Posts Tagged With: History

Shakespeare’s History of Rome

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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.

 

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Vote Early, Vote Often

You’d have to have been in a coma the past several weeks to not be aware that today is Election Day in the United States. Being an American in the UK, I voted by post several weeks ago, but for the majority of my fellow citizens, some part of today will be spent in a queue at a polling station. This particular presidential election has been incredibly vitriolic, with one of the many contentious arguments being about electoral fraud and the outcome being ‘rigged.’ The reality is that very little voter fraud has ever been documented in modern American elections, but what about Rome?

One of the issues I keep coming back to again and again in my work on the Roman electoral process is that of identification. How did the officials overseeing a vote know who could vote? How did they prevent someone from voting who wasn’t legally permitted, or how did they keep someone from voting twice? This came up again recently when I gave a paper to the Birkbeck History Society about voting in Pompeii.

In the simplest terms possible, the physical act of voting involved the eligible citizens being divided into their units and tribes, separated in some way from others, who were then called to vote using a ballot (once the written vote was introduced by the Lex Gabinia in 139 BC) which was then deposited in an urn for counting. Voting could be successive or simultaneous, with counting and results read out either progressively or all together once the vote was complete by a magistrate, who would give the name of the candidate and break down the number of votes received by unit and tribe. There is no concrete evidence on how ballots were distributed or how or even if the qualification to vote was ever checked.

Whilst there is no specific evidence checks of voting eligibility were made, it is certainly clear that enfranchisement, particularly in the earlier years of the Republic, was jealously guarded, thus leading to one scholar to conclude that ‘it is impossible that the Romans, who were so jealous of their group voting machinery and of the timocratic class structure of the centuriate assembly, should not have taken some precautions to ensure that a citizen did not cast his vote in the wrong tribe or century nor cast it more than once.’ Some scholars have suggested that tribal leaders carried out informal checks whilst their members were waiting to vote, but as citizen numbers increased over the years this becomes improbable. It is possible some sort of identity token that contained name, tribe, and property qualification was in the possession of every citizen, which then could be shown to a rogator or custodes at some point in the voting process, much like our modern voter registration or electoral roll.

One scholar of Roman electoral processes has suggested this is a possible explanation for a coin minted in the first century BC, that it actually depicts a voter turning in an identity token, but all this is circumstantial – there is no written or physical evidence to support theory.

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This coin, a denarius of Publius Nerva dated to 113-112 BC,  is probably the best depiction of voting that survives antiquity. It illustrates the process used both for the oral vote and the written vote, where the voter crossed a pons to either state his choice to a rogator or deposit the ballot on which he wrote. One voter is depositing an object into the urn used to collect ballots, whilst the other, to the left, is handing something to a rogator. This could well be an identity token used to identify an individual’s eligibility to vote. Unfortunately, as good an explanation for this image as this may be, it doesn’t make fraud prevention any clearer. There are no photo IDs, and unless the rogator is keeping a record of who has already presented their token for voting, it is impossible to prevent someone from voting twice, or passing his token on to another.

Ancient literature does provide evidence of fraud at elections, but these instances record the ballot box being stuffed (Varro Rust. 3.ii ff) or numerous ballots appearing in one handwriting (Plutarch Cat. Minor 46.2). I’ve yet to come across an account that speaks to issues of repetitive voting or voting when not legally permitted. On one level, this suggests that it isn’t recorded because it never happened. However, considering the well-documented issues of bribery and intimidation in electioneering (particularly in the later years of the Republic), I find it difficult to believe other kinds of meddling with voting processes didn’t occur.

Whilst I continue to dig for information about ancient voter fraud, let’s all hope (for the sake of my sanity if nothing else) that modern instances are nothing more than the hyperbolic ranting of a desperate candidate.

 

 

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H.R. Fecit

Much to my chagrin, one of my most recent forays into finding graffiti included a supremely klutzy moment wherein, distracted by some scratchings in the stone wall, I completely missed a couple of steps in what was probably the most inelegant tumble ever,  and am still limping around Oxford with the resultant sprained ankle. Nevertheless, I was much intrigued by what I saw on the walls of Kenilworth Castle.

