Friday 25 December 2015

The Ancient & Modern Woman in the Moon

I gazed at the last Christmas Full Moon, in 1977, from the window of a Swiss hotel where I was becoming radicalised, working a 20-hour shift as a waitress. More deserving of concerted efforts at memory was that mystical Christmas Eve of 1968, when I was as enraptured as all of us humans waiting for Apollo 8 to return from our species’ first ever flight round the dark far side of the moon. 

Ten orbits and a spine-chilling reading from Genesis broadcast to Planet Earth later, as an eight-year-old also waiting for Santa, the moon became associated for me with incredible excitement. Santa welded with the Man in the Moon, and my brain has confused his chariot with a NASA space rocket ever since.

Selene drives her winged horses

After handing in my notice in Switzerland (hard, because they confiscated all Gastarbeiters’ passports) I went to university and discovered one of the biggest cons of all time: the inhabitant of the moon whose face you can sometimes see is not male at all but female. Plutarch (who has had a moon crater named after him as reward) wrote a treatise with the catchy title Concerning the Face Which Appears in the Orb of the Moon. It has been very important in the history of science, as an inspiration for Johannes Keppler in his early 17th-century Somnium, the first serious study of lunar astronomy. But Plutarch’s text quotes a Greek poet who saw in the moon ‘a maiden’s face, with moistened cheeks, which blush to meet the gaze.’ 

Selene with Crescent Moon hat
Long before the Greeks merely associated the moon with Artemis, Diana/Cynthia/or Hecate, they actually personified her as Selene, a disturbing, beautiful name of high antiquity stretching back to early Indo-European hunter-gatherer times. Selene, like Santa, had a chariot; sometimes she rode horseback. She had a great love life, since her boyfriend, the good-looking cowherd Endymion, was kept eternally young and asleep in a cave awaiting their next erotic encounter. She had exciting children including the Dew, the Months, and the poet Mousaios as well as the exquisite Narcissus and the dangerous Nemean lion.

"Honey, wake up. I'm ovulating!"

As a Briton I am proud that the idea that the goddess’s train of escorts were in fact green seems to have been the invention of the English showman Elkanah Settle, whose spectacular musical The World in the Moon (1697) included five green men dancing in Cynthia’s lunar court, to music by Daniel Purcell.

Lunar Crater 'HYPATIA'
But as a woman I am more impressed that according to the official Gazetteer of Planetary Nomenclature maintained by the International Astronomical Union, amongst the tiny proportion of moon craters named after women, the ancient astronomer Hypatia does at least feature alongside Plutarch and Aristarchus etc. 

Elfie begins her Lunar Escapade
And as soon as I have made the mince pies and finished trying to peer behind the clouds atop my wold to see the moon, which will be at its fullest shortly (11.11 GMT), I am going to return to Feminist Adventures in Lunar Lore. I am reading Frances Vescelius Austen’s Elfie's Visit to Cloudland and the Moon, partly based on Lucian’s thrilling moon-travel story in his True Histories. Austen’s novel antedates L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) by several years, and thus may lay claim to feature the first female quest heroine in modern literature.
Dawn, Evening Star and Selene on a vase in St. Petersburg

Friday 18 December 2015

Boxing, Racism & Sports Reportage

Tyson Fury: What's Not to Dislike?
Which character in ancient Greek myth most resembles the British world heavyweight boxing champion, Tyson Fury, ill-famed for his invectives against females and gays? There were plenty of misogynist ranters in ancient Greece. The super-athlete Heracles was prominent amongst them. But he was attracted to beautiful youngsters of both sexes. Homophobia was not amongst Heracles’ vices.

Fury has Irish Traveller blood and has suffered from racism. But, paradoxically, he disgorges anti-immigrant abuse.  He would, I fear, have been urging on the bigoted crowd in the epoch-marking boxing match which took place near East Grinstead exactly 205 years ago, on 18th December 1810.

