Let’s hear it for Nero

January 25, 2010

When it comes to antiquity, there are people whom history hasn’t been kind to. Intentions have been misunderstood, achievements gone unappreciated and outright slanders have been perpetuated. Great artists have been forgotten, ingenious ideas reduced to scrappy two line fragments, and political reputations destroyed.

There aren’t many, however, who have come off as badly as Nero. His terrible reputation has arisen from that most enduring myth; his dilettante recital of the fall of Troy as his own city was consumed by fire. The thing is, though, it simply didn’t happen that way. Without any books with me (I still miss library access), I can’t remember any sources offhand which talk about the efforts the Emperor personally put in to stem the disaster, but as we’re all friends by now I’ll ask you to take me at my word that they do exist.

Nero’s decision to make scapegoats of Rome’s Christian population in the aftermath cannot be defended, but it can be explained. It’s a rare society which doesn’t find outsiders on whom to allocate blame – who knew about the existence of a single ‘Muslim community’ until we were constantly being told not to blame that monolithic beast for world terrorism – and Neronian Rome was no exception. The Emperor was probably harnessing sentiments already in existence rather than trying to force his own monstrous whims on the population. After all, with monotheism as alien (and alienating) a concept to Romans as polygamy would be to us, this weird new cult who were attacking the quintessential values of Rome needed to be reigned in. The fire must have seemed as good a means as any.

Whatever the reasons, Nero would pay for his political expediency with centuries of condemnation. Myths from the middle ages in Rome would tell of the rotting walnut tree infested with demons which sprouted from his secret grave (supposedly the site of Santa Maria del Popolo in the city’s Piazza del Popolo). Hebrew numerologists went as far as to name Nero as the Book of Revelations’ Anti-Christ. We may have calmed down with the religious rhetoric in this day and age, but I still can’t think of a sympathetic portrayal.

Any contemporary perspectives favourable to Nero have been lost irretrievably, and the enmity of the senatorial historians to the Emperor and his legacy mean that we are unlikely to reach a measured and fully informed opinion. However, in the years after his death, we know of numerous false Neros who popped up around the Empire claiming to be the real deal. Surely, this would not be a viable (if far-fetched) route to political power if Nero was already the pantomime villain of later centuries. The military and the Senate might have hated him, but there must have been an enduring popularity for the man amongst the more dispossessed.

This issue has come to the foreground recently, as an Italian historian has urged the city of Rome to finally reflect one of its most infamous sons by naming a road after him. The newspaper La Repubblica (the lefty one which Berlusconi regularly scraps with) is running a poll on the issue. Should you care to cast your vote either way, the poll can be found at http://temi.repubblica.it/repubblicaroma-sondaggio/?pollId=1838.


Consistite! Grammar time!

January 14, 2010

Come now people.  I’ve been writing this blog for about 3 or 4 months now, and it seems its still not become an indispensable part of anybody’s life.  It’s been about a month since I last posted, and in that time, have I heard a single “Sam, without the colour provided by your insights into the world of ancient Rome, my life is but a grey simulacrum”?  No, I have not.  Still, putting this lack of communication from my legions of followers down to abject despondency, I forgive you.  I’m back from England now, Christmas is over, and There Boy is back.

Today, however, I’m talking about something a little more applied than usual: modern attitudes to learning Latin.  E-strolling through the LatinForum.org, I found a post asking for suggestions on how to go about learning the language.  The poster asked if people felt that grammar or vocabulary was the more important area to concentrate on for a developing student.  Unanimously, the verdict was grammar.  A later strand in the discussion was from the original poster once again and it expressed her slight disappointment as well as her lack of surprise that she would have to head back to the world of ut + subjunctive and so on.

For some students no doubt, a heavy emphasis on grammar is fine.  This person, however, evidently isn’t among them.  One of the hardest things about learning a language is maintaining the initial enthusiasm; focussing almost exclusively on areas which we find frustrating and difficult will not help.

Furthermore, meaning is not conveyed by lexicalised grammar, but grammaticalised lexis.  If somebody must take the bizarre position of so explicitly ranking one of the two language systems above the other, vocabulary should take priority; there’s more of it, and it’s of more use.  Other posters wrote that you could look up a new word in the dictionary when you came to it, but assuming the motivation for learning is for the excitement of reading ancient texts, such a laborious and stilting process will inevitably be counter-productive.

The responses posted were symptomatic of (what I see to be) two central problems with the way that Latin is taught.  The first is the single line exercises that are a part of almost every text book I’ve ever seen.  They focus exclusively on translating a sentence with 100% accuracy and give little or no thought to being interesting.  When students swap the exercises for real and extended texts, they have to learn a different set of skills; it’s more important to get carried away by the Latin than to be translating into accurate English.

The second problem, and bear with me here chaps, is the teachers.  What I mean is that of all the thousands of people who start learning Latin, the small number that manage to sustain their love of the language over a long enough period to reach an appropriate level to begin teaching others are inherently different from the many, many more who give up early.  These people have presumably been taught using techniques with the traditional grammar bias and presumably, they loved it.  In turn then, they’ll go on using the same ideas with their own students and the cycle perpetuates itself.

All that said, the study of Latin grammar is of huge importance and it can’t be neglected.  However, if you get to a stage where you’re not enjoying the way you’re learning the language, just lay off that technique for a while and try something else.

Valete, omnis.

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 http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/wine/wine.html 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.

