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Guide to the Classics: Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars explores vice and virtue in ancient Rome

The Conversation

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Giovanni Cavino, I primi dodici imperatori Romani (‘The first twelve Roman emperors’), plaquettes produced at Padua, c. 1550. Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Caillan Davenport, Macquarie University

In a memorable scene from the classic BBC TV series I, Claudius (1976), three frightened senators are summoned to the palace in the dead of night by the emperor Caligula. Rather than being executed, they are treated to a command performance by Caligula himself, who dances before them dressed in a shimmering gold bikini.

Caligula’s midnight dance routine is the climax of a sequence of horrors and indiscretions committed by the emperor. He has his predecessor suffocated to death with a pillow, executes his cousin because of his irritating cough, and engages in an incestuous relationship with his sister (they’re both gods, you see).

Caligula dances for Claudius and two other senators. Scene from the BBC TV series, I, Claudius (1976).

These outlandish scenes cannot be ascribed to the imagination of the scriptwriter Jack Pulman or to Robert Graves, the author of the original novels I, Claudius and Claudius the God, on which the series is based. The incidents are adapted from Suetonius’s On the Lives of the Caesars, a collection of imperial biographies written in Latin in the second century A.D.

Latin edition of The Twelve Caesars published in 1541.
Wikimedia Commons

Suetonius’s work describes the lives of Rome’s first 12 leaders from Julius Caesar to Domitian – hence it is best known today as The Twelve Caesars. This is the title it bears in the paperback Penguin Classics edition, translated by Robert Graves himself in 1957, and still in print today.

Suetonius’s unforgettable tales of sex, scandal, and debauchery have ensured that his writing has played a significant role in shaping our perceptions of imperial Rome.

The man and the work

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus was a scholar and intellectual who held administrative positions at the imperial court under the emperors Trajan and Hadrian. He was a prolific author, writing biographies of poets and orators, as well as works on topics as diverse as the games, the Roman year, bodily defects, and lives of famous courtesans.

He probably began to write the Caesars when he was Hadrian’s secretary of correspondence. However, the biographies were only published after Suetonius was dismissed from Hadrian’s service for being too familiar with the emperor’s wife.

Bust of Hadrian in the Musei Capitolini.
Wikimedia Commons

Political expediency meant that Suetonius wisely avoided writing about Hadrian. Instead The Twelve Caesars includes the Julio-Claudians, Rome’s first imperial dynasty (Julius Caesar, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero), three short-lived emperors during the civil wars of A.D. 69 (Galba, Vespasian, Otho), and the Flavian dynasty (Vespasian, Titus, Domitian).

The structure of the individual biographies has often puzzled modern readers, who expect Suetonius to tell his story in a linear fashion from birth to death. Although Suetonius usually begins with an emperor’s family and upbringing, the bulk of each Life consists of an assortment of memorable, and sometimes salacious, anecdotes about an emperor’s public conduct and private life.

But this is no mere haphazard catalogue of sex and corruption. Instead, Suetonius tells his readers that he has carefully organized the stories “by categories”. These categories include the emperor’s virtues (such as justice, self-control, and generosity) and his vices (like greed, cruelty, and sexual excess).

Virtues and vices

In the second century A.D., when Suetonius was writing, there was no chance of a return to the Republic, but aristocrats still expected the emperor to behave as if he were merely the most prestigious citizen rather than an autocrat. The stories of virtue and vice in the Caesars are carefully selected to illustrate whether emperors measured up to this standard.

When Suetonius describes an emperor’s ancestors, he highlights how their qualities influenced the ruler himself. Early in the Life of Nero, the reader encounters Nero’s grandfather who staged particularly cruel shows in the arena. This helps to explain the later tales of Nero’s own savagery, because the reader would see that this vice was part of his nature.

Suetonius is fair and evenhanded in his treatment of his subjects. All emperors appear as flawed men with both virtues and vices, but the balance between them depends on the individual ruler. He even gives due credit to the notorious Caligula, who began his reign by publishing the imperial budget and showing generosity to the people. Suetonius then signals a change:

Thus far, it is as if we have been writing about an emperor, but the rest must be about a monster.

This “division” – a statement in which Suetonius clearly separates the anecdotes illustrating virtues from the vices – is a feature of several of his biographies. In Caligula’s case, it is from this point on that we read about his pretensions to divinity, his condemnation of aristocrats to hard labour in the mines, and his sexual immorality.

Emperor Tiberius, played by George Baker, in I Claudius.

The tales of the emperors’ sexual habits constitute some of the most famous passages in Suetonius. He chronicles Tiberius’s sordid behaviour on Capri, detailing how he forced men and women to engage in threesomes, had children perform oral sex on him, and raped young men who took his fancy.

When the Loeb Classical Library, which features the original Latin and the English translation of classical texts on facing pages, published their first edition of Suetonius in 1913, these chapters about Tiberius’s behaviour were left in Latin because they were considered too scandalous to translate. Although they are now translated into English, these graphic tales still have the power to shock and unsettle the reader.

An emperor’s private life and his sexual conduct were fair game because they reflected whether or not he was fit to rule. The same applied to members of his family. Augustus’s daughters were praised by Suetonius for spending their time weaving in his house. (Such gender stereotypes remain with us today, if one recalls the photo shoot of Julia Gillard knitting in Women’s Weekly). When his daughter Julia flagrantly flouted Augustus’s own adultery legislation, Suetonius reports that he had no choice but to exile her. The imperial family had to set standards for the entire empire.

Man or god?

Silver coin of the emperor Otho.
Wikimedia Commons

After the virtues and vices, Suetonius’s Lives usually conclude with a narrative of the emperor’s death and a detailed physical description of his body. Suetonius didn’t hold back in these passages, even pointing out that the emperor Otho sported a terrible wig to hide his bald patch (as his coinage also reveals).

