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The shadow of Pax Romana The fragility of the greatest empire haunts us

What's wrong with throwing people to the lions? Credit: Gladiator

What's wrong with throwing people to the lions? Credit: Gladiator


July 8, 2023   18 mins

To his army of ardent followers, Tom Holland has a unique ability to bring antiquity alive. An award-winning British historian, biographer and broadcaster, his thrilling accounts offer more than a mere snapshot of life in Ancient Greece and Rome. In Pax — the third in his encyclopaedic trilogy of best-sellers narrating the rise of the Roman Empire — Holland establishes how peace was finally achieved during the Golden Age, with a forensic recreation of key lives within the civilisation, from emperors to slaves.

This week, Holland came to the UnHerd club to talk about Roman sex lives, Christian morality, and the rise and fall of empires. Below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Freddie Sayers: Let’s kick off with the very first year in your book.

Tom Holland: It opens in AD 68, which is the year that Nero committed suicide: a key moment in Roman history, and a very, very obvious crisis point. Nero is the last living descendant of Augustus, and Augustus is a god. To be descended from Augustus is to have his divine blood in your veins. And there is a feeling among the Roman people that this is what qualifies you to rule as a Caesar, to rule as an emperor. And so the question that then hangs over Rome in the wake of Nero’s death is: what do we do now? We no longer have a descendant of the divine Augustus treading this mortal earth of ours. How is Rome, how is its empire, going to cohere?

FS: It seemed to me, when I was reading Pax, that there was a recurring theme: a movement between what’s considered decadence, and then a reassertion of either a more manly, martial atmosphere, or a return to how things used to be — to the good old days. With each new emperor in this amazing narrative, it often feels like there’s that same kind of mood, which is: things have gotten a bit soft. We’re going to return to proper Rome. 

TH: It’s absolutely a dynamic that runs throughout this period. And it reflects a moral anxiety on the part of the Romans that has been characteristic of them, really, from the time that they start conquering massively wealthy cities in the East — the cities in Asia Minor or Syria or, most of all, Egypt. There’s this anxiety that this wealth is feminising them, that it’s making them weak, it’s making them soft — even as it is felt that the spectacular array of seafood, the gold, the splendid marble with which Rome can be beautified, is what Romans should have, because they are the rulers of the world.

That incredible tension is heightened by class anxieties. There’s no snob like a senatorial snob. They want to distinguish themselves from the masses. But at the same time, there’s the anxiety that if they do this in too Greek a way, in too effeminate a way, then are they really Romans? And so the whole way through this period, the issue of how you can enjoy your wealth, if you are a wealthy Roman, without seeming ‘unRoman’, is an endearing tension. And of course, there is no figure in the empire who has to wrestle with that tension more significantly than Caesar himself.

FS: The 100-odd years that you’re covering in this volume is a period of great peace and prosperity and power, and yet at each juncture, it feels like there’s this anxiety. That’s what surprised me as a reader. There’s this sense of the precariousness of the empire — maybe it’s become softer, maybe it’s decadent, or maybe it needs to rediscover how it used to be.

TH: And, you see, this is the significance of AD 69, “the Year of the Four Emperors”, because the question is, are the cycles of civil war expressive of faults? Of a kind of dry rot in the fabric of the Empire that is terminal? Of the anger of the gods? And whether, therefore, the Romans need to find a way to appease the gods so that the whole Empire doesn’t collapse. This is an anxiety that lingers for several decades. It looks to us like this is the heyday of the Empire. They’re building the Colosseum, they’re building great temples everywhere. But they’re worrying: “Have the gods turned against us?”

And of course, there is a very famous incident, 10 years after the Year of the Four Emperors, which is the explosion of Vesuvius. And this is definitely seen as another warning from the gods, because it coincides with a terrible plague in Rome, and it coincides with the incineration (for the second time in a decade) of the most significant temple in Rome — the great temple to Jupiter on the Capitol, the most sacred of the seven hills of Rome.

Romans offer sacrifice to the gods or you pay dues to the gods rather in the way that we take out an insurance policy. And if the gods are busy burying famous towns on the Bay of Naples beneath pyroclastic flows, or sending plagues, or burning down temples, then this, to most, is evidence that the Roman people have not been paying their dues. So a lot of what is going on — certainly in the imperial centre — in this period, is an attempt to try and get the Roman Empire back on a stable moral footing.

FS: The question of gender and sex crops up a lot in your book. It did strike me that pretty much all of the extremely masculine generals in your book — many of whom go on to become emperors — are having sex with young men. 

TH: Well, it wasn’t just young men, but we’ll come to that. There is always a temptation to emphasise the way in which the Romans are like us, a mirror held up to our own civilisation. But what is far more interesting is the way in which they are nothing like us, because it gives you a sense of how various human cultures can be. You assume that ideas of sex and gender are pretty stable, and yet the Roman understanding of these concepts was very, very different to ours. For us, I think, it does revolve around gender — the idea that there are men and there are women — and, obviously, that can be contested, as is happening at the moment. But the fundamental idea is that you are defined by your gender. Are you heterosexual or homosexual? That’s probably the great binary today.

For the Romans, this is not a binary. There’s a description in Suetonius’s imperial biography of Claudius: “He only ever slept with women.” And this is seen as an interesting foible in the way that you might say of someone, he only ever slept with blondes. I mean, it’s kind of interesting, but it doesn’t define him sexually. Similarly, he says of Galba, an upright embodiment of ancient republican values: “He only ever slept with males.” And again, this is seen as an eccentricity, but it doesn’t absolutely define him. What does define a Roman in the opinion of Roman moralists is basically whether you are — and I apologise for the language I’m now going to use — using your penis as a kind of sword, to dominate, penetrate and subdue. And the people who were there to receive your terrifying, thrusting, Roman penis were, of course, women and slaves: anyone who is not a citizen, essentially. So the binary is between Roman citizens, who are all by definition men, and everybody else.

A Roman woman, if she’s of citizen status, can’t be used willy-nilly — but pretty much anyone else can. That means that if you’re a Roman householder, your family is not just your blood relatives: it’s everybody in your household. It’s your dependents; your slaves. You can use your slaves any way you want. And if you’re not doing it, then there’s something wrong with you. The Romans had the same word for “urinate” and “ejaculate”, so the orifices of slaves — and they could be men, women, boys or girls — were seen as the equivalent of urinals for Roman men. Of course, this is very hard for us to get our heads around today.

The most humiliating thing that could happen to a Roman male citizen was to be treated like a woman — even if it was involuntary. For them, the idea that being trans is something to be celebrated would seem the most depraved, lunatic thing that you could possibly argue. Vitellius, who ended up an emperor, was known his whole life as “sphincter”, because it was said that as a young man he had been used like a girl by Tiberius on Capri. It was a mark of shame that he could never get rid of. There was an assumption that the mere rumour of being treated in this way would stain you for life; and if you enjoy it, then you are absolutely the lowest of the low.

FS: And yet, there are love stories in this period. In your book, you describe Trajan as having “such a passion for boys that an Assyrian king looking to win the emperor’s favour had secured it by getting his son to perform some barbaric dance”. So that’s the kind of decadent type that you’ve been talking about. But then the book ends with the love affair between the Emperor Hadrian and Antinous, which feels very emotional and very different.

TH: Of course, sexual moral standards impose enormous strains on people. Not everyone’s sexuality is suited to cohering to a governing moral code. And for people who enjoyed being a passive partner, who gained emotional sustenance from it, it must have been excruciating.

