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UnRoman Activities

The Mask of Jove

by Stringfellow Barr
Lippincott, 598 pp., $15.00

Enemies of the Roman Order

by Ramsay MacMullen
Harvard, 370 pp., $7.95

After The Will of Zeus, The Mask of Jove, a “history of Graeco-Roman civilization from the death of Alexander to the death of Constantine”—“a narrative,” says Stringfellow Barr, “not an argument, a drama in which I have again allowed the actors to tell the story in their own words whenever available documents permitted.” Some translation is required. I shan’t quibble over the equation, narrative=drama, but the reader must not expect documents in the sense in which the historian and the layman both customarily employ that world. Mr. Barr’s method is to quote extensively from Greek and Roman historians, poets, orators, and philosophers, and from early Christian writers, but almost never from laws, decrees, treaties, epitaphs, or private letters, and they are available in much greater number than the unsuspecting reader might imagine. But then, “available” also has to be translated: “whenever a quotation suits my purposes.” The result, in the nature of the case, is that the actors almost never tell the story in their own words, except when the actors are themselves historians, poets, orators, philosophers, or Church fathers.

We are, in sum, still in the world of the Great Books, about which a younger generation probably knows nothing but which my generation remembers well. If Mortimer Adler was the High Priest in that world, Mr. Barr was its Minister of State, presiding for ten years in the late Thirties and Forties over St. John’s College, Annapolis, where the curriculum consisted of a close reading of the Great Books. The underlying idea is expressed in Mr. Barr’s two-page bibliographical note to the present volume. He mentions four modern historical works, those of Gibbon, Mommsen, and Max Cary (the latter for the reader who “wants greater factual detail than the plan of this book has permitted me to present”). Otherwise he repeats the recommendation already made in the preceding volume, where he had “urged the reader not to content himself with what historians of our own day said that the Greeks said but to let the Greeks speak for themselves.” It is the final six words that are the nub (whether applied to Greeks or to Romans), and the difficulty.

WHAT CAN THEY MEAN? Consider the following four quotations, selected almost at random from the book:

Jupiter set apart these shores for a righteous folk, ever since with bronze he dimmed the lustre of the Golden Age. With bronze and then with iron did he harden the ages, from which a happy escape is offered to the righteous, if my prophecy be heeded. [Horace, Epodes 16]

I refused to accept any power offered me which was contrary to the traditions of our ancestors. [Augustus, Res gestae]

…what you hold and call your own is public property—indeed, it belongs to mankind at large. [Seneca, Moral Epistles 88]

I next asked him [Homer] why he began with the wrath of Achilles; and he said that it just came into his head that way, without any study. [Lucian, A True Story II]

In what sense do these passages “speak for themselves”? Let any reader who is not already an expert first try to listen by himself, unaided, and then turn up Mr. Barr (pp. 180, 228, 311, 401) and read how the same “documents” speak to him. I can promise that he is in for a number of surprises. Whether Mr. Barr is “right” or not in his interpretation is beside the point. What matters is the pretense that letting past ages speak for themselves is in any significant way the same thing as a historical examination of that age. Of course we should all be encouraged to read Horace and Virgil and Tacitus, but not under the gross delusion that we can read them as if Shakespeare and Gibbon had not written after them, that we can read them in any way but as men of the twentieth century whose experience is filled with the writings and the politics of another two thousand years. Can anyone read the Metamorphoses of Ovid as if Freud had never existed or look at the problem of freedom in the Roman Empire as if our own world has not had its own experiences in the struggle to define and preserve freedom?

These are blatantly rhetorical questions. Otherwise we should not need this book nor would Mr. Barr have had to work on it intermittently since 1935, the last eight years with a full-time research associate to help him select his quotations and prepare his comments. What has come out in the end is an interpretation of Hellenistic and Roman history, and it is a pity that there is not more argument. Mr. Barr maintains a consistently assertive tone, so that his reader cannot easily tell where brute fact ends and interpretation begins. Nor, for that matter, how often his facts aren’t facts. “Athens…included in her great imperial days scarcely more than 40,000 free male citizens, exclusive of perhaps twice that number of women, children, resident aliens, and slaves.” If that sentence says what it seems to say, for each of the 40,000 male citizens there were fewer than two women and children, which would have meant the total disappearance of the citizen population within three generations. “It was perhaps not by chance that the Aventine Mount, where the plebs took their Sacred Oath to defend themselves against oppression, was the site of a trading community…. Among the traders on the Aventine were Greeks.” What evidence these assertions are supposed to rest on is unknown to me, and I can think of much evidence against them, including his own statement at the end of the same paragraph that throughout the period here under discussion Rome’s constant wars “tended to cut her off from intercourse with the world beyond and from any largescale exchange either of commodities or of ideas.”

