Why save classics?

June 17, 2010

These are dark days comrades.  I heard earlier in the week that the future of classics at Leeds University is under threat; the entire department might be closed down after a spending review.

Ever since the university began over a century ago, classics has been taught, researched and studied at the university, indeed the very first Vice Chancellor was himself a classicist, so for Leeds to abandon the subject would be particularly sad.  What’s more, it’s the only university in Yorkshire and Humberside still to offer it as an option.

There’s a more central issue at stake here, however.  Classics in Britain is looking peaky at best.  Would it be a bad thing if it continued its gradual decline?  Obviously, my answer is a categorical “yes”.  I think it’d be terrible.  I could offer my opinions about why classics is so great, but ultimately, that would be a pointless exercise.

It’s not the debate the people who are mooting the closure of classics are having.  I’m sure they recognize the worth of the Virgils of this world but I’m equally sure they’d recognize the talent of Van Gogh (for example), or the exciting potential of putting a man on Mars.  As universities face spending cut after spending cut, the axe has to fall somewhere.  While classicists are arguing that classics is good (a fact already accepted by anybody with even a modicum of interest in the world), management teams are instead being forced to focus on which subjects are the most useful.

To be fair, classicists have made some attempt to engage with the terms of this discussion.   The ubiquitous “transferable skills” argument is us speaking employerese, and it’s definitely a positive step.  However, the long lists which have been compiled about the skills one can pick up from a classics degree could very easily be applied to history, English Lit, American studies, French, politics etc etc.  I think that by now, any university Senate member has heard enough about the organisational abilities developed in a humanities degree.  Instead, we need to argue about why classics is more useful than something else.

So coming at this from the perspective of a board which has to make financial cuts (and therefore avoiding the smug tone which can sneak into many defences of the classics), what makes the subject different to everything else? Why shouldn’t it be abandoned?

One argument is as spectacular advances are made in the sciences, individual scientists’ knowledge becomes more and more specialised.  To encourage the more obviously “useful” subjects alone would mean that we’d gradually lose the ability to see the “bigger picture”.  The multi-disciplinary nature which is in the DNA of classics makes it better than most other disciplines for encouraging this approach.  A research project ostensibly about (for example) Roman poetry in the 1st century AD could end up taking in legal writing, philosophy, Greek poetry from almost a millennium before, grammatical analysis, a variety of ancient languages, the latest in archaeological techniques, literary theory both ancient and modern, numismatics et cetera.  Pulling together all these disparate strands and recognising how they all fit together would be useful in so many lines of work and in most people’s lives.

What other arguments can be made?

And more importantly, please sign the petition at:



The Pantheon: the emergence of modern religious practice?

May 29, 2010

Once you get over the size of the Colosseum, it loses a large part of its appeal. It’s something I enjoy more from the outside than in, if I’m being honest (although the current exhibition on gladiators is pretty good). The Forum, on the other hand, is an incredible place to visit, but you only get real satisfaction if you know a lot about it already. To anybody else, it takes an awful lot of imagination to appreciate the place after both time and archaeology have wreaked their havoc. The Pantheon, however, is almost as good as it ever was. 500 years ago, Michelangelo attributed its splendour to “disegno angelico e non umano” (angelic and not human design) and very little’s changed since then.

Originally built by Augustus’ right hand man Agrippa, the Pantheon was destroyed by lightning in the reign of Trajan. These days, Hadrian is usually given credit for the building, although his decision to recreate the original inscription coupled with Cassius Dio’s claim that it had been built by Agrippa* might suggest that the ancients focussed less on the building as its function. There have been some recent claims that Trajan might have been responsible for the start of construction after the discovery of some early date stamps on some of the bricks used in the building. However, it’s hardly impossible that these bricks had sat waiting to be used in a builder’s yard, and the vast majority of stamped bricks are from Hadrian’s reign. Furthermore, the writers of later histories (such as the Historia Augusta) probably had access to the Emperor’s now sadly lost autobiography, and as they ascribe the building to him, I’m sticking with Hadrian.

