Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Empire of "United" Rome HBC 01-27-21


History Book Club

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Empire of “United” Rome

Downtown Rome, 63 BCE

Wednesday, January 27, 2021. The Empire of “United” Rome. Over the years and then the centuries, much of Rome's population came from outside Italy -- this even included some of the later emperors, such as Hadrian, who was Spanish, and writers like Columella, Seneca, and Martial, also Spanish-born. Celts, Arabs, Jews, and Greeks, among others, were included under the wide umbrella of Romanitas. This was the inevitable result of an imperial system that constantly expanded and frequently accepted the peoples of conquered countries as Roman citizens. Not until the end of the first century B.C.E., with the reign of Augustus, do we begin to see signs of a distinctively 'Roman' art, an identifiably 'Roman' cultural ideal. Read any book on the origin or life of Rome, from Romulus and Remus to Augustus.  [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]


Caesar Augustus  (and Romulus)

Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome; New York, NY: Liveright Publishing Co., 2015. 537 pp.

            Mary Beard tells the story of Ancient Rome, starting at the height of its Empire, in 63 BCE. SPQR=Senatus Populusque Romanus, The Senate and the People are Roman. It appeared on plaques, documents, on coins of the Roman Republic. 

            This republic in 63 BCE stretched from modern France, down to Spain and North Africa, including Egypt, across to Syria and Turkey and the Aegean, Croatia and of course Italy.

            Dr. Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University, UK. In this very readable history she starts at 63 BCE then goes back to Rome’s mythological beginning about 753 BCE and forward to Emperor Caracalla, 313 CE.

            When I got to high school, we needed to choose a foreign language.  My mother, a language scholar, urged me to take Latin, under the stern tutelage of Miss Burdette Smyth, who had taught her, a generation before.

            Miss Smyth opened up Latin and ancient Rome to us kids.  We recited words from Julius Caesar, reporting about his ten-year tour of duty in Gaul (France) for Rome. We sang familiar songs in Latin.  Others passed off Latin as a “dead language”, but I’ve used it every day, because it is the backbone of English.  Latin words explain the basis of most English words and open up not only Romance but also Germanic languages and more to the learner.

            Mary Beard takes us into Rome, with rumbling chariots, prancing senators in their togas, and poor people living in streets filled with trash, and human and animal excrement. She centers her story on 63 BCE, as the peak of Rome’s civilization. It was six centuries before that Rome was growing, as a monarchy, but in 63 it was becoming a republic.  The annual consulship that year was assigned to Marcus Tullius Cicero and Gaius Antonius Hybrida.

            It is Cicero, or Kee-ker-o, in what we believe was the Roman pronunciation, who opens up ancient Rome for us in a way that we have not found for ancient Greece.  His letters tell us not only about the major events and important players, but about the little stuff that is all around us, and affects all of us, most of the time. Cicero’s writings, and those of others have been eagerly read by scholars over the centuries.  Many of the writings of our Founding Fathers often referred to Roman leaders and ideas, and they compared their situations to those of Ancient Rome.

            That may explain why teachers in American schools since the Revolution have taught Latin and made frequent references to Rome and Roman topics. By the time I was studying Latin in the late 1940s that was waning, but we still had to memorize a good bit of Latin.

            Rome had it’s blustering, bragging leaders, it had hatred, deceit, cheating and greed, magnificent grandeur, and luxury in the homes of the wealthy, and starving masses, often worse off than the slaves.  In other words, nothing we haven’t seen in our national government.  They did tend to kill one another more often. From the killing of Julius Caesar in 44 BCE, 34 emperors of Rome up to 392 CE were killed or executed.

            Julius Caesar was indeed a star in Ancient Rome. He spent nine years with thousands of troops “running” the Roman province of Gaul. This meant frequent battles with the Belgians, the Germans, the Celts and the Helvetians. He even took two legions across to Britannia, in his first invasion of the island. The next year, 54 BCE, he used 628 ships to carry five legions, 2000 cavalry, and one war elephant.  Rome never successfully conquered Britannia until 45 CE. At that time, Britons were iron age people, naked except for leather skins. They must have been amazed when that war elephant came ashore!

