Category Archives: Uncategorized
By Richardson Akande, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The History of the Roman Empire is embedded with war conquests by mighty generals who were exceptional in the art of war. From the beginning of the Republic around 509 BCE to the peak around 117 CE, to the fall of Rome and the adoption of Constantinople as the new capital in 330 CE, war was an integral part of the Empire. Many of its generals were considered the best swordsmen that ever led the red legions.
However, not all generals were in the class of finest warriors in the Empire. In fact, many won reputations as horrible generals, but one man stands out as arguably the worst the Empire produced and he still stands as one of the most corrupt officers in the history of the Empire.
Quintus Servilius Caepio the Elder was a General and a Roman statesman. He was born in Rome to a noble family; he was the grandfather of Servilia and the father of Quintus Servilius Caepio the Younger.
Caepio promulgated a Controversial law
He was consul in 106 BCE and during this time he enacted a controversial law. He was able to do so with the assistance of Lucius Licinius Crassus, a wonderful orator who convinced his fellow Romans with his linguistic skills. The law mandated the jurymen to be chosen among Senators, canceling the old order where jurymen were from the Equites, which were the property-based classes of ancient Rome, ranking below the senatorial class. Fortunately, the controversial law was suspended around 104 to 101 BCE, by Gaius Servilius Glaucia, who was a wonderful Roman and returned normalcy to the system.
Plundering of the Cursed gold of Tolosa
Apart from the law, controversies were a Siamese sibling of Quintus Servilius Caepio. Several occurred while he was on his way to Arausio (modern day France) with his legions in order to fight the Cimbri, a Germanic tribe of brave warriors.
First, Caepio decided to plunder the sacred temples of Tolosa, which is in the city of Toulouse. The myth at the time told of a semi-legendary sacred treasure, the famous aurum Tolosanum, which was assumed to be cursed gold taken from the Balkans during the time of the Gallic invasion.
It is on record that Caepio, in all his wisdom, stole 50,000 fifteen-pound gold bars and no less than 10,000 fifteen-pound silver bars.
The wealth of Tolosa was supposed to be shipped to Rome, but the General had a better idea: only the silver made the journey. The gold was stolen by a band of marauders, who were believed to have been hired by Caepio himself.
Then, while still on his way to the battle of Arausio, Caepio refused to share camp with General Gnaeus Mallius Maximus, a member of Novus homo, or ‘new man’ – a class that didn’t belong to the Roman elite.
Caepio, however, was born into a family of elite Romans and therefore felt Maximus was inferior to him.
Despite Caepio’ feelings, Maximus was a smart officer who knew when to strike his enemies dead or embark on negotiations. With the Cimbri, Maximus decided on the latter.
When Caepio learned that Maximus was at an advanced stage of negotiations and truce was about to be agreed upon, he moved his legions on the Germanic camp – feeling that no doubt his ‘inferior’ was going about it all wrong and that attack was better than truce. It was a terrible military decision.
He attacked the Cimbri forces on 6th of October, 105 BCE, and the Cimbri army brutally destroyed legions of Caepio’s army. With this decisive victory, the Germanic army felt confident enough to march on Maximus’ camp. Although Maximus tried to ready his soldiers, it was not enough to repeal the fierce Cimbri army.
The outcome was a devastating experience and the casualties were staggering, over 80,000 infantry lost their lives as well as more than 40,000 auxiliaries and calvary. The figures dwarf the tragic defeat at Cannae. Indeed, the Battle of Arausio ranks among one of the worse defeats that early Roman Empire suffered.
Caepio managed to escape unharmed, but on getting to Rome, he was tried for the excessive losses of his troops by the Tribune of the Plebs. His old accomplice Lucius Licinius Crassus defended him with his oratory skills, but in the end Caepio was handed the worse punishment in the empire…
He was stripped of Roman citizenship, denied fire and water within 800 miles of Rome, and was barred from speaking to his family and friends until exile. Finally, he was fined a whopping 15,000 talents of gold, more than the value missing under his watch.
He somehow managed not to pay the fine, and instead lived the rest of his life in exile at Smyrna, located in Asia minor, living in affluence and enjoying the loot from the missing gold of Tolosa. He even passed the wealth to his children…
Caepio might not have been a good General, he didn’t add any new territories to the Roman Empire, but he managed to write his name in history as an amazing thief.
