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A little scepticism for Claudius’ birthday

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 1, 2013

Claudius oak crownIt’s August 1st, and that means it is the Emperor Claudius’ birthday – his 2022nd, to be precise. I’ve always had a soft spot for old Claudius. I’m sure Robert Graves and Derek Jacobi have quite a lot to do with that, but the narrative of the underdog who was sidelined and belittled for years but still became emperor anyway is inherently endearing. I also love the fact that he was a historian, just like me. Right now, in the thick of my research into receptions of Augustus, I would give anything to be able to read the history of the aftermath of Caesar’s death which he wrote (even though he was advised to omit the civil wars between Octavian and Antony which followed).

But I must say I’ve always found the date of his birthday just a little bit too convenient. I don’t have any evidence that he wasn’t born on August 1st, of course. But every time it comes up, I find myself unable to help thinking, “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”

The key evidence for Claudius’ birth-date comes from Suetonius, and it reads as follows:

Claudius was born at Lugdunum [= Lyon] on the Kalends of August [= August 1st] in the consulship of Iullus Antonius and Fabius Africanus [= 10 BC]; the very day when an altar was first dedicated to Augustus in that town.

Suetonius, Divus Claudius 2

Other sources, such as Cassius Dio and the military calendar from Dura Europos also confirm that August 1st was the date celebrated as Claudius’ birthday in antiquity. But that doesn’t necessarily prove that it was the real date of his birth. Everyone, including Claudius, could have been labouring (*boom-tish*) under a common illusion about it. There was no state-controlled system of birth registrations in the Roman empire, and indeed it’s perfectly clear from the ages recorded in documentary texts such as papyri and inscriptions that many people at that time had no idea how old they were or when exactly they had been born. Even within the imperial family that Claudius was born into, it would have been quite easy for a small number of adults to collude in perpetuating a falsehood about his date of birth – and what strikes me in this case is that there were some good reasons for Claudius’ family to want to do just that.

What I think is most important about the Suetonius passage, above, is the link which he draws between Claudius’ birth and the altar to Augustus dedicated in Lyon. Firstly, when Suetonius says that Claudius was born on ‘the very day’ (ipso die) that the altar was dedicated, he doesn’t really mean the same day, but the same date. We know from other sources that the altar was dedicated in 12 BC, not 10 BC – so two years before Claudius was born. What Suetonius is saying is that Claudius was born on the exact anniversary of the original dedication of the altar – i.e. August 1st. On one level, that’s just a coincidence, but by pointing out the link between the two events, Suetonius strongly suggests that he thinks it carries some kind of symbolic significance.

So let’s talk about this altar. It was the centre-piece of a large sanctuary, where a religious festival in honour of Augustus himself and the goddess Roma was held every year on the anniversary of its dedication – August 1st, as we’ve seen. Each year, the 60 communities which between them made up the populations of the three northern Gallic provinces would send one representative each to a provincial council based at the sanctuary, where they conducted sacrifices in honour of Roma and Augustus led by a high priest elected from amongst their number. In other words, this altar was the most important centre for the imperial cult in the whole of northern Gaul.

Meanwhile, the very reason why Claudius was born in Lyon in the first place was that his father, Drusus (younger son of Livia and step-son of Augustus) was at that time serving as governor of Gaul, and using the city as his administrative head-quarters. A late, and very brief, summary of books 138-9 of Livy’s History covers Drusus’ activities as a governor in Gaul, including the foundation of the altar at Lyon. This is what it says for the year 12 BC:

Agrippa, the son-in-law of Caesar [Augustus], died.
A census was organized by Drusus.
The Germanic tribes living on this side of the Rhine and across the Rhine were attacked by Drusus, and the uprising in Gaul, caused by the census, was suppressed.
An altar was dedicated to the divine Caesar at the confluence of the Saône and Rhône, and a priest was appointed, Gaius Julius Vercondaridubnus.

Livy, Periochae 138-9

So Drusus has just had to suppress riots sparked off by his organisation of a census. That’s an age-old story, of course. The purpose of the census was to register both people and land-holdings for the purpose of taxation, and this was the first time it had ever happened in Gaul – still at that time a relatively newly-conquered province. In fact, the whole situation is rather similar to the surveys conducted for the Domesday Book in England in the wake of the Norman Conquest. Naturally, the locals were not very pleased at the prospect of suddenly becoming liable for a whole load of new taxes.

The summary of Livy doesn’t quite draw a causal link between the suppression of the riots and the foundation of the altar, but Cassius Dio does:

The Sugambri and their allies had resorted to war, owing to the absence of Augustus and the fact that Gauls were restive under their slavery, and Drusus therefore seized the subject territory ahead of them, sending for the foremost men in it on the pretext of the festival which they celebrate even now around the altar of Augustus at Lugdunum.

Cassius Dio, 54.32

So the foundation of the altar, and the religious festival which took place there, seems to have been part of a programme of pacification following after the census and the riots which it has sparked. Dio is pretty cynical about Drusus’ behaviour, suggesting that he deliberately called leading representatives from the troubled communities to Lyon in order to get them out of the way and make suppressing the riots easier. Perhaps that was indeed his plan, but the move can also be seen in a more constructive light, especially from the perspective of the communities who were not rioting. Establishing the altar, and the council of community representatives who met there, would have helped to foster a new sense of collective identity for the peoples of northern Gaul, and to ensure that the focus of that identity was firmly fixed upon the emperor and Rome. It drew them into the new social and political order, ensuring that their leading representatives had a regular reason to go to Lyon and meet with the governor, and encouraging them to display loyalty to the emperor and the state while they were there.