Molineaux, robbed of his victory over Tom Cribb, 205 years ago
Tom Molineaux, a former slave from Carolina, was billed as ‘The Black Ajax’. The Greek hero Ajax was not in fact a boxer, but a champion wrestler; in Iliad 23, his bout with Odysseus is declared a draw because although he is physically stronger, Odysseus is his superior strategically. This makes the rigged defeat of the Black Ajax at the bare-knuckled fists of English heavyweight champion Tom Cribb, a former Bristol docker, even more painful. By the end of the match, wrote the eye-witness Pierce Egan, ‘you never saw two men so dead and yet alive, disfigured so bloody you could only tell ’em apart by their skins’.
Cribb was felt to be defending the honour of white men against their black brethren. Britons felt outraged at the ease with which the Black Ajax had that summer demolished two famous English pugilists, 'The Bristol Terror' and 'Tom Tough'.

Black Ajax laid out Cribb decisively in the 28th round. Appalled that the American was about to be declared victor, Cribb’s second accused him of cheating. This created a long delay which allowed Cribb to come round and get back on his feet. Molineaux, flustered by this stratagem, was  finally defeated in the bloodbath of the 35th round.

Yet Egan, the  father of sports journalism (he claimed that Homer was actually the first sports reporter though) and self-advertised expert on ancient athletics (his soubriquet was 'the Plutarch of Boxing'), saw through the racist trickery. In his genre-founding Boxiana: or, Sketches of Ancient and Modern Pugilism (1812), he insisted that underhand means and the crowd’s bias had robbed Black Ajax of a glorious victory: ‘It will not be forgotten, if justice holds the scales, that it was Molineaux’s colour alone that prevented him becoming the hero of that fight.’

Molineaux’s career never recovered. He got drunk before the rematch and lost in 19 minutes. He died of alcoholism in Ireland just eight years later.  Until Tyson Fury began his outrageous public tirade against immigrants, the fixing of the Black Ajax’s defeat by Tom Cribb retained the dubious distinction of being the most shameful event ever in British sporting history.

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Travails with the Letter "S" Ancient & Modern

The remainder of the current blog may create an odd effect, but I can’t currently make my mouth and teeth yield what would hit your ear like the alphabetic entity in my title.  I am therefore writing the way I declaim and pledge to avoid the relevant letter (bar the indented material quoted from other people below).

For I have today taken the orthodontic plunge and had metal put within my teeth to de-rabbit them.  The brilliant Dr Clare McNamara, of Cheltenham Orthodontic fame, warned me about the problematic letter.

On returning home I found an email from the British Broadcathting Pronunthiation Unit, which read, unbelievably,

Dear Professor Hall,
One of our broadcasters has asked us to research the correct pronunciation for some of the alternative names of Odysseus and I was hoping you were available to advise us today.
If you do happen to have some time, could you please help us with the pronunciations of the following names?
 Olysseus/ λυσσεύς
Oulixeus /Ολιξεύς
I’d be happy to call you if you send me a contact number and a convenient time to call.

I cannot tell you what a droll phone dialogue that would have been. Try reading the above email but  putting “th” or “f” in for every you-know-what and for every “x” too. I recommended another academic.

Dionythiuth of Halicarnatthuth
Ancient Greek oratory often avoided the letter I cannot currently utter. An expert on putting together language called Dionysius of Halicarnassus deemed the effect of the letter we are talking about “charm-free” and "repellent", but then, with that name, he had probably had enough of it.

Pericleth' Funeral Oration
The Athenian general [dammit! I can’t refer to Greek nomenclature without my alphabetic item!], of whom the name began with "P", a great orator, avoided it. The tragedian beginning with “E” liked the effect it made in the mouth of clever and angry people like Medea, often aurally catlike.

Another, anon. drama, of which we have a fragment, experimented with avoiding the letter altogether. Had the author been having dental work done? In it the Titan beginning with “A”, who held up the firmament on their neck, and the hero beginning with “H”, who performed many a labour, had a quarrel off Gibraltar. The aural effect will have been like hearing me in my current condition.

The technical name for omitting one letter throughout a work = (ha! You thought you would catch me out with conjugating the verb “to be”!) LIPOGRAMMATIC.  I offer you here a very rough Anglophone rendition of the mediocre ancient Greek lipogrammatic dramatic dialogue chunk with A  and H. I am too tired to bother imitating the effect of the lack of the naughty letter here, and drop it in liberally. But I would love to hear from anyone feeling up to the job.

Atlas         I promised to bring apples here. Here they are. Take them. I didn’t promise anything else. I have kept my promise.
Heracles   I have been deceived. Perfidy! Infamy! I call upon heavenly Themis [goddess who protected people who’d had oaths sworn to them] to witness that Atlas has been dishonest with Heracles, although immortal by birth. I shall pursue him, even though I am a human on my mother’s side, since Zeus is my true father.
Atlas         Go and scare others, not me. Mother Earth is proud that she bore me first among the Titans, blood relatives of Cronus. We ruled with him on Mount Olympus.

