Best Five Bucks I Ever Spent

I think I talked about the best six bucks I ever spent – for Mary Phylinda Dole’s autobiography “A Doctor in Homespun.” The best five bucks I ever spent was for a set of 24 audio tapes called “The History of Ancient Rome” by Professor Garrett G. Fagan of Pennsylvania State University. It’s from The Teaching Company (

One of my problems in college was that when a lecturer brought up an interesting point, or one that recalled something I had seen or heard somewhere else, I would lapse into a contemplative reverie and miss the next few minutes of the lecture.

In the audio tape format, this is no problem. I just rewind Professor Fagan and I don’t miss a thing. I listened to all these tapes twice and was fascinated the whole time. Professor Fagan is a true scholar, but he is also very good at presenting his views in a way that is understandable to a general audience.

Describing Roman government, for example, with its many different assemblies and procedures, he likens it to an old man’s kitchen. To an outside observer it might seem chaotic, he explains, but to the one who has worked in it for many years everything is in the right place.

To explain the Roman attitude toward divinity, Professor Fagan gives the example of a door. The Romans had a god for the lintel — the big beam across the top that makes a door possible without the house falling down — a god of the door frame, a god of the threshold, a goddess of the hinges and a god of the door itself. Every spring, every dell and even every grove of trees had its divinity that had to be consulted before any change was made to the landscape.

My personal favorite among the Roman divinities (except for Venus, of course) is Robigus, the god of rust and mold.

And things had to be done at the right time. If the omens were wrong, if a crow flew the wrong way across the sky, they would cancel all the laws made in the assembly that day. If a priest coughed during an incantation, he had to start all over again.

You can see how the Roman priests (who were also the politicians and generals) could manipulate these kinds of things to suit their own purposes.

I disagreed with the professor on a couple of minor points. He says there was nothing mysterious about the Etruscans and that they were probably indigenous to Italy. Well the Etruscan language has still not been deciphered after all these years, and he ought to decipher it before claiming that the Etruscans are not mysterious.

I also have to ask, if the Etruscans are indigenous to Italy, where they got the ideas for the arch (the “keystone” of Roman architecture), the purple stripe on their robes (from purple dye made in Tyre in ancient Phoenicia) and the idea that you can tell the future by looking at the livers of beasts.

He also seemed to have some sort of animus against the Gracchi, two brothers who, each in their turn, tried to reform Roman society and were both assassinated. Remind you of anyone? The younger of the Gracchi, Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, was killed when opponents in the assembly broke apart the benches and beat him to death. I got the feeling that Professor Fagan, had he been there, would have busted up a bench and joined in the fun.

But overall I really loved his descriptions and accounts of Rome and the Romans, and especially his ability to choose really apt illustrations. For example, in describing the way Augustus ruled, he mentions a guy who was running for some office or other and went overboard in describing what a great guy he was. Augustus was annoyed by this, and when someone mentioned the guy, he said, “So-and-so is not my friend.”

Well everyone got the message and the guy was barred from business, politics and society, became a pariah and wound up killing himself.

Augustus was always mindful of the fate of his uncle and adopted father Julius Caesar who was murdered because the senators thought he wanted to be king. So Augustus always kept up a show of respect for democratic institutions while reserving all the real power for himself.

To show how powerful Rome was back in the day, Professor Fagan gives two illustrations. First, the great commercial city of Rhodes fails to aid the Romans in some conflict or other and pisses them off. The Roman’s give tax-free status to Cyrpus and Rhodes becomes a virtual ghost town overnight.

The other example he gives concerns the Syrian army. The Seleucid Kingdom, based in Syria and extending through all of Peria to Afghanistan, was one of the four kingdoms ruled by the sucessors of the generals who divvied up the empire of Alexander the Great after his death.

One Seleucid prince, Antiochus IV, was waging war against the Egyptians. The Romans didn’t want Antiochus messing in Egypt, which was their “breadbasket,” so they sent this one old man with a walking stick.

This old guy, Popilius Laena, walks up to the front of Antiochus’ army, which has just driven the Egyptian army back to Alexandria, and Antiochus comes forward to talk with him. Popilius Laena doesn’t even want to talk, he just draws a circle around Antiochus in the sand with his walking stick.

Popilius tells Antiochus that if he walks out the front of the circle, he should consider himself at war with Rome. The Seleucid prince has to turn around and go home.