The great erotic ideal for Roman men in this period is less girls than boys who look like girls. It’s all very Blur: “Boys who like girls, who like…” These boys, known as delicati, would wear make-up, have their hair done in feminine styles and dress as girls. The more feminine they looked, the more of a status symbol they were, and so senators were willing to lavish fortunes on them. As always, it was Nero who took it the furthest. It was said that he kicked his beloved wife, Poppaea Sabina, to death because she’d nagged him for being out late at the chariots. It’s probably not true because he adored her. But after her death, he went looking for someone who resembled her. He found a boy, castrated him and, from that point onwards, this poor boy, Sporus, had to live as Poppaea Sabina.

FS: You say in your book that “an immense reward was offered to anyone capable of implanting a uterus into the eunuch”. He’s literally trying to turn Sporus into a woman.

TH: Of course, he can’t do that. But when Nero dies, this poor boy becomes a trophy of war. First, Otho takes him, and then Vitellius has an idea that he thinks will make him popular with the Roman people: he will order Sporus to dress up as Persephone, and then have him gang-raped to death by gladiators dressed as Hades in the arena. He thinks this is tremendous entertainment — kind of like the World Cup — and that everyone will love it. Of course, Sporus kills himself. I mean, as you would, faced with that. It’s horrible, horrible stuff. But while this scale of exploitation is to our way of thinking unspeakable, it was morally justified to the Romans.

FS: What about the story of Hadrian and Antinous?

TH: Antinous is a stunningly handsome boy who Hadrian seems to have met on his great journey around the Empire. At this time, between Nero’s reign and Hadrian’s, the making of eunuchs had been made illegal. So I think there was a sense that Antinous has the beauty of a eunuch, which makes him incredibly precious. Hadrian sends him back to Rome to be given the cultural upbringing that a partner of Caesar should have. And then, I guess when he’s aged around 15, he comes under Hadrian’s wing.

Now, to our way of thinking, that would be grooming, pure and simple. But that’s not how the Romans saw it. It’s not how the Greeks saw it, either, because they recognised that Hadrian was behaving like a Greek. He wears a beard, like a Greek philosopher. He was known as a young man as Graeculus, the little Greek. There’s a sense in which Hadrian’s adoption of a beautiful Greek boy is like Zeus sweeping up Ganymede to be his cup bearer — or like Hercules and Hylas.

FS: Would you say he had a special licence?

TH: Yes, as the Greeks felt it was flattering to them. But the question that is unknowable is how Antinous felt about it. I personally cannot imagine he would have been anything other than, on one level, very grateful to have been raised up from a provincial backwater. However, it’s also possible that it inflicts untold psychic damage on him, because Antinous ends up dead under very mysterious circumstances in Egypt, at exactly the time when he is starting to sprout a beard and to bulk up. There were many different theories circling around: did he kill himself? Was he murdered? Was he offered up in sacrifice to the gods? Another theory, which I have some sympathy with, is the idea that he faked his own death and ran away. But we just don’t know.

FS: What’s going on in your head when you are researching these characters? Does it make you think differently about our own morality today? 

TH: The Roman historian Livy says of his people: “We are known across the world as having the justest punishments.” This is a society that flings people to the lions, sponsors gladiatorial combat and stages crucifixions. But the Romans don’t think what they’re doing is in any way morally depraved; they think it’s absolutely justified.

This is what inspired me to write my previous book, Dominion, which argues that our moral standards, our ways of seeing the world, are rooted in the great Christian revolution. The reason it is so difficult for us to see the world through the eyes of Romans is because our gaze is smeared over with Christian assumptions. My ambition in this new book is to write a kind of anti-Dominion, which looks at the world entirely through Roman eyes. The Christians in this narrative, who feature in a couple of paragraphs, are like Mesozoic shrews in an ecosystem dominated by dinosaurs. The dinosaurs are crashing around, bellowing and generally being Roman, while the Christians are so tiny you barely see them. But of course, as with the mammals, it’s the Christians who in the long run will inherit the world.

FS: Is there anything you think the Romans were right about that we’ve lost in the Christian era?

TH: The question that haunts me, whenever I write about the Romans, is why am I so fascinated by them? When I went to Sunday school, and saw pictures of Jesus in front of Pontius Pilate, I was always on the side of Pontius Pilate. He was kind of glamorous: he had eagles, he had purple robes. By contrast, Jesus was a massive scruff. I much preferred the Romans, and I think that this speaks to something that is kind of inherent. There is a certain admiration, and a dread, and an appeal in power.

It’s hard for us to acknowledge this, partly because we are so influenced by the weathering effect of centuries and millennia of Jewish and Christian thinking. It’s also because we exist in the shadow of the Fascists. And the Fascists were the first group of people in the history of Christian Europe who consciously repudiated not so much the institutions of Christianity — as the French or the Russian revolutionaries did — but the core morality of Christianity. They absolutely rejected the idea that the last should be first, that the strong and the rich have a duty of care to the weak and the poor. And that’s why I think we see the Nazis as the embodiment of evil. I think we’ve internalised the fear that identifying with the Romans is to risk becoming Fascists.

FS: Do you think that the incredible success of the Roman Empire was due to the fact that so much power was concentrated in one person? 

TH: [Edward] Gibbon famously said that mankind was at its “most happy and prosperous” in the period following the rule of Vespasian and his two sons. Listening to me talk about this period, you might think, “well, that’s insane, it sounds horrible”. And of course, for lots of people, it was horrible. Yet, by and large — with the exception of the Year of the Four Emperors and the occasional revolt — vast stretches of the world that had previously been convulsed by conflict were stable. The whole of the Mediterranean was bound together under a unitary power; the Romans call it mare nostra, “our sea”. And that’s the only time this has ever happened in recorded history. The result was an equivalent of globalised trade; different areas of the Empire start specialising in aspects of economic activity that they’re particularly suited to, confident that there is a single framework of law, that there are shipping lanes that will be patrolled, that they won’t be attacked by pirates. This is, by relative standards, a golden economic period.

FS: In your book, you quote Pliny saying: “Who would deny, now that the greatness of Rome’s Empire enables opposite ends of the globe to communicate with one another, that life is improved by the interchange of commodities, by a partnership in the blessings of peace and by the general availability of things.” This does sound a bit like today’s semi-globalised free market.

TH: In the introduction, I quote a Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who argues that the Roman Empire in the second century, under Trajan and Hadrian, had the wealthiest economy prior to the emergence of modern capitalism in the Netherlands and England in the 17th century. I’m not remotely qualified to say whether or not this is true, but it is clearly the case that this is a spectacularly wealthy period. And people like Pliny absolutely do celebrate it.

There are, however, people who see this wealth as evidence of Rome’s monstrosity. The greatest, most influential anti-imperial text ever written is the Book of Revelation, with its vision of the whore of Babylon. Babylon — which is Rome — is described as a city that is glutted on the wealth of the world, and its downfall is precipitated by the cutting of trade links that bring wealth into the city. So it’s very clear-eyed about the fact that the metropole is dependent on the links that it has with the outer provinces.

There are Romans who are extremely anxious about this, the most influential of whom is Tacitus, the great historian. Tacitus writes the biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, the governor of Britain. He describes how Agricola fostered the art of civilisation on the island: getting the natives to wear togas, to enjoy fine dining, to have baths. He says that the natives mistook these things as the marks of civilisation, when they were actually marks of their servitude. He is not writing this as a lecture in post-colonial studies. He’s not saying, “Oh, it’s terrible that we’ve conquered the Britons”. What he’s saying is that Britons are being seduced into the moral decrepitude that has already paralysed the Romans.

In Tacitus’s eyes, the greatness of the Empire is destroying everything that originally made the Romans great. That’s why he thinks Trajan is the best of emperors, because he’s embarking on all these brilliant conquests. He conquers the Dasians, then the Mesopotamians. But it all goes horribly wrong when Trajan, like so many others in Western history, invades Iraq. He pushes it too far. He has to pull the legions back out of Mesopotamia. It is then that he decides that Roman power has a natural limit after all, because the people beyond it don’t deserve the gifts of Roman civilisation.

