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Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones
March 20th, 2009

Carlin A. Barton “Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones”
University of California Press | 2001-06-04 | ISBN: 0520225252 | 2001-06-04 pages | PDF | 3,4 MB
This book is an attempt to coax Roman history closer to the bone, to the breath and matter of the living being. Drawing from a remarkable array of ancient and modern sources, Carlin Barton offers the most complex understanding to date of the emotional and spiritual life of the ancient Romans. Her provocative and original inquiry focuses on the sentiments of honor that shaped the Romans’ sense of themselves and their society. Speaking directly to the concerns and curiosities of the contemporary reader, Barton brings Roman society to life, elucidating the complex relation between the inner life of its citizens and its social fabric.

Though thoroughly grounded in the ancient writings–especially the work of Seneca, Cicero, and Livy–this book also draws from contemporary theories of the self and social theory to deepen our understanding of ancient Rome. Barton explores the relation between inner desires and social behavior through an evocative analysis of the operation, in Roman society, of contests and ordeals, acts of supplication and confession, and the sense of shame. As she fleshes out Roman physical and psychological life, she particularly sheds new light on the consequential transition from republic to empire as a watershed of Roman social relations.
Barton’s ability to build productively on both old and new scholarship on Roman history, society, and culture and her imaginative use of a wide range of work in such fields as anthropology, sociology, psychology, modern history, and popular culture will make this book appealing for readers interested in many subjects. This beautifully written work not only generates insight into Roman history, but also uses that insight to bring us to a new understanding of ourselves, our modern codes of honor, and why it is that we think and act the way we do.
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New edition of History of Greece

I pick one out of the latest OUP catalogue as possibly being useful in school. Other volumes, like a book on Manilius, may be very interesting, but the syllabus, the syllabus ….

By the way, my eye was caught by the Manilius because of the AE Housman connection. This new book says of the Housman edition:

In 1903, finally, the scholar and poet A. E. Housman published, at his own expense, the first volume of a critical edition of Manilius (work on this project would occupy him for nearly another three decades: the final volume came out in 1930). The work is famous—some might say, notorious—for its bold handling of the text, its incisive commentary, and its merciless (and often very amusing) invective against other scholars.

The critic prefaced the edition with a dedicatory Latin poem of his own, addressed to his friend Moses J. Jackson, for whom the closeted homo-sexual Housman harboured a lifelong passion.6 In this beautiful and gloomy elegy, the poet contrasts the regular and eternal movement of the stars not only with his and Jackson’s own mortality, but also with the sad fate of Manilius himself: the Latin poet believed that he had achieved immortality through his verse, but in reality, his poem hardly
made it tothe present day, arriving in our time battered and damaged, like a shipwreck (‘[carmina] naufraga’, 13). His ambitions thus shattered, Man-ilius provides an ‘all-too-obvious example’ (‘clara nimis . . . exempla’, 9) of how — thus Housman, bitterly — ‘no man ever ought to trust the gods’ (‘ne quis forte deis Wdere uellet homo’, 10). And indeed, despite Housman’s editorial efforts and the work that at least some scholars have dedicated tothe poet since, Manilius today plays only a marginal role in classical studies and is all but unknown to the general public.

Anyway, here’s the more useful volume:

A Brief History of Ancient Greece
Politics, Society, and Culture
Sarah B. Pomeroy, Stanley M. Burstein, Walter Donlan, and Jennifer Tolbert Roberts

New Edition

* Provides balanced coverage of political, military, social, cultural, and economic history
* Brief enough to be used alongside other books in Greek Civilization, Greek and Roman Civilization, or Western Civilization courses
* Presents the collaboration of 4 scholars who are experts in different areas of Greek history

26 February 2009 | £22.99 | Paperback | 432 pages
For more details, visit:

Young adult novels set in ancient Rome

Don’t know anything about these books, but they could be worth chasing.
Chronicle Herald

Loving Lord of the Rings led Jack Mitchell to take up Latin while still in high school.

Now he’s navigating his love of Latin and the ancient world into a writing career.

