Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The Wire and Greek Mythology (II).

Researching the topic of my last post, I stumbled across this really interesting article in the New Yorker (link) where the creator of The Wire, David Simon, mentions how the show is:

"ripped off [from] the Greeks: Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides. Not funny boy—not Aristophanes. We’ve basically taken the idea of Greek tragedy and applied it to the modern city-state.” He went on, “What we were trying to do was take the notion of Greek tragedy, of fated and doomed people, and instead of these Olympian gods, indifferent, venal, selfish, hurling lightning bolts and hitting people in the ass for no reason—instead of those guys whipping it on Oedipus or Achilles, it’s the postmodern institutions . . . those are the indifferent gods.”

That's a really wonderful observation. It's not strictly linked to what I was saying below, but it's just as interesting. Greek tragedy has an immense resonance, and The Wire does too.

Interestingly, Omar Little seems to be utterly outside this system. He's something like a Robin Hood character, and I wonder if Simon is trying to paint Omar as the only character that can really survive in the modern city-state - he is subservient to no system, yet he is hardly depicted as a "good guy".

The Greek parallels continue as Omar is gay, and in the first season his younger male lover is murdered (a modern parallel of Alexander?) and the central antagonist of the second season is known simply as "The Greek".

The sheer depth to this show is quite amazing. It's difficult to entirely digest. I'll keep posting with further classically related thoughts as I work my way through the seasons, with something more in depth once I'm all finished.

The Wire and Greek Mythology.

I've been watching the rather superb HBO show The Wire recently (I'll spare you the pretty normal superlatives here and just say that it's great) and another (I'll admit) strange classical connection came to light.

In a scene with Omar Little (an almost supernatural character played by the pretty much amazing Michael K. Williams), a stick-up bandit with a code (a really superficial summary for the depth his character has) he's sitting across from a cop who's doing a crossword puzzle (or other word game) when said officer of the law starts asking (partly to himself) "Greek God of War....????".

Mars is the officers first guess, but Omar corrects him and says Mars was the Roman God of War but the Greek was Aries, explaining that they're the same dude but with different names.

Now Omar is far from stupid (in actual fact he's sharp as a tack) but he comes from an urban culture with little focus on such learning, and so I was a little surprised when he came out with it.

I did some research into the scene (it's in the season two episode "All Prologue) and the creator of the show, David Simon, claims in his book "The Corner: A year in the life of an inner-city neighbourhood" on page 283 that in his experience many children in the schools of Baltimore will pay little attention to most of what they are taught in schools, but they pay particular attention and appreciation to Greek mythology.

For me, that's a pretty interesting notion. Kids from the urban areas of an inner-city area with one of the highest murder and crime rates in the U.S love Greek mythology but care little for most of what's on offer at school. I wonder why?

Perhaps there is something fantastic about the Greek gods that appeals to them (as opposed to their - perhaps - harsh daily lives). Maybe the idea that Gods interfere with our lives gives them some hope that theirs can be changed, or maybe they just like the fun (or gory!) stories. It's hard to say.

Either way, I'm deeply fascinated by why this is the case. Any further musings will be posted here. In the meantime, like almost everyone else, I recommend watching The Wire. It's really as good as everyone says.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

A Pretty Woman and The Pantheon.

So, I've just spent four days with my girlfriend's family celebrating Christmas (Czech style - because she is/they are/I live in - Czech).

Now, with that bombshell you may be wondering where the "classics angle" is, and right you would be. Well, rather bizarrely, it's from Pretty Woman - that bastion of womanly cinema.

Sometime on Saturday evening, after three days of being force fed like a goose (although I'll put good money on my liver tasting nowhere near as good as a similarly treated goose), I was watching Pretty Woman (dubbed in Czech, like all broadcasts on Czech TV) and low and behold there was the Pantheon.

Richard Gere was coolly discussing something (my Czech is average, at best and I cannot recall the English version)in a very late 80s/early 90s executive meeting room that was adorned with pictures/painting/drawings all from the classical world.

There was the Pantheon and what seemed like some assorted sketches of (what looked like) the Parthenon Frieze and another which was pretty unclear. Altogether quite bizarre.

The classical connection can be found in so many places it's enough to make one's head melt (with wonder!) but I never expected to find it sitting in the provincial Czech Republic watching Pretty Woman dubbed into Czech. Still, though, it was nice.

Edit: I've been trying to find a still showing the pictures, but I can't seem to. You'll just have to believe me.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean - A lecture series by Robert Garland (Part Four).

First of all, sorry for the lack of updates. I'm just terribly busy. I suppose that's a familiar story for most people around the holidays.

Nevertheless, I've finished Garland's lecture series and this post is about the final section (lectures 30-36) which cover the growth of Christianity and how the Roman Empire dealt with both it and Judaism.

In many respects the final section chronicles the dissolution of the integrated culture Garland is at pains to emphasise. Rome becomes less and less the focal point of the Empire, and eventually the capital is moved East to Constantinople and the Empire eventually splits into a Latin speaking West and a Greek speaking East.

The greatest strength of this chunk of lectures is that Garland illustrates perfectly the cultural milieu that Christianity originated out of - the complexity of the relationship between the monotheistic Jews/Christians and the polytheistic Romans; the deep relationship early Christianity had with Greek philosophy and much more.

In some respects, then, Christianity is the ultimate synthesis of Greek and Roman culture and is essentially the poster boy for Garland's series of lectures. Christianity took the intellectual ideas of the Greeks (their great strength) and was propagated under the rule of the Roman Emperors (ruling, after all, was the Roman's job).

The final lectures cover the "fall" of the Roman Empire, but Garland, sensibly I think, stresses that "fall" is the wrong word and that Gibbon's famous work "Decline and Fall" speaks more to his particular ideas than what actually happened. Garland urges us to consider it much more of a "change and upheaval" and a gradual process.

Nevertheless, the Roman Empire, as it existed in the reign of Augustus and his successors, did cease to exist and the cultural legacy of Rome would move eastwards (to the Greek speaking world, somewhat ironically) and endure for another millennia.

I was rather sad as the lectures finished. I think they're really rather superb. Garland argues consistently and eloquently for an understanding of an integrated culture and he chronicles how it arose, flourished and how it all panned out over the 36 lectures - no mean feat. It's an interesting angle to take and I think it's thoroughly worthwhile.

Studying either Greece or Rome in isolation misses something essential about both cultures and Garland has remedied that in these lectures. For providing a different perspective, I've found it invaluable. I recommend them heartily!

On an unrelated note, the Saturnalia is coming up (a forerunner of Christmas?) and so Merry Saturnalia to all!

Friday, December 11, 2009

An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean - A lecture series by Robert Garland (Part Three).

I've been listening to Garland once again (I'm now finished the entire lecture series, but I plan to post about it in four parts, as they are broken down by Garland in the opening lecture).

The last section covers the full birth of Greco-Roman culture following the reign of Augustus and covers the whole spectrum of literature (Epic, tragedy, comedy, satire, history, the novel and more) as well as art, science technology and architecture.

All in all it's another fascinating series of lectures. Taken as a thematically related group, the lectures of literature are incredibly interesting - Garland outlines the origin of a particular genre, take Epic for example, and discusses how it evolves over time and is hugely important in the development of an integrated Mediterranean culture.

Epic, being one of the prime examples, has it's origin with Homer's Iliad - a tale which is very much at the root of the Greek character and is almost handed over to Rome as part of Greece's heavy cultural legacy. Rome appropriated the style and in Vergil found an artist skilful enough to take the art form and make it Roman (as Roman as it could be - maybe Greco-Roman is a better term!).

The same goes for the other genres. Garland managed to highlight the intricate links each has to Greece and Rome and how it's evolution over time into it's latter incarnation is very much illustrative of an integrated culture.

Garland is at pains to show the differences between Greeks and Romans and simultaneously how they formed such an interconnected and integrated culture (it's a paradox truly difficult to explain), and I found his discussion of architecture and science most interesting on this topic.

He mentions how the Greeks had an overwhelming focus on temples and religious areas, and their predisposition was to private spaces, while the Romans were quite the opposite and invested great energy into public spaces. I'm not sure how much I buy into this notion (the Greeks built many public areas too) but he argues convincingly regarding how the Greeks and the Romans conceived very differently of how to build a temple.

Science-wise, Garland makes the interesting point that the Greeks were the intellectual and speculative scientists while the Romans were much more practical - and that division seems to lie at the heart of how we depict the two cultures right up until today. The Romans' business was ruling the world, as it's put, while the Greeks could concern themselves with science.

Garland's lecture on science was actually one of the most useful to me. He highlighted the fact that our modern concept of science totally fails to work in the ancient world, and instead all was philosophy - or rather intellectual enquiry. There were no specifically defined disciplines like we have today. Garland manages to highlight the various cultural differences that make it difficult for us to understand the ancients - this is one such difference and how they conceived of work, another. I think he's to be appreciated for that.

Somewhat related is his nice habit of using modern phrases or terms to explain a certain quotation of situation he's describing. He'll often put something in the vernacular for us, so to speak.

