Welcome! As we’ve done before, this week I am going to take a chance to answer a few shorter questions posed by my patrons over at Patreon who are the Patres et Matres Conscripti of the ACOUP Senate. As with previous responses, the answers here may not be as exhaustive or careful as they would be as a full feature post but reflect roughly what you would get asking the same question in my office hours or after class.
And for those of you still waiting on the back half of my Rings of Power complaining, that is still coming! I just had a bit less time than anticipated to work on things this week due to one of those ‘surprise! Can you teach this course which starts in a week?’ sorts of things.
And of course if you like what you are reading here, please share it; if you really like it, you can support me on Patreon; as mentioned patrons who join the Patres et Matres Conscripti get to propose questions that I answer here. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.
Dirtside asks, “How historians define ancient dates, e.g. when you say something happened in Rome in ’46 BC,’ that obviously isn’t the number the Roman used for that year?”
So this is actually a really interesting question that we need to break into two parts: what do historians do with dates that are at least premised on the Roman calendar and then what do we do with dates that aren’t.
Now the Roman calendar is itself kind of a moving target, so we can start with a brief history of that. At some very early point the Romans seem to have had a calendar with ten months, with December as the last month, March as the first month and no January or February. That said while you will hear a lot of folk history crediting Julius Caesar with the creation of two extra months (July and August) that’s not right; those months (called Quintilis and Sextilis) were already on the calendar. By the time we can see the Roman calendar, it has twelve months of variable lengths (355 days total) with an ‘intercalary month’ inserted every other year to ‘reset’ the calendar to the seasons. That calendar, which still started in March (sitting where it does, seasonally, as it does for us), the Romans attributed to the legendary-probably-not-a-real-person King Numa, which means in any case even by the Middle Republic it was so old no one knew when it started (Plut. Numa 18; Liv 1.19.6-7). The shift from March to January as the first month in turn happens in 153 (Liv. Per. 47.13), probably for political reasons.
We still use this calendar (more or less) and that introduces some significant oddities in the reckoning of dates that are recorded by the Roman calendar. See, because the length of the year (355 days) did not match the length of a solar year (famously 365 days and change), the months ‘drifted’ over the calendar a little bit; during the first century BC when things were so chaotic that intercalary months were missed, the days might drift a lot. This problem is what Julius Caesar fixed, creating a 365 day calendar in 46; to ‘reset’ the year for his new calendar he then extended the year 46 to 445 days. And you might think, “my goodness, that means we’d have to convert every pre-45 BC date to figure out what it actually is, how do we do that?”
And the answer is: we don’t. Instead, all of the oddities of the Roman calendar remain baked into our calendar and the year 46 BC is still reckoned as being 445 days long and thus the longest ever year. Consequently earlier Roman dates are directly convertible into our calendar system, though if you care what season a day happened, you might need to do some calculating (but not usually because the drift isn’t usually extreme). But in expressing the date as a day, the fact that the Gregorian calendar does not retroactively change the days of the Julian calendar, which also did not retroactively change the days of the older Roman calendar means that no change is necessary.
Ok, but then what year is it? Well, the Romans counted years two ways. The more common way was to refer to consular years, “In the year of the consulship of X and Y.” Thus the Battle of Cannae happened, “in the year of the consulship of Varro and Paullus,” 216 BC. In the empire, you sometimes also see events referenced by the year of a given emperor. Conveniently for us, we can reconstruct a complete list of all of the consular years and we know all of the emperors, so back-converting a date rendered like this is fairly easy. More rarely, the Romans might date with an absolute chronology, ab urbe condita (AUC) – “from the founding of the city,” which they imagined to have happened in in 753 BC. Since we know that date, this also is a fairly easy conversion.
Non-Roman dates get harder. The Greeks tend to date things either by serving magistrates (especially the Athenian ‘eponymous archon,’ because we have so many Athenian authors) or by Olympiads. Olympiad dates are not too bad; it’s a four-year cycle starting in 780 BC, so we are now in the 700th Olympiad. Archon dates are tougher for two reasons. First, unlike Roman consuls, we have only a mostly complete list of Athenian archons, with some significant gaps. Both dates suffer from the complication that they do not line up neatly with the start of the Roman year. Olympiads begin and end in midsummer and archon years ran from July to June. If we have a day, or even a month attached to one of these dates, converting to a modern Gregorian calendar date isn’t too bad. But if, as is often the case, all you have is a year, it gets tricky; an event taking place ‘in the Archonship of Cleocritus’ (with no further elaboration) could have happened in 413 or 412. Consequently, you’ll see the date (if there is no month or season indicator that lets us narrow it down), written as 413/2 – that doesn’t mean “in the year two-hundred and six and a half” but rather “413 OR 412.”