The author of the young adult novels The Roman Conspiracy and The Ancient Ocean Blues is planning to read from his historical fiction this month at several Halifax libraries, although at press time the details hadn’t been ironed out.

He’s also set to recite his 50-minute epic poem, The Plains of Abraham, at 7 p.m. on March 9 at Dalhousie University’s Marion McCain Building and to present a paper to the university’s classics department.

The latter appearances may seem a bit rarefied and Mitchell’s own credentials — he studied classics at McGill University and has a PhD in classics from Stanford University — a bit out of the realm of his prime reading audience of 11-13-year-olds.

But the 32-year-old New Brunswick native boils down the basics of history and adventure, even romance, in his fictional stories, inspired by real life centuries ago.

“If your hair is combed you’re not supposed to be interested in the ancient world,” Mitchell says during a recent telephone interview from his Toronto home.

“I’d say that there’s a certain element . . . of the mad scientist in our view of the historian and someone interested in ancient literature, and I wanted to sort of make it much more accessible and to basically say this is not something that’s completely rarefied. It was a real world full of real interesting people and everyone should be able to travel back in time.”

Books started taking Mitchell back in time during his junior high years. He used his love of J.R.R. Tolkien to step into Latin studies, where he found great texts in a dead language — stories alive with plot and poetry of “sheer beauty.”

Now he wants to share some part of that ancient time with today’s teenagers.

“It was about that age that I first began to be interested in the ancient world and that made such a big difference for me in my life that I wanted to be able to reach out and make it available because I think people love it when they find out about it.

“The 60s BC actually happens to be this era that we know more about than almost any other decade until the modern period because it’s so well documented in letters and histories, and the Romans themselves thought of it as their great decade so . . . I didn’t have to make up too much and . . . there were lots of interesting real people,” says Mitchell, who weaves fictional young people in the middle of historic events.

In his latest, The Ancient Ocean Blues, the author puts his teenaged hero Marcus Oppius and his love interest Paulla in the midst of a newly elected Julius Caesar’s world. Bribery and shipwrecks, pirates and slavery ensue as the young hero and his companions become embroiled in political intrigues. The fast-paced adventure suits Mitchell’s own tastes, from Tolkien to his recent reading interest — John le Carre.

“I love something with a good strong plot,” he says. “I love characterization as much as anybody but for me the plot is the driving thing both as a reader and as a writer.”

His young readers appear to love plot as well. The response to his books has been “extremely positive” judging from comments in online forums. Young readers also nominated The Roman Conspiracy for British Columbia’s Red Cedar Book Awards.

“They really have an appetite for Roman history, much more than you’d probably think,” Mitchell says. “And I think it’s as much the good material that I have to work with as my own humble skill as an author.”

‘Portus Itius’ publication

A notice from B.B. – thanks.

Colleagues interested in Caesar and Britain might be interested in a publication only just come out:
‘Portus Itius’, Guy Licoppe, published Melissa, 15 euros (incl. p.&p.), see
with link:

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.

Lindsey Davis’ choice of ten books on Rome

The Guardian

The Guardian celebrates Lindsey Davis’ 19th book by asking her what she keeps on her bookshelves. (The 19th Falco novel, Alexandria, has just been published.)

I have nine shelves of Roman books. For this selection I’ve left out learning Latin, the classics and guidebooks to individual sites, and I have also had to leave out specialisms – glass, gardens, cookery, law … These are ten that are scholarly but user-friendly. They are all books I have enjoyed, all influenced my love of ancient Rome and most of them are in regular use for my work.

1 Daily Life in Ancient Rome by Jérôme Carcopino

This dense depiction of the great, bustling, aromatic, highly superior city of Rome is now 90 years old but because it draws extensively on classical authors, it has never gone out of date, and remains an excellent introduction to how Rome worked and how its people thought of themselves. Every sentence is packed with examples. The first part is general background, the second takes us through a typical Roman day.

2 Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome by Lesley Adkins and Roy A Adkins

I have always found this an excellent encyclopaedia of Roman facts, people, places and habits. It has good photos, drawings and maps. The gazetteer, which gives the modern equivalent of Roman provinces and towns, is particularly useful, and the book answers all those tricky questions about time, numbers, personal names. And whether the Romans wore underwear.