Kenilworth Castle is largely a ruin today, but has stood on a hill for nearly nine hundred years. Its ruinous state is largely down to Oliver Cromwell, who ordered the demolition of the castle after the Civil War. It remained the possession of a single family from the time of the Restoration until 1938, when it was given to the state, and later in the century, English Heritage. Despite private ownership, it became a tourist destination in the early nineteenth century, with a little help from Sir Walter Scott’s novel Kenilworth (1821).

It should come as no surprise then, that the graffiti I stumbled upon (literally!) in the castle keep is not medieval, but fairly modern. The earliest date I found was 1835:

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The latest was inscribed by Cindy and Guy in 1983. I expect, as the castle  passed into the hands of English Heritage in 1984, the area was better secured against would be graffitists as none have a date after this point.

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The keep itself is a sort of reddish-greyish sandstone, so whilst not the easiest surface to carve into, isn’t as difficult as some other rocks. This, and the interest of time, is probably why most of the marks left behind are merely initials.

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I was, naturally, thrilled to see that one tourist had traveled to the castle from my homeland – specifically – my home state:

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W.A. came from New York in 1871. At that time crossing the ocean was a much more difficult endeavour than now, and thus I can understand that this individual felt some compunction to record where it was s/he had originated. It is the only graffito of its kind in the castle, as far as I was able to locate, making me conclude this may have been one of the only foreigners who chose to leave a mark.

And finally – the one that I found most exciting (pointing it out to my partner immediately preceded my tumble down the steps) is, in fact, in Latin:

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Here we see some attempt to draw an artificial box around a collection of names (not unlike some Roman graffiti that present themselves as documents) and the date – 1901. This is likely a group of friends who decided to leave a substantial reminder of their visit. Although a cursory glance suggests there are a few different hands potentially at work here, it seems likely one is responsible – or at least claiming so. H.R. made this.

 

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I Predict a Riot

Earlier this week I had the great privilege to spend an hour in a room full of engaged and enthusiastic Year 9 students talking about Pompeian graffiti. These students are studying for a GCSE in Classical Civilsation after school as part of The Iris Project at Cheney School. During the paper, in which I was introducing them to various aspects of graffiti and dipinti and the ways historians use these inscriptions, I was asked a question that rather took me by surprise. It wasn’t about graffiti, but about a wall painting that I was using to illustrate an event in Pompeii’s history which is related to a number of graffiti.

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This painting, found in the House of Anicetus, ( I.iii.23 ) famously depicts the riot that took place in the amphitheatre in AD 59. We know this is a real event because Tacitus tells us about it:

Tacitus Annals 14.17
‘At around the same time, there arose from a trifling beginning a terrible bloodbath among the inhabitants of the colonies of Nuceria and Pompeii at a gladiatorial show given by Livineius Regulus, whose expulsion from the senate I have recorded previously. Inter-town rivalry led to abuse, then stone-throwing, then the drawing of weapons. The Pompeians in whose town the show was being given came off the better. Therefore many of the Nucerians were carried to Rome having lost limbs, and many were bereaved of parents and children. The emperor instructed the senate to investigate; they passed it to the consuls. When their findings returned to the senators, the Pompeians were barred from holding any such gathering for ten years. Illegal associations in the town were dissolved, Livineius and the others who had instigated the trouble were exiled.’

In addition, there are a number of graffiti that illustrate the kind of animosity between neighbouring towns that may have contributed to, or resulted from, the event that Tacitus describes.

CIL IV 2183
Puteolanis Feliciter / omnibus Nuc{h}erinis / felicia et uncu(m) Pompeianis / Petecusanis.
Good fortune to the Puteolans; good luck to all Nucerians; the executioner’s hook to Pompeians.’

CIL IV 1329
Nucerinis / infelicia.
‘Ill luck to the Nucerians.’

One even accompanies a drawing depicting a gladiator holding a palm of victory:

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CIL IV 1293
Campani victoria una / cum Nucerinis peristis.
Campanians, in our victory you perished with the Nucerians.’

