‘Homosexuality’ in Ancient Greece

Written by: Lisa Doyle

Sexual relations between men are amongst the most remarked upon features of ancient Greek society. It is indeed prevalent in the various sources we have for this period, including literary and visual. Although much of the scholarship and research on this subject uses the term ‘homosexuality’ to describe these relationships, this modern terminology is not strictly applicable to the ancient Greek world as the Greeks did not define themselves as such. This term carries connotations which simply do not apply to a society which was wholly different from our own. I hope to demonstrate that the conception of male sexual relations in Greece was a fluid one, and not subject to the rigid definitions which are typical of modern culture.

For the purpose of this article though, and for the sake of clarity, I shall continue to use this term. Unfortunately, this topic will have an inevitably male focus as our sources for women in antiquity, especially related to this topic, are virtually non-existent. As women were very much second-class citizens at this time, we have very little primary evidence by women relating to the female experience. It is worth mentioning, though, the Archaic poet Sappho and the speculation surrounding her sexuality. Regarding homosexuality between males, it took a very specific form in ancient Greece – the institution of pederasty, which involved the relationship between a young male and an older, wiser male companion and was very much sexual in nature. Pederasty was considered an established practice with educational benefits, and resulted in the transmission of values and learning between partners which led to the younger male becoming more informed of his very pivotal role within the polis or community. Moreover, pederasty was an effective system with which to educate and incorporate élite men into the polis. These men would, of course, go on to marry women and produce children, as befitted their role. As Andrew Lear and Eva Cantarella have argued, ‘Pederasty was practiced on a more widespread basis and with greater public approval than any other form of homosexual relations at any time in any Western culture’.

The pervasiveness of pederasty in Ancient Greek culture is evident in the many literary examples, such as in Aristophanes and Plato, and in artistic depictions of the practice which confirm its regularity and normality in Greek life. There are also, however, numerous mythological exemplars which serve only to confirm the many manifestations these relationships can take. Much of our evidence involves reinterpretations of mythological stories to fit the accepted ideal of male homo-erotic relations at the time the evidence was created. For example, one of the most famous male couples in Greek culture is Achilles, the warrior-hero, and his companion Patroclus. Their story features in the Iliad, the epic poem by Homer. The story of Achilles, and his wrath, is very much the focus of this poem, and there is much debate as to the true nature of his relationship with Patroclus. Whatever Homer’s intended depiction of the relationship was, however, is almost irrelevant, as the relationship itself was consistently depicted as homoerotic in nature thereafter. Perhaps the most convincing example from the poem is the events which follow the death of Patroclus at the hands of Hector, as Achilles’ mourning is both intense and profound, attesting to the closeness of his relationship with Patroclus. One cannot underestimate the significance of Achilles’ supposedly homo-sexual relationship as he is the ultimate warrior, exhibiting ideal notions of manly virtue, and his relationship with Patroclus, featured in a poem which was revered in Greek culture, was very much a part of that male identity.

Other examples from Greek myth and culture are plentiful. The tale of Zeus’ abduction of Ganymede, the young prince of Troy, is a very popular motif in Greek vase-painting, and illustrates another facet of male sexual relations as conceived by the Greeks. Indeed, the tale is so ingrained in mythology that the image of Ganymede being carried from Troy by Zeus as an eagle has pervaded the art and literature of subsequent periods.  Not only does this example – also mentioned by Homer in the Iliad – show us that Zeus’ promiscuity is not just limited to women, it enlightens our understanding of male relationships in Greece. Similarly to other relationships typical of this pederastic culture, vase-paintings often depict the bearded Zeus pining after the fresh-faced youth. However, there are also differences with the human version of such courtship – Ganymede appears to be much younger than the standard age at which males usually engage in such relations, and there is no evidence of the mutual affection often seen in painted depictions of homosexual relations and pederasty. Indeed, the presence of the god Eros in such vase-paintings depicting pederasty would almost seem to give divine validation to the institution itself.

Further examples include the mythological hero Heracles and his companion Iolaus, another example of male companionship within a heroic model, as Iolaus travelled the world with Heracles and helped him complete some of his twelve labours. A parallel courtship can be found in the historical example of Alexander the Great and Hephaestion, a general in his army and member of his personal guard. They might be considered as one of the original power couples, as Alexander conquered the known world with Hephaestion by his side and exhibited an undeniable passion for him. They both served as exemplars, and were admired and worshipped across the Greek world. This relationship could be compared to that of Achilles and Patroclus, something Alexander was very much aware of, I am sure, as he went to bed every night with a copy of the Iliad under his pillow. Following Hephaestion’s death, Alexander engaged in the same level of mourning as Achilles, and he himself died only months later.

I hope to have demonstrated, then, the pervasiveness and varied nature of homosexual relations in ancient Greece. This phenomenon and the institution of pederasty were not received so warmly in Republican and Imperial Rome, but slaves were ultimately utilised for male sexual relations by masters. As time progressed, another noteworthy male companionship would emerge in the form of the emperor Hadrian, notable for his ‘Hellenic’ qualities, and his partner Antinous. Homo-erotic relations between males existed in this form until the Christian period.

Image: Zeus and Ganymede, 450 BC, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Ferrara 

Further Reading

Davidson, J. (2008) The Greeks and Greek Love

Dover, K.J. (1989) Greek Homosexuality

Larson, J. (2012) Greek and Roman Sexualities

Lear, A. and Cantarella, E. (2008) Images of Ancient Greek Pederasty


‘Strike for Freedom’: Frederick Douglass, Scotland, and the Slave Trade

Written by: Carissa Chew

The ‘Strike for Freedom’ treasures exhibition, displayed at the National Library of Scotland from 4 October 2018 to 16 February 2019 in commemoration of the 200 year anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth, celebrates the life and work of one of the most renowned black American abolitionists and his historic connections to the Scottish capital. Frederick Douglass (c.1818-1895), who escaped slavery in the US in 1838, rose to fame as a social activist who traversed the Atlantic campaigning for social justice. Douglass was one of many black abolitionists who contributed to the Scottish anti-slavery movement in the nineteenth century, and the ‘Strike for Freedom’ project celebrates Edinburgh’s role as a centre of the abolitionist movement. As part of this project, Dr Celeste-Marie Bernier, chair of black studies at the University of Edinburgh, also delivered a public lecture entitled ‘Sorrow Images in the Life of Frederick Douglass’, in which she presented her research on the symbolic role that photography played in Frederick Douglass’s anti-slavery campaign.

The memorialisation of Douglass’s contribution to the abolitionist movement in Edinburgh, however, must be considered as part of an uncomfortable, yet vital, conversation that needs to be had about Scotland’s historic relationship with the slave trade. Traditionally we see that Scotland’s role in the abolition movement has been celebrated, whilst its contribution to the slave trade has conveniently been forgotten. The social and economic ties between Scotland and the Atlantic slave trade, however, have attracted significant attention from scholars in recent years, and the extent of slavery’s legacy in Scotland is beginning to be exposed. As Celeste-Marie Bernier has stated: ‘Slavery bleeds in every building, in every brick, in every town across Scotland.’

Scotland’s Relationship with Slavery

Scotland’s relationship with slavery dates back to the 1600s, a period in which both Englishmen and Scotsmen were establishing sugar and tobacco plantations in the West Indies and the east coast of America, where their native and indentured labour forces were afforded few rights. Although England’s role in the plantation system is commonly recognised, Scotland’s involvement is lesser-known. The fact that Scotland attempted to establish its own colony in the Isthmus of Panama in the 1690s, for example, is often overlooked.

