Characters and Events of Roman History : From Caesar to Nero (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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In 1909, intellectual superstar Guglielmo Ferrero toured the northeast of the USA, accepted an honorary degree, and lectured about Roman history. These lectures were published in book form as Characters and Events of the Roman Empire. The book presents a lively selection of people and events: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, the Emperor Nero-and a chapter about the importance of wine to the growth of Rome. Ferrero argued that "Rome is in the mental field the strongest bond ...
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Characters and Events of Roman History : From Caesar to Nero (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview

In 1909, intellectual superstar Guglielmo Ferrero toured the northeast of the USA, accepted an honorary degree, and lectured about Roman history. These lectures were published in book form as Characters and Events of the Roman Empire. The book presents a lively selection of people and events: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, the Emperor Nero-and a chapter about the importance of wine to the growth of Rome. Ferrero argued that "Rome is in the mental field the strongest bond that holds together the most diverse peoples of Europe."

From the Author
I have. . .gather[ed] the events of the story of Rome around that phenomenon which the ancients called the 'corruption' of customs.

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Introduction

Introduction

In 1909, intellectual superstar Guglielmo Ferrero toured the northeast of the USA, accepted an honorary degree, and lectured about Roman history. Characters and Events of the Roman Empire is the book of his lectures. It presents a lively selection of people and events: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, the Emperor Nero—and a chapter about the importance of wine to the growth of Rome. The response was warm. Ferrero, who had traveled widely in the European continent, argued that “Rome is in the mental field the strongest bond that holds together the most diverse peoples of Europe.” Throughout Characters and Events of the Roman Empire, Ferrero explores the curious paradox of what Roman authors meant when they claimed that Rome lacked its ancient vigour and was fatally weakened by corruption—at the very moment when (as we see it today) it was for the first time reaching the full extent of its power. As he treats these questions, Ferrero also reflects on his own times, on the brink of the new (twentieth) century. Frances Lance Ferrero, the author’s sister-in-law, translated the lectures into English.

Born in 1871 in a middle-class Italian family, Guglielmo Ferrero started out as a law student and student radical in Pisa, then Turin. Curiosity and left-wing idealism impelled him into the growing field of criminology. After travelling across much of Europe in the mid-1890s, Ferrero in 1897 wrote L’Europa giovane (Young Europe), a book which caused a continent-wide sensation. Offers followed, and Ferrero chose to write columns for Il secolo, a Milan daily paper, and use the financial security gained from this to continue as a book author. In 1902, he announced that he would write a history of Rome: Its five volumes occupied more of less the next five years of his life. In 1908, invited by President Theodore Roosevelt, he visited the United States and gave the lectures that form Characters and Events of the Roman Empire. With the rise of Mussolini, Ferrero became an opposition figure in Italy. He argued that protest and open opposition were the right reaction to Fascism; but he lost his newspaper column and spent much of the later 1920s living out of the public eye. Allowed to leave Italy in 1930, Ferrero became a professor of contemporary history in the University of Geneva, a job he held until his death in 1942.

The ‘Ferrero phenomenon’ had gripped Europe for a decade by the time President Roosevelt invited Ferrero to the White House. He exemplifies a kind of social climbing—in his case, from solid middle-class to internationally lionized hero—of which he writes in general terms in the first chapter of this book: ‘In the new generation,’ he says, ‘the children. . .started where the previous generation left off, and therefore wish to gain yet new enjoyments, different from and greater than those they obtained without trouble through the efforts of the preceding generation.’ Ferrero had a brilliant student career. He enrolled at the University of Pisa in 1888, then in the following year visited Turin with a group of fellow-students and was introduced to Cesare Lombroso, who persuaded him to continue his university education there. Later, in 1901, Ferrero married Lombroso’s daughter Gina. Ferrero’s undergraduate dissertation of 1891 was published as his first book, Il simbolo (Symbol), in 1893.

The left-wing ideas which impelled Ferrero to become a founder member, in 1889, of the Associazione radicale universitaria (University Radical Association), went on shaping his intellectual development. He seemed destined for an academic career. But an instinct for an audience beyond the academic milieu showed in the choice of subjects for his next two books, published (in collaboration with Lombroso) in 1893 and 1895: La donna delinquente (The Female Offender) and Il mondo criminale italiano (The Italian Criminal World).

