Scribblers and Scholars

Last weekend I finally got around to doing one of those Oxford things that one living here should do: despite my slight tendency to vertigo I climbed the very narrow, steep and winding stairs to the top of the tower of University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. Although it is believed that there has been a church in this location since Anglo-Saxon times, the current building is an assemblage of components built between the thirteenth and eighteenth century. The oldest part of the structure is the Tower, dated to 1280. Tourists (okay, and residents) climb the tower for the stunning views over the skyline of Oxford. Narrow walkways are on all four sides of the Tower, linked by small arched passageways. Within two of these corner passages, I discovered a wealth of inscribed names, initials, and dates. DSCF7643

The earliest date I found inscribed is in the above photo, 1612, carved deeply beneath a less visible 1791. An individual with the initials AR, in the upper right corner, carved his (I’m assuming) initials in 1676. The overlap of names and the wearing over time has rendered most of the scratchings fairly illegible. Whilst I have seen other churches (Gloucester Cathedral comes to mind) with graffiti inscribed by builders and craftsmen, the dates and use of the building suggest to me that the majority of these names belong to students or visitors to the university. The Tower, a few floors below this vantage point, contains the Old Library. Built in 1320, it was the first central university office and library (i.e. not college affiliated), and was used for meetings and research prior to the construction of the Bodlian Library and Divinity School, built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It should be no surprise, therefore, that the latest dated inscriptions I found were from 1811, when Messrs. Stone and Godfrey carved their names, well past the time when the Tower rooms would have still been used as originally intended.

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One other aspect I found quite interesting is the obvious time and care that was taken in carving these names. Many have the letters blackened, a practice similar to using red paint as was common in Roman monumental inscriptions. In addition, a close look at the lettering indicates that on many occasions there were attempts made at style – adding serifs to the letters, creating the appearance of distinct fonts and handwritings. Compare, for example, the photo below, where both the ‘R’ and initial ‘W’ of the surname have distinct serifs, difference in thickness of the lines of the lettering, and show a replication of a monumental style of inscription. This is at odds with the penciled text beneath, clearly by a more modern hand, which lacks the same level of artistry all together.

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I have written before about that overwhelming desire people have to record their name, or leave a mark. It would appear that on some level, the students of Oxford in centuries past were no different. What is remarkable, at least to me, is that such effort went into carving the letters and attempting to make them visible and lasting. This suggests a desire for permanence that isn’t all that surprising – it is exactly the thing that has led people to write on walls – whether in Pompeii two thousand years ago, in a church tower in Oxford four hundred years ago, or on an underpass over the motorway today.

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Ex Libris…

I’ve spent most of this past week packing up my office as my post-doc is soon coming to an end. Whilst moving is never an easy or stress free task, it seems to be considerably more complicated for the academic, whose office shelves are covered with hundreds and hundreds of books, box files filled with articles and offprints, and the various bits of detritus that accumulate seemingly out of nowhere (in my case, an odd assortment of notepads and post-its from four different universities). Books are, for those in the humanities, still the fundamental source of research despite the growing availability of digital copy. So as I sit here, surrounded by boxes and boxes of books, I can’t help but think of how important many of them have been to me, for teaching, for writing, and most importantly, for the pure enjoyment of reading. This brings to mind a graffiti I found near a branch library in Coventry (unfortunately under threat of closure):

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Good advice: we should all read more books. I am, however, having second thoughts about buying so many of them.

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Queer Graffiti

In recent weeks I’ve had cause to travel a bit within the UK, and during this time, I’ve come across a couple of (modern) graffiti that I found interesting, for related but somewhat different reasons. The first is really a text that no longer exists. That is, it is clear that an attempt was made to remove the sprayed inscription, but it failed in the respect that the original words, though faded, are still visible. On the side of a building at the University of Manchester, one can see this:

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‘FIGHT AIDS ACT UP’

ACT UP – the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power – was founded in New York City in 1987. Growing up in New York at the time, and with gay and lesbian friends as part of my community, church, and extended family network, this slogan, along with the image of the pink triangle and SILENCE = DEATH, were a familiar part of my childhood. I was, up to the moment I stumbled upon this, completely unaware of the slogan being used in the UK, or in fact, any time in the last twenty years or so. I am not by any means dismissing the continued need to campaign for gay rights, healthcare, and AIDS research (let’s face it, for everyone really), I just wasn’t aware of the ongoing use of this slogan. This of course set my epigraphic mind racing: when was this written? was it put up by an American? is it a relic of a very different time and place or reflective of a current movement? None of these questions seem to have answers (as far as I can tell), but it intrigued me nonetheless.

