30 Encounter with Antiquity (IV)
In ancient Rome there were no televisions, no radio, no concerts for the masses, for the most part not even books—for the man on the street the papyrus rolls were too expensive, and he couldn’t read them anyway. The Roman “information society” transmitted its messages orally, for example at the baths. Every day after the conclusion of business (roughly after 2pm), the well-off went to one of the many generously apportioned—and strictly segregated between men and women—thermal baths of the city. There one whiled away a considerable length of time with sports and games, gossip and chit-chat. Then one went home to an extended supper.
The high points were the occasional feasts (a binge of which one partook lying down rather than seated1) with friends, at which discussions of art, and poetic recitations, were also carried out. There were table dances and music, eroticism with highly educated high-born prostitutes, the attendance of which was a cause for pride (the “hetaira,” or courtesans), and all of this despite the female “primary relationship” in the building in the back and the favored slaves of both sexes.
I think that one must imagine the ancient world, despite all depictions in films that pop into our heads, rather like one of the Islamic states of the present day. In legal affairs likewise comparable with the brutality of Sharia Law (cutting off the hands of thieves, stoning of adulterers of both sexes, throwing off of cliffs, etc.), and in Rome to a clearly more often and harsher degree. Antonius, the new potentate after the death of Caesar, put Cicero’s dominant and right hand on public display in Rome after his murder. Public lashings were ubiquitous, the scourging of household servants, and other cruelties were allowed without trial or interposition of the police. The legal apparatus developed in Rome, so important for world history and modern culture, found its application only in the upper class of those few citizens with “civil liberties.”
Death was always before one’s eyes, to the point of familiarity. One grew up more or less accustomed to the omnipresent and ongoing wars within and without the Empire’s borders. The life expectancy for men was 30 years. One lived in a military State, most often also a dictatorship, the militantly “virtues” were the important goal of upbringing. Rings, spear-throwing, and running were the primary sports of the youth since the age of the Greeks, and in military conflict significantly more useful than … let us say than golf or tennis of the present day. Bodybuilding was distinctly fashionable—mens sana in corpore sano (“a healthy spirit in a healthy body”), even though the spirit, even in Juvenal’s time, for the most part fell far short of the ideal. One familiarized oneself with the cruelest disfigurements and ways to die, in the public “games” or executions. The soul, as with the body, must be made hard, steely, and senseless from the earliest childhood, and with success. Suicide (by opening the veins) was the generally admirable last act of a hero.
In Sparta, for a long time the exemplar of the Greek city-states, military drills went on until 30 years of age. Men must permanently live in barracks and together in small groups, permitted to visit their wives only from time to time. The whole capital must have been an enormous male-dominated military camp. Even neighboring contemporaries remarked on it, though with somewhat ambivalent admiration. Plato was one of them, for Sparta was for a long time militarily more successful, even though the country’s culture languished at the lowest levels. But who cares about culture in times of war? — The whole of antiquity was an unbroken age of fighting, until a new Jewish prophet entered the scene and exhorted his disciples to do the unbelievable: love your enemies! What an incomprehensible and absurd demand!
Ideas of love and tenderness, or even hints in that direction, are clearly in the minority in the literature and among the intellectuals. Even Ovid’s love-poems contain a concept of love that isn’t at all representative of ours in the present day. The most rutting catcalls among men, even in Catullus, were only in pursuit of one thing. The terms of endearment and love we affiliate in the present age with entirely different connotations as the people of that era.
Procreation also appears to have been nonexistent in the upper social classes, or at least difficult. Cicero accepted his wife’s plea for divorce (upper-class women were well protected in such cases), despite the son they had together, and took for himself—at the age of 60—a 15-year-old girl for a brief time as his wife. On this matter, Cicero writes very carefully, and also skeptically, in his Letters to Atticus. His son Marcus was the sole survivor of the persecutions following Caesar’s assassination, where his father was killed as he fled. In Cicero’s circle we also find Tiro, his (educated) favored slave and secretary (as one might say of him today), to whom he dictated all his letters and books, before they were sent to be “printed” on papyrus. The majority of authors at the time didn’t write, but rather dictated.
For Roman garments we much imagine something similar to present-day Arabia, or in the Catholic church services, with long flowing robes. Due to the southern heat the houses of the city were built to provide a refuge of shade. Women lived in circumscribed areas with their children and servants. Public life took place wholly without women, entirely the domain of men. Even in the gradually developing pieces for the theater, in which first two, then more dramatis personæ took the stage, women’s roles were played by men wearing masks (the Latin word for “mask” is “persona”). Even Christianity assumed this role for women for a long time: mulier tacet in ecclesia — “women remain silent in church” (even during hymns) was the rule up until the Renaissance.
The generous country villas of the rich in Gallia Cis- and Transalpina (that is, in the country where I am writing this, in southwestern Germany) have since been rebuilt and provide, with their heating systems, baths, artworks, and gardens, a good, indeed even exemplary representation of classical architecture.
Sports were an important factor in entertainment, and also in politics. There was the Circus Maximus with its great chariot races and the (usually four) opposing factions of political consequence. The Roman Colosseum held 300,000 spectators, and entry would occasionally be given to the people as a gift from the Emperor after a victory in war. Likewise, grain rations—which to this day make a delicious breakfast in Egypt, the hard grains soaked overnight in milk and honey.