Following the 1707 Act of Union between Scotland and England, more and more Scottish merchants joined the English trade routes, including the notorious ‘Triangular Trade’ system. Scottish merchants and plantation owners, therefore, played an active role in fuelling the international demand for slaves. By the late 1700s, a third of Jamaican plantations were owned by Scots. Even revered Scottish poet Robert Burns, prior to his career as a poet, had initially planned to go to Jamaica to become a ‘negro driver’. Moreover, one of Scotland’s most lucrative exports in the eighteenth century was the coarse linen known as ‘slave cloth’, 90 per cent of which was exported to North America and the West Indies; in fact, by 1790, Scotland was profiting approximately £50 million (in today’s currency) from its trade with the West Indies.

Furthermore, between 1728 and 1807, Scottish slaveholders held tens of thousands of African slaves at Bunce Island, which is located off the coast of Sierra Leone. There, slaves were held in appalling conditions as if they were cattle, whilst the Scottish slaveholders enjoyed a mini Scottish paradise, relaxing on their golf courses where they dressed their slave caddies in their clan tartan. These slaves were sent to the Caribbean and the Americas: but 50 per cent of them died on board the ships, and their bodies were thrown to the sharks. The grim reality of Scotland’s role on Bunce Island has been erased from Scotland’s history. In fact, when Sierra Leone achieved independence in the 1960s, the British removed all records of slavery.

The Scottish, therefore, were actively involved, if not complicit, in the well-known horrors of slavery. British ships are estimated to have transported 3 million slaves to the plantations and mines in vessels renowned for their overcrowding: in 1788, for example, it was recorded that one ship, built for a maximum capacity of 451 people, carried 600 slaves. Many slaves tried to commit suicide by jumping overboard (an option that was later restricted by the introduction of nets) and many died from diseases such as smallpox and dysentery.

Life on the plantations was little better, where the British system of chattel slavery defined slaves as property, essentially denying them any human rights and reducing them to the same status as cattle. There were no laws in place to protect the slaves in the West Indies and America, where they were subject to murder, abuse, sexual assault, and other injustices. When slaves tried to run away in the West Indies, they were often tortured or killed upon capture. The legacy of Scottish slave owners in Jamaica resonates in the prominence of Scottish surnames there today, such as Campbell, as well as in the highland names of the coastal towns in British Guyana.

It is important that we challenge this ‘collective amnesia’ regarding the controversial history of Scotland and open our eyes to the fact that many of the institutions and infrastructures around us in Edinburgh have been built with money generated from the slave trade. In fact, once we begin to notice these historic connections, we find that the legacy of slavery in Edinburgh is disturbingly visible. The ornate Georgian architecture of the eighteenth-century buildings in New Town is an outward reflection of the wealth accumulated by merchants, plantation owners, and some of the 148 slave owners in Edinburgh who were generously compensated following the emancipation act in 1833. For example, John Gladstone (1764-1851) of Leith, father of former British Prime Minister William Gladstone, who owned some of the largest plantations in British Guyana and Jamaica, received £93,526 (£83 million in today’s money) in compensation for his 2,039 slaves (a sum of money which inevitably benefitted his son’s political career).

Moreover, a 42-metre-high statue of Henry Dundas stands in St Andrew’s Square, commemorating a man who in 1792, as Home Secretary, delayed the enforcement of William Wilberforce’s abolition bill for 15 years. To give another example, James Gillespie High School was founded by a wealthy tobacco merchant who, upon his death in 1797, donated three-quarters of his wealth – which was derived from chattel slavery in the West Indies – to the school for the education of working-class Scottish boys.


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The addresses of former slaveholders in Britain have been mapped by the University College London’s Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership. This image displays some of the slaveholder addresses around Edinburgh. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/maps/britain/#zoom=15&lng=-3.190026&lat=55.946172

Port Glasgow was also central to the Transatlantic Trade, and the University of Glasgow has recently acknowledged that it benefitted from the financial investment of many benefactors whose profits derived from slavery. The Merchant City in Glasgow was also built using the riches of tobacco lords and cotton kings, revered figures whose memory was commemorated through street names, which remain in use today. Furthermore, the Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow now occupies the mansion that was formerly owned by Lord William Cunningham, a tobacco lord whose fortune stemmed from slavery in the Americas.

Glasgow, however, is further along than Edinburgh in acknowledging its historic connections with slavery. In fact, it has recently been proposed that the Gallery of Modern Art could be the site of a new museum commemorating Scotland’s role in the slave trade, a motion that has the support of the Glasgow City Council. The plan to open a new museum is part of a broader campaign to see Glasgow – and Scotland more broadly – recognise its role in the slave trade, which includes: plans for the erection of a statue in memorial to the victims of slavery in Glasgow; calls for the renaming of Glasgow’s streets; and proposals that Scotland should pay reparations to countries such as Sierra Leone and the Caribbean nations.

Dr Celeste-Marie Bernier’s ‘Sorrow Images in the Life of Frederick Douglass’

Born into chattel slavery in Maryland, USA, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey escaped to freedom with the financial help of his fiancé in 1838 and adopted the surname Douglass, taken from Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake. Douglass soon rose to fame for his transatlantic anti-abolition campaign, renowned for his excellence as a writer and an orator. His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was written in Massachusetts and published in 1845. This narrative named and denounced prominent white slave owners, including Douglass’ ex-owner, Hugh Auld, and so Douglass was urged to tour Ireland to avoid any backlash.

Before going on to become a major abolitionist figure in the US where he founded an anti-slavery newspaper and published two more autobiographies, Douglass spent two years touring round Ireland and Great Britain, giving many passionate anti-slavery speeches. Arriving in Edinburgh in January 1846, Douglass remarked:

Everything is so different here from what I have been accustomed to in the United States. No insults to encounter – no prejudice to encounter, but all is smooth. I am treated as a man an equal brother. My color instead of being a barrier to social equality – is not thought of as such.

Edinburgh contributed much to Douglass’ anti-slavery journey, whilst Douglass himself made a significant contribution to the movement in Scotland: delivering his famous ‘Send back the Money’ speech in front of the the Balmoral Hotel on North Bridge, as well as giving lectures at anti-slavery meetings held at South College Street Church, Rose Street Chapel, George Street Music Hall, and Queen Street Hall, for example.

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Map of places where Frederick Douglass lived and campaigned in Edinburgh, produced by the National Library of Scotland. https://geo.nls.uk/maps/douglass/

Throughout the nineteenth century, Edinburgh attracted many major abolitionist campaigners – both British and American. Douglass was one of many former slaves to join the Scottish campaign for abolition, with other renowned names being William Wells Brown, William and Ellen Craft, and Ida B. Wells. Scotland very much functioned as a centre for the abolitionist movement, with a number of renowned Scots, such as Zachary Macaulay (1768-1838) and William Dickson (1751-1823) being major abolitionist figures, and ladies’ emancipation societies were established in Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Paisley. The Church of Scotland also played an important role in petitioning parliament to abolish slavery.

Using the collections that have made their way to Edinburgh regarding the lives of Frederick Douglass, the Douglass family, and the other American abolitionists who visited Edinburgh, Celeste-Marie Bernier offered a discussion of ‘Sorrow Images in the Life of Frederick Douglass’ in a public lecture that took place on 31 January at the National Library of Scotland. In this talk, Bernier explained that Douglass viewed photography as a way to not only remember the men, women, and children who had lived and died in slavery, but also as a way to resist white racist strategies of misrepresenting African American lives. For Douglass, photography was a way of communicating the pain that slaves had suffered.

