The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Neville Morley
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
To be honest, I don’t really think of the ancient world in terms of comfort and reassurance; on the contrary, I tend to emphasise the elements that are jarring and disconcerting, or that unsettle comfortable modern assumptions about the Glories of Western Civilisation. Perhaps this is further evidence that I am not really a proper classicist… But there is certainly one work that I do find oddly calming: Frontinus’ De Aquis urbis Romae
When did you first come across this text?
During the first year of my PhD, when I was desperately floundering around for a topic and at the same time trying to understand how to ‘do research’ (in retrospect, the entry standards then must have been terribly lax; I certainly wouldn’t accept me for doctoral study without a lot more evidence that I had any idea what I was doing). I knew that I was interested in something to do with the supply systems of Rome, and so it made sense to try reading this work.
Can you tell me a bit about the text and its context?
Sextus Iulius Frontinus was a successful general and provincial governor under Domitian, who in 96 was appointed curator aquarum, the superintendent of aqueducts in Rome, by Nerva. He took this role extremely seriously, not just embarking on a programme of renovation, repair and clamping down on people siphoning off water illegally, but also writing a two-volume book about the history and management of Rome’s aqueduct system and how great it is, since this might be useful to his successor. It’s a fascinating source of information about everything to do with water supply.
What is it about this work that appeals to you most?
It’s the combination of the public service ethos – Frontinus wants to be the best possible curator aquarum he can, rather than having to rely on his subordinates, and takes great delight in reporting his success in improving the quantity and quality of the urban water supply without having to build any new aqueducts or anything expensive like that – and the sheer nerdy enthusiasm that leads him to write a book all about pipe sizes and rates of water flow. It’s written in the same spirit as Pliny’s Natural History or Columella’s account of farming; a genuine interest in practical knowledge. Of course, as with those other authors, you can do a more sophisticated, cynical, political reading if you want; here’s someone who has flourished under Domitian and his successors, and of course his work is all about the dominance of the Roman state and sucking up to the emperor… I’ve done this myself – not in print, but I gave a talk a few years ago on ‘flows of power and flows of capital’ in Frontinus’ work – but generally I’m much happier to think that he simply immersed himself in his new job and then kept button-holing people at parties to tell them all about how water can be switched from one channel to another for the purposes of repairing the conduits or maintaining the supply to a particular part of the city, and do you know why the water of the Anio Novus is always rather muddy despite the settling tanks..? “With such an array of indispensable structures carrying so many waters, compare, if you will, the idle Pyramids or the useless, though famous, works of the Greeks!”
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
I tend to do practical things, mostly involving food and drink: cooking, baking, jam-making, preserving, sausage-making, smoking and curing, brewing, making cider, and growing fruit and vegetables. I do also play music – jazz bass – but generally I need to be in a reasonably good mood already, or I just get depressed at my limited ability.
Neville Morley is Professor of Classics & Ancient History at the University of Exeter. He works on a wide range of topics in economic and social history, historiography and classical reception, with a particular focus in recent years on the modern influence of Thucydides – he is currently finishing a book for Princeton entitled What Thucydides Knew, which is now going to have to have an extra chapter on coronavirus. He blogs regularly at http://thesphinxblog.com, and tweets @NevilleMorley.