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The Classical World from A to Z

For over 2,000 years the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome have captivated our collective imagination and provided inspiration for many aspects of our lives, from culture, literature, drama, cinema, and television to society, education, and politics. With over 700 entries on everything and anything related to the classical world in the Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, we created an A-Z list of facts you should know about the time period.

Alexander the Great: He believed himself the descendent of Heracles, Perseus, and Zeus. By 331 he had begun to represent himself as the direct son of Zeus, with dual paternity comparable to that of Heracles.

Baths: Public baths, often located near the forum (civic centre), were a normal part of Roman towns in Italy by the 1st century BC, and seem to have existed at Rome even earlier. Bathing occupied a central position in the social life of the day.

Christianity: By the end of the 4th century, Christianity had largely triumphed over its religious competition, although a pagan Hellenic tradition would continue to flourish in the Greek world and rural and local cults also persisted.

Democracy: Political rights were restricted to adult male Athenians. Women, foreigners, and slaves were excluded. An Athenian came of age at 18 when he became a member of his father’s deme and was enrolled in the deme’s roster, but as epheboi, most young Athenians were liable for military service for two years, before at the age of 20, they could be enrolled in the roster of citizen who had access to the assembly. Full political rights were obtained at 30 when a citizen was allowed to present himself as candidate at the annual sortation of magistrate and jurors.

The goddess Juno
The goddess Juno. Photo by Carole Raddato. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Education, Greek: Greek ideas of education, whether theoretical or practical, encompassed upbringing and cultural training in the widest sense, not merely school and formal education. The poets were regarded as the educators of their society.

Food and drink: The Ancient diet was based on cereals, legumes, oil, and wine. Meat was a luxury for most people.

Gems: Precious stones were valued in antiquity as possessing magical and medicinal virtues, as ornaments, and as seals when engraved with a device.

Hephaestus was the Greek god of fire, of blacksmiths, and of artisans.

Ivory plaques at all classical periods decorated furniture and were used for the flesh parts of cult statues and for temple doors.

Juno was an old and important Italian goddess and one of the chief deities of Rome. Her name derives from the same root as iuventas (youth), but her original nature remains obscure.

Kinship in antiquity constituted a network of social relationship constructed through marriage and legitimate filiation, and usually included non-kin — especially slaves.

Libraries: The Great Roman libraries provided reading-rooms, one for Greek and one for Latin with books in niches around the walls. Books would generally be stored in cupboards which might be numbered for reference.

Marriage in the ancient world was a matter of personal law, and therefore a full Roman marriage could exist only if both parties were Roman citizen or had the right to contract marriage, either by grant to a group or individually.

Narrative: An interest in the theory of narrative is already apparent in Aristotle, whose Poetics may be considered the first treatise of narratology.

Ostracism in Athenian society the 5th century BC was a method of banishing a citizen for ten years. It is often hard to tell why a particular man was ostracized. Sometimes the Athenians seem to have ostracized a man to express their rejection of a policy for which he stood for.

Plato of Athens descended from wealthy and influential Athenian families on both sides. He rejected marriage and the family duty of producing citizen sons; he founded a philosophical school, the Academy; and he published written philosophical works.

Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician, advised that children start learning Greek before Latin. The Roman Empire was bilingual at the official, and multilingual at the individual and non-official, level.

Ritual: The central rite of Greek and Roman religion is animal sacrifice. It was understood as a gift to the gods.

Samaritans, the inhabitants of Samaria saw themselves as the direct descendants of the northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, left behind by the Assyrians in 722 BC.

Temple of Zeus
Temple of Zeus. Photo by David Stanley. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

Toga: The toga was the principal garment of the free-born Roman male. As a result of Roman conquest the toga spread to some extent into the Roman western provinces, but in the east it never replaced the Greek rectangular mantle.

Urbanization: During the 5th, 4th, and 3rd centuries, urban forms spread to mainland northern Greece, both to the seaboard under the direct influence of southern cities, and inland in Macedonia, Thessaly, and even Epirus, in association with the greater political unification of those territories.

Venus: From the 3rd century BC, Venus was the patron of all persuasive seductions, between gods and mortals, and between men and women.

Wine was the everyday drink of all classes in Greece and Rome. It was also a key component of one of the central social institutions of the élite, the dinner and drinking party. On such occasions large quantities of wine were drunk, but it was invariably heavily diluted with water. It was considered a mark of uncivilized peoples, untouched by Classical culture, that they drank wine neat with supposed disastrous effects on their mental and physical health.

