Friday, January 08, 2016

Description of the World - Part 39

Alexander Adam, Roman Antiquities: or An Account of the Manners and Customs of the Romans Designed to Illustrate the Latin Classics, by Explaining Words and Phrases, from the Rites and Customs to Which They Refer (When I was a kid, some of my classmates could identify the make, year, and model of every car. Some of them could also tell you the batting averages of all the major league ball players. Some of them probably grew up into the enthusiasts who can recite the order of battle of the Union and Confederate forces at Gettysburg down to the regiment or comment lucidly on every detail of the murky mythology of World of Warcraft. The accumulation of information is obviously a pleasure not only for the officially learned, who in my experience are actually less into it than less credentialed folks, but for people with a positive allergy to education. There’s no mystery about that. Lore is easy to accumulate because you don’t have to remodel your mind to enlarge your store. You already have a place for one more convertible, outfielder, brigade, or monster in the cerebral warehouse. Acquiring a new idea, on the other hand, requires fresh construction. It’s work. Assimilation is ever so much more pleasant than accommodation, which is why, for example, it is much easier to get a classroom of students to memorize the formulas for thirty-five statistical tests than actually understand the rationale for using even one of ‘em.

Especially these days, when limitless amounts of information are a couple of clicks away, it’s hard to come up with something good to say about knowing facts. In particular, how is the erudition of a classicist different than the expertise of any other demented hobbyist?* In the case of the compiler of this book, the difference is very clear. Alexander Adam didn’t just pile up details, though he certainly did that too. Taken as a whole, this densely referenced book provides an authoritative picture of Roman institutions, although it is an Archimboldian picture, a mosaic made out of the most heterogeneous materials that are somehow kept inside a single frame. The book challenges the reader to construct a world in their heads and quite a strange world at that. The principle of unity behind the work is that Adam takes the Romans at their word. Unlike a more modern account—the most recent edition of the book dates back to 1792—Roman Antiquities takes what the Romans said about themselves literally without the handicap of our cynicism or the benefit of our archaeology. He reads the classics in the same way that the rabbis read the Bible, assuming that the authors meant what they said and honored their own customs, which of course they often didn’t. For example, it was a settled principle of Roman law that the state could never undertake an aggressive war. “The Romans never carried on any war without solemnly proclaiming it. This was done by a set of priests called the FECIALES. When the Romans thought themselves injured by any nation, they sent one or more of these feciales to demand redress, and if it was not immediately given, thirty-three days were granted to consider the matter after which war might be justly declared. Then the feciales again went to their confines, and having thrown a bloody spear into them, formally declared war against that nation.” The Romans did make one compromise with reality for convenience sake. After the enlargement of the empire, the ceremony with the spear “was performed in a certain field near the city, which was called the AGER HOSTILIS.“ It was quite clever of the Romans to conquer the world while thus remaining on a perpetual defensive. I note, however, that almost all nations have made analogous claims: the Swedes, French, and Germans all defended themselves to or beyond the walls of Moscow, and we’ve taken to defending America is Afghanistan. A great many Americans also follow the Roman precedent by insisting that we have always been in the right, were always the injured party, even when the initiating incident of the conflict was a shot fired on us in a Mexican cornfield. It’s almost a literary convention.

Incidentally, if you are interested in Roman history or literature, I can pretty much guarantee you will find this volume exceedingly useful and a delight to read. I checked on Amazon and found that reprints are available. The version I have was published in 1872. It isn’t at all a rare or valuable used book, but it has to be one of my most prized possessions.

*To be sure, many of the classicists I’ve known in my life were demented, though some of them in a good way. Dr. Harry Carroll, for example, could be counted on to light the wrong end of at least one of his filter-tip cigarettes while delivering a lecture on the Athenian empire in the Western Civilization course. He was also rather bibulous and routinely reeked of retsina at eight in the morning—all seven of us sat pretty close to him in third semester Greek so the effluvia wasn’t that hard to detect. In fact, since Harry was a chain smoker, everybody wondered if the fumes were flammable. Lit or not, I mean professor Carroll, not the fumes, he was incredibly learned, though some of the minutia of his chosen subject cracked him up beyond all reason—his glee at the name of the character in Herodotus the Greeks’ called the Pseudo-Smerdis is the instance I best remember. “As if it weren’t bad enough just to be a Smerdis!” And then he’d start laughing again. He was just as likely to go off on an improvised lecture on the gnomic aorist or the identity of the forms for the neuter noun in both the nominative and accusative case in Latin and Greek while we were all were just trying to puzzle out a line from Prometheus Bound. He apparently knew everything, including the Modern Greek he picked up while working summers as an epigrapher at the Agora dig in Athens. He was also a man with superb taste and not just for wine with resin in it. Beside the vases and busts you’d expect to see at the home of a Classics prof, one wall of his modest tract house had a big museum quality Rothko on it that he apparently bought from the artist himself for a few hundred back in the day. He was likewise fearless—or shameless—in passing judgment on art he didn’t like. When he showed a slide of a wall painting from an Etruscan tomb during an ancient art course, he commented on the bad taste of whoever commissioned it—the depicted couple did look rather wall eyed. I’ve never encountered anybody else who dared to criticize a work of venerable antiquity. Imagine somebody admitting that one of the horses at Lascaux wasn’t very well drawn. This peerlessly eccentric individual** who taught Greek, Latin, history, and art history at Pomona was both beloved and respected. I admit to a certain bias in this appraisal. He had a special relationship with my family, having educated my sister and her husband as well as me.

**It’s hearsay, but I have it from a reliable third party that he thought I was pretty eccentric too. Fair enough to mention that.)

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