Ahh, Romanitas – The essence of Romanhood, Romanity, Romanness. What does it mean? Well that depends who you ask. Roman culture is, thanks to the influence of some…less than objective scholarship, simultaneously associated with the heights of austere civilisation and the worst of excess. If you want to blame anyone for this duality blame the Victorian scholars who revived Roman scholarship after it sort of fizzled away post-renaissance.
They loved themselves a bit of Rome but all they knew of it was the texts written by military propagandists (Caesar’s memoirs of his wars), the letters of slimy political ponces (Cicero’s letters and speeches) or, worse, the meandering ramblings of the stoics (Seneca’s letters or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations). These don’t exactly paint a true picture of Rome, never mind the fact that the Roman artefacts being discovered were all this austere, plain white marble.
We now know that many, if not all of those statues, would have been covered in colourful paint. We know building cladding would have been decorated, frescoes would have dominated the walls of even lower middle-class homes. The Romans fucking loved life.
Even a slave in Rome could have a good life. It seems a strange idea, I know, because our idea of ‘slavery’ is tainted by its more recent forms that were disgusting abuses of other human beings. A Roman slave, though, could be a trusted member of an inner circle, treated very well and eventually become a freedman, and live their own life. Much of Emperor Claudius’ inner circle of advisors were his slaves or freedmen, with Narcissus and Pallas being the most famous examples.
The point is our conception of Rome and Romans and the reality of Rome and Romans are often two different things. Sadly none of us can use a time machine and go there. Frankly I’d fucking love to. But there is evidence that Romans were not the upstanding, austere, severe military-political citizens they are made out to be. A lot of that idea comes from written sources that are, of course, going to be written by well-educated individuals about the most important stuff going on. Your everyday common-or-garden Roman probably didn’t give a shit. They had to worry about putting food on the table, their kids, whether they wanted/needed more kids, whether they could afford a slave to help out around the house, praying to the lares (their household gods) and worrying what the neighbours thought (they were VERY socially conscious.)
They were also drunken, overfed, horny, orgiastic, vapid, wine-swigging party goers. We like to imagine Romans as severe, learned and wittily conversational. But a lot of them were dumb as a box of rocks, mostly pissed (as in drunk) and bawdy as hell. They were more TOWIE than BBC4, more Real Housewives and less Downton Abbey. I guess what I’m trying to say is they aren’t as far from you or I as scholarship would have you think. People is people, and people will do what people do. Get fucked up on substances, do each other, demand entertaining and graffiti dicks on things.
So what’s the best way to get people, nowadays, to relate to the Romans?
How about ten articles detailing the top ten aspects of modern bullshit that the Romans would have loved?