This is why Hadrian builds frontier systems along the Empire, of which Hadrian’s Wall is the most famous. It’s not in any way an admission of defeat. It’s the equivalent of that enormous fence that they built around Glastonbury during the festival. It’s saying: “People on the inside, you can have a good time, hear Elton John and go glamping. But all you proles outside, you can’t come in.” That’s basically what Hadrian’s Wall is.

FS: Today a lot of people worry that we are somehow rather like the Roman Empire in its declining phases. There’s the sense that this world that seemed totally everlasting is crumbling and breaking. I was filled with hope reading your book because it starts with what feels like the end of the world — the chaotic Year of Four Emperors — and is followed by 100 years of peace. So maybe, we are in a moment more like AD 69 than the actual end of the Roman Empire. Does it feel to you like we’re on the downslope of a civilisation?

TH: I think we are going through a process of moral change that is more analogous to the Reformation than anything you get in Roman history. But I think that Rome provides us with a model: we are shadowed by the sense that if you have a moment in the sun, if you have greatness, then you are doomed as an empire to decline and fall. And I think the contrast is with China, an equally great empire in this period, getting very rich. Of course, over the centuries, China, as Rome does, will succumb to barbarians. The Chinese Empire will disintegrate, be reconstituted, disintegrate, be reconstituted, and yet, in a sense, always remain China. An entity called China endures.

We do not, in the modern world, have a sense of there being a land of the Romans, because that has long gone. And so I think that for us, probably far more than for people in China, there is the sense that golden ages are illusory, and that the greatest empire is merely a provocation, and that it will succumb and be destroyed. The lessons from the Book of Revelation and Edward Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire have fused to create a sense that you can’t be great in the long run. That is why the Roman imperial architecture of Washington, say, provides such scope for apocalyptic visions, because you just have to look at the Lincoln monument to think: “Oooh, your fall is coming, you’re doomed.” That is also, of course, what made the [January 6, 2021] Capitol riot so emotionally satisfying for so many people, particularly the shaman with his horns. It is hardwired into our minds that this is what happens to places that call themselves the Capitol. Barbarians do come, and the order collapses.

FS: I think now is a great moment to take questions.

*          *          *

Question One: How much credit can you give the emperors for Pax Romana? And how much was it just good timing and circumstance?

TH: That is a great question. Because of course, the emperors are the focus of most histories. And when you’re writing, it is quite difficult to get perspectives that are not centred on the imperial capital. I think that there are very few emperors who qualitatively affect the running of the Empire, and the course of events. Hadrian is one of them. So is Augustus. Augustus, I think, is the greatest political genius, certainly in the history of the West, and perhaps of all time. Reconstituting the imploding Republic; setting Rome and her Empire back on firm foundations; and doing so to such effect that, with the exception of the Civil War of AD 69, peace endures for essentially two centuries, and Rome as a world empire endures right the way up to the 15th century: that is a stunning, stunning achievement. No other emperor over the sweep of Roman history can rival that.

Hadrian is a significant figure — an emperor who stabilises the Empire by constructing what in effect is a frontier, although it’s not cast as that; by acknowledging the natural limits of the Empire; and, above all, by integrating the Greek world into the fabric of Roman imperial culture, so that in time we can talk of Greco-Roman culture. I think the next significant player is Diocletian, for his achievement in stabilising the Empire when it looks as though it might completely disintegrate at the end of the third century. And then, of course, there’s Constantine, his licensing of Christianity. So I would say that, between Augustus and the final collapse of the empire in the West, there are really only three significant emperors.

Question Two: There are centuries in between those figures. Who’s running the Empire then? Is it the deep state of Rome that’s in charge? 

TH: The truth is that it’s the legions that are keeping it going. Without the legions, there is no peace. We tend to think of peace — Pax, the title of the book — as a slightly passive noun. But for the Romans, it’s very active. Pax is something that you impose at the point of the sword. It is maintained by the presence of legions, along the frontiers. These legions have to be paid for. And there’s a case for saying that the whole Roman Empire is an army with a piggy bank attached to it, the whole Empire essentially exists to provide the legions with the money that then enables the Empire to exist. “Legio” originally meant a levee. Every city in the ancient world, every tribal entity, had a levee of those men who were able to fight. A legion ends up something very different: a professional army, stationed where it has to be stationed. This is such an odd thing to have. And again, it’s the genius of Augustus that enables these to be set up. Without the legions, there is no Empire.

Question Three: Did women figure in the Roman Empire at all? Was there a woman behind the throne? Or were they really all very subservient in this period?

TH: Roman men have a kind of ambivalent attitude towards women in their families. Because, on the one hand, it is the role of a man to keep his subordinates in order, and women rank as subordinates. A paterfamilias has power of life and death over all his family. There’s no matriarchy in Rome. But having said that, historically, women have important roles to play in dynastic politics, that is the way that the Republic functioned. It depended on women going out and marrying other people, and then, if needs be, leaving them and marrying someone else. Their role, basically, is to stick up for their father and brothers; their husbands, by and large, are less significant.

Then, in the reign leading up to Nero, women become incredibly powerful, because if a man can have the blood of Augustus in his veins, then so do women, and that gives them a massive, divinely sanctioned authority. By and large, the men who are writing the histories are terrified by this. Think of the role that Livia has in I, Claudius, reconstituted in The Sopranos as the most terrifying mother perhaps in any drama. Messalina’s very name is a byword for sexual depravity. There’s Agrippina, the mother of Nero. These woman are portrayed in the histories as kind of terrifying predatory viragos. And that is a kind of tribute to the power that they have, in the wake of the extinction of the family of Augustus. (That power is obviously cut off and women again, certainly in the sources, start to play a more subordinate role.) I mean, you do not offend a powerful woman.

If you are lower down the scale, I think your life is pretty terrible. If you’re a slave girl, you are there to be raped. The Roman legal and sexual dynamics licenses pretty much perpetual rape if you are subordinate in a powerful household. I mean, the same is true for boys, but women are likely to be sexually abused throughout their life. And that is why Christianity is so radical, because Paul, when he’s writing to, say, the Romans of Corinth (Corinth is a Roman colony, so they’re culturally Roman to the Romans in Rome), he is saying to the male householder: “You are playing the role of Christ, your wife is playing the role of the church, therefore. That’s why you must have a monogamous, enduring relationship. Christ doesn’t go around raping the scullery maid. You mustn’t.” And that is the transformation that Christianity brings to sexual ethics.

Question Four: You talked a lot about the radical break that Christianity represented — the contrast with the extremely ruthless, pre-Christian, Roman world. Do you think there’s a case to be made, as I seem to recall Gibbon did, that Christianity was the ultimate example of the Romans getting soft?

That is what Gibbon says. And it’s also what Nietzsche says. Nietzsche says Christianity is a slave morality. I think actually the opposite. I think that the thing that enables people in the long run to continue feeling Roman, even when the sinews of government have been cut, and the imperial hold has gone, is that they retain a shared identity as Roman which has come to be fused with Christianity. And the reason that Christianity is so successful — the reason, if you’re looking at it in Darwinian terms, why it’s adopted — is that, in this period that Pax covers, this is a world that is full of different cultural centres. You can go and pay sacrifice to someone in northern Britain, or in Syria, and these are all gods. But in the long run, the heft of these cultural centres depends on them being local. I mean, as with the temple in Jerusalem, it’s the fact that they are local that matters. Christianity changes that.

The Christian people have no metropolis. This is what seems so odd to the Romans in the early years of Christianity. They are a kind of universal people — that ultimately makes Christianity so suited to an empire that is universal in scope: you can have churches, anywhere, and they’re all consecrated to the same God. So it doesn’t matter if it’s in Egypt or in East Anglia. And that enables a sense of being Roman to endure for as long as it does. So I think that actually Gibbon gets it the wrong way around. With Pax Romana, you get this extreme world, extreme development, a concentration of wealth, inequality increasing.

