Archive for October, 2009

Places in the Aeneid

October 24, 2009

When Homer uses the words “Danaan” or “Achaean”, anybody with a smattering of knowledge on Greek epic would read that to mean simply “Greek”, and probably (with a great deal of justification) put the change down to an attempt to keep to meter. It’s the same with place names; when I’ve read the Aeneid in the past, I’ve seen the words “Aeneas set sail for Hesperia” written down on the page and registered something along the lines of “Aeneas set sail for some place but it’s probably not particularly important where so keep reading Sam, just keep reading.” Since moving to Italy a year and a half ago however, these names often have added significance for me. When I read about the funeral games for Anchises being held in Drapanum, there’s an exciting realisation that Virgil’s talking about Trapani, a place I passed through in July.

Living on Via degli Ausoni as I do, one word which keeps cropping up is of particular interest to me: “Ausonia”. It’s normally used as an alternative word for Italy,* but the Ausones were a distinct people, and were in fact one of the three tribes of people met by Greek colonists when they first came to Italy. Dionysius of Halicarnassus writes very briefly about them (1 11,2-4; 12,1), and his dating suggests they were in modern day Calabria (the toe of Italy’s boot) in at least the sixteenth century BC. In the fourth century BC, the Ausonians allied with the Samnites against Rome, and as Livy writes in his Ab Urbes Condita 9.25, their main cities were destroyed as a result. One thing that’s particularly interesting about the Ausones within the context of the Aeneid is that according to myth, they were said to have descended from a son of Circe and Ulysses. The Greek is of huge importance to the lineage of the Italian people then, but at the same time, he is one of the only people viewed in an unambiguously negative light throughout the poem; we have one more complication in an increasingly complex poem. In the melting pot of cultures which would converge and become Rome, could the inclusion of the treacherous Odysseus’ line be gently undercutting the patriotic tones?

Incidentally, whilst I’m posting on the topic of places in the Aeneid, I remember the first time I ever read the poem I’d wondered about the “eternal fame” promised Caieta (the nurse of Aeneas) in book 7 and the Sybil’s promise that the place where Palinurus died would bear his name “for all time to come” (book 6). If anybody’s interested, the bay of Caieta still exists although the ‘C’ has softened to become “Gaieta” as does the town of Palinuro.

*Although not exclusively, see Evander’s account of Saturn’s reign in book 8, for example.


the all new Roman Forum

October 18, 2009

When you go to the Roman Forum, you go for one thing: ancient Roman history. You line up outside, put your ancient history face on, and prepare yourself to be overwhelmed by all things antique. I may well sneakily indulge my secret love of tacky history crap by stealing the occasional glance at the makeshift stalls nearby, but otherwise we’re all together on this one – ancient history please.

The thing is, however, that’s not necessarily what you’re getting in the Forum. Very few of the buildings and monuments are from the classical era: the Shrine of Juturna (in its current form) dates ‘back’ to the 1950s. That might be an extreme example (although not ridiculously so – similar examples can be found) but the number of buildings dating back to the heady days of Roman domination can’t extend to much more than 5 or 6.* We’ve reached the crux of things; does it matter? In his book the Roman Forum,** David Watkins thinks not. His basic argument is that the interesting thing about the Forum is the interplay between the ages. The use of the Forum has been adapted to the needs of every epoch since the fall of the ancient Romans, with churches built on the foundations of temples and so on. Watkins goes as far as to describe the views of a nineteenth century archaeologist (who believed that building the 16th and 17th century Farnese Gardens on the site was a “sin”) as “astonishing”. Part of me agrees that the Forum’s continued life is a cause for celebration, but at the same time, I can easily empathise with that earlier archaeologist. Watkins’ background is in architecture and the history of classical archaeology, but for the amateur historians/ lay classicists (such as myself) who visit the Forum for the world of Caesar and co, well frankly, we want the old stuff.

And yet, last weekend was the first time I’ve visited the Forum since moving to Rome. Knowing the rather later provenance of the buildings there in no way impaired my enjoyment. As I stood by the Rostra (built 1904), it was very easy to imagine Mark Antony orating over the body of Caesar; standing next to the nineteenth century Arch of Titus, one could easily envisage triumphing emperors making their way down the Sacra Via. On an earlier visit to the Circus Maximus, a site with no modern development, I got none of that. I was standing in an oval hole in the ground.

It seems then, that what I want (and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this) is a shrine to history -somewhere that will pander to my own vision. If what I’m seeing is genuinely ancient, all the better, but otherwise I’ll settle for verisimilitude. I labour under the sweet illusion that anybody reads this blog, and assuming that anybody who does so is similarly interested in the topic, I’d be interested to hear your thoughts. Does it matter that the Forum isn’t exclusively ancient? Why do you visit historical sites?

*The Tablinarium, the Basilica of Maxentius, the Arch of Septimius Severus and a few columns from the Temples of Vespasian and of Castor and Pollux.

**As most of my books are still in England, I don’t have many with me. I have relied almost exclusively on Watkins’ book for the facts in this post.

Roman army eyetest?

October 4, 2009

To pay my bills in Rome I, like every other member of the English speaking community in Italy, teach English.  During a listening earlier in the week, I came across a story about an eyesight test taken upon entering the Roman army.  Apparently, the big dipper constellation features a tiny star immediately next to a bigger one.  If conscripts could make out the smaller star, they became archers, and if not, they were thrown into the thick of it serving as infantry in the front lines.

As interesting a story as that is, it doesn’t quite ring true.  I don’t think it’s simply my own inner coward talking here, but surely, news would get out of this test.  With no line of letters to read out and supply proof of your vision, it must have been very tempting give a simple “the small star, ooh yeah, there it is” and radically improve your chances of survival.  What’s more, I’m no expert on the Roman military, but I certainly get the impression that the vast majority of the recruits (discounting the auxiliaries from allied tribes etc who, as far as I’m aware, would fight in the traditional manner of their people) served as infantry.  Assuming a certain number of people could see the star and a certain number said they could, what happened to all of these archers?

Finally, I’ve only ever tried it once as a kid, but I’d guess that it takes more than good eyesight to become an archer.

When I left that TOEFL exam preparation lesson (and before I’d had a chance to think things through), I was quite excited to have learnt this piece of trivia.  I’d really like it to be true, and as none of my suspicions definitively disprove the story, it’s more than possible it could be.  If anybody knows of any ancient sources on the process of enlisting in the legions, let me know and you’ll forever have a chum in me.

The constellation in question.  The stars in question are the second dot(s) in on the 'handle'.

The constellation in question. The stars in question are the second dot(s) in on the 'handle'.