So from the point of view of Augustus and the imperial family, the altar at Lyon was a very important tool in the careful, gradual transformation of northern Gaul from a fractious collection of loosely-federated tribes into a loyal and coherent Roman province. Picture the scene, then, in 10 BC – two years after the altar was founded. Drusus has just been dealing with another bout of unrest on the German frontier, this time led by the Chatti. Cassius Dio relates that Augustus himself came to Gaul himself during this period, where he was ‘tarrying in Lugdunensis’ while he monitored the progress of the campaigns. In other words, it is very probable that Augustus himself was actually staying in Lyon at Drusus’ family residence. Meanwhile, the annual festival is coming up, the representatives of the sixty Gallic communities are arriving in the city, and Drusus’ wife, Antonia, is heavily pregnant.

How very convenient it must have been, then, to be able to announce an imperial birth just at that moment. With the frontiers still needing constant attention, and all hopes of keeping them secure resting heavily on the continuing loyalty of the already-conquered Gauls, what better sign of a bright future could the imperial family wish for? How nice, how neat to be able to announce to the members of the Gallic council, as they conducted their annual worship of Augustus, that a new grand-nephew / step-grandson (for Claudius was both) had been born to him on that very auspicious day, carrying with him great hopes for the future of Augustus’ family – and hence of Rome, and hence of themselves as Roman Gauls. If Augustus was indeed there, perhaps he made the announcement himself, and maybe even held up the howling infant in front of the adoring crowds?

How nice, how neat: how rather too good to be true.

After all, could you tell the difference between a genuine new-born and a child born, ooh, anything up to a month earlier in an open-air sanctuary over the heads of massed representatives drawn from across Gaul? I know I couldn’t – and given how politically expedient it was for the imperial family to be able to announce a birth on that very day, I can’t help but be suspicious. No wonder they wanted to underline the link, now preserved in Suetonius’ text, between Claudius and the altar.

I can’t prove any of this at all. It is pure speculation. And of course it doesn’t matter, anyway. Time is arbitrary, and August 1st is as good a day to celebrate Claudius’ birth as any other. After all we are quite used to celebrating the Queen’s Official Birthday on a date which isn’t actually the anniversary of her birth, but which happens to be convenient.

Speaking personally, I’m happy to take August 1st at face value for Claudius’ birthday, because my own birthday is tomorrow, and that makes us birthday neighbours! But I do think it’s a nice example of the fun we can have in the very large gaps between the lines of Roman history – especially if we set off armed with a healthy dose of scepticism.

Posted in anniversaries, augustus, claudius, roman emperors, roman history | 4 Comments »

Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on May 6, 2013

I recently spent a very enjoyable day at the British Museum, first delivering a paper at an OCR teachers’ conference, and then going to see the BM’s current major exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which it was designed to tie in with. Well over a hundred very engaged and enthusiastic teachers attended the conference, demonstrating the thriving current interest in Classical subjects at school level, and I’m pleased to say that they seemed to enjoy hearing my thoughts on the disparities in living standards at Pompeii and the tendency for elite houses to be surrounded like islands by smaller houses, shops and workshops. I certainly enjoyed sitting amongst them and hearing Alison Cooley showing the audience what stories the collections of writing tablets from Pompeii and Herculaneum can tell us about the lives and status of their inhabitants, Ray Laurence exploring the question of whether or not carts really made up much of the traffic in Pompeii, and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill sharing some of the important insights into life in Herculaneum which have come out of a project originally designed ‘just’ to conserve the standing remains.

I allowed over two hours in the Pompeii exhibition before I would need to leave to catch my train, Bacchus Vesuvius snakebut in fact there was so much to see that I rather wish I had allowed three. Though I had a fair idea of what the exhibition would contain before I stepped through the doors, and had seen most of it before in books and on websites, I had forgotten just how much more you can get out of looking at even familiar art and artefacts in real life. I spent a great deal of time peering closely at items such as this painting of bread handouts and the full set to which this painting of gamers belongs, noticing details which I had never spotted before; or walking around this sculpture of hunting dogs attacking a stag and the various items of charred wooden furniture to fully experience their effect in three dimensions. I especially enjoyed being able to read tiny painted or inscribed texts for myself, and realised for the first time that while the rest of the famous painting of Bacchus and Vesuvius (right) is in extremely good condition, the head of the snake is considerably worn – presumably because the inhabitants of the house where it was originally set up liked to touch it for luck as they went past. (Yes, snakes were considered lucky in the ancient world). It was also nice to see some recent finds, such as items from the sewer excavated by the Herculaneum Conservation Project.

But although I enjoyed looking at the individual items, I found myself far less convinced by the way they had been put together. The publicity for the exhibition claims that it takes visitors to ‘the heart of people’s lives’ in Pompeii and Herculaneum, by focusing on domestic life. The items are grouped according to the rooms which they might originally have been used or displayed in, and the exhibition space is laid out to resemble the design of a Pompeian house (at least as far as the circular space of the old Round Reading Room allows). This is certainly a nice change from museum exhibitions which focus exclusively on the high art of the political elite, and it is a format which allows plenty of room for relatable everyday items such as oil-lamps, hair-pins, cooking equipment and jars full of ivory tooth-picks.

