January 25, 2016

1. The Roman Empire c. 125 AD

A. Economy and Society

Around 75 AD, trade with China began to grow. Chinese caravans met caravans from the Roman Empire in Afghanistan or Turkmenistan. In 97 AD, a Chinese explorer named Gan Ying reached the Roman Empire (though he didn’t reach Rome itself, he may have reached the Black Sea).

Meanwhile, Greek traders had sailed across the Indian Ocean, and began venturing into the Indian sub-continent. Around 125 AD, Greek traders sailed around India, and across the Bay of Bengal. Then they ventured across the Malay isthmus, and up the Vietnamese coast. In 166 AD, Greek traders reached China, traveled up the Yellow River, and presented themselves to the Chinese emperor at Luoyang. This voyage wasn’t the start of regular voyages between China and Rome, but there were regular voyages between India and Rome.

Greek traders also ventured down the east coast of Africa to the island of Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania), and then to Cape Delgado (on the southern edge of Tanzania). Some Greeks ventured inland toward the African Great Lakes, “bringing back true but unheeded information about the source of the Nile.”1

But most trade took place within the Roman Empire, not with distant lands. Rome itself was a center of trade and Rome’s port, Ostia, grew into a city of 100,000. Ostia was the second most active port in the Empire, behind Alexandria.

What was the typical dwelling in Ostia?

Four-story blocks of flats in red or yellow brick (usually but not invariably stuccoed), with large windows and occasional balconies, presented a remarkably close resemblance to the typical middle-class residences in modern continental cities.2

Towns and cities grew up around military camps, especially along the Rhine and Danube. For example, Bonn and Strasbourg grew up along the Rhine, Vienna and Budapest along the Danube. In Tunisia and Syria, “the remains of the Roman cities form almost continuous chains.”3 Not until the 19th century (according to Cary and Scullard) did town life flourish again as it did in this period of Roman history. Inspired by the example of Rome, provincial cities built stately theaters, forums, arches, etc.

The ruins of Timgad, built about 100 AD in northern Algeria. “The ruins are noteworthy for representing one of the best extant examples of the grid plan as used in Roman city planning.”4 Timgad did not lack books: “a public-spirited citizen provided the funds for a library of 23,000 volumes.”5


Oval forum and Cardo Maximus in Gerasa, Jordan. Gerasa is now known as Jerash. “Cardo” means colonnaded street. “A notable feature of town architecture at this period consisted in the long colonnaded streets which radiated outwards from the central square; at Gerasa... the ruins of one such avenue measures half a mile.”6


Symbol of winter on mosaic floor at Chedworth Roman Villa in England.

In Rome, and even in some provincial cities, the lower classes spent much of their time relaxing in the public baths, watching shows in the arena, and playing games of chance. Hadrian restricted the hours of the baths, lest public business come to a halt. When the Colosseum was inaugurated, Titus treated the people to 100 consecutive days of gladiatorial shows and animal combats. As for middle-class tradesmen, social activities were often organized by trade guilds (collegia). As for the upper classes, they became interested in sight-seeing, and would travel to Greece or Troy or Egypt with their guide-books.

B. Literature

Some of the most important writers of this period were wealthy rhetors like Aelius Aristides and Herodes Atticus. These rhetors were part of the so-called Second Sophistic Movement (as opposed to the sophists in the time of Socrates). These rhetors were Greeks who lived in the cities of the East, and played prominent roles in politics as well as literature; some even became consuls.

Other important Greek writers of this period were Plutarch, who wrote essays and short biographies, and Lucian, who wrote satires. As for Greek scientific writers, among the most important in this period were Galen, who specialized in medicine, and Ptolemy, who wrote about geography and astronomy.

As for the Latin writers of this period, Cary and Scullard praise the epigrams of Martial and the satires of Juvenal. They also praise the historical writings of Tacitus, who seems to surpass all other Roman historians, as Thucydides surpassed all other Greek historians. They speak of Tacitus’ “somber magnificence and brilliant style,” his “terse and vivid narrative.”7 Tacitus lived in Rome during Domitian’s reign of terror, and he acquired an abiding dislike for the Principate, and a nostalgic feeling for the Republic. His contemporary, Suetonius, didn’t bother to separate fact from gossip; on the whole, however, “the wheat in [Suetonius’] garner considerably outweighs the chaff.”

