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.

Friday, September 18, 2009

The "Elginism" Movement.

I recently came across the website for a rather interesting internet movement, which operates under the banner - "Elginism".

I'm sure the name "Elgin" will be familiar to anyone who reads this, but in short, Lord Elgin, a British aristocrat, took the Parthenon marbles (often called the Elgin Marbles - a label I dislike) from Greece at the dawn of the 19th century and transported them to London, where they remain. That the British Government has not given the marbles back to Greece is a subject of much debate.

The website (here) defines Elginism as:

Elginism (ĕl’gĭnĭz’əm) n. 1801. An Act of cultural vandalism.

The aim of the movement and it's general ideals can be garnered here.

In short, it's a movement that wants the Parthenon marbles given back to Greece. It hosts a phenomenal amount of material, from all over the globe, regarding the marbles and the notion that they should be given back to Greece. Personally, I tend to agree.

For quite some time the British Museum has maintained the defence that Greece, and specifically Athens, has no place to properly display the marbles. While this may or may not have been true, earlier this year The New Acropolis Museum opened, and seemed to finally dismiss the British arguments for keeping the marbles, as now there was a suitable place for them to be housed.

Still, though, the British Museum has persisted. On their website they outline the idea that the marbles are part of "everyone’s shared heritage and transcend cultural boundaries", which while certainly a moot point, seems rather like a stubborn "bugger off Greece, you're not getting them, new museum or not". It betrays a thinly veiled arrogance that the marbles belong in London, which I think is mistaken.

There is no doubt in my mind that, as the Elginism movement states, Lord Elgin essentially stole the marbles for his own benefit (he sold them to the British museum in 1817) and it makes the very idea of them being in London a rather soiled and unfortunate one. The argument that in London the marbles are displayed in an "international cultural context" is a pretty poor one in my opinion. Strictly, of course, it's true, but it's still, not to put too fine a point on it, utter tosh.

The idea that London owns the cultural legacy of the marbles makes little sense to me. They are part of Greece's most important monument, and a religious one at that - they should be there.

There is an interesting philosophical question at the heart of this - if something is of global cultural significance, should anyone actually claim to own it? Perhaps not, but this applies to the British as much as the Greeks.

It will be debated for years to come, I have no doubt, but I just happen to feel that they should be given back to Greece simply because the Parthenon is there and they belong to the Parthenon.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

California is the Best of Classical Greece...

Something I spotted over at Rogueclassicism today caught my attention. It seems that Arnold Schwarzenegger, Governor of California, is using classical references in his speeches (when I say references, I mean blatant comparisons). This one comes from his 2007 State of the State address:

“We are the modern equivalent of the ancient city-states of Athens and Sparta. California has the ideas of Athens and the power of Sparta.”

"What a bloody strange thing to say", I thought to myself when I first read this. It got me to thinking: is the Governator (I don't get tired of using that sobriquet!) aware of the possible implications of his comparison?

I wonder - when he says California has the "ideas" of Athens and the "power" of Sparta, does he imagine that they'll work together initially, under a common goal (drive out those damn Persians again!), then when that goal's been achieved (Ciao Xerxes), they'll start to bicker until it's full blown war (Elephant Vs Whale - The Peloponnesian War)?

I applaud that he realises Athens and Sparta were city-states, but he seems to have missed the idea that they were great rivals, and that their respective strengths (as he labels them) were what caused them to become such great rivals. Continuing his analogy surely means California is heading for a troubled time.

The (modern stereotyped) image of City-Hall having chiseled, red cape wearing Spartan musclemen arguing with the intellectual, pederastic Athenian philosophers about which direction the state of California should take does make for some laughs (I think!)

My final thought was - will the "ideas" eventually be subjugated by the "power" and will California have to endure 30 tyrants? If so, it'll need the Governator at his best to drive them out. Another potential upshot is - once they've fought themselves into weakness, who'll be the Thebes that runs in and takes over in the aftermath?

The Washington Post reports that he continues the comparison by labelling California a "nation-state". One hopes he realises the potential for comparisons by extension - the city-states of Greece were famous four, if anything!, their incessant bickering and fighting.

The potential pitfalls of using comparisons with the classical world are numerous and it seems that the Governator has fell directly into one, and in turn highlights the difficult nature of using the classical world to get a modern political foot up.

Reading into his analogy is all just a bit of fun and could probably be continued ad absurdum. For example, does he realise the "power" of Sparta relied heavily on her rigid class system that actively exploited all non-Spartiates? Or that Athens, for all her ideas, ruled over two naval Empires that heavily exploited those under her protection? I could go on, but I won't

All in all, a rather interesting thing for the Governator to say, and something which has, no doubt, provided a fair but of discussion among classicists as to whether he really knew what he was saying, or if some speech writer simply thought it weighty enough to appeal to the common Californian. There is of course the possibility that, among the Governator's staff, there is a closet classicist sneaking references into his/her bosses' speeches!

