SPQR: A Roman Miscellany

SPQR: A Roman Miscellany

by Anthony Everitt


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From the acclaimed author of Augustus, Cicero, and The Rise of Rome, an entertaining and richly informative miscellany of facts about Rome and the Roman world

SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus. Do you know to what use the Romans put the excrement of the kingfisher? Or why a dinner party invitation from the emperor Domitian was such a terrifying prospect? Or why Roman women smelled so odd? The answers to these questions can be found in this compendium of extraordinary facts and anecdotes about ancient Rome and its Empire. The 500-odd entries range across every area of Roman life and society, from the Empress Livia's cure for tonsillitis to the most reliable Roman methods of contraception.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781781855690
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 06/01/2015
Pages: 352
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Anthony Everitt is the author of Augustus: The Life of Rome's First Emperor, Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome's Greatest Politician, and The Rise of Rome.

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A Roman Miscellany

By Anthony Everitt, Roddy Ashworth

Head of Zeus Ltd

Copyright © 2014 Anthony Everitt and Roddy Ashworth
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-78185-569-0





The roman state was founded on a fiction: a legend that forged a link between Rome and Troy, the famous and once powerful city on the coast of Asia Minor. The complicated story told how a Trojan prince, Aeneas, accompanied by his young son and aged father, escaped from the smoking ruins of Troy, which had finally been destroyed by the Greeks after ten years of fighting. He then sailed around the Mediterranean with a group of survivors looking for somewhere to establish a new city. Finally he settled in Italy, and from him sprang the Roman nation.

The link between Troy and the Romans was largely invented by Greek historians, who liked to bring interesting up-and-coming foreign powers within their net. The fullest version of Aeneas' escape from Troy and his subsequent adventures can be found in Virgil's national epic, the Aeneid.

For their part, the Romans were flattered by the attention. They suffered from a pronounced inferiority complex vis-à-vis Greece. They were not at all impressed by latter-day Greeks, whom they had invaded and annexed in the second century BC. They regarded them as decadent and incompetent, the cheese-eating surrender monkeys of their day. But they were lost in admiration for the classical Hellenic past — the architecture of Ictinus, the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, the philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, the sculpture of Pheidias. There was nothing in Roman culture that could compare. Even when in due time Rome produced its own stock of geniuses, such as the poets Virgil and Horace, they tended to imitate Greek originals.

In the second century AD the emperor Hadrian did his best to reinvigorate Hellenic culture and presented it as an essential ingredient of Rome's imperial ideology. When Rome itself was sacked and the western empire collapsed at the end of the fifth century AD, the eastern half, governed from Constantinople, remained in place for another 1,000 years. Its official language, its lingua franca, was Greek, and although its people called themselves Romans, they used the Greek word Romaioi.



In the course of the Trojan hero Aeneas' wanderings around the Mediterranean, one port of call was Carthage, the great entrepôt recently founded on the coast of north Africa. Here he fell in love with Dido, the Carthaginian queen. However, his destiny was to found the Roman race in Italy, and Jupiter, king of the gods, sent him a sharp message reminding him of his duty. He lost no time in jilting Dido and resuming his travels. It is not my fault, he protests, but I do have to leave! 'I really don't want to go to Italy'; or, in the famous words that Virgil gives to Aeneas as he ends his affair: Italiam non sponte sequor. Dido, bereft, then kills herself, thereby giving cause for the subsequent visceral hatred between Rome and Carthage.

After leaving Carthage, Aeneas settled in Latium. His son Ascanius founded the city of Alba Longa, and from him descended a long line of kings as fictional as he was. These culminated in the father of the twins Romulus and Remus, who left Alba Longa to found Rome.



The story of the war between the Greeks and the Trojans is one of the greatest tales ever told. The seed of strife is sown when handsome young Paris, prince of Troy, seduces and abducts Helen, the beautiful queen of Sparta. Her husband Menelaus and his brother Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, assemble an expeditionary force to sail across the Aegean Sea and get her back. The Greeks then spend ten fruitless years in front of Troy's walls. Such heroes as Ajax, Diomedes and — most famous of all — Achilles do their best but fail to capture the city. Eventually the wily Odysseus (the Roman Ulysses) devises a cunning plan. The Greeks pretend to sail off home, leaving behind as a peace offering a large wooden horse, which in fact conceals a party of Greek warriors. The Trojans are fooled and pull the horse inside the city walls. At night the Greeks return and the men in the horse open the gates to them. Troy is sacked.

In ancient times, this tale was widely supposed to be historical. Two epic poems by Homer, the Iliad about the anger of Achilles, and the Odyssey about Odysseus' journey home from Troy, acquired a quasi-biblical authority and showed Greeks all that it meant to be Greek and civilized. The salient point, from the Roman perspective, is that Rome's foundational figure Aeneas — originally, at least — plays a minor part in this great tale.

Modern archaeology has shown that there actually was a Troy, which was burned down at about the time supposed by legend — the closing years of the second millennium BC. However, we can be pretty sure that Achilles, Helen and all the rest of them never existed.



