A Shared Imperial Culture.

I enjoyed Peter Brown’s Through the Eye of a Needle so much that I’m now reading a book Brown highly recommended, The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages 400-1000, by Chris Wickham. I already like two things very much about Wickham’s approach: he covers the Byzantine, Islamic, and Eastern European worlds on a par with Western Europe, and he is resolutely anti-teleological, saying:

Any reading of the Roman empire in the fifth century only in terms of the factors which led to its break-up, of Merovingian Francia only in terms of what led to Charlemagne’s power and ambitions, of tenth-century papal activity only in terms of what led to ‘Gregorian reform’, of the economic dynamism of the Arab world only in terms of its (supposed) supersession by Italian and then north European merchants and producers, is a false reading of the past. Only an attempt to look squarely at each past in terms of its own social reality can get us out of this trap.

Here’s what he has to say about one of the things that bound the disparate halves of the Roman Empire together:

A shared culture perhaps marked the Roman senatorial and provincial aristocracies most, for it was based on a literary tradition. Every western aristocrat had to know Virgil by heart, and many other classical Latin authors, and be able to write poetry and turn a polished sentence in prose; in the East it was Homer. The two traditions, in Latin and Greek, did not have much influence on each other by now [c. 400], but they were very dense and highly prized.There was a pecking-order based on the extent of this cultural capital. Ammianus reports scornfully that senators in Rome, the supposed crème de la crème, only really read Juvenal, a racy and satirical poet, so by implication not the difficult texts; whether or not this was true, it was a real insult. Conversely, literary experts, such as Ausonius in the West and Libanios (d. c. 393) in the East, could rise fast and gain imperial patronage and office simply because of their writing – in Libanios’ case so fast that he was accused of magic – although both were already landowners of at least medium wealth. The emperor Julian in his attempt to reverse Christianization tried to force Christian intellectuals to teach only the Bible, not the pagan classics, thus enclosing them in a ghetto of inferior prose. This failed, but the assumptions behind such an enactment clearly show the close relationship between traditional culture and social status. Some Christian hard-liners responded by rejecting Virgil, but this failed too: by the fifth century the aristocracy knew both Virgil (or Homer) and the Bible, and might add to these some of the new Christian theologians too, Augustine in the West or Basil of Caesarea in the East, both of whom were good stylists.

I love Ammianus’s dig; I guess the current equivalent would be claiming a politician you disliked only reads People magazine.


  1. Or USA Today, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for Best Investigative Paragraph.

  2. A nice case of dittography there! Whose is it?

  3. Oops, don’t know how that happened. Fixed, thanks.

  4. There used to be an eye doctor in Tel Aviv named Dr. Blinder.

  5. A quick search turns up Dr. Danielle Malaise, a Belgian Ear-Nose-Throat specialist, and Dr. Jacques Malaise, a Montréal surgeon.

  6. Eeeh. Not to spoil a party, but why the culture is shared if it is Virgil vs. Homer? Because both halves of the Empire prized their literary traditions? Then they probably shared culture with China and India as well.

  7. cardinal gaius sextus von bladet says:

    “Not to spoil a party, but why the culture is shared if it is Virgil vs. Homer?”

    Two shared cultures and a fanatical dedication to the Pope.

  8. Bathrobe says:

    Were the Greeks dedicated to the Pope?

  9. Only after the Roman Catholics caught them.

  10. Not to spoil a party, but why the culture is shared if it is Virgil vs. Homer? Because both halves of the Empire prized their literary traditions?

    After the Empire fell in the west, literary culture was replaced by the martial arts; the people who ran things no longer read, they fought. Surely you will agree that makes more of a difference than language.

    Then they probably shared culture with China and India as well.

    Only in a very vague philosophical sense. It’s not like the Greek and Latin cultures were impermeable; lots of people enjoyed both (though presumably there were more Romans who enjoyed Greek than vice versa). It’s comparable to the shared culture of China and the countries who adopted Chinese writing and literary tradition (Vietnam, Korea, Japan, etc.).

  11. Sir JCass says:

    The Penguin Classics translator of Ammianus raises an eyebrow at this particular passage in his author, writing, “The mention of Juvenal is remarkable, in view of A.’s own debt to him in the Roman digressions.” In other words, Ammianus has launched a Juvenal-style denunciation of the reading of Juvenal. Ammianus is on safer ground when he criticises the Romans for reading Marius Maximus, author of a (now lost) scandal-mongering continuation of Suetonius covering the emperors from Nerva to Elagabalus.

  12. That’s great, thanks for sharing it!

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    I knew of a pair of house surgeons (surgical interns to you Americans) working in the same unit who were respectively Dr Kneebone and Dr Slasher.

