Monthly Archives: February 2016

Unpeopling the Past

A few weeks ago, I accidentally stumbled across a temporary exhibit at the British Museum of Francis Towne’s watercolours of Rome: ‘Light, time, legacy.’ Painted during a year long stay in the Eternal City from 1780 to 1781, this exhibit is a celebration of the two hundredth anniversary of the collection’s bequeathal to the British Museum upon the artist’s death in 1816. Towne apparently had some success during his lifetime despite failing to be elected to the Royal Academy on eleven occasions, but was largely forgotten after his death, until his works were re-discovered in the early twentieth century. The works held at the British Museum are not necessarily remarkable as far as eighteenth century landscapes go, but there is a use of light and perspective that I find captivating (beyond the subject matter itself, which of course if irresistible to a Romanist). There is a softness to his paintings that I find evocative of the evening light in Italy (and, in fact, he often wrote the time on the back of his paintings), of the texture of the stones the ancient Romans used to build their monuments, and one obviously endemic to the use of watercolour as a medium. What did strike me, though, as I wandered through the gallery, was the noticeable absence of people in his paintings.

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The Roman Forum (1781)

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View of the Colosseum from the Palatine Hill (1781)

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The Baths of Titus (1781)

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The Temple of Minerva at Sunset (1781)

Where the odd person is present, such as those with a cart in The Roman Forum, or the lone figure on the edge of the wall in The Baths of Titus (now identified as the Baths of Trajan), it appears to be a device used to add scale, so that the sheer size of the structures is not underestimated by the viewer. Overall, whether a figure is present or not, there is a feeling in each work of abandonment – that these relics of the ancient world are left in isolation, removed from the current world, and in many cases, slowly being reclaimed by nature. The Temple of Minerva at Sunset is a particularly good example of this, though I must say it did not appear much different the last time I was in Rome.

What immediately sprung to mind, when viewing painting after painting with almost no human trace, was the way archaeological sites are represented. A number of years ago, Jeremy Hartnett wrote about this practice in the early photography of the ruins of Pompeii. (I actually reviewed the volume it appears in for BMCR.) This chapter focuses on Vittorio Spinazzola, the director of excavation from 1910 to 1923, who was a pioneer in using photography to document not only the ongoing clearance of the site, but also the ruins once they were exposed. Hartnett wrote of the new use of photography in excavation for its importance as a means of documentation, where each image was concerned not only with ‘showing what came out of the ground, [but also] they explained how it was brought to light and by whom’ (p. 247). This is clear in a photo from the excavation of the House of Paquius Procolus (I.vii.1):

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This photo shows the workman, clearing debris, whilst being supervised under the watchful eye of Spinazzola himself (in the dark suit at the top). Part of the aim of the photographic documentation, and one that anyone with field experience is familiar with today, is to preserve a record of how any particular area is being excavated. In addition, Spinazzola was interested in showing the extent of the work being carried out. The photo below is striking, not just for the length of the area being cleared along the Via dell’Abbondanza, but also for showing how much of the ruins had yet to be uncovered just a century ago (you can just see the upper levels of the amphitheatre in the distance).

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What actually brought these photos to mind in viewing the exhibit of Towne’s watercolours, however, is the way in which the excavated areas were documented after the last of the volcanic detritus had been cleared. The workman are gone, Spinazzola himself is absent, and what remains is a street or a house, devoid of any human life.

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The streets, wrote Hartnett, ‘are presented as empty, antiseptic spaces, made as whole as possible (with fountains even gushing water in some shots) but then left pristine and uninhabited’ (pp. 265-6). He argues that this was a conscious choice for which photos of the excavation were published, that has had a lasting impact not only on how both scholars and the public view the ancient world, but also on how we present it ourselves. I am sure I am not the only one who has stood in Pompeii (or Rome, or Athens, or anywhere else) and impatiently waited for the tourists to move along, so that I could photograph my own monuments with no human interference. The fact is that I have thousands of photos from Pompeii, and all are of an abandoned, empty, cityscape devoid of human life. This image of an empty space, of a quiet street, or of the abandoned Roman Forum or Colosseum, as presented by Francis Towne, other artists, and many historians and archaeologists, could not be further from the reality of the past. I was struck by this when I first read Hartnett’s work, and was reminded of this when wandering the galleries of the British Museum. The irony here is that the people are, after all, what has always drawn me to the past. Removing life from representations of the past, whether in photo or painting, suddenly seems the antithesis of our work.

 

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The Name Game

In recent months my research has deviated somewhat from social networks to focus more on the processes of elections in Roman Pompeii – what has become a larger project on how the evidence of campaigning remaining from the electoral dipinti can be used to glean a greater understanding of voting in both theory and practice. As a result, I have been giving a series of papers on small parts of this research. Last week I gave a paper for the Roman Discussion Forum, an informal seminar series sponsored by the Institute of Archaeology here in Oxford, looking at Roman naming conventions and the way names are used in the programmata. Interestingly enough, (and with utmost thanks to a colleague, Maria Pretzler, who first told me about this), I found a truly stunning parallel to a number of the issues facing voters in the first century AD in a senatorial race in Alaska in the 21st century.

