When I wrote a post last month about approaches to women’s history, I included as an image a wall painting from Pompeii that depicts an all female dinner party. I chose it simply for the lack of men present, but I wanted to return to it briefly, as there is much about it that intrigues me. It’s possible I have encountered this particular painting in past visits to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, but it didn’t grab my attention until I saw it in 2019 as part of the Ashmolean’s Last Supper in Pompeiiexhibit.
The depiction of a convivium – a Roman dinner party – in wall paintings is hardly unusual. There are many versions of this from across Pompeii, Herculaneum, and elsewhere. Archaeologists and historians have picked many of these images apart, looking at textiles, drinking vessels, postures, the arrangement of bodies, and the composition of the dinner party. I suspect that mixed company is the standard, as is seen in this fresco, not coincidentally found in the same building as the one above.
Here we have two couples reclining on triclinia, the standard expectation for Roman dining. Evidence from literary sources leaves some debate about the position women took – either sitting upright (Valerius Maximus 2.1.2) or reclined as men (Cic. Att. 5.1), with some suggestion that those reclining were of lower social or legal status. This does not seem to be the case in the painting of only women, where figures are sitting, standing, and at least two are reclining, seen to the left and slightly behind the woman playing an aulos.
The richness of silver vessels, the fabrics and soft furnishings throughout the room, the clothing and hair accessories, and the overall ambiance cannot be denied. This very clearly depicts women at leisure, engaged in the same kind of otium that was very much part of the elite aristocratic male norm. The wealth of the women shown here is also evident in the pair of slaves, watching the scene from behind a curtain.
They may seem ambiguous at a quick glance, simply another pair of women who are at this party. However, their matching dresses, hairtsyles, headbands, and bracelets are more akin to a kind of uniform, indicating these women are most likely slaves of the household. I find this detail extraordinary: there are often attendants or observers in the background of wall paintings, but I cannot think of another example that is this clear in ascribing servile status to those depicted.
Finally, what I find even more intriguing about both these dining scenes, is their location in what has been identified as the Fullonica of Sestius Venustus, (I.3.15-16, 18) on the Vicolo del Menandro. Originally excavated in phases in the mid 19th century, this is a series of small interconnected workshops that were likely some combination of fullers and dyers. Two of the structures contain evidence for large hearths/furnaces, and tubs built atop podiums that could have been used in the process of cleaning or dying clothing. There is, of course, some issue with the designation of the name of the shop – Matteo Della Corte originially claimed CIL IV 1082 was a dipinto naming Sestius Venustus, which has subsequently been re-edited as Segius Venustus Ofnoedn. Regardless of who, the what does seem fairly clear, as the archaeological remains do seem indicative of textile work, and this is a neighbourhood littered with small workshops and shops. Furthermore, whilst it is not unusual by any means to find a workshop or fullery with a detailed decorative scheme (see, for example, the Fullonica of Stephanus), it does seem a little odd to find depictions of what appear to be quite lavish convivia in what is an otherwise rather plain space. Apart from some block colouring in a niche, likely a lararium, in the adjacent structure (doorway 15), no other decoration or finds are recorded. They seem out of place somehow. The choice of images could be indicative of certain aspirations for a non-working life, where the owner was engaged in more otium than laundry. Perhaps the buildings have been mis-identified and were involved with food production rather than fullery. Or maybe, the commissioner simply got stuck in the dining section of the painter’s selection book. In any case, the choice of an all female dining party remains unusual, and that in and of itself makes this notable.
Addendum: As was pointed out to me on Twitter, this painting could also refer to Menander’s Synaristosai, which is often translated alternately as ‘Women lunching together’ or ‘Women at breakfast,’ and has been depicted in mosaics, one of which was found in the so-called villa of Cicero in Pompeii.
On this, the last day of Women’s History Month, it seems an opportune time to consider something about how we approach women in ancient history and archaeology. I am hardly one who would normally consider myself an expert on gender studies, nor am I well versed in the appropriate theory. But that certainly doesn’t prevent women from appearing in my research, sometimes quite prominently, and when they do, I often find myself disappointed, if not a bit enraged by the results. I have often said there are certain areas of study where logic seems to fly out the window and this is certainly one of them – assumptions are made (not exclusively by male scholars I should add) – about how women would have behaved, their importance or influence in ancient life, and their ability to have agency. In my work on Pompeii, I have encountered this time and again in regards to funerary commemoration, the epigraphic record, especially in regards to the ability or to read and write graffiti, and in political engagement to name just a few areas.
Take, for example, Naevoleia Tyche, a woman I wrote about extensively in my first book. She and her husband have two separate tombs on opposite sides of the city. The conclusion has always been that he died first, and she, being the stereotypical nouveau riche freedwoman, wasn’t happy with the fairly humble structure and built her own more lavish tomb. Except if you crawl around the back (careful – brambles!) of the monument built by her husband, you discover that it was built as a single structure with the neighbouring tomb, its twin in design, that belongs to a fellow member of the Augustales. Add in the award of a civic honour to the husband, and the interpretation changes entirely. She is not a dissatisfied upwardly mobile bitch: her husband probably honoured an agreement with his friend in building the first tomb, and then the other was built to include his new honours and establish a more substantial (and yes, status grabbing) monument for their heirs. As the tombs were built in the same decade, it is just as likely he was involved as he wasn’t. It is impossible to know, but the assumption, which is more likely than not based on more modern ideas about women and wealth, remains nonetheless. And this irks me.
In the back of my mind somewhere there is, therefore, this sort of constant niggling thought about how to do better when it comes to presenting the women of antiquity, and I admit I have struggled at times to do it as I would like, both in my research and my teaching. Occasionally though, there are moments in research where you have a half formed idea about a theory or an approach, and then you come across something that helps it all fall into place. It is revelatory – a moment of clarity – allowing you to not only move forward with your research, but also changing your thinking in a significant way. For me, this happened last year with the nearly simultaneous reading of two books on Roman women: Anise K. Strong’s Prostitutes and Matrons in the Roman World (2016) and Sarah Levin-Richardson’s The Brothel of Pompeii (2019), the latter of which I read in part for a review in the Journal of Roman Studies.
