rubin | international edition 2013

Researching memory in the ancient Rome


Fig. 1: Prof Dr Karl Galinsky in the RUB Art Collection.


rubin | international edition 2013

Research on historical and cultural memory in ancient Rome
Karl Galinsky Memories are not stable, but change over time. This is true not only of autobiographical memories for events from our past, but also for the collective memories of cultures. Bringing together various approaches, including from the social sciences and neurosciences, Prof Dr Karl Galinsky and his colleagues shed light on the variability of memories that characterised ancient Rome.

We all know that in our lives, and in history in general, it is not only facts and events as such that matter. Rather, it is what we make of them and how we remember them. In many ways such memories also shape our identity. Exactly how does that process work—for individuals, for groups, and for nations and cultures? Such questions and the resulting concern with memory have been at the forefront of discussion and research over the last thirty years in the social sciences, the humanities, media studies and, by a fortuitous coincidence (if not convergence), neuroscience and neuropsychology. In other words, the “memory boom”. Within the Memoria Romana project, we research the historical and cultural memory of ancient Rome. The project was made possible by funds from the Max-Planck Forschungspreis für Geisteswissenschaften (info 1). What have we accomplished so far? Quite a lot, I am proud to say. The subject that was specified for the award in 2009 was Gedächtnisgeschichte, i.e. roughly “history of memory.” That research orientation in Germany had been pioneered by Jan and Aleida Assmann; Aleida Assmann in fact was the German co-recipient of the Max-Planck Preis in 2009 and I respect her tremendously. Major areas of focus had been ancient Egypt (Jan Assmann’s Book on Moses is a classic) and the modern period. An impulse for the latter clearly was the Holocaust; that generation now is dying out—how do you preserve the memory? Instrumental, too, was Pierre Nora’s seven-volume collection (1984-92) of lieux de mémoire, which can be loosely translat-

ed as “memory places”, representing the idea that the collective memory of a social group, for instance the French nation, is focused in particular places that need not be only geographical; the French flag is a good example. The term has become operative and commonplace by now, providing emblems for l’identité française at a time of massive immigration. Agendas can be a factor in shaping memories, clearly. That left other cultural periods open for exploration and, in my case, that was ancient Rome. Rome is a paradigm of a memory culture. Memory pervades its every aspect: history and historical writing, art, monuments (the very etymology of “monument” is connected with “memory”), religion, rhetorical training with its substantial component of mnemotechnics, and literature, to mention only the most obvious. Why was that so? Rome was not a culture that could rely prominently on writing. Writing materials were either unwieldy (inscriptions on stone) or expensive (papyrus), or of short duration (wax tablets). Literacy in the Roman Empire has been estimated at some 15 per cent of the urban population and we are not talking about the ability to read long texts. Nor does the memory culture cease even when writing is more prevalent; the Romans explicitly defined history and historical writing as the preservation of memory. A fascinating array of issues opens up here. Whose memories are we talking about? I am deliberately using the plural: memories. One misconception in memory studies, wrongly based on the titles of seminal works like Maurice Halbwachs’ La mé-


moire collective (posthumously published in 1950) and derivatives like Das kollektive (or kulturelle) Gedächtnis have tended to lead to the notion that we were dealing with a uniform and stable entity that could be handed down as a tradition, equivalent to an archive. As always, the reality is different. Halbwachs was right in emphasising the obvious: memory is a matter not only of individuals, but of groups. But of course there are different groups with different and often competing and conflicting memories. Who controls this process? When we talk about societies like Rome, the memories that have mainly been preserved are those of the elites. Only they had the means to build monuments or the ability to write. They were, however, far outnumbered by the non-elites and, for lack of documentation, we have very little access to the memories of the latter; that’s a handicap endemic to the study of GrecoRoman antiquity. Another important perspective is that historical/cultural/social memory is not a hard drive. Like autobiographical memory, it is in a constant state of construction and reconstruction. We all experience this in our daily lives. Each time, for instance, you think about the party on your 18th birthday, you have to piece together the events of that day, unconsciously adding little details here and there—many from later conversations—while leaving out or forgetting about others. Thus, each time you remember that party, your memory of it will

change a bit. There are also false memories—in some famous psychological experiments the rate was as much as 25 per cent—and there is “source amnesia”, i.e. people infusing, unintentionally, fictional elements (from films or novels, for instance) into memories of their lives; Ronald Reagan is a paradigm (info 2). At RUB, it has been incredibly stimulating to be in contact with experts like Denise ManahanVaughan and Onur Güntürkün who have pointed me to current research in neuroscience and neuropsychology in such areas. Likewise, we could always deduce this from accounts such as those dealing with Rome’s “history” and especially, though not only, its

Fig. 2: On a palimpsest, several texts were written over each other.

