 BC needs to be taken cum grano salis’ (with a grain of salt). ‘Even the intensely patriotic Livy doubts the strict accuracy of his account of this early period’ — just as we may doubt the strict accuracy of the story of King Arthur.
Information — what you wanted to know — comes with much to amuse. Take the story of Pyrrhus, the Greek king of Epirus. Asked what he would do when he had beaten the Romans, he said he would conquer Sicily, Libya and Carthage and regain Macedon and Greece. What next? ‘Take it easy, drink every day and talk to our heart’s delight,’ he replied. Which got the response it deserved: that he could do that now, without all the bloodshed and misery. Pyrrhus, we are told, ‘saw the point, but could not bring himself to abandon his ambitions.’ This sad story is new to me (if it’s not one I’ve forgotten) and is certainly worth knowing.
In Republican Rome, the rich paid taxes and the poor didn’t. In return, the rich got more votes, and therefore ‘complete political control over the conduct of affairs in which the state spent their money. No more-than-anyone-else’s tax without more representation.’ Oligarchy beats democracy.
The Romans were superstitious, always consulting oracles and taking the auspices. Pretty silly, you may say, and Cicero agreed with you. He called this ‘the foreknowledge and foretelling of events that happen by chance’, which is of course contradictory.
The Republic gave way to empire, at which point, or in the years leading up to the transition, Latin literature blossomed. ‘Why,’ Jones asks, ‘does a culture suddenly start sprouting seriously high-class poets?’ It is a very good question, which sensibly he doesn’t attempt to answer, preferring to tell us about the poets themselves, with snippets of verse in translation, sometimes by Dryden. He is good on Horace and Virgil, better still on Ovid, whom he adores. The latter’s Ars Amatoria is ‘deliciously immoral’ — ‘seduction made easy’. Ovid is ‘possibly the West’s most influential poet’. Augustus sent him into exile — which is ‘not fashionable as a punishment these days, but is rather an escape route for those wishing to avoid paying taxes (hence tax exile).’ Incidentally, Professor Jones remarks that we know of ‘no Latin poet who was born in Rome’.
Roman baths were not, sadly, as hygienic as we may suppose. Marcus Aurelius thought bathing was all ‘oil, sweat, filth and greasy water’. Houses stank of sewage. ‘We even hear of one house entered nightly by an octopus via the drain to eat the owner’s supply of pickled fish’.
The book is full of wise political observations:
All empires run themselves, or they don’t run at all. That, in practice, means that they rely on the local bigwigs to do what local bigwigs have always done, but under the direction of their new masters.
The Romans understood this, which was why their empire lasted so long. ‘They had no imperialising mission, driven by burning-eyed governors with a passion for bringing Latin to the masses.’ They just wanted to be in control. Nevertheless, good emperors worked hard. They didn’t idle their day away in orgies. Any who did rarely lasted long.
Then along came Christianity and the nature of things changed. Roman religion was a matter of actions:
It was not a matter of what you believed or felt, but of what you did, i.e. how you performed the state and local rituals which would placate the gods.
But Christianity was a matter of faith and dogma — people were converted — ‘an almost meaningless concept for pagans’; and ‘the traditional understanding of the nature of the relationship between gods and man was abandoned.’
Professor Jones does not say whether this was a good thing, but his book is unquestionably that. There is something to relish on every page, indeed in every short, informative and often nicely opinionated paragraph.
Available from the Spectator Bookshop, £15.99. Tel: 08430 600033. A collection of Allan Massie's Spectator ‘Life and letters’ columns was recently published by Quartet.