Bob Carr, Rhiannon Evans, Richard Fidler and Richard Hobbs, 5 December 2018
LILY WITHYCOMBE: I’d like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal, the Ngunawal and the Ngambri Peoples, who are the traditional custodians of this ancient land on which we are meeting and to pay respect to their elders, both past and present. And I extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here today.
Now it is with great pleasure that I will introduce the topic of tonight’s panel: our ongoing fascination with ancient Rome. So to explore some of the answers to this and other related questions, is this expert panel. Leading the discussion tonight is Richard Fidler, an Australian radio presenter and writer who is well-known and indeed beloved for his hour- long interview program Conversations with Richard Fidler on ABC Radio National and also to anyone with the love of Roman culture and history. You'll know him for the recent book Ghost Empire, which narrates the later incarnation of Rome in the east — the Byzantine Roman Empire. This is an excellent contribution to scholarship and a great read. Here we have Richard Hobbs, Weston curator of Roman Britain at the British Museum who just this very morning was manacled like a convict by a group of visiting school students from Toowoomba in our Landmarks gallery. But he's escaped this and the London winter to be with us here today. Dr Rhiannon Evans, lecturer at Latrobe University, a specialist in the history and literature relating to Julius Caesar and the wonderfully engaging co-host of the internationally popular podcast Emperors of Rome. And the Honourable Bob Carr: academic, author and former New South Wales premier who considers Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations to be one of his favorite books. Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to this excellent panel and I will now hand over to Richard Fidler.
RICHARD FIDLER: Thank you very much. I'll start with you Bob. You're a former senator and a former premier. Both of those are sort of Latinate words. Why do you in that eternal struggle between the love of the ancient Greeks and the love of the ancient Romans — why do you land so heavily on the side of the Romans?
BOB CARR: Well, well, the … the practical use of power. They... they ran a vast empire. They did it for... four or five centuries; longer if you include Byzantine. And they ended up running the Greeks. So the gravitation to Rome I think is very … very natural. It's the pragmatism of the Romans. What works, what doesn't work. And ending up exerting power across the Mediterranean world is what draws you to them.
RICHARD FIDLER: I think you said once you like them because they were doers and not philosophers. Is that right?
BOB CARR: Yes I do. I can't relate to philosophy. It might be a chair when I'm not looking at it, may not be a chair — I can't get engaged in that. But ... but ... hit me with a question out of history, like why Hitler … why ... why Caesar was assassinated in Pompeii’s theatre in 44 BC. And questions like whether Caesar was a war criminal, whether he deserved to be dictator for life. I’m engaged by the historic speculation. Philosophic speculation is very distant. When I hear the ruminations of the Greeks I think well that might be true or it might not be true. There's no way of knowing — but there are ways of determining how good an emperor was Tiberius and what are his claims up against Hadrian and up against Caracalla.
RICHARD FIDLER: How about you, Rhiannon? Why are you a specialist in Roman history? Why have you chosen the Romans rather than the Greeks, the Persians, the Indians, the Chinese or anyone else for that matter? What do you love about studying the Romans and Roman history?
RHIANNON EVANS: I think I love the paradoxes in that they were, as Bob says, immensely successful militarily and I think that's one of the reasons that we're still looking at them. They had so much power over such a vast area in antiquity so they had this Mediterranean empire went all the way to where I come from in Britain and all over North Africa into the Middle East. But they were also, you know … we also have a vast body of literature from this period which could stand and maybe stand up against Greek literature very well. And they produced an enormous amount of art and they've had so much influence upon us. But I think perhaps most of all it's the story. So not only the stories they told but also the stories from their history which sometimes lend themselves to sensationalism, so ‘How bad is a bad emperor and what terrible things has he done?’, but also that the narrative of … I mean there is decline and fall and the change the revolution from republic to emperor. So it's quite sensational and, you know, it's a … it's a history with narrative that you can grasp and it's really great to share with students in my case.
RICHARD FIDLER: Yeah that's my point of entry too — the stories are so compelling. How about you, Richard? Unlike Bob and I you grew up in a former out ... outpost of the Roman Empire. I'm imagining ... did you … were remnants of that empire a part of your childhood and your sense of growing up in a place that was once an outpost of the Roman Empire?
RICHARD HOBBS: Well it's funny you should say that because actually Britain is quite poor on that sort of thing. I mean we don't have anything like the remains you get in obviously Italy itself, North Africa — incredible preservation of buildings temples and so on. The two big sites of course the Roman bath and Hadrian's Wall which I suspect we'll talk about later. So actually not, not so much but stuff keeps coming up. So you know it kind of demands to be studied and understood and so someone like myself who works in a big institution looks at lots of material. You know we kind of ... we know that this kind of material is there and it needs to be understood. So for example … a good recent example also would wooden writing tablets from London with the first … with the first reference to London itself, which is the incredible thing. These things are just after the conquest. Another example is a fantastic Egyptian urn made from basalt, which was buried, which was buried … someone was buried in it London — this has come all the way from Egypt —
RICHARD FIDLER: An Egyptian urn —
RICHARD HOBBS: Yes.
RICHARD FIDLER: Brought by the Romans to Londinium.
RICHARD HOBBS: Yes, which is just incredible. And so when … when the Roman period begins you just get this incredible kind of explosion of material culture and I think that's really why for me it's such an interesting thing, because it's constantly evolving … you’re constantly … new things … you are constantly therefore kind of re-interrogating what you thought you knew about it and these new things they give you a different perspective all the time really.
RICHARD FIDLER: Rhiannon, I've had the pleasure of touching the brickwork on Hadrian's Wall in the north of England and doing the same thing on the Theodosian Walls of Constantinople in modern-day Istanbul and the brickwork is exactly the same, the same as you'd find in Syria, the same as you'd find in North Africa. What does this tell us about the incredible coherence of the Roman world?
