History, Viewpoints, Narratives and Ancient Rome

Giovanni Paolo Panini's 'Roma Antica' (1754-1757)
(From Giovanni Paolo Panini, via Staatsgalerie, Stutgard/Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Giovanni Paolo Panini’s “Ancient Rome” — an 18th century view. (1754-1757))

“…Naiad airs have brought me home
To the glory that was Greece,
And the grandeur that was Rome….”
(“To Helen,” Edgar Allen Poe (1845) via Wikipedia)

I’ve split this week’s post into three sections:

The first is a long-overdue word of thanks to Victor Peters, my first history professor.

Next there’s a look at history, chronology and historiography. Plus an almost-undocumented king, an American president, narratives — and viewpoints, mainstream and otherwise.

After that, finally, comes a metaphorical snapshot or two of ancient Rome.

History 101 and Humanity’s Continuing Story

Peters Papers, special collections, library and archives, Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University.
(From Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard; used w/o permission.)

Professor Peters’ general studies history classes sparked my interest in the subject. He had a talent for showing history as more than a dry catalog of names and dates.1

That, and particularly his account of Alaric’s tomb, led to my earning a degree in history. And inspired my lifelong interest in history.

So — thank you, historian Victor Peters!

About History: Definitions, Documents, and Narratives

The Aristotelian Constitution of Athens, only extant copy of the nearly complete text. Currently at the British Library
(From The British Library, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(The British Library’s Copy of “Constitution of the Athenians,” found in a garbage dump.)

I’ve discussed historical stuff fairly often, but don’t remember talking about history as an academic discipline.

So I’ll do that now. Briefly. For me. Starting with —


  • History
    • Dictionary.com
      1. the branch of knowledge dealing with past events
      2. a continuous, systematic narrative of past events as relating to a particular people, country, period, person, etc., usually written as a chronological account
      3. the record of past events and times, especially in connection with the human race
      4. a past notable for its important, unusual, or interesting events
    • Merriam-Webster
      1. tale, story
      2. a chronological record of significant events (such as those affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes
      3. the record of past events and times, especially in connection with the human race
      4. a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events
      5. events that form the subject matter of a history
  • Chronology
    • Dictionary.com
      1. the sequential order in which past events occur
      2. a statement of this order
      3. the science of arranging time in periods and ascertaining the dates and historical order of past events
    • Merriam-Webster
      1. the science that deals with measuring time by regular divisions and that assigns to events their proper dates
      2. a chronological table, list, or account a chronology of the author’s works
      3. an arrangement (as of events) in order of occurrence

Basically, history isn’t chronology. But chronology is part of history.

The best definition of history and chronology I’ve seen is this — “The queen died, then the king died” is chronology. “The queen died, therefore the king died” is history.

Maybe that should be “illustration,” not “definition,” and that’s another topic.

More Definitions

I’ve emphasized Dictionary.com’s and Merriam-Webster’s definitions for “narrative” that come up later, under Historical Narratives.

  • Narrative
    • Dictionary.com
      1. a story or account of events, experiences, or the like, whether true or fictitious
      2. a book, literary work, etc., containing such a story
      3. the art, technique, or process of narrating, or of telling a story
      4. a story that connects and explains a carefully selected set of supposedly true events, experiences, or the like, intended to support a particular viewpoint or thesis
    • Merriam-Webster
      1. a) something that is narrated: a story, an account
        b) a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view or set of values

Just two more definitions, then I’ll start talking about history and related topics.

Historiography is the study of the methods of historians in developing history as an academic discipline, and by extension is any body of historical work on a particular subject….
(Historiography, Wikipedia)

The overarching narrative or ‘grand récit’ [big story] that gives order and meaning to the historical record, especially in the large-scale philosophies of history of writers such as Hegel, Marx, or Spencer.
(Overview, Oxford Reference)

An Almost-Undocumented King, a President and a Thought Experiment

Daderot's photo: A fragment of the Epic of Etana; Akkadian, Mesopotamia, First Dynasty of Babylon, ca. 1895-1595 B.C. At the Morgan Library and Museum, New York City (February 4, 2020)
From Daderot, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Part of the Epic of Etana. (ca. 1895-1595 B.C.))

