Growing up in Manhattan meant that I didn’t live among ancient ruins – just subway stations, high-rise apartments, and Central Park’s relatively recent architectural confections. It took living for a year in Europe as a six-year old and for ...

OUPblog » Classics & Archaeology


Caring about the past in the embattled present

Growing up in Manhattan meant that I didn’t live among ancient ruins – just subway stations, high-rise apartments, and Central Park’s relatively recent architectural confections. It took living for a year in Europe as a six-year old and for another year as a ten-year old to develop awareness about our collective heritage stretching back millennia. Visiting the vacant site of Stonehenge on a blustery fall day in the early 1960s, long before the introduction of a Visitor Centre and tickets, led me to imagine white-robed druids chanting among the stones. I filled a small bottle with water from the Roman baths in Bath, England, believing that the water itself was 2,000 years old. And I pretended to be a knight while exploring the medieval citadel of Carcassonne in Southeastern France, built atop the remains of Roman fortifications.

Yet as we shake our heads at images of Aleppo’s rubble captured through slow-moving drones, it is hard to explain why attention to the remote past warrants even a millisecond of concern today. Tragedy and misfortune strike people around the globe, hour by hour. From criminal gangs to intolerant governments to natural disasters, our 24-hour news cycle provides an ever-spinning carousel of loss.

In the face of human brutality and environmental devastation, the relevance of archaeology is far from obvious. But to those of us who have sought to illuminate the handiwork of ancient artisans, artists, and architects, and the contexts in which they toiled, the real gift of that study is a balanced perspective about our place in history.

It is possible to be consumed by sadness from footage replayed minute-by-minute on screens of every type. But it is also possible to seek a larger understanding of life, in recognizing that it has always been so.

Before modern medicine, there were neither vaccines nor awareness of preventive treatments. Before satellites, there was no ability to forewarn those in the path of a tsunami. And before video and the Internet, there was no way to reveal acts of violence perpetrated on the innocent.

“The study of antiquity reminds us that the human condition is ever-changing, and that our sense of self is built on the remains of earlier civilizations.”

With each of these advances and countless others, our modern lives have been greatly improved since Thomas Hobbes’s 1651 description in Leviathan of the natural state of mankind as “nasty, brutish, and short”. As more people are lifted out of poverty, generation by generation, we can find consolation in the fact that increased global awareness is spreading among the young, rather than receding, regardless of the vagaries of electoral politics of the moment.

The study of antiquity reminds us that the human condition is ever-changing, and that our sense of self is built on the remains of earlier civilizations. By making room and time for understanding what people believed, how they lived, and what they left behind for us, we stand to appreciate what we do have without forgetting what we can do to better the lives of others.

There are many among us who work to improve the world without interruption—and we are all grateful to environmentalists, firefighters, police, and first responders, medical professionals, members of the military, scientists, social workers, and so many others for their daily efforts. But they too can find perspective and awareness about the value of their work through the lens of history. It is a lens that both sharpens our vision about the day’s events and magnifies otherwise less visible lessons of earlier times, without which we would be an impoverished world, lacking the long view.

By embracing the long view and the examined life that comes with it, we can equip ourselves for thoughtful, purposeful action, leavened by knowledge of antiquity, sensitivity to the present, and clear-eyed hopefulness about the future. For kids growing up in both the canyons of New York and the smoldering remains of postwar Syria, that potential for hopefulness will be an essential ingredient in keeping the human experiment one of promise and possibility.

Featured image credit: “Paestum, Salerno, Italy” by valtercirillo. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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9 fascinating facts about festivals in ancient Greece and Rome

Festivals in ancient Greece and Rome were important periods of time during which people performed “activities that are most often thought of as communications with the superhuman world.” Marked by a variety of unique cultural rituals and traditions, festival days stood in stark contrast to ordinary life in ancient Greece and Rome. Processions, sacrifices, athletic events, and musical performances were just the start of some of the interesting highlights. The ways in which the ancient people chose to express themselves on these special calendar days is fascinating. In examining both its contrasts and similarities to today, studying ancient culture can be seen as the study of our own humanity.