It might seem obvious to suggest these two books intersect significantly. After all, they are both fundamentally concerned with prostitution in the Roman world. But it is not necessarily the subject that is important here, but rather the method by which the topic is approached. Both scholars are logical. They approach the evidence as evidence, and evaluate it for what it is. I realise that sounds like what we, as researchers are supposed to do, but it doesn’t always happen that way, especially when it comes to women. For example, there are a large number of women whose names appear in the electoral dipintiof Pompeii. Henrik Mouritsen has dismissed them repeatedly as insignificant. Women can’t vote, so have no role to play in politics. He doesn’t really provide a decent explanation for why women would be involved in the programmata, and does not appear to think they are even worth mentioning in an attempt to understand the political life of Pompeii. He all but erases them. In his effort to document the graffiti of the city, Matteo Della Corte decided that if a woman’s name appeared in a graffito, she was most likely a prostitute. If her name appeared more than once (even though, due to the nature of graffiti, it might not actually be the same individual) she was definitely a whore. Never mind the fact that women did inscribe graffiti themselves, and could have signed her own name in the same way countless men did.
Logic, therefore, hasn’t always been applied.
For both Strong and Levin-Richardson, however, logic is the rule. This is not only a hugely refreshing change in scholarship, but to my mind, is the way forward. Strip back the ideas that have been formed over the last two hundred years, and start from the beginning. Look at the evidence as evidence, not as evidence for women or prostitutes or whatever category it may be. Go where that leads.
The brothel in Pompeii is, without doubt, one of the most popular buildings for tourists to visit in the city. It is presented by guides as a dark and narrow space, with small, uncomfortable masonry beds, erotic graffiti scratched into the walls by bored men waiting their turn, and titillating paintings of sex acts, a menu of sorts, providing options over each doorway. (And if you doubt this is still the case, my dad got into an argument with a guide we overheard relaying such nonsense.) One could argue this is for tourists alone, but many scholars have repeated similar claims. The brothel has been described as dark and seedy, the paintings as obscene, the beds as small and indicative of the lowest kind of establishment. Levin-Richardson has shown quite the opposite by evaluating the evidence for what it is, not where it is. Removed from the context of a place selling sex, the masonry couches are bigger than the average found in houses in Pompeii and elsewhere in the Greek and Roman world. They are bigger, indeed, than many dining couches meant to hold three reclining adults. The majority of the graffiti does not contain any sexual or erotic content. The frescoes are heteronormative, male-female pairs engaged in genital to genital (no oral or anal) sex, with the women’s breasts obscured by linens or breast bands. The material finds of razors and basins and cups suggest drinking, possible food consumption, and grooming. This isn’t a den of inequity. It is, in Levin-Richardson’s words a ‘carefully curated sexual universe’ that was more about selling a sexual experience than sex. It was, she concludes, likely a failed business model and probably the reason that this structure, although held as the exemplum of a Roman brothel, is the only one of its kind.
Strong takes a larger view of women and sex – not just focusing on paid sex workers, but on the relationship Romans had with sex and sexuality both in and out of the home. This a wide ranging approach, considering moral and legal standpoints in addition to the material remains. She too is logical, approaching the evidence in a manner that allows her to (I think quite successfully) dismantle some long held scholarly interpretations of the ancient evidence. The seemingly ubiquitousness of sexual activity in wall paintings – whether in a brothel, bath house, or private home – have staunchly been viewed as depicting prostitutes rather than husbands and wives or any other possible pairing in what she refers to as ‘an unfortunate legacy of nineteenth-century prudishness.’ Consider that there are no known images of prostitutes that survive: there was no clear visual distinctions between prostitutes and matrons for Romans, it was a moral one. Therefore, the standard view that any paintings of fully clothed women are wives and any semi-nude or naked are whores, regardless of context or location cannot hold true. Strong also does a comprehensive job of dispelling ideas about sexual behaviours and moral zoning. She details the many ways ancient literature informs us that matrons and prostitutes did interact. Livy’s account of the Bacchanalian affair, for example, includes the prostitute Hispala Faecenia being housed in the house of Sulpicia whilst the cult is investigated. That upper-class Roman women were sheltered or somehow removed from sex outside of the marriage bed is also problematic. Ovid, for example, claims he wrote Ara Amatoria for meretrices (1.31-4), but that cannot be meant literally. (As Strong says: ‘‘He cannot be alleging that his audience consists of impoverished illiterate streetwalkers.’) The elegists wrote of extra-marital affairs with proper Roman matrons, which goes against everything modern scholars assume about this category of women. This is why Strong says that ‘[e]ven if the women themselves are imaginary characters, the invention of an entire fictional category of women for poets to make socially acceptable love with seems implausible.’ That this type of poetry existed suggests that Romans were more fluid in their understanding and tolerance of sexual relationships than we allow them to be.
Her take on the concept of identifying brothels is also… well… logical. What do brothels need? Not the masonry beds, sexual images, and erotic graffiti that Andrew Wallace Hadrill and others have used to identify brothels. Brothels need to be centrally located to attract clientele, preferably with multiple access points, and a reliable source of water. The brothel in Pompeii certainly fits this model – Levin-Richardson even identifies nearby public fountains and imagines the collection of water as a way for the prostitutes to drum up business or take a break – as do a number of other sites Strong identifies. She points out that both Cicero and Frontinus complain about public water being siphoned off by brothels (Cic. Cael. 34; Frontinus de Aqua. 76.1-2), and illustrates through other literary sources that brothels were central, and generally not shame inducing for male clients to use. The former characteristics used for identification are rightly dismissed as unnecessary. A bed isn’t a pre-requisite for sex. Water for washing afterwards is. Logic.
There is, of course, much more that could be said about the content of these books. Ultimately though, they represent so much more than the sum of their research. The manner in which Levin-Richardson and Strong evaluate evidence, removed from the burden of nineteenth and twentieth century interpretations, and see it for the sake of itself, is startling in its approach. It shouldn’t be, but it is. I think that this is why I found reading the books together transformative, because they simultaneously reinforced just how badly the study of women in antiquity has ofttimes been done, and at the same time, present a way forward. I, for one, will happily follow in their footsteps.