On the flip side, he rarely references modern culture in relation to Greco-Roman culture, bar on a few occasions (he speaks of Harold Pinter in the philosophy lecture, which I enjoyed) and in some respects I think that it's missing. It may reflect simply my age/taste, but I'd like more of such things nonetheless.

Finally, the strength of the series remains in Garland's ability to expose the sheer amount of connections and interconnections between Greece and Rome (they truly are legion) and this part of the series illustrates that well. Coming out of these lectures, I was acutely aware of the cultural heritage passed not only through Greece to Rome but also to us and how it's not as simple as A-B-C but much more akin to evolution in it's slow ebb and flow.

I'll be posting about the last chunk of lectures soon. The topic for them is the rise of Christianity and the eventual splitting of the Empire into East and West.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A New Blog...

I've started writing a new blog as a somewhat lighter companion to this one.

Link here: http://ancientmeddaily.blogspot.com/.

The purpose of the blog is for me to write a bit of light entertainment in the form of news reports from the Ancient World. Essentially, I'm pretending the modern media was present in antiquity and writing reports in that style.

The new blog requires no real preparation, unlike this one, so it's not meant to be taken quite so seriously.

I'm aware it's probably nothing original, but I hope they'll be somewhat fun. I've certainly enjoyed writing the few I've done so far:

Early reports from Cannae!

Caesar spotted marching towards Italy!?

Residents of Pompeii outraged at Google streetview!

I hope anyone who reads them will find them light and entertaining.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Medicine (Part II).

As I mentioned in my post about Bad Science and Quackery (here), I have some more material on the topic that I want to write about. This post is for that purpose.

It's been a few weeks now since I finished Goldacre's book, and I still think about it quite frequently. I had it in mind quite a bit while I was reading Perrottet's Route 66 A.D and while listening to Garland on the topic of science and medicine.

From both sources, it struck me how our term "quack" really doesn't apply to the ancient world. Medicine for the ancients was a mix of the rational and the irrational, and they were very comfortable with that. They were terribly superstitious people, and our modern notion of there being "real" doctors and "quack" doctors simply does not apply. A doctor could, at once, use a rational technique but then recommend an offering to the gods or some other remedy that, to us at least, would seem like quackery. The great Galen himself practised medicine in this manner.

This is brought very much to the fore in Route 66 A.D when Perrottet discusses the Empire famous orator Aristides, who, by all accounts, was a perennial hypochondriac. He spent much of his life attempting to cure his sickness(es), with little success. He would follow the instructions of Asclepius from his dreams and often journey to famous health spas all over the Empire.

These resorts, such as the famous one at Pergamum - home of Galen, would promote both rational medicine and non-rational, side by side, for both could help. It seems to me now that to consider some of them quacks, one needs to apply modern standard and that seems unfair.

Another thing that occurred to me was that medicine was a service industry - those who did it provided a service for a fee, and so it seems reasonable to me that some of these people were surely offering bogus medical advice in an attempt to swindle the genuinely sick.

Given the Greek's penchant for service industries during the Empire, and the tradition of the Greeks being learned, they constituted most of the doctors, especially the famous ones. As in many aspects of the Greek/Roman relationship the latter distrusted the former and considered them somehow dishonest. Cato the Elder, not especially a fan of the Greeks, was worried they were killing their patients, and recommends that a sick Roman stick to the wonder cure that is cabbage and avoids sneaky Greek doctors.

All in all, then, quackery is not an especially useful term when applied to the ancient world. What we would consider quackery was practised side by side with more "rational " medicine and the ancients would use both if they helped. That said, it goes without saying that there were some doctors who were peddling wonder cures for big bucks, and in that respect the ancient world certainly would have had it's fair share of dubious doctors selling wonderful potions, much like many "nutritionists" today.

You would think that we, today, would be able to discern much more clearly real medicine from money-spinning wonder cures, but I suppose, like the ancients, many folks will believe almost anything that a "doctor" tells them in the hope that it may help. Sadly many people, it seems, are happy following the Aristides model of following dubious medical advice with great gusto, despite the fact that it doesn't really help.

Finally, something which Garland mentions which brings this all into perspective is that the overwhelming amount of people in the ancient world would have no access whatsoever to medicine, rational or quackery, and so the question hanging over whether ancient quacks were swindling people is a bit of a misnomer - for to be sold a fake medicine one must first have access to a "doctor", which most people simply did not have.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Sine labore non erit panis in ore...

I'm a bit busy with work at the moment - ensuring I have bread in my mouth, so to speak!

I'll be posting as soon as possible, and I already have the topics floating around in my (in all honestly) larger than average noggin (size, not intelligence!).

They include:

Part Deux RE: Medicine and Quacks in the ancient world with some material from Garland and Perrottet.

The next chunk of my series covering Garland's lectures.

Finally, a post directly on Route 66 A.D. A book I'm admiring through different eyes in my most current read through.

That's it I reckon. I'm off to devour some hard earned bread.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The (not) Backwaters of the Empire.

I was reading the most recent issue of Minerva on one of my cross-city tram journeys this week, and I came across an article I found rather interesting (many actually, but this one especially). It's written by Murray Eiland on the topic of "The Romans In Croatia".

The main focus of the article is, obviously, how Roman culture was present in Croatia, and to what extent it was influenced by Roman fashions (to quite some extent) over time. Eiland argues that Croatia is home to a wealth of Roman history, and most certainly not a backwater of the Empire.

As home to the Emperor Diocletian, it is most associated with Roman history as the home of his "retirement" Palace (an enormous building, fascinating for it's touches of militaristic architecture and design), but Eiland also discusses a wealth of statuary from Roman Croatia that has been discovered.

Members of the Imperial Family have turned up - in Augustan poses, which I think shows how the hellenistically inspired ruler cult of Augustus was spreading throughout the Empire. A number of more local busts and statues have also been discovered - many of them reflecting the fashions of the time - the realism/naturalism of the Flavian period and the classical idealism of the Augustan era, being two of the most obvious examples.

The upshot of all this is that Croatia was hardly a backwater of the Empire - and despite being most famous as the home of Diocletian - it has a deep and complex history during Roman times which is reflected in the sheer amount of archaeological discoveries.

From my own point of view, I sometimes have to resist the urge to have a Rome-centric view of the Empire, and articles such as this one remind my that other parts of it were so fully integrated into Roman culture that they deserve great attention too. I'd now love to visit Diocletian's Palace and see it for myself (this link to a site containing virtual tours of the Palace is awesome: http://www.burger.si/Croatia/Split/seznam.html).

I believe the tacit notion behind Eiland's article is that many sites of the classical world are perhaps "off the beaten track" a little because they are not the glamorous centres of the Empire, but they're still very much worth visiting and they have so much to tell us about Roman life outside of Rome.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bothersome Barbarians.

This (short) post partly ties in my my Scottish holiday posts (1,2), and with me being Scottish, I was naturally interested any way.

I was reading in the Scotsman that in Scotland they have found the remnants of more army camps than in any other part of the Empire. The number ranges around 225, compared to 30 in other comparable "edge of the Empire sites" (one of them, funnily enough, where I live now in the Czech Republic).

The theory (simple, but likely) is that the Romans drove into Caledonia (ancient Scotland) with great gusto in an attempt to subdue the native peoples, but it never really worked, ergo all the camps scattered over the country.

The story has another element (poorly discussed in the comments below the Scotsman story), in that Historic Scotland wants to survey the whole country in search of Roman camps and put them all under protection. Some folks believe the rubbish of a Roman marching camp should not stand in the way of development.

They're wrong. After all, Egyptian rubbish dumps have provided us with a lot, have they not?

Another dimension to proceedings is that Historic Scotland may be trying to "package" Scotland's Roman artefacts/sites as tourist-worthy, which may indeed be true. It'd be nice to think sites of archaeological interest would be explored for their own sake, but tourism is the worlds biggest industry, and cash trumps all.

Disregarding all that, though, I think a sustained effort to catalogue all of Scotland's Roman sites is a positive thing. Not only is there the chance that some wonderful discovery may be made, but in considering all of the sites together, they may tell us a story about Roman Scotland that we don't yet know, and that has to be worthwhile.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Rome's (concise) Blue Guide.

Following my post on Rome's Blue Guide, those nice folks from Somerset Books (who publish the Blue Guides) sent me a copy of the brand new concise Blue Guide to Rome.

Generally, I love the Blue Guides - nothing comes close for the tourist who desires a "cultural" guide. My old (and not especially travel-handy) guide to Rome has had such heavy use that it's all held together by sticky tape - yet it's a testament to it's quality that it holds up ever strong, despite the beating it's taken.

First impressions of the new concise guide were very positive. The most noticeable thing is the reduction in size (it is, after all, a concise guide), to much more handy dimensions and weight. Although it was no real chore to crack out the weightier bigger brother of the concise guide - the new one will be much easier to use when "on site" in Rome.