RHIANNON EVANS: Well they like to leave their mark. They like to leave their stamp and of course they do have a model — they find a model that works because something I perhaps should have mentioned before is they are fantastic engineers and this makes them able to be [inaudible] doers. So for example you think of the Colosseum you think of the bits of it that are missing; they're missing because they've been pillaged, not because it's fallen down and it would all still be there if people hadn't decided they wanted that marble brick to build other things. So they really did build to last. And that concrete was stronger than our concrete. So it's not surprising that you can still touch those two walls and that knowledge has spread that vast distance apart but that, you know, they have manuals for how to do this. And this is how they train their army and they train their builders and that's why you can find them in such disparate parts of the empire.
RICHARD FIDLER: It was said that an educated person could go to Londinium and have a conversation there in Latin with educated people and then travel all the way over to Syria and go to a similar place where you could have a conversation with similarly like-minded people in Syria and the same in North Africa and the same in, in the Balkans as well. That just suggests an incredible coherence to me — a consistency. Richard, you would have seen examples of that in Britain I'm sure.
RICHARD HOBBS: Yeah I mean the spread of material is … absolutely gives that sense so, you know, for example samian pottery, this beautiful red gloss pottery is … you see it over the entire empire because it's, it's, it's the stuff that you want to eat from, because it works and it's produced in these vast kilns in ... in parts of France and North Africa and various other places. And so, you know, all that stuff moves around. The amounts of metalworking that was being done through that period, so the exploitation of copper and iron and all these resources has left its mark on the Greenland ice cap when they do … when they core down deep into the Greenland ice cap they say they see the pollution caused by, by Roman smelting. So the kind of vastness of the industries that they created ... I mean this is primarily to feed the, the army … let's not forget, you know, they had this vast army, 30-odd legions, with auxiliaries of around about half a million men employed in a professional fighting force. Let's not forget a lot of this ubiquity that we see is, is maintaining that, that, that military machine which keeps the empire protected and going.
RICHARD FIDLER: Bob, you’re New South Wales’ longest-serving premier; when you stepped down from office you did so at the time of your own choosing. There was only one Roman emperor that did that and that was Diocletian —
BOB CARR: Diocletian, to grow cabbages in Yugoslavia.
RICHARD FIDLER: Yes, to grow cabbages in Yugoslavia.
RICHARD FIDLER: Most of them … having read a fair bit of Roman history, are you grateful you weren't sort of turfed out of office by being stabbed on the floor of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly?
BOB CARR: Yeah it was a sad day. I said this to Steve Bracks the Victorian Premier once. I said ‘The last day. When you leave the Premier's office and you go out, go down to Government House to hand in your resignation.’ — I said ‘It is very … very sad isn't it. It's very moving.’ You're aware that you're part of a democratic tradition — it's such an honorable thing, to go to Government House and hand in your commission and to see your successor sworn in. But the great failure of the Roman Empire, it strikes me, is that they didn't settle on plans for succession. That great weakness is that, by and large, prime ministers … emperors unlike our prime ministers ... or premiers didn't die in their bids. I mean there was a violent end to most of them. I think the most of them, especially if you get if you get beyond the, the imperial crisis of 192 CE, 192 or 193, you then look … after, after the death of Septimus Severus, you then look at a violent death for just about every emperor. Caracalla got off his, off his horse to relieve the pressure in his bladder. Someone came up behind and knifed him in the kidney fat. Goodbye Caracalla who'd murdered his own brother Geta in the … in the palace back in the Palatine. It went on; the year 238 you had five emperors — each of them meeting a violent end. So without a ... without a firm rule of natural succession … or, or a strictly adhered-to system of adoptive emperors … that was the great weakness of the constitutional arrangement.
RICHARD FIDLER: When you read something like the gospels of the New Testament, for me one of the most recognisable figures is Pontius Pilate. I recognize him almost as being very similar to a contemporary politician. He's trying to work with what he's got in front of him. Is it like that for you to read Roman history — does it offer insights and consolations to a practising politician?
BOB CARR: Of course it does. I sat in Question Time once; we had the Olympics about to come — we were blasted with criticism in the lead-up to the Olympics — are they going to be a disaster, problems with ticketing, how were the trains run and all the rest. I turned to the minister of the Olympics and I said ‘Marcus Aurelius says it all: total ingratitude, endless criticism — that's the nature of political power. You’ll get credit for nothing.’ Not for nothing did Bill Clinton have the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by his bed in the White House. He found consolation in its realism about the world of politics. And Marcus Aurelius says in the end it all vanishes … it all vanishes in the mists of time. You are a ... you are a concentration of atoms. And it's soon all over … soon all over. It's the sort of thought you get in Hamlet. And it's what draws us to the Romans among other things.
In ways they’re so antique, but in other ways they're so modern when they have those existential thoughts. They're so like us. And there is a magic period with Marcus Aurelius. If I can just leap to another thought and Flaubert the French novelist said this, he said, the world of Marcus Aurelius, ‘Christ had not yet arrived so they weren't the consolations of the Christian religion’. He said ‘The old gods had lost their appeal’. The old gods had lost their charisma. It was impossible to believe in them. So in the time of Marcus Aurelius, the mature empire … the later empire ... the mature empire — it was impossible to have a faith. You're on your own. Mankind, humankind was on its own.
RICHARD FIDLER: This is existentialism, is it?
BOB CARR: Yes that's right, and Flaubert said at that time, it was believed that when your days were over you walked into the void. And he said there was a wonderful nobility in that. And looking at that period in Roman history we can say it's, it's strikingly modern — the old gods dead … Christianity … Christ had lived but Christianity had not yet arrived.
RICHARD FIDLER: Rhiannon, when you … when we talk about the Romans we acknowledge how good they are particularly at governance, law, engineering, military organization, where there are things other things that the Romans were particularly good at that we don't talk about as much.
