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The Roman Republic is one of the most popular topics of historical study and is built on the basis of Western Civilization foundations laid by the Greeks and Ancient Near Eastern empires. While synthesizing important elements from their predecessor, the Romans imposed their distinct outlook and attitude onto the Mediterranean basin during the empire building and maintenance of the Imperial era. Many political institutions derive great inspiration from the constitutional republican form of government that was advanced prior the emperors, most notably our country’s own constitution takes great inspiration with an Enlightenment attitude in crafting the framework of a federal republic. Besides being a more stable form of government than the democracy of Athens, a single city-state that need to only worry over the governing of a city, the republic was a more encompassing and forceful way of supporting a city that seeked to conquer and incorporate its neighbors and grow as a state with multiple large regions. The Republic that the Romans devised provides centuries worth of case studies in how power can be balanced between different parties, and many examples of how the concentration and immoral use of power could have disastrous effects of not only a few deaths of rivals, but on the suffering of the population at large if power was not held in the purpose to serve the public well. In order to understand how a system was set up address the nuances of power, and those who sought honor to advance themselves within the system, we will be looking at how Romans differed in their conceptualizing of time, space, and class distinctions, and how those differences and similarities still remain with us today.
Analyzing the way that Romans thought of and organized space and time is imperative to understanding how those aspects influenced how they operated in and defined their culture. The Romans had a much different view of time than what we do now, and held a much more utilitarian view of history. One of the points that Dupont makes is that the Romans’ year is divided into two seasons, winter and summer, instead of the four that we think of in the more northerly latitudes. This is partly to do with the Italian peninsula and the Mediterranean being closer to the equator than the rest of Europe and North America, where the closer you get to the poles the more the angle of the earth affects the degree of light the latitude is afforded. The months of October through March made up winter, which was was the resting season, in which the Romans stayed close to home and where political contests were duked out in the city for all to witness. The months of November and December were when the annual elections were held for magistracies and the politicians are zealously canvassing the city for votes. Much of modern day canvassing that exists in the present day has its roots in the Republic. Graffiti on who to vote for covers the alleyways much like that of bumper stickers on the back of cars, and ceramics filed with treats (water, wine, oatmeal) have messages urging who to vote for etched in the curvature of the bowls. In contrast, the summer was a time for exertion, when the season was synonymous with military campaigns and tending plots of land out in the countryside in preparation for planting and cultivation. April through September offered the best weather which was dry enough for armies to march through, dig ditches and set up camp, and to rely on towns along the campaign trail for extra nourishment, which would have not been wise to do so during the winter months. Dupont notes that it was strange for a summer to go by without the undertaking of a military campaign, and was seen as an extended winter due to the feeling of retirement. This made a great many men of prime military age quite antsy the rare instances in which the summer was not used for expanding the empire. When not engaging in battle and tending to the farm, the rustic life was viewed as pretty relaxed compared to life as a soldier, even though farming is very much considered work. This dualistic view of a time for work and a time for relaxation is also seen in the division of the day. Romans rose early and had just enough of a breakfast to work the land in the morning and early afternoon, breaking for a noon meal of bread to keep the work going until late afternoon and the lowering of the sun in the sky was achieved. The latter half of the day was dedicated towards relaxing and enjoying rest. It is considered unseemly to continue rest since it is expected that that you exert all your energy in the beginning of the day and can not properly resume work until you have recreated, reconnected with fellow human beings, and gotten some sleep. One of the rituals most happily engaged in were Romans inviting over guests and friends to share dinner at home, and the post providing entertainment and sumptuous food as much as he could afford. The mark of a good Roman was showering friends and colleagues with wealth, so as to spread goodwill throughout the social network. Nothing was more disgraceful than a Roman citizen (especially of means) holing up in their home eating dinner alone. Not having a dinner invitation to accept or night of hosting was seen as very hermit-like. The Roman citizen was first and foremost a social being, and being civilized meant being a part of the fabric of city life, associating with various kinds of groups - at the very least the family you’re born into - and the religious cult or neighborhood you are a part of. The prioritization of rest was so deeply regarded in the Roman culture that days were designated feast days (dies festus) and work days (dies profestus). The public could expect theater and the circus to be made available by the government and organized by the aediles.
Not only were the Romans concerned with how their years and days were structured, but they had a great apprehension for the beginning of new undertakings. They placed great importance on how the beginning sets the tone for the rest of the journey, and they regarded signs that appear in the moment but are not recognized for what they really are until later were also greatly analyzed.