The problem, though, is that the British Museum’s ‘house’ presents visitors with a kind of pastiche. It contains a medley of items which have actually been drawn from many different houses (and indeed public buildings, bars and streets) in both Pompeii and Herculaneum, which date from different periods and which come from different social contexts. Of course this is how exhibitions work. To really wow visitors, the organisers aim to collect together the most interesting, well-preserved and beautifully-made items from the culture or context which they are concerned with – and the contents of any one individual house from either Pompeii or Herculaneum could not hope to match what can be cherry-picked from multiple different houses on this front. But I felt that putting them together in way which mimicked the experience of moving through a single house implied that they genuinely all belonged together, and robbed visitors of the chance to fully appreciate the range of different living conditions which Pompeii and Herculaneum actually attest.

Meanwhile, the same urge towards the spectacular has meant that in practice the contents of the exhibition reflects above all the lives of the wealthy. Yes, we do encounter freedmen and women, slaves, and people of more ordinary means. One cabinet, for example, displays the fine gold jewellery of the wealthy elite next to the cheaper imitations which most people would have worn instead, so that visitors can see the difference directly for themselves. But the sheer preponderance of marble sculptures, fine wall-paintings, silver tableware and beautifully inlaid furniture, as well as the decision to organise the exhibition according to the layout of an elite house, creates the impression that a ‘typical’ Pompeian or Herculanean lived a life of luxury and splendour.

Having just given a talk earlier in the day about the very different living conditions of the rich and poor in Pompeii, I found this very frustrating, and wished that the exhibition organisers had been more careful about it. I found myself imagining a rather different exhibition, in which the the ‘elite house’ experience had been shrunk down to make space for two more separate exhibition areas fitted alongside it – one showing life in a modest house of only a few rooms, and one going right to the bottom of the social scale to show us life in the back room of a shop or perhaps a poky upstairs apartment. They could even be linked together by a short section of street frontage, with doorways to all three opening off it, since people of very different social status really did live right next door to each other in Roman cities. All of the same items as are in the actual exhibition could still have been included, but dividing them up into different households would make the reality of life in Pompeii and Herculaneum much clearer, and counter the belief that ‘the Romans’ were a single homogeneous group who all thought and lived alike – something which I see all too often in student essays.

For all that, though, the exhibition is clearly incredibly popular. It is already solidly booked out until the end of May, and is obviously attracting a really diverse range of interested visitors. While I was there I saw families, be-suited city workers, people speaking French, Italian, German and all sorts of other languages which I couldn’t identify, and all of them engrossed in the exhibits, pointing things out to one another and exclaiming over them with great interest. The audio guide and app are obviously both a great hit, and of course the exhibition has spurred a whole range of documentaries and events to run alongside it – included the conference I went down to contribute to.

So although I can see room for improvement, I can’t fault the British Museum for connecting with the public, and I take my hat off to them for an exhibition which can only help to boost public interest in the Roman world. If you haven’t caught up with it yourself yet, you’ve got until September 29th to do so – but I recommend you make sure you have booked your tickets by at least the end of August.

Posted in exhibitions, pompeii, reviews, roman art, roman cities, roman history | 4 Comments »

Counting down to Augustus’ bimillennium

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 19, 2012

Two years from today will mark the bimillennium of the emperor Augustus’ death, which took place on 19th August AD 14. I have been busy so far this summer getting started on a new research project all about that event, so today seems like a good day to say a little bit about it.

We have a real fascination with ’round-number’ anniversaries in western culture. Examples from this year alone have included the bicentenary of Charles Dickens’ birth, the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic and of course the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. On one level, of course, the apparent roundness of 60, 100 or 200 years is completely arbitrary. It relies on dating and numbering systems which we have invented, and we all know rationally that the 19th August 2014 bears no closer relationship with 19th August AD 14 than does the 18th August 2014, the 20th August 2014, or indeed any other modern date. But the basic similarity between two dates which are separated by a perfect round number like 2000 has a strong psychological effect. We even use phrases like ‘on this day in history‘ to speak of anniversary dates as though they somehow occupy the same day as the original event, in spite of the many years which have actually passed between them. The coincidence in the dates creates a sort of short-cut or wormhole effect, making us feel as though we are closer to the original event on its anniversary day than at any other time. This makes anniversaries into powerful tools for connecting with the past, looking at its relationship with the present, and thinking about the dialogue between the two.

The particular way in which an anniversary is commemorated is far from neutral, though. They usually speak volumes about contemporary interests, priorities, social structures and political relations in the societies which celebrate them. And the bimillennium of Augustus’ birth on 23rd September 1938 offers a very vivid example of that. Famously, Benito Mussolini used it to boost his own political status and promote a particular vision of Italy’s national identity and future. Mussolini’s political position was comparable to Augustus’, in that both had transformed quasi-democratic constitutions into effective dictatorships with themselves at the head – and in both cases they had done it in Rome. But Augustus had managed to pull it off to widespread contemporary acclaim, while being the head of an extensive empire to boot – and Mussolini wanted in on that. He made every possible effort to signal the parallels between them, and the bimillennium, with its strong sense of connection between past and present, was a perfect opportunity for doing so. The event was celebrated on a grand scale, including an exhibition (see poster to right), the clearance of Augustus’ Mausoleum and reconstruction of the Ara Pacis, academic publications, the issuing of stamps, coins and more. All of this was designed to push the association between Mussolini and Augustus, while also encouraging contemporary Italians to develop a sense of national pride and a belief in the virtues of hard work which would neatly serve his imperialistic agenda.