Originally, the building would have looked pretty traditional from the outside to your average Roman schmo. High Podium, facade orientation, colonnaded porch ya da ya da ya da. However, everything changed the moment you walked through the giant bronze doors. Anybody standing in Piazza San Pietro can’t make out the famous dome of the Church; the angles in play mean that the facade blocks it off entirely until you walk down Via Risorgimento. Something similar happened with the Pantheon, although there was no Via Risorgimento equivalent. The ‘Piazza’ it was built in was much smaller that the modern day Piazza Rotonda, and the complex which the Temple was a part of was designed to conceal the revolutionary shape from view. Not until you entered would you realize the dome was there.

So we’re inside now. Our Roman has entered the Temple. He’s clocked the multi-coloured floor and recognizes the imperial message of the materials used to build it. With material from Egypt (North West Africa), Carthage (North East), Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) and (we think) Gaul, that’s material from literally every corner of the Roman Empire. He’s noticed the oculus (the big hole in the roof), and the circle of sunlight streaming through it (which is moving around the room as the day progresses). If he’s a vaguely astute chap, he’ll immediately get the connection with Hadrian; this Emperor was famous for his attention to the Provinces and spent the majority of his rule visiting them all in person. At the same time, he’d have been giving some thought to the shape of the place. Generally, Roman temples were not round (although there were exceptions) but ever since their Etruscan roots, the Romans had often built circular tombs (check out the Mausoleum of Augustus for an example). By adding this element of death to the godliness of a temple, what emerges at the other side of the equation is the imperial cult. The only entities who would both die and be worshipped as gods were the emperors themselves. The Pantheon may well be a temple to “all the gods” as its Greek name suggests, but it seems that it’s to some of the newer ones in particular.

There’s something strange going on, however. The modern idea of a congregation meeting inside a religious building to pray together etcetera was incongruous in traditional Roman religion. The rites would happen outside the temple; inside was a private ‘house’ for the god worshipped there in which only his or her priests were allowed in. Yet obviously, Hadrian did not go to all this effort for a couple of priests. Turning to Cassius Dio again, there is a mention of the Senate meeting in the Pantheon, but certainly not on a regular basis and even this doesn’t seem enough. I would suggest that the Pantheon was designed to be seen by the rank and file Roman as well, and if so the building marks a transition from ancient to modern religious practice.

And if none of that excites you, the Queen Marherita buried in there is the woman the pizza was named after. The Pantheon: something for everybody.

*This is usually explained away as a mistaken attribution. However, Cassius Dio tells us that a fire destroyed the original Pantheon in 80 AD, so he’s well aware that Agrippa hadn’t built the version he knew.

Happy dies natalis

April 21, 2010

Just a quick post to celebrate Rome’s 2,673rd birthday.

The 21st marching across the Circus Maximus on Sunday

Didius Julianus

April 14, 2010

One of Rome’s most significant emperors was a chap named Septimius Severus, and one day there’s bound to be an entry on this blog about him. One of Rome’s least significant emperors was the man that came immediately before him, Didius Julianus. In fact, this is the man that time and time again I fall down upon when I’m trying to remember the order of the Emperors.* As such, I’ve decided to try to fix him in my mind by writing this entry.

The most interesting thing about Didianus was how he came to power. Currently, the UK is still coming to terms with the disreputable behaviour of its politicians, but no amount of duck ponds purchased at tax payers’ expense would cheapen the office quite as much as this short-lived Emperor’s pursuit of office did.

By the end of the second century, the Praetorian Guard had settled into the role of kingmaker they’d carved out for themselves. In 192, they’d decided that Commodus had had long enough at the top and the Praetorian prefect assassinated him. Rushing Pertinax to the Praetorian camp, they proclaimed the man Emperor. Owing to a misreading of the situation (the Praetorian’s believing their support to be a quid pro quo, Pertinax a mere quid), the new Emperor’s reign lasted a mere 86 days before the guards sharpened their swords once more and added another name to the growing list of murdered rulers.