The question that was asked, however, related not to the graffiti but to the painting itself, or more to the point, how unusual it was to have a painting in one’s house that depicted such violence. On most occasions when I have come across a reference to this painting in a scholarly work, if the oddness of it is mentioned at all, it is done in a very offhand way of wondering why someone would wish to commemorate such an event (even if the Pompeians were considered the victors). I have never come across a comparison to other wall paintings in terms of the nature of the violence illustrated. In the moment when the question was asked, I was racking my brain for a similar scene – and I couldn’t think of a single one. The closest may be the Alexander Mosaic from the House of the Faun, which depicts a military battle. Still, as detailed as it is in regards to fallen men and distressed looking horses, it does not depict seemingly dead bodies still on the ground as we can see in the painting from Anicetus’s house. The very nature of gladiatorial combat is a gruesome and bloody sport to which Romans were largely accustomed, but sitting in an arena watching a contest which may result in spilled blood (but, contrary to popular belief, rarely death) is quite a different thing than displaying images of the dead or dying on the wall of your house.

The question, as raised by this student, made me think about the painting in a different way, and really wonder about the mindset of the person who had it commissioned. (I am now extremely curious to see if I can find anything comparable on the wall of a Roman house. If anyone has any examples – do let me know.)  This has been on my mind for a number of days, not just because of the nature of the question, but because of who asked it. It was a timely (and to be honest, necessary) reminder that for as much as I know and continue to learn about the ancient world, there is always a new and interesting way to think about things. More to the point, it is more often than not our students who point us in a different direction, and that our research, without our students, is lacking something essential.

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Civis Britannicus Sum

Today marks an odd sort of anniversary for me: sixteen years ago I arrived in the UK, with the intention of completing a MA and returning home to the US at the end of a year. Clearly, that didn’t quite go to plan, and here I remain. Earlier this month, I became a British citizen. In many ways this was a decision made for practical and legal issues rather than a sudden overwhelming desire to be British, but the ceremony itself, in conjunction with a number of other issues currently in the forefront of my native country, got me thinking about what it means to be a citizen of any place, at any time, and how the concepts of citizenship, nationalism, and patriotism can become so muddled.

In the defensive action that made Cicero’s career, In Verrem (II.5.162), Cicero described an event of a man being beaten who defends himself with the words ‘Civis Romanus sum.’ He believed his claim to Roman citizenship was enough to protect him from torture and death. This idea has resonated politically – it was quoted by Lord Palmerston in a speech to Parliament in 1850, is the basis of President Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech, and was referenced by (unfortunately) fictional President Jed Bartlett in The West Wing. However, Cicero also said ‘But no one who had any acquaintance with our laws or our customs, who wished to retain his rights as a citizen of Rome, ever dedicated himself to another city.’ (Pro Balbo 30). I’ve not only dedicated myself to another country, but to another ruler and thus, in essence, form of government. As part of becoming a citizen of the UK, I had to swear the following oath:

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This is interesting for a number of reasons.  It is asking naturalised citizens for an oath that is not demanded of the born citizenry. Not only is there no request for such an oath if born here, but there are many Brits of a pro-Republic leaning who would balk at promising allegiance to the monarchy, and thus wouldn’t be able to fulfill the same requirement asked of someone willingly choosing to become a citizen. More to the point, however, it reminded me of another oath, one sworn by citizens of Paphlagonia in 3 BC:

Paphlagonian Oath OGIS 532.
‘In the third year after the twelfth consulship of Imperator Caesar, son of the god, Augustus, on the day before the nones of March at Gangra in the market place, this oath was sworn by the inhabitant of Paphlagonia and the Romans who do business in the country.
I swear by Zeus, Hera, the Sun, and all the gods and goddesses, and Augustus himself, that I will be loyal to Caesar Augustus and his children and descendents all the time of my life by word and deed and thought, holding as friend whomsoever they so hold, and considering as enemies whomsoever they so judge, and for their interests I will spare neither body nor soul nor life nor children, but will endure every peril for their cause. If I see or hear anything being said or planned or done against them, I will lay information and I will be the enemy of such sayer or planner or doer; whomsoever they themselves judge to be their enemies, them I will pursue and resist by land and by sea, with arms and with iron. If I do anything contrary to this oath or not according as I have sworn, I invoke death and destruction upon myself and my body and soul and children and all my race and interests to the last generation of my children’s children, and may neither the earth nor the sea receive the bodies of my family and my descendants, nor bear crops for them.
The same oath was sworn by all the rural population at the shrines of Augustus in the districts beside the altars of Augustus.’

