3.2 – Epicurean Rome (25 min video)
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– Welcome back. Let’s continue where we left off with the story of the Romans. And of course, we’re focusing on the emperors because we have a lot of information upon them. So we’ll talk about a few emperors, but we’ll also especially talk about Roman culture at this time. It’ll be very illuminating to see that contrast once again with the early church and really Christianity period. So the emperor we’ll start out with is the emperor Domitian, who reigned from 81 to 96 AD. It was said that he was somewhat vain. In fact, he wrote a book early in his life that was simply titled “On the Care of the Hare.” As the younger son of Vespasian, he was rather jealous of his older brother Titus. In fact, the ancient historian Dio Cassius said that Domitian aided the death of Titus, who died from a fever by evidently surrounding his body as he was dying of a fever with snow.
Perhaps it’s true, perhaps not. Dio Cassius is writing sometime after the event. But it was also Domitian who tried once again to continue the reforms of moral culture that Augustus had tried. It was Domitian, for example, who punished adultery or at least tried to punish adultery. He also built numerous temples to the gods in an attempt to encourage the people to worship them. But it seems pretty plain that by this time in Roman history, people really didn’t believe in the gods anymore. Like his brother and father, he threw expensive games, games designed to appease the people. He also added to the Colosseum. He kept the peace of the empire and like others who came before him, saw himself as a god and ordered the statues of himself as a God fill the city of Rome while declaring his family to all be deities and organizing a priesthood named after the family name, the Flavians.
He required also people to refer to him simply as our Lord and our God. As you can imagine, this caused a problem for the Jews, but especially for the Christians. And so it’s under Demetian that we have the first true state persecution of Christians beginning in the year 93 AD. Now it’s true, Nero had persecuted the Christians before this, and there have been local persecutions of Christians throughout the empire, but this was the first empire-wide persecution.
And as for Nero, that was mostly in the city of Rome, and that was mostly to have a scapegoat for the fire of Rome because he was accused of starting it.
The other thing I want you to note about Domitian was that Domitian is somebody who began to distrust anyone who had some kind of wisdom from above.
So for example, in the year 95, he banished all the philosophers from Italy. He increasingly became paranoid, paranoid of assassination, had mirrors installed on all the walls of his palace so he could see anybody coming to perhaps attack him.
He then grew suspicious of one of the servants in his household. It was actually a freedman who had formerly been a slave of Nero, who 27 years before had helped Nero die. Well, it turned out that Domitian began to suspect this slave and what if he decides to kill me off? And so he began to plot against him, actually ordered the death of him. But that actually led to the plotting of other freedmen in the household who actually worked with Demetion’s own wife and then killed him in his bedroom. Immediately afterward, they ordered that all the statues of him throughout the empire be destroyed. Demetion was then succeeded by a rather patient and wise emperor named Nerva, who only reigned for about 16 months. The guy that comes after him leaves a more lasting impact. His name is Trajan. He actually reigned from 98 to 117 AD. He was born in Spain and was a capable general. It was said that he marched with his troops on foot, and if they had to cross a river in full armor, he crossed that same river on foot in full armor.
He was somebody who was made emperor while he was in the city of Cologne, securing the border of the Roman Empire then, but rather than go to Rome, he stayed in Cologne for two years, making sure that the job had actually been finished properly.
Trajan was said to also have a cool temper and would frequently listen to the philosophers who would give him advice, making him very different than some of those who came before him.
When it came to a legal system, he famously said, quote, “It is better that the guilty should remain unpunished than that the innocent should be condemned.” In other words, he’s one of the most level-headed emperors that we have. He also lowered taxes while also building incredible projects such as the Roman Forum. He enlarged welfare to the poor. He gave stipends to families who had children to encourage them to have children and to have more. He conquered Dacia, which is modern day Romania. And then, like a good emperor, came back to Rome and celebrated his conquest with 123 days of gladiatorial games using some 10,000 gladiators. To commemorate his conquest of Dacia, he also ordered a massive column to be erected in the city of Rome using some 18 marble sections, each weighing 50 tons, creating a column that was 97 feet tall that had a spiral staircase that went up the middle of it.
