Saturday 30 March 2024

Greeks but Few Romans in the Granite City


Four years, an epidemic and a job change after a conference I co-convened with Dr Tom Mackenzie (and blogged about), on the Scottish leader Calgacus, who stood up to the Roman invaders, I have finally returned to Aberdeenshire. The Battle of Mons Graupius  of 83 or 84 CE supposedly took place at Bennachie.

According to Tacitus, Calgacus gave a rousing speech about not surrendering to imperialists before dying in battle fighting Tacitus' father-in-law, the governor of Britannia, Gnaeus Julius Agricola. One famous phrase, ‘they make a desert and call it peace’ (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant, Tacitus, Agricola 30.6) has entered modern languages as a proverb.

Fans of the TV drama series Succession may have noticed that in the episode ‘Dundee’ (series 2 episode 8), when the Logan family comes to Scotland, Ewan cites Tacitus. He says of Logan, the mogul brother he loathes, ‘Tacitus comes to mind… He’s made a wasteland, and calls it an empire’; Ewan’s grandson Greg facetiously responds, ‘God, Tacitus … all killer, no filler with him’.

On my own visit, I hoped for a theme park, life-size mannequins dressed in proto-kilts or Roman military gear, or better still, local people reenacting the battle as Caledonian tribesmen routed by members of the Legio IX Hispana. Apparently there was once some such tourist facility, but it made no money and was shut down.

So instead we visited the site of a nearby Roman marching camp at Oyne, in driving sleet. It too had closed down. But my intrepid family climbed in and took a photo of the sole remaining evidence that the dilapidated Roman ‘archeopark’ had ever existed. At least I got to see a photo of some locals pretending to be Roman soldiers.

Frustrated, I visited Aberdeen’s beautiful Museum and Art Gallery, which has an intense history of engagement with both classical knowledge and social class in Britain. It was founded on money made by a former crofter named Alexander MacDonald, who was inspired by Ptolemaic sculptures to invent steam-powered polishing machines to lend a gloss to the local granite. His business subsequently helped fund such great Victorian/Edwardian acquisitions as John Price Waterhouse’s ‘Penelope and the Suitors’.

And, as we left, I heard the news of the appointment of Nicholas Cullinan, the new Director of the British Museum. Aberdeen’s fine plaster replica of the entire Parthenon frieze is cleverly displayed at an appropriate height, around an entire rectangular hall and to be experienced as a narrative whole, not unlike the Acropolis Museum in Athens.  

It attracts many appreciative admirers and schoolchildren and is a local pride and joy. It might give Cullinan some useful ideas when he next enters the musty, disastrously lit, aesthetic abomination that is the BM’s Duveen Gallery. We live in hope of reunification!

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