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Tyrannicides are back.

Some rather good news. It seems that the Farnese collection in Naples is set to reopen it's doors on October 2nd.

Blogging Pompeii (a really excellent blog for everyone involved in archaeological work around the Bay of Naples) reports (from an Italian news service - available here) that the entire collection is scheduled to open once more to the public as of next month. The collection was undergoing a "reorganisation".

Given the quality of the collection, this is really superb news. The collection holds, among other treasures, the sculpture of the Athenian Tyrannicides (who were, monumental in the development of the Classical Athenian character and society). The pederastic couple of Harmodius and Aristogeiton (Ἁρμόδιος and Ἀριστογείτων) "liberated" Athens from the Peisistratids, and their legend subsequently became the symbol and heart of Athenian democracy.

Rather interestingly, although this is almost always the case, the extant sculpture is a Roman copy of a Greek copy of the original. The story goes - and it's a little confusing, as many stories regarding our extant statues are - that the Persians nicked the original when they sacked Athens in 480 B.C.E and depending on who you read, either Alexander or Seleucus the 1st returned it to the city sometime later.

In the meantime the Athenians produced a copy to replace the stolen original. Neither of these two Athenian versions are still around, and so the copy we have is a Roman reproduction (or original work, as you care to interpret it) of the 2nd Athenian version. The copy we have, although now in Naples, was originally found in Tivoli (near Rome) at Hadrian's Villa.

This is interesting for several reasons. Firstly, Hadrian was an immense collector of art, and one wonders how the democratic ideal represented by the Tyrannicides was installed within his Villa and how the inherent irony of it being placed in the villa of an Emperor played out to those that viewed it.

Secondly - Hadrian himself knew the power of a pederastic relationship (with Antonius, a young member of his entourage), and I wonder what elements of his own experience he could compare with that exuded by the statues.

The reorganisation seems to be a wonderful idea. According to the Italian news source, they've attempted to

"respond to the policy of exploiting the work through the reconstruction, where possible contexts of origin and to reconstruct the context and the time of formation of the collector's collection itself".

All in all a rather good idea. Viewing sculpture is a complex activity, and almost everything can change our affect our interpretation of the sculpture we're viewing. It's perhaps opening a can of worms to really try and set the works into their original context, for the notion of recreating the original context is, in itself, an act of creation. That said, it's an admirable pursuit, and I look forward to being able to view it, and witnessing how the new setting will affect the impact of viewing the statue.

Google Translate, rather usefully, can turn the Italian news source into an "English" one, which, although my Italian is pretty weak, seems to be a worthy translation. Link here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Ludi Romani and Actium.

This period of September was party time for the ancient Romans. From September 4th until the 19th (this seems to be the final length, as it was much shorter prior to the last century of the Republic and prior to Caesar's death started on the 5th - it was moved earlier in honour of him) they celebrated the Ludi Romani (Roman Games) - a religious festival honouring JVPITER OPTIMVS MAXIMVS (Jupiter best and greatest).

Following a procession from the Capitoline Hill to the Circus Maximus, the Romans engaged in chariot racing and some theatrical productions. Given Jupiter's status at the zenith of the Roman Pantheon, these games were the more important on the religious calendar. I've always found the Ludi Romani quite fascinating, yet the get comparatively little attention compared to the events that took place in the Colosseum (once it was built in the 1st Century .C.E), despite being the principal festival of the religious year. A testament to this is that one of the central works on the games remains Mommsen's chapter in his "Römische Forschungen", which was published in the 1860s.

September 2nd marked the anniversary of the Battle of Actium in 31 .B.C.E, when the forces of Octavian Caesar routed the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra in the Ionian Sea near Actium. Given the amount of space afforded Augustus and the Augustan Age here, I thought it'd only be fitting to mark the official start date of the whole period, for it was from Actium onwards that Octavian, although with some significant hurdles still to leap, was essentially in sole control of Rome, paving the way for all that comes after (including my lengthy rambling posts on the period of his rule!).

Depictions of Actium, naturally, come from a period when the victor was essentially in control of the whole Roman Empire and Augustus was particularly interested in making the arts part of his social overhaul. One of the most famous is from Vergil's Aeneid (Book VIII), which itself is perhaps coloured by the fact that Vergil's patron was non other than the Senate-avoiding Equestrian for life friend of Augustus - Maecenas. In Vergil the battle is almost mythic and certainly far removed from it's status as a Civil War.

Robert Gurval in his book "Actium and Augustus", makes the astute comment that Vergil's Actium is all about securing Actium's legacy to the "beginning of a more glorious future" rather than to the "distant horrors of a tainted past" (both pg.13). Regardless of how it's depicted, the magnitude of the battle and it's outcome can never be understated, not least by the fact that over 2000 years later, we're still remembering the anniversary.