‘Babylon’ is a name which throughout the centuries has evoked an image of power and wealth and splendour – and decadence. Indeed, in the biblical Book of Revelation, Rome is damned as the ‘Whore of Babylon’ – and thus identified with a city ...

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Nebuchadnezzar to Saddam Hussein: The history of the myth of Babylon

‘Babylon’ is a name which throughout the centuries has evoked an image of power, wealth, and splendour – and decadence. Indeed, in the biblical Book of Revelation, Rome is damned as the ‘Whore of Babylon’ – and thus identified with a city whose image of lust and debauchery persisted and flourished long after the city itself had crumbled into dust. Powerful visual images in later ages, like Bruegel’s Tower of Babel and Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast perpetuate the negative image Babylon acquired in biblical tradition. The latter found musical expression in William Walton’s composition Belshazzar’s Feast, and the reign of Babylon’s most famous – and infamous – king Nebuchadnezzar in Verdi’s opera Nabucco, best known for its ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.’ In recent years, the representation of Nebuchadnezzar as a ruthless, despotic tyrant was given a fresh airing in the political propaganda of Saddam Hussein who claimed to be the ancient king reincarnated – and sometimes had himself depicted on posters riding a chariot and decked out in Nebuchadnezzar’s military gear.

Babylon lies near the political centre of gravity of modern Iraq, close to its capital, Baghdad. It was the royal seat of the southern part of Iraq (also known as Mesopotamia or southern Mesopotamia), stretching southwards to the Persian Gulf. When referring to its ancient history and civilization, scholars often call this region Babylonia. Its natural environment is harsh. Large desert tracts of land occupied much of its flat arid plain, barely moistened by the region’s meager rainfall which frequently failed altogether. Drought was an ever-present threat to human survival, and natural resources, including metals and timber, were extremely scarce. Yet human determination and ingenuity, which found expression in the construction of a complex system of irrigation canals and the undertaking of wide-ranging trade and military expeditions, enabled the peoples of the region to survive and flourish. Already during the 3rd millennium, several major civilizations, like the Sumerian and Akkadian civilizations, had arisen in southern Mesopotamia. Babylon’s rise to prominence came in the early 2nd millennium, in the reign of Hammurabi, its first great ruler. Hammurabi built the first of three great Babylonian kingdoms, all of them major powers within the Near Eastern world. Though a highly successful war-leader, Hammurabi is best remembered as a great builder, social reformer, and guardian of justice. Many cities in his kingdom, and especially their religious sanctuaries, were restored and redeveloped under his rule, and many of his successors maintained his building and restoration programmes, and his responsibilities for ensuring justice throughout the land over which they held sway.

Powerful visual images in later ages, like Bruegel’s ‘Tower of Babel’ and Rembrandt’s ‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ perpetuate the negative image Babylon acquired in biblical tradition. Image Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
‘Belshazzar’s Feast’ by Rembrandt, purchased by the National Gallery with support of The Art Fund. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This brings us back to Nebuchadnezzar. Babylon was some 2,000 years old when in 605 BC Nebuchadnezzar succeeded his father on its throne as the second ruler of the short-lived Neo-Babylonian empire, which ended with the Persian conquest of it in 539 BC. Was the Babylon of that period the city of wantonness and depravity, and was its king Nebuchadnezzar the monster of cruelty and oppression, as depicted in our biblical sources and later artistic tradition? This image of the city and its most famous ruler has now been largely countered by the recovery of Babylon’s own history and civilization, through the decipherment of the language of its tablets, and the sifting of its archaeological remains. Both sets of sources reveal to us a city that became the centre of one of the most culturally and intellectually vibrant civilizations of the ancient world, exercising a profound influence on its Near Eastern contemporaries, and contributing in many respects to the religious, scientific, and literary traditions of the Classical civilizations of Greece and Rome. In keeping with a legacy that goes back at least as far as Hammurabi, Nebuchadnezzar devoted himself to building and restoration projects throughout his land, and proclaimed his responsibilities in ensuring justice and protection for all his subjects, especially those who were most vulnerable – as Hammurabi had done in his famous (and still extant) set of laws. Under Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon became the largest and most sophisticated city of the ancient world. The so-called ‘Tower of Babel’ was one of its defining landmarks. It was a multi-platformed building, of a kind found in many Babylonian cities as well as Babylon itself, and was known as a ziggurat. Though it was certainly a religious building, its precise function remains unknown. (One suggestion is that it served as a substitute for the mountains in which the gods originally lived.)