The description of the emperor Nero is particularly memorable:

He was of a good height but his body was blotchy and ill-smelling. His hair was fairish, his face handsome rather than attractive, his eyes bluish-grey and dull, his neck thick, his stomach protruding, his legs very thin…

The different body parts were supposed to indicate character traits. Nero’s blotchy skin likened him to a panther (regarded as a deceitful creature); his hair colour suggested courage; the bulging beer belly had connotations of power, but also exposed his devotion to pleasure; his feeble legs indicated both femininity and fear. Nero was thus revealed to be a contradiction.

The emperor Claudius as Jupiter, Vatican Museum.
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The descriptions of the bodies are also very funny. They undercut the divine pretensions of emperors, whose statues showed them in heroic nudity with six-packs that demonstrated their virility and likened them to gods. (Once again, not much has changed, as revealed by the images of Vladimir Putin’s shirtless hunting expeditions or Tony Abbott in his budgie smugglers).

Suetonius’s stories about the emperors’ faults and foibles exposed them as human beings. He even collected their famous sayings to shed light on their character – the famous line “as quick as boiled asparagus”, intoned beautifully by Brian Blessed’s Augustus in I, Claudius, is straight out of Suetonius.

His account of the witty sayings of Vespasian shows that the emperor frequently joked about his own economic policies:

When his son Titus criticized him for putting a tax even on urine, he held up a coin from the first payment to his son’s nose and asked him if he was offended by its smell. When Titus said no, he observed: ‘But it comes from urine.’

Vespasian emerges as a rather avuncular figure. He even pokes fun at the deification of emperors, proclaiming in the days before his death, “Oh dear, I think I am becoming a god!”

Laughing at power

But the humour of Suetonius’s Caesars is often double-edged. He tells one story about the time Nero visited his aunt on her death bed, and she lovingly remarked that she would die happy once she had the hairs from the first shaving of his beard. Nero joked that he would shave it off immediately. He then gave his aunt an overdose of laxatives to kill her off and seized her estate for himself.

Head of Nero, with beard, from the Palatine Museum.
Wikimedia Commons

Roman aristocrats reading this tale would probably have laughed, given its absurdly comic elements. But it would have been nervous laughter. For such stories reminded them of the power of the emperor. While they might have chuckled at another’s misfortune, they would have been acutely aware that one day it could be them.

Suetonius’s Caesars is thus more than a haphazard collection of gossip and scandal, but a work that sheds light on the world of the Roman aristocracy and how they lived (and coped) with their emperors. The stories of the emperors’ virtues and vices illustrates what Roman elites considered to be acceptable behaviour by their leaders.

Suetonius’s biographies also cut the emperors down to size, revealing them to be men with human flaws, rather than gods. They offered a necessary means of escapism in a world where imperial fickleness could end one’s career – or one’s life.

The ConversationRecommended translation: Suetonius, Lives of the Caesars, Oxford World’s Classics edition by Catharine Edwards (2008).

Caillan Davenport, Lecturer in Roman History and ARC DECRA Research Fellow, Macquarie University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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How did Augustus become the first Roman Emperor?

by Tim Harding

In 27BCE Gaius Octavius (‘Octavian’) in effect became the first Emperor of Rome, although this was not of one his official titles.  As part of this process, his name was changed by Senate decree to Augustus.  For all practical purposes, the Roman Emperor became a monarch, yet throughout Rome’s republican period, the Senate had resolutely opposed any return to the previous monarchy.  Indeed, this opposition has been given as one of the main reasons for the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44BCE (Cicero, III 82-83).  The purpose of this essay is to explore the reasons for this apparent paradox, and to suggest an explanation as to how Augustus was able overcome the Senate’s opposition to monarchy and become a king-like Emperor.

In order to better understand the Roman Senate’s aversion to the return of a monarchy, it is useful to consider the prior relationship between the Senate and the early Roman kings, and in particular the conflict between the Senate and the last king Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.

According to the Roman historian Titus Livius (known as Livy), the Senate was originally created as an advisory council by the legendary first Roman King Romulus.  He appointed one hundred senators who were called the ‘patres’ in virtue of their rank, and their descendants were called ‘patricians’ (Livy, 1.8).  During the later republican period, the Senate became increasingly powerful – more like a legislature than an advisory body (Cornell 1995, 369-370).

In an important contrast to the Senate, many of the subsequent Roman kings were not of patrician blood, and were regarded as ‘outsiders’ (Cornell 1995, 142).  They adopted tyrannical Greek and near-eastern models of kingship in their search for legitimacy and charismatic authority.  They were essentially anti-aristocratic figures, who ruled in the interests of the plebeians, including by redistributing wealth to them from the patricians (Cornell 1995, 147-148).

The seventh and last Roman King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus began his reign in 535 BCE by executing the leading patricians whom he suspected of being partisans of his predecessor Servius Tullius, whom he had overthrown by violence (Livy, 1.49).  Because Tarquinius reigned without either being elected by the people or confirmed by the Senate, he surrounded himself with guards and maintained his dominion by fear.  He summarily conducted the trials in capital cases without any assessors, and put to death, banished, or fined not only those whom he suspected or disliked, but also those from whom his only object was to extort money (Livy, 1.49).

In his way, Tarquinius not only earned the reputation of an anti-aristocratic tyrant but also as an antagonist of the Senate, as recorded in the following passage by Livy.

‘It was chiefly the senators whose numbers were reduced by this procedure, and Tarquinius determined to make no new appointments to the order, that it might be the more despised for its very paucity, and might chafe less at being ignored in all business of state.  For this king was the first to break with the custom handed down by his predecessors, of consulting the senate on all occasions, and governed the nation without other advice than that of his own household. War, peace, treaties, and alliances were entered upon or broken off by the monarch himself, with whatever states he wished, and without the decree of people or Senate’ (Livy, 1.49).