Bernier began by speaking about the horrors of slavery. Most memorably, she told of the tactics of terror that Europeans used to maintain order on board the slave ships, with the British performing ritualistic executions on deck, for example. The bodies of women who jumped overboard were dragged back to shore and beheaded in front of the African men as a warning that they could not ‘fly back to Africa’ (a belief stated by Africans who committed suicide). Douglass himself had remarked: ‘You can see a slave ship by its trail of human blood.’ Bernier also showed her audience an image of a whipping tree: with the physical scars that slavery has left on the environment being a spectre of the scars that slavery left on the bodies of its black victims.

Bernier then explained problems of working with an abusive archive in which one of the main sources on slavery is runaway slave advertisements, which portray slaves in accordance with racist stereotypes. If we read against the grain, however, Bernier noted that we can learn important details about the lives of slaves, such as the fact that many suffered with alcohol addiction. Bernier finds that Douglass’ photographs offer a ‘powerful antidote’ to these racist stereotypes that pervade the archive.

For Douglass, photographs proved the humanity of black slaves: showing there was ‘a beating heart under the skin’. In this sense, photography was a weapon. In most of his photos Bernier noted that Douglass looks away from the camera as if looking toward a new future and never smiles. These photographs also draw attention to the scar on his head, from when he was hit over the head with an iron bar aged 7. In contrast to the conventions of European portrait photography at the time, which used lots of backdrops and props and costumes, Douglass preferred simplicity. Also, given that the technological photographic conventions at this time were geared toward white people, it is significant that Douglass took control of the lighting in his portraits so that his face was illuminated.

Photography therefore played an important role in Douglass’s abolitionist campaign and personal struggle for freedom, showing the degree of agency he could exercise when it came to his self-portrayal. As a historical figure, Douglass is in many ways epitomic of Edinburgh’s relationship with the abolitionist movement, yet it is essential to remember that on the flipside of Edinburgh’s central place in the anti-slavery campaign, there remains a darker legacy of Scotland’s historic involvement with the slave trade. In the photographs of Frederick Douglass we see an elegant black man who escaped slavery and found liberty in Edinburgh, but we must not forget Scotland’s complicity in the physical scars that lie beneath his clothes and the emotional scars that are not visible. Scotland may have helped with bringing slaves their freedom, but the nation has also profited from the thousands of deaths and immense suffering that the Atlantic Slave Trade produced, and it is time to acknowledge that fact.

Cover image: Photograph of Frederick Douglass, c.1850. National Park Service.


‘“Our Bondage and Our Freedom”- Frederick Douglass in Edinburgh and Scotland’, 2018, https://geo.nls.uk/maps/douglass/; accessed 16 February 2019.

‘How slavery made modern Scotland’, 4 November 2018, www.heraldscotland.com/news/17200038.how-slavery-made-the-modern-scotland/; accessed 16 February 2019.

‘Scotland & the Slave Trade’,  2011, https://www.nts.org.uk/learn/downloads/Scotland%20and%20the%20SlaveTrade.pdf; accessed 16 February 2019.

‘Slavery and the Slave Trade’, 2019, www.nrscotland.gov.uk/research/guides/slavery-and-the-slave-trade ; accessed 16 February 2019.

‘Slavery museum to be set up in Glasgow’, 4 November 2018, www.heraldscotland.com/news/17200039.slavery-museum-to-be-set-up-in-glasgow/?ref=ar; accessed 16 February 2019.

‘Slavery, Civil War and the Frederick Douglass Family’, 2018, https://www.nls.uk/exhibitions/treasures/frederick-douglass accessed 16 February 2019.

Lambourne, Molly, ‘Edinburgh’s historical association with the transatlantic slave trade’, 23 January 2019, http://www.studentnewspaper.org/edinburghs-historical-association-with-the-transatlantic-slave-trade/; accessed 16 February 2019.

McLaren, Stephen, ‘The slave trade made Scotland rich. Now we must pay our bloodsoaked debts’, www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/13/slave-trade-slavery-scotland-pay-debts; accessed 16 February 2019.

UCL Department of History, ‘Legacies of British slave-ownership’, 2019,  https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/ accessed 16 February 2019.

Williams, Nathanael, ‘The Scottish Slavery Map: Plotting out Scotland’s past’, 4 August 2016, https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/8980/scottish-slavery-map-plotting-out-scotlands-past; accessed 16 February 2019.


George Ciccariello-Maher on Revolutionary Venezuela

Written by: Josh Newmark

With mass demonstrations, a dramatic challenge to the Presidency, and the possibility of foreign intervention in the air, recent events in Venezuela have focused attention around the embattled strongman regime of Nicolas Maduro. This reinforces the tendency towards a ‘Great Man’ conception of Venezuela which has framed most common understandings of recent history around Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, and the regime he left behind. While Chávez was a complex and intriguing character (somewhat unfairly reduced to a one-dimensional tyrant in certain takes), this focus on the Bolivarian Revolution (the name given to the historical process of constitutional and socioeconomic change commenced by Chávez’s election in 1998) from above provides only half, or less, of the story. George Ciccariello-Maher’s work contextualises the Bolivarian Revolution and provides insight into how it was experienced by ordinary people. Although far from a non-partisan source, Ciccariello-Maher never claims to be one, and his knowledge of the Revolution from the bottom-up makes for fascinating reading.  

The title of his 2013 book We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution reflects Ciccariello-Maher’s crucial argument for a fluid distinction between the Revolutionary state and Revolutionary social movements. Ciccariello-Maher shows how the Revolution grew out of a long history of struggles against social and political exclusion in Venezuela’s post-1958 ‘pacted democracy’, and more generally within a global revolt against neo-liberalism. The latter saw Venezuela erupt in 1989 in the so-called Caracazo riots, initially sparked by a massive hike in bus fares, which saw poor inhabitants of Caracas streaming down from the hills and eventually being repressed by gunfire. For the author, Chávez was, and is, a product and symbol of the struggle rather than the prime mover. More a history of activism than a ‘people’s history’, the book uses memoirs as his source material and the author’s interviews with Venezuela’s Cuba-inspired guerrilla movement, and organisers for urban communities, students, women, labour, peasants, and Venezuelans of colour to show the different inputs that constitute the Revolution. This approach yields important insights: for example, the failure of Venezuela’s Cuba-inspired guerrilla movement due to its detachment from the masses; the conflict between ‘feminists’ and ‘Party women’, left-wing women’s activists who did not believe female emancipation could exist outside of the class struggle; and the origins of the armed urban militias, which commentators have pointed to as part of Maduro’s infrastructure of authoritarianism, as independent grassroots initiatives in working-class communities to stamp out the drug trade amid widespread police corruption.

At times, Ciccariello-Maher’s fervent support for the Revolution and reliance on radical activist sources precludes the critical analysis and objectivity that a social history requires. For example, the chapter on the student movement features some anecdotes from his own time teaching in Venezuela in which he boasts ‘without apology’ that his own students were ‘the most militant’ whilst pouring scorn on ‘opposition’ student activists, at the expense of more a concrete analysis. Indeed, the penultimate chapter, on Venezuela’s urban ‘informal proletariat’, who constitute a majority of Venezuelan society, is distinctive for its use of a more ethnographical account rather than a sole focus on activists. The author argues that vestiges of rural life foster a communitarian ‘barrio culture’, and that the sheer precarity and indignity of this class’ socio-economic experience, and their social, cultural, and political exclusion from national life, direct them to a political movement like Bolivarianism, rather than simply making economic demands.

