29 October 2008

Herculaneum after 300 years

The BBC kicks off the celebrations for the 300th anniversary of the discovery of Herculaneum in 1709 with a slideshow accompanied by audio commentary. (public domain picture from wikicommons of photograph taken by Matthias Holländer)

27 October 2008

Medieval Lepers

Although the term "leper" is used as a metaphor for the ultimate in social exclusion and it has been argued that defining someone as a leper in medieval times was as much a form of social control and exercise of power as a medical diagnosis, it does appear from skeletons found in cemeteries attached to leprosaria such as the chapel of St. Giles (the patron saint of lepers) frequently visited by Cadfael that in a majority of cases the diagnosis was correct: the inmates were suffering from leprosy. As time went by after the First Crusade, with greater exposure to leprosy and to the more experienced Muslim doctors, the diagnosis does seem to have become more accurate instead of being applied to any skin ailment. (public domain picture from wikicommons)

A general introduction to medieval leper hospitals can be found at Jean Manco's buildinghistory.org, while a description of the excavations at particular leper hospitals in Winchester and High Wycombe can be found online. See Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture for a directory of medieval pictures of lepers and associated objects.

Other online resources include an article arguing against the social control view of medieval leprosy, while for those with Google accounts, Google Books has previews of Carole Rawcliffe's "Leprosy in Medieval England".

23 October 2008

Actaeon Update

One of the paintings we looked at in my post on Actaeon from the 15th to 17th centuries was Titian's "Diana and Actaeon" (left). Judith Weingarten of Zenobia: Empress of the East has brought to my attention The Archaeology Review's rather derogatory comment on the painting stemming from a BBC report that Titian's painting is now on display in London's National Gallery in an attempt to raise £50 million to prevent it being sold off abroad by its owner, the Duke of Sutherland. When this news first broke in August, The Guardian's coverage provoked lively debate.

19 October 2008

Bacchus and Pentheus

Book III of the Metamorphoses concludes with the story of Pentheus, the king of Thebes who resisted the introduction of the worship of Bacchus and was torn to pieces by a group of Bacchic worshippers including his own mother. This is of course the plot of Euripides' "The Bacchae". Within this story is the story told by Acoetes of how Bacchus turned a shipload of sailors who wanted to kidnap him and sell him into slavery into dolphins. (public domain picture of dolphin from wikicommons)

The contemporary artist Paul Reid has a picture of Pentheus (scroll down -- middle picture in the third row). The story of Bacchus is one of those Benjamin Britten used for his Six Metamorphoses after Ovid. The Youtube video below shows a performance by Nicholas Daniel.

18 October 2008


London's Royal Academy will be holding a major exhibition on Byzantium from 25 October 2008 to 22 March 2009. I certainly plan to go during my Christmas trip to the UK. To go with the exhibition BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting a programme on Byzantium tomorrow (19 October) at 20:00 BST (GMT +1), which presumably will be available for listening on the internet for one week. (picture of mosaic taken from the Royal Academy's publicity for the exhibition)

The Byzantium section of Paul Halsall's Medieval Sourcebook is rather more up to date than the same author's Byzantine Studies Page.

17 October 2008

Mediaeval Fairs

Medieval fairs were held annually, usually on a particular saint's day or other special day in the church calendar. For general information on where and when medieval fairs were held, see The Gazetteer of Markets and Fairs in England and Wales to 1516, especially the Basic Introduction and, of particular relevance to Cadfael enthusiasts, the entry for Shrewsbury ( the list of abbreviations will be helpful in reading the entry).

Fairs were very profitable to the body running them, and so that new annual fairs did not interfere with local tradespeople's business too much or with other fairs nearby, fairs other than prescriptive fairs (those that had been held from time immemorial) needed permission from the monarch, usually issued in the form of a charter. Examples online in translation are for a fair at Ramsey granted to Ramsey Abbey in 1110 by Henry I (Matilda's father and Stephen's predecessor on the throne) and a fair at Cambridge granted to the citizens of Cambridge in 1201 by King John (Matilda's grandson).

16 October 2008

Tiresias, Narcissus and Echo

Despite his key role in drama, the story of Tiresias has not really proved inspirational to artists. He puts in a rare appearance in this picture from a private collection, which links Tiresias's story to the next story, that of Echo and Narcissus with a prophesy of Narcissus's fate. The stories of Echo and Narcissus were originally two separate stories, which Ovid, as far as we know, was the first to combine. (public domain picture of narcissi by bormaniuss via wikipedia)

Echo was a nymph who covered for Jupiter on one of his amorous forays by distracting Juno with her chatter. As a punishment Juno condemned her to only be able to repeat the last words anyone said. Echo fell in love with the handsome Narcissus, who spurned her, and all the others (male and female) who desired him. One rejected lover cursed him, wishing that he would fall in love with someone unobtainable. When Narcissus saw his reflection in a lake, he fell in love but was unable to reach this bewitching figure. Unable to leave the image of his love, Narcissus died and was changed into the flower that bears his name. Echo also wasted away so that only her voice, still repeating people's last words, is heard in lonely places.

