Cn. Pompeius Cn.f. Sex.n. Magnus or Pompey?

When I was in the university studying history, we were told to a point of boredom how flawed the Great Men History was. While methodological discussion is always very important, I couldn’t help asking myself then, what the heck lecturers meant by this attack. I didn’t recognise the phenomenon and I felt they were stucked into past decades discourses, into something that was way before my time. History professors stuck in the past, some irony there.

Now that I’m not attached into the academic world anymore I have come to appreciate their point of view more, and I’m taking a liberty of interpreting their meaning to be against history culture, not history students nor academic circles. History culture, or popular history, or representations of history in popular culture, whichever term is now in vogue, is still full of great men history. It’s not that it’s intentional violence against methodology, but popular productions need simple stories that focus into individual, and that’s all you need to lower yourself into the level of great men history.

The great men history means the quite flawed view of history, where historical events and developments are presented to be a consequence of will and actions of one individual, typically a well-born man. Usual hallmarks of this genre are idealizations of individuals, building saints over mortal men, forgetting their flaws or portraying their adversaries as thoroughly evil. Everyone surely agrees that this is wrong.

However, the question is more complicated than just evil Hollywood history vs. academic purity. History is not only facts, it’s interpretation. History is not a science where only facts exist or where the truth can be verified by numbers. History is part of our identity, so it’s also a psychological and cultural phenomenon – a past event can have very different interpretations depending on individual. Take any war for example: when you move on to make a historical interpretation on it, you’ll take a walk in a minefield.

Also it’s a question of the mission, role and meaning of history. Why do we create interpretations on past? What do we want to achieve by it? The ancient historians had a clear answer for this: to teach. There’s also the root of great men history, it originally meant to teach a moral lesson how to live your life and what to learn from the great leaders of past.

Now, for me as a history buff since something like 5 years old, the pedagogic value of history and great men history especially, has been there always. Like the characters of fictional literature, also the individuals of the past have been a source of contemplation, emulation and inspiration to me. A question that has been there ever since my pre-school years has been: why people do the things they do? As a school age kid I enjoyed immensely to read different presentations of great historical leaders. And I especially enjoyed the moments when I found something so compelling from a source I otherwise despised, that I had to update my own opinions. Without those moments I doubt very much I would have taken a life-long interest in history.

So when I went to the university, the over repeated condamnation of the great men history for me felt like the professors were stuck into the contemplations I had solved already in my pre-teen years: surely we were all adults (or thereabouts) as university students and didn’t need to dwell in the obvious: all men are mortal and have their traits seen as strengths or weaknesses depending on the interpreter. In fact, I felt that condamnation of the great men history was counter-productive. I felt strongly, and still do to a limit, that there is pedagogical value, or moral value, in the great men history. If we remove the moral lesson from history altogether, I think we remove a great deal of its value for humanity too. As humans, we have a great ability for abstract thinking and learning lessons from the past, without the need to necessarily make same mistakes again, and we should not waste that talent.

However, and now I’m finally coming to the point I try to make, the history is not just for moral upbringing, it needs its own ethical code as well. For me the prime ethical rule for making interpretations and representations of past is to make justice for the people of the past. The question I ask myself every time I write or speak about the past is that am I making the justice for the past people. Do I understood their view of the world, do I understand their culture, surroundings, their experience of events, their values? And if I do I think I do, then do I manage to translate this understanding in my own representations for my audience in my time and in my culture? Do I do justice to the past individuals as humans?

As a student of Roman noble families, the bulk of people I write about are very little known generally, and for these individuals fulfilling the ethical requirements of this work is quite easy, I don’t need to care about popular images of these people, as there are no such existing. However, the task is considerably more challenging with well-known figures of Roman history, who also tend to be controversial and loaded with meanings, motivations and interpretations of different kinds, piled up during the 2000+ years on these personae. How to approach individuals like Caesar or Pompeius, when whatever I say about them can be seen as taking a stand of some kind, a leaning into one camp of interpretators or another? With these over-used great men of history, the problem is how loaded their images are in the minds of my temporaries.

One problem I face with writing about Pompeius is then that am I writing about Cn. Pompeius Cn.f. Sex.n. Magnus or Pompey the Great? If I’m writing about the Pompey, then I’m writing about an individual, almost like a biographist, trying to find individuality and characterisations of an individual there, or perhaps I’m not writing just life, but life and times, in any case, the focus is on individual and more or less great men history. If I write about Cn. Pompeius Cn.f. Sex.n. Magnus, then I’m writing about an individual member of moderately influental late-republican Roman plebeian family.