Cornell (1995, 148) concludes that such tyrannical behaviour is the most likely reason for the almost pathological dislike of monarchy during the subsequent Republican period of Rome.  Indeed, the first acts of the initial praetors (consuls) of the Republic in 509BCE, Brutus and Tarquinius Collatinus, were to make the people swear never to allow anybody to be king, and to legislate against aspiring to monarchy in the future (Cornell 1995, 150, 215).  For the rest of Roman history, ‘king’ or ‘rex’ was a term of loathing in Roman politics (Beard 2015, 125).

The dislike of monarchy was instrumental in shaping the constitution of the Roman Republic.  Two consults were elected by the comitia curiata[1] and held office for only one year.  They took it in turns to hold the fasces, the symbol of power and authority (imperium) in ancient Rome (Livy, 2.1.8).  They also had the power to veto the decisions of each other (Cornell 1995, 226).  As consul, Brutus selected leading men of equestrian rank to fill the vacancies in the Senate caused by Tarquin; by this means Brutus brought it up to the old number of three hundred.  Livy claims that ‘this measure had a wonderful effect in promoting harmony in the State and bringing the patricians and plebeians together’ (Livy, 2.1.8); although later conflicts between these classes contradicted this claim.

An exception to these republican rules was the dictatorship, which has important implications for the status of both Julius Caesar and Augustus that I shall discuss later.  In cases of national emergency, a dictator was appointed by one of the consuls to act as supreme commander and head of state for six months, or the duration of the emergency, whichever was the shorter.  The consuls remained in office during this period, but were subject to the dictator’s authority, against which there was no appeal (Cornell 1995, 226-227).

On the Ides of March in 44BCE, Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Roman Senate by a consortium of over 60 senators, led by Gaius Cassius Longinus and Marcus Junius Brutus.  According to Cicero (III 82-83), Caesar was killed because he was in the process of restoring a monarchy to Rome, and thus destroying the Republic.

‘Our tyrant deserved his death for having made an exception of the one thing that was the blackest crime of all.  Why do we gather instances of petty crime—legacies criminally obtained and fraudulent buying and selling? Behold, here you have a man who was ambitious to be king of the Roman People and master of the whole world; and he achieved it!’ (Cicero, III 82-83).

Evidence in support of Cicero’s claim includes an increasingly powerful list of honours that Caesar was steadily accumulating, culminating in his appointment as dictator for life (Plutarch 9; Dio, 12).  Caesar had amassed wealth and power from his Gallic conquests which offended the sensibilities of the senators (Le Glay et al 2009, 150).  He also accepted certain symbols of divine rulership, such as insignia, purples robes and the gilded chair of a triumphator (Carson, 1957, 51; Ehrenberg 1964, 159).  The solemn procession in which Caesar’s statue had been carried into the temple of the deified Romulus gave him the appearance of a divine person (Ehrenberg 1964, 152; Kershaw 2013, 29).  Cassius Dio claims that a similar statue and its inscription was the trigger for Caesar’s assassination.

‘Another likeness they set up in the temple of Quirinus with the inscription, “To the Invincible God,” and another on the Capitol beside the former kings of Rome.  Now it occurs to me to marvel at the coincidence: there were eight such statues, — seven to the kings, and an eighth to the Brutus who overthrew the Tarquins, — and they set up the statue of Caesar beside the last of these; and it was from this cause chiefly that the other Brutus, Marcus, was roused to plot against him.’ (Dio, Book 43, 45, 3)

The patrician senators also loathed the erection of a temple to Clementia Caesaris (‘Caesar’s Clemency’) because clementia was a kingly virtue (Kershaw 2013, 29).  Further evidence of Caesar’s intention to become king was the appearance of his head on a series of coins during his lifetime, instead of the usual gods and ancient heroes (Carson 1957, 52).

A less reliable piece evidence for Caesar’s monarchical aspirations was that according to Dio (Book 44, 15, 3), there was an unconfirmed report that the priests known as the Quindecemviri were spreading a story that the oracle Sibyl had said the Parthians (with whom a war was looming) would never be defeated in any other way than by a king; and so the priests were consequently going to propose that the title of king be granted to Caesar everywhere in the Roman world with the exception of Italy.

‘The conspirators believed this to be true, and because a vote would be demanded of the magistrates, among whom were Brutus and Cassius, owing to the importance of the measure, and they neither dared to oppose it nor would submit to remain silent, they hastened forward their plot before any business connected with the measure should come up’ (Dio, Book 44, 15, 3).

It is uncertain whether Caesar actually wanted to be king or not (Le Glay et al 2009, 158).  Dio claims that although Julius Caesar pretended to shun the title of monarch, in reality he desired it (Dio, Book 44, 11).  On the other hand, Carson (1957, 52) asks that because Julius Caesar had already achieved all the substance of power that he needed, why should he seek the outward forms of it which might arouse political antagonisms?  An alternative theory is that the Roman patricians were more concerned about the indefinite continuance of Julius Caesar’s substantive threat to their own power than the symbolic restoration of the monarchy; and that the latter explanation was a moral and political justification for the assassination after it was done (Carson 1957, 53).  In support of this theory is the fact that Caesar doubled the number of quaestors, appointed an additional praetor and increased the number of senators to 900.  These changes were regarded by the old nobility as an unpardonable offence because they would result in diluting the Senate and patrician ranks with ‘upstarts’ from the Italian peninsula and the provinces (Marsh and Scullard 1971, 19; Kershaw 2013, 29; Le Glay et al 2009, 157).

Whether Caesar was assassinated to prevent a restoration of the monarchy, or to protect the power of the patrician senators (or both), there is a paradox between the assassination of Caesar for either of these reasons and the subsequent rise of Augustus as the first Roman Emperor.  This is because the Emperor in effect became a monarch and diminished the power of the Senate, as I shall now explain.

