Penelope's Weavings and Unpickings

Fidelis et mortem: making sense of Dracula’s family motto

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on January 25, 2014

I must apologise for neglecting this blog somewhat recently. Most of my effort at the moment is going into my Commemorating Augustus project website, which is busier than ever now that we have reached Augustus’ bimillennial year. In between matters Augustan, though, I’ve recently been having a lot of fun revisiting Hammer’s Dracula (1958).

Since the discovery in 2011 of some lost scenes from this film and the release of a new Blu-Ray / DVD edition complete with those scenes lovingly restored, it has been enjoying quite a renaissance. Late last year, I had the pleasure of seeing it on the big screen as part of Manchester’s GrimmFest 2013, and soon afterwards I bought my own restored copy and got stuck into the DVD extras.

The one I enjoyed most was a half-hour documentary with Christopher Frayling, entitled ‘The Demon Lover’, in which he explains how Hammer introduced full-blown sexuality into the Dracula story for the first time, effectively making it a metaphor for a couple (Mina and Arthur) overcoming the threat of an adulterous relationship (between Mina and Dracula). I’m a big fan of Christopher Frayling, and I think this reading is absolutely spot on. But in the course of pursuing references to the adultery theme through the story, Frayling picked up on the family crest which is visible over the fireplace in Dracula’s castle:

Dracula fidelis et mortem fireplace

Between two sea-creatures and underneath a shield surmounted by a sailing boat, the motto reads ‘Fidelis et mortem’. In case we are any doubt about what it says, the same motto is also visible on the letter which Dracula leaves out for Harker when he arrives at the castle. Here, the ‘F’ on ‘fidelis’ is just out of shot, but there is enough to see that the motto is spelt the same way:

Dracula fidelis et mortem letter

In his documentary, Frayling makes a point of saying that ‘Fidelis et mortem’ means ‘Faithful and dead’. The same translation is also repeated (presumably on the basis of Frayling’s statement) by Marcus Hearn and Jonathan Rigby on the commentary track.

However, they are all wrong.

In fact, the motto is not even good Latin in the first place. That’s no great surprise. Film and TV productions are full of mangled Latin phrases – indeed I’ve written about a similar case in Doctor Who before. But it’s when people start offering up incorrect translations of the mangled Latin, which then in turn get treated as though they are authoritative, that the Classicist in me feels the need to step in and call a halt.

So what do we have here? First, the motto as it stands: ‘Fidelis et mortem’. ‘Fidelis’ does indeed mean ‘faithful’ (an adjective), as Frayling says. But ‘mortem’ is not an adjective – it is a noun, and thus means ‘death’ (not ‘dead’). At best, then, we have ‘Faithful and death’, which is already a bit meaningless.

But ‘mortem’ also has an accusative ending. This should normally mean it is the object of a verb, but there is no verb within this motto, or any very obvious absent verb which we can understand. The wrongness of this can’t really be conveyed very easily in English, since we use word order rather than word endings to show how the parts of a sentence relate to one another. But the best way of getting it across would be to translate the motto as something like ‘And death faithful’. That’s about how much sense the Latin makes.

So someone’s Latin was a bit shaky – probably production designer Bernard Robinson‘s. It’s likely that what he was actually aiming at was something more like ‘Fidelis ad mortem’, which is perfectly good Latin, and means ‘Faithful unto death’. This is the motto of (amongst many others) the NYC Police Department.

But to my mind, that still doesn’t suit the Dracula story, or its main character, very well. After all, Dracula is immortal and undead, so nothing needs to stop with death for him – not even fidelity. And in fact, part of the reason why Frayling mistranslates the motto in the first place is that this is the point he’s making about the Dracula character – that even in death, Dracula is attempting to pursue his own tragically-distorted form of fidelity.

The film begins after all with him in what might well be the vampire equivalent of settled domesticity – he has a(n unnamed) vampire bride, and possibly even wears a wedding ring (though it may just be a signet ring) on the little finger of his left hand. We might surmise that all is not well chez Dracula, since at the first available opportunity the vampire bride begs Jonathan Harker to help her escape, tells him how awful Dracula is, and then bites Harker, very obviously against Dracula’s wishes. But it’s reasonable to assume that at least at one time, Dracula liked having her around. Certainly once she has gone his entire motivation for the rest of the film is the attempt to replace her – first with Lucy, and then, when that is scotched by Van Helsing, with Mina.

So that’s why amending the motto to ‘Fidelis ad mortem’ doesn’t work for me. Dracula is not merely ‘faithful unto death’. In his own way he is ‘faithful and dead’, just as Frayling says. But that still isn’t what the Latin over his fireplace says.

Thinking this over, I came up with another solution. It’s obvious that there’s an error here, but what if it isn’t the substitution of an ‘et’ for an ‘ad’? What if instead we knock the final ‘m’ off ‘mortem’ to get ‘Fidelis et morte’? Once we’ve done that, it puts ‘morte’ in the ablative case, and this allows it to mean ‘in death’. Meanwhile, the Latin word ‘et’ is actually quite flexible. It doesn’t just have to mean ‘and’, but can equally cover ‘also’ or ‘even’. So we can translate ‘Fidelis et morte’ as either ‘Faithful also in death’ or ‘Faithful even in death’ (both are essentially the same).

That works for me as a Classicist, and I’m ready to guess it would work for Frayling as a film critic, too. Maybe it’s even what Bernard Robinson actually intended?

This is as far as I got with the motto under my own steam, anyway. But when I asked a few friends on Facebook about it, the briliant Peter Olive (who is available for Latin tutoring) came up with an even better solution. Remember how I said that the ‘mortem’ in ‘Fidelis et mortem’ has no good reason for being in the accusative case, since this is normally used to mark out the object of a verb? Well, Peter pointed out that there is another rather specialist use of the accusative known as the accusative of respect (no, really!), which allows a word to be translated as meaning ‘with respect to’.