Traveling to England in 1893, Ferrero made contacts in the British Labour movement. Back in Turin in 1894 he was put on trial as part of a government move to repress socialist organizations and sentenced to two months domicilio coatto (home detention) to be served at Oulx, high in the Val de Susa. But he was allowed to postpone serving this sentence until after another journey, this time to Berlin, Moscow (where he met Leo Tolstoy), and Scandinavia. Returning to his confinement at Oulx, he wrote in the spring of 1897 L’Europa giovane (Young Europe), outlining how young people could contribute to the potential he saw for Europe in the coming century. His earlier books had gained some attention, for instance because of the attempt in La donna delinquente to expound a link between cranial measurement and criminality in women, which had piqued public interest; but L’Europa giovane touched a highly responsive chord in the public mind and gave Ferrero the status of an intellectual hero: a status which he never lost.

Confidence in his ability bore Ferrero over the misgivings others felt when he turned his attention to the ancient world. “When I expressed my intention to write a new history of Rome,” he says in this book, “many people manifested a sense of astonishment similar to what they would have felt had I said that I meant to retire to a monastery.” Publishers as well as friends “at first showed themselves sceptical and hesitating.” Not that the plan was as eccentric as they thought: In 1902, the year when Ferrero’s first volume was published, Theodor Mommsen received the Nobel Prize for Literature for his Römische Geschichte (History of Rome), finished a decade earlier.

Ferrero used ancient Rome “to think with.” He records (perhaps conceitedly) an incident at the Collège de France when “an illustrious historian, a member of the French Academy” complimented him, and he replied by saying, “But I have not re-made Roman history, as many admirers think. On the contrary. . .I have only returned to the old way. I have retaken the point of view of Livy; like Livy, gathering the events of the story of Rome around that phenomenon which the ancients called the ‘corruption’ of customs.”

“Corruption” receives enthusiastic exposition in Characters and Events of the Roman Empire. Livy’s famous sentence is quoted:

Rome was originally, when it was poor and small, a unique example of austere virtue; then it corrupted, it spoiled, it rotted itself by all the vices; so, little by little, we have been brought into the present condition in which we are able neither to tolerate the evils from which we suffer, nor the remedies we need to cure them.

The near unanimity of Roman voices on this sentiment in their literature, politics and legislation is placed alongside Rome’s long-continued success in governing an immense empire. What kind of thing is “corruption,” Ferrero asks, if it is something which both provokes that moral reaction and promotes (or at least does not impede) those practical results?

Ferrero’s answer, in brief, is that “corruption” is the name the Romans had for what the modern world calls “progress”—the ancient moral objection arose from observing “the historic force that, as riches increase, impels the new generations to desire new satisfactions, new pleasures.” This opens a door for moral commentary on twentieth-century life: Ferrero reflects on ancient sumptuary laws as contrasted with modern freedom to consume; on relations between the Western world and the Eastern, parents and children, men and women, the decreasing birth rate. Foreboding seems to overshadow the author’s words when he says, “we can boast in the pride of triumph that we are the first who dare in the midst of a conquered world, to enjoy—enjoy without scruple, without restriction—all the good things life offers to the strong.”

By writing—really—about the twentieth century, Ferrero implicitly rejected the academic historical study whose greatest nineteenth-century exponent had been Mommsen. Ferrero speaks slightingly of his kind of research as a symptom of the unworldliness of universities: “Roman studies,” he says, “feeling the new generations becoming estranged from them, have for the last twenty-five years tended to take refuge in the tranquil cloisters of learning, of archaeology, in the discreet concourse of a few wise men, who voluntarily flee the noises of the world. Fatal thought! Ancient Rome ought to live daily in the mind of the new social classes that lead onward. . . .”

Ferrero’s methods as a Roman historian were conservative, based above all on literary texts: the histories written by Romans, and speeches and letters by Roman authors. Hence his interest in Livy, and his inference that what Livy had to say about the moral failings of ancient Rome was worth pondering in the twentieth century. He had a good knowledge of the literature, though his scope was narrow compared to what Edward Gibbon’s had been; and he could play the game of critical historical study well enough to make him plausible alongside nineteenth- and twentieth-century researchers when it suited him (as in this book when he demythologizes Antony and Cleopatra, and argues that “the Tiberius of Tacitus and Suetonius is a fantastic personality, the hero of a wretched and improbable romance, invented by party hatred”), but his essential project was prophetic rather than critical.

