Posts Tagged With: Rome

No Shit

Not long before my trip to Italy last month, a friend asked me about a particular text in Herculaneum. Her question stirred a vague recollection, which of course piqued my curiosity. Not only did I look up the text before I went, but I went looking for it on site.

Little remains of the original painted notice, on the side of a water tower at the intersection of the decumanus and Cardo IV between Insulae V and VI:

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Investigations by various scholars, including one using New Infrared Reflectography (NIRR), have revealed the existence of two notices, one painted on top of the other. The earliest, dated prior to AD 60, has been reconstructed thusly:

CIL IV 10489
M(arcus) Rufellius Robia A(ulus) Tetteius Se[verus] / IIvir[i iure] dic(undo) / b(onum) f(actum) ad laev[and – – -]pu[- – -]erte ut[- – -]ipe[- – -]e / [e]dicemus HS XX si [prim]os(?) t[- – -] praesent[- – -] HS n(ummum) servom verberibus coercueramus.
‘Marcus Rufellius Robia and Aulus Tetteius Severus, duovirs [for the administration of jusitice]. We declare a fine of 2o sesterces if free citizens […], we will punish slaves with […] lashes.

The lost portions of the text render it impossible to know what the punishment described is actually for. However, the overlaying text, dated to sometime in the years of the AD 60s to 70s, provides the missing information.

CIL IV 10488
M(arcus) [Alf]icius Pa[ul]lus / aedil(is) / is velit in hunc locum / stercus abicere nonetur n[on] / iacere si quis adver[sus ea] / i(u)dicium fecerit liberi dent / [dena]rium n(ummum) servi verberibus / [i]n sedibus admonentur.
‘Marcus Alficius Paulus, aedile, (declares): anyone who wants to throw excrement in this place is warned that it is not allowed. If someone shall denounce this action, freeborn will pay a fine of […] denarii, and slaves will be punished by […] lashes.’

In essence then, what we have is notices put up by local magistrates warning of the punishment to be meted out in any instances of dumping excrement in the vicinity of the water tower.

There are a number of things that I find really interesting about these dipinti. Whilst I am no expert on health and disease in the Roman world, my first thought was that it was potentially unusual to see a notice prohibiting the dumping of waste near a water supply. The only similar inscription that comes to mind was found on a cippi on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, dated to the first century BC:

CIL VI 31614
L(ucius) Sentius C(ai) f(ilius) pr(aetor?) / de sen(atus) sent(entia) loca / terminanda coeravit / b(onum) f(actum) nei quis intra / terminos propius / urbem ustrinam / fecisse velit neive / stercus cadaver / iniecisse velit.
‘Lucius Sentius, son of Gaius, praetor, by decree of the Senate, has ordered the fixing of this boundary. No burning (cremation) to be undertaken beyond the markers of the boundary in the direction of the city. No dumping of excrement or corpses.’

Added beneath this text in red paint, CIL VI 31615 provides an additional similarity to the text in Herculaneum, as someone added the line Stercus longe / aufer / ne malum habeas (‘Take a shit well away, if you don’t want trouble.’) The pestilent nature of the Esquiline Hill was described by Horace, who was pleased with the effort made to clean up the area, no doubt as a result of such prohibitions.

Horace Satire I.8.12-16
‘Here a pillar marked a width of a thousand feet for graves,
Three hundred deep, ground ‘not to be passed to the heirs’!
Now you can live on a healthier Esquiline and stroll
On the sunny Rampart, where sadly you used to gaze
At a grim landscape covered with whitened bones.’

The inscription from Rome, however, had nothing to do with water source, but was more in regards to the danger of fire and the stench of decaying corpses and rubbish (as well as human waste). The addition to the text suggests it was enforced. This still seems to make the notice from Herculaneum unique.