info 1
Max-Planck Award Until 2008, I did not know that there existed a Max-Planck Forschungspreis für Geisteswissenschaften. It is awarded every four years to two scholars, one in Germany and the other in a foreign country; the topic is specified and each German university can nominate one individual in each category. Football coaches, who are the sages of modern times, emphatically deny that there is anything such as blind luck; instead, they define luck as “preparation meeting opportunity.” Be that as it may, the opportunity was brought to my attention by Dr Wolfgang Polleichtner whose Doktorvater I was at the University of Texas at Austin and who then moved to RUB as a Research Assistant to Professor Reinhold Glei (Classical Philology), whom I had known for many years. They shepherded the application through the various committees at RUB and substantially drafted the proposal (I was limited to a short outline of how I would use the award) that ultimately won the prize. At that point, of course, I was asked for much more detail and a budget plan. It is a substantial award, 750,000 Euros. I allocated the lion’s share of the funds for doctoral fellowships and research grants mostly for younger postdocs on an international basis. The support of younger scholars is an important priority for me, RUB, and the Max-Planck Society. In addition, the project has financed international conferences and workshops and release from teaching for four semesters from my home university; for four years, from 2009 to 2012, I divided my time between Austin and Bochum to build up and administer the project Memoria Romana, Standort RUB. Further information: www.utexas.edu/research/memoria and www.mpg.de/mpForschungspreis


rubin | international edition 2013

Fig. 3: The Arch of Constantine in Rome. The image on the top shows a detail of the monument.

early history. They were a continuing work in progress—there were memories, counter-memories and, not in the least, oblivion and efforts to forget. Memory is an ongoing process. Layer is piled upon layer; Freud, for good reason, used the metaphor of a palimpsest, a piece of papyrus on which several texts were written over each other (fig. 2), for Rome and then for the layers of the human psyche. The essential purpose of the Memoria Romana project has been to acquaint especially younger classical scholars with the many strands of memory studies and to employ and test some perspectives, methods, and

impulses from current work on Gedächtnisgeschichte over a broad spectrum of Roman phenomena. No nachbeten (meaning, specifically, “parroting the high priests of the memory cult”), then, but to bring some of this research orientation and its methodologies into our work on Roman subjects in conjunction with other approaches. The project has funded 31 grantees, including 14 doctoral students, on an international basis. Their nationalities include Canada, the U.S., Colombia, Germany, France, the U.K., Italy, Switzerland, and Turkey. They remain at their home institutions, but we have brought most of them together at conferences and workshops in Bochum, Austin, and Rome. The range of their investigations (and resulting publications) has been impressive and I am delighted to present some examples because it’s clear that they go beyond the commonplace—scholarship on Gedächtnisgeschichte has its ample share of insights into the obvious—that Rome has as many, if not more, memory layers as archaeological strata, that the past reaches into the present, etc. An instructive example of bringing cognitive research on memory to bear on a Roman monument is the sculptural decoration of one of Rome’s best-known landmarks, the fourth-century Arch of Constantine (fig. 3). There are two kinds of relief sculpture on it: roundels and small segments, which were actually removed from earlier monuments, and a continuous frieze created specifically for this arch at the time it was built and representing scenes from the time of Constantine (fig. 3 top). These scenes are woven into a sequential narrative whose participants are not static but moving forward. Of course layers are in evidence here: one layer from the time of Constantine, another from earlier times. The earlier sculptures feature previous Roman emperors, such as the “good” emperors Trajan and Hadrian, whose memory Constantine wanted to recall and with whom he wanted to associate himself. The juxtaposition between a historic past and a more recent past also has an analogy with human autobiographical memory. Even in antiquity writers were aware that childhood and adult memories are characterised by different qualities. Cognitive science studies have elaborated on this phenomenon: besides being often


Fig. 4: Map of the Roman Empire in 120 AD

stronger and more visual than adult memories, childhood memories also are more like single snapshots that are unconnected to a broader narrative context. In this they contrast with adult memories of recent life events, which tend to be part of a larger whole and can easily be woven together into a continuous narrative, even if, as I have emphasised earlier, such stories are constantly reconstructed and reshaped in the process of remembering. Applying this analogy to the Arch of Constantine, the continuous narrative in the frieze is similar to adult memories, while the roundels and segments from earlier times resemble childhood memories. It is certainly striking that the presentation of history on the Arch of Constantine breaks down along these lines: the connected, linear narrative of recent events versus the fragmented and discrete indi-

vidual icons with images of the city’s earlier life. Were the designers of the monument conscious of this? Certainly not, I would say, to the full extent of our cognitive insight into memory today. Their aim was to represent two different kinds of remembrance. To view their procedure in light of our more complete knowledge of human autobiographical memory brings out an additional dimension of their work and leads to a yet fuller understanding of its impact even on contemporary viewers of the monument. As I said above, monuments, just by their etymology, were meant to be carriers of memory. Like Roman god Janus, they face in two directions: they aim to preserve memories of the past and also shape memories for the future. That is no different from memorial sites today; at our conference at the American Academy in Rome in


rubin | international edition 2013

Fig. 5 on the left: Bronze portrait of Emperor Severus Alexander in the RUB Art Collection. On the right: Marble portrait of Emperor Augustus’ wife Livia