Prophetic, however, not always in the way one might expect from a left-wing author. Ferrero himself stressed that “my work does not belong among those written after the method of economic materialism,” (the perspective typical of Marxist historical work) “for I hold that the fundamental force in history is psychologic and not economic.” He used certain bits of vocabulary characteristic of socialist work—for instance describing Nero as “the victim of the contradictory situation of his times,” and opining that “if history in its details is a continuous strife, as a whole it is the inevitable final reconciliation of antagonistic forces, obtained in spite of the resistance of individuals and by sacrificing them.” There speaks Ferrero the pre-First World War, pre-Russian Revolution left-winger: a Ferrero with a Hegelian voice. But he showed another side of his outlook by describing the last chapter in this book as being about “the role which Rome can still play in the education of the upper classes.” “History,” he says, “can form a kind of wisdom set apart,” adding, “in a certain sense aristocratic, above what the masses know, at least as to the universal laws which govern the life of nations.” This is hardly what would be expected from an intellectual dedicated to furthering the cause of the proletariat.

Characters and Events of the Roman Empire was received, as Ferrero himself was received in America, with an enthusiasm bordering on the deferential. In the New York Times (which had reported his visit, down to reproducing the wire he sent President Roosevelt on sailing from New York), the writer of an unsigned review raises a polite question over the value of the lectures (“standing alone, they are practically undemonstrated conclusions from unformulated premises and have to be accepted more or less on faith”), but adds, “Ferrero is a man big enough to do about as he pleases, and his books must be read, whatever the form in which he chooses to issue them.”

The reviewer was perhaps not a hundred percent fair about “undemonstrated conclusions”: Ferrero had written with more detail and more scholarly apparatus in The Greatness and Decline of Rome, his five-volume history, and a printed lecture is still only a lecture. Yet his reaction shows something about the way nineteenth-century research universities in Europe and America had changed the rules of intellectual engagement by 1908. Among academic historians of Rome, though Ferrero was accorded the respect due to an intellectual giant (given honorary doctorates, invited to speak in famous universities), he was not seen as being engaged in the pursuit of quite the same goals as the academics. Nobel-prize-winner Mommsen had begun his scientific career with several years in Italy studying Latin inscriptions—a labour which brought about vast additions to modern knowledge of Roman constitutional law. Where Mommsen had been a researcher, Ferrero was a popularizer.

Late in life, however, fate was to bring Ferrero into the academic career he decided against in youth. After Mussolini’s 1922 coup, Il secolo changed its editorial line from radical to pro-Fascist, and Ferrero’s association with the paper came to an end. Before long he published Da Fiume a Roma, translated into English as Four Years of Fascism (1924). Much of the space is occupied by reprinted newspaper columns (Ferrero does not name the paper in which they appeared). The author’s vigorous anti-Fascist stance is clear. In 1925 Ferrero’s passport was withdrawn, and he was threatened with imprisonment and put under police surveillance. During the following years he lived in the countryside and worked on a four-volume novel, La terza Roma (The Third Rome). In October 1929 Mussolini personally refused to allow Ferrero a passport; later he modified his stance by deciding to give Ferrero a passport but not allow passports to be given to his family. But in February 1930 the University of Geneva invited Ferrero to a conference; and the intervention of the king of Belgium induced the Fascist government to allow Gina Ferrero to accompany her husband.

Asked to accept a university appointment in Geneva, Ferrero joined the Institut universitaire de hautes études internationales (University of Geneva Institute for Advanced International Studies) as a professor of contemporary history. To the disappointment of colleagues, but perhaps wisely, he declined to teach ancient history. His courses in the Institute attracted few ordinary students, but gained plenty of local and international public attention—that was the value the University gained by employing him. He lived and worked in Geneva until his death in 1942. His last two courses were published in America, in French, as Histoire analytique de la révolution française, after the 1940 fall of France.

Paul McKechnie is a Senior Lecturer in Classics and Ancient History in the University of Auckland, New Zealand. He is the author of The First Christian Centuries (2001).

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