Ciccariello-Maher’s 2016 work Building the Commune: Radical Democracy in Venezuela is a fascinating, albeit brief, insight into the divisions within Venezuela that one must grasp in order to understand its current situation. The book expands on some of Venezuela’s dire social cleavages mentioned in his prior book, and shows the overlap between elements of political opposition, and hostility to social progress. For example, the author describes how opposition protests have sometimes targeted social housing built by the government, and health clinics for the poor staffed by Cuban doctors, or how opposition commentators have recycled racist tropes to describe Chávez and his supporters.  In some ways, this book is far more a ‘people’s history’ than the previous one, in that it describes ordinary people’s engagement with the Revolution rather than purely those who were already activists, through the process of developing communes (forms of local participatory democracy and common economic ownership). A pertinent example describes the Zancudo Commune in remote southern Venezuela, where one radical organiser helped the locals to start their own communally-run fish farm in ditches left behind by road construction, which (at the time of the author’s research) turns a profit for the community; when they formally became a commune under the auspices of the law, ‘some of the teenagers whose only political education had been the process of cultivating the fish were elected as its spokespeople’. These are far removed from the common stock images one has of contemporary Venezuela, which generally revolve around mass rallies and riot police in Caracas. But the communes are not an entirely grassroots endeavour, having been fostered by Chávez and the Left of his Party, and were posited by the former as the key to the future of the Revolution. In one tantalising passage, the curious overlap between the Chavista state and the Revolutionary social movements is made evident as the author asks veteran-activist-turned-cabinet-minister, Rosángela Orozco, if the communal state could displace the existing state: ‘Should I answer for the ministry, or as a militant?’ This raises the question of the legacy of Chavismo: Is the Revolution from above coming to an end? Indeed, having been published shortly after the Opposition victory in the 2015 National Assembly elections, Building the Commune engages more with the future of the Revolution. Drawing repeatedly on Chávez’s last major speech before his death, the so-called Golpe de Timón, ‘changing course,’ which attacked the corruption and bureaucratisation resulting from a separation of the Party elite from the base, Ciccariello-Maher continues with the theme of his previous book on the Revolution’s essential independence from the regime. For Ciccariello-Maher, the communes are the essence of the Bolivarian Revolution’s politicisation and mobilisation of Venezuela’s marginalised peoples.

It remains to be seen what will come to pass in Venezuela in the months and years ahead, with all attention focused on a regime delegitimised by the West and backed by Moscow and Beijing, but Ciccariello-Maher’s work opens our eyes to the political questions – aside from the question of who occupies the presidency. While the doubling down of Maduro’s authoritarianism appears to render nuance as mere complicity, and the onset of hyperinflation and mass, levelling impoverishment seems to render social inequality a moot point, a political movement as potent as a Revolution is unlikely to simply disappear, and we should aim to understand its causes and content. Both those desperate to use Venezuela as a mere polemical stick to bash the Left, and Left-wingers eager to disavow our blatant admiration for the Venezuelan Revolution during its better years, are in danger of missing its lessons.

Image: Front cover of George Ciccariello-Maher’s We Created Chávez

Review: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

Written by Luke Neill

Rohinton Mistry’s 1995 novel A Fine Balance is set in 1970s India and follows four characters who come to interact with each other over a period of around 15 years. There is Dina, the struggling landlady whose husband was run over and killed whilst cycling to buy ice cream for a family gathering; Ishvar and Omprakash, tailors whose families had been brutalised by the destructive legacy of the caste system; and Maneck, a refrigeration and air conditioning student whose best friend is tortured and killed by the government.

Central to the plotline is The Emergency of 1975-1977, in which the Prime Minister was given the power to rule by decree, creating an effective dictatorship in response to threats of ‘internal disturbance’. This Emergency, under the leadership of Indira Gandhi, proved to be one of the most intensely controversial moments of independent India’s history. Forced mass-sterilisation, censorship of the press, mass political arrests, and a ‘national beautification’ program in which thousands of slums were destroyed, created an atmosphere of political and social upheaval which the four characters are forced to navigate (and experience first-hand) throughout the course of the novel.

To try to explain the characters’ individual stories in one short paragraph is an injustice to the unimaginable picture of pain and suffering that Mistry paints. However, the curious beauty of the book is that in a story so saturated with pain, fear, torture, death and castration, there emerges unmistakable moments of joy. Mistry makes it abundantly clear that even the darkest horrors cannot suffocate the fundamental faculty of the human condition – to laugh in the face of adversity. This in itself, however, is by no means part of a neat and contrived narrative in which good trumps evil, and to settle with that would be a disservice to Mistry’s far more nuanced depiction of life and hardship.

In fact, by the end of the book, one begins to question the title. The overwhelming impression is that there seems to be no ‘Fine Balance’ whatsoever, and it would be understandable to conclude that all the joy and desire of the characters in the novel, all their intermittent yet powerful glimmers of hope, are quashed with a disturbing, catastrophic finality in its closing pages. It is certainly a sobering narrative. Without giving anything away, a future reader should not expect a happy ending. However, as The Atlantic puts it:

What makes the final pages of A Fine Balance heart-breaking is not that we see the protagonists’ lives so hideously diminished but that in spite of it all they are still laughing.

This sums up what seems the most important aspect of the book. It becomes clear that Mistry’s ‘Fine Balance’ is not the balancing of justice and injustice, of good and evil, or of love and hatred. It does not attempt to portray life as an equitable state in which these opposites weigh against each other into a precarious but enduring ‘Balance’. We learn instead that this balance is a state of mind, of measuring positivity and optimism against despair. If joy can manifest itself in the most abhorrent of circumstances, then personal suffering can always be balanced against acceptance – and eventually defiance – of one’s own condition.

I would recommend anyone to read A Fine Balance, whether to learn something about the period, to share in the fascinating stories of the characters, or to understand a culture and time in which the scales are tipped in the wrong direction.
Image: Cover image of A Fine Balance


Allen, Brooke. “Loss and Endurance: Rohinton Mistry’s tragic and triumphant vision”. Accessed 02/02/19: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2002/09/loss-and-endurance/302557/


A Look at the Life of John Stuart Mill

Written by: Martha Stutchbury

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) is a man whose lasting influence on the Western liberal tradition cannot be overstated. He is recognised for attempting to reconcile utilitarianism – the political philosophy which notoriously prioritises ‘majority rule’ over the individual, with self-governance and individual rights. He is perhaps most famous within academic circles for articulating the ‘harm principle’, an argument for near-absolute freedom of thought and expression. Despite these enshrined successes, it is often accepted that Mill’s greatest failing as a political thinker was his inability to convincingly reconcile his adoration for the British Empire – for which he worked for over three decades within the East India Company – with his disdain for government intervention and paternalism. However, this article focuses predominantly on the abnormal childhood of the political philosopher, whose rigorous homeschooling programme was meticulously constructed by his father, James Mill, with additional supervision from the father of utilitarianism – Jeremy Bentham himself – to academically ‘stretch’ Master Mill from an extraordinarily young age.

In his autobiography, (published in the year of Mill’s death), Mill claims that he is publicising the details of his childhood for the purposes of studying educational theory – the development and discussion of which he advocated for throughout his career. He details the chronology of his homeschooling, which we now understand to have taken place for 8-10 hours a day, from the approximate age of three, with consistent reverence for his father’s teaching methods. Mill, in elderly life, remains grateful to his father for his personal investment in his academic and psychological development. He also describes his father’s History of India as: ‘one of the most instructive histories ever written, and one of the books from which most benefit may be derived by a mind in the course of making up its opinions’. The publication – and its attitude towards the maintenance of colonialism – was likely influential in Mill’s entry into the East India Company at the age of 17.