To demonstrate some of the unique aspects of culture in ancient Greece and Rome, we compiled a list of these 9 facts about some festivals in ancient Greece and Rome.

1. To celebrate the goddess Bendis, Thracians in Athens held night-time torch races on horseback. Referenced in Plato’s Republic, these races were quite popular around the time of Socrates in the late 5th century BCE.

2. During Skirophorion, the last month of the Athenian calendar, Athenians sacrificed a plow ox to Zeus Polieus, the protector of civic order, on the Acropolis. According to research, “ordinarily, one did not sacrifice plow oxen; they were valuable work animals, and often they must not have been perfect enough to qualify as sacrificial animals. The sacrifice was followed by a trial that accused the sacrificer of murder; he shifted the blame to the sacrificial ox, which was convicted and drowned in the sea; the killed ox was resurrected by stuffing its hide with straw.”

Ancient Athenian festival Chous
“Red-Figure Chous with Eros,” circa 410 BC. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Anthesteria, a festival of Dionysus, was of an importance comparable perhaps to modern Christmas. Despite its name suggesting anthos (meaning flower), Anthesteria was associated particularly with the production of new wine. It was celebrated in the correspondingly named month Anthesterion, roughly late February. On the evening of the first day, ‘Jar-opening’ (Pithoigia), pithoi of the previous autumn’s vintage were taken to the sanctuary of Dionysus in the Marshes, opened, offered to the god, and sampled.

4. During Anthesteria, a strange major ritual was held. On the day of Choes, ancient Greek for “pitchers,” participants would sit alone and drink a chousor (about three liters of wine) that they emptied without speaking. Social boundaries collapsed as slaves took part. “Miniature choes were also given as toys to children.” Receiving the ‘first Choes’ was a landmark occasion.

5. Also on the day of Choes, Athenians would smear black pitch on their house doors and chew backthorn leaves to ward off evil.

6. For unknown reasons, Romans were very reluctant to have one festival immediately following another, so they introduced an empty “buffer day” between festivals following one another.

7. During the festival of Bona Dea, men (including even male dogs and statues) were specifically excluded from the celebration. At the beginning of December, Roman matronae celebrated the festival by acting as sacrificers and consuming large quantities of wine. The exclusion of men and the radical inversion of upper class female behavior fit into the rituals of the last month of the year, experimenting with social boundaries, and proposing alternative–albeit temporary–models of behavior.

8. The Saturnalia were the merriest festival of the year, ‘the best of days’ (Catull. 14. 15). Presents were exchanged, particularly wax candles and Sigillaria, and as a general rule, Romans at this time inverted their normal behavior. Slaves were either served by their masters or dined with them, and were allowed temporary liberty to do as they liked.

9. During the drawn-out, boisterous carnival of Saturnalia, people enjoyed relaxed meals at home, painted their faces black as if they were wearing a mask, replaced the formal white toga with an informal dress and felt cap (which was proper to slaves), and played with the otherwise prohibited dice.

Featured image credit: “Ave, Caesar! Io, Saturnalia!” Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, 1880. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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Ten tips on how to succeed as a woman: lessons from the past

An unexpected figure lurks in the pages of Wonder Woman (no. 48) from 1951 — the 17th century French Classicist Anne Dacier. She’s there as part of the “Wonder Women of History” feature which promoted historical figures as positive role models for its readership. Her inspirational story tells of her success in overcoming gender prejudice to become a respected translator of Classical texts. Three hundred years after the publication of Dacier’s final translation, Homer’s Odyssey (1716), we too can learn from this figure. Looking back across her career, I can reveal ten tips for women today.

1. Be proactive
The keystone to Dacier’s success was the level of education she gained from her father, the scholar Tanneguy Le Fèvre. She was apparently proactive about securing this opportunity, secretly listening to her brother’s lessons and one day revealing how much she had learnt. This prompted her father to offer her the same education as her brothers.

