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 Karl Anthony Mercer
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
When I want to feel better I just think of one thing;
M. AGRIPPA. L. F. COS. TERTIVM. FECIT.
… the inscription above the Pantheon, that translates roughly to “Marcus Agrippa, son of Lucius, three times Consul, made this.”
When did you first come across this inscription?
When visiting Rome on a trip with my former partner. She had studied the Latin language and was well versed in her classics. I was, as I still am today, a Curious Idiot™.
Where I grew up, classical history was something people with posh accents on the telly did. Maybe someone you knew had some knowledge from watching a Ben Hur or a Quo Vadis, or some of those other ‘epic’ movies from back in the fifties and sixties. Even by the time Ridley Scott and Gladiator had come along in 2000, you didn’t necessarily sit down to watch the BBC adaptation of I, Claudius or read Virgil. We studied Roman history a bit in Primary school and after that it seemed to barely come up again. It was safer to grow out of curiosity.
After some years of soul-searching, a lot of therapy, and realising who I truly was, I thankfully gained my curiosity back.
Visiting the Eternal City itself, walking down the cobbles of the old Forum, seeing the Curia, walking in searing heat up the Palatine Hill you suddenly realise that the centre of the empire was such a tiny place. It is easy to be wowed by the grandeur, columns spiralling endlessly into the sky, or Titus’ arch perfectly framing a view of the massive, imposing Colosseum; Rome is deceptive in its big-ness.
The Pantheon, where the inscription is, is just off from the forum, just away from the centre. The narrow streets open out into this square where you’re met with the sight of these tall, imposing columns and this concrete circus-tent-like structure that seems to stand alone and isolated even though it’s generally surrounded by cameras, selfie-sticks and people happily eating gelato. If you removed the arches, put in some plate-glass, you would not believe it was not a modern structure. It is timeless in design.
It really started what has now been a near ten year love of Ancient Roman history.
Can you tell me a bit about the inscription and its context?
It is the inscription on the front of The Pantheon – the building of all Gods. It’s possibly one of the most famous buildings in the world. But the inscription confuses people. The building itself, the one we see today, with its remarkable free-standing concrete Dome, is of Hadrianic origin. If Hadrian built it, why is someone else’s name on the front?
Well, Marcus Agrippa commissioned the building of the original temple. Work is estimated to have started around 30-29BC and lasted about ten years, and that temple stood where the current building now is. I have read, many times, that Agrippa had it built to honour the victory of Octavian (better known to us as Augustus) at the Battle of Actium. That’s a bit like buying your boss a present to celebrate how hard you’ve worked. It is likely true, such was the delicate balance of power between Agrippa and Augustus. Maybe, though, there was an aspect of “See what I built in your honour, friend? Remember my victory for you.” A simultaneous honour and threat, if you will.
When the Pantheon was rebuilt, clearly Hadrian thought well enough of Marcus Agrippa to restore (or rewrite) the original inscription. That, in itself, is intriguing.
What is it about this inscription that appeals to you most?
Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa – the man who ‘made this’. He was a smart yet ambitious boy from a humble family, and something about that resonates with me.
The Pax Romana, the Augustan Golden Age of Peace, owes as much, if not more, to Agrippa than it does Augustus. His inclusion on the frieze of the Ara Pacis, the altar dedicated to Pax, the Goddess of Peace, is a testament to this. The Res Gestae Divi Augusti – The Works of the Divine Augustus – are a politically expedient lie. Just as behind every great public figure there are servants and secretaries, agents and assistants – Augustus did not, indeed could not, reign or achieve alone. Without Agrippa Roman history would have looked very different. At one point he was the only trusted right-hand man of Augustus, who was sickly in his bed, close to death (he got better because of lettuce, supposedly). Had Augustus died of his illness we might have been talking of an Agrippan Golden Age in Roman History.
What makes Agrippa so fascinating a figure for me is a thing I don’t think modern culture encourages – humility.
Agrippa rarely pushed, only as far as, and when, necessary. He never made a fuss, only when he felt fair dues were not being given. He never ‘rebelled’ in the way we would imagine today. If he rebelled at all his was a rebellion of malicious compliance. There was once a rumoured falling out between Agrippa and Augustus that caused Agrippa to take leave – by becoming governor of the Eastern provinces. He was so powerful at this point that he administered his duties from the Isle of Lesbos and sent legates to do the work. Technically slightly rebellious, but the job was still being done.
Augustus would go on to take all the accolades, indeed most emperors from that point would. Agrippa set a precedent that no matter how great the achievement only the Princeps should celebrate a triumph or ovation. They became rarer for individuals beyond the Emperor after Agrippa’s humility.
As a working-class appreciator of Ancient Rome it burns me to my core when so-called populist movements of today adopt the mantras, the styles, the supposed ideologies of the classical world to justify their nonsense and unruly antics. I wonder what Marcus Agrippa would have thought of them.
Agrippa kept his head down, did his work and was nearly the Princeps from a pauper.
He reminds me, approaching my tenth year in the consulate of unemployment, that there’s hope for me yet. That one day maybe I can have an achievement of my own with an inscription that says;
“Karl Anthony Mercer, son of Mick, twice university dropout, made this.”
And finally… what do you do, outside of studying the ancient world, to cheer yourself up?
I’m a writer, first and foremost. Recently that has involved a sweary, fun but academically rigorous breakdown of King Lear for my website WeLackDiscpline.com. I also write poetry.
My first academic love was biology and ethology so reading and studying them is fun, but I like to get out, get muddy and go look for birds, frogs, newts and that sort of thing. I’ve developed a healthy respect for astronomy and have some good binoculars and a small telescope so when I can (and it’s not too cold) I like to get out and give the sky a browse.
Then there’s music. I play guitar, I pretend I can sing and as of a year or two ago I have been trying my hand at some music production skills. I still continue to pursue my dream of being a rapper under the name Karolvs Rex.
But mainly I do of course just end up playing videogames. Animal Crossing has become my poison of choice at the moment, and I’m a sucker for a 2D metroidvania, too, as well as JRPGS.
Karl Anthony Mercer dropped out of his Natural Science degree at The University of East Anglia, twice, because his brain broke, culminating in a diagnosis of autistic spectrum disorder in 2021.
His current main love and ambition is We Lack Discipline – a two-person project to demystify academic knowledge and pursuits, aiming to prevent anyone else feeling marginalised for enjoying reading, or feeling that academic interests are way out of their league. We Lack Discipline believes everyone can learn and engage with the academic world. So they swear, they use humour and they’re irreverent. They encourage everyone to join as a Curious Idiot™.
Catch up with all the Comfort Classics interviews here.