Other prose writers of this period are Pliny the Younger and Fronto. Pliny’s letters are no match for Cicero’s (according to Cary and Scullard) because Pliny lived “a tame life in a settled age.” Nonetheless, Pliny’s letters have their virtues, and “in his restrained but telling description of the destruction of Pompeii he rose to a great occasion.” Fronto made a fortune as an advocate and then became the tutor of Marcus Aurelius; he’s known for his letters, many of which are addressed to Marcus.

Quintilian wrote about education, oratory, and literature in a volume called Institutes of Oratory (Institutio Oratoria). In Book Ten of this volume, Quintilian “passed under review the Greek and Latin classics, with a few words of sane and sincere appreciation for each.”

C. Philosophy and Religion

Turning to philosophy and religion, our authors say that the most popular philosophers in this period were Stoics and Cynics. But these philosophers couldn’t compete with the new religions, like Christianity, which were “proclaiming confidently a state of future immortality [and] fastening on the idea of social service as the acid test of good behavior.”8

One of the most popular of these new religions was the cult of Isis, which flourished around 100 AD. The cult of Isis appealed to both genders and all classes. Around 150 AD, the cult of Mithras became widespread. The cult of Mithras was for men only, and appealed especially to the upper classes — army officers, etc.

In addition to these new religions, there was a new respect for old beliefs:

Oracles and omens, from being merely formal adjuncts of statecraft, were recovering much of their pristine authority. Not only the gossip-monger Suetonius, but a man of high culture like Plutarch, recorded numberless examples of divine premonition.

Perhaps the most famous magician/healer of this period was Apollonius of Tyana.

The ancients often compared Jesus with Apollonius... They both fit the mythic hero archetype.... Joseph Campbell lists Apollonius and Jesus as examples of individuals who shared similar hero stories, along with Krishna, Buddha and others.... By far the most detailed source is the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, a lengthy, novelistic biography written by the sophist Philostratus....

Philostratus implies on one occasion that Apollonius had extra-sensory perception (Book VIII, Chapter XXVI). When emperor Domitian was murdered on September 18, 96 AD, Apollonius was said to have witnessed the event in Ephesus “about midday” on the day it happened in Rome, and told those present “Take heart, gentlemen, for the tyrant has been slain this day...” Both Philostratus and renowned historian Cassius Dio report this incident, probably on the basis of an oral tradition. Both state that the philosopher welcomed the deed as a praiseworthy tyrannicide.9

It is said that Apollonius travelled to India in search of Eastern wisdom, just as Pythagoras is said to have travelled to India.

Aelius Aristides, the rhetor whom I mentioned above, was also a magician/healer. He tried to cure his own illnesses by living at the temple of Asclepius, and by studying his own dreams. His methods have been compared to mesmerism and psychoanalysis. He wrote about his healing efforts in a book called Sacred Tales.

D. Christianity

Why did Christianity become the dominant religion in the Roman Empire? Christianity had a superior organization, “a well-organized body of clergy possessing wide powers of discipline over the laity [and] a monarchical episcopate.”10 Christianity also had a body of literature such as the cults of Isis and Mithras didn’t possess. “By about 130 AD the Four Gospels and thirteen Epistles by St. Paul were generally accepted as a New Testament Canon.” Early Christian writers like St. Paul, Clement, and Origen compared Christianity to the Stoic and Platonic philosophies. A large collection of Acts of the Martyrs gradually grew up; some of these are “both authentic and very moving.” And finally, numerous books were written by Apologists, who tried to defend Christianity from its critics; perhaps the best-known Apologists were Tertullian and Minucius Felix.

The early Christian church had a simple ritual, and met in ordinary private houses. It was open to all, “it ignored the distinction between rich and poor, man and woman, bond and free.” Church members were known for charitable activities, “tending the sick and relieving the poor.” One pagan said, “See how the Christians love one another.”

The Christians, like the Jews, were persecuted because they rejected other gods, and were viewed as atheists. Furthermore, the Christians disrupted the habits of the polytheist society in which they lived, and they threatened vested interests. The Christians didn’t “go along,” they stood apart, and in an ancient city, it was felt that everyone should participate, no one should stand apart.

In the first two centuries of their existence the Christian communities were constantly liable to attacks by infuriated mobs, like those which have been directed against the Jews in medieval and again in recent times.11

Augustus had wisely exempted the Jews from Caesar-worship. If such an exemption had been made for Christians, much bloodshed could have been averted. Christians were often punished for refusing to sacrifice to the emperor’s statue and to the pagan gods. Once a precedent was established for punishing Christians, most emperors seemed to feel that they should follow this precedent, even if it clashed with justice and common sense. So the early Christians suffered from both judicial punishment and mob violence. But the persecution of Christians was sporadic, not continual; Christians were usually allowed to practice their religion in private, they weren’t sought out.