            Caesar and his legions were also impressed when the Britons attacked with 4000 war chariots.  Rome had not employed chariots in combat, and they were very effective.

            Caesar wrote a lot of letters back to Cicero. One of them was a geography lesson for readers, and it has been preserved and published for centuries. The first sentence is one we memorized in school:

Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres, quarum unam incolunt Belgae, aliam Aquitani, tertiam qui ipsorum lingua Celtae, nostra Galli appellantur. 

All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, and the third, those who in their own language are called Celts, in ours Gauls.

            Caesar hemmed and hawed about when to return to Rome, but he finally crossed the Rubicon river, then the northern boundary of Italy, with his troops on January 10, 49 BCE. This precipitated the Roman civil war, and Caesar became Dictator, beginning Imperial era for Rome.

            Cicero invited Caesar to visit him at his summer home on the Bay of Naples, and he may have regretted it, because Caesar brought 2000 troops with him, as well as slaves. Caesar set up camp on Cicero’s estate, bringing his own bathtub, masseuse, slaves and ex-slaves and all the other things a general needs. Cicero set up three dining rooms for Caesar’s senior officers. Mary Beard adds that Caesar had a remarkably large appetite because of the custom of wealthy Romans of emetics, or regular vomiting as they reclined at dinner.

            Finally, Senators had had enough of Caesar, and in a dramatic attack on the Ides of March, 44 BCE Brutus stabbed him, assisted by several others, in a scene recreated for all time by Shakespeare, in Julius Caesar.

            Mary Beard helps us to see more of Rome and the Romans as she describes the role of women. Marriage was generally simple. Either partner could declare they were married, and either could declare it was over.  It was more complicated when wealthy people and dowries were involved. 

            Medical practice was quite poor then, and parents tended not to get too emotionally attached to newborns, since they might die, or parents do not want to keep them, particularly baby girls. Often newborn children might simply have been thrown on a trash heap. This became a means for trash pickers to acquire free slaves.

            The story of the Roman Empire went on to 330 CE, and there are so many lessons for us. I grew weary of reading about each emperor and layer upon layer of corruption and deceit.  There were happy stories, of course, but largely one lesson after another for us, all these years later.

            Although nearly half our American population does not believe it, what we saw in the past four years is what went on again and again 2000 years ago.  It is a tale of organized and celebrated selfishness, cruelty, cheating and dishonesty.  We came within a hair’s breadth of having one governor, one state, stand up and declare and prove that their election was fraudulent. What might follow, as people lost the ability to tell right from wrong, leading to the collapse of our democracy. 

            Rome taught us many lessons, good and bad, but the one thing that stands out in my mind is how susceptible we are to bluff and fakery as we have seen in our time.  May we always have enough men and women who know what is right and true and have the will to defend it.

Sam Coulbourn

Roman Leaders: The 10 Greatest Generals behind the Empire

1.      Nero Claudius Drusus (38-9 BCE)

2.      Gnaeus Julius Agricola (40-93 CE)

3.      Germanicus Julius Caesar (15 BCE-19 CE)

4.      Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (63-12 BCE)

5.      Marcus Antonius (83-30 BCE)

6.      Gaius Julius Caesar (100-44 BCE)

7.      Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus (106-48 BCE)

8.      Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138-78 BCE)

