In Our Time: The Roman Republic

The Roman Republic was the subject of an In Our Time episode all the way back in 2004 – we listened to it last August while there weren’t any new In Our Times airing. It’s a pretty broad subject for a 45 minute programme – 500 years of history plus its rise and fall – so of necessity it was painting with fairly broad brushstrokes and looking at themes and commonalities across the centuries. Tackling it were Greg Woolf (St Andrews University), Catherine Steel (University of Glasgow) and Tom Holland (historian and author). (NB: Institutions presumably out of date, it being 12 years ago.)

They started by talking about the foundational myths of the Republic as the stories they told themselves shaped how the Republic functioned. This isn’t Romulus and Remus – they are a foundational myth for the city – instead the two key stories are the rape of Lucretia and Horatius on the bridge. Lucretia was raped by the son of the King of Rome, and afterwards she committed suicide whilst calling on her kin to avenge her. This sparked an uprising (led by a man called Brutus) which drove out King Tarquin. Following this the Romans declared they would have no more kings. The second legend follows on directly from this one* – Tarquin didn’t take kindly to losing his kingdom like this, and enlisted the support of one of the nearby Etruscan cities. He returned to Rome at the head of an army and it seemed like the Romans were going to be forced to take their king back. However before this could happen Horatius stepped forward to stand on the bridge the army were marching over. He and two companions held off the army for long enough for the bridge to be destroyed behind them, preventing the army from reaching the city. So you have this ideal that the people will rule themselves (with no kings) and when a hero is needed a citizen will step forward to give his own life for his city.

*Well, that’s the way they told the legend on the programme, when looking it up on wikipedia to check spellings of names I saw that there it’s set much later in the Republic’s history – the point remains the same though.

The Roman Republic was the first constitutional democracy meaning that people were voted into positions of responsibility. (Athens was a direct democracy, where everyone voted on what should be done.) The political structure was based on sharing power around in two different ways. Firstly the many powers that a king had once had were distributed between several people. Secondly any given person only held a particular office for a short term (rather than for life). The ephemerality of power and glory were a key concept for the Republic. A consul was consul for a year. A general who’d won a victory was given a triumph and treated like a god for a day. Theatres and celebratory buildings (like triumphal arches) were temporary structures. Even the permanent infrastructure buildings weren’t built of stone but of more ephemeral materials. Which puts the Emperor Augustus “coming to Rome a city of brick and leaving it a city of marble” (as discussed on the In Our Time about the Augustan Age (post)) in a different light: that’s not just an upgrade to the buildings, that’s a change of ethos.

Clearly the Republic wasn’t static over its 500 years of history – in particular the balance of power between the people and the aristocracy was constantly shifting and evolving. But it was at heart a very conservative society which looked back to a prior Golden Age. Much was written in later days in the Republic about how it had been better in the early days (before whatever the most recent crisis had been) – and this genre includes most of the surviving texts written about how the Republic was founded. Changes were often brought in by announcing that they were returns to the ways things were done in the past – whether or not this was actually true. This continues after the Republic as well – they brought up on the programme that Augustus’s propaganda cast the beginning of the Empire as a restoration of the good old days of the Republic.

The end of the Republic can be thought of as it becoming a victim of its own success. Before they went out and conquered such vast lands it was possible for every key political figure to come back every year to Rome and vote for the new Consuls and so on. And when your campaigns only last a year and are nearby then the army can be based on the idea of farmer-soldier citizens. Every able-bodied land-owning male citizen was supposed to enlist – easily done when he comes back in time for harvest, but what do you do about his farm if he’s on campaign for 5 years at a time? And once the land-owning requirement was abolished where do long term soldiers retire to when they’re done in the army? The Senate generally prevaricated over the provision of awards and recompense to these retired soldiers – which left a gap for the generals of the armies to fill. And if your reward would come from the charismatic general you were serving under, then your loyalty would be to him first rather than to Rome or to the Senate.

The Triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus and Caesar (the first stage in the transition from Republic to Empire) can be seen as having grown out of Pompey not liking his downgrade in status when he returned to Rome. Whilst out campaigning in the East he had been treated like a king, back home in Rome he was only one amongst equals. And not a particularly important one at that – having been away he was out of the loop, politically speaking. The experts said that Caesar’s motivation was probably that he saw there as being only so many “slots” for important people in any new regime and he wanted to make sure he occupied one of them.

The defining point for the end of the Republic was the crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar and his army. The Rubicon is a river between Italy and Gaul, and it marked the boundary between the provinces (where a general could be a king in all but name) and the core territories (where the general was no more important than any other aristocrat). The tradition was that you could not bring your army with you into the core – and so Caesar camps on the other side, which makes the Senate nervous. He’s given the choice between dismissing his army and crossing himself, or taking his army and leaving. But Caesar knows that if he does this then he loses all the power he’s worked for – and so he brings his army across the Rubicon.