With Pompeius this problem of great men history vs. making justice to the individual is markedly present: all seems to hint to that Pompeius didn’t want to conform to be just a typical member of gens Pompeia, or a typical member of Roman upper class. So, while typically one would make most justice (considering the historical individual) to a member of Roman upper class by emphasising the meaning of family networks, as the historical individual would have himself been very aware of the limitations of this cultural setting and conforming to it, one struggles to do this with Pompeius. Pompeius did practically almost everything he could to break free from these limitations and cultural traditions, he was a rebel, and did everything he could to build an exceptional image for himself. To make justice for such a person, wouldn’t great men history approach be ideal? It would represent him in a way he would himself like. However, doing so would also mean to make counter-justice to his family, and to other Roman families as well. This problem is very manifest in countless Pompey-biographies one finds everywhere.

The core of the problem is that Pompeius wished to be, and to be seen, as exception, but in reality he was as deeply tied into the surrounding time and culture as every other Roman was. His own family was as little exceptional as every other family. I’m not saying we should see gens Pompeia as without individual characteristics, but what I’m saying is that we should see Pompey in the setting where Cn. Pompeius Cn.f. Sex.n. Magnus was, as a member of Roman family and its networks, and that we should understand Pompey in the setting of gens Pompeia provided him, not as an idealised or exceptional individual. In this way, we will have both much more deeper understanding of the individual as well as do most justice to the people of the past.


Looking at the family tree of Pompeii during the republican period, one notices two things immediately: there are two main branches of the family, whose common ancestor, should one exist, cannot be traced and that the family on the whole has been active in forming alliances through marriages. The latter note shouldn’t come as surprise as it seems to be tendency of the lesser families to align themselves with more established families through marriages.

The strong alignment to the party of Sulla is also very evident through the marriage connections. Mucii, Licinii Crassi and Caecilii Metelli are abundantly also present. Also one notices some cumbersome (for us, but probably pretty straightforward for Romans themselves) multi-generational family relationship arrangements.

For example: Pompeius Magnus (cos 70, 55, 52) had a daughter with his wife Mucia tertia. This daughter Pompeia married first Faustus Cornelius Sulla and then L. Cornelius Cinna (cos 32). Cornelia and Cinna had a daughter Cornelia Pompeia Magna, who married L. Scribonius Libo (pr 80), and they had a son L. Scribonius Libo (cos 34). This younger Libo had a daughter Scribonia, who became the wife of Sex. Pompeius Magnus Pius (cos 33). This Pompeius Magnus Pius was of course brother of Pompeia Magna, who married cos 32 Cinna – so we jump some three generations and come back again almost to the starting point.

When we add here the fact that sister of cos 32 Cinna married C. Julius Caesar (the Caesar), who also married a Pompeia from the other branch of the Pompeii, we also get a sense of broader Pompeian family coordination. That makes one presume common ancestor for all Pompeii.

The image of the gens Pompeia starts to emerge where we can find very strong marriage connections to many of the leading families of their era: Cornelii Sullae, Marii, Julii Caesari, Licinii Crassi, Caecilii Metelli, Aemilii Scauri and Claudii Pulchri, within a relative short span of time few decades. While this speaks obviously about the importance of marriage connections, it also raises an observation about the importance of the Pompeii family. If they would have been an irrelevant family, they wouldn’t have managed to build such connections. Shear number of consulships before the Caesar’s civil war is not exceptional, but of course the achievement of three consulships for Pompeius Magnus is exceptional, while added to them there’s only his father consulship and consulships of father-son pair from the other branch of the Pompeii. The Pompeii must have had something valuable to offer for other more established families.

One hint can be found from the life of Pompeius Magnus’ father, consul of 89, Pompeius Strabo. He had won important victories during the civil war and after his consulship (cos 89) ended, he was ordered to disband his armies. However, he was reluctant to do so, and Pompeius Rufus (cos 88) was given order to get the troops of Pompeius Strabo under his command. Strabo refused and eventually was murdered. His son, the future triumvir Pompeius Magnus was also given order of give up his wife and marry according to the command of Sulla. Pompeius Magnus did so as he wad told. The fact was that the Pompeii were useful henchmen of much more important families and got their payment in the form of marital connections and thus growing influence of the family. However, this meant also great sacrifices and loss of freedom of action. I think this is the background one needs to understand about the character of Pompeius Magnus and why he wanted to break free from traditional limits of Roman statesman. One can only guess the pressure he must have felt in conforming the role the family had.