Heracles   Justice, who supports the gods, has given a fierce look, even though she lives far away. [From Bodmer Papyrus 28]

Friday 4 December 2015

Democracy vs the Iron Law of Oligarchy (Again)

The most irritating rhetoric spouted in the British parliamentary debate on Wednesday entailed the phrases ‘pinpoint accuracy’ and ‘precision laser targeting’ to produce ‘maximum lethality’ by ‘highly trained professionals’. The MPs getting high on language they found on the RAF website have clearly never been inside the cockpit of a Tornado (I have). 

This model of fighter aircraft needs to be pensioned off. It has been in use for more than four decades. Rather than computer screens, it uses 1980s dials. Compared with the new Typhoon, it is notoriously difficult to manoeuvre, except in a straight line, and contains so many sensors that even crew admit they are hard to operate.

When a democracy decides to go to war, the people making the decision, in my view, should be informed about the military equipment available to them. They should also be prepared to fight, or send their own children to fight, in person.

Athenians had to Walk the War Walk as well as Talk the War Talk
This was the case in the ancient Athenian Direct Democracy, in which the citizen mass (demos) wielded executive power (kratos). Of course each citizen—let’s call him Hilarios Antonides Bennos—could go along to the Pnyx Hill People’s Assembly to a ‘shall we go to war?’ debate, and get excited about ‘Standing Firm with Our Oldest Allies’ or ‘Attic Values’ or ‘Precision Hoplite Combat’. But if Hilarios Antonides did vote  that way he could personally expect to be standing on the front row of the phalanx, with a 50% chance of survival, within weeks.

I was fascinated by Jeremy Corbyn’s attempt to bypass the ludicrous limitations of Representative Democracy by asking what his party members thought. He emailed all of us and requested our views.  This is not Rocket, or even Fighter Jet Science. It is a leader taking seriously his responsibilities to the people who elected him .

It was as long ago as 1911 that a German political theorist called Robert Michels pointed out that representative democracies inevitably deteriorate and turn into oligarchies (‘the iron law of oligarchy', das eherne Gesetz der Oligarchie). Those sanctimonious parliamentarians 'representing' us actually constitute an oligarchy or ‘rule by the few’.

Which leads me to the most toxic sentences in the history of British democracy, constantly cited by MPs to justify misrepresenting their electorate. In 1774 Edmund Burke contested the parliamentary seat for Bristol. His opponent had argued that if he were elected he would regard his own opinions as subordinate to those of his constituents. Burke belligerently asserted the opposite—the transcendent right of (self-evidently intellectually and morally superior) MPs to vote any way they goddam liked:

Edmund Burke Still Haranguing on Bristol Quay
Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents... But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

The Bristolians, unfathomably, voted for this self-obsessed burk, who was so confident in his own mature judgement, enlightened conscience etc.  But that is any reason why, 239 years later, we should still tolerate such arrogance in our elected representatives?

Saturday 28 November 2015

Greek Wizardry on the Londinium Underground

Yesterday the Museum of London opened WRITTEN IN BONE, exhibiting results of DNA and isotope research on remains of residents of Roman London. One blue-eyed teenaged girl, excavated in Southwark, had been born in Africa, but her mother’s ancestors came from southern-eastern Europe and west Eurasia.

Demetrios' medical spell, inscribed in Greek 
South-eastern Europe may mean Greece. Regular readers know that I collect evidence for Greeks and Greek culture in ‘Roman’ Britain. In a week when winter viruses felled me and my students, I rediscovered my favourite exhibit in the Museum. It is a pewter amulet with a magic spell designed to ward off plague, inscribed in ancient Greek by a man called Demetrios. He will have worn it suspended from his neck. It was found on the precise opposite side of the Thames from Southwark Girl, at the point where the ancient underground river Walbrook disgorged at Cannon Street station.[i]

Thirty precious lines of Greek begin with these magical words: ABRAI BARBASO BARBASOCH BARBASOTH EULIOR ATHEMORPHI! Demetrios continues to describe the plague in vivid adjectives:

Cacophonous..carried by the air, slashing from afar, man-slaying, agony-intruding, depressing, flesh-eating, liquefying, deep in the veins.

