NY Times review of Edith Hall: The return of Ulysses

From the New York Times

Is there anything in the Western literary canon with more abundant, potent or frolicsome offspring than Homer’s “Odyssey”? Clearly not, to judge by “The Return of Ulysses,” Edith Hall’s enlightening and entertaining cultural history. Virgil, Monteverdi, James Joyce, Nikos Kazantzakis, Ralph Ellison and Derek Walcott are just a few of the artists to have transformed this spellbinding and mysterious epic into powerful works of their own. But while Hall doesn’t scant such noble descendants, nor Homer’s determinant role in ancient Greek and Roman culture, she is at least as enthusiastic at tracking Odysseus-­Ulysses, the Man of Many Ways, down many a less-traveled path: the “Odyssey” is, after all, she says, “an ancestral text” for “historians, philosophers, psychologists, anthropologists, occult magicians, novelists, science-fiction writers, biographers, autobiographers, movie directors and composers of opera.” (And don’t forget magic realists.)

Read the rest

Slack Roman fort excavation

From the Huddersfield Daily Examiner

Aug 23 2008 by Joanne Douglas, Huddersfield Daily Examiner

ARCHAEOLOGISTS are hoping to uncover more evidence of Roman civilisation near Outlane.

They will be digging at the Slack Roman fort all weekend and hope to find buildings used by soldiers and travellers.

Members of the Huddersfield and District Archaeological Society have already found evidence of a Roman travellers’ station.

They have also uncovered evidence of pottery and cooking vessels.

But now they hope to find buildings where soldiers and local people may have lived.

Field work coordinator Granville Clay said: “We excavated here a year ago and found the water supply to the Roman fort, which nobody knew anything about.

“We discovered evidence that this Roman fort continued to operate for something like 200 years later than anybody suspected before.

“We’ve come back to try to find buildings because we think that while it may not have continued as a military fort it was still a place for civilians, maybe the equivalent of a motorway service station.

“The road over the Pennines needed services for the travellers; somewhere for them to stop, stables for their horses to feed and be watered,’’ said Mr Clay.

“So far this year it looks as though we might have found evidence of a bread oven, a large amount of pottery such as vessels for cooking and eating.

“It seems to have been a real centre of activity.”

During last year’s dig archaeologists found remains of an aqueduct which brought fresh water into the fort.

Investigations since then have revealed that the fresh water supply came from Springhead Farm off New Hey Road.

Experts can date the Roman fort to as late as AD 140, when the troops were moved to Hadrian’s Wall.

But evidence exists which proves there was life on the settlement as late as AD 320.

Members are going to be digging all weekend.

Mr Clay added: “Hopefully this weekend we will be successful in unearthing more evidence of Roman civilisation here.”

The site is open to the public to go along and look at the archaeological dig and find out more.

Report on a Roman Festival at Nijmegen

Nijmegen is not only the oldest Roman city of the Netherlands, it also boasts the Kops Plateau, an archaeological site that has been called “the of Dutch Archaeology”. The comparison to the most famous painting ever made by is a bit exaggerated -Dorestad did more to change our perception of the first millennium- but it’s only a minor exaggeration: the Kops Plateau is one of the most important Roman settlements north of the Alps. It’s the only place that has been identified as the HQs of an entire Roman army – not just a legion, but four of them, with their auxiliaries and allies. This is the place from which Drusus and Tiberius led the invasion of the country east of the Rhine.
Read more, with pictures

Mary Beard’s Pompeii book reviewed

Mary Beard says she has wanted to write about Pompeii for ‘about 30 years’, ever since she travelled
there as an undergraduate with a passion for Roman archaeology. The old town has attracted its fair share of popular attention, from Frankie Howerd to Robert Harris, but rarely has it inspired the scrutiny of a classical scholar who confesses to a fascination with bad breath, Roman sex and ‘the sheer puzzlement of it all. Where did they go to the loo in the amphitheatre?’

And so, while Beard’s new book on Pompeii on the eve of its destruction in AD79 has a sober subtitle – ‘The Life of a Roman Town’ – it will also introduce its readers to the boastful graffito scrawled on the wall of a Pompeii bar that claims: ‘I fucked the landlady.’

None of this will come as much of a surprise to those who have followed the
obiter dicta of the classical world’s most irreverent star turn. Mary
Beard is a classics professor at Newnham College, Cambridge, the
distinguished author of The Roman Triumph and Rome in the Late
Republic, and a breezy feminist who, on a weekly basis, also writes ‘A
Don’s Life’ online for the Times Literary Supplement. The blog has a
global following, with visitors in Swaziland, Afghanistan, Benin and
Taiwan. She believes the Greeks and Romans would have ‘loved the world
wide web – this speed, this access and this extraordinary reach. Don’t
forget it took three months for a letter to cross the Roman empire’.

