Cures

18 February 2012

Cures, near Fara in Sabina

Nothing earth-shaking, but at least I haven’t added Latin nonsense or falsified mileages: the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica article “Cures” — being the little town in Sabine country that Titus Tatius and Numa apparently came from, and which was deemed in Antiquity to have been the origin of the name Quirites applied to the Roman people.

A brief article cribbed from a common 101‑year‑old encyclopedia should hardly be news, but alas it is, sort of. Wikipedia too, bless ’em, reproduces the same article, making essentially no changes: but the only two significant changes it does make are both mistakes. Small ones, but mistakes none the less: the ager Sabinus becomes an “alter Sabinus“; and 26 miles has been turned into 26 km. That in turn wouldn’t be terribly interesting if it weren’t that (a) the introduction of errors into the EB articles is very common at Wikipedia, maybe more common than not; and (b) the prevailing wisdom there, usually delivered with a sniff, is that the 1911 EB is antiquated, sexist, written in stodgy old English, and generally we people can improve all that.

And so we can. Our first step though, is to introduce no mistakes of our own. The next, which I’ve attempted to do on my own page, would be to add the source citations, links to what further websites may be relevant, and in this case a GoogleMap; and the dozen or so times Cures appears elsewhere onsite are now linked to it. Nothing major, but at least it’s not nonsense.

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Iphigenia in Umbria

6 March 2011

Iphigenia being led to the sacrifice

A few weeks ago by happenstance I found myself at Under the Umbrian Sun, a site that documents the recent and ongoing excavations at Vicus ad Martis on the Via Flaminia in Umbria; and to my surprise bumped into an entry titled “Bill Thayer on Massa Martana and Umbria”, which praised me for a rather weak site on the town, although to some extent rightly: among the blind the one-eyed is king, as the proverb goes. But it was really embarrassing; all the more so that I’d been sitting on a few dozen photos of the very church that stands just 100 meters from the ad Martis digs: an interesting church that I know pretty well — and in 14 years I’d managed to avoid having a webpage on her. A 3‑page site now repairs that, with 23 of those photographs; and although it’s nominally about a medieval church, the site follows the church itself, about half of which is about Roman stone, including a carved fragment that has been identified as a Sacrifice of Iphigenia.

The process of writing up the carving also resulted in me translating the entry “Iphigenia” in Daremberg & Saglio; I wasn’t completely happy with what I’d been finding about her elsewhere online in English, so this is an additional resource.


Oh, please…

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.


L’ Aquila

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.


Common Errors (30): The Menorah

20 February 2010

The Menorah as shown on the honorary arch of Titus.

In 455, the Vandals captured and looted Rome. They took many objects of art with them, including the Temple Treasure that had been in Jerusalem until the Roman commander Titus had sacked that city (in 70 CE). The Vandals took the objects to Carthage, and lost them to the Byzantines, who captured the city in 534. According to Procopius (History of the Wars, 4.9), the Jewish treasures were taken to Constantinople, where general Belisarius displayed them during his triumphal entry.

Among these were the treasures of the Jews, which Titus … had brought to Rome after the capture of Jerusalem. And one of the Jews, seeing these things, approached one of those known to the emperor and said: “These treasures I think it inexpedient to carry into the palace in Byzantium. Indeed, it is not possible for them to be elsewhere than in the place where Solomon, the king of the Jews, formerly placed them. For it is because of these that Gizeric captured the palace of the Romans, and that now the Roman army has captured that the Vandals.”

When this had been brought to the ears of the Emperor, he became afraid and quickly sent everything to the sanctuaries of the Christians in Jerusalem.

So, the treasures of the Jewish temple were returned to Jerusalem. They are not in the Vatican, as some people seem to think. I heard that urban legend for the first time in Italy, some fifteen years ago, and believed that the story, which is so flatly contradicted by a well-known and accessible ancient author, had died a well-deserved death, but I was wrong. When Benedict XVI visited Israel last spring, this myth was suddenly in the headlines again, because two pious Jews demanded that the pope would be seized and kept until the Menorah was returned. The judge dismissed the case on 11 May 2009 – unfortunately argueing that a foreign chief of state was immune, instead of saying that lunatic fringe theories ought to be ignored.

It must be noted, though, that there are other stories about the Temple Treasure. Ibn Abdelhakam writes that the Arabian conquerors of Spain found the “Table of Solomon” when they captured Toledo in 711 (History of the Conquest of Spain, 21). It was brought to Damascus. If this is a reference to the Table of the Table for the Shewbread, this suggests that at least one object was brought to Spain instead of Carthage. In any case, there is not a single piece of evidence that connects the Menorah to the Vatican.

<Overview of Common Errors>


Ambassador of Rome

5 January 2010

Ambassador of Rome

This reenactor stands close to the Colosseum. If you give him some money, you can stand next to him, and someone will take a photo of you, the Colosseum, and an ancient Roman. And what a beautiful Roman he is! His helmet crooked, his leather cuirass too short, his belt somewhere near his ribs, his legs covered with tights.

The reason why I asked my travel companion to take this photo, is that I was surprised that he was allowed to stand over there, where thousands of visitors gather every day. Being next to the Colosseum makes you some kind of ambassador of Rome. If I were the city’s mayor, I would create a license system and make sure that the people over there are perfectly dressed. The reenactors of XXX Ulpia would certainly love to offer advice. Right now, this man represents Rome. This is the way the city wants to be seen.


Severus’ right-hand man: Plautianus

4 January 2010

Plautianus

It would be strange if I wouldn’t post some new articles on ancient Rome. After all, I just spent a holiday in the urbs ipsa. And indeed, I wrote two pages on Gaius Fulvius Plautianus, the praetorian prefect of the Roman emperor Septimius Severus, who transformed the old office. His daughter Plautilla also received a brief article; the poor girl had to marry Caracalla, a union that was very unhappy. She was executed by her husband.

In the Vatican, we took photos of the sarcophagus of Sextus Varius Marcellus, who is perhaps best known as the father of Heliogabalus, but is far more interesting than you’d expect. One could write a novel about the man.

I also added a piece on Bias of Priene, one of the Seven Sages. The connection with my Roman holiday is that we saw his bust in the Vatican Museums. Finally, Bill put online an article on “Recent Discoveries on the Palatine Hill” – recent in 1913 that is, but interesting nevertheless, if only because it is written by the great Boni himself.