2. Take risks
After Dacier’s father died unexpectedly, she made the bold decision to travel the 200-mile journey from Saumur to Paris and try to establish a career there. Later in her career, she took another risk when she translated the vulgar comedy of Aristophanes which was completely out of fashion. This daring undertaking is now recognized as a major part of her legacy to Classics.

3. Learn from mistakes
In two letters from 1681, Dacier begs her father’s friend, Daniel Huet, to intervene for her at Court so that she would get paid for the work which they had commissioned, as otherwise she was going to be left out of pocket. In fact, she never managed to resolve this issue, and in another letter, from later in that year, she notes that in future she would be more cautious! We all make mistakes, but it’s learning from them which can be our making.

Anne Le Fèvre, épouse Dacier by Pierre Bonnefont. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Anne Le Fèvre, épouse Dacier by Pierre Bonnefont. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Find your voice
Dacier was working in the shadow of her father who had been a famous scholar, but this didn’t stop her from carving her own path. In part she managed to do this by making her own voice heard — by respectfully disagreeing with some of his views in print. She was also ready to challenge other male scholars of her day, demonstrating that she was equal to them.

5. Make female solidarity work for you
Women were the cultural arbiters of Dacier’s day and could confirm the success of a publication, Dacier therefore wooed the female readership in her first French translation. In the preface, she says she hopes that her translation will delight women (and of course it’s no coincidence that one of her chosen authors to translate was Sappho the famous ancient Greek female poet).

6. Transgress smart
Achieving your goals despite society’s gender boundaries can mean playing the boundary — enforcers at their own game. Dacier offers a textbook example of this when she negotiates her transgression into the exclusively male domain of the King’s Library to consult a manuscript. She gets away with her invasion into male territory by describing her reluctance and timidity in going there. This reassuring assertion of modesty allays any alarm felt at the incursion.

7. Network
A swift perusal of Dacier’s book dedications shows a skilled operator at work. These are not sentimental choices of parents and partners, but rather key figures whose support Dacier needed. She ensures that she’s noticed by the right people through these dedications. They are the equivalent of modern networking.

8. Pick a supportive partner
One of the mistakes which Dacier learnt from was her first marriage (to a printer, Jean Lesnier, in the Loire region). The marriage broke down after the death of their first child. Her second marriage, however, was to last until her own death. Her second husband André Dacier had studied with her father and was also a scholar. He respected her intelligence, collaborating with her on some publications, and supported her career.

9. Work-life balance
It seems impossible, from the stack of publications which Dacier produced, to believe that she could have also managed to have a life outside her books, but that’s exactly what the evidence suggests. Her contemporaries write that she was a wonderful conversationalist and praise her ability to socialise, setting the books aside to talk about hairstyles. Meanwhile her devotion to her family life is vividly recorded through her heartfelt words of grief after the death of her daughter.

10. Attract trumpet blowers
Self-publicity is a treacherous enterprise (and perhaps even more so now than in Dacier’s day). The elegant solution to the trumpet-blowing dilemma is to find someone else to do it for you. Dacier’s friend, who also happened to be a champion of women, Gilles Ménage did that brilliantly for her in his History of Women Philosophers.

The 21st century can seem a world apart from the 17th century: we’ve made significant gender progress over the intervening centuries. Yet gender inequality continues to be an issue. Looking back to the success of Dacier, and other historical female figures, at overcoming barriers is not only uplifting, but can also prove surprisingly instructive. It seems that we need our “Wonder Women of History” as much in 2016 as they did in 1951.

Featured image credit: Minerva and the Nine Muses. Painting by Hendrick van Balen the Elder. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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“An infernal journey” – an extract from Homer

Homer, despite being the author of the hugely influential The Odyssey and The Iliad, remains a bit of a mystery. We know very little about his life, but what we can see is the huge legacy that he has left behind in art, music, philosophy, literature, and more. By examining both of his epic poems, we can begin to understand more about this mythical figure. In the extract below, Barbara Grazosi takes a closer look at Odysseus’ journey to the Underworld.

