Anno Urbis - The Roman Empire Online

LIFE IN THE ROMAN WORLD OF NERO AND ST. PAUL

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STUDY AND SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE AMONG THE ROMANS

In describing the education of a Roman youth, and also in setting forth the various religious attitudes of the time, mention has been made of the pursuit of philosophy. Religion supplied no real guide to moral conduct, and education provided little exercise for the cultivation of the higher intellectual faculties. It was left for philosophy to fill these blanks as best it could. Unlike the Greeks, the Romans, great as they were in law-making and administration, had little natural gift or taste for abstract thought. All the philosophic sects had been founded and continued by Greeks, and it was still to the Greek half of the empire that the contemporary world looked for the best schools and teachers of philosophy. The genuine Roman spirit at all times felt some mistrust of such studies, especially if they tended to carry the student away from practical life into the "shade" and the "corner," or if they tended to subvert the traditional notions of "duty" as inculcated by Roman law, Roman custom, and the religion of the state. Nevertheless, not only did many Romans, even of mature years, resort to the philosophic "Universities" of the time, but wealthy houses often maintained a domestic philosopher, whose business it was to supply moral teaching and intellectual companionship to his employer. Some, indeed, preferred merely a savant, who might "post" them with information concerning Greek writers, explain difficulties, and act in general as a literary vade mecum. In many cases, if not in most, the Roman aristocrat or plutocrat treated such a retainer as a social inferior.

The Roman attitude towards thought and learning too often reminds one of a certain modern type which has been irreverently described as being "death on culture." While the Greek and graecized oriental loved research, discussion, dialectics, ethical and scientific conversation, and literary coteries for their own sake, the Roman more commonly regarded such things as means for sharpening his abilities and for imparting distinction in social intercourse. Doubtless there were, and had been, exceptions. No Greek philosopher could be more in earnest than Lucretius, the Roman poet of the later republic, and doubtless there were no few Romans unknown to fame who both grappled seriously with Greek philosophy and also endeavoured to carry it religiously into practice. Yet for the most part the Roman, even when he is a writer upon such subjects, carries with him the unmistakable air of the amateur or the dilettante. In reading Seneca, as in reading Cicero, we feel that we are dealing with an able man possessed of an excellent gift for popular exposition or essay-writing, but hardly with a man of original philosophic endeavour or of strong practical conviction. And when we read the letters of the younger Pliny, we perceive a genuine admiration for men of thought and a genuine liking for "things of the mind," but we also discern that his dealing with philosophers and philosophy is strictly such as he deems "fit for a gentleman."

In his own way and for his own ends the Roman could be intensely studious. He was eager to know and to possess information; but his native taste was for information of a positive kind, for definite facts more or less encyclopaedic--the facts of history, of science, of art, of literature, or even of grammar. His natural bent was not towards pure speculation. The elder Pliny was in his prime in the later days of Nero, and though he is perhaps an extreme type, he is nevertheless a type worth contemplating. His nephew writes a letter to a friend in which he gives a formidable list of works which the uncle had written or rather compiled, culminating in that huge miscellany known as his Natural History--a book dealing, not only with geography, anthropology, physiology, zoology, botany, mineralogy, but also with fine art. How did he lead the ordinary Roman official life and yet accomplish all this before he was fifty-six? Here is the explanation. "He had a keen intellect, incredible zeal, and the greatest capacity for wakefulness. The end of August had not come before he began to work by lamplight long before dawn; in winter he began as early as one or two o'clock in the morning. It is true that he could readily command sleep, which visited and left him even during his studies. Before daylight he used to go to the emperor Vespasian--who also worked before day--and thence to his appointed duty. Returning home he gave the remainder of his time to his studies. After his déjeuner--which, like any other food that he took in the daytime, was light and digestible in the old-fashioned style--if it was summer, some leisure moments were spent in lying in the sun; a book was read, and he marked passages or made extracts. He never read anything without making excerpts, for he used to say that no book was so bad as to contain no part that was useful. After sunning himself he generally took a cold bath. He then took a snack and a very brief siesta, subsequently reading till dinner-time as if it were a new day. During dinner a book was read and marked, all very rapidly. I recall an occasion on which a certain passage had been badly delivered by his reader, whereupon one of the company stopped him and made him read it again. Said my uncle, 'I suppose you had caught the meaning?' The friend nodded. 'Then why did you call him back? We have lost more than ten lines by this interruption of yours.' So economical was he of time. In summer he rose from dinner while it was still light, and in winter within an hour after dark, as if compelled by some law. Such was his day amid all his work and the roar of the city. But when on holiday the only time he was not I studying was bath-time. By bath I mean when he I was actually right inside; for while he was under scraper and towel he would be read to or dictate. When travelling he thought of nothing else: at his side was a shorthand writer with a book and his tablets. In winter the writer's hands were protected by mittens, so that not even the sharpness of the weather should rob him of a moment. For the same reason even at Rome he used to ride in a sedan-chair (and not in a litter). I remember how he once took me to task for walking. Said he, 'You need not have wasted these hours;' for he considered as wasted all hours not spent upon study. It was by application like this that he completed all those volumes and also left to me a hundred and sixty note-books full of selections, written in very small hand on both sides of the paper. He used himself to say that, when he was the emperor's financial agent in Spain, he could have sold these note-books to Largius Licinus for £3000, and at that time they were considerably less numerous." ... "And so," writes the nephew, "I always laugh when certain people call me studious, for, compared to him, I am a most indolent person."

