Atrocity Exhibition

“…history; which is, indeed, little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.” – Edward Gibbon

As a writer of history, Florus is simultaneously rhetorical but moderated, capable of drawing scenes of the greatest pathos while still remaining coldly detached. His pro-Roman bias is evident everywhere, and in works of this sort such patriotic partisanship should probably be taken as a given. Yet, Florus’ Epitome is characterized by a strange relation to its subject matter. Especially in the earlier portions of the work, Florus makes it clear that written history is all that remains of his subject. Florus describes the destruction of Veii:

“This was Veii then. Now, who even remembers its existence? What remnants are there? What trace? The faith of our annals has to strain to make us believe that there ever was such a place as Veii.

Hoc tunc Vei fuere. Nunc fuisse quis meminit? Quae reliquiae? Quodve vestigium? Laborat annalium fides, ut Veios fuisse credamus. [Epitome 1.6]

As Florus renders it, not only does Veii no longer exist, but it stretches the bounds of human credulity to believe that it ever did! Roman historians tend to preface their works with prooemia which describe the value of history as a mode of literary enterprise, but Florus makes this point more clear than any amount of Sallustian trumpeting: were it not for histories like this one, Veii would not even exist in name. There is, moreover, something heartbreaking about the finality of it all, conveyed by the rapid succession of perfect tense verbs fuere…fuisse…fuisse.

Occasionally, Florus will make a sally in the more patriotic (i.e. less philosophical) line, as when he describes Camillus’ route of the Gallic army following Brennus’ sacking and humiliation of Rome:

“Camillus made such an attack that he effaced all traces of the urban fire with a bath of Gallic blood.”

cum ad iniqua pondera addito adhuc gladio insuper “vae victis” increparent, subito adgressus a tergo Camillus adeo cecidit, ut omnia incendium vestigia Gallici sanguinis inundatione deleret. [Epitome 1.7]

Modern readers may find the idea conveyed by sanguinis inundatione, a flood of blood, sickening or even repellent. Yet, there is little doubt that this was calculated to rouse the patriotic fervor of the Roman reader. But a bloodbath is one thing, and outright genocide is another. History, as well as Florus’ narrative, edge us along to the (what now seems inevitable) conclusion of this conflict with the Gauls:

“Yet, a few years later, near the Lake of Vadimo in Etruria, Dolabella destroyed the remnants of those Gauls, lest anyone remain from that race which could boast that it had burned Rome.”

Nec non tamen post aliquod annos omnis reliquias eorum in Etruria ad lacum Vadimonis Dolabella delevit, ne quis exstaret ex ea gente, quae incensam a se Romanam urbem gloriaretur. [Epitome 1.8]

The bath of Gallic blood did not, apparently, erase all trace of the fire in Rome, because it lived on as a historical idea in the hearts of the Romans, who are presented as being vexed by the potential for Gallic control of the narrative. That is, these Gauls could still boast of the memorable victory over the city, so the victory had to be turned into defeat, and the rememberers themselves had to be wholly extirpated.

Total extirpation of peoples continues on in the narrative of a war against the Samnites:

“In the space of fifty years, through the leadership of the Fabii and the Papirii, Rome so totally subdued and dominated Samnium and effaced its ruins that today Samnium cannot even be found in Samnium, nor is it clear that there was ever material for twenty-four triumphs there.”

Hos tamen quinquaginta annis per Fabios ac Papirios patres eorumque liberos ita subegit ac domuit, ita ruinas ipsas urbium diruit, ut hodie Samnium in ipso Samnio requiratur nec facile appareat materia quattuor et viginti triumphorum. [Epitome 1.11]

Once again, Florus stresses the strain which these events place upon the reader’s belief. Moreover, he places the record of history against the common perception of his own time. It is worth pausing to remember that Florus, writing around the time of Hadrian’s reign in the 2nd century AD, lived through a time when Rome achieved its greatest geographical sway (around 117) under the emperor Trajan. But we all know what happened. Three hundred and fifty years later, the last of the western Roman emperors would be deposed, all of Rome’s western dominions would be fragmented, and Rome itself would be just a city once again. Even with the historical and archaeological record, the “trust in our annals” still strains in reminding us just how powerful Rome once was. This kind of patriotic puffing for cruel barbarism and outright atrocity continues throughout the rest of Florus’ work in much the same vein, though he relents a bit as he approaches the singularly inglorious period of civil wars beginning in the 1st century BCE.

When read carefully, Florus’ Epitome challenges us to think about more than the horror of war itself, which is at any rate manifest enough. Florus reminds us of the danger which plagues all historical narrative: the losers have no narrative of their own, and worse than being buried in the ground, their very memory is interred in the dust of silence and oblivion.

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