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Art across the early Abrahamic religions

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are considered kindred religions–holding ancestral heritages and monotheistic belief in common–but there are definitive distinctions between these ‘Abrahamic’ peoples. The early exchanges of Jews, Christians, and Muslims were dominated by debates over the meanings of certain stories sacred to all three groups. In addition to the verbal tales, art played a significant role in the interpretations, often competitive, of the sacred stories they had in common. In mosaics, in stone carvings, and in paintings, we consistently encounter what artists of the three communities wished to emphasize as especially important.

All images reprinted in Shared Stories, Rival Tellings: Early Encounters of Jews, Christians, and Muslims by Robert Gregg.

Featured image credit: “Sarcophagus depicting Selene and Endymion.” Detail. Ca. 210 CE. Image used courtesy of the Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California. Getty Museum 76.AA8.

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A comma in Catullus

“I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.” –Oscar Wilde

Only Oscar Wilde could be quite so frivolous when describing a matter as grave as the punctuation of poetry, something that causes particular grief in our attempts to understand ancient texts. Their writers were not so obliging as to provide their poems with punctuation marks, nor to distinguish between capitals and small letters. If modern editors wanted to recreate the ancient reading experience, we ought to print texts in capitals throughout, with no punctuation or even spaces between the words; but our readers would probably not thank us for doing that. So in our editions we have to make choices about punctuation and the like, based on our understanding of what the texts mean. And if Oscar Wilde could be perplexed by the placing of one of his own commas, we should not be surprised if we sometimes misinterpret the articulation of ancient texts – sometimes with unfortunate results.

The longest poem by Catullus (c. 84-54 bc) contains an account of the wedding of the Greek hero Peleus to the sea-goddess Thetis – a key event in mythological history, which led to the birth of the greatest Greek warrior, Achilles, and (thanks to the intervention of Eris with her golden apple) to the Trojan War in which he would win fame. In one part of the work the Parcae (Fates) describe Peleus’ future to him, opening their song with the following address (64.323-6):

O decus eximium magnis uirtutibus augens,
Emathiae tutamen opis, clarissime nato,
accipe, quod laeta tibi pandunt luce sorores,
ueridicum oraclum

O you who augment your outstanding fame through your mighty


Protector of the might of Emathia [i.e. Thessaly], most famous through

                                                                                           your son,
Receive the truth-telling oracle, that the sisters reveal
To you on this happy day

At least, this is how the passage appears in the Oxford Classical Text of 1904, edited by Robinson Ellis. In line 324 he prints a modern emendation, clarissime, ‘most famous’; the manuscripts of Catullus read carissime, which would give ‘most dear to his son’, a senseless phrase, since Peleus at the time of this address is childless. Some half a century later, Roger Mynors in his Oxford Classical Text of 1958 – still the standard text of Catullus, and recently published in Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (or read the translation) – printed a different version of the second line, as follows:

Emathiae tutamen, Opis carissime nato
Protector of Emathia, most dear to the son of Ops

If modern editors wanted to recreate the ancient reading experience, we ought to print texts in capitals throughout, with no punctuation or even spaces between the words

Mynors’s new edition retains the text of the manuscripts (carissime) and, for its punctuation, adopts a suggestion made by A. E. Housman in 1915. By placing the comma before opis rather than after it, and by capitalising that word to make it a proper name, Housman restores what must have been Catullus’ intended meaning, and avoids the need to emend the text. Instead of the flabby phrase ‘Protector of the might of Emathia’ (as Housman remarks, “the might of Emathia did not need protecting: it was itself a protection”), we get the tighter ‘Protector of Emathia’. More crucially, the meaning of the second half of the line is now clear. Ops was a Roman goddess identified with Rhea, mother of Jupiter; so Catullus is saying that Peleus was ‘dear to Jupiter’, recreating in Latin the Homeric epithet διίφιλος (Iliad 1.74 etc.). Peleus was indeed dear to the gods, in that he was allowed to marry a goddess; and since Jupiter himself had previously expressed a personal interest in Thetis, it could be said that he showed Peleus particular favour in withdrawing his claim. This very point is made earlier in the poem in another invocation of Peleus, which is recalled by our passage as interpreted by Housman (64.26-7): Thessaliae columen Peleu, cui Iuppiter ipse, | ipse suos diuum genitor concessit amores (“pillar of Thessaly, Peleus, to whom Jupiter himself, the very father of the gods, conceded his beloved”).