3 Rome and Her Empire by Barry Cunliffe

This chunky and beautifully photographed book begins with Rome itself, its roots and history, and its fabulous high point. It has a fold-out depiction of the famous Peutinger Table, then covers the major provinces of the Roman Empire. Finally it discusses how the empire that must have seemed so strong came to disintegrate.

4 Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide by Amanda Claridge

I have used the Time Out and Blue Guides, which cover all periods, but for ancient world purists nothing can beat this travel guide to more than 150 sites. Even the famous locations are sometimes a jumble of broken stone, but this book unravels the mysteries, with photographs or drawings of most features. There are also good introductory chapters so you can march about knowing your Second “Architectural” period of fresco design from your Fourth “Fantastic” – thus avoiding unseemly social gaffes.

5 The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard

Narrowing the focus, Rome’s most famous monument was built by the Emperor Vespasian to win the hearts of the people, who had no football but loved a good spectacle. This engagingly written account tells of its long history as a venue for bloodthirsty sports and other uses (cattle pasture, glue factory …) and how it has inspired artists, authors and even botanists. The Colosseum is a must for tourists; you will find here all you need about the complex archaeology – but first read the sound advice on making a visit.

6 Ancient Inventions by Peter James and Nick Thorpe

Not much is new; almost everything was invented a very long time ago. I fell in love with this book instantly. I trust it absolutely on everything from catapults to hodometers, though the gynaecological instrument found at Pompeii always gives me a bit of a turn. (I only balk at the alleged use of iron filings as a contraceptive which I suspect is an April Fool.) Arranged thematically, the book covers all periods, delighting in human ingenuity from Aztec chewing gum to 2,000-year-old snow goggles.

7 The Lost World of Pompeii by Colin Amery and Brian Curran Jr

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79, which destroyed Pompeii, Herculaneum and surrounding areas, left us a unique snapshot of Roman life, as ash and mud preserved so much at that terrible moment. Ever since, this poignant event has had a huge impact on travellers, while the still-unfinished story of uncovering the scene is critical to the development of archaeology and heritage management. Pompeii books abound, but this is one of the best, with wonderful colour illustrations.

8 Roman Britain by Keith Branigan

This is another chunky volume, my favourite on “our” stuff. There is no doubt that the Romans viewed Britain as particularly exotic and mysterious. We have remained just as fascinated by them. They occupied for 400 years and though much disappeared quickly after they left, still our roads, towns and the fabric of our lives owe a very great deal to them.

9 The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

“Somewhere about the year 117AD, the Ninth Legion, which was stationed at Eboracum, where York now stands, marched north to deal with a rising among the Caledonian tribes, and was never heard of again.” Hooked? If not, there’s no hope for you. A wonderful novel, for children of all ages.

10 I, Claudius by Robert Graves

One for grown-ups, or two if you include Claudius the God. For the TV generation it’s now almost impossible to read this without thinking of Derek Jacobi et al, but that’s no hardship. There is no better way to get to grips with the complicated family tree of the early emperors, who are so vital to understanding how imperial Rome came about. And rarely has a male novelist created such a subtle female character as here in the devious Empress Livia. The modern chaps hardly do women at all – they could learn from Graves.

OUP booksale and new titles

Oxford University Press are advertising a book sale ending 3rd March.

You can pick up Oakley’s commentary on Livy books VI-X for £40 rather than £160, so if you happen to be wanting that, it’s a bargain. There’s also Lyne: Collected papers on Latin Poetry for £17.75 down from £71. Katherine Radice welcomed this one when new:

‘a must-buy book for any school library. Lyne writes with remarkable panache and with the rare ability to get right to the core of a work’ – Katharine Radice, The Journal of Classics Teaching

New books, or new in paperback, include a selection of essays on the Odyssey, edited Lillian E Doherty, £29.99 paperback.

There are more Classical translations, Aeschylus’ other four plays, Euripides’ Trojan Women, and Cicero political speeches.