By Monica Correa, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Decades ago, the word “Byzantine” was used as a synonym for corruption and decadence, however, the period between 395 and 1453 was also one of great scientific progress.
Byzantium, later renamed Constantinople in honor of its founder, Constantine, was a land where Latin, Greek, Islamic and Jewish traditions mixed to create a new way to study Math, History, Science and Astronomy. Consequently, there were great discoveries by dedicated scholars, such as Claudius Ptolemy, Gregory Chioniades and Nicephoros Gregoras. The scholars of this period were committed to preserve and transmit the traditions and scientific knowledge of the ancient world.
According to some research done in the last two decades, Byzantine astronomers focused in three main topics:
1. Equinoxes and Eclipses
During the Byzantine era, the Astronomic model was geocentric, meaning the consensus view was that the earth was at the center of the solar system; however, most scholars were aware of some existing errors with regards to measuring the stars and planets.
A gradual improvement of methods, such as better use of the astrolabe, culminated centuries later with the introduction of the heliocentric system, which correctly placed the sun at the center of our solar system. Gregoras, who lived between 1295 and 1360, understood the mechanism of eclipses, and he calculated all the solar eclipses of the millennium up to the 13th century. He also predicted future eclipses of both the sun and the moon, constructed a prototype astrolabe, and proposed reforms to the calendar, all of which led to great progress for human kind.
2. The shape of the earth
In the text The Schemata of the Stars, Chionades draws some diagrams for solar and lunar eclipses where the earth is spherical. This provides further evidence that the Byzantines (as well as several other cultures around the world at that time) considered the earth to be spherical.
Some years later, when Gregoras refers to the Earth in his famous work Roman History, he uses the phrase ‘below the sun’. There, indirectly he accepts its spherical shape, and he also refers to its subdivision into parallel circles and continents.
3. Models for the sun, the moon and the five (known) planets
As mentioned previously, Byzantine models for the sun and the planets are geocentric. Essentially this means: for each celestial body it is necessary to introduce a system of spheres whose axes and rates of rotation are exclusive for them.
For Chionades, Mercury and Venus are inner planets and, as seen from the earth, appear to follow the sun because they are sometimes ahead and at other times trailing the sun.
Also, regarding Mercury, Chioniades makes an interesting remark concerning latitude. In his writings, he explains that among the five planets, four of them have their apogees (highest point) in the northern hemisphere of the globe, except for Mercury whose apogee is in the southern hemisphere. Was this the result of observations, or was he echoing an ancient tradition? We may never know, but this description of the latitudes survived after the introduction of the heliocentric system, with both Rheticus and Copernicus making similar observations.
Years later, a mixed model with Venus and Mercury rotating around the Sun, and all of them together rotating around the earth, was introduced by Heraklides of Pontus.
The legacy that lasts until today: Our Calendar
The writings of Gregoras are especially important; today we know Byzantine astronomy owes much of its progress to him. Aware of the mistakes made by his predecessors, in 1324 Nicephoros Gregoras proposed a correction to the calculation of the date of Easter, and to the Julian calendar itself.
At that time, his beliefs conflicted with his work, so he retired from public life and his work was discredited by the church.
The calendar as we know it today was implemented by the Italian, Pope Gregory XIII in 1582. Though the so-called Gregorian calendar was named in the Pope’s honor, it was not his invention.
Established on October 4, 1582, the new calendar solved the problem that the Julian year had 11 minutes and 14 seconds more than the solar year, which had a cumulative effect to the date of the spring equinox.
Despite the fact that Gregoras didn’t live to see it implemented, it’s one of the main contributions that Byzantine Empire bequeathed to us.
Just how far did the ruler push his own perceived mortality?
By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Julius Caesar is no stranger in history books. He has been encapsulated in plays, songs, parodies, and even Hollywood movies that paint him as a revered war general, a fearsome ruler, and one of the staunchest Romans you are sure to meet in antiquity. He represents a catapultic change in the Roman government, serving as an emblematic figure of the Fall of the Republic (though he would personally never admit to that, of course). His successor, Octavian Augustus, was Rome’s first emperor, and ushering in centuries of single hand rule.
