Notes: The following essay, written for an Ancient Roman history class I took in college, was the result of drowning in a class full of classics majors who all had much more knowledge of the source material than I did. Going into this paper, I recognized that I didn’t have the broad knowledge to make some of the assertions that my classmates were making about Roman history. So instead of trying to cram a hundred history books into my head in a single term, I created a four-part model outlining the unifying components of the Roman histories I had read. What emerged was a model for nationalist propaganda that I think endures in Western storytelling to this day.Now, if you’re wondering what an essay about Ancient Roman historians has to do with my books, the answer is virtually nothing. I just really like this four-part model as a basis for discussing historical narratives, and I want it to be available as a reference for future posts.
Written: February 23, 2015
Edited: December 10, 2017
In his article ‘Roman Rites for the Dead and “Aeneid 6”,’ Paul Burke notes strong symbolic similarities between the Roman funerary processions described by Polybius and the parade of heroes in Book 6 of Aeneid, exploring what Virgil’s use of these parallels tells us about Roman ideals. In this paper, we will examine how these funerary themes Burke identifies compare, not only to Aeneid 6, but to written Roman histories in general. Through these comparisons, we will see how narratives were constructed, through various stages of refinement and renegotiation in different environments, with one utilitarian purpose: ensuring the strength of the line of Roman elites believed to be the source and center of Rome’s past, present, and future power. The model through which this function was achieved consists of four components:
- Centralizing the historical narrative to a single continuous line of great individuals
- Shaping these individual characters into models of Roman values
- Establishing an emotional link between these models and the narrative’s audience
- Calling the audience to similar action
We will look at this four-part model as it is reflected in Polybius’ description of Roman funerary rites and in the written works of Roman historians, mainly Virgil, Livy, and Tacitus. These historians each represent a different narrative style and a different window of time in Roman history (Virgil and Livy, of course, being much closer to one another on the timeline than Tacitus). By applying our model to these representatives from different points in Roman history, I hope to show that basic trends in narrative creation carried, not only from one medium to another, but also through time.
1. Defining the Lineage
To begin our discussion, we need to look at the basic structure of the funeral ceremonies through which some of the family histories of Rome were generated. The funerals that concern our discussion are not those of average citizens, but those of Roman elites, specifically those who had achieved great feats of conquest. These elaborate ceremonies were conducted not only to commemorate the deceased, but to place his deeds within the greater story of his family and of Rome. Our most comprehensive description of a typical Roman funeral for such an important citizen comes from Polybius. His account tells us that after the body is brought to be displayed before the assembly, the deceased noble’s son or some other relative ascends the rostra beside it and “delivers a speech concerning the virtues of the deceased, and the successful exploits performed by him in his lifetime.” The ceremony would also include a mask caste in the likeness of the deceased as well as the masks of past male members of the lineage, kept from previous funeral ceremonies. Male members of the family resembling the deceased and each of the accompanying ancestors in voice and physique would wear the masks and take part in a performance reenacting the great deeds of the men being honored.
“When any illustrious member of the family dies, they carry these masks to the funeral, putting them on men whom they thought as like the originals as possible in height and other personal peculiarities. And these substitutes assume clothes according to the rank of the person represented: if he was a consul or praetor, a toga with purple stripes; if as censor, whole purple if he had also celebrated a triumph or performed any exploit of that kind, a toga embroidered with gold. These representatives also ride themselves in chariots, while the faces and axes, and all the other customary insignia of the particular offices, lead the way, according to the dignity of the rank in the state enjoyed by the deceased in his lifetime; and on arriving at the Rostra they all take their seats on ivory chairs in their order.”
Thus, at each funeral, the history of the family is recreated, both orally and visually, for the audience. We have no existing record of precisely what was said in any of these funeral speeches or the accompanying performances. We can, however, infer that it was largely through these funeral ceremonies that elite Roman families constructed and reaffirmed their ideas of their own histories.