The quality of the production is the next thing that jumps out at you. The cover is sturdy, tactile and pleasing to the touch. The pages remain glossy and smooth ones used in all Blue Guides, and the printing on them is clear and easy to read.

The contents of the guide are, as they back cover says, a "distilled" version of the full guide, which is essentially true - all the most important places to visit are included, while some of the periphery sites (maybe an unfair term) are not present.

The organisation follows a similar pattern to the full guide - in discussing a geographical area and everything of interest in it, followed by the next, adjacent, part of the city. For me it's the best and only way to organise the content - because it allows one to find a particular area of the city and see everything of interest within it.

The introduction is brief and omits much of the information found in the full guide, but that's really no problem for a concise guide. The biggest chunk is taken up by a historical sketch of the city, which is a newer version than that included in the full guide. There is little difference between the two - save length, and in my opinion both are well written and informative.

As mentioned in my previous post, the full guide is a little outdated now (primarily because of the new entrance procedures to the Forum Romanum, Colosseum and Palatine Hill). The new concise guide has all of this updated - which is essential in my opinion because the new procedure is quite different, and requires a bit of planning to pull off successfully (avoiding queues, busy periods etc).

The section of the guide on the Forum and it's surroundings is as excellent as before, but it is bolstered by the addition of several small colourful images which help break up the written descriptions a little. This applies also to the sections covering Ostia and the Via Appia - wonderful photographs add much to the guide.

I was also very happy to see that the EUR has now been incorporated into the main body of the guide. I know it may not be an especially aesthetically pleasing area, but it is aesthetically interesting and the Square Colosseum and the Museum of Roman Civilisation are especially fascinating (not least for the enormous model of Rome in the 4th Century).

One of the most useful new features is that each section has a little box featuring places to eat. It's brief, but a very nice addition, and conforms to the guides aim of being useful "on site".

Overall, then, the concise guide is just as excellent as it's bigger relation, and by my reckoning, it's still the only guide you really need. It's excellently written (by Alta Macadam) and the quality of the book's production itself is second to none.

The new size means that it somewhat supersedes the bigger version as THE guide to take on a trip to Rome. My personal plan is to take both and have the concise version "on site" and the larger version in the hotel room - having every cultural angle covered, so to speak.

As the new concise guide answers all my (admittedly minor) criticisms of the full guide, I must concede that I can find no real fault with it. Obviously it lacks the depth of the bigger version, but that's it's intention and can hardly be considered in a bad light. The price is also exceptionally fair, and I can offer no real complaints of any form.

My recommendation: If you're going to Rome - take it!

Note: Many thanks to Mr Tom Howells from the publishers of the Blue Guides for being so generous in providing me with a copy - I will be using it extensively on my next visit.

Here's a picture of my well thumbed full guide and the new concise guide, so that you may see the size difference:

Thursday, November 19, 2009

An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean - A lecture series by Robert Garland (Part Two).

During my Scottish sojourn I managed to listen to the next chunk of my Robert Garland lecture series (lectures 12-19, although personally I think 20 should be included too), which focus on the consequences of Roman hegemony over Greece for both cultures, and ergo that's what I'm going to ramble on about today.

Like I mentioned in a post below, I lost my notes for this post on a Prague to Paris flight, so it will be somewhat briefer than I had initially envisaged.

In many respects this part of the series is where it all really get's going - the entire premise can finally be fully discussed. The lectures preceding number 12 take a very wide view of Greek and Roman history (linking them together almost from the off), leading right up until the Roman conquest but this, though, naturally precludes the period of full blown Philhellenism that comes after said occupation. This is where an understanding of Greco-Roman culture can really begin, I think.

Garland covers a range of topics, starting with philhellenism and hellenophobia (literally love for all thinks Greek and fear of those things), before covering the two languages, leisure, sex, religion, Greeks in Rome and Romans in Greece and the Hellenism of Augustus.

Like the previous lectures, Garland retains a depth of analysis and thickness of research that makes for wonderful listening. I especially liked his discussion of various concepts such as "leisure" and "work" and how they differed between Greece and Rome, but also how the very nature of the words in their respective languages mean very different things than they do to us today. It really allows one to get "inside the head" of a Roman or Greek, and that's no mean feat.

The topical nature of each lecture gives a really great overview of Rome and Greece as now integrated cultures, and how they influenced each other in quite profound ways. That said, one of the central thrusts of the lectures is that despite their history being integrated, they are vastly different. The typical flow of each lecture discusses how it's topic relates to Greece and how it then relates to Rome, and the passing of cultural information between them.

In some respects I think the term "Greco-Roman" undermines the idea of an entirely integrated history, for it has a clear division within it.

For me the best lecture in the series is the final one (that I've added to this chunk of lectures myself, although I don't recall that Garland does) on the Hellenism of Augustus. Garland argues that Augustus (when he took that moniker) "ruled" in a manner very similar to the Greek dynasts of the past, insomuch as he needed Greek models for his autocracy (the Romans had none), and he copied Greek forms of artistic representation (the Augustus Prima Porta is a far cry from the somewhat weedy, spotty Augustus we hear of).

In this way, Augustus was the full genesis of Hellenism - he took Greek ideas and Romanised them (or vice versa - how the cultures interacted truly is rather complex), and from his reign forward, I think it's fair to really consider them integrated cultures rather than merely closely related.

To use Garland's terminology, those living under Augustus could be considered "Mediterranean Men" - that is to say "people with a shared vision and living under similar conditions". This notion is one that only really begins to make sense under the rule of Augustus and afterwards, and I think it certainly has a great deal of mileage.

These lectures, then, take us from the Roman conquest until a point where Greece and Rome are intricately connected as one entity (although with distinct parts, so to speak), and the form a central part of Garland's arguments - that the two cultures should be studied together, not in isolation. Thus far, I agree with him. The series has been incredibly interesting, and considering Rome and Greece together in the same story very worthwhile.

The next part of the series covers the full birth of Greco-Roman culture after the reign of Augustus, and I'll be posting about it in the future sometime.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Bad Science, Quackery and the Ancient World.

During my jaunt to Scotland I picked up a copy of Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, which I thoroughly recommend. The book attacks pseudo-science, and the practitioners of it (although not with any malice), and midway through he says "there have always been health gurus selling magic potions", and I thought - without doubt, the classical world was full of them.

From Pliny through Martial, excerpts from the Greek Anthology and Quintus Gagilius Martialis (and maybe Plutarch, but despite the prevalence of a certain quote on the internet, I can find no reference for it - any help would be appreciated), we hear of so called quacks plying their trade.

Given the unprofessional nature of ancient medicine (becoming a doctor was as simple as calling yourself one), it goes without saying that there were a fair share of opportunists around. Potions and miracle cures were all around - no doubt at great expense.

Goldacre's book makes the point that people are often duped by "professionals" who are indeed unqualified, money-grabbing quacks (he mentions many, many in his book). If it's this easy in the modern world - how easy was it in the ancient one? It must have been a piece of cake to sell some distinctive tasting water and label it a miracle cure.

Like many "educated" professions, a large number of the practitioners in the Roman world were Greeks. I wonder if the public distrust of doctors we hear about can be conflated with the general distrust of Greeks (even if they bring gifts etc)? I think it's possible.

Ancient medicine was not, of course, all quackery. Some of it's practitioners would be doing ground breaking work, and care deeply about the welfare of their patients - but that positive aspect is not my focus here.

I just wonder how many people died in the classical world as a result of quackery, because it seems the numbers that still do today are astonishingly high. All in all, it seems people haven't changed that much - some of them are still peddling their wares on the desperate and needy.

I apologise for the brevity of this post. I have some more material, so I'm sure there will be a Part Deux sometime.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Back from Caledonia.

Late last night I arrived back here in Pilsen, CZ, after my whirlwind trip back home to Scotland. Generally the "holiday" was all too short with too much to do and not enough time to do it in. Still, though, it was refreshing to see some familiar faces and visit a country which speaks my native tongue.

More related to this blog, though, I managed to get reacquainted with my long lost book collection. Weight restrictions (most cheap(er) airlines only have a 15KG base limit now) meant I couldn't bring too much, but I managed to get back with a reasonable number.

Like I mentioned below, Cicero was packed in, but Gruen, alas!, had to be left. I also managed to bring Route 66.A.D, which I'll be re-reading for the umpteenth time and posting about in the near future.

Access to a large British book store also allowed me to pick up a copy of Minerva, which has a whole wealth of things I found interesting and will consider posting about. That very same book store also provided me with a copy of a rather fascinating book on bad science, which is utterly brilliant, and has inspired me to make a post linking some of the points within it to the classical world.

The travelling (one week, four planes, four trains, endless car journeys and a tonne of walking) also allowed me to listen to some more of Robert Garland's lecture series about Greco-Roman culture, and I'm about ready to make post part II on it. It won't be as long as I had originally thought because I, rather stupidly, left my notes on the plane from Prague to Paris and don't have time to re-listen to jot them down again.

All in all, a pretty good break, which has refreshed my brain a little, and given me much to post about.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Caledonia My Patria.

