Roman temple site in Southwell

This is Nottingham

A LEADING archaeologist believes a missing link in history could be uncovered at an emerging Roman temple site in Southwell.

Bryn Walters, director and secretary of the Association for Roman Archeology, says a significant link between Paganism and Christianity could be uncovered at the former Minster School site.

Archeologists who unearthed a large wall dating back as far as 43AD suspect it may be part of a complex of religious buildings including a Roman pagan temple and bathing monument, known as a ‘nymphaeum’.

The wall is made from large smooth-faced sandstone blocks typically used for lavish Roman buildings.

Mr Walters, an archeologist of more than 30 years, says it is rare for a such a significant find to be discovered close to a “major centre for Christianity” like Southwell Minster.

He is calling for archeologists to be given time and resources to conduct a thorough search of the area to yield artifacts which may prove a link between the two religions.

Mr Walters said: “Southwell is something special. What we have got here is the transition between Paganism and Christianity.

“It is the continuation of religious practice on that site.

“Southwell has developed into a very major centre for Christianity.

“There are Roman buildings very close by. Now this possible pagan temple has turned up.

“Southwell could prove to be important for research into the development and transition of religion from the Roman through to modern times.

“We need to extract the maximum amount of information from the area before it’s lost forever.”

The discovery is only the second Roman pagan temple to be found in Notts after a previous discovery in 1963 near the new East Midlands Parkway Station.

The site in Southwell also contains what is believed to be a large villa and up to four graves.

Ursilla Spence, senior archaeological officer for Notts County Council, who is leading the excavation, fears the discovery may be too damaged to provide a conclusive link between Christianity and Paganism.

But she said the find is one of the most exciting in her 25-year career.

Ms Spence said: “We certainly have got something substantial that is completely out of character for the East Midlands and probably most of the UK.

“But what it is, we don’t know. The archeology is so damaged.

“At the moment we have a number of stories but we are looking for the archeology that ties them all together.

“It is a bit like a jigsaw where you are missing pieces.

“I am not convinced that there is enough of it left because of the building developments that happened afterwards.”

Remains of Roman burial caskets found in Bourton

Cotswold Journal

Remains of Roman burial caskets found in Bourton

11:26am Thursday 19th February 2009

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The richness of Bourton-on-the-Water’s contribution to archaeology was greatly enhanced by the discovery 75 years ago of what appeared to be the site of a Roman house which, in the faraway days of the of the Roman occupation of Britain, belonged to a family of considerable substance, The Journal reported: “Men were digging out a drainage course for a new bungalow being built at Lansdowne by Mr R G Lawrence, when they came across the remains of a Roman paved floor.

“Their curiosity aroused, they summoned their employer and shortly afterwards unearthed two large lead caskets, each weighing three and a half hundredweight.

“These were exquisitely marked with rope design and are stated to be Roman funerary caskets that were thrown out as not good enough for their original purpose.

“It was the custom of Romans in the old days to cremate their dead and to put the small casket containing the ashes into a larger casket.

“The caskets found at Bourton would be the larger type and the belief that they were thrown away as unsuitable is suggested by the fact that they were empty.

“They have been given by Mr Lawrence to the Cheltenham Museum.

“Mr Lawrence called in Miss H E Donovan, honorary secretary of the Bourton excavations committee, the body responsible for the work on the Salmonsbury Camp site.

“Miss Donovan and helpers were greatly interested in the new finds and in quick time added to them by their discovery of part of a Roman house wall, nine Roman coins dating from the third and fourth centuries of the Roman occupation and examples of Samnium pottery.

“It was the finding of the latter which indicated that the occupants of the house were probably of some wealth and standing.”

Extrac from Mary Beard’s book on ancient humour

The Times publishes an extract from Mary Beard’s lectures, now a book (details scroll down to thebottom). As I forecast when the US university put the first two on line, you’ll have to pay to read the rest.

In the third century BC, when Roman ambassadors were negotiating with the Greek city of Tarentum, an ill-judged laugh put paid to any hope of peace. Ancient writers disagree about the exact cause of the mirth, but they agree that Greek laughter was the final straw in driving the Romans to war.

One account points the finger at the bad Greek of the leading Roman ambassador, Postumius. It was so ungrammatical and strangely accented that the Tarentines could not conceal their amusement. The historian Dio Cassius, by contrast, laid the blame on the Romans’ national dress. “So far from receiving them decently”, he wrote, “the Tarentines laughed at the Roman toga among other things. It was the city garb, which we use in the Forum. And the envoys had put this on, whether to make a suitably dignified impression or out of fear – thinking that it would make the Tarentines respect them. But in fact groups of revellers jeered at them.” One of these revellers, he goes on, even went so far as “to bend down and shit” all over the offending garment. If true, this may also have contributed to the Roman outrage. Yet it is the laughter that Postumius emphasized in his menacing, and prophetic, reply. “Laugh, laugh while you can. For you’ll be weeping a long time when you wash this garment clean with your blood.”

