Monthly Archives: July 2016

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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star trek 1

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.

idris

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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