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.

No comments:

Post a Comment