Before comparing funerary performances to written histories, we need to account for the interaction that took place between these two media. The most obvious of these interactions is direct borrowing. We know that the archived versions of the family histories constructed in the context of some funerals were used as sources in Livy’s larger narrative of Roman history. Michael Grant points out the inaccuracy produced by reliance on such self-interested sources, writing that the political prejudice evident in Livy’s history is “partly due to the highly partisan character of the family records used by Livy’s sources, which glorified their own houses at the expense of others,” and adding that “[Livy] is well aware of the mendacity of such archives. But this does not prevent him from denigrating the house of the Claudii because he inherited the prejudice from Fabius Pictor, whose family was against them.” P. G. Walsh comments on the same issue in his work on Livy, condemning what he considers to be Livy’s overly-trusting use of these family histories. According to Walsh, Livy’s work was “conspicuously affected by family interests; Livy reproduces much distortion owing its origin to this fact,” Walsh points to the case of Livy’s account of the route of Scipio Africanus, criticizing him for following Antias where Walsh believes he would have produced a more accurate, chronologically sound account by following Claudius.
We are not concerned with historians’ factual inaccuracies so much as we are the structure of their final narratives. However, Livy’s partiality to his family sources shows us that the use of family histories in written Roman historical record could not only inform, but in some cases affect the narrative more than the discernable historical facts available to the Roman historian. Disregarding Livy’s favoritism of one family or another and the factual inaccuracies that might have bred, his use of these family histories as central pieces in an overarching Roman history suggests the focused and centralized nature of the Roman historical narrative. The fact that historical accounts created in as personalized and self-interested an environment as a commemorative Roman funeral procession made their way into the greater histories of Rome reflects a common trend in written Roman historical narrative; that of centering an expansive national history on a few families and individuals.
We should also consider the general effect that the family histories, either witnessed at funeral ceremonies or read from some other source, might have had on Roman historians and the ways in which they chose to focus and structure their work. It is impossible, of course, to say how the funeral ceremonies these men witnessed and participated in might have affected the histories they wrote. We can, however, observe the similarities between the two, bearing in mind that the funerary recounting of family history was a type of storytelling that would have been familiar to these men.
A final consideration is that there were other writings that Roman historians setting out to construct grand narratives like Livy’s were most likely also informed by, sources that could perhaps be considered personal or family histories and themselves may or may not have been influenced by funerary performances. There are those Romans, like Caesar, who wrote about their own military exploits. Although these accounts were themselves not comprehensive histories, they present another form of personal history that the writers of larger historical narratives used as sources. Tacitus wrote a celebratory history of the military accomplishments of his father-in-law in Britannia. Although he did not belong to the same patrilineal line as Agricola, Tacitus was his family by marriage, and glorified him as part of a tradition that arguably included himself. This brings us to the matter of defining family.
In order to understand the concept of family as it is expressed in Roman narratives, we need to have an understanding of Roman nationalism, which we will here use to refer to the collective Roman sense of identity. Greg Woolf identifies two different characteristics of Roman identity that are relevant to our discussion. First, it drew on Greek imagery and iconography to legitimize its supremacy in terms of an established tradition while at the same time forging a new identity that differentiated itself from Greek culture. Second, and most importantly, Roman identity was based more on values than it was on ethnicity or descent. Since the Roman Empire originated from people of mixed stock, literature on Roman nationalism was more concerned with elevating the Roman system of values than it was specifically Roman bloodlines, suggesting that the success of Rome stemmed from its moral—rather than genetic—superiority. This perception of Roman values as the glue that held the empire together meant that those values were arguably the single most important thing to be passed from one generation of Roman leaders to the next.
Bearing this conception of Roman identity, the creators of Roman narratives were often willing to extend the idea of the family beyond a single genetic line to include other individuals they considered part of the same tradition of values. In his discussion of the Roman funerary practices and Aeneid 6, Burke puts forth the argument that all members of the Roman elite considered themselves to some extent part of a larger family of great Romans. He observes that in the procession of Aeneas’ ancestors in the underworld, “although the emphasis is clearly on the gens Iulia, the scope of the procession has been expanded to include many non-Julian participants.” Burke also brings up other cases in which masked funeral processions were extended to important Roman figures outside the lineage of the deceased, such as Tacitus’ account of the funeral of the younger Drusus, in which the procession of ‘relatives’ included Aeneas, the Alban kings, Romulus, Sabine nobles, and the Claudians. As Burke puts it, “Virgil’s pompa”—and, as we see from his examples, other high-profile Roman funerals—“is an event which implicitly treats all Roman heroes as members of one immense, extremely ancient family.” We see here the notion of lineage employed a different way, from ruler to successor, rather than father to son. The underlying theme here is continuity. Whether by blood or succession, Romans view their history as anchored by a line of great men stretching far back into the past, and live on an assurance that the same line will continue into the future. In this way, both ceremonies and texts focus all of Roman history around a single powerful center, comprised of multiple individuals and sometimes multiple lineages, but always upholding the continuous power of Rome.