Three additional aspects of these dipinti are worth noting. First, the existence of two texts within roughly a twenty year span suggests that making the public aware of this prohibition was necessary on more than one occasion. True, the first notice could have faded to illegibility hence the idea of reissuing it, but if dumping waste by the water tower wasn’t a problem, there would have been no need. That in itself suggests this was at least a semi-regular occurrence. Second, there is the matter of the different punishments: beatings for slaves, a fine for freeborn. As callous as this sounds, it is quite logical. Freeborn offenders are more likely (in theory) to have cash available than a slave might. But the final point I wish to make goes back to the actual dumping of waste. The location of these notices on a water tower makes sense if the magistrates are interested in keeping the water source relatively clean. However, the physical location of the tower, the notice, and the topography of the immediate area makes the dumping of waste here seem like a rather odd choice. Just look:

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The tower is at a crossroads between two insulae and the decumanus. The sidewalk that runs down either side of Cardo IV is quite a steep step down to the street itself, such that there is a ramp leading down to the street level (just visible behind the water tower in the photo). There isn’t actually a lot of room for dumping anything in this location. The only place that seems a likelihood is a small space at the base of the tower on the left side. This is, perhaps uncoincidentally, the only place from which the prohibition is actually visible. How or why this small space became so frequently used to dump waste that the town magistrates felt the need to post a notice outlawing it twice is, frankly, beyond me. Regardless, the repetition of the notice and the specificity of punishment makes it quite clear that the magistrates of Herculaneum took no shit. Literally.

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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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The Legacy of Venus

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

Untitled_Panorama5© Victoria & Albert Museum, London

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

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

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

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

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

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

venus

David LaChapelle ‘Rebirth of Venus’ (2011)

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

 

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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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Hail, Caesar!

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Like a lot of Classicists I know, I have eagerly been anticipating the latest film from the Coen brothers, Hail, Caesar! I expect, however, that I might be slightly unusual in that besides a vague professional interest in how the ancient world is depicted on screen, I also have a deep and abiding love for Hollywood films of the forties and fifties, which are exactly the setting for this movie. (I did, after all, spend a recent Sunday afternoon in the cinema watching Cover Girl, which stars my favourite song and dance man Gene Kelly alongside Rita Hayworth. Gene Kelly is the model for the character played by Channing Tatum, who first appears on screen as the lead in an ensemble cast of Navy men, bemoaning their forthcoming time at sea and lack of women: ‘We’ll see a lot of fish but we’ll never see a dish!’ This throwback to Kelly is no where more evident than when they are dancing on tables whilst the disgruntled barkeep pulls the tablecloths from under their feet.) There are colleagues more expert than I who have already begun writing about classical themes in the film, and there is little that I would want to add, except that I particularly enjoyed seeing replicas of the Augustus Prima Porta flanking the temple on the stage set for the film within a film that provided the title. Instead, as I sat in the dark cinema scribbling illegible notes to myself, it wasn’t the representation of Rome that piqued my interest, but something else all together.

The film within a film, Hail Caesar: A Story of the Christ, in which George Clooney’s character of Baird Whitlock stars, is a send-up of the typical big budget sword and sandal epics of the mid-twentieth century. It is Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis and The Ten Commandments all rolled into one. But most importantly, it is Spartacus – not the film itself, but the circumstances in which the film was made. Made in 1960, Stanley Kubrick‘s film and its star Kirk Douglas, went some way to end the blacklisting that had run rampant in Hollywood throughout the late 1940s and the 1950s. Howard Fast, who wrote the novel on which the film was based, was blacklisted and as a result, originally had to self-publish his book. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1950, but refused to name any fellow members of the Communist Party. The screenwriter for the film was a man named Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted in 1947 as part of the Hollywood Ten, a group who were accused by HUAC of not only subverting democracy by inserting Communist propaganda into their films, but also for refusing to cooperate with the Congressional hearings. Douglas is credited with insisting that Trumbo not use a pseudonym in the credits, and thus ended the blacklisting. Rather famously, JFK crossed picket lines in order to see the film, demonstrating that the activities of McCarthyism were well and truly at an end.