Then earlier this week I was in Belfast, and came across this:

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Having never been to Northern Ireland before, I may have held the somewhat stereotypical view of it being fairly conservative socially. As I walked around the city on Sunday and Monday, I was rather taken aback by the number of rainbow flags on display, and thought how wonderfully progressive  it was to see such a bold statement of acceptance on display. I couldn’t figure out why this would be the case in August, as Pride Month is in June, when most cities see annual events and parades organised by LGBTQ communities. It was only after I looked online that I discovered I missed Belfast Pride by a day – there had in fact been a parade on Saturday.

These messages are reflective of an important movement for rights and inclusion, and are reflective of a modern society, not to be found a few hundred years ago much less a few thousand. Attitudes and perceptions of homosexuality in antiquity are as conflicted and contested as they are in some parts of the world today. Nevertheless, what both of these graffiti brought to mind was the enduring importance of being able to have relationships in an individual’s life, whatever the sex or gender of the person you love. To quote a more recent slogan used in the gay rights movement worldwide, love is love is love. Here, four texts (two for men by men, two for women by women) provide some ancient evidence from the walls of Pompeii that echo this sentiment.

CIL IV 4485
Hectice pupe, va(le) Mercator tibi dicit.
Hecticus, my pet, Mercator says hello to you.’

CIL IV 1256
Sabine calos, Hermeros te amat.
‘Sabinus, my beauty, Hermeros loves you.’

CIL IV 5296 = CLE 950
O utinam liceat collo complexa tenere || braciola et teneris / oscula ferre labelis. || I, nunc ventis tua gaudia, pupula, crede. || Crede mihi, levis est natura virorum. || Saepe ego cu(m) media / vigilare perdita nocte || haec mecum meditas: multos / Fortuna quos aupstulit alte || hos modo proiectos subito / praecipitesque premit. || Sic Venus ut subito coiunxit / corpora amantum || dividit lux et se / parees qui{d} amant.
‘Oh, if only I could grasp my gentle arms around you and and give kisses to your delicate little lips. Come now, my little darling, entrust your pleasures to the winds. Believe me, the nature of men is flighty. Often as I have been awake, lovesick, at midnight, I think on these things: many whom Fortuna raised high, then suddenly thrown down headlong, she now oppresses. Thus, just as Venus joins the bodies of lovers in a moment, daylight divides them and you will separate their love.’

CIL IV 8321a
Chloe Eutychiae s(alutem): / Non me curas, Euty / chia. Spe firma / tua Ruf(um)? amas.
‘Chole greets Eutychia: Eutychia you don’t care about me. With a firm hope you love…’

Love can be unrequited, relationships can be forbidden by law or moral code, or be the basis of a decades long campaign for equality. Regardless, in antiquity, or today, love is love is love. And that is definitely worth fighting for.

 

 

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The Legacy of Venus

A number of months ago I had the chance to go to the V & A for the exhibit ‘Botticelli Reimagined.’ Whilst the exhibit as a whole was about more of the artist’s works than just Venus, both she and the similarly inspired by antiquity painting of Primavera were certainly a focal point of at least half of the collection on display. The artwork ran the gamut from Botticelli’s own paintings to modern works, fashion, dance, and performance art.

Untitled_Panorama5© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

What struck me about this collection of artwork is the enduring legacy of the image of Venus. It occurred to me that whilst I have previously written about Venus in her guise as a goddess of love in the graffiti of Pompeii, and her special role as the patron deity of Pompeii known as Venus Pompeiana, I have paid much attention to the image of Venus that was so prevalent both in antiquity and in the modern world.

