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BBC is reporting the results of a study of tree rings growth, calling their article, “Roman rise and fall ‘recorded in trees.’” Tree rings can show us climatic change, because trees grow more in good years, less in years of drought. The beginning of the article suggests that this sheds new light on Roman history, saying, “They found that periods of warm, wet summers coincided with prosperity, while political turmoil occurred during times of climate instability.” Okay, that doesn’t seem particularly surprising, but could be intriguing. I’d be interested to see the year-by-year in Italy during the Social Wars, or during the rivalry of Clodius and Milo– we know that grain shortages were of fundamental importance to political shifts in the late Republic, and the article seemed to suggest that we’d have further elucidation on this point.
As I continued to read the article, however, I learned that this is not the kind of thing the study looked at. By the end of the article, it is revealed that the “rise and fall” discussed in the study is actually this: “‘Increased climate variability from 250-600 AD coincided with the demise of the western Roman empire and the turmoil of the migration period,’ the team reported.” Correct me if I’m wrong, as I’m not an expert in the later Roman empire, but didn’t we know this? Didn’t we know that the southerly migrations that pushed tribes like the Vandals on to Rome were brought on by climatic change? So the way this article is written, it is suggested that we’ve unlocked a great mystery, when in fact we’ve got some good scientific corroboration to something we’ve known for a while. Of course, I am betting the study in fact could tell us quite a bit, but that the journalist had to find some kind of “hook,” and this was what he picked, perhaps not realizing that we don’t need tree rings to tell us that the late Empire migrations were caused by climate change.
Posted by Dennis » Add Comment »
(Read Mommsen 1.11 online.)
Mommsen gets poetic again, but first informs us that ‘the doings and dealings, the thoughts and imaginings of the individual … have no part in history.’ I suspect he means the individual Roman as a type as opposed to the ‘great men,’ who are the usual subjects of of traditional history. He will treat of daily life (i.e., culture) in these shadowy times ‘only in the most general outlines.’ It will take him 115 pages.
But now for the poetry, of which the first part could have written of much of the first ten chapters:
Tradition, with its confused mass of national names and its dim legends, resembles withered leaves which with difficulty we recognize to have once been green.
While the second part gives an outline of the remainder of the book:
Instead of threading that dreary maze and attempting to classify those shreds of humanity, the Chones and Oenotrians, the Siculi and the Pelasgi, it will be more to the purpose to inquire how the real life of the people in ancient Italy expressed itself in their law, and their ideal life in religion; how they farmed and how they traded; and whence the several nations derived the art of writing and other elements of culture.
From the first the Romans seem modern, and this is best illustrated by a list of things lacking in their culture that seem to have been the common inheritance of their Indo-European ancestors:
- the bow and arrow
- the war-chariot
- the incapacity of women to hold property
- the acquiring of wives by purchase
- the primitive form of burial
- the clan-constitution conflicting with the authority of the community
- a vivid natural symbolism
- numerous phenomena of a kindred character
I’m not sure what he means by all of this, but the status of women is probably the most interesting item on the list, and while not modern in our time, it was in Mommsen’s.
He places jurisdiction solely in the hands of the king, who could pass responsibilities to his deputies, and tells us that legal proceedings were public when the offense touched on the community or violated the state. Besides parricide and treason, such crimes as rape were considered violations of the community. Private matters were dealt with more in the manner of an arbitration. Penalties ran the gamut, but were based on the crime and one’s ability to repay the offended. Despite his earlier claim that blood vengeance was not found among the Romans, Mommsen tells us that ‘the maimed person could demand eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’
An interesting notion arises in consideration of property, namely that the Romans originally counted property in terms of cattle and slaves (familia pecuniaque), and only late developed the concept of ‘immovable property,’ i.e., land.
He has a few words on the nature of legal contracts and the ways in which the Romans danced around the issue of loans, mortgage, and debt, culminating into the slavery of debtors who could not pay (their slavery effected by banishment).
Women, children, and the mentally ill required guardians to watch over their property, and each had a share in the inheritance of a husband or father. Freed slaves originally had no legal claim to freedom or citizenship, but became clients of their former masters.
Foreigners not attached to a Roman patron had neither rights nor protections. He was like ‘the shell-fish, belonging to nobody, which was picked up by the sea-shore.’ The Romans dealt with Latins as the patricians would with plebeians, but a kind of international private law developed over time, and evidence is found in certain technical terms shared by the Romans and Sicilian Greeks.