Of all his many adventures, Odysseus’ journey to the Underworld is his most extreme. He manages to reach the place most distant from home, and from life itself, yet return even from there. His nekyia in book 11, his ‘dialogue with the dead’, is arguably his greatest feat, and one that has been replayed again and again in literary history. Still, Odysseus is not the only ancient hero to have visited the Underworld: Heracles, Theseus, and Orpheus also made their descents, and the Babylonian epic hero Gilgamesh learnt about that realm from the descent of his friend Enkidu. Conceiving of death as a journey to a darker realm is, in fact, a common trope in many different mythologies, and the possibility of returning to tell the tale, even from that ‘place of no return’ (as the Babylonians called it), has been explored in many different traditions.

Each visit to the dead offers its own specific insights and atmospheres. In the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enkidu first visits the Underworld in a dream, and learns that our common fate of death erases secular differences of wealth and power: even those who could once share their banquets of meat with the gods now ‘eat dust’, while their discarded crowns are piled up in a corner of the Underworld. What matters to the dead, Enkidu discovers later on in the poem, is a proper burial and having had many sons in life. Gilgamesh himself crosses the waters of death in order to discover the secret of eternal life from the one man, Utnapishtim, who managed to avoid death altogether—but then falls asleep, and is therefore sent back to his mortal existence. Still, through that expedition he learns the crucial story of the flood from his antediluvian host.

homer
A mosaic depicting Odysseus, from the villa of La Olmeda, Pedrosa de la Vega, Spain, late 4th-5th centuries AD. CC BY SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There are also lessons to be learnt from other stories of travel to the world beyond. The myth of Orpheus, for example, offers a clear warning about the urgency of love, and the damage it can do: when Orpheus disobeys the orders of Hades, and turns to look at Eurydice as she follows him out of the Underworld, he consigns her to the murky world of the shades, and loses her. Odysseus’ own expedition seems, as ever, more ambiguous: he learns something specific about his own future, from Tiresias, but as for what we learn, the message seems less clear. The emphasis is squarely on storytelling—its pleasures and advantages, as well as any insights it might offer.

Odysseus tells the story of his journey to the dead while enjoying the hospitality of the Phaeacians, just before securing his passage home. Circe, he recounts, insisted that he needed to consult Tiresias before sailing home, so he and his men embarked on their mission, ‘weighed down by anxiety and shedding many tears’. They arrived at the murky land of the Cimmerians by the banks of the river Oceanus. There they pulled up their ship and walked upstream, until they reached a specific place indicated by Circe, dug a trench, and sacrificed to the dead. Immediately, the shades began to swarm up from the Underworld, eager to taste the blood of the slaughtered animals, and ‘pale fear’ gripped Odysseus.

Still, he managed to keep the shades at bay, and did not let them drink the blood. At that point, the shade of one of his companions stood before him: Elpenor could still recognize Odysseus and talk to him, because he had not yet been properly buried—indeed, he had fallen off Circe’s roof the night before, stone drunk, and broken his neck. Odysseus addressed himwith open curiosity, asking him how he had made it there so fast, faster even than his own swift journey by ship.

As ever, our ‘man of many turns’ does not seem to take death too seriously, and considers it almost an affront that Elpenor could travel to the Underworld faster than him. Elpenor himself, however, plaintively begs to be buried. Odysseus then spots his own mother among the shades, and yet she does not seem to recognize him. Finally, Tiresias appears, and delivers his prophecy. At this point, Odysseus has accomplished his mission and could therefore leave— but he is curious, wants to interrogate the dead. He lets his mother drink the blood of the sacrificial victims, and she suddenly recognizes him, asking how on earth he made it there while still alive. She then reassures him that Penelope is still faithful, and urges him to tell his wife some good stories when he gets home: ‘Go now, make for the light as quickly as you can, but remember | all this, so that some day you will be able to tell it to your wife.’