That said, with a complete list of emperors, consuls and Olympiads, along with a nearly complete list of archons, keeping the system together is relatively easy. Things get sticky fast when moving to societies using regnal years for which we do not have complete or reliable king’s lists. So for instance there are a range of potential chronologies for the Middle Bronze Age in Mesopotamia. I have no great expertise into how these chronologies are calculated; I was taught with the ‘Middle’ chronology as the consensus position and so I use that and aim just to be consistent. Bronze Age Egyptian chronology has similar disputes, but with a lot less variation in potential dates. Unfortunately while obviously I have to be aware of these chronology disputes, I don’t really have the expertise to explain them – we’d have to get an Egyptologist or Assyriologist (for odd path-dependent reasons, scholars that study ancient Mesopotamia, including places and cultures that were not Assyria-proper are still called Assyriologists, although to be fair the whole region (including Egypt!) was all Assyria at one point) to write a guest post to untangle all of that.
That said in most cases all of this work has largely been done and so it is a relatively rare occurrence that I need to actually back convert a date myself. It does happen sometimes, mostly when I’m moving through Livy and have lost track of what year it is and need to get a date, in which case I generally page back to find the last set of consular elections and then check the list of consuls to determine the date.
Vitali asks, “Were there pre-modern equivalents of such government institutions as the CIA (for spying) or the FBI (for crime investigation)?
So I cannot answer for every society here, but for the Romans I can provide something of an answer, which I would frame as “No, but.” I think the key issue here is both the degree of centralization in what these organizations do and also their purpose.
Sending individuals into another country to get information on it – even in a clandestine manner – was not an unheard of thing to do in the ancient world, though given the limited control ancient states had over the movement of peoples such ‘spying’ often consisted simply of sending a few trusted members of court to go visit the other country’s court as ‘diplomats’ or as guests of local notables and report back everything they saw. But that’s not really what we mean when we think of the CIA – we imagine a centralized bureaucracy with an official head that reports to the government, gathers large amounts of data on foreign countries and writes reports. That the Romans did not seem to have had.
We do hear, once in Ammianus of ‘areani‘ (or arcani; the reading here is unclear) whose job was to travel and inform Roman generals of what was going on in neighboring countries, but these seem likely to be scouts and are only attested in Roman Britain,1 so this might just be a special unit of scouts that ranged north of Hadrian’s Wall to keep tabs on the people to the north. There’s no sense of a larger or more pervasive intel operation and keep in mind we have the writings of senior commanders and senators (e.g. Seneca, Pliny, Cassius Dio) who would surely have been aware if there had been such a state organ.
Meanwhile when we think about the FBI, we imagine an internally directed organization whose goal is to detect and investigate crime. Ancient societies (including the Romans) generally had no investigative police of any kind. In the imperial period, Rome did have a sort of police force (though their primary job was as firefighters), the vigiles, who in addition to putting out fires kept a night watch and might respond to cries of alarm for things like burglaries, or do riot control. But as far as we can tell they didn’t investigate crimes. The Roman legal system lacked a public prosecutor in any event: if someone did a crime against you, you didn’t wait for the police to investigate and the state to charge, instead you went to a magistrate (here this might be the tresviri capitales or a praetor (either the praetor urbanus or praetor peregrinus, depending on the issue) and laid the charge yourself (and then you or your representative or patron, would prosecute).
What we do see emerge in the imperial period are what we might call ‘state security forces,’ but these are less the FBI and more akin to the KGB: their role wasn’t to investigate crimes but to detect threats to the state and the rule of the emperor (which means yes, ‘secret police’ predate modern investigative police by centuries). Emperors used various formal and informal networks of spies and informants to try to root out conspiracies against their rule and almost any kind of official who moves around the empire but reported to the emperor (instead of a governor) might be suspected of being a way for the emperor to spy on the most dangerous (to him) people in the empire: his own legates who held military commands.
And so we get, for instance, the frumentarii, literally ‘grain guys’ (after frumentum, grain) whose job ostensibly was to ensure the food supply to the legions and deliver messages from Rome, but who rapidly got a reputation as the emperors spies (against his own subordinates), secret police and even assassins. Likewise, Roman generals in the imperial period had bodyguards called speculatores (‘look outs,’ – they’re not praetorians anymore because these are legati, not praetors or consuls), who served also as scouts and message-runners and thus naturally as spies the emperor might use to keep tabs on his generals or on the loyalty of a province. And later we hear of agentes in rebus in the Late Empire who were official couriers who – wait for it – emperors used as spies and informants against their subordinates in far-flung provinces, particularly after disbanding the frumentarii, whom the agentes in rebus replaced doing essentially the same job. And this was doubtless alongside of other informal domestic spies.