This was a remarkable thing at the time – wherein citizens of a province were required not to swear an oath to Rome – but to a single man, Augustus. Cicero’s concept of Roman citizenship seems to have been superseded by a notion of patriotism, that is, loyalty to country, fatherland, and etymologically, ultimately the father. Augustus was, after all, named Pater Patriae by the Senate in the following year. The notion of being a citizen of Rome seems not to have changed much on the ground (as far as the evidence reveals), but the ideas of what that means and to whom one is loyal fundamentally shifts with the onset of empire.

I think, in essence, the idea of empire and monarchy are what Rome and Britain have in common in terms of what they ask of their citizenry, both natural born and naturalised. I am not quite sure if the same can be said of the US. In the years I have lived in the UK, I have become aware of an acute difference between what for Brits is nationalism (especially in regards to identification as English, Welsh, etc.), and for Americans is patriotism. The American idea of patriotism (so many flags!) is one I have struggled to negotiate most of my life, and has recently become a larger issue as part of protests arising around the national anthem, the Black Lives Matters movement, and other social injustices. And yet, no one (as far as I am aware), who knows I am now a citizen of two countries has called into question my allegiance to either.

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Regardless, I am keenly aware that whatever passport I hold, on some level I will always be identified as an American, and not British. Cicero would probably have a few choice words for me, but somehow, I think the Paphlagonians might be more understanding.

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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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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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Seminar Series: Networks in the Ancient World

I am pleased to present, in conjunction with the Corpus Christi College Centre for the Study of Greek and Roman Antiquity as part of my Leverhulme Trust ECF, a seminar series on networks in antiquity. Seminars are held on Wednesday at 5 pm. All are welcome to attend. Please contact me for further information. networks

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Post No Bills

Last night, BBC4 aired a documentary entitled ‘A Brief History of Graffiti.’ Presented by art historian Richard Clay, the programme explored not just the technical definition of graffiti (scratched, or inscribed texts or images such as those found in Pompeii), but all manner of markings left behind by someone who wanted to leave some trace of their existence. I’ve written before about the ubiquitous nature of recording one’s presence across millennia and thousands of miles. This habit is one hardly limited to the ancient Romans that are the focus of my research, and this programme illustrated this point over and over again.

When one defines graffiti as broadly as possible, as a man-made mark of some kind – painted, scratched, stenciled, written or figural – it quickly becomes clear that the claim that graffiti can be found wherever humans go is a truism. For the purposes of this programme, that ranges from the 30,000 year old cave paintings of southern France to modern street art in New York City. What remains the same is the urge to do this: what one NY graffiti artist referred to as an ‘innate human impulse’ to leave some trace behind. This is true of all the work profiled, whether the graffiti of local rivalries in Pompeii, the words of the revolutionaries of the Commune du Paris of the 1870s on the walls of the catacombs, or the images of the architect turned stencil artist Blek le Rat, whose work has inspired a whole generation of artists.

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The element that has perhaps changed over time, again and again, is the attitude towards leaving such marks. A figure of a gladiator complete with sword, shield, and number of victories was inscribed on a wall inside a house in third century Lyon. This suggests a level of not just acceptance but permission for such a thing to appear. This is contradicted in the reaction to what Dr. Clay refers to as the industrialisation of graffiti, that is, the development of lithography and mass produced posters, in nineteenth century France when ‘défense d’afficher’ begins to appear on buildings. This attitude of viewing graffiti as subversive, revolutionary, vandalism, and a challenge to the status quo continues through the twentieth century, but certainly has no real effect on the production of graffiti. Indeed, despite this, street artists who once were at the vanguard of the underground movement, known for acts such as painting entire NYC subway cars, are now shown in galleries, painting on canvas, and selling their art. This is perhaps best illustrated by the ongoing exhibit of Terrains Vagues at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which developed a specific space for collaborative work by a number of graffiti artists.