Xanthus was called the largest city in Lycia (southern Asia Minor). The city was known to Homer, and Herodotus described its capitulation to Persia in the famous siege of 545 BC.

Zeus, the Indo-European god of the bright sky, is transformed in Greece into Zeus the weather god, whose paramount and specific place of worship is a mountain top.

Featured image: Colosseum in Rome, Italy — April 2007 by Diliff. CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Tiberius on Capri: in pursuit of vice or just avoiding mother?

In AD 14, two thousand years ago this summer, the emperor Augustus, having dominated Rome for over forty years, finally breathed his last. The new emperor was his step-son Tiberius. While Augustus’ achievement in ending civil war and discreetly transforming a republic into one-man rule provokes grudging admiration even from those who aren’t keen on autocracy, Tiberius has very few fans. Suetonius’ biography, the third in his twelve Lives of the Caesars, offers some intriguing insights into why this might be.

Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar (42 BCE - 37 CE)
Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar

Descended from one of Rome’s most noble families, Tiberius, in his mid-50s when he came to power, had led a series of enormously successful, if unshowy, military campaigns, securing Pannonia (roughly modern Hungary) in the east and doing much to stabilize the troublesome area around the Rhine in the north. He loved literature, philosophy, and art. He was just the kind of man who had dominated the senior echelons of the senate under the republic – a very traditional kind of Roman leader, it might seem.

But among ancient commentators only Velleius Paterculus, who wrote during his reign, has much good to say. Suetonius, in his biography, and Tacitus, in his Annals, offer a litany of damning criticisms. Tiberius, himself a great respecter of tradition, a stickler for proper procedure, seems to have found his position – as not quite fully acknowledged autocrat, expected to exercise personal dominance through what purported to be the old republican framework – deeply uncomfortable. Unlike Augustus, he had no desire whatsoever to develop a warm relationship with the common people of Rome. (Suetonius makes clear his total lack of interest in the games – a telling indicator.) No money was spent on public works. He veered between insisting the Senate behave independently and dropping cryptic hints as to how he wanted it to vote. Yet his chief crime, in the eyes of some ancient critics, was deserting Rome.

Tiberius' Villa in Capri, Italy. Photo by Tyler Bell. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Tiberius’ Villa in Capri, Italy. Photo by Tyler Bell. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

In 26 AD, twelve years into his reign, Tiberius withdrew to the island of Capri, never to return to the city. Was this meant to look like a return to senatorial government? For the next eleven years, imperial control was exercised remotely, for the most part through Sejanus, prefect of the praetorian guard. Among the many prominent Romans convicted of treason in those years were members of Tiberius’ own family, including the widow and two elder sons of his nephew Germanicus. Eventually Sejanus, too, ended up a corpse in the Tiber, taking with him as he fell many who had hoped to profit by associating with the emperor’s henchman. This bloodbath reflects Tiberius’ innate cruelty, as well as his insecurity – but Suetonius highlights other vices, too.

His biography begins with some family history – a mixed bag of earlier Claudians, male and female, some famous for their virtue, others notorious for their arrogance and depravity. Suetonius then charts Tiberius’ early life, his distinguished military career, his accession and the largely positive measures he undertook in the early years of his reign. But chapter 33 hints darkly at the character assassination, which is to follow: ‘He showed only gradually what kind of emperor he was’. This move prefigures the comments Suetonius makes in his Lives of Caligula (ch.22: ‘The story so far has been of Caligula the emperor, the rest must be of Caligula the monster’) and Nero (the end of ch.19 prepares the reader for ‘the shameful deeds and crimes with which I shall henceforth be concerned’). For Suetonius, character, though it may be temporarily masked, is not subject to change or development.