And yet what does this "most indolent person" himself do in the course of a lifetime? After a complete oratorical education of the typical Roman kind he enters upon a full public career. He undergoes his minimum military service with the legions in Syria. He returns to Rome and passes right up to the consulship, acquiring particular ability in connection with the Treasury. Often he acts as adviser to other officers. Apart from his public position he is a pleader before the courts. He takes a prominent part in the debates of the senate. He belongs to one of the priestly bodies. He does his share in providing the public games. He is appointed "Minister for the regulation of the Tiber and of the Sewerage." He is afterwards made governor of Bithynia, which has fallen into financial disorder and requires reorganisation. He possesses numerous estates and has many tenants to deal with. He writes speeches, occasional poems, and a large number of letters carefully phrased with a view to publication. His social or complimentary duties are numerous and exacting. One day he goes out hunting wild boar on one of his estates, and kills three of them. How, think you, does he pass the time while the beaters are driving the animals towards the net? He is thinking up a subject and making notes, and actually finds the silence and solitude helpful. He concludes his short letter on the subject by advising his friend "when you go hunting, take my advice and carry your writing-tablets as well as your luncheon-basket and flask: you will find that Minerva roams the hills no less than Diana." Pliny the Younger is writing, it is true, a generation after Nero, but there had been no appreciable change in Roman intellectual tastes during that short interval.

The Roman may have had little inclination towards abstract thinking, but he was not an idle-minded man. Even the emperors often cultivated the muse. Nero we have seen, wrote verses, while his predecessor Claudius bore a strangely near resemblance to our own James I., not only in respect of his weakness of character, but also of his pretensions to erudition and authorship. We can hardly read the literature of this and the next half-century without being amazed at the number of names of writers who gained or sought some share of repute, although few of them have left works important enough to have been kept alive till now. It is true that through all the writing of this time there runs what has been called the "falsetto" note, a fact which is due partly to the absence of live national questions or the freedom to discuss them, and partly to the false principles of the rhetorical training already described. The general desire was to show cleverness, wide reading, and information; there was no impulse to great creation or to exhibitions of profound feeling. Epigram and "point" are no less compassed in the overstrained epic of Lucan, and in the philosophic essays of Seneca, than in the satires of Persius. It is probable that what have been called intellectual "interests" were never more widely spread than in the pax Romana of the first and second centuries A.D. We gather from literature that books innumerable were produced on subjects often as special and minute as those selected for a German thesis, and that almost every town worth the name, at least in the Greek-speaking part of the empire, produced an author of sorts. But when we look into the symposia or chat of Plutarch or Aulus Gellius, we cannot fail to note that a large proportion of this intellectual and literary activity was being frittered away on questions either stereotyped and threadbare, or of no appreciable utility either to knowledge or conduct. As for dilettante production at Rome itself Pliny remarks in one letter: "This year has produced a large crop of poets: there was scarcely a day in the whole month of April on which some one did not give a reading." During the generation into which Nero was born and that which followed him, we meet with no great creative work in either prose or poetry, no great contribution to the progress of science or thought. The most generally interesting writer of the whole period was the Greek Plutarch, but though the Parallel Lives which he was preparing are immortal in their kind, and though his Moral Essays are often most excellent reading, it cannot be said that he is a profound original thinker or a creator of anything more than a taking literary form. Next to him in value, earlier in date, stands Seneca, who, like Plutarch, is a lively thinker and a deft essayist, with the same love for a quotation and the same wide interests, but assuredly not a considerable enlarger of the field of human thought. To those who know Montaigne, the best notion of Seneca and Plutarch will be formed by remembering that his essays are admitted by himself to be "wholly compiled of what I have borrowed from them." The elder Pliny supplies us with extracts and summaries of the knowledge or the notions then extant, and we have writings on agriculture by Columella. The youthful and rather awkward satirist Persius sees the life which he criticises rather through the medium of books than through his own eyes. Such works of the period as have gained any kind of immortality are certainly interesting and often instructive, but they indicate a period in which reading is chiefly cultivated amusement, and knowledge rather sought as a pastime and an accomplishment than as a power. The favourite reading must contain matter or sense, not too deep or exacting; and it must possess a style. Perhaps writers as various as Dryden, Pope, Horace Walpole, Samuel Johnson, De Quincey, Macaulay, or, on a lower platform, the authors of collections like the Curiosities of Literature would have been quite at home in this period: but it would have produced no Shakespeare, Milton, or Wordsworth. The agreeable poem, the well-expressed essay, are the approved reading for men of indolent bent: the informative collection for the more curious, serious, or practical-minded. If the early empire is "despotism tempered by epigram," it is perhaps not altogether untrue that the contemporary literature was pedantry tempered by epigram, or at least by quotation.

