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 Alex Imrie
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
When I feel down, I often find myself looking over my small collection of Roman coins. Whether it’s the really worn sestertius of Marcus Aurelius (the first ever coin I was gifted), one of the denarii of Caracalla (the emperor who forms the centre of my research interests) or a dupondius of Augustus depicting a crocodile in chains, in reference to the conquest of Egypt (my oldest and most expensive coin by far!), I find that holding these little pieces of antiquity in my hand and scrutinising their surfaces gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling!
Beyond the purely tactile joy of ancient coins, I find they’ve always fired my mind with a variety of different questions: who were the people who physically produced them? Who decided what images should be struck on them? How much attention did their consumers pay to them? Could they even understand what was struck? How were they stored or lost? Then there’s the whole question of coins as vehicles of propaganda and political messaging. I guess it’s no surprise that my undergraduate and Masters dissertations were focused on different elements of Roman numismatics!
When it comes to textual sources, I find an odd comfort in reading the work of Cassius Dio. While he might be a bit of a curmudgeon with a highly questionable take on democracy, the Roman History is a great read! It has sections of high drama and excitement, and is peppered with little authorial interjections that are genuinely entertaining, even to this modern reader.
When did you first come across Cassius Dio?
I think I had to study a couple passages of the early books of Dio’s Roman History in my first year as an undergraduate. That said, I’m a first-generation university attendee who had no experience of Classics until I arrived, so had to get myself acquainted with many, many sources in those early days!
My real introduction to him, though, came in my third year, when I started studying a module on the Severan dynasty. Dio is one of the few surviving historical sources that is contemporary to the period, so he became something of a constant companion who never fully left. In fact, I became so enamoured with reading him that, from 2016-19, I took part in an international network committed to studying him in greater depth. It was a fantastic experience to meet other Dio fans and make some new friends from all over the world.
Can you tell me a bit about this source and its context?
Cassius Dio (c.155 – after 229 CE) was a senator during the Antonine and Severan periods of Greek origin, born in Bithynia, who wrote a monumental history of Rome from its mythical foundation until his own retirement from public life. The Historia Romana, written in Greek, was comprised of 80 books (many of which survive in varying states) and took the author over twenty years to research and produce.
Dio served his political career during interesting and volatile times. He records, for example, his and other senators’ terror at being threatened with murder by Commodus (73.21.1-2); he lived through the bloody civil wars of 193-97 CE which heralded and secured the Severan dynasty’s grip on imperial power; he witnessed an attempted coup d’état by the praetorian prefect Plautianus in 205 and was present in the Senate in the aftermath of the emperor Caracalla brutally murdering his younger brother (and co-ruler) Geta in 211. He held the consulship twice but, in the case of the second iteration (229 CE), was prevented from assuming duties in Rome for fear that the praetorian guard would murder him owing to his reputation as a disciplinarian. It is no real surprise that he writes about his contemporary era in a rather dour way, and returned home to Bithynia upon his retirement, rather than staying in Rome or Italy.
Historically, Dio’s reputation has been somewhat spotty at best. He is often spoken of in the same breath as Tacitus or other imperial historians, and usually comes off unfavourably from the comparison! He is viewed as being entirely too fond of injecting omens and portents into his work, and for allowing his contemporary prejudices to bleed into his coverage of Rome’s earlier history. Even the late-great Fergus Millar (in his 1964 A Study of Cassius Dio, OUP) was decidedly muted in praise for the senator. The reception of Dio’s writing has been further hindered by the heavy hands of epitomisers in a number of the surviving books (most famously by the 11th Century scholar, Xiphilinus), a feature that only adds more ambiguity to the question of how far we may trust or engage Dio as a writer.
In more recent years, however, efforts have been made to reassess this view of him as little more than a second-rate historian. These have been spearheaded by the international Cassius Dio Network (2016-19), in which I was delighted to take part. Studies have paid greater attention to the literary ambitions underlying the Roman History, as well as identifying a far more independently-minded author behind the prose: not simply a shade or spectre of Tacitus. In fact, the more one reads into Dio’s work, the less any such comparison seems appropriate.
