25 October 2010


Book VI of the Metamorphoses opens with the story of Arachne. (picture from wikicommons by galak76, used by permission under creative commons licence)

Arachne appears in a fresco painted by Francesco del Cossa in the Palazzo Schifanoia in the late 1460s. Although the Palazzo doesn’t seem to have a website, you can see the fresco in situ in the following video, where it appears about 25 seconds in.

At some point between 1475 and 1485 Tintoretto painted the above painting of Athene and Arachne, which is now in Florence’s Galleria degli Uffizi, but does not appear to be on their website.

The above fresco of Arachne by Veronese dates from 1520 and is in Venice’s Palazzo Ducale.

Another fresco of Arachne was painted by Herman Posthumus in 1542 and is from the Landshut Stadtresidentz, but does not appear to be on the Stadresidentz’s website.

Ruben’s version of the story of Arachne, painted 1636-7, is now in Richmond’s Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Perhaps the most famous representation of the story of Arachne and Minerva is this painting from 1657 by Velázquez, now in Madrid’s Prado.

The above picture from the Iconos site is a 1695 painting by Giordano and is now in El Escorial, but is not on its website, or indeed anywhere else that I can find. (unless stated otherwise all images in this post are from wikicommons and in the public domain)

24 October 2010

Perseus in the Renaissance

For those who enjoyed my series of posts on Perseus, H. Niyazi has a recent post on The Three Pipe Problem discussing the portrayal of Perseus in Renaissance Art.

16 October 2010

The Lynx and the Magpies

The next story in the Metamorphoses is that of Lyncus’s treacherous attempt to murder his guest, Triptolemus, for which he was turned into a lynx. Jacques Dumont Le Romain painted a picture of this incident in 1732 which is now in the Louvre, but not on their website.

Book V now comes to a close. The daughters of Pierus, who had challenged the Muses to a singing contest but refused to accept the judges’ verdict against them, are changed into magpies. A painting from the 1520s by Rosso Fiorentino, which is now in the Louvre, shows the contest. This painting was probably the source for the design of a maiolica plate made 20 years later and now in Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum. (Images of lynx (by ChickenFalls) and magpie (by Lamiot) are taken from wikicommons and used under a creative commons licence.)

13 October 2010


The next story in Ovid’s Metamorphoses is that of Arethusa, a nymph who was turned into a spring by the goddess Diana to protect her from the river Alphaeus who was chasing her.(photo of Arethusa's spring in Syracuse copyright Giovanni Dall'Orto, used by permission)

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has an Italian plate dated to 1531 showing Arethusa fleeing from Alphaeus.

The above statue group of Arethusa and Alphaeus was created by Battista di Domenico Lorenzi in the early 1570s and is now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (used by permission of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Pace Audrey Hepburn in the film Roman Holiday, the 1820 poem about Arethusa was by Shelley, not Keats.

Legras painted the above picture of Arethusa in 1874, and it is now in Cherbourg’s Musée Thomas-Henry, but does not appear to be on their website. (public domain image from wikicommons)

Arthur Bowen Davies’s 1901 painting of Arethusa is now in Youngstown’s Butler Institute of American Art.

Arethusa’s story was one of those chosen by Benjamin Britten for his Oboe “Six Metamorphoses After Ovid”, composed in 1951, and played here by Nicholas Daniel.

05 October 2010

Falco Review

Lindsey Davis’s series of mysteries starring Marcus Didius Falco, a private informer in Vespasian’s Rome, has now reached its 20th and probably final volume. Ms. Davis has not said that she won’t be writing any further Falco stories, but a Falco Companion has now been issued and certain plot points in “Nemesis” would mean some radical changes to the series if it were to continue. I’m going to assume, therefore, that the series as it now stands is finished. Inevitably in an overview there will be some SPOILERS in what follows, so you have been warned.

