Neurons and Networks in Ancient Rome
A Book Review
Sometime around 90 C.E., two decades after a punishing Roman invasion flattened the Jewish Temple, one of Jesus’ followers took up a pen — and a fake name — to calm his community’s nerves. Passing himself off as the apostle Peter, the writer told his audience they would have to make some hard choices as exiles and aliens in “Babylon,” a widely-recognized Jewish metaphor for a hostile empire. Jesus’ followers should “accept the authority of every human institution,” Peter said, and embrace the family values of their time; wives should obey their husbands, children their parents, and slaves their masters. On politics, he was blunt: “Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2.13–17). How did a group told to fit in become remembered for standing out?
The identity of the man or woman pretending to be Peter is no longer known (Quick visit to a world outside the academy: Christian literalists scoff at the notion that anyone but the real Peter could have written this Biblical text). But none of that matters. Peter’s words are still found in every Bible — from Orlando to Oregon to North Carolina — and the story of how this one group won its “religious liberty” is fixed in the memory of Christians and non-Christians alike. Over a span of two hundred years, from Domitian’s tyranny to Diocletian’s bigotry, martyrdom, persecution, and a widespread refusal to participate in Roman civic life led to the growth of Christianity. By the end of the fourth century C.E., Rome eventually had to change because Christians couldn’t, didn’t, and wouldn’t assimilate.
This selected memory of early Christian history has become something of a shared memory for classicists. In 1988, Simon Keay told his readers that Christians in Roman Spain “spent their lives in preparation for life after death, effectively withdrawing from everyday life. Moreover, they refused to compromise their beliefs by . . . paying homage to the emperor.” Two decades later, in her otherwise helpful Peoples of the Roman World, Mary Boatwright argued that deep social problems faced by Rome in the lead-up to the Constantinian revolution stemmed from the fact that “Christian identity could not be adjusted to that of the Romans.” Mary Beard’s latest bestselling book, SPQR, framed the issue in a similar way. For Christians today who use “history” to oppose gay rights, women’s rights, Muslim rights and more, these memories of Rome are the gifts that keep on giving.
Karl Galinsky (Classics, The University of Texas at Austin) is not a scholar to embrace such rigid or facile dichotomies. In a lifetime of scholarship on Augustus, classical reception, and now, on social memory, Galinsky has consistently and vocally advocated the need to tear down conceptual walls.
A review of K. Galinsky (ed.). Memory in Ancient Rome and Early Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).
Against those who painted the Augustan age as an epoch of creeping authoritarianism, he celebrated the wedding of tradition and dialogue, of top-down innovation matched by an everyday eagerness to leave the horrors of civil war behind. Just last year, in the introduction to a volume on the Mediterranean, edited with Kenneth Lapatin, Galinsky again nudged scholars away from the kind of fixed “orthodoxies and theoretical straitjackets” that can turn empires into caricatures of themselves. Readers of this new collection on memory, religion, and Rome — the last in a trilogy of memory books which have resulted from a multi-year grant from the Max-Planck Society — will recognize the same cautious approach. Galinsky surveys the theoretical concepts in his substantial introduction, but the emphasis throughout the book is on particular examples and the nuance they bring to the larger historical picture (p. 10).
This book succeeds in telling a powerful story. In the course of thirteen chapters, as the set changes from the Rome of Sulla’s dictatorship to the period when power was consolidated in the hands of a single family and, later, to the seemingly polarizing world of Late Antiquity, readers are introduced to a repeating theme. At every stage of their history, many Romans were intensely working through their past. That observation might be taken as banal in books on Caesar, Cicero, and Octavian. But in a volume that engages with the story of early Christianity, it makes a provocative opening move. For what it suggests is that “Babylon” was much more than the evil empire many Christians have remembered it to be. Rome was always a work-in-progress, and the memory of where the empire had come from, where it was going, and what it might still be was an important part of the wider political conversation.
What types of things did the people of ancient Rome remember, forget, and why?
The key contribution of Galinsky’s book is that it highlights how this process of contested remembering played out in the Roman world at large, incorporating, not starting from, the perspective of people who shaped the “New Testament.” Some scholars will perhaps find it jarring that Jesus’ followers don’t make any appearance in this book until Part IV. But the genius of this approach is that it puts early Christians in their place — second historically, not first — and shows how memory as a historical phenomenon shaped generations of Romans (21), even those remembered today for having resisted Roman power.
So what types of things did the people of ancient Rome remember, forget, and why? The book begins in the wake of Augustus by exploring memory in Latin prose and poetry. Alain Gowing starts appropriately with Tiberius. Gowing’s essay reveals a man with “deep anxieties about the past,” a ruler “imprisoned by his memories” of rivals like Germanicus, and a writer — Tacitus — intent on using recent, not out-dated Republican examples, to show his readers a new way forward in Roman politics (58–59). Gowing’s essay is followed by studies of the literary models behind Virgil’s Dido in Aeneid 4 and Valerius Maximus’ treatment of religion under Tiberius. Each chapter illustrates how Latin writers of the first century B.C.E./C.E. made innovative contributions to imperial culture by engaging with but also departing from literary and historical expectations.
