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.