Our first two pictures show Narcissus by himself. The above 1595 picture of Narcissus by Caravaggio is now in Rome's Galleria Borghese. For some reason it is only on the Italian version of the site, and not on the English version. Jacob Pynas painted a Mountain Landscape with Narcissus in 1628, now in London's National Gallery. (public domain picture via wikicommons)

Poussin painted two versions of the story, the earlier (above left) from around 1630 is now in the Louvre, while the later (above right) is in Dresden's Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (use Narziss as the search item in the box marked Volltextsuche in der Motivliste. Why they don't allow direct links I don't know). At about the same time Claude Lorrain painted a Landscape with Narcissus and Echo, now in London's National Gallery. (public domain pictures via wikipedia)

Turner's picture of Narcissus and Echo (now in London's Tate Gallery) was painted in 1805, while a year earlier the American painter Benjamin West painted the above painting (now in a private collection). (public domain picture via Museum Syndicate)

This 1881 picture of Narcissus by Benczúr Gyula is now in Budapest's Magyar Nemzeti Galéria, but does not appear to be on their website. (public domain picture via wikicommons)

Perhaps one of the most popular paintings of Echo and Narcissus, the above picture by John William Waterhouse was painted in 1903 and is now in Liverpool's Walker Art Gallery. A site devoted to Waterhouse has an article on the models who posed for the picture. Almost as popular is Salvador Dali's Metamorphosis of Narcissus, painted in 1937 and now in London's Tate Gallery.(picture courtesy of WebMuseum under Creative Commons 3.0 licence)

Contemporary artists who have treated the theme of Echo and Narcissus are Steve Leblanc and Richard Baxter, and the pavement artist Kurt Wenner (check out Kurt Wenner's other paintings, including this fine Actaeon).

In the performing arts, Guillaume Apollinaire wrote Les Mamelles de Tirésias in 1903, though it was not performed until 1917. Poulenc wrote an opera based on Apollinaire's Les Mamelles de Tirésias during the Second World War and it was first performed in 1947. In 1951 Constant Lambert's ballet about Tiresias was first performed.

Gluck wrote an opera on Echo and Narcissus in 1779. YouTube has an aria. YouTube also has a pas de deux called Echo and Narcissus, though only the dancers are named, not the composer. I'm no expert but I certainly don't think it's the Lambert one. There are the usual kids in bedsheets dramatisations, and this rather nice short film called "An Echo of Narcissus", though Echo doesn't seem to appear.

13 October 2008


Rummaging in one of the DVD shops in Plaza Indonesia, I was happy to see that Diva has been re-issued. I was not so happy when I asked the price. All right, it's an imported DVD but what do they do, give it its own seat on the plane coming over? Definitely something for my trip back home at Christmas.

I saw it twice when it first came out back in 1982 and thought it was wonderfully stylish. I saw it on a rented laser disc back in the early 1990s and it still held up pretty well. As far as I remember, it was the first time I'd really heard an opera singer and it definitely left me wanting more. The Youtube trailer below is the original 1982 one, although something seems to have gone wrong with the subtitling.

07 October 2008


Paulinus Gaius Maximus, the narrator of Wallace Breem's "Eagle in the Snow" is a follower of Mithras, a god popular with Roman soldiers. Although a connection with Mithra, a god in the Persian pantheon, seems obvious at first sight and was the general scholarly consensus at the time Wallace Breem was writing, it now appears that although the name may have been taken from the Persian god, the religion as far as we can re-construct it seems to have been a Roman development with few connections to the Persian religion. (wikicommons public domain picture by Marie-Lan Nguyen, from the Nersae Mithraeum)

An overview of what we know about Mithraism can be found in
an essay by Alison Griffith
. One of the key figures in the modern re-assessment of our knowledge of Mithraism is David Ulansey, who based on Mithraic iconography, ties Mithraism closely to astrological beliefs of the time.

Iconography is important because Mithraism was a mystery religion whose devotees swore not to reveal details to outsiders. Hence our written sources stem from hostile outsiders, some but not all contemporary Christians.