Dio’s work, as a whole, is a musing on the ideal form of government. It offers a detailed account of the failings that led to the collapse of the Roman Republic, and insights into why Dio thought that some emperors were more successful than others afterwards. In short, while he is no fan of democracy (associating it with instability, unbridled competition and mob rule) he views the ideal monarchy as one in which the emperor provides necessary stability to the state but also receives advice from the ‘best men’ in the state (no surprise that he thinks these are from the senatorial class!). His characterisations of Caesar and Augustus are multi-layered, and while it is true that Dio often elaborates his history and projects his contemporary era backwards into the events of earlier periods, he nevertheless offers a work which is remarkably internally consistent for its scale.
For these reasons and more, I think he’s well worth studying and represents much more than some value-brand Tacitus. I’ve noticed, however, that anyone who interacted with the Dio Network tends to defend him more vociferously than others… perhaps it’s just that we’re championing our favourite!
What is it about Dio that appeals to you most?
Part of the initial appeal for me was that, as I noted above, for many years Dio was considered a pretty second-rate historian, usually compared unfavourably to the likes of Tacitus. I wanted to explore if and how this was the case and, in so doing, I got hooked!
The sheer scale of the Historia Romana also appeals to me since, whatever period of Roman history I might feel like dipping my toe into, chances are that there’s a Dio passage or quote that deals with it. This is not to say that I always find him to be an agreeable literary source (I certainly don’t support his views on democratic government, for example!) but it’s rare that I close my volumes of Dio without reading something entertaining or something that I hadn’t picked up on before.
Beyond his stylistic appeal, though, his reportage of the period through which he himself lived is often simply fun to read. He never shies away from offering little insights and conjectures about the intrigues within the Severan imperial court, making him as entertaining here as any I, Claudius or the like. I dare say I’d have hated to have lived through the period that he describes, and I do sometimes feel sorry for the hint of melancholy that permeates his contemporary history, but from nearly 2000 years distance, it’s undeniably entertaining.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
At the moment, much of my week is taken up with looking after my little one-year old, when my wife is at work. This has been quite an adjustment in my life, but it’s one that I’m adoring. Every new development or cheeky little smile just makes it worth it! When I’m not reading ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’ or something similar, though, I have a variety of hobbies and pastimes that I enjoy.
I am shamelessly addicted to boardgames. My wife and I have so many of the things that we had to convert the airing cupboard into a games storage… I have a growing collection of boardgames with ancient themes, and have a variety of half-written posts for a blog that I am long overdue in updating (https://critsandclassics.wordpress.com/) where I join together my paired loves of antiquity and gaming!
It doesn’t all have to be about Classics though (much to the relief of my medic wife!) and when the world is not in virus-stricken lockdown, I love to eschew my usually introverted nature either at karaoke or ceilidh dancing. A lot of my life has been defined by kilts, Highlandwear and dancing: I met my wife at a ceilidh; I worked in Highlandwear to raise money to undertake my Masters; I’ve danced in displays at places from Edinburgh to Maribor, Slovenia; and in 2017 I was honoured to have a tartan design I’d made chosen to be the civic tartan for the city of Kraków in Poland – something that I never tire of telling people!
Finally, I suppose I’m a bit of a Trekkie. My wife and I enjoyed bingeing ‘TNG’ together and were working our way through Deep Space Nine before our son was born. He’s nearly a year old and we’ve only just got around to finishing it!
Dr Alex Imrie is presently navigating the world of a portfolio career. He is a Tutor in Classics at the University of Edinburgh, and a Research Associate at the University of St Andrews. Alongside these posts, his overarching focus is currently Classics Outreach. For the past three years, he has worked as the National Outreach Co-ordinator with the Classical Association of Scotland, also acting as the Scottish network contact for Classics for All. As a first-generation university goer who never had the chance to study Classics at school, he is determined to make the discipline more accessible and welcoming to young learners all over Scotland. If you would like to know more about efforts in Scotland, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
His research has focused on the history of the Severan era, with a particular interest in the reign of Caracalla. He has published a number of articles and chapters in this area, and on the work of Cassius Dio. His first book The Antonine Constitution: an edict for the Caracallan Empire (Brill, Leiden & Boston) was published in 2018, and he is currently working on his second, The Emperor Caracalla: Common Enemy of Mankind (working title), for Bloomsbury Academic.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.