Science, though its matter was attractive enough to the practical Roman, was at a standstill. So far as it existed it was Greek. The Greeks had done almost all that could be done by sheer brain-power and acumen. They could hardly proceed further without those finer instruments which we possess, but which they did not. Though they knew of certain magnifying glasses, they had no real telescopes or microscopes, no mariner's compass or chronometers, no very delicate balances. They possessed a magnificent thinking apparatus and put it to admirable use. The modern scientist has generally nothing but admiration for their keen insight, and for the brilliant hypotheses which they invented and which were frequently but unverified anticipations or partial anticipations of theories now in vogue. Where they stopped short was at experiment in test of hypothesis. Of all exploits of pure thinking in the domain of science perhaps the greatest has been the conception that the earth, instead of being a flat disk, is a sphere. This theory was held before the age of Nero by ancient astronomers and geographers, who had derived the notion partly from the eclipses of the moon--of which they well understood the cause--and partly from the rising of objects above the horizon. They understood also that in a sphere there was gravitation to the centre, and were able so to comprehend the level surface of water on the globe. The geographer Strabo, more than a generation before our chosen date, readily conceives that, if one sailed straight westward out of the Mediterranean through the Straits of Gibraltar, he would ultimately come back round the world by way of the East--that is to say, by India. It was not left for Columbus to invent that doctrine. It is true that in calculating the circumference of the earth they had made it as much as one-seventh too large, but the wonder is that they came so near as they did. In regard to the distance of the moon they were not more than 1/12th from the modern estimate. The possibility of error in dealing with the sun was much greater, and their 51,000,000 miles is little more than half of what it should have been. Exactly how far this doctrine of the sphericity of the earth was popularly entertained we cannot tell; it was probably almost confined to those directly interested in the question. A theory, anticipating Galileo, that it is the earth which moves round the sun, had been mooted, but certainly had very little currency. Nor was speculation confined to such astronomical conclusions. In the region of physical geography rational attempts were made to account for various phenomena, such as the existence of deltas or the risings of the Nile, or the appearance of sea-shells high on dry land. Strabo, in dealing with the Black Sea, has his theories of the elevation or subsidence of land. He also suggests previous volcanic conditions of certain districts which had been quiescent from before the memory or tradition of the inhabitants.

[Illustration: FIG. 113.--WORLD AS CONCEIVED ABOUT A.D. 100.]

Sound methods of discovering latitude and longitude were not yet in use, and therefore a map of the world according to ideas current in the first century would present a strange aspect to us. There is much error in the placing of towns or districts upon their parallels; and coasts or mountain ranges, particularly, of course, on the outskirts of the empire or in the less familiar lands beyond its bounds, are perhaps made to run north instead of north-west, or east instead of south-east. It follows that measurements of distances especially across the wider seas, were often very inaccurate, although within and about the Mediterranean there was so much traffic and such close observation of the stars that the errors were gradually reduced. The mariner, when he did not follow the coast and guide his course by familiar landmarks, steered by the stars, but of these he had a very intimate knowledge, to which he joined a close observation of the prevailing direction of the winds at the various seasons. There was a well-ordered system of lighthouses, and charts and mariners' guides were not wanting. In the winter months navigation over long distances was regularly suspended, and ships waited in port for the spring.

So far as acquaintance with the world was concerned, we have sufficient evidence that the trader knew his way very well down the African coast as far as Zanzibar, and along the southern shores of Asia as far as Cape Comorin. With Ceylon his acquaintance was vague, and only by tradition did he know of Further India by way of the sea and of China by way of the land. In the interior of Africa the caravans reached the Oases, and by way of Nile or caravan there was trade with the Soudan. Outside the Straits of Gibraltar, the Canary Islands and Madeira--known indiscriminately as the "Fortunate Isles," or "Isles of the Blest"--were in touch with the port of Cadiz. The shape of Great Britain beyond England was indefinite, although it was known to be an island, with the Shetlands lying beyond. Ireland was also recognised as an island and its relative size was not greatly misconceived. The chief misconception in this corner of Europe was that of orientation, Britain being placed either far too near or far too parallel to Spain (through a large error as to the shape of the Bay of Biscay). Meanwhile the coast of the Netherlands and Germany was made to run in a line much too closely parallel to the eastern shores of Britain. Scandinavia was known from navigating explorers and from the amber trade, but was commonly regarded as a large island. Knowledge of the Baltic did not extend beyond about the modern Riga, and of the whole region thence to the Caspian only the dimmest notions were entertained.