The number of images (whether painting, mosaic, or statue) are far too numerous for me to catalogue here. What I am intrigued by, however, is the most recognisable form of Venus, in which she is depicted with emerging from the sea, usually from a shell, at the moment of birth. This is the image that Botticelli used in his painting, and is one that can be traced back to the walls of Pompeii.

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In the peristyle of the eponymously named House of Venus in the Shell (II.iii.3), this is the precursor to the famous  painting of the Italian renaissance. But it isn’t the only such image that survives antiquity. A second century AD mosaic from Zeugma in Turkey depicts Venus (here as the Greek Aphrodite) in her shell, surrounded by ikhthyokentauroi (consider them the fish version of centaurs) identified as Aphros (Sea Foam) and Bythos (Sea Depths), obvious references to her birth story.

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A late third century AD wall painting from Rome, found in the lower levels of the Case Romane del Celio, also depicts Venus in her shell, surrounded by erotes in small boats.

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Of course Venus was not just depicted in painting, or by Romans, as is evidenced by this third century BC terracotta statue from Greece.

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This image of Venus has endured for thousands of years, and Botticelli was not the only painter of the modern era that choose Venus as his subject. He will probably remain, however, the most famous. I have a number of theories as to why this version of Venus is so popular – her fantastical birth, the ability to depict her nudity as she wouldn’t be fully clothed in the sea – but one of the modern interpretations I saw at the V & A may hold the key to understanding this legacy of Venus.

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David LaChapelle ‘Rebirth of Venus’ (2011)

Here, the shell has moved to the forefront, and is used to shield the viewer from the genitalia of Venus. Concha, the Latin for shellfish or mollusc, has been used as a slang or derogatory term for a woman’s vagina in numerous languages and cultures. I cannot help but wonder, if in this context, the shell depicted in the many images of Venus’s birth across the millennia hasn’t been a nod to her sexuality, her guise as the goddess of (physical) love, and in fact has little to so with her birth story per se. Perhaps this is why this version of Venus has so long been the obsession of artists.

 

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I Shall Dance

A few blocks from my house there is a bit of graffiti (in the modern sense) on a brick wall. I first noticed it more than a year ago, and the fact that there has been no apparent attempt to clean it or cover it up suggests to me that whoever owns that wall can’t help but smile when they see it, just like I do.

“One day I will die but today I shall dance.”
When I walked past recently, with a million thoughts in my head and not really thinking about where I was, the sentiment of it suddenly struck me anew. Death – okay, and taxes –  are inevitable, but more to the point, there is a lot of bad stuff in life, in living. Anyone who has gone anywhere near a news source in the last few months is well aware of this fact. And in our own lives, there are rough times and sadness and frustration and things that make it all seem like there is not much point. As my dad (ever the optimist) would say, ‘We’re all doomed anyway.’ And yet… there are things, people, and yes, even the odd bit of spray paint on a wall, that suddenly make you realise that none of that matters. It’s about dancing, finding your joy, and reveling in the little moments that make every struggle worth it. It’s all too easy to lose sight of that from time to time. I’m glad this wall is around to remind me. So I shall dance: literally, figuratively, it doesn’t matter. You should do the same.

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For Women, By Women

One thing that I have always had some issue with in dealing with the epigraphy in the Roman world, particularly the graffiti, is the somewhat antiquated view that very few women could read or write. Literacy in general for the ancient world is normally restricted to the upper classes, and even more so for women. I have never exactly agreed with this approach to literacy, as I have discussed here previously. As Kristina Milnor discussed in her book on literary graffiti in Pompeii (see especially Chapter 4), even when texts are seemingly written by a woman for a woman, male scholars have attempted to change the sex of the writer to fit their preconceived notions of literacy, gender, and sexuality.  There are, however, some graffiti that simply cannot be explained away by mistakes of grammar or as a joke. This is one of my favourites:

CIL IV 10231
Gravido me tene(t) / At(i)me[tus].
‘Atimetus got me pregnant.’

It is simple, it is straightforward, and there really can be no doubt it was written by a woman. I have always seen this as part warning to other women – look what he did to me, best to stay away from Atimetus – and part admonishment for the man who, by virtue of the graffito’s existence, clearly is not taking responsibility for his actions.  Pregnancy is mentioned in other inscriptions – see for example CIL IV 7024 Gravid(o) (te)net – but this is the only I am aware of that names the man who caused such a state. That factor, in and of itself, suggests to me that not only did a woman write this graffito, but in doing so she must have expected a significant number of other women to be able to read it. Thus, in four words, our anonymous writer has provided evidence for literacy amongst the female population in Pompeii.

