Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Just Dig Up All The Car Parks!

Archaeologically speaking, 2013 was the year of the car park.  Just a quick google search of "archaeology car park" provides numerous examples of what lays hidden beneath the vehicles of the northern hemisphere.  This year, a veritable archaeological treasure trove was discovered.
Everyone is aware that the remains of Richard III were discovered beneath a Leicester council car park.  It brought the world's attention to what may lie below the concrete and asphalt.  The perceived randomness of such a major historical/archaeological discovery led to an historical awareness in popular culture I wish ancient history could get without Russell Crowe's poor acting.  Social media was peppered with images of Leicester's new parking signs:

Even the Queensland Police Media Facebook page made jokes about how Richard could wait centuries to get out of a car park, drivers could wait 10 seconds.
However the burial place of Richard III was not the only thing dug up from under a car park this year.    A "Thing" (literally - that's what it is called) was discovered under Cromartie Memorial Car Park in Dingwall, Scotland.  A thing is a medieval Norse assembly ground/parliament which took the form of a mound.  I had no idea of this term until the report confirming the site was indeed a thing on 22 October.
Earlier in the year, the skeleton of a medieval knight, along with other burials and the remains of a thirteenth century monastery were excavated under the former car park in Edinburgh.  Over in Ireland, three sets of human remains, including those of a child, were uncovered in Derry.  Excavated in September, they are thought to date to the Siege of Derry (1688-9).  Once more, they were discovered under another car park.  
Again in November, the archaeology gods shined down upon another British car park.  This time an Iron Age skeleton was found in a site designated to be the car new park of the Horse & Groom pub in Bourton-on-the-Hill, Gloucestershire.  While complete testing is yet to be completed, "Rusty", as he has been named by the pub owners, is thought to date to c. 100 BC, and was found in addition to other historical artefacts, including the remains of a very unusual medieval farm.  
Archaeological car park bonanza, however, is not limited to the British Isles or the year 2013.  A friend of mine from Algeria informed me of a Roman cemetery 500 metres from his house, a mere 10 metres from a car park.  It cannot be said whether it might continue under it.  In 1973, excavations conducted in Stonehenge's car park revealed three Mesolithic post holes (G. Vatcher and F. De M. Vatcher, "Excavation of three post-holes in Stonehenge car park", Wiltshire Archaeological and History Magazine 68 (1973), pp. 57-63).  The site of these holes was marked by concrete circles in asphalt of the old visitor's centre.  I am unsure how they are placed in the newly developed complex, but the digital reconstructions Digital Digging provides suggests that they are still placed in the car park.
My Facebook feed this year was full of the statement "Another car park", but the last such statement was accompanied by my favourite discovery, which happened to have taken place 60 years ago.  BBC News gave me a Christmas present entitled Vatican to open poignant ancient Roman cemetery.  I was immediately excited.  The first line stated:
An ancient Roman cemetery discovered under a Vatican City car park 60 years ago to be opened to the public early in 2014.
Yet another car park, but not in 2013, but 60 years before!
2013 was a year of great discovery, in archaeology and in history, but it wasn't the first time stuff had been found under a car park, and it surely won't be the last, but because a former ruling monarch was found beneath one, we will now regard these discoveries in a new sense of interest.  The discovery of Richard III's remains in a Leicester City car park has impacted popular culture and historical reception.  I doubt anyone had thought that the Richard III of Shakespearean fame would become known as "The Car Park King".
But please note, someone has already written the book "Raiders of the Lost Car Park".
His name is Robert Rankin.  
He's hilarious.  

Wednesday, 11 December 2013


I love Christmas time.  No, I'm not a Christian.  I don't even pretend to be.  But I love Christmas because it is an amazing collage of bastardised religious rites and superstitions from all over Europe (and possibly further) which have been rebranded for the modern world.
Like the red shoes the current pope has decided not to wear were a leave over from the Roman Pontifex Maximus, so Christmas is a motley crew of Roman, Celtic, and possibly other cultures of which I am unaware, are the final remnant clinging to existence in this new world.  It is a mid-winter (or in my geographical case, mid-summer) festival which arrives a few days late and provides my family an excuse to take time off and torture each other with gifts which include cryptic clues written for no other reason than to torment the recipients.  My family had an unreasonable number of December birthdays, so instead of trying to accommodate both sets of gift giving we abandoned birthday presents (when the lone March birthday boy received the best gifts) and focused on Christmas gifts instead.  
Yet despite none in my immediate family being overtly Christian, we happily enter the Christmas spirit safe in the knowledge that ancient Romans would have no issue with our non-devout participation.  A number of the rituals we associate with Christmas may well be a reflection of the Roman Saturnalia: remove the pom-poms from Santa hats, and you find yourself wearing a brightly dyed freedom cap worn by slaves during this period (they even appear to have been red), especially at a household meal during which masters served the slaves - a possible origin for your work Christmas party.  Like Santa hats, these were made of felt, and were often red.  And like our Christmas celebrations today, the Romans were big on gift giving. 

6th-century mosaic from Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna - featuring the three wise men.