In fact, one perhaps finds same kind of pressure of family position in Pompeius Magnus as one finds in the younger Scipio. Both were obviously very talented, but also very troubled individuals, who were rebels, if not reformers in their setting. Against this background of very strong, if still quite different kind of, family pressure on them, one can find ideas and insights for their exceptional careers and exceptional deeds.

Five misconceptions about Romans and a bloody story

Roman culture has been and is a popular background for projecting different kind of human concepts. It’s conveniently far away in time to contain so much alien and unknown elements, yet close enough to encourage us to think we understand it because our own culture is so much alike. This has brought about interpretations of Roman culture that are very dependent on the time and culture they are made in. Most of these are pretty harmless as long as they remain isolated, opinionated, sometimes even insightful and inspiring speculations, but sometimes some of them surface as popular beliefs and can have a bad effect on the overall understanding of Roman culture.

A story of L. Postumius Albinus (cos 234) illustrates some very deep rooted popular misconceptions about republican era Roman culture. Albinus belonged into the very powerful family of Postumii Albini. Something about the status of their family can be observed from that the Albinus became a consul at the same year as his father (cos 242) became a censor. His election as consul is actually the first popular misconception that I want to address. The thing is that Albinus hadn’t been a praetor before he became a consul, so he advanced his career outside cursus honorum. The cursus was not always followed.

Roman culture and Roman state did contain some exceptionally long-lived and rigid structures, but we also must be careful in not to overestimate their importance. Cursus honorum is one of the traits of Roman system that is very consistently followed through the centuries of republic and by thousands of individuals and it is indeed one of the defining characteristics in life for countless of Romans for centuries. Still there are exceptions to the rule, as Albinus being elected as consul before being elected as praetor.

However, they are more than exceptions, they also tell that Romans were not as systematic and incapable of straining the rules as sometimes is thought. To illustrate this, we need to take a look at when Albinus became a praetor: it was at 233. That is the next year from his consulship. Usually you had to take three year interval before being elected into next post. Albinus did not even one year off, and advanced into wrong direction in cursus. In fact, in Albinus’ case we can disregard the ideal of cursus honorum. This doesn’t mean that we would have to dump the cursus honorum -concept altogether, nor does it take any importance of it away, but it shows that we need to be careful when projecting interpretations back to the past – we must not become obsessed with imposing generalisations into historical indviduals and their lives.

Albinus was a military commander throughout his career. During his consulship of 234 he fought against Ligurians. During his second consulship at 229 he commanded the land army in the first Illyrian war while his consular colleague commanded the navy. This brings us to the second popular misconception. It is the provinces. Instead of calling them provinces, we should call them commands. For the Romans the provinces were not coloured areas of map (map is by the way is the third popular misconception), but instead military commands that were given by the Senate. The commander held imperium (right of command), limits of which were described when making the appointment. It might be geographical limits, but it might be anything else too.

During the second consulship of Albinus Romans had only one geographical province, Sicilia, and the second one Corsica et Sardinia was established at 227. Instead of thinking provinces as geographical administrative units or sub-divisions of civil administration, we should think them as temporary or occupied areas administration units, that are military administration by nature. This should break the illusion of Rome as 19th or 20th century nation state obsessed by areas drawn into geographically correct maps. Romans did not have any equivalent of the geographically correct maps we have. Their maps were itinary descriptions or symbolic representations of geographical shapes.

Roman provincial administration was also much more independent from the cursus honorum than it is very often thought. The fourth popular misconception (this time not illustrated by the career of Albinus) are the titles of Roman governors of provinces. As we like to view provinces as part of permanent civil administration instead of temporary military administration, we also like to think the titles of Roman governors as tied into cursus tightly. The popular view is that after being a praetor one would become a propraetor of a province and after being a consul one becomes a proconsul of a province. This is completely wrong. One could be a proconsul before elected as a consul. The title is not tied into individual cursus honorum, but as a level of imperium needed at each command. Most important provinces (e.g. close to enemy or rich in annual taxes) were commands where a consular level imperium was needed – this was mainly decided by the size of the army the commander had in his command. In short, governor titles were military commander ranks, not continuity of individuals advancement in civil offices.