Romulus and his twin brother Remus were the infant sons of a small-time king in central Italy, who was deposed by his brother. The boys were abandoned in the countryside to die. A she-wolf found them and gave them suck, and they were watched over by a friendly woodpecker. A passing shepherd came across them and brought them up, and they grew to become fearless, hot-tempered young men who ran local gangs. As is the way with such legends, their true identity was eventually discovered, and Romulus and Remus helped replace their father on his throne. They then decided to go off and establish a city and kingdom of their own.

A group of hills on a bend in the river Tiber seemed ideal for the future site of Rome. The brothers agreed to fortify one of the hills, but not which hill. To resolve the dispute, each stood on his chosen spot and watched for the flight of birds: the decision would go to the one who saw the most auspicious kind of bird. Remus struck lucky first, for six vultures flew past him. Romulus, not to be outdone, lied that he had seen twelve vultures. His brother did not believe him and challenged him, whereupon twelve vultures did in fact put in an appearance. Remus claimed victory because he had been the first to see vultures; Romulus, because he had seen the larger number of vultures.

Remus jumped scornfully across a trench his brother had dug, whereupon Romulus attacked and killed him. Romulus immediately realized the gravity of his offence: he had founded his new state on the crime of fratricide. This did not prevent him making himself ruler, however. He welcomed immigrants and won wars, and the state thrived. Then, after a long and successful reign, Romulus mysteriously vanished in a thick mist.



Many famous cities and states boast founding fathers, or at least great unifiers, from the early centuries of their story. Gilgamesh built the walls of Uruk; Theseus destroyed the Minotaur and established Athens as a leader of Greece; Arthur was a chivalrous king who defended Britain from foreign invaders. Although these men are allowed their faults, they are at heart noble and benevolent. They deserve their status as national heroes.

There is one big exception: Rome. The character of its founder Romulus — a fratricide and tyrant — leaves much to be desired. Why did the Romans make up such a disagreeable tale? Like Romulus himself, the answer has dematerialized — on this occasion into the mists of time. But there are some clues.

The 'official' version of Romulus' end was that he had disappeared from view in a cloud of mist. But another more plausible account spread quickly. This was that the members of the Senate, Rome's governing committee, had struck him down during a meeting. They then cut him up into pieces and each senator hid a body part under his clothes when leaving the meeting: hence his mysterious disappearance.

Can it be an accident that another notorious Roman, Julius Caesar, was struck down in similar circumstances? Both men became despots, for which they were assassinated in the Senate. A coincidence indeed: perhaps the Romans tailored their past to fit later events in their blood-stained history.



At first Rome had a tiny population and more citizens were urgently needed. Romulus established a policy of offering all-comers the gift of Roman nationality, a welcoming approach to foreigners that was to last a thousand years. He opened a sanctuary for criminals, vagrants and every kind of rogue, and a miscellaneous rabble soon gathered. It rapidly became clear, however, that there were far too few women to go round among the growing number of male citizens. Something decisive had to be done.

The king staged a great festival at the racecourse, the Circus Maximus. Many people attended, including families from the neighbouring Sabine tribe. At a signal from Romulus, a large force of armed Romans kidnapped all the unmarried Sabine women they could find. Their menfolk were left unharmed and encouraged to make good their escape. The infuriated Sabines demanded the return of their women. Romulus refused and war broke out. Three indecisive battles followed, and finally, under a general called Titus Tatius, the Sabines invaded Rome itself. A fight ensued in the marshy valley between Rome's hills (later to become the city's forum or main square).

At this point a remarkable event occurred. The Sabine women came pouring down into the valley from every direction. They had been abducted and forcibly married, but they now accepted their fate and insisted on peace. A treaty was drawn up, acknowledging that the Roman husbands had treated their Sabine spouses with respect. All who wished to maintain their marriages were allowed to do so. Most of the women stayed where they were. Romulus and the Sabines took an even more radical decision. They agreed a merger of their two states. All Sabines would be awarded Roman citizenship and equal civic rights. Tatius shared the throne with Romulus.

This legend — the so-called rape of the Sabine women — reveals one of the secrets of Rome's success. Throughout its history it encouraged immigration and conferred citizenship on many of those whom it conquered. In this way it won consent for its rule as well as increasing the manpower needed for its legions.



According to tradition, Rome is built on seven hills, but the claim calls for some creative accountancy. One plausible count gives the Eternal City thirteen hills, but you could choose a variety of different numbers: it all depends what you mean by a hill.

Some named hills could be seen as spurs or rises attached to larger eminences. Also, as the city grew, it took in more hills. From Romulus' point of view, the Janiculum hill was on the far side of the river Tiber and had nothing to do with Rome, although later it became an integral part of the city. During the long centuries of the Roman Republic the Vatican hill lay outside the city walls beyond the Campus Martius ('Field of Mars', god of war), a small plain of about 500 acres on which military exercises were held.

For the record, the traditional septet are the Aventine, the Caelian, the Capitoline, the Esquiline, the Palatine, the Quirinal and the Viminal. Other qualifying elevations are the Cispian, the Janiculum, the Oppian, the Pincian, the Vatican and the Velian.