If we apply this to ‘Fidelis et mortem’, we can now translate it as ‘Faithful even with respect to death’. Suddenly, everything falls into place! It has the merit of preserving the motto as we actually see it on screen, which is something I’m definitely in favour of. Otherwise, we have to assume that Dracula isn’t very good at Latin, which is at odds with what we know about his historical counterpart. It also suits the character of the Hammer Dracula perfectly, preserving Frayling’s idea of the lonely immortal who is really just after a vampire bride to call his own – doggedly faithful to the pursuit even in death.

In the end, Frayling is still wrong to translate ‘Fidelis et mortem’ as ‘Faithful and dead’; and I also very much doubt that Bernard Robinson knew about the accusative of respect when he designed the props and sets for the film. But by applying the collective talents of a few Classicists, it’s turned out that we can smooth over the gap, and get the Latin as it appears on the screen to make sense grammatically, as well as to work in service of the story. Now that is satisfying indeed.

Posted in films, horror, latin | Leave a Comment »

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 »

Myth and legends at the Knaresborough bed race

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 16, 2013

Last Saturday I met up with some friends in Knaresborough to watch the 48th annual Great Bed Race. This is the type of utterly mad local event which small English communities seem to specialise in, and it involves teams of six runners pushing a passenger around the town on what is called a ‘bed’, but is really more like a sort of wheeled trolley.

The course starts out in a lovely park by the river, and this was where we sat on a grassy bank in glorious sunshine drinking beer and eating burgers and candy-floss. As the teams ran past us, the terrain was relatively level, but they soon had to slog up a steep slope through the town, along the High Street and back down the valley again, before finally plunging into the River Nidd (trolley, passenger and all) to swim along for several metres pulling the trolley, before hauling it out again onto the opposite bank and reaching the finishing line. The race rules, of which we were handed a copy when we arrived, state:

“Each bed must have a built-in buoyancy aid capable of supporting the bed and the passenger for not less than five minutes, and have an aperture large enough to allow the passenger to escape quickly if required.”

And well they might!

All of that is entertaining enough, but for extra fun the teams also take part in a parade before the race begins. For this, they decorate their beds and dress up themselves according to a theme, which this year was ‘Myths & Legends’. We got a great view of this from our bank in the park, with all sorts of imaginative tableaux parading past us involving the Loch Ness Monster, leprechauns, fairies, the Knights of the Round Table, vampires, Roswell / Area 51, various sporting legends, pirates, samurai warriors and so forth.

What really made my day, though, was the fact that out of 91 teams in total, fifteen had drawn their inspiration from the myths and legends of the Classical world. That’s nearly one in six, maths fans – and a great testament to how important Classical stories still are in the imaginative landscape of modern Britain. So I leapt into action with my phone-camera, and managed to capture pretty decent images of every single one of these teams. The photographs follow below, grouped roughly according to when the legends which they depict were supposed to have taken place, and accompanied by some comments on what I think the teams’ choices tell us about how Classical stories are perceived today, and how people tend to learn about them.

Older than time itself, of course, are the gods. Two teams went with this theme, as follows (click on either picture for a closer look):

01 Ripon Runners gods of Olympus 06 Welly Wheelers temple 2

I can’t be certain whether either team was thinking of the Greek or the Roman pantheon, though my guess would be Greek. Certainly, most of the teams in this race were drawing on Greek rather than Roman myths, and I’ll say a bit more about why later. Also, the racing context may well have encouraged people to think about the Olympic games, Mount Olympus itself and hence the (Greek) Olympic gods. But in any case, both sets of gods map very closely onto one another. On the left-hand team I can identify Zeus / Jupiter (beard and thunderbolt), Poseidon / Neptune (tripod) and Helios / Sol (radiate crown), but I must admit I’m stumped by the fellow in what looks like a yellow Christmas hat and the round-topped sceptre held by the young person carrying the charity collection bucket. Two more team-members just seem to be wearing generic togas / chitons and laurel wreaths. Perhaps they are meant to be Olympic victors?

The right-hand team have gone to the trouble of spraying themselves gold – a great way to signify divine status, which was done with literal gold-plating on ancient statues, and I think is also what the glowing CGI appearance of the Greek gods in the 2010 version of the film Clash of the Titans was trying to achieve. They have built a model of Zeus / Jupiter with his thunderbolt in front of the temple, and although I am not sure about the lion face on the front of the trolley, I wonder if it is meant to go alongside the red dragon-looking face on the far side and the possibly-a-snake on the near side to make up some kind of Chimera? If so, we are definitely in the Greek world. Meanwhile, amongst the team I can see Mercury at the back with his winged helmet and staff, and assume the fellow with the inflatable globe is Atlas (strictly a Titan rather than a god, but near enough). But the other person at the front doesn’t have any identifying attributes, and already I can’t remember what the fourth person who must be at the far corner looked like.

Next on the mythological schedule is the winged horse Pegasus. In ancient literature, Pegasus is associated with both Bellerophon and (later) Perseus, but both of these heroes belong to roughly the same era in the fictional world of Greek mythology – a time before both the Labours of Hercules and the Trojan war.

07 Brooks Blockheads 51 The Charvers pegasus 1 75 Meadowside Maidens pegasus 1 75 Meadowside Maidens pegasus 2

The wings on the first horse aren’t as obvious as the others, but they are there, represented by feathers along the side of the trolley. The second horse has a young lady in a fairy-princess costume riding inside it, while the close-up of the third horse in the final picture shows beautiful decorative details in rainbow colours and glitter. I think there is a definite note of magical fairy-lands about these latter two pegasi, reflecting the way that winged horses have found their way into all sorts of post-Classical fantasy stories – these days especially My Little Pony. But the overall aesthetic of all three teams is definitely Classical. Besides, the worlds of magical princesses and the Classical Pegasus were memorably brought together by Ray Harryhausen and Desmond Davis in the 1981 version of Clash of the Titans, what with its distinctly magical fairy-princess version of Andromeda being rescued by Perseus astride Pegasus. So I think these teams are picking up on that merged heritage.

Next comes the hydra, defeated by Hercules as one of his Labours:

28 Saint John's Juggernauts hydra 3

The hydra was a terrible creature with multiple heads, all alive and moving independently, and I love the way this has been captured by the model. Some of the heads are static, others are on sticks allowing them to be moved around by the team, while several of the team-mates also wear caps with the same monster-head design, all adding to the impression of lots and lots of horrible scary heads moving around and trying to eat you! And if you look carefully just behind the head of the girl carrying the charity bucket, you will see that one of them has obviously been successful – there is a trouser-leg with a shoes hanging from the end of it dangling from its jaws. Brilliant!

