How do we know so much about Roman history?
July 8, 2006 8:22 AM   Subscribe

How do we know so much about Roman history?

I recently got back from a visit to Italy and have found myself interested in Roman history. After perusing a few wikipedia articles, it struck me that we know an incredible amount of information regarding the Empire in general and the day to day lives of individual Romans.

Most articles I have read refer to "ancient sources", usually biographers. A lot of the biographers voice less than positive opinions on rulers. Were they hired by the government, or were they just people writing gossip about famous Romans, much like People Magazine and the like? Where do these accounts come from and how did they survive from antiquity? Were they written on paper? Do archaeologists discover Roman history books when excavating ruins?

What about Roman ruins? In the Forum in Rome, for example, I remember seeing ruins that were little more than a crumbled wall or two, but were definitively identified as the "Temple of XX". How do we know?

Finally, how do experts identify Roman busts and statues? From what I have seen, there must be thousands of surviving busts, and it looked like all of them were identified as being a certain person. Yet very few of these busts and any kind of engraving or original label on them. So how are they identified? It is obviously not an exact science, as the bust commonly attributed to Seneca is now thought to be another person. Is the debate over this bust in particular anywhere on the internet?

Whew that's a lot of questions. Thanks for your help!
posted by Paul KC to Education (24 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
We know about the vast bulk of Roman (and Greek) books from copies of copies of copies that have survived in places like monastaries. The Romans wrote on papyrus, which for the most part has not survived, although bits and pieces are sometimes found and other times huge masses of pulpy junk are found that scientists can analyze. But it's the copies of copies that we learn the most from. We can compare different copies, which will all have different copying errors, and get a pretty good idea of what the original was.

Even with the huge amount of ancient written material that has survived, we have lost most of it. Sometimes we only know about the existence of a particular text by the fact that it is quoted in another text which has survived, for instance.

And the Romans, like us, wrote for all kinds of reasons. Some wrote for, or against, the various entrenched powers of their era. Sometimes you could speak against the government, sometimes you couldn't. I don't think you can really generalize.
posted by yesno at 9:03 AM on July 8, 2006

Where do these accounts come from and how did they survive from antiquity?

Monks. Many of the classic Latin texts were copied as manuscripts over and over again, by various people, over the years. Here's an example of De Agricultura - 12th century manuscript.They don't necessarily survive intact; for example, Appian's 'Roman History' is in chunks of Latin manuscript, Byzantine fragments, and other parts are known of, but missing. Ancient writers referred to other parts of their text and, helpfully, to parts of other texts. This is how we know that some texts exist that we don't have.

As for 'books while excavating,' well, yes, in a few cases, although you might be thinking 'books/scrolls' and archaeologists think 'anything that's been written on', which is a bit more diverse, and that's where more information comes from. Sometimes wax tablets survive. More often things like labels survive, on bottles, on murals (labelling rather standardized depictions of gods, for example), graffiti, etc. (My undergraduate work was focused on the Near East, where 'book' meant 'clay tablet' which does indeed survive quite well.)

Coming from that, what else was labelled? Coins. Coins are great! They often have the name of the ruler and his profile. That's one way to identify things like busts, at least of some of the population. In some cases you can also identify monuments and buildings from this.

Back to books. You ask who hired ancient authors. In some cases they may have had government funding, and in some cases they may have had, well, 'grants from private individuals', (this is more the case of artistic writers, who had patrons) but a large portion of the better-known ancient non-fiction writers were rich guys with large estates, who were often also politicians. You have a giant farm estate, you write about farming. Or anything you want, if you have the resources.

Onto identifying ruins. You say, "I saw a series of small walls," and yes, that's what you're seeing. That's not what the excavator necessarily saw. In cases like buildings that have always stood open to the air, it is quite likely that that's all that early historians/archaeologists did see, although they probably had been coopted for grazing land (early illustrations of Mediterranean ruins often show cattle). However, not all ruins were always freestanding. Those ruins which were excavated, and were partially underground, which often includes the series-of-small-walls type, had stuff in them very often. There is also context; say we have writings or references to a temple to Jeff the God of Biscuits being in town. Even boring Roman texts do survive, things like business accounts, contracts, and the like, which can explain the presence of buildings because they'll reference them.