He invokes four deities: three mysterious figures who often appear in ancient spells and whose names ultimately derive from Hebrew—Iao, Sabaoth and Abrasax—and the Greek doctor god, ‘Phoebus [Apollo] of the unshorn hair, archer’. Apollo is prayed to about plagues everywhere in ancient Greek literature including the Iliad and Sophocles’ Oedipus.

Demetrios was probably trying to protect himself from the ‘Antonine’ smallpox-like plague. It began in 165 AD during the reign of Marcus Aurelius and devastated Roman legions across the empire. The forms of Demetrios' letters and some spellings suggest either that he was bilingual in Greek and Latin, or even that Latin was his first language and he was writing in exotic-sounding Greek because he believed it possessed magical powers.

Asclepius, medical god, in human form with snake appurtenance
In two final transnational twists, the hexameter verse line invoking Apollo is a variant of an anti-plague spell also recorded in an ancient Greek text by the Syrian Lucian. Lucian says the spell was actually manufactured at the time of the Antonine plague by a Black Sea charlatan called Alexander. He had invented a fraudulent new avatar, in snake form, of Apollo’s doctor son Asclepius. He named his new oracular serpent Glykon and attributed weird prophetic statements to him.

Asclepius as Glykon, Fraudulent seer
Back in Londinium, we sadly do not know whether Demetrios’ internationally known spell—fraudulent or not—proved effective. I personally survived last week on a diet of Lemsip and single malt whisky, but admit that when people sneezed in my face on the Bakerloo Line I found myself reciting those bizarre ancient words, just in case:  ABRAI BARBASO BARBASOCH BARBASOTH EULIOR ATHEMORPHI!

[i] I owe much of the information here to this excellent article by R.S.O. Tomlin.

Saturday 21 November 2015

My Bid to become Mayor of London

Yesterday the British press was full of Mary Beard’s victory, with the Romans, over Boris Johnson’s advocacy of the Greeks in a debate at Central Hall Westminster, also screened on Curzon TV. 

Since I beat the admirable Professor Beard hands down in a similar debate at the Cheltenham Festival eight years ago, I can only infer two things from this dismal showing on BoJo’s part: 1) I should be made Mayor of London immediately, and 2) Beard clearly learned how to win this kind of debate (i.e. by NOT using notes and by making people laugh) from me. I am also outraged that the Greeks have been left so poorly defended.

The audio of the Beard/Hall debate has disappeared mysteriously from the internet, where it was until recently freely available. If anyone knows where I can access a copy to link to from my website I would be grateful. Meanwhile, since I am stricken with flu and feel too ill to think, my blog this week reproduces that written in October 2007 by our chairman at Cheltenham, Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, who gave as far as I can recall a fair and accurate account of proceedings. And as for you, Comrade Johnson—next time, give me a ring and I’ll tell you why the Greeks REALLY matter.

October 14, 2007

Greeks vs Romans: the result

Winged_victory_louvreIn the end the chairman called yesterday's close-fought TLS debate for the Greeks. Listen here if you want to hear it.
At the start of the event a show of hands from the 400 in the Everyman Theatre revealed a small and unexpected Roman majority.
The Romans, it seemed, had done more for us - or at least for Cheltenham - than the Greeks had.
But at the end of a high-impact hour of gladiatorial argument, our Hellenist champion, Edith Hall, had turned round enough men and women voters to scrape home.
Mary Beard fought as hard as any legionary, defending the beer-drinking soldiers of Hadrian's Wall against a high-minded Hall assault on their poor spelling and restricted vocabulary.
But Beard's countering of pure Greek science with applied Roman skills,Greek logical philosophy with Roman running water, did not play as strongly with the audience as one might have expected.
Too complacent about their comfort perhaps in this Gloucestershire spa town.
The bloody bouts of the arena - raised by an early questioner - also played against the Roman case.
The Beard strategy was to claim that both Roman and Greek societies operated equal-opportunities-for-cruelty.
This worked with the slavery argument. Both were accepted as bad on that score.
But the idea of Greek gladiators and beast-fights never caught on. Not enough movie exposure, I guess.
The Beard case that much less Roman Colosseum activity took place than we think (just too expensive) was also not quite believed.
Does nothing fail to happen in Cheltenham just because it's too expensive?
The pace of argument was furious - with one lady audience-member asking for a little less adrenalin ten minutes into the first half.
The Roman side did well on war and terrorism-control, on the secret ballot and the multiculturalist skills of running big cities and empires.
But again the gentle town of Cheltenham was perhaps not quite right for that. War was bad anyway. Science and philosophy were good. The purer the better.
Professor Beard accused Professor Hall of using Greek sophistry - of choosing different bits of the Greek world to support different arguments.
Professor Hall smiled and continued. Protagoras and his sophist friends would have been proud.
The TLS chairman was proud of them both - and of everyone else who turned out at 10 am on a Saturday morning for such an educative scrap.