The hydra crops up in lots of modern tellings of the Hercules story, such as Disney’s Hercules (1997), and we’ll doubtless be hearing a lot about it at the conference on receptions of Hercules which my colleague Emma Stafford is running later this month. But Ray Harryhausen and Don Chaffey also added it to the story of Jason and the Argonauts – which brings me neatly on to the next two teams:

39 Knaresborough Scouts Argonauts 1 87 Scotton Lingerfield Argonauts 2

The designs here are quite different. The first team has referenced the Jason story directly by including the golden ram’s head on their ship’s sail. I presume the fellow with the breast-plate and shield is Jason himself, apparently on his return journey since one of his team-mates can be seen holding the fabled golden fleece. The second team have gone for more of a sirens theme, shown in the costumes of the runners and a large stuffed mermaid figure on their ship’s stern (of which only the tail is visible in my picture). But their design scheme too is definitely Greek, and what makes me think above all that they are referencing the story of Jason and the Argonauts is the big blue eye on the front of their ship, which the first team have also included on theirs. In fact, of course, this appears on the Argo in the iconic modern telling of the Jason myth – Ray Harryhausen / Don Chaffey’s Jason and the Argonauts (1963):

jason-and-the-argonauts-argo Jason Argo

So between these ships and the fairy-land Pegasi, Ray Harryhausen’s vision of Classical mythology has clearly had a pretty bit influence on these teams – a real tribute to the enduring power of his films which I have also discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Moving a little further forward in mythological time, we enter the period of the Trojan war and its great hero, Achilles, who was immune to weapons over his whole body except for one heel:

15 Castle Clinic Achilles heel

These people are osteopaths whose trolley proclaims that they don’t just treat backs – presumably, Achilles’ tendons are on the agenda too. A clever move from them to use the mythological reference in promoting their business, and a good example of how Classical references are transmitted through our culture. According to Wikipedia, the practice of describing the tendon at the back of the human foot with reference the story of Achilles grew up amongst anatomists in the early modern period (it’s recorded as an established practice in 1693). This was a time when learned people were well-steeped in Classical texts – in fact, anatomists were still making substantial use of ancient medical writers like Galen and Hippocrates. So it’s not surprising that they reached for Classical stories like the Achilles legend to name human body-parts. Now that name has stuck, and it helps in turn to keep the story alive. I’m sure many people now hear of an Achilles tendon before they know the story behind it, and I hope it inspires some people to discover the story itself.

After the death of Achilles, the Greeks finally turned the war in their favour by building the Trojan horse, filling it with soldiers, and leaving the unsuspecting Trojans to drag it inside their city walls. Two teams had a go at making their own version:

25 P&G The Grads Trojan horse 50 Orion Trojan horse 1

I am not sure you could fit very many soldiers inside the first horse, but the second one is pretty epic! To my eye, it also looks quite similar to the horse featured in Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004):


They’re not exactly the same, for sure – the Petersen one has a much ‘rougher’ look, capturing the feel of something cobbled together out of bits of broken-up ships. But there’s something about the use of individual planks of wood in this horse, as opposed to smooth panels like the other one, which gives it a similar feel.

Moving out of the realms of outright myths and into recorded history (which can still generate stories of legendary heroism, of course) it’s time to meet the Spartans:

35 Knaresborough Rugby Club Spartans 1

I think the combination of the shield designs, the helmets and the scanty tunics make it pretty clear that we are not just meeting any old Spartans here, but specifically the ones envisaged in Zack Snyder’s 300 (2007):

300 Spartans shields

So we’ve now seen designs which are quite definitely influenced by 300 and Jason and the Argonauts, and probably also others influenced a little more indirectly by Clash of the Titans and Troy. Most Classicists today are already very well aware that one of the main routes by which non-specialists come into contact with Classical stories today is film and TV – indeed, my survey of which Roman emperors people in Leeds were familiar with showed much the same thing. But I think the choices made by these teams are one more proof of that, if anyone needs it.

Finally, we’ve not heard much from the Romans yet. That’s no big surprise. As Gideon Nisbet has shown, Greek mythology is big news in popular culture today, whereas the modern image of the Roman world is all about marching legions and gladiatorial games. So when people are dressing up to a ‘myths and legends’ theme, of course Greek stories are going to predominate. Nonetheless, three teams did lean in a Roman direction:

57 Commercial Estates ship 1

To be fair, this ship is quite multi-cultural. The overall design could be Greek or Roman, and alhough they’re not visible in this picture, it also had some quite Celtic-looking designs on the prow. If I could identify the picture of the female head on the stern, I might be clearer about where this team got their inspiration – but although I’m sure I’ve seen it before, I can’t pin it down now.

38 HACS Mythical Legends Boudicca 14 HPL Flyers chariot 2

These two are definitely Roman, though. The lady in the first chariot is clearly Boudicca, because she had the famous knives on her chariot wheels (not visible in the picture above, but see below right behind the two singers). I’m not so sure about the second lot – perhaps they were thinking of Boudicca too (especially since they are an all-female team), but decided to omit the knives? Or perhaps it’s a more general reference to Roman chariot-racing as seen in films such as Ben Hur? In any case, the net result is that the only identifiable story from the Roman period represented at the bed race was the story of Boudicca, who of course crucially wasn’t a Roman at all, and indeed stands in the popular imagination as a symbol of Celtic resistance to Roman imperialism. The many myths and legends which the Romans did actually have continue to languish in obscurity today, just as Wiseman has discussed.

