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Apart from vomitoriums and orgies, what did the Romans do for us?
Guardian (U.K.) ^ | Saturday October 29, 2005 | Mary Beard

Posted on 10/30/2005 1:05:06 AM PDT by nickcarraway

Ancient Rome provides a handy non-offensive stereotype for us to define ourselves against

The best way to judge a modern recreation of ancient Rome - in film or fiction - is to apply the simple "dormouse test". How long is it before the characters adopt an uncomfortably horizontal position in front of tables, usually festooned with grapes, and one says to another: "Can I pass you a dormouse?" The basic rule of thumb is this: the longer you have to wait before this tasty little morsel appears on the recreated banquet, the more subtle the reconstruction is likely to be. On these terms Rome, the new joint HBO-BBC series, does not do badly. It is not until at least 30 minutes into the first episode that anyone pops the dormouse question.

It is a cliche among modern critics that public fascination with ancient Rome is driven by politics and imperialism. Rome now equals America, as once it equalled Britain. So in watching the rise and (crucially) fall of the Roman empire, we can enjoy some entertaining analysis of contemporary superpowers - as well as indulging in the gratifying thought that their dominance too will one day end. Occasionally, this is very obviously the message. Robert Harris was clear enough that his Pompeii had something to say about the modern United States. American viewers in the 1970s certainly took the seedy court politics on display in the BBC adaptation of Robert Graves's I Claudius as an allegory of Nixon's White House - a parallel which may possibly have been in the mind of the film-makers, but hardly of Graves himself (who wrote the original books in the 1930s). Certainly too, though with a different political tinge, Mussolini invaded Abyssinia against a backdrop of Italian movies celebrating the ancient Roman conquest of Africa and the heroic exploits of Scipio Africanus.

But as the dormouse test hints, it is not only geopolitics that is on the agenda of our recreations of Rome. There are dietary habits and the rules of consumption, for a start; but also sex, religion, luxury and cruelty - in short, cultural difference in all its many forms. For more than 200 years we have read about and watched make-believe Romans eating strange unpalatable delicacies in a position we associate more with sleeping; making themselves sick between courses in order to stuff in yet more (the old vomitorium joke); killing human beings for sport; and enjoying indiscriminate sex on the lines of a modern goat.

Alma-Tadema's marvellously decadent Victorian painting The Roses of Heliogabalus captures this nicely. A group of typically prostrate diners (guests of the emperor Heliogabalus) is surrounded by the usual Roman cuisine, and all the while is being smothered to death - literally - by a vast shower of rose petals. The message is not simply that Roman luxury was a life-threatening vice, but that the Romans ate the wrong things in the wrong ways, with disastrous consequences.

Why do we choose the Romans for these cultural displays? Partly because they are sufficiently familiar, and like ourselves, to be manageable; but sufficiently unlike us to be interesting. Not to mention the fact that, thanks to the Roman invasion of Britain, they even have a foot in our own home territory and can almost play the part of our own ancestors. This is where they score over the ancient Greeks. It is simply impossible to imagine what those white-robed intellectuals did at home, or that they were ever like us at all.

The answer is partly too, of course, that the classical world has always offered a convenient alibi for enjoying sex and violence. To have two actors on primetime television indulging in prolonged and (almost) full-frontal sex would normally be classified somewhere on the spectrum between titillation and pornography. Take exactly the same actors doing exactly the same thing, but pretending to be Romans - and it suddenly becomes legitimate, educational even. At the very least it is clothed in the respectability of classical culture. Many a 19th-century gentleman's study paraded a raunchy Alma-Tadema nude, safe under the fig-leaf of classicism. The new Rome series has an awful lot of bonking dressed up as "an authentic glimpse of the ancient world".

But there is also, I suspect, a particularly 21st-century imperative behind the rash of recent "Romes", from Gladiator on. In the world of publicly sanctioned multiculturalism (excellent, in many ways, as that is), popular representations of cultural difference have become increasingly dangerous and heavily policed. All the old ways of celebrating "our" identity against the peculiar habits - often the eating ones - of the outside world now seem a bit risky.

A BBC series which presented the French as garlic-reeking gluttons, tucking into frogs' legs and snails, or the Germans as a load of jack-booted cabbage eaters, might not end up with a prosecution but it would certainly prompt an appearance from the relevant ambassador on the Today programme, lamenting our dependence on these worn-out stereotypes.