So… what does this have to do with the latest effort of the Coen brothers? Herein lies the only spoiler: there are Communists in the film. Screenwriters, producers, and others gather to bemoan their role in producing for the studio, which they claim is an instrument of capitalism. That they are speaking of a company called Capital Studios is surely no coincidence. As part of their discussion over finger sandwiches and tea in a Malibu mansion, they cheer themselves for inserting Communist ideas into films, exactly as the Hollywood Ten were accused of doing. When Clooney’s character is kidnapped and converted to the political and economic agenda of the Communists, he threatens, upon learning he won’t get a share of the ransom paid to return him, to ‘name names.’ The elements that surround this plotline, which is indeed only one of many in the film overall, are clearly more about the history of blacklisting in Hollywood than it is about Rome itself. Others have commented on the economic aspects of this film, but I think have failed to recognise the significance of the statement this makes about politics, the arts, and fear. Douglas said, in reference to his work on Spartacus, ‘I was making a film about freedom at a time when freedom in America was in jeopardy.’ Well, quite. In the current political climate in the U.S., with many recent comparisons between a declining American way of life and the end of the Roman Empire, it seems the Coens have inserted a pertinent warning wrapped up in farce of just how bad things can get when party politics, fear-mongering rhetoric, and demagoguery rule the day.

I think maybe I’ll go watch Gene Kelly dance his way across Paris and into Leslie Caron’s heart. That’s a much nicer story.

 

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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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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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On Palatine*

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If you are going to have the great misfortune of spending the better part of a week in bed with a terrific cold (really, if anyone finds my voice, please return it), it helps to find yourself in possession of a good book. In this regard, I lucked out.

Palatine is the first of a series of four historical fiction novels set in the tumultuous period known as the year of the four emperors (AD 68-69) written by Linda Trafford. The series begins in the final months of the reign of Nero, the last of the Julio-Claudian line that began with Augustus, whose overthrow leads to a period of government instability in which the Senate, governors, generals, and the Praetorian Guard all play a part in figuring out (repeatedly) who should ultimately have control of Rome.

Historical fiction – of which I admit I’ve read more than my fair share over the years – toes a fine line between being an accurate portrayal of the period and figures at its heart and simply being a stonking good read as only fiction truly can. And as any ancient history undergraduate could tell you, the intrigues and behind the scenes machinations of the imperial court at Rome has always provided fodder for a tale of the most outlandish soap operatic heights. A story set in Nero’s court could easily and quickly become ridiculous, and with good reason.

What Trafford, however, provides her reader is a series of characters – real and created – who each have their own story, their own circumstances to deal with, surrounding and leading up to the death of Nero and the seizure of the throne by Galba. What we get is a novel driven largely by the guardsmen, freedmen, and slaves whose lives were integral to the running of the Imperial household as well as government itself. Sure, there’s a bit of toga-ripping, recollections of the more debauched activities Nero’s court was infamous for, and some of the over-wrought dramatics one would expect from Sporus, the eunuch pretending to be Nero’s dead wife Poppea, but at the heart of the novel, there’s history. As an historian, I recognise the re-tellings of anecdotes from Tacitus, Suetonius, and Plutarch. As an archaeologist, the descriptions of both the Palatine palace and Domus Aurea are as many reconstructions have imagined them. Trafford has a degree in ancient history, and her familiarity with first century Rome is apparent from these pages.

I often disregard historical fiction from ancient Rome, simply because I can see the holes too easily, and thus fail to enjoy it at all. This was not the case at all with Palatine. I enjoyed it simply for the fiction, for the story that is told, but more to the point, I appreciated it on the level of an historian who could recognise the (undoubtedly) painstaking research behind the story, the accuracy of the historical points, and that for those unfamiliar with this period in Rome, the fiction was done well enough to foster an interest in the history. In other words, read it. Terrible cold keeping you in bed to do so: completely optional.

*I should probably preface this by saying a actually won my copy of the book from Linda in a Twitter contest, but she in no way asked for (or is even aware as of this writing) of this endorsement of her work.