Despite the menace, this story has an immediate appeal. It offers a rare glimpse of how the pompous, toga-clad Romans could appear to their fellow inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean; and a rare confirmation that the billowing, cumbersome wrap-around toga could look as comic to the Greeks of South Italy as it does to us. But at the same time the story combines some of the key ingredients of ancient laughter: power, ethnicity and the nagging sense that those who mocked their enemies would soon find themselves laughed at. It was, in fact, a firm rule of ancient “gelastics” – to borrow a term (from the Greek gelan, to laugh) from Stephen Halliwell’s weighty new study of Greek laughter – that the joker was never far from being the butt of his own jokes. The Latin adjective ridiculus, for example, referred both to something that was laughable (“ridiculous” in our sense) and to something or someone who actively made people laugh.

Laughter was always a favourite device of ancient monarchs and tyrants, as well as being a weapon used against them. The good king, of course, knew how to take a joke. The tolerance of the Emperor Augustus in the face of quips and banter of all sorts was still being celebrated four centuries after his death. One of the most famous one-liners of the ancient world, with an afterlife that stretches into the twentieth century (it gets retold, with a different cast of characters but the same punchline, both in Freud and in Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea), was a joking insinuation about Augustus’ paternity. Spotting, so the story goes, a man from the provinces who looked much like himself, the Emperor asked if the man’s mother had ever worked in the palace. “No”, came the reply, “but my father did.” Augustus wisely did no more than grin and bear it.

Tyrants, by contrast, did not take kindly to jokes at their own expense, even if they enjoyed laughing at their subjects. Sulla, the murderous dictator of the first century BC, was a well-known philogelos (“laughter-lover”), while schoolboy practical jokes were among the techniques of humiliation employed by the despot Elagabalus. He is said to have had fun, for example, seating his dinner guests on inflatable cushions, and then seeing them disappear under the table as the air was gradually let out. But the defining mark of ancient autocrats (and a sign of power gone – hilariously – mad) was their attempt to control laughter. Some tried to ban it (as Caligula did, as part of the public mourning on the death of his sister). Others imposed it on their unfortunate subordinates at the most inappropriate moments. Caligula, again, had a knack for turning this into exquisite torture: he is said to have forced an old man to watch the execution of his son one morning and, that evening, to have invited the man to dinner and insisted that he laugh and joke. Why, asks the philosopher Seneca, did the victim go along with all this? Answer: he had another son.

Ethnicity, too, was good for a laugh, as the story of the Tarentines and the toga shows. Plenty more examples can be found in the only joke book to have survived from the ancient world. Known as the Philogelos, this is a composite collection of 260 or so gags in Greek probably put together in the fourth century ad but including – as such collections often do – some that go back many years earlier. It is a moot point whether the Philogelos offers a window onto the world of ancient popular laughter (the kind of book you took to the barber’s shop, as one antiquarian Byzantine commentary has been taken to imply), or whether it is, more likely, an encyclopedic compilation by some late imperial academic. Either way, here we find jokes about doctors, men with bad breath, eunuchs, barbers, men with hernias, bald men, shady fortune-tellers, and more of the colourful (mostly male) characters of ancient life.

Pride of place in the Philogelos goes to the “egg-heads”, who are the subject of almost half the jokes for their literal-minded scholasticism (“An egg-head doctor was seeing a patient. ‘Doctor’, he said, ‘when I get up in the morning I feel dizzy for 20 minutes.’ ‘Get up 20 minutes later, then’”). After the “egg-heads”, various ethnic jokes come a close second. In a series of gags reminiscent of modern Irish or Polish jokes, the residents of three Greek towns – Abdera, Kyme and Sidon – are ridiculed for their “how many Abderites does it take to change a light bulb?” style of stupidity. Why these three places in particular, we have no idea. But their inhabitants are portrayed as being as literal-minded as the egg-heads, and even more obtuse. “An Abderite saw a eunuch talking to a woman and asked if she was his wife. When he replied that eunuchs can’t have wives, the Abderite asked, ‘So is she your daughter then?’” And there are many others on predictably similar lines.