However, Augustus’ position would not have been possible had it not been for Caesar’s careful and meticulous testing of Roman ideals and values in the 50’s and 40’s BCE. During his life, and certainly after, speculation swirled around the General about whether or not he was touting himself as a God and/or a king. Even though the ruling style of Rome turned imperial and monarchical, during Caesar’s time the title of “King” was highly offensive and considered dangerous to the Romans. They had a sharp objection to monarchy, as they still believed their precious Republic was not dead yet.
But let’s look at how the Republic started in the first place. After the fabled seven kings of Rome, the people set up a Republic to represent the people’s needs and wishes for their land. The kings were thought of as abusive, power hungry, and corrupt. The king held absolute power and was the chief magistrate in religion, law, and military matters.
The last king, Tarquinius Superbus, was overthrown after the rape of Lucretia and her subsequent suicide. Lucretia was the wife of Lucius Tarquinus Collatinus, and the daughter of Spurius Lucretius, a Roman noble. The rape and death of Lucretia was a tipping point for the Roman monarchy, seeing as Lucretia’s rapist was the king’s son.
The uprising of Romans was a direct response to the power, greed, and corrupt nature of the existing noble family- and the forceful theft of a noble woman’s virtue was the last straw. Romans saw to it that the royal family and government were stripped and destroyed, and in its place a representative government with separation of powers would rise. The title Rex or king, was preserved only as far as religion was concerned: the rex sacrorum. The Romans harbored a hatred for the title king in any other sense.
When Caesar came into the political sphere centuries later, he was smart and cunning, and his timing was perfect. While we wish we had personal journal entries outlining Caesar’s ambitions and hopes for his political career, we are unfortunately amiss. What we do have, however, is documentation in literature and archaeology that allows us to piece together Caesar’s agenda and programmatic scheme. Like people in antiquity, we still find ourselves questioning, “Was Caesar considered a god by Romans while he was still alive?” “Did he want to be called a king- outright?” “Was his assassination justified in the face of the republic?”
It is no convoluted analysis of the facts that Caesar was an excellent politician. Now, whether or not he started his career with the intent to be crowned king and deified is a whole different story. As his power and his reputation grew during the beginning of his military career in Gaul, so did his ambition. Caesar was well aware that demanding or expecting to be made a king or living god would have been outrageous and met with indignation. So, as any motivated politician would do, he began to create personal stepping stones and setting up certain “tests” along the way to gauge his power in Rome, presumably to lay the groundwork for posthumous deification at the least.
The first thing Caesar did was establish his military competence. After stints in Asia, Bithynia, and a victory of Mithridates VI, Caesar was elected military tribune in 72. He went on to be quaestor and aedile, in which he won over the favor of both the people and his soldiers through public shows and spectator events. In 63, Caesar was appointed pontifex maximus, which was secured through flagrant bribery according to Suetonius.
In 61 Caesar was sent to Further Spain as proprietor and returned in 60, joining Pompey and Crassus in a loose coalition that would help Caesar secure the Consulship of 59. This particular election was a turning point for Caesar’s career. He wanted to stand for consul in absentia and had to rely on the alliance of Pompey and Crassus to secure his interests while he was away in Gaul.
Over the next decade, this alliance was both a source of support as well as contention, ultimately leading to the civil war in 49 that lasted until 45 when Caesar returned to Rome and celebrated four triumphs (the Gallic, the Alexandrian, the Pontic, the African). The political climate in Rome at the time of Caesar’s success was defined by confusion and residual political distrust between the optimates and Caesar.
During the tumultuous years surrounding the civil war and unrest, the Roman people and the Senate grasped for any sort of normalcy and stability. To do this, what can only be referred to as dire measures were taken in order to “restore” the republic. Caesar, as a leading politician, charismatic figure, and motivated beyond measure, received honors, both mortal and divine, that were an attempt to stabilize Rome.
To them, Caesar was a constant and a strong defending hand. These honors are what makes us question whether or not Caesar was a god, a king, and if he himself was the one to promote these.