News broke over the weekend of an exciting and unique new find in Pompeii, an intact chariot of a type that has no parallels in the known remains of Roman Italy. The vehicle was discovered in conjunction with the ongoing excavations in the villa di Civita Giuliana. Located to the north of the city walls, this villa was partially excavated at the beginning of the twentieth century, but has only recently become the subject of more detailed recovery work. This is the result of an ongoing joint project which was conceived as a reaction to illegal tunnels dug through the property by antiquities black marketeers – indeed, it is sheer luck that one of the looter’s tunnels only just misses the latest discovery. There have been numerous finds coming out of these excavations, including the skeletons of three horses complete with harnesses (2018) in a stable block, and more recently, the remains of two male victims of the eruption (2020).
Late last year archaeologists discovered a double porticoed room leading into an open courtyard adjacent to the stable where the remains of the horses were previously found. An oak beamed ceiling, carbonised and preserved by the eruption, was found in the same room as the chariot. The preservation is stunning: mineralised wood (identified as beech), imprints of organic material (created by injecting plaster into cavities), iron wheels, metal arm and back rests, and decorative elements of tin and bronze. This is an incredibly rich object with red and black painted wood panels that alternate along the sides of the structure with engraved bronze sheets, which are further enhanced by tin medallions depicting figures. Organic material reveal traces of cushions, ropes that would have held garlands of flowers, and two sheafs of wheat imprinted in the ash on the seat of the carriage.
Aspects of the decoration, the design of the chariot, and the traces of organic material are currently fueling the scholarly debate as to how these should be interpreted, and the exact purpose of the vehicle. It has been identified as a pilentum, a specific kind of four wheeled carriage used by women. Livy (5.25.7) refers to the use of pilenta by women for festivals and games, whereas the standard two wheeled carpenta was for use on holy and work days. No other remains of a pilentum have been attested in archaeological contexts in Italy, but some comparison may be drawn to other artefacts such as this statuette of the goddess Cybele. The wheatsheafs, along with the use of this type of vehicle for festivals, has led to some speculation that it may have been used by a priestess in processions related to the worship of Ceres or Venus. As the resident patron deity of the city, Venus did have her own public priestesses, and her celebration would have been foremost in the local religious calendar. Ceres is another popular goddess in Pompeii, with numerous priestesses attested epigraphically who were dedicated to her cult. The presence of stalks of wheat in the chariot at the time it was buried in volcanic debris could indicate a link to Ceres, as she was the goddess of fertility and all things agricultural. What a festival for her might look like, and more to the point, where a procession might lead in the city is more difficult to assess. Ceres is one of many of the gods who are present in the written record of Pompeii, but for whom no temple has ever been ascribed.
The erotic images – visible on two of the three large medallions – have created further debate as to interpretation. In comparison to other known images (from Pompeii and elsewhere), there are what appears to be two pairs of lovers: one male-male and one male-female. These have also been refered to as typical of depictions of satyrs and maenads, particularly in reference to other works of art where the maenad is attempting to escape the embrace of a satyr. The smaller medallions on the chariot are described as cupids engaged in various activities, again something seen frequently in Pompeii, especially in dividing registers in wall paintings. It may never be clear which of these two interpretations is correct, but we can hope that restoration work as yet to be carried out may offer some clarity, particularly if the third image can be recreated. Regardless, the inclusion of erotic images in the decorative scheme (what Anise K. Strong referred to as akin to ‘pornographic bumper stickers’) has led to the idea that the chariot was of a type used not in a religious procession, but in a matrimonial one.
The most recognisable and most important event of a Roman wedding ceremony was in all likelihood the procession of the bride from her home to that of the groom, the domum deductio. The procession served as a public demonstration of the wedding, with the bride serving as the key participant, since the groom did not necessarily have to be present. Elements of the wedding took place primarily in the home, first the bride’s, then culminating with her acceptance into the home of the groom, and as such were not wholly subject to public display. The procession, however, was, and for those who were able to afford it, could include the use of a chariot such as this one. The combination of erotic images, ropes for garlands of flowers, the symbolism of fertility inherent in the wheatsheafs, and the richness of the vehicle overall does lend some credence to the idea of the chariot used in a wedding procession.
There will undoubtedly be a slew of new information still to come as work continues on the chariot. Iconography aside, it is an important discovery for better understanding the technology of ancient Roman vehicles and how they worked, and is currently the only known example of a pilentum from Roman Italy. Excavation work in this villa over the last several years has revealed a significant number of new finds, which are not only expanding our knowledge of the volcanic event, but also provide insight into numerous aspects of life in Pompeii and the broader Roman world.
My first thought upon reading the news was, perhaps predictably, not of the uniqueness of the chariot, but of a particular graffito:
CIL IV 5092 Amoris ignes sentires mulio magi(s) properares ut videres Venerem diligo puerum venustum rogo punge iamus bibisti iamus prende lora et excute Pompeios defer ubi dulcis est amor / meus es. ‘Driver, if only you could feel the fires of love, you would hurry more to enjoy the pleasures of Venus. I love a young charmer; please, spur on the horses, let’s get on! You’ve had your drink, let’s go, take the reins and crack the whip, take me to Pompeii, where my sweet love lives.’
I’d like to imagine the eager writer of this text arriving at their lover’s door in such a chariot.
In the flurry of final deeds marking the exodus of the current administration from Washington, D.C., (by the time I publish this former) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech in which he stated that multiculturalism is ‘not who America is.’ Besides the obvious fact that the earliest European settlers of the North American continent were not Pompeo’s Italian ancestors (or indeed Trump’s German grandfather, or two of his three foreign-born wives), multiculturalism is exactly what America is, and always has been. The proverbial melting pot, accepting the ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free,’ the country of all creeds and colours, is a fundamental concept for the history of the U.S. Ask any school child… it was drilled into us. This, of course, does not mean we have historically been very good at it, and intolerance has always thrived in contrast to the desire to represent that elusive idea of freedom. Irish need not apply, no Blacks, no Italians, speak English, build the wall. This rhetoric is exactly why people like Pompeo make statements as they do. There is an obvious contradiction here in the lack of acceptance of foreign or different from people not all that far removed from immigrant ancestors – Marco Rubio and Priti Patel spring to mind as prime examples. That switch from one generation (more or less) to the next is a stunning example of losing sight not only of history generally, but of your own past and ancestry.