The way Romans conceptualized space is also worth comparing to our contemporary modern society. The Romans were a highly social people and thought of privacy differently than we do today. This is reflected in their open floor plans of the the home, in which the atrium was only partially roofed, and the front door was open to most everyone so that the head of household could receive as many guests as would show up. The atrium was where the “family tree” was displayed, however it was not the all encompassing family tree that we imagine today. Ancestors who brought honor and dignitas to the family by accomplishing extraordinary deed or by holding the same or higher office as those ancestors who came before him were enshrined on the wall. It was common for an ancestor to be added after the omittance of two generations in a row, thereby a grandfather followed by a great grandson. The most prominent example of this is Marcus Cato the Elder, and his great grandson Cato the Younger. The atrium was the most public part of the house, and as you moved past the atrium the rooms became smaller and more enclosed, where privacy was bestowed on the women and children. Men spend a minimal amount of time in their sleeping quarters since it was unseemly to not spend your time being social and in public during the prime years. The socialness and primac of the city was central to Rome being regarded as the center of the world and where all roads led to. In the center, at the top of Capitoline Hill, resides the temple dedicated to Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the deity that the Romans held the highest regard for, since he was the master the sky domain and wielder of lightning and thunderbolts. Rome was the continual home base in which war plunder was brought back to, and within the city limits where every soldier was required to dismantle their military gear and return to civilian life. Rome, like many other cosmopolitan areas, was susceptible to cultural synthesis of peoples who migrated from foreign lands (whether voluntarily and through the slave trade) as well as ideas. The gods and belief systems of those who had been defeated in combat frequently made their way into the city and acquired their own followings as new cults. Most notably the Bacchus cult, which can be interpreted as a version of Dionysus, where many women were attracted to drinking alcohol (since it was seen as respectable to do so for a woman during this time) and dance and partake in sexual liberties that were usually seen as taboo. Like all other societies, the Romans had distinct ideas of how to conceptualize boundaries and the frontiers. The “first” month of our year, January, is named after the Roman god Janus, keeper of boundaries, which may or may not include gateways. Another closely related figure was that of Terminus, who was the god of “Every Roman space . . . defined by a boundary that took the form not of an abstract line clearly marking off different territories, but rather an intermediate zone at which people had to perform rites of passage,” (Dupont, 83). This is deeply embodied in the boundary stone market and the accompanying ritual that neighbors participated in. At the edge of properties, a boundary marker etched with the owner’s name is placed, and during the 23rd of February neighbors of touching properties would meet each other not in dispute, but to lay out laurels on each other’s boundary stones and offer cake. Both would co-host a banquet in honor of their being neighbors, which highlighted the positive bond of a relationship that could have easily been contentious and full of rivalry instead. As is noted frequently in the study of history, the most bitterest of enemies are not those that live far from you, but those that you can’t get along with that live in close proximity to you. The Romans observed the duality of neighboring parties and the precarious relationship that is defined by the bond of any two people or groups, and being repeating this ritual annually, recognized that in every relationship there needs to be a mutual effort of respect and overtures of friendliness made on a continual basis, at least formally every year. This ideology extended to non-citizens visiting Rome, and were recognized as either guests or enemies. The Latin words for both, hospes and hostis respectively, share the same root. Whenever a boundary was violated by an enemy, the only way the transgression can be rectified is by making war. The Romans were indefatigable in their quest for victory in all wars they undertook, no matter no how many battles they lost. The idea of boundaries being protected by warmaking is thus extended to estates being “ritually enclosed” by “Mars, the god of war, and of the sacred circle,” (Dupont, 84). The head of the estate would make an appeal to the god, requesting the protection of his “family, slaves, herds, fields, and himself,” (Dupont, 84). In order to cross the boundaries safely and not to jinx the day, journey, or ritual undertaking beginning at the crossing of one space into the the next, the Romans put great weight on speaking the right words at the right time, to dispelling the hostility an individual might still harbor. If there were any signs that portended ominous signs are supposedly signaled a bad start, it was important to delay the start until a more suitable time.