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Duos Annos

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It is now two years since I began my Leverhulme Trust funded project looking at social networks in Pompeii. Over the past year, my research has taken me off into a slightly different direction, particularly looking at some very specific aspects of political life in the ancient city, for which the way names are used is a fundamental component. Looking back at what I wrote to commemorate the first anniversary, I am pleasantly surprised by the increase in traffic, comments, and followers for this blog. To date, the site has been visited more than 18,000 times (more than twice the number of the first year), which is, frankly, astounding. I am sure this is in no small part due to the support of Blogging Pompeii and Napoli Unplugged, amongst others, who have frequently shared my posts, for which I am most grateful. I hope that the many people who come here continue to find my work interesting, as I certainly enjoy writing these posts.

And as such, as before, the five most popular posts published in the last year:

5. Losing my Religion (249)

4. Fools & Fakes (275)

3. Samnites in Pompeii (290)

2. Alma Tadema’s Imagined Connections (425)

1. Pompeii & Rome (441)

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Pompeii and Rome

Romulus.Remus.Wolf On this, the 2768th birthday of Rome, it occurs to me there could not be a better time to take a look at the inscriptions in Pompeii that provide evidence of the connection this relatively small Campanian town had with the one and only urbs, the capital of the world. Though there are a number of graffiti that mention Rome specifically, usually as a place one has been, I am interested in those that mention an emperor. As with a goodly amount of the epigraphic evidence of Pompeii, there is a collection both of official and unofficial texts.

There are a series of inscriptions, as would be expected in any city under Roman rule, found on the bases of statues dedicated to various emperors and members of their families. Typically found a public area such as the Forum or the Triangular Forum, these include dedications to Augustus and his wife Livia (as Julia Augusta, a name she was granted in AD 14), Marcellus, nephew and one time heir of Augustus, Agrippina the Younger, wife of Claudius and mother to Nero, and Nero himself.

CIL X 931
Imp(eratori) Caesari [divi fil(io)] Augusto / [imperatori] XIII trib(unicia) p[ot(estate) X]V patri [patriae co(n)s(uli) XI.
‘To Imperator Caesar Augustus [son of the deified, hailed as victorious general] thirteen times, in his fifteenth year of tribunician power, father of his country, [consul eleven times].

CIL X 799 = ILS 122
Augustae Iulia[e] / Drusi f(iliae) / divi Augusti / d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
‘To Augusta Julia, daughter of Drusus, (wife) of the deified Augustus, by decree of the decurions.’

CIL X 832 = ILS 898
M(arco) Claudio C(ai) f(ilio) Marcello / patrono.
‘To Marcus Claudius Marcellus, son of Gaius, patron.’

CIL X 933
Iuliae] Agrippinae / [Germ]an[ici C]aesaris f(iliae) / [Ti(beri) Cla]udii Caesaris Augusti [- – -].
To [Julia] Agrippina, daughter of Germanicus Caesar, (wife) of [Tiberius] Claudius Caesar Augustus…’

CIL X 932 = ILS 224
Ti(berio) Claudio / Ti(beri) Claudi Caesaris / Augusti Germanici / p(atris) p(atriae) f(ilio) Neroni / Caesari / d(ecreto) d(ecurionum).
‘To Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar, son of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, father of his country, by decree of the decurions.’

There are three additional inscriptions that refer to Caligula in his role as named patron of the colony. Two are identical, except that the first contains the erasure of the damnatio memoriae whereas the second still retains the disgraced emperor’s name. The third (CIL X 904) is also missing the name of Gaius Caesar.

CIL X 901 = ILS 6396
[- – – ]simus Messi Fausti / [- – – ]rcidus Vei Frontonis / A(ulus) Arellius Graecus / min(istri) Aug(usti) ex d(ecreto) d(ecurionum) iussu / [C(ai) Caesaris] M(arci) Vesoni Marcell(i) / IIvir(orum) i(ure) d(icundo) / M(arci) Lucreti Epidi Flacci / praefecti / L(uci) Albuci D(ecimi) Lucreti IIvir(orum) v(iis) a(edibus) s(acris) p(ublicis) p(rocurandis) / Paullo Fabio L(ucio) Vitellio / co(n)s(ulibus).