If we are to consider all of the elite citizenry to be a single extensive family, as Burke and Woolf suggest, then in a way all Roman historians belonging to the Roman elite were constructing their own family histories as they wrote, either directly or indirectly putting themselves, their allies, their favored heroes, and their descendants into place in the central lineage of Roman history. This involvement of the author in the history itself is inseparable from a Roman sense of nationalism that separated Roman historians from the Greek historians writing about Romans. For as much as Greek native Polybius was enamored of the Roman Republic, he did not belong to the elite class of Romans he was describing and therefore did not have the vested interest in the course of Rome’s future that Virgil or Livy have.
In Roman written history patriotic concern with the future is expressed in large part through the presentation of the past, the underlying aim of such presentations being the continuity of the center of Rome’s power. By reinforcing the strength of the line of Roman elites going back into the past in both funeral ceremonies and written histories, Romans attempted to ensure its continuation into the future. It is in this space that narrative serves to collapse centuries of time to a single moment in which the power of the past and the potential of the future mirror and reinforce one another. In the Roman funeral ceremony, this occurs when the masked representations of the deceased and all his important ancestors are lined up to face the living audience of family members. In Aeneid 6, it occurs when Aeneas enters the underworld and sees his own deceased father along with a procession of the shades of all of his gathered ancestors, similar to the procession of masked performers in a funeral, in addition to the unborn souls of his descendants. Burke references other scholars who believe that the parade of the dead in Aeneid 6 might in fact be a reproduction of the funeral of Augustus’ nephew Marcellus in 23 BCE, but argues that this is unlikely because of the episode’s structure, specifically that there is a reversal of time and roles from a traditional Roman funeral; rather than the living son recounting the deeds of his deceased father and ancestors, Aeneas’ deceased father, Anchises, tells his living son of his future and descendants. Thus, Burke claims that “Here in Virgil’s parade of heroes, the Regal and Republican past becomes the Augustan future; the past as Virgil knew it is inverted and becomes the figure of Aeneas, who himself has no relevant or Roman past.” All this creates the sense that the past, present, and future cease to matter when it comes to the continuity of the Roman core; that the central anchoring lineage of Roman power is something that transcends time.
2. Creating a Model of Roman Values
Because the actions of members of the elite class were so important to the Roman mind, a key function of any presentation of history—written or performed—was to establish models of behavior for its audience. Most often, these models came in the form of the heroic members of the lineages on which the narratives centered. The focus on elite Roman families meant that it was through these individuals that ideas of Roman nationalism found expression. Livy himself states in the preface to his work that its purpose is to “commemorate the deeds of the foremost people of the world,” and, addressing his elite Roman readers directly, writes that “what chiefly makes the study of history wholesome and profitable is this, that you behold the lessons of every kind of experience set forth as on a conspicuous monument; from these you may choose for yourself and for your own state what to imitate, from these mark for avoidance what is shameful in the conception and shameful in the result.” These great figures and the family lines to which they belonged became the representatives and champions of Roman power and ideals (or at least what the authors thought ought to be Roman ideals) within historical texts. Even within funeral ceremonies themselves, the glory of Rome and the glory of the specific family line within it were inseparable, with the speakers and performers turning the deceased into an example of general Roman greatness. Similar idealization occurs in written Roman narrative, either as a consequence of borrowing from family histories or through the author’s attempts to create a model of ideal Romanness.