On Monday I'm heading back to Caledonia for a short holiday, just to check in with some family and friends. Ergo, I probably won't be able to post much over the next nine days or so.

One of my plans during my visit is to get in amongst my large collection of books and hunt out the classical authors I'd like to re-read, along with some other select texts.

I think Juvenal, Livy and Cicero are top of my list, and for more modern works I'd like to get my hands on Erich Gruen's Last Generation of the Roman Republic and a work on the Ancient Novel. I'll no doubt think of others once I'm there, but these are the ones up there at the moment.

My plan will be to post about these particular works once I'm back and have managed to settle down and read them. I'm especially excited about Cicero, because I've not read too much of him recently.

The frontier of the Empire, here I come.

Also, for a bit of flavour, here's a picture of me beside Hadrian's Wall taken last year when I made a quick, lonely rain sodden visit:

Hadrian's Wall

Friday, November 6, 2009

...Where they make a desert, they call it peace.

This quote from Tacitus' Agricola is one of my favourites from the whole classical corpus.

I suppose the reason is two fold. Firstly, Tacitus is rallying against the nature of Empire - greed begot by violently enforced tyranny. He's a deeply Republican man, and one of the main themes of the Agricola is a defence of how a man can still be a noble servant to his country even under despotic rulers (in this case Domitian). The idea that the Romans would militarily crush their opposition and then call it "peace" (Pax) never registered as righteous with Tacitus.

Is it truly peace if it only exists because of an oppression carried out by the military? Probably not, thinks Tacitus (and me!).

The second reason I adore the quote is that it is more complex that it initially seems. Our word "peace" has it's roots in the Latin word "pacificare", which means to make peace or to pacify. Now the notion of "peace" and "pacification" are quite different, and what the Romans called "peace" is vastly different to our more modern conception.

For them, "peace" was something that was achieved under the boot of the Roman military, and so this is the idea that Tacitus is against. He's making a mockery of the Roman notion of "peace" and how they concieve of it.

All in all, it's a wonderful quote, and like many such words from Tacitus is highly relevant now (this is as much reading into him as what he actually says), because it also applies, to an extent, to American foreign policy since the 2nd World War. The current military operations in Iraq are dubbed "Operation Freedom", and one must ask, if we decontruct the notion of "freedom" is it being used in a similar manner to the Roman's "peace"? Is it truly freedom, or just how the powerful define it? "The Empire Never Ended" to quote Philip K. Dick.

As ever, the ancients are as vital to understanding ourselves and the modern world. Tacitus especially is almost a rent-a-quote for those of us a little distraught at the state of the world, but it's absolutely essential to remember who he was - a member of the Roman elite rather peeved that his class could no longer rule their Empire - and never to imagine him as the proto-"liberal" commentator that he never can be.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Come On You Blues! (CYOB!).

I'm a passionate football supporter, specifically of Everton F.C. The shout in the title of the post CYOB! is often heard at Goodison Park, as a call to arms (as such) to egg the team on.

Not terribly related to the classics, you may say, but actually it's not far off. I was listening to Robert Garland's audio lecture series (which I've posted about below) on the topic of Leisure and Entertainment and he mentions chariot racing, and specifically how the participants were identified by certain colours (teams, essentially) - red, white, green and blue (although Tertullian tells us the red and white teams were the originals).

I was familiar with this aspect of entertainment (I recall reading somewhere that Claudius was a fan of the blues), but it had particular resonance with me today as Garland mentions how divisive the races could be, as the fans of each team would engage in goading their rivals, often until the point of violence.

He talks about the Nika Riots, estimating that perhaps 30,000 people died and the Empire nearly collapsed - all because of chariot racing. The kind of loyalty required to a sport and a team required to kick off such an enormous barney reminded me of the sport that I adore so much - football.

The reds and the whites, as the oldest teams, had a great rivalry. I wonder if it was similar to the rivalry between Everton and Liverpool? The Liverpool city rivalry is enormous, yet the identity of being Liverpudlian pulls especially strongly, and so they often call it the family derby, as despite the rivalry, often a single family could be half blue and half red - the same but different. Would a red supporter look across at his white counterpart and identify with their shared Roman-ness, but still feel that intense rivalry burning inside of them? I think it's entirely possible.

I recall reading that the blues and the greens were the teams supported by the Emperors, and so I also wonder if the support for the various teams was dependent on social status or geography, like modern football. It's often said, for example, that the fans of teams in the North of England are more working class (Everton, Blackburn and Bolton etc), while some of the London teams are the reserve of middle and upper classes (Chelsea,Tottenham and Arsenal). It seems plausible, and is another way in which this form of ancient entertainment really as a parallel with modern society.

It was an especially interesting feeling to think that this was an aspect of ancient life that I could really tap into. The ancients (Romans especially) loved their entertainment, and chariot racing was right up there - just as football is in modern times. The passion involved and the die hard allegiance to your team are all concepts which I can understand as a football fan.

Actually, what struck me the most was the fact that if you placed an Everton fan beside a fan of the blue chariot racing team, would they be all that different in this specific situation? I think probably not. Given how the ancient seem so similar to us, but are in actual fact so different when it comes down to it, I think there is great appeal in the idea that humans are humans, regardless of society, era or other such things which separate us.

That the very same feelings stirred up in an ancient Roman chariot race spectator while cheering on his team can be comparable to the ones I feel when I'm watching Everton is one aspect in which I feel I can have a real window into the classical world. It comes to life for me, and that's very powerful.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Classics: A Love Affair.

This post is a bit soft, so I apologise in advance.

I love a bit of classics. The classics bug, so to speak, bit quite some time ago, but took absolute hold when I first read Tony Perrottet's Route 66.A.D - which is a bit of a travelogue through the ancient sites of the Mediterranean - West to East. There's such a lust for history and fable in Perrottet's book, that I was absolutely enthralled and mesmerised by everything the ancient world had to offer.

Since then, I've been studying classics academically and privately with great intensity.

In many respects this blog is an opportunity for me to express the many classics-related thoughts I have each day. There is always something from antiquity rumbling about in my head, and this blog has allowed me to get it out there, even if very few people actually read it.

I like almost everything aspect of ancient history - but I suppose Roman history is where my real passion lies, although I'm also pretty interested in Greece and everything related to it. The characters and these impossibly complex societies and cultures which existed have caught me in their snare.

To me, the Greeks and the Romans kick-started the modern (Western, at least) world, and I can't imagine any single aspect of that modern world which cannot be enlightened by a study of the ancient world which gave genesis to it. That's what keeps me coming back for more.

Many textbooks or scholarly works now begin with a justification of classics as a discipline, and in many respects that's quite a shame, because I think it needs no justification. That said, I realise not everyone has been bitten in the same way that I have been.

It's been said that only a human being can study the classics and love it, and with not a hint of pretension (OK, maybe a little!) I think that's quite true. I believe there is a reason the study of the ancient world was so important for so long for everyone, regardless of career. I'm not necessarily putting myself in that group, but I do feel hugely indebted to the classical world for the development of my character and ultimately how I define myself, both through it's achievements but also the things it got wrong.

Like I said a bit of a soft post, but one I felt like making. If anyone does read this, I'd very much like to hear why you love the classics so much.

Friday, October 30, 2009

An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean - A lecture series by Robert Garland (Part One).

A few weeks ago I got my hands on a series of audio lectures by Prof. Robert Garland via TTC (the teaching company) and I've been listening to them quite attentively as I go about my daily business (I travel around a fair bit, and they're on my cellphone's music player).

The name of the lecture series is Greece and Rome: An Integrated History of the Ancient Mediterranean and as the name suggests, the essential thrust of the course is to consider Rome and Greece (or Romans and Greeks) together, and not in isolation, as is perhaps common (he makes the simple yet valid point that most scholars of the ancient world consider themselves either Greek or Roman historians, and that should not be the case).

The course follows a loosely chronological path, but it is heavily affected by thematically driven discussion. Garland, in the first lecture, divides the course into 4 chunks, each following each other chronologically, give or take, but being distinct in matters of focus.

Lectures 1-11 cover general topics of life in the Mediterranean and the history of political interaction (and re-action) between Greece and Rome right up until Roman hegemony was established over the Greek speaking world in the 2nd Century B.C.E. Lectures 12-19 consider the repercussions of the Roman conquest and especially their relationship with one another, in cultural and political terms.

Lectures 20 - 29 cover the birth of what we refer to as Greco-Roman culture, taken from the reign of Augustus onwards and the final chunk of lectures, 30 -36, discuss how the Roman Empire dealt with the growth of Judaism and Christianity (two religions with great ties to Greece) and how the relationship between the Greeks and the Romans evolved during this period, until the Empire split into a Latin speaking West and Greek speaking East.

Thus far I've only listened to part one, and ergo that's all I'm talking about today.

Generally speaking, I've really enjoyed the lectures so far. Prof. Garland has such an obvious enthusiasm for the subject that it's infectious, and there is a didactic quality to his voice in a positive manner that makes listening a pleasure - definitely making any trip across town by tram or trolley bus much more enjoyable!