This game of defining ourselves against the habits of the "Other" is a very old one indeed. The Romans did it against the Greeks (a load of over-perfumed intellectuals), the Greeks against the Persians (effeminate despots). We are now finding it much safer to look to the remote past - the recent past is, of course, another matter - for our anti-types. For that past cannot answer back, has no government machinery on its side (or not usually), and you can do what you like with it. If they were portraying a modern religion, the lurid, blood-soaked representations of Roman paganism in the new Rome would probably end with the director up before the beak on a charge of "incitement to religious hatred". As it is, it's only Rome, so it doesn't count.

But what of the dormouse test? Did the Romans themselves pass it? Did they actually eat them? There is here an uncomfortable historical truth for many a modern film director. Unsuccessful and temporary as the ruling almost certainly was, the Roman senate banned the eating of dormice in 115 BC. And as for the vomitorium, it was not a handy place for Roman over-consumers to make room for another course: it is the name given to a passageway through which the audience "spewed out" of the amphitheatre.

· Mary Beard is professor of classics at Cambridge University; Rome starts on BBC2 on Wednesday at 9pm

TOPICS: Miscellaneous
KEYWORDS: archaeology; godsgravesglyphs; hbo; history; romanempire; romans
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1 posted on 10/30/2005 1:05:07 AM PDT by nickcarraway
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To: SunkenCiv; blam


2 posted on 10/30/2005 1:05:31 AM PDT by nickcarraway (I'm Only Alive, Because a Judge Hasn't Ruled I Should Die...)
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To: nickcarraway

I don't know? Indoor plumbing maybe, the spread of Christianity?

3 posted on 10/30/2005 1:08:43 AM PDT by goonie4life9
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To: goonie4life9

rome also gave us the form of govt known as the republic. basically, america is truly romes grandchild. america inherited well, lets just hope she quits squandering her inheritance before its too late.

4 posted on 10/30/2005 1:34:38 AM PDT by son of caesar (son of caesar)
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To: son of caesar

Yeah, I know. But I figured indoor plumbing and Christianity would be trivial to them. The leftists hate Christians, and have no problem wallowing in crap, seeing as they are so full of it.

5 posted on 10/30/2005 1:36:26 AM PDT by goonie4life9
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To: nickcarraway
A precedent for slavery?
6 posted on 10/30/2005 1:37:13 AM PDT by Spirited
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To: nickcarraway

Our language, and most of our law.

7 posted on 10/30/2005 1:44:53 AM PDT by WestVirginiaRebel (The Democratic Party-Jackass symbol, jackass leaders, jackass supporters.)
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To: nickcarraway

I suppose the endless fascination with the Romans stems from the fact that we are their descendants in terms of civilization and culture. Despite our manifest differences, many ideas crucial to the Romans are likewise crucial to us -- distributed, non-centralized power in government, the rule of law, peace through strength, and big engineering projects in serivce of the public good. They didn't always live up to their ideals (as neither do we), but the net impact of Roman presence on the world and the sum total of human culture was positive, as is ours.

8 posted on 10/30/2005 1:47:07 AM PDT by Cincinatus (Omnia relinquit servare Republicam)
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To: nickcarraway

Dormice. Just the treat for dorcats.

9 posted on 10/30/2005 1:31:57 AM PST by The Red Zone (Florida, the sun-shame state, and Illinois the chicken injun.)
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To: nickcarraway
"American viewers in the 1970s certainly took the seedy court politics on display in the BBC adaptation of Robert Graves's I Claudius as an allegory of Nixon's White House - a parallel which may possibly have been in the mind of the film-makers"...
...and was definitely in the mind of the writer of this article. No one else drew such a ridiculous parallel.

I watched the series with fascination. There was essentially no parallel to the Nixon admiistration. There were more parallels to the Kennedy administration.

I also bought and read Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire during the Jimmy Carter presidency. I realized that any nation that would elect a moron like that, and let him serve out four years and make foreign and domestic policy, was likely headed for a fall, and I wanted to know how such a collapse would come about.

It is obvious that the Left today represents Decadence--the same kind of Decay that brought about the fall of Rome and all its horrors.

The Clinton administration and the complicity and interference run by the press to all its corruption, the mendacity of the press and our universities and their service to propaganda, the corruption in the press and the Democrat Party--all are unmistakable signs of Decadence (as though the free fall of American cultural standards were not evidence enough).

It is the American Heartland that is vibrant, energetic, optimistic, and ascendant. It has everything to offer.

The Left has nothing to offer but mendacity, asassination of the characters of its opponents, and a ruthless grasp for power--just like Livia, Tiberias, Poppea, Nero, Caligula--the list goes on and on.

The Left is Decadence.

10 posted on 10/30/2005 2:30:29 AM PST by Savage Beast (The internet is the newspaper of record.)
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To: nickcarraway

The Marxists said religion was the opiate of the people, but I've often thought there was much to the phrase, "Bread and circuses" to keep the populace quiet.