By sheer coincidence, I have been reading Laurens Tacoma’s Roman Political Culture (2020) today. In a discussion of the Apocolocyntosis, a text in which Claudius’ right to deification is debated by the gods, he examines the charge that the emperor Claudius admitted all and sundry to Roman citizenship, with the goal ‘to see everyone in a toga’ (Apoc. 3.3). In other words, one of the arguments used for the basis of the rejection of Claudius’ deification is that he let too many foreigners become citizens. Despite the fact that this is, as far as ancient historians can determine, grossly exaggerated (according to demographic studies and the results of the census taken during his reign approximately 10% of the population of the Roman Empire held citizenship), the idea that Claudius was pro-multiculturalism held. Cassius Dio (60.17.5-7) even goes so far as to state that citizenship could be purchased from Claudius’ first wife Messalina and his imperial freedmen.
In the record of a speech Claudius gave before the Senate in regard to the extension of citizenship to Gallic aristocrats, known as the Lyons tabulae, he points out what the Senate (and coincidentally, Mike Pompeo) have forgotten: Rome has always been made up of foreigners.
‘Of course, breaking with the past, the deified Augustus, my great uncle, and my uncle Tiberius Caesar wished the whole flower of the colonies and the municipalities everywhere, that is, the men of worth and wealth, to be in this senate house. But what then? Is not an Italian senator to be preferred to a provincial? When I begin to obtain approval for this part of my censorship, what I feel about this matter I will reveal to you. But not even provincials, provided they can be an ornament to the senate house, do I think ought to be rejected.’
(CIL 13.1668 col 2 ll. 1–8)
Romulus was, after all, the descendent of Aeneas – an illegal immigrant who fled his war torn country looking for a new home. Upon founding the city that bore his name, Romulus sought to increase its population, and did so by inviting foreigners to settle within his newly erected walls. Livy (I.8.5-6) tells us:
‘It had been the ancient policy of the founders of cities to get together a multitude of people of obscure and low origin and then to spread the fiction that they were the children of the soil. In accordance with this policy, Romulus opened a place of refuge on the spot where, as you go down from the Capitol, you find an enclosed space  between two groves. A promiscuous crowd of freemen and slaves, eager for change, fled thither from the neighbouring states. This was the first accession of strength to the nascent greatness  of the city.’
The first women of Rome were stolen from a neighbouring state, the city expanded over time, slowly subsuming a multitude of native Italic peoples, then moved across the region to include Gauls, Germans, Greeks, Britains, Egyptians, Syrians, and others. Rome was, for all intents and purposes, the original melting pot. The Senate, and indeed many of the Italians as provincial territories grew, had a habit of forgetting that Romans and peregrini were only a few generations removed in name. Perhaps then, in a true example of repeating history, its no wonder that many Americans do the same.
When I wrote about the latest finds from Pompeiiearlier this week, I focused on the stories told about the revelations of new material extracted from the debris of Vesuvius. There is, however, another huge issue that must be grappled with, both as archaeologists and as people, and that is the fact that we are dealing with human remains. How we do that as Classical Archaeologists is, for historic reasons I cannot fully identify, very different from how such remains are handled in other parts of the world, and in other fields of archaeological science.
Five years ago, at the time my doctoral dissertation on tombs was being published as a book, my dad managed to get me invited to give a talk about my research at the local public library in Illinois when I was home for the holidays. After the talk (surprisingly, even attended by people I’m not related to), I was asked a question regarding what happened to the human remains found in Pompeii after excavation. The audience member who asked made specific reference to NAGPRA, which is something that I was well schooled in from my undergraduate days, but had never considered in the context of my work in Italy. For those not from North America, this law requires the dignified treatment and eventual return of any human remains found on federal or tribal lands to their descendants. This has sometimes caused drawn out legal battles between tribes, in part because the length of time that has passed (multiple thousands of years) can make finding direct lineage difficult, or in many instances, allows claims from more than one group. This is, of course, very much tied up with the historic mis-treatment of Native Americans, their displacement from ancestral lands, and the genocidal level reduction of their population over the last six hundred years. What is intriguing to me, is that this same reverence is not necessarily shown for the remains that are found in the Vesuvian sites. Unlike some of the issues caused by forced migration and genocide of Native American peoples, there should be no doubt that modern Italians are the descendants of ancient Romans (as are numerous other European and North African peoples). All you need to do is listen to a Neapolitan or a Sicilian speak Italian and you can hear faint remnants of your school Latin. Even amongst Americans whose ancestors came from Italy there is still a vague association with the Rome of the past (consider Tony Soprano’s (sweary) response when asked by a Jewish business associate waxing lyrically about the braveness of those at Masada holding out against Roman soldiers.) So what’s the difference, and more to the point, why is there one?
Since excavations in Pompeii began in 1748, approximately 1200 sets of human remains have been found. Initially, these were categorised as the old, the infirm, and children who were physically unable to escape the cataclysm of the eruption in AD 79. This determination, however, was made with no examination of the bones themselves. Since the late nineteenth century, slightly more than one hundred plaster casts have been made of human and animal remains. It is only recently that the skeletons contained in the casts have begun to be studied by Estelle Lazar. Her team has discovered that the previous ideas about who died in the eruption is wrong, and the remains actually represent a broad spectrum of the population of the ancient city. What makes the two recently made casts unique is that the skeletons themselves were examined prior to casting. Skeletal remains from an archaeological site of any context can provide information about age at death, sex, health, diet, occupation, and migration. Mix in a documented cause of death by volcanic eruption, and there is more information to be found about stages of the eruption, cause of death (suffocation from ash, pyroclastic flow gases, blunt trauma, etc.), and the behaviour and reaction to those attempting to escape (consider, for example, the hundreds found on the beach in Herculaneum).