The first 11 lectures cover a quite disparate amount of subjects, all the while leading up to the mid 2nd Century B.C.E when Greece was finally conquered by Rome. Garland's aim, like I said, is to present Greek and Roman history as intricately connected, and not as separate entities.

He's immensely successful in doing this. My own experience of studying the ancient world is very much that the Greeks came first and the Romans second, when in fact it is much, much more complex than that. Garland overcomes that by considering them together - the opening 11 lectures illustrate this perfectly.

He discusses a variety of aspects to life in the Mediterranean that both Greeks and Romans would share, and how the respective systems were perhaps different - he covers political organisation, trade, law and order, slavery and "human rights", religion and their encounters throughout the 1st millennia B.C.E, right up until Rome has Greece totally overpowered. The result is that we are left with a holistic (ὅλος) understanding of Mediterranean culture during this period, and how it was truly Pan-Mediterranean. That is to say, there is something essential missed by studying just Greece or just Rome.

One of the greatest strengths of the series is the sheer depth of research involved. Garland quotes the ancient authors frequently, and modern scholars too (Erich Gruen, who's research I like very much indeed, get's the most mentions, I think), and this all adds to the texture of the series and it's intellectual weight. Almost every 30 seconds Garland drops in an interesting titbit, or story, making the lectures very easy to engage with.

Garland also stresses the understanding of everything in context (he mentions in the first lecture how different Greek and Roman culture is to ours), and as such he does not shy away from laying out straight the horrendous nature of Roman and Greek slavery, nor the human cost of Roman warfare. There is, however, no real judgements being made here, these things, after all, just were, and Garland remains much more interested in how the Greeks or Romans thought of such things as opposed to how we feel - which is to be applauded.

It's very hard to find any criticisms of the series. Although they're perhaps aimed at an interested member of the public, the depth does presuppose some knowledge of the ancient world, and I'd find it very hard to recommend them entirely to a beginner, although they're still of such high quality that any intelligent listener could benefit from them. Given that they're not exactly narrative history, but rather focused on the Greece/Rome relationship, it might be said that they are best suited to already knowledgeable listeners. Nevertheless, the integrated approach has much going for it, and I thoroughly recommend it.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Wine Sodden Gauls - Who's To Blame?

As a bit of a follow up to my previous post on Roman wine, I read today in the Telegraph that Professor Paul Cartledge at Cambridge has posited the theory that the Ancient Greeks actually introduced wine to Gaul and it wasn't the Romans as is commonly believed (although, I'm sure Cartledge is not the only scholar aware of the Greek influence here, despite the news reports). (The news piece from Cambridge is here).

His study claims that Massalia (Marseilles), founded unambiguously by Greeks (and which prior to the Romans was a bustling trading centre owing to it's location on the coast, and the rivers allowing goods to be transported inland), became a centre for the spread of viticulture among the tribes of Gaul.

He rests the theory on the notion that (i) Massalia survived because Greeks arrived and integrated themselves into the area (thereby introducing Greek ideas and tastes) and (ii) that evidence of amphorae found in Celtic sites indicate that there was a wine trade quite some time prior Roman domination of Gaul. Seems all quite plausible to me that it was the Greeks what did it because the foundation of Massalia certainly pre-dates Roman expansion into Gaul and provides more evidence than the notion that the Etruscans introduced wine to the area.

The Telegraph article also mentions that Cartledge is currently involved in a revision of what constituted "Ancient Greece", with the belief that it covered a huge geographical area, from Spain to Georgia, which is much greater than how it is usually considered as covering roughly the same area as Modern Greece. Establishing the Greeks as a major influence in bringing wine to the Gauls seems to be a facet of this. This partly explains why this is all being treated as entirely new - Cartledge has a new book! (although I doubt it's his fault).

There is no doubt that Roman expansion certainly increased the spread of viticulture (and the availability of wine) in Gaul, but it's rather fascinating to think that initially it game from Greece through Massalia, although it certainly makes sense considering the period in which Massalia was founded (around 600 B.C.E - well before Roman expansion into the area), and that Greeks, who drunk wine, were the ones that settled there.

If the Greeks did bring wine to Gaul, then I suppose they should receive the blame for all the drunken Gauls marauding around the country drinking undiluted wine and selling people into slavery for a single amphora. The Cambridge news story adds the funny titbit that:

"Travelling up the river might even have constituted the original booze cruise"

which suggests the pretty funny image of a load of smelly barbarian Gauls shouting at nearby women as their wine laden boats floated along the river.

The idea that Greece covered a much larger area than people assume, also seems to me a pretty sound one. "Greece" was not a nation as we conceive it, but rather a people linked by language. Greece was a "nation" of individual city-states, and so the notion of "Greece" as a geographical expression does not really work. The upshot is that essentially this expression "Ancient Greece" to mean some kind of nation, means that any place in which "Greeks" (i.e. Greek speakers) were could be considered "Greece".

So then, we can blame the Greeks for wine sodden Gauls, but also thank them for wonderful modern French wine. Balances out, I think.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Scalae Gemoniae.

I was reading at About.com that today is the anniversary of Sejanus' execution for treason. Sejanus (occasionally, and properly, Seianus) was the head of the Praetorian guard and under Tiberius managed to establish huge control over the city of Rome, operating tyrannically with a legion of agents and informers that had the whole of Rome in fear. To my mind he's always been somewhat like the head of the Empire Gestapo.

In 31 C.E his conspiratorial plans were rumbled and reported to Tiberius who had the "partner of [his] labours" (Tacitus, Ann. 4.2) promptly executed. Cassio Dio tells us (58.11) that:

"By their order (The Senate's) he was executed and his body cast down the stairway, where the rabble abused it for three whole days and afterwards threw it into the river".

The stairway in question was the (in)famous Scalae Gemoniae or Gemonian Stairs. We have no record of their use prior to Tiberius, but it seems that they overtook the Tarpeian Rock as the favoured spot for bloody executions (the rock being "popular" during the Republic). From Tiberius onwards criminals would be strangled and cast upon the stairs for the people to desecrate their bodies, dogs to eat them and then after a few days tossed in the Tiber.

This interesting article suggests that the exact location of the stairs is unknown, but that they were near the Capitoline and were perhaps where the current Via Di San Pietro In Carcere is, which is a place I've visited during my time in Rome.

What made me especially interested in the stairs today (the anniversary of Sejanus' execution aside) is that they make a rather gruesome set piece in I, Claudius which I was watching recently. After Sejanus' execution (eerily seen from his point of view) he is tossed on the stairs and left to rot.

All in all it's rather harrowing, and goes someway to illustrate just how brutal ancient Rome truly was. Despite the overwhelming evidence of said brutality, it's a fact often overlooked as we study the humanity of the Romans or their achievements, but they were a gruesome lot, and the Gemonian Stairs illustrate that perfectly.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Problematic Turbot.

Like many folks, I really like Juvenal. Disavowing all scholarship for a moment, I think he's just plain funny. Sometimes that's overlooked in favour of this or that kind of analysis, but I think it's essential to never let slip from one's mind the great humour involved in his satires.

I'd be stretched to pick a favourite satire, but I have read satire IV recently (we have no titles, so satire IV is the proper name, and it's been given many titles, but essentially it's about the problem posed by a rather big fish), and I think it's wonderful. (an English version of the satire is available here).

The story goes that an enormous fish has been caught, and by nature of it's size,it must be presented to the Emperor as a gift. However, once it's been delivered it poses a unique problem: how to cook a darn fish so big! In the hope of finding a solution a council is called among the members of Domitian's court. They debate about what do do (they can't cook it whole - it's too big!) and so the final decision is to at once manufacture a new and unusually large vessel so that it may be cooked whole.

The essential thrust of the tale is a satire of the Imperial court and the sycophants that reside within it (not to mention those who wish to be in it). Juvenal tells how that when such an enormous fish was caught even the "shores were crowded with informers" and so who could do anything with the monster fish other than present it to the Emperor.

Once the fish has been rushed to the Emperor with all haste, a council is formed in order to decide how to cook it. Courtiers of Domitian then discuss it at length, even considering it an omen of victory, before deciding to create a special vessel for it to be cooked in.

TThe central absurdity of a council being called in order to decide how best to cook a fish and the clamouring of the members of that council to honour their Emperor is what makes the satire so funny. A fish? A giant fish? Is that really the stuff of a state council? Under the Emperors, it is, says Juvenal.

One of my favourite elements of the satire is a play on words. In the opening section Juvenal says:

"No bad man can be happy: least of all the incestuous seducer with whom lately lay a filleted priestess".

The world "fillet" in Latin is "vitta", which is the term for a particular piece of head wear worn by the Vestal Virgins (priestesses) and the cut of fish (linked meanings, I'm guessing). The dual meaning of "fillet" in both the religious apparel and applied to the priestess who lay with the seducer makes for a devilish joke. A reminder that Juvenal, and satire more generally, is at first funny, and we should not become lost in scholarship.

