Laugh or Cry

In case this wasn’t obvious, I love Classics in general, but I’m especially interested in something called Classical Reception. Reception is the study of how Classical images, literature, ideas etc. etc. have been understood by people through the ages, and how they have changed Classics through their understanding.  This might include things like Mussolini and Hitler being very excited about ancient archaeology and using the distinctive Roman salute, or an artist reproducing the dying dog from Pompeii.

I find reception very interesting, but it does mean that I read articles with titles such as: “Mythoplasia and feminist intent: painting as sub/culture”, “The romanitas of the railway station”, or “The Uses of Reception: Derrida and the historical imperative”.  I’m sure these are all excellent articles in their field, but I’m so put off by the titles or the opening paragraph that I just stop trying to understand and go look at funny cats for a while or make myself a cup of tea.

However, I read a really interesting article last night called “The Use and Abuse of Antiquity: The Politics and Morality of Appropriation” in this book, and thought it was amazing.  It was all about understanding how and why fascist regimes used Classical archaeology and imagery as a statement about art as well as about themselves, and why it is not helpful just to put them into the evil bin and have done with it. It restored my faith in Reception as well as in my own comprehension ability.

I really encourage you, next time you’re out and about, to notice little Classical things about your surroundings and ask why they are there. Why do so many museums look like ancient temples? Why are there so many columns on government buildings? Why do we still use Latin mottos (E Pluribus Unum, Nemo Me Impune Lascessit etc.)? Classics is everywhere, it only remains to ask what purpose it serves.

In the meantime, I’ll be inside, trying to forget about the gorgeous weather outside the winddow by bashing my head against my keyboard and hoping a thesis emerges. Wish me luck!

What Will You Do?

Wow, it’s June.

I’ve been very bad about updating my blog for a multitude of reasons:

1. I’ve been very busy with my work for my Master’s Degree, which will be completed 2 weeks today (gah!)

2. I haven’t really been reading anything Classical and interesting at the moment, which most people seem to like to read.

3. Honestly, I just haven’t been having many thoughts worth sharing with the Interwebs on almost any subject. I know the Internet is useful because you can speak to people you’ve never met who might be interested in the same things, but whenever I’m on here I feel conflicted about what I want this blog to be.

But enough of that! I’ve been surfing lots of comics sites in my spare time (though calling them ‘comics’ kind of undermines them, I think… comics are Archie and Veronica, not the beautiful images Emily Carroll creates, or the wonderful world of Rice Boy), and I recognised how much I’d love to draw more. I’d especially love to make a full-length graphic novel-style story, with proper drawings, but now is definitely the time for baby steps. And what better time than June? I’ve decided to take part in the Thirty Days Project, which is designed to challenge people to do one creative thing every day this month. I will be doing at least one drawing a day. I would promise to post everything here or on the Thirty Days website, but that’s almost certainly going to be impossible for a variety of reasons. If the drawings aren’t cripplingly incompetent, I’ll post them here in a batch when I can.

That’s me sorted out then. What creative thing are you going to do this month?

Another Funny

Here’s another great comic for you Classical-minded friends. Have fun!

I thought I’d start a new kind of topic on this blog: how ancient ideas (or at least, ideas which were present in ancient times) resurface in modern culture. The moments where I notice stuff like that are the moments where I get most excited about Classics and how it can contribute to the world.

Today’s topic: Love as War

The Pat Benatar song ‘Love is a Battlefield’ is a good example of the trend we have in poetry and music where love is often described in terms of suffering, and especially in terms of war – the battle of the sexes etc. Another example is the slightly older song ‘Soldier of Love’, where the singer’s lady is asked to “lay down your arms/and love me peacefully”. 

The Eros Farnese, allegedly based on a Greek original


One of the most famous examples of love as war comes from the 1st Century BC/AD, from the poet Ovid. Ovid is one of the most famous poets of the Golden Age, along with Virgil and Catullus, but his bad behaviour (particularly with the Emperor Augustus’ daughter Julia) got him exiled to the Black Sea, where he spent the rest of his life writing gloomy poetry about how much he wanted to go home. There’s some evidence that Ovid’s love poetry contributed to his exile – he wrote several books called the Amores (often translated in English as ‘The Art of Love’), advising young men and women on how to acquire and keep a lover. In Book 1, Poem 9, he writes “All lovers are soldiers”. The Latin is rather more concise – “militat omnis amans”. In this context, the phrase “I’m a lover, not a fighter” might seem rather oxymoronic – to love is to fight. However, in several of his poems Ovid uses being in love as an excuse not to be an actual soldier – “Oh, you know, I would definitely drop everything and go fight at some corner of the world, but I’m a bit tied up at the moment with a certain lady, so you guys go and enjoy yourselves without me. Send me a postcard!”