They certainly weren’t prepared to make the same mistake again; before they used their military clout to install the next Emperor, they wanted positive assurances there’d be some monetary value in it for them. At the end of March 193, then, they announced that the throne would go to the highest bidder. The city prefect at the time was at the Praetorian camp when that announcement was made, and so he immediately put in a bid.

This is where our man enters the picture. Hearing what was happening, Julianus ran to the camp with an offer of his own. According to Cassius Dio, however, he was refused access. Unperturbed, he simply stood by the door and shouted an offer of his own. The two imperial candidates continued to outbid each other from this absurd position until eventually, Didius Julianus’ bid of 25,000 sesterces to each and every guard won the day.

The tawdry manner in which he became Emperor undermined any power that he’d expected to wield, however. The public would heckle him at any public appearance and various generals (including Septimius Severus) refused to acknowledge his rule. Such shaky foundations could never support his reign for long, and having come to power at the end of March, by the end of May he was stripped of his rank and sentenced to death. An issue that is cropping up time and time again at the moment is whether politicians have really understood the public outcry. Didius Julianus certainly didn’t, and his last words were a bewildered “But what evil have I done? Who did I kill?”

In an uncharacteristically generous mood, the new Emperor Septimius Severus spared the wife and daughter of the man who had so recently declared him a public enemy, and returned the corpse to them for burial. Didius Julianus was buried under the fifth milestone of the Via Labicana, or today’s Via Casalina.

*Oh come now. Yes I try and remember the order of the emperors sometimes, but you’re sitting there reading an obscure blog about Roman history. Let’s not get all high and mighty here.

Pontifex Maximus

March 29, 2010

As the product of a protestant/lapsed protestant family background, the ex-pupil of a Church of England school, and the technical recipient of a Methodist baptism, I felt a little like I was crashing somebody else’s party on Thursday evening as I rocked up at the Vatican ready to see Benedict XVI in the flesh.  For any reader with a similar sort of background to me, I’ll begin by explaining that he’s the guy that drives the Pope Mobile and, as anybody who’s read any of the countless papal inscriptions scattered throughout Rome will know, goes by the proto-hip hop tag of “P Max”.

The name, (pontifex maximus in its entirety, or chief priest) is in fact far more old-school than Christianity and dates back (at least as far as legend is concerned) to the second king of Rome, Numa Pompilius.  Whilst Romulus had founded the city and shaped its culture immeasurably, tradition ascribes the introduction of most aspects of the civic religious life to the pious Numa.  To occupy Romulus’ warriors, Numa gave them religion.  It was our chum P Max who made sure that the royal reforms were being duly carried out.

Away from the clean cut world of legend and myth, the origins of the position are a little hazier.  Etymologist argue over the meaning (possibly “greatest bridge builder” or maybe, based on Etruscan, “greatest road builder”) and the discussions about why the chief priest should be given a title pertaining more to mechanics than theology seem little more than guess work.  One popular suggestion for example, is that originally the priest’s duties genuinely did include building bridges.

The pontifex maximus was the head of the college of priests and his duties included everything from maintaining the calendar to overseeing funerals.  For more information on what he got up to, I’m sure Wikipedia will list the duties just as well as I could.  I want to zoom ahead to the late fourth century and the reign of the Emperor Gratian.  This Christian Emperor suppressed pagan rites as much as he could at the time (introducing limitations on property bequeathed to the Vestal virgins for example, and removing the Augustan Altar of Victory from the Senate House).*  He was the first Emperor who actively rejected the quintessentially pagan title.

This Christian distaste didn’t last.  Whilst Medieval Christians were reluctant to read the foul filth peddled by ancient writers, paradoxically they were more than happy to name themselves after the paganism’s religious leaders.   The title has never been used in the Pope’s official titles but from the high middle ages until today, it’s remained in use as a sort of papal nickname.

*Sensibly Gratian did recognise that there were aspects of paganism that you just don’t want to change, and he did nothing to prevent his own deification.