The events in the series take place from AD 70 to 77. Marcus Didius Falco has his 30th birthday during the course of the first book, “The Silver Pigs”. He is a private informer, i.e., a private investigator, specialising in background checks on prospective brides and grooms, finding evidence of adultery, and finding heirs or grounds for challenging wills. “The Silver Pigs” is his first foray into working for the Emperor Vespasian, which he does despite his republican views. During the events described in “The Silver Pigs” he meets his future wife, Helena Justina, the daughter of a senator, Decimus Camillus Verus. Over the course of the series Falco undertakes work for the Emperor as well as private commissions, and some investigations based on his own desire to see justice done. Recurring characters are Falco’s estranged parents, his sisters and their husbands and children, Falco’s mother’s family in the country, Helena Justina’s parents and brothers, and Falco’s best friend, Petronius Longus, who is a captain in the vigiles (the night watch which combined duties fire fighting and combatting minor and some not so minor crimes).

Falco’s activities take him over most of the Empire. Apart from the stories set in Rome itself, Falco also travels to various parts of Italy, to Britain, the frontier in Germany, Spain, North Africa, Egypt, the Eastern frontier, and Greece. He is a Roman citizen, but one of Rome’s urban poor. His clients come from all levels of society and over the course of the series he improves his status entering the middle rank (an eques) and by the end of the last book, becoming rich. The variety of clients means we get to see many different aspects of Roman life.

The books are all narrated by Falco himself in the first person, and his narrative voice is one of the strengths of the series. It shows a wry, ironic sense of humour, not taking Falco himself or life too seriously, and certainly not taking seriously any claims to grandeur or self importance from those who consider themselves socially or intellectually superior. This tone is hugely enjoyable, but the reader can’t help but wonder sometimes whether other characters, particularly Falco’s family and friends, would see events in quite the same way. And this becomes particularly problematic with the recurring character Anacrites, Vespasian’s Chief Spy. Although Falco tells us that Anacrites had set him up on his mission to Petra in “Last Act in Palmyra”, meaning him to be killed, and Anacrites later stalks Falco’s sister Maia in “The Body in the Bath House”, I at least found it impossible to take Anacrites seriously as a villain or a dangerous threat to Falco.

Although the humorous tone is, as I said, enjoyable, some may find it anachronistic. The only time I found the humour really jarred was in the last book, “Nemesis”, when Falco wishes that there were some way of proving or disproving paternity through the blood and hopes that the researchers in Alexandria are working on it.

I recently read the whole series through in sequence over a couple of months, which may not have been the best way to read them. Read like this, I have to say that the way Geminus, the auctioneer employed in “Shadows in Bronze” to auction off Pertinax’s effects, turns out to be Falco’s father who had walked out and abandoned the family when Falco was 7 struck me as clumsy. Once he was in the series, though, he became an important character, along with Falco’s other relations. The stories where we meet new members of Falco’s family are always particularly enjoyable. I also found the on again off again on again nature of Falco’s relationship with Helena Justina very tedious after the first couple of books until they finally settled down together in “Poseidon’s Gold”.

Another time where I thought Ms. Davis let her readers down was in “Scandal Takes a Holiday”, when Falco, who we have been repeatedly told cannot swim, was thrown overboard by pirates out at sea near Ostia, yet manages to float on his back until he just happens to meet another boat, which just happens to be his father’s skiff waiting to take goods off a ship unobserved so as to avoid import duty. For me that definitely broke the flow of the narrative as I pondered its unlikelihood.

Having said that I would like to stress that Lindsey Davis does a wonderful job over 20 novels in the very demanding genre of historical mysteries, managing to balance enjoyable stories with the exploration of a civilisation superficially similar but actually very different from our own.

19 September 2010


Welcome to follower Nam Hoai, a Vietnamese architect with two blogs: nhomthangmuoimot, about 19th and 20th century art from different parts of the world, and nguyenhoainamkts, which covers a miscellany of subjects, including architecture, photography, and music.