    Some people are basically predestined to their career choices.

  14. David Eddyshaw says:

    “presumably there were more Romans who enjoyed Greek than vice versa”

    Very much so, especially during the period when Roman aristocrats were frequently essentially bilingual in Latin and Greek; any self-respecting first-century Roman intellectual would have been ashamed not to know Greek literature well.

    Even Cato the Elder, centuries before, seemed to wear his ignorance of Greek as an affectation, as part of his championing of the Good Old Ways; and even he apparently gave up on it and learnt Greek in his latter days.

    Educated Greeks, on the other had, seem to have been on the whole smugly ignorant of Latin literature. The Romans were a good deal more interested in other cultures than the Greeks were, on the whole, possibly on account of having conquered so many of them.

    The locus classicus for this is Arnaldo Momigliano’s very enjoyable lectures collected in “Alien Wisdom: the limits of Hellenism.”


    The blurb there bears strikingly little relation to the actual book, which largely does what it says on the tin and examines the surprisingly limited interest of the Greeks of classical times in other cultures. It makes a good case for what, when I first read the book, seemed a very counterintuitive thesis.

  15. Sir JCass says:

    One Greek who was an exception to that rule was…Ammianus Marcellinus, self-described miles quondam et graecus. He even wrote his history in Latin.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    Indeed so, though his very giving of it as an excuse that he is a Greek writing in Latin tells its own story.

    Herodotus immediately springs to mind, of course, as a Greek interested in other cultures; but he almost proves the point by so often being spectacularly *wrong* about them whenever we are in a position to check.

  17. Sir JCass says:

    Another pertinent comment from Andrew Wallace-Hadrill in the Penguin Classics translation of Ammianus: “It is a notable fact of literary history that the last great Latin history was written by a Greek (paralleled by the fact that the last great Latin epic was written by the Greek Claudian).”

    Something else that struck me reading Wallace-Hadrill’s intro. He notes that Ammianus suggested Emperor Julian the Apostate should have been buried by the Tiber, but “Julian had never seen Rome.” I never realised that.

  18. predestined to their career choices

    For lots more on this, google “aptronym” and “nominative determinism”. I myself took a cat to an office with veterinarians named Dr. Saari, Dr. Fish, and Dr. Goldfinger.

  19. David Eddyshaw says:

    Actually Momigliano’s thesis is somewhat narrower than I have somewhat sloppily suggested; his point is really that the Greeks of the Greek classical period, pre-Macedonian, had remarkably little interest in other cultures; this began to change as a result of Alexander’s conquests and continued all the more with the Romans. There were a good many ethnographic works in Greek, appropriately so as Greek was the language a Roman expected anything scientific to be written in by default.

    I’ll raise Sir JCass his Ammianus and Claudian: far and away the best didactic poem of classical times, and easily the best philosophical exposition of Epicureanism (ever), is Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, which precious few Greeks seem to have ever thought worth their notice.

  20. Bathrobe says:

    Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations were also written in Greek.

  21. Bathrobe says:

    when I first read the book, seemed a very counterintuitive thesis.

    Why counterintuitive? I think it was always a pretty common trope that the Greeks despised everyone else as “barbarians”.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    Because one thinks of the Greeks as being interested in everything; also because of that genius fabulist Herodotus, though as I said, his example rather cuts both ways when you think about it. The grandfather of “Orientalism.”

    Once the Greeks became part of successive world empires things changed, anyhow.

  23. I read that book and enjoyed it greatly last summer, but since it was “beach reading” I raced through it so fast, and with so many distractions around, that my only real memory of it is of liking the precise thing you highlight – its refreshingly anti-teleological approach.

    I seem to recall that the author’s treatment of how a rather small network of Germanic dynasties took over most of Europe, leading up to the Merovingians et al., seemed particularly fresh and interesting. That’s really the darkest part of the “Dark Ages” to me, all those Othos and Drogos and Widukinds and Clothildes and so on, and from what I remember Wickham shed a lot of light on their world.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    Via Lameen Souag: Arabic was written in Greek letters in one inscription that probably dates from Roman times.

  25. A very interesting inscription too, particularly in its efforts to contort the Greek alphabet to represent /w/.

  26. Il vergognoso says:

    And put the final nail on the coffin of, I hope, Old-Arabic-had-no-iʕrab-ism.

  27. David Marjanović says:

    A paper by the same author about what other Greek, Arabic and Aramaic inscriptions* from that approximate period and region tell about the phonologies of those languages when names that appear in inscriptions in two or three of those languages are compared.

    Another paper by the same author about the pronunciation of certain consonants in Classical Arabic.

    * The Nabataean kingdom appears to have spoken mostly Arabic, but its royal inscriptions were in Aramaic.


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