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.