The most puzzling aspect of the jokes in the Philogelos is the fact that so many of them still seem vaguely funny. Across two millennia, their hit-rate for raising a smile is better than that of most modern joke books. And unlike the impenetrably obscure cartoons in nineteenth-century editions of Punch, these seem to speak our own comic language. In fact, the stand-up comedian Jim Bowen has recently managed to get a good laugh out of twenty-first-century audiences with a show entirely based on jokes from the Philogelos (including one he claims – a little generously – to be a direct ancestor of Monty Python’s Dead Parrot sketch).

Why do they seem so modern? In the case of Jim Bowen’s performance, careful translation and selection has something to do with it (I doubt that contemporary audiences would split their sides at the one about the crucified athlete who looked as if he was flying instead of running). There is also very little background knowledge required to see the point of these stories, in contrast to the precisely topical references that underlie so many Punch cartoons. Not to mention the fact that some of Bowen’s audience are no doubt laughing at the sheer incongruity of listening to a modern comic telling 2,000-year-old gags, good or bad.

But there is more to it than that. It is not, I suspect, much to do with supposedly “universal” topics of humour (though death and mistaken identity bulked large then as now). It is more a question of a direct legacy from the ancient world to our own, modern, traditions of laughter. Anyone who has been a parent, or has watched parents with their children, will know that human beings learn how to laugh, and what to laugh at (clowns OK, the disabled not). On a grander scale, it is – in large part at least – from the Renaissance tradition of joking that modern Western culture itself has learned how to laugh at “jokes”; and that tradition looked straight back to antiquity. One of the favourite gags in Renaissance joke books was the “No-but-my-father-did” quip about paternity, while the legendary Cambridge classicist Richard Porson is supposed to have claimed that most of the jokes in the famous eighteenth-century joke book Joe Miller’s Jests could be traced back to the Philogelos. We can still laugh at these ancient jokes, in other words, because it is from them that we have learned what “laughing at jokes” is.

This is not to say, of course, that all the coordinates of ancient laughter map directly onto our own. Far from it. Even in the Philogelos a few of the jokes remain totally baffling (though perhaps they are just bad jokes). But, more generally, Greeks and Romans could laugh at different things (the blind, for example – though rarely, unlike us, the deaf); and they could laugh, and provoke laughter, on different occasions to gain different ends. Ridicule was a standard weapon in the ancient courtroom, as it is only rarely in our own. Cicero, antiquity’s greatest orator, was also by repute its greatest joker; far too funny for his own good, some sober citizens thought.

There are some particular puzzles, too, ancient comedy foremost among them. There may be little doubt that the Athenian audience laughed heartily at the plays of Aristophanes, as we can still. But very few modern readers have been able to find much to laugh at in the hugely successful comedies of the fourth-century dramatist Menander, formulaic and moralizing as they were. Are we missing the joke? Or were they simply not funny in that laugh-out-loud sense? Discussing the plays in Greek Laughter, Halliwell offers a possible solution. Conceding that “Menandrian humour, in the broadest sense of the term, is resistant to confident diagnosis” (that is, we don’t know if, or how, it is funny), he neatly turns the problem on its head. They are not intended to raise laughs; rather “they are actually in part about laughter”. Their complicated “comic” plots, and the contrasts set up within them between characters we might want to laugh at and those we want to laugh with, must prompt the audience or reader to reflect on the very conditions that make laughter possible or impossible, socially acceptable or unacceptable. For Halliwell, in other words, Menander’s “comedy” functions as a dramatic essay on the fundamental principles of Greek gelastics.

On other occasions, it is not always immediately clear how or why the ancients ranked things as they did, on the scale between faintly amusing and very funny indeed. Halliwell mentions in passing a series of anecdotes that tell of famous characters from antiquity who laughed so much that they died. Zeuxis, the famous fourth-century Greek painter, is one. He collapsed, it is said, after looking at his own painting of an elderly woman. The philosopher Chrysippus and the dramatist Polemon, a contemporary of Menander, are others. Both of these were finished off, as a similar story in each case relates, after they had seen an ass eating some figs that had been prepared for their own meal. They told their servants to give the animal some wine as well – and died laughing at the sight.

The conceit of death by laughter is a curious one and not restricted to the ancient world. Anthony Trollope, for example, is reputed to have “corpsed” during a reading of F. Anstey’s comic novel Vice Versa. But what was it about these particular sights (or Vice Versa, for that matter) that proved so devastatingly funny? In the case of Zeuxis, it is not hard to detect a well-known strain of ancient misogyny. In the other cases, it is presumably the confusion of categories between animal and human that produces the laughter – as we can see in other such stories from antiquity.