This portrait of an empire, unafraid to change its traditions to keep up with changing times, carries over into the next two chapters on memory and the emperors. One chapter patiently sets forth Augustus’s innovations to the triumphal procession in the lower Campus Martius. The other, on memories of the “false Nero,” passionately argues that the Roman state “made no coordinated effort to cultivate a common ‘Roman culture’ and ‘identity’ among the inhabitants of the Empire” (157). That’s certainly a contrarian way to think about Roman society at the end of the Julio-Claudian era. It’s also one that raises important questions about the nature of empire-building.
Two chapters rewind the story to the Republican era, with essays on Cicero’s and Sulla’s Rome. The former takes as its point of departure a reference in Cicero to a statue which Marc Antony’s brother, Lucius, had erected in front of the Temple of Castor in the Roman Forum (Phil. 6.13). The latter looks at the power of Sulla’s gilded statue near the Comitium by exploring its association with monuments nearby. In both essays, the methodology is contextual (172) and associative (217), exploring important features of the Forum which Cicero omitted or which had once existed near Sulla’s statue. The last chapter of this section adds an important wrinkle to this conversation. Returning to the imperial age, Diana Ng uses evidence from Asia Minor to argue that memory of public statues often lay “with the private circle of the honored rather than with the community at large” (243), suggesting that broad studies of memory in ancient cityscapes — while important for recovering lost perspectives — can risk over-interpreting the evidence.
The four chapters of the penultimate section are written by leading experts who apply the theories and approaches of memory studies to a different aspect of early Christian history. John Kloppenborg revisits an essay previously published in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus by exploring how the aphorism “measure-for-measure” (in Q 6:36–38, Matt 7:1–2, Luke 6:37–38, Mark 4:24, and 1 Clem 13:2), “despite its lexical stability” (304), was performed in different ways in different contexts. Kloppenborg’s essay is perhaps the most powerful illustration in the collection of the axiom that memory is not just a simple process of “recording” (291), “reduplication,” or “reproduction” (288). His argument — that “it is impossible to trace the various performances [of Jesus’ teachings] back to a common ‘original’ version” (318) — also dovetails with others in this section.
Archaeologist Jodi Magness suggests that the canonical gospel of John was written with one eye on the historical Jesus and the other on the cityscape of Jerusalem after 70 C.E. Biblical scholar Milton Moreland looks at stories of Peter circulating in the early church with one eye on the historical apostle and the other on the Mediterranean landscape after Hadrian’s crushing defeat of the Bar Kokhba revolt. And historian Nicola Denzey Lewis returns to the late fourth-century C.E. catacombs on the Via Latina to ask whether classical scenes therein were performances of “nostalgia” (265) or demonstrations of honest “political and religious resistance” (265) in a world increasingly, legislatively Christian. These chapters may not address every aspect of memory in early Christianity, but they show that, when placed in context, memories can shed light on important social-historical questions. That alone makes this admittedly limited section a refreshing rejoinder to the “cultural turn” in early Christian studies, where scholarly observations about the rhetorical nature of this or that text or the construction of this or that boundary have become commonplace and formulaic.
And so we arrive at the last chapter, the most compelling of the collection. In it, three neuroscientists, A-K. Stock, H. Gajsar, and O. Güntürkün, set forth in crystal-clear prose how memory works: from the anatomy of the brain to the “cell assemblies” and “neuronal networks” (374–5) by which memory traces become encoded in it. Scholars of religion in Rome have long been interested in cells and networks, albeit of a different kind. This chapter takes the conversation in a whole different direction. For “cells that fire together, wire together,” the scientists explain (373), by which they mean that “the emotions accompanying an event influence its processing” (384). The implications are worth considering. As the researchers make clear, “repeated exposure to false stories increased the percentage of people who considered them to be previous parts of [their] lives” (388).
Purists will scratch their heads at the relevance of this material. But anyone who values dialogue — between science and the humanities, classics and religious studies, or among people of faith learning more about their own religious traditions — will recognize its implication: Memories that have been acquired through learned behavior can, with some difficulty, be unlearned, too.
Douglas Boin is the author, most recently, of Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar’s Empire (Bloomsbury Press). He is an Associate Professor of History at Saint Louis University.
This post also appeared July 24, 2016, in a slightly different form at the Bryn Mawr Classical Review.
Note: The author “worked as a post doctoral student [in 2009–2010] with this volume’s editor.” — From the author’s conflict-of-interest disclosure, submitted to the editors before being assigned this review.