For the sake of completeness, I should add that there was also a Roman rock band in the middle of the parade, featuring three dudes on guitars and drums in the back of a van, followed by two ladies on foot singing:

Roman rock band Roman rock band singers

Obviously they weren’t referencing any particular myth, but I’m sure their performances are legendary…

I’ll finish by saying that although I have concentrated on the Classically-themed teams here, because that’s my area of interest, the whole parade was brilliant, and the race itself was a thing to behold! There is a great video of this year’s race here, which shows some of the other teams and really captures the experience of the day as a whole, and I can really recommend going along to experience it for yourself if you get the chance:

Posted in classical receptions, films, greek mythology, ray harryhausen, rituals and festivals | 2 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 »

Publication: ‘I am Master of Nothing’: Imperium: Augustus and the Story of Augustus on Screen

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on November 2, 2012

I got an email late last night to say that an article about screen portrayals of the emperor Augustus which I wrote last Christmas has now been published. It’s always great to see another publication finally emerging into the daylight, but this one is particularly satisfying because it has been published in an online journal, so that anyone with internet access can read it for free!

The paper is entitled ”I am Master of Nothing’: Imperium: Augustus and the Story of Augustus on Screen’, and its official abstract runs as follows

The story of Octavian / Augustus’ life follows a rather problematic narrative trajectory. Reduced to its basic elements, it is the tale of a man who overthrew the Roman Republic and installed himself as an absolute monarch, yet enjoyed widespread contemporary acclaim and died peacefully in his bed. Lacking the moral complexity of Julius Caesar’s story, or the prurient thrills offered by proper ‘bad’ emperors, this narrative has rarely been tackled in full by western story-tellers. Instead, in the 20th century, Octavian / Augustus appeared most frequently on screen as a secondary character in the stories of others – particularly as a villainous foil to Antony and Cleopatra – while only a handful of novelists attempted a fuller biographical approach. Nonetheless, a popular appetite for screen portrayals of Roman history in the early 21st century has kept producers and screenwriters returning to his story, and one TV mini-series, Imperium: Augustus (2003), has now offered the first ever screen biopic of this contradictory character. This paper examines the narrative strategies used in this production and their degree of success in making the story of Octavian / Augustus palatable to contemporary western audiences. Making strong claims to historical accuracy, Imperium: Augustus builds on approaches already established in biographical novels, but also deploys characteristically filmic devices such as the flashback to help create a compelling drama. Audience responses suggest that it was only a partial success, but Augustus’ story still offers ample opportunities for exploring modern concerns such as the crafting of political personas or the relationship between security and civil liberties. These could perhaps be better satisfied in the medium of the documentary, and we can fully expect such treatments to appear in connection with the bimillennium of his death on 19th August 2014.

If you’d like to read more, you can find the full paper at New Voices in Classical Reception Studies 7: see the second item in the table of contents.

Posted in augustus, classical receptions, films, roman emperors, television | 2 Comments »

Recycled Piranesis and an impossible Pantheon: The Grand Tour paintings from the Ebony Bedroom at Charlecote Park in Warwickshire

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on October 25, 2012

In late August my sister and I took our mother for a birthday day out, which included an afternoon visit to Charlecote Park National Trust property in Warwickshire. Charlecote is a lovely 16th-century red brick property, set on an estate which has been home to the Lucy family from the 12th century right up to the present day, and we very much enjoyed exploring its grounds in beautiful sunny weather. Late in the afternoon, my mother and I looked round the rooms of the property itself, and ended our visit in the Ebony bedroom – so called after the grand ebony-wood bed which dominates the room.

What really caught my eye, though, was not the bed but the set of paintings on the walls, brought back to Charlecote Park by George Lucy (master of the house from 1744 to 1786) after a Grand Tour undertaken in the late 1750s. There are fourteen of them in total (although the volunteer guide in the room told us that there had once been twenty), depicting romantic scenes of semi-ruined monuments from ancient Rome. But as we chatted about them to the guide, he mentioned that no-one who worked at the property today knew exactly what the monuments depicted were. Well, I did. I could see straight away what several of them were, and knew it wouldn’t take me long with access to the right books to identify the others. And it seemed such a pity for the subjects of the pictures to go on being unidentified when I could so easily sort that out. So after I had returned to Leeds at the end of the weekend, I wrote to the House Steward offering to identify the monuments shown if she could send me some pictures of them to work from. She kindly obliged, and I got to work.

At first, I simply focused on identifying the monuments shown in the paintings. Most I recognised immediately, while others could be tracked down fairly easily, just as I had suspected. Of the fourteen pictures in the house, half showed scenes from Rome itself, including well-known monuments such as the remains of the Forum, the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, the round temple in the Forum Boarium and the Pantheon. Three more showed tombs and aqueduct arches along the roads leading out from Rome into the Campagna; a further three ventured to Tivoli (twenty-five miles east of Rome) for the so-called ‘Tempio della Tosse‘ and two views of the Anio falls; and one final picture showed the supposed tomb of Virgil just outside Naples.

But I quickly realised as I jotted down the names of the monuments that some of the scenes looked awfully familiar. Following a hunch, I tracked down some engravings of the same monuments by Piranesi, and sure enough, I found that at least five of the Charlecote paintings had clearly been modelled directly on his work. A good example is the image of the so-called ‘Tempio della Salute’ (Temple of Health) near to the Via Appia, about 3 miles south-east of Rome – today recognised not as a temple at all, but as a second-century monumental brick-built tomb. Below is the Charlecote Park image and the Piranesi equivalent:

Image reproduced with permission. Photograph by Claire Reeves.

Image taken from Wikicommons.

It’s not just that these two images are very similar in their composition, surrounding scenery and figures – including the goats! The real give-away to their relationship lies in the two distinctive triangular shadows shown on the side of the monument in each. These could not have been cast by any real structure, since nothing appropriate stands nearby. Rather, they were probably added by Piranesi to his engraving to evoke monuments from other parts of Rome like the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, and create the sense of a wider landscape of ruins around this structure. (This is very typical of the way Piranesi worked – his views of ruined monuments were often romanticised, presenting the monument itself with the accurate eye of an architect, but freely embellishing the context.) The presence of the exact same shadows on the Charlecote Park painting is enough to show that its artist must have used Piranesi’s engraving as a model, creatively recycling it (shall we say?) as the basis for a gouache colour painting.