18 September 2010

The Water Organ

I’ve been reading Lindsey Davis’s Falco series, and as the Roman History Reading Group is due to read Last Act in Palmyra in December, I thought I’d blog a few items. (book cover copied from librarything)

One reason for our hero travelling to the Eastern edges of the Empire is to track down a missing hydraulis player. The hydraulis or water organ is said to have been invented by Ctesibius in the 3rd century BC. In Ctesibius’s version, water was used to regulate the flow of air through pipes to produce music from a keyboard, but as time went by the use of bellows became as popular as water. Both versions of the instrument died out in the West after the fall of the Western Empire, but survived in the East. In 757, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine Copronymus presented Pepin the Short, King of the Franks and father of Charlemagne, with a bellows-operated version which was further developed over time to become the church organ as we know it today.

The article on hydraula from the LacusCurtius edition of the 1875 Smith’s Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities provides links to the textual evidence about the hydraulis. We do not have to rely purely on textual evidence, however. The hydraulis is shown in mosaics.

This part of a mosaic comes from wikicommons, which does not give any information about the source, but it appears to be based on a mosaic found in Nennig in 1852.

This part of a mosaic comes from wikicommons, who have taken it from the page on the Villa Dar Bur Ammera mosaic at livius.org.

The remains of a hydraulis were found in excavations of Aquincum (modern Budapest) in 1931. The pamphlet guide to the Aquincumi Múzeum in Budapest shows a display of excavated pieces and a modern reconstruction.

Parts of another hydraulis were found at Dion, near Mount Olympus, in 1992. archaeologychannel.org has a rather old page with a radio interview about the hydraulis and a video interview and demonstration. The page does have other links to information, but unfortunately they are all broken. The video dates back to the early days of streaming (the radio interview thoughtfully explains what streaming is) and is rather small and jerky. You can see a rather better video of the hydraulis in action below:

Musica Romana, a modern group specialising in the recreation and performance of Roman music, include an extract from a piece called Aulos et Hydraulis on their myspace page. (except where noted, illustrations in this post come from wikicommons).

22 July 2010

Another Welcome

Welcome to H. Niyazi from Three Pipe Problem, the three pipes being art, history, and mysteries.

21 July 2010

The Death of Socrates in Art

In my last post I talked about hemlock, but I’d forgotten that Gary Corby of A Dead Man Fell From the Sky also covered hemlock quite recently. We’ll continue by looking at some artistic depictions of Socrates’s death.

Charles Alphonse Dufresnoy’s Death of Socrates was painted in 1650. It is now in Florence, some sites say in the Galleria degli Uffizi, others say in the Galleria Palatina. Neither shows the picture on its website. (Picture from Larousse used by permission)

Jean Francois Pierre Peyron painted two pictures of the Death of Socrates in the 1780s. The above version is in Copenhagen’s Statens Museum for Kunst, while Peyron’s other picture on this theme is in Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum. (public domain picture from wikicommons)

Working at the same time as Peyron, David painted this picture of the Death of Socrates which is now in New York’s Metropolitan Museum. (image from Metropolitan Museum, used by permission)

18 July 2010


The episode of House shown the other night was Knight Fall. The patient, Sir William, was a re-enactor who became ill during a mock-mediaeval joust. One of the possibilities put forward as the cause of his illness was hemlock poisoning. I was surprised by this as his sufferings were completely different to the image of hemlock poisoning I was familiar with from Plato’s description of the death of Socrates. (The pictures are by H. Zell and Fabelfroh and come from wikipedia, used under a GNU Free Documentation Licence)

And when Socrates saw him, he said: “Well, my good man, you know about these things; what must I do?” “Nothing,” he replied, “except drink the poison and walk about till your legs feel heavy; then lie down, and the poison will take effect of itself.”