But back to Albinus, he was given after his second consulship an extension to his command in Illyria as proconsul because he commanded a 20 000 strong army. His task was to end the war and make peace after his successful campaign. Illyrian queen Teuta agreed to peace which made Illyria as a puppet state of Rome. For an unknown reason Albinus did not recieve a triumph for his victories even while his consular colleague did. After this we don’t know anything about Albinus’ life until 216.

The second Punic war started at 218 and Romans suffered huge losses at the first two years of war. One of the largest defeats was at Cannae, where Hannibal destroyed a Roman army of strength about 60 000 men. This Roman defeat was seen as an opportunity by different Roman allies to switch sides and perhaps gain something from Roman weakness. One of the tribes that declared for Hannibal was the tribe of Boii, which resided in North Italy.

The Boii were a strong tribe, though no danger to Rome alone, but in the circumstances a threat that had to be dealt with. Rome however was weakend for the defeats and had a lack of experienced military commanders. So Albinus was elected as preator, while being absent from Rome, and given a command against Boii for 216. Again it is unsual to be elected into lower magistracy after being a consul. Nevertheless, Albinus fought victoriously and was elected, again in absentia, as consul for 215.

Albinus was returning into Rome in order to assume his third consulship, when he was ambushed in a forest by the Boii. Albinus tried to escape, but was surrounded and killed. The Boii cut his head off and covered the scalp with gold. The skull was used as a drinking cup in the main temple of the Boii during sacrifices by the Boii priest and ministers of the temple.

Albinus’ death and the usage of his skull as sacrificial bowl illustrates the fifth misconception I want to address, and let me return to the thoughts of the beginning of this text while doing so. What were Albinus’ last thoughts? Did he think about his wife and children? Did he curse for the gods? Did his life and career fly past his eyes? Was he disappointed, angry? We do not know. Our sources are silent. Also how he died? In heroic battle? On his knees begging for mercy? Did he suffer long, did he have time to reflect? Again we do not know. This is why it is so easy for us to plant our own conceptions into events and individuals of the Roman history. We are tempted to depict individuals as heros or villains because with so much we don’t know it is easy to give the imagination the control. Also it is so easy to ignore the richness and variety of past cultures. Making a drinking cup out of enemy leaders skull sound definitely alien to us. If such a different culture existed in the Roman era, is not then also possible that the Roman culture itself was also in many profound ways alien and different from our own? We must be extra careful regarding the Roman culture and history because we do not know enough and parts we think we can safely guess or fill in with generalisations might not be safe at all – we must take our guard against self-evident.

A coin with an aqueduct

A denarius issued at year 56 depicts a head of a man on one side and an equesterian statue over aqueduct on other side.

A bust of Ancus Marcius, behind Lituus augurum with text ANCVS.

On the other side text PHILIPPVS, an equesterian statue and aqueduct with text AQUAMR.

This is an extremely interesting piece of evidence from the last decades of the Roman republic. First of all this little coin can tell us a lot about how Romans constructed the history of their republic and more importantly their family. It also is about constructing an image for political purposes. And still it reveals us an interesting fact about one group of families.

Let’s start with the coin itself. The head belongs to ancient Roman king Ancus Marcius, as the text ANCVS tells us, there is practically no other alternative.

The text on the other side says PHILIPPVS, and with great certainity means that moneyer was L. Marcius Philippus, as even though we do not know exactly who this moneyer Philippus was and to whom he was related, the links to the family of Marcii on the coin are so evident, that moneyer had to be a Marcius Philippus, and with Lucius being first choice of praenomen in amongst the Marcii Philippi of the era, it’s safe to assume it as a praenomen here too.

What is interesting is the equesterian statue and aqueduct. The text on the aqueduct says AQUAMR (or AQUA MAR with ligatur), that is Aqua Marcia, a aqueduct of Rome built by Q. Marcius Rex (praetor of 144) about a century before the issuing this coin. It is also very probable that the equesterian on top of the aqueduct is the same Q. Marcius Rex as he had a statue at the end of Aqua Marcia.