A familiar theme is at work in this satire, as in many of Juvenal's satires. Rome has become clogged with sycophants - she is losing the qualities that made her great to begin with.

Many modern scholars believe satire was often written under the guise of a dramatis personæ (see Kernan, Anderson and Braund), that is to say that the satirists put on different "masks" and that the viewpoint that underlies each satire is not necessarily the one held by the writer (there is a bit of debate of course, but it's an interesting notion). What mask, then, is Juvenal wearing in this satire? Generally speaking the satires could be considered very funny but grumpy and conservative, and so this character may be the one adopted by Juvenal.

Is Juvenal adopting this "mask" in satire IV? I'm not sure to be honest. I have a thought though - we have so little evidence on the life of Juvenal, but there is some agreement among the information that we do have that he was exiled for a period perhaps for insulting an actor who had a high standing in the Imperial court. To ponder that for a moment - is it possible (real) Juvenal had a grudge against sycophantic courtiers, and that this satire is not performed entirely by a dramatis personæ but by a rather pissed off Juvenal himself, mask free (or at least letting it slip)? Maybe.

The thought that this dramatis personæ may have been quite transparent to ancient readers but a kind of mystery to us makes me laugh. Could it be possible that in 2000 years people will watch Ali G, Borat or Bruno and be wonder if they are "masks" worn by a hidden performer or if they are genuine? I'd like to think so.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A God In Colchester.

I've now finished watching I, Claudius. Similar to my post below, this is for some (updated) thoughts and reflections - nothing too meaty.

Well, oh well. The second half of the series becomes increasingly dark (and given the amount of poisonings in the first half that's no mean feat!). Augustus is now a memory (although a deified one!) and the reigns of Tiberius and his Grand-Nephew (the Julio-Claudian stemma is pretty much needed to make head nor tails of the series entirely!) Caligula have turned out to be rotten ones. Roman women of good birth are conniving and sleeping (literally) their way through the entire city.

In short, Rome is a festering pit of decadence.

Then along comes the bumbling Claudius (or the cleverly bumbling in order to be ignored Claudius), and manages to make the Empire friendly towards a benevolent Princeps and decides he must allow Nero to take over the reins and soil the idea of an Emperor once and for all, which would consequently bring back the glorious Republic.

Nero firmly in power, the series ends. Jacobi is amazing in the final episodes, and as the scheming Claudius (a neat juxtaposition of his position in relation to his family - he's the opposite of a schemer and they're scheming all the damn time for most of the series) is ushered into the afterlife, I got a real sense of closure. This is after all Claudius' story - and with him it ends.

I was thinking about the sources for the series (and the novels), which seem primarily to be Tacitus and Suetonius, which I think is abundantly clear in the series. Echoes of Tacitus come through in the let's say "colourful" representation of aristocratic women, especially in the case of Livia. Tacitus is a writer who profoundly misses the Republic and is distrustful of the Principate - especially under despotic rulers. His nervousness about the nature of an Emperor dominated government, and the role of women are manifest in the series no end.

When you take this relatively negative view of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, and then let the famous gossip Suetonius loose on the material, it quickly becomes the stuff of sordid soap opera. Compellingly sordid though it is. In many ways I consider the series as a Tacitean account "sexed up" (sexified?) by Suetonius (Graves and the screenwriters are also involved in the sexing up of the show).

Graves, of course, subverts both of these accounts in the case of Claudius because he allows Claudius to be narrating a (fictional) history that he is writing about his family, which in turn allows Claudius to depicted in contrast to how he usually is. Graves adds motive and explanation for why Claudius acted as he did, and I especially enjoy that aspect of the show. Claudius is no idiot - he sees what is going on around him and from his entire family is the only one to survive. Better to be alive with only half your wits than dead with all of them, as he says himself.

The show is just really bloody brilliant. The acting throughout verges on mind blowing (that scene with Brian Blessed comes to mind) and the unique direction, dialogue and score are all way, way above the standard of most TV shows (then or since). At the end of it all, after being a secret passenger to the Julio-Claudian soap opera, one is left with the real feeling that they know or understand these people that before Graves' novel were (perhaps) two dimensional historical figures. Therein is the rub - that's why the series is a triumph - we are Claudius' closet confidants, and through him everything is brought to life.

Like I said, it's just really bloody brilliant.

Oh and to blogdrop (is it even called that?) Juliette at Pop Classics has posts about each I, Claudius episode which go into much greater depth than I do. They're pretty great and available here: Pop Classics. (I don't think the entire series is there though).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

He, Clavdivs.

I spent this morning watching the first four parts (or so) of the great I, Claudius. Robert Graves once said that he disliked how popular the book and TV show had become, and even claimed that he wrote it for money and to a publisher's deadline for a book. Nevertheless, I think it's cracking, and lots of others do too.

I've decided against criticising it's historical veracity - it plays loose with the history, but I believe it's such a great work of fiction (based, of course, on real enough events) that sticking to the history is not the be all and end all. Instead I'm just putting some thoughts and reflections into this post.

The show is narrated by an elderly Claudius who decides to tell the story of his family (and by gum, it's one huge extended and complicated family the man has - as one glance at a full Julio-Claudian family tree will tell you). Thus, the series begins 6 or so years after the Battle of Actium (putting it around 25 or 24 B.C.E) and with each episode it jumps a quite a few years. The final episode I watched today closed with the death of Augustus (in 14 C.E) meaning it has covered some 39 years in a mere 4 episodes.

The historical skeleton Graves used to pin his story onto was already juicy enough (he bases the story on Tacitus and the famous gossip Suetonius) - the family drama of the Julio-Claudians in this period was really great stuff - full of intrigue, jealousy, bad luck and even a bit of murder (maybe). The greatest thing about Graves' story is that it brings to life an immensely complicated and important period of Roman history - one can believe in the characters, and get a real flavour for their family dramas.

The scheming of Livia (exaggerated but really compelling viewing!) and the trials of Augustus' search for a successor (everyone keeps getting murdered by Livia!) let alone the various pressures of being part of the Imperial family on it's many members, who are variously seen having all sorts of problems. The focus is the Imperial family, not political movings and shakings (although, they of course, are what the Imperial family was all about).

The direction, writing and acting are all top notch (getting a glimpse of a personal hero of mine - Patrick Stewart - as Sejanus was a particular high point for me) and I must concede that I adore the TV show - and it really, really stands the test of time. It's some 33 years old now, but barely shows it.

Derek Jacobi is in scene stealing form as Claudius, cerebral palsy (the modern consensus is) and all. The characterisation of Claudius by Graves and Jacobi's personification of that character make the whole show work. Graves reads into the history and we're all the better for it. We can get a feeling for the motivations and the emotions of these historical figures, and while they may not be true, such conjecture can help bring the ancient world to life in a way that is often difficult for us to grasp.

When the more recent series Rome appeared on TV screens a few years ago, many folks in the media billed it as natural successor to I, Claudius. In many respects, I think that's quite true. Rome boasts a huge budget and lavish sets, while I, Claudius was filmed mainly on indoor stages, but the quality of both is exceptionally high. The focus of Rome was the Julio-Claudians in their infancy, and we are connected to the history via two plebeian soldiers. In I, Claudius the rank and file get little mention, and the focus remains the Imperial family - I think this shift in interest reflects changes in scholarship in the 70 or so years between the writing of Graves' book and the production of Rome.

The greatest strength that both shows share is that they animate Roman history and bring it's characters to life. We can see Caesar at the Rubicon, Octavian triumph over Mark Antony, Augustus weep when his adopted sons Gaius and Lucius both die young and witness the temperament of Tiberius - how sympathetic yet unlikeable he is. We cannot get this from the ancient historians to the same extent, and that is where historical fiction (of really good quality) comes into it's own.

Funnily enough, I think the best works of historical fiction are also the best researched ones, and often those rooted in real events are the most exciting. I suppose this is an indicator of just how fascinating ancient history is and how complex her famous figures were. I, Claudius illustrates this perfectly.

Friday, October 9, 2009

In Vino Veritas.

Was it that unusual for a Roman transport ship, in the 1st or 2nd century A.D, to be carrying French wine? I think probably not.

Despite that, there has been a fair bit of news coverage recently regarding the fact that a Roman shipwreck found off the Cypriot coast was carrying some wine amphorae from the South of France.

Many of the news stories (samples here and here) have "French Wine Found in Roman Shipwreck" blazoned across their tops, but then there is very little comment on the wine at all after that. It seems a bit curious to me. My immediate thoughts are that it sounds a bit newsworthy, as in: "Romans drinking FRENCH wine!?!? are you kiddin'!?", while in actual fact it is not especially extraordinary at all.

Following the explosion of Roman viticulture after her pacification of the Italian peninsula, wine was widely available in Rome, and following the establishment of trade routes through Gaul it became one of the hottest exports (Diodorus has the story of Gauls selling their own people into slavery in exchange for wine and then drinking it undiluted like true barbarians).