At the same time he held out the cup to Socrates. He took it, and very gently, Echecrates, without trembling or changing color or expression, but looking up at the man with wide open eyes, as was his custom, said: “What do you say about pouring a libation to some deity from this cup? May I, or not?” “Socrates,” said he, “we prepare only as much as we think is enough.” “I understand,” said Socrates; “but I may and must pray to the gods that my departure hence be a fortunate one; so I offer this prayer, and may it be granted.” With these words he raised the cup to his lips and very cheerfully and quietly drained it.


He walked about and, when he said his legs were heavy, lay down on his back, for such was the advice of the attendant. The man who had administered the poison laid his hands on him and after a while examined his feet and legs, then pinched his foot hard and asked if he felt it. He said “No”; then after that, his thighs; and passing upwards in this way he showed us that he was growing cold and rigid. And again he touched him and said that when it reached his heart, he would be gone. The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said—and these were his last words—“Crito, we owe a cock to Aesculapius. Pay it and do not neglect it.” “That,” said Crito, “shall be done; but see if you have anything else to say.” To this question he made no reply, but after a little while he moved; the attendant uncovered him; his eyes were fixed. And Crito when he saw it, closed his mouth and eyes.

Such was the end, Echecrates, of our friend, who was, as we may say, of all those of his time whom we have known, the best and wisest and most righteous man.
(Plato  Phaedo, translated by Harold North Fowler )

(Although Plato doesn’t actually mention hemlock, just calling it φάρμακον (drug, poison, medicine), we do know from elsewhere that hemlock was used to administer the death penalty in Athens.)

House’s patient, on the other hand, suffered from a seizure, bleeding eyes, vomiting, a rash, heart and kidney problems. It was long drawn out and painful (but not, thanks to modern medicine, fatal), not like Plato's description of Socrates’s gentle death at all.

The difference between Plato’s account and more modern accounts of hemlock poisoning have led to charges that Plato falsified his description to give Socrates a more fitting, philosophical death. It turns out, however, that there are two different, related, plants called hemlock: poison hemlock (conium maculatum) and water hemlock (cicuta virosa), plus a non-poisonous tree called hemlock because the crushed leaves smell similar to poison hemlock. The description of Socrates’s death fits poison hemlock, as discussed in Enid Bloch’s article: Hemlock Poisoning and the Death of Socrates: Did Plato Tell the Truth?

Most modern descriptions of hemlock poisoning, on the other hand, are based on water hemlock, a small amount of which House’s patient had eaten, which in the final solution exacerbated problems he’d laid up for himself by abusing steroids. Polite Dissent discusses the medical aspects of this episode of House.

08 July 2010

Belated Welcomes

A belated welcome to new followers:

Amalia T. of Good to Begin Well, Better to End Well, who writes on mythology and history

Mufti G M of Lout de Chevalier, who writes in Indonesian about the oil industry, and has a great soundtrack

William Wolfe

Nachtigalle of Playground Canvas, who writes in German



Just Another Sarah

Georgia Memon

04 July 2010

Persephone: the 18th and 19th centuries

Having looked at Persephone in the 16th and 17th centuries, we now turn to 18th and 19th centuries.

Our first picture, Psyche Obtaining the Elixir of Beauty from Proserpine is by Charles Joseph Natoire and dates from around 1735. It is now in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

In 1866 Swinburne wrote a poem called The Garden of Proserpine, an extract from which, accompanied by animations, appears in the above video.

In 1874 Dante Gabriel Rosetti painted the above picture of Persephone with a pomegranate, now in London's Tate Gallery.

Lord Frederic Leighton chose an unusual moment form the legend to paint in his 1891 "The Return of Persephone", now in Leeds Art Gallery. (all images in this post are in the public domain and come from wikicommons)

27 June 2010

Persephone: the 17th century

In my last post we looked at the story of Persephone in the 16th century, when the rape (i.e., kidnapping) of Persephone was a popular theme from the story. We now move on to the 17th century, looking first at pictures of the rape and then a few pictures of Persephone in the underworld.

In the first decade of the century, Hendrik van Balen painted Pluto and Persephone, which is now in the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.