While Martial wrote little poems about Saturnalia gifts, for example broad-brimmed hats (14.29) which could keep the sun off your face at games, or a literary warning label for the wooden candlestick (14.44), and even snow (14.118), and Macrobius wrote dialogue between a number of pagans spending the festival together during the late empire, my favourite Saturnalia work is without compromise Statius' Silvae 4.9, because unlike us, he was willing to whinge about a crappy Saturnalia gift, not merely to close associates, but in poetic meter and then published the gripe.  The fact that this stingy gift-giver is called "Grypus" adds to my amusement.  So not only did the Romans have huge parties, wear silly hats, reward their workers, and eat too much, but they also had rude mongrels who were willing to bitch about the quality of the gift they received.  I include a translation below by A. S. Kline for your entertainment, and to prove that while our festivals change, humanity remains the same.
Book 4.9 
 To be sure it’s a jest, Grypus, to send me
A little book in return for my little book!
Yet it could only be thought amusing
If you sent me a proper one to follow.
For if you persevere in joking, Grypus,
It’s no joke! Look, let’s consider both.
Mine is purple, on fresh parchment,
Adorned with a pair of knobs at the ends.
Beside my time, it cost me a denarius:
Yours, moth-eaten, putrid with mould,
Like the sheets that drain Libyan olives,
Or hold incense, or pepper from the Nile,
Or serve when cooking Byzantine tunny.
And they’re not even your own speeches,
Those you thundered as a youngster there,
In the triple Forum, or to the Hundred,
Before Caesar made you his controller
Of the supply train, general overseer
Of relay stations on every highroad;
No, you send me Brutus’ boring stuff,
Bought by you, for a Caligulan penny,
From some wretched bookseller’s bag.
Were there no caps for sale, stitched
Out of cloak trimmings, no towels, no
Yellowed napkins, writing paper, dates
From Thebes, or figs from Caria? No
Handful of plums or Syrian prunes
Gathered together in a crumbling cone?
No dry wicks, no peeled onion-skins?
Not even eggs, no oats, no rough meal?
No slimy shell of some creeping snail,
That has wandered the Libyan plains?
No lump of bacon or mouldy ham?
No Lucanian sausage, no little Faliscans,
No salt, no honeyed-dates, no cheese?
No bread made with washing soda,
Or raisin wine boiled with its lees,
Or muddied dregs of sweet wine?
Why not give me stinking candles,
knife, or some thin letter-paper?
Or how about a little jar of grapes,
Dishes turned on a Cuman wheel,
Or a set (what’s to be afraid of?)
Of white cups and white saucers?
But as though you were balancing
Scales, you give the same, tit for tat.
What! If I greet you in the morning
With my loud after-breakfast belch,
Must you do likewise in my house?
Or if you treat me to a sumptuous
Feast, must you expect the same?
Grypus, I’m angry with you, so
Farewell; only please don’t send
Me now, with your customary wit,
Your own hendecasyllables in reply!