Peter Wiseman on the Roman Republic

The only drawback to Prof-Emeritus Peter Wiseman’s new book ‘Remembering the Roman People’ is the £55 price-tag. Otherwise it looks fascinating. Wiseman, according to the publisher (OUP) tries to get beyond Cicero and the Optimates to discover how “the People had a coherent political ideology of its own.”

Peter Wiseman’s great attraction for me has always been his gift for building up a picture of some person or part of the ancient world using the most diverse evidence, and presenting the result in a readable way.

Roll on the paperback.

Walking in Boudica’s footsteps

The Daily Mail publishes a version of the Boudica chapter from a new book, by Charlie Connelly. Apart from one hanging participle (pedant!) it is well written and holds the interest, and sticks to the facts. I was impressed by the way Ms Connelly brings home the crassness of the Romans’ treatment of Boudica and her daughters. When she puts it like that, you can see that rebellion was inevitable. All too reminiscent of UK/US treatment of prisoners in this century.

BTW, the sub-editor who produced this wonderful caption to a panorama of central London deserves a medal:

Big change: London’s skyline today – Boudicca would have seen a totally different view of the city then called Londinium

Really? You amaze me! Anyway, here’s the piece:

Early on a Norwich autumn morning, and I was standing naked in a hotel room.

On the bed lay my new walking clothes: walking trousers, expensive pants at the cutting edge of underwear technology, assorted base layers, fleeces and waterproofs.

All items of clothing I’d never owned before yet would spend the next goodness knows how many weeks wearing nothing but.

I was about to embark on the first in a sequence of journeys tracing routes taken by some of the most famous and not-so-famous figures in the history of these islands.

We’re surrounded by history, it’s alive and everywhere, yet we take it for granted.

Determined to immerse myself in our past, and to break away from my sedentary lifestyle, I was going to recreate some of these great journeys that have shaped our island story. On foot.

On this particular walk I would be following in the footsteps of Boudicca who, in AD60, led a rebellion against the Roman overlords, marching on Colchester, London and what is now St Albans, laying waste to each in turn.

Which is how I found myself in a Travelodge in Norwich, contemplating my pants.

I had a good 25 miles ahead of me that day, much farther than I’d ever walked before, but I had a sense of bravado.

I mean, it’s only walking. How hard can it be?

As soon as I set out, things started to fall apart. I realised I didn’t actually know which way to turn. I needed to head south, but I had no idea which way was south. While I had the best clothing available to man, I didn’t have a compass.

I found a map in the hotel lobby and discovered that I was, in fact, facing the right way.

I set off with a determined stride and within an hour-and-a-half was strolling into the village of Caistor St Edmund, where I would take up the trail of my first historic fellow-traveller.

We know very little about Boudicca. We don’t even know whether her name really was Boudicca, or where she lived.

But we do know that she came as close as anyone to driving the Romans out of Britain, fired by vengeance, injustice and the cruellest sense of grievance induced in any mother from any period in history.

‘She was very tall in build,’ wrote the Roman historian Cassius Dio, ‘most terrifying in her demeanour, the glint in her eye most fierce. A great mound of red hair fell to her waist, around her neck was a large golden torc and she wore a tunic of many colours upon which a cloak was fastened with a brooch.’

She was, he added, ‘possessed of a greater intelligence than is usually found in women’.

Boudicca was the wife of Prasutagus, king of the Iceni, a wealthy tribe whose lands covered most of what is now Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire at the time of the Roman conquest.

Archaeological finds of fine clothing and jewellery suggest they were big on ostentatious displays of opulence, just as in centuries from now East Anglian archaeologists might turn up hoop earrings, sovereign rings and thick gold chains.

Prasutagus was a client king, permitted to retain his status as long as he didn’t resist Roman rule.

Around AD60 he died suddenly and the trouble began. In his will he left half his estate to his two daughters and the other half to the Emperor Nero. When this news reached Catus Decianus, the Roman procurator of Britain, he was furious.

As far as Catus was concerned, the Iceni lands were not Prasutagus’s to bequeath to anyone other than the Roman Empire.

