Paul Hay on Narratives of Time and Power in Ancient Rome

Q&A with Paul Hay on Narratives of Time and Power in Ancient Rome

Cover image for the book "Saeculum:
Defining Historical Eras in Ancient Roman Thought" by Paul Hay

In Paul Hay’s new book, Saeculum: Defining Historical Eras in Ancient Roman Thought, he discusses connections between the concept of time periods and politics in ancient Rome. We asked him a few questions about his research, touching on key figures in this story like Sulla, Cicero, and Octavian.

How did the concept of periodization emerge in Ancient Rome? What were some of the implications of this for Roman society as a whole?

The general concept of periodization, particularly quantitative periodization, had existed since the beginning, because humans notice natural reoccurring phenomena like days and years, and the Romans had a calendar of sorts with months in which they recorded consular years and things of that nature. But qualitative periodization, the division of time into periods with unique characteristics rather than mathematical patterns, only emerges in Rome during the first century BCE. This emergence, I argue, is the result of Sulla, one of Rome’s all-time most violent dictators.

Sulla learned that the Etruscan people, who lived alongside the Romans, had a kind of divinatory language regarding the “lifetime” of a particular city, which was divided into units, or “saecula.” Every time there was a shift from one “saeculum” to the next, there would be omens and prodigies to signal it. Conveniently, there was just such a shift in 88 BCE, which was a crucial year in Sulla’s political career. Sulla took the idea of the “saeculum” and connected it to himself, arguing that the new time-unit into which Rome had entered was a “Sullan era,” marked by his rise.

The political propaganda uses of this kind of language, to assert that your domination was not only destined but in fact was the characteristic quality of the era, are immediately apparent. But what ended up happening next was that the Roman intellectual community saw how valuable this rhetoric could be for describing history, and they started using it to talk not only about the political realm of Roman history but also the moral realm, the intellectual realm, the artistic realm, and all sorts of other applications. Eventually periodization became a general method to organize time.

How did periodization shape narratives of progress and decline in Roman thought, and what were some of the ways in which Romans measured progress or decline?

By the end of the Republic, the Romans had long had a mild obsession with identifying a decline in their culture’s moral standards, which they typically attributed either to the importation of some kind of luxury item (usually by soldiers returning from the East) or to the lack of “fear of an enemy,” after both Carthage and Corinth were destroyed in 146 BCE and Rome was the lone superpower left in the Mediterranean. Thus, articulations of this narrative always tended to hinge on a single moment.

What periodization did was to permit a more complex moral decline narrative, in which there were multiple steps along the way. One not-totally-serious example I give is that the poet Propertius suggested a four-stage process: a morally pure utopia ended with the Flood of Deucalion and led to the introduction of vice, but the invention of erotic wall art with mythological scenes(!) brought about his era’s decadence and neglect for the gods; and Propertius feared that someday soon an even more debased period might arrive. But progress narratives were also possible: Cicero described how a superstitious kind of religious credulity went through various phases, so that in his own time the average educated Roman was sophisticated enough to understand that Romulus did not actually ascend into the heavens to become a god (as Romans of a previous period had believed) but was probably just murdered by his enemies.

One significant factor in this kind of thought was the rise of the rhetoric of Metallic Age mythology. The Archaic Greek poetry of Hesiod described the history of the world in terms of an original idyllic Golden Age, followed by an inferior Silver Age, a Bronze Age, and so on. Actually, Hesiod did not use the word “age” but “race,” so his rhetoric was not temporal but genealogical. The Romans adapted this rhetoric in the first century BCE but used distinctly temporal vocabulary instead, recasting the myth as a description of periodization. Thus we end up seeing Romans talking about not only moral decline but also political decline (which, I suppose, for the Romans is basically identical) in terms of Golden Ages and Iron Ages and so forth. So, saecular discourse allowed Romans to reconfigure their own history using multi-stage progress or decline narratives.

What were the political implications of periodization in Roman thought? How did Romans use the concept of saeculum to justify or critique claims to power and authority?

Well, as I said, the political propaganda possibilities of this kind of rhetoric were immediately apparent after Sulla. And Sulla’s rise occurred right in the middle of a long stretch of Roman history in which political strongmen with essentially personal armies were causing all kinds of trouble for Rome; it’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Rome endured civil wars for about a hundred years off and on before Augustus was the last man standing.

Curiously enough, though, we don’t seem to have evidence of saecular discourse in the decades following Sulla’s death, which I attribute in the book to the fact that Sulla’s reputation was still “radioactive” and even his partisans and relatives didn’t really want to touch it. But after Julius Caesar’s assassination, when it was really unclear who the next big star of Roman politics would be, we do see people return to this periodizing language in order to justify their claims to power or boost their reputation.

Octavian (later Augustus) is the most obvious example, but even people like Agrippa or Messalla Corvinus, who would ultimately take subordinate roles within the Augustan government, seemed to have toyed with the possibilities of periodization as a way to enhance their own standing. In the case of Agrippa, he had taken responsibility for the city’s water supply, which of course is a seriously important aspect of life for most people, and I describe in the book how he leveraged his successes in the infrastructure realm to suggest that he was a kind of epochal culture-hero. So, when the Cloaca Maxima, the very old and enormous sewer/drainage system of Rome, got cleaned and renovated under his watch, he did things to suggest that Rome itself was “wiping the slate clean,” so to speak, and that a fresh start—perhaps a new era—would begin under his care.

What were some of the most surprising or unexpected discoveries you made while researching and writing Saeculum, and how did these discoveries shape your overall argument?

One thing I discovered was that the Romans developed an interesting cognitive linkage between two otherwise unrelated myths: the myth of the Flood of Deucalion, and the myth of Phaethon the son of Helios. The flood wiped out the human race on earth except for Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, and they would repopulate the planet by throwing stones over their shoulders, which turned into humans.

Phaethon was the teenage son of Helios, the sun god, who tricked his father into letting him control the chariot of the sun for a day, but he lost his grip on the reins and almost let the entire planet burn up. Because these myths both sort of involve global apocalyptic events, the Romans started using them frequently as metaphors for the kind of transition from one saeculum to another that launched the start of a qualitatively distinct era. So, whereas before the time of Sulla, these were two totally separate myths, after the emergence of saecular discourse, these myths become linked in the Roman mind to be used in the rhetoric of periodization. This linkage demonstrates how the temporal consciousness of the Romans really did shift and cause unexpected consequences elsewhere (in this case, in mythography).

The other notable discovery I made was in literary history. I was aware that Catullus, a mid–first century BCE Roman poet, had used the term “saeculum” several times in his poetry at very significant moments to talk about literary aesthetics. While researching this book, I learned that his contemporaries, who are sometimes grouped together as “neoteric poets,” were also interested in similar notions of the aesthetics of a particular time period. And even though we have only a small number of surviving fragments of their work, the term “saeculum” appears in some of them as well. This definitely suggested to me that there was an intellectual current energizing many Roman thinkers during the middle of the first century BCE. Thus, periodization really developed to influence a wide range of Roman intellectual pursuits during this time.