I’ve been slowly reading a History of Rome over the past month or two. It’s fascinating, and it’s regularly sent me off searching online for ancient fortresses like the acropolis of Corinth, or the Lacinian promontory on the toe of Italy to which Hannibal eventually retreated after terrorizing Italy for years, or a battlefield like the Caudine Forks. It’s amazing that they all still exist, and probably look not much different than they did over 2000 years ago.
For us moderns, since we rediscovered it, the Ancient world has very much been the model of how things should be done. Until recently, if you wanted to make an architectural statement, you built something like a Greek temple. You find them all over the place: the British museum in London looks a bit like a Greek temple. And the Madeleine in Paris too. And if it’s not a Greek temple, then it’s a Roman basilica, with arches and domes. Or a circus or an amphitheatre. Or even an Olympic stadium. And you adorned your Greek temple with marble statues of Ariadne and Apollo and Neptune and so on.
When oil multi-millionaire J Paul Getty built a museum in Malibu, it wasn’t a steel and glass skyscraper, but a Roman villa.
And apart from building classical villas and amphitheatres and temples and decorating them with marble sculptures, you’d also read classical literature. You’d study Aristotle and Plato, and read the poetry of Ovid and Catullus, and the histories of Livy. You might even speak a bit of Latin, and maybe a smattering Greek as well. Cave canem, hoi polloi, and all that.
And when you were fighting wars, you’d hope to emulate the great generals of antiquity, like Alexander and Pyrrhus and Hannibal. Even today, Hannibal’s encirclement and annihilation of about eight Roman legions at Cannae in southern Italy is cited as perhaps one of the greatest battles in history. Yet nobody knows where the battlefield is now. Same with the Caudine Forks, actually.
And if you’ve spent your days immersed in that Greek and Roman world, and come to idealise Alexander and Caesar and Socrates and Euripides and Ovid and Virgil, one thing you would probably have noticed was that, in the ancient world, nobody smoked.
Not even Hannibal smoked. No, sir, not at all. Not even extra mild Silk Cut.
Smoking was not part of that idealised antiquity. When Julius Caesar landed in Britain, and said, “Veni! Vidi! Vici!” he didn’t then proceed to light up a Marlboro. And when Cleopatra unrolled herself from the carpet in which she had been carried into Caesar’s chamber in Alexandria, she didn’t jump up and say, “I brought you some baccy.” And when Propertius was composing poetry to Golden Cynthia, he wasn’t furiously smoking roll-ups as he pounded away on his typewriter. No.
Look at the sculpture of Laocoon and his sons above. Laocoon isn’t smoking. Neither are his sons. You don’t find busts of Pompey or Crassus with fags stuck in their mouths either. Nor even Tutankhamen in Ancient Egypt pulling on a gasper.
Even if you watch a movie like Gladiator (with Russell Crowe), Maximus doesn’t smoke. Neither does Marcus Aurelius. Nor Commodus. Nor anyone else. There was No Smoking in Antiquity. No, really.
So anyone with a classical appreciation for beauty and order is likely to be offended by the intrusion of cigarettes and clouds of smoke. It’s not right. It doesn’t fit into the classical order of things – a reborn classical order which has shaped Western culture ever since the Renaissance. You’d no more expect Julius Caesar to have smoked cigarettes than you would have expected him to ride a motorbike or carry a mobile phone. He might have slaughtered thousands of enemy soldiers, and crucified pirates, and so on. But that’s only to be expected. It’s the sort of thing the Romans actually did, after all. But smoke cigarettes? No way.
And today I was thinking that this might be why there’s such extreme aversion to smoking: it doesn’t fit with a classical ideal of Greek temples and marble statues and heroic battles. It’s not part of that aesthetic sensibility. And if you have such a sensibility, or even the faintest pretensions of one, and you wish to emulate the Greeks and Romans, you don’t smoke. Alexander didn’t. Caesar didn’t. And you mustn’t either.
And you must exercise regularly at the gymnasium. And you must take lots of baths just like the Romans did. And you must tan yourself light Roman brown, just like Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur. Because that’s culture – proper culture. None of this modern tat.
Yet Ancient Rome was probably as smoky as Manchester during the industrial revolution. There was probably a haze of smoke over it that was as bad as any London smog. Particularly in winter, when there’d be fires burning in the hearths of every house. When Caesar was murdered in 44 BC, on the ides of March, it was probably freezing in Rome, and it was through smoky Roman streets that he was carried in his litter to the Senate meeting in the theatre of Pompey, which was itself filled with smoke from fires lit to warm it – and to help conceal the assassins waiting with daggers drawn. And when he was dead, his body was incinerated on a heap of furniture in the forum. I bet they don’t allow that sort of thing in Rome these days. Not even for an historical re-enactment. Health and safety – or salute e sicurezza – would arrive in minutes to douse the flames.
I think that if I was going to make a movie about Hannibal at the battle of Cannae, I’d insist that he chain-smoked Navy Cut throughout the whole battle, and rode around on a Harley-Davidson between his elephants barking out orders into an Apple iPhone IV. The Romans – like the consul Varro – would all speak authentic Latin, but Hannibal would speak English with a broad Yorkshire accent. And when the battle was over, and he’d won, he’d sit smoking with his lieutenants, and wiping the blood off, and drinking tea from Wedgwood teacups, with his little finger sticking out, like so.
And then all these classical scholars might start to entertain the idea that people back then smoked just as much as anyone does now, and that’s it not that smoking was only invented three or four centuries ago, as if fire was only discovered in the 16th century by Christopher Columbus, and nobody had ever, ever thought to set fire to dried leaves or incense before then, or light them from the smoky oil lamps that burned in every house in Greece and Rome.
Above all, maybe they’d learn that history is as much an imaginative reconstruction – a kind of fiction – as it is uncertain historical fact.