RHIANNON EVANS: I suppose we don't talk about their literature as much as I'd like because like my entry point to all of this wasn't really as a historian, it was learning Latin and that in itself shows us something about the power of Latin and the power of the Romans, because Roman authors come from all over the Roman world. There are Roman authors from North Africa. There are … it's quite hard to think of a Roman author who's born in Rome. In fact one of my lectures set up this task once and the last one we could think of was Julius Caesar who died in 44 BC and the Roman Empire went on for hundreds of years after that. So you have these authors who are born all over the Roman Empire adopting Latin writing … writing epic poetry, writing history and the history itself is fascinating because the Romans question their own position all the time. So we might think of them as these very self-assured people from this culture which is dominant over the Mediterranean certainly in terms of economic and military power.
But they're quite often questioning ‘How do we get here? How did we get here so quickly? How did we get here without really as much culture as the Greeks had?’ And it's often been compared to what is now called a cultural cringe that the Romans sometimes express that they are, and the poet Virgil says it. He has a character, at least in his epic, say the Romans, you know, ‘This is your … this is your art. Go out and conquer. You leave that poetry and astronomy and stuff like that to other people.’ And there have been … I can't tell you how many articles have been written about these couple of lines in Virgil's Aeneid because is this the Romans saying ‘We're not up to poetry’?
Is this the Romans saying that in the … acknowledge the greatest poem ever written in Latin, so there's this, as I say, there's a constant paradox where the Romans on the one hand seem very self-assured but on the other hand they will talk in their history about figures who are not … morally quite corrupt. You know that the reason they get rid of their kings apparently in the 6th century BCE, so very, very early is because the son of the king rapes a Roman noble woman. And the Romans aren’t going to take it anymore so they get rid of the monarchy and they bring in the republican model and that's their myth as to why they've got a republic for 500 years. And after that there's an awful … an awful lot of Romans making poor judgments coming later too. So they … they have this history where they're very far from perfect; I mean the founder of their city, Romulus, is brought up by a shepherd and the Greeks mocked them for that because that's … that's basically he's brought up as a pauper albeit he is the son of a royal family. And of course he's a fratricide — he kills his brother so their mix would kind of lend themselves to … towards a questioning about quite what's going on in Roman culture.
RICHARD FIDLER: Is culture in Rome, for the Romans, something that's to sort of find some space at the margins? Is culture of something that's often spoken of as a threat to Roman manliness, a threat to Roman will to power — culture might make them soft?
RHIANNON EVANS: It can be and particularly there's … there's a form of Roman love poetry called Roman elegy which flourished under the Emperor Augustus around the turn of the first centuries BC and CE, where the poet kind of put himself forward as this rather passive figure and people like the politician Cicero, from the previous generation, criticized this form of poetry a lot. They were called the new poets but he … he didn't like the new poets — this newness, this revolutionary form of poetry where men weren't standing up as tough men, he regarded as kind of the end of Roman culture. I mean he … he thought that the reason that they needed a revolution was because manliness was not there the way it had been for the Romans and also ‘We're in danger of falling into monarchy’ about which he was indeed correct.
So yes, this is part of that questioning that's going on and gender is a big part of that. The Romans are constantly worried that they might not be as manly as their reputation would suggest.
RICHARD FIDLER: Yes. How does this affect their attitude to the Persians, Richard? When they look at the Persians like you see speeches from Cato … and the easiest thing is are … those Persians over there — they’ve got all the money and this fancy pants culture and their fine fancy spiced foods but, you know, we're plain-dressed, plain-speaking, hard-handed sons of the soil. We're not effete like those girlie men Persians. What's their attitude to the Persians?
RICHARD HOBBS: It’s funny you should say that because they spend an awful long time trying to emulate them as well as control all those kind of trade things that they can get from the East. So I think … I don't … I don't know if I kind of buy that. It sounds to me like special pleading on Cato's part.
RICHARD FIDLER: Well that's what I mean, is there this kind of … at the same time there are leading figures deploring the introduction of silk, and how that's going to make women self-obsessed and it's going to make …there’s this is fear of, of decadence, I suppose and they might get that from the Persians.
RICHARD HOBBS: Yes, I guess so. I mean, you know, there's one thing that we don't tend to focus on … is that relationship between East and West at this time. We focus our attention on Europe [inaudible] of Europe really in terms of when we think … when we discuss the Roman provinces actually for most of the history they're in conflict with the … with the Parthians and the Sasanian Empire. So we're talking about the area covered by modern Iran and Iraq essentially. But why are they doing that? Because they want access to those interests ... that interesting stuff that's over there — the exotic. They all say they seem pretty obsessed with ... getting their hands on really unusual things be it spear … you know, for example roasting flamingos and stuff to have a dinner party or —
RICHARD FIDLER: They're eating roasted flamingo? Really?
RICHARD HOBBS: Yes. If you read although … if you read like, Apicius who's giving you all these Roman recipes that … they're, they're obsessed with having the most exotic sort of things that they can put on their table — the most exotic game.
RHIANNON EVANS: But absolutely I agree, yes, and bringing in, you know, elephants and giraffes to fight in the arena but at the same time … and it’s partly to do with the sources we've got, so we've got people like Cato. It's a moral discourse. It's a way of saying ‘I'm going to claim that the world is falling apart because we've got this Eastern silk coming in, we've got too much luxury’ and at certain times they did have sumptuary legislation which was ‘You're not allowed to wear this particular colour or riding carriages’ — a lot of it was aimed at women. And there are big arguments about whether this is about the moral decline being based on too much ostentation, or is it that there was this kind of conspicuous consumption that meant that there were hierarchies increasing ever more and people would be jealous. And so is this an attempt to sort of have some political control and we don't really know, but certainly it was a concern for them at the same time, that Rich is absolutely right — they wanted this stuff.
RICHARD HOBBS: Yes that's right, yes.