Romulus was followed by Numa Pompilius, Tullus Hostilius, Ancus Marcius, Lucius Tarquinius Priscus, Servius Tullius and Lucius Tarquinius, nicknamed Superbus or the Proud. The last three were probably historical, at least in name. The dates of the foundation of Rome (753 BC — the Romans' favourite date) and of the Roman Republic (509 BC) were taken as read, and as there were only seven kings to cover the interval of time, basic arithmetic meant that each monarch had to reign for an implausibly lengthy thirty-five years. Perhaps there had been other kings whose names were forgotten? It was a mystery.

Then modern archaeologists excavating the Roman Forum and its environs discovered that the earliest settlement had been one hundred years later than the traditional date, and so everything fitted easily into place.



The Romans had their own dating system, which took as its starting point the city's supposed foundation year: 753 BC (in modern terms). To them, 44 BC, the year in which Julius Caesar was assassinated, was AUC 709, where AUC stands for ab urbe condita, 'from the city's [i.e. Rome's] foundation'. The system of dating we use today was invented in AD 525. It is based on the presumed date of Jesus Christ's birth; BC signifies 'Before Christ' and AD Anno Domini ('in the Year of the Lord'). The year zero is left out, so 1 BC is immediately followed by AD 1. Instead of BC and AD, some people today prefer BCE and CE, 'Before the Common Era' and the 'Common Era'. But the system still depends on the Christian division of time, so it is hard to see what advantage it brings.



For centuries the Roman year was 355 days long. Because this is much shorter than the solar year, the Romans had to add a corrective (intercalary) month every other year. During the civil wars of the first century BC this was not done, and by 46 BC the inaccuracy extended to two-and-a-half months. Julius Caesar, in his capacity as head of the College of Pontiffs (pontifex maximus), introduced a new calendar based on a 365-day year with one extra day intercalated every four years.

Our calendar today shows signs of its classical heritage. For many centuries the Romans began their New Year in March, as we can tell from the Latinate names of some of our months: September means the seventh month, and so on to December, the tenth. Julius Caesar and Augustus gave their names to July and August.



THE ROMANS never feared pointless complexity, witness their handling of the days of the month. The first of a month was called the Kalends. Depending on whether it was a long month (31 days) or a short one (29 days, except for February, which was 28 days), the Ides fell on the fifteenth or the thirteenth day of the month. The Nones was eight days before the Ides and fell on the fifth or seventh day of the month, depending on the position of the Ides. Dates were counted backwards (inclusively) from these three special days. So, for example, 2 May (a long month) was Six Days before the Nones of May and 8 May was Seven Days before the Ides of May.



The tales we make up about ourselves are as telling as the histories that describe (or attempt to describe) events that actually took place. The Romans are no exception. They crammed the times before memory with instructive legends.

Among other qualities, a citizen of the Roman Republic measured himself and others by virtus: a word whose meanings included manliness, self-sacrifice, strength, moral excellence and military talent. The nineteenth-century historian and politician Lord Macaulay evokes these qualities in his Lays of Ancient Rome:

To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
than facing fearful odds
for the ashes of his fathers
and the temples of his gods.

Some stories exemplified simple courage and had a happy ending. But many told of old, unhappy, far-off things. There is a grimness in the traditional Roman idea of goodness.



The third of the Kings of Rome, Tullus Hostilius, was even more war-like than Romulus. His reign was marked by a long struggle with Alba Longa, the city from which Romulus and Remus had emerged to found Rome. This was, in effect, Rome's first civil war.

The two sides made a treaty according to which the loser of the conflict would agree to unconditional surrender. To avoid a full-scale battle with all the attendant casualties, a duel was arranged between two sets of triplet brothers: the Curatii for Alba and the Horatii for Rome. In the fight all the Curatii were wounded, while two of the Horatii were killed. The survivor, Publius Horatius, then reversed the fortunes of battle by killing all the Curatii. He had been able to tackle them one by one when they became separated from each other because of their injuries.


Excerpted from SPQR by Anthony Everitt, Roddy Ashworth. Copyright © 2014 Anthony Everitt and Roddy Ashworth. Excerpted by permission of Head of Zeus Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

What the Romans Achieved vii

I Foundations 1

II The Republic 19

III The Empire 41

IV City Life 53

V Rome at War 61

VI Hannibal and Carthage 75

VII The Gods 85

VIII Sex and Marriage 103

IX Death 117

X Eating and Drinking 125

XI Poison 137

XII Names 145

XIII Education 151

XIV Poets 157

XV Entertainment 165

XVI The Universe 177

XVII Health and Medicine 183

XVIII Architecture and Engineering 195

XIX Travel and Transport 205

XX Magic 213

XXI Seven Women 219

XXII Money Matters 233

XXIII Fashion 239

XXIV Emperors-Good, Bad & Ugly 249

XXV Pompeii 269

XXVI Slavery 277

XxVII Roman Wit 285

XXVIII The Pall of Rome 291

XXIX Ave Atque Vale 301

A Chronology 305

Further Reading 313

Acknowledgments 318

Index 319

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