Bernini's 1621-1622 statue of Pluto and Proserpina is now in Rome's Galleria Borghese. (public domain image from Museum Syndicate)

Rembrandt painted the above Rape of Persephone in 1631, which is Berlin's Gemäldegalerie, but does not appear to be on their website.

Pignoni's 1650 above L'Enlèvement de Proserpine is now in Nancy's Musée des Beaux-Arts.

In the early 1680s Giordano painted a series of oil studies or modelli which are now in London's National Gallery. These were preparation for a series of frescoes in Florence's Palazzo Medici Riccardi, one of which, showing the rape of Proserpina, is shown above.

Turning to the theme of Persephone in the underworld, the above detail from a 1622 picture of Hell by François de Nomé. The complete picture is now in Besançon's Musée des Beaux-Arts et d'Archéologie.(image used under creative commons licence, courtesy of baroque-in-art.org) Paris's Louvre has a painting of Orpheus before Pluto and Persephone by Perrier and dating from 1647-1650. (unless otherwise ascribed, all images in this post are in the public domain and come from wikicommons)

To finish this look at Persephone in the 17th century here is an extract from the overture to Lully's opera Proserpina. YouTube also has extracts from Act III amongst the related videos.

30 April 2010

Persephone: The 16th century

Next in Ovid's Metamorphoses is the story of Proserpine, or as she is better known under her Greek name, Persephone. Paintings of Persephone in the 16th century concentrated on the Rape of Persephone ("rape" here meaning kidnapping). (picture of pomegranate from wikicommons used under creative commons licence. Other images are in the public domain and also come from wikicommons.)

Our first picture was painted by Niccolò dell'Abbate, probably shortly before his death in 1571. The painting is now in the Louvre. At about the same time Christoph Schwarz was producing a Rape of Proserpine, now in Cambridge's Fitzwilliam Museum.

Paris Bordone must have painted his Rape of Proserpine some time before this as he died in 1571. The painting is now in Milan's Galleria Salomon (scroll down).

In 1581 Hans von Aachen painted the above Rape of Persephone, which is now in Sibiu's Brukenthal Palace. In 1598 Joseph Heintz the Elder painted a Rape of Prosperine, which is now in Dresden's Gemaldegalerie. Unfortunately, their online presence is in Second Life and so inaccessible to me as I'm not a member.

26 January 2010

Vae Victis

In 390 BC or rather more likely 387/6 BC, Gauls defeated a Roman army in a battle at the river Allia and occupied Rome itself, which had been more or less abandoned after the battle except for the Capitol. The stirring events surrounding this are told by Livy in Book 5, sections 34 to 50 of his History of Rome (scroll down). (licensed from wikicommons under GNU Free Documentation Licence)

This has not been a fruitful episode for later artists, but I have tracked down two pictures.

The first, called "Camillus Rescuing Rome from Brennus", was painted by Sebastiano Ricci in 1716, and is now in the Detroit Institute of Arts. (public domain image from museumsyndicate)

The second (really rather disturbing) picture, called variously "Brennus and His Part of the Spoils" or "The Spoils of the Battle", was painted by Paul Jamin in 1893 and is now in a private collection. (public domain image from wikicommons)

25 January 2010

The Phantom of the Great Dionysia

When Gary Corby of A Dead Man Fell From the Sky and I were chatting on Twitter the other day, he mentioned how much more attractive to the average male the addition of zombies made "Pride and Prejudice". I can't say I'd ever felt the lack before, but we kicked around a few titles which might increase the ancient world's visibility today.

Purely by coincidence I can announce the translation of a fragments of a play found in the Oxyrhynchus papyri. It appears to be by a hitherto unknown tragedian, Andreas Arachnis.

The Phantom of the Great Dionysia

Enter chorus:
Lightning-born son of Zeus and Semele,
Great Dionysus, tell us of the king
of your mother's city,the man with the
swollen feet, the son of Laertes and,
O dreadful to say, of Jocasta.