Saturday 14 November 2015

Two Reviews of Books by Cicero Fans

With two reviews of books written by lively British authors fixated on Cicero published in the last ten days, I here offer a link to one of Robert Harris's political thriller DICTATOR which appeared in last week's GUARDIAN and a pre-print of Mary Beard's eagerly anticipated SPQR, the paywalled version of which appears in the current Prospect Magazine.

Roman literary theorists admired writing that plunged readers into the thick of the action—in medias res—rather than boring them with introductory preambles. Mary Beard plunges her reader, from the first page of chapter I, into one of the most familiar but undoubtedly exciting episodes in Roman history. It took place in 63 BCE. The orator and statesman Cicero exposed what he said was a revolutionary conspiracy. It was led by the disaffected aristocrat Catiline, whom Cicero accused of plotting to assassinate all the elected magistrates of Rome, set fire to the city’s buildings, and cancel all debts indiscriminately.  Beard writes with her customary energy, charm and intensity, resurrecting the titanic personalities who struggled to control Rome while its Republican constitution was hurled into its agonising final death throes. She uses contemporary terms like ‘homeland security’ to make the unfamiliar accessible. Her ambivalence towards Cicero—brilliant, prolific, brave, eloquent, but vain and obnoxiously self-pitying—is palpable. By the end of the chapter we are primed to take the story forward to the next phase in the demise of the Republic—the assassination of Julius Caesar and the climactic conflict between Mark Antony and Octavian, soon to become Augustus. But Beard chooses instead to disorient us completely.
In chapter II she abruptly transfers us back many centuries to the very beginnings of Rome, or rather its mythical origins in the stories of Romulus and Remus and of the rape of the Sabine women. All except the final two chapters then take a broad historical sweep, structured in a conventional chronological order stretching from archaeological finds dating to as early as 1000 BCE all the way to 212 CE. But the reader inexperienced in the Romans will undoubtedly be confused by the way she begins her transhistorical account.
The sense of chronological disorientation is, I think, a deliberate policy. The version of the early history of Rome which has come down to us was mostly filtered by later Roman writers, both Cicero and authors working under Augustus—Livy, Propertius, Virgil and Ovid.  Beard is laudably keen that we see the early history as not only gappy and inconsistent but artfully manipulated to suit the political agendas of these later writers. But the effect is one of confusion, instigated in her very first sentence, ‘Our history of ancient Rome begins in the middle of the first century BCE’. By ‘Our history of Rome’ she intends to mean ‘My history of Rome’, but any Roman history novices will assume her meaning is that ‘The history of Rome’ commences at that date. 
Beginners will then spend the next five chapters struggling to assimilate the successive waves of data about the preceding centuries—the kings of Rome, the consolidation of the Republican regime, the widening of Rome’s horizons in the fourth and third centuries BCE, the expansion of the empire, the violent upheavals of the ‘new politics’ at the time of the Gracchi in the late second century down to the tumultuous and terrifying slave revolt led by Spartacus in 73 BCE. ‘We’ do not rejoin Cicero until nearly half-way through Beard’s narrative, in chapter seven, where he is now taking on Verres, the  governor of Sicily accused of corruption. But that confrontation preceded Cicero’s denunciations of Catiline, with which ‘we’ had begun ‘our’ history. As a Classics graduate I know some Roman history, but must admit to intermittent bewilderment. I would actually recommend any new recruit to the legions of Roman history enthusiasts to begin on p. 78 with Beard’s enthralling account of the archaeological evidence for early habitations in the Roman area. These include the remains of a two-year-old girl, found in a coffin beneath the forum in a dress decorated with beads; in the 1980s archaeologists unearthed the sort of house she might have lived in north of the city, a small timber edifice with a primitive portico. It contained the remains of the earliest known domestic cat in Italy.
        Beard  is always at her best breathing life into the material remnants left by the ancient inhabitants of the Roman world, as in her prizewinning 2008 book Pompeii: the Life of a Roman Town.  One of her hallmarks is an exceptional ability to remain up-to-date with all the most recent archaeological discoveries, and communicate their contents and significance in a lively and user-friendly manner. The public has been waiting eagerly for SPQR since her engaging BBC documentary series Meet the Romans, broadcast in 2012. The greatest virtue of SPQR is her ability to choose individual objects or texts and tease out from them insights into Roman life and experience—these range from the enigmatic ‘black stone’ found in the forum inscribed with words including ‘KING’, to the Mausoleum of Augustus; they include a relief sculpture depicting a poultry shop, complete with suspended chicken and caged rabbits, and an exquisite figurine of a dancer imported from India. The book contains 26 glossy images and more than a hundred others embedded in the text, every one adding an exciting dimension to her colourful chronicle.