Saturday, 9 November 2013

A Classical View of Queensland's New Anti-Bikie Legislation

A marketing study in the UK earlier this year declared that a majority of Britons would prefer live under Roman rule.  It was a gimmick, but it isn't as crazy as it might at first seem.  The point being made would have been truly ironic if it had been performed in continental Europe where all law codes evolved from those of ancient Rome.
All western law codes owe something to the laws of ancient Rome.  According to one legal historian, "in western, southern, and central Europe, Roman law has always been a subject taught by our faculties of law because it provides the necessary background for interpreting our own civil law." (Wieacker, 279).  The study of Roman law applies a little less to English Common Law, which forms the basis for Australian law, because it is further removed from its Roman forebears owing to the pesky Anglo-Saxons, who took over the island when the Romans declared they couldn't be bothered defending it in 410 AD.
That said, the English legal system has been influenced by Roman law. The Norman Conquest of England in 1066 reintroduced the influence of Roman law to the island.  The right to appeal to the king was introduced, and this court brought with it continental principles of equity which had developed in part from Roman and natural law.  The relationship between Common Law and Roman law is confusing, and I do not consider myself an expert - I'm an ancient historian, and as such I know a great deal more about ancient Roman law than the legal history of England.  I base my statements regarding the influence of Roman law on English Common Law in two articles you can look at if you wish:  "The Relations between Roman Law and English Common Law down to the Sixteenth Century:  A General Survey" by T. F. T. Plucknett and "The Importance of Roman Law for Western Civilization and Western Legal Thought" by Franz Wieacker.
Regardless of the degree to which Roman law influenced English Common Law, I like to view the law as an ongoing development.  I believe, and some legal historians agree, that the legal process is an ongoing action of development and evolution.  The law makers of today are influenced by law makers of the past, and in the western world, such links can be found in the development of law back to codification of Rome's first laws, the Twelve Tables in the mid fifth century BC.  Therefore the laws enforced in our courts today, and by extension, the laws passed in today's various legislative bodies, developed from those which ruled the people who threw criminals to the lions.  Understanding that legal codes are not static documents, but have grown and developed over millennia gives us a better appreciation of those masses of black books which often feature in the backgrounds of legal dramas, fill the shelves in law libraries and act as the backdrop of innumerable election campaign addresses and interviews.  (Not all politicians follow this suit - my favourite recorded interview of former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam prior to his winning the 1972 election features a large volume of Ovid's Metamorphoses prominently in the bookcase behind him).
So if we look at current legislation with a mind to the Roman past, what does it tell us?
I intend to look in this way at Queensland's new "anti-bikie" legislation, the Vicious Lawless Association Disestablishment Act 2013, or VLAD, as it has become known known among Queensland's legal fraternity.  All jokes relating to Vlad the Impaler, Dracula, vampires and Vladimir Putin aside, this law is being promoted by the Queensland Government as a solution to what it has called the "outlaw motorcycle gangs."
The law states its purpose as follows:
to disestablish associations that encourage, foster or support persons who commit serious offences...
So while advertising states that the law is against bikies, the legislation states that it is against associations.  Associations were the subject of a great deal of legislation by the Romans, but the earliest Roman legislation, the Twelve Tables, did not seek to ban them:
Table 8. 27. – "These guild members shall have the power . . . to make for themselves any rule that they may wish provided that they impair no part of the public law . . ."
The full text hasn't survived, but what we have does not suggest that associations were seen as threats.  The earliest reference to a law I have been able to find which sought to limit associations was introduced by the emperor Augustus.   Like the Queensland Government, Rome's emperors, who worked externally to the political system, believed associations were dangerous.
The first emperor, Augustus, had a law passed which made all associations seek the approval of the Senate to convene.  We know this because an inscription states "that the Senate permitted to join as an association  and assemble, in accordance with the Lex Julia, and by the authority of Augustus..." (CIL VI 2193).  This association appears quite harmless, it was an association of musicians who performed at public sacred rights (the ancient equivalent to a church organist and choir), but they still needed permission to associate.  
In addition to this, more legislation was passed by subsequent emperors limiting associations.  The evidence for this comes from the law codes which have helped shape laws and legal practice across the western world:
The Digest of Roman Law, Book 47 Title 22. "Concerning Associations and Corporations."
1. Marcianus, Institutes, Book III.
By the Decrees of the Emperors, the Governors of provinces are directed to forbid the organization of corporate associations, and not even to permit soldiers to form them in camps. The more indigent soldiers, however, are allowed to put their pay every month into a common fund, provided they assemble only once during that time, for fear that under a pretext of this kind they may organize an unlawful society, which the Divine Severus stated in a Rescript should not be tolerated, not only at Rome, but also in Italy and in the provinces.
1. To assemble for religious purposes is, however, not forbidden if, by doing so, no act is committed against the Decree of the Senate by which unlawful societies are prohibited.
2. It is not legal to join more than one association authorized by law, as has been decided by the Divine Brothers. If anyone should become a member of two associations, it is provided by a rescript that he must select the one to which he prefers to belong, and he shall receive from the body from which he withdraws whatever he may be entitled to out of the property held in common.
2. Ulpianus, On the Duties of Proconsul, Book VII.
Anyone who becomes a member of an unlawful association is liable to the same penalty to which those are subject who have been convicted of having seized public places or temples by means of armed men.
3. Marcianus, Public Prosecutions, Book II.
If associations are illegal, they will be dissolved by the terms of Imperial Mandates and Constitutions, and Decrees of the Senate. When they are dissolved, the members are permitted to divide among themselves the money or property owned in common, if there is any of this kind.
1. In a word, unless an association or any body of this description assembles with the authority of the Decree of the Senate, or of the Emperor, this assembly is contrary to the provisions of the Decree of the Senate and the Imperial Mandates and Constitutions.
In a nutshell, associations had to be given permission to form, either by the emperor or the Senate; they could only meet once a month unless it was for religious purposes; and you could only be a member of one association.  In a sense it makes the new VLAD laws look like a normal progression, thoroughly understandable even, but in fact they are a huge step back in time.  At least the Romans allowed you to dissolve your association.  VLAD includes no way for members to disassociate themselves.  
Legal historians have noted that the evolution of legal thought which led to the creation of humanist natural law during the Enlightenment owes a great deal to Roman law.  Such humanist theory has led to the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states in relation to associations:
Article 17.1:  Everyone has the right to own property alone as well as in association with others.
Article 20.1:  Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
So while the laws of today evolved from the laws of the past, the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights has shifted a long way from its origins; association is freely allowed.  The Roman emperors would never have allowed it!  But then the Romans were feeding their criminals to the lions.  All I can say is I hope Australia's federal customs laws never allows a pride of lions to be delivered to Queensland Attorney-General's office.

Monday, 7 October 2013

A Graeco-Roman Reading of the Revelation of St. John. Just another (quirky) oracular text.

What is it about prophecies?  For millennia they have captured the imagination of human beings over the world.  From the earliest western literature describing Cassandra, until the on going belief in the end of the world, humans have been influenced or fascinated by prophetic works of all kinds.
I have been thinking a great deal about prophetic texts lately.  I had just been proof-reading my brother's honours thesis which discussed the Prophecies of Merlin in twelfth century Brittany (yes, there is a tradition that Merlin left prophetic texts - they were translated into Latin by Geoffrey of Monmouth), so various prophecies were rattling around my head when I said that I'd lead a discussion on the Revelation of St. John at a casual discussion group.  
I am not a theological scholar.  I am not even a Christian.  So you can imagine the response from friends and family when I said that I was going to do this.  One friend actually questioned whether it was possible for a heathen such as myself to pick up a Bible.  I replied that I'd download the necessary text to my iPad to reduce the chances of contact burns.  All jokes aside, I actually own a copy of the New Testament in Greek from back in the day when I thought that I would be better off taking koine (New Testament) Greek instead of Classical because my studies focused more on the Roman era than earlier Greek history.  That was a silly undergraduate mistake because I was unaware of Roman hipsters (sorry, Second Sophistic writers) who all wanted to write like Demosthenes.  Despite this error, I still have my Greek Bible, so I dusted it off, downloaded a copy of the King James version of Revelations and started to read it as I believed a contemporary Roman might have.  
I quickly realised that there was no chance in Hell that I was going to read all 12,000+ words.  I was already confused, bewildered and a little bored.  I tried to mix things up a little and started to read what I thought might be some good pagan comporanda - the Sibylline Oracles - only to discover the only version left had been Christianised to a great extent.  Scratch that idea.  In the end I only read to to the end of chapter 8 and I set as the reading for the discussion chapters 5-8.  I figured that section which related to the seven seals was the most interesting for a Roman reading and everyone seems to enjoy the four horsemen of the Apocalypse (personally I prefer Dürer's print to the text, but you get that).
The discussion went well.  Everyone knew a great deal more about the Christian interpretation of the text than I.  When one friend started discussing the various choirs of angel I admitted that my knowledge only came from watching the movie Dogma.  It became pretty obvious pretty quick that most attendees had private, church-based schooling, and I was waving my state school education loud and proud.  My fallback position was always "I'm reading this as a Roman might have." Some friends who couldn't attend latter said they wished they had been there, and one friend in
particular requested that I share my preparatory notes.  This request has led to this blog post and I am going to include them below.
PLEASE NOTE:  If you are offended by a non-Christian interpretation of a Christian text, this blog post is not for you.  I am not trying to be offensive, but as a socio-cultural historian, I do believe that much can be learnt by reading Christian texts from a Roman perspective which can extend our understanding of Roman policies towards early Christianity.  This does not constitute such a study because it only relates to a small portion of one book.  Regardless of this fact I do think it can give some small clues to how a contemporary non-Christian audience might have responded.