2. Owen Chadwick

I saw a Youtube video of Alan Macfarlane interviewing Owen Chadwick. Chadwick wrote historical works about Christianity and other subjects; he spent his career at Cambridge. He’s often called one of the best historians of modern times; in 1981, he won a Wolfson History Prize.

The interview took place in 2008. Chadwick died in 2015, at the age of 99. In his youth, Chadwick was a star rugby player. He comes across in the interview as completely devoid of ego or pomposity. Chadwick’s brother Henry was also a distinguished historian, specializing in early Christianity. The Chadwick brothers sometimes collaborated.

Alan Macfarlane is a Cambridge professor of anthropology and history. He has conducted numerous interviews, and made them available on Youtube.

3. G. M. Trevelyan

One of Chadwick’s acquaintances at Cambridge was historian G. M. Trevelyan (George Macaulay Trevelyan). Trevelyan was about forty years older than Chadwick. Trevelyan was related to the famous 19th-century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay. Trevelyan studied at Cambridge, where one of his favorite professors was Lord Acton. Trevelyan’s writings have been called accessible, literate, openly biased, and out of fashion. One scholar said Trevelyan was once “probably the most widely read historian in the world; perhaps in the history of the world.”12

Perhaps Trevelyan adopted a popular style because his ancestor, Thomas Babington Macaulay, had been a popular historian. Trevelyan’s disciple, J. H. Plumb, also took a popular approach. Plumb, in turn, inspired a younger group of popular historians, a group that included Simon Schama. So the next time you enjoy a Schama documentary, you should thank Trevelyan, who was Schama’s intellectual grandfather.

Among Trevelyan’s books are British History in the Nineteenth Century, England Under the Stuarts, English Social History, History of England, and a book about his father. (Trevelyan’s father, George Otto Trevelyan, was a British statesman and author who wrote a biography of Thomas Babington Macaulay and a history of the American Revolution.) Trevelyan was active in the Youth Hostel movement, and tried to preserve historic sites through the National Trust.

4. Lord Acton

Lord Acton is famous for knowing much and writing little. He was born in Naples in 1834; both his parents were from the aristocracy. His mother’s family (Dalberg) was German. His father died when he was 3. His mother soon re-married; her second husband was Earl Granville, a British statesman who later helped Lord Acton to enter politics. “With his cosmopolitan background and upbringing, Acton was equally at home in England or on the Continent, and grew up speaking English, German, French, and Italian.”13 Acton travelled widely, and was friends with Tocqueville, Fustel de Coulanges, Leopold von Ranke, etc.

Acton was not accepted by Cambridge because he was Catholic, so he attended Oscott College, a Catholic seminary. Later he studied in Germany under Ignaz von Dollinger, who became his mentor and lifelong friend; while studying in Germany, Acton lived with Dollinger.

Acton focused on the history of freedom. His goal was to write a major work on the subject, but he never did. He did, however, write two essays on the subject, “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” and “The History of Freedom in Christianity.” Another notable essay by Acton is “Democracy in Europe.”

Acton believed that political freedom was the “essential condition and guardian” of religious freedom.14 Political freedom allowed people to follow their conscience in religious and moral matters. Acton said, “Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” In his essay “The History of Freedom in Antiquity,” Acton noted how rare freedom is, and how new in the world:

Liberty, next to religion has been the motive of good deeds and the common pretext of crime, from the sowing of the seed at Athens, 2,460 years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered by men of our race. It is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization; and scarcely a century has passed since nations, that knew the meaning of the term, resolved to be free.... The most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities.

Acton was a Catholic, a believer. He seemed unable to conceive of freedom apart from faith. He concludes “The History of Freedom in Antiquity” by referring to the Gospel of John, which says, “The truth shall make you free.” Acton felt that Jesus had taken a big step in the direction of freedom:

When Christ said: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” those words [were] the repudiation of absolutism and the inauguration of freedom.

Looking at the ancient Hebrews, Acton says that freedom is based on “national tradition” and “higher law.” The Hebrew prophets “proclaimed that the laws, which were divine, were paramount over sinful rulers.... All political authorities must be tested and reformed according to a code which was not made by man.” One is struck by the contrast between the modern, secular conception of freedom and Acton’s conception.