So an apparently trivial change of punctuation allows us to understand a passage of ancient poetry that had frustrated scholars and readers for centuries. No wonder C. J. Fordyce (not a man given to hyperbole), in his commentary on Catullus published by Oxford University Press in 1961 and recently added to Oxford Scholarly Editions Online, called this “the most spectacular contribution of modern scholarship to the interpretation of Catullus”. Or as A. E. Housman said elsewhere – not in real life, but as the character of that name in Sir Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love – “There is truth and falsehood in a comma.”

Featured image credit: Man sailing a corbita, a small coastal vessel with two masts by Marie-Lan Nguyen. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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What five recent archaeological sites reveal about the Viking period

The famous marauders, explorers, traders, and colonists who transformed northern Europe between AD 750 and 1100 continue to hold our fascination. The Vikings are the subject of major new museum exhibitions now circulating in Europe and a popular dramatic television series airing on The History Channel.

Recent years have revealed many spectacular new finds from the Viking age that expand our understanding of their lives and times. Some of these finds — from England and Estonia, reveal the warrior/raider side of Viking life and the dangers therein. Discoveries from Denmark document the extraordinary quality of their ships and shed light on the nature of political and military organization in the Viking period.

Ridgeway, England. The English did not warmly welcome their Viking visitors. Conflict appears to have been common. There is dramatic evidence for this at several places in southern England, especially at a site called Ridgeway near Weymouth, not far from Dorset. During highway construction in 2009, a mass grave was found containing 54 headless human skeletons and a pile of 51 detached skulls that had been cast into an old quarry from Roman times. The grave is dated to around AD 1000. The bodies were those of young men, most less than 30 years of age, who were executed following a violent encounter. Isotopic evidence indicates these men were not natives and may well have come from Scandinavia. The evidence is consistent with a Viking raiding party—50-some men might constitute the crew of a Viking longship with 25 pairs of oars. Perhaps this was a group of raiders who encountered a superior force. They must have been captured, taken to the old quarry, and slaughtered.

Salme, Estonia. Two buried Viking Age ships were uncovered at Salme, Estonia, between 2008 and 2012. Dated to ca. AD 750, these are the earliest known Viking ships to have crossed the Baltic and the earliest examples of mass ship burials. Buried with the two ships were the skeletal remains of 41 individuals, a variety of weapons and tools, and the bones of a number of animals. The materials appear to document the hasty burial of the two ships and the members of their crews who died violently. The grave-goods – weapons and other objects – were of Scandinavian design, largely unknown in Estonia. Isotopic ratios of strontium and oxygen in the tooth enamel of the deceased, in conjunction with the exotic artifacts, point to the Stockholm region of Sweden as a likely homeland.

Jelling, Denmark. Jelling is a sleepy village in the center of the Jutland peninsula with a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage rating. A series of Viking Age monuments were placed there more than a thousand years ago including rune stones, two huge burial mounds, the largest-known stone ship setting, and an old church. A three-sided rune stone recounts how King Harald Bluetooth united the kingdom of Denmark, the first mention of the name of the modern nation. Harald also built two large burial mounds at Jelling for his parents. The North Mound sits at the center of the ship-shaped stone setting. The present stone church was originally built around AD 1100 and was likely the first such church in Jutland. There are also the foundations of wooden buildings beneath the stone church, two of which were probably wooden stave churches.

Interest in the Viking monuments has been ongoing for more than 400 years, but the surprises keep coming. Excavations since 2007 revealed an entirely new view, including a massive palisade enclosing a large area around the mounds. The entire palisade would have been ca. 1,440 m (4,800′) in length and enclosed some 12.5 ha (30 acres). The symmetry of the constructions is remarkable. The northern burial mound sits directly in the center of this huge timber palisade. The great stone ship setting runs from one end of the palisade to the other. The South Mound lies near the southern side of the palisade, and the largest rune stone at Jelling is exactly halfway between the two mounds. A series of three almost identical buildings were found around the northeast corner of the palisade. These houses are massive wooden halls with heavy walls of vertical timber and several interior divisions. These large buildings or halls were likely part of a magnate estate at Jelling. Thus this sleepy village was once the royal manor of Viking Denmark.