Classical scholar, Moses Hadas suggests that it was Livy’s patriotic concern for the upholding of what he considered core Roman values as much as his use of family histories that caused him to forgive or omit the faults of certain historical figures while besmirching others with little regard to the facts reflected in the sources available to him. Hadas writes that “For those that are accepted as national heroes there is a tendency to exaggerate the merits and gloss over the failings in order to produce a uniformly favorable picture” in Livy’s history, pointing specifically to the idealized portrayal of the three heroes of the Second Punic War, Fabius Cunctator, Marcellus, and Scipio Africanus, although he writes that “Livy incidentally provides enough unfavorable information to render suspect the wholly favorable picture it is his manifest intention to give.” Another example Hadas gives of Livy’s partiality is his crediting the future Scipio Africanus with saving Publius Scipio’s life at the Battle of Ticinius, adding that “Livy knows that Coelius ascribes the rescue to a Ligurian slave, but says he would prefer to have the other version true.” Here we see, practically by his own admission, that Livy was at least as concerned with establishing models for ideal Roman behavior as he was recording a factually faithful historical narrative, which would explain his knowing disregard for the historical facts available to him.
Hadas is far from the only scholar to recognize the heavily moralizing character of Livy’s work. D. S. Levene addresses Livy’s concern that the moral center of the Roman empire was in fact deteriorating and how this is reflected in his efforts to direct his audience to specific moral readings of his text. Beyond providing examples of moral behavior in disparate cases in his history, Levene argues that Livy’s work is not “merely presenting a series of lessons for his readers: it is a claim about the role of morality in the Roman world. Livy’s attempt to limit and control the readings of his text matters, because it is at the same time guiding us into an interpretation of the entire Roman empire: an empire that grew not necessarily because it was single-mindedly moral… but that grew in a context where morality was the paramount object of concern.” This approach to the creation of his narrative, T. J. Luce says “caused him to treat history as a panorama—a series of episodes embodying moral values,” the same moral values that Woolf identifies as the core of Roman identity and nationalism. With this understanding of Livy’s historical narratives as ultimately focused on Rome’s strength through its morality, Hadas goes as far as to compare Livy’s work to the Old Testament, pointing to similarities in their structure and composition, and arguing that Livy’s work assumed a role of moral instruction for its Roman readers comparable to the role of the Old Testament in the lives of ancient Jews. Further, he draws a parallel between Livy’s sparing his favored heroes from any fault in his narrative and the similar treatment of important figures in the Old Testament. Roman nationalism, the morals that anchored it, and the heroes embodying those morals were inseparable.
Within the same episode of the Aeneid detailing the parade of the dead in the underworld, we get to see in the shade of Anchises what Burke views as an embodiment of important Roman values. Burke observes that Anchises “seems to feel time as none of the other inhabitants of Elysium can,” noting how “while most of the other inhabitants of the Groves of the Blessed spend a blissful and timeless existence dancing and singing, Anchises stands apart, obsessively counting his children to be and pondering their future careers.” This gives us not only an example of a historical figure used to reflect Roman values, but also the important fact that those values included an awareness of time and one’s own place within a line of great historical figures. Burke believes that “Virgil wishes us to see Anchises as the archetypal Roman ancestor, a true Roman forefather, conscious of his eternal and vital place in family history; in any case, the Roman concern for ancestry, family and lines of descent (described by Polybius, Sallust, Pliny and others) is mirrored in Anchises’ enthusiastic and detailed description of his posterity—not merely the gens Iulia but all of Roman history.” Burke then contrasts this driven, lively characterization of Anchises with the contented but ‘vacuous’ shades of the Trojans in Virgil’s Elysium, showing us that this obsessive concern with time and lineage was something Virgil saw as not only important, but distinctly Roman.
One final example of a central figure in a narrative written to embody the Roman ideal– or rather the author’s idea of the Roman ideal— is Tacitus’ Agricola. With his account of his father-in-law’s exploits in Britannia, Tacitus is simultaneously commemorating the deeds of a recently-deceased family member through narrative and using Agricola as an embodiment of Roman greatness (often at the expense of his peers, who come off as all kinds of cowardly and incompetent by comparison). Tacitus makes it clear that he views military conquest as the engine of Rome’s power and the most worthy endeavor of an upstanding Roman. Thus, it is Agricola’s boldness in conquest and his effectiveness as a military leader that are highlighted and afforded the most description, in spite of the fact that the man most likely had other qualities and characteristics to recommend him.