CIL X 902
Phr[onimus Messi] / [Fausti] / Placi[dus Vei Frontonis] / A(ulus) Are[llius Graecus] / min[istri Aug(usti) ex d(ecreto) d(ecurionum) iussu] / [M(arci) Vesoni Marcelli IIvir(i) i(ure) d(icundo)] / [M(arci) L]ucre[ti] Epidi Flac[ci praef(ecti) i(ure) d(icundo)] / C(ai) Caesaris / L(uci) Albuci Celsi D(ecimi) Lucreti Valentis / IIvir(orum) v(iis) a(edibus) s(acris) p(ublicis) p(rocurandis) / Paullo Fabio L(ucio) Vitellio / co(n)s(ulibus).

‘Phr[onimus slave of Messius Faustus], Placi[dus slave of Veius Fronto], Aulus Are[llius Graecus], attendants [of Augustus, by decree of the decurions, by command of Marcus Vesonius Marcellus, duovir with judicial power and of [Marcus L]ucretius Epidius Flac[cus, prefect with judicial power] of Gaius Caesar, and of Lucius Albucius Celsus and Decimus Lucretius Valens, duovirs in charge of the streets, sacred and public buildings, in the consulship of Paullus Fabius and Lucius Vitellius.’

The only surviving epigraphic evidence that illustrates direct intervention by the emperor in Pompeii come from the time of the Flavians. Vespasian, as part of an empire wide initiative to generate revenue by reclaiming public lands, sent a tribune by the name of Titus Suedius Clemens to Pompeii. The cippi he erected at the boundary of public land at each of the city gates have been recovered, and contain the following text:

CIL X 1018 = ILS 5942
Ex auctoritate / Imp(eratoris) Caesaris / Vespasiani Aug(usti) / loca publica a privatis / possessa T(itus) Suedius Clemens / tribunus causis cognitis et / mensuris factis rei / publicae Pompeianorum / restituit.
‘By the authority of Imperator Caesar Vespasian Augustus, Titus Suedius Clemens, tribune, made an inquiry into public lands appropriated by private individuals, carried out a survey, and restored them to the Pompeian state.’

What is interesting about Clemens is that once he has completed his duty on behalf of Vespasian, he then appears to get involved in local politics. His endorsement is contained by six dipiniti supporting the candidacy of Marcus Epidius Sabinus, who is running for the office of duovir with judicial power. The most laudatory of these texts appears below:

CIL IV 768 = ILS 6438d
M(arcum) Epidium Sabinum d(uumvirum) i(ure) dic(undo) o(ro) v(os) f(aciatis) dig(nus) est / defensorem coloniae ex sententia Suedi Clementis sancti iudicis / consensu ordinis ob merita eius et probitatem dignum rei publicae faciat / Sabinus dissignator cum Plausu facit.
‘I beg you to elect Marcus Epidius Sabinus duovir with judicial powers, he is worthy. May you elect one who is a protector of the colony according to the opinion of Suedius Clemens, the worshipful judge, and by agreement of the council on account of his merits and his honesty, worthy of public office. Sabinus, the theatre official, elects him with applause.’

Whether or not Clemens was fully behind this man, or had his name usurped after he had left town, is impossible to determine. However, it does seem to indicate that the tribune was well thought of, or at the very least, that a (if somewhat tenuous) connection with the emperor was viewed as a leg-up in the local election.

If we turn to the non-official texts, the graffiti and dipinti that cover the walls of Pompeii, the honourifics, seemingly at least, continue. One survives from the reign of Augustus, but the majority (unexpectedly due to issues of preservation) date from the reign of Nero.

CIL IV 8277
Octavia Augusti [vale h]abias [pr]opit[- – – ] sa(lutem).
‘Octavia, of Augustus, good wishes and health to you.’

CIL IV 10049
F(eliciter) Pop(p)a[e(ae)] August(a)e feliciter.
Good fortune to Poppaea Augusta, good fortune.