Mill’s curriculum was somewhat ‘co-authored’ by Godfather Jeremy Bentham, the man who had famously declared that human rights were ‘nonsense on stilts’, and later – in the month leading up to his death, commissioned the public preservation of his body in the lobby of University College London. It was essential to Bentham that his remains could be ‘utilised’ as a source of educational inspiration for the University’s students. This, he argued, was more beneficial to society, considering his societal and academic significance, than burial or cremation. It was important to the two men that Mill be raised both as academically extraordinary, and principled in utilitarianism.

By the age of three, young Mill was proficient in Greek. The precocious child would accompany his father on daily walks in the ‘green lanes towards Hornsey’ near their London home, where he would relate the notes he had taken from his previous day’s reading to his father. At the age of 8, he was fluent in Latin, to the degree that he was made responsible for the tutelage of his younger siblings. This was an activity and responsibility which Mill expressed contempt for, largely on the grounds of such lessons being academically ‘inefficient’.

At the age of 12, having been inspired by Homer, Mill composed ‘one book of a continuation of the Iliad’ at his father’s instruction. His father’s justification for such an ambitious venture into poetry was interestingly ‘artificial’, with James Mill arguing that ‘people in general attached more value to verse than it deserved, and the power of writing it, was, on this account, worth acquiring’. Mill’s training in syllogistic logic and mathematics also began in his pre-teens, a discipline which he believes to have been instrumental in the construction of his philosophical and political principles.

Despite Mill’s tone of interest and approval when relating the thoroughness and proficiency of his home-schooling, the reader of Autobiography is left to wonder whether the child’s intensely strenuous curriculum, his deliberate isolation from other children, and the strength of discipline he endured from such a young age, contributed to Mill’s self-professed mental collapse at the age of 21.

Mill’s many publications remain the subject of both admiration and contention in the modern world, particularly On Liberty, the discussion of freedom and authority published in 1859, which is believed by some scholars to have been at least partially co-written by Mill’s wife, Harriet Taylor. Mill remained dedicated to his spouse even after her death in the same year as the text’s publication. He is believed to have annually ventured to Paris for six months after her passing, to remain closer to the grave of his partner. Mill’s reverence for his wife – a proficient author in her own right – would later inspire On the Subjection of Women, a seminal text in the campaign for female suffrage and rights recognition, published in 1869. The strength of the pair’s relationship is one in a myriad of fascinating elements that make up the personal life of John Stuart Mill, whose resonance in Western political culture shows little sign of diminishing, 145 years after his death in 1873.  

Image: George Frederic Watts’ portrait of John Stuart Mill, 1873.


Mill, J., & Stillinger, J. (1961). The early draft of John Stuart Mill’s autobiography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Bell, D. (2010). John Stuart Mill on Colonies. Political Theory, 38(1), 34-64.


Roman Slavery: The Unique Features and Longevity of a Slavery System in Antiquity

Written by: Lisa Doyle

One of the outstanding features of societies in antiquity, a feature that tends to be forgotten as we relish in the literature and traditions left behind them, is the slavery system. Both Greece and Rome were slave-owning societies, but Roman slavery especially seemed to experience greater longevity and was executed to a greater effect. The way Rome may be distinguished from other slave societies is through their process of granting freedom. Indeed it was the pervasiveness of freedmen in Rome which ensured the duration of their slavery system.

Let us begin at the end – with manumission. I intend to demonstrate that there was something especially Roman about the way Roman slaves were manumitted. As was well-known in antiquity, the Roman manumission process was remarked upon as unusual. In the letter from Philip V of Macedon to the Larissans, this practice is noted as something that the Romans were renowned for (ILS 8763). When conceptualizing the Roman slavery system, it is helpful to take into account the work of Bodel, which illustrates that the Romans viewed slavery as a process that manumission was very much a part of. As with all aspects of Roman slavery, we will notice a certain fluidity in the process of manumission, as the line between slave and free is not as clearly demarcated as one might expect.

We have various sources for Roman manumission, ranging from Dionysius of Halicarnassus’ account of the history of the practice and the legislative accounts of the Digest. From this evidence, we gather that three major laws were introduced in relation to the process of manumission: the Lex Fufia Caninia, Lex Aelia and Lex Iunia. The work of Wiedemann is especially prominent in this area, and from his work we can confirm that manumission was an integral aspect of Roman society due to the fact that these laws were introduced with the apparent aim of regulating this process. This legislation entailed various advantages for slave-owners, such as the commercial benefits of Lex Iunia which enabled the master-now-patron to maintain an economic and commercial advantage by sharing a stake in the freed person’s peculium, which was the capital held by the slave/freed person. Taking these laws into account, we may contemplate the overall purpose of Roman manumission on an ideological level. Suetonius shares the opinion that Augustus aimed to ‘set a limit to manumission’ with the introduction of these laws. However, modern scholarship would argue that this was not the case. In fact this evidence, illustrated by the Lex Iunia especially, shows an eagerness to integrate freedmen into society in a manner which benefits the elite slave-owners. These laws seem to maximise that possibility and illustrate an attempt at social control, to manage not the number of slaves being manumitted, but their ‘quality’. It could also be argued that the practice of manumission itself is very much related to the question of how societies reconcile themselves with the institution of slavery, and that manumission at Rome, especially if rewarding good work, allowed its citizens to imagine that slavery was indeed an humane institution. This may be true, but it is very apparent that the Romans were successful in creating a system of management and integration that benefitted the slave-owners as much as possible.

Although the fact that these laws were introduced is not a unique feature of this slave society, these laws enforce an ideology that is unique to Rome. That ideology of freedom is articulated quite clearly in one of our literary sources, Plautine comedy. In Rudens, we see that the slave Gripus is acculturated to the Roman slavery system to the extent that he is aware of the processes which will lead him to freedom, but, he is not sufficiently acculturated to the hierarchical nature of that same system. Stewart  makes it clear that his conception of freedom is ‘non-Roman’ and, as such, it is a challenge to the Roman ideology of manumission. Moreover, we can surmise that the fundamental aim of the Roman manumission legislation was to ensure conformity to an ultimately Roman ideology.

Having discussed the ‘Romanness’ of manumission, the question arises as to how this Roman frame affected life after manumission. Freedmen formed an integral part of Roman society, marking a clear difference between Roman slavery and other slavery institutions. It is very apparent that the Romans had established a framework with which freedmen were incorporated into society. This is in contrast to Greece, as noted by Moses Finley, and to more modern examples as well, especially considering the racial element present in modern slave institutions. In the American South, for example, freed slaves were prevented from even acquiring agricultural jobs, and this became very prevalent upon the abolition of slavery when many were left to live in poverty. For the slaves and freedmen of ancient Rome, abolition was never a prospect, so a clear structure was set in place with which to accommodate them. One common feature amongst all slave societies is the notion that those of servile status are ‘stained’. In Rome, this was known as the macula servitutis. There is a seemingly paradoxical nature to this term as the Romans adjusted to the freedmen who carried that stain being very much a part of their society. The primary sources of evidence for freedmen were left by the freedmen themselves. It transpires that this evidence, not only exhibiting this distinct group of people, is also an example of a very ‘Roman’ practice; funerary epigraphy. This practice was of course prevalent in many ancient societies, but in Rome, it was the freedman class who dominated it. Both Mouritsen and Bodel analyse this evidence.

