Shrine of Vacuna

31 December 2009

Artist's conception: after all, no one knows what Vacuna looked like.

Now I know that some of you thought that Vacuna was a somewhat bewildered-looking furry pack animal grazing the high Andes, but I’ll have to burst your bubble: it’s something I’m good at. The very obscure Sabine goddess Vacuna, you see, happens to have been worshipped in an even more obscure shrine somewhere in what is now Rieti province or maybe across the border in my beloved Umbria, in Terni province. Now scholars will argue about anything, even when there is so little information that there’s nothing really to argue about; human nature is amazing. So in the year of grace 1923 Mary Grant, disagreeing with other scholars of course, wrote a little paper about it, with a map and grammatical commentary, that doesn’t really convince me one way or the other, but it’s a good thing to have on an Umbrian site: The Location of a Shrine of Vacuna (CJ 18:220‑224); enjoy.


Access to the Forum Romanum

31 December 2009

The Curia Julia and the central part of the Roman Forum, seen from the Palatine

There used to be a time when a visitor to the Roman Forum went to one of the entrances, bought a ticket, and could roam across the ancient ruins wherever you liked. I fondly remember how my girlfriend and I once had lunch, sitting in the grass, somewhere within the ruin of the Basilica Julia.

This changed in 1997. From then on, the Forum was accessible for free, which was -above all- practical. If you were staying in the Via Cavour, as I sometimes did, and needed to be at the Foro Boario, you could make a shortcut and did not have to make a detour around the Capitol. At the same time, many momuments were no longer accessible, like the House of the Vestal Virgins, the Basilica Aemilia, and the Basilica Julia. This was unpleasant, but it made sense. The number of visitors had increased and it was impossible to guard everything properly.

This year, I discovered that you have to buy tickets again. I would have expected that they would now reopen the closed monuments, but they haven’t. In fact, they closed things that used to be accessible, like the Horrea Vespasiana.

I do not like this at all. In an ideal world, everything is free and you can see everything. I understand that this is not possible and I realize that we have to live with one of the systems described above: either you pay for a ticket and can see everything, or you get free access but will find some monuments closed. What I find outrageous, is that they have managed to combine the disadvantages of the two systems: we now have to pay to see closed monuments.


Commemorating the dead (or not)

27 December 2009

The Colosseum

I already blogged on the Christian martyrs venerated in the Colosseum, and pointed out that there is no evidence that Christians were killed on that terrible place. The evidence, in fact, suggests the opposite. No Medieval list of martyrdom sites mentions the Colosseum. There is actually more evidence of Jewish martyrdoms: the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) mentions an emperor ordering a rabbi to be thrown into an arena full of wild animals. It’s not much, but more than we can say about Christian martyrs.

Yet, you will not find a Jewish memorial in the Colosseum, and not because our Talmudic scene deals with an amphitheater, not the amphitheater of Rome. The reason is much more profound.

Christians will go to the places where people have been killed and say their prayers, believing that God will hear them. The Omnipresent is also present where atrocities have taken place. To some extent, secular people share this idea: even though they will not say a prayer, they erect monuments on crime scenes. In Rome, the memorial of the Fosse Ardeatine massacre is a case in point.

This is not the way Jews look at things. Places like the Colosseum are somehow outside the realm of God’s goodness. This means that there are better places to say your prayers, and even if we had absolute certainty that out rabbi faced martyrdom in the Colosseum, there would still not be a Jewish monument. The locations of the horrors are not the place of worship, and are best abandoned.

I am not saying that this view is better than the Christian/secular view. Nor do I think that we should abandon the Colosseum altogether. Yet, the Roman archaeological authorities, who have always been able to present their many treasures in an often beautiful fashion, ought to be capable of creating a more dignified atmosphere at the Colosseum – without shouting tourist guides, without exceptionally amateurish reenactors, without souvenir shops. Unfortunately, the only thing I’ve heard from the tourist authorities, a proposal to organize gladiatorial contests in the Colosseum again, was singularly revolting. Rome should be capable of inventing something better.


Cleopatra’s Pearls

25 December 2009

Cleopatra VII

Now that we’ve had our Christmas dinner – nasi goreng in my case – LacusCurtius’ Bill Thayer serves us something to read and help you digest it: Cleopatra’s Pearls, an article that originally appeared in the Classical Journal 52 (1957).

It’s a highly amusing piece that contains parallel stories, tricks to dissolve your own pearls (“a small pearl is dissolved in boiling vinegar in 8‑15 minutes” – or perhaps not), an apt quote from Hamlet, a relevant comparison to the use of Coca Cola, and a good joke at the end. Enjoy!


Polybius’ Portrait

25 December 2009

Cast of Polybius' lost portrait

Kleitor was a major town in Arcadia, not far from a river named Aroanios. Pausanias complains that, even though he waited until sunset, he did not hear the singing spotted fish for which Kleitor used to be famous. There are a few remains, and perhaps even that is an overstatement: one of the most interesting remains, the portrait of the historian Polybius (200-118), is now lost.