FS: The Gini coefficient.

TH: I have no idea what that is. Do I need to know what that is?

FS: A lot of people obsess about this — the gap between the very richest and the very poorest.

TH: The Romans didn’t care about that. In fact, if you were at the top end, they were all in favour of it. Roman society was founded on the principle that you defined yourself against the people who were below you socially. Right from the beginning, the Romans had an obsession with identifying where they stood in the social spectrum. They had a censor. A censor wasn’t someone who went around cancelling people or closing down newspapers; a censor was someone who, every few years, would go around, working out how much money each individual citizen had, and also his moral worth. And then kind of calibrating, and assigning them to a social class.

You could go up and you could go down. This really concentrated the mind.


Tom Holland is a writer, popular historian and cricketer. He is not an actor. His most recent book is PAX

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Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
11 months ago

Interesting and hopefully accurate idea about the moral change we are going through being more analogous to the Reformation than anything in Roman history. Empires’ ability to bounce back post barbarian invasions seems more likely, the more homogeneous and thus cohesive the empire’s culture is, as in China’s case after the Mongol conquest. This does not bode well for our multicultural societies, especially since we are teaching our kids to consider us the barbarians.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago
Reply to  Katalin Kish

There’s also a danger of using previous examples of historical change and superimposing them, or at least the terminology, on the current historical changes taking place. It’s a natural thing to do as we try to grapple with change, but supposing our current conditions are unprecedented; as the change from the earlier Roman world following its conversion to Christianity was unprecedented?

Your last point illustrates this fairly well. In many ways, the move towards deconstruction (critical theory) could be seen as a reaction to the horror that the two great global conflicts of the first half of the 20th century inflicted upon us (rather, we inflicted upon ourselves). If that was “civilisation”, it was pretty damned barbaric, and shouldn’t ever be forgotten when weighing changes coming about since then.

It (critical theory) could also be seen as an attempt by “social scientists” to emulate the changes being brought about by discoveries in our understanding of the physical world, from e=mc² to quantum theory; not altogether successfully one might add.

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve Murray
Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I take your point, Steve. Historical patterns don’t necessarily reflect those of our own time. And It’s true, as you say, that World War I and World War II did nothing to support confidence in civilization. Maybe the depravity that emerged suddenly in the mid-twentieth century, seemingly out of nowhere, was the last straw. But antipathy toward civilization had a much longer history in the West.
I’ve already commented elsewhere that the early American colonists, for example, saw themselves as the New Israelites in a New World, a wilderness, where they could start over again by erasing the decadence of European civilization and building a new Eden. Later on, Rousseau celebrated the “noble savage.” Later still, the outbreak of World War I was greeted on both sides (at least in public) by something like ecstasy. Many people hoped that a (short) war would restore the vigor of a peaceful and prosperous world but also a tired, effete and boring one. This intense yearning for the primeval or even the primitive was one a central tendency in the arts, notably in music and painting, during the final decades before 1914. Postmodernist deconstruction didn’t emerge suddenly, after all, out of nowhere. It had been growing in some circles since the mid-nineteenth century.
And by the way, not everyone was repelled by the destruction of civilization during World War II. The Nazis themselves openly celebrated the barbarism of their New Order as the reverse of civilization–that is, a return to some non-civilized, pre-Roman and pre-(Judeo)-Christian society.

Last edited 11 months ago by Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
Paul Nathanson
11 months ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I take your point, Steve. Historical patterns don’t necessarily reflect those of our own time. And It’s true, as you say, that World War I and World War II did nothing to support confidence in civilization. Maybe the depravity that emerged suddenly in the mid-twentieth century, seemingly out of nowhere, was the last straw. But antipathy toward civilization had a much longer history in the West.
I’ve already commented elsewhere that the early American colonists, for example, saw themselves as the New Israelites in a New World, a wilderness, where they could start over again by erasing the decadence of European civilization and building a new Eden. Later on, Rousseau celebrated the “noble savage.” Later still, the outbreak of World War I was greeted on both sides (at least in public) by something like ecstasy. Many people hoped that a (short) war would restore the vigor of a peaceful and prosperous world but also a tired, effete and boring one. This intense yearning for the primeval or even the primitive was one a central tendency in the arts, notably in music and painting, during the final decades before 1914. Postmodernist deconstruction didn’t emerge suddenly, after all, out of nowhere. It had been growing in some circles since the mid-nineteenth century.
And by the way, not everyone was repelled by the destruction of civilization during World War II. The Nazis themselves openly celebrated the barbarism of their New Order as the reverse of civilization–that is, a return to some non-civilized, pre-Roman and pre-(Judeo)-Christian society.

Last edited 11 months ago by Paul Nathanson
Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
11 months ago
Reply to  Katalin Kish

“especially since we are teaching our kids to consider us the barbarians.”
Or rather to consider the barbarians the good guys and to gain virtue for our wretched white selves by lowering the drawbridge to them. Cultural suicide is the only thing a white person can do that has any value.

Steve Murray
Steve Murray
11 months ago
Reply to  Katalin Kish

There’s also a danger of using previous examples of historical change and superimposing them, or at least the terminology, on the current historical changes taking place. It’s a natural thing to do as we try to grapple with change, but supposing our current conditions are unprecedented; as the change from the earlier Roman world following its conversion to Christianity was unprecedented?

Your last point illustrates this fairly well. In many ways, the move towards deconstruction (critical theory) could be seen as a reaction to the horror that the two great global conflicts of the first half of the 20th century inflicted upon us (rather, we inflicted upon ourselves). If that was “civilisation”, it was pretty damned barbaric, and shouldn’t ever be forgotten when weighing changes coming about since then.

It (critical theory) could also be seen as an attempt by “social scientists” to emulate the changes being brought about by discoveries in our understanding of the physical world, from e=mc² to quantum theory; not altogether successfully one might add.

Last edited 11 months ago by Steve Murray
Ray Andrews
Ray Andrews
11 months ago
Reply to  Katalin Kish

“especially since we are teaching our kids to consider us the barbarians.”
Or rather to consider the barbarians the good guys and to gain virtue for our wretched white selves by lowering the drawbridge to them. Cultural suicide is the only thing a white person can do that has any value.

Katalin Kish
Katalin Kish
11 months ago

Interesting and hopefully accurate idea about the moral change we are going through being more analogous to the Reformation than anything in Roman history. Empires’ ability to bounce back post barbarian invasions seems more likely, the more homogeneous and thus cohesive the empire’s culture is, as in China’s case after the Mongol conquest. This does not bode well for our multicultural societies, especially since we are teaching our kids to consider us the barbarians.

Peter Strider
Peter Strider
11 months ago

Really worthwhile article with some intriguing insights Interesting comment comparing our current cultural disintegration with the reformation period rather than the decline and fall of Rome. I’d be interested in a whole discussion on just this topic! It was once pointed out to me that the invention of the printing press (which was probably a major contributing factor in the enduring success of the reformation) was followed by the 100 years war, and that the invention of the internet (especially social media) may be the catalyst for a similar catastrophic period of world history. Disruption of social systems and modes of common life are frequently called revolutions and seem always to occur with much shedding of blood.

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0 0
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter Strider

Maybe the Thirty Years’ War 1618-48, not the Hundred Years’ War 1337-1453. Gutenberg invented the movable-type press in 1440.

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0 0
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter Strider

Maybe the Thirty Years’ War 1618-48, not the Hundred Years’ War 1337-1453. Gutenberg invented the movable-type press in 1440.