Of course, all this has its roots in Ancient Greece, where Eros (or Cupid, as we know him) pierced the hearts of lovers with arrows of gold to inspire love, or arrows of lead to inspire dislike. If you have a deity flying around shooting at people, it follows naturally for love to be seen as something of a warlike endeavour. 

On a separate note – thank you so much to everyone who has stopped by to read the blog lately. It really boosts my spirits to see that people are reading and commenting and all the rest of it. Thank you all!

More Classics Jokes

Another excellent comic from SMBC. Enjoy!

I have been reading a terrifying book lately, called ‘The Shallows’, about how the Internet is changing the format of our brains and how we process information. The book reasons that the Internet sprays us with little bits of information which we browse lightly, rather than committing to the sort of “deep reading’ that allows us to follow an argument, that is, the kind of brain we have had since reading and writing were invented.

This book follows swift on the heels of an article I read in The Guardian recently about how e-readers allow a huge number of multimedia features to be incorporated into a book. For example, the e-reader version of ‘Wolf Hall’ by Hilary Mantel includes a discussion between the author and Dr. David Starkey, as well as useful illustrative links and so on. However, ‘The Shallows’ argues that these little gems detract from our focus as we read. I know I’d be on edge if I was looking for Easter eggs and hyperlinks as well as following a complex story line.

I was skeptical about e-readers, I’ll admit it. I thought they’d die the death of the 8-Track and Betamax, truth be told. I can see their advantage if you go travelling and don’t want to bring an entire library with you, but their appeal ended there, for me. I love the heft of a book in my hand, the ability to fold down page corners, the fact that I can (and do) drop it in the bath without worrying about the loss of my entire library. Reading this book, however, has persuaded me never to use an e-reader. The human brain, with its ability to focus deeply on a task (especially when that task is a book), is a triumph of evolution/design/both. Anything that distances my brain from the brain of the ancients is, in my opinion, a bad thing. 

Originally, literary works were written on scrolls, which were a bit cumbersome and hard to use. Wax tablets were used for day-to-day writing, since parchment was expensive. To accommodate longer notes, groups of wax tablets were tied together, making a rather thick book-like object. Early in the Christian Era, some bright spark decided to do the same thing to parchment, and in doing so invented what we call the codex, the book’s most recognizable precursor. From there we move on to monasteries, Gutenberg and other aspects of printing and publishing history, but that’s another story for another blog. It may be that the e-reader is just the next step in books and book-making. However, I feel like I don’t have the same deep engagement with the very substance of the page when I’m holding an e-reader. This might just be the novelty of the device, but reading a book in electronic format leaves me feeling disconnected from the page and ink substance of a real book, the page and ink substance with which the book was originally written. This may not be true of many modern authors, who mostly type their works, but I feel very far from ancient authors, who wrote on parchment, wax, or the versatile substance of their own minds. I feel as though I’m cheating by reading Homer in English, let alone in English on an e-reader.

An e-reader also changes my own reception of a work. When I read electronic type, it’s usually because I am looking for some sort of information- where we’re meeting tomorrow night, a bibliographical reference, the news, the opening times of a shop. Reading an e-book makes me feel like I’m strip-mining the book for information, rather than enjoying a story or speech or history. E-readers are efficient, I suppose, but efficiency isn’t the point. I don’t read just to gain information- I read to read! This ties in with the whole “art for art’s sake” feeling I have about Classics and life in general.

So, Cicero, Homer, and the others- I promise you that I will stay close to you and your bookish, codex-y, waxy roots, and far away from e-readers.

For whatever reason, most likely an accident of historical recording, people in the ancient world seem to have an incredible proclivity for cruelty, and probably the most famous cruelties were those inflicted by the Romans. So here are my top five worst ways to suffer like a Roman.