My discussion of Revelations as a Roman
Despite setting the reading of chapters 5-8, I started with a few comments on the earlier chapters.
2.20 "Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel, which calleth herself a prophetess, to teach and to seduce my servants to commit fornication, and to eat things sacrificed unto idols."
Romans would not have had a problem with a female prophet.  Some of the classical world's greatest seers were women:  Cassandra, the Delphic Oracle, the Sibyl.  As for fornication, Romans didn't see that as sinful.  A sexually predatory female?  Well Roman attitudes differed depending on her place in society and the individual's moral compass.  I found the attitude of "eating things sacrificed to idols" interesting.  The work also condemns others for this crime, but to a Graeco-Roman audience, this did not constitute a crime.  All animal sacrifices to the gods constituted a chance to share meat in the community.  Following the Greek view of animal sacrifice, it really creates the opportunity for a community barbecue.  In addition to this, it was not a crime for the less fortunate to take cakes and offerings left on an open altar - it was expected.  In some ways, it could have been considered an act of charity to leave such offerings to the gods.  
5.1 "And I saw in the right hand of him that sat on the throne a book written within and on the backside, sealed with seven seals."
Books of knowledge were a common theme in antiquity, so a Roman audience would have found this idea perfectly normal.  Indeed, the original Sibylline books of prophecy were well known to the Roman audience; the story of the Roman King Tarquinius Superbus purchasing the books from the Sibyll was retold by Aulus Gellius in the imperial period, and following the destruction of the Capitoline temple to Jupiter by fire, Augustus sought to replace these by requesting all works reputed to be oracular brought to Rome and judged as either real or fake.  Those considered authentic were then placed in the new temple of Apollo on the Palatine attached to Augustus' house.
5.2 "And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a loud voice, Who is worthy to open the book, and to loose the seals thereof?  [3] And no man in heaven, nor in earth, neither under the earth, was able to open the book, neither to look thereon.  [4] And I wept much, because no man was found worthy to open and to read the book, neither to look thereon."
The questing theme is familiar throughout various folk-tales.  My mind immediately went to Arthur drawing the sword from the stone, and then to the opening scenes of the movie Thor.  On a more classical theme I thought of the Gordian Knot.  Alexander's "cheating" on the quest of the Gordian Knot by either removing the pin or slicing it with a sword stroke was familiar to all educated Romans, so the idea of worthiness to complete a task was by no means foreign.  The word angel comes from the Greek and means "messenger".  Most Greeks and Romans would interpret a winged messenger as Hermes/Mercury.
5.5 "And one of the elders saith unto me, Weep not: behold, the Lion of the tribe of Juda, the Root of David, hath prevailed to open the book, and to loose the seven seals thereof."
The reference to the Lion of Juda might have caused some concern for a Roman audience.  Depending on whose scholarship you follow, Revelations was written sometime in the first quarter of the second century.  Sure, it predates the Bar-Kochba revolt of the 130s, but Judaea had only been a province since the 70s.  The last thing a Roman of political power wants to hear is talk of Jewish nationalism, such as the "lion of Judaea."
5.6 "And I beheld, and, lo, in the midst of the throne and of the four beasts, and in the midst of the elders, stood a Lamb as it had been slain, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God sent forth into all the earth."
The description of the lamb which is sacrificed here would have bewildered a Graeco-Roman audience.  In the classical tradition, you never sacrifice an animal which is less than perfect.  In fact, sacrificing such a misshapen creature would have been considered an affront to the gods.  The Romans were unaccepting of major birth defects:  hermaphrodites were were placed in a bag and washed out to sea, and the inspection of an animal for hidden internal defects by the haruspices was not only a religious act, but an act of fortune-telling.  
5.11 "And I beheld, and I heard the voice of many angels round about the throne and the beasts and the elders: and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands;"
This play with numbers immediately made me think about the number of kisses Catullus wrote that he shared with Lesbia.  While the playful idea of confusing numbers is cute in a love poem, it also has a magical side.  To deny parties exact numbers (be it kisses or voices) creates magical security.  If your enemy does not have precise numbers, they can't use that information against you magically.
6.2  "And I saw, and behold a white horse: and he that sat on him had a bow; and a crown was given unto him: and he went forth conquering, and to conquer."
This description of the rider carrying a bow and wearing a crown could tap into a Roman fear of kingship and the Homeric idea that the bow is a weapon not used by the manly warrior.  All of the descriptions of thrones which appear throughout could appear as images of kingship, but thrones were not common "kingly" items like crowns in the Roman world.  Holders of magisterial positions sat on curule chairs, and Roman gods were carried in procession on special chairs, but nothing yelled "king" quite like a crown.  The description of Mark Antony trying to put a crown on Caesar's head during the 44 B.C. Lupercalia was seen as an act of trying to make Caesar king (the irony that Caesar's name went on to mean king in Germany and Russia is not lost on me).  As for the bow being a sissy weapon, don't blame me.  In the Trojan war, who was the mortal archer?  Paris, the pretty boy who started the whole thing who rarely went out and fought in hand-to-hand combat.  According to the Odyssey, Odysseus also uses a bow; but he's a trickster who can't be trusted.  Apollo uses a bow, but he's not much of a warrior.  He likes to sing songs and hunt with his sister more than fight.  Heracles uses a bow, yes.  And how does that work out for him?  He fought with the bow and died by the bow - the poison which killed him came from the Hydra which he later poisoned his arrows with.  In Greek mythology, true heroes fought in close contact; they proved their virility by risking their lives rather than taking shots from a distance with drones, oh sorry, arrows.
6.5 "And when he had opened the third seal, I heard the third beast say, Come and see. And I beheld, and lo a black horse; and he that sat on him had a pair of balances in his hand.  [6] And I heard a voice in the midst of the four beasts say, A measure of wheat for a penny, and three measures of barley for a penny; and see thou hurt not the oil and the wine."