So we have a coin depicting Rome’s fourth king and honouring Q. Marcius Rex issued century later by a L. Marcius Philippus.

Choosing a legandary king as motive for coin is not that peculiar, the obvious message being that the Marcii are ancient family with roots as long as the Rome itself. Certainly we don’t have any evidence for this claim, and most propably not everyone believed it even when the coin was issued, but we do not have any evidence actually against it either. In any case it was a claim that believable enough to be used in this very public way back in its time.

What is peculiar here is that Marcius Philippus has chosen to honour a Marcius Rex, a very distant relative as the Marcii Philippi and Marcii Regi had not had blood relations for at least four generations! It is not even certain that a blood relation actually existed, but perhaps we could assume there had been one.

The branches of the Marcii: Censorini, Figuli, Philippi and Regi.

The branches of the Marcii: Censorini, Figuli, Philippi and Regi.

Here is a diagram of the branches of the Marcii families: Philippi, Figuli, Regi and Censorini. Philippi and Figuli are somewhat close branches at 50’s with common ancestor within 4-5 generations back in the family. But there isn’t such connection between these two branches and the other branches of Marcii.

Is this coin a cheap trick to use the fame of the Regi branch by a Philippus? I think this is unlikely explanation as the Romans were very much family orientated and all the networks they belonged underlined the importance of family connections so it doesn’t seem probable that people wouldn’t recognise the difference between a Marcius Philippus and a Marcius Rex.

Perhaps a more probable explanation runs along the lines that the coin is a conscious effort to play down the differences between the two branches and tell the general public that they stand united. This is not common in the republican era Rome. Much more often the branches are quite clearly separated and have not that much to do with each other. Perhaps we should see the Marcii as an exception of this rule?

One way to approach this question is to look the list of consulships of the members of the different branches of the Marcii at this era:

Q. Marcius Rex was consul at 118
L. Marcius Philippus was consul at 91
Q. Marcius Rex was consul at 68
C. Marcius Figulus was consul at 64
L. Marcius Philippus was consul at 56

At the 60’s and 50’s there is a decade with three Marcii as consuls, so certainly this group of families was a formidable group at the era. Still the years in office do not follow each other so closely that any far-reaching support for any exceptional unity of the Marcii can be found.

However, when we look at the marriages between Marcii and other families, we note an interesting connection: marriages with Claudii Pulchri. The father of consul of 91 Philippus was married with Claudia, who was a daughter of Ap. Claudius Pucher, consul of 143. Q. Marcius Rex, consul of 68, was also married with Claudia, daughter of Ap. Claudius Pulcher, consul of 79, and his mother was Caecilia Metella, who was a daughter of Q. Caecilius Metellus Balearicus, consul of 123.

Now, if we examine the links between Marcii branches with Claudii Pulchri and Caecilii Metelli, there is a pattern to be seen in the list of consulships:

119: L. Caecilius Metellus Dalmaticus
118: Q. Marcius Rex
117: L. Caecilius Metellus DIadematus
92: C. Claudius Pulcher
91: L. Marcius Philippus
80: Q. Caecilius Metellus Pius
79: Ap. Claudius Pulcher
69: Q. Caecilius Metellus Creticus
68: L. Caecilius Metellus and Q. Marcius Rex
64: C. Marcius Figulus
57: Q. Caecilius Metellus Nepos
56: L. Marcius Philippus
38: Ap. Claudius Pulcher and L. Marcius Philippus

There is a clearly many generations long cooperation between these families, with key being the relationship between Metelli and Regi with common connection to Claudii Pulchri. In the family relationships diagram it looks like this:

Family links between Caecilii Metelli, Claudi Pulchri and different branches of Marcii.

Family links between Caecilii Metelli, Claudi Pulchri and different branches of Marcii.

So what this amounts to is that to understand, why a Marcius Philippus at the 50’s wanted to endorse Marcius Rex, is that they are part of the same network of connections, that formed an important power block in the Roman politics at the 60’s and 50’s, when political turmoil was increasing in Rome. Still this makes the connection between the distantly related families an exceptionally close one and the denarius in question here is an important and interesting piece of concrete evidence we have for this relationship.

Why this wasn´t scandalous for Romans?