For a similar confusion underlies the story of one determined Roman agelast (“non-laugher”), the elder Marcus Crassus, who is reputed to have cracked up just once in his lifetime. It was after he had seen a donkey eating thistles. “Thistles are like lettuce to the lips of a donkey”, he mused (quoting a well-known ancient proverb) – and laughed. There is something reminiscent here of the laughter provoked by the old-fashioned chimpanzees’ tea parties, once hosted by traditional zoos (and enjoyed for generations, until they fell victim to modern squeamishness about animal performance and display). Ancient laughter, too, it seems, operated on the boundaries between human and other species. Highlighting the attempts at boundary crossing, it both challenged and reaffirmed the division between man and animal.

Halliwell insists that one distinguishing feature of ancient gelastic culture is the central role of laughter in a wide range of ancient philosophical, cultural and literary theory. In the ancient academy, unlike the modern, philosophers and theorists were expected to have a view about laughter, its function and meaning. This is Halliwell’s primary interest.

His book offers a wide survey of Greek laughter from Homer to the early Christians (an increasingly gloomy crowd, capable of seeing laughter as the work of the Devil), and the introduction is quite the best brief overview of the role of laughter in any historical period that I have ever read. But Greek Laughter is not really intended for those who want to discover what the Greeks found funny or laughed at. There is, significantly, no discussion of the Philogelos and no entry for “jokes” in the index. The main focus is on laughter as it appears within, and is explored by, Greek literary and philosophical texts.

In those terms, some of his discussions are brilliant. He gives a clear and cautious account of the views of Aristotle – a useful antidote to some of the wilder attempts to fill the gap caused by the notorious loss of Aristotle’s treatise on comedy. But the highlight is his discussion of Democritus, the fifth-century philosopher and atomist, also renowned as antiquity’s most inveterate laugher. An eighteenth-century painting of this “laughing philosopher” decorates the front cover of Greek Laughter. Here Democritus adopts a wide grin, while pointing his bony finger at the viewer. It is a slightly unnerving combination of jollity and threat.

The most revealing ancient discussion of Democritus’ laughing habit is found in an epistolary novel of Roman date, included among the so-called Letters of Hippocrates – a collection ascribed to the legendary founding father of Greek medicine, but in fact written centuries after his death. The fictional exchanges in this novel tell the story of Hippocrates’ encounter with Democritus. In the philosopher’s home city, his compatriots had become concerned at the way he laughed at everything he came across (from funerals to political success) and concluded that he must be mad. So they summoned the most famous doctor in the world to cure him. When Hippocrates arrived, however, he soon discovered that Democritus was saner than his fellow citizens. For he alone had recognized the absurdity of human existence, and was therefore entirely justified in laughing at it.

Under Halliwell’s detailed scrutiny, this epistolary novel turns out to be much more than a stereotypical tale of misapprehension righted, or of a madman revealed to be sane. How far, he asks, should we see the story of Democritus as a Greek equivalent of the kind of “existential absurdity” now more familiar from Samuel Beckett or Albert Camus? Again, as with his analysis of Menander, he argues that the text raises fundamental questions about laughter. The debates staged between Hippocrates and Democritus amount to a series of reflections on just how far a completely absurdist position is possible to sustain. Democritus’ fellow citizens take him to be laughing at literally everything; and, more philosophically, Hippocrates wonders at one point whether his patient has glimpsed (as Halliwell puts it) “a cosmic absurdity at the heart of infinity”. Yet, in the end, that is not the position that Democritus adopts. For he regards as “exempt from mockery” the position of the sage, who is able to perceive the general absurdity of the world. Democritus does not, in other words, laugh at himself, or at his own theorizing.

What Halliwell does not stress, however, is that Democritus’ home city is none other than Abdera – the town in Thrace whose people were the butt of so many jokes in the Philogelos. Indeed, in a footnote, he briefly dismisses the idea “that Democritean laughter itself spawned the proverbial stupidity of the Abderites”. But those interested in the practice as much as the theory of ancient laughter will surely not dismiss the connection so quickly. For it was not just a question of a “laughing philosopher” or of dumb citizens who didn’t know what a eunuch was. Cicero, too, could use the name of the town as shorthand for a topsy-turvy mess: “It’s all Abdera here”, he writes of Rome. Whatever the original reason, by the first century BC, “Abdera” (like modern Tunbridge Wells, perhaps, though with rather different associations) had become one of those names that could be guaranteed to get the ancients laughing.

Stephen Halliwell
A study of cultural psychology from Homer to early Christianity
632pp. Cambridge University Press. £70 (paperback, £32.50). US $140 (paperback, $65).
978 0 521 88900 1

Mary Beard is the author of The Roman Triumph published in 2007 and Pompeii: The life of a Roman town, 2008. She is Classics editor of the TLS.

