Vespasian Exhibition in the Colosseum

1 January 2010

Head of a statue of Vespasian from Narona (Museum of Vid)

Until January 10, there’s an interesting exhibition in the Colosseum, dedicated to – well, they say it’s about Vespasian (r.69-79). I have some doubts about that, but there are indeed many objects illustrating the reign of the man who seized power after a civil war, was a capable ruler, restored the Empire, founded the Flavian dynasty, and died with the not-so-famous-but-impressive last words that “an emperor ought to die standing” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 24.1). The reigns of his sons Titus and Domitian are also covered.

Many of the objects, like the statue that was excavated in Narona, I had never seen before – Croatia is still on my wish list. The Haterii relief, which shows several buildings from the Flavian era, is in a part of the Vatican Museum that is always closed when I’m there, so I was glad to finally see it. There were some objects from the Temple of Peace, which has been excavated in the last decade and which I had never seen before. I finally saw the Lex Irnitana, for which I once travelled to Seville (it turned out to be in Madrid and was not accessible).

All in all, it was interesting collection of objects. Yet, there were curious omissions. Conspicous by absence were the Cancelleria reliefs. Yet, they are pretty large and may have been too big to move. Less understandable is that there is nothing about the British campaigns, in which Vespasian obtained ornamenta triumphalia and laid the foundation of his fortune. The Jewish War is also neglected, although I noticed one photo.

In other words, the first sixty years of Vespasian’s life remain uncovered; instead, the exhibition is about Vespasian’s final decade and the reigns of his sons. This exhibition, interesting though it is, is not about Vespasian, but about the Flavian era. I wonder of the organizers have realized that they crossed a line: scholars should speak the truth, and although I realize that you may try to give it some kind of spin, the basic story must be reliable. That is no longer the case.

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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.


Counting gods

3 August 2009
The Aufanian Mothers (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

The Aufanian Mothers (Rheinisches Landesmuseum, Bonn)

In 1981, Ramsay MacMullen published his Paganism in the Roman Empire, a great book on, well, paganism in the Roman Empire. What I have never forgotten, is how the American scholar tried to investigate which gods were really popular. He used the indices of the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, counted the deities to which people had dedicated inscriptions, and discovered that people in, for example, North Africa venerated other gods than the people in Gaul and the German provinces.

This tedious labor must have taken lots of time. Today, we have digital archives and can do the same job in one evening, for example with this nice databank. I know this, because I checked some thirty deities, trying to zoom in a bit more than MacMullen has been able to. One of his categories was “Gaul & Germany”, and I needed to know whether there were differences between Germania Inferior and Gallia Belgica. I compared my results to Latium (minus Rome). Here are the results; the popularity of the deities is relative to Jupiter (=100).

Latium Germania Inf. Belgica
1 Mars 194 Matres 168 Mercurius 139
2 Venus 101 Jupiter 100 Mars 136
3 Jupiter 100 Nehalennia 67 Jupiter 100
4 Fortuna 92 Mercurius 43 Liber Pater 84
5 Hercules 71 Mars 37 Apollo 52
6 Silvanus 45 Hercules 34 Hercules 41
7 Diana 44 Fortuna 21 Sol/Mithras 37
8 Sol/Mithras 43 Juno 16 Matres 30
9 Victoria 40 Diana 16 Minerva 19
10 Cybele 36 Sol/Mithras 16 Diana 13
11 Juno 30 Apollo 11 Juno 13
12 Ceres 28 Minerva 11 Fortuna 8
13 Isis 25 Isis 8 Victoria 8
14 Mercurius 25 Silvanus 8 Venus 5
15 Apollo 24 Victoria 7 Silvanus 3

I had expected that Jupiter and Mars would be the only gods to make it to the top-5 everywhere, but there were a few surprises. In the first place, the relative unpopularity of Isis, Minerva, and Neptune. In the second place, the popularity of Mercurius and Liber Pater in Belgica, who must be “romanized” local gods. In the third place, I had not expected that Silvanus -extremely popular in Italy- was also pretty well-known in the north. In the fourth place, I had expected Cybele to rank high in Germania Inferior and Belgica, because she is well-known from representations (statuettes can be seen in any museum); but this popularity is not matched in the epigraphical record.

Finally, the people of Latium were “wide” polytheists, venerating many gods, while the people of the north concentrated on a few deities. This was the greatest surprise – I had never realized that there might have been various degrees of polytheism.

And of course, what MacMullen already knew remains valid when we zoom in on smaller geographical units: that book on ancient mythology you have, you can throw it away. Those twelve Olympic Gods were completely irrelevant.


