Diego Lafuente’s personal blog

January 25, 2015

To be remembered in ancient Rome

The ancient Romans had an obsession with transcendence after death or being remembered, and I find it perfectly normal given that there were no photographs, let alone videos. Being remembered and recognized by family members, fellow citizens, or anyone in the vast empire became really complicated, leaving only a few, and in many cases, very expensive options to remain in everyone's psyche. This entry attempts to comment a bit on some of the many things that the Romans did, in both the Republican and Imperial era, to transcend.

The least expensive and perhaps the most innocent option of all was graffiti. Yes, writing something on some wall of some place, important or not, for the memory of generations. Pompeii is full of inscriptions that survived the passage of time and immortalized their authors: "I fucked the waitress", "Ampliactus, I know that Icarus sodomizes you. Salvio wrote it.", "Floronius, privileged soldier of the Seventh Legion, was here. The women did not know of his stay. Only six women knew him, very few for such a stud", "On June 15th, Hermeros fucked with Filetero and Caphisus" and so we can see a few. There are inscriptions that have survived time in many places, in Rome and Greece, even in the very Parthenon many inscriptions were discovered. This was the way some Romans wished to be remembered and played their immortality on luck.

The next option, which was for someone who chose to leave a more lasting memory, was the imagines maiorum (funerary masks) that were usually displayed in the homes of each family or kept in safekeeping. Almost any Roman could afford one of these plaster masks, and they were covered by the right of image (in Latin, Ius imaginum), which consisted of being able to exhibit such masks in the atrium of their own home. It is said that Julius Caesar himself, while lying on the ground dying after being stabbed by several senators, covered his face with his toga to preserve his features, so that one of these masks could be made for him. It is likely that several of these masks were made for Caesar before his cremation, although no examples have survived. Nevertheless, anyone who wants to see Caesar's face can go to the Via dell'Impero in Rome and appreciate it, or in France, where one of the best-preserved busts of the famous dictator is preserved. It was the closest thing to a photograph of this time.

If one's pocket allowed it, the next more accessible option was murals and paintings in all their variants. Although these were not normally used to represent portraits or oneself, in the time of Augustus, self-portraiture on a small canvas was very popular. There are no canvases from this period that we can enjoy, most of the paintings were made in homes, palaces, and other places. It is said that Nero had commissioned a portrait of himself on a 35-meter canvas. The Romans were lovers of painting and sculpture, to such an extent that they paid fortunes to anyone who showed talent for making paintings, or if you were a senator named Varro, you killed, looted, and extorted to obtain original works of art. The Greeks were among themselves the best painters and sculptors on the entire continent, who were pursued by the Romans to create any type of artwork. But if painting was already expensive in itself, getting a good artist made things even more complicated. There was also the added issue of color, which was not easy to reproduce, and many dyes were prohibited, even under penalty of death, such as purple, which was so difficult to obtain that magistrates were only allowed to wear a distinctive purple band. But going back to the topic, no ordinary Roman could afford paintings or murals at home, this was already reserved for the rich, and in general, the very, very rich.

Well, Diego, painting wasn't the only option, and in general, they were probably looking for something more durable, like mosaics, you will say with excitement.

And it's true, mosaics were very popular. If you were a Roman who was a little richer than normal, the mosaic was already a durable option, although just as inconvenient as painting on walls, you could afford a large mosaic in your house, but that was it. Besides, everyone walked on it, they needed occasional repairs, and they were costly to make. It was normal for them to represent your full name, some feat, and if the craftsman was very good, your personal portrait, of course, although no result ended up with photographic quality. There are also mosaics depicting gods, animals, mostly horses, women, and even gladiators. Perhaps the most striking mosaic ever found was the famous Alexander Mosaic, discovered in 1830 in Pompeii, in the House of the Faun. It is of exceptional detail and work, of an incalculable value, and it is suspected to be a reproduction of a painting. Unfortunately, part of this mosaic has been lost over time and circumstances.

If you already had in mind the mortuary mask, your family had dedicated some paintings, and an occasional bust of you in life, the time to transcend was by entering the army and becoming an authentic war machine, like Lucius Siccius Dentatus or like Horatius Cocles. The army provided, besides adventures, an escape from the burden of parents, having to work for two pennies and never being able to progress. Yes, in the army, the end promised more things than death, such as lands, money, loot, and countless opportunities to steal the vile metal. But yes, if in a stroke of fortune, you entered a fortified city first or saved a high-ranking officer from a stab, glory awaited you. The first small decorations were something, but aspiring to an obsidian crown or a civic one was one of the most longed-for things by the average Roman. In fact, the ultimate military glory was to enter Rome as a triumphator, that is, to be part of a triumph, in a carriage pulled by white horses, considered the purest, with a slave behind you, holding a crown of golden laurels over your head while he says to you: "Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento!" ("Look behind you! Remember that you are a man!") so that you don't forget that you are human and not a god. Rome is known, in part, for the countless military campaigns it waged, imagine if there were no opportunities to transcend.