        The leading dramatis personae are evoked in stunning pen-portraits. Some challenge received judgements and ask us to assess anew figures we thought we already understood well. She is impressed by Pompey, who ‘has a good claim to be called the first Roman emperor’. She is sceptical about Brutus’s real commitment to Republican ideals. She sensibly refrains from trying to penetrate the assiduously crafted public image of Augustus to the ‘real’ man and husband behind the propaganda, although she admires some of his achievements. There are finely tuned cameos in the tenth chapter’s whistle-stop tour of the fourteen emperors who ruled between the death of Augustus in 14 CE and the assassination in 192 of Commodus (the son of Marcus Aurelius who plays the villain in Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator). Although there are mercifully few signs of the arch and provocative controversialism for its own sake which used to be her sole irritating characteristic, Beard rightly challenges the tradition of dividing the rulers of the Imperium Romanum into heroes and felons. The tradition, extending back to the ancient annalist Tacitus and biographer Suetonius, was inherited uncritically by Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789). Beard pleads, instead, for a less judgemental and more nuanced appraisal of the way that the sensational ancient accounts of the emperors reveal the anxieties and socio-political values of the imperial era. She also emphasises that for many inhabitants of the empire, especially those living in the more farflung territories, the personality of the incumbent of the imperial throne made little difference. This is a wonderful, lucid and thoughtful section of the book and should henceforward be required reading for anyone setting out to study Roman emperors.
        There is an attempt at a thematic rather than historically linear approach in one central chapter, ‘The Home Front’, where the discussion of family life and women is compromised by being focussed, yet again, on Cicero, or rather Cicero’s relationships with his wives and daughter.  But the two other thematic chapters—the last in the book—are outstanding. Here she abandons the chronological structure altogether and looks at the rich/poor divide and the experience of people living under the Romans but outside Rome. The luxurious lifestyle of the wealthy, not just in Rome but across the empire, was astounding: some owned not one but dozens of sumptuous villas, with central heating and lavish murals, swimming pools and shady grottoes, all serviced by armies of slaves. Some rich people paraded their wealth by indulging in ostentatious feasting and pastimes; others made a point of subsidising public amenities—libraries, theatres, gladiator shows—in order to ward off the dangers posed by the inevitable envy and disgruntlement of the poor. Beard points out, however, that much of the physical unpleasantness of life in ancient urban centres was suffered by rich and poor alike: traffic jams, uncollected refuse, disease, parasites, gangrene-infected water. She has a pitch-perfect ear for class snobbery and the insults poured on the allegedly vulgar newly rich by the educated or aristocratic. She writes movingly about the gravestones of ordinary Romans, artisans and semi-skilled labourers, proudly informing posterity about their expertise and achievements as bakers, butchers, midwives and fabric dyers. She evokes well the squalid cafes and taverns where the poorer urban classes played dice and caroused. Yet she makes us face the reality that the majority of the empire’s 50 million inhabitants would have lived on small peasant farms, struggling to extract much more than a subsistence livelihood from their crops and livestock. There were few changes in agricultural technology or fundamental lifestyle from the Iron Age to medieval times. The letter of Pliny the Younger are a rich source of evidence for the relationship between Roman governors and such ‘ordinary’ people of the provinces, in his case in Bithynia and Pontus;  Beard leads us from these into a revealing discussion of the problems Roman governors faced in policing their boundaries of empire (including Hadrian’s Wall) and how they largely tolerated local religious practices and cultural diversity, although Christianity became an exception.
        The turbulent showdown between the Illyrian Emperor Diocletian and the martyrdom-hungry Christians in the early fourth century is one of the many fascinating episodes in the history of the Romans which Beard must exclude from her account by deciding to end it in 212 CE. Her logic is impeccable: this was when the Emperor Caracalla made every free inhabitant of the Roman Empire a Roman citizen, thus causing 30 million individuals to ‘become legally Roman overnight’. Beard stresses the significance of the erasure of the millennium-long boundary between the rulers and the ruled—the completion of what she calls the Romans’ ‘citizenship project’, from which we can still learn even though it subsequently failed and had always been fundamentally blemished by slavery. Besides the history of Rome as it continued in the third and fourth centuries CE, the element I most miss in this volume is an attempt to get inside the minds of the remarkable ancient Italians in terms of their philosophy and ethics. Beard writes well on priesthoods and public religion, but is little interested in philosophy. Despite her fixation on Cicero, who wrote philosophical treatises, she offers less on the complex thought-world and extraordinary psychological strengths—self-control, resilience, acceptance of uncompromising discipline, fearlessness in the face of death, moral fortitude, high ideas and principles—which many members of this tough and soldierly people drew from their Stoic, Neoplatonic and Epicurean convictions. She is good on Virgil’s Aeneid as a political poem, but has little to say about the earliest surviving Roman epic, Lucretius’ inspirational Epicurean On the Nature of Things. I finished SPQR hoping that we will one day be treated to a Beard book on the inward contours of the Roman psyche.  