I said that was the defining point of the end, but as they discussed on the programme that’s only obvious with hindsight. It probably wasn’t clear to the Romans that the Republic was gone forever until one Emperor inherited from another … and perhaps not even until an Emperor was deposed and yet still the Republic was not not restored.

In Our Time: The Cult of Mithras

The cult of Mithras was one of several cults that sprang up in the Roman Empire during the 1st Century AD. It was a mystery cult and so what we know of it now comes from archaeological evidence and the writings of people who were not members. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Greg Woolf (University of St Andrews), Almut Hintze (SOAS, University of London) and John North (Institute of Classical Studies, University of London).

The historical origins of the Mithras cult aren’t clear – back in the late 19th Century it was thought that the cult had a direct connection to Zoroastrianism, mostly because there is a Zoroastrian god called Mithra. But more recent scholarship suggests that the connection isn’t particularly direct – it’s more like the Romans took the name & some very basic idea of the worship of Mithra and then reinvented it completely for their own cult. (Which meant it felt a little like Hintze was invited to the programme based on a faulty understanding, as she’s a Professor of Zoroastrianism – she did have other things to contribute, but I felt like she got unfairly cut off a few times.) Other cults that sprang up at the same time had similar types of origins, although possibly had closer links to their parent religion – things like the Roman Isis cult, or a Demeter cult. And of course Christianity can be seen as another of these – Pauline Christianity is partly a reinterpretation of Judaism for Gentiles.

The literary sources of information about the Mithras cult are pretty slim – a lot of it is written by Christians who are trying to show how their religion is a real one, and this Mithras nonsense is a work of the devil. That was apparently a mainstream Christian opinion during the first couple of centuries after Christ, that the devil had started up all these other cults so that the truth of Christianity would be obscured by competing cults. And later in the 4th & 5th centuries Christians were involved in the destruction of Mithraic temples (as part of a wider movement of the destruction of pagan temples).

The archaeology tells us more about the iconography & so on of the cult, but as I said at the start it was a mystery cult and so the iconography is not explained. One of the images that is present in nearly all excavated temples is of Mithras killing a bull, while a dog & a serpent lap up the blood and a scorpion & a raven are also involved in the killing. Hintze pointed out that this is very different from the Zoroastrian Mithra in the level of violence protrayed – whilst there is a Zoroastrian myth that death entered the world with the killing of a bull, it’s the force of evil who does the killing in Zoroastrianism and doesn’t come with so much violence. Whereas in the Mithras cult it’s the god doing this, and it’s a violent scene – still possibly having to do with creation of the cosmos in some fashion. Other scenes include some sort of story for how the bull ends up in the cave where it is killed (although these are not always in the same order which seems odd if they are a sacred narrative). And a meal that Sol & Mithras eat together.

The temples themselves represent a cave – the cave that the bull was killed in. And there are indications that the gathered worshippers (20-40 of them) ate a communal meal. There is also from one temple some recent evidence that there may’ve been some sort of ritual meal for non-initiates around the outskirts of the temple. But by the way this was presented on the programme it seems this is still very much a conjecture based on a single data point.

Another archaeological source for the cult are the dedicatory inscriptions from members of the cult. These are all from men, and as there are a few thousand of these (I think they said) this seems to suggest that there were no women members of the cult. They are also all from the middling sort of people – not poor, not rich. And are primarily members of the military or the bureaucratic hierarchy.

It seems that the cult had seven levels of initiate, the lowest ones were called ravens & the highest paters (fathers). One of the middle levels was called a leo (lion) and from some of the texts & inscriptions this seems to be the “normal” level of an initiate. There could only be one pater per temple, and when there were too many worshippers a new temple would be built. I think they have depictions of the initiation ceremonies for progressing up the levels & it seems that these were fairly brutal. Presumably they also involved transfer of the sacred knowledge, but we don’t have any record of this.

Towards the end of the programme they had a little segment doing a compare & contrast with Christianity, because that has always been one of the things that’s brought up when discussing Mithraism in a modern context. They talked about how the 25th December was supposed to be significant in the Mithras cult, but it seems this was based on a single calendar and it’s not even clear that that’s what the calendar meant! That’s the one I’d heard before, that Mithras’ birthday was the same as Christ’s but that doesn’t appear to be true. They also discussed how Christianity was actually more similar to the Demeter & Isis cult than it was to the Mithras cult – there’s no death & resurrection in the Mithras mythology (that we know of) for instance. And in the Mithras cult your position in the secular hierarchy was often reflected in your position in the initiate hierarchy – which is again not the case with Christianity.

When I set out to write this I wasn’t sure how much I was going to remember, but it seems the answer is “quite a lot” 🙂