Suetonius does note that Tiberius’ withdrawal meant provincial government was neglected but stories of the emperor’s depravity get much more attention. Once on Capri, Tiberius ‘finally gave in to all the vices he had struggled so long to conceal’. His drinking was legendary, his sex life exceeded the worst imaginings. Surrounded by sexually explicit art-works, Tiberius was addicted to every kind of perversion, with boys, girls – even tiny children. The accusations relating to oral sex would have aroused particular loathing on the part of Roman readers. Tiberius’ appetites were hardly human; ‘people talked of the old goat’s den – making a play on the name of the island’. What did Tiberius really get up to? Stories of this kind were part of the common currency of Roman political discourse. Suetonius devotes similar space to the sexual transgressions of Caligula, Nero, and Domitian – such behaviour is to be expected of a tyrant. The remoteness of the emperor’s residence itself must have fuelled the most lurid imaginations back in Rome. Emblematic of Tiberius’ impossible position is his relationship with his mother Livia. Had she not been Augustus’ wife of many decades, Tiberius would never have succeeded to power. Suetonius repeatedly underlines Livia’s key role in promoting her son. She persuaded Augustus to adopt him, following the deaths of his two adult grandsons. She helped to ensure a rival candidate was eliminated. Even after Tiberius succeeded to Augustus, Livia remained a force to be reckoned with: ‘he was angered by his mother Livia on the grounds that she claimed an equal share in his power’. Yet we should perhaps be just as wary with regard to these stories as with those about Tiberius’ sexual tastes. What better way for Tiberius’ critics to undermine him than to allege this experienced military man in late middle age needed advice from his mother? Such claims would perhaps have been especially offensive to someone of Tiberius’ ultra-traditional outlook. The senators who proposed to honour him with the title ‘Son of Livia’ knew how to torment the emperor. Indeed Suetonius reports stories that the main reason Tiberius left Rome for Capri was to get away from his mother.

Image credits: (1) Siemiradzki Orgy on Capri by Henryk Siemiradzki, 1881. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons (2) Tiberius Claudius Nero Caesar (42 BCE – 37 CE). From: H.F. Helmolt (ed.): History of the World. New York, 1901. University of Texas Portrait Gallery. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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A reading list of Roman classics

Roman literature often derived from Greek sources, but took Greek models and made them its own. It includes some of the best known classical authors such as Ovid and Virgil, as well as a Roman emperor who found time to write down his philosophical reflections.

Saint Augustine’s Confessions by Saint Augustine

Augustine was a gifted teacher who abandoned his secular career and eventually became bishop of Hippo. His Confessions are a remarkable record of his wrestlings to accept his faith, his struggles to overcome sexual desire and renounce marriage and ambition. His final moment of conversion in a Milan garden is deeply moving.

On Obligations by Cicero

The great Roman statesman Cicero lived at the center of power. He was an advocate and orator as well as philosopher, who met his death bravely at the hands of Mark Antony’s executioners. On Obligations was written after the assassination of Julius Caesar to provide principles of behavior for aspiring politicians. Exploring as it does the tensions between honorable conduct and expediency in public life, it should be recommended reading for all public servants.

The Rise of Rome by Livy

The Roman historian Livy wrote a massive history of Rome in 142 books, of which only 35 survive in their entirety. In the first five books, translated here, he covers the period from Rome’s beginnings to her first major defeat, by the Gauls, in 390 BC. Among the many stories he includes are Romulus and Remus, the rape of Lucretia, Horatius at the bridge, and Cincinnatus called from his farm to save the state.

On the Nature of the Universe by Lucretius

Lucretius lived during the collapse of the Roman republic, and his poem De rerum natura sets out to relieve men of a fear of death. He argues that the world and everything in it are governed by the laws of nature, not by the gods, and the soul cannot be punished after death because it is mortal, and dies with the body. The book is an astonishing mix of scientific treatise, moral tract, and wonderful poetry.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius9780199573202_450

Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was probably on military campaign in Germany when he wrote his philosophical reflections in a private notebook. Drawing on Stoic teachings, particularly those of Epictetus, Marcus tried to summarize the principles by which he led his life, to help to make sense of death and to look for moral significance in the natural world. Intimate writings, they bring us close to the personality of the emperor, who is often disillusioned with his own status, and with human life in general.

Metamorphoses by Ovid

The Metamorphoses is a wonderful collection of legendary stories and myth, often involving transformation, beginning with the transformation of Chaos into an ordered universe. In witty and elegant verse Ovid narrates the stories of Echo and Narcissus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Perseus and Andromeda, the rape of Proserpine, Orpheus and Eurydice, and many more.

Agricola and Germany by Tacitus9780199539260_450

Tacitus is perhaps best known for the Histories and the Annals, an account of life under emperors Tiberius, Claudius and Nero. The shorter Agricola and Germany consist of a life of his father-in-law, who completed the conquest of Britain, and an account of Rome’s most dangerous enemies, the Germans. They are fascinating accounts of the two countries and their people, the northern ‘barbarians’. Later, German nationalists attempted to appropriate Germania in support of National Socialist racial ideas.