These, Mommsen says, are the rough outlines of ‘the law of a far-advanced agricultural and mercantile city, marked alike by its liberalism and consistency.’ He returns to the notion of ‘symbolism’ hinted at earlier, and cites symbolic superstitions that seemed common to other civilizations in various legal contexts, but existed in a stylized religious way (if at all) at Rome. Instead, he argues, Roman law was more concrete and straightforward. He says there was no ‘serious trace of vengeance for bloodshed,’ even if there was a trace. He sees a remarkable level of equality for citizens and non-citizens under the law (though one wonders how he defines equality). He believes that the Roman law on debt (which he says granted what Shakespeare’s Shylock requested in jest) was designed to discourage debt.
Moderns will especially be interested in what he says about torture:
[T]hat a free man could not be tortured was a primitive maxim of Roman law, to obtain which other peoples have had to struggle for thousands of years. But that law was frightful in its inexorable severity, which we cannot suppose to have been very greatly mitigated by humanity in practice, for it was indeed national law—more terrible than roofs of lead and chambers of torture was that series of living entombments which the poor man saw yawning before him in the debtors’ towers of the rich.
Torture or debt? Given the choice, I’ll take debt, and be glad it’s not on Rome’s terms.
Posted by Dennis » Add Comment »
Chapters 8 through 10 form a unit that covers the other major populations in Italy before and during the establishment of Rome’s hegemony, and one of Mommsen’s chief aims (as before) seems to be to establish the relative independence of the Romans as a strong, unified group less influenced by others than driven by their own purity of logic and sense of nationhood. Despite the 41 pages and reams of data on Greek settlements of various types (Ionian, Achaean, and Dorian), not much needs to be said, so I’ll just have some scattered notes.
(Read Mommsen 1.8 online.)
He becomes sporadically poetic (as he has a few times in the past):
[O]ur information regarding [the migration of the Umbrians] comes to us like the sound of bells from a town that has been sunk in the sea.
Does that mean that it doesn’t come to us at all? At any rate, he reiterates the dubious reasoning he used before, namely that the Sabellians were latecomers because they dwelt in the mountains, yet later, while discussing the Dorians, talks of their reluctance to change their way of life, comfortable in the mountains. It never occurred to Mommsen that the Sabellians may have been mountain people from the beginning.
(I jotted a note about an old Greek professor of mine who made a big point about his countrymen always settling near the sea. He said you rarely find them in the plain states because of the Greek psychology. No matter what they do for a living, they’re still sea people.)
I was fascinated to learn again what Mommsen didn’t know: he discusses inscriptions recently discovered near Falerii that bear a resemblance to Old Latin, and I immediately recognized the language as Faliscan. It makes it clear that especially in these conjectural chapters there’s a lot of new evidence that would change Mommsen’s picture.
Ultimately what we take away from his treatment of the Sabellians is that of the major branches, the Umbrians seem to have been beaten down by conflicts with the Etruscans until they were eventually Latinized, that the Sabines lived securely and uneventfully in the mountains, and that the Samnites were to the east of Italy what the Latins were to the west.
Where they fell short was that they lacked a Rome. And this tells us something more about Mommsen’s view of great nations: part of their downfall was that they were defensive, rather than aggressive, like the Romans. For Mommsen great nations seek power and expansion.
His note on the Tarquins is worth repeating: even allowing for a king of Etruscan lineage, there’s no reason to assume Etruscan hegemony.
(Read Mommsen 1.9 online.)
Especially in light of the note on Faliscan, you can be sure that his information about the Etruscans is out of date. The one constant is that no one knows where they (ultimately) came from or how the language fits (if it does) into any of the world’s language families. For example, while some people consider it controversial, the Etruscans were probably descended from the Villanovan civilization in the same way that the Greeks of the historical period were descended from the Mycenaeans. The so-called Villanovan culture, though, was as recently discovered as Faliscan, so Mommsen may be excused.
I noted a strange statement on the accent of Etruscan that claimed that it was the same as Latin, namely that it was thrust back to the first syllable, but the Latin accent in polysyllabic words falls on the antepenult unless the penult is long.
(Read Mommsen 1.10 online.)
He brings up an important point that I try to remind students of, namely that the dawn of Roman history was the full light of day for other cultures. Too often people have difficulty seeing how ancient civilizations stand in relation to one another. They have no sense of historical perspective, and this sort of image can be helpful.
Beyond that, and the lists of settlements (and discussions of ‘mongrel people’ again, and the ‘indolent’ Achaeans who stand in contrast to the Romans), Mommsen goes to great pains to show how the Greeks had no real part in the history of Italy. Yet in the process a very different story emerges: the conflicts of the Greeks with the Carthaginians and their Etruscan allies, and the relative Roman neutrality secured their position and later emergence.
But without the Greeks, who’s to say the Carthaginians wouldn’t have taken the south of Italy, hedged in the Romans against Etruria, and changed the course of history?