5. Skinned alive with your own crab

Source: http://www.google.co.uk/imgres?imgurl=http://faculty.ed.umuc.edu/~jmatthew/naples/fishcombo2.jpg&imgrefurl=http://faculty.ed.umuc.edu/~jmatthew/naples/Tiberius.htm&usg=__goDcIROCgREAEF0EuCggzDR-XgA=&h=450&w=346&sz=26&hl=en&start=2&um=1&itbs=1&tbnid=GSEIIC7iCyk1yM:&tbnh=127&tbnw=98&prev=/images%3Fq%3Dtiberius%2Bcrab%2Bfisherman%26um%3D1%26hl%3Den%26client%3Dsafari%26sa%3DN%26rls%3Den-us%26tbs%3Disch:1

This splendid story comes from my favourite historian Suetonius. Tiberius spent most of his reign on the island of Capri doing all sorts of naughty things. One day, a local fisherman caught a massive mullet, and, thinking that a fish of that size was worthy of the emperor alone, scampered up to the palace to present it to him. Tiberius was a terribly paranoid man, and was terrified at the thought that his palace could be so easily accessed by any local hick who knew to go round the back of the island. In reprisal, he ordered that the man’s face be rubbed raw with the fish. To make matters worse, the fisherman gave thanks that he had not also brought the massive crab he had caught, whereupon Tiberius ordered his guards to fetch the crab also, and used that as well as the fish to skin the man’s face completely. Probably apocryphal, but still very nasty.

4. The petard hoist

Seneca, tutor to Nero, had been a life-long Stoic and borderline ascetic, never eating or drinking too much, writing gory plays. Late in his life he became embroiled in a plot to kill the emperor whom he had once tutored. The plot was discovered and Seneca preferred to commit suicide than be executed. In true Roman style, he thought he would slit his wrists, but his age and the fact that he had been so frugal in his diet had restricted his veins, so he bled very slowly. Wanting to speed things up, he also cut the arteries at the back of his knees, but to no avail. He tried to do a Socrates and drink poison, but again his lean frame failed him. In the end he had to stand in a hot bath and suffocate himself with the steam. The ‘ironic’ thing is that Seneca’s Stoicism both led him to suicide and prevented him from it at the same time.

3. Can you smell roses?

Another rotten emperor was Elagabalus, whom I’ve mentioned before in this blog. He devised a clever scheme for retractable ceiling panels for one of his many dinner parties, which would allow flowers to be sprinkled on his guests as they ate. However, the fatal twist was that the flowers did not stop falling, and the people below were smothered under their weight.

2. The worst tiki torches

Source: Google

The boy emperor Nero is not known for being much of a nice guy. He killed his own mother and anyone else who stood in his way, and allegedly did nothing to stop Rome from burning to a crisp. Notwithstanding all of this, Nero is possibly best known for persecuting the early Christians, blaming them for the Great Fire. Not only did he sew them up in animal skins and set dogs on them, he also dipped them in tar and straw and set them on fire for use as lights in his outdoor banqueting hall.

1. Meddling friends

Cato the Younger was a highly respected Republican senator in the closing days of the Republic before the emperors and rabidly anti-Caesar. During the Civil War, when the tide was clearly turning in Caesar’s favour, Cato decided that it would be better to die than to have Caesar pardon him and spare his life. Not wanting a big fuss, like any modest Roman, he tried to stab himself when everyone had gone out, but his hand was inflamed and he botched it. He struggled and knocked over his bedside table, bringing his friends running. They found a doctor and stitched him up while Cato was still only semi-conscious, but when he came to and saw what had happened, he ripped open his stitches and tore out his own intestines in his bid to die. Not pretty.

And, as a lovely supplement –

Not technically a death, but still… 

Source here: http://www.uoregon.edu/~klio/im/rr/laterep/crassus-death.jpgThe East had always been alluring to the grasping Romans, particularly because it seemed to be full of people who were very hard to conquer. In 53 BC, Marcus Licinius Crassus, a close friend of Julius Caesar and the richest man in Rome at the time, was killed at the Battle of Carrhae (an overwhelming defeat for the Romans) and his body captured by the Parthians. To punish him in a post-mortem way for the greed which had driven him to invade them, they poured molten gold down his throat and preserved his head. Later, the Parthian court saw a performance of Euripides’ ‘Bacchae’, which has as its climax a scene involving a severed head. Guess whose head was used? Yes- that of poor Crassus. As Plutarch points out, it was a fittingly tragic end to a tragic campaign.