Discoveries: Symbols of the Unknown

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Discoveries: Symbols of the Unknown



Public Display. For most Roman citizens the only way to learn about the new discoveries made abroad was through the triumphal displays made by victorious generals upon their return from some exotic locale. The parades put forth not only the loot taken from the defeated but also descriptive media, such as paintings of the faraway lands and rivers, or placards with slogans describing the conquered. Prisoners of war and hostages would also take part, wearing the clothing of their native land and speaking among themselves in languages incomprehensible to their spectators. An understanding of the nature of this first outlay of new information helps the modern student to understand the Roman attitudes toward, and motivations for, exploration. The Arch of Titus, celebrating the sack of Jerusalem, shows a triumph in progress; the Jewish menora is immediately recognizable—an emblem not only of the Jews, but also of superiority of and physical taming by Rome over the unfamiliar.

Ethnography. Written texts also catered to this interest, and a proliferation of ethnographies in Rome can be matched against various major conquests. Texts that described the topography and habits of northern European civilizations were integral parts of Julius Caesar’s explanations of his victories in Gaul and of Tacitus’s laudatory biography of his father-in-law, Agricola, the governor of Britain. The fascination with the exotic was coupled with the fear of defeat. The result was a paradox of respect and loathing. Northern Europe was a depressingly bleak place of constant chill and its people, milk-drinking peasants (wine was viewed as the drink of the civilized). Yet, in the same breath, the historian expresses admiration for their courage. Easterners emerge as soft, feminine, and cowardly; however, they are educated and admire Greek learning. A Roman received mixed signals from ethnographies, which have more to do with their own ethnocentrism than with reality.

Poetry. Several popular songs of ancient Rome—metrical compositions that are read today as poetry, without music or singing—give a further indication of how the Romans, broadly defined, might have found out about the world at large. The conquest of Parthia and Armenia was frequently exploited as a literary theme by Augustan writers. Commissioned by Augustus, several poets implied that a great military victory had either already been achieved or was simply around the corner, just a matter of time. Horace proclaimed that Armenia had fallen to Rome and that Phraates was on his knees shortly after 20 b.c.e. Ovid, writing later in the Fasti, used the language of warfare and conquest: Italy was protected by the “powerful arms of Caesar,” Parthian “bows had been broken,” and their “swift horses” rendered useless. The An amatoria heralded the physical revenge to be wrought against Armenia by Gaius Caesar in 2 b.c.e., as he left to place Ariobarzanes as the new ruler; despite the previous recovery of the standards, the Parthians “will pay” (again) for their past crime against Crassus, they will be “conquered by arms,” victory will belong to Gaius, and Augustus will be Mars incarnate. By all accounts, Parthia and Armenia had been thoroughly cowed by the princeps —evidence of his nearly unprecedented auctoritas.


Cassius Dio, like most historians from ancient Rome, included ethnographic descriptions of foreign civilizations, whether they had firsthand knowledge of them or not. In the first excerpt, he reports on the residents of Pannoaia (roughly modern day Hungary) whom he had governed eatlier in his career:

[T]hey are the most wretebed of men.… They cultivate neither olives nor wine, Except a very little and very bad at that, because they live most of their lives in the harshest winter … but they are considered the bravest men of whom we know. For they are spirited and murderous.… This I know, not just because I heard it or read about it, but I learned it also from experience when I governed them.

In the second excerpt, he describes the residents of Scotland, whom he could never have seen himself:

They live in wild and waterless mountains and desert, marshy plains, having no walls, cities or agriculture.… They live in tents, naked and barefoot, having the women in common, and raising all the children in common. They practice democracy for the most. part, and they love to plunder. … They are able to -bear hunger, cold, and all kinds of hardship, for they go down into the swamps and endure there for many Says, having only their heads out of the water.

Sometimes, ethnographers clearly skew the representation of foreign regions, even when they know better. As Susan P. Mattern has pointed out, “[in the account of Pliny the Elder, who served in a Roman army in Germany,] the climate is described as unimaginably cold, though he must have experienced summer there.”

Source: Susan P. Matters, Rome and the Enemy: Imperial Strategy in the Principate (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999).

Monuments. A Roman could also turn to monuments to find out more about non-Romans, both friends and enemies, but the information, of course, would be only one version of the truth. Physical memorials were just as much texts to be read as ethnographies, and as such, were equally susceptible to the propagandistic manipulation of their creators. The Ara pacis of Augustus (Altar of Peace) included portraits of young children in foreign dress, holding hands with adults in a procession. One wears the dress and ornaments of an eastern prince, and two more wear what seem to be Germanic costumes. Their happy inclusion in a Roman context not only informed viewers of the monument of their aspect, but also implied that their acceptance of Rome was peaceful and enthusiastic. The motif is repeated elsewhere in Augustan art; gold cups from the Italian village of Boscoreale show non-Romans happily hoisting up babies in offering to the emperor. But Augustus also showed foreigners in a negative light: a triumphal arch

celebrated the defeat of the Parthians and depicted them in their traditional dress and wielding their native weapons in an attitude of submission. A similar image of cultural difference comes in the column of Trajan, erected about a century after Augustus. A continuous band of sculptures spirals up the column, depicting Trajan’s conquest of Dacia, modern-day Romania. Along the way it illustrates rivers, mountains, bridges, and other physical landmarks, as well as the Dacians themselves. This depiction is not what they really looked like, but rather how the emperor wanted them to look to the Romans: hoary, ragged, and defeated. At a less monumental level, individual sarcophagi were carved with scenes of warfare, with non-Romans cast in pathetic situations.

Coins and Gems. Roman currency largely echoed these images of conquest. Coins of Augustus show Parthians kneeling before him, and those of Trajan show him posing with one foot resting on the decapitated head of a Dacian. Cameos were decorated with similar images of despair and destitution on the part of the non-Romans. Artists frequently juxtaposed the defeated with peculiar animals. Coins celebrating the defeat of Judaea show a crocodile in chains, and others marking the annexation of Arabia show a female personification of the region with a camel walking by her side. The empire was for show and for entertainment as much as it was for imperial power.

Exclusion and Inclusion. Romans, as they fiddled with the coins in their hands before making a payment, or as they walked among the urban monuments, or as they heard the popular songs of the day, would have learned about different peoples, places, and cultures in bits and pieces. Artists and writers tended to present their audiences with examples of the bizarre and the extraordinary. The average Roman would have been bombarded with a riot of images that, considered together, offered a confusing mixture of messages. Faraway places were, at times, beautiful and welcoming, yet at others, dangerous and foul. The Romans tolerated difference among their subjects but also reviled them as barbarians. An individual could only discover his/her own version of the truth through travel and firsthand inspection, which was widespread, but not universal, or he/she could arrange a measured and informed appraisal

of what they read in public and in private. The thrill of new things, and pursuit of them through exploration, was pushed to its very limits. Patriotic fervor and the limits of technology competed with the political benefits and financial profits of inclusion and the innate desire for new things. The cultural mélange of the Roman world was much like that of modern-day America, with all its enlightening advantages coexisting uneasily with its darkening suspicions.


J. P. V .D. Balsdon, Romans and Aliens (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979).

Carlin A. Barton, The Sorrows of the Ancient Romans: The Gladiator and the Monster (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

Niels Hannestad, Roman Art and Imperial Policy (A˚hus, Denmark: A˚hus University Press, 1986).

H. S. Versnel, Triumphus: An Inquiry into the Origin, Development and Meaning of the Roman Triumph (Leiden: Brill, 1970).

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Discoveries: Symbols of the Unknown

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