Interview With Gareth Harney – Twitter’s Optimo Principi

Interview With Gareth Harney – Twitter’s Optimo Principi

One of my favourite follows on Twitter is the @OptimoPrincipi account, which is run by Gareth Harney.

Through his captivating posts, Gareth shares his interest in Ancient Rome to his almost 50,000 followers – the classic stories, the artifacts, the characters (including the Stoics).

It was great to be able to interview Gareth recently. His answers, which you can find below, were packed with perspective and interesting recommendations.

You can find Gareth online here:

Can you recommend a short reading list for someone wishing to start learning about ancient coins? And perhaps a separate list for Ancient Rome in general?

Any venture into the world of ancient coins will be infinitely more rewarding if supported by a basis of knowledge around the classical world. Ancient coins were struck in their millions by numerous civilisations across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East for more than a thousand years, so it’s safe to say newcomers to the field will find it bewildering at first. This is especially true when it comes to collecting: struck by the realisation that these miniature works of ancient art not only survive in huge numbers but are widely collected by people of all backgrounds, the beginner can rush headlong into buying the first coins they find and potentially make some costly mistakes. Reading widely about all aspects of the ancient world will help the student identify what eras, dynasties and rulers most capture their imagination and no doubt later provide direction to any future collecting. Many popular history books will of course use ancient coins extensively in their illustrations due to their wonderful portraiture and contemporary political messaging, so you will learn much about them along the way.

There are hundreds of wonderful books that might bring the ancient world to life in an enchanting way for the beginner but a few of those that thrilled me the most were: “Rubicon” by Tom Holland. “Sons of Caesar” by Philip Matyszak, “The First Emperor” by Antony Everitt, “In the Name of Rome” by Adrian Goldsworthy, “Pompeii” by Mary Beard, “The Ancient City” and “Greece and Rome at War” by the legendary artist-historian Peter Connolly. There’s no need to wait to get into primary sources from the ancient world either. Caesar’s “Gallic War” is immensely readable and comes with the magical realisation every few pages that you are actually reading the words of a man who lived two thousand years ago, with his foibles, eccentricities and sheer brilliance plain to see. Likewise, Suetonius’ “Twelve Caesars” will draw from the reader gasps and guffaws in equal measure and provide the perfect overview to the lore of imperial Rome’s most infamous era.

The “first, buy the book” maxim is certainly true in the complex world of ancient coins but a newcomer to the hobby should also aim to handle as many genuine ancient coins as possible. In normal times, most people will have a coin show that visits their nearest major city – dealers are usually very happy to answer questions and let you inspect coins by hand. There are some spectacular books in the world of ancient numismatics but they are usually either weighty reference works or expensive academic publications – neither offering a friendly guide for a beginner. This is something the coin world needs to work on! Still for those who want an accessible introduction to ancient coins specifically, I can recommend the “Ancient Coin Collecting” series by Wayne G. Sayles, “Coinage in the Roman World” by Andrew Burnett and the delightful “Coins as Sources” books from Cambridge Press. “100 Greatest Ancient Coins” by Harlan J. Berk is also a very fun coffee table book that gives a well-illustrated journey through some of the most famous ancient coins and the stories they tell.

This may be a difficult question! Do you have a favourite coin in your collection?

It’s usually the last one added to the collection! The appeal of a coin is a mixture of its historical significance, rarity and artistic beauty but equally its modern journey of rediscovery and more recent adventures. Ancient coins have lived two lives in two very different worlds and some have a modern lineage that has taken them through some very interesting hands. Researching the provenance of your coins can be one of the most satisfying parts of the hobby and there’s nothing like finding an old black

and white plate photograph of one of your coins in a dusty tome – an experience I have been lucky enough to have a few times. One of my coins of Trajan originated from the Adams presidential family collection started by the sixth president, John Quincy Adams; after it was owned by a First World War soldier and scholar, before eventually ending up at the Smithsonian. One of my Augustus denarii has passed through the collections of a 19th century New York financial magnate, a British mountaineer, and a famed German lawyer, and was sold at a 1933 German auction as the Nazis were on the rise. One of my Hadrian denarii was found at the bottom of a Roman well that was being excavated not too far from me in Hampshire. After being properly recorded by excavators the coin was released to market and now has a proud place in my collection. It had journeyed from an outcrop on the Capitoline hill in Rome all the way to Britannia, where one day a Roman dropped it into a well – probably hoping for good fortune in some endeavour, just as people do today. These coins are not particularly rare or visually remarkable but holding them you can’t help but feel a fizz of excitement as you become a small part of their tapestried adventure across time.

You compose some excellent threads on Twitter, what do you look for in a story before you decide to compose a thread on it?