One aspect that is quite alien in Roman political culture to us is clear and blatant nepotism. Fathers favour their own sons, their nephews, their cousins etc. One example of this are the praetorships of the year 208. During those times there were four praetors elected annually. Two of the praetors ruled the Roman provinces, of which there were only two at the time: Sicilia and Sardinia. One praetor presided the highest law cases within the city (praetor urbanus) and one praetor presided law cases between non-citizens and citizens (praetor peregrinus). Praetor urbanus was also in effect the most powerful magistrate after consuls and had the power to convene the senate when both consuls were absent from the city.

Being elected praetor was also the final step before consulship, which was the crown of political career. Of course not every praetor could reach consulship, because there were four praetors and only two consuls each year.

In the 208 two of the praetors were P. Licinius Varus and P. Licinius Crassus Dives. Licinii Vari and Licinii Crassi were closely related at those times to each other. In fact, our praetores here shared a common grandfather and their fathers were thus brothers.

For Romans cousins grabbing a half of available praetorships of the year was not scandalous nor a thing to avoid. There are numerous similar occurrances where close relatives have shared power and arranged positions for each other in the elections. Typical was also to aid daughters husband or his close relatives and vice versa.

Republican era Rome was a society where there were no social services nor public organisations to keep one alive. Survival depended on one´s ability to interact between different groups one belonged or was connected otherwise to.

If you were a low-born, you had to find more rich and powerful patrons to help you along. If you were a high-born, you had to be able to gather enough low-born supporters and to ally with other high-born. Annual magistrates decided the fate of socity in general and also being a magistrate was an ultimate way to ensure ones survival at least for a year. Arranging your allies into power next year was a way to prolong the survival for longer. And it was also one and only chance of doing so, when someone else was in power, anything might happen.

Roman society was very networked one. From lowest to highest level there were numerous networks and communities one belonged to: family, extended family, marriage arrangements, political movements, priestly collegiae, private and public religious cults, burial societies, census groups, voting tribes, street districts… One had to know whom to know and in general know a lot of people in order to survive.

In such a society it is only natural and understandable that you shared power with your friends and allies and arranged things in order them to follow after you in the highest places of society.

This was one of the challenges I faced when I started to reading about Roman history. How to understand how and why the Roman society worked as it did. It also is a continuous challenge when reading about Roman history. How to avoid judging, how to avoid being overtly righteous when encountering things that would considered scandalous should they happen in our society? It is so easy to judge Roman republic as a laughable excuse for a democracy. It is so easy to look downward and provide an explanation of past cultures being so uncivilized or underdeveloped that they didn’t know of better alternatives of setting up society. It is also easy to claim that they lacked learning or knowledge. For our culture it is so very natural to believe in progress and that in the future things are better than they were in the past.

Past is an alien culture always. It is easy to say and pretty easy even to understand in general level, but it is also one of the hardest challenges there are for us trying to understand a culture of more than 2000 years past. Roman culture had something in common with our own, but in general level there are more differences than similarities. These differences show both in superficial things, like clothes the Romans liked to wear, but also at very deep levels: sexual morals, mental settings and even as deep as in the emotions. Romans for example did not have similar concept of shame as we have. Our concept of shame becomes from judeo-christian culture. At every possible level of understanding and viewing the world, Romans were different from us. Not lower or higher, but simply different.

It takes years of practice to distance oneself from one´s own values, even to understand one´s values and reasons behind them. Only then one can start really understanding the Roman culture and society. Understanding of course doesn’t include liking or supporting, only understanding. This is also a great challenge for communicating anything about Roman history or culture: how to formulate ones thoughts into written or spoken form in order to create understanding instead of promoting a judgement? After all it is the duty of historian to do justice for the individuals and events of the past, not to judge them or use them as involuntary parts of a modern day argument.

I would like to suggest a method of teaching ancient culture and history. It revolves around this concept of understanding and reflecting cultural differences, as a starting point of learning about ancient cultures. For example making a short essay about how Roman concept of family or elections differ in our own concepts of them. Seeking first cultural differences and similarities could provide a fruitful and easy way into the very fascinating era and its cultures. For chronology and periodization there are plenty of time later on, first thing would be start understanding the cultural aspect. This approach should work very well at any level of education.

And even in wider pedagogical context: learning about cultural differences between our own and a past culture could help also to understand cultural differences of our own era!

Why this blog?

After some comments and discussions about this blog, I think I should answer the question why I’m writing this blog.

There is no one big reason, but many smaller ones.

