26 January 2011
I had to read a bit of Gibbon these days, and came across that famous line of his:
If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world, during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. The armies were restrained by the firm but gentle hand of four successive emperors, whose characters and authority commanded involuntary respect. The forms of the civil administration were carefully preserved by Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, and the Antonines, who delighted in the image of liberty, and were pleased with considering themselves as the accountable ministers of the laws.
I must have read those words a dozen times, but only today did I realize that the historian does not share the judgment that “a man” was called to fix. After all, the main theme of his book is that the Roman Empire was bound to collapse because it lacked personal freedom. Its citizens had no interest in keeping it alive. If only the Roman Empire would have had a parliament!
If such an institution, which gave the people an interest in their own government, had been universally established by Trajan or the Antonines, the seeds of public wisdom and virtue might have been cherished and propagated in the empire of Rome. The privileges of the subject would have secured the throne of the monarch the abuses of an arbitrary administration might have been prevented, in some degree, or corrected, by the interposition of these representative assemblies; and the country would have been defended against a foreign enemy by the arms of natives and freemen. Under the mild and generous influence of liberty, the Roman empire might have remained invincible and immortal.
But the Roman Empire didn’t have a parliament, and therefore, it fell. This was different in Britain, where – according to Gibbon – the best part of the nation was represented in the House of Lords, and even the mere bourgeoisie was allowed a vote in the House of Commons. Therefore, there was no need to fear another “awful revolution”. The happiest age of mankind was, in Gibbon’s view, his own eighteenth century.
19 January 2011
Small bust of Caligula (Palazzo Massimo alle terme, Roma)
“Caligula’s tomb found” is the headline of an article, today, in The Guardian. It may be true, but it may also be another exaggerated claim made by an archaeologist angling for funds. The author of the article mentions several arguments that a recently discovered monument near Lake Nemi is indeed the final resting place of Rome’s third emperor:
- Caligula owned a villa near Lake Nemi;
- a splendid statue has been found over there;
- a tomb raider has shown a previously unknown archaeological site.
There are no photos of the statue, and I get the impression that it is only identified as a statue of Caligula because it wore military boots (caligae). I would have liked to see the statue’s head.
The final sentence is “the tomb raider led them [the police] to the site, where excavations will start today”. In other words, research still has to start. It may as well be a large but common tomb, where a normal villa owner was buried, with some statues as decoration. Even if the statue represents Caligula (again, a photo would come in handy), the simple hypothesis that the tomb dates back to his reign or the final years of Tiberius, explains all. There is no need to make bold claims.
There are now two possibilities: either the tomb is Caligula’s, or it isn’t. If it isn’t, an archaeologist has desinformed us and journalists have contributed to it. If it is, excavation will be more difficult because many people will visit Lake Nemi. In both cases, scholarship suffers. Everybody would have been a lot happier if there had been no report before certainty had been reached.
12 January 2011
Tomb of a surgeon, Ostia (Via Severiana necropolis); note the instruments to the right
The problem with archaeology is that it rarely happens that the ancients wrote an explanation of what they left behind. If only King Priam had written a note “this place was sacked by Achaeans”, we would not have been forced to listen to boring debates about the presence of LH IIIc1 sherds in a Troy VIh context. It’s typical for the ancients that they didn’t bother to consider our questions.
So how do we interpret those finds? Basically, the main tool for archaeologists is to look for parallels in comparable societies. To explain why megalithic monuments were built, some archaeologists have been looking at similar monuments on Java, where dolmens have been built quite recently; the explanation offered in the recent past, was projected back on the Stone Age. A second tool is the study of texts: those knives we find in a tomb in, say, northern England, must belong to a surgeon, because we have a picture of those instruments on a small mausoleum in Ostia, where an inscription says that the dead owner was a physician. The written word explains a silent object.
The problem is that not every problem can be solved with these two tools. But here, another principle comes in handy: if you do not know what it is, it has something to do with religion. So, an unusual building in Qumran becomes a monastery (in fact, it turned out to be a pottery factory). A set of terracotta figurines resembling women becomes a temple of the Great Goddess (in fact, a Mycenaean toy shop).
This principle is known as the First Law of Archaeology – and yes, that is sarcasm.
3 January 2011
An old photo of S. Maria del Suffragio
Ah, the joys of copyright. Someone will have to refresh my memory as to why it’s useful to keep a book under copyright for eighty years — and who exactly is benefited by it — but the calendar helped me out, by rolling along slowly, and Luigi Serra’s Aquila is finally online. Mr. Serra, a conscientious art historian who covered the city of L’ Aquila in 142 pages, and 142 illustrations, died in 1940, and thru the blessings of copyright law, his work fell into the public domain yesterday.
Of course, nearly all the work of transcription and scanning those many photos, I did within a coupla months of the earthquake that so devastated the Abruzzese capital; and sat on my hands for a year and more, waiting for Mr. Serra to be sufficiently dead. It is a fine book though, even if one might have wished for a bit more synthesis here and there: a small chapter on the (sparse) Roman remains of Amiternum, two large chapters on the Middle Ages and the Renaissance forming the bulk of the work, a section on the Baroque period, and a coda on what was modern art in 1929, at least if you were conservative even then! in which our author shows himself to have loved the work of Teofilo Patini, who was new to me.
And oh yes — those photos, which some of us might sniff at in our age of 12-megapixel digital color at our fingertips, are now irreplaceable: much of what they document came crashing down in rubble last year.