Sunday, 9 December 2012

Musings on the Ancient Roman Mindset


by Caroline Lawrence

do I have an internal monologue?
Over the past dozen years I have been writing books for kids set in the Roman world of the first century CE.

I try to write books that children can identify with. They are partly historical fact, partly a filter through which kids can examine their own lives. If I showed ancient Rome the way it really was, would modern children find too alien to relate to? Would I find it too alien to write?

The more I immerse myself in that world, the more I wonder if we can ever know what it was really like. Sometimes I try to think outside the box and be as creative as I can. I try to think what would surprise me most if I really could transport back to first century Rome. Elsewhere, I’ve blogged about the surprising differences we might encounter in the physical world itself. But what about the Roman mindset? How did they think about the world?  

Here are a few laterally thought-up ideas about what might blind-side us if we really could go back to Ancient Rome.

1. No internal monologue.
How did Romans think about themselves? We know that most (literate) Romans only read out loud. To read silently, in your head, was considered strange. So did they have internal monologues in their heads? Did they have the same kind of constant self-commentary that we do?

2. No satellites.
Romans had no idea where they were on the map. The only map we have from the first century doesn’t even look like a map. The most educated might have had some idea, but even the great travellers like Julius Caesar and Strabo had not a tenth of the concept of the world that we do with our Google earth and desk globes. Most Romans probably never budged more than a few miles from where they were born and had no idea what lay beyond. That's why even Romans as intelligent as Pliny the Elder believed in bizarre races of men in far away places.

3. No Judeo-Christian mindset.
Even Richard Dawkins says "Oh, God!" There are concepts of charity and forgiveness so embedded in the fabric of our world after two thousand years that we don't even distinguish these concepts as Judeo-Christian. Yes, Romans had a concept of patronage which is like charity. But what other culture urges us to forgive our enemies? Even the concept that we have a "purpose" or a "journey" on earth is Judeo-Christian.

trying to read by candlelight will ruin your eyes
4. No artificial light.
Yes, they had candles, braziers and oil-lamps. But even urban-dwelling Romans would have been more attuned to the phases of the moon and length of the days than we are. This total dependence on the natural day must have affected the way they acted and behaved. We know from Virgil and other writers that Romans probably enjoyed the two stages of sleep (first sleep and second sleep divided by a natural waking for an hour or so) known to mankind before the invention of electricity. Life for a Roman would have been a succession of ever repeating seasons, the cycles of the year, until you die. There was no Judeo-Christian concept of a journey from childhood to old age, getting older and wiser as you age.

happy without chocolate or tea?
5. No chocolate.
Seriously. The Romans never knew the endorphin lift that a chocolate bar or mug of hot cocoa can give us. Nor did they have tea or coffee. Or tobacco or spirits. Their wine was most likely foul, full of so many nasty congeners that it would give drinkers like Mark Anthony a foul headache. What did they do for a fillip?

6. No mirrors or cameras.
Think how many reflective and reflecting surfaces we have in our lives. Mirrors, shop windows, cameras, CCTV cameras showing us walking past shops. Even the richest Roman with the smoothest silver mirror would not have had a clue what he or she really looked like. Would this lack of an intimate knowledge of their own physical appearance have affected the way they interacted with the world? How many of us "watch ourselves" entering a party or walking along a street? Did a Roman ever visually play mental scenarios beforehand? If so, what were they like? Was it from his or her POV? A bird's eye POV? A fluid POV?

7. No zero.
How did Romans do mental maths? Could they even count beyond the number of fingers and toes doubled? They had no number zero. Did they have times tables?

8. No crayons.
We have dozens of different words for thousands of different shades and hues of colour. The Romans had far fewer and categorized them differently, more by tone and saturation, or by linking a colour to a natural object. Some linguists believe that the language we use determines how we perceive the world. Children in Western society have kindergartens full of crayons dividing the spectrum into bite-sized colours. The Romans didn’t. So did they even see the world differently? (See Mark Bradley's recent Colour and Meaning in Ancient Rome for an academic consideration of Latin and Greek concepts of colour)

can you make music with that?
9. No music (as we know it).
Did Romans wake up with music in their heads the way we do? We hear so much music that it lodges in our brains. Also, we hear music played exactly the same way time after time, because we have recordings. Even if you lived in a Roman house where the mother sang all the time, every version would be slightly different. We don't really know what Roman music sounded like. Would we even call it music?