One thing is that I have been interested in starting a blog ever since they were called weblogs or online diaries some 15 years ago. Facebook came along nicely to fill that need in many ways: I felt there is no idea of keeping up a personal website, blog and an online photo gallery added to Facebook. Facebook and LinkedIN answer all the needs in that respect for my private and professional life. Perhaps also that I have ever since 1997 been constantly involved in keeping up several websites of different purposes and in different roles, I have not really yearned to add my workload by keeping up a personal website. But still, there has been a spark in my mind, that I would like to keep up a blog.

Subject matter. About what I would like to have a blog about? Well, there are number of themes I could and I would be interested in to write. Political commentary, political satire, philosophy, music videos, ancient Roman culture and history, Cicero, military history, cultural history, advertising, communications, Apple products, food / desserts, scale models, cafes of Helsinki, Art galleries of Helsinki… Some of the themes that I’m interested in are heavily covered already both in web and blogosphere. That necessarily doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t add ones share there, but still it’s a thing to consider. I also felt that by taking too wide focus, I couldn’t decide about what to write – I need a framework. So a narrow focus it would be, nevermind the subject.

Last Spring I found out a new approach into opening my own blog. I asked myself by accident, that: what kind of blog I would like to read myself? That gave me an instant answer: I would like to follow a blog about republican era Roman nobility, which aims for historical accuracy, and in which every post would be easy to approach even for those who haven’t studied Roman history. Well, that was how I got the idea for this blog.

Why bother writing? That was partially answered by the subject: there are very few reliable secondary sources about the noble Roman families and their culture available online. The information currently online for general public is sadly of so low quality that I think it’s more often harmful than useful. So by providing information of better quality I would actually do something meaningful as well.

My main motivation however comes from the fact that as I wonder through the noble families in my research, I constantly come across interesting bits of Roman history and culture that I think are worth sharing. I do not think that every posting will be interesting for every possible reader this blog might have – I’ll leave it to the reader to choose what to read.

Also as much as I need a narrow focus I also need freedom, so you are going to see postings of different style. Some will be lighter or even gossipy, some more theorhetical heavy stuff. Consider that as a matter of literary principle, if you like. My take on historical research and relation of this blog to it are a bit the same. I have my own approach to history and historical research, not perhaps to be overstated, but not to be understated either. While this blog reflects in some aspects about my ideology for writing history, it doesn’t do it 100% faithfully. And while I have my own approach I want to underline that I do not feel myself compeating or preaching against any other approach – I think there is a room in this world for many voices.

For whom is this blog aimed for? For anyone who finds it interesting. I don’t think I’m writing a scholary blog nor I consider myself popularizing. I welcome comments and would love to have discussions about different families, politics of the late Roman republic and of course discussion about primary and secondary sources.

That is the long answer about why this blog exists, what it’s about and for whom it is aimed for.

Behind the scenes of ancient Roman history research

Amount of disinformation about ancient Roman history is staggering. I have noticed that one cannot rely on any small or larger detail to be correct. The problem is very pointed in Wikipedia and in online information in general. Don’t use Wikipedia to search for information about Roman history. That’s very sad thing to say, but it’s just so.

Also a very sad thing is that when reading about Roman history, the books are hardly any more reliable. Google books for instance is marvellous thing, but as the books digitized there are not qualified anyhow on their accuracy, you basically end up with the same problem as with Wikipedia: information available is random at quality and never can be trusted without own research.

For example when I read about Fulvii Flacci and came across the story of Quarta Hostilia I became curious and wanted to learn more about her. What is first thing one does then? Googles. And what I got as results?

First a French Wikipedia article, which is far more about females who have poisoned someone at ancient Greece and Rome.

Second, a respectable and reliable looking site ”Facts on file, History database search”.

Third, Google books.

Facts on file site article says it is from a book ”A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women” which is in fact the very same book that Google books offers. So with a quick look that’s the most influental source on the web at this moment about Quarta Hostilia.

What does it say then? I’ll quote it here full:

”Quarta Hostilia’s second husband, the consul Gaius Calpurnius Piso, died in 180 BCE and rumors circulated that Hostilia had poisoned him. Her motive was said to have been a desire for the advancement of Quintus Fulvius Flaccus, the son of her first husband, also Quintus Fulvius Flaccus, who had been consul four times. Twice the younger Quintus Fulvius Flaccus had failed to be elected consul. Witnesses came forward to testify that Hostilia had upbraided him for his failure and pressed him to try again. She assured him that the next time he would succeed. Her son became consul in 179, succeeding his deceased stepfather. Hostilia was convicted of poisoning her husband.