What this moralizing focus on certain prestigious Roman families and individuals reflects is a strong notion that the survival and success of the empire hinged on the deeds of this elite group of people and its continuation from father and ruler to son and successor. Therefore, the historical texts in question, like the funeral performances, were made not only about, but for members of that elite center. Not only were members of the Roman elite most likely to have access to these texts and the literacy in Latin to read them, but being part of the same social group as the stories’ favored subjects, they also represented the audience that had the most to learn from the contents.
3. Connecting with the Audience
Models of Roman morality can only affect their intended purpose if the narrative’s audience is persuaded to connect and identify with them. In his account of a Roman funeral, Polybius touches on a number of ways in which the masked procession of ancestors served to establish an emotional connection between the audience and the subjects of the family history. The two elements of the performance he stressed were, first, the re-enacting and reinforcing of the great accomplishments of the deceased in connection with the larger history of the family and that of Rome in general and, second, the importance of visually bringing history to life for an audience. He points to the psychological value of this oral and visual representation of history, writing that:
“By these means the people are reminded of what has been done, and made to see it with their own eyes,—not only such as were engaged in the actual transactions but those also who were not;—and their sympathies are so deeply moved, that the loss appears not to be confined to the actual mourners, but to be a public one affecting the whole people… For can we conceive any one to be unmoved at the sight of all the likenesses collected together of the men who have earned glory, all as it were living and breathing? Or what could be a more glorious spectacle?”
It is also significant that in the funeral ceremonies it was traditionally family members who wore the masks of the deceased ancestors and reenacted their deeds, meaning that living members of the lineage were not only visually, but in some cases physically engaged in recreating the history of their predecessors. In his article on these masked performers—what he terms ‘funerary mimes’—Geoffrey S. Sumi looks at different accounts of the living impersonating the dead at Roman funerals and discusses how animated these performers would be, and how significant effort was put into imitating not only the exploits, but the voice and mannerisms of the deceased. In this way, the dramatic performance at a funeral almost serves as practice for sons and other relations aspiring to the same greatness as their ancestors.
While written historical narratives do not have the benefit of physical audience participation or indeed physically displayed visuals at all, they certainly make use of imagery. Virgil, for example, utilizes images often associated with funerals in Aeneid 6 to instill the sense of Roman greatness and continuity associated with those ceremonies. In fact, the figures in the parade of the dead, being shades, are no more physically tangible to Aeneas than they are to the reading audience. Their power is derived solely from the image they present. Livy’s accounts of certain events were also characterized by stark imagery, which he employed with more concern for its symbolic and emotional implications than for its literal accuracy. One could argue that imagery is not as useful in connecting the audience with the narrative’s heroes as it is in connecting them with its events and settings. However, the emotional responses inspired by descriptive imagery can serve to put the audience in the shoes of the hero beholding the settings and participating in the events described much like the masked performers are made to participate in past history through its reenactment at funerals. Further, causing the audience to see past events not simply as description, but as an emotional experience, is another way in which narrative could collapse time, bridging the gap between the living and the dead heroes, giving the audience a sense of Rome’s immortality and continuity down to their present. As Andrew Feldherr puts it “[Livy’s] use of vision as a means of restoring contact between his audience and the power of their religious and political institutions cannot be separated from the preservation of historical memory, nor, in a larger sense, from the perpetuation of Roman history as an ongoing sequence of actions.”
Tacitus, however, points out in the closing of his tribute to Agricola, that as helpful as imagery can be in establishing a connection between the past and present, the hope is that something more fundamental of past heroes will ultimately be retained in present and future generations. Addressing the dead Agricola, telling him that he may have a likeness of him caste in marble or bronze, Tacitus writes:
“But the image of the human face, like that face itself, is feeble and perishable, whereas the essence of the soul is eternal, to be caught and expressed not through the substance and skill of another, but only by individuals in their own lives. All that we loved in Agricola, all that we esteemed, abides and shall abide in the hearts of men, through endless ages, in the chronicles of fame. For many men of old will be lost in oblivion, their name and fame forgotten. Agricola’s story has been told to posterity and, so handed down, he will live.”
