Mary Beard has done more than anyone else, I think, to bring ancient Rome alive, and over at the Guardian she provides us with her list of the ten best ancient Romans.
Lists are very personal things, and everyone will have a rival version, so I cannot resist submitting my own. Here are ten people we call all learn from, indeed need to learn from, in the order in which they popped into my head.
1. Aurelius Augustinus, better known as St Augustine of Hippo, author of prose works that are still being read, one of which, the Confessions, perhaps makes him the most knowable man of the ancient world, and which is the fons et origo of all confessional literature. Not simply the greatest of all theologians, and a mighty philosopher, he can claim to be the father of existentialism and ultimate inspiration of the modern first person novel. Better than anyone else, he shows us what the search for truth is like.
2. Publius Virgilius Maro, or Virgil as we call him. Can anything compete with the Aeneid, his epic of “how great a task it was to found the Roman race”? He was a national poet, but at the same time one who dramatised the tragic fates of Rome’s victims, reminding us that pity for the fallen is a necessary and redeeming virtue. Virgil lays down one of the parameters of civilisation: toleration of minorities.
3. The Emperor Constantine: With the Edict of Milan, in the year 307, he established, for the first time ever, the principle of religious toleration.
4. The Empress Helen: Obscurely born – she may have been a stable girl, or there again, she may have been the daughter of old King Coel. Her son Constantine made her an Empress, and she used her position to journey to Jerusalem to find the relics of the Passion, establishing the historicity of revelation.
5. Tacitus: The first man to make history enjoyable. His story of the way Nero tried to bump off his mother Agrippina using a collapsible ship is one of the great comic set pieces of literature.
6. Augustus: The man who gave peace to the Roman world after generations of civil war.
7. Catullus:. His poems survived by a mere fluke, the sole surviving copy discovered in use as a bung in a wine barrel. The man who invented love poetry, or at least brought love poetry into the Latin world from the Greek.
8. Horace: The author of some of the most beautiful lines in literature.
9. Julia Domna, exponent of the power hairdo (see above), real ruler of the Roman Empire through her husband and later her two weakling sons. Every powerful female politician in our world should read her story and take note of her end.
10. Pontius Pilate, an obscure provincial procurator who illustrates for us the tenuousness of worldly power.
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