Babylonian contributions to the arts and social and physical sciences remain among the most important achievements of all ancient civilizations, as the decipherment of the ancient Near Eastern languages and the excavation of the Babylonian cities have so amply demonstrated. Yet the image of Babylon itself as the archetypal city of decadence, profligacy, and unrestrained vice is the one that remains paramount in modern perceptions. Thanks to the influence of the Judaeo-Christian view of this city, strongly reinforced by the lurid depictions of it and its rulers in western art, this image continues to dominate all others, despite all that modern Mesopotamian scholars have done to provide a more balanced view of this the centre of one of the world’s greatest civilizations.

Featured image credit: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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11 facts you may not have known about Roman gladiators

About two thousand years ago, fifty thousand people filled the Colosseum in Rome to participate in one of the most fascinating and violent events to ever take place in the ancient world. Gladiator fights were the phenomenon of their day – a celebration of courage, endurance, bravery, and violence against a backdrop of fame, fortune, and social scrutiny. Today, over 6 million people flock every year to admire the Colosseum, but what took place within those ancient walls has long been a matter of both scholarly debate and general interest.

The murderous fights were a form of popular entertainment for the masses, both poor and rich alike. The ancient Romans had a morbid fascination with the gladiator, and still to this day, the gladiator remains an intriguing subject in academia and popular culture. To help separate popular myth from reality, we’ve assembled some of the most interesting facts about one of the most iconic figures of the Roman empire, drawn from Garrett G. Fagan’s Oxford Classical Dictionary article “gladiators, combatants at games.” Read ahead to see how much you know about Roman gladiators!

1. According to modern scholarly interpretations, the gladiatorial games were perhaps vehicles of social control and functioned to distract the populus from recognizing their diminished autonomy under imperial rule. Gladiatorial games were a phenomenon in the Roman world, and both ancient and modern scholars have held different interpretations of the games and their place in Roman history. Some would argue that the games reflect typical Roman virtues, such as courage, endurance, and martial skill, while others, like Roman satirist Juvenal, thought that the games preyed on the Roman’s unhealthy obsessions with “bread and circuses” (Sat. 10.78–81). Modern interpretations consider the games distractions that kept the people subdued and unable to realize the real loss of power under the empire.

“Bestiarii,” before 80 AD. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

2. The educated elite opposed the gladiatorial events and saw them as mass entertainment for the lower classes. Their opposition, however, was never motivated by altruism. In fact, they were far less concerned about the lives of those participating in gladiatorial combat, who they viewed as worthless and deserving of their fate. Their opposition stemmed from what they saw as moral indolence and the indignities of indulgence.

3. Jews and Christians were likewise seemingly unconcerned about the victims of arena violence. Their arguments in opposition to the games focused on what they viewed as inherent idolatry, as gladiatorial show often occurred during pagan religious festivals, which featured idols and images of pagan gods.

4. Gladiators were regarded as infames (people of bad reputation). Most gladiators were slaves, ex-slaves, or freeborn individuals who fought under contract to a manager. They were often ranked below prostitutes, actors, and pimps, and generally regarded as both moral and social outcasts.

5. Despite this, gladiators were the sex symbols of their day. Gladiators enjoyed quite a bit of popularity, especially from women – so much so that a name was coined for these ancient fan-girls (ludiae, or “training-school girls,” a term coined by Juvenal (Sat. 6.104)).