Not all anniversaries are quite so blatantly politicised, of course, but they all inevitably say something about the society which commemorates them. So it is with that idea in mind that I want to use the forthcoming bimillennium of Augustus’ death to explore what he means to people today, some two thousand years after he died. Part of my plan is to hold a major conference on and around the date of the bimillennium itself, which will take as its prompt the format we usually use for thinking about someone who has just died: the obituary. The conference will look at the close of Augustus’ life and his death, consider his life as a completed whole, evaluate his impact and think about the legacy he left behind. But because we are ‘writing’ this obituary two thousand years later, we will also examine that legacy as it has played out over a period of two whole millennia, trace evolving evaluations throughout that period and think about what is at stake when we formulate our own judgements of Augustus’s life and career. Once the conference is over, I’m hoping to publish an edited collection of papers arising from it, while in parallel I will also be researching and writing a monograph of my own on the subject of the bimillennial commemorations, and what they reveal about Augustus’ position in contemporary thought and culture.

The monograph will look at both of Augustus’ big bimillennia: his birth on 23rd September 1938, and his death on 19th August 2014. No matter how sternly I try to steer myself away from the silly word-play, I can’t help but think of these as the ‘natal bimillennium’ and the ‘fatal bimillennium’ respectively, and I’ve a feeling those terms are going to stick now. Certainly, they’re quicker to say or type than ‘the bimillennium of his birth’ and ‘the bimillennium of his death’. Anyway, I’m planning to explore how both were / will be celebrated, as a means of identifying the main ideas and values associated with Augustus in each period, and exploring how he (as a symbol of those ideas and values) gets used and abused for contemporary purposes. This should be a good way of assessing the historical significance of Augustus two thousand years after his life-time, and will also offer the opportunity to trace smaller-scale changes in how people have thought about Augustus between the two anniversaries in 1938 and 2014.

One thing I have certainly already discovered is that the natal bimillennium was commemorated by far more people and in far more places than just Mussolini in Italy. I’ve uncovered exhibitions, competitions, plays, lectures, academic publications and more – so far mainly in the USA and UK, but that is partly simply because I have started by running my searches in English. I’m sure more will emerge once I move on to French, German, Spanish and so forth. Some of these events intersected with Mussolini’s, and there is certainly an interesting story to be told there about the degree to which academics in what would soon become Allied countries were and weren’t prepared to cooperate with him in the run-up to the war. It’s rather more than you might expect with the benefit of hindsight.

Meanwhile, people’s reasons for being interested in Augustus outside of Italy in 1938 seem to have hinged around a sense of his impact on the development of western civilisation. There is a great deal of talk of achievements such as the establishment of a peaceful and prosperous empire which formed the roots of modern Europe, the essentially Latin (as opposed to Hellenistic) character of that empire thanks to his victory over Antony and Cleopatra, and the patronage of literature and the arts. Although scholars in this period were willing to criticise the means by which he achieved sole power at Rome, there is also a strong sense that the ends justified the means, and even a willingness to write apologiae for his more unpalatable acts – for example by claiming that Rome was hardly a democracy before his rise to power anyway, so it doesn’t really matter if he then transformed it into a monarchy!

Yet in the middle of it all there is Ronald Syme, about to effect a profound change in contemporary views of Augustus. At the time of the natal bimillennium he was going round beginning practically every book review he wrote with sentences like “A memorable and alarming anniversary looms heavily upon us” (that one’s from The Classical Review (1937) 51: 194), and proceeding to criticise other people’s efforts to assess Augustus’ career. Responding more astutely than anyone else around him to the tide of political developments in continental Europe, he was about to raise serious questions about that balance between means and ends. Few people since have been willing to argue that Augustus only did it all for the greater good.

With Syme, our actual experiences of 20th-century dictatorships, and another half-century of western democratic nations positioning themselves against first Communist and then Middle Eastern dictatorships under our belts, I’m pretty sure the bimillennium of Augustus’ death will be marked quite differently from that of his birth. After all, we are basically talking about a guy whose biggest achievement was to overthrow the Roman Republic and install himself as an absolute monarch. Not a very palatable story in the early 21st century. But we can still engage with Augustus without needing to eulogise him. We can certainly cast all sorts of light over our contemporary political landscape by examining the combination of brute force, rhetoric and careful public image-making which he used to persuade contemporaries to accept – and even welcome – a trade-off between their security and their civil liberties. Some good documentaries could be made exploring his political techniques, their parallels in the modern world, and what the degree of similarity or difference tells us about our own system.

But I will just have to wait and see what, if anything, actually happens for the bimillennium – apart from my own conference, of course. In the meantime, I am busy getting stuck into the planning for that – contacting key speakers, arranging a suitable venue, and putting together some funding applications. I’ve got some very exciting people lined up already, who have promised some very interesting papers, and I’m starting to feel pretty pleased by how everything is falling into place. But I suppose I need to wait until the ‘behind-the-scenes’ details are fully organised before I am in a position to announce it all formally. I can certainly say that any major developments will be covered on this blog, and that I’ll be circulating an open call for conference papers at least a year before the event itself.