Both history and chronology would be simple, if folks had been keeping records in a consistent format since the time Etana was king of Kish to the present.

And if we’d preserved most of those records.

They didn’t, we haven’t, so today’s scholars figure Etana didn’t really exist. Probably.

I’ll grant Etana’s 1,560 years on the throne sound unbelievable. Or maybe it was 635 years. Different copies of the Sumerian King List have different numbers.

We may never know how much surviving Etana lore describes a real ruler of Kish. If he really had been a ruler of Kish, he’d have lived around 3000 B.C., give or take a few centuries.

Pretty much everything we know about Etana — and Kish — comes from often-incomplete cuneiform documents and other scraps archeologists have uncovered.2

Five millennia later, I’m impressed at how much documentation we haven’t lost.

A Hypothetical Situation: Washington, From a 68th Century Perspective

Detail of 'The Apotheosis of Washington,' United States Capitol rotunda; Constantino Brumidi. (1865)Think about it this way.

George Washington was America’s president from 1789 to 1797.

Two and a quarter centuries later, we still know quite a bit about him.

Partly, I figure, because America’s current language hasn’t changed all that since the late 18th century. And partly because Washington is an important part of my country’s history.

But we don’t know everything about him. For example, there’s debate over whether he was a Christian, a theistic rationalist, or both. Partly because, I gather, he didn’t name-drop Jesus in his correspondence.

But I’ve yet to run across a serious claim that George Washington wasn’t a real person.

Now let’s imagine our ‘now’ is the late 68th century: five millennia after Washington’s day. That puts America’s first president about as far back for our hypothetical future selves as Etana is for us.

John C. McRae's 'Father, I cannot tell a lie: I cut the tree' engraving.George Washington telling his father Augustine Washington that he cut down the cherry tree. (1867) after a painting by George Gorgas White.And let’s imagine that much of what’s known about Washington is in fragmentary documents dating back to between the 32nd 35th centuries.

Which is about where we’re at, for stories about Etana. Depending on who’s talking, they’re called the Etana Epic, Legend or Myth.

Adding to the fun, let’s say that those descriptions of George Washington are based on stories derived from a book by Mason Weems, published in 1800.

Hypothetical 68th century scholars might wonder if George Washington had been a real person. Or if he was a mythologized embodiment of Victory and Liberty. Or maybe the North American version of Zeus.3

Historical Narratives

Charles Schreyvogel's 'Tomahawk and sabre; or even odds,' or 'Lieutenant Grummond Sacrificing Himself to Cover the Retreat.' (1902))
(From Charles Schreyvogel, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.)
(Schreyvogel’s imaginative version of Custer’s Last Stand. (1902))

Historians — professional, amateur and wannabe — have viewpoints. I don’t call it a problem, since it’s what happens when humans act like individuals. Or as groups whose members share common assumptions and beliefs.

But seeing humanity’s story through many eyes does complicate things. And makes quotes like these possible:

“The recognition of the role and importance of subjectivity in the construction of histories does, by implication, negate the possibility for objectivity in the writing of history. But there will always be historical narrative and, consequently, a narrative voice, be it hidden in the syntactical structure of the writing by, for instance, the absence of first person or the use of simple past tense….”
(Dana Arnold, “Reading Architectural History,” Ch. 1 – Reading the past – What is architectural history?, (2002) via Wikiquote [emphasis mine])

“History is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveller.”
(Henry Glassie, Passing the Time in Ballymenone (1982)) via Wikiquote

“History is written by the victors.”
(George Graham Vest or somebody else (19th century A.D.)

I grew up when the Battle of the Greasy Grass was called Custer’s Last Stand. These days it’s the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

We’re still trying to figure out exactly what happened.

Which I see as an improvement over what we had before Vine Deloria Jr. wrote “Custer Died for Your Sins.”

I’m also glad that non-academics now have access to details of past events.

Thanks to information age tech. For folks who know how to do research, at any rate. And that can help us separate what happened from imaginative but inaccurate accounts.