The mortal honors, bestowed upon him by the Senate, really show just how above the rest Caesar was considered. All of these had “legitimate” political motivation behind them, but when viewed in a group, it really does seem quite suspicious. Caesar was awarded a continual consulship in the months preceding his assassination (possibly in February 44), censorship for life, and the role of dictator for life. All of these were granted right before his assassination in March of 44, and all of this went against the very heart and ideals of Rome.
One man held the power of the military, the people, and all of Rome. Sounds like a king so far, doesn’t it?
What’s more, Caesar was honored with a number of divine honors. These honors, that were far beyond what would be bestowed on a politician, granted a flamen, vowed to build a temple to his clementia, and declared public sacrifices be made on his birthday for his safekeeping. We do know that Caesar wasn’t officially deified by the Senate until after his death- however, combine these divine honors with his mortal honors and we have to question: WHAT was Caesar?
Clearly, seeing as Caesar was killed weeks after receiving his highest honors, his position was not one of “republican” values and enough people were threatened and bothered by his position to call an end to his rule. Caesar’s position was unprecedented in Rome and that cannot be overstated. He did not call himself a king or a god…. But when looking at his honors and his rule, didn’t he? He tested the people over and over, putting out feelers for what he could get away with and then judged the crowd’s reaction. He was smart to never go over a line without sketching it out first and softly nudging the people towards it.
After his death and by the time Augustus succeeded him, the stage was set and the people were ready: Rome was no longer a Republic. And shockingly, they were okay with that.
The Republic of Serbia is one of the states that made up the former Yugoslavia, which broke up in the bloody wars that occurred during the 1990s. Since history immemorial, this region on the Balkan Peninsula has been the scene of various political and cultural influences… and has resulted in a famous trek: The routes of the Roman Emperors.
The routes of the Roman Emperors are based on the fact that the Romans conquered Croatia, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria… and that 19 emperors were born in this territory. The routes lead through ancient Roman cities, palaces, and fortifications in these countries.
As far as Serbia is concerned, this tourist and archaeological project includes a 600 km long route with several ancient Roman sites, including cities and places of birth of 17 out of the 19 Roman emperors.
But let us take a look at a few of the more interesting ‘Serbian’ Roman Emperors.
Trajanus Decius (Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Trajanus Decius)
Trajan Decius was the first man born in Serbia to rise to the imperial throne. This Roman emperor was born around 201 AD in Budalija, near Sirmium – today’s Martinci near Sremska Mitrovica. The army elected him to the position in 249, and he died in 251 in the area of today’s Dobrudzha in the battle against Goth. He is also known for being the first Roman emperor to die in battle. Shortly thereafter, he was declared or proclaimed a deity.
Claudius Gothic (Marko Aurelius Valerius Claudius Augustus)
Claudius Gothic was born in Sirmium in the year 210. After he defeated Gotha in the battle of Niasuss (Nis) in 268, the army chose him to be emperor. He is known for ordering the execution of a Christian monk on February 14th, 269, who later became known as Saint Valentine. Claudius Gothic died of plague in the beginning of the year 270, and the Roman Senate described him as Divine Claudius Gothic.
Aurelian (Lucius Domitius Aurelianus)
Aurelian was born around Sirmium in 214 on a small farm estate. In 270, the Danube legion chose him as an emperor after the death of Claudius II. He was known as the advocate of the Mithraism and the cult of the Invincible Sun, as well as the fiscal reformer. The most important thing he did was the demolition of the secluded Gaelic Empire and its return under the auspices of Rome. He ruled for five years, up to 275, when he was killed by the Praetorian Guard on his way to Asia Minor when he planned to conquer Mesopotamia.
Probus (Marcus Aurelius Probus)
Probus was born in 232 AD on a farm near Sirmium. He ruled from 276 to 282. Like Aurelian, he was killed by his own army, after forcing them to dig channels on a hot summer day. Later they repented and buried him with all the imperial honors. He remained famous for being the first emperor to allow the cultivation of grapes outside of Italy. The first grape was grown in Glavica on the mountain Fruška Gora. Then, grape growing began in Smederevo, a town near Belgrade (Singidunum). From then on, in Serbia, they cultivate an indigenous grape variety, known as Smederevo’s grapes).
