Login *:
Password *:


8-10-2015, 09:44

The Construction of Roman History

What the idea of a ‘‘constructed’’ past might imply about the epistemological status of historical events is a question for philosophers (e. g. Mink 1987; H. White 1984: 1-57). For a hardcore deconstructionist, it may be, ‘‘the past’’ is indeed just a juice secreted by present discourse, and history-writing a species of fiction. But one need not subscribe to any branch of post-structuralist theory to find ‘‘the construction of the past’’ an apt phrase to use in the study of Roman antiquity; one need only attend to empirical fact. The events of Roman history are plainly accessible now only through traces they have left in material remains and in texts produced and transmitted by supervening hands. And while some textual traces may survive as material remains nearly contemporaneous with the event at issue (an imperial edict, say, inscribed on stone for public display), very many others occur in writings composed well after the event: the crucial extant account, say, of Tiberius’ accession in 14 ce - a critical moment in the emergence of the principate - is owed to Tacitus, writing a century afterwards (Ann. 1.5-13). And even when contemporaneous traces of an event survive, material or textual, they often call for interpretation in the light of later texts. In what was ancient Rome’s Campus Martius, for instance, substantial remains survive of a structure readily identifiable from memorial inscriptions found nearby as a Julio-Claudian mausoleum; but many familiar ‘‘facts’’ about this building - the date it was built, the depositing there of Augustus’ ashes, the erection at its entrance of bronze pillars bearing a copy of his Res Gestae - are not known to us now from any of the material remains or extant inscriptions, but only from later texts (chiefly from Suetonius’ biography of Augustus [Aug. 100-1], again written a good century after the event). For us, in short, countless ‘‘facts’’ about Roman history are in practice inseparable from the ancients’ own textual representations of it, and any informed modern study of the ancient Roman past must be in good part a study of the ways in which it was remembered, evaluated, and reshaped for further transmission by ancient writers.

For ancient students of the Roman past, of course, a far larger body of primary evidence was available than now survives: abundant monuments and inscriptions intact and in situ, public records, family archives, living witnesses for the recent past - and sometimes earlier tranches of oral memory, too, preserved indirectly in antiquarian works. It needs to be stressed, though, that imperial historiographers were themselves frequently working under a constraint similar to that which affects modern studies of ancient Rome. In their case, admittedly, it was partly a self-imposed cultural constraint: their notion of what constituted the proper subject-matter of history was narrowly framed, and their view of how it should be written, and to what purpose, did not predispose them to undertake research from primary documents in the modern way; they were usually content to work mainly from earlier historians’ accounts, and dealt only rarely with primary documentary material in an unmediated form. But ‘‘primary evidence’’ is itself a slippery category, and little that goes by the name is an innocent witness to the past: the problem of the representation of the past begins with human memory (Ricoeur 2000), and all monuments or texts or stories generated by a commemorative impulse construct the past in a form deemed proper by those who create them. For the retrieval of data, then - not to mention the process of selection and shaping needed to produce historical narrative - imperial writers depended chiefly in practice on their interpretation of earlier writers’ representations of the Roman past. Moreover, the spread of‘‘primary’’ and literary evidence alike was uneven, much more surviving for some periods than for others; and for the early period it was desperately sparse (Wiseman 1979: 9-26; Cornell 1995: 4-18). Livy in the 20s BCE, beginning his history of Rome ‘‘from the foundation of the City,’’ relied heavily for his account of archaic Rome on a line of earlier historians writing in the second and first centuries bce - a chain of texts transmitting the varying presuppositions and biases of authors who themselves had had little but legend and folktale to work with for Rome’s earliest history. In Livy’s own view (6.1), any public records that might have once existed for this early period had perished long ago, when the Gauls sacked Rome c.390 bce, and he was clear that a narrative reaching back more than 700 years to Rome’s notional foundation in the mid eighth century bce must be a construction that went beyond ‘‘the facts’’: the spectral Romulean and regal subject matter of his opening book, he acknowledged, rested on ‘‘stories with more of the charm of poetry than a sound historical record’’ (Livy pr. 6, with Miles 1995: 8-74).

For an imperial historian of the relatively recent past, the issue was less acute. Tacitus, writing up Tiberius’ reign (14-37 ce) at a century’s distance, demonstrably had access to much else besides the narratives of previous historians, most of it now quite gone: imperial speeches and memoirs, records of senatorial debates, biographies of famous men, the reminiscences of men he had talked to in his youth. But the difference still remains one of degree, not kind: even in the case of Tacitus - by ancient standards, an unusually assiduous researcher - it is hard to establish that his Annals represent an attempt to write up the Julio-Claudian age on a method that systematically privileged primary evidence over what intervening historians and scholars had recorded (pace Syme 1958a: 278). In his view, credulity and lies in the later accounts had obscured the truth about important events - but where they fell short, he judged, they often only compounded obscurities which arose from unreliability and contradiction in the contemporary evidence itself (Ann. 3.20). For Tacitus, both categories of evidence were suspect in principle; nor were the later writers invariably liars or dupes one could afford to discount.