He overreacted to a quite unbelievable degree, sending soldiers into the Iceni lands to pillage the property of their nobles.

For the late king’s family, things were to get much, much worse. Catus had Boudicca, queen of the Iceni, flogged while her daughters were raped in front of her by Roman soldiers.

It was an inexplicable act: Boudicca, by virtue of her marriage to a client king, would have been officially a Roman citizen, and any corporal punishment of a woman was almost unthinkable in the Roman Empire.

Rape was an offence punishable by execution.

The burning sense of injustice felt by Boudicca and her people was so intense you can almost sense it today – this was one of the most despicable episodes in the history of these islands.

The resentment that had festered against Roman rule for the best part of two decades exploded into angry rebellion.

The Iceni gathered into a huge, seething mass of people to rise up against the oppressor that had taken away their freedom and violated their queen.

Under Boudicca’s leadership, the Iceni and their neighbours would set off for the Roman capital at Camulodunum, modern Colchester, for an orgy of destruction and murder.

We don’t know from where Boudicca’s army set out, so I had chosen the village of Caistor St Edmund, close to the main route to Camulodunum.

Most of the road along which Boudicca would have passed is now the A12, but on the map there was a stretch marked ‘Roman road’ running parallel to the main thoroughfare for a good distance just south of Ipswich.

Once I was through the suburbs I passed beneath the A12 through a foot tunnel and emerged on the old road. This had once been the main road south from Ipswich, but nothing came up here any more. Some plastic bags whipped around in circles in the wind. It was quiet; I was all alone.

For the first time, I felt like I was peeking through the curtains of time. This was the very same route as Boudicca and her army would have taken.

The trundling carts passed along here. The Iceni, grimly determined and driven by vengeance, would have walked with Boudicca at their head, a vast procession of men, women, children and horses spread wide across the road and beyond into the fields, knowing that with every step, they were closer to justice, or at least their version of it.

Walking in their footsteps, I could feel the butterflies in my stomach, the feeling that every step was into the unknown.

That evening, as I soaked in a hot bath at a Colchester hostelry, I reflected on what Boudicca and her cohorts did to the Roman capital when they reached it.

Camulodunum had all the trappings of a major Roman town – a senate building, shops, a theatre and a temple dedicated to the late Emperor Claudius, conqueror of Britain.

For a capital, Camulodunum was curiously lax in its defences.

It was home to hundreds of army veterans who, having completed their 25 years of military service, were given plots of land.

Most of the Roman military forces in Britain were engaged in a concerted attempt to wipe out the druids on Anglesey. Hence Camulodunum had at best a skeleton defence force.

When news of Boudicca’s travelling hordes reached the town, the locals pressed Catus Decianus, the man responsible for triggering the uprising, to provide military assistance.

He mustered barely 200 troops then hitched up his toga and hotfooted it to Gaul before Boudicca could get hold of him.

Boudicca’s forces approached Colchester meeting no opposition. Nevertheless, they fell upon the place in a storm of aggression and destruction. Property was looted and burned to the ground.

The soldiers would have provided only token resistance to the thousands of screaming, blue-painted warriors descending on the town. Nothing and no one would have been spared.

Those who remained barricaded themselves inside the Temple of Claudius, until the Britons scaled the walls and began to dismantle the roof, dropping on to the survivors and killing them where they stood.

It’s likely that Boudicca’s forces would have hung around Camulodunum for a couple of days, celebrating, praying and dividing up the loot, before heading south to the port of Londinium.

Londinium was a lesser focus of Roman power, but economically important to the occupying people. The Roman road from Colchester to Chelmsford and thence to the outskirts of London is again the A12, so I struck out on a parallel path and was delighted to find, at one stage, that I was crossing Boadicea Way.

I passed through Chelmsford, eventually arriving on the outskirts of Brentwood. After days in the countryside, I’d hit suburbia.

Huge mock Tudor mansions lined the road. Blonde women with big earrings drove past me in four-wheel-drive vehicles.

