“Stuff I Did”: The Res Gestae, Tulips, and Squeezes

We tend to think of the Latin language as fancy, formal, and technical. But my favorite Latin word when I am teaching ancient Roman civilization in Origins of the West is “res,” which means “thing.” In Origins, we encounter it in the term res publica, literally the “public thing,” which began, according to tradition, in 509 BCE, when the Roman people, led by Brutus the Liberator, exiled King Tarquin the Proud and replaced the monarchy with a republic. A monarchy is a private thing—the king treats the kingdom like he owns it—but a republic is a public thing, owned by the people as a whole.

We also encounter the word when we read Vergil’s Aeneid, which begins in medias res—in the middle of things.1 Book one of the Aeneid begins with Aeneas already in Carthage; we learn the previous events, the fall of Troy and his voyage to north Africa, through flashbacks, as Aeneas narrates them at the banquet Queen Dido throws for him in books two and three. By book four, we’re back to the present.2

I made this diagram to illustrate how the Aeneid is structured in medias res. The numbered items on the outside of the arch are the events in the order they occurred; the book numbers on the inside of the arch are the order in which we read them.

Finally, my favorite use of my favorite Latin word is in the phrase res gestae, or “things done.” This is the title of a document written by the emperor Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) near the end of his life.3 The title is usually translated “accomplishments” or “achievements,” but it basically means “stuff I did.” So we’ve got “public stuff,” “in the middle of stuff,” and “stuff I did.” So much for fancy, formal, and technical.

We know of the existence of the Augustus’ Res Gestae from a passage in the biography of Augustus by the ancient Roman author Suetonius, written around 120 CE. Suetonius tells us that Augustus compiled a list of his accomplishments and arranged for them to be published on bronze tablets to be erected in front of his mausoleum in Rome.4

The bronze tablets no longer survive, but a copy that was sent to the provinces does. The Latin text of the Res Gestae is carved into the interior walls of the cella (the inner room) of the Temple of Augustus in what is now Ankara, Turkey (then Ankyra, provincial capital of Galatia). A Greek translation is found on the exterior wall (which makes sense, as Galatia was in the Greek-speaking part of the empire). The inscription is also known as the Monumentum Ancyranum.5

The ruins of the Temple of Augustus in Ankara. Only the cella is still standing.

I use a translation of this text whenever I teach the Age of Augustus. It’s a rare example of an extant ancient historical text that is not only contemporary with its subject but also written by the person in whose voice it is. (Unlike, for example, the Suetonius biography, written about a century after Augustus died, or the Funeral Oration of Pericles, written by Thucydides in Pericles’ voice.)

A portion of the Latin inscription of the Res Gestae on the wall of the Temple of Augustus.

In the document, Augustus lists the achievements he wishes to be remembered by. It’s a combination of a memoir, curriculum vitae, and a completed to-do list. The document is not particularly well-organized, but if we were to reorder the items and group them under headings (which is what I have my students do), they might look something like this:

  • Military Victories and Conquests
  • Diplomacy and Peacemaking
  • Public Works
  • Donations
  • Restoration of the Mores Maiorum (the “ways of the ancestors”)

If you are familiar with the scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where John Cleese’s character asks, “What have the Romans done for us,” you might think of the Res Gestae as Augustus’ answer to the question, “What has Augustus done for us?” And both answers would include “the aqueduct” and “brought peace.”

Equally as fascinating as the document’s content is the story of how it was found. I knew that it survived only in the provincial copy carved into the Temple of Augustus in Ankara, and I knew that at some point it was recognized as the work of Augustus. Beyond that, I vaguely assumed that it had been identified by a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat—like Lord Elgin, only less destructive.

As usual, I was partially right. My instincts were correct, but I was off on the details (just like with King Arthur flour). It wasn’t a classically-educated nineteenth-century British diplomat; it was a classically-educated sixteenth-century Flemish diplomat. Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq (1522-1592) was ambassador of Emperor Ferdinand of Austria to Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent. During his time there, between 1554 and 1562, Ghiselin de Busbecq traveled around the Ottoman empire and later published his observations in Turkish Letters (1581). He wrote,6

Here we saw a very beautiful inscription, containing a copy of the tablets in which Augustus gave a summary of his achievements. We made our people copy as much as was legible. It is engraved on the marble walls of a building now ruinous and roofless which formerly may have formed the official residence of the governor. As you enter the building one half of the inscription is on the right, and the other on the left. The top lines are nearly perfect; in the middle the gaps begin to present difficulties; the lowest lines are so mutilated with blows of clubs and axes as to be illegible. This is indeed a great literary loss, and one which scholars have much reason to regret; the more so as it is an ascertained fact that Ancyra was dedicated to Augustus as the common gift of Asia.

Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq

 Recognizing the Res Gestae wasn’t Ghiselin de Busbecq’s only accomplishment. He was also interested in plants, and claimed to have been the person who introduced tulip bulbs to Europe. This claim was an exaggeration, but Ghiselin de Busbecq probably contributed to their popularization. 7 Tulips became so popular in the Dutch Republic of the 17th century that the buying and selling of the bulbs is referred to as “Tulipmania,” and the rise and subsequent collapse of the market in 1637 is considered an early example of an investment bubble. 8

‘Still Life with Flowers,’ 1639, by Hans Bollinger (fl. 1623-1672), now in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The striped tulips, known as ‘broken,’ were the most highly sought-after during the tulip craze. It is now known that the ‘break’ is caused by a virus. Coincidentally, the name of the most valuable broken variety was ‘Semper Augustus.’

The surviving copy of the Res Gestae was mentioned by classical scholars a few times in the subsequent centuries, but serious study of it was only undertaken in the nineteenth century, beginning with the work of Theodor Mommsen, a groundbreaking German historian of ancient Rome. Mommsen was not an archeologist, and he did not travel to Turkey to study the inscription in person. Rather, he relied on drawings made by others to produce his scholarly edition of the Res Gestae in 1865, and a second edition that utilized plaster casts of the inscription in 1883.9

Another technology that has been developed by epigraphers (people who study inscriptions) is known as “squeezes.” A squeeze is made by pressing dampened paper onto the inscription, letting it dry, then lifting it off. The resulting impression is lightweight and easy to work with (although the image is reversed; epigraphers have to become adept at reading ancient languages backwards). Taking a squeeze allows for prolonged study of the text off-site, and for simultaneous study of inscriptions from multiple sites.

I was delighted to learn that Cornell University, my doctoral institution, has an extensive collection of squeezes, including the Res Gestae. The Res Gestae squeeze was obtained as part of the Cornell Expedition to Asia Minor and the Assyro-Babylonian Orient (1907-1908). I was not aware of this collection’s existence while I was studying there, although ancient Greek and Roman history was one of my minor fields. At that point, in the pre-digital era, the squeezes were just sitting in storage in the attic of Goldwin Smith Hall, home of Cornell’s Classics department. But the squeezes have since been restored and digitized.

One of the squeezes of the Res Gestae now in Cornell’s collection.

Another Cornell connection to the Res Gestae, slightly more tenuous, is that Theodor Ernst Mommsen (1905-1958), grandson of Theodor Mommsen, taught medieval history at Cornell beginning in 1954 (having escaped Nazi Germany in 1935) until his untimely death from suicide in 1958. His successor was Brian Tierney, with whom I studied.

In the 1930s, archeologists excavated the Ara Pacis, an Augustan monument mentioned in the Res Gestae10

When I returned to Rome from Spain and Gaul, having settled affairs successfully in these provinces, in the consulship of Tiberius Nero and Publius Quinctilius [13 BC], the senate decreed that an altar of Augustan Peace should be consecrated in thanks for my return on the field of Mars, and ordered magistrates and priests and Vestal Virgins to perform an annual sacrifice there.

As part of his program to connect his rule to the glories of imperial Rome, Mussolini had a museum constructed to house the Ara Pacis, located near the ruins of the mausoleum of Augustus on the banks of the Tiber. The text of the Res Gestae was carved into an exterior wall of the museum. The Ara Pacis museum opened in 1938, a year celebrated as the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Augustus.11

Mussolini’s Ara Pacis museum. The Res Gestae was carved on the wall in the foreground.

The Mussolini-era museum has since been demolished and replaced with a new building, completed in 2006, designed by American architect Richard Meier. The wall with the Res Gestae was preserved, however. So if you want to see an inscribed version of the Res Gestae, there’s no need to visit Ankara; there’s one in Rome, near its original location, although not on a bronze tablet.

Whenever an academic administrator asks me for the goals of a course, I always use the same three (polished a bit more for administrative consumption):

  • Teach them stuff (content).
  • Teach them to do stuff (skills).
  • Teach them how it relates to other stuff (connections).