Sunday 8 November 2015

A Strange Script & A Self-made Scholar

Read Right to Left: Cypriot Script
Three lectures in 36 hours in Nicosia still left time to visit the archaeological museum with my PhD student, theatre director Magdalena Zira. One stunning inscription from the 6th century BCE, in the mysterious syllabic script of
With Magdalena at Theatro Ena
early Cyprus, led me to the working-class intellectual titan who made the first crucial steps in deciphering it, George Smith of Chelsea(1840-1876).

Father of Six & Outstanding Scholar
Brought up in a slum tenement, after minimal schooling in which he learned little except the Old Testament, Smith was apprenticed to an engraving company off Fleet Street at the age of 14. He spent every leisure minute in the British Museum poring over the recent finds from Nineveh and Babylon. He taught himself cuneiform, and got a low-paid post as a ‘repairer’, piecing together inscribed fragments. He became rather too indispensable to the great star of cuneiform studies,  Major-General Sir Henry Creswicke Rawlinson.

Deluge Tablet from Gilgamesh
Almost all of the 3rd and 4th volume of Rawlinson's Cuneiform Inscriptions was actually contributed by Smith, whose own works then changed the face of Assyrian Studies. Besides an avalanche of game-changing volumes including the enormous Annals of Assurbanipal,  he brought the world the Babylonian creation poem Enuma Elish. But his most famous feat was the sensational public reading in 1872 of his translation of the  account of the deluge from the Epic of Gilgamesh. This made it difficult to read the flood in the Old Testament as anything other than myth rather than history.

Discoverer of Gilgamesh Tablets
Smith miraculously deciphered Gilgamesh from the clay tablets discovered by the Assyrian Hormuzd Rassam. The translations Smith gave to the world between 1873 and 1876 changed our understanding of the history of literature for ever. His ‘cracking’ of the syllabary of Cyprus in 1871 was a mere bagatelle in comparison: scholars as effortlessly brilliant as Smith can make the rest of us despair.

Cypriot syllabic 'Alphabet'
Having rewritten biblical studies and invented Babylonian literature, as well as fathering six children, Smith died of dysentery at the age of 36 in Aleppo and was buried in the Protestant cemetery belonging to the Levant Company. I do not know whether his grave has survived the last few years.
Gravestone of a Cypriot Mother

Here is what the Nicosia Museum inscription actually says (it is also a funeral monument, perhaps for someone else who died before her time): [THIS GRAVESTONE BELONGS TO] TIMOKYPRA, DAUGHTER OF ONASIKYPROS. This sort of voice from the longlost past makes my hair stand on end.