The differences in wealth were marked by many things, not the least which were space. People with little means who moved to the great city of Rome usually rented a small room in one of the many insulae, which were famously decrepit, poorly ventilated, and prone to fire and collapse. Insulae were predecessors to our modern apartment complexes, since they were constructed to take as much advantage of the physical space as possible so as to cram in more people. Rome growing outward as a city only had so much it could go before core groups of citizens, namely the rich and elite, would complain that the outer reaches of Rome would no longer be Rome, thus the need to make more use of vertical space that a single or two story building simply does not accomplish on its own. Prior to Julius Caesar’s beautification of the city, it had grown considerably, maniacally, and haphazardly, with little planning outside of the the Forum. This contributed to an all around chaotic feeling that permeated throughout the city, and gives foundation to the Roman dream of reaching old age and retiring on a plot of land to farm and tend way out in the countryside and away from the ever buzzing cityscape of Rome. The Roman dream of a citizen being fully independent was contingent upon being a property owner. If you were leasing land or renting an apartment, you were at the mercy of a landlord who could easily find ways to mistreat and drain of you of what little money you had. Even worse was to get caught up in debts, which could easily wind an individual up in slavery in an effort to pay the creditors back. Rome being an ancient society fully accepted slavery as an inevitable aspect of life, and built its institutions around relying on slave labor for a significant amount of the work to be done and to purposely keep the economy reliant on man power instead of the potential ill effects of technology creating work shortage and unemployment for free folk, or depreciation of prices crippling critical sectors of livelihood (agriculture has been susceptible numerous times throughout history, a comparatively recent example being the milk industry during the Great Depression). However, the way slavery was done in practice differs from that of American slavery substantially. It was not race based, since the the way we understand race is largely formulated in the early 17th century and onwards. Slaves were often people who sold themselves to make up for debts they had accumulated against their creditors, were abandoned children of those who could not or did not want to take on a child for financial, physical deformities. Being born female was considered a severe disadvantage since they could not hold a job that brought in income like a male, and needed to have a dowry provided for in the event of them being married off to a different family. Hence, prostitution rarely had want for a work force and slaves kept the brothels full and staffed. However, many slaves were employed essentially as personal assistant/secretaries, keeping the important documents and accounting in order while attending to other personal matters as the master saw fit. Slaves could even apprentice at a useful trade with their master’s permission, and they were frequently contracted out to others upon completion of the apprenticeship. Depending upon the master, slaves could complete side projects for his own personal profit, a share of which was due to the master. Slaves were frequently able to save up earnings this way to buy their freedom. Once the master agreed to buy the slave’s freedom, the freedman was still obligated to act as a client their former master, now turned patron. This is strange to us as Americans, since slaves who achieved freedom and were able to be self sufficient frequently cut ties with former owners and moved far way to be away from former oppressors. Slaves who achieved freed status in American society, which frequently exports that liberty is one of it’s core values, buttressed by a rugged individualism, saw whatever had been owed to their formed masters as now wiped clean. The continued relationship between the master and slave to that of a patron and client speaks to the strong social ties that Romans simply could sever. Social ties were life, and cutting out any one of them spelled out suicide.
It’s difficult to remember that everything we experience in life is not something to be taken for granted as normal, but to realize that what we see and think is dependent upon our own previous thinking, training, education, and experiences coloring and informing what we are currently processing, the positionality that we occupy when surveying scene. All of this varies from one individual to the next, but what we are able to see in the greater context as a society can still be significantly different from a society that is only the next neighbor over. Therefore, one of the greatest insights that we can learn from a group of people who lived in an era much different than ours, is to learn how they themselves thought of and structured concepts that we all experience. That is the greatest endeavor of history, anthropology, and many other fields of the liberal arts: to become enlightened to how differences may illuminate truths that our own realities may inherently keep us in the dark, purposefully or unintentionally. The Romans were a weary minded group, and took fortune and the potential for dishonor seriously. Any percieved signs of bad omens were grounds for delaying important journies and postponing senate debates (which became effective and abusive political tactics to undermine opponents). The Romans were a people who didn’t invest in private selves, or see a need for such a thing. They lived vicariously through the public forum and were defined in relation to the people they associated with, as evidenced by the openness of their homes, the centrality of the Forum and the Senate, and Rome being conceived as the center of the world. The analysis of Roman organization of space and time reveals that class distinctions were made prevalent in who was allowed to wield power and who had to submit to that power, as is still a struggle today of removing the distinction of property ownership as the younger generations are struggling to come into their own as homeowners and more often than not rely on renting to meet their housing needs. The recent changes in our society reflect that we are still going through growing pains of recognizing that those who can’t afford to keep any real estate of their own still want their voices heard in the political process and still contribute to the economy as a significant block.
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