Enter Messenger:
I bring news sad to say.
The father of our Oedipus,
Not the man himself you understand,
But the one who speaks his words,
His father is dead and so
Without pollution he cannot enter
The god's precinct.

The news is sad but worse still,
how can we go on without an
Oedipus? How can we worship the god?

There is a lad in this chorus you see
here now, he has been trained,
he can sing the words.
Exit Messenger

Is this true?

It is true sir.
It is as the man said.

And who trained you?

I do not know, I cannot tell.
It is a secret of the god.

Well, let me hear you.

This plague that afflicts my city,
I cannot bear it. We must find
what god has been angered.
I will send to Delphi to enquire.

But now, dark night comes.
We will begin again tomorrow.
Exit Choregos

Phantom (from the machine):
Nikeratos you have done well.
I made it happen. Come, offer sacrifice.

Spirit of Orpheus, hear me.
Let me be the mask you wear.
Sing through me.

Dark-robed Night we sing to you.
Nighttime sharpens, heightens each sensation
Darkness wakes and stirs imagination


The power of the music of night

As rosy fingered dawn lights the Maiden's temple
I choose a new actor to play Oedipus.
One with experience of many festivals.

A man or perhaps one of the immortal gods
Gave me this message of doom.
If you do not obey, disaster will fall.
Exit Messenger

Messenger 2:
From mountain girt Delphi I come
With word from the far shooting one
Given through his oracle.
Obedience is always wise.
Remember whose is the mask.
Exit Messenger 2

My chosen actor will speak.

Can I who solved the riddle
of the Sphinx rest quiet
Brekekekex koax koax

Brekekekex koax koax
Brekekekex koax koax
Exit chorus

Frogs. My whole cast are frogs.
Very well let the boy try.

Wife, given to me by the city
as reward and by your own hand
as wife and more than wife.
Come out of the palace and tell me
of time gone before I came to this place.

O, terrible to relate.
How can I speak and yet
How not?

What is it?

Foul death.
I can say no more.

Speak on.

Death comes
in many forms, but this!

Tell me.

Just as in years gone by
Denaira gave her husband a robe
And Jason's wife from Colchis
Gave his new love a crown of fire
So, O, how can I say it?
Your chorus put on their robes
And were burnt. Flesh charred from bone.
Terrible were their screams. Still I hear them.

A chorus of Scythians enters
Goddess of justice, you who
punish man's overweening pride,
aid us. Come from the land
of the Hyperboreans or wherever
you are feasting now, and help us,
we implore you.

Where is this murderer? How can he be found?

He has a lair, in a cave
under the temple sacred to the Muses nine.
I can take you there.


See where he rises in a chariot
drawn by dragons sent by the Queen of Night.
He takes the body of Nikeratos with him.
The gods have done this.
Nothing turns out as we expected.
The music is ended.

Although a translation into English has been prepared, no scholarly commentary or apparatus criticus has appeared. If anyone would like to contribute notes to such an enterprise, please feel free to add them to the comments.

17 January 2010

Perseus and Phineus

Ovid starts Book V of the Metamorphoses by continuing the story of Perseus. Phineus, who had been betrothed to Andromeda, starts a fight at Perseus and Andromeda's wedding feast. In my post Perseus and Andromeda: the 17th Century I embedded part of a TV production of Lully's Persée. Here is Phineus' petrification scene from a sound recording of the same opera:

The picture shown to accompany the sound recording above is Luca Giordano's painting from the early 1680s Perseus Turning Phineus and His Followers to Stone, now in London's National Gallery.

Towards the end of the first decade of the eighteenth century, Sebastiano Ricci painted Perseus Confronting Phineus with the Head of Medusa, which is now in Los Angeles's Getty Center. Jean-Marc Nattier's 1718 Perseus, Aided by Minerva, Petrifies Phineus and His Companions by Showing Them Medusa's Head is now in Tours's Musée des Beaux Arts.

