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:

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.