Piranesi was not the only influence I could detect behind these paintings. The Charlecote painting of the tomb of Virgil, for example, likewise shares the same composition and figures as this image, also from the 18th century. But it’s no great surprise to find that Piranesi’s engravings were the single greatest source of inspiration for the Charlecote artist. George Lucy’s visit to Italy would have taken place right at the height of Piranesi’s career and just when his engravings were first taking Rome by storm. His drawings attracted great admiration in their own right, and helped to drive an already growing interest in Rome’s monuments to even greater heights. So of course contemporary Roman artists were busy replicating them (and others like them) for English gentlemen like George Lucy to buy and take home as a souvenirs. The blatant copying by direct contemporaries seems rather shocking to us, but this was a world which lacked even the concept of copyright. And perhaps having colour paintings of Piranesi’s images instead of the rather severe black and white originals even seemed like the superior option, rather than the cheap knock-off alternative?

Meanwhile, one painting must be based on an image by an artist considerably earlier than Piranesi. That is the Charlecote Park image of the Pantheon, which looks like this:

Image reproduced with permission. Photograph by Claire Reeves.

The Pantheon can never have looked quite as it is shown in this painting, as some fine-detail architectural history (gleaned in particular from this excellent article by Tod A. Marder) and other contemporary images reveal. Firstly, during the medieval period, the left-hand end of the Pantheon’s front portico was engulfed in adjoining buildings, and a single central bell-tower was built on top of the pediment. A drawing by Van Heemskerck dated 1532-36 shows it in this state:

Image from here.

Between 1626 and 1633, pope Urban VIII had the central bell-tower removed, and two new ones, popularly known as le orecchie d’asino (the asses’ ears), built onto either side of the pediment. He also had the front left corner of the portico repaired, but otherwise left the medieval buildings butting up against it at the side in place. A drawing by Stefano della Bella dated 1656 shows the results of his work:

Image from here.

The medieval buildings were then finally demolished in 1662 on the orders of pope Alexander VII. He also had the portico fully repaired in 1666-7, and two columns still missing from the side replaced using ancient columns found near S. Luigi dei Francesci, probably originally from the baths of Nero. But the asses’ ears remained in place, and were not removed until 1883. Piranesi’s engraving of the Pantheon from a century later, in 1761, captures very nicely what it looked like after Alexander VII’s intervention:

Image from here.

Meanwhile, the Charlecote Park version of the Pantheon shows it without either the adjoining medieval buildings or the asses’ ears. But this is impossible, since the asses’ ears were added before the medieval buildings were removed. In fact, the Charlecote painting seems to show a yawning gap where those buildings had been, before the repairs at this end of the portico were completed on the orders of Alexander VII. This makes me suspect that this image of the Pantheon was originally created while that work was underway in the 1660s, but that the artist deliberately chose to omit the asses’ ears. Not a very surprising choice, given how much everyone seems to have hated them!

Presumably, that original image was then reworked around a century later to create the Charlecote painting, which clearly fits in right alongside the rest of the set in stylistic terms. I can’t track down an exact original model for this particular image, but it would have been very odd indeed for somebody painting the Pantheon in the 1750s or ’60s to think to show the left-hand end of its portico in a semi-ruined state, give that it hadn’t looked like that for almost a century by then. You have to wonder, though, how the decision to depict the Pantheon in this way, rather than as it actually looked in the 1750s, came about. Did the artist choose to depict the Pantheon stripped of later additions or repairs, because he (or she) had found that customers generally preferred Roman ruins which looked as though they had simply crumbled away gently for centuries, untouched by human hands? Or was it simply an accident arising from whatever original image he or she was working from? Similarly, did George Lucy actively choose a painting which showed the monument in this light – or, conversely, did he even notice that it didn’t look quite like the Pantheon as he had actually seen it?

There are all sorts of further questions I’d like to answer about these paintings, for that matter. Another one would be how closely the geographical settings of the paintings match up with the places which Lucy actually visited while he was in Italy. Did he, for example, go down to Naples and see the supposed tomb of Virgil for himself? I’m also interested to note that Lucy’s visit to Italy seems to have taken place in the late 1750s, but (as far as I’m aware at the moment) Piranesi’s engravings of the Porta Tiburtina and the Nymphaeum of Alexander Severus first came out in 1761. These were clearly the sources for two of the Charlecote paintings, which that ought to mean the latter couldn’t have been painted until 1761 or later. But I’d need to do some library work to double-check that this really was the original publication date for the Piranesi engravings, and not just the date of a reissue. If correct, though, it might mean that George Lucy bought the paintings via agents after he himself had returned home – so perhaps he never even knew about the Piranesi images which they had been modelled on.

Recycled or not, though, this is a fantastic set of paintings which say a lot about the tastes and sensibilities of 18th century Grand Tourists – and the people who catered for them! I’m very glad to have come across them on a summer’s afternoon, and I hope I will have the chance to delve deeper into their history very soon.

Posted in art, classical receptions, history, rome | 7 Comments »

Blackpool, Caligula and controversial anniversaries

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on August 31, 2012

As I explained in my last post, my current research is all about the emperor Augustus, and especially the approaching bimillennium of his death on 19th August 2014. So at the moment I am particularly tuned in to noticing when other similar anniversaries crop up – and today seems to be absolutely groaning under the weight of them. The ones I’ve spotted so far are:

The last is of particular interest to me, of course. Not only is it a bimillennium in its own right, but I think it’s also a rather good example of how anniversary commemorations are all about the values of the societies which hold them, and not anything inherent in the anniversary itself or the historical significance of the event in the context of its own time. The bimillennium of Augustus’ birth was marked with multiple events all over the world: not just the Fascist commemorations in Italy, but exhibitions, lectures, publications and more in the rest of Europe, the US and Australasia. By contrast, Caligula’s big anniversary seems to be attracting relatively little attention. Adrian Murdoch (amongst others) has been involved in making a documentary about him, currently screening in Australia and New Zealand, which is clearly timed to coincide with the anniversary. There is a panel about him today at the SF convention Chicon 2012 entitled ‘A Bimillennial Celebration of Caligula’ (see pocket programme, p. 37). And I’ve also found a post about him at The History Blog and an article at History Today. But that seems to be all – and it is definitely pretty low-key by comparison with Augustus (likewise Vespasian, who got a whole exhibition in Rome for his bimillennial birthday in 2009).