As Roman culture made it's influence known, the provinces started to produce their own wine, and this was often imported to Rome (economics made it cheaper to export desirable Roman wine and demand ensured that French or Spanish vintages would be imported - especially following Domitian's edict of 92 C.E which curbed the planting of new vineyards in Italy). The upshot of this is that by the 1st and 2nd centuries A.D, it would not be all that unusual for Roman trade vessels to be transporting French wine.

Why these news reports are treating Roman importation of French wine as a new discovery is confusing, although one suspects it's because it'll make a newsworthy article for many freelance writers in need of a submission (maybe I'm being cynical).

There is maybe an element of wishful thinking that French (or Gaulish) culture had conquered Rome (echoing Horace's famous line about Captive Greece taking her rude captor captive), but that's not especially true and quite misleading.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

The Res Gestae – A Podcast.

Those nice folks at the University of Warwick (Alison Cooley and – I’m guessing based on something said – Peter Pormann) recently released a rather neat podcast on the topic of Augustus and his Res Gestae (The Queen of Inscriptions, as Mommsen called it), which is available, via the University of Warwick website, here: Augustus Podcast.

The podcast runs around 32 minutes, with Pormann acting as interviewer and Cooley as interviewee (although it’s much more informal than that suggests). Pormann introduces the major topics in the study of Augustus – his rise to power, becoming Princeps, his foreign policy, the imperial family and his search for a successor etc, while Cooley responds.

The content is pretty interesting, although there was very little that someone familiar with the period won’t already know – the podcast is likely for undergraduate students, and coincides with the release of Cooley’s new translation of the Res Gestae.

The discussion takes an interesting turn at a few points. Cooley’s explanations regarding how the inscription would be displayed and viewed in Ancient Rome (it’s sheer size meant it was unlikely to be read in its entirety, but the ubiquity of the inscription would mean all Romans were familiar with it, and by inference what Augustus had done for them) are especially good, and insightful (seeing the world of Ancient Rome through their eyes is notoriously difficult, but it’s always worth trying).

Similarly when she tells of the inscriptions history, and especially where it was found (in the Eastern Empire – Ankara, Galatia and Antioch), the podcast is also at its best. In particular I liked her explanations regarding the differences in context and language between the three extant inscriptions (Ankara is in Latin and Greek, Antioch just in Latin and Galatia in Greek).

The view of Augustus’ later reign as being devoid of “fireworks” and somewhat negative, is also pretty refreshing. Understanding the Res Gestae as a part response to the eight or so years of political and social problems seems fruitful to me. Afterall, Varus’ loss of the legions, the revolt in Pannonia and Augustus’ familial problems (the death of successors, and the transgression of his moral laws by his daughter and granddaughter) certainly put a dark taint on his reign towards its end. Erecting a huge inscription to remind everyone what he had done for them over his long public career would be a suitable response.

If I had to throw some criticism on the podcast, I’d say is that there a lack of continuity with naming, especially in the early parts of the show. There is mention of Octavian, Augustus, Octavianus and Julius Caesar Octavianus Son of a God, but little clarity about the reasonably clear periods in which each name was used (even if they are only clear because modern scholarship tends to use them).

One other slight criticism is that there is little discussion on the historical veracity of Augustus’ claims in the Res Gestae, despite the podcast claiming to discuss the topic. This, though, really is just a bit of me being pedantic.

Overall, it’s a really nice idea, interesting content, and although, like I said earlier, it has nothing new for those familiar with the topic, it's still a nice piece. Moreover hearing Cooley talk about the topic of her new book is interesting, but, given the content of the podcast, I do wonder if her updated edition of the Res Gestae will really contain enough new material to supersede my Brunt and Moore copy, which has been a trusty companion for a long while.

For the interested, I took photographs of the inscription as it is placed in modern Rome during my visit there this past July. They’re big enough for the entire inscription to be read, in Latin, and they are available in one of my previous posts here: Roman Holiday Post.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Suetonius and Wishful Thinking.

The past few days have seen a few interesting archaeological developments in Rome and it's environs. There was a flurry of news when it was announced that Nero's famous rotating dining room, mentioned by Suetonius, was found on the Palatine hill in Rome, and there has been considerable wordage on the discovery of a "luxury" amphitheatre in Portus, near Rome.

Both of these discoveries are interesting in themselves, although much research remains to be done. The fascinating thing is how both discoveries have become headline, attention grabbing news, despite significant doubts regarding exactly what has been found.

Touching on similar themes to my Vespasian's villa post, it's quite important to ask - are these discoveries really what they're purported to be? The answer is maybe, but can't really be put any firmer than that.

Mary Beard has questioned the validity of both identifications on her blog (here and here), and I think there is significant mileage in asking if said identifications are correct. Her thoughts about the "utter tosh" written about the amphitheatre seems spot on to me, considering that the dig leader, Simon Keay, was always careful to say that the possible history of the amphitheatre is all postulation at this stage.

Why exactly do (some) archaeologists and the media sensationalise each discovery? Does everything need to be instantly related to a historical figure in case funding is immediately cut, or the University loses out on some much needed publicity? As for the media, they need a story - Joe Public does not care about the discovery of a Roman dining room, but label it Nero's and it's newsworthy.

The identification of the amphitheatre so far seems tenuous at best. Beard points out that we have no idea what the surrounding buildings are, despite their current identification as an "Imperial Palace", and so it's a bit of a non sequitur at this stage to have the amphitheatre down as a private entertainment complex of the Emperors.

Nero's rotating dining room is a somewhat more complex question. The existence of the dining room is only known via Suetonius' Life of Nero and there is considerable debate regarding what the Latin describes exactly (Beard's readers make some useful comments below her post on this topic) for example; does the room fully rotate, or does the ceiling rotate, and what exactly would it mean to an ancient Roman for the heavens to move?

Location wise, it's in roughly the right place - Nero's Domus Aurea covered huge swathes of land in the centre of Ancient Rome, but there is considerable doubt as to how the Golden House actually looked. Beard adds that there is the "terrible temptation" to equate finds on the ground with the literary descriptions of Roman writers, and that seems to be at least part of the case here.

It's probably right to be a bit sceptical about the whole affair thus far, but the pictures provided could plausibly be the described dining room, and there seems to be a fair suggestion that some mechanical device has been unearthed that was used to rotate the room. All in all, maybe a bit early to call it Nero's rotating dining room (if one existed), despite the surety apparent in almost all news reports of it's discovery.

That said, it remains an incredibly interesting find, and I look forward greatly to see if it genuinely is what it's claimed to be. The questions it has raised over the nature of archaeological work, the reporting of it and the politics behind such things, however, will no doubt continue to be asked as each new discovery is immediately sensationalised lest it be ignored.

I think that with the need to find a new Pompeii, and for each find to be elevated to "special" and "visitor worthy" status so quickly after it's discovery, there is a danger that real archaeological work, the nitty gritty of digs and research will be somewhat undermined, or that anything not immediately associated with a famous figure or event will be passed over as not being worthy of publicity. That, without doubt, would be a great shame.

Update: I realised the project leader for the amphiteatre, Simon Keay, has commented on Mary Beard's post and says the following:

"Mary, you are right of course. While I was very concerned to put across a tempered report of our discoveries, as the official press release makes clear, many of the press reports have indeed delivered more esoteric and imaginative interpretations of what I said. This is inevitable in any publicity as you know. Nevertheless the coverage it gives us is still very valuable as it is often the only way that many of us can provide the public at large with some idea of what it is that we do, and also in this case to give prominence to a world class site that is otherwise unknown and very hard to get into the public eye" - Simon Keay.

Keay gives a sound reason for the sensationalist reports, and it's easy to sympathise with him. He seems to be taking a pragmatic attitude, and I suppose the stresses of being a Project Leader mean that the saying all publicity is good publicity rings quite true.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dating Pompey's Death.

Each year at this time (the tail end of September) the internet buzzes (when I say buzz, I'm no doubt exaggerating) with debate regarding the exact date for the death of Pompey the Great in 48 B.C.E. (We can be sure about the year owing to a myriad of evidence for the general time line of the Civil War in this year, and when exactly Pompey was defeated at Pharsalus).

The dating of ancient events is always a difficult exercise. Without the vast record keeping abilities that we have today, there was considerable room for error when the ancients wrote their histories. Years, when it comes to the major events, are usually secure enough, but precise dates remain difficult to pin down. Pompey's death is a prime example of this.

The ancient sources tend to reference his death in relation to his birthday (they happened around the same date), but for this to be useful one must first confirm the date of his birth. There is no considerable debate regarding the year of his birth because we know the Consuls of that year (106 B.C.E), and there is general collusion that his 3rd triumph (in 61 B.C.E) happened on his birthday, and since the triumph can be reasonably dated to the 29th of September then that his the most reliable date for his birthday.

Now, with that a reasonably firm foundation to build on, the question now arises - when exactly did he die? The ancient writers don't quite agree. Appian and Dio are rather imprecise (Dio - Book 42.5 - says he was in his 58th year when he died, which generally puts his death prior to the 29th of September, when he would have been 59, which Appian -Book 2.86 - does also).