Although this epigraphy does not allow us a complete picture of the freed person in Rome, it does indicate the successful integration of many freed slaves into Roman society, which appears seamless in comparison to modern examples. We need only look to the hostilities which existed between freedmen and slaves in Brazil for contrast. By comparison, in the Roman world, manumitted slaves were entering the next stage of what was quite an organic and well-worked process, they experienced a continuation of the same world, as opposed to the divide experienced in other societies, because it was their conformity which allowed them to reach this stage of the process in the first place. Furthermore, it appears the ‘stain’ which freedmen had to bear did not manifest itself as plainly as one might expect in reality

Finally, we will finish our analysis of the Roman slavery system with the Roman institution of familia. This was an institution very much unique to Roman society. It does not simply mean ‘family’, but incorporates the whole household, with a very clear concept as to each individual’s role within that world, which slaves were very much a part of. The term itself has a flexible and encompassing nature as it can be understood in a variety of ways and its constituents can be people, objects, and slaves. Within the familia we find even more distinctive facets of the Roman slavery system which warrant discussion. Firstly, the remarkable practice of the peculium, which was a contribution of Roman law that was utilized by slave societies in the new world. A peculium could include money or any form of property in a slave’s possession, and it also functioned as a sophisticated form of social control especially since it facilitated the business conduct of slaves, permitting them to carry out trade on their owner’s behalf. This is undoubtedly an example of the continuity in management of the Roman slavery system. As previously mentioned, the Romans ensured that the economic advantages of slave-owning were embedded in life after slavery as well. The social status created by the Lex Iunia, which lay somewhere between slavery and freedom, ensured that the commercial potential of slaves was never lost, especially since the patron had a stake in the peculium upon the freed slave’s death. Therefore, by ensuring that the slave always maintained a connection with the familia, the Romans utilized slavery to their commercial advantage, and ensured these benefits continued after manumission as well. In doing so, the Romans used their slaves to construct a social identity, to an unprecedented extent.

Within the concept of the familia we encounter a hallmark of Roman society, and the Roman slavery system, the Familia Caesaris. The Imperial household was not just restricted to Rome, but its practices and members were dispersed throughout the empire. One notable position which was held by slaves, in this and other elite households, was the dispensatore. This position involved financial management and bookkeeping. It was unique in that it was not only held by slaves but perfectly suited to them due to their lack of legal status. Moreover, the master could maintain a level of control over them as they handle finances that would simply not be achievable with someone of freed status. Remarkably, a structure was put in place to facilitate the education and training of these slaves.

The dispensatore is just one example of the many ways in which the emperor employed slaves and freedmen in a very effective manner. The historian Suetonius refers to Augustus as ‘Master and Patron’, indicating that his management of freedmen and slaves should be emulated. This is ultimately what distinguishes the Roman slavery system, as the emperor served as the ultimate slave master, setting an example in discipline, management and control. His practice, and the practice of his household, be it in the form of a civil service or manumission legislation, emanated from the Familia Caesaris and was diffused throughout the empire.

The aim of this article has been to elucidate the distinctive features of the Roman slavery system and, although this involved focussing on the process of granting freedom as opposed to the earlier stages in the process of slavery, I hope to have made it clear as to why this was necessary. We have noted the systematic manner with which the Romans managed their slavery system, ensuring that both slaves and freed persons would be advantageous to them. By utilizing the concept of the household to maintain connections with the slave or freedman, and benefiting from their right to trade, slaves were constituents of the social identity of many Romans. Fundamentally, we have seen that the social stratification of Roman society informed the organization of its slavery system, the effective management of which ensured successful integration and adherence to Roman ideals. It was, ultimately, the Romans’ capability to implement this social control which ensured the uniqueness and longevity of their slavery system.


Image: Slave bringing tablet to his master, detail from the sarcophagus of Valerius Petronianus. Photograph: Giovanni Dall’Orto, 2005.



Atkinson, K.M.T. (1966), ‘The Purpose of the Manumission Laws of Augustus’, Irish Jurist 1.2, 365-374.

Bodel, J. (2017), ‘Slavery and Social Death in Ancient Rome’, in J. Bodel and W. Scheidel (eds), On Human Bondage: After ‘Slavery and Social Death’, West Sussex, 81-108.

Boulvert, G. (1970), Esclaves et affranchise impériaux sous le haut-empire romain, Naples.

Bradley, K.R. (1984), Slaves and Masters in the Roman Empire: A Study in Social Control, Brussels

Finley, M.I. (1980), Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology, London.

Mattoso, K.M.Q. (1986), To Be a Slave in Brazil 1550-1888, New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Mouritsen, H. (2011), The Freedman in the Roman World, Cambridge.

Patterson, O. (1982), Slavery and Social Death, Harvard.

Roth, U. (2010), ‘Peculium, freedom, citizenship: golden triangle or vicious circle? An act in two parts’, in U. Roth (ed.), By the Sweat of Your Brow: Roman Slavery in its Socio-Economic Setting, London, 91-120.

Roth, U. (2011), ‘Men Without Hope’, Papers of the British School at Rome 79, 71-94.

Stewart, R.L. (2012), Plautus and Roman Slavery, Malden.

Weaver, P.R.C. (1972), Familia Caesaris: A Social Study of the Emperor’s Freedman and Slaves, Cambridge.

Wiedemann, T. (1985), ‘The regularity of manumission at Rome’, The Classical Quarterly 35.1, 162-175.

Making Beauty History with Glossier

Written by: Scarlett Butler

In a recent interview Emily Weiss, the CEO of the successful new beauty brand Glossier, said that her business was both a beauty and a tech company. Weiss emphasised the company’s innovative use of social media to involve their (primarily female) customers in design, product development and promotion. Despite their technological leaning, Glossier sits in a longer legacy of effortless cool dating back to the Italian Renaissance. However, I will propose that unlike Renaissance concepts of beauty, which presented unachievable ideals for women conceived by men, this new vision is oriented around the needs and demands of a diverse cast of women.

Criticism of Glossier often comes from those who see their products as providing style over substance. Arguably they carefully blend style and substance. The clean and artful packaging and promotion conceals any thoughts of laboratory testing and ingredient selection. For example, their ‘cloud paint’ blush comes in a facsimile of a paint tube but eschews novelty by maintaining a minimal and functional form, showing “true art [in] what does not seem to be art”. Similarly, their advertising depicts women of varied races, weights and skin types, usually artfully posed and always displaying a dewy glow, or gloss.

Their brand image emphasises effortless, casual beauty and even sprezzatura. Sprezzatura is an Italian word without a clear English equivalent. It has been translated as a “studied carelessness” and “graceful conduct or performance without apparent effort”. This term was coined by Baldassare Castiglione, in his Book of the Courtier written in 1528 as a guide for the ladies and gentlemen of the European courts. Castiglione defined sprezzatura as “a nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it”. The book itself is a practical guidebook, artfully concealed as debate and philosophy.

The text is structured as a dialogue among various individuals at the court of the Duke of Urbino – these characters are the ‘influencers’ of Renaissance Italy. Significantly, Virginia Cox has noted that the use of “identifiable historical figures as the interlocutors” is distinctive to sixteenth-century Italian dialogues and that other European works continued to use fictional speakers. It seems the renown of the speakers seeks to further legitimise the book’s advice to courtly readers. Similarly, Glossier chooses celebrities like Saoirse Ronan and Beyoncé to wear, and therefore promote, their products. Saoirse Ronan’s effortless acting skills and Beyoncé’s “I woke up like this” attitude display contemporary sprezzatura.

Glossier uses social media to promote products with images of both celebrities and normal customers, as many brands do, but they incorporate a greater degree of customer feedback and even customer intervention than other brands. Their products use this to maintain their esteemed place in the court of the internet. Perhaps sprezzatura is so difficult to define because it is a such a social phenomenon, one that has been translated into artful literature, painting and Instagram selfies, but still one which is closely connected to a specific social context. If I arrived at a sophisticated party today in a ruff and girdle I might capture the attention of the guests, but I would hardly be displaying effortless cool.