Suddenly I had my breath taken away. I crested a hill while looking at the map, and when I looked up there, before me, was the London skyline with its familiar NatWest Tower, Gherkin and St Paul’s Cathedral. Boudicca would have come over this hill – albeit to witness a very different skyline.

Londinium was a fairly new settlement of 30,000 inhabitants. Goods and slaves were exported here, while imports were unloaded in what would have been a lively, noisy place. It would have been distinctly muted that day, though, as Suetonius Paulinus, the commander of the Roman forces, had arrived with his cavalry.

He had two options. The first: to assemble as many soldiers as he could to defend the town. However, he’d heard about the devastation of Camulodunum and knew that the Britons would be arriving in even greater numbers.

The alternative was to evacuate Londinium, leave it to the mercy of the Iceni and their allies, and muster a large Roman force to meet them at full strength somewhere down the road. He chose the latter option.

Londinium was doomed. I followed the route of the old Roman road through Romford and Ilford and on beyond Stratford. When Boudicca’s forces arrived, Londinium would have been almost deserted.

Cassius Dio describes what the rebels did to the locals who were left. The city’s most distinguished women were hung up naked, their breasts cut off and sewn into their mouths, before being impaled on stakes.

When the Thames was running red with blood, the rebels torched London. Many people were burnt alive. Boudicca’s rebellion had no political cause at its heart: this was sheer, visceral vengeance.

Once Londinium had been ransacked, the rebels made for the road to Verulamium, a major seat of the wealthy Catuvellauni tribe, now St Albans.

The Romans had routed Watling Street, a major thoroughfare, through Verulamium. It was an obvious target.

The road is the A5, starting at the bottom of London’s Edgware Road, and it’s fairly certain that Boudicca would have joined it where it met the road from Camulodunum.

It’s a spot now occupied by Marble Arch, where I found myself early one blustery morning.

It was about 20 miles to St Albans, a journey that would have taken Boudicca and her cumbersome caravan two days, if not more. I was aiming to do it in one.

The coffee shops and sandwich bars soon gave way to a procession of Turkish and Arabic emporia. I passed within a hefty six of Lord’s cricket ground and then, at Maida Vale, the spot where the headmaster Philip Lawrence was killed in 1995.

On through Cricklewood and its synagogues, Wembley Stadium to my left, then Edgware and the general hospital where I was born.

By six o’clock that evening, I was in St Albans. The next morning I headed to Verulamium Park, the site of the old town sacked by Boudicca. It was a peaceful morning, the sun glinting off the damp grass.

By the time Boudicca arrived, Verulamium was deserted. The locals had legged it, taking everything of value with them. The wind direction made it harder to burn down the town.

The destruction was still extensive, but there was a sense that the fun was going out of all this looting and burning.

The lack of a ‘real’ battle was leaving some sections of the mob bored and unfulfilled. The sacking of Verulamium would prove to be the Boudiccan revolt’s last success.

I made my way to the edge of town. My step was slowing tangibly, too, as my first historical journey was coming to an end. This is where I would leave Boudicca; where the historical trail goes cold.

The inevitable big battle between Boudicca’s mob and the Roman army did take place, but nobody can say for sure where it was. Mancetter, near Atherstone in Warwickshire, seems the most likely location.

Either way, the Britons were defeated and Boudicca was never heard of again. Many surmise that she chose to take her own life by drinking poison rather than suffer the ignominy of being taken to Rome and paraded through the streets. Nothing is known of what became of her daughters.

There was a groundless rumour in Victorian times that Boudicca is buried beneath Platform 8 at King’s Cross Station in London, while in 2006 Birmingham archaeologists claimed they’d found her grave in King’s Norton, next to McDonald’s.

I stood for a while, looking along Watling Street, picturing a noble, charismatic queen standing proud on her chariot at the head of her warriors, their carts rumbling along the track, heading towards her destiny.

Then I turned around, retraced my steps and began to walk forward almost a thousand years. I had an appointment with a man whose epic journey changed Britain’s history for ever.

I was about to follow in the footsteps of Harold, the man who could have been, and so nearly was, one of Britain’s greatest ever kings.