On a good week, Beard scores a staggering 40,000 hits a day. Visit her site (timesonline.typepad.com/dons_life)
and it’s not difficult to see why. Recent postings include ‘Let’s get
rid of the fascist Olympic torch’, ‘David Beckham’s tattoos’ and
‘One-night stands’. She’s also had a sharp exchange with Zadie Smith
about Trajan’s column and put the world straight on the reality of the
Colosseum (it was sheep, not lions, apparently, and no Christians were
put to death there).

Variously described as ‘maverick’, ‘dangerous’ and ‘wickedly subversive’, 53-year-old Mary Beard (or ‘Beard’ as she refers to herself) is famously the don who, having recorded that the classical philologist Eduard Fraenkel was a notorious groper whose nubile prey included a young Mary Warnock and Iris Murdoch, merrily added that mixed with her sisterly outrage was ‘a certain wistful nostalgia’ for the ‘erotic dimension of classical pedagogy’. So academic sexual harassment was OK? All hell broke loose.

But the trouble this got her into with her bien pensant colleagues was as nothing to the reaction she got from her post-9/11 statement in the London Review of Books that, ‘however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think’. Again uproar, hate mail and obloquy. But Beard simply dusted herself down and set about replying to her postbag.

That’s the great thing about your full-blown classicist: for students of Homer, Ovid and Thucydides, there’s nothing new under the sun. By the same token, the tall, witchily grey-haired, rather shambling scholar in academic robes who crosses the Newnham quadrangle to greet me on a dank vacation afternoon could have stepped from the cloister at any time in the last 2,000 years.

It’s probably the classics as much as her cheerful nature that makes the professor, on first encounter, not so much ‘dangerous’ as an angst-free zone, tough-minded and inwardly secure. Was this, I wondered, to do with growing up an only child? ‘It was enormously good fun,’ she replies, happily recalling her beginnings in rural Shropshire.

She was born on 1 January 1955, the daughter of middle-class professionals. Her mother was headmistress of a junior school, her father an architect, ‘an endearing public-school boy, you know, [pause] drunkard, [pause] you know. Jovial and clever’.  When the family moved to Shrewsbury, which she remembers both as ‘extremely exciting and slightly dull, especially if you were a sparky female teenager’, young Mary found ‘friends from many different age groups, and a slightly dangerous load of older men, most of whom,’ she adds wickedly, ‘are now safely dead’. There were plenty of ‘scrapes’, she admits. ‘Playing around with other people’s husbands when you were 17 was bad news. Yes, I was a very naughty girl.’

At her direct grant school, Beard was the star pupil. ‘I did Latin and Greek and I was very good at it,’ she says matter-of-factly. At this point, she does that English amateur thing of affecting to treat her studies as a bit of a game: ‘Never being much of a swot, with no interest in homework, I used to do a term’s worth of unseen translations in the first week and have the rest of the term to myself.’

As an enfant terrible with a good brain, she acquired a taste for risk. ‘Beard’s secret,’ she says, ‘is always to be slightly on the edge, but to pull back from disaster at the last minute. When the chips were down,’ she goes on, ‘Beard was happy to sit down with her unseen translations and get her As. So she learnt she could run with the hares and hunt with the hounds.’ In the same spirit, she took up archaeology, which gave her the best alibi. ‘People would ask, what’s Beard going to do for her
summer holiday, and you’d say something about a dig. Perfect!’

She had plenty of models for provincial trangression, notably her sixth-form English master, Frank McEarchan, from Shrewsbury school, who took some of the clever local direct grant girls under his wing in the run up to the now defunct Oxbridge exam. Beard remembers that ‘McEarchan was terribly influential. He taught us reams of English poetry, which we had to learn for financial reward. So it was 50p for Prufrock and some enormous sum (which he never had to pay out) for The Wreck of the Deutschland. Twenty quid, I suppose. Enough to get you to Greece.’

‘He’d probably be arrested nowadays but it was wonderful stuff. You had to stand on a chair – the Magic Chair – repeat the spell, “Beware, beware, the magic chair” – and recite poetry. Anything from Eliot to Bob Dylan.’ Another volcanic laugh. ‘I did so little science it’s an embarrassment.’ What else did she read? ‘Loads of poetry and the novels of Margaret Drabble. You know: How we were going
to go to Cambridge, and get pregnant and go into the BBC.’

