Posts Tagged ‘History’

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!

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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.

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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.

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As with all historical fiction, Manfredi has the basic problem that the basic plot of his book is selected for him already- namely the final days of Julius Caesar until his assassination in the Senate House on 15 March 44 B.C.- so I was interested in how he was going to liven it up for someone who was already quite acquainted with the story. Manfredi wrote a very good series on Alexander the Great, which I read ages ago, and he’s had some commercial success with his books ‘Spartan‘ and ‘The Last Legion‘. In addition to this, he is a Professor of Classics in Italy, so he knows his stuff.

The story of Julius Caesar is exciting, but usually only when you’re hearing or seeing it for the first time- the portents in the sky, the mysterious soothsayer, the murder of the most powerful man in Rome- but after that it can get a bit flat. So to jazz up the storyline a bit, Manfredi invents a side story about a man racing to Rome to tell Caesar that his life is in danger. Meanwhile, back in the city, Caesar’s closest companion (invented, I believe, though there is a helpful glossary in the back to tell you which characters are real and which fake) is trying to find out Brutus’ plot before it’s too late, with the help of some useful Greek slaves. Oh, and Caesar’s epilepsy is playing up again, and he has to juggle his wife Calpurnia, his ex-mistress Servilia and current mistress Cleopatra, whom Antony’s been making eyes at, while preparing an attack on the East to avenge a lost legion and worrying about the Roman people thinking he wants to be king… phew!

All in all, I thought the book was quite good, though not stellar. In fact, the moment I found most exciting was the brief description of the opening ceremonies at Caesar’s funeral, which marked the close of the book. Still, I suppose it was nice to hint a bit at the new civil war to come, rather than finishing with Caesar’s crumpled body on the floor of the Senate. One criticism I have is that the tension was not quite as high as I would have liked, especially the moments where those investigating the plot think they might be about to be caught, though I was surprised at how engrossed I became in the final few scenes of Caesar’s life- will he go to the Senate? will he read the message in time?- despite knowing exactly what happens. I felt the death scene didn’t take long enough either. I like my deaths slow-mo, like in films- that way you can tell that they’re especially important and tragic. It wouldn’t necessarily have been that hard to do either for a writer of Manfredi’s expertise. A closer glimpse into Caesar’s mind would have been appreciated too. Does he want to be king? Does he just want to survive? What does he really think? Instead the lead roles in the story are given to other people, which seems a shame.

Enough wingeing! I did enjoy the revitalized role of Cleopatra in this book, as well as Antony’s slimyness. The relationship between Caesar and Calpurnia, his barren wife, was particularly poignant, as was that between Brutus and Porcia. He has a good eye for detail, and he really shed a bit of light on a few minor aspects of Roman life, like the little wayside inns on the road to Rome. I guess I would recommend this book to people who might not be very well-versed in Classics yet and/or want to put a human face on well-known events, but I doubt I would mention it to people who already know the story too well to be surprised by anything new.

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There was a  brief discussion on Radio 4’s Today programme this morning (start from 1 hour 24 minutes in) featuring Professor Beard talking about the comparisons between Roman Emperors and American Presidents, prompted by a new book by Nigel Hamilton coming out called ‘American Caesars’. Thankfully he’s just given the presidents “the Suetonius treatment”, which is much better than the tired trope of comparing presidents individually and directly to any particular emperor, though Prof. Beard seemed quite keen to compare JFK to Nero, which I had never thought of before…

I reviewed Suetonius’ ‘Twelve Caesars’ earlier on this blog, and I highly recommend it! Thankfully you can listen to the broadcast as well, courtesy of the BBC’s wonderful iPlayer system.

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Mary Beard

Oh dear. I picked up my university’s august news organ Varsity yesterday because it promised an interview with “classics blogger” Mary Beard- who also happens to be a very highly respected academic, the only female Classics professor at Cambridge University, you know, when she’s not blogging. I was therefore slightly surprised when the article referred to her continuously as “Mrs. Beard”, as if she did not have any of her postgraduate degrees, let alone the highly-sought  prize of a professorship at Cambridge.

I’m not trying to make this into a feminist issue, but I can’t help thinking that, hypothetically speaking, if the interviewer were speaking to Simon Goldhill, a Classics professor from Kings, he definitely would have been called ‘Professor Goldhill’. Mary has certainly worked hard for her status, and the obstacles she has faced being both an academic and a mother is quite different from those which male academics with children face (for the details, go to her blog), and if anyone has earned the right to be called by their proper title, it is her. She’s more than a pity party too- she’s very, very good at what she does. Her book ‘Pompeii‘ really is one of my favourite books on the subject of the ancient town, primarily because she managed to really get a feel for the city as if it were alive and well again in the 1st century AD, complete with small practical notes on subjects like how Romans may have dealt with one way streets in the dark.

Also, as a smaller technical point, she wouldn’t be called “Mrs. Beard” anyway! For those in the know (i.e. those who listened to ‘Desert Island Discs’ when she was featured), her husband’s name is Professsor Robin Cormack- ‘Beard’ is her maiden name. “Mrs. Beard” is, in fact, Mary’s late mother (and that would have been a rather odd interview).

As an undergraduate I very much enjoyed my time with Mary in supervisions and field trips (though my year did not get to go to Paris like this year’s group!), and I can say with a great deal of background knowledge that she has worked and continues to work incredibly hard in her academic career and for her students- she gave me a reference for my Master’s at the very last minute without a grumble (to which she would have been perfectly entitled), and the late-night Sunday supervisions at her house helped me in my final year no end.

So, thank you, Professor Beard. Long may you reign.

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ex. CNG E225, 365.

Sestertius of Didius Julianus


Sorry it’s been so long since my last post! I hope this makes up for it.

After the reign of the well-known emperor Commodus, the Roman empire experience an unfortunate year known as ‘The Year of the Five Emperors’, which outdid the last upheaval after the death of Nero, which was The Year of the Four Emperors. Pertinax, Commodus’ successor, reigned for a pitiful 83 days before being killed by his own guards, allegedly over pay.

The finances of the Empire were in a terrible state after the death of Commodus in 192 AD, and pay for the military was a killing matter. According to Cassius Dio’s history of the incident, when Julianus heard of the death of the Emperor, he rushed to the camp and, since he was not allowed in, “standing at the gates of the enclosure, made bids to the soldiers for the rule over the Romans”. The two contenders, Julianus and another man named Sulpicius (who, shamefully, has no article on Wikipedia), essentially placed bids for the position of Ruler of the Civilized World by promising each soldier a certain amount of money. At the last moment, right when it seemed that Sulpicius was going to win, Didius placed a bid of 25,000 sestertii per soldier, which was approximately twenty five times the annual pay of an ordinary foot soldier, and won the auction. According to the Historia Augusta, he actually gave each of them 30,000. Unhelpfully, the sources do not say how many soldiers were included in his promise, but given that a Roman legion at that time consisted of 5,400 men, Didius must have spent upwards of 162,000,000 sestertii. According to Wikipedia, that amount could have bought 324,000 donkeys.

The sources differ on Julianus’ personality. Dio says he was an “insatiate money-getter”, whereas the Historia Augusta says he was “very reasonable in the matter of granting liberty”. They also differ on his age, with Dio saying he died aged 60, and the Historia Augusta insisting he was 56 years and 4 months old. In any event, he ruled for two months and five days before being killed by a soldier. According to Dio, his last words were “But what evil have I done? Whom have I killed?”

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