Archive for the ‘miscellaneous’ Category

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:


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

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 (, 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:

Roman wine

December 12, 2009

The hiccuping legionnaire of Asterix books, swinging his amphora in time to some drinking song or other, would probably not be drinking the finest of wines.  It’s quite likely, in fact, that having fallen victim to those indomitable Gauls once more, the poor chap’s downing his sorrows in vinegar, or sour wine as acetum is often translated.

Judging from its mentions in Roman literature, one wine that he certainly wasn’t drinking was Falernian; it has been claimed that it qould cost a legionnaire a full 3 weeks’ pay for one glass of the stuff.  Catullus and Martial both wax lyrical about the drink, and it’s Falernian which the ostentatious Trimalchio boasts he is serving in Petronius’ Satyricon.  A famous graffito from Pompeii reads

habeas propiteos

deos tvos tresit

e et qvi leges

calos edone

valeat qvi legerit

Edone dicit

assibvs hic

bibitvr dipvndivm

si dederis meliora

bibes qvartvs

si dederis vina f

falerna bib

or: ‘You can get a drink here for only one coin. You can drink better wine for two coins. You can drink Falernian for four coins.’

Well now, lucky readers, you can (kinda) see what they’ve all been banging on about.  Falenghina is a wine from Campania (the region of Pompeii) which is supposed to use the same grape.  You won’t be getting quite the same experience (see for the factors which make Roman wine so different to our own), but you will be getting a really decent white wine flavoured with extra history.

Augustus and his celestial message

November 17, 2009

“I found Rome a city of brick and I left it a city of marble.”  So proclaimed Augustus in his Res Gestae (“Achievements” – a rather selective overview of the first Emperor’s feats penned by the man himself).  The fabric of Rome became a placard on which he could emblazon his message of personal and imperial grandeur; the building schemes he proudly boasted of were designed to reinforce the place of the princeps at the forefront of the Roman people.

As well as this, the literary world was heavily patronised.  It’s easy to over-emphasise the importance of literature in the ‘propaganda’ onslaught – as artefacts and monuments have decayed, events and actions been forgotten, and other cultural interests slipped in or fallen out of popularity, it’s not out of the question that somebody today might only have learnt about Augustus because of an interest in the poetry of the first century BC.  A typical Roman would have seen the building works etc on a daily basis without giving so much as a thought to their favourite of Horace’s Epodes.  Still though, with big hitters such as Virgil making epic poetry from the deeds of Augustus, as much political prestige as possible was being squeezed out of the literary world.

The final of the big three tools with which Augustus could spread his message was money.  This worked in the obvious sense of donatives to the public and the soldiers, and by the more subtle means of imprinting coins with a message to glorify Empire and Emperor.  The idea of putting an individual on a Roman coin was relatively new – it first occurred under Julius Caesar – but it was an innovation that the Romans ran with.  Brutus is supposed to have reacted to Julius’ coins with disgust at the kingly implications, yet during the civil war against Octavian and Antony, coins were created and embossed with an image of the great liberator himself.  Augustus would have had no second thoughts about using his own picture.

I found out the other day about a more surprising piece of propaganda, and one which people live with the legacy of today every time they turn to the last few pages of their paper.  The star sign Libra was apparently introduced into astrology* under Augustus (Virgil writes in the Georgics that it happened on the 23rd September of 63BC).  Before that, the constellation was simply seen as a part of Cancer and in fact the two main stars in the constellation are still known as Zubenelgenubi and Zubeneschamali, Arabic for pincer of the south and north respectively.  Scales as a symbol of justice are used today; this is yet one more legacy from the Greco-Roman World.  This constellation was no more than a way to proclaim the just nature of everybody’s favourite leader.

So anyway, the question I’m putting to you is this: has anybody heard of any other examples of creative propaganda from Augustus or any of the other Emperors?

*Actually reintroduced.  The Babylonians and Egyptians had used it but for some reason it fell out of favour.

roman numbers

November 8, 2009

Sunday evening? Already? Well that still leaves time for a quick entry on Roman numerals. This is a cut out and keep entry written with you in mind Rose. Read it, and you’ll finally be able to work out the date on that aquarium.

Firstly then, the real basics. I is the smallest whole number. It represents one unit. If you place 2 equal units next to each other, you add their value together. II = 2 therefore, and III = 3. The next symbol is V, which represents 5 units. If you put a number to the left of a bigger one, you subtract the smaller number. i.e. IV = V (5 units) – I (one unit) = 4. If the numbers are written the other way around (big number followed by smaller), you add them together: VI = V + I = 6.

The next symbol we need to know is X, which means 10. Using the principles above, XX must equal 20, IX 9 and XI 11. As a point of interest, these numerals seem to have developed from counting on fingers. I was supposed to represent 1 finger, V the shape made by the thumb and fingers when you hold them all out and X is 2 hands crossed over.

The other symbols we need are L for 50, C for 100, D or I‘backwards C’ for 500 and M or CI’backwards C’ for 1000.

A few more principles to work with:

1. A line above the number multiplies by 1, 000: II = 2, Ī Ī = 2,000

2. ‘backwards C’ to the right of I’backwards C’ multiplies the figure by 10.

E.g. I’backwards C’ ‘backwards C’ = 5,000, e.g. 2 I’backwards C’ ‘backwards C’ ‘backwards C’ = 50, 000.

3. C in front of the I (repeated as many times as ‘backwards C’ follows) doubles the number. E.g. I’backwards C’ ‘backwards C’ = 5, 000 but CCI’backwards C’’backwards C’ = 10, 000

A bit of a drily technical post I’m afraid, but I hope it helps.

vita in roma

September 30, 2009

It would reek of affectation to begin my first entry on my Roman blog with “salvete”, and much as I’d like to, I do so want us to get off on the right foot.  As such, let’s kick things off with a simple “welcome chums” and let me tell you a little about me and my intentions with this thing.

My name’s Sam and, motivated by my secret desire to be a Roman, two weeks ago I made the move to the eternal city with my lovely girlfriend Rose.  Whilst here, I intend to throw myself into the thick of all things ancient and share my condensed thoughts and findings here.  The scope might take in history, literature, archaeology, art, Latin, or anything else you care to name.  And just so I’ve been clear with you from the start, there may well be the occasional posting on where to get an ice cream in modern Rome as well.*

Ah, what the hell, valete.

*It’s my blog, I make the rules.