This is, in part, why the skeletons and casts from Pompeii and Herculaneum are, in my view, treated on some level as artefacts rather than as human remains. This can be taken one step further when you consider that a large number of casts were first made in late 1800s. In a sense, they have become artefacts in their own right in relation to the development of the technique and of the evolution of archaeology as a scientific discipline. Many of these have been on display within the archaeological park, in museums, or simply kept gathering dust in storage in various facilities around Pompeii. The casts of the victims have always been a draw for visitors to the site – I can’t tell you how many times a tourist has asked me for directions to ‘the bodies’ – and indeed have featured on postcards and other memorabilia. I suspect – based in part on the reaction I’ve had from some students over the years – that there is some confusion as to what they actually are (and I would guess this may arise from referring to them as ‘casts’). Yes, the process of making a cast preserves the shape of the whole person, including details such as clothing, anything that the individual may have been holding or carrying, and in the case of animals, harnesses or leads. But the outer plaster shell does contain human remains: skulls, teeth, long bones, fingers, and toes. They are not models of what once existed, they are skeletons. They are people. As Mary Beard has said, ‘Pompeii is not just an archaeological site, it’s a site of human tragedy.’ It surprises me that there isn’t more reverence for them, not just by scientists and tourists, but by the people of Italy themselves. Why isn’t there a call to re-bury those we have dug up? Every once in awhile, a meme circulates asking the question how much time has to pass before grave robbing becomes archaeology. It pokes fun at an incredibly awkward question about how we treat those whose resting places (whether intended or tragic) we disturb. I, for one, would rather be an archaeologist.
Over the weekend, there was a small explosion of news stories and photos coming out of Pompeii, where it was announced that the remains of two victims of the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius had been discovered. Found in a villa of Civita Guiliana, an area 700 metres to the north of the city walls, these excavations are part of the ongoing work that has been carried out in the area since 2017, when Italian police discovered illegal tunnels black marketeers had dug into the structure. Upon discovery, the skeletons and the cavities around their bodies were explored with cameras before casts were made, using techinques first developed in the nineteenth century by Giuseppe Fiorelli. Video of this process can be found on the Pompeii site’s Instagram.
Whilst fundamentally, this is exciting news for anyone that works on any of the Vesuvian sites, there is a seemingly inevitable downside to every new discovery. There is always a story, an immediate explanation for the who or what that is, if not completely wrong, then at least exagerated or inconclusive based on the evidence that is currently available. In this latest instance, the social status (and therefore relationship) between the two sets of human remains of slave and wealthy master is based solely on a wool cloak and some crushed vertabrae. I am certainly not the only person who finds this conclusion pre-mature, at the very least (for further discussion see Miko Flohr’s excellent thread), but it did make me start thinking about why this happens. Why do we insist on a story, evidence be damned?
This has been true for many of the finds from the last several years, including the tantalising story of the man killed in the eruption by a large stone block, later dismissed as a complete fallacy. But it isn’t only a recent trend: these stories have been circulating since the re-discovery of Pompeii. Consider, for example, the oft told story of the noble soldier maintaining his post at the Herculaneum Gate throughout the eruption of Vesuvius. This story was supposedly born from the discovery of a skeleton with armaments in a small structure with a bench next to the city gate. It was immortalised in a painting ‘Faithful Unto Death’ by Edward John Poynter (1865), who got the idea from Edward Bulwar-Lytton’s novelThe Last Days of Pompeii (1834). Mark Twain wrote about it in his travelogue The Innocents Abroad (1869). In 2007, Lee Behlman finally dispelled this myth. Not only was the benched structure actually the tomb of a freedman named Marcus Cerrinius Restitutus – not a sentry box – but the daily excavation records showed that no skeleton was found anywhere near it. It’s not true, it is simply a good story.
This desire for a story, a way perhaps to make a human connection, brings to mind the impressions of another novelist – Mary Shelley. She published the accounts of her travels in two volumes in 1844 as Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843. She first visited Pompeii in 1818, finding the site largely unimpressive and depressing. But in 1843, when she returned to the city after reading Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, she wrote:
‘We have visited Pompeii. A greater extent of the city has been dug out and laid open since I was there before, so that it has now much more the appearance of a town of the dead. You may ramble about and lose yourself in the many streets. Bulwer, too, has peopled its silence. I have been reading his book, and I have felt on visiting the place much more as if really it had been once full of stirring life, now that he has attributed names and possessors to its houses, passengers to its streets. Such is the power of the imagination. It can not only give ‘a local habitation and a name’ to the airy creations of the fancy and the abstract ideas of the mind, but it can put a soul into stones, and hang the vivid interest of our passions and our hopes upon objects otherwise vacant of name or sympathy. Not indeed that Pompeii could be such, but the account of its ‘Last Days’ has cast over it a more familiar garb, and peopled its desert streets with associations that greatly add to their interest.’
In other words, Shelley’s experience of visiting Pompeii was transformed by a story. Her idea that the story created by Bulwer-Lytton ‘peopled its silence’ is an important concept: she is evidence that we connect more with people who have some sort of form, an ordered place in the world, that can be identified in some manner, than we do with an ambiguous set of remains (whether architectual or human). For her, it was imagining the characters of Glaucus and Ione passing time in the House of the Tragic Poet. For us, it is concocting status and relationships for newly discovered skeletons, determining a fantastical cause of death, or imagining the final circumstances of both the animal and human remains uncovered. The desire to create a narrative around new finds without substantiated evidence, I suspect, is far more about a condition of the human psyche that desires a means for establishing a connection or understanding than it is about the truth. Regardless of the harm it may cause (try dispelling students of the ideas they gain from news reports and documentaries on telly), it seems that the truth is for the scholars and scientists to work out later to no great fanfare, and should never get in the way of telling a good story.
I grew up in New York, in a (relatively) small town on eastern Long Island. It was generally a mixed bag socially, economically, and racially, as far as small towns go. The schools were good, but had some issues from time to time. But there were some exceptional teachers, and one of them ran the Latin programme.
One of the options in our state mandated high school degree programme was three years of a foreign language (taught over four – two in middle school and two in high school with the option to carry on to advanced classes). When I was twelve and had the chance to pick, I went with German. This was a huge mistake because of the teacher (to give you an idea I was once thrown out of class for asking if we were going to actually learn anything that day), and so at the first opportunity to change languages in the transition to high school, I switched to French. So there I am (and to be honest, so was half my German class) starting French I on the first day of high school, walking into a classroom expecting to find posters of the Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triomphe, maybe a teacher in a jaunty beret, and instead found… the Latin teacher.