The Res Gestae is a perfect example of this approach in action. Teach them stuff: the document is literally made up of, and named for, the stuff Augustus did. Teach them to do stuff: in addition to the skill of reading and interpreting a document, the Res Gestae also gives students the opportunity to learn about disciplines like archeology and epigraphy and techniques like squeezes that lie behind the conveniently anthologized, printed, translated text in front of them. Teach them how it relates to other stuff: the history of the Res Gestae not only connects to the history of the interest in and study of the classics—by Ghiselin de Busbecq in the 16th century, Mommsen in the 19th, and Mussolini in the 20th—it also, more unexpectedly, connects to the history of horticulture and early-modern capitalism. No wonder it’s one of my favorite texts to teach.

Turabian: The Woman and her Book

The only image I could find of Kate Turabian. It’s from the Univ. of Chicago Press website, so it’s presumably the best one they have.

One of the courses I teach regularly is an introductory course for History majors, entitled “Making History.” One of my responsibilities as instructor is to teach the students how to do documentation in historical writing, or, in a word, FOOTNOTES.

Wait, don’t stop reading. Footnotes are fun! The form of documentation conventionally used by professional historians is called “Chicago style,” after the Chicago Manual of Style, first published by the University of Chicago Press in 1906 and now in its 17th edition. One question I have not yet been able to answer is how it came about that the conventions created for the output of one particular university press came to be adopted by the historical profession as a whole. Other academic disciplines use documentation models sponsored by their respective professional organizations: Psychologists use APA style, as specified by the American Psychological Association; literary scholars use MLA style, regulated by the Modern Language Association. But although there is an AHA, the American Historical Association, there is nothing called “AHA style.”

Undergraduate history majors rarely purchase the Chicago Manual, however. Not only is it expensive—the current edition lists for $70—but it includes much more detail than they need for the kind of writing they’re doing. (I didn’t buy one until I was a PhD student.)

Instead, students typically use specially-written handbooks that package the essential information into a more user-friendly format. In Making History, for example, we use Mary Lynne Rampolla’s Pocket Guide to Writing in History. But when our history majors get to the Senior Seminar, we have them purchase a more serious, detailed, in-depth handbook. At that point, as they prepare to write their Senior Research Thesis, they’re ready for . . . TURABIAN.

What’s a Turabian, you ask? It’s short for Kate L. Turabian’s Manual for Writers of Theses, Research Papers, and Dissertations. Like Cher or Madonna, Turabian requires only a single name to be immediately identifiable to the cognoscenti. I recall going to see a professor during office hours in the first history major course I took as an undergraduate, to ask for help in beginning the assigned research paper, and receiving the answer, in its entirety, “Turabian.”1

I was reminded of this conversation recently when I was introducing Chicago-style footnotes to my Making History students. Although we don’t buy Turabian in Making History, I thought it was important that they at least know the term. Even undergraduate research journals, conferences, or essay competitions might well specify “Turabian” without further elaboration.

Wanting to show my students the person behind the name, I did a little research. Fortunately, the Chicago Manual Online has a page devoted to the history of Turabian, both the person and the book. There I learned that she was born in Chicago in 1893, never attended college, but went to work as a department secretary at the University in 1925, becoming the thesis secretary in 1930.

The thesis secretary at a graduate institution is in some ways the most powerful person on campus. She (and it often was a she) inspects all master’s theses and doctoral dissertations to ensure that they conform to the university’s formatting guidelines, including margins, front matter (title page, acknowledgments, etc.) and documentation. Your professor might have already approved your work; your methodology might be groundbreaking, your conclusions insightful, your prose sparkling. But if the thesis secretary sees that your margins are too narrow or too wide, no degree for you until it’s fixed.2

To help students navigate this stressful process, in 1937 Kate Turabian produced a booklet summarizing the formatting guidelines for Chicago style, so that Depression-era students didn’t have to buy the big manual. Her pamphlet was first published in book form in 1955; it is now in its 9th edition.

Next I looked for some images to show the class, and was delighted to come across the cover of the 3rd edition, published in 1967. This is the one I remember using in college.3 Notice what’s on the cover—mostly pencils and pens of various types, most of the pens having nibs, and one curious-looking round object. Boomers like myself may be able to identify that as a typewriter eraser. This cover image says to me that “writers of term papers, theses, and dissertations” will literally be writing them by hand, and only as a final step producing a typescript (perhaps even hiring a typist).

Notice how the cover of the 4th edition, from 1973, has changed. It is still an assemblage of writers’ tools, still mostly writing implements, but now none of the pens have nibs, there’s a new-fangled marker, and instead of a typewriter eraser there are two spherical objects. These are type balls (known familiarly as “golf balls”) from an IBM Selectric typewriter, first introduced in 1973—which means that the cover is displaying what was then state-of-the-art technology.

