Robert Harris writes very engaging novels based on historical events. Lustrum tells the tale of the great Roman orator Cicero, from the period when he was seen a saviour of the Roman Republic, to the time just a few years later when he was exiled from Rome by populist forces. The story is written from the perspective of Cicero’s secretary Tiro.
The story articulates well the threat to the Republic coming from the influx of money and veterans from the victorious generals Pompey in the East and Julius Caesar in the West. The hapless senators of the home Republic are increasingly subject to the machinations of these men, making Rome increasingly ungovernable.
One figure stands out in this story – the ambitious, ruthless, implacable Julius Caesar, clearly destined for power and apparently unwilling to share it with anyone else. Cicero recognised the threat, but was in the end unable to do anything about it.
I also read Dictator, the third volume of Harris’s Cicero trilogy, but found it a bit of an anticlimax as it tries to make sense of the complex events that followed, from Cicero’s exile from Rome to his death 15 years later – as Rome subsided from rule by the triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus into civil war, leading of course to the dictatorship of Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire.
Featured image is 16C bust of Julius Caesar by Andrea di Pietro di Marco Ferrucci.
Why did the Roman Empire collapse? Kyle Harper’s very readable book The Fate of Rome makes a persuasive case that this was much to do with climate change and epidemic disease, both of which were consequences of the process of Empire itself.
It is salutary to reflect that such a political system is a process that has consequences on its environment and its citizens and their well-being. The parallels with today’s climate change and threatening global pandemic are obvious.
We could see this fatalistically in cataclysmic terms, or we can see it optimistically as being a story in need of constant renewal and redirection. It’s our choice.
After visiting Aix la Chapelle / Aachen, capital of the Holy Roman Empire around 800, it seemed appropriate to also visit Trèves / Trier around 100 miles to the south. Trèves was conquered by the Romans in the time of Emperor Augustus around 16BC, when it got its name Augusta Treverorum. Trèves became one of the leading cities of the Roman Empire, and eventually in the 4th century oversaw much of the Western part of that Empire – that Charlemagne re-established 400 years later.
The most impressive Roman remain here is the Porta Nigra, built in 170AD, the best preserved Roman City Gate north of the Alps. This is a massive structure, a clear demonstration of power, but hardly beautiful.
I understand that we owe the current restored state of the gate to another Emperor, Napoleon.
Nearby in the attractive city centre is the cathedral, said to have been originally commissioned by Emperor Constantine, but clearly most of it is much more recent. It’s a nice enough cathedral to explore, along with its cloisters and the neighbouring Liebfrauenkirche.
There are more Roman remains in Trier, but we didn’t tarry long. Traffic problems seemed even more intense than in the UK. We headed for France!
The first image of the gate is from Wikimedia Commons, thanks to Berthold Werner
How did the Renaissance begin? If we knew that, it would surely be useful in understanding what is needed for a New Renaissance. Well here’s a book that claims to give an answer: The Swerve: How the Renaissance Began by Stephen Greenblatt.
In a way, it does, although I suspect this is a gross over-simplification. Roughly, the story is that a very clever man Poggio Bracciolini, one time right hand man of a disgraced pope, discovered and had copied key texts that had been preserved over the centuries by monks regularly copying manuscripts.
The key text, De Rerum Natura (On The Nature of Things), by Roman philosopher/poet Lucretius contained explosive ideas that, once they began to circulate, overcame the stranglehold of the church on European ideas and led to the explosion of creativity that was the Renaissance.
In particular they directly influenced men such as Marsilio Ficino, Botticelli, Raphael, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Thomas More, Machiavelli, Montaigne, Shakespeare, Francis Bacon, Dryden, Isaac Newton, Darwin, Thomas Jefferson, and on and on…Read More »