• ADAPTED from And Did Those Feet by Charlie Connelly, published this week by Little, Brown at £12.99. To order a copy (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720

On language learning and the Loeb editions

Here’s a thought-provoking article, really on the use of cribs when studying literature. I freely admit that I turn to a crib when stuck, and I guess most classicists do the same. (I leave to one side the brilliant ones who know it all.)

Didn’t know that Clive James (wonderful broadcaster!) had written about learning Latin. Must get hold of that book …

Btw our founder was one of the original editors of the Loeb texts.

Once hugely popular, an approach to language instruction that made use of a technique called interlineal translation is now dead. The method, championed by a crusading English businessman named James Hamilton in the early 19th century — and exported to America, where it remained popular into the 20th century — was supposed to open the gates of a classical education to the masses.

Hamilton’s innovation was to introduce students immediately to English translations of Greek or Latin works, rather than forcing them to stumble through dictionaries. In his instructional books, lines of English alternated with the classical languages. (Later, as the system took off, he branched into French, Italian, and German: John Stuart Mill learned German this way). In the Hamiltonian System, translations were jerry-rigged so that the English synonym typically stood directly its foreign analogue, for easy comparison.

Hamilton’s ardent view was that the the traditional method of instruction, heavy on vocab drills and syntax memorization, was tiresome, inefficient, and elitist (because it demanded years of schooling, usually private schooling). But in the current American Scholar [article not online], the writer Ernest Blum says Hamilton got both the diagnosis and the solution right, and that the Hamiltonian System should be revived.

Blum cites the dismal performance of students in the United States and elsewhere on foreign-language tests, and pins the blame on reigning pedagogical theories. These hold that students must immerse themselves fully in foreign texts, translating painstakingly on their own, so that they get a straight dose of the new language. But Blum argues that scholarship in linguistics over the past few decades demonstrates that students who follow that course will likely never learn enough words to achieve mastery.

The problem stems from Zipf’s Law, after a Harvard linguist, George Kingsley Zipf, who died in 1950. This law holds, as one summary puts it, that “almost all words are rare.” In the Greek New Testament, for example, a mere 320 words account for about 80 percent of the text. But the remaining 20 percent is made up of a fearsome 5,120 words, many of which appear only once. And that’s only one Greek book. That pattern holds in most languages. Basically, such studies of vocabulary suggest that students need to know many, many more words than they presently do — and more rare words — in order to get through books. They need a massive dose of help on the vocab front. (One scholarly estimate is that a reader must know 95 percent of the words in a book in order to guess the rest by context; few students today come close to that.) Blum says reviving the Hamiltonian system is the answer. “In no other classrooms on campus is basic information systematically withheld as a matter of policy and principle,” he writes. “What is withheld is the information on the meaning of words.”

As it happens, the Loeb Classical Library, those famous red and green books published by Harvard University Press, have the translations on the facing page of the text. For that reason they are usually banned from beginning and intermediate language classes, branded as unhelpful crutches. Blum, to be clear, says the Loebs aren’t the same as Hamiltonian texts — but it would appear that they’re the next best thing, at least for advanced beginners. Might the American Scholar article offer a hook that could get the Loebs into language classes — and, not incidentally, boost sales?

Sadly, Jeffrey Henderson, a professor of Greek at Boston University and the general editor of the Loeb Classical Library, is too scrupulous to seize the opportunity: As it happens, he endorses current language pedagogy. While it’s helpful for students to have vocabulary references on the page they are reading (perhaps in footnotes), he says in an email, exposing them to translations too soon short-circuits language mastery. “[T]ranslations to some extent always misrepresent the way the original language works,” he emails. “It’s best that the learner figure this out directly.” (He does not neglect to add that the books are wonderful choices for more seasoned classicists!)

At least one noted writer and critic dissents from the idea that beginners should steer clear of the Loebs. Clive James, in “Cultural Amnesia” (2007), says adults trying to learn Latin should reject the arguments of “purists”: “[W]hen they warn you off the Loeb Library,” he says, “they are giving you the exact reason you should hold it dear — it’s a painless dictionary.”