Maximian, (Marcus Aurelius Valerius Maximianus)
Maximian was born near Sirmium around 250 AD. Diocletian pronounced him Caesar in 285, and then Maximian was titled Augustus, along with and equal to Diocletian. He ruled with Diocletian from 286 to 305, when they abdicated together. He returned to the throne in the year 310, however, it was thwarted by the then legitimate ruler Constantine I, after which Maximian committed suicide.
Galerius, (Gaius Galerius Valerius Maximianus)
Galerius was born and buried in Felix Romuliana (Gamzigrad), near Zajecar, where he built most of the structures, the remains of which we can see today. He built his palace in the 3rd and 4th centuries for himself and for his mother Romuli, whom he was named after. Even though he was known as the great persecutor of Christians, he rebelled before death and issued the Edict of Serdica, also called Edict of Toleration by Galerius, officially ending the Diocletianic persecution of Christianity in the East.
Constantine I, also known as Constantine the Great, (Flavius Valerius Constantinus)
Constantine the Great was born in (Naisuss) Nis, February 27, 272, from father Constance Hlor and mother Jelena, who was of modest origin. He is remembered as the greatest emperor of the late Roman Empire, and is considered one of the most important figures in the history of Europe and Christianity. He ruled from 306 to 337. He proposed the Edict of Milan in 313, proclaiming religious equality and the cessation of the persecution of Christians. This period of peace was used to build the New Rome – Constantinople.
Licinius (Gaius Valerius Licinianus)
Licinius I was born around 263 near Felix Romuliana. Together with Constantine the Great, he proposed the Milan edict and became a co-ruler with him, and even married his sister. He led two civil wars against Constantine: the first ended in peace, although Licinius suffered a heavy defeat, and the other, in 324, he lost. He was imprisoned in Byzantium, the future Constantinople, then taken as prison to Thessalonica. There by Constantine’s order, Licinius was executed together with his son and Constantine’s sister.
Jovian (Flavius Jovianus)
Jovian was born around 331 in Singidunum, today Belgrade, of a peasant family. He ruled from 363 to 364, a total of 236 days. After the death of Julianus, he was chanted by the army to be the emperor, but it is believed that the legionaries confused him with another Jovian, who was the chief notary. He died suddenly in a dream, and the death of this ruler remained under a veil of secrets: some believe that the Senate was trying to get rid of him. The version that is universally accepted and therefore has entered history is that Jovian died of coal poisoning, as there was a furnace in his room.
All together, 17 Roman rulers were born on the territory of today’s Republic of Serbia. This impressive number makes up a fifth of all the rulers of Rome, and no modern state, except Italy, can boast of so many emperors. During the reign of these ‘Serbian’ Roman rulers, trade and metallurgy was developed. Important cities in the center of the Roman Empire were built up in both financial and social terms as well as the construction of magnificent villas, Roman baths (terme), theaters, and lagoons for Roman legions in the cities…the remains of many can still be seen today.
By Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Many folks see the Etruscan civilization as merely a segue, a follow up to the Greeks and a foreshadowing to the Romans. But casting this ancient society as a sideline character might not do them enough justice.
Indeed, despite the importance of Etruria (the wider region of the Etruscans) in its context as a link between the ancient worlds of the Greeks and the Romans, modern thought considers Etruscan civilization ‘far superior to the traditional picture of a poor relation of Greece and a mysterious prelude to Rome.’
This new found appreciation of the Etruscans can be most clearly seen in its art and architecture – and distinguishing where they leave off from the Greeks and create their own individual style.
Of course, Etruscan art did owe a great debt to Greece. Even in its primitive form, we are able to draw comparisons between the miniature statues of Etruscan native warriors and Greek Cycladic art (Quick note: the Cyclades is a group of islands including and north of modern Santorini). The unnaturally thin limbs and square faces, although not being a direct copy, certainly look as if the Etruscans must have been aware of the Cycladic statues.
This very early example gives us the impression that trends in the art world, in general, evolve in tandem and that ‘picking and choosing’ Greek elements may not have been a conscious decision by Etruscan artists. Instead, the vast trading links with Greece would have provided constant contact with the art of different peoples.