Trajan’s Column

March 22, 2010

The faintly unsettling room which houses the plaster casts of the complete frieze

I remember reading a great comic a few years ago explaining the theory of comics.  If I remember correctly, it was by a chap called Scott McCloud.  It was informative, amusing, thought-provoking and a great example of the places the comic form could be taken.  However, the fact that it arose from a genre never quite at ease with itself (whatever comic fans say, the careful defences of the form that we all have ready to reel off at a moment’s notice is an indication that we don’t really believe comics have been accepted into the realms of ‘art’), means that at one point the author went on a bit of a desperate search for pedigree and tried to trace the history of comics through Egyptian tomb art and so on.  The thing is, though, you would never write an analysis of 1950s pulp fiction as belonging to the same tradition as something like Beowulf, and any attempt to do so would be dismissed.  If you did set out to do so, there would indeed be certain parallels that could be drawn, but before we go on I think we’re all going to have to agree that the exercise would still be pointless.  That said, I’m going to be hard pushed to fight back the temptation not to fall into the McCloud trap for today’s post.  This week I had a chance to really take in Trajan’s Column and to a man who grew up on my Dad’s old copies of Creepy Worlds and Amazing Adventures, it’s very difficult not to note the similarities.

First, a bit of background.  Trajan’s column was built at about 110AD as part of a forum complex celebrating his victories over the Dacians (modern day Romania).  What with an ever expanding population, Trajan wanted to add another forum to the 5 which already stood in the valley.  Seemingly trumped by the lack of space, the Emperor and his Chief Engineer from the Dacian campaigns, Appollodorus of Damascus, got together and decided what to do about that particular pickle.  With characteristic Roman élan, they decided to simply remove a massive chunk of the Esquiline Hill.  The base on the column tells us that the column was actually built

Ad declarandum quanta altitudinis

Mons et locus tan[tis oper]ibus sit egestus

0r, “in order to indicate how lofty was the hillside removed through such mighty works”*.  It’s nice to believe that the column genuinely did mark the exact height of the hill which formerly stood there (putting it at 38m), and unless I find some evidence to the contrary, I’m going to go along with that story.

On the column, carved in great detail are the exploits of the Roman army in Dacia.  In fact, the level of detail is a little confusing.  When you stand by the column today, the height renders it impossible to really follow the narrative thread at all, and when it was built, the two libraries (one Latin and one Greek) which flanked the column would have made it even more difficult to make out any intricacies (although the paint that would have been there originally might have helped sharpen some details admittedly).  Had it not been for the Museo della Civilta’ Romana, I would have remained in the dark about what exactly was on the column.

Some of the barbarian dead

Romans in testudo formation

The man himself in one of his many appearances

What the hell, it’s nothing short of a comic.  It’s sequential art in which our hero Trajan periodically reappears in the different ‘panels’ to save the day.  It’s so much more interesting than that description lets on, however, and for a number of reasons.  Firstly, from a historical perspective, the details of life on campaign are transmitted more fully than one might have expected from what we would have assumed to be empty propaganda.  Only about a quarter of the pictures involve fighting.  The rest contain such mundane features as chopping down trees to build camps and so on.  You see soldiers chatting to each other, and most surprisingly there seems to be a homosexual couple depicted.  In the battle scenes, details such as the weaponry and armour of both the Romans and their enemies are carefully depicted.  We see the Dacians with their ‘battle sickles’, for example, and we see the Romans with their shields raised in the famous tortoise position.   In terms of art as well, the column holds its own.  Despite the frieze being 190 m long, the variety of techniques it employs (realism, allegory, implied narratives) make the whole thing interesting from start to finish.  Finally, for a piece of art one would expect to be so triumphalist, Trajan’s Column includes a real sense of pathos.  The agonised deaths and the strewn corpses that litter the battlefields show an understanding of the suffering of war which renders the modern day term ‘propaganda’ misleading at best.