The horseman who rides a black horse carries a set of scales.  Apart from the astrological figure of Libra (yes astrology was a big deal during this period), this figure could be interpreted in many different ways.  Thetis, or Justice, carried a set of scales in addition to her sword.  But the next line would suggest the scales were a reference to trade, especially the grain trade.  While the King James version translates the money as "penny" the Greek refers to the denarius, a Roman silver coin.  This was not the smallest denomination of Roman coins, but worth four of the smallest, the as. You could get measure of wheat for a denarius; and you could get three measures of barley for a denarius.  Barley is cheaper because it isn't as nutritious.  This is an accurate depiction of the grain trade in this period.
6.8. "And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."
I found the description of Death on a pale horse interesting.  The gods of death and the underworld, the chthonic gods, are normally associated with black animals.  You offer white beasts to Zeus and Apollo, while you offer black beasts to Hades/Pluto.  Someone asked what the Greek said, and a number of us, me included, were surprised that the Greek was χλωρος (chloros) "pale green".  My only suggestion of explanation was the pale green people sometimes turn when they are about to throw up.  A more sensible member of the group pointed out that in Homer "chloros" is used to describe the colour of honey.  Either way, a Roman might have found the description a little strange.
6.12 "And I beheld when he had opened the sixth seal, and, lo, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood; [13] And the stars of heaven fell unto the earth, even as a fig tree casteth her untimely figs, when she is shaken of a mighty wind.  [14] And the heaven departed as a scroll when it is rolled together; and every mountain and island were moved out of their places."
Earthquakes were nothing new to the Mediterranean world.  In Italy, people would be remembering both the earthquake which hit Pompeii during the reign of Nero and the eruption of Vesuvius later in 79.  This imagery can be compared with Pliny the Younger's description of the Vesuvius eruption and the effect it has on the moon.  Nothing in this description would have seemed strange to a Roman audience.  In addition, earthquakes were omens.
7.1 "And after these things I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth, holding the four winds of the earth, that the wind should not blow on the earth, nor on the sea, nor on any tree."
The Graeco-Roman world knew that the earth was not flat and that it did not have four corners.  Yes, there were four cardinal points, and yes the winds were seen to come from those points.  But if a Roman was reading this literally they would have thought the author was a confused imbecile.  
8.2 "And I saw the seven angels which stood before God; and to them were given seven trumpets."
Numbers appear throughout all of Revelations, but the number seven seems to recur the most.  Numerology was common in the ancient world and most often associated with Pythagoras.  Yes, that is the guy we all know from trigonometry in high school mathematics: he thought he was Apollo reborn and believed in numerology.  I really wish my teacher tried to explain that at school.  In Pythagorean numerology, seven was the number of "life and law".  The trumpet was the σαλπιγξ "salpigx" or "war trumpet".  This word was also used to refer to thunder by the poet Pindar, and it was an epithet of Athena at Argos.  Again, thunder or trumpet blast out of clear sky was a well-known Roman omen.
8.4 "And the smoke of the incense, which came with the prayers of the saints, ascended up before God out of the angel's hand."
The description of smoke ascending to a god would not have surprised a Graeco-Roman audience.  The provision of burnt fat wrapped around bones provided in Greek sacrifices was based on the smoke rising into the sky to be received by the gods, especially Zeus.
8.5 "And the angel took the censer, and filled it with fire of the altar, and cast it into the earth: and there were voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake."
Disembodied voices, thunder, lightning and earthquakes were all omens in Roman culture.  Roman history is littered to references about warnings being delivered in this way.  The same can be said for speaking beasts which also appear throughout Revelations.
8.7 "The first angel sounded, and there followed hail and fire mingled with blood, and they were cast upon the earth: and the third part of trees was burnt up, and all green grass was burnt up."
Again, descriptions of rains of fire and blood (even stones) can be found in Roman histories, especially Livy.  They were interpreted as omens.
8.8 "And the second angel sounded, and as it were a great mountain burning with fire was cast into the sea: and the third part of the sea became blood;"
Mountains burning can only be a reference to a volcano, and as stated above, the damage these could cause had been experienced the previous century.  It is worth noting that while classical society understood earthquakes, they did not understand the true nature of volcanoes.
8.11 "And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."
I do not know which star is referred to as "wormwood".  The Greek word is αψινθος "absinthe", which we know today as the drink made from the artemisia plant which was popular with various artists for its possible psychotropic properties at the end of the 19th century such as Vincent van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec.  Before the fear of reefer madness, the establishment feared the madness associated with absinthe.  The drink is still illegal in some countries.  Artemisia or wormwood was well known throughout the Mediterranean: some varieties were used in cooking and in drinks, while some were known to have been poisonous.  The idea of water becoming undrinkable owing to wormwood would have been understood.
8.12 "And the fourth angel sounded, and the third part of the sun was smitten, and the third part of the moon, and the third part of the stars; so as the third part of them was darkened, and the day shone not for a third part of it, and the night likewise."
As stated above, this would have reminded Italian readers of the eruption of Vesuvius.
Conclusions:  Much of what was included in the Revelation to St. John would not have surprised a non-Christian audience.  Many of the omens included appeared elsewhere in other oracular texts.  The criticism of some behaviours would have confused a Roman audience, as might have the different manner of sacrifices described.  On the whole, non-Christians could have read this and seen it as an oracular text, just like those which already existed.  The descriptions which could have been interpreted as Judaean nationalism would not have been well received by the Roman government, and monotheism would continue to confound non-Jews and non-Christians for some time to come.  Regardless of this, Revelations would have ticked enough boxes to be considered an oracular-style text in the Graeco-Roman world.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