And that makes sense. Augustus’ rise to power and overthrow of the Republic may be a little controversial (to say the least!), but thanks to the efforts of Horace, Virgil, Velleius Paterculus, Suetonius and co. he still occupies a place in the public imagination as a well-intentioned bringer of peace and stability, and champion of the arts. Commendable stuff. Caligula celebrates his birthday with a friendCaligula, on the other hand, is mainly known for wussing out of the conquest of Britain, demanding that people worship him as a god and eating a child born of his own incestuous relationship with his sister. Most of those sorts of stories are clearly lurid exaggerations if you actually look at the sources – e.g. everyone ‘knows’ that he made his horse a consul, but even the gossip-hungry Suetonius only actually claims that people said he planned to do this. Well, I could say that about David Cameron, and there would then be exactly as much evidence that he planned to make his horse (or perhaps Rebekah Brooks’ horse?) a consul as there is about Caligula. It doesn’t amount to much in either case unless they have actually done it. Still, Caligula clearly did rule badly enough, and in particular execute enough prominent people, to find himself at the sharp end of the first ever assassination of a Roman emperor after only four years in power. So he’s not exactly someone you want to run the risk of appearing to celebrate (unless you are a bunch of SF fans having a bit of fun, apparently!). Safer to just stay away from that particular anniversary altogether.

Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the spectrum, Blackpool city council have a history which they are so keen to celebrate that today they seem to have invented a suitable anniversary for it. According to their city council, tonight will mark the centenary of their proud history of Blackpool illuminations. But a man on the Today programme this morning (whose name I didn’t catch) assured us that the illuminations actually date back to 1879 – and indeed Wikipedia confirms this. From the same page, I can see that there is a case for claiming 2012 as the centenary, since 1912 clearly saw a rather more spectacular event than had been attempted in 1879 (though in May, not late August). But even the 1912 event was a one-off, and regular illuminations didn’t start until 1925. In other words, there are multiple dates here which could be claimed as ‘anniversaries’ of one sort or another, and of course what the council is really trying to do is simply take advantage of one of them in order to drum up interest in the lights. (It’s clearly worked, too – this item has been all over the news today.) Given the arbitrary nature of time, none of these dates is really any more closely connected to the first illuminations than any other. But the debate on the Today programme this morning showed that any anniversary does need to have a convincing air of authenticity about it to make it ‘work’ as a mythic point of connection with the past. Rather like Father Christmas – or indeed Christmas itself – these things only exist if we believe in them.

Posted in anniversaries, augustus, classical receptions, history, roman emperors | 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 »

The Olympic torch – from Hitler to Headingley

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 26, 2012

The Olympic torch was carried down my road in Headingley, Leeds on Sunday. I have next to no interest in sport, but the Queen’s recent Diamond Jubilee celebrations reminded me that although I similarly have very little interest in the royal family per se, I am fantastically interested in rituals, commemorations and what they reveal about our collective interests and priorities. So, on the same basis, I turned out to see the torch go by.

There’s been some interesting debate recently about the particular ritual of the Olympic torch relay. Mary Beard has been pointing out since the run-up to the Beijing games in 2008 that this ritual was invented by Hitler, and using that fact to support her view that it is silly, a waste of money and should be dropped. Since then, other commentators have picked up Mary’s point and she herself has regularly reiterated it.

But all traditions have to be invented at some point, as Mary well knows, and they also change and evolve in response to contemporary needs.

My colleague Elizabeth Pender is working on the ideals and values associated with the Olympic games at the moment, and pointed out to me over lunch recently the huge contrasts between the way the Chinese used the torch-carrying ritual four years ago for the Beijing Olympics and the way the UK is using it now. As she said, the Chinese approach was distinctly imperialistic. They sent it all around the globe, on the longest route it had ever followed – an instant claim to Chinese pre-eminence. The torch-bearers were Chinese athletes and other notable cultural figures (actors, musicians, directors etc), making the relay into a display of the physical prowess and cultural achievements of their people, while of course they famously ran surrounded by uniformed security guards – an unmistakeable symbol of China’s strength, discipline and ability to suppress dissent. And all of this provoked considerable controversies along the route, as the torch-relay became the focus of protests against China’s human rights record, anger with the heavy-handed security guards, and a general sense from commentators that this wasn’t quite in keeping with the supposedly peaceful, non-political ideology of the Olympic games.

That’s the context in which Mary Beard first started voicing her opposition to the torch relay, and in the face of that particular iteration of it I can see her point. The claims to national pre-eminence inherent in the Chinese rally certainly bear close comparison with the ceremony invented by the Third Reich.

But the way the relay has been used in the UK this year is a vivid example of just how flexible and adaptable rituals like this can be. Here, the torch relay has explicitly and deliberately been used to foster and demonstrate localism and inclusiveness, on an entirely internal stage. Far from travelling round the globe, this year’s torch is being taken instead into the heart of as many communities across the UK as possible. The 8000-mile route has apparently been designed to pass within an hour’s journey or less from 95% of the population, so that there are actually huge numbers of people (including Mary Beard) having the same experience as me – of the torch going down their very own road. At that point, no matter how little interest you have, it becomes churlish to sit inside deliberately not looking out of the window – and so you get sucked in in spite of yourself, included in the whole experience, and drawn together with your immediate neighbours and fellow citizens across the country. The torch-bearers are local people, too – out of 8000 in total, 700 are athletes, but the other 7300 have been put forward by their local communities and chosen on the basis of their personal achievements and / or contribution to the area. And this has been really effective. I’ve heard very little criticism of this particular form of Olympic torch relay, but instead all sorts of heart-warming local news stories showing the torch being photographed at distinctive local landmarks and people turning out to cheer and enjoy the atmosphere as it goes by.

Nonetheless, the “don’t you know the torch relay was invented by Hitler?” meme itself remains very much alive. In fact, it seems to have become this year’s torch-relay comment piece de rigeur. And I am pleased to see this sort of conversation about the relay going on. The discourse which rituals like this provoke, whether anti or pro, is to me all part of their wider cultural value – and of course we should always think to ask where our traditions come from, and what that adds to or detracts from their value, as part of the ongoing process of deciding whether or not we want to perpetuate them.