The reality though, is that the gods of languages knew exactly what they were doing.
I spent a year learning rudimentary French, along with the Latin roots of words (or Greek, and I have vague memories of the odd bits of Sanskrit), I heard words like Indo-European for the first time, and most importantly, I had a teacher who made me desperately want to learn things. Even Latin. So I did. The year I began Latin was the first time it had been taught ab initio in our high school, at the request of students. The majority of us were lured there in part because of the language, but mostly because of the Latin teacher.
Dr. Greenberger was unlike any teacher I had ever encountered before, or to be honest, since. He was dynamic, and fun, and so incredibly smart. Fourteen year old me was in awe of all the things he knew, and of the things he talked about that I had only the vaguest impressions of – things like having a Ph.D. or studying in Oxford or going to Rome. He was a magnet. There was a reason he was the only teacher in school with a sofa in his classroom: because Latinist or not, we wanted to hang with Doc. We waited in anticipation for the nicknames he bestowed upon his students (I still feel slightly hard done by that it was a classmate who gave me my moniker that was later shortened by Dr. Greenberger. That didn’t seem very original to me.) We kept our special Latin pencils safe (extra points on quizzes!), and we really tried to remember all those endings, some of us with more success than others.
But our classes were more than Latin. Time was dedicated each day to a bit of mythology, history, or other trivia in a segment called ‘What Every Latinist Should Know.’ I loved that more than the language, but it was all part of a greater learning experience that has had such a profound impact on who I am and what my life has become. I was one of the students who went on the first study trip organised by the Latin teacher and his wife (also a Latinist!). It was on that trip I saw the grandeur of Rome, but more importantly, saw Pompeii for the first time. I have such a clear memory, standing in the Forum in Pompeii, on a grey and blustery February day, and feeling something sort of click into place. I am well aware of how trite that sounds, but I have never known how else to describe it.
Many years, a vaguely related undergraduate degree, and a few odd jobs later, I moved to the U.K. to begin a MA in classics and archaeology. This led to a Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellowship, books and articles published, and jobs teaching various sub-disciplines in Classics at seven universities across the UK (including Oxford!). Ironically, I have never really taught Latin. But that’s not really my point…. My point is this: the one person (outside of my family, obviously) who has had the greatest impact on the trajectory of my life was my high school Latin teacher. Not just for the material he taught, but for the way he taught it. I know from former classmates that I am not the only one who has spent their professional life striving to be the kind of teacher he was for us. In fact, the other night a friend told me she used much of how we were taught Latin in her application for tenure – and that’s in a STEM subject.
My Latin teacherretired earlier this year, and the school district spoke of replacement. I am not privy to all of the ins and outs of what has happened, but it is clear there have been behind the scenes machinations that have culminated in the recent announcement that the Latin programme will be abolished (despite having had suitable candidates, and until now, substantial interest from students). Whilst I fully recognise the impossibility of replacing a teacher like Doc, I am devastated by the loss of the Latin programme in and of itself. It has existed in that school for more than a hundred years, and was, when I was a student, the only Latin programme on the East End (I have memories of distance learning Latin classes with other schools in the area). At a time when there are so many concerted efforts to increase the study of Latin in schools here in the UK through organisations such as Classics for All, ACE, and regional groups like the Birmingham and West Midlands Classics Network, I cannot help but think this decision is incredibly short-sighted, and to the detriment of the current and future students of my hometown. There are a myriad of reasons why studying Latin (and Classics more generally) is a Good Idea, and they have been elucidated by people far more eloquent and respected in the field than myself. But I have my own reasons, because for better or worse, walking into that Latin classroom for the first time became part of who I am, what I do, and why I have pursued the life that I have.
I have already sent a letter of outrage and condemnation to the relevant decision makers in the school district, but in doing so, I did wonder how many of us – Classicists or not, educators more generally – had that one teacher that made the difference. More importantly, does the area of study that influenced what you do now still exist in your school? We all bemoan the reduction of subjects in schools and universities, the ever shrinking available funding and constraints on what a department can do. Many work in those areas of outreach and widening participation I mentioned above to promote their subject more widely, but many also pay lip service to it, or do it because the department head says they must. The sudden prospect of my old school losing the very thing that led me to where I am made me realise, in a new way, just how valuable this kind of work is, and how important it is for all of us to work to keep our subjects viable, at every level of education, and in every place we can.
If you’ve been on any form of social media in the last twenty-four hours, you have probably encountered images of the statue of Edward Colston being torn down and thrown into Bristol Harbour by Black Lives Matterprotestors. The statue, first erected in 1895, has been the centre of massive debate in Bristol for many years. Petitions and protests surrounding its removal have been unsuccessful, so it is not in the least bit surprising to me that it should have been targeted over the weekend. Attempts to mitigate anger over the statue by the Bristol Council resulted in the decision to add a second plaque to the base, which was to clarify Colston’s role in the Atlantic slave trade. Even this garnered controversy, as the council and residents debated the words to be inscribed. What strikes me particularly about the text of the proposed plaque is the inclusion of 19,000 Africans who died whilst being transported across the ocean. Common practice in the slave trade was to dump not only the dead, but also the ill, overboard and later claim for those lost on insurance. As abhorant as it sounds, insurance payouts were more profitable than the sale of weak or infirm human beings. With that in mind, dumping the statue of Colston in the harbour seems a most fitting place for him.
I will leave aside the debate about public disorder and whether or not removing the statue in the way it has been done is legal or right. What I am more interested in is the ongoing debate about the removal of statues and how this constitutes an erasure of history. It doesn’t.