16 January 2010

Welcome to some new followers

Welcome to nina4176 and LK, who have joined this blog as followers, and also to Michael K. Smith of the book review blog Booksmith, who follows Matters Arising via NetworkedBlogs on Facebook.

15 January 2010

Review of The Roman Mysteries

Caroline Lawrence's The Roman Mysteries is a series of 17 detective stories set in the Roman Empire between June 78 and October 81 AD, i.e., basically in the reign of Titus. The detectives are a group of four children: Flavia Gemina, daughter of Marcus Flavius Geminus, sea captain; Jonathan ben Mordecai, her Jewish Christian neighbour; Nubia (formerly Shepenwepet), a Nubian slave bought by Flavia and later freed by her; and Lupus, a mute beggar boy taken in by Joseph and his family. The books seem to be aimed at an audience of children from 8 or 9 year olds to the early teens, though older readers will also get a great deal of pleasure from the series. They stories have been televised but I haven't seen the programmes, only read the books. Inevitably in a review of the whole series, there are SPOILERS in what follows. (picture of well in Ostia Antica from wikicommons is in the public domain)

The first book in the series, The Thieves of Ostia, gives the impression of The Famous Five meet Falco, with a rather heavy-handed Christian message at the end. Some readers might find this offputting, but they should definitely persevere. We are taken through a series of historical events: the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii, the opening of the Colosseum, an epidemic and fire that struck Rome in the early part of Titus's principate, and (in flashback) the sieges of Jerusalem and Masada by the Romans. Amongst the historical figures we meet are Titus and Domitian, Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger, Suetonius, Josephus, Quintilian, Queen Berenice, Gaius Valerius Flaccus, and John, the beloved disciple. Jonathan, Nubia, and Lupus all have back stories, which are gradually revealed in various story arcs running through the books. A linked long term story arc is the tracking down of a criminal mastermind who kidnaps and enslaves children. The geographical area covered includes Ostia and the bay of Naples in Italy, mainland Greece, the Greek islands, Roman Asia, Egypt, and North Africa.

The main characters' family and other connections mean we get to see many different aspects of Roman life at all levels of society, from beggars and poor provincials to the Imperial family. We find out about science and medicine (Jonathan's father is a doctor and Flavia Gemina is a great fan of the Elder Pliny and his Natural History), gladiatorial and other games, education, literature, and oratory and legal procedure. Cultural riches are brought out in the children's lessons with their tutor, Aristo, but the harsh realities of life are not ignored: long before the first book Flavia's mother had died in childbirth and Jonathan's sister Miriam, who marries Flavia's uncle Gaius, suffers the same fate in The Slave Girl from Jerusalem; Lupus is mute because his tongue was torn out. The books each contain a Final Scroll in which the author discusses historical, literary and social references. The series is particularly interesting in its treatment of two issues, slavery and religion. (picture of page from 14th century codex of Pliny's Natural History from wikicommons is in the public domain)

Slavery is a major problem for modern fiction set in ancient Rome. How do you give a realistic picture of a member of a slave-owning society without forfeiting the reader's sympathy for him or her? Caroline Lawrence manages this very well. How somebody treats their slaves is a powerful indicator of their moral worth. In The Thieves of Ostia, Flavia spends the money she received for her birthday on buying Nubia because she feels sorry for her. Pulchra, a minor character who appears in several books, starts off in The Pirates of Pompeii as a spoiled brat who mistreats her slaves but she matures in later books as she deals with her problems of loneliness and parental neglect and starts to treat her slaves more humanely. Less convincing is the attitude of Jonathan's father, who refuses to own slaves, thus obliging his children to do household chores. This definitely struck me as anachronistic.