Say we find a series of small walls that fit the standard layout of a temple, which we know from standing temples, and thus our small walls is quite likely Jeff's temple. It will say 'Is' to the tourist and 'is quite likely' or 'identified as per the writings of so-and-so' in the technical literature, because the normal person doesn't really care how we know, they like putting labels to things. (As do archaeologists; yes, there can be huge academic arguments over identification of things.)

Anyhow, temples often have characteristic shapes and internal layouts, as do other types of buildings (eg baths, military buildings) and so you can ID them from relatively small amounts, depending on the type. Frescoes, large and small statuary, even votive offerings of specific type, can be used to identify things like whose temple it was. Votive offerings sometimes had writing on them dedicating them to the specific god, which is handy.

Also, identifying artefacts don't necessarily come from inside the building directly, but also in the layers of dirt around the outside, so even if the entire building is freestanding and has been, there will be stuff around it.

Anyhow, I hope this answered some of it, although I didn't go that deeply in depth. For Rome I'm afraid I can't suggest any books, although something like Haynes' 'Etruscan Civilization' is probably what you're looking for - that's the wrong civilization if you're thinking Romans, though. Lots of these things are in textbooks for classical archaeology programs, which tend to run $$$ - try a university library at a university with a classics program.
posted by cobaltnine at 9:03 AM on July 8, 2006 [7 favorites]

A great deal of Roman history was never actually forgotten. You'd be surprised how much Roman knowledge has survived due to continuity -- THESE VERY LETTERS, FOR EXAMPLE.

And these very letters: they were a literate bunch.
posted by popcassady at 9:04 AM on July 8, 2006

I can't help with the last bit, but you might check out your local university library in the "N" section. Art history scholarship will probably have a lot to say about this. The only thing that I do know for sure about sculpture is that realistic portraits were reserved only for the wealthy and/or powerful. Many busts of, for instance, Caesar look alike, so we are pretty sure that he looked at least very close to the portrayals in sculpture.

With regard to Rome proper, the certainty with which buildings are identified comes from a huge map called the Severan Marble Plan that has the layout of Rome inscribed on it. It is of course in pieces now, but it is still a trove of information about Rome.

We know an awful lot about Roman history from the Roman historians. Dio Cassius and Dionysius of Hallicarnassus (sp?) are two that spring to mind. Of course, the philosophical writings by folks such as Seneca and Cicero also contain a wealth of information. Then, the satirists can provide some information if their words are taken with a grain of salt. For an example, check out Juvinal (sp?) the Satirist.

Then, there are letters and journals of the Roman officials themselves. We have several extant letters of correspondence between Pliny (I believe "the Younger". If I remember correctly, he was a consul or proconsul.) and the Emperor Trajan. Marcus Aurelius wrote a fair amount as well, but AFAIK, not about history to any great extent.

Another helpful source of information is the Bible. There is historical information in the Bible, especially the Gospels and Acts about governors and magistrates and such like that. Paul's travels and trials in Roman court are really good information, telling us the names of the authorities he appeared before in many cases.

After that, there is some helpful information in Jewish writings, particularly Josephus' Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War. Of course, much of this information centers on events in Palestine, so that gets a little far from Rome proper.

Finally, inscriptions provide a great deal of information. Cities would make inscriptions to honor government officials who were beneficent to the city. For some of these officials, this name is all we know, but for others, we can link the inscription with other information and trace the career of a political figure.

A good place to start digging into some of this information is with a reader of selected primary texts. They have already done a good deal of the leg work for you in identifying important texts. One example from my studies is Robert Wilken's "The Christians as the Romans Saw Them." Find books like this and your search will be much easier. They also usually have some intro info on the particular source.