Where Caesar met his maker

December 1, 2009

Surely one of the most famous scenes from Roman history is the murder of Julius Caesar during a meeting of the Senate.  Scratch that; one of the most famous scenes from world history.  As you enter the Curia (the Senate House) in the Forum, the starkness of the building seems a fitting backdrop for the assassination.

In actual fact though, the Curia was temporarily absolutely out of action at the time.  In the chaos of Roman politics at the tail end of the Republic, supporters of the recently murdered rabblerousing politician Clodius had turned the Curia into a funeral pyre for their figurehead.  The Senate, therefore, were meeting elsewhere; the theatre of Pompey to be exact, part of Caesar’s great rival’s giant Porticus complex.

These days, the theatre’s long gone, although I think some foundations remain under some other buildings, but if you go to Largo di Torre Argentina you can see the back of the Porticus and the public toilets which made up another part of it.  The assassination itself would have taken place in the location of the modern day Teatro Argentina, one of Rome’s most important contemporary theatres.

The interesting thing about all of this is the lack of publicity the city of Rome gives to the place.  Largo di Torre Argentina’s a bewildering find when you stumble upon it; it looks hugely significant (and indeed it is – it contains some of the only Republican Temples still in existence) but it’s just fenced off and surrounded by busy roads.  The only concession to its significance is a rather dull information sign plonked at the side.  That Caesar met his untimely end so close to the spot came as a complete surprise to me.

Roman interior decoration

November 21, 2009

We’ve just got back from the Scuderia del Quirinale, which is currently holding an exhibition on Roman art. Now this morning, had somebody else said that to me, I’d immediately be thinking of white statues of semi-draped goddesses and virile heroes. It’s a different Sam who stands before you now; a Sam who laughs at his earlier naivety. Roman art also includes pictures of semi-draped goddesses and virile heroes.

The exhibition’s split into 2 parts; the first being dedicated to what we’d call interior design I suppose, and the second being more the type of thing you’d expect to find in a gallery (portraits, still lifes etc). Both had some wonderful exhibits, but it’s the first part that seems to have made the greatest impression on me. You see, I’ve read books which have told me about the bright colours of Roman interiors, but whatever, in my head the classical world has always been characterised by white marble buildings.* Finally though, today’s museum trip has allowed me to dispel the last remaining vestiges of this image of pristinity. With examples dating from throughout the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties, Roman houses of the period were anything but bland.

In these days of cream Dulux and a tastefully displayed Van Gogh print, it would be difficult to imagine matching 1 or 2 of the themes with a 3 piece suite and some curtains but, and I’ll bide my time before springing this on Rose, the idea of having the adventures of Ulysses painted on a massive scale directly onto our living room walls has now been firmly planted.

If anybody gets a chance to pop in, the exhibition’s on until January and it really is worth a visit.

*Actually, reaching that stage of visualisation was difficult enough. After having seen one too many Harryhausen films as a kid, that white marble filled my ancient Greece and Rome in the form of ruins housing fearsome plasticine monsters.

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.

Pasta outside Castello San Angelo

November 8, 2009

The Barilla pasta magnets on currently displayed proudly have prompted this week’s post.  They’re a new addition to our kitchen after we were given them during the celebrations of international pasta day last Sunday.  I imagine that for anybody else reading this, your own celebrations were fairly low-key, but for those of us in Rome, Milan and Naples, Barilla saw to it that we were fed bowl upon bowl of free pasta.

In Rome, the celebrations were held in the Giardinni San Angelo next to Castello San Angelo.  To look at this castle, you’d struggle to find any suggestion of the work of ancient Romans, and as far as I know, you’d eventually have to give up on the fruitless quest; there are no signs at all.  However, originally the castle was built as the tomb of Hadrian.  His statue still stands in the gardens and his name is given to the nearby piazza Adriana, but the building itself has been drastically altered.

The original building was designed by the Emperor himself who had always held a considerable interest in architecture.  It was a grand, white marble structure, and if the Pantheon is any guide (another project the Emperor was involved in) it would no doubt have been a fabulous building. It was known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian until the sixth century, but before we look at why the name was changed, it’s time for some background.

After the Roman Empire in the west had fallen, Rome had become something of a ghost town.  The papacy continued to operate from there, but otherwise the city’s halcyon days of political and cultural significance were behind it.  Hobbes described the papacy of the time as “the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave.”  Pope Gregory I began to change all of that, however, and under his guidance, the city was successfully portrayed as a destination for pilgrimage.  With the tourist trade dollar flooding in, Gregory began to claw back the glories of old Rome.

However, none of this rejuvenation could happen until the plague that was coursing through Rome had ended. That supposedly happened after Gregory saw a vision of St Michael above the Mausoleum and the name was changed accordingly.  After that, pope after pope added to and reinforced the building to make it the Vatican’s defensive stronghold.  During the 1527 sack of Rome, one pope remained holed up in there for months.  It was this period that saw the Castle become the building we recognise today.  (And incidentally, it was also in this period that Hadrian’s remains were removed elsewhere and later destroyed in a fire).

As we sat next to the castle munching on our trofie al pesto, I noticed an inscription explaining that the park we were sitting in had been created by another figure from Italian history, namely Mussolini.  Whilst you see his building work etc on a daily basis over here, it came as a surprise to see something carved in stone explicitly naming him as responsible for the Gardens.  Rather than rewriting history, however, the inscription was left as it was; as yet one more layer of history serving as a backdrop to contemporary Rome and all of its pasta-based events.

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.

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.