There are, however, more abstract and complex narrative devices than imagery with which Roman historians attempted to establish a connection between their audience and their subject material, perhaps capturing something of ‘the essence of the soul’ Tacitus is concerned with. Despite lacking an audience that is immediately present at the narrative’s creation, written histories sometimes utilize internal audience response (that is, the reaction of characters within the story to events) to inspire an emotional connection between their readers and their content. D. S. Levene explores Livy’s use of internal audience response in Book 45 of Livy. Here the internal audience takes on a narrative function similar to a chorus in a play helping the readers to process events through their reactions to them. The event in question here is Aemilius Paullus’ tour of Greece following his conquest of Macedonia, which Levene explains represents an important turning point in Roman history because the end of the Third Macedonian War was the end of the last genuine threat to Roman hegemony, putting Greece within the Roman territories and shifting Roman energies toward the concerns of empire rather than conquest: “how to respond to their defeated opponents and erstwhile allies, how to control a newly acquired empire, how Rome herself is to employ the fruits of victory to best effect—and, not least, how Rome views herself and is viewed by others.” Because this is such an important moment in defining Roman values and identity, Levene asserts that “our being led to read this victory in the “right” way has implications for how we now reflect back on the entire Roman conquest that has been documented across the previous 44 books.”
Levene’s observation, identifying this episode of Livy as a critical turning point for Rome, presents another parallel between Livy’s history and Roman funeral ceremonies. Funerals too constitute a turning point in that the representative of one generation, in dying, is ending one stage of the family’s history passing on responsibility to his successor. Death, if not properly handled by those who remain, can disrupt the stability of a family line or of course end it altogether. Therefore, it is more important than ever in the moment of one family member’s death that his surviving relations be reassured of their identity and recognize their responsibility to uphold the legacy of the deceased and all of their great ancestors, thus assuring the continuity of the family. The parade of the dead in the Aeneid also takes place at a critical moment of change in the narrative, after the death of Aeneas’ father but just before Aeneas founds the new Trojan-Italian state. At this point, he needs to be called back to the greatness of his ancestors to receive instruction and inspiration before he is ready to go forth and carve out a great future for himself and his unborn descendants. In much the same way, Livy in Book 45, coming to a narrative turning point in which Rome itself must come to terms with new power and responsibility, calls his living audience in the present to a reading of their own history that he believes will best serve the empire in its future.
4. Call to Action
The final and ultimate function of history as constructed in funeral ceremonies and written historical texts was to inspire the young generation of Roman elites to the same level of greatness as their predecessors, ensuring not only the stability but the continued success of the empire’s center. In Aeneid 6, that center is put on display as a long line of great men. After Anchises has pointed out and named all of the greatest ancestors present, reminding Aeneas of their deeds, he takes him on a tour of the rest of the realm:
“So did they wander all over the broad fields of air and saw all there was to see, and after Anchises had shown each and every sight to his son and kindled in his mind a love for the glory that was to come, he told them then of the wars he would in due course have to fight and of the Laurentine peoples, of the city of Latinus and how he could avoid or endure all the trials that lay before him.”
Thus, through a combination powerful imagery, oral recounting, and instruction from his father, Aeneas saw the history of Rome, past and present, centralized to a continuous line of model individuals, established an emotional connection with those great men of the past, and was inspired by their example to face his own future as part of their line. If we take another step back from this picture and consider that Virgil wrote the Aeneid in honor of Augustus, praising him by praising his ancestor, Aeneas, and the great tradition of heroes from which they were both descended, it becomes clear that the narrative was meant to inspire the Julio-Claudians who at that point formed the center of Rome’s power, placing them in an ancient line of larger-than-life ancestors. The underlying idea that is expressed in all of these narratives, from the funeral procession to the historical text, is that the highest form of reverence for one’s successful ancestors is to follow their example. As Tacitus writes, addressing Agricola, “May we honour you in better ways—by our admiration and our praise, even, if our powers permit, by following your example. That is the true honour, the true devotion of souls knit close to yours.” The function of this model of narrative, whether executed consciously to a specific personal end or unconsciously in keeping with Roman storytelling traditions, is clear: to keep power concentrated within the same elite group families as in the past and to make sure each new generation within that group has the wherewithal to wield it.
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