Take the saber in Schreyvogel’s picture at ‘Custer’s Last Stand,’ or example. No tomahawk-saber fight happened during the Battle of the Little Bighorn. General Custer, for whatever reason, had told his soldiers to not carry sabers.4

Viewpoints, Mainstream and Otherwise

Excerpt from 'Mamma's Girls,' Chick Publications. (retrieved September 9, 2021)Over the last century or so, we’ve seen manifest destiny — which may have been more a cultural belief than a ‘historiography’ viewpoint — give way to other assumptions.

We’ve had Whig historiography, Marxist historiography, and at least one distinct flavor of progressive historiography.

We’ve also seen imaginative narratives, like Chick Publication’s alternate history. Or what would be alternate history, if Chick tracts were marketed as fiction.5

Simple, But Far From Easy

World Youth Day, Rome. (2000) From Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Like everyone else, I’ve got a viewpoint.

Before I became a Catholic, I thought truth was important, and that respecting and loving other folks was a good idea.

Now that I’m a Catholic, those aren’t options. They’re obligations. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 33, 1789, 2196, 2464-2474, 2488-2501)

Loving my neighbors, all my neighbors, comes with being Catholic. Or should. So does seeking truth and respecting “…different religions which frequently ‘reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men.’…” And valuing everyone’s religious freedom. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 6:31 10:2527, 2937, Catechism, 1789, 2104-2109)

Loving my neighbor, seeing everyone as my neighbor, and respecting folks who seek truth, including those who don’t agree with me? Sounds simple. And is incredibly difficult. Which is yet another topic.

Will the Real Ancient Rome Please Stand Up?

Henryk Siemiradzki's 'Roman Orgy in the Time of Caesars.' (1872)
(From Giovanni Paolo Panini, via Staatsgalerie, Stutgard/Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Henryk Siemiradzki’s “Roman Orgy…” — a 19th century view. (1872))

Cesare Maccari's 'Cicerone denuncia Catilina' 'Cicero Denounces Catiline.' (1889)
(From Giovanni Paolo Panini, via Staatsgalerie, Stutgard/Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Cesare Maccari’s “Cicero Denounces Catiline” — another 19th century view. (1889))

Remembering ancient Rome as an era of self-indulgent opulence, orgies and decadence may have gone out of fashion.

On the other hand, I haven’t researched the prevalence of orgy remembrances. Still, it’s been a long time since I’ve run across a film like “Up Pompeii.”

At least some of the “Roman decadence” narrative can be credited to Edward Gibbon. His “…Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire” arguably set the tone for 19th and 20th century discussions of the empire’s demise.

“…As the happiness of a future life is the great object of religion, we may hear without surprise or scandal, that the introduction or at least the abuse, of Christianity had some influence on the decline and fall of the Roman empire. The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity: the active virtues of society were discouraged….”
(“History Of The Decline And Fall Of The Roman Empire,” Chapter XXXVIII: Reign Of Clovis.-Part VI.; Edward Gibbon, Esq.; With notes by the Rev. H. H. Milman (1782 (Written), 1845 (Revised)) via Gutenberg.org)

I’m not entirely convinced that “pusillanimity,” cowardice and timidity, were preached as Christian virtues in the Roman Empire.

Maybe, after Emperor Constantine decriminalized Christianity. I’ll grant that the Roman Empire was transitioning from a major power to nostalgic memory in Constantine’s day.

But I suspect that Gibbon’s subversive clergy were more a reflection of 18th and 19th century England’s society than the late, great Roman Empire’s.

And maybe Gibbon had taken his cue from Roman historians like Sallust.

“…Good morals, accordingly, were cultivated in the city and in the camp. … Justice and probity prevailed among the citizens. … Citizens contended with citizens in nothing but honor. They were magnificent in their religious services, frugal in their families, and steady in their friendships….”
(“Conspiracy of Catiline and the Jurgurthine War,” Conspiracy of Cataline, IX; Sallust (ca.  43-40 B.C.) trans. The Rev. John Selby Watson, M.A.; via Gutenberg.org)

Good morals, honor and frugal families were — Sallust said — part of Rome’s golden past. Rome, from his viewpoint, had been going bad ever since “…Carthage, the rival of Rome’s dominion, had been utterly destroyed….”

