Latin postcards? Select yours here!

Will Griffiths picked up the post on Lorna Robinson and the way she gets children to write Latin postcards, and he sent me this link: http://www.cambridgescp.com/page.php?p=clc^oa_fun^intro

It's the Cambridge Latin Course fun page, and the postcards are definitely worth a look. I particularly like the 'Cynic's Choice', and the various embarrassing or dangerous situations pictured with the speech bubble: Utinam adesses!

By the way, he tells me that a lot of schools are enquiring about how they can start Latin.

That link also gets you to the Roman Calendar which I recommended yonks ago, and again recommend. Every Classics classroom should have one.

And yes, I promise that I'll post a review of that DVD for CLC Book II soon.

New Edition of the Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World

Google can't really compete with a scholarly reference book like this. The new edition is out in paperback at £12.99 and in hardback at £25. See the details here.

Long BBC piece about Lorna Robinson's work

Thanks to Kristian Waite for this link. It's a long article, so worth following the link for the rest.

Reviving a 'dead' language
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News

The children are writing postcards about their favourite things – holidays, sport, food.

But however many times they jot down “wish you were here”, their intended recipients never will be.

They have been dead for about 2,000 years.

It sounds macabre, but a primary school in Hackney, east London, is actually trying to keep something alive.

Latin, the ancient language which has long been in decline in state schools, is being taught in the area for the first time that anyone can remember.

The postcards are written as if they are for children living in ancient Rome.

Class organiser Lorna Robinson has even devised special words – such as “pedifolle” for football and “campus lusorius” for playground – for nine and 10-year-olds at Benthal Primary School to use.

More …

Aeneid sites identified – Daily Telegraph

Telegraph item, thanks to Explorator.

Following in the steps of a Trojan hero

Archaeologists have discovered the place where Aeneas is believed to have first set foot in Italy. Peter Popham reports
Published: 27 April 2007

It is the closest point on the Italian peninsula to Albania and, until efforts by the coastguard some years ago, was the destination of choice for Albanians fleeing poverty for the glamour and prosperity of their wealthy neighbour. But suddenly, the little town of Castro in the province of Lecce has something much more exciting to shout about.

Archaeologists at the University of Lecce have discovered that the modern town, with its 15th-century walls, sits on the ruins of the port that was the first landfall in Italy made by the semi-mythical wanderer of the ancient world, Aeneas. According to Virgil's epic, he fled Troy as the Greeks destroyed it and made his laborious way westwards finally to found a “new Troy”, the imperial city of Rome.

In the third book of the Aeneid, according to John Dryden's 17th-century translation, the poet describes the hero's discovery of Italy thus:

“… And now the rising morn with rosy light

Adorns the skies, and puts the stars to flight;

When we from far, like bluish mists, descry

The hills, and then the plains, of Italy …

The gentle gales their flagging force renew,

And now the happy harbour is in view.

Minerva's temple then salutes our sight,

Plac'd, as a landmark, on the mountain's height …”

Minerva's temple is the key: the head of the Archaeology Department at Lecce University has found clinching evidence of the existence of a temple of Minerva, exactly where the poet describes it. “There is no doubt,” Professor Francesco d'Andria said. “We have found fragments of a female divinity, and many iron weapons given to the goddess as offerings. In this temple a warrior goddess was worshipped. Minerva was worshipped.”

Aeneas was first described as coming to Italy by the poet Stesichorus, writing around 600 BC. But it is the Roman poet Virgil, who died at sea in 19 BC aged 51 before he could complete his masterpiece, who defined him and his voyage for posterity. In the Aeneid, Virgil provided the rapidly rising Roman state with its own national epic in a deliberate effort to out-Homer Homer and the Greek culture of which his poems were a foundation.

Like the Illiad and the Odyssey, the background of the Aeneid is Troy and the 10-year war that culminated in its destruction. Like Odysseus, the poem's hero, Aeneas, the product of a fling between a noble of Troy and the goddess Aphrodite, wanders at length across the oceans with his devoted followers, seeking with increasing desperation the new Troy the gods have promised him. Is it Thrace? Might it be the island of Delos, home to the oracle of Apollo? Clearly not: in both cases the auguries are bad. For a long time he cherishes the idea that Crete is the place. But when he arrives there a pestilence is raging:

“Rising vapours choke the wholesome air

And blasts of noisome winds corrupt the year

The trees devouring caterpillars burn …

My men, some fall and some in fevers fry.”

