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Who were the Classical Romans ?

What were the dates of ‘Classical’ Rome? Older scholars will give a brief span: the half-century lapping the last decades of the republic with the beginning of Augustus’ principate. Why so brief? Because students were expected to write Latin proses using classical models, and the models had to be black and white with a minimum of grey. A student could never squeal that his phrasing was actually all right because it was found in the later writer, Tacitus. For the subject to function in schools there had to be a right and wrong. Model texts were narrowed to Cicero, Caesar, Sallust and Livy (though even these authors were by no means uniform). For many hundreds of years their Latin would set the standards of prescriptive language study; and the rules were set in stone.

     That definition has now loosened up a bit. Today the classical period embraces all the authors we regard as ‘classics’, starting with Catullus and ending with Juvenal in the early 2nd century AD. This is almost two hundred years, a long time in the history of a culture and people. Classical Rome has since become a model to later generations, not only of language, but of literary form, architecture, law, engineering, and political administration (though perhaps not social kindness). From our view, all these centuries later, the culture has been frozen in time, and what sometimes gets lost in our recall of this period is a sense of the present, of change and life evolving.

     Learners of Latin come across this sooner or later. A ‘dead’ language is not subject to ongoing evolution as a living one inevitably is; the language rules of Latin are fixed. On closer inspection, however, we find words used in unusual ways; there are exceptions to grammatical norms, variable spellings, evidence of evolving sounds and a sense of language at change. Our view of this is limited to what was written down and thus survived. The fragmentary evidence for spoken Latin (which survives after a fashion in Spanish, Portuguese, French and Italian) not surprisingly suggests a broader variance and less rule-bound usage than we find in the written language, but even the surviving texts reflect development and diversity in style and grammatical expression.

     Changes in history are more obvious, certainly from a linear viewpoint as we skip through the lives and dates of political groundbreakers like Julius Caesar, Augustus, and the emperors who followed. Social change is also evident, if not so transparent.

     We sometimes think of Romans as Romulus’ community of owner-occupiers farming and fighting for seven hills, of sturdy yeomen who broke free of Etruscan domination and built an empire on the strength of their qualities of courage and self-sufficiency. The truth is that by the classical period such a picure had changed beyond recognition. We think of it though because classical Romans themselves aspired to these qualities. But many of the poets and historians who cherished old Roman values themselves enjoyed privileges of a very different social structure.

     In fact not very many classical ‘Romans’ were strictly speaking Roman at all. At the beginning of the classical period Catullus and a little after him Virgil grew up in Italy, to the north of the river Rubicon, an area defined by Caesar’s crossing as less than central to the Roman state. Cicero was from a town outside Rome, Horace came from the south of Italy. Writers are people whose identities have survived the passing of time, thanks to their work. There is no reason why they do not broadly reflect the changing demographic. Later in the classical period we have Martial who was born in Spain, Tacitus from southern Gaul, and Seneca another Spaniard. ‘Roman’ in one sense meant European. Your prestige and power depended on how close you were to the capital, but fewer and fewer of the big players of the time were born within the walls of the city.

     The social upheaval in Rome itself came about as the empire expanded, attracting a large number of outsiders to the capital to seek their fortune or simply make a living. Others were not so much attracted as dragged there in chains. Foreign victories filled the markets with a flow of captives, who as slaves made up roughly one third of the population of Rome. They performed all sorts of tasks, in quarries, mines and in agricultural slave gangs—where conditions were grim—and in services to the state and in private households. Many private slaves were given their freedom. Some earned their reward through the gratitude or affection or the owner. Others were freed because it was advantageous and profitable to do so. A libertus with good knowledge of his homeland might help to build business interests and accrue for his former master far more wealth than he would have done as a simple household slave. And a slave freed by a citizen became a citizen himself. Thus citizenship evolved, embracing not only the wealthier provincials, but freed slaves as well. Timbrel-player

     Early in the 1st century BC liberti are recorded as being enlisted as rowers in military ships for the first time. Before that it was unthinkable for slaves or ex-slaves to participate in military action on Rome’s behalf. A few decades later, Horace speaks highly of his father’s diligence, with no shame that he was an impoverished libertus. He was teased for it though, no doubt. A hundred years later by the time of Nero, Petronius writes a story (The Satyricon) with a character called Trimalchio, a wealthy libertus, who holds suppers for his clients, has a large retinue of his own slaves and generally kicks ass. He even takes the mickey of his own status, secure that his co-diners will laugh with him, not at him. At his dinners, clients, i.e. freeborn citizens who tended to the interests of their patrons in return for support, an age-old Roman social convention, felt inferior to liberti—unthinkable in Horace’s day.

     The change in status of the liberti came about as the different conquered peoples found their feet in their new regime. The end of the republican government had a significant impact too. Before Augustus the senatorial order retained its power and status, despite a few wobbles, by admitting precious few newcomers. During the republic, senators ran the show, and slaves were fixed at the bottom of the pile. Perhaps this is a little too black and white: the liberti were already an emerging class, with a more integrated role, as in the case of the rowers; and the civil wars showed up senatorial weaknesses long before Augustus took sole power. Those weaknesses were in a sense an enduring bubble that Augustus eventually pricked.

     With the emperors came the change in political decision-making. No longer was the senatorial consensus the driving force behind policy. The senatus consultus became little more than an expression of the emperor’s will. An emperor would not trust senators with all parts of the administration, after all their power had been displaced by his. They would flatter and fawn, of course, and he would create senators of his own choosing. But the rule of emperors greatly lessened the clout of senators and increased the roles of clever ex-slaves who acted as the clerks and confidants of their bosses.

     The concept of citizenship had changed significantly in the course of the classical period. This had been a prickly and contentious issue in Italy in the 1st century BC, when Italian towns rose up and together fought against Rome because they were expected to shoulder taxes but not share the privileges of citizenship. In the next century, within a year or two of Petronius’ Trimalchio, the status of civis had been extended enough for St Paul, who came from a wealthy family in what is now southern Turkey, to claim the right to face his accusations in Rome on the grounds that he was a civis. Much later, at the end of the 5th century, Boethius uses civis to mean little more than ‘person’, one who resides in the empire, not a barbarian or outsider.

     So to end this brief survey of the changing faces of 'Classical Rome', let’s leave the last line to the poet born in cis-Alpine Gaul (i.e. south of the Alps), who did his bit to promote the memory of the sturdy yeoman of early Rome. And what a line it is:


sed fugit interea, fugit inreparabile tempus.

Virgil, Georgics 3.284

George Sharpley 2013


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