“…At first the love of money, and then that of power, began to prevail, and these became, as it were, the sources of every evil. For avarice subverted honesty, integrity, and other honorable principles, and, in their stead, inculcated pride, inhumanity, contempt of religion, and general venality….”
(“Conspiracy of Catiline and the Jurgurthine War,” Conspiracy of Cataline, X; Sallust (ca.  43-40 B.C.) trans. The Rev. John Selby Watson, M.A.; via Gutenberg.org)

The Catiline trials are also where we get Cicero’s famous “o tempora o mores” lament.6

Now, the Catiline trials happened before Christian subversives allegedly started undermining Roman virtue, but the idea that Christianity broke Rome has been remarkably durable. And that’s yet again another topic.

One more thing before getting to the Horatii, Curiatii, and Roman legend.

Vomitoriums: They’re Not What You Were Told They Were

Norbert Nagel's photo of an amphitheater in Pompeji. (July 10, 2013)
(From Norbert Nagel, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Pompeii’s amphitheater (spectacul). That’s one of its vomitoria, lower left. (2013))

Vomitoriums really were part of many Roman structures. The Colosseum, for example, seated 87,000 spectators. And had 64 vomitories.

But they were not there to facilitate binge-and-purge eating.

“…Sixty-four vomitories (for by that name the doors were very aptly distinguished) poured forth the immense multitude; and the entrances, passages, and staircases were contrived with such exquisite skill that each person, whether of the senatorial, the equestrian, or the plebeian order, arrived at his destined place without trouble or confusion. Nothing was omitted which, in any respect, could be subservient to the convenience and pleasure of the spectators….”
(“Harpers Dictionary of Classical Antiquities,” Amphitheātrum, Harry Thurston Peck (1898) quoting Gibbon; via Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University

I haven’t confirmed this, but apparently Lewis Mumford’s “The City in History” (1961) said that Roman houses houses routinely included vomitoria. And that the vomitoria’s function was what the English word “vomit” implied.

And that’s another example of something folks know, that just ain’t so.

Maybe there was a Roman-era house with a Mumford-style vomitorium. My guess is that, if so, it was about as typical as the candy room in Markus Persson’s Beverly Hills home.7

Horatii and Curiatii: A Roman Legend

Jacques-Louis David's 'Oath of the Horatii.' (1784)
(From Jacques-Louis David, via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.)
(Jacques-Louis David’s “Oath of the Horatii:” — a fine Neoclassical painting. (1784))

In 1784, French politics was coming to a boil. The French Crown controlled spending. But the Estates General was the only agency allowed to approve national taxes, Their last meeting had been in 1614-1615.

I’ve read that artists like Jacques-Louis David were trying to encourage loyalty to the state rather than to clan or clergy. Four years later, the French Revolution happened.

“Oath of the Horatii” illustrates part of a Roman legend, recorded in Livy’s “Ab urbe condita” (“From the Founding of the City” / “The History of Rome”) (ca. 27-9 B.C.)

Livy’s Horatii story is set in the reign of Tullus Hostilius, the legendary third king of Rome.

Assuming that Tullus Hostilius was a real person, he had been king from around 672 to 640 B.C. — and had been fighting his way out of a mess his peaceful predecessor had made. According to Livy’s account, that is.

Livy said that Rome and Alba Longa, a city about 12 miles, 19 kilometers, southeast of Rome, were at war. But Tullus Hostilius figured a full-scale conflict would be a bad idea, since that’d kill a lot of Romans and Alba Longans. “Alba Longans??” That should be Albans.

Anyway, Etruscans would likely attack both Rome and Alba Longa, if the two cities wore themselves out with a war. So Tullus Hostilius and his Alban counterpart agreed that the three Horatii brothers would fight the three Curiatii.8

And the Moral of the Story Is —

Agostino Carracci's 'Aeneas and his family fleeing Troy.' (1595)The Horatii-Curiatii faceoff happened in the mid-seventh century B.C. — assuming that it actually happened.