On the outside, it had some 2000 figures showing the Romans conquering the Dacians. The Dacians were represented as noble to show that because they had lost, clearly the Romans were more noble. As for Trajan, he appears on top of the column, holding a globe of the world. It’s something that when Christians came to power in the Roman Empire, would contrast by showing Christ holding a globe of the world, to show that he was the true King of Kings.
Now, Sir Trajan, he did try to be a King of Kings. He actually sent his legions to conquer Armenia, Mesopotamia, made it all the way to the Red Sea where he built a massive fleet. He held this territory for three years, that is until rebellions sprang up throughout the rest of his empire, and he had to spend his remaining years combating those.
It’s also worth noting that it’s under the reign of Trajan that Christianity officially becomes illegal. That is, it’s illegal all the way until the time of Constantine, largely because Christianity was seen as an unlicensed cult. It was not an officially approved religion of the Roman Empire. When Trajan died, he was succeeded by yet another general also born in Spain, a man by the name of Hadrian, who reigned from 117 to 138 AD.
So one of the longer reigns we’re going to look at. It was said that Hadrian was nominated because Trajan’s widow had fallen in love with him. As for Hadrian, he was somebody who was obsessed with Greek literature and Greek art and Greek plays. He also was a bit of a different Roman emperor in the fact that he had a beard. And so for those who wanted to get in his good graces, It became fashionable for Roman men to actually grow beards during this time, something that was not common before Hadrian.
As for his family life, it was, well, rather dysfunctional. He had an unhappy marriage and spent as little time as possible with his wife, preferring to spend his time with other people, or in many cases, his favorite dogs and horses to whom he built magnificent tombs when they died.
It was also Hadrian who had a sense of wisdom as to how far the Roman Empire could go. So he withdrew the legions, for example, from Armenia and from Mesopotamia that Trajan had conquered. In terms of Britain, he ordered his generals to not conquer the area we now call Scotland and instead built a massive wall there. It’s of course known as Hadrian’s Wall. It’s some 80 miles long. It’s often 10 feet thick. It had these enormous garrison fortresses that could sometimes hold a thousand legionnaires. It had castles or turrets placed at least every mile. And in many cases, the turrets were equipped with a signaling system, essentially a large bonfire that could be lit to signal that the wall had been attacked.
So Hadrian was rather wise and patient in terms of governing the Roman Empire. It was also said that he was a master bureaucrat, that it was Hadrian who increased the number of offices and the number of taxes and laws to try to control as much of the Roman Empire as possible.
Many of his ideas he got from visiting literally every single province in the empire. As one historian, Franto said of Hadrian, he loved not only to govern, but to perambulate, that is walk the entire world. Hadrian, like Trajan, shared the common life of a soldier. When he was with his men on the battlefield or on the march, he marched on foot with them. He ate the same food as they did. He often slept in the same kinds of tents that they had to sleep in. He also enjoyed incredible building programs. He rebuilt much of the city of Athens, building a magnificent library there, or finishing the Temple to Zeus that had been started some 600 years before.
There’s also Hadrian who had the idea to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and completely renamed it, putting in it very clearly pagan temples. But his most famous building of all is in the city of Rome. It’s there you can still visit to this day the famous Pantheon. It’s a remarkable building made of brick and concrete. It’s most remarkable because when you enter in, you’ll immediately look up and you will see this concrete dome that’s over 130 feet across. It has these rather amazing squares or rectangles inside it. And the very center of it is what they call the oculus, the eye, that is 26 feet wide that allows sunlight to come in and make its way around the building.
It was a remarkable structure largely because of this dome, which was the largest in world history at the time, but it was a pantheon designed to have gods in all the alcoves to show all of Rome’s loyalties and to encourage the people once again, to worship the gods who surely would bless Rome. Of course, after Rome changed and became Christian, the pantheon, like many places, was turned into a church. Towards the end of Hadrian’s life, as I mentioned to you earlier, he actually persecuted the Jews, outlawing most of their common traditions, such as circumcision, or the reading of the Old Testament, or the observance of the Sabbath.
These aren’t just traditions, they are laws by the Old Testament law. And like many of the emperors, Hadrian became paranoid at the end of his life, ordering the execution of several friends without a trial. In order to try to secure a proper successor, he decided to name who would become Caesar after him by actually choosing a successor. He then spent his remaining months dying slowly from a painful illness that evidently caused frequent nosebleeds. It was said that he tried to take his own life many times, but servants always removed weapons from him. In fact, he comments at one point that he who had ordered the deaths of many could not order the death of himself. And then towards the end of his life, He writes a simple poem that kind of expresses some of the dissatisfaction that the writer of Ecclesiastes has.
