Saturday, April 12, 2014

Rome is where the heart is

Beginning on page 32 of The Fall of the Roman Empire, Heather describes the outward movement of the Roman movement.   On page 26 he had written that Rome had become “‘A sacred precinct’ full of temples to the gods who had presided over the ancient victories – ‘far from the highway’’ and that “more or less sums up fourth-century Rome.”  But on Page 32 he begins a section he entitles “Rome is where the heart is,” and discusses “Trier.”

“Roman Trier started out as a small military installation, set on a strategic ford across the River Moselle in the old heartlands of the hostile Treveri.  The city that greeted Symmachus and his fellow ambassadors in the winter 368/9, however was no military camp, but the populous and prosperous bastion of Romanitas – ‘Romanness’ – of the Rhine frontier region. . . .”

“Trier was Roman to the core, and had been for a long time.  The new imperial buildings had been grafted on to what was already a fully Roman city.”   Heather describes the details of the city, showing how similar it was to Rome in its architecture, which I’ll skip.  On page 34 he writes, “This transformation wasn’t just true of Trier.  Throughout northern Gaul, Roman cities dotted the map.  You could also find them in Britain, Spain, North Africa, the Balkans, Asia Minor and the Fertile Crescent.  Based on Greek antecedents, many such cities were already to be found in the Mediterranean area at the time of the Roman conquest. . . Caesar’s ghost, had it made its way as far north as Symmachus’ embassy, would have been astonished.  In his day, northern Europe had been marked only by odd native hill-forts, numerous rustic villages and the odd Roman military encampment.  Now it was an almost entirely Roman landscape, its towns the administrative bedrock of the Empire.”

On page 36 Heather writes, “Symmachus made, and exploited, many contacts during his year at the court in Trier, and the most important among them was a fellow specialist in Latin language and literature, Decimus Magnus Ausonius, perhaps as much as thirty years older than Symmachus.  After a distinguished academic career, he was engaged by the emperor Valentinian to act as tutor for his son, the future emperor Gratian.  Symmachus’ initial letter of approach to Ausonius, couched in highly flattering terms, has recently been identified among the anonymous letters in the collection.  Two points of particular interest emerge.  First, a perceived superiority in Latin could override social inferiority.  Ausonius, though numbered among the educated Roman elite, came from nothing like so distinguished a background as Symmachus.  Second, and for the present purposes much more important, Ausonius had made his name as a self-employed teacher of Latin rhetoric operating under the auspices of the University of Bordeaux, near the Atlantic coast of Gaul.  By the fourth century, Bordeaux had emerged as one of the major centres of Latin excellence in the Empire  Not only does this show us expertise in Latin flourishing well beyond the confines of Italy, but Ausonius himself was not from Rome, nor even from Italy, but of Gallic background.  Yet here we have one of the blue-blooded Romans of Rome approaching him with deference, and seeking his good graces in matters to do with Latin literature. . . .”

“. . . the idea that a Rome-trained Latin expert of senatorial status might approach a Gaul as his superior in the Latin tradition could only have struck Caesar as preposterous.”

“Latin grammarians started to operate in many of the towns of the Empire.  . . And once such schools were in operation, the same kind of intensive training in language and literature was being offered throughout the Empire.  By the fourth century, a good Latin education at the hands of a grammarian could be had anywhere.  The language of the surviving letters of St Patrick, from a fairly minor landowning family in northwest Britain, shows that you could still get such an education at that extreme point of the Empires as late as AD 400, while North Africa, at another, was famous for its educational tradition, producing in St Augustine of Hippo one of the best-educated late Romans of all.  Vergil had triumphed of all his non-Latin, pre-Roman cultural rivals. 

“This brings us face to face with the most fundamental change of all, the dimension of imperial evolution that underlies all the others: the creation of Roman rural and urban landscapes outside of Italy, and the widening of political community that sidelined Rome and her Senate.  Latin language and literature spread across the Roman world because people who had originally been conquered by Caesar’s legions came to buy into the Roman ethos and adopt it as their own.  This was far more than learning a little Latin for pragmatic reasons, like selling the odd cow or pig to a conquering Roman soldier . . . Accepting the grammarian and the kind of education he offered meant accepting the whole value system which, as we have seen, reckoned that only this kind of education could create properly developed – and therefor superior – human beings.”

An observation:  Here in the United States we will be celebrating our “Independence” on July 4th.    Yet in retrospect what has independence amounted to?  We speak the language of the empire – not as well, no doubt, but we can still be understood.    We adapted the British education system, British law and just about everything else British.  And to illustrate our connection, whenever the subject of American assistance to Britain during the World War II would arise, a former member of a forum I am on would berate the U.S. for being so tardy in their aid.  In her view the U.S. either owed Britain or should be considered one with Britain, I can’t recall that part of the argument.  And I never quibbled about owing this assistance and would merely explain that Roosevelt had to deal with a congress full of Isolationists and needed an indisputable “cause” to take the U.S. into World War II, that is, our tardiness couldn’t be helped.  The U.S. in relation to Britain seems comparable to Trier in relation to Rome (or the Roman Empire?) in the period Heather is writing about. 

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