If you want further information and source guidance, check with your university reference librarian (who will most likely point you to the P-PA section of the library where the Loeb Classical Library books are shelved) or see if you can make any friends in the Classics department if there is one around. The LCL is fantastic, and if you have any background in Latin and/or Greek, these books will be very interesting to you just because they have the original languages alongside the translation and the translations are often the most accurate and academic. Raid bibliographies and abbreviations lists in secondary sources. The abbreviations are where you will most likely find the primary sources.

It's not primary source information, but if you are at all interested in Rome, you should definitely check out the HBO Rome series. It is really really good and quite accurate AFAICT.

Disclaimer: My area of expertise in all of this is as a New Testament scholar. You will be served well, as I have, to make friends with Classicists who know this stuff backward and forward.

Hope all of this helps!
posted by jxpx777 at 9:05 AM on July 8, 2006

Also- the Forma Urbis Romae. Read more about Stanford's project to get it moving here
posted by IndigoJones at 9:29 AM on July 8, 2006

Wikipedia has a great article on Tacitus, scroll down to the "sources" and "approach to history" sections.
posted by gimonca at 9:40 AM on July 8, 2006

It's also worth keeping in mind that there's a lotwe don't know, and much of what is 'known' is based on very slender resources. Countless documents were lost in the thousand years after Rome's collapse. Often our information is based on one or two writers, especially that of the Kingdom of Rome, the precursor to the Republic.

Imagine, if you will, historians 2500 years from now basing their understanding of the United States solely on the writings of Howard Zinn (or Paul Johnson, if you prefer.)
posted by mojohand at 9:46 AM on July 8, 2006

Wow thanks for all of the great, academic replies, everyone! You've all given me a lot more information than I expected. I think I've got enough to go on for my first two questions, but what about bust and statue identification?

As jxpx777 pointed out, identifying someone like Caesar wouldn't have been difficult, but what about a bust like Commodus or Caligula's sister Drusilla?

In my mind, I see the thought process going something like "The person's face in this bust is heavily wrinkled with an expression of enlightenment, so it's obviously Seneca". Is this how they decide? Or are there more contextual clues, such as where the bust was found that help to identify it?
posted by Paul KC at 10:10 AM on July 8, 2006

Colony administration records/artifacts/letters/orders/etc also have filled in much of the gaps--the things and methods and tools and structures,etc, the Romans imposed on other places all over the Empire have filled in many day-to-day gaps on what life was like back home at the seat of the Empire. They sent their way of life abroad, so it was bound to survive in great detail--in many scattered sites.
posted by amberglow at 10:55 AM on July 8, 2006

I've also read that many busts were done as stereotypes--grizzled old general, young athlete, etc, and then personalized as needed--so a generic bust of an older man would be altered when someone ordered one for a Seneca, for instance.

The British Museum and other places have whole rooms filled with virtually identical heads and stuff, each originally designated as a specific person, i think. (and of course, records were kept and the news spread whenever there was a call for a bust for a specific person to be made or unveiled)
posted by amberglow at 10:59 AM on July 8, 2006

oh--Pompeii too, was invaluable in giving a very detailed picture of life there.
posted by amberglow at 11:05 AM on July 8, 2006

just to give the skeptics perspective: we may know a lot about other cultures as well, but in our Western centric society (I presume you're American) we have our own educational rigidty and it often lumps "other cultures" in one bracket and Greco-Roman culture as the focus...
posted by stratastar at 11:31 AM on July 8, 2006

Seutonius is another widely-known Roman historian, mainly for his Twelve Caesars.
posted by kirkaracha at 2:19 PM on July 8, 2006

You'll likely find this previous post to bo of interest: I'm looking for a good book on Roman history.
posted by ericb at 2:26 PM on July 8, 2006

Plutarchs Lives
posted by hortense at 10:03 PM on July 8, 2006

Not an answer to your question, but something interesting about ancient Rome that I recently read: they wrote graffiti.
posted by bitpart at 11:11 PM on July 8, 2006

There are a huge amount of Roman mosaics and frescos that have survived over the years. Many are still be excavated. I have visited some amazing ruins in Merida, Spain and the quality of the ruins they excavate is great. Lots of information can be gleaned from the huge quantity of artifacts. When you compare artifacts from all the ruins around Europe, it becomes much simpler to combine all of the info to make very accurate deductions. There is always a huge amount of material still being excavated especially in Pompeii which continues to help fill in all of the little details.
posted by JJ86 at 6:14 AM on July 10, 2006

I'll have to disagree with amberglow about the bust question. Stereotypes were used to depict commoners. Plebes were represented as "modified stereotypes" but the images that we have of upper class citizens are rather tediously created.