So it's back on the boat, and the wanderings resume, to what is now Butrint, in the far south of Albania, then across to Castrum Minervae. But, even though they feel they are getting warm now – “Then, 'Italy!' the cheerful crew rebound” – Castrum is not the alotted place either: the apparently benign presence of “four white steeds that cropp'd the flowery field” sends Aeneas' highly superstitious father, Anchises, into a panic: “War, war is threatened from this foreign ground …” And they are off again.

Following directly now in the wake of Homer's Odysseus, the fleet follows the coastline of southern Italy round to Sicily, risking the twin terrors of Scylla and Charybdis – a sea monster and a whirlpool – that mark the approach to the present-day Sicilian city of Messina. More bad luck with the auguries and it's across the Mediterranean to Carthage, on the coast of present-day Tunisia, for the most hectic and perilous stopover.

When Virgil was writing the Aeneid, the most fearful conflict in Rome's history was only a century past: the Punic wars, which lasted 120 years. The Carthaginian commander Hannibal, from his stronghold in Apulia, not far from Castrum Minervae, came closer than anyone – until the arrival of the barbarians centuries later – to destroying Rome.

The war ended, of course, in a Roman triumph, with the legions levelling Carthage. But despite that emphatic victory, more recent events reminded Rome that, for all the city state's martial prowess, Africa presented a menace to which it was vulnerable: “The beds i' the east are soft,” as Shakespeare put it. Cleopatra, who died only 11 years before Virgil, was the lover first of Julius Caesar then, more famously, of Mark Antony. Her downfall and suicide marked the end of Hellenistic domination and the decisive rise of Rome.

So Aeneas's dalliance with Dido, Queen of Carthage, represents the critical moment in the epic, as the hero first commits himself to the passionate queen then, sternly reminded by the gods of his duty, sneaks away with his fleet, hoping to escape before she can find out. In this he fails – she watches them set off, then:

“mounts the fun'ral pile with furious haste;

Unsheathes the sword the Trojan left behind …

and struck; deep entered in her side the piercing steel.”

The discovery of Minerva's Temple, which has prompted Castro's mayor to suggest changing its name to Castrum Minervae, is a striking reminder of the story of Aeneas with its intertwining of Greek myth and historical fact, proto-nationalistic triumphalism and vivid poetry.

Should we perhaps press for democracy in this country?

To someone used to the centralised elective dictatorship of UK education, this glimpse of democracy in action in New York State comes like a breath of air from another planet. Here is a place where apparently the District Board of Education is directly elected, and where parent pressure forced the authority to look for a new Latin teacher when they wanted to close down the subject. A few extracts from the Democrat and Chronicle:

(April 28, 2007) — PENFIELD — Mathematics, Latin and communication issues are the key topics for three candidates seeking two seats on the Penfield Central School District Board of Education.

One of the candidates:

Anand Choudri, 55, of 28 Fox Hill Drive, served on the board from 1996 to 1999, but lost a re-election bid. Choudri, an adjunct professor at Keuka College in Yates County, teaches marketing, finance, economics and accounting.

“I'm running because I believe that there are many improvements that the school district can make,” he said.

He was disappointed that the board eliminated Latin classes because of difficulties finding a teacher. After residents complained, district officials decided to continue seeking a Latin teacher.

“They're losing touch with the community. They're not speaking to the community,” he said.

And another:

Barbara Babiarz, 55, of 29 Wheelock Road, is a speech-language pathologist at the Board of Cooperative Educational Services No. 1 in Fairport has been involved with the PTA and served on the district's facilities committee.

Babiarz also recognizes parent concerns about the math and Latin programs as key issues. She wants the district to offer Latin and she wants the district to add an American Sign Language class.

Should we perhaps press for democracy in this country?

Read the whole piece.