Imperial historians themselves, then, could well recognize that much of the evidence they worked with was patchy or inherently tendentious. How severe a problem that posed in their eyes is another question: it depends on what they took the nature and aim of their discourse to be. Ancient historians frequently affirm in their prefaces that they mean to supply a ‘‘true’’ account, but ‘‘the Roman past was never a neutral, value-free area for the exercise of objective research’’ (Wiseman 1998: 76): aesthetic and ethical and broadly political aims were also strongly in play, and recent scholarship had vigorously questioned whether the ancient conception of historical truth was really much the same as ours, or whether it paradoxically allowed for inventions going well beyond what we call ‘‘the facts’’ (Woodman 1988: 70-116; Wiseman 1979: 953). On one view, the Roman historical tradition had developed largely out of the popular dramas (fabulae praetextatae) on Roman historical subjects performed at theatrical games and the quasi-dramatic celebrations of family histories enacted at aristocratic funerals (Wiseman 1998: 1-16; Flower 1996: 91-127). For the ancients, certainly, to write history was to compose in a literary genre; and just as with poetry or oratory, there were generic proprieties to be respected. History narrated, and its narration needed to be aptly constructed to give literary pleasure: a much-discussed passage in Cicero ( Orat. 2.52-4, 62-4) scorns mere compilation of facts as dull and artless, insisting that to write history proper is to raise a pleasing ‘‘building’’ or ‘‘superstructure’’ (exaedificatio) by elaborating on ‘‘content’’ and blending it with ‘‘style.’’ This was a fundamental artistic imperative, no matter how extensive the data for the period being treated, and no imperial historiographer ever ignored it. Beyond that, as with architecture, dictates of utility impinged. Cicero’s prescription borrowed from rhetorical theory, and assumed that historical discourse, like oratory, would serve a pragmatic present purpose: it was meant to be instructive not just of fact, but of the attitudes and conduct expected of a Roman. Imperial historians of Rome wrote not only to describe but to justify what Rome had become by their day - a world power that had eclipsed all Mediterranean rivals - and in doing so they implicitly endorsed the political and social structure that maintained her power. The persons and events they treated offered exempla, ideal models of Roman virtue for the present to contemplate, and models of aberrance to be condemned (Chaplin 2000). In short, the program of Roman historiography was suffused by a patriotic ideology; it was written to admonish and inspire, and the heart of the enterprise was the articulation and reaffirmation of an idealized cultural and national identity.

In highlighting these ideological and cultural drives, we characterize the imperial ‘‘construction’’ of the past only partially, of course, and in the roughest outline. Before we pass to closer discussion, the outline needs to be qualified and refined. As presented, it sketches the narratives of Roman imperial historiography very loosely, without allowance for differences between individual writers; in practice, as we shall see, some showed a keener appetite than others for reliable evidence, and a keener critical sense in their interpretation of it. In any case, ‘‘Roman imperial historiography’’ was not exclusively a Roman or Italian cultural product: our picture will need to accommodate histories written by authors from a provincial background whose attitude to Rome and its empire was likely to be more complex than we have so far implied. Moreover, although narrative historiography will take pride of place in our discussion, it was clearly just one strand in a broader imperial discourse about the past in which many besides historians were implicated. Poets and philosophers, antiquarians and orators, state officials and drafters of decrees, all might look to Rome’s past; their perspectives and motives could vary, and the ideological assumptions and aims prevailing in historiography would not always obtain with equal force across and within these groups. Epic poetry, for instance, clearly shared a great deal with historiographic narrative in its representation of the Roman past (Feeney 1991: 250), but even in epic the complexion of the affinity can still vary strikingly from poet to poet: a positive ideological affinity seems clear in the case of Livy and Vergil; a more problematic one, though, if the poem at issue is Lucan’s Pharsalia - to many modern critics an ‘‘anti-Aeneid’’ whose subversive presentation of‘‘history as nightmare’’ voices deep disenchantment with the claims of Julio-Claudian Caesarism (Conte 1994: 443-6; John Henderson 1998: 165-211; Myers, this volume) - or Silius’ Punica, which on one view configures Livy and Vergil as competing intertextual presences (M. Wilson 1993: 218-19). Antiquarian scholarship was far less constricted than history or epic by the demands of literary genre; it was a field in which sheer curiosity about the past might operate for no particular purpose beyond itself. On the other hand, antiquarianism need not be innocent, and there is an affinity of sorts to be found, say, between Augustan imperial ideology and the appropriating urge to organize knowledge encyclopaedically in the Augustan scholar Verrius Flaccus (tutor to the princeps" grandsons, and probably the compiler of the annales maximi [see below, section 2]). Moreover, antiquarian works could themselves be important sources for poets as well as historians: the Aeneid and Ovid’s Fasti are obvious Augustan cases. As for philosophers and moralists, like the historians they could find in the past ethical exempla for present conduct - but sometimes also, as we shall see (see below, section 3), less upbeat lessons that chimed less well with the memorializing impulse of the historian. In sum, ‘‘the construction of the past’’ is a shorthand expression for what was really a plurality of representations shaped by a variety of cultural perspectives and values. Depending on the perspective from which it was viewed, the Roman past could still look different, and could imply different lessons.

With this basic point in mind, we can look more closely at a selection of specific cases, their similarities and their differences. Latin historiography - and two exceptionally rich cases in particular - will naturally figure prominently in much of what follows, but the discussion aims to convey how the past was ‘‘usefully’’ constructed at different times across a range of cultural and social contexts in the empire. Starting with an emphatically Romanocentric construction of the past in Augustan Rome, it moves on in time through the early and high empire up to the mid-third century, broadening the focus as it goes to embrace some provincial viewpoints, then reverts briefly to Rome at the close, glancing forward to the fourth century, and a changed world.