LacusCurtius points us to Ceisiwr Serith's pages on Mithraism, which give another overview of what we know, and just as importantly debunk some of the misinformation about Mithraism floating about, particularly with regard to the relationship between Mithraism and Christianity. Since Ceisiwr Serith is a Wiccan, he cannot be accused of a Christian bias in assessing the evidence.

06 October 2008

William Tyndale

The Church of England commemorates William Tyndale today. He is remembered as one of the first to make a translation of the Bible from Hebrew and Greek into English. He translated all of the New Testament and about half of the Old Testament, and his work was completed by Miles Coverdale.

The Tyndale Society's website naturally has a life of Tyndale. The British Library has one of the only two complete copies of the Tyndale New Testament still in existence.

05 October 2008

Chapters I and II

I must admit I find the chronology of the first two chapters of Eagle in the Snow quite confusing. We are told that Maximus was thirteen when his father was sent to Britain by the Caesar Julian. Julian was Caesar from 356 to 360, when he became Augustus. The oldest Maximus could therefore be by the time of the great barbarian incursion of 367 would be 24, which, working backwards, would make him no more than about 16 or 17 when he was serving as equestrian tribune and quite probably younger.

Ammianus Marcellinus' account of Martinus' death is quite different. According to Marcellinus:

Thereupon Martinus, alarmed at this threat, and thinking swift death imminent, drew his sword and attacked that same Paulus. But since the weakness of his hand prevented him from dealing a fatal blow, he plunged the sword which he had already drawn into his own side. (translation by J. C. Rolfe)

Ammianus also gives an account of the barbarians' concerted attack on Britain and how Theodosius was sent to Britain to retrieve the situation. Some present-day historians believe Ammianus exaggerates the situation to make Theodosius, father of the Emperor under whom Ammianus was writing, look good. Others take Ammianus at his word and believe there may have been a single mastermind responsible for coordinating the attacks.

Borcovicum, where Maximus is stationed on Hadrian's Wall, is also known as Vercovicium. The page from roman-britain.org dedicated to Vercovicium also has information about Maximus' cohort, the First Cohort of Tungrians (as is usual with this site, the page is very informative, but also quite hard to read).

04 October 2008

Eagle in the Snow

Eagle in the Snow by Walter Breem is the Roman History and More Reading Group's choice for its next online chat on 15/16 October (depending on your time zone). All are welcome.

The book is set in 406 AD and is narrated by Paulinus Gaius Maximus, a Roman commander stationed on the Rhine frontier. First published in 1970, it has been re-issued recently, and is reviewed here by Archaeology magazine and here by the italophiles site, which also includes a profile of the author.

The character Paulinus Gaius Maximus, with a slight name change and leap of 200-odd years in time (but that's Hollywood for you), was one of the inspirations for the film Gladiator.

03 October 2008

From the Oxford DNB

The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has two articles of particular interest at present.

Available for one week from today (3rd October), an article traces imagery of Britannia from a commemoration of the Roman conquest under Claudius down to the present, while the current podcast features the lexicographer James Murray, editor of the OED (opens directly with the page for now, but will still be available at the bottom of the page when replaced). (public domain picture by Darren Prescott, via wiki commons)

02 October 2008


Ovid's next story is about Semele, one of Jupiter's mortal loves. Juno persuaded Semele to ask Jupiter to show himself to her in all his glory, and she got blasted.

Our first look at the story is this 1550s work attributed to Tintoretto and now in London's National Gallery. In the next century, Rubens also produced a Jupiter et Sémélé as part of a series of paintings on mythological themes. It is now in Brussels' Royal Museum of Fine Arts. Jan Voorhout (1647 - 1723) produced the undated picture below, now in the collection of Germany's Universität Göttingen.

In 1744 Handel wrote his opera Semele to a libretto written by Congreve for an earlier opera by John Eccles. The libretto was adapted for Handel by Newburgh Hamilton, who used some of Pope's verse in his adaptation. Those in the right part of the world at the right time might like to know that Handel's Semele is going to be performed at the Pacific Opera Victoria in British Columbia. Their website for this performance has a synopsis and video highlights of other performances of Handel's work. More unusually, here is a performance of an aria from Eccles's version.

Gustave Moreau painted two versions of Jupiter and Semele, shown below. Both are in the Musée Gustave Moreau. The left painting is slightly earlier, produced around 1890, while the one on the rightcomes from 1894 or 1895.

The Scottish artist John Duncan (1866-1945) painted this undated picture of Semele (click on the second picture from the right in the top row) by herself. Jupiter is not present, only Semele in flames.