The concept of sprezzatura is included in the section for male courtiers, Book One. Book Three imagines the ideal court lady. This book records notable and courageous women, whilst largely focusing on the importance of moderation, chastity and avoiding rumours. Some quotes taken from The Book of the Courtier may seem ‘feminist’, however Androniki Dialeti has noted that the male-authored texts of the querelles des femmes literary genre – where the male author defends women – were more central to the formation of masculine, rather than feminine, identities in sixteenth-century Italy. By treating women as a homogeneous group for men to defend physically and verbally, women were further entrenched into a ‘damsel in distress’ mode of existence. The vast majority of speakers in The Book of the Courtier are men, with only four women in its extensive cast. In Book Three, Duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga presses Magnifico to describe the ideal court lady and in the course of his long description he states: “that beauty is more necessary to her than to the Courtier, for in truth that woman lacks much who lacks beauty.” For reference, the beauty ideal for Italian women at this time was blonde hair, fair skin, blushing cheeks and dark eyes. This ideal is epitomised by figures in portraits by Titian including La Bella and Woman in a Mirror.

Magnifico further argues that the ideal court lady must be careful that her beauty does not produce rumours, which might stain her reputation, especially as “a woman has not so many ways of defending herself against false imputations as has a man.” Here we can see the complexity of women’s performance of grace and beauty, which had to be so carefully balanced with appearing chaste. Patricia Phillippy’s excellent book Painting Women examines this construction of femininity in discussions of cosmetics and painting. She convincingly argues that invectives against women’s use of makeup and cosmetics manuals which promoted the achievement of ideal beauty, actually worked to the same ends: to discipline women. By placing early modern women between contradictory demands, they were sure to fail. If women used makeup they were beautiful in appearance but ugly, unchaste and deceitful within and if women presented themselves plainly they would appear chaste, but hardly beautiful. These parallel currents run through contemporary misogynistic discourses which both criticise or shame women for being unattractive whilst also condemning the use of cosmetics as a form of feminine deception.

Sabine Malchoir-Bonnet has called femininity the “creation of the mirror” which directs women to “construct themselves under the gaze of the other”, invariably a man, who judges them worthy or unworthy of their own femininity. Glossier’s “skin first. makeup second” approach does not necessarily present an achievable model of beauty, given the endless impossibility of having ‘good’ skin. However, it signals a move away from a discourse about beauty and cosmetics which vilifies women as vain for using makeup and ugly when they do not. It allows for joy in the ritual of makeup and skincare, which are often important parts of women constructing themselves. The question remains: will the modern beauty industry at large manage to reorient discussions of beauty around women’s needs and ideals? Or will femininity remain a “creation of the mirror”?



Merriam Webster. “Sprezzatura.” Accessed January 31, 2019. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sprezzatura.

Oxford Dictionaries. “Sprezzatura.” Accessed January 31, 2019. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/sprezzatura.

Castiglione, Baldassare. The Book of the Courtier. Translated by Leonard Eckstein Opdycke. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1901.

Cox, Virginia. The Renaissance Dialogue. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Phillippy, Patricia. Painting Women: Cosmetics, Canvases and Early Modern Culture. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.

Johnson, Eric. “Full Q&A: Glossier CEO Emily Weiss on the “art and science” of the beauty business.” Recode, January 16, 2019. https://www.recode.net/podcasts/2019/1/16/18185512/glossier-ceo-emily-weiss-beauty-makeup-interview-podcast-recode-decode-kara-swisher.

Sonsev, Veronika. “Why Glossier Takes Marketing Risks To Delight Their Customer.” Forbes, November 29, 2018. https://www.forbes.com/sites/veronikasonsev/2018/11/29/glossier-takes-marketing-risks-to-delight-customers/#44c4590a330e.

Burke, Jill. The Italian Renaissance Nude. London: Yale University Press, 2018.

British Library “The Book of the Courtier, 1588.” Accessed January 31, 2019. https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-book-of-the-courtier-1588.

Dialeti, Androniki. “Defending women, negotiating masculinity in early modern Italy.” Historical Journal 54, no. 1 (March 2011): 1-24.

Glossier. “About.” Accessed January 31, 2019. https://www.glossier.com/about.

The Influence of the Roman Empire on the Catholic Church

Written by: Toby Gay

After possibly the most damaging year for the Roman Catholic Church in recent times with the global sex abuse crisis spiralling out of the control in the Vatican, and with Pope Francis bemoaning the current ‘weary’ condition of the Church, 2019 may be the year when the very structure and purpose of the world’s oldest international institution is questioned and reformed. Before this can happen, the long and complicated history of a religion, which plays a central part in over 1.3 billion people’s lives, must be understood. For the problematic past of the Catholic Church extends far beyond the twenty-first century conflicts with socially progressive movements, or the associations with Fascism in the twentieth century, or even the European Wars of Religion or the Crusades of the last millennium. Its conception as a leading religion at the hands of the emperor Constantine in the fourth century AD meant that the Church was destined to be defined by the all-conquering violence, organisation and mindset of the cultural hegemon of its time: the Roman Empire.

According to Eusebius of Caesarea, Constantine’s conversion to Christianity began after a visitation during the Battle of Milvian Bridge, when the Roman emperor supposedly experienced the revelation that if he and his troops adopted the Christian ‘Chi-Rho’ symbol, they would be victorious. In winning the battle, Constantine was able to start putting an end to the Tetrarchy and eventually become sole ruler of the Roman Empire. The symbol thereafter became the official imperial insignia, and the symbol for victory not only over Rome’s enemies, but also the Christian notion of death and Satan, as evidenced by its use on the sarcophagus of Domitilla in the fourth century. It is clear that the iconography of Catholicism was almost immediately associated with conflict and righteous expansionist aggression, especially after it found a rival in Arianism after it became the Empire’s official religion in 380 AD. As Christianity’s rise to power was a ‘top-down’ process rather than one inspired by popular pressure, the authority and executive power of the Church was dependent on its relationship with the Roman ruling elite, which meant that when the Empire finally came to an end in 476 AD, the Church was forced to support the next superpower in the region – the Franks – to secure their survival, and later the first ‘Holy Roman Emperor’, Charlemagne I, for the same reason.

This tradition continued even until Pope Pius XII negotiated the Reichskonkordat treaty with Nazi Germany, which made the Church the first legal partners of Adolf Hitler’s regime. Indeed, one of the few recognized instances of the exercise of papal supremacy came in 1096, when Pope Urban II initiated the first Crusade, which also appears to support the idea that the militaristic manner of the Roman Empire was adopted by the Church. However, on closer inspection it becomes clear that this was intended as a desperate distraction to the infighting between European powers which threatened to leave the Church’s status as the foremost religion in the continent as vulnerable. Thus, it appears that the origin of the Church moulded its structure and outlook in such a way that it was unable to avoid incriminating associations with dominant secular authorities and act in a reactionary, bellicose way.

It is true that the hierarchy of the early Church reflected, or ‘mimicked’, the organisation of the Empire, with the ecclesiastical structure being headed by Constantine, who appointed the bishops. The Church also adopted the same organisational boundaries as the Empire: geographical provinces, called dioceses, corresponding to imperial governmental territorial division. In the words of Charles Norris Cochrane: ‘Ecclesiastical councils functioned as parliaments embodying the philosophic […] wisdom of the Empire.’ However, the structure of today’s more democratic and more complicated Church is very different to the one it was 1600 years ago; most notably in its current separation from the state in most European countries, showing that the Church is capable of withstanding changes to its structure and identity. In France for example, the separation of Church and State happened after a law of the same name was passed in 1905. After the First World War, the Church succeeded in remodelling itself in the country and establishing new diplomatic relations with France in 1921. Because of this, it seems plausible that the Church would be able to remove itself from the governmental practices in Latin America, a subject which has been a constant source of criticism over the last few years. More vocal have been the calls to reform the practice of exclusively ordaining men, a tradition which has its roots in the Roman political tradition. Before being accepted as a state religion, the history of Christianity is replete with the actions of females, from the Biblical Mary Mother of Christ and Mary Magdalene, through the mention of the deaconess Phoebe in Paul’s letter to the Romans, to the 15 records of women being ordained in antiquity.