RICHARD FIDLER: Bob, how about slavery? There's a theory that says the reason why you don't get that much technological progress ... in the Roman ... Empire is due to slavery — it does away with the need for innovation, for labour-saving devices. Is that one of the main effects of slavery that you can see and others as well?
BOB CARR: Yes, I find that pretty convincing. You wouldn't say it warrants criticism ... warrants comparison, the Roman Empire, with post-industrial … industrial and post-industrial society as we know it, in terms of inventiveness. They … they were good at the things they settled on. Think of the Pantheon standing today because of its … its concrete and other construction techniques. But they weren't as restlessly inventive as we are. So, a book I’d strongly recommend because, although it came out in 2008, it grapples with the question of whether America is the new Rome. I think the temptation to compare Trump's America with Rome and its decadence … decadent weakness is stronger, ten years since the publication of Cullen Murphy's book. But it's a very scholarly grappling with analogies between America and Rome — very sophisticated. It says, and I'll just quote one paragraph:
‘The comparison between America and Rome comes to mind unbidden in the reflexive way that the behavior of chimps reminds you of the behavior of people.’
And it goes on to talk about … talk about stand-out comparisons of the importance of law in the Roman world. Even … even the Roman constitution with popular assemblies, an aristocratic senate, and then executive office and sometimes powerful court systems. That's a rough and ready model of what the Founding Fathers drafted in the 1780s. But the big contrast, to come back to your question, the big contrast is that Rome stayed to the very end a slave society. America has kept reinventing itself from, from agrarian slave society to industrial society to post-industrial society, technological cutting-edge society. And that is the big difference. Whether ... whether it means the American empire is endlessly resilient, unlike every other empire we know from the pages of history, is of course a different question.
RICHARD FIDLER: Well it was the South … said one of the reasons why the South lost the US Civil War was because it was a slave society. There was very little manufacturing, very little technical innovation.
BOB CARR: The civil war was won in the shoe factories of Massachusetts. The Northern armies ... always had shoes — they were shod. But the Confederate army was generally barefooted — they didn't have shoe factories. And ... an industrial society in a war of attrition is always going to win against an agrarian society.
RICHARD FIDLER: Rhiannon, we know that there were slaves who had unspeakable tiny lives working in mines in Spain and the like. But then there were house slaves in the city of Rome itself. I've heard one analogy that says that Romans treated their house slaves like we would our house pets pretty much. And … and if people were too cruel to their slaves they got a reputation for being, like we would, for being cruel to animals. How true is that?
RHIANNON EVANS: That … you could … you could make that comparison to an extent. I would say that we ... we have ... perhaps some people think not as many laws as we should about treatment of animals. The Romans didn't have any about the treatment of their slaves so we treat our animals better. So your slave was your property and it's absolutely true that if you had to choose — it's an invidious choice — between being a slave in the mines and being the slave in the household, you would choose the household. But it all depends on what the household is like and how kind the owner is going to be to you. And they can separate you from your kin at any moment. So any child born to a slave woman is a slave and that child might be allowed to be brought up with her, it might be sold on, because they have no right to family, they have no right to marriage — they are absolutely property. So we shouldn't romanticize. And I read some recently … somebody criticizing the way that slaves are represented in textbooks for learning Latin, because they're often based on family the way that foreign language textbooks are. And it's, it's quite hard, you know — do you actually show cruelty to a slave in a book that is perhaps being used by an 11 year-old? That's the reality. Or would you make it look like happy families and so you kind of have to do something in the middle. But, but we do know that slaves in the mines … that there is actually some writing from an ancient source that, that is appalled by the treatment of slaves in the mines, that even they could be horrified. They say that, you know, they are … they basically killed but just by being there. They last a very short amount of time. They, they are treated harshly and they just generate profits for the owners. So even in antiquity they could see this as very harsh. At the same time as a threat that be used to a house slave is ‘You better behave or I'll send you to the mines’. So that's always that threat hovering there.
RICHARD HOBBS: But isn’t this in the system where you, you can be freed from your position? A crucial difference to other slaving societies.
RHIANNON EVANS: Yes. I'm glad you brought that up. I've made … I've made it sound all gloom and doom. But absolutely; manumission, as we call it, being set free is, is not uncommon especially for how slaves ... one reason is that if somebody might free you in their will, and it's a selfish reason in that they want more people to walk in their funerary procession because it makes them look important and it … and slaves aren't allowed to do that. But if they've been freed then they will be part of that procession and you don't need them anymore once you’re gone, so why not do that? So that's a common way of being set free. And once you're set free as a Roman slave, you become a Roman citizen, with slightly diminished rights, but nevertheless —
BOB CARR: On the other side of the ledger it was legal for you to thrash a slave to death.
RHIANNON EVANS: Absolutely.
BOB CARR: You could kill your slave. You wouldn't be guilty of murder.
RHIANNON EVANS: No — no, they had no rights themselves. The only … you know we've mentioned already that the Romans were obsessed with the law. And they, they liked to litigate a lot. And so there were cases where somebody would be charged with hurting a slave. But that case is brought by the owner of the slave because you've harmed their property. So it's the same as we might think of somebody coming and ... and destroying part of our house. It’s property — they think of them as property. One of the sources I give my students that appalls them most is one that says ‘There are three types of tools that you can use in farming. One of them speaks, one of them half speaks and one of them is meat’. The meat one is a plow, the half speaking one is an ox and the speaking one is a slave. And this source [inaudible] basically puts them all on the same level.
BOB CARR: What a reflection it is on Rome that there is no evidence of an anti-slavery movement. There's no dissident, there's no humanitarian, there's no great liberal voice saying ‘We've got this institution — slavery — it's fundamentally wrong’. That doesn't happen.
RHIANNON EVANS: No, that would have seemed very alien to them to question. And it's actually a great thing to throw at students and confuse them … to say this seems natural to Romans ... ‘Well it seems natural to us but in 500 years’ time people will be judging us’. So yes there is none of that. There is as you mentioned at the beginning, Richard … occasionally people will express disgust perhaps at the way someone treats their slaves but there's nothing that can be done about it — there's no legal redress to that.