I think this particular response to the torch relay, though, also reveals a distinct measure of what I think of as ‘ritual anxiety’ – that is, an uneasiness around the whole idea of ritual activities. It’s something I see in relation to all sorts of other ritual occasions and commemorative events, and particularly strikes me on Valentine’s Day, when a whole army of people emerge every year to complain that we shouldn’t need a special day devoted to something we should be doing all the time, that it is meaningless, too commercialised, misogynistic etc. But it also crops up in relation to Christmas (goods in the shops too early, probably not really the date of the historical Jesus’ birth), Easter (it’s a pagan festival really!, no it’s not), and almost any other ritual or commemorative occasion you can name.

A lot of this sort of commentary seems to spring from discomfort with the arbitrary, invented character of these events. We are asked to treat a particular day as special when we know that it isn’t really inherently different from any other day, or to take particular actions and rituals seriously when we know full well that they don’t have any concrete outcome – and indeed that someone just like us simply invented them at some point. None of that sits well with a modern mind-set that demands rational grounds for doing things. Then, of course, there is our awareness that rituals of all kinds have a long history of being used by repressive regimes, ideologies and religions as tools for boosting their own prestige and indoctrinating cowed and ill-educated populations into their preferred ways of thinking. That certainly doesn’t look palatable to the populations of modern liberal democracies, and is exactly what the ‘invented-by-Hitler’ meme conjures up.

But sometimes I think that the modern urge to respond cynically and suspiciously to rituals risks underestimating their social and emotive value, as well as the ways in which they can be re-appropriated by the masses of ordinary people participating in them. Few people in the UK are really so severely rationalistic as to eschew Christmas altogether, even if we don’t believe in its religious symbolism, or indeed belong to another religious tradition altogether. In the end, most people recognise that it’s a good excuse to connect with other people via a common experience and have a bit of fun, and that there is enough flexibility in the festival to access those parts of it separately from its religious content. In fact, Christmas is a very good example of a festival which has been widely re-appropriated, and is now as much a secular festival celebrated out of generalised nostalgia for the past (Victorian Britain, pagan midwinter festivals or whatever) and for the sake of present-day shared identity, as it is a religious one.

Similarly, with the Olympic torch relay, arguably what is more important than the invention of the ritual under the Nazis is the choice that was made to repeat it for the next Olympic games, held in London in 1948. It was at that point, in fact, and not in 1936, that it became a tradition rather than just a one-off event – and also that the London Olympic organisers established it as a flexible ritual, which did not have to be celebrated in the same way every four years. That is re-appropriation, and to me already renders the actual origins of the relay rather insignificant – and that is to say nothing of the constant re-invention and re-working of the ritual which has continued unabated over the subsequent 64 years.

Meanwhile, in Leeds the torch relay has been quite an event. The City Council and local newspapers have been busy promoting it, as have local businesses and organisations. When the torch arrived in Headingley itself, it called in first at the area’s best-known landmark – the Carnegie Stadium, which is home to both the Leeds Rhinos rugby club and Yorkshire County Cricket Club, and where it was greeted by local MP Greg Mulholland. There was a big rugby game on at the stadium anyway, so taking the torch there was clearly a good way to involve lots of people in the relay. But the management also opened up the gates for free entry while the torch passed through, and stated explicitly on their website that “Headingley Carnegie Stadium are looking forward to extending a special welcome to families who’ve never been to the ground before.” So for them it was an opportunity to draw people in to an aspect of Headingley life which they might not previously have been involved with before – presumably with the hope that they would like it and come again.

I didn’t think very many people would be watching on my road itself, assuming that surely most people would go to see it in the stadium or along the main shopping street instead, but boy was I wrong! I could tell things were gearing up from about an hour before the torch arrived, when I looked out of the window and saw a lady living opposite hanging out some bunting, and by half an hour before the torch came past there were already rows of people lining what is normally a fairly quiet suburban road. At that point I got out there and started taking a few photos and chatting to people, and you could really feel a sense of palpable excitement along the street. The chap standing next to me had walked down from Far Headingley with his slightly reluctant son (who would rather have watched it on TV), and was keen to point out that we would never get the chance to see an Olympic torch relay going through our area in real life again. In other words, he wanted to feel that he was an active participant in a unique moment of our communal history – which seems also to have been one of the main attractions of the Diamond Jubilee. By the time the torch came by, the son was looking just as interested and excited as everyone else.

There were of course plenty of people there to promote their businesses or make money out of the crowds, from big Coca-Cola, Samsung and Lloyds TSB floats with blaring music and cheer-leaders to a lady selling Union Jack (yes, I know) flags and a local ice-cream van which turned up towards the end. But hey, that’s all part of our society too. And meanwhile there was some surprisingly touching camaraderie – like the police motorbike riders, who were technically there to clear the crowds gently out of the path of the procession, mainly spending their time cruising past and high-fiving everyone. I know it’s a huge cliché, but I took the opportunity to get chatting to my next-door neighbours, who moved in a couple of months ago but whom I hadn’t spoken to yet – and of course found that they were lovely people whom I was really pleased to get to know.

The torch-bearer along my stretch was Susan Marley, who has campaigned extensively for cystic fibrosis research. I could tell it was her because she was the only woman out of five torch-bearers for the Headingley route – which, given that these people were put forward by their local community, is a bit disappointing, actually. Don’t the people of Headingley feel that more of their women are worth celebrating? Still, I was pleased to cheer her on, and she looked like she was really enjoying her well-deserved moment in the spotlight.

The actual passage of the torch was incredibly quick in comparison to the time spent waiting for it, of course. But the real attraction was never the torch itself anyway. It was the sense of being part of a something exciting with nationwide resonances, but happening right outside my house and involving my own local community – just as the organisers had always designed it to be. I’m glad the torch relay provided a focus for that, I’m glad I took part – and I don’t think that the connection with the Third Reich detracted from it. What I saw showed me that the ritual has transcended its origins – and that taking part in something which doesn’t stand up to rational scrutiny can still be really enjoyable and worthwhile.

