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Encountering the evidence: Rome in poetry

How can we use poetry as evidence when researching the past? Watch Dr Matthew Nicholls and Dr Luke Houghton discuss poetry in ancient Rome.
One of the things we’re talking about in this course is not just the city of Rome, but how we know about the city of Rome, the kinds of evidence that we have that we can use to get a rounded a picture of life and death in the ancient city. Now, of course, we spent a lot of time looking at the actual buildings, but as well as the remains of the buildings themselves. We have remains of literary evidence, texts that Romans wrote, and those include poems. So I’m here in Reading’s Ure museum to talk to my colleague, Luke Houghton. He’s an expert in Latin poetry.
Luke, hello and welcome. What can poetry tell us about the city of Rome? Well, architectural investigation can tell us where buildings were located and how they functioned as part of the urban landscape. But they can’t necessarily tell us how people responded to those building programmes, and how people at the time interacted with these complexes. Now, poetry– despite having some limitations as evidence– can at least give us some kind of idea of how contemporaries viewed and responded to particular sites in the city of Rome. So when we think about the advantages of this evidence and its limitations, treating poetry as historical evidence. What are the pitfalls of that?
None of the poets that we’re going to be talking about set out to give us an objective and comprehensive picture of the layout of the city of Rome. In fact, all these poets are interested in doing something else. Their texts have particular aims, and this colours the way in which they present the monuments and the sights in Rome that they’re talking about. So if we have a look at some of the text you selected for us that we’ll make available for people to read, we can see perhaps a range of these different aims in the poets from celebration of the city’s greatness, perhaps to a sort of subversion or under-cutting of some of the emperor’s aims for the city.
I think that’s true. And in many sects, we can see more than one interest functioning at the same time. For instance, The Aeneid– which accounts for the foundation of Rome– is particularly interested in aetiology, in how things come to be the way they are now as reflected in history. So in the guided tour of Rome, for example, we look back to various sites in the city which– at the time when they were being shown to Aeneas– were not what they were to Virgil’s contemporaries. So we get to see Rome before it was Rome. But as we do so, we also get glimpses ahead to what Rome is like now. So who are these poets? When were they writing?
And what sorts of poetry did they write? Most of the poets that we’ll be talking about on this course were writing at around the turn of the first century BC, first century AD. Augustus– formally Octavian– was establishing the principate, was establishing imperial rule in the city of Rome after the collapse of the republic. Augustus– as Suetonius tells us– claims to have found Rome made of brick and left it made of marble. It’s sometimes forgotten that during this period, Rome must have looked like constantly like a building site. There were buildings going up around the city, and it was only as Augustus’s reign progressed that people would have had idea of how they would end up looking.
So this poetry has a way of celebrating that building work that Rome is becoming, or maybe giving a glimpse of what it would look like when the dust was settled. To a large extent, yes. If we look at Virgil’s choice of monuments in the guided tour of the future site of Rome, we’ll see that Virgil includes several monuments that had recently been restored by Augustus, such as the Grotto of Lupercal, for instance. The cave where Romulus and Remus were raised by the wolf? Yes. And the Temple of Jupiter on the capital, which again, had recently been restored by Augustus. Virgil says, the capital is now golden. But previously, it had been rough with thickets.
But at the same time, he also says that even then, the inhabitants of the region felt a sensation of awe in this spot. It already had a kind of numinous quality that marked it out. There’s kind of dramatic irony here for Virgil’s readers, because they, of course, know this is going to be the site of the great Temple of Jupiter in Rome, even if it’s a deserted wasteland in the time when Aeneas is viewing it. So this– again– draws a contrast between Rome’s very humble origins and her grandiose present state, which owes so much to Augustus. So the choice of monuments is not by any means arbitrary. So what Virgil is talking about here is one of Rome’s foundation legends.
Perhaps our course learners will be familiar with the legend of Romulus and Remus. But Virgil’s talking about a variant foundation legend, where there’s this Aeneas, a refugee from Troy coming to Rome. And what does he find there when he arrives? Well, Aeneas has come from Troy via Carthage– Rome’s great future enemy– to Italy, and finds a very primitive settlement which has been established by Arcadians– settlers from Greece– who are ruled over by the King Evander. And it’s Evander who presents Aeneas with his tour of the site of Rome– The future city. Yes. This allows Virgil to look ahead from the mythological past of his narrative to sites with which he contemporary Roman reader would have been familiar.

In the second of our ‘Encountering the Evidence videos’, I meet with Dr Luke Houghton in the Ure Museum at the University of Reading to discuss poetry in ancient Rome.

In the next Step, we’ll look at some of these poems in more detail. Don’t forget to ‘mark this Step as complete’.

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