RICHARD FIDLER: There's the same thing for blood sport. I've been in the basement of the Coliseum and seen one of the cells where prisoners would have been kept, before they were winched up onto the floor of the Coliseum where some Gaulish farmer would have been captured in some remote battle, put in this cell for God knows how long, put on the elevator, because they had an elevator on the floor of the Coliseum, winched up to the floor to be confronted by some guy covered in armour, with a sword, who would just go ‘Eurgh, eurgh, eurgh’, stab them through the guts while people are cheering and having a marvelous time. Is there any sense ... of moral revulsion towards blood sport in, in the Roman texts that we have? Do they like it? Not like it? Do they go ‘This is just disgusting’ and … and … and ‘An affront to our shared humanity’?
RICHARD HOBBS: It's a very martial society, let's not forget, you know, they, they, they had that experience of seeing blood and being up close and personal. You know — war. That was what war was. So I think that they're much more familiarized with those … that violence in everyday life than we are. And they're probably quite immune to those types of things.
RICHARD FIDLER: Maybe so, but I don't know if there's a taste for blood sport amongst returning veterans in modern society.
RICHARD HOBBS: Well, think about bullfighting which still goes on in many countries, you know, that's a blood sport and that's hugely popular in many countries. So —
RICHARD FIDLER: What's the shift here though that happens in Rome? Is it the Christianization of Rome where suddenly blood sport and slavery, in the light of Christian philosophy, become repugnant to the Roman Empire?
RICHARD HOBBS: Ah, I don’t know.
RHIANNON EVANS: Christianity is often given some of the credit, but if so it happens fairly later on — it's not instant. So for example, people often think that slaves and minority groups in ancient Rome were drawn to Christianity because it seemed to give them some voice — seemed to say everyone was equal before God and that … that is true. But it didn't say ‘Let's emancipate the slaves’. So, there's a letter from Saint Paul where he's sending a slave back to his own and he's saying ‘Please treat him kindly’. But he's not trying to ... he's not trying to destroy the system.
RICHARD FIDLER: But there's Moses leading his people out of slavery in Egypt in the Old Testament as well. I don't know — what do you think, Richard?
RICHARD HOBBS: Was it … was the Hippodrome more popular than the arena though? You know, was horse racing actually a bigger thing? I don't know. I'm just saying that maybe we kind of think of the … of the arena as the main thing. But maybe … maybe it wasn't such a big part of their society.
RHIANNON EVANS: The circus was more popular.
RICHARD HOBBS: Yes exactly, the circus was more popular.
RHIANNON EVANS: So that's the horseracing. And I think we have … not to diminish it ... I mean people were killed in the arena. But gladiators … they weren't just necessarily people dragged in from Gaul. They were trained and they were prized. And you didn't really want them to die. You wanted them to provide a spectacle. And if you'd invested money in them and they performed well, you sort of wanted them to live, to perform again.
RICHARD FIDLER: Yes well, gladiators were highly paid. They were like rock stars or wrestlers of their time. But I'm more interested in the poor schlub from Gaul, like I said, who's just had a … given a … put a sword in his hand and a hat on his head and pushed out into the arena.
RICHARD HOBBS: But this is, you know, this is the treatment of the other isn't that kind of idea of the barbarian, you know, they, they, they, they thought of anyone who wasn't part of the Roman Empire — they were fair game. And so it was entirely the way in which they viewed the kind of social strata, and how you position yourself within it. I think it comes back to slavery, and thinking of those people as, as, as another kind of ... not human beings. I think, I think, I think that's what it comes down to. Unfortunately that was the mindset.
BOB CARR: Back on slavery. The American abolitionist Lincoln, as president, would have loved something from the Bible that said unambiguously, or even ambiguously, ‘Slavery is wrong, God doesn't want slavery — slavery is against Christianity’. There’s not a passage in the Bible that they were able to deploy, to use in arguments against the slave power of the American South.
RICHARD FIDLER: But Martin Luther King used language of the Bible all the time … not saying that slavery … God said ‘Slavery is bad’ but he used that example …
BOB CARR: Yes, yes, yes. Lincoln, in the debates with his opponent for the senate in 1858, arguing about slavery whether it was right or wrong, whether negroes were the equivalent, at least in terms of civic rights, of a white … white man. Lincoln, in putting together his Gettysburg Address or his two inaugurals, would have loved a quote from the Bible that supported his case for emancipation. There was none available. Slavery was an established uncontested path of life in the ancient world.
RICHARD FIDLER: Bob, in making that comparison between contemporary United States and the Roman Empire or ancient Rome, the most ... and look I think I can see and I'd like to know what you think of this, is that period in the lead up to the end of the republic, when there are the two brothers, the Gracchus brothers, who are both patricians; both of them become tribunes of the people in order to try and get the senatorial class to actually hand some land back to the broader citizenship of the Roman Empire. But the plutocrats, the upper class of Roman society are so obstinate and hang onto their privileges so mulishly that in the end both those brothers get killed. This in turn down the track leads to … it’s one of the factors that leads to the death of the republic. In a situation, the United States, like we have now: could you see similarities with that?
BOB CARR: Yes. The, the … I am increasingly irritated by America being referred to as a democracy, because when you have presidents now routinely elected with a minority of the popular vote because of the way the Electoral College works. When you have every Republican state governor committed to the proposition there should be voter suppression to make it hard for racial minorities or poor to actually be able to cast a vote. When you have a senate that's getting close to having 30 per cent of the voters with 70 per cent of the say, because of the geographic distribution of population and ... the way the Senate is elected it's pretty hard to say America is a democracy and certainly a political system where the National Rifle Association and Wall Street win every time on tax law or gun law — you can't say it's a liberal democracy. But I actually think we're at the point where the most ... clinically accurate description of the American political system ... is that it's a plutocracy, a republic, a republic to be sure ... that's plutocratic — Wall Street rules — but has rigorously entrenched freedom of speech. Which is its great claim: a republic plutocracy, but with admirably advanced and defended freedom of speech. At that point you've got a striking comparison with Rome, which under the republic and then under the empire — certainly the early empire — was a plutocracy, with some legislative pretensions.