This appears to have changed with the first ever ecumenical council, the council of Nicaea in 325 AD, which was overseen by Constantine, and which outlawed the ordination of females. However, there is evidence that the belief that only women could be priests existed as early as the first century, with Pope Clement I (88 – 99AD) teaching that the apostolic succession only included males. In fact, the deepest theological and historical roots of the practice appear to lead all the way back to Christ himself, as Priests see themselves as sacramental symbols of Christ (in persona Christi) and so have to represent his masculinity. Christ’s example is also the source of the other serious problem facing the Church today, as his apparent celibacy led to the Church instructing their priests to lead similarly chaste lives. This is seen as being one of the main, indirect causes of the twenty-first-century child sex abuse scandals, as many priests have pointed to the lack of preparation during their training for a life of celibacy in the priesthood as leading to a sense of frustrated sexuality. However, as St Peter – who is seen as the first pope – was married and Jesus at no point instructed that priests could not be married, reform in this area of Church theology is a possibility. This is where the influence of the Roman Empire, more specifically its official language, Latin, is seen most clearly. First of all, the moral philosophy which the Church adopted was heavily influenced by the Roman philosophers Cicero and Seneca, whose work on the ideas surrounding the problem of evil and the field of natural law ethics defined Roman civic law. The Roman Empire had a population of around 60 – 70 million at its peak and covered 4.4 million square kilometres, so a strict and straightforward binary moral code was vital, and this pervaded the philosophy of the Church, as can be seen today with its policy towards abortion and homosexuality. Moreover, the language of Latin, deeply influenced by Cicero and still the official language of the Vatican and its doctrines, is not one which lends itself to liberal reinterpretations. In De Finibus, Cicero wrote that:

‘I have often observed that Latin is not only not destitute (inopem), as is vulgarly believed, but that it is even richer (locupletiorem) than Greece’. 

However, there is an irony here which Joseph Farrell points out in his book Latin language and Latin culture, and which contradicts Cicero’s point by demonstrating the limited nature of the language with regards to abstract, fluid concepts such as beauty and tolerance:

‘The etymology of locuples refers to the extensive land holdings in which Roman wealth traditionally consisted […] Cicero would deploy the motif more conventionally by linking territorial to linguistic poverty’.

This may explain why the Catholic Church is so hamstrung when it comes to reforming its doctrines, and thus confronting its modern-day problems.

So, it is clear that although there is hope for the Church to modernise and resolve some of the issues it is facing today, it must first decolonise itself from the ever-present influences of the Roman Empire’s culture and language.

Image: Constantine the Great at the Milvian Bridge, c.1640, https://art.thewalters.org/detail/28405/constantine-the-great-at-the-milvian-bridge/


Cicero, De Finibus Bonorum Et Malorum, (45BC).

Farrell, James, Latin Language and Latin Culture: From Ancient to Modern Times (Cambridge, 2001).


Research Seminar Review: “Potatoes and the Pursuit of Happiness”

Written by: Carissa Chew

On Wednesday 30 January, the Global and Transnational History Research Group welcomed Professor Rebecca Earle from the University of Warwick to present her research on ‘Potatoes and the Pursuit of Happiness’. In this seminar, Earle explored the potato as a foodstuff that came to be imbued with a distinct political significance in eighteenth-century Enlightenment Europe, challenging the typical historiographical assumption that imbuing foods with political meaning is a phenomenon associated with the first half of the twentieth century.

Through a discussion of food history, Earle’s research sets out to explore the shifting relationship between the individual and the state in the eighteenth century. In looking at the changing discourse on potatoes, Earle suggests, we can trace the point at which the state began to express interest in the dietary habits of ordinary civilians. As Earle remarked, the state has always been concerned that its citizens are eating, but until the eighteenth century, there was little interest in exactly what the diet of the masses consisted of. Stemming from Enlightenment ideas about individualism and free choice, this period witnessed the individual diet becoming a fundamental concern of numerous governments across Europe.

Earle’s research brings to light the unprecedented popularity of potatoes in the 1700s. As the eighteenth century progressed, potatoes came to be held as a ‘marvelous’ source of nourishment, establishing an almost undisputed reputation as an Enlightenment super-food. Monarchs issued various edicts encouraging the growth and consumption of more potatoes; John Howard remarked that potatoes would help the labouring poor; and numerous patriotic institutions offered prizes for the biggest and best potatoes and held competitions for the most nourishing potato soup recipes.

The pan-European promotion of the potato in this era, however, has often mistakenly been associated with the predominance of famines. Yet, as Earle astutely remarked, famines had also plagued the 1600s and, if anything, they were decreasing in their frequency. Hence, famines do not account for the sudden interest in potatoes that occurs in the 1700s, and Earle instead suggested that an explanation for the potato’s newfound popularity can be located in the broader context of Enlightenment thought and principles.

The eighteenth century gave rise to new ideas about national strength, in which the health and vigour of the population came to be linked to the wealth and power of the state: an individual’s healthy dietary choices were understood to produce a healthy body politic. Adam Smith, for example, proposed that economic success depended on the population being content, noting that the strongest men (i.e. Irish coal-heavers) and the most beautiful women (i.e. Irish prostitutes) survived on potatoes. Along these lines, the consumption of the potato was encouraged in accordance with the Enlightenment slogan of ‘the pursuit of happiness’.

Samuel Engel, for instance, associated happiness with the feeding of people. Likewise, William Buchan associated the encouragement of agriculture with the happiness of the English people, the eradication of poverty, and the strengthening of the body politic as a whole. Similarly, Italian thinker Pietro Maria Bignami associated increased potato consumption with commercial prowess, and by extension, population growth, riches, and happiness. Moreover, in 1767, one commenter remarked that the potato was ‘a source of happiness and opulence’. Benjamin Thompson, or Count Rumford, who was renowned for his nourishing potato soup recipe, placed emphasis on the tastiness of the soup and the chewing of croutons as a way of extending the pleasure of eating. Soup kitchens also took pains to ensure that their soup recipes were approved by the poor themselves. In other words, the dominant discourse on potatoes in this era emphasized that the poor were entitled to happiness, and that the feeding of the poor would lead to the happiness of the nation.

Furthermore, this political discourse on potatoes was interwoven with Enlightenment ideas about the importance of free choice. It was repeatedly emphasized that the government would not force people to either grow or consume potatoes – something John Sinclair termed ‘infinite mischief’. Instead, it was believed that farmers and the poor should select potatoes based on their own free will. The government maintained that their role was to inform the public as best they could about the nourishing and superior qualities of the potato. Earle remarked that this showed a shift toward responsibilisation: ‘the process in which subjects are rendered individually responsible for a task that would have previously been the task of another’.

Earle’s seminar thus shed light on the new models of eating and governance that emerged in eighteenth-century Enlightenment Europe. Food history, and the history of the potato specifically, reveals the intertwined relationship between ordinary people’s lives, individualism, political economy, and the state. Tied up with the Enlightenment discourse about ‘happiness’, the potato became an important symbol associated with the strength, wealth, and growth of European nations, and a means through which the state displayed regard for the lives of the poor.


Image: Unknown provenance, c.1820. http://botlib.huh.harvard.edu/libraries/potato_prints.htm