For example, red and black pottery were introduced into the Etruscan world in the 6th century BC when Greek artists began to settle in towns such as Veii and Cerveteri. This would have made good fiscal sense, as it was far easier, safer and cheaper to relocate one gifted artisan than transport 500 pots. We see this evidence in the discovery of bird, ring, and animal shaped vessels found in Greece and Cyprus, but which are made of native clay. Such items are technically Greek rhytons, a type of drinking horn, despite their Etruscan origins.
Additionally, we can see that the antefix, a type of ornament that hides the joints of a tiled roof, from the temple of Portonaccio at Veii is designed in the image of a gorgon, and can be a direct copy of the Greek style prominent on the pediment of the temple of Artemis at Corfu. Also striking is that the two examples are within only a few decades of each other, implying that not only were ideas from Greece to Etruria transferred, but they were done so relatively quickly.
We can also see these cross cultural transfers in painting, particularly in the practice of portraying females in white and males much darker. This made sense in Greek painting as women were supposed to remain within the oikos, or house, whilst men went about their business outside. However, Etruscan women were given no such restrictions (though more about them later) and therefore this shows us an artificial depiction brought to the Etruscans from Greece.
But in many ways Etruscan art was different to that of Greece. For instance, the roofing techniques found in Etruria were not in Greece, and this can be taken further as we examine Etruscan dwellings in general. An Etruscan funerary urn (8th century BC) depicts a wattle and daub hut most unGreek in style. Also, even if some materials and techniques may have had Greek origins, we still have a good deal of subject matter that is uniquely Etruscan.
For instance, there is little exaltation of local heroes in the art and no attempt to use it as a tool of fear or propaganda. This may be one of the reasons why the Etruscans are thought mysterious to modern archaeologists and dangerous to Greeks and Romans, as they felt identity was more precious than all else.
There are other ways in which the Etruscans revealed their own unique style. For example, in pot making. While the technique may be Greek, Etruscans introduced their own shapes into the art, making it no challenge to tell apart a Greek from an Etruscan pot. Additionally, more unGreek scenes appear, such as the mauling of a blindfolded man by a dog, and the occurrence of elaborate gold jewellery, which has more in common with the Celtic Le Tene culture, than with Hellenistic artwork. There is also a good deal of material whose origins could be said to be more Egyptian than Greek, such as the appearance of ‘human feline’ statuettes and hieroglyphic markings.
But it is the women in Etruscan art that make it really unique from Greece.
In both Greek and Roman societies even the highest bred women were subject to a greatly diminished status, both domestically and within the state. Whilst we have little to tell us of the official role of women in Etruscan society, we can see through the artwork that they enjoyed a much more even social status.
‘Etruscan woman ‘went out’ a great deal. We see them everywhere, in the forefront of the scene, taking a considerable place in it and never blushing from shame’ (J. Heurgon, Daily Life of the Etruscans). There are several wall paintings of feasts and banquet scenes that feature both men and women enjoying their meals together. The Greeks, rather unreasonably and rudely, used this as evidence that Etruscan women were all drunkards and promiscuous.
This domestic interaction between the sexes is something that is seen nowhere in Greek art. Women are either interacting between themselves, performing sexual acts, entertaining, working or taking part in a festival in Greece. These domestic scenes, therefore, would be wholly bizarre and unnatural to the Greeks.
In Etruria we see the women reclining along with their husbands in what the Greeks presumed to be a readiness to perform sexual acts, but seems far more probable to be merely an affectionate sharing of time together. This is supported in the grave markers, where the sculptures of a man and wife lie in peace together. We see one example of a couple with the woman holding a baby on her knees in a scene where presumably libations are about to be poured for the child’s safety. Domestic intimacy like this is an alien concept to Greek art.
Though we can clearly identify a good deal of Greek artistic traits in the art of the Etruscans, we could just as easily claim to identify Egyptian ones (to a lesser extent) and on this tack we could claim that any Greek art is not truly Greek but merely a bastardisation of near Eastern art.
That said, Etruscan art can clearly be identified as an art unto its own. Saying it is merely the evolution of Hellenistic art seems rather patronising towards the Etruscans. Regardless of to what extent the Greeks managed to influence Etruria, it seems that the Etruscans were more than capable of firmly stamping their own individuality on their artistic culture.