Tom Roeder asks, “I’d really like to hear more about the Annales school of history and how that informs the way you approach historical research.”
So I confess at the start here that I am not a particularly theoretically inclined historian (‘theory’ here in the sense of the intellectual framework that structures our research and thinking), trained by another not terribly theoretically inclined historian (ancient historians in general tend to be pretty light on theory, sometimes to our detriment). Of course all historians need to be aware of the assumptions that we import with our theory, but some historians focus on that more than others. So I tend to be in the ‘theory is like underwear: you must always have it on, but no one needs to see it’ school of thought.2 All of which is to say that talking about historical theory and the history of historical theory (fitting under the broad category of ‘history of history’ which we call historiography) always puts me a bit ill at ease. But this is a good question, so lets have at it.
The Annales school is a style of historical thinking that emerged in France in the early 1900s; at least for pre-modernists, the dominating figures here tend to be Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel. It got its name because of its close association with Annales d’Historie Economique et Sociale. Fundamentally, what sets the Annales approach apart is first its focus and then the methods that focus demands.
The big shift in focus for the Annales school was an interest in charting the experience of society below the level of elites (though the elites are not abandoned either), what is sometimes termed ‘history from below,’ as distinct from traditional elite-centered ‘great man’ history or the more deterministic Marxist models of history at the time. You can see the political implications, of course, in the very early 1900s, of declaring the common man worthy of study; this is generally a history from the left but not the extreme left. That focus in turn demanded new approaches because it turned the focus of social history towards people who by and large do not write to us.
In reaching for that experience, Annales scholars tended to frame their thinking in terms of la longue durée (‘the long run’); history was composed of three parts: événements (‘events’), conjonctures (‘circumstances’) and finally la longue durée itself. Often in English this gets rendered as a distinction between ‘events’ (kings, wars, politics, crises) and ‘structures’ (economics, social thought3 and at a deeper level climate, ecology, and geography). What Annales scholars tended to argue was that those structures were often more important than the events that traditional historians studied: the farmer’s life was far more shaped by very long-term factors like the local ecology, the organization of his farming village, the economic structure of the region and so on. And then the idea goes, that by charting those structures, you can figure things out about the lives of those farmers even if you don’t have many – or any – of those farmers writing to you.
Important to this was the idea of enduring patterns of thought within a society, what Bloch termed mentalités (‘mentalities,’ like longue durée, this is a technical term usually used in French to make that fact clear). Mentalités – Bloch’s original example was the idea that kings had a holy healing touch, but this could be almost any kind of social construct or pattern of ideas (indeed, one critique of it is that the notion of mentalités is broad and ill-defined) – can last a long time and can inform or constrain the actions of many actors within a society; think of how successive generations of kings can have their decisions shaped or constrained by their societies view – their own view – of kingship. That view of kingship might be more impactful than any one king and so pervasive that even a king would struggle to change it.
So how does this influence my work? I tend to be very much a ‘history from below’ kind of historian, interested in charting the experience of regular farmers, soldiers, weavers and so on. The distinction between the long-term structures that shape life and the short-term events that populate our history is very valuable to think with, especially for identifying when an event alters a structure,4 because those tend to be very important events indeed. And I think a keen attention to the way people thought about things in the past and how those mentalités can be different than ours is very important.5
That said, the Annales stress on mentalités has in some ways been overtaken by more data-driven historical methods on the one hand or a strong emphasis on local or individual experience (‘microhistory’) on the other. Mentalités tend to be very big picture, asking how, say, ‘the French’ thought about something over a period of decades or centuries and seeking to know how that shaped their experience. But archaeology, demographics or economic data can reveal patterns of behavior which might not correspond to the mentalités that show up in written texts; this is fundamentally the interaction that informs the ‘revenge of the archaeologists’ in the study of the ancient economy, for instance. On the other hand, not everyone in that big group thinks the same and a microhistory of an individual or a single village might reveal telling local variations not captured in massive-scale structures.
Fortunately, historians do not need to be doctrinaire in our use of theory, we don’t have to pick one and stick to it. Different projects also lend themselves to different approaches. I think the Annales school offers a lot of really useful tools to have my historian’s toolbox, but they sit alongside military theory, archaeological material culture studies methods, philological approaches, a smattering of economic and demographic tools, etc.
