Archive for September, 2009

Ways that Classics has ruined me as a normal person Number 187:

When I walk, sit, dance, lounge, amble or saunter anywhere, I imagine what the place would look like if it was being excavated by archaeologists thousands of years later. The best part is using different disaster scenarios which would result in the  “fixing” of the city like Pompeii. Floods, sudden Day-After-Tomorrow-esque freezes, volcanic eruptions, mudslides, rock slides… I live in a low-lying area, so a volcanic eruption is much less likely than a flood, but hey, a girl can dream (though she probably shouldn’t).

Just imagine: Everything made of paper or wood has gone (depending on the situation- Herculaneum was destroyed at the same time as Pompeii but by boiling mud, which preserved lots of wood there), and unless perishable things have been clothed in pumice á la Pompeii, they’ve disappeared too.  Left untended, lampposts have buckled and bent, arches have slumped, columns have fallen, roofs have caved in. There are still road signs, glass objects, jewellery, stone objects and so forth, but the gardens have gone, as have the people and animals. Empty, and yet somehow full.

I don’t do this as a macabre what-if-everyone-was-dead exercise, like ’28 Days Later’, but more from the point of view of the archaeologist arriving to analyse the situation. I did a paper this year on the archaeology of the prehistoric Aegean, which is the area including Greece, Asia Minor and the Greek islands, and almost every essay I wrote concluded that we needed more evidence before we could say anything definitively on the subject. This was true for just about everything- Mycenaean religion, Minoan human sacrifice (or not), the development of civilization… Anyway, most of the course involved us looking at objects such as rings, frescoes, bits of gypsum and such like, postulating their use and what they could tell us about how people lived over 3000 years ago. Not surprisingly, the way to shove an artifact under the archaeological carpet was to say “er, um, probably for religious use”.

What sort of things nowadays would be completely misunderstood? Would every Neoclassical building be thought to be a temple through analogy with Classical ruins? What would they make of McDonalds? I bet subway systems would blow their minds. Buses? High heels (granted they survive)? I wish so much that I could travel to the future, go to a museum and see how they deal with some of the more bizarre stuff we take for granted- fashion mannequins, bookends, tea strainers, bumper stickers…

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As a self-appointed Classics ambassador, I obviously feel it my duty to defend my subject whenever the opportunity arises. Most of the time, this is in situations when the “use” of my subject is questioned. Admittedly, Classics has very few practical applications outside of academia, just like quantum physics or advanced mathematics. However, sometimes I find aspects of life where the use of Classics becomes clear (and no, I’m not just talking about columns, sewer systems or arches), and on such occasions I would just like to say “You’re welcome, world”.

  • Great Medical Terminology.  Today, for various reasons, I was reading about Marfan Syndrome, a disease which elongates the bones and causes heart problems. Two famous sufferers of this disease were Abraham Lincoln and the Pharaoh Akenaten (maybe). Anyway, the medical word for the elongation of limbs (according to Wikipedia, anyway) is dolichostenomelia. Now, I’m a strange sort of person who likes knowing what words mean, so out came my Ancient Greek dictionary. When you break down the word “dolichostenomelia”, it means literally “long-narrow-spearshaft”. Now that’s a much more beautiful image than “long-bony-ness”.
  • Shakespeare. Ok, admittedly, Shakespeare wasn’t an ancient, and I’m not referring to the fact that the Greeks invented theatre (though, again, you’re welcome). However, Shakespeare wrote at least four plays on Classical topics (Cymbeline, Timon of Athens, Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus) and he cleverly used Classical names to the maximum in other plays. For example, in ‘Two Gentlemen of Verona’, the character Proteus (whose affections are changeable, to put it nicely) is named after the Greek god of the same name, who was known for shape-shifting. Squirmy character, squirmy deity.
  • Great Scientific Terminology. This is slightly different from the medical entry above. Again, Wikipedia is my “source”. In Europe there are no hummingbirds, but they do have hummingbird moths, which resemble hummingbirds in almost every way except for the fact that they are not, of course, birds. Now, the scientific name for such a creature could have been “hummingbird-ish thing”, but instead it’s Macroglossum stellatarum, which means literally “long-tongued-starry-creature”. How beautiful.
  • Planet names. I know that people realize that the planets of our solar system are named after the Roman pantheon, but they are named such for a reason. For example, Jupiter, king of the gods, has the biggest planet, and its moons are named after his various conquests (though not his wife…). But it gets even more clever! Mars, for example, has two moons, named Phobos and Deimos. In Greek mythology, the god Ares (Greek name for Mars) had two horses named Fear and Panic. The Greek for fear and panic? Phobos and Deimos. Also, the moon of Pluto is called Charon, the ferryman of the dead across the River Styx.
  • Unintentionally Funny Names. I mentioned the lap-dancing club named ‘Medusa’ a few posts ago, but there are some more. For example Trojan condoms, or really anything named after the Trojans (USC, I’m looking at you here). Does no one remember that the Trojans lost the war because they allowed a breach in their walls to be opened for a suspiciously hollow horse, and were slaughtered en masse by Greeks? Not the best image for a condom designed to protect… Ajax cleaning powder, named after a man who went mad and killed a load of sheep thinking they were people, then killed himself. If anyone needed cleansing it was him… Achilles Global, whose motto is “Services for Sustainable Procurement”, when nothing about the original Achilles was in any way sustainable… And my favourite, the use of Medusa, the ugliest woman in the world punished for her vanity, as the logo of Versace. 

