Archive for March, 2010

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.

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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.

*http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/L/Gazetteer/Places/Europe/Italy/Lazio/Roma/Rome/_Texts/Regionaries/text*.html

**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