Romans wrote, and they wrote a lot, even knowing how ephemeral and delicate it was to have linen rolls floating around out there. Unfortunately, despite the accessibility of writing today, in Ancient Rome, writing was limited to a few and was quite expensive. You had to be a very important person to write a book, a treatise, or something that was of interest even to your family. It was normal to write letters. Generally, the wealthy Roman always had a scribe or secretary, of Greek nationality, who could write in both Greek (obviously) and Latin. Usually, people who wrote books did so for two things: propaganda or to pass on some knowledge. Much of Roman history can be appreciated through the personal letters that many rulers and important men sent. On the other hand, publishers of the time were very abusive: they rubbed their hands to have the exclusivity of a book and very few copies were made at a very high cost for customers, of course, all educated and very wealthy. Few works were preserved, and even the Libri Sibyllini demonstrated the fragility of the object and the complexity of keeping it safe. Remember that in Ancient Rome, the illiteracy rate was high, so few knew how to read and write, and even fewer in Greek. For day-to-day use, they used wax tablets all the time to write notes because paper was not yet in use, and even papyrus and other similar genres were equally expensive and difficult to obtain. Let alone ink and pens, let alone ballpoint pens. Julius Caesar is laughing at you now. Writing useful books was already one of the great ways to transcend. Books like Cato the Elder's De Agri Cultura, Titus Livius' Ad Urbe Condita, and other works are exceptional examples of texts that gave their authors assured immortality. Since we talk so much about Caesar, let's comment that he wrote, well, dictating to his scribes, his passage through the Gallic Wars, in De Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War), where he spends his time justifying why he went to stone a few Gauls.

The next level was to climb the cursus honorum and become a politician. The most prominent figures in politics, whether patricians or plebeians, were catapulted to stardom by enacting a law. There were several examples of laws, and any law was not imposed without a fight. In fact, Romans fought amongst themselves, sometimes even killing each other, to enact laws. Each law was accompanied by the name of its sponsor: Lex Caecilia Didia, Lex Junia Licinia, or the Lex Iulia were clear examples of laws named after their sponsors. All of these laws endured over time, and any Roman in need of protection could appeal to them. There were two paths: the easy one, which was being a Patrician, and the much more difficult one, which was being a plebeian. It was a form of transcendence reserved only for a few. Most politicians spent money without restraint to reach power, bribing their way up, while plebeians simply reached power through agitation, thus gaining access to the tribunate. Over time, plebeians were able to access magistracies that had previously been reserved only for patricians. How could one achieve this immortality? Staging memorable games, holding a religious office for life, conducting a census, becoming a consul or dictator all ensured that one would be recorded in the annals of Rome, providing an incredible honor, but, of course, much more expensive than one might imagine. Julius Caesar achieved everything by borrowing. If Julius Caesar lived in this era and was one of these new internet entrepreneurs, he would have already raised a dozen series A, B, and C investment rounds without even releasing the first version of his product. That's how charismatic and manipulative Julius Caesar was. After annihilating Gaul, Caesar owed a fortune, which he paid back by making half the Gallic population slaves, in addition to the war booty collected. Soon, he became the richest man in Rome, as Crassus, though rotund from the good life, had died in his attempt to conquer the Parthians.

Despite having a good military or political record and even becoming a consul, the best way to stand out in Ancient Rome, especially in the republican period, was undoubtedly through building. Building, building, and taking care of the maintenance of places like aqueducts, temples, roads, theaters, or even a colosseum. This practice was later monopolized by the emperors in the Imperial Age.

Constructing something useful was always better than having statues. Statues, despite being made of bronze, stone, or marble, were susceptible to being the first objects chosen for destruction due to the damnatio memoriae (condemnation to oblivion).

When the Roman Senate officially decreed the damnatio memoriae, everything that reminded people of the condemned person was removed: images, monuments, inscriptions, and even the use of their name was prohibited. If there was a problem, statues would be toppled. When Julius Caesar arrived in Rome with his army, his followers had already hammered every statue of Pompey the Great. This action upset Caesar, because although Pompey was his enemy, he respected him and considered him a friend. However, the dilemma with constructions was that they were known by their names and continued to be so, even without the name of who built them. Forum Iulium, Terme di Caracalla, Via Appia, and so on.

Lastly, we have becoming the Emperor of Rome. A position that, at the beginning, was inherited, but over time, whoever had more money could opt to become emperor. Being emperor meant many things, including becoming the most important and publicly known person in the entire empire. News that spread throughout the empire mentioned you. In every work, you were mentioned. You were the one who started and ended all the games. You performed the most important rites. You had all the powers, past and present, concentrated in you. They painted you on canvases, erected statues of you everywhere, commemorative plaques in every city of the empire. Wait, that's not all, while we're at it, let's make a city with your name, how about Zaragoza? or rather... Caesaraugusta. As emperor, you wrote, in general, you paid to have the history that you wanted to tell written. You were the center of the universe itself. Everything that was built carried the name of the emperor. Even the coins of all denominations. You were a sort of icon until the day you died, and if you had been a good emperor, you earned deification, but if you were a madman, you would certainly earn the damnatio memoriae.