And if there is anyone else out there planning something of their own for Augustus’ ‘fatal bimillennium’, do get in touch. (A comment on this post will reach me, or further contact details can be found here.) I certainly want to know about anything which museums, TV production companies, publishers or Classical societies might be doing to mark the event. Half of what I want to do over the next two years is engage with those sorts of activities, get a sense of what you are doing and why, and maybe contribute myself if that’s appropriate. And if there are other academics developing research work of their own around the forthcoming bimillennium, I’m keen to hear about that too. Maybe you’d like to contribute a paper at my conference, or if you’ve been planning a conference of your own, perhaps we could join forces? I would certainly much rather collaborate on one big conference than have two competing events happening in different places on the same day. I’ve started this project off by myself so far, and I have my own clear ideas about what I want to do. But it also feels to me like the sort of thing which has a great deal of what funding bodies call collaborative potential – both within and beyond academia. I’d certainly smile if Augustus’ real bimillennial legacy in 2014 was to inspire a project that was all about cooperation and sharing.

Posted in anniversaries, augustus, classical receptions, history, politics, roman emperors, roman history, rome | 6 Comments »

Neville Longbottom as Horatius Cocles

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 16, 2011

Last week, I joined the ranks of those who have marked the end of the Harry Potter era by watching The Deathly Hallows Part 2. I enjoyed seeing the characters I’ve known for so long, grown to full maturity and able to defeat Voldemort at last; loved the cinematic realisation of the Battle of Hogwarts; and shed a quiet tear when Harry described Snape as one of the bravest men he’d ever known in the final scene. But what caught my attention most of all was a short little scene featuring Neville Longbottom which had powerful Classical resonances.

It comes during the Battle of Hogwarts, just before and after the shield of protection around the school breaks down. The rickety wooden covered bridge has already been primed with explosives, ready to be set off by the right spell, and Neville is stationed at the end, waiting for Voldemort’s hordes to attack:

As the clip shows, he stands taunting them for as long as the shield holds, knowing that once it gives way, they won’t lose a moment in rushing forward to attack him. As soon as that happens, he turns and flees – but this was all part of the plan. Neville then chucks a spell over his shoulder to ignite the explosives, bringing the entire thing tumbling down behind him, and plunging the pursuing Snatchers to some unspecified fate:

For a horrible moment, it looks as though Neville himself has fallen with them. But somehow he manages to cling on, and emerges over the broken edge of the bridge – much to the relief of his friends.

And that, in a nutshell, is the Roman legend of Horatius on the Bridge. It is told most famously by Livy, whose version (along with some contextual explanation) can be read here. Neville is Horatius Cocles, the Hogwarts bridge is the Pons Sublicius, and the Snatchers charging down the hill are the Etruscans, trying to capture Rome on behalf of the cruel king Tarquinius the Proud, whom the Romans had kicked out. Why, even Neville’s rather implausible escape matches neatly with Horatius’ swim across the Tiber to safety while the Etruscans hurl missiles at him. In fact, I must say that my reaction to this scene in the film was rather like Livy’s reaction to Horatius’ miraculous escape. Clearly, there was no way Neville could possibly have survived as the bridge collapsed beneath him – and yet somehow, he did. Similarly, Livy describes Horatius’ swim to safety as “an act of daring more famous than credible with posterity” (rem ausus plus famae habituram ad posteros quam fidei) – his polite way of saying that he doesn’t personally believe a word of it.

Neville’s personal brand of heroism isn’t quite identical to Horatius’. Neville is a hero, and he showed the early signs of this right back in the first book / film, when he was brave enough to try to stop Harry, Ron and Hermione sneaking illegally out of the Gryffindor common room. But it’s hard to read Horatius’ story without imagining him standing there with his chest puffed out, supremely self-confident as he booms out orders to his men and taunts towards the enemy. Horatius is a full-blown traditional hero-figure with quasi-supernatural powers of swordsmanship, resourcefulness and daring – but the whole point about Neville Longbottom is that he is brave and good, but also scared and ordinary at the same time. So it is appropriate that even Neville’s taunts are quite tentative, and that he lures the Snatchers to their doom by running away in apparent terror, rather than holding them bravely off in hand-to-hand combat.

All of the Harry Potter films are ripe with Classical resonances, many of which Juliette Harrison has chronicled. For the most part, these originate in the books, where they can of course be attributed directly to J.K. Rowling’s background in Classics. But this one doesn’t – perhaps partly for the very good reason that the wooden bridge isn’t in the books! (It appeared for the first time in the film of Prisoner of Azkaban). This means that I can’t be sure whether or not Steve Kloves, the script-writer for the later films, deliberately wrote Neville’s bridge scene as a version of the Horatius legend or not. But the match is very close, and the story is certainly pretty firmly embedded in western culture – see e.g. Macaulay’s poem, a whole bunch of works of art, or nice accessible kids’ versions like this one. So it would be surprising if Kloves didn’t know it, and that means I feel reasonably confident that Neville’s scene in The Deathly Hallows Part 2 is consciously Classically-inspired.