Review of Peter Parsons' book on Oxyrhynchus

The strangely familiar world of Oxyrhynchus
Mary Beard
From the Times Literary Supplement
Peter Parsons [no relation - David Parsons]
CITY OF THE SHARP-NOSED FISH
Greek lives in Roman Egypt
320pp. Weidenfeld and Nicolson. £25.
978 0 297 64588 7

In AD 19, the Roman prince Germanicus paid a royal visit to Alexandria in Egypt. According to a surviving papyrus record, he was given a rapturous reception by the crowds. He had hardly got through the first sentence of his speech (“I was sent by my father, gentlemen of Alexandria . . .”) when they broke into applause. And cries of “Bravo” and “Good luck” continued to punctuate his address – as he begged for a chance to be heard in peace, explained how difficult his journey had been, and how much he was missing his family in Rome (including his adopted father, the Emperor Tiberius, and his “granny”, as he affectionately called the austere – and possibly murderous – Empress Livia), and complimented his listeners on their lovely historic town. The Alexandrians probably overdid their enthusiasm. Another papyrus preserves part of the text of an edict issued by Germanicus on this same visit. The gist of it is that if they continue to treat him like a god, then he will show his displeasure by staying away and making rather fewer epiphanies in the future.

It is hard to know how we should read the tone of Germanicus’ speech to the crowds. Is it an adept piece of semi-improvisation (to judge from the repeated “to begin with”), flattering his audience by sharing his anxieties for his family – showing his caring side, as we might say? Or is it an ill-prepared public performance, in which this pampered aristocrat tactlessly whinges on about the inconvenience of foreign travel and his own homesickness? But, whichever view we take, the speech makes a nice counterpoint to the cynical narrative of the historian Tacitus, who asserts that affairs of state were only a pretext for Germanicus’ arrival in Egypt: he was really on a sightseeing trip. And before long, according to Tacitus, the emperor had given him a gentle reprimand for going native and wearing Greek clothes; and a rather sterner one for entering Egypt without permission – for all Senators required a special “visa” from the emperor to visit that particular province. At the very least, it is a nice reminder for us of how different viewpoints offer a dramatically different perspective on the power politics and internecine squabbles of the Roman imperial family.

The papyrus fragment which preserves a sizeable part of Germanicus’ speech is all that now remains of what was probably a pamphlet commemorating important occasions in the relations between Alexandria and Rome. The other side of the document seems to be an account of an embassy sent from Alexandria to the elderly Emperor Augustus in ad 13, written in the same careless hand. It was found not in Alexandria itself, but in one of the ancient rubbish dumps at the Graeco-Roman town of Oxyrhynchus, about 200 miles to the south. Here, no fewer than half a million papyrus fragments, some large, some very small, were excavated by the British Classicists Bernard P. Grenfell and Arthur S. Hunt over the decade between 1897 and 1907, and shipped to Oxford.

These papyri preserved writing in almost every genre, mostly in Greek, and mostly written in the Roman period: from texts of “lost” plays of Sophocles and Menander to schoolroom writing exercises, from scraps of ancient pornography to contracts and tax documents, from fragments of Christian apocrypha to private letters bewailing illness, arranging weddings, or soliciting a loan. As Peter Parsons puts it in his marvellously evocative City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish (which is the English translation of Oxyrhynchus, and refers to the town’s sacred animal), this amounts to “the paper-trail of a whole culture”. Unlike Pompeii, which preserves the buildings and the bodies of an ancient city, Oxyrhynchus has now no visible remains on site beyond a single column. So far as I can see, for most of us it would hardly be worth the visit. But it exists “as a waste-paper city, a virtual landscape which we can repopulate with living and speaking people”.

History has been kind to Grenfell and Hunt – rather kinder, in some respects, than life itself (his third breakdown ended Grenfell’s academic career in 1920, and he spent his last years in a mental hospital; a few years later, Hunt appears to have been shattered by the death of his only son). Tony Harrison’s play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus reflects their generally friendly reception. Harrison weaves the plot of Sophocles’ Ichneutae, or “Trackers”, which was one of Grenfell and Hunt’s major rediscoveries, into the story of their own tracking down of papyri. In Harrison’s arresting doggerel, the pair come across as an engaging, if dotty, team of boffins, with Grenfell (who is also the Apollo of the ancient drama) being noticeably “highly-strung”: “Grenfell gets so anxious to find dramatic scraps / it almost brought the poor chap close to a collapse”. In fact, their archaeological methods were not much less of a treasure hunt than those of Schliemann. “Good luck with the grave digging”, wrote Grenfell’s brother, aptly, on one occasion to wish them success. With their eyes trained on the holy grail of the lost literary masterpieces of Antiquity, they took little interest in the other material remains of the ancient city, which were still sufficiently well preserved for Flinders Petrie to survey and record in the 1920s: the remains of a large theatre for some 11,000 spectators, as well as a couple of colonnaded streets.