RICHARD FIDLER: So you don't really … so the current situation; you, you don't see like a warning in Roman history for how things are now?
BOB CARR: I think it's a rough and ready comparison, as Cullen said. We're seeing things through a mist darkly but there are enough arresting comparisons ... to take an interest. Americans now know no history — they don't even know their own history. We have an American president, the first since George Washington, of whom it can be said he's never read a biography of any US president. But that's, that's quite appropriate for a country that's, in Gore Vidal’s words, the Republic of Amnesia. America does not know its own history, so it's certainly not going to learn from the history of Rome. But there are enough analogies in Rome and its fate, that should Americans ever require an interest in history — their own or someone else's — to keep them busily engaged.
RICHARD FIDLER: You touched on the role of women, Rhiannon, in Roman society. One of the things I had … I've had to learn is to just keep a couple of things in mind when you read Roman accounts of Roman history, which is that to the ancient Romans, women could only be three things. They could be like a giant statue of Faustina that's in the National Museum exhibition — they're like something like the mother of the nation. You can be that — sort of a grand and beloved dowager — or you can be a pure and pristine virgin or an evil, scheming, poisonous bitch, essentially. They're the three options for you in Roman history.
RHIANNON EVANS: I’m surprised you’ve made it to three. I guess that the pristine virgin is meant to become the mother figure. This is another game I once played with my PhD supervisor: ‘Can you think of a Roman woman who doesn't get married if she lives long enough?’ No? So yes, you're expected to become the matrona figure — the mother — or the flip side of that, and anyone here who's old enough to have seen I Claudius, you know, that the first emperor Augustus, his wife Livia is cast as publicly she's this perfect matrona figure, but actually she's scheming behind the scenes — she's doing exactly what Richard described there. And that's how she's described in some of our sources albeit Robert Graves exaggerates it a little bit. And this is … we have to really be careful with our sources here because they're written by elite men and they often especially … our main source there is a man called Tacitus who's from the senatorial class.
And that the whole … you know, having an emperor means that this is a system where he can't really get power anymore in the way the senators used to. He hates the idea that there's an imperial family and one of the ways that he projects this is by saying ‘Women have now got too much power. There are people with access to the Emperor. There are people who can work behind the throne. They have access that I don't have.’ So the picture we have of Livia there is to a certain extent a product of some men who feel that they've been deprived of, of rights that they should have. This is actually seeming quite topical to some stuff that occurs in social media now as I speak it, but the version of Livia that we have from the official versions — you know, statues and coins — so often is much more like that colossal head of Faustina, where she is depicted as this ... this really … she's the emperor, she is the one who looks after the family and the nation and she is … she's actually often depicted as fertile and having produced multiple children even though she and Augustus produced no children together. So this kind of projection of her is something she's not necessarily. And it's partly to do with the fact that it's her son, not Augustus’s son who gets to be the next emperor. So it looks very dodgy. So this is why the stories become kind of intriguing and you have to try and think ‘Well is it possible that Livia was exerting this much influence? Did she really poison that many people to get her son, her very unpopular son?’ It seems like I have to say the least.
RICHARD FIDLER: It seems unlikely, doesn't it, to say the least, doesn’t it. I mean. So … if you read between the lines a bit, some stuff seems to become apparent when reading Roman history, particularly in regards to the way that women are depicted. It's preposterous most of the time.
RICHARD HOBBS: Yes, we've got one of the most … one of the most interesting documents released to a woman in our collections which we can't … we can't actually lend because it's too fragile but it's … it's the so-called birthday invitation from Vindoanda Roman forts and it's a wonderful document because it's basically the wife of one fort commander writing to the wife of the other to invite her to her birthday — happens to be on the 11th of September, which is a date that we all remember quite well, for probably the wrong reasons. But what's lovely about it is that the … the entire tablet would have been written by a scribe, but there's a second … there's a second hand at the bottom. And it just says, you know, ‘Please dear sister I really hope you can come to my birthday’, basically. And that's the first example of female handwriting from, you know, the Western Roman Empire. The earliest example dating to AD 100.
And what's really important about it, of course, is it tells you about literacy, because we don't know how many people are illiterate in the ancient world — it's very hard to judge that. But this is a ... this is a literate female who is the wife of a fort commander so she’s obviously very important, but that tells you something about the status of women in certain places. And it really is those tiny little glimpses that you get through archaeological work —
RHIANNON EVANS: I’ve got that postcard upon my board in my office.
RICHARD HOBBS: Or the lovely wall painting from Pompeii of the baker and his wife. And she's the one holding the stylus in the wax tablet. So, you know, I kind of like … that gives you a more positive idea about the role of women in —
RICHARD FIDLER: That might also be one of the … maybe the only, or the very few conversations between two women …
RICHARD HOBBS: Yes
RICHARD FIDLER: … on record within Roman history, as well. And —
RICHARD HOBBS: It's an extraordinary document and very, very important for that reason.
RICHARD FIDLER: We should move on to … I mean this is a … an exercise we just have to play which is ‘favorite emperors’. Bob, could you nominate the emperor you admire most?
