Ancient Sources

Here you will find information about the Roman and Greek sources that the speakers have used to shape their understanding of imperial power. Whenever you approach the ancient material, there are some questions you always need to ask, as with any historical source

  • Who is the author?
  • When are they writing?
  • Where in the Roman world are they?
  • What else have they written?
  • Does this type of writing belong to a set genre, with certain expected characteristics?
  • Is this similar to other pieces written by the same author?
  • What is the piece trying to do?
  • Who is the audience?
  • What is the original language, and how might that shape the nature of the material?
  • Is it possible to see how contemporaries might have engaged with the writer and their work?

In the first lecture (Augustus, Nero & Imperial Power), I draw upon a number of different ancient interpretations of Empire and Imperial Power. How can we reconcile each of these? Can we draw upon them together to create a clear image of Rome and imperial authority?

The greatest blessings that cities can enjoy are peace, prosperity […] and concord. As far as peace is concerned the people have no need of political activity, for all war […] has been banished and has disappeared from among us. Of liberty the people enjoy as much as our rulers allot them, and perhaps more would not be better.

Plutarch, Precepts of Statecraft

Extensive and sizable as the Empire is, perfect policing does much more territorial boundaries to make it great […] Like a well-swept and fenced-in front yard […] the whole world speaks in unison […] The owners and occupants of rich plains are your peasants. Continent and island are no longer separate. Like one continuous country, sand one people, the world quietly obeys […] the constitution is a universal democracy under the one man that can rule and govern best.

Aelius Aristides

We live at the end of the world. We are the last free men on earth. There is on one else behind us – there’s nothing there except rocks and waves, and even those are full of Romans. There’s no escaping them. They’ve even looting the sea. If they think you’ve got money, they attack you out of greed; if they think you’ve got nothing, they attack you out of arrogance. They’ve robbed the whole of the East and the whole of the West, but they are still not satisfied. They’re the only people on earth who want to rob rich and poor alike. They call stealing, killing and rape by the lying name of government! They make a desert and call it peace!

Tacitus, Agricola

These each provide rather different interpretations and suggest a nuanced understanding of empire and imperial power. So ,who are they?

Plutarch: Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, d. c. 120 AD. he has been described as biographer and philosopher, and his writings (a fourth century source indicates there were as many as 227) are complex and nuanced explorations of power, meaning and thought. Most well known for his Parallel Lives, he also wrote dialogues, moral philosophy and rhetorical works. He travelled to Egypt and Italy, lectured in the city of Rome, and was a proud inhabitant of Chaeronea. An online version of his Precepts of Statecraft can be found here. His Parallel Lives were started in the reign of Trajan, and originally contained 48 biographies (46 remain). As a young man (at the age of 23) he would have witnessed the fall-out from the death of Nero, the terrible civil wars, and we know he visited the battlefield of Bedriacum with a friend who had fought there. It is also possible that Plutarch may have been among the large number of philosophers expelled from the city of Rome by Domitian, who was fearful that their teaching might lead to insurrection.

Aelius Aristides: Publius Aelius Aristides d. c. 181, was a Sophist, who studied both in Athens as well as Pergamum. Although to a modern audience his writings can appear a touch derivative and sycophantic, in his life time he was held in high regard as an intellectual figure. He suffered a number of long-standing illnesses throughout his life, and it is thought that this may have curtailed an otherwise promising public career. He lived in Smyrna, in Asia Minor, and can offer a provincial interpretation of imperial power. His oration To Rome demonstrates an overwhelmingly positive interpretation of empire. There is some debate over when exactly it was delivered, perhaps in 143 (his first visit to Rome) or 155 (his second visit). He wrote across a number of different topics, and his works include historical declamations, addresses for both private and public audiences, polemical essays, the Sacred Teachings, as well as religious hymns.

Tacitus: Publius Cornelius Tacitus d.c 117 enjoyed an impressive public career under Vespasian, Titus and Domitian. he was praetor in 88, and suffect consul in 97, and made proconsul of Asia. Tacitus will be mentioned in a number of the lectures in the series, as his interpretation of imperial power continues to direct and shape our understanding of the realities of empire in this period. The extract above is taken from the Agricola written in early 98, which was a biography of his father-in-law. Although the piece provides a deep sense of grief and consolation surrounding the death of Agricola, it also provides a damning indictment upon Roman imperialism, esp. through the Caledonian Chieftain Calgacus. His other works include the Germania, Dialogue on Oratory, the Histories and Annals. The Histories originally covered the years 69-96, but we are missing the later sections, and the narrative trails off at around 70 AD. In the Annals, Tacitus focussed on the Julio-Claudian dynasty, but again there are sections here that are missing. His prose is an often a pleasure to read, shaped in part by his reception of Sallust, but also the creation of a distinctly Tacitean style of writing.