“Most of that stone has since disappeared”, Parsons observes, euphemistically, of the depredations of modern building work that have taken place over the past ninety years. It is hard not to suspect that the favourable reputation of Grenfell and Hunt rests on the fact that they were not ransacking a site for hoards of precious gold and silver, but for these academically priceless pieces of paper. This material came to Oxford in dozens of tin boxes, and was in due course placed for safe keeping between the leaves of back numbers of the University Gazette (which serendipitously was just the right size for the tins). It has been the focus of a thriving scholarly industry ever since.

The first volume of papyri was published by Grenfell and Hunt in 1898 under the aegis of the Egypt Exploration Society, and they continued working together on the decipherment of their discoveries until Grenfell’s final breakdown – when younger members, based in Oxford and University College London, were gradually introduced to the team. Volume LXXII is about to appear (bringing the total of individual new texts and documents published to around 5,000), and forty or so more volumes are in prospect, as well as a collection of essays, Oxyrhynchus: A city and its texts, edited by Alan Bowman and others.

Parsons, who recently retired from the Regius Chair of Greek at Oxford, has been involved with the Oxyrhynchus project for almost half a century. His aim in City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish is to use the surviving scraps of papyrus to provide a guide to the life and letters of this ancient city for the non-specialist as much as for the professional Classicist. (The original germ of the book came from a “Commentary” in the TLS in 1998.) He writes with tremendous verve and wit, and with memorable turns of phrase. I liked, for example, the idea of Egypt being the “California of opportunity” to the Ancient Greeks. The sheer elegance of his style tends to make the reconstruction and synthesis he has attempted look effortless. In fact, it depends on truly phenomenal learning and expertise. It is hard enough to decipher the handwriting of these documents, let alone to work out how any particular fragment might fit into a bigger picture, and then to explain it to a general audience, as he does, without dumbing down.

Parsons evokes a wide range of human experience in this multicultural town (a Greek-speaking community, in the ancient land of the Pharaohs, now under the Roman Empire): from the complaints of its schoolteachers about their pay to the troublesome cough of its reluctant mayor. Several of the stories he tells show vividly how the provincials of the Roman Empire adjusted to interventions from the top, or to developments in Rome itself. A visit of emperor or princeling was one thing. Another problem was the realignments that might have to be made when a new ruler came to the throne or disposed of his rival. This was especially acute when the memory of a previous emperor was “damned” (so-called damnatio memoriae) and his name and images were supposed to be expunged from sight. There was, as Parsons points out, “no easy way of air-brushing the fallen out of history”; it would require tremendous organization to erase all traces of “the late great” from everywhere. What he shows instead are some sporadic attempts by the locals to reflect the new order, as well as a few cases of practical ingenuity. One extract from the journal of the local town council shows that the record of compliments paid to a trio of imperial relatives, who later fell from favour, has been emphatically inked out. In other documents some offending names have been erased, but others apparently not noticed in what must have been a cursory search through the archive. But seals presented difficulties of a different order and might prompt particularly ingenious solutions. At the customs post of Karanis, north of Oxyrhynchus, an official seal had been in use showing the image of the Emperor Septimius Severus, flanked by his two sons, Caracalla and Geta. When Severus died in 211, Caracalla soon had Geta murdered and damned. The response at Karanis was to fill in the image of Geta on the seal with the ancient equivalent of putty, so that it no longer left a mark. Seal stones were presumably pricey, and it would have taken a while to commission a replacement. This was the instant and cheap solution.