10. Division by gender not age. 
Today a woman can do almost anything a man can, thanks to the past two centuries of women’s rights. On the other hand, there are many things children can’t do that adults can. In Roman times it was the opposite, the division was not between child and adult but male and female. Romans did not have our concept of childhood as something to be protected. As soon as a girl reached puberty she could marry (the legal age in first century Rome was 12). As soon as a boy was physically able, he worked. Of course there were a few coming-of-age ceremonies, but the real division of responsibility and privilege in Roman times was marked by gender.

Those are a few random ideas tossed out on a cold Saturday afternoon in December. Some of them might be right, some of them might be crazy. But I still have this nagging thought that I'm missing something so basic and all-pervasive that it hasn't even occurred to me. Anybody?

Caroline Lawrence writes historical fiction for kids. www.carolinelawrence.com

41 comments:

Sue Bursztynski said...

The problem with so many historical novels is the lack of understanding of the mindset. It isn't just that they didn't have the technology of the present day, but how this made them think. You can't just have your hero acting like an Aerican or Englishman in a toga. But, alas, some novels do. I love Mary Renault's ancient Greece novels because she takes the trouble to put herself into the skin of her characters, ditto for Rosemary Sutcliff. And then there's the fish out of water story of The Far Arena, in which an ancient gladiator is found frozen in the ice and revived. :-) Wonderful book!

Caroline Lawrence said...

I agree that Mary Renault is one of the few who might have got the mindset, especially the gulf between men and women engendered by the Greek culture of that time. The Last of the Wine was the book that got me hooked on Classics.

I haven't heard of The Far Arena, but will try it out! :-)

J Falkner said...

No chocolate! That certainly does give one pause...

There's also the regard for human life. While the Romans had a much higher infant mortality rate than we do(and maternal mortality rate too)and this must have been every bit as devastating to the family then as it is now, it must have altered their mindset around life and death. The prospect of death being ever-present.

And with a high proportion of Rome's population owned as slaves, the respect for the life of another human must have been somewhat fluid, shall we say?

Enjoyed your post. These are exactly the kind of puzzles I like to work out, as well.



H.M. Castor said...

I love this post, Caroline - so much fascinating food for thought! - & I love your description of your books as partly historical fact, partly a filter through which kids can examine their own lives. That's such an interesting & important point - we want readers to be able to identify with our characters... and yet we need to explore the wonderful strangeness (to us) of the past, too. Such a delicate & endlessly challenging balance!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks, Harriet!

Sue: I just looked up The Far Arena and it's well-and-truly out of print!

J Falkner: Good point about the respect for human life, though epitaphs and poems like Martial's epigram for Erotion make us certain they felt infant death as keenly as we do.

No chocolate, vanilla, tomatos, chilis, potatoes, etc, etc! A world without pizza. An Italian world without pizza!

Saviour Pirotta said...

Brilliant post, Caroline. I think one major influence on life in the ancient world was religion - or the jumble of superstitions that would have been considered faith. From the little I've read, everything was believed to be the work of some deity or magical being.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Yes, Saviour! Superstition permeated every aspect of their lives. I mentioned that in my 10% Surprise post and also my Pee-you, B'kak, Ptooey! post at http://flavias.blogspot.co.uk where Pee-you stands for the smell of ancient Rome, B'kak for the prevalence of animals and Ptooey for the superstition. :-)

Tim Collins said...

Fascinating stuff, Caroline. I've been wondering about these differences recently. Modern conventions such as clear character arcs and internal conflict might have been totally alien to the Romans. But if we abandoned them altogether, we'd create books that would be alien to young readers.

Nimbusaeta said...

I see nobody mentioned wearing sandals un winter... remember: no sneakers, no boots, no tights...

Katherine Langrish said...

Fascinating post, Caroline. In much the same way, I wonder how it might feel to be an animal - even a dog! They live with us, in our human world, but from such a different viewpoint.

Susan Price said...

