Category Archives: Ancient Rome


Happy Mother’s Day

Happy Mother's Day

Magna Mater, the “Great Mother”, Rome (Formia) 1st Century BCE

A Misunderstood Emperor?


Let’s consider one of the most famous Roman Emperors.   You’re the type of guy to order your mother to be killed, and you also poison your step brother and the previous Roman Emperor.  You set a fire, destroying most of Rome, so that you can commission new buildings.  You order your first wife and personal adviser to death and you kick your second wife to death while pregnant.  You also force people to watch you on stage singing and playing the lyre.  Of course you lock the door and permit no one to leave!  Furthermore, your reputation is so bad that a new religion called Christianity proclaims you as the greatest evil in the world, the “Beast”. 

But let’s say you also negotiate peace with the Parthian Empire, and end the series of wars which were weakening Rome in the years preceding your rule. You also curb rebellions in Britain, Germania and in Judaea, an action which contributes to the safety and tranquility of your Empire.  You make moves to eliminate corruption in government, and restructure tax laws to make tax collection fairer and less of a burden to the lower classes.  You put down a possible civil war quickly, and preserve the Empire.  You combat deflation by creating a series of public works projects, enhancing the cultural status of your city by building modern temples, stadiums, public areas, and theaters.   You also sponsor scientific projects, including an expedition to find the source of the Nile.   

You became an Emperor at age 17 and died at 30. You were known as Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus, but after you became Emperor, you were known as Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.  Better known as Nero today, and also known as the “Anti-Christ” by the numerology of his name, which results in the letters 666.

How can we arrive at such different Neros? 

We are victims of our sources.  For modern leaders, we have many sources to consider, but when we reconstruct Nero, we have few.  The historian Tacitus and the historian Suetonius offer our most comprehensive negative information, along with Cassius Dio, who writes about a hundred years later.  The historian Dio Chrysostom, and poet Lucan loved Nero, and while the Jewish historian Josephus didn’t adore Nero, he did write that many spread false reports about Nero.   The philosopher Seneca praised Nero…but Nero would force him to commit suicide just a year before Nero’s own suicide.  Both the Talmud and the Christian historians will mention Nero, too.  In the Talmud he is a sympathetic figure.  For Christian writers such as Tertullian and Eusebuis, he was the first Emperor to persecute Christians, hence the “anti-Christ” reputation.

What comes down to us from Roman antiquity is often a miniscule puzzle piece, a rotting bit of vellum handled by tweezers in a lab.  Bless the monks who had access to the texts and copied them throughout the Middle Ages.  Bless the commentators who write about works, because their comments are sometimes all that survive.  Cassius wrote a 70 volume history of Rome, and only fragments survive.  Plutarch and Pliny also wrote on Nero, and not a scrap made it to the modern world.  Where are Nero’s decrees?  Who else offered opinions about the Emperor? 

We may never fully understand Nero.  We have images of him, a young man considered handsome by many.  We have a few biographical texts.  In history, we reevaluate questionable leaders regularly, basing our understanding on primary sources such as the historians whose work survives.   But the key word is survives.  And what will we offer two thousand years into our future – will our descendants know Obama, Hitler, Nixon, Kennedy, or the Romanovs?  Have we left enough behind, or will digitized information on the internet disappear in the future, just as the books of the ancients have disappeared for us?

Note:  Thanks to Peter, one of my students who, after I called Nero “utterly crazy,”  pointed out that there may be another side this poor Emperor.

Image(Dom Deluise as Nero in Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1

Adventures in Ancient Nudity and Sexuality at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

nude reclining

In Idaho, tenth grade science teacher Tim McDaniel is under investigation for saying the word “vagina” in a sex ed class.

In New York, students pass vaginas and penises every day at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   Newcomers may giggle a bit when the elevator doors open and we’re greeted by a forgotten Hellenistic ruler’s behind, but after the third visit, no one notices him.  Last semester, a group of elementary school homeschoolers learning about the waning days of the ancient Roman Empire chose to sketch in the galleries, and what did they choose?  The Emperor Trebonianus Gallus, pictured here in all of his glory.

trebonianus gallus

Sometimes, the nudity makes the kids uncomfortable.  Teaching ancient Greek and Roman history means that you’ll encounter nudity, and it means that you find ways to teach your students to look past the nudity and to consider the subjects at hand.  Yes, they loved the human body, and yes, we’ll pass penises and vaginas and breasts and testicles, but they are simply part of the human body.  The Greeks thought that they were beautiful and glorified nudity, but we cover our bodies and will probably never witness a bronze cast of George W. Bush or Barack Obama in their birthday suits.

What makes this cultural clash even more interesting is watching who else is walking through the galleries, observing all of these nude bodies.  Toddlers.  Senior citizens.  Students sketching for classes and students filling in worksheets.  Muslims and Orthodox Jews, dressed conservatively, and not afraid of art and culture.   What would happen to an Idaho student confronted by so many body parts, after being in a culture where one can’t even use the word vagina?

But back to the uncomfortability.  If we study ancient cultures, we mustn’t exclude the things which may make us uncomfortable.  I always brace myself for the conservative parent who may object to her child learning about Alexander the Great’s predilection for men and the model of man-boy love in the ancient Greek world.  Every semester, I must explain what a eunuch is.  Twelve was marriageable age in Athens, but not in Sparta – -it’s important to understand this to know more deeply about Spartan women’s rights.  I try to keep it as PG as possible, but we cannot hide the facets of history and pretend that these things were not a part of the ancient world. No one has yet to object.  History is history – -we present the information directly and truthfully, answer questions, see how it fits into the larger picture, and move on.

Yes, Alexander the Great had a boyfriend.  He was very depressed when Hephaeistion died.  Was he gay by our standards today?  Yes.   Was he a brilliant general?  Yes.  And we move on to discuss why or why not, and put aside  his sexuality, which is an important part in understanding Alexander, but not everything about Alexander.

Yes, Trebonianus Gallus is nude, and  yes, that is his phallus.  And yes, his head doesn’t quite match his body because the Romans weren’t the most brilliant artists in the 3rd century CE and Gallus was a minor Emperor who was killed by his own troops.  And yes…this is the only nearly intact bronze sculpture which has survived from the 3rd century.  Thousands must have existed, and Gallus made it, phallus and all.

And yes -that is a naked woman pictured above, with breasts and a vagina!  Shocking!  But what really is shocking is that this is Parthian, from Ctesiphon (a city long gone, but its ruins are to the south of Baghdad).  The Hellenistic style reached this far due to Alexander the Great’s influence.  After Alexander claimed the Persian Empire, the East was never the same.

Beyond the vaginas and penises are the questions of history, of science, of culture, of values, of beauty, and of humanity.  And I doubt that the children of Idaho will ever be able to understand these things if “vagina” cannot be spoken in a science class.