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What struck me again, repeatedly, throughout the programme, and indeed as I continue with my own research on inscriptions, is this need to record one’s place in the world, as however fleeting as that might be. I find something oddly comforting in the idea that this is an element of human nature, a shared need to leave one’s mark. It makes me want to buy some paint and find a blank wall to make my own.

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With Malice Towards None

With thanks to Will, a lovely park ranger who answered my questions, gave me a fabulous book on Vicksburg’s monuments, and tipped me off to the gastronomic delight that is Mother’s Restaurant in New Orleans.

If there is one period of history other than the Classical world with which I am utterly fascinated, it is the U.S. in the mid-nineteenth century, specifically the Civil War era. As such, when taking a little road trip on my way to New Orleans to attend the annual meetings of the AIA/SCS last week, I couldn’t resist a slight detour to visit the National Military Park at Vicksburg. The city of Vicksburg (if you need a little history lesson), marked the last battle between Union and Confederate forces for control of the Mississippi River, which had, to that point, been an essential conduit for supplies and troops in the Confederate war effort. It is the battle that made General Ulysses S. Grant known to President Lincoln, subsequently leading to his appointment as commander of the entire Union army for the last two years of the war. But more to the point, Vicksburg was a long, hard campaign for both sides, and ended only after the city was besieged by Union forces for more than fifty days in the summer of 1863. (Oddly enough, surrender came within a day of the conclusion of the other truly decisive battle of the war, taking place concurrently in Gettysburg.)

Having lived in the mid-Atlantic region for many years, I have already been to the majority of the Civil War battlefields in Maryland and Virginia, and of course, to Gettysburg. They are all well presented, heartbreaking, and monumental each in their own way. Yet I was wholly unprepared for the sheer beauty of Vicksburg, the manner in which the tragic efforts of approximately 100,000 men have been commemorated, and most surprisingly to me, the fact that so many of the monuments are Classical in style. Indeed, there are so many references to and copies of Classical art and architecture that I could probably write twenty blog posts (don’t worry, I won’t). The Vicksburg Memorial Arch at the entrance to the park resembles a Roman triumphal arch, numerous state monuments are composed of obelisks (New York, Navy Memorial), columns (Louisiana, Wisconsin) or some combination of these devices (North Carolina, Texas, Iowa). A number of states combine the obelisk or column with a bronze sculpture based on a Greek or Roman deity. Michigan‘s statue of the ‘Spirit of Michigan’ is based on Athena Promachos as sculpted in the fifth century BC by Phidias. The ‘Statue of Peace’ at the base of the Minnesota memorial copies the iconography of the Roman goddess PaxOhio, the only state that didn’t erect a single monument but a series of them around the park, built a number of small memorials that resemble a temple façade, similar to the aedicula style tomb popular in Roman cities in the first centuries BC and AD. Pennsylvania also built a monument resembling an ancient tomb, choosing a large exedra with a central pillar, with an inscription carved into the rear of the bench that closely resembles the bench tombs, or scholae, that appear in the necropoleis of ancient Pompeii. Clio, the Greek muse of history, is also a popular feature, appearing in conjunction with an obelisk on the Mississippi monument, as well as in the tympanum of the Illinois memorial.

There are two state memorials in particular, however, which were outstanding for their replication of ancient styles. The first, and perhaps most surprising, is the monument constructed by the state of Illinois. As this state contributed the largest number of men to the Vicksburg campaign, more than 36,000, it is not surprising that they also have the largest memorial. What may be more unexpected however, is that the designers of this structure chose to replicate the Pantheon in Rome.

 

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The Pantheon, built in the early second century AD under Hadrian, was intended to honour the gods of Rome. But by the late eighteenth century, pantheon had become a term used to describe a monument to the dead, and thus was viewed as a fitting model by the architect of the memorial, Major William Le Baron Jenney, who stated that he wanted to design ‘not only a grand and imposing commemorative structure worthy of the State of Illinois, but a temple of fame as well, within the walls of which will be preserved in enduring bronze and stone the name of every soldier from Illinois who participated in that memorable and decisive campaign and siege.’ Although a scaled down version of the original Roman temple, this pantheon is similar in proportions, following the alignment and ratio of dimensions as directed in the first century BC books of the architect Vitruvius. Like its model, the roof has an oculus, a coloured marble floor, and a sculptural group in the tympanum. The three marble figures depict Clio, the muse of history, seated between personifications of North and South, recording the names of the dead in a ledger.