The Trojan War Would Never Happen Today

My mother hurt the back of her heel today.  She showed the injury to me proudly, stating "I almost took out my Achilles.  It could have been the end of me."
This immediately brought the image of my aged grandmother, who I think was a Quaker, dipping my mother in the River Styx, then placing my mother as a baby in the open fire in her dining room.  My grandmother held Christian ceremonies in her front room, so the transfer of the image of Thetis trying to make her son immortal took on a Satanic bent in my imagination.  I imagined my grandmother garbed in black, her head covered a little like the Emperor in Star Wars, drowning my mother in the waters of Hell and then placing her in the fire by which I had warmed myself as a child.  The image was so unlike my memories of my extremely devout grandmother, in front of whom I was not even allowed to exclaim "Jeez," it amused me very much.  I started laughing and then had to explain myself to my mother.  Fortunately, her sense of humour is warped, much like my own.  My grandmother has since passed away, so she cannot be offended by this image.
This, however, made me think about how the events which led to the Trojan War would never have had the same effect in today's world.  Most ancient and historians and classicists have played the hypothetical game "what work from antiquity do you wish had survived?"  I personally bemoan the loss of the complete original Trojan cycle.  The loss of the original poems has led to the story of the cause of Trojan War not being as well known as I personally think it should.  
In an act which I think has inspired many a Disney film, Strife (Eris) gate-crashed the wedding (great, now I am imagining Eris as Owen Wilson - damn my imagination!) of Thetis to Achilles' father and threw into the crowd of goddesses, not a wedding bouquet, but a golden apple inscribed "To the fairest."  This, of course, led to the beauty competition between Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, which in turn led to each goddess attempting to bribe the judge, and resulted in the judge "abducting" Helen from Sparta, thus kicking off the Trojan War.
But would this have been the result in today's day and age?
I think not.  Not because we don't have goddesses, beauty pageants and gate-crashes.  Today we have divas who think they are goddesses, beauty pageants and gate-crashes.  No, the difference today is the manner in which brides are regarded on their wedding day.  Western society dictates that no woman is more beautiful on her wedding day than the bride.  Guests are shunned for wearing the same colour as the bride, because the bride is the centre of attention.  Even bridesmaids' dresses are designed in a manner to ensure that the attendants don't look better than the bride.  If Owen Wilson wedding-crashed the wedding of Thetis and Peleus today, the apple would be immediately regarded an wedding gift.  No matter who was attending who might be regarded better looking, no one would be so rude as to suggest that it be anything else but an extremely quirky (and if it were solid gold - extremely expensive) gift.
I guess what I'm saying is that if you take the stories of the Trojan Cycle and contextualise them into today's world, if Owen Wilson gate-crashed the wedding of Senator Palpatine (the Emperor) to Brad Pitt's father, the Trojan War would never have happened.  
And people question why I love classical mythology?

Friday, 13 September 2013

Alexander versus Caesar - the use of rhetoric in tertiary debating

Ever since I was a first year in 1997, I have watched or participated in debates organised by The University of Queensland's Classics and Ancient History Society.  I have been on triumphant and losing teams and debated a number of topics: "Agrippina the Younger was more generous than Monica Lewinski" in the late 1990s to "MCG [Melbourne Cricket Ground] is a greater venue than the Colosseum" around 2000, and the various comparisons between Alexander the Great and Gaius Julius Caesar.  This year, after a considerable lacuna, this topic was once again trotted out.  Despite the fact that I am officially no longer a student, and my title of "Doctor" still sounds tinny in my ear, I once again volunteered to debate for entertainment.  The Society has always tried to get members of staff to participate with students.