BOB CARR: Well beyond Augustus, who put the system together and was so cunning in getting on top of the other triumvirs. His defeat of Mark Antony. Shakespeare, in the end of Antony and Cleopatra, accords him victory and then you think of a number of occasions in which Shakespeare … his final scene has a cold young pragmatist taking power. I think it’s Fortinbras at the end of Hamlet for example but … and ... and at the end of Richard the Third ... Richmond taking power. So you got to … but that that's a diversion. But I like Augustus, and in the mature empire, I think of that line of good emperors, so beloved of Gibbon — the period when it was the best gruel he said, in the history of the world, I think, from Nerva in 96 through to the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180. I think that's the field we would gravitate to, and faced with a choice between Marcus … Marcus Aurelius and Hadrian I think I'd settle on Hadrian, because of the opportunity he had, in a period of relative peace, to travel the empire extensively. And to rebuild cities. Poor Marcus Aurelius, coming after him, had to spend just about all his time on the Danube and Rhine frontiers, fighting off the northern people.
RICHARD FIDLER: The Marcomanni. So Hadrian is one of my favorites as well — you have a man who tours every single one of the Roman provinces at the height of its empire. He's a creator of theatres and temples and grand buildings right across the place — he's a man of culture.
BOB CARR: A lover of Greece — the Hellenic civilizations which he replicates when he when he rebuilds Jerusalem and founds other cities.
RICHARD FIDLER: And when he goes out to the frontlines where his troops are, they'll find him there digging a trench alongside them as well. He's that kind of guy.
BOB CARR: And I think we see him through the wonderful novelist … the eyes of the wonderful novelist Marguerite Yourcenar who wrote the book about —
RHIANNON EVANS: Memoirs of Hadrian.
BOB CARR: Yes, Memoirs of Hadrian. And she starts by describing him on the campaign, somewhere in Greece ... no, no — he's recalling this when he's dying in Tivoli, great palace in Tivoli — and recalls the finest food he ever ate. And he said it was the food he had when he was … when he was travelling in the empire ... and … and some fish, freshly plucked from the Mediterranean, grilled over open fire would be brought to him, with the thumb prints of the slave embedded in it. And washed down with retsina that tasted as … as if it had just been drawn from the bowels of the earth. And it's such a vivid image: the recollections of an emperor who's dying, in 138 outside Rome, of the days when he was campaigning across the empire, eating a meal cooked outside his tent.
RICHARD FIDLER: Well Bob and I might remember Hadrian with great fondness — Jewish people not so much.
RICHARD HOBBS: Yes that's right. Yes indeed, yes, because of his suppression of the Jews.
RICHARD FIDLER: Isn't he still cursed by Jewish people, even today?
RICHARD HOBBS: ‘May his bones rot in hell’, they’ll say about Hadrian
BOB CARR: Well they did … yes, they did keep zealously revolting against the empire. They did it, provoking Titus and Vespasian to put them down in the year 70 and then again in the 130s — the zealots are revolting against all the empire offered them. They kind of brought it upon themselves.
RHIANNON EVANS: There are many issues there.
RICHARD HOBBS: We shouldn’t go there.
RHIANNON EVANS: One of the issues for the Jews, and it's not the only one, is that the Romans were in a way quite happy to absorb aspects of other cultures including, quite often, their gods. So the goddess Isis from Egypt will turn up as Io via Greek culture and, you know, they will take on gods we haven't heard of very often as well and incorporate them. And I know Richard you have a slightly different view on this in Britain that we might talk about it perhaps not necessarily being so positive. But of course that’s the big problem for the Romans who are by this point deifying some of their emperors and with Hadrian, various members of his family — it's getting extended to women, you know, mother-in-law and people like that. But a monotheistic society will not accept this. They won't accept a pantheon. And this being such a central part of Roman society and religion ... the Romans don't really understand this: ‘Why can't they just have their god and our gods?’
RICHARD FIDLER: Yes, they sort of … they saw the Israelites as almost like the way we'd see Islamic extremists nowadays wouldn't they. They say ‘Oh he's mad — bring your Yahweh into our temple, that'll be fine’, you know, ‘That’ll be fine’.
RHIANNON EVANS: And they want to have, you know, statues of the emperor in the temple. This is not acceptable to the Jews.
BOB CARR: It’s a warning and this confirms that anti-Semitism predates Christianity — it runs deep in European civilization because they were anti-Semites before the Christian competition with Judaism started. It is a warning to us that anti-Semitism does run … is planted deeply in Western civilization— the Romans were prone to it.
RHIANNON EVANS: But the whole … I think perhaps … I think perhaps I have a rose-tinted view of the Romans as being kind of accepting. I may have been rather skewed by watching The Fall of the Roman Empire, the film from the 1960s, at an early age and it has Alec Guinness playing Marcus Aurelius and there's a scene where he just stands there randomly — he looks like a quarry almost — and there are … there are ambassadors from all parts of the empire going by him in a chariot and he's Marcus Aurelius so he can chat to each of them and say ‘Oh hello Sertorius’ and, you know, ‘You're from Parthia’ or somewhere. And ‘how's the wife?’ — that kind of thing. And it's Marcus Aurelius being this perfect emperor who will welcome everybody. So I think I have this, this view of the Roman Empire to a certain extent as this multicultural haven, potentially. But I was chatting with Richard beforehand and certainly in terms of the British gods who are then what we call syncretised — sort of joined together with Roman gods. You were saying you don't necessarily have such a positive view of that.
RICHARD HOBBS: Well it's only the whole Bath thing — Sulis Minerva really. It's like, you know, so basically at Bath you have a local deity called Sulis who is the goddess of the spring and the Romans come along and they impose Minerva on Bath. But you think of this, this nice kind of merging of the two deities but what was it, you know — how was it actually viewed locally? Perhaps they really felt that they’d kind of come in and taken over a very sacred site and impose their own god on it and then build this huge structure and impose their own priestly rituals and so on, on the sacred spring. So I don't know if it's necessarily, you know, it was a good thing. I got a really nice Bath story actually on that subject. You've got a curse tablet in the exhibition.
RICHARD FIDLER: Yes, there’s a curse tablet. That’s right.