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Rather than sculptures of gods placed around the interior of the round chamber, there are sixty bronze plaques affixed to the walls inscribed with the names of the Illinois corps. There are, of course, other elements of decoration that are clearly American in design, such as the large gilded eagle, various symbols of the Republic in the exterior moulding, and an inscription of a quote from Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address. However, there is a significant difference in design apart from size, which I find rather interesting: this memorial uses the Doric order in combination with an egg and dart design more commonly found in conjunction with the Ionic order, whereas the capitals of the original Pantheon are Corinthian. This may seem a trifling feature of the design to be concerned with, but it speaks to an overall amalgamation of styles that is typical of the Classically themed structures found in the park.

For a clear example of this, just look to the memorial to Missouri:

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Until 2001, this was the only monument that honoured the fighting men of both the Union and Confederate armies, as Missouri was a border state that was divided in its loyalties. It consists of a large stele, fronted by a bronze female figure standing on the prow of a boat, framed by an exedra with bronze reliefs depicting both Union (left) and Confederate (right) soldiers in action. The style is described as Roman composite, but this is not the traditional composite order which combined elements of Ionic and Corinthian style. Instead, it seems to be something of a slightly (at least to the view of a Classicist) muddled combination of elements of both Greek and Roman influence. The stele itself is common enough in both Greece and Rome, found in honorific and commemorative contexts throughout antiquity. And yet the name of the state is written using the Roman letter shapes (specifically ‘V’ instead of ‘U’) and is decorated with egg and dart and dentil mouldings. The exedra is also ubiquitous, as honorific benches also occurred in both places.

The bronze statue, called the ‘Spirit of the Republic’ is based on Nike of Samothrace, the Greek goddess of victory who was depicted landing on the prow of a ship at the moment of victory.

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Despite being depicted as entirely Greek in nature, adorned with a peplos and aegis, the two items she holds in her hands are decidedly Roman. In her right hand, she clasps an olive branch. Although the olive itself was closely associated with Athena, it was the Latin poet Vergil with whom the association as a symbol of peace originates:

Aeneid VIII 117 ff.
‘High on the stern Aeneas his stand,
And held a branch of olive in his hand,
While thus he spoke: “The Phrygians’ arms you see,
Expelled from Troy, provoked in Italy
By Latian foes, with war unjustly made;
At first affianced, and at last betrayed.
This message bear: The Trojans and their chief
Bring holy peace, and beg the king’s relief.’

The left hand of the statue contains another Roman symbol, the fasces. This bundle of rods containing an axe was a symbol of political authority, and was carried by lictors who accompanied magistrates through the streets of the city, serving as a sort of bodyguard. Like the statue of Nike, the ‘Spirit of the Republic’ stands on the prow of a ship, to which a battering ram is attached. This was a common feature of ancient naval warfare and cannot be attributed to any one civilisation, although I would note that the shape of it does seem to closely resemble rams recovered from the sea floor near Sicily, the site of a final battle in a Punic War.

What I find fascinating about the design of the state memorials at Vicksburg is not necessarily that they are so heavily influenced by commemorative art and architecture of the Classical world: this is hardly unique in the U.S. (just look to the government buildings in Washington, D.C.), and more to the point, it makes sense to turn to civilisations known for their monumental structures, for honouring their war dead in a grandiose fashion, and perhaps more relevant to this location, suffering the horrors of civil war. The mixing of Greek and Roman styles, the odd combinations of orders, figures, and symbolic elements, however, is striking. To me, this indicates not so much the desire (or dare I say, adequate knowledge) for perfectly replicating Classical architecture, but rather the importance of using a traditional and universally recognised motif that was held in great esteem in order to sufficiently honour those whose dedication and sacrifice are still viewed as being part of the greatest tragedy to befall the U.S.

 

 

 

 

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