It was only after I had done so that I realised that the Society had decided to implement rules.  The various alumni with whom I had studied as an undergrad were horrified!  This year they requested that speakers use as many ancient sources as possible and still be humorous.  In the past I had created evidence, used false etymologies, and even suggest that witchcraft was a real problem in the politics of late republican Rome, thus allowing me to use a voodoo doll of the vice chancellor for easy laughs.  Now they wanted to judge speakers on historical content, rhetorical capabilities and humour. I was going to have to actually work and not make up facts when I couldn't remember my sources.

I managed the best I could, wrote out my speech and went along to the event, trusting in my sources, popular culture references and comparing not just Caesar and Alexander, but also the events of the recent election, for giggles.  I tried whenever possible to embrace my inner Cicero and use three examples whenever possible for rhetorical effect, and the occasional use of profanity which undergraduates don't expect to hear from academics.  My team lost the coin toss and I was to speak after an undergraduate on the opposing team, Carlos.  The delivery of his speech blew me away!  I knew if I wanted to make an impact, I couldn't rely on my notes.  So I stood and spoke my piece as much as I could remember it.  It was received well, but I realised I had forgotten some of my funnier lines.

Carlos and I had participated in some online sledging before the debate on the Society's Facebook page, and Carlos had suggested that a true reflection of Cicero rhetorical behaviour was not to deliver a speech, but rather publish it instead.  Because I missed some jokes and some people could not attend, I have decided to open thus blog with a record of the speech I prepared.  As for those speeches of Cicero's which were published after they were actually delivered, we have no idea as to what resemblance they actually shared to what was spoken, but I can assure you that a majority of what is written below was indeed spoken at The University of Queensland on Thursday, 12th of September:

"Today my team will illustrate how Caesar must be considered far greater than Alexander of Macedon.  I will be discussing their lives and character, Luca [Asmonti] will be comparing their legacies, and Izzy [Mansfield] will summarise our arguments and refute the spurious claims of our opposition.  You will all be convinced by the accuracy of our claims, and the judges will have no choice but to award us the win.

"My proof could be simple:  Gnaeus Pompeius, son of old Cross-Eyes, sorry Strabo, adopted the cognomen Magnus, ‘Great’, because he considered himself Alex’s successor in capability, potential and nature.  And who kicked Pompey the Great’s arse?  One Gaius Julius Caesar!

"But you deserve a better explanation than one so simple and so obvious, so let me continue to explain how Caesar was far greater than Alexander.  Let me start in true Plutarchian fashion by discussing their early lives and their childhoods.

"Alexander, I refuse to call him by the misnomer ‘Great’, came into the world as a spoilt brat.  He never had to work for his position in life.  Why, because his mummy and daddy gave it to him.  In fact, when you look upon Alex’s character, you quickly see that he was the Draco Malfoy of antiquity.  He never had to earn anything, he considered it his birthright.  Whatever he wanted, he got, not on a silver platter, but on gold.  When his dad suggested that he compete in the Olympic Games, as great an honour then as it is today, his response was to pout and ask whether everyone else competing were the sons of kings.  [Plutarch, Alexander 4.5]. His interest was not in merit, but instead he judged people by their birth.  Slytherinesque to the core.  In addition, his very conception is associated with snakes.  Philip feared to enter his wife’s bed after he saw a snake lying beside her naked body; nine months later Dra… sorry Alex was born. [Plutarch, Alexander 2.4]. This sneering, pouting, spoiled child, whose interest lay in his royal family tree can easily be seen spitting the insult “mudblood” at other kids in the classroom, had he ever been forced to associate with the social underclass.  The sorting hat would have wasted no time considering his placement.

"Now Caesar, by comparison, was far more likely to be sorted into Gryffindor.  He grew up in the Subura, Rome’s most impoverished slum area. [Suetonius, Julius Caesar 46]  He really is a Ron Weasley character.  His family was aristocratic, but poor, so unlike Alex, he had to work hard to get anywhere in life.  His family’s past associations with Marius left him devoid of inherited influence. [Suetonius, Julius Caesar 1; Plutarch, Caesar 1.1-2]   He had to earn friends, not inherit them as Alex did Crabb and Goy…sorry I mean Ptolemy and Nearchus. [Plutarch, Alexander 10.3]

"And this highlights what makes Caesar truly great:  he had to work for favour and influence within a political system against those better positioned than himself, rather than inherit and absolute monarchy (possibly at his father’s expense). [Justin 9.7]

"Caesar was a political animal, [David Marr, Political Animal: The Making of Tony Abbott, Quarterly Essay 47, 2012] not in the Abbott sense with budgie smugglers, bikes and suppositories of knowledge, but in a true leadership style.  He was a politician with conviction and the balls to back himself.  The day of his election to Pontifex Maximus, he farewelled his mother Aurelia, whom he was kind enough to support in her old age, stating that he would return as PM or not at all. [Suetonius, Julius Caesar 13; Plutarch, Caesar 7.2]  He did not ask for five dollars from the electorate to help bankroll his campaign, or throw himself on the financial mercy of mining billionaires, or the influence of media moguls.  No.  Instead he put himself in hock and paid for it himself.  That is self-determination, conviction and vision!

"Our opponents cited the story of how Caesar wept when confronted with a statue of Alex in Spain.[Suetonius, Julius Caesar 7; Plutarch, Caesar 11.3; Dio Cassius 37.52.2].  This story is irrelevant to our debate today.  Caesar worked within a political system which required citizens who controlled their armies to be mature men, not adolescents playing with their father’s armies.  This desire among children to play with their father’s military might appears to be a trait shared by those who liked to be called ‘Great.’  Today, we are considering Caesar and Alex and their achievements up to the conclusion of their lives, not the age of 33.