In 2010,the incumbent senator for the state of Alaska, Lisa Murkowski, chose to run on a write-in campaign after she lost the Republican party primary to Joe Miller, a member of the Tea Party. When she won the election, the fellow Republican she defeated challenged the election results all the way to the state supreme court, attempting to get thousands of ballots thrown out because Murkowski’s name was misspelled. He refuted the idea that a phonetic rendering of Murkowski’s name should be counted as a legitimate vote. As the more than ninety thousand write-in ballots were counted, his representatives questioned them if there was a y for an i, maybe no w, maybe a c instead of a k. They might have seen a smear or just loopy cursive that might — might — be subject to interpretation. As the director of the Alaska Division of Elections said, ‘Not everyone writes perfectly.’ Miller’s claims were rejected, on the basis that Alaska statutes and case law do not require perfect spelling on write-in ballots if voter intent is clear.

Murkowski was well aware of the potential problems a write in campaign would bring regarding ballots themselves, as well as the spelling of her name. She used this in her advertisements which featured mnemonic devices and spelling aids. These not only included information about how to complete a write in ballot properly, but also  featured spelling clinics and a spelling bee with a school child correctly completing her name.

As spelling ended up being the primary component of Miller’s lawsuit, Murkowski’s attempt to forestall major problems in that area is understandable. One Alaskan newspaper went so far as to question whether Miller’s lawsuit was an attempt to enforce a literacy test on voters, something that has been illegal in the United States since 1965. It was suggested this move was particularly aimed at the Native Alaskan population, as some of the districts where more than 70% of the ballots cast were write ins are primarily comprised of native residents.

Many of the issues raised in Alaska six years ago are the same problems I keep running up against in examining the political processes of campaigning and voting in a Roman town in the first century AD. Names – how they are spelled or written and by whom, whether in dipinti or on a ballot itself, literacy levels of the voting population, ballot legibility, and awareness of who a name represented are fundamental issues surrounding the casting of a vote in the ancient world. A large part of this, is how names are presented, specifically in terms of what we might expect to find, what is actually useful to the voter or the vote counter, and the reality as evidenced in the electoral programmata of Pompeii.

The majority of the electoral programmata in Pompeii are posted for men who have adopted the full tria nomina that became the standard of naming conventions by the late first century BC. (There are a limited number that date to the earliest years of the colony that consist of only two names, using praenomen and nomen.) When using the tria nomina, as Dickey has pointed out, there are eight possible permutations for what name, or combination of names, one could chose to address a Roman man:

– all three names- praenomen + nomen
– praenomen + cognomen
– nomen + cognomen
– cognomen + nomen
– praenomen
– nomen
– cognomen

Ignoring for the moment the men who campaign for magisterial office in Pompeii using four names, thus increasing the number of possible combinations (think, for example, of Gaius Calventius Sittius Magnus or Marcus Lucretius Decidianus Rufus), the number of naming options is going to have an impact on how one is presented in the dipinti advertising one’s candidacy. This is clear in many of the examples found in the electoral programmata. Lucius Popidius Secundus, a candidate for aedile in AD 79, has dipiniti that present his name in four of the possible forms, and with additional abbreviations and shortenings. His name appears as:

Lucius Popidius Secundus
Popidius Secundus
Lucius Popidius
Lucius Popidius Secum
Lucius Popid Secundus
Lucius Pop Secund
Popidius Sec
LPS
LP

 

This sort of list is possible for virtually every well-documented candidate. In addition, there are a large number of single name programmata which could be attributed to this man or a number of other candidates. There are more than a hundred dipinti naming a Popidius (46 in all) or a Secundus (94 texts). Interestingly, when going with the single name option, the cognomen appears, from this example, to be preferable to the nomen. In either case, the use of a single name may be seen as a way to capitalize on epigraphic material that is not your own. Why not let the voting populace assume that you are the same Popidius that ran for office a few years before, or the same Secundus who has already been successfully elected. This concept, of using another’s name or initials to your own ends in an election, is not unheard of in the ancient literature (or even modern elections – case in point – many Americans thought they were electing George Bush the father as president, not George W. Bush the son). A discussion by Cicero of one candidate trying to bypass a step on the cursus honorum all together by having the same initials as another magistrate is, in fact, used as evidence for voting by initials only. Regardless of the form of name or how it is abbreviated, what likely seems to be of the utmost importance in getting elected was that the intent was clear on the part of the voters, and that this could be transferred from the campaign to the voting booth, much like in an Alaskan senate race.

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