It’s very clear in this work that he’s pursuing something beautiful or something that will make him happy in life, but he can’t find it. Here’s what he wrote. Soul of mine, pretty one, flitting one, guest and partner of my clay, where will you hide away? Oh pallid one, oh wretched one, oh naked one, will you never play again? Will you never come out to play? He’s asking the question, is there anything lasting? Is there any joy that is truly eternal? As far as we can tell, Hadrian never found it. He eventually died in the year 138 and he was buried in a massive tomb which still stands the city of Rome to this day that he himself had ordered built to prepare for his burial.
As for the season that we need to look at in terms of Roman culture, the historian Will Durant talks about this season of Roman history as Epicurean Rome.
And the whole idea of eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we die. Will Durant points out that things like prostitution, adultery, divorce, abortion, or infanticide, the abandoning of young children to die in the wild were all common.
The poet Juvenal has one of the adulteresses in his poems say to her husband, “Do we not agree that we should both do as we liked?” Meaning the idea of adultery and not really having a marital faithfulness seemed common. In fact, Juvenal pointed out that adulterers were typically popular saying, “Nothing will so endear you to your friends “as a barren wife, a wife who has no children, “but seeks her own pleasure and hopefully theirs as well.” Seneca says it like this, he says, quote, “With us, childlessness gives more power “than it takes away.” We’re told that women often took eunuchs as husbands, that adultery was expected at the start of a marriage. And Juvenal noted that it wasn’t just adultery, and we’ve already been seeing this, it was also childlessness. There was not the desire to actually have children or to actually endure the sacrifice it takes to raise children. And there was no hint of the joy of raising children either. In fact, Juvenal said that it’s only the poor who, quote, “endure the pains of childbirth.” He says, “Show me a gilded bed, and I will show you that it has no children because it knows the skill of the abortionist. It’s also at this time that we have places like the Columna Lactaria, which was in Rome and was a place where unwanted children, whether they be illegitimate children, like the parents weren’t married, or in many cases, they were simply girls, it’s here that they were often abandoned. In fact, it was a Roman custom to raise up the child to say, “Yes, I will actually raise this child.” And if that did not happen, If the father did not do that, then the child was not actually seen as a person. That is something that Christianity would radically change. And we’ll talk about that in the next lesson. We do, however, have some epitaphs that at least tell a different story. Here’s one that I find rather beautiful. This was left behind on a grave. It simply says, “To my dear wife, with whom I passed 18 happy years. For love of her, I have sworn never to remarry.” So there were Romans who still lived that life of familial commitment. However, we also have Romans who pursued pleasure in whatever way they could. In fact, Seneca talks about the feasting of this time by the wealthy and how they would actually vomit to eat. Literally, when they had eaten too much, they would be given some kind of chemical or would go through some kind of process to help them vomit.
That’s why he says they vomit to eat and they eat to vomit. We also have the fact that there were 76 festival days all with games. Games could include plays, they could include Olympics, they could loot chariot races, which were often deadly. And of course, they included gladiatorial contest. One of the curious things about the Romans during this time is that as less and less Romans fought in the wars, they seem to become increasingly interested in seeing some kind of destruction of life, some kind of violent bloodshed.
That’s why, for example, when Titus opened the Colosseum, which by the way, had free admission, in order to actually inaugurate that building, he had the floor flooded, something that could be done on a moment’s notice, and then have thousands of condemned men reenact a battle from the Peloponnesian War. Their motivation for killing each other, you might ask, was the fact that if they survived, they might be granted their freedom. The Coliseum, as you probably know, was an incredible place of gathering. It could hold up to 50,000 people. There were elevators within the floor that could suddenly change the scene or introduce new characters, such as gladiators, or perhaps new animals. We’re told, for example, that during Nero’s reign, this would be before the Colosseum, we’re told that some 400 tigers were set out against a whole herd of elephants and bulls to see who would kill each other. When the Colosseum was dedicated, some 5,000 animals died. Often, of course, it was people who died. Typically, the Romans would like to recreate some historical battle, or perhaps they would recreate some kind of myth. We’re told, for example, of one prisoner who was dressed up as Heracles, who at one point wore a flaming robe as he was becoming a god.