Loved your post, Caroline! It gave me lots to think about on a Sunday morning!
You make a lovely point about the Romans having little idea of the shape of the world – whereas nearly all of us can picture the continents in our heads. Some well- travelled people in the past must have had a concept of it being much larger than the few square miles around them, but it’s really hard to imagine how they must have ‘seen’ the world.
I think you’re right that we don’t appreciate the huge difference that electric light has made to us. Even the Lunar Society of the 18th Century was so called because they met at full-moon, which made travelling at night easier. Expressions such as ‘Is the game worth the candle?’ point to how big a consideration lighting was in the past.
Your points about the difficulty of maths (which I find quite baffling enough with Arabic numerals), how different music must have been for them, and how they saw and talked about colour are all thought-provoking – and I’ve often felt quite sad myself about their lack of chocolate! Poor things. In fact I’ve often thought about what people ate in the past, and wondered how on earth they filled up! No wonder they looked forward to feasts. Most people, most of the time, must have had such a boring diet.
I loved what you said about the mirrors and cameras too. In my Sterkarm books, Per Sterkarm is supposed to be handsome, but it’s often occurred to me that he would never have seen himself clearly. If he was aware of being good-looking, it would be because of other people’s reactions. The rich could have portraits painted, I suppose – but could you trust those likenesses? How did people picture themselves? – Did they assume they looked like their siblings or like their father/mother?
And then the gender divisions… It’s not so long ago that we lived with pretty strict gender divisions ourselves. Were Roman gender divisions any stricter than those, say, of 19th Century Britain? But it is, as you point out, a huge consideration that has to be faced in any imagining of the past.
But some of your points I would argue about! I’m pretty sure the Romans had an internal monologue. From observing him, I’m sure my cat did! He may not have thought, ‘I will go and fetch Sue to open the door,’ but I’m sure he had some string of images in his brain which amounted to much the same thing.
Then, although the Romans had no ‘Judeo-Christian’ background, I think they had many of the same ideas. Wasn’t Christianity based on the Greco-Roman Mystery Religions? Ideas about charity and about spiritual progress through life (and forgiving enemies) were found in them, as they’re found in Eastern religions such as Bhuddism. Weren’t even slaves welcome as equals within the cult of Mithras? – Not once you’d stepped outside the temple, obviously, but in the sight of Mithras. Isn’t the Christian Christmas story broadly similar to that of Mithras? (On December 25th, the son of a god was born to a mortal virgin in lowly circumstances. His birth was announced by a great star in the sky, and Kings and shepherds came to worship Him, side by side: and the name of the child was – Mithras.) But you’ll probably know more about this than me, and possibly your setting pre-dates the development of these ‘Mystery’ religions?
And then, it’s an interesting thought, but I find it hard to believe that, in Ancient Rome, divisions by age were of no consequence. Yes, they had very different ideas about it to us. They had shorter lives and had to get on with it! But the riddle of the Sphinx – ‘What goes on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three in the evening?’ shows that they were as aware as us of childhood, maturity and old age – though they may have drawn the division lines differently.
A Roman – and a Viking - may have been happy to marry his daughter off at twelve, since that was the accepted custom of the time - but would they have been any happier than a modern father about sexual interest in her at, say, six?
But thank you for a fascinating post! I much enjoyed reading it!

Caroline Lawrence said...

Thanks for these comments, Susan et al!

I'm especially tickled by the idea that animals have an alien yet familiar mindset.

Of course Romans had inner monologue, but I wonder if for many of them it was more visual, perhaps, like high-functioning Temple Grandin who wrote one of my favourite books, Thinking in Pictures.

Anyway, I threw together those ideas to get discussion going and am not disappointed! :-)

madwippitt said...

Fascinating post! And how lovely to see a reference to The Far Arena - a favourite of mine.

J Falkner said...

Sandals and socks in winter!

roaring40 said...

That thing is you don't have to go back all that far to get close. Reports of live in 19C Spain wouldn't go far wrong.

Whisks said...

Interesting stuff, Caroline.
I see it's been mentioned above, but I'll add that any religion which embraces reincarnation has some element of a journey about it - so this would include Hinduism and Buddhism.
And how real would the ancient mythologies be in everyday life? Did they think that Diana really affected their hunts, for instance?

Another thing which must have been wildly different (and of interest to children), was the concept of personal hygiene. Where did they go to the toilet? How often did they bathe and did they clean their teeth? And how about washing their clothes? If they wore animal skins and wool much of the time, how did they get muck and smells off them?

And shopping for food. I'm guessing that it was a lot harder than it is today. Food wouldn't have been available all year round - perhaps not at all in the depths of winter, if someone didn't go out to hunt and if someone else hadn't preserved fruit and vegetables in one way or another.
I'd have thought that the seasons played a much greater part in their lives than they do today.
As for mirrors, didn't they have some kind of polished metal to reflect images of themselves? Or at least a still pool of water to see themselves in?

Then there's healthcare. Diarrhoea could kill you, as could a small infected wound. For comparisons, I'd look to the experiences of today's tribal peoples, where people are blinded, one-legged and disfigured by ailments that we consider simple to solve in the west.
Which leads on to much more care-in-the-community - children would be used to seeing all sorts of infirmities, death and disease than our modern children are.
And the village idiot would surely be a common sight.

Hmm. Fertile subject; you've got my mind racing now!

Ben said...