Anyway, enough gloating. No doubt I’ll be making new lists of things to thank Classics for as they occur to me.

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Recently I read on this website that Commodus, the emperor most famous for being killed by Russell Crowe in the film ‘Gladiator’, hardly resembled his film persona. Here’s what the site says:

Commodus, the hare-lipped Roman Emperor who lusted after his sister in the film, was in real life held in high esteem by the senate and ruled for a successful 13 years (rather than the ineffectual few months depicted in the film). Also, though the Emperor did, in fact, have an enthusiasm for gladiatorial combat (he did so incognito), he didn’t get his ticket punched in the arena. He was killed in the bath by a wrestler named Narcissus to prevent him taking office as consul.

Admittedly, the film ‘Gladiator’ has a lot to answer for. For instance, they get the geography of Rome wrong; Marcus Aurelius probably would never have addressed his son as ‘Commodus’, as his first name was Lucius; he was indeed killed by a man called Narcissus (no relation to the Narcissus of Echo and gardening fame); he ruled from 177 to 192 AD, not a few months or weeks, and he probably wasn’t incestuous (though he wouldn’t be the first…). However, I feel this misguided website needs a spot of correction.

1. I doubt very much that the emperor was held “in high esteem” by the Senate. The Roman Senate was in the practice of handing out awards to emperors for just about no reason, so the awards he accumulated were about as reflective of their “esteem” as giving him someone’s collection of pocket lint. Also, when he died, the Senate issued a ‘damnatio memoriae’ against him, which involved erasing his name from inscriptions, destroying or altering his statues, and sometimes pulling down buildings which he built. So much for “high esteem”.

2. As for his rule being “successful”, define success. He did stop the Second Germanic War, but what else? According to my source (which is, surprisingly, not Wikipedia, but a book called ‘Roman Coins and Their Values’ by David Sear), he retired from public life and left the daily running of the Empire to various favourites.

3. “Enthusiasm for gladiatorial combat” doesn’t quite cut it. He was so keen on fighting beasts in the arena that Sear says that he “disgraced the purple”. Also, Roman emperors are notoriously bad at doing anything incognito, and there would have been little point in fighting wild beasts incognito- if the ringside assistants don’t know you’re the Emperor, how will they know when to save you, rather than letting you be ripped apart for entertainment?

4. The article fails to mention that Commodus was quite, quite mad. The picture of Commodus used by the website for this article is a statue of him as Hercules, the super-strong god, and the likeness isn’t just for artistic effect. Sear says that Commodus believed himself to be Hercules reincarnated, and made people worship him. Statues of Hercules-Commodus were set up in public places to remind the people what was what (or who was who).

So there you have it. It turns out that you can’t believe what you see on the cinema or read on the Internet. Except here- here you are safe. Relatively.

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I was thinking as I was on the train this morning: Life is so wonderful. Life in general as well as my life in particular. We live in such an amazing, complex world, and I adore the complexity of it all. Not just the biological complexity, though of course that is also astounding- how do trees get water to go up so high?- but the complexity of human society and how we learn and enjoy things.

I loved (and sometimes hated) university  for that reason: we spent all of our time wallowing in the complexities of things. Why was this written this way, how did this idea evolve, and so forth. We take so many things in this life for granted, and it’s wonderful to see underneath the shell of that simplicity to the machinery underneath- the fears, the misconceptions and the sheer art of how we compose and present ideas, like taking the back off of a computer or popping the hood of a car. 