The 5th edition, released in 1987, got rid of not only the pens but also the typewriter accessories. That round red object with the spokes is a daisy wheel from a daisy wheel printer. We’re in the computer age! Daisy wheel printers were used before the widespread introduction of laser printers to produce what was called “letter quality” output, that is, as good as what a typewriter could do. I printed my first cover letters for job applications using a daisy wheel printer.

Perhaps because daisy wheel printers were already headed towards obsolescence in 1987, beginning with the 6th edition the Manual for Writers dispensed with images altogether. But collectively, the 3rd through 5th edition covers are a fascinating look at the rapid revolutionary changes in writing technology over a period of just 20 years. I should point out, however, that while the fountain pen has disappeared from the cover of Turabian, I used one to draft this entry (and, in fact, my doctoral dissertation as well). Like vinyl records, the fountain pen is making a comeback!

Kate Turabian retired as thesis secretary at the University of Chicago in 1958, but she continued to work on updates of the manual; she died in 1987. The book is still published in her name, along with the names of the writers who have taken over the updates.4 According to a 2016 study of American college syllabi, Kate Turabian is the most assigned female author in college classes.

Kate Turabian’s New York Times obituary, October 26, 1987.

Now I want to know more about the history of the footnote itself.5 As the American Historical Association says, #everythinghasahistory. Research never ends!

Pumbaa the Philosopher

My favorite scene in the movie The Lion King is the one where the three friends—Timon the meerkat, Pumbaa the warthog, and Simba the lion—are lying on their backs looking at the night sky and discussing the stars. Pumbaa asks the others if they’d ever wondered what “those sparkly dots” are. Timon replies that he knows what they are—they’re fireflies that got stuck in “that big bluish-black thing.” Pumbaa answers that he always thought they were “balls of gas burning billions of miles away.” Finally, after much prodding, Simba says, “Somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there watching over us,” and the other two laugh at him.

This is my favorite scene because it’s the perfect way to introduce a class discussion of the beginnings of ancient Greek philosophy. Simba’s explanation is different from the other two. It is mythical, in the original ancient Greek sense of “storytelling”—a mythos is literally a story. Simba even presents it as a story that someone told him (the audience knows it was his father Mufasa): “Somebody once told me” that the stars were “the great kings of the past.”

In contrast, both Timon’s and Pumbaa’s explanations are what we could call scientific—based on observations explained rationally. Timon’s explanation is based on everyday sense experience. Fireflies are sparkly things that fly around at night, so the stars must be fireflies that got stuck in the dome of the sky. Pumbaa’s explanation (which, of course, is the right one—the stars really are “balls of gas burning billions of miles away”) depends on observations made at a distance incorporated into a rational framework. 1

Timon’s and Simba’s explanations are analogous to the ideas of the earliest Greek philosophers. In the 6th century B.C.E., some Greeks who lived in cities in the region known as Ionia (the west coast of Asia Minor, or modern Turkey) began to give rational instead of mythical answers to questions about the natural world. “Nature” in ancient Greek is physis, so they are called the “Ionian physicists”—the guys from Ionia who studied nature.2 These early philosophers were convinced that the universe, although apparently chaotic, is actually orderly and can be explained rationally. The Greek word for “chaos” was chaos; the Greek word for “order” was cosmos, which was then extended to refer to the orderly universe (the cosmos has a cosmos). The Ionian physicists thought that the apparent diversity and disorder of the universe could be reduced to a single underlying principle, which they called the arche. Thales, for example, proposed that the arche was water; for Anaximenes it was air.

Herodotus, the first Greek historian (literally, “inquirer”), mostly inquired about human events. But his curiosity was so omnivorous that he sometimes inquired about natural phenomena—physis—as well. For example, in book II of the Histories, where he discusses Egypt, he wonders about the annual flooding of the Nile. He presents three possible explanations, all of which he rejects, but which correspond well to the three friends from Lion King.