Very interesting, and something I've thought about quite a bit.
But right off the bat (an expression unknown to them, of course;)), I have a couple quibbles:

I have to disagree with the idea that there was no concept of getting wiser with age. Was this not at least one of the reasons for the distinction between adulescens and senex? From what I know, the Senate was intended, at least originally, to be made up of senes because they were assumed to be wiser, due to their age.

And as for mirrors, yes, their mirrors were not so great. But don't forget about water, which the Romans loved to have around them, so there would have been plenty of opportunities for a Roman to see an adequate reflection of his/her own features.

Just my thoughts--thanks for the post.
-Ben

Shikari said...

Just one point: the evidence on which the 'reading out loud' thesis is based is fairly slight and the idea doesnt seem to be in favour so much within current scholarship. But please don't ask me for sources!

Will S said...

There is another important omission in your list: slavery.

We can't really imagine what it would be like to "own" another human being so completely that you could more or less do what you liked with them; even kill them with total impunity.

The point has been well made elsewhere that only the very poorest Romans needed brothels. All the rest simply used their slaves in whatever sexual ways they desired. In addition, Roman blood-sports existed because the people being killed or mutilated didn't count. Treating their suffering as sport wasn't a problem, any more than cock-fighting, bull fighting or big game shooting is for many people in some parts of the world today.

A historical writer attempting to be true to real Roman life would have to include treating slaves not just as part of the furniture, or the equivalent of a dishwashing machine or cooker -- a thing without feelings or value beyond its usefulness -- but also as playthings which could be broken or thrown away at will.

The more thoughtful and civilised Romans treated their skilled slaves as assets, just as we might treat an especially useful piece of equipment, to be looked after and kept in good working order. Some even treated favoured slaves as pets. But no one in that society saw anything wrong in treating "useless" or rebellious slaves with total brutality. The Judeo-Christian idea of human life having an intrinsic value, however humble, was completely absent.

Caroline Lawrence said...

There are some logical rebuttals and also some intriguing new ideas here! Thanks, everyone!

Also, this post has started a lively conversation over at RomanArmyTalk: http://bit.ly/SQyTon

Ruan Peat said...

The bit missing for me was social value, touched on by some of the comments above. We have aview of the 'american dream' and while we may not buy into the idea, the thought you can change your own place in life is part of our very culture. Even as recent as my own Grandmother you accepted your lot and got on with it. My mother feels as if she betrayed her own mother as she did well for herself!
The different cultures makes hard for us to understand what the Victorian times were like in our own heads so as far back as Romans! Well that's just scary :-), The gender differences alone make it hard to understand the past and I do get so frustrated when I read historical fiction to have a very modern view point in the hero/heroine, but you do need a common ground to allow understanding between readers and the small window into the past you have created. All in all I have no answers and even less understanding of the past, and do so enjoy the blog posts full of information.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Great point about accepting your lot, Ruan, but in fact the Romans were very open-minded about self-made men! A "foreigner" could be emperor and a slave could become a millionaire freedman. And this social mobility wasn't just restricted to men: an actress could become empress if she rolled her dice right! :-)

Granted this would have been among a small percentage of highly motivated individuals, but it could be done.

BooKa Uhu said...

One of the first things they told us at Uni, in fact in my first History lecture, was 'You will never ever be able to know the past completely. You weren't there, even primary sources cannot tell you everything. You can only TRY to understand.' That first (admittedly, a bit of a downer at the time!) sentance keeps striking true to me, especially now I've started peeking into Roman History. I watched Mary Beard's programmes a little while ago and the whole concept of slavery in Roman times is just.... bizarre. I mean, slavery seems to have had different meanings and levels of severity from one house to another (if I've understood it right)! Aren't there some slaves who ended up marrying their masters, some were freed, and of course some horribly mistreated? To be able to understand slavery as commonplace and the varieties of it would take a completely different way of thinking to our own - could you imagine how weird we would seem to a Roman? I mean, not only does the gender divide exist far less in our society, we've also gone beyond our own neighbourhoods and made our own maps. We've even figured out how to track something as tiny as a mobile phone across whole continents, let alone just gone outside our own counties!

Fascinating post on something I'd not really considered for ages *blush*. This'll keep going round in my head for days - brilliant!

Unknown said...

I have to say that I don't much understand Caroline Lawrence's mindset.

As she says herself, "Those are a few random ideas ... some of them might be crazy."

Yes, almost all of them are crazy, I'm sorry to say. They can be shown to be so from primary sources and archeology.

I would have expected a far better understanding of the Roman world from someone who actually writes books about it.

The best, and ONLY, way to understand any historical period is to read what the people of those times actually wrote - NOT what modern historians say.

Read the primary sources - then you will get a far better feeling for the culture.