RICHARD HOBBS: Well it's a lovely story about a guy called Edward Nicholson who was a librarian in Oxford in the early part of the last century. And he decided that he was going to interpret one of these Bath curse tablets because there were some curse tablets from there. So he took this tablet, or a picture of it, on holiday with him. That was going to be his holiday spare time — to decipher this tablet.
RHIANNON EVANS: That’s what they did in those days.
RICHARD HOBBS: That’s what they did. Most of us take a puzzle book but he took this. So he … he basically deciphered this written Latin text and his decipherment was incredible because it was basically a letter from one Christian to another — a very early date, so around about 100 AD and it was … it was quite complicated, this … this exchange between these two Christians. And it made the papers and it was a big sensation, you know, this whole thing about this early Christian writing. Some years later Roger Tomlin, who’s an expert on written Latin, read the same tablet and his interpretation was completely different. It was basically very similar to what we have in here — someone basically saying ‘I curse this person who's stolen my cloak.’ So where had Nicholson gone wrong? He's read it upside down.
BOB CARR: Richard before we leave … leave the subject, let's consider Julius Caesar the greatest Roman of them all. In her … her Caesar novels Colleen McCullough imagines that Caesar grew up in a tenement in the Subura, a poorer suburb of Rome which would have been very multicultural. She imagines that he grew up with neighbors, with Gallic people and also neighbors who were Jews and learned Hebrew. Julius Caesar knew Gallic languages and knew … knew Hebrew because he grew up with a … in a migrant community — be like growing up say in the … the East Side of Manhattan in the 1880s or the 1920s. And when he travelled back from Egypt, he was able to converse seriously with Jews in Palestine. It's a nice thought that Julius Caesar might … might have been one of the great pro-Semites of history.
RHIANNON EVANS: Well he did grow up in a … in that poor area which is —
BOB CARR: So we do know that? It wasn’t Colleen —
RHIANNON EVANS: That's strange to us because he comes from an extremely elite family, but they weren't that well-off and he's in debt for most of his life. And that's why he's going to war to make the money to pay it off. But we don't have any evidence that he spoke those languages and I have a sneak … I know this is evidence from absence, but I was thinking-feeling that his biographer would tell us. And I'm basing that purely on the fact that Plutarch the biographer in his biography of Mark Antony tells us that Cleopatra spoke many languages including the native Egyptian language. And that seems quite surprising to him, that she knows so many languages. So, he was aware of that and he I think would have been aware with Caesar, but it's not a strong argument that I think … probably not. It’s a nice idea, though.
BOB CARR: A great idea.
RICHARD FIDLER: I've come to the view that Julius Caesar may have had the most interesting life of any human being in the history of the world, if we can believe the accounts. He's kidnapped by pirates as a teenager, comes back with an army and has them all crucified, or the pirates. He becomes … conquers Gaul, has sex with Cleopatra on a barge going down the Nile, becomes dictator of Rome, has four triumphs? Four triumphs —
RHIANNON EVANS: A quadruple triumph, all at the same time [inaudible].
RICHARD FIDLER: All at the same time. A remarkable thing. Caesar does the most extraordinary things and then is stabbed to death on the floor of the temporary senate in Rome. Does that sound about right to you, that Julius Caesar had —
BOB CARR: Should add that he was a war criminal. He enslaved one million in … in Gaul
RICHARD FIDLER: We all make mistakes while being in office once —
BOB CARR: And murdered … murdered another million.
RICHARD FIDLER: So, I don’t know … does that stand up, that he had perhaps the most interesting life?
RHIANNON EVANS: Some of those stories are even … if you, if you wanted to go into the detail, the story of the pirates is one of my favourite Caesar stories. This is the bit that I think is apocryphal, definitely. He's supposed to have said ‘You're going to … you're going to ransom me for …’, I don't know, ‘ … 20,000 sesterces. I'm worth 80,000.’ And he had no money. He had to go and have the money raised and paid them. And then, you know, and said … and joked with them because he was a man of the people — joked to them and said ;‘Ha ha — I’m going to come back and get all you guys and have you executed.’ And then he did it. So … I think it's a story that means from the biographer’s point of view ‘Don't you go against Caesar’, because similarly he was … he was married to … his first marriage to a woman who was related to the political enemies of the current dictator when he was a young man — the dictator Sulla — and Sulla said to Caesar — Caesar’s 19 years old — he said ‘I want you to divorce that woman— divorce Cornelia.’ And he said ‘No, I’m not doing it. I'm just leaving Rome and …’, you know, ‘... I'm going to wait my time until you're gone.’ And you know he will not be pushed around. He's a high priest.
BOB CARR: He was a priest, of course — elective office. And to be sitting down … as a role of a young man to be sitting down that in that triumvirate, with Pompey — the great Pompey — and … and Crassus —
RHIANNON EVANS: Crassus, the richest man in the world.
BOB CARR: Richest man in the world and dividing up power — I mean that's a dramatic moment, if they met in an inn outside Rome one evening to divide the power of the known Mediterranean world. Who … which of us wouldn’t want to be, courtesy of time travel, back there with an instantaneous subtitled translation?
RHIANNON EVANS: Just to see the power dynamic going on. Yes.
RICHARD FIDLER: And just in the moments we have left — Bob … the sheer scale of the empire through time and through space is an amazing thing to behold. How likely is it that that say, two thousand years from now, people will be having a panel discussion, discussing the Carr era of New South Wales’ politics? It’s fairly certain.
BOB CARR: I think there'll be a slowly building fascination with… I mean it's twelve years since I stood down as premier and we've had six premiers in that time. And so it's beginning to acquire the aura of a golden age like the ... like the … like the Tang dynasty or the Medicis, or might I say in this context, the Augustine.
RHIANNON EVANS: Very nice parallel.
RICHARD FIDLER: On that note, ladies gentlemen, I'd like you to please thank our extraordinary panelists Richard Hobbs, Bob Carr and Doctor Rhiannon Evans. Thank you very much.
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Date published: 28 May 2019