From what has been said concerning the calculation of the earth's diameter and of the distances of the sun and moon, it may be readily understood that the ancient mathematician had arrived at great proficiency in the geometrical branch of mathematics. This should cause no surprise when we remember what is meant by "Euclid." That eminent genius had lived at Alexandria three centuries and a half before the age of Nero, and he by no means represents all that was known of such mathematics at the latter date. The ancients were quite sufficiently versed in the solution of triangles to have made the necessary calculations in geography and astronomy, if they had but possessed the right instruments. Perhaps only an expert should deal--even in the few sentences required for our purpose--with such matters as the calculation of the capacity and proportional relations of cylinders, or with the mechanics and hydrostatics of Archimedes. That philosopher so far understood the laws of applied force that he had boasted: "Give me a place to stand on and I will move the world." What he and others had learned concerning fluid pressure, or concerning pulleys, levers, and other mechanical devices, had not been lost by the Greeks and had been borrowed from them for full practical use by the Romans. They knew how to lift huge weights, and how to hurl heavy missiles by the artillery previously mentioned. Experiments had been made at Alexandria in the use of steam-power, but had led to nothing practical. It is obvious also from their buildings and works of engineering, even without explicit statement, that they well understood the distribution of weight and the laws of stability. The laws of acoustics were understood with sufficient clearness to make them applicable with success to theatres. In practical mensuration--a daily necessity for men who were perpetually allotting lands or marking out camps--the Romans were experts. In pure arithmetic the contemporary world had made some considerable advance, such as in the extraction of square-roots and cube-roots; but, as has been already said, the Roman interest was virtually confined to such arithmetic or mathematics as appeared to possess some bearing on actual use.

Of chemistry, in the modern scientific sense, the ancients knew almost nothing. Empirically they were aware of certain properties exhibited by substances, and could perform certain manipulations; but, like moderns down to a very recent time, they had no real understanding of the quantitative or qualitative relations of elements. Long ago Greek philosophy, followed by the Epicurean school, had set forth an "atomic theory," which on the surface is surprisingly like the modern chemical hypothesis; but this contained strange and illogical features and had no connection with actual practice. In this department the chief proficiency of the world of this date lay in metallurgy, in which the processes empirically discovered, chiefly by Egyptians and Phoenicians, were closely similar to those now employed. They thoroughly understood the smelting of ores, but could render no scientific account of the processes. Botany was in a very crude condition, scarcely extending beyond such knowledge as was required on the one hand for farming and horticulture, and on the other for the vegetable medicines used by contemporary physicians.

The doctoring of the time was also, of course, largely empirical, but assuredly hardly more so than it was a century or so ago, and distinctly more rational than it became in the Middle Ages. We cannot conceive of a reputable doctor at Rome prescribing the nauseous mediaeval absurdities. Practical surgery must have been surprisingly advanced, and there is scarcely a modern surgeon who does not exclaim in admiration of the instruments discovered at Pompeii and now preserved in the Naples Museum (see FIG. 69). In physic it is, of course, tolerably certain that many of the remedies or methods of treatment were of the sound and simple kind discovered by the long experience of mankind and often put in use by our grandmothers. The defect contemporary medicine was that it was almost wholly empirical. The ancient surgeon could doubtless perform ordinary operations--amputations and excisions--with neatness, and the ancient physician knew perfectly well what to do with the ordinary complaints--the fevers and agues, the bilious attacks, the gout, or the dropsy--but he was baffled by any new conditions. Moreover, if he could diagnose and cure, he could seldom prevent, inasmuch as he had little understanding of the causes of maladies. He had everything to learn in regard to sanitation and the preventing of infection. A plague would sometimes kill half the people in a town or district, and the loss of 30,000 persons in the metropolis would probably appear to most Romans as a visitation of the gods, nor is it certain that the doctors would generally disagree with that view. Though there were many quacks, it is not the case that the reputable medical men--most of them Greek, some of them Romans, who borrowed a Greek name because it "paid"--lacked the scientific spirit or such knowledge as the time afforded. They went to the medical school at Alexandria or elsewhere, and studied their treatises on physic and anatomy, but, at least in the latter subject, they were sadly hampered. Dissection of human bodies was forbidden by law as being a desecration of the dead, and though it might sometimes be practised sub rosa, it was the general custom to perform the dissections on other animals, particularly monkeys, and to argue thence erroneously to mankind.




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