The Ancient Romans, of course, removed and defaced statues. Known to historians as the practice of damnatio memoriae (which I havewritten about previously), this was something typically used by emperors in order to disassociate themselves from previous regimes that were deemed bad. But those were not the only instances, and it was also used to deface statues and tombstones of cheating husbands and wives, former friends who committed an act of betrayal, and others. But, these acts of erasure were not meant to obliterate the memory of the person (even if it did successfully eliminate their likeness). Statue heads re-carved are disproportinate to the body, lines of text in lapidary inscriptions are crossed out, and coins have faces rubbed out. In other words, the act of removing the name or image is not meant to make one forget they existed, but rather to remind viewers that the person no longer deserves to be remembered. It is a deliberate attempt not to forget the memory of the person, but to alter it: to render that memory negatively.
After all, we know who Geta was. We know what Caligula looked like despite the fact that the majority of statue heads we have of him were found at the bottom of the Tiber River (a fact that makes the treatment of Coulston’s statue quite apt). In the instances of defacement of inscriptions (whether for members of the imperial family or common Romans), names have been reconstructed. This illustrates that if forgetting was truly intended, the Romans were massively unsuccessful.
Now, when there have been an increasing number of voices calling for the removal of statues and place names of those who instigated and perpetuated the practice of enslavement on both sides of the Atlantic, I think the lesson of the Romans is an important one. This is not an attempt to erase history. But rather, rightfully, there is an attempt to dishonour those who stand for oppression and bigotry, racism and profiteering off the backs of other human beings. We don’t want to erase these people, but to remember that they deserve to be forgotten.
Edited to add: Since writing this yesterday I have discovered more about the history of the statue of Edward Colston. Like many of the monuments to soldiers and leaders of the Confederacy venerated in the U.S., Colston’s life and legacy were largely created at a much later date. Whilst I cannot ascribe the same motive of advancing white supremecy tied to the late nineteenth / early twentieth century construction of Confederate monuments, this does serve as yet another example of current attempts to preserve a believed history, that for all intents and purposes, is a false narrative.
About a week ago I came across a post on Twitterof some phallic images that were produced in the eighteenth century in France. They immediately reminded me of the many anthropomorphised phalli that have been recovered from the ancient Vesuvian sites, and that got me to thinking about their use in French political propaganda, but also about the influence the artefacts of genitalia from Pompeii and Herculaneum had on the illustrators responsible for the images.
Small pamphlets known as libelleswere used to spread rumour and invective against Marie Antoinette in the lead up to the French Revolution. From the mid 1780s onwards, these increasingly contained implications and accusations of her sexual misconduct, whether it be lesbian relationships or affairs with political supporters and members of the court. Regardless of whether or not any of these accusations were true was beside the point: the aim was to degrade the queen, her associates, and other members of the French aristocracy.
One particular means of depicting the perceived immoral nature of Marie Antoinette was via a phallic ostrich. The ostrich was thought to be a reference to her Austrian background, as the French words were similar (autrichienne f. / autruche). The cartoon below depicts her sometimes political supporter, the Marquis de La Fayette, riding the phallic bird with the queen in attendance.
More explicit examples of this type include a similar depiction of a man (in this case, unidentified) riding a phallic ostrich, only this time Marie Antoinette is exposing her lower half, as if awaiting penetration.
These avian sex organs are, of course, not at all that dissimilar from the bronze winged phalli that were used as tintinnabulum in the ancient Roman world. The difference, however, is that where the eighteenth century cartoons were meant to demean the French queen and were circulated in an effort to destory her and supporters of the monarchy, the Pompeian versions were apotropaic in nature, and meant to provoke laughter, offering protection from the evil eye or other nefarious spirits.
The same comparison could be made to cartoons of the queen in the middle of sexual acts. These illustrations often depicted lesbian or multi-person encounters, not for titilation or the purposes of erotica, but again, to demonstrate the licentious and undesierable behaviour of the monarch. Here, she is depicted with one of her (supposed) lesbian lovers as well as another man.
Whilst normalised sex acts (i.e. a heterosexual couple) were often depicted in the ancient world in wall paintings, or on objects such as lamps, mirrors, and vases in an allusion to intercourse, the more (for lack of a better term) deviant acts were also apotropaic. These could include reversals such as men performing cunnilingus, women acting as the aggressor, or multiple participants. Meant to provoke laughter and titilate in a non-sexual, but rather protection inducing manner, images such as the one below are found in locations such as the changing rooms of the Suburban Baths. This foursome (two men, two women) includes both hetero- and homo- acts simutaneously taking place. It is not erotic or derogatory; it is (to the Roman viewer) ridiculous.
Of course, what I find most compelling about these is the similarity between the French cartoons and the so-called erotica of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The initial exploration of Herculaneum via that now infamouus well shaft begain in 1709 – long before the first libelles appeared denouncing Marie Antoinette. Statuary and other objects were already being circulated by the nobility of Europe when Charles VII, the Bourbon king, took possession of the area in 1738. Although there were restrictions on recording or publishing any of the finds from the Vesuvian sites (except, of course, officially and produced as a gift of the king) most visitors endeavoured to contravene this embargo. A group of French nobles, begining in 1750, began a campagin of what they deemed ‘conscious archaeological espionage’ in order to view and record as much of what they saw as possible. The group was led by the Marquis de Marigny, who was travelling in Italy before he took up an appointment as the director general of the royal academy of the arts in Paris. With him was one Jerome-Charles Bellicard, an architect and engraver who had previously worked for Giovanni Piranesi in Rome. They would visit Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the royal museum at Portici by day, and spend the nights recording their observations. One of Bellicard’s notebooks from these evenings of work survives today, in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Initially, short pamphlets and various images were published, but in 1753, the group simultaneously published a three volume set of books in both French and English: Observations upon the antiquities of the town of Herculaneum discovered at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Although none of the more phallic centred images of the ancient cities were reproduced in this work, I find it difficult to believe that drawings of those items weren’t also winging their way out of the protection of the court at Portici. After all, it was only about a decade after Marie Antoinette’s death that the practice of hiding away so-called pornographic objects began when a director of the museum, Michele Arditi, moved more than one hundred objects into the collection of the Gabinetto Segreto. In view of this, the visual similarities between the French cartoons and the phalli of Pompeii seem more than mere coincidence. In other words, the authors of French political satire were not as creative – or indeed as original – as they would appear. Wherever you go in time or place – ancient Pompeii or revolutionary France – dick jokes remain.