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11 months ago
Reply to  Peter Strider

Maybe the Thirty Years’ War 1618-48, not the Hundred Years’ War 1337-1453. Gutenberg invented the movable-type press in 1440.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter Strider

The invention (or adoption) of printing in the West was “followed” by the Reformation – there was probably a close link there because of the vastly increased spread ideas could be disseminated. It is a bit of a stretch to say the “100 Year War” which preceded printing! But you mean the Thirty Years War, but although this was linked to the religious Reformation and Counter-Reformation, it was more complex than that. Also that calamitous war didn’t get going until 1620, about 150.years after the invention of printing.

Last edited 11 months ago by Andrew Fisher
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0 0
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter Strider

Maybe the Thirty Years’ War 1618-48, not the Hundred Years’ War 1337-1453. Gutenberg invented the movable-type press in 1440.

0 0
0 0
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter Strider

Maybe the Thirty Years’ War 1618-48, not the Hundred Years’ War 1337-1453. Gutenberg invented the movable-type press in 1440.

0 0
0 0
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter Strider

Maybe the Thirty Years’ War 1618-48, not the Hundred Years’ War 1337-1453. Gutenberg invented the movable-type press in 1440.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago
Reply to  Peter Strider

The invention (or adoption) of printing in the West was “followed” by the Reformation – there was probably a close link there because of the vastly increased spread ideas could be disseminated. It is a bit of a stretch to say the “100 Year War” which preceded printing! But you mean the Thirty Years War, but although this was linked to the religious Reformation and Counter-Reformation, it was more complex than that. Also that calamitous war didn’t get going until 1620, about 150.years after the invention of printing.

Last edited 11 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Peter Strider
Peter Strider
11 months ago

Really worthwhile article with some intriguing insights Interesting comment comparing our current cultural disintegration with the reformation period rather than the decline and fall of Rome. I’d be interested in a whole discussion on just this topic! It was once pointed out to me that the invention of the printing press (which was probably a major contributing factor in the enduring success of the reformation) was followed by the 100 years war, and that the invention of the internet (especially social media) may be the catalyst for a similar catastrophic period of world history. Disruption of social systems and modes of common life are frequently called revolutions and seem always to occur with much shedding of blood.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago

One point in reply: the communists were prior to the fascists in rejecting the core of pre-1914 morality.
The ruck of reds were utterly consequentialist in their devotion to “revolution” – hence their easy recourse to acts of terror; nor did the supposed benefits of “revolution” apply to the majority, but to the chosen “class”. Priests, peasants, middle class, lower middle class, to say nothing of policemen, loyal soldiers, servants and all grades of nobility were to be “eliminated”.
Then again, as Karl Popper points out, communist theory undermines the very possibility of ethics, with all absolutes of knowledge or perception, as a mere projection of “class interest”. To such refined philosophers, morals are not even conscious hypocrisy; they are delusional.
With regard to all this, the fascists were pupils, not masters.

Last edited 11 months ago by Simon Denis
Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago

One point in reply: the communists were prior to the fascists in rejecting the core of pre-1914 morality.
The ruck of reds were utterly consequentialist in their devotion to “revolution” – hence their easy recourse to acts of terror; nor did the supposed benefits of “revolution” apply to the majority, but to the chosen “class”. Priests, peasants, middle class, lower middle class, to say nothing of policemen, loyal soldiers, servants and all grades of nobility were to be “eliminated”.
Then again, as Karl Popper points out, communist theory undermines the very possibility of ethics, with all absolutes of knowledge or perception, as a mere projection of “class interest”. To such refined philosophers, morals are not even conscious hypocrisy; they are delusional.
With regard to all this, the fascists were pupils, not masters.

Last edited 11 months ago by Simon Denis
Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
11 months ago

Before this event I was a massive fan of Tom Holland. Now I am less sure. He seems totally sure about every point of detail and no doubt he has got an exceptionally good memory for facts and figures. But is it really that black and white?

How do we know, for example that “Roman men have a kind of ambivalent attitude towards women in their families”. Maybe some did, but maybe others didn’t? Substitute “British” for “Roman” in that sentence, and how does it sound? For that, matter substitute an adjective that describes a particular ethnicity – and then how does that sound? And remember he’s talking about a period of many hundreds of years.

The nub of Holland’s contention appears it me that Christianity somehow “reimagined” morality, imposing something new on human nature. Having listened to him, and despite having being swayed in his direction by his very readable books (which have influenced my thinking greatly), I have to say I now disagree. I think that Christianity articulated or revealed to people something that is innate to their very humanity – that abusing, raping and murdering fellow humans is just wrong and abhorrent. But it did not *invent* a whole new morality. Whoever you are, whenever you lived, something in you would be disgusted by the witnessing the exercise of raw power in watching someone be ravaged and brutally murdered – Judeo-Christianity or no Judeo-Christianity.

His contention is actually quite pernicious – the implication being that the Christian worldview was manufactured (he claims, at least, for the better of mankind) then it surely can be replaced by something else, even better. Like something that Yuval Noah Harari and his mates dreamed up with the help of some bot, for example.

It all boils down, in the end, to accepting than we humans are not masters of the universe, that we cannot ever know everything there is to know, and that we live in a world of strict limits. Sadly I have to conclude that Holland doesn’t really understand this, and that – however brilliant he is at regurgitating facts and ordering them into compelling, entertaining stories (and he really, really is brilliant at this; Dominion, for example, is a wonderful book) – he really doesn’t seem to have at all a very broad perspective, or the humility to accept that he (like any of us) doesn’t really actually know what goes on, or went on, in the minds and lives of others, not least those who lived many centuries ago.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

A brilliant contribution – many thanks. I attempted to articulate the very same thoughts but came a cropper and deleted them. Your central insight, that Christian ethics build on instinctive human foundations, is unanswerable. If it were not so, how could people possibly have embraced them in the first place? The smallest acquaintance with ancient literature will back this up, for it abounds in instances of grief, pity and sympathy – Priam recovering Hector’s dead body, for example.
Nor is this an un-Christian view, for Christianity, although it reposes upon the supernatural in its central doctrines (the Incarnation and the Resurrection, for example), does not insist that supernatural intervention changed the whole of human nature in the first three centuries AD – which is perilously near to what Mr Holland is saying.
Indeed, he is in the grip of a new gnosis: not the religious sort, but that of the historicist, who believes nothing exists until it is theoretically defined in writing; and that therefore (as an example), Christianity “invented compassion”. In the same way, idiotic wokesters pretend that because some Europeans expressed the universal human weakness called racial prejudice in print, they must have brought it into being.
The inevitable result of such folly is, as you so perceptively observe, the demonisation of an entire people. For the wokester it is the Europeans, for Holland it’s the Romans. This then slots into a miserably “black and white” or Manichean schema with selective, slanted evidence neatly arranged on either side of the fence.
As a last word, one is bound to insist on the un-Christian quality of this Manichean view, because – as any well informed churchman will tell you – the transformation of the world is not immediately effected by the life, death and resurrection of Christ (we are, after all, still sinners); it is brought about by the Last Judgement, which completes the expression of God’s purpose for mankind.
Whilst we await that consummation, human nature and human history go on in their usual patchy way, forgiven rather than changed and remain kin to all our ancestors, AD and BC alike, as enduring humanity must. The alternative, historicist view, that horrid hotch-potch of wordy, Marxist and Hegelian hot air, has diminished Holland, which is a pity.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

I think Holland is essentially right and you are unfortunately wrong! Your last sentence is particularly lame; of course there are big gaps in our understanding of the experiences of Roman subjects (and later) subjects, especially of the plebian and slave majority, but we know a lot about the cultural attitudes of the upper classes.

All the Ancient empires celebrated power, crushing, killing and humiliating the kings’s enemies, for example Assyria, and they shouted these sentiments loud enough on many inscriptions. In Rome, death by crucifixion was a shameful death reserved for what would have been thought of as the dregs of society.