I recently saw the new Quentin Tarantino film ‘Inglourious Basterds’ [sic], and before seeing it I read an interesting essay about the strange rise in “revenge dramas’ which had happy endings. The author of the piece pointed out that traditional vengeance stories ended in a strong message to avoid seeking revenge at the risk of losing yourself: the Oresteia of Aeschylus all the way through to The Godfather. Perhaps, the essay postulated, revenge was okay as long as it was against such clearly evil forces like Nazism, hence the production of this new film. However, when I went to see it, it was so much more than just a simple ‘Kill the baddies’  film. It could also be a delicate discussion of what made someone human, why we think violence against Nazis (or perhaps against Germans in the 1940s in general) is acceptable, though when they massacre us it’s somehow barbaric for them to glory in it.

See? Life can be so beautiful when it’s complicated! Embrace complexity! I am coming up with a new motivational phase: “Pop the hood of life!” Let me know if it catches on.

It probably won’t- it sounds a bit like there’s been a breakdown…

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This story probably belongs to one of those ‘Isn’t It Eerily Coincidental’ type groups, but I think it’s marvellous, particularly because I haven’t heard it anywhere else.

So, long ago in Ancient Rome, the Romans were ruled by kings. This was before the Senate, before Hannibal, before pretty much everything. Kings ruled Rome from its founding by “Romulus” in 753 BC until 496 BC.

In 496 BC the king in question was called Lucius Tarquinius Superbus (unfortunately pronounced ‘su-per-bus’ not ‘super-bus’, which would be more fun), a.k.a. Tarquin the Proud. Tarquin was badly behaved, and in turn had a badly behaved son called Sextus Tarquinius. Sextus Tarquinius fell in love with the wife of his cousin, a fellow nobleman, called Lucretia (the wife, not the cousin), and forced her to sleep with him. She told her husband and father about the outrage and then, lest she become an example for unfaithful wives to come, killed herself to avoid the shame. As you do.

Sextus’ cousin was upset, understandably, and so was Lucretia’s kinsman (a word meaning ‘we don’t really know how he was related to her, but he sure got involved’) Lucius Junius Brutus. Lucius Junius Brutus overthrew Tarquin the Proud and set up the Roman Republic, which went on to conquer the world.

Stay with me.

Now, around 44 BC, a man called Julius Caesar (you may have heard of him) proclaimed himself “dictator for life” in Rome, and was promptly killed by just about everybody. It felt like that anyway- Suetonius describes the scene, including the moment when Caesar rather dimly shouts ‘Why, this is violence!’ Yes, well done, Julius. Anyway, the head honcho of that little affair was called Marcus Junius Brutus, who claimed he was related to the famous Lucius Junius Brutus who freed Rome from the kings (Side note: this is impossible, as Lucius had only one son, who died before procreating). According to legend, right after stabbing Caesar, Brutus waved his bloody dagger aloft and cried “Sic semper tyrranus“, translated as ‘thus always to tyrants’, or ‘that’s what you get!’ The image of Brutus standing over the dead Caesar with his bloody dagger is on the seal of the state of Virginia, and ‘sic semper tyrannus‘ is its motto.

Again, stay with me. Here is where it gets good.

A less long time ago in England, a baby boy was born to a Mr. and Mrs. Booth. The Booths, being Classical types, named their son Junius Brutus, after the liberator (and possibly after the one who murdered Caesar- despite what Wikipedia says, it’s hard to tell, what with the Romans being so conservative about names). Junius became a great Shakespearean actor and moved to America, where he had three sons who also became actors, and seven other children who didn’t. One of Junius’ sons had the catchy name John Wilkes.

See where I’m going with this?

Little Johnny Wilkes Booth grew up to be the man who assassinated Lincoln. As he jumped from the box where the president lay dying, he allegedly shouted “Sic semper tyrannus“.

So. Two “descendants” of a Lucius Junius killed two world leaders and shouted the same thing, but divided by over 1900 years. Both were also chased and killed for their efforts.

Two more interesting tidbits:

1. Both Lincoln and Caesar were killed on the 15th of a month (Caesar in March, Lincoln in April).

2. The famous Booth family of actors once performed Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1864. Disappointingly for my story, John Wilkes played Mark Antony (he of ‘unleash the dogs of war’ fame), not Brutus. John Wilkes’ more talented brother Edwin took that role.

The best part about this story? It adds so much more depth to Lincoln’s assassination. When the only explanation for Booth’s quip is that it’s the state motto of Virginia, it doesn’t fully reveal Booth’s continuity with other self-proclaimed “tyrant-slayers”. Booth wasn’t just a violent racist, he saw himself as one of the great assassins of history, whose boldness would usher in a new way of life for the country, like the two Brutuses before him. It matters that he wasn’t just a guy who really knew his state mottos- he was fitting himself into the shoes of the archetypal vigilante.

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