Sources: Livy. From the Founding of the City 40.37.1–7.”

It looks accurate and reliable, it even mentions primary source. But actually, the text of Livius does not contain same facts:

”The death of the consul aroused the strongest suspicion. He is said to have been murdered by his wife, Quarta Hostilia. When her son Q. Fulvius Flaccus was declared consul in place of his step-father, the death of Piso aroused much greater misgivings. Witnesses came forward who asserted that after Albinus and Piso had been declared consuls, Flaccus having been defeated in the election was reproached by his mother for having failed three times in his candidature for the consulship, and she went on to say that she was getting ready to canvass and would manage in less than two months to have him made consul. Amongst much other evidence bearing on the case this utterance of hers, which was only too truly confirmed by what followed, did most to secure her condemnation.” (translation Canon Roberts 1905)

Note that Livius does not say that Quarta Hostilia would have been married with Q. Fulvius Flaccus, nor that the Q. Fulvius Flaccus would have been Q. Fulvius M.f. C.n. Flaccus, the consul of 237, 224, 212 and 209. And that is indeed impossible, because the consul of the year 180 is Q. Fulvius Cn.f. M.n. Flaccus and since Quarta Hostilia according to Livius is his mother, Quarta Hostilia cannot have been married to Quintus, but Gnaeus Fulvius Flaccus.

How do we know that? We have on the other hand the story by Livius, which says that Q. Fulvius Flaccus is the son of Quarta Hostilia. Then we need to check the list of Roman consuls. Primary source for this is the Fasti Capitolini Consulares, list of Roman consuls by year. You can find it online and in books in numerous places, here is one. Check the year 180. It says that Q. Fulvius Cn.f. M.n. Flaccus is elected in place of Piso, who died during his office. The handy Roman way to include filiation in the name, in this case Cn.f. M.n. (Gnae fili, Marci nepos – son of Gnaeus, grandson of Marcus), tells us that his mother must have been married to Gnaeus Fulvius Flaccus, and therefore any Quintus Fulvius Flaccus cannot have been the father of consul suffectus of the year 180.

So the name of husband of Quarta Hostilia is clearly wrong at the A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women, and what is more worrying, the article does not indicate from where it has got this false information, certainly not from Livius, although it says so in the end of the article!

But it is not the only false information at the article. Article says ”twice the younger Q. Fulvius Flaccus had failed to be elected consul”, but Livius says ”having been failed three times in his candidature for the consulship”.

And finally the article says ”her son became consul in 179 succeeding his deceased stepfather”. This isn’t correct either. Son of Quarta Hostilia and Cn. Fulvius Flaccus became consul suffectus at 180, not following year 179. At 179 consul was Q. Fulvius Q.f. M.n Flaccus, son of Quintus. Again this shows in Fasti Capitolini. And again Livius does not say so as the article claims it to say!

This is very good example of the incorrect information about Roman history. Not only does the article at the A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Women contain imaginary information, but also it attributes this information for a primary source falsely. I cannot understand why people do this! After all, in the article it would have been very easy to say e.g. ”the son of her first husband, who was perhaps Q. Fulvius Flaccus” and then the reader would immediately know, that here is not information from Livius, but a pure guess (educated or not). Or even better still: to present correct information, that can be found e.g. from Realencyclopädie der Classischen Altertumswissenschaft (halbband 16) that has been published already a hundred years ago at 1913!

Of course, any serious research wouldn’t use as its source A to Z kind of book, but that is not my concern here. What I am deeply concerned about is that this A to Z of Ancient Greek and Roman Woman crap is the leading online authority (by way of visibility at the Google results) on the subject and it has basically all the facts wrong. So anyone who is not making a research is likely to read this purely imaginative account of the A to Z or Facts on File website and believe it to be at least fairly accurate.

And yes, Quarta Hostilia and her husbands and sons are not anyhow important in the grand scope of Roman history, but the problem is that any information you come across online about Roman history or historical persons of Roman era can be as false as the poor article about Quarta Hostilia. Practically every time I check things from Wikipedia about Roman era I come across similar mistakes!