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Brexit, Marmite, and brand loyalty in the Roman World

One of the early and somewhat unexpected effects of Brexit in the UK was the threatened “Marmageddon,” the shortage and subsequent price rise of the much-loved–and much-hate–Marmite.  Yet even when supermarket stocks of Marmite were running low, a variety of other yeast extract spreads were available. The shortage related to one particular brand.  As I fall into the category of those who hate Marmite, I am not well placed to comment on the suitability of the substitute spreads, but clearly brand loyalty is strong among Marmite consumers. The development of such commodity branding and consumer loyalty is often seen as a relatively modern phenomenon, reflecting the rise of consumerism in Western Capitalist economies; the Museum of Brands in London, for example, only displays artefacts dating from the Victorian era onwards.

Brands were, however, also a part of much earlier economies. In ancient Rome, for instance, consumers placed their trust in a number of brand markers, which signified reputation and quality, and very often carried a certain prestige. This was particularly the case with food and drink, especially wine. A wide range of wine of all qualities was available in Rome, from that drunk in the taverns and street side bars, to the expensive vintages served at the most lavish of elite dinner parties.  It was at this upper end that brands mattered most. The famous Falernian wine, for example, was prized by connoisseurs. This wine was produced from grapes grown in the ager Falernus in Northern Campania, and for Pliny, it was second only to Caecuban among Italian wines. By the mid first century CE, “Falernian” was such a popular brand that it had become a byword for good wine.  A graffito from the entrance to a Pompeian bar told customers “With a single coin you can drink here; if you pay two coins, you will drink better; if you pay four coins, you will drink Falernian wine.”

Garum Mosaik Pompeji
Garum Mosaik Pompeji, picture from the villa of Aulus Umbricius Scaurus, Pompeii by Claus Ableiter. CC BY-SA 3.0 by Wikimedia Commons. Detail of a floor mosaic from the atrium of VII.16.15 at Pompeii. The inscription reads G(ari) F(los) SCO(mbri) SCAURI EX OFFI(CI)NA SCAURI (Flower of garum of mackerel from the workshop of Scaurus).

Most Roman wines were best served young, but Falernian was unusual in that it improved with age. Trimalchio, the boorish fictional freedman of Petronius’ novel Satyricon, claimed to be serving aged Falernian wine to his guests, bottled in the consulship of Opimius in 121 BCE, a year that was renowned for its excellent vintages. Yet although small amounts of this vintage survived to the mid- first century CE, when both Pliny and Petronius were writing, it was so old that it had the consistency of honey and a rough flavour (only really suitable for adding to young wine for flavouring).  Older was not necessarily better, and Falernian was best drunk after being left to mature for just fifteen to twenty years, not for nearly two hundred years!  Trimalchio’s wine may have been rare, and for that reason, an impressive novelty, but if it were genuine, it would have been undrinkable.

It was, however, almost certainly fake; Trimalchio was either deliberately trying to deceive his guests, or he himself had been cheated by a crafty salesman. In fact, the Roman physician Galen questioned quite how much Falernian wine was actually genuine. Corinthian bronze statues too–much sought after by collectors–were sometimes faked, and Pliny the Younger was at great pains to emphasise that a Corinthian bronze of an old man that he donated to the Temple of Jupiter was a genuine antique. The problem of fake brands appears to be age old.

Falernian wine was stored and transported in clay amphorae, often marked with the brand name and sometimes a variety of other details, such as the name of the producer, the date, the shipper, and the intended recipient.  Examples of such labels have been found as far afield as Roman Britain, where the shoulder of an amphora was marked with red painted letters reading FAL LOLL, abbreviations indicating that the vessel once contained Falernian wine produced from the vineyard of one Lollius. Such painted markers were originally found on most amphorae, although the majority are no longer visible today.  They enabled producers to brand their products quickly and effectively. Umbricius Scaurus, a producer of fish sauce at Pompeii, even made a permanent record of such branding in a mosaic on the floor of his home (see image). The name Umbricius Scaurus – or that of another member of the Scauri family – appears on numerous fish sauce containers found in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and must have been a trusted marker of quality.  People in Roman Campania may have been as loyal to Umbricius Scaurus’ range of fish sauces as fans of yeast extract in the U.K. are to Marmite.

Featured image credit: “Trajan’s Market” by Zello. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

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