So there you have it.  Get yourself over to Trajan’s Column, proof that comics are art.  Sort of.

*Translation Tyler Lansford

The centre of Rome

March 12, 2010

Last weekend saw me and Rose turn host as Kat and Olly (Rose’s cousin and her cousin’s boyfriend) came to stay.**  I’m going to explicitly set out the unwritten code which dictates guest behaviour in Rome: Having accepted hospitality, one is duty-bound to act interested as Sam Romes on.  And as per usual, Rome on I did.  In my head, what typically happens is that I transform into a Jackanory-esque story teller and unleash the tales of Roman glory.  “Come on kids, gather round!  Today’s story is about the architectural orders of columns!” At which point, we all embark on a shared adventure into the world of the Doric, the Ionian and the Corinthian.  When I finish, just as I’m preparing myself for my guests’ uproarious applause, I glance about me and I see they’ve been unable to maintain that interest they’d so courageously summoned at the start.  Kat and Olly, however, stayed with me to the bitter end, going so far as to ask extra questions.

I can’t remember most of the ones that went unanswered now I’m afraid, but I remember two from in the Forum.  The first was “there’s a shelter over this bit.  Is it important?”  The bit in question was probably the umbilicus urbis, or Rome’s belly button.  As its name suggests, this was the centre of the ancient city.  Or at least, a centre.  Interestingly, the sources seem to refer to 3 sites which would have qualified as the central point: The Umbilicus, the Mundus or Vault and the Milliarium Aureum or the Golden Milestone.  The Mundus was a ditch into which the original settlers of Rome threw the first fruits of harvest as well as soil from their original home town upon moving to this new settlement.  The Golden Milestone was a monument set up by Augustus to signify the single point to which all those roads which led to Rome actually led.  The Umbilicus Urbis was, er, the centre of the city.  The only source I’ve been able to find it mentioned in (the Notitia*) is a simple list of ancient monuments.  Having not entirely answered your question then, let’s move on.

As for the second question, I’ve had even less luck.  I’m appealing for help now.  Anybody who can shed light on why an extension cable would have been hanging out of a side door on the arch of Septimius Severus, please put me out of my misery.


**I’ve separated this bit from the rest of the blog so that I can hijack There Boy for personal, non-Rome related use.  If you’re not Kat or Olly, well frankly I don’t know what you’re still doing here. You two, it really was lovely to have you both here.  If you don’t throw that crayfish party come summer, then we’re going to have to do it ourselves.

Somebody: Why's this here?

The Side of the Arch of Septimius Severus

On top of the Esquiline

February 28, 2010

Coming from a culture which has been so steeped in Christianity, it can be easy to over-emphasise the switch from paganism to this new-fangled religion. The schoolboy question and answer would be: Q. When did Rome become Christian? A. Under the rule of Constantine. As ever, of course, things weren’t as simple as that. Ignoring the question of just how Christian was this sainted ruler and looking instead at your average joe worshipper, Christianity’s entry onto the main stage of world religions was more of a seeping cooption of pagan beliefs and values. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been bored by people pointing out that the 25th of December was a pagan festival before the Christians usurped it, but nevertheless, there is quite a lot of truth in the old chestnut. The geography of Rome is shaped by such practices.

In Pre-Christian days, a temple to Juno Lucinda, the goddess who would be invoked in childbirth, stood on the Esquiline Hill. Understandably unwilling to lose any divine assistance during that particular trauma, people m

ade sure that this particular remit was transferred to the obvious other candidate; the woman who had given birth to Jesus himself. As such, the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore stands on the hill today, and whatever ridiculous stories of miraculous snowfall marking the Church’s outer markings one might come across (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dedication_of_Saint_Mary_Major), it’s this transferral of pagan values which would really seem to account for the location.