11 posted on 10/30/2005 2:50:46 AM PST by I still care (America is not the problem - it is the solution..)
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To: nickcarraway

Toga parties!

12 posted on 10/30/2005 2:58:35 AM PST by etcetera
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To: nickcarraway

What did the Romans do for us?

Not sure of everything they did, but I see a lot of cool movies with glad he ate her's and stuff, and I refuse to buy a watch or clock without them new-fangled roman numerals on them.

13 posted on 10/30/2005 3:06:18 AM PST by tdscpa
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To: Spirited
A precedent for slavery?


Slavery was a world-wide practice..
Likewise, the first encoded laws, by Hammurabi, included an entire section dealing specifically with slavery, both voluntary and involuntary, and including the rights of slaves..

14 posted on 10/30/2005 3:06:20 AM PST by Drammach (Freedom; not just a job, it's an adventure..)
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To: Savage Beast

Among Roman contributions don't forget the arch, modern concrete, the modern highway of which many are still in use in Europe and the British Isles.

15 posted on 10/30/2005 3:06:24 AM PST by snoringbear
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To: nickcarraway
Unfortunately, Mary Beard misses the truth that is right before her eyes.

The Decadence of the West parallels the Decadence of Rome. The Left is its contemporary manifestation. Leftist propaganda organs such as The Guardian feed it.

The closest she can come to comprehending what's occurring is the irrelevant and unlikely Nixon Administration, hardly an example of Decadence at all.

She--and those who produce The Guardian--are obviously oblivious to the implications of the Carter, Clinton, and Kennedy Administrations, the absurdity of the election of the likes of Jacques Chirac and Gerhardt Schroeder, and the nomination of a man such as John Kerry to the U.S. Presidency; the paralysis of Europe in preventing a Muslim conquest; ubiquitous abuse of addictive drugs in the West; the decline of Christianity and the rise of crypto-atheisim; the persistence of Marxism though it has failed consistently and killed more than 100 million people; the suicidal loss of the will to survive in many nations of Western Europe; the glorification of sexual promiscuity even as the HIV plague mushrooms; the decline of the family; the replacement of the old morality with the new morality, i.e. permissiveness; the sacrifice of the values of Western Civilization before silly phantom of Diversity; the abandonment of truth and its quest, notably in academia and journalism, in favor of propaganda and political expediency... The list goes on and on.

All of this must have escaped Mary--and has certainly escaped the producers of The Guardian, judging from their past publications.

They evidently have no comprehension whatsoever of Decadence and how it has infected contemporary Western Civilization and how it brought about the slow and horrifying fall of Rome, its ultimate collapse, and the thousand-years darkness that folowed.

They also evidently have no understanding that the fall of the West--as much as they may dispise it--would be followed by the rise of something far worse, even than their jaded vision of Western Civilization, ignominious as it undoubtedly must be.

16 posted on 10/30/2005 3:08:43 AM PST by Savage Beast (The internet is the newspaper of record.)
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To: snoringbear

You forgot sanitation. The romans had good sewage systems and organized garbage pickup. Also, they had good public water systems.

17 posted on 10/30/2005 3:09:59 AM PST by LibKill (Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. - Benjamin Franklin)
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To: Cincinatus
Western Civilization, along with Christianity, evolved from the far less enlightened Greece and Rome into the greatest collection of wisdom the world has ever known.

It is a priceless gift to the world.

It must be preserved, cherished, and encouraged to florish.

18 posted on 10/30/2005 3:12:49 AM PST by Savage Beast (The internet is the newspaper of record.)
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To: nickcarraway

Nobody has mentioned the Roman Military and the concept of the Fighting Engineers.

Our military practically rebuilds a country as we go, much the same as the Romans did.

Although Ike admired the German Autobahns, the idea of military roads was entirely Roman. So Ike built our Interstate highway system. Look on th U.S. map and you can see that every I-state connects military bases.

19 posted on 10/30/2005 3:13:03 AM PST by Lokibob (Spelling and typos are copyrighted. Please do not use.)
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To: nickcarraway
The vomitorium has little to do with Rome as it would have been a fixture in the life of only a very small segment of Romans – roughly equivalent to the percentage of Americans who gorge themselves on six course dinners that include such delicacies as foie gras.
Of more importance would be Roman contributions to the military – standardized training and equipment, unit sizes, flexible chain of command, the necessary bureaucracy etc. Lets not forget engineering – the true arch, concrete, hydraulics. The list of positive contributions is nearly endless.
20 posted on 10/30/2005 3:13:05 AM PST by R. Scott (Humanity i love you because when you're hard up you pawn your Intelligence to buy a drink.)
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