The final climax of Neville’s development into a real (though still ordinary) hero comes when Voldemort enters the castle with Harry’s (apparently) dead body – and now that I’ve seen the film, I find that Neville’s behaviour at this point in the book as well is more Horatian than I’d previously realised. Neville may not be standing on a bridge at this point, but he is the only person who dares to come forward and challenge Voldemort, while everyone else cowers in fear. The essential motif of a lone hero standing firm is in place – so perhaps JKR did have Horatius in mind when she wrote this scene, after all? In that case, Kloves’ contribution would have been to recognise the basic elements of the Horatius legend in JKR’s account of the stand-off between Neville and Voldemort, and then to expand on this by adding an extra scene a little bit earlier featuring Neville on an actual bridge.

Certainly, in Kloves’ hands, Neville gets an incredible rising trio of heroic moments in quick succession, each of which takes him closer and closer to the full-blown hero model which Horatius represents. From his tentative taunts on the bridge he progresses quickly to very real defiance of Voldemort in the courtyard – this time without the protection of a magical shield. And from there, it is but a short step to his magnificent beheading of Nagini:

Neville Beheads Nagini

By that stage, he has become a proper traditional hero-figure – steadfast, proud and entirely uncompromising as he swings the fatal blow (though still, of course, wearing a cardigan clearly knitted by his gran). It’s very much the heroic climax to his story that Neville has always deserved, and I’m not surprised that so many people have raved about his role in the film. I am thrilled, though, to see a Classical story playing a small part in that. :-)

Posted in classical receptions, films, harry potter, reviews, roman history, roman literature | 3 Comments »

Res Gestae Antonii Blairi

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 17, 2010

Portrait of Augustus from the Prima Porta statueLast academic year, one of my students wrote a dissertation comparing Tony Blair The cover of Tony Blair's memoirs, 'A Journey'with the first Roman emperor, Augustus. She looked at themes such as the way they managed their public image, the things they emphasised in their political rhetoric, and the relationship between their private lives (e.g. religion, family) and public profiles. All in all, she did a good job of arguing that although they were obviously operating in very different political environments, there were certain distinctive similarities in the ways that they presented themselves as politicians and aimed to foster public support – a basic template for statesmanship, if you will.

Yesterday, Tony Blair ensured that there is yet another resonance between their careers by publishing his memoirs and dedicating their proceeds to the Royal British Legion. Specifically, a £4.6 million advance payment from his publishers will go towards the Legion’s Battle Back Challenge Centre for the rehabilitation of injured service personnel – as will any further profits if the book out-sells expectations. This is an immensely canny move, which metaphorically transforms a man whom many despise for his eagerness to launch illegal and unnecessary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan into a selfless benefactor, putting the needs of the soldiers who fought for him before his own financial interests. As the official statement has it, this is to be his way of recognising and honouring “the courage and sacrifice the armed forces demonstrate”. The contrast with Peter Mandelson’s slimy scandal-mongering method of publicising his own memoirs is striking. And though Mandelson may make more money from his book, Blair’s approach is likely to reach more people, more persuasively. Even his critics will now feel that at least he is not profiting directly if they buy they book and read his side of the story – which must, of course, be what he really hopes to get out of it.

But, as with so many strokes of political genius, Augustus got there first. His donations to his veteran soldiers weren’t actually funded out of the profits of writing his memoirs. In a world without copyright law, politicians couldn’t expect to make serious money that way, and in any case generally didn’t need to. But they wrote them anyway, for much the same motivations which Tony Blair seems to be displaying – in order to ensure that their stories were recorded in the way that they wanted them to be told. In Augustus’ case, there was one early account, probably written in the 20s BC to justify his own illegal and unnecessary wars, but which is now largely lost beyond a few quotations in other authors. What survives now, though, is closer in character to Tony Blair’s book anyway, in that it is a summary of his entire reign, written from a perspective at the end of his political career – which, since he was an absolute monarch, was in his case also the end of his life.

One thing which this account certainly goes out of its way to emphasise is Augustus’ generosity throughout his lifetime – and especially towards his soldiers. The very opening sentence announces that it will record “the amounts which he expended upon the state and the Roman people”. Chapters 15 to 18 then detail his many cash handouts, including those spent on buying land to provide pensions for veteran soldiers, giving out special one-off donatives to veterans already settled in his colonies, and setting up a new treasury especially to fund army pensions. In case you missed that bit, or failed to keep an appropriate running total in your head as you read, there is also a handy summary at the end recapping the total sum spent: 600 million denarii, which for context is 2.67 million times the annual wage of an ordinary legionary soldier at the time. And all of this, he is very careful to specify, came from his own personal fortune, not from the public treasury. He wanted his soldiers to feel personal gratitude and loyalty towards him and his family – not towards some vague abstraction like the state.

So this is how to round off your political legacy on the right note, today as it was two millennia ago – publish your own account of your career, and couple it with a magnanimous demonstration of your selfless and paternalistic generosity towards the troops whom you have sent into action.

The similarities are not perfect, of course. Blair still maintains that he was ‘right’ to go into Iraq, but he also lives in a society where plenty of other people are ready to criticise him for it. Augustus, by contrast, writes with pride of his foreign conquests. Though he does take care to specify that he never engaged in an ‘unjust war’, this wasn’t in any case a criticism he generally needed to worry about, at least in relation to wars against non-Romans. It simply wouldn’t have occurred to most of his contemporaries in Rome to question Augustus’ right to wage war on their behalf against troublesome foreign peoples.