Kit Finn asks, “Is it correct to suggest that nearly all Roman changes were presented as going back to the way things were and what does that say about the power of tradition and nostalgia?”
And then just on cue we veer directly into a question about mentalités!
So I hesitate to say ‘nearly all’ here, because for a lot of Roman reforms or other changes we just don’t have a lot of evidence for how they were presented. What we often have are descriptions of programs, proposals or ideas written decades or centuries later, when their effects were known, by writers who may be some of the few people in the ancient world who might actually know how things ‘used to be.’
What I will say is that the Romans were very conservative in their outlook, believing that things ought to be done according to the mos maiorum – ‘the customs of [our] ancestors.’ The very fact that the way you say ‘ancestors’ in Latin is maiores, ‘the greater ones’ should tell you something about the Roman attitude towards the past. And so often real innovations in Roman governance were explained as efforts to get back to the ‘way things were,’ but of course ‘the way things were’ is such a broad concept that you can justify pretty radical changes in some things to restore other things to ‘the way they were.’
The most obvious example of this, of course, is Augustus with his PR-line of a res publica restituta, “a republic restored.” Augustus made substantial changes (even if one looked past his creation of an entire shadow-office of emperor!) to Roman governance on the justification that this was necessary to ‘restore’ the Republic; exactly what is preserved tells you a lot about what elements of the Roman (unwritten) constitution were thought to be essential to the Republic by the people that mattered (the elites). And Augustus was hardly the first; Sulla crippled the tribunate, doubled the size of the Senate and made substantial reforms to the laws claiming that he was restoring things to the way they had been – that is, restoring the Senate to its position of prominence.
And one thing that is very clear about the Greeks and Romans generally is that they had at best a fuzzy sense of their past, often ascribing considerable antiquity to things which were not old but which stretched out of living memory. Moreover there is a general sense, pervading Greek and Latin literature that people in the past were better than people now, more virtuous, more upright, possibly even physically better. You can see this notion in authors from Hesiod to Sallust. This shouldn’t be overstressed; you also had Aristotelian/Polybian ‘cyclical’ senses of history along with moments of present-triumphalism (Vergil, for instance, and his imperium sine fine). But still there seems to have been a broad sense of the folk system that things get worse over time and thus things must have been better in the past and thus returning to the way things were done is better. We’ve discussed this thought already where it intersects with Roman religion.
And the same time, here we run into the potential weakness of probing elite mentalités in trying to understand a society. Some Romans seem quite aware of positive change over time; Pliny the Elder and Columella are both aware of improving agricultural technology in their own day, particularly as compared to older economic writing by Cato the Elder. Polybius has no problem having the Romans twice adopt new and better ship designs during the First Punic War (though both are ‘just-so’ stories; the ancients love ‘just-so’ stories to explain new innovations or inventions). And sometimes Roman leaders did represent things as very much new; even Augustus combined his res publica restituta rhetoric with the idea that he was ushering in a saeculum novum, a ‘new age’ (based on the idea of 110 year cycles in history).
So there is complexity here. The Romans most certainly did not have our strong positive associations with youth and progress. Their culture expected deference to elders and certainly didn’t expect ‘progress’ most of the time; things, they thought, generally ought to be done as they had ‘always been done.’ Consequently, framing things as a return to the mos maiorum or as a means to return to it was always a strong political framing and presumably many of the folks doing those things believed it. On the other hand the Romans seem well aware that some of the things they did were new and that not all of these ‘firsts’ were bad and that some things had seemed to have gotten better or more useful since the days of their maiores. And some Romans, particularly emperors, are relatively unabashed about making dramatic breaks with tradition and precedent; Diocletian comes to mind here in particular.
And that’s it for this week. Next week, time permitted, the long promised second part of the Rings of Power complaints!
- A ‘miles arcanus’ appears but once in single tablet from Vindolanda and Ammianus refers to them being disbanded by Flavius Theodosius, then the commander in Britain
- Though in practice I think I would probably be considered a ‘positivist‘ more than anything else, though I recognize some of the weaknesses of that approach.
- We’re going to give this a word in a second
- Example: the life of Alexander the Great; massive changes in culture, economy and society as a result of his life, most of which were changes he did not intend.
- In ancient history, so connected as it is with Classics, this effort to have an instinctive grasp of how the ancients thought about things is often associated with Latinitas, used in a positive sense to mean one’s grasp of not just the written rules of Latin but also the ways Romans might actually say something.