A major story arc running throughout the series is the kidnapping and enslavement of children, first by Venalicius, a slave dealer based in Ostia, and then as the leader of a criminal ring, the powerful Magnus. The realities of a slave's life are not glossed over. We are told that good looking children, girls and boys, amongst the enslaved children are separated out from the others -- and older readers will know what their fate would be, even though this is not explicitly stated. Slaves are subject to humiliation, beaten, and forced into work in carpet factories which blinds them. Other slaves are much better treated, such as Flavia's father's two house slaves Caudex and Alma, though it is never suggested that they might be freed. Sisyphus is a slave secretary to Flavia's uncle, the senator Cornix. He wins his freedom from Cornix in a bet, though he continues to work as Cornix's secretary as a freedman.

Religion is another interesting feature of the books. Both the traditional Greco-Roman religion and Christianity are taken seriously. Flavia and her family believe in the traditional Roman religion. They have a nice line in "swearwords": Great Juno's Peacock, Great Jupiter's Eyebrows, etc. Flavia's family perform sacrifices, make vows to the gods, and consider omens. Lupus's mother dedicates herself as a priestess of Apollo. What Nubia's religion back home was, we never find out. One of her major functions in the book is as a foil for explanations of Roman religion and other aspects of life she cannot be expected to know about as a recent immigrant. Jonathan's family are Jews who have been expelled from the synagogue as Christians. Although Jonathan's father quotes Jesus early on as declaring all foods pure, Jonathan still has qualms in a later book about his father's reaction if he goes to a pig butcher's on the Sabbath. (Udimu's photograph of Roman mosaic from Hinton St. Mary via wikicommons licensed under Creatie Commons)

Jonathan has prophetic dreams, and reflects on his religious feelings as his experiences change him in the books. Although in the first book the theme of repentance and forgiveness seems to be added on rather clumsily, it proves to be a common theme running through the books right up until Jonathan finds peace, relieved of his misplaced guilt over the fire in Rome in which 20,000 people lost their lives. In the penultimate book, after meeting John, the beloved disciple, Lupus, Nubia, and Aristo, the children's tutor, become Christians and Flavia tries to believe, but in the end cannot. Nevertheless, they all find meaning and purpose to their lives.

All in all, this is a rich series full of adventure through which the reader will learn a lot about life in Roman times and along the way will also find a lot to reflect on in the similarities and differences in life and thought between Roman times and our own. It is well worth reading the whole series in order to see how the themes and story arcs work themselves out.

06 January 2010

Calleva Atrebatum

The Roman History Reading Group's first read for 2010 is Rosemary Sutcliff's The Eagle of the Ninth, part of which is set in Calleva Atrebatum. As it's quite near where my parents live, I set out one cold and frosty morning to have a look at what remains of Calleva Atrebatum today. The remains are near the village of Silchester, not far from Reading.

Calleva Atrebatum means something like "the Atrebates' town in the woods" (not that different from Silchester!). The Atrebates were a Celtic tribe living in this area, with links to a tribe of the same name living in Gaul. Although the town itself has disappeared, its walls are still standing. It took me about 2 hours to walk the circuit of 2.8 km, but that was with lots of stops for photographs. The shape is roughly speaking a diamond with the top point at the North.

The sign in the carpark.

Information panel in the carpark.

Pretty frost covered trees between the carpark and the site.

Iron age bank and ditch between the carpark and the site.

Information panel when you get to the walls on the NW side of the site.

View across where the town was inside the walls.

View from the walls down into the ditch.

Overgrown NW wall.

View of the NW wall and outer ditch from inside rampart.

Close-up of the wall, showing construction of material

Information panel at North Gate.

The North Gate as it is now.

Close-up showing height and material

North East wall

Information panel for the amphitheatre

Niches in the amphitheatre, maybe for shrines

The amphitheatere

St. Mary's church inside where the East Gate probably was

Information panel on the SE wall

The SE wall from outside

Information panel at the South Gate

The South Gate

The BBC has a page about Silchester, written by Michael Fulford of the University of Reading, which maintains a website about Silchester and holds regular digs there which are open to public participation. The Museum of Reading's website has information about objects found at Silchester, including the eagle which inspired Rosemary Sutcliff.

All photos on this page are my own. Please link to this blog entry if you use them.