Rule, Britannia?


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.


New Dipinti, Old Connections

I am sure I am not the only one who has been watching the progress of the new excavations in Regio V of Pompeii with great interest (and a wee bit of envy for not being a part of them). Finds have included some fine examples of wall painting, the remains of a number of horses, and the now infamous man crushed by a large stone block as he fled the eruption of Vesuvius in addition to some stunning architectural features. A few hours ago, the soprintendenza published additional photos of the excavation, which reveal new electoral dipinti. (Photos from the Pompeii Facebook page).


Both of these men, running for the office of aedile in the Flavian period, are already well known to us from other electoral notices. Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus and Lucius Albucius Celsus are well documented candidates. Interestingly, I have looked extensively at them before, in the context that they both appear in electoral advertisements with other candidates. Traditionally, it is believed that the Romans did not campaign in the form of parties or work together, but evidence from Pompeii demonstrates otherwise. Helvius Sabinus campaigns with another candidate for aedile, as well as joining forces with two of the duovir candidates running at the same time.

AE 1902: 192 = CIL IV 6616
Cn(aeum) Helvium Sabinum et / M(arcum) Samellium Modestum aed(iles) d(ignos) r(ei) p(ublicae) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis).
‘I beg you to elect Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus and Marcus Samellius Modestus aediles, worthy of public office.’

CIL IV 843
Calventium IIv(i)r(um) i(ure) d(icundo) / Cn(aeum) Helvium Sabinum aed(ilem) o(ro) [v(os) f(aciatis)].
‘I beg you to elect Calventius duovir with judicial powers and Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus aedile.

CIL IV 1083
Cn(aeum) Helvium / Sabinum aed(ilem) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) / L() Ceium Secundum IIvir(um) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) / Recepta nec sine thalamo.
‘I beg you to elect Gnaeus Helvius Sabinus aedile and Lucius Ceius Secundus duovir, Recepta also with Thalamus.

I have previously written about Albucius Celsus in the context of women sponsoring electoral notices, but he also appears with other candidates.

CIL IV 1169
Samellium / aed(ilem) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) iuvenem p(robum) / L(ucium) Albucium aed(ilem).
‘I beg you to elect Samellius aedile, first amongst youth, and Lucius Albucius aedile.

CIL IV 3294 = CIL IV 3678
M(arcum) Casellium et L(ucium) Albucium aed(iles) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) / Statia et Petronia rog(ant) tales cives in colonia in perpetuo.
‘Statia and Petronia beg you to elect Marcus Casellius and Lucius Albucius, excellent citizens for the perpetuity of the colony, aediles.’

What is particularly interesting here is that Albucius Celsus has notices for aedile with two different candidates, Marcus Casellius Marcellus and Marcus Samellius Modestus. This suggests he ran for this particular magistracy twice. From what we know of Roman political practices, it seems that one of Albucius Celsus’ campaigns for aedile was unsuccessful, causing him to run a second time with a different partner. These new inscriptions, naming Helvius Sabinus and Albucius Celsus, both of whom are also linked to Samellius Modestus, potentially in different electoral years, demonstrates the close knit nature of Pompeian politics in the later years of the city as well as the tendency for candidates to work together in campaigning for election. I was aware that there was a common link in Samellius Modestus, but the placement of these dipinti may indicate that there was a closer alliance than previously thought.



When in Melbourne

Back in September I had the great pleasure to go to Melbourne as the keynote speaker for the National Archaeology Student Conference (NASC). Whilst I was in town, I also spent an enjoyable couple of hours talking to Matt Smith of La Trobe University, who has produces podcasts on the ancient world. The first of our conversations, on the graffiti of Pompeii, is now available as Episode XXX of the When in Rome series. If you’ve got an hour to spare and want to learn a bit about the writing on the walls of an ancient city, you can find the podcast on iTunes and Soundcloud.



CFP: Reading and Writing for Rome



Call for Papers: Reading and Writing for Rome: Literacies of Administration

We invite proposals for papers for the panel ‘Reading and Writing for Rome: Literacies of Administration’ at the 11th Celtic Conference in Classics at the University of St. Andrews taking place July 11th-14th 2018.

This session aims to explore literacy, understanding, and perception of inscriptions with particular attention to administrative aspects, taking a contextual, multidisciplinary approach, and raising issues from the spread of Latin to the visual impact of inscriptions. We intend to produce an edited volume of the papers presented, aiming for publication by 2020.