Earlier this week I came across the Sky production of Britannia. Originally aired in 2018, this series depicts the conquering of Britain by Rome in AD 43. Whilst the historical accuracy may be a wee bit on the sketchy side (and was clearly never the aim), it does contain the elements one would expect from such a dramatization. Brutal Roman soldiers? Check. Sympathetic Britons? Check. Crazy, drugged out Druids? Double check. Part way through the first episode, after the Romans have interrupted the coming of age ceremony held by the Cantiaci tribe on the solstice, killing or enslaving most of the settlement, a conversation takes place between one young escapee from the slaughter and her reluctant saviour, an outcast of the Druids whose prophetic abilities warning of the invasion were ignored.
Cait: What’s a Roman? Outcast: The Romans are devils. They are the foot soldiers of Locher, the great earth demon. He started a place called Rome. Cait: What’s Rome?
Outcast: Rome is one of the seven mouths of hell. Basically, it was just some god-forsaken shit hole in the middle of nowhere but Locher came up from the underworld and made it his home on earth. And he filled it with his power and it grew and grew and grew, and now Rome spreads all the way across the whole world. Even here.
In a week when the ongoing disaster that is Brexit and the current government here in the UK has been ramped up to a point that is beyond the ridiculous, the above exchange made me think that in the minds of many in this country, the EU could replace Rome and the sentiment would remain true. But this disregards the benefits that came with both the Romans and the EU, and whilst there is little point re-iterating the ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’ speech of Monty Python fame here (although….), it does illustrate something about how the British conceive of their own mythology and origins.
Take for example, Boudicca, the Iceni woman who led a revolt against the Romans about fifteen years after the invasion. She is, to this day, held as a paragon of British spirit and pride. Her image, mounted on a chariot with her daughters, sits on the corner of Westminster Bridge, only meters from the Houses of Parliament. More than once in the three years since the Brexit referendum vote, I have heard or read her name as an example to aspire to, her fight against the Romans equated to the fight against the EU. And yet, historically, she was a blip. This is something that always surprises my (British) students. Tacitus, the first century AD historian and only near contemporary source for the British conquest, deigns to give Boudicca three whole paragraphs in his Annals. Three. He says:
XIV.31 The Icenian king Prasutagus, celebrated for his long prosperity, had named the emperor his heir, together with his two daughters; an act of deference which he thought would place his kingdom and household beyond the risk of injury. The result was contrary—so much so that his kingdom was pillaged by centurions, his household by slaves; as though they had been prizes of war. As a beginning, his wife Boudicca was subjected to the lash and his daughters violated: all the chief men of the Icenians were stripped of their family estates, and the relatives of the king were treated as slaves. Impelled by this outrage and the dread of worse to come—for they had now been reduced to the status of a province—they flew to arms, and incited to rebellion the Trinobantes and others, who, not yet broken by servitude, had entered into a secret and treasonable compact to resume their independence. The bitterest animosity was felt against the veterans; who, fresh from their settlement in the colony of Camulodunum, were acting as though they had received a free gift of the entire country, driving the natives from their homes, ejecting them from their lands,—they styled them “captives” and “slaves,”—and abetted in their fury by the troops, with their similar mode of life and their hopes of equal indulgence. More than this, the temple raised to the deified Claudius continually met the view, like the citadel of an eternal tyranny; while the priests, chosen for its service, were bound under the pretext of religion to pour out their fortunes like water. Nor did there seem any great difficulty in the demolition of a colony unprotected by fortifications—a point too little regarded by our commanders, whose thoughts had run more on the agreeable than on the useful.
XIV.35 Boudicca, mounted in a chariot with her daughters before her, rode up to clan after clan and delivered her protest:—“It was customary, she knew, with Britons to fight under female captaincy; but now she was avenging, not, as a queen of glorious ancestry, her ravished realm and power, but, as a woman of the people, her liberty lost, her body tortured by the lash, the tarnished honour of her daughters. Roman cupidity had progressed so far that not their very persons, not age itself, nor maidenhood, were left unpolluted. Yet Heaven was on the side of their just revenge: one legion, which ventured battle, had perished; the rest were skulking in their camps, or looking around them for a way of escape. They would never face even the din and roar of those many thousands, far less their onslaught and their swords I—If they considered in their own hearts the forces under arms and the motives of the war, on that field they must conquer or fall. Such was the settled purpose of a woman—the men might live and be slaves!”
XIV.37 At first, the legionaries stood motionless, keeping to the defile as a natural protection: then, when the closer advance of the enemy had enabled them to exhaust their missiles with certitude of aim, they dashed forward in a wedge-like formation. The auxiliaries charged in the same style; and the cavalry, with lances extended, broke a way through any parties of resolute men whom they encountered. The remainder took to flight, though escape was difficult, as the cordon of wagons had blocked the outlets. The troops gave no quarter even to the women: the baggage animals themselves had been speared and added to the pile of bodies. The glory won in the course of the day was remarkable, and equal to that of our older victories: for, by some accounts, little less than eighty thousand Britons fell, at a cost of some four hundred Romans killed and a not much greater number of wounded. Boudicca ended her days by poison; while Poenius Postumus, camp-prefect of the second legion, informed of the exploits of the men of the fourteenth and twentieth, and conscious that he had cheated his own corps of a share in the honours and had violated the rules of the service by ignoring the orders of his commander, ran his sword through his body.
That is it. Her rebellion quashed with some eighty thousand dead Britons, her suicide by poison, and very little damage to Rome or Roman soldiers. Of course, this is the history written by the victorious, and there is always that element to take into consideration in assessing its validity. But the fact remains that Rome was successful in conquering Britain, and more or less peacefully ruling here for hundreds of years. If this is the model for British independence from the EU, (or in any other international political sphere) I cannot help but feel a better example is warranted. This is not a David and Goliath underdog is surprisingly victorious story. Boudicca was a failure, and largely an insignificant one, historically speaking. Using her as an example, as part of the mythology of a nation’s identity, implies resistance, but also failure. Much like the defense to the onset of Roman rule being organised by Cantiaci tribesmen at the end of the first episode of Britannia, the end result will be defeat.