If you live in Leeds and would like to know more about the relationship between the ancient and modern Olympics, my colleagues Emma Stafford and Elizabeth Pender will be giving lunchtime talks on that subject on Thursday 28th June and Thursday 26th July as part of the Classics in our lunchtimes series at Leeds City Museum. Both are free to attend, and details of the first talk, on ‘Olympic Beginnings: preparing for the Games, then and now’ are available here. If you can’t make it to the talks themselves, you can listen to them afterwards as part of the Classics in our lunchtimes podcast series.

Posted in classical receptions, cultural identity, greek history, history, leeds, rituals and festivals, urban geography | 8 Comments »

Leeds Roman Terminalia walk

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on June 7, 2012

We’re going back a looong way here, to something which I actually did in late February. I half-wrote it up at the time, but then it got lost under a pile of other things and never posted. The Jubilee weekend finally gave me the time to finish the job.

Thursday February 23rd was the date of the Roman Terminalia, the annual festival of Terminus, who was the god of boundaries. A Leeds-based group of psychogeographers had decided to celebrate it by walking around the circuit of bar stones which marked the medieval / early modern city boundaries, and I went along to join them. Psychogeography is all about experiencing (mainly urban) landscapes from a personal, emotional and sensory perspective. It looks for a subjective geography of the city, informed by an individual viewer’s memories, experiences and associations, and actively sets out to explore urban landscapes in unusual ways in order to bring out ways of relating to urban space which most of us miss in the rush of day-to-day living. So I think that for most people in the group, the walk was a way of experiencing Leeds’ past and present urban landscape in a different way, helping them to see it and engage with it from an unusual angle, and particularly prompting thoughts about the many different kinds of boundaries – both physical and conceptual – which exist in our cities today.

I was interested enough in the psychogeographical side of the experience – I am both a scholar of urban space and an interested resident of Leeds after all. But linking it with the Roman Terminalia was the absolute the icing on the cake from my perspective. And it’s not just that that lent a Classical veneer to what would otherwise have been an interesting walk around the city centre anyway. It’s that I have specifically conducted research into and published work on Roman urban boundaries – it’s covered briefly in chapter 3 of my book, and a fuller paper on the topic will hopefully come out some time in the next 18 months. So for me, this walk was a way of experiencing for myself a reworked version of the religious practices which surrounded those boundaries in the Roman era, and perhaps achieving a better understanding of what boundaries meant in the Roman world as a result. It was like the subject of my research coming to life and manifesting itself in my own city. Basically, this event couldn’t have been more Relevant To My Interests unless perhaps we had done the walk all dressed up as characters from Doctor Who.

The fullest description of the Roman Terminalia is given by Ovid at Fasti 2.639-84, although references to rites in honour of Terminus specifically, and other religious rituals connected with boundaries more generally, crop up in a number of other sources too. Marking and commemorating boundaries seems to have quite an obsession with the Romans, in fact – and that is hardly surprising. Boundaries are fundamental to so many things – property rights, security, territorial control, spheres of power and privilege, social identities, and basic practical categorisations and definitions. In a polytheistic society it would be odd if they were not the objects of religious ritual – especially given that in many cases, religious sanction was their primary practical guarantor. In a world where few people had access to effective legal protection or redress, the religious authority of boundaries must have been the main thing which made people respect them, and thus also the fields, territories, concepts or spheres of social action which they defined. Indeed, although records showing the courses of physical boundaries clearly existed (see e.g. Tacitus on public documents showing the course of the pomerium at Rome), in a semi-literate society, annual ceremonies in which people physically went to their boundaries, observed where they ran and made offerings in their honour would also have been a very effective way of keeping them ‘alive’, and stopping them from being forgotten or ignored.

Ovid’s account of the Terminalia focuses mainly on the rituals carried out by ordinary farming families, marking and celebrating the boundaries between their own and their neighbour’s properties. He describes the offerings of garlands, cakes, grain, honeycombs, wine and sacrificial animals which they make at the boundary markers – but refers also to Terminus’ much wider remit, guaranteeing the boundaries of cities and kingdoms too, and ensuring peace between the peoples on either side. Ovid also mentions the public sacrifice of a sheep carried out on the same day at a shrine of Terminus which stood at the sixth milestone out from Rome along the via Laurentia. This shrine in itself was important because it was believed to mark one of the places where the boundary of the original rural territory controlled by archaic Rome intersected with the roads leading out from it. It was one of a series of similar places around the fifth or sixth milestones of some of the other roads which did the same job, and, according to Strabo (Geography 5.3.2), all received sacrifices on the same day as a means of marking and commemorating the boundary.

It’s unclear whether circular processions ever linked these shrines to form a huge ceremonial ring around the city, or whether the boundaries of the city of Rome received the same treatment on an annual basis either. We have references to ad hoc circular processions around the urban boundaries at times of threat – for example, one described by Lucan (1.592 ff = 1.642 ff. in this translation) which was supposedly undertaken while Caesar marched towards Rome in 49 BC, or another in the Historia Augusta (Aurelian 18-20) carried out during the Marcomannic wars of the AD 270s, when the Romans suddenly came face to face with the real possibility of a barbarian sack for the first time in several centuries. It’s also quite possible that the routes followed by the runners in the Lupercalia, and the procession in a triumph, were connected with the supposed original boundary of the city of Rome, believed to have been marked out by Romulus. But there doesn’t actually seem to have been an official annual beating-the-bounds style ceremony around Rome’s urban boundaries, as far as we know.

Still, Leeds was never a Roman city anyway, so I’m pretty sure we can do whatever we like – including reinterpreting ancient Roman religious ceremonies to suit our own needs and interests.

The basic format for the Psychogeography walk was to go clockwise around the city, visiting the locations of each of Leeds’ six bar stones, making Terminalian observances in accordance with Ovid’s description and generally thinking about boundaries as we went. I managed to find a map online of the six bar stones in relation to 15th/16th-century Leeds, as follows:

More about the bar stones, and our walk around them, after this jump

Posted in classical receptions, history, leeds, roman cities, roman religion, rome, urban geography | 5 Comments »


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