 

 

 

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F is for Festius

Whilst finishing corrections to the manuscript that became my book, I discovered that one of the funerary inscriptions carved into the city wall in an area of poor burials between the Porta di Nola and the Porta di Sarno had been misread. CIL X 8351 was read as Aulus Fistius, but is in fact, Aulus Festius. The ‘i’ is actually an ‘e’.

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The name ‘Fistius’ doesn’t actually occur anywhere else in the Roman world, whereas Festius does – including in Pompeii. There are a series of dipinti (CIL IV 1182-1184) that record a man named Numerius Festius Ampliatus, who was a lanista, organising gladiatorial games. The most famous of the texts naming Ampliatus was written in charcoal on a tomb at the Porta di Ercolano. As this dipinto was recorded alongside an elaborate stucco decoration of games, gladiators, and wild animals, his games are believed to have been quite the spectacle.

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The article that discusses my findings and the evidence for the mis-reading of the name of Festius has been published in the latest volume of Epigraphica. If anyone would like a PDF of the article, please email me here.

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Graffiti or Art?

Graffiti has a completely different connotation in the modern consciousness than it appears to have had in the ancient world. Despite common admonitions against defacing a structure, particularly a tomb, in some Latin inscriptions, the prevalence of graffiti and dipinti on the city walls of a place like Pompeii or Herculaneum suggests this was largely ignored. That urge to simply write your name in a surface, which I have discussed before, evolves over time, eventually becoming the spray painted tag that was, in the seventies and eighties, seen as the blight of urban landscapes worldwide.

The practice of spray painting graffiti has also evolved, from the simple act of tagging to elaborate street art. This came to my attention in two ways recently, and made me think again about the concept of graffiti and the way it intersects with art, subversive art though it may be. A few weeks ago I was at the Godiva Festival in Coventry, where there were a number of local artists creating a temporary mural. This mural, however, was not painted with brushes, but with spray cans.

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In the last week, I’ve again come across a sanctioned act of street art that usually would be considered vandalism. In promoting the new Star Trek film, the wall of a building in Clerkenwell has been covered with images of the actors, using the same method of spray painting.

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As part of the promotion, at completion of the mural, the actor Idris Elba turned up, and, in true graffiti style, added his tag to the painting.

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For obvious reasons (I think), I found this intriguing as a process. In essence, the idea of recording your presence as an act of writing has come full circle in this one image. The technique of modern graffiti and tagging (spray paint) is used to create an image, a (for lack of a better way to describe it) proper painting, and then is signed, not by the artists, but by one of the people depicted.

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Graffiti Fridays

I have been somewhat derelict in my blogging the last few months. This is admittedly because I have been working on a number of projects that haven’t necessarily lent themselves to writing posts, and I equally haven’t had the time to delve into the various bits and pieces I’ve been saving to write about. That said, I did recently have an idea for writing a short weekly piece to get myself back into the habit of posting regularly, and to further explore my love of graffiti.

With that in mind… Welcome to the first Graffiti Friday. This will be a brief weekly post on graffiti. It may be ancient or it may be modern, my only requirement for inclusion is something that caught my eye or intrigued me in someway. Here goes:

 

CIL IV 8031

 

 

Found in the vestibule of the House of Casca Longus (I.vi.11) in Pompeii, this graffito is part text and part figural:

CIL IV 8031
Munus te ub(i)q(ue)
“Games, you are everywhere.”

What is remarkable about this is that the letter ‘Q’ of the inscription is drawn in such way that it resembles the elliptical shape of an arena, the location where the ubiquitous games were held. This is a fabulous example of an image that illustrates the exact meaning of the text.