We all know the phrase “All roads lead to Rome”. Today, it is used proverbially and has come to mean something like “there is more than one way to reach the same goal”. But did all roads ever really lead to the eternal city?
The Power of Pavement
There was a close connection between roads and imperial power. In 27 BC, the emperor Augustus supervised the restoration of the via Flaminia, the major route leading northwards from Rome to the Adriatic coast and the port of Rimini. The restoration of Italy’s roads was a key part of Augustus’ renovation program after civil wars had ravaged the peninsula for decades. An arch erected on the via Flaminia tells us that it and most other commonly used roads in Italy were restored “at his own expense”.
And road paving was expensive indeed – it had not been common under the Republic, except in stretches close to towns. Augustus and his successors lavished attention on the road network as roads meant trade, and trade meant money.
In 20 BC, the senate gave Augustus the special position of road curator in Italy, and he erected the milliarium aureum, or “golden milestone”, in the city of Rome. Located at the foot of the Temple of Saturn in the Roman Forum, it was covered with gilded bronze.
According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, this milestone was where “all the roads that intersect Italy terminate”. No one quite knows what was written on it, but it probably had the names of the major roads restored following Augustus’s instructions.
The Center of the World
Augustus was keen to foster the notion that Rome was not just the center of Italy, but of the entire world. As the Augustan poet Ovid wrote in his Fasti (a poem about the Roman calendar):
‘There is a fixed limit to the territory of other peoples, but the territory of the city of Rome and the world are one and the same.’
Augustus’ right-hand man, Agrippa, displayed a map of the world in his portico at Rome which contained lists of distances and measurements of regions, probably compiled from Roman roads.
The Roman road network bound the empire together. Senators had begun to erect milestones listing distances in the mid-third century BC, but from the first century AD, emperors took the credit for all road building, even if it had been done by their governors.
More than 7000 milestones survive today. In central Italy, the milestones usually gave distances to Rome itself, but in the north and south, other cities served as the node in their regions.
Augustus also established the cursus publicus, a system of inns and way-stations along the major roads providing lodging and fresh horses for people on imperial business. This system was only open to those with a special permit. Even dignitaries were not allowed to abuse the system, with emperors cracking down on those who exceeded their travel allowances.
The association between empire and roads meant that when Constantine founded his own “new Rome” at Constantinople in the fourth century AD, he built an arch called the Milion at its center, to serve as the equivalent of the Golden Milestone.
Many Roman itineraries have survived because they were copied in the medieval period. These record distances between cities and regions along the Roman road network. The “Antonine Itinerary”, compiled in the third century AD, even helpfully includes shortcuts for travelers. These types of documents were uniquely Roman – their Greek predecessors had not compiled such itineraries, preferring to publish written accounts of sea voyages.
The Roman road network had prompted the development of new geographical conceptions of power. This is nowhere more prevalent than on the Peutinger Table, a medieval representation of a late Roman map. It positions Rome at the very center of the known world.
Since antiquity, the phrase “all roads lead to Rome” has taken on a proverbial meaning. The Book of Parables compiled by Alain de Lille, a French theologian, in the 12th century is an early example. De Lille writes that there are many ways to reach the Lord for those who truly wish it:
‘A thousand roads lead men throughout the ages to Rome,
Those who wish to seek the Lord with all their heart.’
The English poet Geoffrey Chaucer used the phrase in a similar way in the 14th century in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (an instrument used to measure inclined position):
‘right as diverse pathes leden diverse folk the righte way to Rome.’
The “conclusiouns” (facts) Chaucer translates into English for his son in the treatise come from Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin – and all came to the same conclusions on the astrolabe, says Chaucer, much as all roads lead to Rome.
In both these examples, while the ancient idea of Rome as a focal point is invoked, the physical city itself is written out of the meaning. Neither de Lille nor Chaucer are actually talking about Rome – our modern “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” would work just as well.
This article was originally published under the title ‘Mythbusting Ancient Rome – did all roads actually lead there?’ by Caillan Davenport and Shushma Malik on The Conversation, and has been republished under a Creative Commons License.