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.