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Posts Tagged ‘Rome’

We do seem to be having a Roman moment. To the numerous comparisons, both positive and hostile, between Trump and miscellaneous Roman emperors, the ‘hordes of Visigothic economic migrants overwhelming the frontier’ claims of Arron Banks and the numerous flattering interviews of David Engels on right-wing websites, we can now add the historical musings of Douglas Carswell in the Grauniad, explaining how Brexit is going to be a wonderful liberation but not at all nasty or populist, because Rome. Apparently. (more…)

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Rome for the Romans!

Someone – sorry, can’t for the moment recall where I saw this; maybe in commentary on Jon Hesk’s recent blog post on the ‘Challengers’ debate and ancient political rhetoric – recently noted in passing that they knew of some school students studying Aristophanes’ Knights with Nigel Farage playing the role of the Sausage-Seller, the rogue who out-bids even the shameless Kleon in his rabble-rousing. Fair enough, one might say, apart from the fact that it does let other politicians off the hook by attributing manipulative and shifty rhetoric to Farage alone; arguably they’re all Sausage-Sellers, or at least – and this is perhaps a more reasonable interpretation – they’re all being encouraged by highly-paid advisers to bury their decent instincts and reservations in the interests of victory, in the spirit of the end justifying the means.

This is most obvious in the case of the repulsive discussions of immigration as the Great Spoken issue of the election campaign, where even Labour is producing souvenir merchandise of their capitulation to, at best, profound moral feebleness.

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Bread and Circuses

One imagines that the Daily Mail, and a fair number of members of the governing coalition, look back to ancient Rome in longing and admiration: a state that on the one hand was both rich and powerful, and on the other hand had an utterly minimalist conception of its duties – basically, making war and protecting the interests of its rulers. Whenever there was any sign of concern for the mass of the population, it was strictly delimited and controlled: no attempt at poor relief or support for the weakest and most vulnerable in society, but a share in the spoils of empire for a privileged group in the capital – citizens only, no migrants or other foreigners. This morning’s story about an undercover reporter claiming to be unemployed and desperate, and receiving a voucher for a food bank as a result, reminded me for some reason of the story about a senator who’d voted against the corn dole turning up in the queue to claim his share – but almost entirely because it highlights the differences: the ‘scandal’ today is that a charity failed to assume that every person asking it for help is a lying, cheating scrounger, whereas in Rome this would be taken for granted – what else could one expect from the plebs, and why would one give them anything?

I’ve written previously (in my contribution to the Atkins & Osborne collection on Poverty in the Roman World) about the influence of Roman depictions of the plebs, and especially Juvenal’s ‘bread and circuses’ line, on modern perceptions of the poor as idle spongers. Increasingly, we retain that image while the bread gets ever scarcer, the hoops become ever harder to jump through in order to get it, and the poor and desperate are themselves made into a circus for the entertainment and reassurance of the comfortable classes. The Roman elite regarded all the poor as morally inferior (since they lacked the leisure for self-improvement), and largely ignored them; their modern equivalents share that disdain but feel obliged to disguise it through a tendentious distinction between honest hard-working artisans and grasping benefits cheats. Perhaps the closest equivalent is Cicero’s distinction, at another time of crisis, between the honest plebs who supported him and the odious rabble who supported Catiline; the elite’s obsession with demonising (a part of) the poor reveals how far it feels threatened by the prospect of a change in the order of things.

Link to the Trussell Trust’s Easter Appeal: http://www.justgiving.com/crack-uk-hunger?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=socspondesktop&utm_content=crack-uk-hunger&utm_campaign=post-sponsorship-donation-desktop.

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Students of the ancient economy are all too familiar with the situation of being in the middle of a debate and slowly realising that the entire thing has been operating at cross purposes without anyone noticing. Most often, this is because discussion focuses on substantive matters, with questions of theory and interpretative frameworks pushed firmly into the background or ignored altogether; it’s perfectly possible even for someone like me to talk about a topic like Roman bakeries for some time before it becomes clear to me, if not to my interlocutor, that we’re agreeing on a specific point on the basis of diametrically opposite assumptions and conceptions. I must admit that my usual reaction to this situation is to feel embarrassed and uncomfortable; it feels quite rude and aggressive to switch the discussion to the theoretical or methodological level, like a dubious rhetorical move or illegitimate exercise of academic authority – and that’s almost certainly how it would be received; at any rate that’s how it felt whenever the late Keith Hopkins did it to me when I was a PhD student – but at the same time I fervently believe that you can’t do history properly without examining your preconceptions, considering the broader implications of your ideas and so forth, and so I feel I ought to say something to make it clear that we’re agreeing just on this point, not on everything else.

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Okay, we all know that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover; what about judging it by its index? This thought is prompted by the especially detailed index of the new Cambridge Companion to the Roman Economy, edited by Walter Scheidel, a copy of which has just been delivered (the cover, incidentally, has a perfectly decent picture of a sculptural relief showing a ship arriving at Ostia – of course, we could think about the impression that such an image, rather than alternatives, is intended to create – and is a very nice red colour). I’m not going to have a chance to read the thing properly until some time next year, and as I have a short contribution therein to a discussion on Roman trade (because choosing any single one of the different contributors to write a single chapter on this controversial topic would have been problematic, I guess – or Walter wanted to stay on all our Christmas card lists) I’m not going to be asked to review it properly; I can therefore indulge in a few snap judgements without any serious consequences, or at least explore the results of making snap judgements on the basis of the index. (more…)

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Poor Us and Me

Almost there: on Wednesday at 10.30 on BBC4 (or this evening, if I tune into German Arte), I can find out what I have to say about poverty in the ancient world, in an animated history of world poverty, Poor Us, appearing as part of the worldwide ‘Why Poverty?’ season. On the basis of the programmes I’ve seen so far – especially a superbly balanced and thought-provoking documentary on the anti-poverty activism of Geldof and Bono, raising all sorts of questions about means and ends (how far do you get into bed with nasty African dictators and self-serving western politicians with hidden agendas in the hope of doing some good?), questions of priorities and the whole issue of whether this just recapitulates the history of western paternalism towards Africa – this should be absolutely excellent, and I have enormous faith in the director and his vision.

Still, it’s a little nerve-racking; even if the programme is excellent, what about me? (more…)

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Discussions of the relationship between London and the rest of the UK (as in John Harris’ Grauniad article this morning) always take me back to my doctoral research. A couple of years into the project – good grief, have twenty years passed since then? – it slowly dawned on me how far far my study of the impact of ancient Rome on the rest of Italy was clearly being shaped by the experience of growing up in a small town in the shadow of London, having most of the life sucked out of it by the metropolis. The thesis eventually offered a slightly more subtle and nuanced account of the different facets of the impact of Rome on its hinterland (or, as I would be inclined to put it today, the ways in which the Italian countryside was transformed by the same processes of economic and social change that were driving the expansion of Rome), not least because the prevailing theoretical discourse of wonderfully dynamic and progressive Producer Cities versus nasty parasitical Consumer Cities was so absurdly simplistic – but underlying it all was still my basic loathing of Surrey and my sense that this was pretty well all bound up with the looming presence of London. (more…)

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