Every day I learn new things about the ancient world and Twitter, for all its faults has proved a valuable resource. If you can avoid the madness, which I think it is still just about possible to do, it can provide an instant connection to some of the great experts in a field all across the world and become an effective educational tool – one that is massively under-exploited in my opinion. For me it acts as a form of digital journal where I can engage with and bring to life whatever excites my intellect that day; usually the latest Roman site I have visited, ancient coin added to my collection or book I happen to be reading.

Over the years I have come to appreciate the power the ancient world has to capture the imagination of the general public, even for those who may otherwise care little about history. The best stories connect readers with the people of the ancient world and allow them to share a common bond across the millennia. The words of grief inscribed on the gravestone of a child, the hopeful words of love engraved on a betrothal ring, the spiteful words of desperation cut into a Roman curse tablet. It may seem a banal truism at first but by far the most common reaction I get when sharing stories and artefacts from the ancient world is “they were just like us!” This is, of course, true – human nature has not changed, despite our tendency to congratulate ourselves on how highly evolved we are – and being reminded of this is a valuable thing. I am also interested in those moments where the ancient world intersects with the modern world in surprising ways, which it seems to do very often. Even after thousands of years, the achievements of the classical world still shape us, surround us, comfort and challenge us every day. These are the stories I enjoy telling – ones that remind us the ancient world is still very much alive.

You also share some great Stoic stories. Do you have a favourite Stoic book/passage?

The passage that has given me the most mileage is Meditations, Book 7.viii:

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason that today arm you against the present.”

I find it a tremendously empowering affirmation – you have navigated all life’s challenges to reach the present moment and you will continue to do so. It distils a number of Stoicism’s key elements for me; emphasising the power of the Self and celebrating our human capacity to Reason. For every inevitable battle ahead in life, you already have all the weapons you need.

Moving forward in time to a slightly different form of text that I always take the opportunity to recommend to anyone who will listen: the remarkable 1994 novel “A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening” by Mario de Carvalho. Simply a stunning book. The narrative is told through the perspective of a Roman city magistrate, in an empire entering its twilight years. As migrating barbarian tribes amass outside his city walls and a troublesome sect known as Christians create sedition inside – he struggles to maintain his Stoic values in a rapidly changing world he no longer understands. The book could be classified as ‘Historical Fiction’ and is fantastically researched but far surpasses that label to become an intensely poetic character study and a profoundly tragic meditation on the meaning and value of civilisation. The approaching hordes and subversive Christians, of course, become metaphors for the Stoic battle between the internal and external worlds. I re-read the book regularly and find myself moved every time – I can’t recommend it enough.

At what point in your learning journey did you come across Stoicism? Why did it appeal to you?

I remember even as a child being impressed by people that embodied Stoic principles – long before I knew anything of the philosophy’s tenets or famous practitioners. It was apparent to me early on that in many of the figures that inspired me, whether it was NASA astronauts, pioneers in the Age of Exploration, adventurers, mountaineers or heroes of war – there was a similar attitude taken to the trials of life. They all seemed to reach their goals guided by a strong sense of duty, responsibility, a strict ethical code and a disregard for their own safety or suffering. They accepted the realities of the natural world around them, including the fact of their own death and were happy to face it bravely whenever it came. Few of these individuals might ever have called themselves a Stoic and many of their virtuous acts were necessitated by their time and circumstances – but it was clear to me that where you had remarkable people overcoming insurmountable odds, you often encountered these shared values.

In this sense, I suppose the lower-case stoicism led me to the upper-case Stoicism and I am happy that it did. There is a recent trend for writers to endlessly agonise over defining Stoicism and correcting modern misconceptions that Stoics are emotionless, ‘stuff, upper lip’ types – this is an important discussion but I think there are more interesting ones to be had. That Stoicism would evolve in its attitude to the gods or piety or view of the cosmos seems obvious to me; what strikes me is the universal regard for Stoic principles through all of human history – why is it that any person from any point in time would be moved to witness a great feat of bravery or act of selflessness? Even those with limited empathy will be affected by someone battling an illness without self-pity or a worker that toils daily in an unrecognised life of dedication. Fundamentally, all these examples revolve around that sacred quality of human dignity. Our sense of dignity is hard to define but I think it’s quite universal across our evolution. Like Stoicism itself, you know it when you see it.

This view of Stoicism as a practical and humanistic approach to life is what most appeals to me and one, that in its reverence of personal dignity, seems to walk alongside human nature rather than constantly fight against it. Again, it’s amazing how abundant the core principles of Stoicism are in the behaviours of those that inspire and go beyond. Countless times I have read the mental processes of a prisoner of war or an ultra-athlete or an artistic prodigy, and see that their approaches to life could almost be taken straight from the pages of Marcus Aurelius, which I see as no accident. Speaking of the great man, it was in my teens I first picked up a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’, probably after watching the movie ‘Gladiator’. This was soon followed by the Discourses of Epictetus and Letters of Seneca – all of which I read with the wonder and gratitude that comes with seeing your vaguely formed intuitions, suddenly communicated in word form, with the most amazing poetry and precision. These books have essentially formed a core trio of texts that I treat more like practical life manuals and return to often.