Well, that prisoner was set on fire, only he didn’t become a god. We’re told we had another prisoner who was dressed up like Icarus, the guy who tried to fly too close to the sun. And we’re told that he was dropped, but not into the sea, he was dropped into a lion covered pit inside the actual Colosseum. Meanwhile, the crowds could sit from their seat, with the emperor himself sitting on a special throne, with awnings provided for shade and concessions available, often paid for by the emperor himself.
The people would decide the fate of gladiators who fell and survived. Thumbs up meant they should be spared, and of course, thumbs down meant they should be killed. There were characters dressed up as say Mercury, who would come around and drag off the corpses of those who died and slaves would come out to sprinkle new sand to cover the blood.
All of this was often praised. A Trajan said it gave an example to men of what noble wounds in the scorn of death looks like. Or Cicero said that it gave a deterrent to would-be criminals to commit their crimes. Seneca was horrified by what he saw. He said, quote, “In the morning, they throw men to the lions. At noon, they throw them at the spectators. The crowd demands that the victor who has slain his opponent shall face the man who will slay him in turn. And the last conqueror is reserved for another butchering. This sort of thing goes on even while the stands are nearly empty. Man, a sacred thing to man, is killed for sport and merriment. This is the context for the story in Tacitus. Tacitus is sometimes called the deletor temporis actae, which means literally the accuser of times past. He himself was the son-in-law to a famous general, a guy by the name of Agricola. Tacitus served as both a consul and as a governor in Asia Minor. Pliny the Younger said he was one of the best Roman orators of the day, but Tacitus complained that good oratory, Good speaking or public speaking that is, had declined because liberty itself had declined.
It was Tacitus who looked at Roman culture and he saw a general barrenness, a desire for the death of others, a desire for living for pleasure, but no desire to actually raise the next generation.
That’s why he praised the Germans, saying they had true freedom and saying that they should be praised because of their large families and their hatred of abortion and infanticide.
He was doing that largely to criticize Rome itself. When it came to his famous annals, which gave the history of the emperors, he said this, “The chief duty of the historian is to judge the actions of men, so that the good may meet with reward due to virtue, and the pernicious citizens may be deterred by the condemnation that awaits evil deeds at the tribunal of posterity.
In other words, he was writing to warn future Romans of the dangers of living just for themselves, that history would have a stern judgment for them.
He does of course say he’s gonna talk about good deeds, but he never really seems to get there. That’s why Will Durant says, quote, “In Tacitus, Seneca, Lucan, and Petronius, “all noble characters, they all die, but they do not write. “The emperors kill, but they do not build.” Tacitus really had no answers, no solutions. And he argued, for example, that there could be no true knowledge of truth. It just wasn’t possible. He argued you should follow the religion of your native land simply out of custom, not out of actual love or any kind of pursuit of the truth.
A character who’s like him, and how I’ll end this lecture, was a guy by the name of Juvenal. who began as a lawyer, became a famous writer and poet, writing some 16 satires. His satires were also meant to scathe Roman culture. He said, “We are arrived at the zenith of vice, and posterity will never be able to surpass us.” He coined the phrase, for example, “bread and circuses,” to say that the mobs of Roman citizens would often dismiss immoral behavior in their leaders because they were bought off. They were bought off with bread and circuses or bread and games. That’s what smart emperors knew would keep them in power. When it came to things like marriage, he was cynical. Juvenal assumed that all women were dishonest. And yet at the same time, he advocated that the noble Roman should move from the city of Rome and he should find himself a little country farm and live a simple life with his wife and children.
But he also said you should not wish for a long life. The world is far too wicked. I’ll close with this quote of his. He said, “Our forefathers complained, we complain, and our descendants will complain, that morals are corrupt, that wickedness holds sway, that men are sinking deeper and deeper into sinfulness that the condition of mankind is going from bad to worse.
He understood the same idea of Romans 3, that no one is righteous. At least he understood that part of humanity. He did not see a solution to it. That of course would be up to the Christians, whom we’ll talk about in the next lecture.