There are a series of graffiti, found in numerous locations around the city, that proclaim support for the judgements of Nero and his wife Poppaea. As she is referred to as Augusta or Poppaea Augusta, these texts post date AD 63 when she was granted that title. With this date in mind, some scholars have taken these texts as demonstrations of a grateful population, pleased that Nero has lifted the ban on gladiatorial games instituted in AD 59 after the riot in the amphitheatre. This is viewed as an economic decision made in the aftermath of the AD 62 earthquake in order to help Pompeii recover from the damage.

CIL IV 1074
Iudiciis Augusti Augustae feliciter / nobis salvis felices sumus / perpetuo.
‘Good fortune to the judgements of Augustus and Augusta, whilst you are safe we are forever fortunate.’

CIL IV 3726 = ILS 234
Iudici(i)s Augusti p(atris) p(atriae) et Poppaeae Aug(ustae) feliciter.
Good fortune to the judgements of Augustus, father of his country, and of Poppaea Augusta.’

CIL IV 3525 = ILS 6444
Iudicis Aug(usti) felic(iter) Puteolos Antium Tegeano Pompeios hae sunt verae / coloniae.
Good fortune to the judgements of Augustus. Puteoli, Antium, Tegianum, Pompeii: these are true colonies.’

Dipinti advertising games given in honour of the emperor also survive. One from the Augustan reign, and another for Nero.

CIL IV 9969 = AE 1992: 270 = AE 2006: 289
Puteo[lani – – – ]V[- – – Id]us Dec(embres) / pugn(abunt) (etiam) Herculanei pro sal[ute Cae]sarum et Liviae Aug(ustae) vela erunt / Iole sal(ve).
‘At Puteoli on the eighth of December, boxers, also at Herculaneum for the prosperity of Caesar and Livia Augusta. There will be awnings. Iole greets you.’

CIL IV 7989a = 7989c
Pro salute / Neronis Claudi Caesaris Aug(usti) Germanici Pompeis Ti(beri) Claudi Veri venatio / athletae et sparsiones erint V IIII K(alendas) Mart(ias) CCCLXXIII // Claudio Vero felic(iter).
‘For the well-being of Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, at Pompeii, there will be a hunt, athletics, and sprinklings by Tiberius Claudius Verus on 25–26 February. Good fortune to Claudius Verus.’

There are two additional graffiti concerning Nero and Poppaea that may show the imperial couple in a less favourable light. The texts suggest that offerings were made by both Poppaea and Nero to Venus. Lest we forget, Venus was not only an important deity in the Roman pantheon, but was also the patron goddess of Pompeii.

AE 1977: 217 = AE 1985: 283 = AE 2001: 801 = AE 2004: 404
Munera Poppaea misit Veneri sanctissimae berullum helencumque unio mixtus erat.
Poppaea sent as gifts to most holy Venus a beryl, an ear-drop pearl, and a large single pearl.’

AE 1977: 218 = AE 1985: 284 = AE 2001: 801 = AE 2004: 404
Caesar ut ad Venerem ven<e> sanctissimam ut tui te vexere pedes / caelestes Auguste millia milliorum(!) ponderis auri fuit.
‘When Caesar came to most holy Venus and when your heavenly feet brought you there, Augustus, there was a countless weight of gold.’

Whilst it is entirely possible that these inscriptions could be taken at face value, both their form and their location seem somewhat suspect. These are not lapidary texts on votives found in the precinct of the Temple of Venus or even the Forum, but words scratched into the wall of the House of Iulius Polybius (IX.xiii.1–3). This seems at odds with the manner in which such Imperial gifts would expect to be recorded, particularly if dedicated to the patron goddess of a city. I wonder, if instead, these texts should be viewed as a commentary on the excessive luxuria for which Nero’s court was renown, and not as praise for gifts to the goddess. Perhaps this could be taken as a reflection of a sense of neglect residents of Pompeii may have felt in the years after the earthquake, when the only assistance granted by Rome may have been the resumption of games, a somewhat paltry attempt at economic recovery considering the level of damage.

Regardless, what is apparent from the epigraphic evidence that remains is probably what should be expected of Rome and a subject city such as Pompeii: official honours to the Imperial households in the Forum and other public spaces, and anonymous scratchings that could show dissent from rule, if only in the most subtle of fashions.

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