So who exactly was the Shropshire lass who applied to Cambridge in 1972? ‘Well,’ says Beard, ‘she was terribly left wing. I remember plastering the kitchen with Black Power pictures of Angela Davis.’ She toyed with King’s, until she discovered that it did not offer scholarships to women. ‘It wasn’t until I got to Cambridge,’ she says acidly, ‘that I discovered active discrimination against women.’ Today, however, she can laugh about the Roman epigraphy classes where her tutor would pose ‘clever questions for the clever men and domestic questions for the dumb girls’.

Cambridge made her a don. ‘I became more of a swot – though a disguising swot, of course – I was very much a Newnham girl.’ Student drama, music or journalism? ‘Not a thing. I was wilfully unpromising. I didn’t know any of the sexy people, didn’t know Griff Rhys Jones. At 21, I was what you might call a bluestocking – with added sex.’

Beard is still the ‘disguising swot’. When she says: ‘I’ve been bloody lucky with my jobs’, she’s leaving out a lot of hard slog. She refers, almost en passant, to getting married (to art historian Robin Cormack) and having two children, a boy and a girl, now grown up. The first time she was asked to write a review for the TLS, she thought: ‘Gosh, how glamorous. It wasn’t something I had thought of doing.’ When family life kicked in, it struck her, she says, ‘that book reviews are perfect for a woman with two kids under three who has no time for the big projects, but who wants to keep the intellectual wheels rolling’.

Beard presents herself as a provincial outsider, but she was probably more in than she’s letting on, because when her TLS mentor John Sturrock retired and she asked the editor Ferdinand Mount who would take over, Mount replied: ‘We rather hoped you would come on board – would you?’ It was a moment, says Beard, ‘that was the making of me’.

Well, not quite. What actually made her Britain’s best-known classicist, and the approachable, slightly batty don the media turn to for quotations about Greece and Rome, was the furore about her response to 9/11. The weeks after the attack, she says, now in classical mode, were ‘an intense moment of aporia. We were all over the bloody place. It was just not clear how language worked. I suppose my words got caught up in those extraordinary weeks.’

‘Today,’ she concedes, ‘I would put it differently. Now I would probably sound like the Archbishop of Canterbury.’ But she’s unrepentant. ‘Yes, I do think I should have said what I said. That’s what academics are for.  Speaking their minds is what you want your poor little dons to do.’ Beard’s outspokenness got her noticed. When she was offered a blog by Guardian Unlimited, ‘Peter [Stothard, the current TLS editor] said, “You should do a blog for us.” So I did. I was a complete tyro. I didn’t ask myself, do I want to do a blog at all? It just took off.’

Beard has been surprised by cyberspace. ‘When I started, I thought, oh help. This is cheap, tawdry, debased form of journalism, blah blah. I have come to find that it’s a hugely interesting form of journalism in the most surprising way. I can use the layers of the web to take people to places that would never appear in a broadsheet. For instance, I can give the English and the Latin texts of the Res Gestae. You can talk up, not down.’ She enthuses about ‘this incredible reach. What’s exciting is the combination of this IT Leviathan with a sort of intimacy. My cynical colleagues will say, “Beard, you’re being naive. Think about the power relations. Where are the poor and the elderly on the web?”‘

What else would her colleagues say about her? ‘They would say,’ she answers, smiling serenely, ‘that I work incredibly hard.’ Beard writes her classical blog late at night and checks her work in the morning before pressing send ‘just in case I was too pissed’. She writes it on aircraft and in bars and says she has now found her own voice. ‘I spend more time on it than I used to. I always go into the threads. You can’t say, I write my blog and here it is, but then don’t reply.’ Pause. ‘You have to engage.’ Later, as we say goodbye, she adds mischievously: ‘I also have up my sleeve a corker of
a blog about all the things we get wrong about Pompeii, the number of brothels, for example … ‘

Art: From the ashes of Vesuvius

Preview for an exhibition, it seems.
From the Philadelphia Inquirer

Art still lives in the places the volcano buried. Some will be shown this fall in D.C.

First of two articles

POMPEII, Italy – This is a dead city, buried more than 19 centuries ago by ash and pumice spewing from Mount Vesuvius, and now about 80 percent dug out. Herculaneum is even deader, buried more deeply under nearly 100 feet of fossilized volcanic mud and lava. So far, less than half of it has been exposed.

Every year more than 2.5 million tourists flock to these once-thriving Roman cities. What do they see? In Pompeii, empty streets, buildings open to the sky, their upper stories often long collapsed, broken columns, several open-air theaters.

There’s very little shade, practically no greenery. In the broiling summer heat, the only respite is a modern air-conditioned snack bar inserted incongruously into the landscape of broken, dun-colored masonry. Yet there is life here (besides tourists, of course) if one knows where to look for it.