After Caesar’s death, Mark Antony took advantage of the ensuing power vacuum and turned Caesar’s funeral into a political opportunity for himself (Le Glay et al 2009, 159).  On the other hand, Octavian had been named in Caesar’s will as his adopted son and heir (Suetonius, Augustus, 8).  The Roman aristocracy was then thrown into chaos and civil wars until the Battle of Actium in 31BCE, when Octavian (the later Augustus) emerged victorious over Mark Antony and Cleopatra (Goodman 1997, 9).  From that date, Octavian was the undisputed military ruler of the Roman world (Goodman 1997, 38).  He then skilfully used that military power and respect as his springboard to secure ultimate political power.  He established for himself the image of the military saviour of the Roman Republic.

Returning  to Italy in 30BCE, Octavian disbanded about half of the huge legionary forces under his control, paying for their resettlement with wealth taken from Egypt (Goodman 1997, 39).  By downsizing the military forces and relinquishing command, Octavian was playing on national feeling and war weariness (Le Glay et al 2009, 184).

To boost his civic credentials, Octavian as a Consul embarked on a series of public works in Rome, including linking the Forum with the Campus Martius, and building or repairing various temples (Le Glay et al, 195).  As he was immensely wealthy, he donated some of his money for public benefaction on a grand scale (Le Glay et al 2009, 214).  According to Suetonius (Augustus 28), Octavian proudly boasted of Rome that ‘he had found it of brick, but left it of marble’.

In 28BCE, Octavian performed the role of censor (but without the official title) by reducing the Senate to the ancient 300 in number (Suetonius, Augustus 35).  He did this by expelling new senators he deemed unworthy, which earned the gratitude of the old senators.  The Senate then passed a decree naming him Augustus (Goodman 1997, 39-40), which means ‘Revered One’ (Beard 2015, 354).  Augustus rectified the confusion and disorder by which spectators took their seats at public games.  He arranged that in all public spectacles, the first tier of seats should be left empty for use by senators (Suetonius, Augustus 44). These measures were obviously designed to flatter and curry favour with the senators.

The senator and historian Tacitus later wrote how Augustus’ pervasive control over all levels of Roman society gradually metamorphosed into monarchical power.

‘Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets of repose, and so grew greater by degrees, while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the laws. He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandised by revolution, they preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past’ (Tacitus, 1.2).

After what had happened to Julius Caesar, Augustus was wise enough not to accept the title of dictator, instead choosing to be known by the informal title of princeps, a term meaning the foremost statesman (Barrow 1949, 81; Goodman 1997, 40).  In addition, the Senate voted to give Augustus military command for ten years over the provinces of Spain, Gaul, Syria and Egypt where the vast majority of legions still under arms were stationed (Goodman 1997, 40).  He assumed the religious title of Pontifex Maximus as soon as his colleague Lepidus was dead (Seutonius, Augustus 31).  His title of ‘Father of the Country’ was voted to him by ‘the whole body of the people…in a full theatre’ (Seutonius, Augustus 58).

Augustus himself described his accession to the Emperorship in the following terms.

‘In my sixth and seventh consulates (28-27 B.C.E.), after putting out the civil war, having obtained all things by universal consent, I handed over the state from my power to the dominion of the senate and Roman people. And for this merit of mine, by a senate decree, I was called Augustus and the doors of my temple were publicly clothed with laurel and a civic crown was fixed over my door and a gold shield placed in the Julian senate-house, and the inscription of that shield testified to the virtue, mercy, justice, and piety, for which the senate and Roman people gave it to me. After that time, I exceeded all in influence, but I had no greater power than the others who were colleagues with me in each magistracy’ (Augustus, 34).

In 23BCE, Augustus was awarded imperium proconsulare maius, which was the legal right to intervene on behalf of the state even in those parts of the Empire not formally under his authority (Barrow 1949, 81).  He was also appointed tribunica potestas for life, which permitted him to exercise a tribune’s veto over all legislation and to propose new legislation (Barrow 1949, 81; Goodman 1997, 41).  In this way, Augustus gradually accumulated personal prestige and power equivalent to that of a monarch, with the Senate as a largely compliant legislature.  He was very careful to do this in such a skilful way that he was not perceived as a tyrannical monarch like Tarquinius.

Augustus’ political genius lay in his grasp of the fact that in order to establish his personal power, he had to outwardly preserve the institutions of the Republic while inwardly emptying them of their content (Le Glay et al. 2009, 214-215).  He made no significant changes to the Roman Constitution – the old offices of state, such as the consulships and magistracies were retained, although their power was in practice diminished by his Emperorship.  The formal privileges of the Senate were enhanced, yet once again were overshadowed by Augustus’ power and influence (Beard 2015, 355).  The Emperor had become the single unifying factor for the 50 or 60 million inhabitants of the entire Empire (Goodman, 1997, 9).  Augustus did not actually need formal constitutional titles – his power derived from his personal authority and influence, somewhat akin to a ‘supreme leader’ above the official positions of state.  So the answer to our original question is that Augustus’ consummate political skills were sufficient to overwhelm the resistance of the Senate to the restoration of the Roman monarchy in the form of the new office of Emperor.


Ancient Sources

Augustus         The Deeds of the Divine Augustus, trans. T. Bushnell, The Internet Classics Archive <http://classics.mit.edu//Augustus/deeds.html>, accessed 9 May 2017.

Cicero              ‘On Duties’ III 82-83, in N. Lewis and M. Reinhold eds., Roman Civilization Sourcebook I: The Republic, Harper & Row Publishers, New York, 295-297; reprinted in Andrew Connor ed, ATS3346 Imperial Rome: A Study in Power and Perversion in the Early Empire, Unit Reader, Monash University, Clayton, 2017, 15.