Perhaps more comparable to Tony Blair’s Iraq and Afghanistan were the civil wars which Augustus had fought in the 40s and 30s BC, first against the assassins of Julius Caesar and then against Antony and Cleopatra. That was something which Roman commentators did object to – the losses of Roman lives on both sides, for nothing more than the sake of an individual’s hold on power. It was probably largely in order to justify and excuse his role in these wars that Augustus had published his earlier (lost) memoirs. And it is also in those parts of his surviving account that he can be seen most obviously suppressing details and obscuring unpalatable truths. He even calls one set of his opponents ‘pirates’ – surely the ‘terrorists’ of the first century BC.

Blair has also been subject to criticism for his donation to the Royal British Legion in a way that Augustus would never have expected. Commentators have called it an empty gesture, an attempt to ease a guilty conscience, and even a form of tax avoidance. But Roman commentators were generally less cynical – or perhaps simply more realistic – about the motives of their politicians. The specific benefactions which a politician chose to make could be criticised, of course, as Cicero’s scathing letter to a friend about the opening shows at Pompey’s theatre reveals. But the basic fact of making large donations was a widely accepted form of political currency. It is obvious from Augustus’ text that he expects nothing but adulation for his generosity towards the troops.

Did he expect people to forget all about his misdeeds in return, as people seem to think that Tony Blair is now hoping? Probably not, and they certainly didn’t. But Augustus wouldn’t have expected criticism for the act of the donation itself. This doesn’t mean that I don’t think people today are right to question and criticise Tony Blair’s motives. I’m pretty sure that we are better off living in a society where we aren’t willing (or desperate enough?) to overlook large crimes against humanity for the sake of small material benefits. But our cynical response to this sort of action does also tend to mean that the rich in modern Britain are discouraged from making benefactions at all, thus cutting off a potential means of the redistribution of wealth, as well as a form of connection between people at different levels of the social hierarchy. I wonder if we’ve got it quite right, either.

Posted in augustus, politics, roman emperors, roman history | 4 Comments »

Shrek Forever After (2010), dir. Mike Mitchell

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on July 19, 2010

I saw this film at the weekend with a friend and her family, including her five-year-old daughter who seemed to enjoy it very much! It worked very nicely for us adults, too, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it even included a few minor Classical references.

The main plot of the film concerns Shrek being sent to an alternate universe where he never rescued Fiona from the castle in the first film, and Far Far Away (the fairy kingdom where he lives) has fallen into the evil clutches of Rumpelstiltskin. His job is to win Fiona’s heart all over again and save Far Far Away into the bargain – and he must do it by the next sunrise, or disappear forever. This means that we get to enjoy all the fun of seeing Far Far Away transformed into a mean, nasty place, where witches hold club nights in the palace and Fiona is the hard-as-nails leader of an underground resistance force. There is lots of darkness and grittiness and dastardly goings-on, which I personally enjoyed far more than the happily-ever-after world that Shrek was inhabiting in the first place.

As I said, the Classical references amongst all this were pretty minor, but together they made for a very interesting demonstration of how Classics can work in modern popular culture.

Two of them drew on Greek mythology. First, early on in the film, the Queen of Far Far Away told the King that Rumpelstiltskin’s services had been recommended to her by King Midas – very appropriately, since one of Rumpelstiltskin’s talents was turning straw into gold. The Fairyland which Shrek inhabits is mainly populated by stories and characters drawn from the European fairytale tradition represented by Hans Christian Anderson and the brothers Grimm, but this reference means that the stories of Classical mythology are also integrated into the same narrative space. Indeed, Wikipedia tells me that this had already been established in the third Shrek film (which I haven’t seen), which features a Cyclops. It isn’t the only multi-cultural fantasy-land to include stories and characters drawn from Classical mythology alongside those from more recent times – Terry Pratchett’s Discworld and J.K. Rowling’s Potterverse both do the same thing. But it’s always nice from my perspective to see Classical mythology being included, even if (as here) it is fairly low in the mix.

The second Greek reference comes much later in the film, when Shrek and Fiona are imprisoned in the dungeon of Rumpelstiltskin’s castle in the alternate reality. Donkey and a bunch of ogres get into the castle to rescue them by hiding inside a giant disco ball which Rumpelstiltskin is having installed – i.e. a Trojan Horse. This time, the reference is implicit rather than explicit, and indeed sufficiently oblique that it may not have been intentional. But either way it contributes further to the sense that this is an all-encompassing fantasy-world, drawing on plot devices from across the full range of human story-telling.

The final reference was Roman rather than Greek, and again only featured as a small passing reference: but to me it spoke volumes about the different places which Greek and Roman culture occupy in the modern popular imagination. In the dark alternate universe where Rumpelstiltskin is king, we see that the inhabitants of Far Far Away have had to turn to crime, begging and other nefarious activities in order to survive. Amongst them is ‘Gingy’ the Gingerbread man, who has become a gladiator, and fights animal crackers to amuse the passing crowds in a miniature arena in the street. In other words, where references to Greek mythology were serving to widen the scope of the fantasy-world, a reference to Roman history is being used to strengthen the grimy brutality of the dark alternate universe.

This is not news, of course: in fact, 18th-century opera (for example) was already drawing readily on fantastical stories from Greek mythology and brutal stories from Roman history. It’s partly a consequence of the types of literary texts which have comes down to us from each culture, and partly a reflection of modern needs and interests. But a film like this one, which is really drawing mainly on other modern references to Classical culture (e.g. Gladiator) rather than trying to engage seriously and directly with the original sources, can show the pattern up particularly distinctly precisely because it is simply following in the popular vein.