 

 

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Galba Hominum*

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Roughly halfway through her new book, Galba’s Men, there is a passage describing the new emperor’s reaction to attending games in Rome:

“Galba had no particular love for the games. He’d seen real action and considered gladiator bouts as mere play: overdone and false. Yet he attempted a tight smile and waved as required.
It appeared genial to the palace staff, who were used to their grim-faced master. But the people, accustomed to cheery, flamboyant Nero, were not so enamoured of their new emperor. Casting sly looks at him in-between the entertainment, they saw a hook-nosed, scrawny old man with thinning white hair who looked almost bored by the proceedings.”

This, in a nutshell, encapsulates a number of issues faced by Galba and many other emperors, especially those who assumed power during the Year of the Four Emperors. There was a fine line to be traversed, negotiating the balance between pleasing the Senate, the people, and the military. Here, by being less adept publicly than the previous, crowd-pleasing ruler Nero, Galba is already failing to win over the public. He soon also has issues with the military, thus quickly tipping the balance in favour of a new (or, to be historically accurate, two new) usurpers of the imperial throne.

In her second book chronicling the tumultuous year of AD 68-69, L.J. Trafford once again combines history and fiction to bring forth an accurate, yet hugely entertaining narrative of the lives, loves, and quite a few deaths, of those whose lives revolve around the heart of Roman rule. Picking up a few months after the deaths of Nero and Sabinus, the Praetorian Prefect who led the revolt to install Galba as told in Palatine, Rome eagerly awaits the arrival of her new emperor. Many of the slaves and freedmen who keep the imperial bureaucracy running are still reeling from the fallout of the events earlier in the year, but are eager to start over, and hope for a return to normalcy. A similar desire is echoed amongst the military men and citizens we encounter. Galba, unfortunately, is plagued from the outset not only by the normal intrigues and machinations of his underlings, but also by his stubborn belief in a return to the moral, economic, and traditional view of Rome that few of its citizens seem to share with him.This, in effect, is what ultimately leads to his downfall.

In a note concluding the book, Trafford, echoing the words of Tacitus, indicates that Galba was, on paper at least, capable of being an outstanding emperor. He is a serious, older man, with years of military and political experience, who had served under four emperors (he first took public office as a praetor in AD 20, during the reign of Tiberius). He wanted to eliminate bribery of the Praetorian Guard and the army, the flashy displays of gladiatorial games and athletic contests, and restore the treasury that Nero had decimated with wanton building programmes and gifts. In other words, Galba wanted to get down to the serious business of restoring Rome to the good old days before the debauchery and carelessness of Caligula and Nero, but found a citizenry that had little recall, and even less interest, in his plans. Enter Otho, a man (as Trafford portrays him), with all the charisma, good-will, and charm that Galba lacks and then some, who devotes most of his time to winning favour amongst the Senate, the people, and the Praetorian Guard. Though somewhat hapless in some of his dealings (Poor Philo! Poor Straton!), Otho seemingly gets the necessity of striking the right balance, and is eagerly anticipating being named Galba’s heir so that he will have a chance to help the people of Rome in the manner he sees fit. When Galba passes him over, Otho is understandably mortified, and the rest, as is said, is history.

Thus, the book plays out over the seven months from when Galba seized power to his death, when Otho, with the help of the Praetorian Guard, the army, and a mob of Roman citizens, took control of the city. Like the first in the series, the story is woven of real and fictional characters, largely focusing on the slaves and freedmen who comprise the day to day workforce of the government and the imperial palace. This allows a certain amount of freedom for creating characters and situations that are necessary for attracting an audience and keeping them engaged from book to book (Really, what will Sporous get up to next? And how has that flibbertigibbet Mina survived so long?), but I think also is quite clever for historical purposes. Despite the lack of visibility on the historiographies of the period, it is likely that the turmoil of this year was felt most keenly by those closest to the rotating seat of the emperor: the members of the imperial household and the guard. It is the Praetorian Guard particularly who, like with the downfall of Nero, play a major role in the end of Galba’s reign. Otho seemingly understands the importance of having these people on side, and looks to be in place to be the kind of emperor that Rome both wants and needs. Unfortunately, the book ends with a note that Vitellius is on the march from Germany….

Despite knowing the history, I can’t wait to see what happens next.

 

*Disclosure: The author, L.J. Trafford, asked if I would be willing to review this book as I had the first in the series, and thus sent me a copy so that I could do so.

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