New in the Antiquaries’ Shoebox

14 July 2009
Drawing of a pyxis from Smiths Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Drawing of a pyxis from Smith's Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities

Several years ago, LacusCurtius‘ Bill Thayer started to put online some articles from scholarly journals. He called this section of his website the Antiquary’s Shoebox, and every now and then, he adds to it. The articles may be a bit old, but at least you do not need an expensive JSTOR account.

If I have counted correctly, it now contains 140 articles. The latest contributions are on seven places in Italy called Ferentum and Ferentinum and on Roman Milestones and the Capita Viarum (which also deals with more than one place called Nuceria). Finally, it’s a somehow reassuring thought that someone has written an article on The Roman Craze for Surmullets.


Of poisons and pigs

3 July 2009

A wild pig, the companion of St. Anthony.

Up on Lacus this morning, a little piece on Poisons and Poisoning among the Romans: it could have, should have, been entertaining, but is instead a pretty bland compendium of the subject in Roman authors, and only the more famous of them at that. Still useful: it collects a number of sources.

These days, though, I’m never too far from Plutarch: and sure enough, here too the fine Italian hand of that author; my only real reason for putting up the poison article was that it’s cited in a footnote to Plutarch’s much more entertaining Gryllus, a charming dialogue between Odysseus and a pig, in which Grunter comes out better, naturally — hey, he’s a sophist. The Greek text and a French translation, as often, can be found on Philippe Remacle’s site.

My illustration — since Jona seems to crave one for every posting — is not quite as irrelevant as it might seem. Once again, Plutarch has written us something that reads rather like the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, the first of whom was St. Anthony, staying in his cave well away from people (sensibly enough) and keeping a pig and a raven for company; the faithfulness of the crow comes in for praise from Plutarch in this dialogue as well. This pig was prominent in the life of the saint, becoming one of Anthony’s two main iconographic attributes; even when saint and inscription have vanished from a medieval depiction, the pig is enough to identify him. This particular bit of fresco is, if I remember correctly, one of those. It’s in Bovara, a little town near Trevi in Umbria, named not after pigs but cows; it seems to have been an important cattle market in Roman times — see my page on the place.


Common Errors (23): Sicilian Expedition

30 June 2009
Syracusan coin, showing a chariot with maritime symbols, commemorating Syracuse's victory over Athens

Syracusan coin, showing a chariot with maritime symbols, commemorating Syracuse's victory over Athens

The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta consists of two parts: the Archidamian War (431-421) and the Decelean or Ionian War (413-404). When the first part had ended in an Athenian victory, the Athenians believed they could now try to expand their empire. A large expedition to Sicily was believed to be the best idea, and in 415 a large armada left Greece and went to the west. Over there, everything that could go wrong, went wrong. The Sicilian Expedition ended in failure; of the many who had left, only a few a returned.

Benefitting from the absence of a great part of the Athenian forces, the Spartans decided to renew the Peloponnesian War (413). This time, they were more successful: in 404, Athens surrendered. Nearly always, the Spartan victory is explained from the demise of Athenian power after the expedition to Sicily, but this cannot be correct. In fact, Athens recovered quickly, and in 410, the Spartans regretted their declaration of war. They offered peace negotiations, but Athens declined: after all, Sparta had twice broken a treaty (in 431 and in 413), and Athens demanded some kind of guarantee that the Spartans would leave the Athenians in peace. When Sparta was unwilling to offer this, fighting was resumed.

In the meantime, however, the Persian king Darius II Nothus had decided to support the Spartans. Now, Sparta had the money to create a navy, and although it still suffered several defeats in naval battles, in the end, it was victorious at Aigospotamoi (405). Athens no longer controlled the sea, and was starved into surrender.

What caused the fall of Athens? Not the Sicilian disaster: Athens recovered sufficiently to make the Spartans decide to negotiate again. It was Sparta’s Persian alliance that shifted the balance of power, so the ultimate question must be why the great king decided to abandon his policy of non-interference.

The answer to this question, and the deepest cause of the fall of Athens, is that the Athenians had supported one Amorges, a rebel in Asia Minor, fighting against the Persians. This was unacceptable to king Darius, who now decided to support Sparta. The orator Andocides explains (On the Peace 31-32):

The king’s runaway slave, Amorges, induced us to discard the powerful support of his master as worthless. We chose instead what we imagined to be a more advantageous understanding with Amorges himself. The king in his anger replied by allying himself with Sparta, and furnished her with 5,000 talents with which to prosecute the war; nor was he satisfied until he had overthrown our empire.

Her support of Amorges, and nothing else, lost Athens the war.

<Overview of Common Errors>