And it might be tempting for me to get all snotty about it, and wish that Greek and Roman culture weren’t constantly stereotyped and distorted like this. But you know, stereotypes have their place, and one of the things they can do very effectively is conjure up a quick and easily-recognisable impression of something that the audience is already familiar with. So I’d much rather see Classical culture popping up in films like Shrek Forever After via simplified stereotypes than not appearing at all. Because that means that Classical history and mythology still hold an important place in our modern 21st-century culture – one which the film’s audience can be expected to recognise and enjoy. And that is why the study of the Classical past is still so popular and important today.

Posted in classical receptions, films, greek mythology, reviews, roman history | 7 Comments »

The quinquennium of Clegg and Cameron

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on May 13, 2010

The full Con-Lib coalition agreement has now emerged, Cameron and Clegg have held an extraordinary press conference, and we now know who’s in the cabinet

I thought the press conference was brilliant, and am not surprised that everyone and their fish was likening it to a civil partnership ceremony – a piece of social vocabulary, of course, which we must remember that we have the Labour party to thank for. As a Classicist, though, I also couldn’t help but see it in terms of the inauguration of a pair of consuls. Consuls were more equal in rank than our new pairing, but there was an acknowledged ‘senior’ consul, who took up the office first and got to speak first in debates – just as Cameron did yesterday.

Consuls also knew full well that they would have to serve together once they were elected – that, in fact, was the whole point of having two of them. The system was designed to ensure that no one person had a monopoly on state power, and for that reason, either consul could veto the actions of the other (‘veto’ simply being Latin for ‘I forbid’). Clegg and Cameron don’t seem to have any such formal mechanism for stopping one another’s actions, but of course in practice they do both know perfectly well that if either of them does anything which the other one seriously disapproves of, their coalition will fall apart, and both of their political careers will be over. So that’s a pretty strong motivation to work together, even if it’s not what they anticipated before the election.

Consuls served for only one year, not five – and that certainly did lead to catastrophic short-termism of the kind David Cameron assured us yesterday that he wants to avoid. In particular, it encouraged consuls to rush headlong into military campaigns, since they knew that if they didn’t score a victory during their short time in office, that honour would go to their successor instead. But the five-year period was also pretty important in Roman politics. It was known as a quinquennium, which just means ‘period of five years’. (Isn’t it a lovely word, though? Any word with two Qs in it (and Latin has a fair few) has got to be good value for money.) In Rome, censors (whose responsibilities were different from what our modern word ‘censorship’ might imply) were elected every five years in order to perform a census of the general population and revise the membership of the senate – which is part of what’s just happened to parliament, of course, though not quite so directly at Cameron and Clegg’s initiative. Meanwhile, five-year periods of special military command became increasingly common in the late Republic, though they were never an official part of the system and always required extraordinary legislation to be passed. More on those in a moment.

Not all consuls got on, of course. They were not like American presidential and vice-presidential candidates, running on a joint ticket for the same party. Roman politics didn’t actually have parties, anyway – the closest it came were factions, which were basically like modern political parties would be if they were only about tribalism, nepotism and power, and didn’t involve policies or (heaven forbid!) principles at all. Factions would, of course, try to get their boys into both offices whenever possible, but it didn’t always work, and sometimes bitter rivals shared office together. And if you think the Tories and LibDems can be described as ‘bitter rivals’, then let me tell you that the greatest gulfs which you can identify between them are as NOTHING compared to the rivalries of late Republican politics.

Perhaps the most famous example of ill-matched consuls is Caesar and Bibulus in 59 BC. Caesar already had very powerful friends behind him – particularly Pompey and Crassus – and basically saw his consulship as a chance to secure everything that these three men and their cronies were after: land for their soldiers, preferential treatment for their legislation and lucrative appointments for the following year. Bibulus hated Caesar and everything he stood for. He began by trying to veto Caesar’s actions, but quickly found that his veto was actually meaningless, because Caesar’s supporters simply attacked him (with literal physical violence) when he tried to interpose it. So he then fell back on his position as an augur – a priest who divines the will of the gods by watching the behaviour of birds. Bibulus spent the rest of the year standing on the roof of his house, proclaiming that the omens were bad, and that therefore all Caesar’s legislation was contrary to the will of the gods – and, hence, invalid. Caesar just ignored him.

Back to Clegg and Cameron, thankfully, they seem to be getting on rather better than this – so far, at least! We certainly don’t want their time in power to end the way Caesar and Bibulus’ did, anyway, because it was in 58 BC at the end of his consulship that Caesar headed off across the Alps to take up one of those five-year military commands I mentioned earlier on, and use it to conquer Gaul. I mean, I know Cameron’s a Eurosceptic, but I’d hope that is going a bit far, even for him. Meanwhile, though, I did notice a couple of points during the joint press conference, particularly towards the end, when Clegg looked up at the skies:

Could he have been checking the omens? If he was, the birds were certainly all singing very nicely, and he doesn’t seem to have felt the need to declare that the meeting should be adjourned on grounds of being contrary to the will of the gods. So they must have been good ones. I hope they stay that way – but I also hope he remembers to keep checking.

Posted in birds, julius caesar, latin, politics, roman history, roman religion | 6 Comments »

 
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