Dio                  Roman History trans. Earnest Cary, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, 1914 thru 1927, http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/e/roman/texts/cassius_dio/43*.html, accessed 9 May 2017.

Livy                 Ab Urbe Condita (History of Rome),  Perseus Digital Library,

http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi0914.phi0011.perseus-eng1:49, accessed 9 May 2017.

Plutarch           Life of Caesar, 57-67 (abridged) reprinted in Andrew Connor ed, ATS3346 Imperial Rome: A Study in Power and Perversion in the Early Empire, Unit Reader, Monash University, Clayton, 2017, 9-10.

Suetonius        The Twelve Caesars, trans. R. Graves, rev. J.B. Rives, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1957.

Tacitus             The Annals of Imperial Rome, Complete Works of Tacitus. Church, A., Brodribb, W., Bryant. S., eds, Perseus, New York.  <http://data.perseus.org/citations/urn:cts:latinLit:phi1351.phi005.perseus-eng1:1.2&gt;, accessed 11 May 2017.

Modern Sources

Barrow, R. H.,

1949                The Romans, Penguin, Harmondsworth.

Beard, M.

2015                SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome, Profile Books, London.

Carson, R.A. G.

1957                ‘Caesar and the Monarchy’ Greece & Rome, Second Series, Vol. 4, No. 1. pp46-53.

Cornell, T. J.

1995                The Beginnings of Rome, Routledge, New York.

Ehrenberg, V.,

1964                ‘Caesar’s Final Aims’ Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 68 pp.149-161.

Goodman, M.,

1997                The Roman World, Routledge, New York.

Kershaw, S.,

2013                A Brief History of the Roman Empire, Robinson, London.

Le Glay, M., Voisin, J., and Bohec, Y.,

2009                A History of Rome, 4th ed. John Wiley & Sons Ltd., Chicester.

Marsh, F.B., and Scullard, H.H.,

1971                ‘The Ides of March,’ in A History of the Roman World from 146 to 30 BC. reprinted in Andrew Connor ed, ATS3346 Imperial Rome: A Study in Power and Perversion in the Early Empire, Unit Reader, Monash University, Clayton, 2017, 19-21.

[1] The comitia curiata was the principal legislative and judicial assembly during the early years of the Roman Republic (Cornell 1995, 115).

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Reflections on medieval history

The medieval period is commonly viewed negatively in the popular media.  The very word ‘medieval’ is often used as a pejorative.  So why did I decide to study Medieval Europe this semester at Monash?

I think I had two main reasons.  First, it is part of a long-held plan of mine to study the whole of western history in a roughly chronological order (I had already studied it from the dawn of civilisation until the fall of the Roman Empire).  Second, it was actually the period of history I knew least about.  I knew something of later periods through general reading and my subscription to the BBC History magazine. Some of the views I had acquired about the medieval period through the popular media were bound to be mistaken.  So I was curious to find out – and I was right.

Before doing the course, I was broadly aware of the difference between the early and later Middle Ages – the early Medieval period from 500 to 1000CE being popularly described as ‘the Dark Ages’, and the later period as ‘feudal’ and ‘scholastic’.  I now know that the High Medieval period was from 1000 to 1200CE and the Late Medieval period was from 1200 to 1400CE. Both of these later period were times of intellectual and other progress, rather than being static or even regressive as is sometimes described in the popular media.

I knew little about the history of the Christian Church and its complex relationships with monarchs and the rest of the secular world.  I didn’t know much about the daily lives of peasants and their relationships with the other classes of society.  Through my interest in philosophy, I was interested in the intellectual development of the later Middle Ages, but I didn’t know a lot about it. These were the aspects of the course I found the most interesting, and which I would now like to reflect upon.

I learnt that after the fall of the Roman Empire, the western Christian Church was broadly split into the priests under the control of bishops, and monks or nuns under the control of abbots and abbesses. There were some doctrinal differences, but there were also power struggles for the control of the Church, as illustrated by the Benedictine Rule of the 6th century CE.

Doubts about the legitimacy of Charlemagne’s succession to the Frankish throne led to him being crowned as Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800CE.  In return, the Pope and the Church received military protection from the Emperor, illustrating the symbiotic relationship between Church and State.  However, there were also conflicts within this relationship – for example, the ‘investiture conflict’ over who had the right to appoint bishops.

I was surprised to learn of the relatively minor doctrinal differences between orthodox movements such as the Franciscans and Dominicans on the one hand, and ‘heretical groups‘ such as the Waldensians and Cathars on the other.  These differences did not seem sufficient to account for the often brutal treatment of heretics; so once again, struggles for power seem to be the best explanation.

I became interested the agricultural economics of the later Middle Ages, where a combination of fortuitous circumstances such as warmer climate, higher rainfall, better farming practices and equipment led to surpluses of production for the first time in centuries.[1]   These surpluses not enabled not only trade, but also the storage of produce such as oats for the feeding of horses.  This in turn enabled the replacement of plow-pulling oxen by horses that required less pasture that could be reallocated to cropping.  Horses also moved and turned faster than oxen, resulting in even more efficiencies.[2] The storage of oats also enabled horses to be taken to regions with little or no pasture, such as ‘the Holy Land’ during the crusades.

Crop yields for wheat improved to an estimated four times the quantity of grain sown.  Typically, one quarter of the yield was reserved for the next planting, one or two quarters went to the lord of the manor as rent, and the remainder was either consumed as bread or beer, stored for the winter or sold at local markets.[3]  Few peasants could afford meat to eat – they mainly lived on bread, beer and vegetables grown by women and children in small cottage gardens, plus eggs from chickens and milk from cows and goats.  Those living in coastal areas also ate fish. [4]

Finally, apart from the relatively brief Carolingan Renaissance of the late eighth century to the ninth century, intellectual progress in Western Europe generally lagged behind that of the Byzantine and Islamic parts of the former Roman Empire.   But from around 1050, Arabic, Jewish and Greek intellectual manuscripts started to become more available in the West in Latin translations.[5]  The resulting revival of classical logic and reason in twelfth century Western Europe, known as ‘Scholasticism’, was highly significant to the development of universities and subsequent intellectual progress. It was also a precursor to the development of empirical scientific methods by Bishop Robert Grossteste and Friar Roger Bacon, which were important because of the later practical benefits of science to humanity.  I personally found it somewhat ironic that the later clashes between religion and science had their origins in the pioneering experiments of a bishop and a friar.