9.      Gaius Marius (157-86 BCE)

10.   Scipio Africanus (236-183 BCE)


List of assassinated and executed heads of state and government - Wikipedia





Yalta meeting of Churchill, FDR and Stalin

Wednesday, February 24, 2021. A History of United States alliances with the rest of the world. From its very beginning, the United States has forged alliances with other countries, from France, eager to oppose Great Britain in 1776; Great Britain’s assistance for the Confederate States during the Civil War; President Wilson’s attempt to form and join the League of Nations; our alliance with Great Britain, China, France and the Soviet Union in World War II; formation of the United Nations; the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. How helpful have these alliances been? Home in on an agreement in our past, or one that exists today, and discover its benefits and costs.  [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, March 31, 2021. Native Americans—Looking East. When we normally think and write about the Indians that white men encountered when they first arrived on these shores several hundred years ago, it’s from the point of view of “looking west” at these red men, staring at European faces as our forefathers made their first contact with this continent. Let’s try to imagine it from the viewpoint of the Native Americans, when the strange ships appeared, and these bearded pale faces appeared. Read any book about Native Americans that will help you and us to understand if we were standing in their moccasins.   [Proposed by Mary Beth Smith]

Wednesday, April 28, 2021. The Quest for Truth in History.  How do we know it’s true? We’ve just gone through a difficult time in our national history, when what you may have believed may have been false, and what was “false” depended upon your political orientation. Propaganda and deception have always been used by governments against the outside world and for their own people.  How can the intelligent individual figure out what is true and what is false? [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, May 26, 2021. The Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court has become a central, and increasingly polarizing, institution in American politics. When Alexander Hamilton floated the idea of a federal court system where judges would have “lifetime tenure,” he assured naysayers that the judiciary would be “the least dangerous” branch of government. However, the Supreme Court has become both a pivotal and polarizing feature of American political and policy reform. Supreme Court decisions are democratizing. They played a key role in dismantling Jim Crow segregation, nationalizing marriage equality and protecting our free press. Yet, they are also paralyzing. Supreme Court doctrine delayed Congressional attempts to end slavery and establish civil rights for Black Americans. Court actions have limited critical elements of the Affordable Care Act. Perhaps because of its prominence in the nation’s most vexing policy problems, decisions about the Court–whom to nominate, how to nominate, and what decisions it can make–have become a location for the most visible forms of partisan rancor and discord. The most volatile fights between Republicans and Democrats frequently fixate on conflicts over the Court. In many ways, the Supreme Court of today bears little resemblance to the Court envisioned by Hamilton. Read any book about the Supreme Court, or about a particular period or decision . [Proposed by Mary Beth Smith]

Wednesday, June 30, 2021. Famous or Infamous Court Cases. [Proposed by Mary Beth Smith]

Wednesday, July 28, 2021. Influence of Women in American History. [Proposed by Mary Beth Smith]

Wednesday, August 25, 2021. History of North Africa, from Morocco to Egypt, and including Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Mauritania and more. Pick a nation or a group of nations in the northern tier of Africa and learn how they interact, how they came to be, what problems are they having, or had, that attracted world attention in the past.  Some examples: The Barbary Pirates and how America’s President Jefferson took them on; The Italian Colonial history in Abyssinia and Somaliland; World War II—Field Marshal Rommel in North Africa; “Carthago delenda est!” The Punic War between Rome and Carthage; Tunisia and he Start of Arab Spring. [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, September 29, 2021. The Fight for Civil Rights. [Proposed by Mary Beth Smith]

Wednesday, October 27, 2021. Mass Refugee movements in History. [Proposed by Sam Coulbourn]

Wednesday, December 1, 2021. [Moved back one week to avoid conflict with Thanksgiving.]  Reconstruction, 1865-? Abraham Lincoln had a clear picture of what should be done after the end of the War Between the States, but his assassination meant that Andrew Johnson, the Democrat who succeeded him, would be President. Read about this dangerous, murderous time in our history as we sought to regain the 11 Confederate States in the Union.  Read about the growth of white supremacist organizations, and the different ways that America handled the end of slavery, and welcoming (?) millions of newly freed Africans to America.  [Proposed by Mary Beth Smith]

There will be no later meeting in December.

Women Defense Workers

Wednesday, January 28, 2022. World War II at Home. [Proposed by Mary Beth Smith]