Literacy in the Roman World has been debated for more than twenty‐five years since the publication of the first landmark study on the subject. Despite the knowledge that Roman cities (and the countryside as well) were full of things to read it is still commonly accepted that literacy was relatively low. This places question marks at the perception and understanding of text, especially those texts publically displayed and essential for the structure of the empire, such as legal inscriptions, road signs, boundary marking, taxes and the sale of goods. The epigraphic culture of the late Republic and early Empire is much studied, although often with a focus on religious or funerary commemoration and dedication. Through a focus on the administrative elements in milestones, fasti, election graffiti and dipinti, and other inscriptions related to regulation and commerce, this panel aims to discuss implied levels of literacy and/or general understanding as well as civic participation, touching on issues of globalisation, imperialism, agency and identity. This also raises questions about the spread and importance of Latin, multilingualism and translations, and the perception and understanding of Latin in relation to local languages.

We are inviting a range of scholars from different disciplines and backgrounds to connect issues of administration, taxation, civic duty, identity and community building, as represented in the public writing in the Roman world and to discuss implied levels of literacy and/or general understanding as well as civic participation, touching on issues of globalisation, multilingualism, imperialism, agency and identity. We particularly would like to encourage PhD students and early career researchers, and with that objective we are accepting abstracts for papers both 20 and 40 minutes in length. Please specify the desired paper length on your abstract.

Prof. William Johnson (Duke) will act as discussant for the panel, and confirmed speakers include Dr A. Mullen (Nottingham) Dr J. Howley (Columbia), Dr S. Stevens (Utrecht), Dr O. Olesti-Vila (Barcelona) and Dr A. Graham (Warwick), amongst others.

Please submit an abstract of max. 200 words by Friday 16 February 2018 to either of the organisers, and we will inform speakers as soon as possible after that. Finally, please note papers can be presented in English or French, traditionally the two official languages of the Celtic Conference.

Dr. Anouk Vermeulen (
Dr. Virginia L. Campbell (





Shakespeare’s History of Rome

The assassination of Caesar. (Photo taken from the RSC).

On this, the Ides of March, I thought it might be appropriate to delve into the most recent production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, currently running at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon. Although I think this is one of the first of Shakespeare’s plays I ever read in school, this was the first time I have ever had the opportunity to see it staged. This, in and of itself, was rather interesting for me for a couple of reasons. I’m sure I am not the only person who finds the works of Shakespeare so much more evocative (and understandable) performed than read from the page (even if reading aloud in a group), so for that alone, I was pleased to see the play. But as an ancient historian, I am, of course, well schooled in the narrative of Caesar’s downfall that was shaped largely by the aftermath of his assassination, the war (literal and figurative) against the conspirators led by Mark Antony and Octavian, and the eventual dominance in contemporary culture of Octavian’s view of his great-uncle as a divine character, a saviour of the Roman people to be forever after worshiped. Watching Shakespeare’s version then, which focuses on Brutus‘ difficulty with his role in the conspiracy and the fallout of Caesar’s death from the perspective of the conspirators, is a different approach than one I am used to.

This led me to think quite a bit about Shakespeare’s sources for ancient history, and the view of antiquity that his work has presented to the world for the last four hundred years. It is well known that much of Shakespeare’s material came from the work of Plutarch – specifically his Parallel Lives. These include the lives of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony – all of whom feature in Shakespeare’s telling of these events. The issue with Plutarch as a source, as any historian can tell you, is that he was writing comparative biographies, not histories, in addition to writing in the 2nd century AD, long after any of the events he describes took place. Beyond the issues this presents with the ancient material, Shakespeare, as far as anyone could tell, didn’t read ancient Greek, the language in which Plutarch wrote. However, the first English translation of Plutarch’s Lives appeared in 1579, the work of Sir Thomas North. North, however, doesn’t seem to have read Greek either, as his was actually a translation of an earlier French work, produced by Jacques Amyot about twenty years earlier. The use of a translation of a translation is something that is highly suspect in academic circles for the potential of errors, and misunderstandings of language. Whilst this does not seem to have created many issues for Shakespeare, anyone who has read a bit of Plutarch as well as other ancient historical texts know that the version presented in the plays is not entirely without some artistic license.