Backman, Clifford R., The Worlds of Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

Bennett, Judith M., Medieval Europe – A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011).

Colish, Marcia, L., Medieval foundations of the Western intellectual tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997).


[1] Bennett, p.139.

[2] Backman, p.218.

[3] Backman, p.219.

[4] Backman, p.220.

[5] Colish, p.274.

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The Edict of Milan

The Edict of Milan was an agreement made in 313CE between the then Western Roman Emperor Constantine and Licinius who at the time ruled the Balkans, but soon became the ruler of the eastern half of the former Roman Empire.  It was called the Edict of Milan because that was where they met and made the agreement, although the actual document was promulgated by Licinius a few months later at Nicomedia, which is today known as Izmit in Turkey. [1]

The substance of the agreement was to tolerate Christianity and other religions within their respective regions of control. [2]  It was also agreed to restore the properties and possessions that the Christian Church had lost under the previous Roman Emperor Diocletian, who was intolerant of Christianity.  It followed a slightly earlier Edict of Toleration issued by the Roman Emperor Galerius which officially ended the Diocletian persecution of Christians.[3]

In practice, the Edict of Milan was more like an edict or executive order than merely the record of an agreement.  It was issued to provincial governors who were expected to publicise its contents to the public and presumably to implement it.[4]  On the other hand, it was not included in the Theodosian Code of Roman laws and edicts compiled in 438CE.[5]

The original Edict of Milan was issued in multiple copies handwritten in Latin, but none of these copies has survived.  The primary source under examination here was quoted by the Christian apologist Lactantius in his On the Deaths of the Persecutors (De moribus persecutorum), thought to be written in 318 CE.  Although there was different version written in Greek by Eusebius, scholars think that the one in Lactantius is the original.[6]

The actual wording of the Edict was most likely drafted by civil servants in an imperial office.  However, as it records an agreement reached by the two emperors, and was published with their authority and approval (since they did not retract it), I don’t think it really matters in practice who recorded the agreement into writing.[7]  The authoritative and enduring nature of the document overrides any doubts about its authorship, in my view.

There are various historical theories as to why the Edict was published.  According to a biography by Eusebius,  Constantine had a miraculous vision of an illuminated Cross on the day before the Battle of Milvian Bridge against his rival Maxentius outside of Rome in 312CE.  The following morning Constantine ordered the Christian symbol to be drawn on his soldiers’ shields.  This event predated the Edict and may have been the real moment of Constantine’s conversion to Christianity. [8]

By this stage, the numbers of Christians within Empire were still small but increasing.[9] The most severe persecution of the Christians was conducted by the Roman Emperor Diocletian and yet it failed.  Bennett suggests that the Empire thus had little choice but to accommodate itself to this new and growing religion.[10]  She thinks that Constantine pragmatically nurtured Christianity in the hope that it ‘might provide a sort of glue to hold his empire together’ and subsequent Christian emperors followed his lead.[11]

In my view, the main purpose of the Edict was to promote peace and stability within the areas controlled by the two rulers.  The Edict specifically refers to ‘the sake of peace in our time’, ‘public well-being’ and ‘the interests of public quiet’.[12]  Another purpose was to shore up the public support of Licinius against his rival Maximinus Daia, who had renewed the persecution of Christians.  Thus the Edict forged a political and strategic alliance between the two rulers, as treaties often do.  In view of Constantine’s claimed miraculous vision before the Battle of Milvian Bridge, Constantine may in a sense have been forming an alliance with the Christian God as well.



[1] Kathleen Neal ed., Medieval Europe ATS1316 Unit Reader (Clayton: Monash University, 2016), p.11.

[2] Constantine and Lucinius ‘Edict of Milan’, in Ehler, Sidney Z. and Morrall, John B. trans. and eds. Church and State Through the Centuries: A Collection of Historic Documents with Commentaries, repr. in Medieval Europe ATS1316 Unit Reader ed. by Dr Kathleen Neal (Clayton: Monash University, 2016), pp.12-13.

[3] Galerius ‘Edict of Toleration’, in Internet History Sourcebooks Project http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/source/edict-milan.asp [Accessed 21 March 2016].

[4] Neal, p.10.

[5] Neal, p.13.

[6] Neal, p.12.

[7] This is why I have attributed Constantine and Licinius as the authors of the Edict, rather than ‘Anonymous’.

[8] Clifford Backman, The Worlds of Medieval Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), p.42.

[9] Ibid., p.43.

[10] Judith Bennett, Medieval Europe – A Short History (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011), p.13.

[11] Ibid., p.13

[12] Constantine and Lucinius, p.13.

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The Dark Ages

by Tim Harding

(An edited version of this essay was published in The Skeptic magazine,
March 2016, Vol 35, No. 1, under the title ‘In the Dark’).

Like other skeptics, I often despair at the apparent decline in the public understanding of science.  Anti-science, pseudoscience, quackery, conspiracy theories and the general distrust of experts seem to be on the rise.  I sometimes even wonder whether we in danger of regressing into a new dark age.

So what do we mean by a ‘dark age’? Was there really a dark age in post-Roman Europe? If so, what were its most likely causes? These questions are difficult to answer, and not just because of disagreements among historians. The difficulty is in some ways circular – we call the post-Roman period a ‘dark age’ because we don’t know enough about it (relative to the periods before and after); and we don’t know enough about it because not much was written down at the time.