Most of the documents at Oxyrhynchus, however, are more concerned with specifically local issues, even if the Roman authorities are present in the background. There are contracts, apprenticeship agreements, accounts, magical spells, legal denunciations, handwriting exercises and thank-you letters. Occasionally the history of an individual family, its trials and tribulations, can be traced through surviving papyri over many years. That is memorably the case for the horribly dysfunctional family of Tryphon, a weaver born in ad 8 or 9. When he was about twenty-five, Tryphon had married a woman, Demetrous, who soon walked out on him: according to his surviving denunciation, “she took a hostile attitude to our marriage and in the end went off, and they took away our property . . .”. In the absence of Demetrous, Tryphon started to live with a woman called Saraeus and signed a formal civil partnership with her in ad 37. But Demetrous was not entirely off the scene; she returned and beat up Saraeus, who was pregnant and miscarried. Another formal denunciation followed. We do not know how Demetrous was finally disposed of, but Saraeus went on to have three children – and then to get into more trouble.

When she was nursing the youngest baby, Apion, she also agreed to wet-nurse a foundling, given to her by a man called Pesouris, who presumably paid for the service. One of the babies died: she claimed that it was the foundling who had died, Pesouris claimed that it was Apion. This tricky judgment of Solomon went before the local governor, who decided against Pesouris “since the child seems from his looks to be Saraeus’s”. Pesouris may well have recognized this for a weak and desperate argument, so he continued to harass Tryphon – who then took his case to the Roman Prefect (that is, provincial governor) himself. Even though Tryphon seems to have won this round, too, Saraeus, pregnant again, found herself beaten up once more by a group of female allies of Pesouris.

All this prompts two awkward questions. First, how typical was life in Oxyrhynchus of life in the Roman world more generally? Can we generalize from Tryphon to the ordinary citizen in Rome itself, or even in Gaul or Britain? The standard scholarly answer used to be “no”. Egypt, so this argument went, was sui generis. With its mixture of native Egyptian, Greek and Roman traditions, it was much more aggressively multicultural than most parts of the Roman Empire. And thanks in part to the lingering influence of pharaonic bureaucracy, it was also a much more literate culture. It was not simply a question of the Egyptian sands providing the optimal conditions for preserving papyrus; most Romans would never have left behind the kind of paper trail that we find at Oxyrhynchus, or lived in a world so dominated by writing. It is perhaps a pity that Parsons does not venture a view on this. But there is an increasingly strong case for tempering somewhat the old view of Egypt’s uniqueness. Though the conditions of their survival are certainly much less favourable elsewhere, ephemeral written documents are now being discovered in greater quantities all over the Empire (especially in Britain), and their themes and concerns are not so very different from the Egyptian material.

The second question is about interpretation. How far is it legitimate to read into these documents a day-to-day life in Antiquity that is broadly like our own, give or take a few quirky or quaint customs? Or how far do we detect in them a radically alien world, pressing at the very limits of our comprehension? Parsons refers to the series of events in Tryphon’s family as a “soap-opera”. If so, it was a particularly nasty one, involving the death of a baby, assault, harassment and miscarriage by violence. But throughout City of the Sharp-Nosed Fish, he tends to paint life in Oxyrhynchus as recognizable and relatively familiar to us. Of course, they did things differently there, but not so very differently. So for example, as Parsons explains, “the gymnasium is cultural centre and country club in one”; bakers made their bread in a kind of terracotta shell or klibanos, such as “are still sold to ambitious home-bakers under the name ‘baking-cloche’”; some crafts trained the next generation with apprenticeships “as we did until quite recently”.

Even those aspects of Oxyrhynchus life that move further up the scale of unfamiliarity still come over as individual oddities, rather than glimpses of an entirely different way of being. Such, for example, were the conventions of writing. There were, apparently, no such things as desks. When you wrote, you rested the papyrus roll on your knee: “the pen wrote me, the right hand and the knee” as one copy of part of the Iliad signs off. Likewise the general lack of sanitation. Parsons probably correctly concludes that the absence of written reference to lavatories is more likely to be due to the fact that there were none, than to modesty about mentioning them. The town, he hints, would have smelled strongly of human and animal waste, and he quotes an extraordinary letter to illustrate the ubiquity of excrement. Missing her absent friend, one Kallirhoe wrote in these affectionate terms: “I make obeisance on your behalf every day before the Lord God Serapis. From the day you left we miss your turds, wishing to see you”. This was too much for the modesty of Grenfell and Hunt, who in the first edition of this papyrus wrote merely, without translating, “A very singular symptom of regret for an absent friend is specified in ll.6–7”. But all you have to do is omit the title “Serapis” and replace “turds” with “laughter”, and it could have been written yesterday.