Vallø Borgring, Denmark. There were four known, almost identical Viking ring fortresses in Denmark before the summer of 2012, including the namesake tourist destination at Trelleborg on the island of Zealand. All built around AD 980, each of these fortresses was about a day’s march apart, between 30 and 40 km. But Danish archaeologists noticed there was a gap on the east coast of Zealand. Careful investigations, laser mapping of the landscape, and some trial trenches at a place near the modern town of Køge, south of Copenhagen, exposed evidence for a circular earthwork 145 m (500’) in diameter, the same size as some of the other known fortresses. In Viking times, this fort — known as Vallø Borgring — was strategically located at the intersection of the old road and a small navigable river. There may well be more Viking Age ring forts to be discovered, further documenting the might and sway of the Viking kingdom.

Roskilde, Denmark. The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark, holds the salvaged and reconstructed remains of five ships deliberately scuttled around AD 1070 to block the shipping channel and protect the Viking town. This Museum is one of the more popular tourist attractions in Denmark and has grown substantially over the years. Expansion to a new artificial island was planned and excavation of a channel to create this island began in 1997. Nine new ships were discovered during the digging and eventually removed. One of the ships, the Roskilde 6, is incomplete but estimated to have been 32 m (100′) in length, the longest known Viking warship. A ship of this size must have been the property of a king or noble. Both the timber and craftsmanship were of the finest quality. The ship would have had 78 rowing positions and a crew of 100 men. The mast would have held a single square sail of perhaps 200 m2 (2,150 ft2). The ship was built around AD 1025 and was finally put on exhibit in 2014 after years of conservation and analysis.

These new discoveries prod the imagination and inspire archaeologists, historians, and the general public to learn more about this dynamic period in Scandinavia. The end of the Viking period was ultimately brought about by the arrival of Christianity after AD 1000, leading to the onset of the Middle Ages and long centuries of oppression by the church and state. Some in Scandinavia today would prefer to see a return to the old ways; the religious beliefs of the Vikings, as described in various sagas and myths, have been adopted by some modern individuals and groups. The Vikings are gone but certainly not forgotten!

Featured image credit: Viking Ship Museum – Oslo, Norway, by Alex Berger. CC BY-NC 2.0, via Flickr.

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How much do you know about Roman Britain? [quiz]

For four centuries Britain was an integral part of the Roman Empire, a political system stretching from Turkey to Portugal and from the Red Sea to the Tyne and beyond. Britain’s involvement with Rome started long before its conquest, and it continued to be a part of the Roman world for some time it finally broke from Roman rule. But how much do you know about this important period of British history? Do you know your Claudius from your Caesar?

Test your knowledge with this quiz, based on Peter Salway’s book Roman Britain: A Very Short Introduction.

Featured image credit: Rome, by AlexVan. Public domain via Pixabay.

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Six people who helped make ancient Naples great

The city that we now call Naples began life in the seventh century BC, when Euboean colonists from the town of Cumae founded a small settlement on the rocky headland of Pizzofalcone. This settlement was christened ‘Parthenope’ after the mythical siren whose corpse had supposedly been discovered there, but it soon became known as Palaepolis (‘Old City’), after a Neapolis (‘New City’) was founded close by. These twin cities – both of which are now absorbed into the fabric of modern Naples – were home to some of the most beguiling mythological and historical characters in classical antiquity. Here are just six of them.


Originally this half-bird creature roamed the Campanian coast with her siren sisters, chanting melodies that were sweet – but deadly. Homer tells us that any sailor who came too near to the sirens would “never again be welcomed home by his wife and children”, and describes the piles of bones covered in rotting flesh that decorated the sirens’ lair. Odysseus managed to escape this fate by stuffing his crew members’ ears with wax. He left his own ears unplugged but tied himself to the ship’s mast, which enabled him to hear the song but resist the seduction. Parthenope was distraught and threw herself in the sea. When her drowned body washed up on the shore, some Greek sailors built her a tomb which became the focus for commemorative games and a mysterious torch race.