Caroline Lawrence said...

Salve, Anonymous! I have read and continue to read the primary sources in Greek, Latin and Hebrew. But the question is, what did fulvus mean to a Latin speaker? Or what exactly was Virgil's prima quies.

Sometimes we have to risk being thought foolish to challenge facts which are only considered true because they've been repeated so often.

I've never called myself a scholar so I can afford to be crazy and play around in this cross-cultural sandbox. :-)

Diane Challenor said...

Your blog post is so very interesting. Thank you.

Stella apostata said...

Some interesting ideas in there. Though I tend to disagree on some points.
1. knowing how we look like.- This has to my knowledge always been important to people. Actually Rome and the obsession with silks, pearls, sumptuary laws point to the involvement with fashions. A silver mirror, a still pond, can give you a fair idea. The findings of all kinds of cosmetics (or at least the containers) speak their own language.
2. music- there are a few groups trying to recreate Roman music. It will always be an approximation, but I think there are a few really good ones working with historical instruments (that is, recreations)
3. religion- I'm just wondering why you insist calling the beliefs "superstition" as a whole. That really is more about our own judgment than the way people saw things. In Rome, you can say there was a divide between the official state religious ceremonies and the rituals families did in their own home. No less important for being lesser known. (Maybe look at our own perception of gender roles- do we consider these rituals of lesser value because they were part of the women's sphere? Our language suggests this strongly.)
4.division by age.- a lot of things were done by age. Seniority is a Latin word and a Latin concept. If anything, the importance in society of elder people with their experience was much greater than today. But of course, the intermingling of the age groups was much greater than today. I'd go so far and say that our segregation of the age groups in the western world is unnatural in the course of world history. In turn, people were a lot more used to birth and death. Not saying that either was more of a joy or a tragedy than we see it today, but it was certainly more in a context of continuing life than we perceive today.

Basically, a lot of the comments say more about our perceptions and misconceptions. There is a lot of good stuff out and about concerning Romans of different eras. We should not lump them all together. There are vast differences between Rome during the Republic and life in the northern provinces in the 4th century.
A few things from the comments: of course Romans had cold weather gear! They improved it over time as they moved their outposts further north, but there are numerous findings of boots, stories of how the legionaries dealt with cold etc. (Also, caligae aren't really that bad in cold weather with woolen socks)
As a lot of our literary conventions originate with Greek tragedy, I really have to wonder at someone asking about internal conflict. There may not be character development in the way we know it today, but story arcs with internal conflict as the drive are the basic fare of tragedy and comedy.

Peter Bray said...

You make some very good points though I do seriously dispute your comment on music.

The Romans not having music?! That statement and subsequent explanation is ill-informed and preposterous, especially as it does not take into consideration ethnomusicological and anthropological perspectives. Every culture in the world has music and from place to it differs extensively, from instruments and technologies, to associated rituals and traditional cultural practices. Music is also a reflection of society, the structural organisation of music is similar to that of a society. The technologies involved in making the instruments, the difficulties of playing instruments, how the instruments themselves work.

Further music is always developing whether it is a literate or an aural tradition.The Romans would have developed the music from the Greeks and Etruscans, but that is not say they didn't develop it and make it their own. Our own music that we listen today in Western Europe and America was developed from Pythagoraean tuning systems. Those mosaics in lepcis magna of a Roman Brass ensemble performing for the pre-match entertainment, is that not music?

I said music is a reflection of culture and technologies available. For instance traditional music of Uganda and celebratory piece called "Ssematimba ne Kikwabanga", and they wooden flutes of excellent craftsmanship, drums with animal skin membrane. The flute is used to replicate it is used to replicate language and nature and birdsong, The complexity of the rhythmic structure is fantastic. Just because it does not conform and is perhaps 'primitive' compared to modern Western European ideas of music (that were challenged by John Cage), it does not devalue their music in any shape or form, it is STILL Music.

Take the Buccina/Cornu, an instrument was found in Pompeii and the length of tubing was around 3.5m (12ft). Brass instruments work solely on the harmonic series, even modern instruments with valves. The longer piece of tubing, the more notes become available without the need for valves and keys, hence why Baroque trumpet music is written so high. I got a mouthpiece manufacturer (schilke) to analyse a Roman Trumpet mouthpiece for me, (it is on display at the Colchester museum and castle, Essex). Schilke, got back to me with a verdict of perfect for high register playing and that ties with length of an instrument such as Buccina or Cornu. Hence I vehemently believe that it is possible to Baroque trumpet music with a Roman Brass Ensemble. If as I believe the Roman instruments had that sort of capabililty, why would they have not had music?

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