Valleius Paterculus is "more" helpful and and says - Book 2.53 - that Pompey died on the eve of his birthday in his 58th year, making the date of his death September 28th. Plutarch, rather unhelpfully, gives us two possibilities, saying in his life of Pompey - 79 - that he died on the day after his birthday, which gives a date of September 30th, and in his life of Camillus, says that Pompey died on his birthday, putting the date back to September 29th.

The question, then, is who do we believe? Valleius Paterculus was alive much closer to the time of Pompey, and it's possible he had sources that were alive when during that batch of Civil Wars, which adds a certain weight to his date of the day before Pompey's birthday - September 28th. Plutarch, besides giving us two dates, was alive much, much later, when no one alive during Pompey's lifetime would be still living. The same goes for Appian, and even more so for Cassius Dio, who wrote much later.

Valleius Paterculus also chastises those who misdate Pompey's age (Plutarch, in his life - Book 46 - says Pompey was almost 40 at the time of his 3rd triumph in 61 B.C.E, when in fact it was his 45th birthday). Given VP's attitude here, it's probably worth giving him the benefit of the doubt that he also was quite sure about his dating of Pompey's death, and so I'm willing to plunge for the date September 28th - the day before Pompey's 59th birthday (modern historians generally take this date too, so I'm in good company).

The problem of precise dating aside, Mary Beard in her work "The Roman Triumph" makes the wonderful observation that:

"[Pompey's] whole life - his death no less than his birth - was tied to his moment of triumph" (pg.36).

Despite the dates being in question, the possibilities only cover several days, and a result of this is that, as Beard points out, Roman cultural memory, as is evident in the ancient writers mentioned above, inevitably associates Pompey's birth and his death with his triumph. In many ways that illustrates the fall of Pompey, and it's role in later Roman culture, to such a degree that any problems of exact dating are relegated somewhat from prominence (although it's still immense fun trying to work it out).

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Historical approaches becoming history.

I've recently been reading A.R Burn's "History of Greece" (the 1965 edition) and it I felt compelled to make a post regarding the differences in approaches to the study of history over time.

Burn's book itself is excellent. It spans Greece from it's first peoples until her role under the Christian Roman Emperors, with the focus mostly on the Classical and Hellenistic periods, especially in Athens. The focus itself betrays the preoccupations of 1960s scholarship - the Classical period and Classical Athens in particular. However, where it becomes quintessentially old fashioned is in it's content.

For the purpose of this post I focused on a section of the book called "The Great Fifty Years: Athenian Society", as I think it helps contrast the differences in scholarship over the past fifty years.

It got me to thinking: If there was a new book out today called "Athenian Society" what topics may it cover? Politics and public life would be, naturally, part of it, but there would be so much more and they wouldn't necessarily be the focus. There would be sections on the family, the role of women, gender, social activities and what they said about the Athenian character, sexuality, an interest in other forms of literature and what they can tell us (the novel for example, esp. in Hellenistic times). Most of these topics are inherently modern, and they're not included in any real doses within Burn's section on "Athenian Society".

For him, "Athenian Society" means the way democracy operated, the intellectual atmosphere (philosophers and sophists) and what Pericles was up to. Attitudes really have changed. In many respects Burn's brand of narrative history is no longer in fashion, and I think that's a bit of a shame.

Some of my finest memories from my time at University were in "narrative" style lessons on Greek history. Covering the Persian Wars, or Greece after the Peloponnesian War. Discussing how many boats were at Artemisium and what our sources tell us. Asking whether Herodotus exaggerated something yet again and all the time quasi-worshipping Thucydides as a proto-modern historian (modern, of course, now meaning old fashioned).

The foreword to the book has a nice section where Burn introduces the book's "modern" approach, insomuch as it doesn't just consider the military or political events (which "have been traditionally considered the stuff of history proper") but seeks to introduce "public affairs" to the area of study. The thought dawned on me that all things that are once modern will also be once old fashioned.

In some respects reading the book reminded me of the fact that we should never forget to remove the goggles of our own time, nor the dogmatism of our approaches - for those of the past can still teach us much. I love reading Burn's book (it's almost in pieces these days) and enjoy the style of it, it's handy "for travelling" size, the wonderful fold-out chronological table, and it's dedication to "young travellers".

There is a spirit in the book that transcends historical approaches, and I believe it's that love of history that kept Greek history lectures at 4pm on a Wednesday afternoon in a basement with an aging, ruffled haired, academic cape wearing Professor absolutely essential viewing.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rome's Blue Guide.

During my undergraduate degree, I was required to spend a minimum of three weeks travelling around the ancient sites of the Mediterranean. Prior to departure, the classics department recommend the purchase of the Blue Guide to Rome for anyone planning a visit to the eternal city. Sufficed to say I bought it and have been using it ever since.

Styled as a cultural guide (I dislike that term, but as far as it's useful and can be applied - this is the book for it), it's a weighty 624 pages of in depth information about all the cultural treasures of Rome. I've used it 4 or 5 times in visits to Rome, and it's been totally invaluable. So much so that my copy is now dog eared and held together by sticky tape.

The main author is Alta Macadam, who lives in Florence and has a rich history of living and working in Italy. She is supplemented, on history, art history and architecture by Nigel McGilchrist, Charles Freeman and Mark Roberts - all of whom have huge experience of Rome, academic history and Italy more generally. The result of such informed persons writing the guide means that it's general intelligence, cultural awareness and depth is unparalleled by the more popular lines of travel guides.

On matters of organisation: the guide opens with a short but scene-setting introduction, followed by a concise and relatively academic historical sketch of the city from it's foundation to it's present day state. It's top heavy with regards the classical period, but it offers a good overview of the city's history over some (almost!) 3000 years. This historical sketch also has a nice section on the Popes, which is very useful.

The following main body of the guide is divided by geographical area, each of which roughly confines to the hills of ancient Rome (an illustration opens the guide showing each area pg.5). Given the scope of the guide, organising itself geographically was the only viable option, and it works well throughout.

The content itself is marvellous. Macadam has a deep and passionate relationship with the city, and knows it inside out. The depth of cultural commentary and information is excellent, and throughout the guide the aim is not just to signpost and introduce the sites of Rome, but to give them context, a story and set them into the extravagant history of the city.

The areas covering the ancient sites are detailed and interesting - highlighting the history and significance of each monument, area or ruin. There is no "look at this, move on and look at this" style advice suitable for the modern "go to say I've been/seen" tourist, but rather really chunky pieces of information for most sites of interest to the classical visitor. Often little coloured boxes are inserted that give some historical background relevant to the area being discussed - topics include Roman Gods and worship, Obelisks and the Triumph - each of them inherently useful.

The guide is also complete with wonderful illustrations (my favourite being the Carvaggio pair that are in Santa Maria Del Popolo), but not so much as to appear a picture travel book. The images capture something of the stark majesty of the paintings themselves, and add a lovely gloss to any reading of the guide.

Extensive guides to both Ostia and Hadrian's Villa at Tivoli are to be applauded - as many guides have them simply as an addendum - whereas they're an essential part of this one, which is no less than they deserve. Centrale Montemartini, a subsidiary museum (of sorts) of the Capitoline museums, also gets much deserved page space. It's an absolutely wonderful museum, which is often overlooked.

One the flip side, though, there is very little mention of anything remotely related to the E.U.R, and one gets the impression that Macadam dislikes the suburb, and the fascist ties of Rome's past more generally so much that they fall by the way side. That's not to say that the E.U.R is not ugly - it is! - but it holds the so-called Square Colosseum, which is an interesting monument, and also the Museo Della Civiltà Romana which hosts full plaster casts of Trajan's column and also a miniature, to scale (1:250), replica of Rome under the rule of Constantine, built by Italo Gismondi. Both of these attractions are worth the journey out to the E.U.R alone, but they get frightful little mention (they're relegated to a small appendix near the end of the book).

Besides the huge amount of information for the traveller interested beyond the superficial levels, I think the real strength of the work lies in it's awareness of Rome as a truly eternal city, one with so many layers they're difficult to see all at once. In the guide Rome is, at once, the heart of a great classical empire, the home of the Popes, a medieval beacon of research and civilisation, a Papal city state and the capital of a united Italy - and she is, of course, all these things and more.

The guide itself gives the reader a flavour of Rome's embarrassingly rich cultural heritage through it's content, and this in reinforced with little snippets of information or quotes from famous visitors - Goethe, Keats and Shelly among many, many others. In essence, one gets a taste of the city, and can begin to piece together the myriad of things Rome actually is. That, to my mind, is the highest achievement any guide can aim for.

The current 2006 edition is a tad outdated, especially with regards to visiting the Forum, Palatine and Colosseum, but that's not a significant problem, nor really the fault of the author or this guide - it cannot be updated constantly. Most of the information is still relevant, but in Rome, of all cities, any visitor should be aware of the irony contained in the idea of Rome's constancy, but her ever changing face.

In summation, if you're visiting Rome and want a "cultural guide", there really is nothing that compares.