Georgics by Virgil

The Georgics is a poem of celebration for the land and the farmer’s life. Virgil doesn’t romanticize, rather he describes the setbacks as well as the rewards of working the land, and provides memorable descriptions of vine and olive cultivation, raising crops, and bee-keeping. It is both a practical agricultural manual and allegory, and brings the ancient rural world vividly to life.

Aeneid by Virgil

The story of Aeneas’ seven-year journey from the ruins of Troy to Italy, where he becomes the founding ancestor of Rome, is a narrative on an epic scale. Not only do Aeneas and his companions have to contend with the natural elements, they are at the whim of the gods and goddesses who hamper and assist them. It tells of Aeneas’ love affair with Dido of Carthage and of Aeneas’ encounters with the Harpies and the Cumaean Sibyl, and his adventures in the Underworld.

Heading image: Roman Virgil Folio. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Looking for Tutankhamun

Poor old king Tut has made the news again – for all the wrong reasons, again.

In a documentary that aired on the BBC two weeks ago, scientists based at the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman unveiled a frankly hideous reconstruction of Tutankhamun’s mummy, complete with buck teeth, a sway back, Kardashian-style hips, and a club foot. They based it on CT-scans of the mummy from 2005 and their own research, claiming to have identified a host of genetic disorders and physical deformities suffered by the boy-king, who died around age 19 some 3,300 years ago.

The English-language newspaper Ahram Online has aired the views of three Egyptian Egyptologists who are just as shocked by the reconstruction as many television viewers were. There are old and understandable sensitivities here: Western scientists have been poking around Egyptian mummies for more than 200 years, while the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922 coincided with the birth of an independent Egyptian nation after decades of European colonialism. The ensuing tussle between excavator Howard Carter and the government authorities, over where the tomb finds would end up (Cairo won, and rightly so), highlighted deep-seated tensions about who ‘owned’ ancient Egypt, literally and figuratively. It’s safe to say that the last century has seen king Tut more involved in politics than he ever was in his own lifetime.

Most Egyptologists can readily debunk the ‘evidence’ presented by the EURAC team – if we weren’t so weary of debunking television documentaries already. (why do the ancient Romans get academic royalty like Mary Beard, while the ancient Egyptians get the guy from The Gadget Show?). What’s fascinating is how persistent – and how misguided – lurid interest in the dead bodies of ancient Egyptians is, not to mention the wild assumptions made about the skilled and stunning art this culture produced. The glorious gold mask, gilded shrines and coffins, weighty stone sarcophagus, and hundreds of other objects buried with Tutankhamun were never meant to show us a mere human, but to manifest the razzle-dazzle of a god-king.

Around the time of Tutankhamun’s reign, artists depicted the royal family and the gods with almond eyes, luscious lips, and soft, plump bodies. These were never meant to be true-to-life images, as if the pharaoh and his court were posting #nomakeupselfie snaps on Twitter. Each generation of artists developed a style that was distinctive to a specific ruler, but which also linked him to a line of ancestors, emphasizing the continuity and authority of the royal house. The works of art that surrounded Tutankhamun in life, and in death, were also deeply concerned with a king’s unique responsibilities to his people and to the gods.

Death mask of Tutankhamun, by. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.
Death mask of Tutankhamun, by ironmanixs. CC-BY-NC-SA-2.0 via Flickr.

All the walking sticks buried in the tomb – more than 130 of them, one of which Carter compared to Charlie Chaplin’s ubiquitous prop – emphasize the king’s status at the pinnacle of society (nothing to do with a limp). The chariots were luxury items (quite macho ones, at that), and Tutankhamun’s wardrobe was the haute couture of its day, with delicate embroidery and spangly sequins. Much of the tomb was taken up with deeply sacred objects, too: guardian statues at the doorways, magic figures bricked into the walls, and two dozen bolted shrines protecting wrapped statues of the king and various gods. Not to mention the shrines, sarcophagus, and coffins that held the royal mummy – a sacred object in itself, long before science got a hold of it.