It appears to have been found in the 1920s and was reportedly kept “in the schoolhouse of Mazeika”, a town that has in the meantime been renamed Kato Kleitora. After the discovery, a cast was made that was sent to Berlin, but ended up in Rome, in the Museo nazionale della civiltà romana. The original is now lost, and the cast in Italy is all we have.

The slab was erected by one Titus Flavius Polybius, who claimed to be a descendant of the great historian and lived in the second century CE. In that age, many Greeks and Romans were deeply interested in their past. When they wrote, they tried to imitate classical models (the “Second Sophistic”); an author like Pausanias was interested in the oldest religious cults; and the sculptor tried to represent Polybius as historically accurate as possible. Unfortunately, he exaggerated it a bit: Polybius’ military equipment was common in the fifth century BCE, not in the second.


Roman Holiday

24 December 2009

"Rome, by all means Rome"

In 58 CE, two people from the Low Countries, Frisian leaders named Malorix and Verritus, arrived in Rome. While waiting for Nero, who “had other cares to occupy him” (as Tacitus writes, full of innuendo), the two men visited the Theater of Pompey and caused a stir because they did not know how to act properly. To ancient Frisians, the city of the seven hills must have been an impressive place, with people living in buildings with four floors, with temples reaching unto heaven itself, and with the palace of the emperor lived, a man who needed only a single word to mobilize an army. Visiting Rome must have been a life-changing experience.

I can sympathize with my ancestors, and not just because I must over the years have broken every rule of polite Roman behavior. It is also because Rome has been a life-changer for me as well. My first visit in 1982, although overshadowed by a PLO assault on the synagogue, felt like some kind of spiritual homecoming. I was here again in ’84, and – after my service in the army – I decided to study history and archaeology. Always, there was a longing to return to what Livy somewhere calls the urbs ipsa, the “city itself”. In fact, I have often returned, sometimes twice a year.

Rome is, like the objects of every other love affair, not perfect and Romans are not always nice. I also think that, once a love affair has lasted some time, you realize that under different circumstances, you might have met and loved someone else. Mutatis mutandis, I know I might have loved other civilizations, and I do not sympathize with those historians who focus on Greece and Rome only, ignoring Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia. I also think that western historians consistently understimate the contribution of Islam to the rise of European civilization.

I have acted accordingly, visiting other countries, trying to broaden my scope. There’s much that is fascinating in the Sahara. I wrote a book about Islam. The interaction between Persia and Greece is an interesting subject, and I put the Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions online. I have had the privilege to travel extensively.

Yet, at the risk of sounding pretentious, it is only now that I can compare several cities, that I realize how special Rome actually is. The only answer to the question which city I love most is the classic one from Roman Holiday, when the princess realizes that Rome has to her been a life-changing experience: “each city is in its own way unforgettable, and it would be difficult to… – Rome, by all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.”


Common Errors (27): Christians in the Colosseum

24 December 2009

The Colosseum

During the reign of Marcus Aurelius (r.161-180), the Roman Empire started to experience increased pressure on its frontiers. Germanic tribes started to organize themselves better and in the East, the Parthians were replaced by the Sasanian Empire, which was more aggressive than its predecessors had been. The Roman emperors took countermeasures and tried to gain divine support by persecuting religious minorities, like the Manichaeans, the Jews, and the Christians. By ancient standards, this was a logical decision: the fact that they did not worship the gods of the state, offered sufficient explanation for Roman military defeats.

The Persecutions were very serious, and you do not need to be a Christian to abhor from the state’s violence against its own citizens. It is always fitting and proper to commemorate the slaughtered innocents. For this reason, pope Benedict XIV (r.1740-1758) dedicated the Colosseum to the memory of the Christian martyrs killed in the arena. The problem is that this is probably not a historical fact.

There are several texts about the martyrdom of Roman Christians. We know that Sebastian was executed on the Palatine and that Agnes suffered in the Stadium of Domitian. But no one is mentioned as being killed in the Flavian Amphitheater, as the execution theater was officially called. In the Acts of Justin, Chariton, Charito, Euelpistus, Hierax, Paeon, Liberian, and their Company, we read that these people were led “to the usual place”, which has been taken as a reference to the Colosseum, because we do not know which alternatives exist. However, this is poor evidence, and the fact that the Colosseum is not mentioned in Medieval catalogs of martyr shrines can mean only two things: if Christians were killed in the Colosseum, it was forgotten in the Middle Ages, or there were no Christians killed over there.

Of course, this does not mean that Benedict’s cross must be removed. It is part of the history of the Colosseum, and besides, it is never wrong to spend a thought about the terrible things that happened on this terrible place.

<Overview of Common Errors>


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