Seven centuries later, Romans knew the Horatii’s story. But Livy, writing his “Ab urbe condita,” said that who the Horatii and Cuiatii were wasn’t certain.

“…That they were Horatii and Curiatii is generally allowed, and scarcely any other ancient tradition is better known; yet, in spite of the celebrity of the affair, an uncertainty persists in regard to the names —to which people, that is, the Horatii belonged, and to which the Curiatii. The writers of history are divided. Still, the majority, I find, call the Roman brothers Horatii, and theirs is the opinion I incline to adopt….”
(“The History of Rome, Book 1,” 24, Livy (Titus Livius) (ca. 27-9 B.C.) Benjamin Oliver Foster, Ph.D., editor; via Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University)

I suspect part of the problem was that by Livy’s time, distinctions between Roman mythology, folklore and history had gotten blurred.

We’ve seen the same sort of thing happening here in America, although I hope we’ve been a bit more careful about keeping track of what’s real and what’s imaginary. Even so, it took more than half a century to publicize a reality check for Custer’s Last Stand.

Then there’s the matter of the American Puritan image morphing from Pilgrim paragons to fanatical killjoys. There’s a little truth behind both images, and that’s still more topics.

Getting back to Livy’s Horatii story, one of the lessons it taught is that both the Horatii and Curiatii were nobly risking their lives for their country.9 I’m not sure how the surviving Horatii killing his sister because she mourned her Curiatii fiance fits that picture.

“…Neither side thought of its own danger, but of the nation’s sovereignty or servitude, and how from that day forward their country must experience the fortune they should themselves create….”
(“The History of Rome, Book 1,” 25, Livy (Titus Livius) (ca. 27-9 B.C.) Benjamin Oliver Foster, Ph.D., editor; via Perseus Digital Library, Tufts University)

The point of many Roman legends and histories wasn’t so much to give a literally accurate account of historical events, as to showcase Roman virtues.

I think that’s basically a good idea. Although I also think getting the facts straight is vital.

The Tarquin Narrative and Rip Van Winkle

Willem van Nieulandt's 'View of the Forum Romanum.' (ca. 1601-1625)Some academics think the Roman revolution in 509 B.C. — or 501, Roman historians disagreed on the exact year — didn’t happen. Not the way later Roman origin stories described it.

I see their point. Tarquin the Proud’s usurping the throne of Servius Tullius, a popular king — followed by a scandal involving his son and a dead noblewoman — reads like a melodrama. Or maybe an episode of Dallas.

The way I see it, the odds are that Rome was ruled by kings. Maybe seven consecutive kings, although I’m a bit dubious when a count of kings, sons, or cities is one of my civilization’s favorite numbers and that’s — what else? — even more topics.

Maybe the Tarquin narrative is the sort of tale Americans see during some national elections: a narrative where ‘the names you see are true, the events are cherry-picked to get your attention.’

We don’t have documents from the late sixth and early fifth centuries B.C., either supporting the Tarquin tale: or showing that it’s as accurate as Washington Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle.”

So the Tarquin question remains unanswered.10

That said, I’m not ready to disbelieve all of Rome’s “Tarquin” origin story. “Rip Van Winkle,” after all, is fiction: but includes descriptions of real events.

I’ve got more to say about ancient Rome, decadence and social cycle theories. That, and how I see ancient Rome’s gilded moments, will be in my next “Golden Ages” post.

More-or-less related posts:

1 Victor Peters, historian:

2 Remembering Sumer:

3 A thought experiment’s background:

4 People, events and attitudes:

5 asdfasdfasdf:

6 Rome and viewpoints:

7 Vomitoria and Roman architecture:

8 The Horatii and Curiatii, legend and history:

9 Historical perceptions and perspectives:

10 A mixed miscellany:

About Brian H. Gill

I was born in 1951. I'm a husband, father and grandfather. One of the kids graduated from college in December, 2008, and is helping her husband run businesses and raise my granddaughter; another is a cartoonist and artist; #3 daughter is a writer; my son is developing a digital game with #3 and #1 daughters. I'm also a writer and artist.
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