You have visited many Roman sites all over Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. What is the appeal of Roman sites to you and beyond popular tourist attractions, are there any lesser-known Roman sites you would recommend people visit?

Ruins of the classical world can be immensely powerful places and exploring just a fraction of them has given me some of my life’s most profound and formative experiences. They are often in the most sublime settings with romantic vistas that have enchanted poets and artists for centuries but their power runs far deeper than that. When you walk the empty streets of a ruined Roman town, you are confronted at every turn with the inherent tragedy of the ancient world. Clambering over the broken columns and hulking fragments of once-grand structures in a half-buried city – I am always struck by the same realisation: ‘they must have thought it would all never end’. Shelley, of course, expressed this sentiment masterfully in his “lone and level sands” stretching far away from the “colossal wreck” of mighty Ozymandias. Yet even more than just hubristic rulers, ancient spaces ask us to listen for the rushed footsteps of the common people along the paving stones, their chatter in the market square, their laughter echoing around the theatre. As long as you have a basic level of historical awareness with which you can comprehend the antiquity of the place, I can’t think of a clearer illustration of the futility of all human endeavour and the transience of all things. In this way ancient sites have always been intrinsically linked to Stoicism in my mind – granting me just as many Stoic revelations as the best classical text. Principal among these is the almost overpowering sense of humility that comes from being faced with the reality of boundless time. I think it vital to be regularly reminded of the insignificance of your fleeting life in the grand procession of history – ancient sites do this perfectly.

The most emotive Roman sites for me are ones that allow you to escape the crowds and completely inhabit an ancient space in solitude. There are far too many wondrous sites to recommend from across the empire so I will do my part for Britannia and recommend a single magical place from Roman Britain. Nestled in the rolling hills of the Gloucestershire countryside are the secluded and little-visited remains of Great Witcombe Roman villa, a 3rd century country estate that was inhabited for centuries. The ruins of the luxurious villa cling to the hillside, overlooking a majestic, wooded valley below. The site is incredibly peaceful and on a sunny day (they sometimes happen in England) you can often have the ruins all to yourself, hearing nothing but the birds and breeze and the trickle of the ancient spring that still runs through the villa as it did two millennia ago. The Romans had a delightful concept of the ‘genius loci’ – the spirit of a place – and this is a site where that spirit can certainly still be felt.

Do you have any plans to produce more historical content in addition to your website and Twitter account? (e.g. book, podcast, videos, etc)

I only discovered my love of Roman history in my late teens. Since then, it has become something of an obsession and the driving force behind all my hobbies but I would love to one day make it my work also. Like many people I am a frustrated writer and I would like nothing more than to work on fiction or non-fiction books exploring the Roman world. There are some wonderful authors of historical fiction out there but publishers seem intent on forcing them to write yet another book on the Roman army; though readership numbers are in decline I think there is a market there for more formidable and literary explorations of the ancient world. I have an idea for a book that explores the interconnected lives of people at all levels of society in a typical Roman city – in this case it would have to be my beloved local Roman town of Corinium (modern day Cirencester). I also have a crazy idea to try and adapt Carvalho’s “God Strolling…” novel that I mentioned earlier into a screenplay, as I think it could make an incredibly powerful film or miniseries in the right hands. I am always on the lookout for new mediums to bring the ancient world to a wider and younger audience in a way that is accessible and relatable but without dumbing down the details. In the meantime, after a very challenging year for everyone, I am happy to get back to travelling and continuing to experience the ancient world in any way I can – and perhaps inspiring a few other people to do the same along the way.

Finally, the question I ask all interview guests – in terms of what the philosophy means to you, What is Stoicism?

In a chaotic and confusing world that seems increasingly designed to disempower the individual – Stoicism is empowerment. It can provide you with inner tools and defenses that that will last a lifetime and that no one can take away. With time it can become a lens with which you can reframe all of life’s inevitable obstacles. It doesn’t demand you follow any guru, revere any holy book or confess any sins. Its only sacred shrine is you – and your human flourishing and dignity is its only concern. Stoicism isn’t easy and it doesn’t promise instant happiness. It sets you a daily work, treats you like an adult and may require you face some difficult realities. But ultimately it will be worth it. A Stoic life will be one of intense gratitude for what you have, rather than longing for what you don’t. And far from being cold and unfeeling, Stoics are even more likely to be incredibly moved wherever they encounter beauty in a life they know to be fleeting.

Close Menu