Serious criminals, sentenced to death, were dismembered alive by wild and deliberately starved animals for all the world of the Colosseum to see. There were gladiator games, with well-trained professionals and superstars, and even naval battles—the Colosseum could be flooded for this purpose. The sun’s heat could be kept at bay with an enormous retractable canvas roof.
Rarely enough even then, and in any case completely extinct in the present day, were public-speaking competitions (“concert-orations”), and the degree to which the speaker (orator) and his standing before a court of law, in the people’s assembly, or for the entertainment of the masses enjoyed considerable prestige. Rhetoric was, up until the Middle Ages, a cultivated and important subject in one’s schooling. Today it is no longer clear whether these orations were carried out in some sort of Sprechgesang.
After the arrival of Discursive Rationality in Greece, here especially in Athens, the further development of intellectualism in general seems to have gained a privileged position in the public esteem. In a competitive format, for example, a professional orator would be required to develop, before a large audience, isostheneias and to convince his listeners, how, say, the mouse is more useful than the dog, how baldheadedness is more beautiful than a luxuriant coif, etc.
Similar undertakings, if also on another level, play out in Plato’s Phaidros. It is argued that one may only have sex (“give oneself over”) with those who are not one’s beloved. But also the opposite is proven to be reasonable, and Socrates remarks:
“Perhaps you may ask me if I advise you to grant favors to all non-lovers. But I think the lover would not urge you to be so disposed toward all lovers either; for the favor, if scattered broadcast, is not so highly prized by the rational recipient, nor can you, if you wish, keep your relations with one hidden from the rest. But from love no harm ought to come, but benefit to both parties. Now I think I have said enough.”
Everything can (and should) be convincingly proven, and the more convincing even the most unbelievable or ludicrous can be represented, the better and more successful the orator’s efforts.
That among his contemporaries a “ghoulish desertification of the mind must result” from such “oratory ensnarements,” as Lucian put it, and that one could no longer tell truth from falsehood, is self-evident. Even within the Stoic School, which concerned itself so specially (and especially dogmatically) with rhetoric, we find such speaking games (rhetorical “traps”) and a luminous rabulistics, which has persisted to the present day in our legal proceedings. Even so-called peisthanatoi performed: men (they were always men) who could talk their audience into suicide—always for a luxuriant honorarium, of course.
One sought (and found) refuge in the face of such disorientation and intellectual confusion in the Eastern religions with their esoteric mystery-cults, the frolicsome feasts (Bacchanalia), and traditional rites of sacrifice. Likewise the theater festivals, the Olympic Games, and other mass entertainments were above all festivals of sacrifice and cults. And only then merrymaking and distraction for the masses.
And yet, for me the forced enthusiasm for linguistic dialectics, for the spoken and heard word, remains yet more congenial than its opposite: speechlessness. Despite all intellectual artifice and sophistry, despite all confusion and the multiplicity of schools and truths, one nevertheless believed in the intellect, in thought, in the determination of the truth by means of argumentation, antagonistic debate, and consensus (which Plato, again and again, names “insight”).
Philosophy was the most esteemed subject of all. The question of a good life in a just State, in order to be happy, seems—after the imperial policy of conquest—to have been the most important one by a significant degree in the public discourse. Even the Supreme Warrior Cæsar endeavored to take part and wrote books not only on his wars in Gaul, but also on the lingo-philosophic problems in a controversy with Cicero.
Yet philosophers could also become enemies of the State. Occasionally they were even banished, or in the opposing logic of keeping one’s enemies closer, brought even closer to the sovereign, such as in the role of a tutor. Seneca was the teacher of the later Emperor Nero, and Aristotle served for some years as the Pædagogus to Alexander the Great in Philipps court in Macedonia. There were indeed, from time to time, true philosopher-kings.
Worth reading even in the present day are the introspections and reflections of Cæsar Marcus Aurelius (of the Stoic School), or also the letters of Julian Apostata, who was the last of the mighty Roman Emperors to attempt suppression of a Christian faction (he called them “Galileans”), no longer obliged to extend its reach in the form of insurgency but rather as the numerically superior sect, with peaceful means and even sought in vain to reinstate the old Greco-Roman gods once again. An oracle was placed before him in 360CE, a message from the already dying Olympus:
Go tell the King: the daedal
Walls have fallen to the earth,
Phoibos has no sanctuary,
No prophetic laurel, no
Speaking spring. The garrulous
Water has dried up at last.2
The Gods are exiled.
1The German word used here for such overindulgences is “Gelage,” which, though it translates to “binge” in English, derives from the German “liegen” (“to lie”) and has the literal meaning of a lying-down. -Ed.
2Translation of Kenneth Rexroth from the Greek:
εἴπατε τῷ βασιλῆι· χαμαὶ πέσε δαίδαλος αὐλά.
οὐκέτι Φοῖβος ἔχει καλύβαν, ὀυ μάντιδα δάφνην,
οὐ παγὰν λαλέουσαν. ἀπέσβετο καὶ λάλον ὕδωρ.