Detail of the Fountain of the Spinacorona by Little john via Wikimedia Commons [public domain].
Image credit: Spinacorona by Little john. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

After antiquity, Parthenope was hailed as a protectress and symbol of Naples. One sixteenth-century fountain shows her standing in the crater of Vesuvius, holding her breasts in her hands as two streams of water spurt out of her nipples to quench the volcano’s superheated flow. A more gruesome image is found in Curzio Malaparte’s 1949 novel La Pelle (‘The Skin’), by which time it had become customary to represent the sirens as mermaids. In the film adaptation of the novel, we see the small, childlike body of what appears to be a siren served up at a banquet for some contemptuous foreign dignitaries – a clear allegory for the city’s decline during and after the Second World War (and enough to put you off fish forever).



The Roman poet Virgil was buried in Naples, making the city an eternal place of pilgrimage for other poets and artists. Petrarch, Dante, and Mozart are some of the more famous tourists to have visited the site of Virgil’s tomb on the hill of Posilippo, although it’s unlikely that this modest columbarium tomb really contains the great poet’s body (this was simply wishful thinking on the part of Petrarch). Another set of medieval stories turned Virgil into a sorcerer, whose masterpiece was an egg with the power to keep Naples safe for as long as its shell stayed intact. This egg was hidden inside the Castle that still bears its name – the ‘Castel dell’Ovo’, on the tiny island of Megaride across from Via Parthenope on the mainland.

Lucius Cocceius Auctus

Lucius Cocceius Auctus was an Augustan architect renowned for building two enormous tunnels through the Neapolitan subsoil, known today as the Crypta Neapolitana and the Grotta di Seiano. The geographer, Strabo, thought that Cocceius must have taken inspiration from ancient stories of the Cimmerri, a mythical race of people said to live underground in a network of tunnels around the nearby Lake Avernus. Whatever his source, Cocceius’ subterranean creations soon became central to Naples’ urban identity and would themselves go on to inspire some highly atmospheric literary descriptions – as well as a set of colourful medieval legends.

Crypta Neapolitana by Mentnafunangann [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons
Crypta Neapolitana by Mentnafunangann. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tiberius Julius Tarsos

The Roman freedman Tiberius Julius Tarsos built a temple to the Dioscuri in the centre of Naples; today, you can still see two of its Corinthian columns built into the facade of the church of S. Paolo Maggiore. Originally these columns supported a magnificent pediment filled with sculptures of mythical and historical figures including Artemis, Apollo, and perhaps also a personification of the local Sebethos river. Legend has it that St Peter himself made these sculptures fall from the pediment when he passed through Naples on his way to Rome, and what Peter didn’t manage to destroy, a seventeenth-century earthquake unfortunately finished off for him. Luckily, we still have drawings made by Renaissance artists and antiquarians which preserve details of this great monument, including the large marble inscription from the front of the facade naming Tarsos and the gods to whom the temple was dedicated.

Saint Janarius

No list of great Neapolitans could leave out the early Christian martyr Saint Janarius (San Gennaro in Italian), or the two vials of his dried blood which still liquefy miraculously three times a year. San Gennaro is said to have been put to death in Pozzuoli in 305AD, in the final year of the Diocletianic Persecutions. He and some fellow Christians were beheaded inside the Solfatara crater, which was already a place redolent with ancient mythological associations (Strabo described it as the ‘Forum of Hephaestus’). Like Parthenope and Virgil before him, Gennaro was swiftly adopted as the city’s patron and protector, and – again like Parthenope – he was also seen to combat the fires of Vesuvius with one of his bodily fluids. This time though, it wasn’t the quenching nature of breast-milk, but the ‘sympathetic magic’ of erupting red blood which stopped the flow of volcanic materials.

Romulus Augustulus

Romulus Augustulus was the last Roman Emperor, and he made Naples great(er) by ending his life there. He’d been exiled to the city at some point during the later fifth century, and imprisoned on Megaride in the very castle that would later become home to Virgil’s legendary egg. In hindsight, the body of Romulus Augustulus had its own talismanic quality – for just as the fate of Naples was linked to the fragile egg, the death of Romulus signalled the end of the whole Roman imperial lineage. Even more mysterious is the fact that his body vanished without a trace, and that no monument (other than the castle itself) survives to commemorate him. But then, perhaps that’s the perfect way to end an Empire?

Headline image: Napoli da Corso Vittorio Emanuele by IlSistemone. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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