Thursday, 13 March 2014

Reading between history's lines -- part three

Extraits de l'Histoire de Trogue Pompée par Julien,
Jehan Olivier 1519
Yesterday, we looked at the same event through three sets of eyes: Livy, Polybius and Trogus. A distinct bonus is that each of these historians were of different nationalities. Livy was born in what is now Padua in northern Italy. At that time, it was part of Cisalpine Gaul and was under the control of Rome. He went to Rome in the 30's BC. He loved his home town of Patavium which had been an important Roman town since 45 BC and spoke highly of the area. He was most definitely Roman and came to know Augustus and the Imperial family. As he was independently wealthy and a historian, his connection to Augustus is no surprise.

I have often said that I consider Augustus to have been one of the most intelligent rulers that Rome had. There is something of a modern flavour to the way he used nationalism to his advantage. As soon as he became emperor, he started to model Rome in his image. He stressed traditions and morals and in essence, recreated Rome.

While I could simply recount what has been written about him without adding anything new and that, alone, would prove my point, I think it would be more interesting to give an example that no one else appears to have noticed. It is well-known that Augustus made great use of "puppet" rulers. He would ally himself with, and help various rulers who were experiencing problems and help solidify their control over their people. He knew that if he left local "governors" (who could retain their titles as kings) then Roman governance would be more easily accepted by the people.

I suspect, though, that he did a little more than that by instructing his puppets how to get his people to associate their culture with nationalism and thus solidify the support of the people. Of course, back then, the term "cultural property" did not exist. Various things served as icons of a culture's traditional values and by promoting these things, the puppet ruler could convince his people that he was helped, by Augustus, to reinstate such values after troubling times. This is exactly what Augustus did with Rome.  Rather than just making laws about it and enforcing them, he knew that this was a mug's game that could easily cause conflicts that might never be resolved. Instead, he made things more convenient and attractive to people to follow his goals. For example, he created a hierarchy of deities with the purely Roman Vesta at its pinnacle, coming down from that were the deities that had been syncretized from Greek originals, and at the bottom of the pile were various exotic religions that had been brought to Rome by returning soldiers and immigrants. If you were a priest or priestess associated with one of his favorite religions (and this was likely not personal favoritism, but what he imagined that the people would best support), then that person could expect to live a very happy and prosperous life. The various small cults would have been supported only by its members, and there were no official perks to be had. I constantly encounter the feeling, in archaeological rather than historical writing, that the Romans somehow enforced their religion on the countries they conquered. Sometimes, the modern term Interpretatio Romana. While these words were used by Tacitus, they do not appear as a term anywhere else in Roman literature and can thus hardly be seen as any sort of policy -- Tacitus was merely struck by the close similarities of a set of Germanic deities with Castor and Pollux and was merely engaging in a bit of early comparative mythology. If you would like to read more about the real Interpretatio Romana, you can do no better than to read Interpretatio Romana by Clifford Ando, Classical Philology, Vol. 100, No. 1 (January 2005), pp. 41-51 (it's only four bucks).

For my example, I have picked Rhoemetalces I of Thrace. He is a classical example of a ruler who was helped out by Augustus. It appears that as part of his consolidation of power, Rhoemetalces instituted a Thracian artistic revival almost certainly under Augustus' recommendation. Previously, the native Thracian art styles had been replaced with Greek and in particular, the styles of Syracuse in Sicily. As Syracuse started to decline, local artists sought markets elsewhere and Thrace appears to have been their main destination. You can see copies of designs that also appear on Syracusan coins by some of the finest gem/die cutters such as Kimon. While the earlier pieces of the Greek style in Thrace are not copies, but actually the work of Greek artisans, the Thracian revival shows poorer quality and Roman influence.

The most famous piece of this period is the Stara Zagora phalera (the photographer has given a better date) and has caused no end of misunderstanding through its association with the Gundestrup Cauldron. Both objects seem to have been misdated -- the cauldron too late and the phalera too early. Writing about the cauldron and the phalera, Berquist and Taylor (The Origin of the Gundestrup Cauldron, Antiquity 61, Cambridge, 1987, p. 11.) seeming rather puzzled about the discontinuity of the native Thracian style says: “How Thracian silversmiths occupied themselves in the interval between the late 4th and the late 2nd/early 1st centuries BC is unclear.” That the phalera was found with silver cups typical of the Augustan period adds weight to its slightly later date. There are two giveaways to the phalera being of the time of Augustus -- the Roman style of Herakles haircut, and the fact of the very loose treatment of the background engraved lines. The latter can also be seen in the phalera from the Sark hoard.

This loose treatment is also to be found on a number of other phalerae cited by Flemming Kaul (The Gundestrup Cauldron Reconsidered, Acta Archaeologica, Vol. 66, Copenhagen, 1995). One of the phalerae mentioned is in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris and was allegedly purchased in Istanbul. It bears an inscription naming a King Mithradates who Kaul presumes to be Mithradates VI of Pontus (120 – 63 B.C.),which is a convenient date for the attack on the Scordisci by the Cimbri which figures heavily in theories of the cauldron's date. I think a more likely Mithradates would be the Mithradates II of Commagene who was restored by Augustus in 20 B.C.

More tomorrow!

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