To the front and back of the church stand a column and an obelisk respectively. Both of these are of good sturdy classical stock and both stand where they do (at least partially) because of another common determiner in Roman geography: personal aggrandizement. The first of the two to be erected was the obelisk at the back of the church. The Latin inscriptions on each side of the base explain the provenance. The north east side, for example, reads:

Christi Dei

In Aeturnum Viventis


Laetissime Colo

Qui Mortui

Sepulcro Augusti



which translates as: “I who in sadness, formerly served the tomb of the dead Augustus, with greatest joy revere the cradle of Christ, the everliving God.” Augustus’ mausoleum, then, was the source of this obelisk. In his book The Latin Inscriptions of Rome, Tyler Lansford explains its curious location; whilst it stood at the back of the Church it was supposed to serve, it stood at the front of Villa Montalto. Essentially, it would seem that it was an effort by Sixtus V to increase the value of his property.

Moving over to the front of the church now, we reach a site familiar to me from my many journeys into town on the 71, la Colonna della Pace (or the Colum of Peace). This one’s also a testament to the ulterior motives of popes past. The last two lines of the south west inscription shed light on the rationale behind the erection.

te paule nullis

obticebo saeculis

Or translated, “About you, Paul, I will be silent in no age.” Never one to shy away from a bit of self-publicising, this is the same Paul (Paul V) who prompted the graffito “I thought it was supposed to be dedicated to Peter” after he had prominently placed his own name on the facade of the recently completed St Peter’s.

Leaving glory hungry popes behind us, let’s get back to the Column itself. Even in the middle of its large piazza and in front of one of the biggest churches in Rome, its size gives it an imposing presence. Looking at its provenance, it’s obvious why. This column originates from the Basilica of Maxentius, the monumental ruins of which stand next to the Forum just off the Via Sacra. There are better sites to visit if you’re after the feel of a Roman building, but if you want to get a feel for the epic scale of civic Roman architecture designed to impress, this basilica’s well worth a brief stop off.

In a brief digression, the Latin inscriptions underneath once more include mention of the Column’s origins but this time, however, the inscription makers got it wrong. From the south east side:

vasta columnan mole

quae stetit diu

pacis profana in aede

or “the column of vast bulk which long stood in the unholy Temple of Peace”. Centuries of misidentification of the basilica as the Temple of Peace would not be corrected until serious archaeological work began in the nineteenth century.

As you can see from the picture below, sometimes the Latin inscriptions can be difficult to make out. Fortunately, Rose got me The Latin Inscriptions of Rome for Christmas and it’s this that I’ve been copying the Latin from (and indeed, most of the translations). Before I finish with this post, I want to take a second to plug the book. Even for non-Latinists, the English translations make it a really worthwhile purchase for anybody with an interest in Rome’s history.

A little bit of papal propaganda for you

Piazza Navona and ancient Rome

February 16, 2010

Carnival’s in full swing here in Rome, and Sunday saw Rose and I dodging excitable children in fancy dress on Piazza Navona as we took in a little street theatre.

More exciting than any of that, however, was the opportunity to regale Rose once more with my Piazza Navona facts.  Well now, lucky reader, your face too can glaze over with that impassive far away look of excited anticipation, because today I’m writing about the Piazza’s connections with ancient Rome.

The shape was determined by the building which used to sit there; Domitian’s theatre.  Designed for Greek sports the Latinized Greek word for ‘struggles’ (agonales) was associated with the place.  Over the centuries, this name evolved into Platea in Agone, Piazza N’Agone, and finally, today’s Piazza Navona.

Now, bang in the centre of the Piazza is Bernini’s Fountain.  There’s plenty of stories that could be told about as (as Rose would verify) but as this blog is about ancient Rome, let’s head for the church behind it.  This is San Agnese in Agone (named after the location of those Greek struggles once more) and here we find another link to ancient Rome.