There was, however, one rather brief reference to another ancient figure that struck me as potentially problematic. In Act I, Scene ii, Brutus and Cassius have a long discussion about Caesar’s actions, and the dilemma they find themselves in. In the middle of a long speech Cassius says:

‘Caesar cried “Help me, Cassius, or I sink!”
I, as Aeneas, our great ancestor,
Did from the flames of Troy upon his shoulder
The old Anchises bear, so from the waves of Tiber
Did I the tired Caesar.’

Aeneas, the son of Troy who fled the end of the war to (eventually) found Rome on the shores of Alba Longa, was popularised  as a figure by the poet Vergil, in the late first century BC, after Caesar’s death. His inclusion in the lines of Shakespeare, therefore, seem a little bit incongruous with the historical chronology. What is interesting is that Aeneas as a character was known of long before this time – he features in both the Iliad and Homer’s Hymn to Aphrodite, as well as in bits of pieces of other ancient writing, both Greek and Roman. Besides the obvious creation of the Roman origin story in the Aeneid, what Vergil did in his epic poem was amalgamate various disjointed tales and characteristics and create a singular figure, a hero, a Roman, out of bits and pieces. His Aeneas, unlike those that predate Vergil, is a solid, tangible character with a clear origin and narrative. That Cassius compares himself to Aeneas as he does in this speech suggests to me an idea of the Vergilian character, not the less formidable one of Greek myth. As the Aeneid was available at the time Shakespeare was writing (apparently a Scots version was published as early as 1513), it seems likely that this character was well known to him, even if Shakespeare’s chronology was off by about thirty years or so.


The War in Pompeii

In the autumn of 1943, during the Allied push to move up the Italian peninsula, the city of Pompeii was bombed twice, in September and October. Rumours have long abounded that someone in the Allied leadership believed that a Nazi Panzer unit was hiding amongst the ruins of the houses and buildings of the city (I know tanks are good at difficult terrain, but I can’t see them successfully maneuvering on many of Pompeii’s streets), but it is now thought both raids were accidental rather than deliberate. Regardless, more than one hundred and fifty bombs fell on the ruins, causing considerable damage to a number of houses, the original museum, and the palaestra.

Plan Pompeii 1943 Bomb Damage Bestand-Microfiche-D-DAI-ROM-1303_D06 neg 65.2004.jpeg

I’ve always rather marveled at the fact that despite heavy damage in the southwest corner of the city to the palaestra, the one bomb that fell upon the amphitheatre landed in the middle of the arena floor, causing the least damage possible to the structure:

Of course, in the aftermath, no Nazi tanks (or even troops) were found in the city.

As the war moved north, and slowly came to an end, Pompeii became the focus of a different sort of military activity: tourism. Troops stationed in and around Italy visited the ruins in huge numbers. A brief account of such visits can be found here. tumblr_o5n6n6ucql1rq5hzro1_500

Two such visitors left behind a graffito, recording their time in the city. Found on a wall in the House of Paquius Proculus (I.vii.i, also known as the House of Cuspius Pansa as electoral dipinti for both men were found on the walls), it contains the initials of two individuals and the date, the 31st of July 1944.


The house itself had been excavated first in 1911 and completed between 1923 and 1926, thus making it one of the more recently discovered properties in 1944. As the house still retains extensive wall paintings and intricate floor mosaics (the atrium floor especially, which today cannot be walked on), it must have been quite a site a mere twenty years after it was cleared of volcanic debris. There is no way of knowing anything further about the people that left this inscription, A.V. and A.L., or even if they were military, but the date suggests to me that it is unlikely there were many civilian tourists visiting Pompeii at the time. The manner in which the date is written – day then month – along with the cross on the seven, indicates the person who scratched this was not American in origin, most likely European or Australian.*

There are numerous accounts of soldiers visiting ancient sites and cultural landmarks throughout Europe and North Africa during the war, but this is the first time I have come across direct evidence of it myself. I am sure other graffiti of a similar ilk must exist, but undoubtedly have not been recorded systematically. If anyone has come across texts like this, particularly in Pompeii or Herculaneum, do let me know.


*Update: This post sparked conversation with Dr. Nigel Pollard, who is currently writing a monograph on Pompeii during the war, who suggests the banded seven was uncommon amongst Brits at the time, and may be attributed to French troops active in the area.