"Like all great political leaders, Caesar met his end in the tried and true fashion:  assassination.  And I’m not talking about the conspiracy theory second gunman on the grassy knoll death, but a true political death – stabbed figuratively in the back, literally in the groin, and left for dead on the caucus, sorry senate, floor by those he had considered his friends, allies and supporters [Suetonius, Julius Caesar 82; Plutarch, Caesar 56.5-7.]  By comparison, Alex was so weak he died at the age of 33 in Babylon from a case of Delhi Belly [B. A. Cunha, 2004. "The death of Alexander the Great: malaria or typhoid fever?" Infectious disease clinics of North America 18: 53-63]; a pretty piss-poor effort when you consider that his dad took an arrow, not to the knee, but in the eye, and continued on. [Demosthenes, De Corona 18.67; see also A. S. Reginos, 1994. "The Wounding of Philip II of Macedon: Fact and Fabrication," Journal of Hellenic Studies 114: 103-19.]  Seriously, knife to the groin at the age of 56 versus a bad case of the runs at 33; you tell me who was greater.

"Sure, Alex was a general, but unlike Caesar, but many papers and books still argue as to whom the credit for his military success should be attributed:  his dad’s generals, or his mates.  Yet no one questions the military genius of one Gaius Julius Caesar.

"So, let us compare the two.  Alex took on the might of the Persian Empire you might say – but how mighty was it really?  This vague collection of satraps and client kings under the leadership of Darius III were in reality a bunch of nancy boys who lived on sweetmeats and baked goods sent to them from their mothers in care packages. [Plutarch, Alexander 22.4]  Darius was hardly an heir to his forebears.  The Persian Empire was ripe for destruction – a child could have, sorry, did beat it.  Comparatively, Caesar first had to earn the support of the jaded people and senate of Rome, and once he did, he took on the Gauls.  And the Gauls were a scary bunch.

"In 390 B.C. a Celtic army sacked the city of Rome, but unlike the Persian sack of Athens, which was the work of a huge empire, this was but a few bands. [Polybius 2.28.4; Livy 6.2.4]  While some sources, Dionysius of Halicarnassus for example, suggest that the Celts fought like wild beasts and delivered blows like they sought to slice and dice their opponents regardless of their armour, [Dionysius of Halicarnassus 14.10.1] they were doing so with huge numbers of men and using Noric steel, the same the Roman army preferred. [Horace Odes 1.16.9; V. F. Buchwald, 2005. Iron and Steel in Ancient Times,113-33]   If that weren’t scary enough, the Celts were head-hunters. [Diodorus Siculus 14.115.5]  Diodorus states that the Celts made themselves appear like Satyrs and Pan. [Diodorus Siculus 5.28.2]  If you add this to their berserker style of fighting, Caesar was fighting people who acted like the frenzied followers of Dionysus straight from Pentheus’ nightmares in Hades, [Eurpides, Bacchae] while Alex was flouncing around the East as if he were the Dionysus from Aristophanes’ Frogs:  dressed up in a hero’s clothes while his character was dressed in his mum’s nightie [Aristophanes, The Frogs 45 ff.]

"Yet despite Caesar's extraordinary efforts in conquering Gaul, he still had respect for those he vanquished – we still know the Celtic names for the cities throughout France [for example Paris and Nantes are named after the local Gallic tribes, and Lyon was Lugdunun].  Alex, by comparison, was so arrogant that for a long time we did not even we know know the Persian name of Persepolis.  This difference is likely because Caesar was not a drunken sot who would be influenced by the suggestion of a prostitute who was brought along on campaign. [Plutarch, Alexander 38]

"That said, I am not suggesting that Caesar was not interested in sexual conquests.  When Caesar returned home, a feat Alex failed to achieve, his soldiers during his Gallic triumph “Men of Rome, lock up your wives, here’s the bald adulterer.”  How did Caesar repay these jokes at his expense? with silver; [Suetonius, Julius Caesar 38, 51] whereas Alex repaid the criticism from his childhood friend Cleitus the Black with death. [Plutarch, Alexander 13.3, 51]  Indeed Caesar’s soldiers stood by him, through the Gallic conquests and civil war, and why would they not?  He had a great respect for their needs and desires.  He shared with them the booty they helped to win, and returned them home to Rome.  Alex, by comparison, was so arrogant he refused to consider his soldier’s desire to return to Macedon and demanded that they marry foreign wives:  its little wonder they mutinied against him. [Plutarch, Alexander 13.3; Arrian, Anabasis 7.4.4-5.6]

"Alex was loosing control at the time of his death.  He was loosing control of his army, his empire and even his own bowels. [Plutarch, Alexander 77 does not actually say that he had diarrhoea, but he was spending most of the time in the bath house and diarrhoea is a common symptom of typhoid]   He is only referred to as great because he died before everything achieved went the same way as his chamber pot.  Without his family’s power, Alex was nothing.  Caesar’s family’s power was nothing, in fact it was a handicap to his political career.  And this was not even the only handicap Caesar faced.  Caesar lived longer, worked harder, was greater.  And he did all of this with the disability of epilepsy, a debilitating disease without the benefit of modern treatment. [Suetonius, Julius Caesar 45.1]

"This afternoon I ask you to answer truly within you hearts who and what is greater:

"Hard work or inheritance.
"Gryffindor or Slytherin.
"Caesar or Alexander.

"You all know the correct answer."