With regard to identifying a bust, I think it has a lot to do with the attention to detail and lifelikeness of busts of important citizens. For instance, once we have a bust of Seneca (for continuity's sake) that is identified with some certainty by an inscription on the bust or a literary record that says because of such-and-such event the people set up a statue of Seneca as an honor, further representations are easier to identify because of the continuity between depictions of the figure. This is also how we are relatively certain with regard to many figures' appearance.

If I'm not mistaken, the HBO series took a lot of this information into account when casting the series.
posted by jxpx777 at 1:14 PM on July 11, 2006

but what about all the busts that were sent out--whenever there was a new emperor, etc? I've heard from many sources that the workshops had to have many ready at all times. Specific commoners never got busts, but there were many Senecas made--for distribution, etc.
posted by amberglow at 3:58 PM on July 11, 2006

and when it came to military figures, they certainly weren't in Rome sitting for their busts, but out on campaign, doing the deeds that occasioned the busts.
posted by amberglow at 4:00 PM on July 11, 2006

I think there are contextual clues PaulKC. I also think sometimes they are just making their best guess becasue that's all they can do. Sometimes those are wrong. For example, I have a book of medieval pewter pilgimage badges in which I have found a couple which are clearly misidentified. One, they say, depicts Christ on the cross, but the loop to hang it from, is at the foot of the cross. I personally expect it's supposed to be Peter, who was allegedly crucified upside down becasue he felt unworthy to die in the same manner as Christ. I'm sure Jerry Falwell would have a more colorful explanation.

The take home lesson? Never tell guys who have a specific word for "kill every tenth person" that you'd like them to find a novel aproach for your own execution. They are all to likely to oblige you.

On a related note, we probably wouldn't know a 10th of what we know if the Catholic Church hadn't kept all it's records in Latin. Bernard of Clairveax, the guy the big viscious dog is named after, wanted to destroy all the pagan classics out of fear that everyone might start worshiping Jupiter or Mithras or some such. What made him easy to ignore was that there wasn't enough solid Latin text for people to learn Latin otherwise.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 11:21 AM on July 14, 2006

Great answers here. Roman history is pretty fascinating. All I want to add is that if you start getting into research and scholarship that you'll find lots of disagreements about what is fact and what is just a best guess. This process of discovery continues today, they are still finding out more and more about how Rome functioned and who the people were. They say that you can't dig down an inch in Rome without hitting history -- the city is literally built on top of it.
posted by amanda at 10:13 PM on July 14, 2006

Just to reiterate a bit of cobaltnine's post, a *big* source of identification of rulers are coins, which have a pretty accurate depiction of the ruler, and his name. Also remember that rulers' portraits were sent out all over the empire as propaganda, so if you find half-a-dozen of a particular portraiture type you can be assured it's royal, and then based on dating you can generally make a pretty good guess.

It's not perfect, though, by any means, and so scholars argue about identification all the time. Here's a book, for example, doing just that.

Or so I assume - I'm not an archaeologist, but rather someone interested in classical languages and literature. This is just based on what I've seen in museums.
posted by dd42 at 7:52 PM on July 15, 2006

There is a huge archive of letters written by and to the soldiers guarding Hadrians Wall in the north of England. A search for Hadrians Wall should lead you there.

The letters were written on tablets which were thrown away after use. The collection includes requests for warm clothing, invitations to dinner, complaints about the army etc.
posted by HJB123 at 11:38 AM on July 22, 2006

« Older Frenched Chicken Breast   |   Could a reference checking agency help me out? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.