WDF_809731My own observation is that western civilisation has already suffered two dark ages about 1300 years apart.  (There was an earlier dark age in Ancient Greece from around 1100 to 800 BCE).  If this ‘trend’ is repeated we should be due for another one in a couple of hundred years’ time.

The term ‘Dark Ages’ commonly refers to the Early Middle Ages, which was the period of European history lasting from the 5th century to approximately 1000 CE. The Early Middle Ages followed the decline of the Western Roman Empire and preceded the Central Middle Ages (c. 1001–1300 CE) and the Late Middle Ages (1300-1500CE). The period saw a continuation of downward trends begun during late classical antiquity, including population decline, especially in urban centres, a decline of trade, and increased translocation of peoples. There is a relative paucity of scientific, literary, artistic and cultural output from this time, especially in Western Europe.

Historians suggest that there were several causes of this decline, including the rise of Christianity. The other causes are often overlooked, especially by antitheists trying to score points such as ‘look what happened when your mob was in charge!’.  So like good skeptics, let’s examine the historical evidence.

The Greek Dark Age 

The first European dark age occurred in ancient Greece from around 1100 to 800 BCE.  The archaeological evidence shows a collapse of the Mycenaean Greek civilization at the outset of this period, as their great palaces and cities were destroyed or abandoned and vital trade links were lost.  Unfortunately, their Linear B script also disappeared, leaving us with no written accounts of what really happened or why.

Linear B script

Linear B script. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Legend has it that Greece was invaded by the mysterious Dorians from the north and/or the Sea Peoples of uncertain origin but possibly from the Black Sea area.  The archeological evidence is of little help to us other than showing a simpler geometrical style of pottery art than that of the Mycenaeans, hinting at occupation by a different culture.


Geometric (9th-7th century BCE) pottery from Melos in Greece. Source: Wikimedia Commons

There is archeological evidence of a revival of Greek trade at the beginning of the 8th century BCE, coupled with the appearance of a new Greek alphabet system adapted from the Phoenicians which is still in use today.  This led to creation of western civilisation’s oldest extant literary works, such as Homer’s The Odyssey and The Iliad.  From succeeding centuries we have been bequeathed major texts of ancient Greek drama, history, philosophy and science.

The decline of the Roman Empire

The Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial extent during the 2nd century CE, reaching from Babylonia in the East to Spain in the West, Britain and the Netherlands in the North, to Egypt and North Africa in the South.  The following two centuries witnessed the slow decline of Roman control over its outlying territories.  The Emperor Diocletian split the empire into separately administered eastern and western halves in 286CE.  In 330CE, after a period of civil war, Constantine the Great refounded the city of Byzantium as the newly renamed eastern capital, Constantinople.

During the period from 150 to 400CE, the population of the Roman Empire is estimated to have fallen from 65 million to 50 million, a decline of more than 20 percent. Some have connected this to the Dark Ages Cold Period (300–700CE), when there was a decrease in global temperatures which impaired agricultural yields.

In 400CE, the Visigoths invaded the Western Roman Empire and, although briefly forced back from Italy, in 410CE they sacked the city of Rome.  The Vandals again sacked Rome in 455CE.  The deposition of the last emperor of the west, Romulus Augustus, in 476CE has traditionally marked the end of the Western Roman Empire.  The Eastern Roman Empire, often referred to as the Byzantine Empire after the fall of its western counterpart, had little ability to assert control over the lost western territories.  Although the movements of peoples during this period are usually described as ‘invasions’, they were not just military expeditions but migrations of entire peoples into the empire.  These were mainly rural Germanic peoples who knew little of cities, writing or money.  Administrative, educational and military infrastructure quickly vanished, leading to the collapse of the schools and to a rise of illiteracy even among the leadership.


For the formerly Roman area, there was another 20 percent decline in population between 400 and 600CE, or a one-third decline between 150-600CE which had significant economic consequences.  To make matters worse, the Plague of Justinian (541–542CE), which has since been found to have been bubonic plague, recurred periodically for 150 years – killing as many as 50 million people in Europe.  The population of the city of Rome itself declined from about 450,000 in 100CE to only 20,000 during the Early Middle Ages.  The city of London was largely abandoned.

In the 8th century, the volume of trade reached its lowest level, indicated by very small number of shipwrecks found in the western Mediterranean sea.

One of the main consequences of the fall of Rome was breakdown of the strict Roman law and order, resulting amongst other things in the running away of slaves who had performed most of the labour.  Less food and fibre was produced on farms, resulting in people leaving the cities to less efficiently grow their own.  Lower agricultural activity resulted in reforestation, or in other words the forests naturally grew back.  Travel and trade by land became less safe, exacerbating the economic decline.

The role of the Christians 

The Catholic Church was the only centralized institution to survive the fall of the Western Roman Empire intact.  It was the sole unifying cultural influence in Western Europe, preserving Latin learning, maintaining the art of writing, and preserving a centralized administration through its network of bishops ordained in succession. The Early Middle Ages are characterized by the control of urban areas by bishops and wider territorial control exercised by dukes and counts.  The later rise of urban communes marked the beginning of the Central Middle Ages.

During the Early Middle Ages, the divide between eastern and western Christianity widened, paving the way for the East-West Schism in the 11th century. In the West, the power of the Bishop of Rome expanded.  In 607CE, Boniface III became the first Bishop of Rome to use the title Pope.  Pope Gregory the Great used his office as a temporal power, expanded Rome’s missionary efforts to the British Isles, and laid the foundations for the expansion of monastic orders.

