Uses of classical scholarship in sixteenth and seventeenth century Portuguese expansion




Início   .   2012
Duração   .   24 meses
Investigador Principal   .   Saúl Martínez Bermejo  (UAM)



Entidade(s) Financiadora(s)

Marie Curie Actions

Unidade(s) de Investigação

CHAM — Centro de Humanidades




Classics served as a yardstick against which to measure the discoveries and this practice of comparison provided a series of intellectual foundations for “negotiating” between European and extra-European cultures. Empireclassics investigates the influence of ancient Greek and Roman culture on written and visual representations of the new overseas realities on three different levels: anthropological, narrative/rhetorical, and historical. Such a broad viewpoint involves emphasizing circularities and interconnections among early representations of Europe and “other” parts of the world. Investigating the heterogeneity and diversity of the newly discovered lands and the resilience of European frameworks of reference involves paying attention to hybrid (local-classical) forms of representation and to the coexistence of classical and “other” iconographies and discourses.


Roman and Greek example served to conceive the processes of colonization and, more importantly, to construct the image of the Portuguese monarchy within Europe. War, military culture, integration of extra-European territories and state development were closely linked together. A comparative perspective with the Spanish monarchy allows to recover the importance of Roman conceptions of military activity and "ancient discipline" to make sense of early modern military developments. Moreover, Roman referents were key to make political claims on the governance of the army and the navy in colonial context. In 1629 Pedro Barbosa Homem indicated that the fury of elephants, which had troubled the ancient Romans, was not a problem anymore for the Portuguese. Against Indian elephants "Gross pieces of artillery", he said, "were more effective in a quarter of an hour than every ancient method in a year". These kind of contradictions between classical models and modern firearms, defensive architecture and other shifts bring about by the use gunpowder occupy a very special place within military literature. However, debate on ancient and modern armies also served Portuguese authors to reflect on the nature of early modern war and to express needs for reform of the military art.

More on this topic:
“Antigua disciplina: el ejemplo romano en los tratados militares ibéricos, c. 1560-1600”, Hispania, nº. 74, 247 (2014), pp. 357-384. [DOI: 10.3989/hispania.2014.011]

“L'image de Rome et la configuration du savoir militaire dans les monarchies hispano-ibériques à l’époque moderne : approche et contradictions”, in Julien Dubouloz, Sylvie Pittia and Gaetano Sabatini (eds.), ’Imperium romanum en perspective. Les savoirs d’empire dans la République romaine et leur héritage dans l’Europe médiévale et moderne. Besançon: Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté, 2014, pp. 371-387.



Early modern anthropological descriptions inherited a paradigmatic opposition between "civilized" and barbarians from Aristotle’s Politics, or Tacitus’s Germania to name but two of the most obvious examples. However,  the frontiers between the two categories were not fixed, and contact with peoples with different types of social organization incorporated flexibility and complexity into that model (China in contrast to Brazil, for instance). Contacts with, and writings about extra-European "barbarians" served also to  model new categories for judging European reality.  On his travel diary of the 28th November 1609, the Portuguese cleric Manuel Severim de Faria described a people "dressed in a very gross manner". Natives covered themselves with basic pieces of fabric whose unfinished borders served as a simple ornament. They also speak "badly" compared to present-day politic language (a lingoagem de hoje politica)". Interestingly, Severim de Faria was not describing a distant land but the inhabitants of a town in the north of Portugal. Six days before, Faria had crossed a coarse sierra to the north of Viseu. On this occasion, he noted down that in order «to supply the lack of wheat» god had provided the region of the Beira with chestnuts. Faria resided most of his live in Évora, but received news and curious objects from a network of Portuguese correspondents which spread all over the world. He therefore had all the information that allowed him to recognise inside Portugal one of the peculiarities that attracted European attention in America or Africa. To Faria, god had compensated the lack of proper, white bread either with chestnuts or with "the Manioc of Brazil, the maize of the new world and the corns and potatoes of Ethiopia".

More on this topic:

“Portuguese and Barbarians. Lusitanian history and the ethnographic imagination, c.1550-1700”, Seminario de Historia Cultural, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, 19-05-2014.



In the sixteenth century, Lisbon had been characterized as a new Rome by the famous poet Luís de Camões, who wrote that "heaven was determined to make Lisbon a new Rome". In the following century, variations on the same theme were produced by Duarte Nunes do Leão, António Coelho Gasco and Manuel de Faria e Sousa among others. Descriptions of the actual city mingled with imagined comparisons to the imperial capital and Latin poets and historians provided the words to speak of Lisbon as "imperial princess" or "common fatherland". And in the eighteenth century the comparison with Rome was further revitalized and exploited in new ways and genres. A musical Serenata represented at the royal palace of Lisbon in 27 December 1726 started with an imagined trip of the Tiber river to Lisbon, where the Tagus absorbed and renovated the ancient glories of the Roman river. These imagined bonds served to flatter the Portuguese monarchs, but also expressed a shared European perception around self-identified "imperial" cities, like Madrid or London, the head of the commercial British Empire depicted by Charles Davenant.



In the past two or three decades historians and other social scientists have struggled to offer a post-colonial, decentred account of these processes of conquest, discovery, and interconnection of the world in the early modern era. Empireclassics has contributed to the understanding of these processes by examining the role of the classical models in several contexts. As a result, this project now offers a more nuanced view on the uses of the past and on the misunderstandings and shortcomings of European worldviews.  Having offered a layered approach to the modes in which Europeans perceived (both correctly and misguidedly) the world that surrounded them, Empireclassics provides particular insight into the misconceptions, stereotypes and fallacies of clear cultural communication with which we operate everyday. This approach promotes more critical, historically informed reflections on the new challenges of globalization and world history while offering critical insight into the ways in which Europe perceives and is perceived by the rest of the world.





Saúl Martínez Bermejo (CHAM) . Coordenator