By the way, small band hunter gatherer society are not notably charitable to their enemies (neighbouring bands) and they almost always do have enemies! See Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday”.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

What a tissue of slanted generalisations – “all ancient empires celebrated power”, for example – a statement so broad that it resists all enquiry. Which ones? How? When? Under what circumstances?
All these questions, serious answers to which might give your statement a smidgen of authority, go by the board. And haven’t modern empires similarly celebrated power? Haven’t modern empires sought to crush their enemies? You think the Ottomans were social workers? The Japanese were nannies? Do you? Or, by some miracle of independent mindedness, are you saying that the Christian empires of Russia, Britain, France or even Germany, were fully informed by this “transformed” morality?
And – by the way – the Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic branches of that Christianity would have have distinctly different approaches. Protestant Germany murdered the Herero. Where is your “axial transformation” now?
Of course, it is true that the empires of Britain and to some extent France were more merciful than those of their rivals, but that is not the result of some Hegelian metamorphosis, but the consequence of a growing devotion to human happiness, typical of the Enlightened West.
Whence the Enlightenment? Christian doctrine? The heart and soul of it, naturally, but only after centuries of debate and wrangling, often with representatives of the official church! And, as Mr Horsman says, that doctrine could not have taken root were there not abundant nutrients in the human heart ready to receive it.
As for your reference to hunter gatherers, that is easily disposed of. You, like all irrational believers in “zeitgeist”, are positing some entrenched mentality, inimical to question and typical of all people at one, hazily defined, time. Whereas in fact all humans are so malleable that their morals will shift with their circumstances, and the stringent demands of hunting and gathering would make ruthless killers of us all.
Horsman one; Fisher nil.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

What a tissue of slanted generalisations – “all ancient empires celebrated power”, for example – a statement so broad that it resists all enquiry. Which ones? How? When? Under what circumstances?
All these questions, serious answers to which might give your statement a smidgen of authority, go by the board. And haven’t modern empires similarly celebrated power? Haven’t modern empires sought to crush their enemies? You think the Ottomans were social workers? The Japanese were nannies? Do you? Or, by some miracle of independent mindedness, are you saying that the Christian empires of Russia, Britain, France or even Germany, were fully informed by this “transformed” morality?
And – by the way – the Protestant, Orthodox and Catholic branches of that Christianity would have have distinctly different approaches. Protestant Germany murdered the Herero. Where is your “axial transformation” now?
Of course, it is true that the empires of Britain and to some extent France were more merciful than those of their rivals, but that is not the result of some Hegelian metamorphosis, but the consequence of a growing devotion to human happiness, typical of the Enlightened West.
Whence the Enlightenment? Christian doctrine? The heart and soul of it, naturally, but only after centuries of debate and wrangling, often with representatives of the official church! And, as Mr Horsman says, that doctrine could not have taken root were there not abundant nutrients in the human heart ready to receive it.
As for your reference to hunter gatherers, that is easily disposed of. You, like all irrational believers in “zeitgeist”, are positing some entrenched mentality, inimical to question and typical of all people at one, hazily defined, time. Whereas in fact all humans are so malleable that their morals will shift with their circumstances, and the stringent demands of hunting and gathering would make ruthless killers of us all.
Horsman one; Fisher nil.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

A brilliant contribution – many thanks. I attempted to articulate the very same thoughts but came a cropper and deleted them. Your central insight, that Christian ethics build on instinctive human foundations, is unanswerable. If it were not so, how could people possibly have embraced them in the first place? The smallest acquaintance with ancient literature will back this up, for it abounds in instances of grief, pity and sympathy – Priam recovering Hector’s dead body, for example.
Nor is this an un-Christian view, for Christianity, although it reposes upon the supernatural in its central doctrines (the Incarnation and the Resurrection, for example), does not insist that supernatural intervention changed the whole of human nature in the first three centuries AD – which is perilously near to what Mr Holland is saying.
Indeed, he is in the grip of a new gnosis: not the religious sort, but that of the historicist, who believes nothing exists until it is theoretically defined in writing; and that therefore (as an example), Christianity “invented compassion”. In the same way, idiotic wokesters pretend that because some Europeans expressed the universal human weakness called racial prejudice in print, they must have brought it into being.
The inevitable result of such folly is, as you so perceptively observe, the demonisation of an entire people. For the wokester it is the Europeans, for Holland it’s the Romans. This then slots into a miserably “black and white” or Manichean schema with selective, slanted evidence neatly arranged on either side of the fence.
As a last word, one is bound to insist on the un-Christian quality of this Manichean view, because – as any well informed churchman will tell you – the transformation of the world is not immediately effected by the life, death and resurrection of Christ (we are, after all, still sinners); it is brought about by the Last Judgement, which completes the expression of God’s purpose for mankind.
Whilst we await that consummation, human nature and human history go on in their usual patchy way, forgiven rather than changed and remain kin to all our ancestors, AD and BC alike, as enduring humanity must. The alternative, historicist view, that horrid hotch-potch of wordy, Marxist and Hegelian hot air, has diminished Holland, which is a pity.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Horsman

I think Holland is essentially right and you are unfortunately wrong! Your last sentence is particularly lame; of course there are big gaps in our understanding of the experiences of Roman subjects (and later) subjects, especially of the plebian and slave majority, but we know a lot about the cultural attitudes of the upper classes.

All the Ancient empires celebrated power, crushing, killing and humiliating the kings’s enemies, for example Assyria, and they shouted these sentiments loud enough on many inscriptions. In Rome, death by crucifixion was a shameful death reserved for what would have been thought of as the dregs of society.

By the way, small band hunter gatherer society are not notably charitable to their enemies (neighbouring bands) and they almost always do have enemies! See Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday”.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
11 months ago

Before this event I was a massive fan of Tom Holland. Now I am less sure. He seems totally sure about every point of detail and no doubt he has got an exceptionally good memory for facts and figures. But is it really that black and white?

How do we know, for example that “Roman men have a kind of ambivalent attitude towards women in their families”. Maybe some did, but maybe others didn’t? Substitute “British” for “Roman” in that sentence, and how does it sound? For that, matter substitute an adjective that describes a particular ethnicity – and then how does that sound? And remember he’s talking about a period of many hundreds of years.

The nub of Holland’s contention appears it me that Christianity somehow “reimagined” morality, imposing something new on human nature. Having listened to him, and despite having being swayed in his direction by his very readable books (which have influenced my thinking greatly), I have to say I now disagree. I think that Christianity articulated or revealed to people something that is innate to their very humanity – that abusing, raping and murdering fellow humans is just wrong and abhorrent. But it did not *invent* a whole new morality. Whoever you are, whenever you lived, something in you would be disgusted by the witnessing the exercise of raw power in watching someone be ravaged and brutally murdered – Judeo-Christianity or no Judeo-Christianity.

His contention is actually quite pernicious – the implication being that the Christian worldview was manufactured (he claims, at least, for the better of mankind) then it surely can be replaced by something else, even better. Like something that Yuval Noah Harari and his mates dreamed up with the help of some bot, for example.

It all boils down, in the end, to accepting than we humans are not masters of the universe, that we cannot ever know everything there is to know, and that we live in a world of strict limits. Sadly I have to conclude that Holland doesn’t really understand this, and that – however brilliant he is at regurgitating facts and ordering them into compelling, entertaining stories (and he really, really is brilliant at this; Dominion, for example, is a wonderful book) – he really doesn’t seem to have at all a very broad perspective, or the humility to accept that he (like any of us) doesn’t really actually know what goes on, or went on, in the minds and lives of others, not least those who lived many centuries ago.

Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson
11 months ago

Holland is trying too hard to superimpose his understanding of current issues around sex and gender ( and I say ” his understanding” of them which is itself open to critique) onto ancient Rome.
Sex has always been binary, though the concept of ‘gender’ has been more fluid for the reason it is socially constructed according to time and to culture. I think he is also confusing today’s concept of ‘sexual orientation’ with the actaul nature of biological sex.
I get the general gist of his aim, and certainly think examining what has happened before, at certain junctures of what could be seen as decadence and decline, could be a useful way in to understanding contemporary issues.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jane Anderson
John Dozier
John Dozier
11 months ago
Reply to  Jane Anderson

Agreed. Regardless of the topic or publication, it appears as though it’s obligatory to include “sex, gender, orientation, bi or not bi…” or whatever deviancy — that must be normalized and celebrated… or else. I guess it’s now a marker of whether someone’s “with it,” tolerant, modern, or so open-minded that their ability to reason is heavily compromised.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago
Reply to  John Dozier

You sound a bit like one of those Edwardian professors desperately trying to downplay, swerve around or completely ignore the ubiquity of pederasty in Ancient Greek culture, while still putting the same culture on a pedestal. The ‘ability to reason’ also seems to be compromised by those seemingly in denial about some stark cultural differences in sexual practice and gender roles!

The Greeks and Romans were far less squeamish in discussing these issues than westerners were until very recent times.(very influenced by Christian morality). They differed from each other but even more from ours. This is worth pointing out and debating.

Last edited 11 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago
Reply to  John Dozier

You sound a bit like one of those Edwardian professors desperately trying to downplay, swerve around or completely ignore the ubiquity of pederasty in Ancient Greek culture, while still putting the same culture on a pedestal. The ‘ability to reason’ also seems to be compromised by those seemingly in denial about some stark cultural differences in sexual practice and gender roles!

The Greeks and Romans were far less squeamish in discussing these issues than westerners were until very recent times.(very influenced by Christian morality). They differed from each other but even more from ours. This is worth pointing out and debating.

Last edited 11 months ago by Andrew Fisher
Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
11 months ago
Reply to  Jane Anderson

From what I understand during the Roman period a big part of sex was dominance. Seems, the head of the household had sex with everything which moved, be it maids, or slaves of both sexes.

Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson
11 months ago

Yes, but women were women, not becaue of their subservience, but because of their biology. Holland is trying to suggest that anyone who was subservient ( boys, servants, women) were all socially gendered as ‘women’. That ‘woman’ effectively is a synonym for subservience, and is not a stable category of its own ( as in an adult human female).
He goes on to mention how one emperor tried to effectively ‘trans’ a young boy; castrating him and having him wear women’s clothing – in order to resemble his deceased wife.In doing that it was to make ‘conventional’ his love and devotion for a boy.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jane Anderson
Adi Khan
Adi Khan
11 months ago
Reply to  Jane Anderson

He doesn’t suggest that at all, he is talking about sexual attraction. There was no such thing as heterosexuality or homosexuality. Roman citizens (men) were supposed to have sex with everyone who was not a Roman citizen.

Adi Khan
Adi Khan
11 months ago
Reply to  Jane Anderson

He doesn’t suggest that at all, he is talking about sexual attraction. There was no such thing as heterosexuality or homosexuality. Roman citizens (men) were supposed to have sex with everyone who was not a Roman citizen.

Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson
11 months ago

Yes, but women were women, not becaue of their subservience, but because of their biology. Holland is trying to suggest that anyone who was subservient ( boys, servants, women) were all socially gendered as ‘women’. That ‘woman’ effectively is a synonym for subservience, and is not a stable category of its own ( as in an adult human female).
He goes on to mention how one emperor tried to effectively ‘trans’ a young boy; castrating him and having him wear women’s clothing – in order to resemble his deceased wife.In doing that it was to make ‘conventional’ his love and devotion for a boy.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jane Anderson
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago
Reply to  Jane Anderson

I don’t think sex and gender is a particular obsession of Holland – he was asked some questions around the issue by Freddie Sayers, which I understand given the current ‘debate’ if you can call it. I can’t see any confusion on Tom Holland’s part, but I am a bit confused about your views!

There is no doubt that Roman views on these issues differed markedly from modern western ones, “woke” or anti-woke.

John Dozier
John Dozier
11 months ago
Reply to  Jane Anderson

Agreed. Regardless of the topic or publication, it appears as though it’s obligatory to include “sex, gender, orientation, bi or not bi…” or whatever deviancy — that must be normalized and celebrated… or else. I guess it’s now a marker of whether someone’s “with it,” tolerant, modern, or so open-minded that their ability to reason is heavily compromised.

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
11 months ago
Reply to  Jane Anderson

From what I understand during the Roman period a big part of sex was dominance. Seems, the head of the household had sex with everything which moved, be it maids, or slaves of both sexes.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
11 months ago
Reply to  Jane Anderson

I don’t think sex and gender is a particular obsession of Holland – he was asked some questions around the issue by Freddie Sayers, which I understand given the current ‘debate’ if you can call it. I can’t see any confusion on Tom Holland’s part, but I am a bit confused about your views!

There is no doubt that Roman views on these issues differed markedly from modern western ones, “woke” or anti-woke.

Jane Anderson
Jane Anderson
11 months ago

Holland is trying too hard to superimpose his understanding of current issues around sex and gender ( and I say ” his understanding” of them which is itself open to critique) onto ancient Rome.
Sex has always been binary, though the concept of ‘gender’ has been more fluid for the reason it is socially constructed according to time and to culture. I think he is also confusing today’s concept of ‘sexual orientation’ with the actaul nature of biological sex.
I get the general gist of his aim, and certainly think examining what has happened before, at certain junctures of what could be seen as decadence and decline, could be a useful way in to understanding contemporary issues.

Last edited 11 months ago by Jane Anderson
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

Surely MARE* NOSTRUM not Mare Nostra?

Perhaps Mr Holland was thinking of the Mafia?

(*Neuter.)

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Arkadian X
Arkadian X
11 months ago

Thanks. That saves me the effort of having to say it 😉

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Yes!
Quite an extraordinary blunder, don’t they proof read these things anymore ? Or is Mr Holland* telling us that he is NOT a classicist?

It reminds me of “Romans go home” in Monty Python’s
“Life of Brian “.

(*Despite teaching himself Ancient Greek.)

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
11 months ago

I have te-listened to that bit and he clearly says “mare Nostrum”.
Probably the “voice to text” software they used is not up to scratch with Latin, and neither is the editor 😀

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
11 months ago

I have te-listened to that bit and he clearly says “mare Nostrum”.
Probably the “voice to text” software they used is not up to scratch with Latin, and neither is the editor 😀

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Yes!
Quite an extraordinary blunder, don’t they proof read these things anymore ? Or is Mr Holland* telling us that he is NOT a classicist?

It reminds me of “Romans go home” in Monty Python’s
“Life of Brian “.

(*Despite teaching himself Ancient Greek.)

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
11 months ago

Thanks. That saves me the effort of having to say it 😉

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

Surely MARE* NOSTRUM not Mare Nostra?

Perhaps Mr Holland was thinking of the Mafia?

(*Neuter.)

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago

Interesting tidbits but a lot of cheap present-day parallels like World Cup of Gang Rape or Glastonbury equated with Hadrian’s wall. Coupled with (get it?) the lewd, even quasi-pornographic emphasis, I’d say there’s a certain luridness or sensationalism in Tom Holland’s narrative approach.
*Or maybe I’m being a puritanical ‘Merican on this one.