One of Herodotus’ explanations, like Simba’s “great kings of the past,” is mythical. The Nile “flows from Ocean,” which flows “round the whole world.” Herodotus says that this explanation “has less knowledge” and is “more wonderful in the telling” than the others because it has its source in poets like Homer: this “story . . . is indeed only a tale” [mythos]that “cannot be disproved. . . . . For myself, I do not know that there is any river Ocean, but I think that Homer or one of the older poets found the name and introduced it into his poetry.”3

In contrast, Herodotus’ other two explanations of the Nile floods are rational, similar to Timon’s and Pumbaa’s understandings of the stars. One is based, like Timon’s fireflies, on everyday sense experience. The Nile floods, some say, because winds from the north prevent the river water from flowing into the Mediterranean, causing it to back up and overflow its banks. Unfortunately, says Herodotus, those winds don’t always blow, yet the river still floods. 4 The other rational explanation, like Pumbaa’s, depends on processes that are far removed from what we can see. It is “more reasonable-seeming than the others yet is the most deceived; for it too makes no sense at all. It declares that the Nile comes from the source of melting snow.” But that is contrary to reason, Herodotus argues, because upstream the Nile flows through climates even hotter than Egypt’s—so how could there be any snow there to melt?5

After debunking the three explanations, Herodotus proceeds to give his own—which is also wrong, as it turns out.6 The Nile actually flooded because of monsoon rains far from Egypt.7 But the first three explanations are a textbook demonstration of the shift from mythical understanding of the cosmos to a rational one. It’s almost like Herodotus saw The Lion King.

Thanks to my colleague Michael Sollenberger for consultation on Herodotus’ language.

Asking Historical Questions: Wait, that’s Redundant

One of the history courses I took as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University was History of California with the late Father Jerry McKevitt, S.J.1 The class was very interesting, and I enjoyed doing my research paper on Helen Hunt Jackson, a 19th-century reformer whose novel Ramona became known as the “Indian Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”2 I didn’t go on to study California history in graduate school or to teach it in any of my classes. I do, however, frequently make use of something I learned in the class. One day Father McKevitt was returning graded papers to us, and they must have been pretty bad, because I remember him saying, “Listen, people. History answers two questions: ‘What happened?’ and ‘So what?’” (I assume that this particular set of papers had not done a good job of answering one or both of these questions.) I remember thinking to myself, “Whoa. That’s so true.” In just about every one of my history courses, at some time or other I quote Father McKevitt to the students.

Father Gerald McKevitt, S.J.

Approaching the study of our discipline by means of asking questions is particularly appropriate for historians. Of course, practitioners of any scholarly discipline might say that they begin by asking questions. But for us historians, it’s right in our name. The first writer to use the word “history” in the context of the study of the past was the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, known as the “Father of History.” The English title of his work is Histories, a translation of the original ancient Greek Historie, meaning “inquiries” (from the verb historien, “to inquire”). This is his opening sentence:

“These are the researches [historie] of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud.” 3

Because what Herodotus inquired about was the events of the past (“the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians”), and because he presented the answers to his inquiries in book form (“These are the researches [historie] of Herodotus of Halicarnassus”), the word historie came to mean not just the act of inquiry but also the subject of the inquiry (the history of the Persian Wars) and the result of the inquiry (A History of the Persian Wars). But students of history should always keep in mind that doing history begins with asking questions. And make sure that your historical writing clearly and completely answers both the “what happened?” and the “so what?” Father McKevitt said so!

Teaching with Produce, Episode 1

I use a lot of images in my classes, especially art and architecture from the time periods we’re studying. It can be challenging, when studying architecture, to visualize a 3-dimensional structure when all you’re looking at is a 2-dimensional photograph. One way of meeting this challenge is by learning to read different kinds of 2-dimensional representations, like ground plans and elevations. Another way is to use 3-dimensional models. And sometimes you can make your model out of produce.

When I teach Renaissance art in a core course on modern Europe, I choose three examples, one each of painting, sculpture, and architecture—all from Florence, all from about 1430, and all one of the first of their kind. So we take a look at Donatello’s David, the first free-standing bronze nude since antiquity;Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, one of the first uses of vanishing point perspective; and Brunelleschi’s Pazzi chapel, an early example of a domed building modeled on the Pantheon.

Unlike the Pantheon, however, where the dome sits atop a round drum, Brunelleschi’s dome sits on a square base. The transition is achieved by means of pendentives, the curvy triangles on either side of the semicircles. This is extremely hard to visualize from a photo alone—so I bring out the grapefruit. I owe this demo to my college art history professor at Santa Clara University, Dr. Brigid Barton (one of my pedagogical role models).

Take one grapefruit, the largest and roundest you can find, and slice it in half. You now have two hemispherical domes; set one aside. Then, with the cut side down, make four vertical cuts in the shape of a square. And voila! You now have a square base transitioning to a round dome, by means of pendentives. Thanks, Dr. Barton!