As for the diseases and deformities Tutankhamun is said to have suffered? Allegations of inbreeding don’t add up: scholars have exhaustively combed through the existing historical sources that relate to Tutankhamun (lots and lots of rather dry inscriptions, I’m afraid), and as yet there is no way to identify his biological parents with any certainty. Don’t assume that DNA is an easy answer, either. Not only do we not know the identity of almost any of the ‘royal’ mummies that regularly do the rounds on TV programmes, but also the identification of DNA from ancient mummies is contested – it simply doesn’t survive in the quantity or quality that DNA amplification techniques require. Instead, many of the ‘abnormal’ features of Tutankhamun’s mummy, like the supposed club foot and damage to the chest and skull, resulted from the mummification process, as research on other mummies has surmised. Embalming a body to the standard required for an Egyptian king was a difficult and messy task, left to specialist priests. What mattered just as much, if not more, was the intricate linen wrapping, the ritual coating of resin, and the layering of amulets, shrouds, coffins, and shrines that Carter and his team had to work through in order to get to the fragile human remains beneath.

The famous mummy mask and spectacular coffins we can see in the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities in Cairo today, or in copious images online, should stop us in our tracks with their splendour and skill. That’s what they were meant to do, for those few people who saw them and for the thousands more whose lives and livelihoods depended on the king. But they should also remind us of how they got there: the invidious colonial system under which archaeology flourished in Egypt, for a start, and the thick resin that had to be hammered off so that the lids could be opened and the royal mummy laid bare. Did king Tut have buck teeth, waddle like a duck, drag race his chariot? Have a look at that mask: do you think we’ve missed the point? Like so many modern engagements with the ancient past, this latest twist in the Tutankhamun tale says more about our times than his.

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A reading list of Ancient Greek classics

This selection of ancient Greek literature includes philosophy, poetry, drama, and history. It introduces some of the great classical thinkers, whose ideas have had a profound influence on Western civilization.

Jason and the Golden Fleece by Apollonius of Rhodes

Apollonius’ Argonautica is the dramatic story of Jason’s voyage in the Argo in search of the Golden Fleece, and how he wins the aid of the Colchian princess and sorceress Medea, as well as her love. Written in the third century BC, it was influential on the Latin poets Catullus and Ovid, as well as on Virgil’s Aeneid.

Poetics by Aristotle

This short treatise has been described as the most influential book on poetry ever written. It is a very readable consideration of why art matters which also contains practical advice for poets and playwrights that is still followed today.

The Trojan Women and Other Plays by Euripides

One of the greatest Greek tragedians, Euripides wrote at least eighty plays, of which seventeen survive complete. The universality of his themes means that his plays continue to be performed and adapted all over the world. In this volume three great war plays, The Trojan Women, Hecuba, and Andromache, explore suffering and the endurance of the female spirit in the aftermath of bloody conflict.

The Histories by Herodotus

Herodotus was called “the father of history” by Cicero because the scale on which he wrote had never been attempted before. His history of the Persian Wars is an astonishing achievement, and is not only a fascinating history of events but is full of digression and entertaining anecdote. It also provokes very interesting questions about historiography.

The Iliad by Homer9780199645213_450

Homer’s two great epic poems, the Odyssey and the Iliad, have created stories that have enthralled readers for thousands of year. The Iliad describes a tragic episode during the siege of Troy, sparked by a quarrel between the leader of the Greek army and its mightiest warrior, Achilles; Achilles’ anger and the death of the Trojan hero Hector play out beneath the watchful gaze of the gods.

Republic by Plato

Plato’s dialogue presents Socrates and other philosophers discussing what makes the ideal community. It is essentially an enquiry into morality, and why justice and goodness are fundamental. Harmonious human beings are as necessary as a harmonious society, and Plato has profound things to say about many aspects of life. The dialogue contains the famous myth of the cave, in which only knowledge and wisdom will liberate man from regarding shadows as reality.

Greek Lives by Plutarch9780199540051

Plutarch wrote forty-six biographies of eminent Greeks and Romans in a series of paired, or parallel, Lives. This selection of nine Greek lives includes Alexander the Great, Pericles, and Lycurgus, and the Lives are notable for their insights into personalities, as well as for what they reveal about such things as the Spartan regime and social system.

Antigone, Oedipus the King, Electra by Sophocles

In these three masterpieces Sophocles established the foundation of Western drama. His three central characters are faced with tests of their will and character, and their refusal to compromise their principles has terrible results. Antigone and Electra are bywords for female resolve, while Oedipus’ discovery that he has committed both incest and patricide has inspired much psychological analysis, and given his name to Freud’s famous complex.

Heading image: Porch of Maidens by Thermos. CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.

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