Last edited 11 months ago by AJ Mac
Lawrence Lefsky
Lawrence Lefsky
11 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Back then, people went to the market, bought goods, came home and made meals – same as today. The parts of the narrative that you are offended by are “lurid or sensational[…]” because they are drastically different to what we are accustomed to. Which is also what makes them interesting. Which is also what confers historical relevance. “Nothing has changed in two thousand years..” is not a very interesting read. Comparisons between historical realities (take this as you will) and today’s are what make these differences relatable (on some crude level) and compelling to the modern reader.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago

I understand those commonalities across time, which is part of why I’m skeptical of the widespread sexual “omnivorousness” that Holland describes, such as the purported rarity of sleeping only with one sex or the other (for a man of status) during this period of Roman antiquity. I’m not discounting the details he cites, but questioning the general conclusions he seems keen to draw.
I’m interested in notable differences and present-day parallels too, but not when they’re too cooked up or dumbed down, which is how some of this seems to me. I could be mistaken. There’s a good middle path between the elite or “censored” historical style typical of past generations of historiography, and the simplified-for-popularity or “nudge nudge” approach more often found today. There’s stuff in the middle lane already, I’d say, and I probably shouldn’t have gone after Holland in particular.
I like history to have a strong storytelling (not fabulist) art but if that gets overdone we get the entertaining but very opinionated style of Gibbon or gossipy approach of Suetonius. Which historians of the early Common Era (AD) are both readable and trustworthy enough, since Tacitus and Plutarch (more biography but not only) that is?

Last edited 11 months ago by AJ Mac
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago

I understand those commonalities across time, which is part of why I’m skeptical of the widespread sexual “omnivorousness” that Holland describes, such as the purported rarity of sleeping only with one sex or the other (for a man of status) during this period of Roman antiquity. I’m not discounting the details he cites, but questioning the general conclusions he seems keen to draw.
I’m interested in notable differences and present-day parallels too, but not when they’re too cooked up or dumbed down, which is how some of this seems to me. I could be mistaken. There’s a good middle path between the elite or “censored” historical style typical of past generations of historiography, and the simplified-for-popularity or “nudge nudge” approach more often found today. There’s stuff in the middle lane already, I’d say, and I probably shouldn’t have gone after Holland in particular.
I like history to have a strong storytelling (not fabulist) art but if that gets overdone we get the entertaining but very opinionated style of Gibbon or gossipy approach of Suetonius. Which historians of the early Common Era (AD) are both readable and trustworthy enough, since Tacitus and Plutarch (more biography but not only) that is?

Last edited 11 months ago by AJ Mac
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

No you are not being puritanical but quite accurate.
Sadly what passes for scholarship these days is a far cry from what one used to expect.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Well said. He is a very vulgar vulgariser indeed.

Lawrence Lefsky
Lawrence Lefsky
11 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Back then, people went to the market, bought goods, came home and made meals – same as today. The parts of the narrative that you are offended by are “lurid or sensational[…]” because they are drastically different to what we are accustomed to. Which is also what makes them interesting. Which is also what confers historical relevance. “Nothing has changed in two thousand years..” is not a very interesting read. Comparisons between historical realities (take this as you will) and today’s are what make these differences relatable (on some crude level) and compelling to the modern reader.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

No you are not being puritanical but quite accurate.
Sadly what passes for scholarship these days is a far cry from what one used to expect.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
11 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Well said. He is a very vulgar vulgariser indeed.

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago

Interesting tidbits but a lot of cheap present-day parallels like World Cup of Gang Rape or Glastonbury equated with Hadrian’s wall. Coupled with (get it?) the lewd, even quasi-pornographic emphasis, I’d say there’s a certain luridness or sensationalism in Tom Holland’s narrative approach.
*Or maybe I’m being a puritanical ‘Merican on this one.

Last edited 11 months ago by AJ Mac
Judy Englander
Judy Englander
11 months ago

I’m only half way through so may have missed it, but the most intriguing question seems to be missed. Given its attitude to sex why did Rome ban the making of eunuchs?

Last edited 11 months ago by Judy Englander
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Two ancient sources, Suetonius and Cassius Dio both claim that the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) brought in the prohibition.

Dio goes on to say its purpose was to insult the memory of Domitian’s (deceased) elder brother Titus.

It was now a capital offence to castrate a slave!

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
11 months ago

Thank you.

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
11 months ago

Thank you.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  Judy Englander

Two ancient sources, Suetonius and Cassius Dio both claim that the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) brought in the prohibition.

Dio goes on to say its purpose was to insult the memory of Domitian’s (deceased) elder brother Titus.

It was now a capital offence to castrate a slave!

Judy Englander
Judy Englander
11 months ago

I’m only half way through so may have missed it, but the most intriguing question seems to be missed. Given its attitude to sex why did Rome ban the making of eunuchs?

Last edited 11 months ago by Judy Englander
Maggi B
Maggi B
11 months ago

Tom’s bio needs updating with his latest publication Pax (not Dominion)

Clare Bremner
Clare Bremner
11 months ago

Does anybody know which film the image at the top of the page came from?

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
11 months ago
Reply to  Clare Bremner

“Gladiator”

Last edited 11 months ago by Stephanie Surface
Clare Bremner
Clare Bremner
11 months ago

Thank you!

Clare Bremner
Clare Bremner
11 months ago

Thank you!

Stephanie Surface
Stephanie Surface
11 months ago
Reply to  Clare Bremner

“Gladiator”

Last edited 11 months ago by Stephanie Surface
Clare Bremner
Clare Bremner
11 months ago

Does anybody know which film the image at the top of the page came from?

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
11 months ago

The ending on the “Gini coefficient” has been cut out for some reason. I was hoping to get more insight on that.

rick stubbs
rick stubbs
11 months ago

Interesting enough but far more focused on the dominate sexual proclivities of the Roman elite than anticipated and not made clear to me how that impacted the fall, rise or effective governance of Empire? Maybe Holland did this to flog the book to a broader audience? Freddie is certainly pliable enough to acquiesce.
Of course, we all long for some big picture historical analogy applicable to the future path of Empires among us right now. The US, China Russia? Holland didn’t provide that analysis by any measure nor should it be expected from any source. The reference to the reformation and wars of religion was not explored adequately and had no obvious resonance in my opinion.

Last edited 11 months ago by rick stubbs
rick stubbs
rick stubbs
11 months ago

Interesting enough but far more focused on the dominate sexual proclivities of the Roman elite than anticipated and not made clear to me how that impacted the fall, rise or effective governance of Empire? Maybe Holland did this to flog the book to a broader audience? Freddie is certainly pliable enough to acquiesce.
Of course, we all long for some big picture historical analogy applicable to the future path of Empires among us right now. The US, China Russia? Holland didn’t provide that analysis by any measure nor should it be expected from any source. The reference to the reformation and wars of religion was not explored adequately and had no obvious resonance in my opinion.

Last edited 11 months ago by rick stubbs
Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
11 months ago

Vox popping English people down the years suggests that English people are more inclined than other British to consider themselves – in however vague a manner – as descendants of Romans. 

Frank McCusker
Frank McCusker
11 months ago

Vox popping English people down the years suggests that English people are more inclined than other British to consider themselves – in however vague a manner – as descendants of Romans. 

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

I think that actually Gibbon gets it the RIGHT way around.
Give me Quintus Lutatius Catulus any day to St Paul & Co.

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago

I suspect you may have lifted some of your snarky hostility toward the Church from him.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Indeed, and the late Arnold Jones (Cantab) and many others, too numerous to mention.

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Indeed, and the late Arnold Jones (Cantab) and many others, too numerous to mention.

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

O dear!
The God Squad, yet again are excited!

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 months ago

I suspect you may have lifted some of your snarky hostility toward the Church from him.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

O dear!
The God Squad, yet again are excited!

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
11 months ago

I think that actually Gibbon gets it the RIGHT way around.
Give me Quintus Lutatius Catulus any day to St Paul & Co.

Last edited 11 months ago by Charles Stanhope