THIS LAST EXAMPLE is far more revealing than the question of either factual accuracy or of the method of presentation. It points to a thread that runs through the volume. Trade and traders abound. The successors of Alexander the Great brought about a “commercial revolution.” Augustus “supported the Equites in their business enterprise.” He “retained an equestrian soul” and “reserved his clearheadedness for urgent matters like money,” just as his Hellenistic predecessors were “thoroughly middle-class” rulers of a “middle-class society.” That sounds a remarkable description of, say, Antiochus Epiphanes. Some of Mr. Barr’s readers might just possibly have welcomed a few titles from the despised “historians of our own day” in which they could pursue more systematically these interesting generalizations. They might then be surprised to learn that quite reputable historians reject all this root and branch. And they would perhaps be astonished to learn that, for once, Mr. Barr is wholly unable to let Greek and Roman authors speak for themselves, for the unhappy reason that they never speak in these terms. This modernizing approach to Greek and Roman history, once fashionable, is now suffering a long overdue reexamination. Some of us have come to the conclusion, not that economic factors played an insignificant role in antiquity, but that both the factors and the role were radically different from our own. “Every work I discussed,” writes Mr. Barr, “seems to me…a voice that speaks to the modern reader from another world than ours.” But not in its economic behavior or morals, apparently.

Again the question is not whether Mr. Barr is right or I am right, but that he insists that he is doing something different from what he is actually doing and is compelled to do, and that he will not argue his case. In the end, the test of any new historical interpretation of a past age—accuracy apart—rests on its canons of analysis and judgment. I have given one serious example of why I cannot accept Mr. Barr’s I now give another, and a few short quotations will suffice. With respect to slavery, “the Roman was a more brutal master if only because he had perhaps less imagination than the Athenian.” “Both patrician and plebeian were guided by an instinct for legal procedure.” “Back of” the gladiatorial games “lay atavistic memories.” Read “German,” “Amercan,” or “Frenchman” for “Roman” and no further comment seems necessary.

THE OPPOSITE of “Roman” is of course “un-Roman,” at least for Professor Ramsay MacMullen, who in the Preface sums his book up in this way:

An Un-Roman Activities Committee, had the emperors established one on modern lines, would have pursued the investigation of the phenomena just listed; and if a history were to be written exclusively from the files of that committee, it would exactly resemble the present study, dealing with predictable unrest—mere ordinary violent wretchedness born of an imperfect world—and with more puzzling problems as well. The very strengths of the empire supplied characteristic weaknesses: among a proud nobility, tyrannicides; within the competitive patriotism of the cities, intercity angers; and because of Rome’s toleration of local differences, local separation from the prevailing culture. These, and their like, constituted so many threats to the established order.

It took me a time to decide that this was not just a joke in poor taste. But I now believe it is to be taken seriously, not only because the Harvard University Press was so enamored of the paragraph that it repeated it on the dust jacket, but because Professor MacMullen’s own categories are in fact those of the Un- * Activities Committee. He really does treat philosophical speculation, graffiti in latrines, the great Jewish revolts, bigcity crime, hunger riots, popular astrologers and quacks, and such heresies as the Donatist in North Africa all on a par. The climax comes with the third of his “interlocked conclusions”:

…the empire was “democratized,” to use a greatly exaggerated term. The civilization called Roman…yields to another, compounded of heterogeneous elements formerly suppressed and latterly vital…. In the end, the dichotomy on which this book rests breaks down. There was little “Roman” left in the Roman empire. Rather, the “un-Roman” elements had come to the fore, and now controlled the world in which they lived. At this point our study properly ends.

Unlike Mr. Barr, Professor MacMullen is very scholarly. He has amassed an interesting and valuable quantity of material, fully documented in the notes, accompanied by much learned discussion of modern as well as ancient authorities, and backed by a twenty-four-page bibliography (and a worthless index). But there is a total failure of definition or sophistication, no evidence that he has read or thought about either the sociological problems involved in his subject or the experience of other societies. Why, he asks, did an emperor like Nero take fright at the ideas of the loyal Seneca?

The question immediately answers itself: the opposition were persecuted because they supplied dangerous ideas and stories to dangerous men, just as the intelligentsia of more recent times—the eighteenth century, let us say—were persecuted. No one imagined that Voltaire was likely to try his luck with a dagger, words failing him, yet it was quite right, from the government’s point of view, to hound him out of France. Our own century is not without parallels. We too have our ideas and stories.

A small distinction has been overlooked. Nero feared assassination, not social revolution, because, as Professor MacMullen’s own evidence demonstrates amply, there were neither revolutionary forces nor ideas nor threats. The Un- * Activities Committee mentality has indeed triumphed.

Letters

Most Excellent Books Program July 13, 1967

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