For instance, the thresholds of several houses are decorated with mosaics of dogs – one even bears the Latin inscription cave canem, beware of the dog. On another street, a public water fountain once fed by a 65-mile-long aqueduct sports a sculpture of a stone head; the water poured from the mouth.

Hundreds of Romans died in Vesuvius’ eruption. Later excavators removed most of the artifacts to places like the archaeological museum in Naples, 15 miles to the north.

But they didn’t remove all the art, the mosaics and particularly the wall paintings. Many of these remain in place, often cracked and abraded but still as evocative of their time as they were exactly 1,929 years ago today, when the sky began to rain ash and stones.

It’s this art that invests Pompeii, the much smaller Herculaneum, and several other sites on the coast south of Naples with a human presence. The artists and artisans who composed the elaborate floor mosaics from thousands of tiny tesserae remain anonymous, but their work endures to enchant those visitors who take the time to examine what they created.

I have long admired Roman wall paintings, usually referred to as frescoes even though they were painted on dry, not damp, plaster. It’s not just the intense colors – the Romans favored a dusky red derived from the mercury compound cinnabar – but also the delicacy and ethereality of the figures.

Last year, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened its expanded Greek and Roman galleries, visitors encountered two spectacular reconstructed rooms from villas near Pompeii. More than the objects and sculptures, these vividly evoked a feeling of time and place.

A similar experience will open in Washington on Oct. 19 at the National Gallery of Art with a lavish exhibition called “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples.” The show was organized by the National Gallery in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and with the cooperation of several Italian cultural agencies.

Through more than 150 objects, many lent by the archaeological museum in Naples, the show aims to convey the luxurious ambience of aristocratic Roman life around the Bay of Naples. One highlight is a reconstructed dining room from a villa at Moregine, south of Pompeii, that will give visitors a taste of Roman wall-painting at its most elegant.

It is these paintings on plaster, typically seven layers thick, and the extensive mosaics that often cover whole floors that most effectively convey Roman taste in the ruined cities and villas. The Naples museum abounds with splendid examples of both, including a huge mosaic, partially destroyed, that depicts Alexander the Great fighting the Persians.

The Alexander mosaic comes from the House of the Faun in Pompeii; if you go there, you’ll find a replica in the courtyard. The villa takes its name from a small bronze sculpture of a faun near the entrance. The sculpture is another reproduction; the original is in Naples.

It matters not, because by themselves these two works impart a distinctive spirit to the rambling ruin of a villa. For instance, the mosaic speaks to the strong influence of Greek and Hellenistic culture in the Naples region (the city was founded by Greeks as Neapolis).

Another villa, the House of Menander, is named for a small portrait mural of the eponymous Greek dramatist. Besides affirming the owner’s admiration for Greek civilization, the mural also points up a striking contrast between Roman sculpture and painting.

The sculpture tends to be assertively masculine and often martial, especially when executed at heroic scale. The painting, like the Menander mural, often features women, especially goddesses, and motifs from nature. It’s typically more delicate, refined and poetic. Colors can be bold – cinnabar red, ochre and black tend to dominate – but line is always graceful and lyrical.

This suggests that in their public spaces like Pompeii’s forum the Romans used art to declaim imperial power and majesty, while in their domestic spaces they preferred decoration that was softer, sometimes whimsical and more feminine in spirit.

This is true, too, for the mosaics, which are usually composed in black and white and often in geometric patterns. When they opted for realism, the designers excelled in marine motifs. One of the most dazzling mosaics in the archaeological museum is a dense conglomeration of sea creatures, all presumably native to the waters off Pompeii.

As one expects, the villas are more elaborately decorated than the ordinary “rowhouses” that line Pompeii’s narrow streets. In some of the larger villas at locations closer to Vesuvius, such as Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae, whole rooms have survived – damaged, and their colors somewhat faded, but their glory still impressive.

Rich Romans seem to have abhorred blank spaces. In one villa, walls in the servant areas are covered with patterns of alternating diagonal lines that look very much like Jasper Johns’ Corpse and Mirror abstractions.

It’s always preferable to see architectural art in its original context, which one can do by visiting a half-dozen archaeological sites near Vesuvius. When this isn’t practical, the best alternative is an exhibition such as “Pompeii and the Roman Villa.”

Because it focuses on the rich and high-born, it doesn’t present a comprehensive picture of Roman culture in 79 A.D., but it does allow us to appreciate the Romans’ remarkable aesthetic vocabulary, preserved by volcanic ash and mud for nearly two millennia.


Next week: Luxurious villas reveal a different dimension of Roman life and the eruption.