In some cases it is actually Peter Parsons’s elegant and judicious translation that serves to domesticate the strange. In one papyrus letter, Titianos, probably a Christian, writes to his sister about a lucky recovery. “I was gripped for a long while by an illness”, runs the translation, “so that I couldn’t even stagger. When my illness eased, my eye suppurated and I had tachomas and I suffered terribly and in other parts of my body as well so that it nearly came to surgery, but thank God!” It is the word “surgery”, or “operation” in another modern version, that gives this account a particularly familiar ring, with all its connotations of hospitals, anaesthetic, antiseptic and so forth. In the original Greek, the word in question is “tome”. This means “cutting” – of anything from wood to flesh. “Surgery” is a perfectly legitimate translation, though a rather nice way of putting it. “It nearly came to the knife” or “it nearly came to chopping me up” might be a better reflection of ancient medical procedures – as well as a stronger prompt for us to go beyond the comfortable modern analogies.

“Same or different” is a dilemma for any historian who tries to recapture the structures and concerns of everyday life at whatever period of the past. On the one hand is the obvious fact that some things do not change, or only very slightly. People in Oxyrhynchus would have had coughs and colds, sore feet and blistered hands just as we do; and they may well have baked their bread in ways that are still instantly recognizable to us. On the other is the unnerving thought that these people lived in a world so different from ours as to call into question that superficial familiarity and to challenge our ability to understand, let alone empathize with it. My only qualm with this otherwise brilliant book is the slightly too cosy image it offers of ancient Oxyrhynchus and its people. Much more stands between us and making sense of their world than the decipherment of Grenfell and Hunt’s tins of papyri – fascinating and formidable a task as that is.

_________________________________________________________

Mary Beard is the co-author of The Colosseum, published last year, and of Classics: A very short introduction, 1995. She is the Classics editor of the TLS.

See also New Statesman review.

Great battles of Rome – the computer game reviewed

From Hexus gaming site.

'Si vis pacem, para bellum ' – 'If you seek peace, prepare for war'– Publius Renatus, 390 AD

It's a bit of sweeping statement to say that History is boring. Of course it is, if it's not presented in the right way, but the History Channel has produced some exciting and interesting documentaries, more recently turning to the video games industry in order to spread the word to a new audience. The aptly named 'The History Channel: Great Battles of Rome', is a battle strategy simulation video game from Black Bean Games and the History channel. The latter has jumped on board to add its name to the title, like a stamp of approval, which suggests that the game will stick faithfully to the historical facts. They've also lent over 50 minutes of program footage from their TV shows, hoping to give the game an authentic Ancient World feel and immerse the player in some of the greatest battles of the era.

The influence of the History channel on Great Battles of Rome is clear to see from the outset. The program footage accurately portrays the era and does a good job at building the atmosphere and the tension before you go to battle, as well as giving you an insight into the historical facts surrounding these wars. At times, it does feel as though you're taking part in a history lesson, but this period of Ancient Rome is an interesting one and as the game progressed I became more and more absorbed in the video footage, keen to learn more about this period in history.

The aim of History Channel: Great Battles of Rome is to fight and lead your troops in some of the biggest battles in the Ancient Modern World, at a time where Rome was the centre of the world and tribes warred between themselves in order to gain or protect their territory. Interestingly, there are two perspectives in which you can play the game. First off, and the one that I chose, was the Romans, where you take part in revolts, fight the Gauls, lead the country through civil war and even fight hand-in-hand with Caesar and take on the might of Hannibal and his army of elephants in the Second Punic War. Alternatively, you can choose to fight with the Celts, from the Barbarian perspective, leading them on expeditions and raids through hostile territory, eventually leading to a huge battle against the Romans.

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