ArLT History – highs and lows

When I posted that stimulating and amusing Dorothy Sayers lecture given to the ARLT in the 50s (available by the tab at the top of your scren) I referred to the workaday reports among which it shone out stellar.

In some sort of an attempt to put a fuller history of ARLT on line, I spent an hour yesterday scanning some of these reports.

I can’t imagine anyone will rush to print out and study these, but they are a resource for the brave and scholarly souls who have undertaken to write a centenary history in time for the 2011 Summer School. (These souls almost certainly have the print versions on their shelves already.)

After the high point of 1952 when more than 90 teachers heard Dorothy Sayers, 1953 was a comparative flop, and the report does not mince its words:

IT must be confessed that this year’s Summer School, held at Coolhurst near Horsham, August 23rd to 31st, was not the unqualified success that most of its predecessors have been. In the first place, so many intending members cancelled so late that the Association could not help losing money on the course; and in the second place, there were certain domestic difficulties, which caused the director and secretary great anxiety and the rest of the members frequent discomfort. These very difficulties seemed, however, to produce the right spirit among those present, and helped to weld the community together probably even more than usual. The academic side of the course was as good as ever, and attendance at lectures, demonstrations, etc. always keen and full. Indeed one old and seasoned member of the association was heard to say that although the domestic side of the course was probably the worst in his experience, the academic side had much more to offer than the older summer schools, and members were certainly making the best use of all that was provided.

The ‘newcomer’ teacher that year, who was asked to write his or her impressions, did not give the glowing praise that we are used to reading these days in the JCT reports section. Here is some of what was written:

After the delays and discomforts of a long raid journey on a Sunday—a wet and dreary Sunday at that—I arrived in time to have missed tea and to make my bed with a couple of blankets which had seen better days in a place which seemed to possess all the more depressing features of the less well run Youth Hostels. …

I attended all the lectures, demonstration classes, etc., and at the end of the week felt in need of a holiday. The lecturers and demonstrators must have been really exhausted. All of which is a tribute to the enthusiasm of the elect.

There seemed little doubt of the effectiveness of the Oral Method in the hands of experts, though no doubt enthusiastic teachers like Dr. Loehry or Miss Silverwood would do well whatever their method and I found others beside myself thinking that it might be worth trying at least on a small scale.

Damning with faint praise, I think.

The newcomer reporting on 1954’s Summer School (a more successful one, apparently) raised a basic issue:

THE hopes of not a few who attended the School were tempered by it few vague fears. The Association appears to be fighting for both sides of the field at once, and many teachers find themselves leaving the traditional path only to slip upon the question why teach Latin at all? It was all very disconcerting, certainly not what they expected, and much more than they paid for. And it was therefore all the more trying of the lecturers sometimes to forget that behind some of the questions they were asked there lurked, unrecognised and the more disturbing for that, a second question of Purpose.

For instance, someone asked what one should tell a class which wanted to know what it was all for anyway ? The reply was that it the class were being taught properly they would accept the subject Without asking why. For this is surely both untrue and doubly unhelpful. Children are not always able to make their problems explicit, nor should they be encouraged to unthinking obedience. Then, too, it seemed to me that the question (though shyly framed) was asked as much for the teacher’s sake as for the children’s, and it was dishonest to leave it unanswered—to encourage us to reform our own methods and disparage those of our predecessors With only the slightest reference to the fundamentals. Fundamental problems are to-day the concern of teachers of any method, reformed or otherwise, and the school, not I think unwilling to take the praise for bringing such problems to the light, should have answered them as well as it could.

To me it seems that ARLT was in a rut at this time. The Summer Schools were largely composed of demonstration lessons, an hour on Catullus was a rare treat. One newcomer tellingly referred to ‘the elite’. Ow! I must confess that on my first visit to an ARLT Summer School, in Chichester, there was still a bit of that hierarchical feeling. We didn’t have a lovely welcome drinks party on the first evening – we awaited a formal invitation to one evening of “Drinks with the President.” Oh dear, oh dear.

When I compare this with the highly effective, varied and stimulating Summer Schools ArLT now provides, where teachers share on friendly and equal terms from the word Go, and find the answers to the questions they have come with, and find lots of good new friends at the same time, I am thankful to be living now. (I think a warm tribute is due to a group of younger teachers a few years ago who engineered the changes, largely inspired by Peter Geall. Here’s to you, Peter!)

The reports, with almost all the photographs that have lain in the ArLT albums, are becoming available (slowly) at, for example, That is for 1954 Change the date at the end of the URL (web address) for different years, or visit the general history index here.