When Acton was 19, he visited the U.S. He kept a journal during his visit, and this journal has been published as a short book called Acton in America.

“During the American Civil War, [Acton’s] sympathies lay entirely with the Confederacy.”15 He liked the Confederate idea of States’ Rights. He felt that a strong central government would inevitably become tyrannical. After the defeat of the Confederacy, Acton wrote to Robert E. Lee: “You were fighting battles for our liberty, our progress, and our civilization.”16

Acton admired Edmund Burke, the famous conservative. Some of Acton’s views have a conservative flavor, as when he says, “Subjection to a people of a higher capacity for government is of itself no misfortune; and it is to most countries the condition of their political advancement.”17 The Acton Institute, based in Michigan, is considered conservative/libertarian.

In 1859, at age 25, Acton entered the House of Commons, and became a follower of Gladstone. Acton and Gladstone were close friends. Matthew Arnold said, “Gladstone influences all round him but Acton; it is Acton who influences Gladstone.” Owen Chadwick wrote a book called Acton and Gladstone.

Some of Acton’s pronouncements seem silly, and their positive tone makes them doubly silly. Three examples:

  1. “The wisdom of divine rule appears not in the perfection but in the improvement of the world... History is the true demonstration of Religion.” [Today it’s difficult to share Acton’s optimistic view that the world is improving. And if the world isn’t improving, shouldn’t we doubt “the wisdom of divine rule”?]
  2. “Save for the wild force of Nature, nothing moves in this world that is not Greek in its origin.” [So much for the civilizations of India, China, Egypt, etc.]
  3. “The Celts are not among the progressive, initiative races, but among those which supply the materials rather than the impulse of history, and are either stationary or retrogressive. The Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Teutons are the only makers of history, the only authors of advancement. Other races possessing a highly developed language, a speculative religion, enjoying luxury and art, attain to a certain pitch of cultivation which they are unable to either communicate or to increase. They are a negative element in the world.” [Perhaps this view is the product of anti-French feeling.]

Acton made a list of the 100 best books. It’s the driest list of books I’ve ever seen, featuring such page-turners as Kirchenvorfassungsgeschichte by Hundeshagen. Acton amassed a personal library of 60,000 volumes.

When he was 31, Acton married a woman from the Bavarian nobility, Countess Marie Anna Ludomilla Euphrosina von Arco auf Valley. They had six children.

In 1895, at age 61, Acton became the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge. Later Trevelyan and Chadwick held the same post.

One scholar said,

Lord Acton has left too little completed original work to rank among the great historians; his very learning seems to have stood in his way; he knew too much and his literary conscience was too acute for him to write easily, and his copiousness of information overloads his literary style. But he was one of the most deeply learned men of his time, and he will certainly be remembered for his influence on others.

5. Movies

I saw a popular movie called Mystic River (2003). It’s set in a working-class section of Boston, near the Mystic River and the Tobin Bridge. The movie grips you, even haunts you, but does it make you feel good? Does it provide any uplift, any enlightenment?

The Crying Game (1992) is an acclaimed movie set in Northern Ireland during the “Troubles” (1980s?). It throws little light on politics or history, focusing instead on sex and violence. It was written and directed by Neil Jordan, the Irish filmmaker who also made Michael Collins.

Caesar Must Die (2012) is an Italian film about a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at an Italian prison. I liked it, it’s an honest movie, an intelligent movie, it doesn’t try to grab you with sex, violence, and tension.

Brooklyn (2015) is about a young Irish woman emigrating to Brooklyn in the 1950s. I thought it was a good movie, an intelligent movie, but somewhat dull and flat, so I’m surprised that it received rave reviews.

The Best Offer (2013) was written and directed by an Italian (Giuseppe Tornatore, director of Cinema Paradiso), but the language is English, and the star (Geoffrey Rush) is Australian. The Best Offer wasn’t very popular with critics or with the public; Roger Ebert gave it 1.5 stars. The plot is very complicated, but the movie has intelligence and culture, which are often lacking in American movies.

© L. James Hammond 2016
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9. Wikipedia. Such a vision of a distant event reminds one of Swedenborg, whose psychic powers are well-attested. back
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14. Website. Gertrude Himmelfarb edited a volume of Acton’s essays, Essays on Freedom and Power. She also wrote a biography of Acton, Lord Acton: A Study of Conscience and Politics. back
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16. On Acton’s list of the 100 best books, we find John C. Calhoun’s Essay on Government. back
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