2012, Daniel Libeskind, who gave the concluding address, illustrated precisely that point. A paradigm in ancient Rome is the building activity generated by Roman leaders who celebrated the state’s highest honour, the triumph. They built temples from the spoils of their conquests and they had these buildings placed in such a manner that future triumphal processions would pass by them. And here is another wrinkle: the Arch of the emperor Septimius Severus (third century) in the Roman Forum was crowned by his figure in a triumphal chariot and there are reliefs showing a triumphal procession – but none of our historical sources mention such a triumph. Not source amnesia, but an attempt to make future onlookers think he did? It’s an intriguing example with many open questions, but the attempt to shape memory is obvious in ancient Rome and fits into

info 2
A famous case of source amnesia In his book Searching for Memory, the renowned memory researcher Daniel L. Schacter described a famous case of source amnesia: “In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan repeatedly told a heartbreaking story of a World War II bomber pilot who ordered his crew to bail out after his plane had been seriously damaged by an enemy hit. His young belly gunner was wounded so seriously that he was unable to evacuate the bomber. Reagan could barely hold back his tears as he uttered the pilot‘s heroic response: ‘Never mind. We‘ll ride it down together.’ … this story was an almost exact duplicate of a scene in the 1944 film A Wing and a Prayer. Reagan had apparently retained the facts but forgotten their source.”

the larger picture of what the recently deceased English historian Eric Hobsbawm called “the invention of tradition.” Not only was Rome full of such inventions, but the paradigm also appears in the various parts of the Roman empire. The Romans were military imperialists, but not cultural imperialists and the so-called “Romanisation” of the empire in fact presents us with a tremendous range of adaptations and responses. There was not just one “cultural memory” but there were many of them. Many are hybrids, just like the architecture around the Roman Mediterranean, but in quite a few places indigenous traditions and memories were revived—and, at times, invented—in order to maintain a sense of local and regional identity alongside the larger imperial dimension (fig. 4). A reciprocal process occurred at Rome which became a multi-cultural city: festivals and anniversary dates were disconnected from their earlier conjunction with purely local, Roman history. Instead, they came to focus on the emperor and his achievements because the emperor was the emperor for all. Traditional scholarship has bewailed this as a power grab and ignored the dimension of memory: Rome had many inhabitants from all over the empire for whom specifically Roman cultural memories were too narrow, not to say irrelevant. Rome’s first emperor, Augustus—the Art Collection at RUB houses some excellent portraits of his family (fig. 5 on the right)—recognised this and opened up wider horizons. Such process-


es of negotiation never stood still and had their own dynamic—just like the constant construction of memory in our brain and the “performative” memory of individuals and groups. The resulting issues of cultural memory, some of which have been studied by some of our grantees, will be the subject of our final international conference at the Getty Villa Museum in Malibu, California, in April 2013. Let me conclude with two further examples where perspectives from memory studies have led to productive new insights. Vergil’s Aeneid, written in the first decade of Augustus’ reign, cannot be fitted into the usual matrix of glorifying “national epic.” Instead it was largely modelled on the Iliad and the Odyssey of Homer, which have a more comprehensive human dimension. Yet from the very beginning Vergil makes it clear that he is looking at this dimension differently: he invokes the Muse not to “sing of” or “tell” the story as the Greek poet did, but to “recall it into memory” (fig. 6). Accordingly, memory plays a huge role in the Aeneid in all kinds of ways. They have never been much explored, but two of our dissertation Fellows—one French, the other American—have done so, from different perspectives, and their revised dissertations are in the process of being published, one by the renowned Cambridge University Press. In so many words, a major aspect of the Aeneid is the (re)construction of Roman cultural memory. Similarly, a more precise approach using memory methodologies has helped to change another traditionally held view, this time in regard to Roman portrait art. There the term damnatio memoriae (“damnation of memory”) has loomed large in the scholarship on disgraced emperors whose portraits were reconfigured after their deaths. Unless their faces were very thin, they could be reworked into those of other, better emperors instead of being simply destroyed. Marble was an expensive commodity and the Romans were practical people. Now, the label damnatio memoriae is another example of an invented tradition, this time by art historians: the Romans never used that term. And when they re-cut those portraits, they deliberately left enough traces of the old portrait in order to highlight the contrast between the old and the new. In this way reworked, marble portraits

have their own memorial dynamic, whereas bronze portraits could be only mutilated; RUB’s Art Collection owns a good example (fig. 5 on the left). Memoria Romana has been an exciting and innovative project. I am profoundly grateful to its grantees and the participants in its conferences and programmes at scholarly meetings for their energy and accomplishments. My special gratitude goes to my colleagues in several disciplines at RUB and to Rektor Weiler and Prorektor Eysel for providing a superior environment in which we could get so much work done in a relatively short time. RUB has done well in establishing itself as a Standort (place) for research on memory, in neuroscience, the social sciences, and the humanities.
Prof Dr Dr hc Karl Galinsky, Seminar for Classical Philology

Fig. 6: Illustration from Vergil’s Aeneid