Agnes was a 12 year old girl of aristocratic stock living under the reign of a favourite emperor of mine, Diocletian.  Ordered to marry an acquaintance of the Emperor, she refused on the grounds that she was dedicating her body

A fornex under Piazza Navona

to Jesus.  In the earliest surviving account of the story (St. Ambrose’s writings) the girl was put to death upon this refusal, displaying a stoic bearing which impressed Ambrose immensely.  However, the Catholic Church wouldn’t be the Catholic Church if it didn’t squeeze some sex into the story, and so as the myth developed, the naked girl was dragged to a brothel to be raped (thereby satisfying a law which forbade the rape of virgins).  Both the rape and execution were supposed to have taken place at the spot of St Agnese in Agone.

At one side of the Piazza, you can find an open archaeology site showing an arch or fornex.  If there were any truth to the more colourful versions of the young saint’s death, it would be to somewhere like this she would have been sent; these fornices underneath the stadiums were infamous sites of brothels.  Indeed, “going to the arches” became an idiomatic expression for visiting a prostitute in Latin.  For anybody interested in etymology, our own term “fornicate” stems from it.

Being a family friendly blog, I don’t want to end on such a seedy note, so let’s return to St Agnes.  Her other major Church in Rome St Agnese Fuori le Mura can be found a couple of kilometres to the east of Termini on Via Nomentana.  This church was built over the catacomb which held her corpse, and it’s here that lambs are ritually shaved to provide the wool needed for part of a new archbishop’s ceremonial robes.  Apparently the sole reason for the location is Agnese sounds like agnus, the Latin for lamb.  I don’t know for how many centuries the Catholic Church has been using that particular pun, but for ignoring the increasingly exasperated groans of the world around and just powering on through with it they command my respect at least.

The beards of Emperors

February 2, 2010

Column inches across the world have been devoted to the ongoing question of Berlusconi’s hair transplant, and now that Bill Gates has weighed in on the issue (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/jan/28/bill-gates-silvio-berlusconi-hair), fresh life might have been given to the farce.

The exasperated Silvio must look back to the glory days of imperial Rome wistfully; Not only was public prosecution of an Emperor absolutely impossible, not only was autocratic rule given for life, but the imperial hairstyle was spared the ridicule poured on the modern day equivalent.  In fact, such was the respect accorded to the imperial do that historians and archaeologists today are able to date statues based on which imperial figure’s hairstyle is being copied. Elongated bun on a female bust, hair drawn down on both sides of the head? Ah, that’ll be an attempt to emulate Septimius Severus’ wife, Julia Domna. Must be, ooh… end of the second century AD then.

However, lest Silvio envy his forerunners too much, it should be pointed out that there were limits. Julian the Apostate was Constantine the Great’s nephew, but instead of following the family trend of slipping towards Christianity, he developed a secret neo-platonic pagan zeal under the guidance of his tutor. Fully aware of the semiotics of beard growth, Julian revealed his secret religion upon his ascension to the throne and unleashed his newly unfettered whiskers on the world. In his short two year rule, the beard would grow into such a source of controversy that when the Emperor wrote a satire defending his controversially austere lifestyle, it was his beard which he named it after.

I’m going to go a bit off topic now, but this is probably the only post I’m ever going to write about imperial beards, so I quickly want to weigh in on the most famous of them all: Hadrian’s. Firstly, if anybody can tell me where the idea that it was grown to cover warts and scars originates from, I’d be extremely grateful. I often see it written, but it just doesn’t seem to ring true. Secondly, the idea that the beard was grown out of philhellenism is an old one, but I’ve seen it rejected by people recently. Instead, they argue that as an ex-military man, Hadrian got into the habit of not shaving whilst on camp. However, I can’t think of any other ex-Emperor with a military past (Trajan, Vespasian, etc) who had kept a beard as top dog, and the only bearded representation of an Emperor earlier than the man in question that springs to mind is a statue of the decidedly unmilitaristic Nero.  In fact, the original theory still holds plenty of water; Hadrian had lived in Athens before becoming Emperor (even becoming archon, or chief magistrate), and he maintained his ties to the city throughout his reign. His interests proudly displayed his love of all things Greek: architecture, poetry, philosophy and, of course, beards.

*If anyone’s interested, the Misopogon or ‘Beard hater’ is available here: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/julian-mispogon.html