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 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.