The institutional structure of Christianity in the west during this period is different from what it would become later in the Central Middle Ages. As opposed to the later church, the church of the Early Middle Ages consisted primarily of the monasteries.  In addition, the papacy was relatively weak, and its power was mostly confined to central Italy. Religious orders wouldn’t proliferate until the Central Middle Ages. For the typical Christian at this time, religious participation was largely confined to occasionally receiving mass from wandering monks. Few would be lucky enough to receive this as often as once a month.  By the end of the Dark Ages, individual practice of religion was becoming more common, as monasteries started to transform into something approximating modern churches, where some monks might even give occasional sermons.  Thus the evidence for powerful centralised Christian control during the Dark Ages is lacking.

The Western European Dark Age

The concept of a Western European Dark Age originated with the Italian scholar Petrarch in the 1330s CE.  Petrarch regarded the post-Roman centuries as ‘dark’ compared to the light of classical antiquity.  The Protestant reformers of the 16th century had an interest in disparaging the ‘Dark Ages’ as an era of Catholic control, when they (the Protestants) thought that Christianity had ‘gone off the rails’.  Later historians expanded the term to refer to the transitional period between Roman times and the Central Middle Ages (c. 11th–13th century), although in the 20th century the Dark Ages were contracted back to the Early Middle Ages (500-1000CE) again.  I shall refer to this period in western Europe as ‘the Dark Ages’ from here on.

Evidence for the Dark Ages include the lack of output of manuscripts (both originals and copies), a lack of contemporary written history, general population decline, a paucity of inventions, a lack of sea trade, restricted building activity and limited material cultural achievements in general.

The lack of manuscripts in the Dark Ages compared to later Middle Ages is illustrated  by the following graph.


The Romans were remarkable innovators.  Their inventions of materials included kiln-fired bricks, cement, concrete, wood veneer, cast iron, glassware and surgical instruments.  In construction, they invented paved roads, bridges, tunnels, aqueducts, arches, domes, dams, water supply, drainage, sewerage and even underfloor heating.  Their production technology included the wheeled plow, the two-field crop system, harvesting machines, paddlewheel mills, the screw press, the force pump, steam power, gearing, pulleys and cranes.  The Romans were also admired for their mining technology.

In contrast, hardly any new technology was invented during the Dark Ages.  Nor were there any scientific discoveries of note; although science and mathematics continued to flourish in the Islamic world, as discussed below.  Yet later in the Central Middle Ages, technological inventions included windmills, mechanical clocks, transparent glass, distillation, the heavy plow, horseshoes, harnesses, stirrups and more powerful crossbows.  Architectural innovations enabled the building of larger cathedrals and faster ships.

The invention of the three-field system towards the end of the Dark Ages, coupled with higher temperatures and the heavy plow enabled higher agricultural yields, which kick-started economic recovery and the resumption of trade.  Amongst other things, the three-field system created a surplus of oats that could be used to feed more horses.  It also required a re-organisation of land tenure that led to manoralism and feudalism.

In the ancient world, Greek was the primary language of science. Advanced scientific research and teaching was mainly carried on in the Hellenistic side of the Roman empire, and in Greek. Late Roman attempts to translate Greek writings into Latin had limited success.  As the knowledge of Greek declined, the Latin West found itself cut off from some of its Greek philosophical and scientific roots.

In the late 8th century, there was renewed interest in Classical Antiquity as part of the short-lived Carolingian Renaissance of the early 9th century CE.  Charlemagne carried out a reform in education. From 787CE on, decrees began to circulate recommending the restoration of old schools and the founding of new ones across the empire.  Institutionally, these new schools were either under the responsibility of a monastery (monastic schools), a cathedral, or a noble court. The teaching of dialectic (a discipline that corresponds to today’s informal logic) was responsible for the increase in the interest in speculative inquiry; from this interest would follow the rise of the Scholastic tradition of Christian philosophy.  In the 12th and 13th centuries, many of those schools that were founded under the auspices of Charlemagne, especially cathedral schools, would become universities.

The expansion of Islam

After the death of the prophet Mohammed in 632CE, Islamic forces conquered much of the former Eastern Roman Empire and Persia, starting with the Middle East and Arabian Peninsula in the early 7th century, North Africa in the later 7th century, and much of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) in 711CE.  This Islamic Empire was known as the Umayyad Caliphate.  Its capital was the Spanish city of Cordoba, which by the 10th century CE had become the world’s largest city, with an estimated population of around 500,000.

The Umayyad Caliphate in 750 CE

The Islamic conquests reached their peak in the mid-8th century.  The defeat of Muslim forces at the Battle of Poitiers in 732 led to the re-conquest of southern France by the Franks, but the main reason for the halt of Islamic growth in Europe was the overthrow of the Umayyad dynasty and its replacement by the Abbasid dynasty based in Babylon.

The works of Euclid and Archimedes, lost in the West, were translated from Arabic to Latin in Spain. The modern Hindu-Arabic numerals, including a notation for zero, were developed by Hindu mathematicians in the 5th and 6th centuries. Muslim mathematicians learned of it in the 7th century and added a notation for decimal fractions in the 9th and 10th centuries.  In the course of the 11th century, Islam’s scientific knowledge began to reach Western Europe, via Islamic Spain.


The former Roman Empire was replaced by three civilisations – Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic Caliphate.  The Dark Ages really only refer to one of these civilisations, Western Europe, where there is significant historical evidence of a marked decline in scientific, technological, agricultural, economic, educational and literary activities during this period.  There was also a considerable decline in the population of Western Europe, notwithstanding migrations of Germanic peoples from northern Europe.  Christianity is likely to have been only one of several causes of the Dark Ages.


Backman, Clifford R. (2015) The Worlds of Medieval Europe. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Bennett, Judith M. (2011) Medieval Europe – A Short History. McGraw- Hill, New York.

Gibbon, Edward (1788). The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Vol. 6, Ch. XXXVII.

Tim Harding B.Sc. works as a regulatory consultant to various governments.  He is also studying medieval history at Monash University.



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