6. Some gladiators were honored with monuments. Not all gladiators were simply killed and cast off. The more popular gladiators had gravestones and inscriptions that revealed their origins, careers, and views of their profession. Gravestones were quite expensive, and even more so if they were engraved. While the question remains if the sentiments left behind were their own, these epitaphs were often the only window into the personality of these warriors.

7. Not all gladiators were men. It is not clear if women ever fought in the arena, but there is evidence that suggests female gladiators did exist. Roman emperor Domitian was said to stage fights between female gladiators and dwarves. Another notice suggests the ancient city of Halicarnassus hosted a fight between two female warriors named “Amazon” and “Achillia”. But while these fights may have very well taken place, they were likely spectacles put on for the emperor and were probably just a novelty.

8. Gladiatorial bouts were originally part of funeral ceremonies. Gladiatorial exhibitions were originally associated with funerary commemoration. As the games’ popularity grew, so did their scale and finesse. One notable exhibition took place in 216 BCE, when 22 fights were held over three days to mark the death of a prominent senator.

9. Gladiators were (mostly) recruited and trained, much like athletes are today. Gladiators were lived and trained in schools (ludi gladiatorum) under the watchful eye of their managers (lanistae). Willing gladiators worked under contract, while unwilling gladiators (usually slaves) were either bought by a ludus gladiatorum or condemned by the Roman courts to fight in the arena.

10. Death was an acceptable outcome, but not an inevitable result, of gladiatorial
Most depictions of gladiatorial combat often portray fights as a bloody free-for-all that usually ends with one participant brutally maiming the other, but that was not always the case. Since gladiators were skilled professionals, it would be a devastating economic blow to managers if they lost a member of their gladiatorial stock.

11. The gladiatorial games were officially banned by Constantine in 325 CE. Constantine, considered the first “Christian” emperor, banned the games on the vague grounds that they had no place “in a time of civil and domestic peace” (Cod. Theod. 15.12.1). However, there is no evidence to suggest that the ban was implemented for humanitarian reasons. In fact, the would-be gladiators were sent instead to the mines to ensure a steady stream of labor. Further evidence suggests that the games had simply become too expensive and that the recent “Christianizing” of the empire had resulted in fewer combatants.

Featured image credit: “Colloseum” by Björn Fritz. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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How much do you know about ancient Greek education?

It’s back-to-school time again – time for getting back into the swing of things and adapting to busy schedules. Summer vacation is over, and for many, it’s back to structured days of homework and exam prep. If we look back to ancient Greece, we see that life for schoolchildren did not always follow such set plans day-to-day. Greek education was less formal, and parents chose whether or not to send their children to particular educational programs.

While memorizing by heart the works of poets may no longer be a standard academic practice in modern Western society, key elements of Classical Greek education endure. Aristotelian logic, the Socratic method, and Plato’s academic skepticism are all still relevant in the classroom today.

Test how much you know about the ancient Greek education system that developed the minds of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Archimedes, Pythagoras, Herodotus, and Hippocrates.

Quiz background image credit:  “Akropolis” by Leo von Klenze. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Featured image credit: “The School of Athens” by Raphael. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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A look at historical multiracial families through the House of Medici

The Medici, rulers of Renaissance Florence, are not the most obvious example of a multiracial family. They’ve always been part of the historical canon of “western civilization,” the world of dead white men. Perhaps we should think again. A tradition dating back to the sixteenth century suggests that Alessandro de’ Medici, an illegitimate child of the Florentine banking family who in 1532 became duke of Florence, was the son of an Afro-European woman. Sometimes called Simunetta, she may have been a slave in the household of his grandmother Alfonsina Orsini de’ Medici. The historical sources are elusive, but by pursuing them we can learn much about the history of race.

It’s easy to get the impression that mixed-race families are a new phenomenon. Pew Research Center reported last year that 6.9% of US adults are multiracial, and that the numbers are growing. In Britain the numbers are also growing, though smaller overall (2%) and one in 10 UK couples is of mixed ethnicity.*

Historical and archaeological research, however, shows that mixed-race families have been around very much longer. For example, there was a significant presence of first-generation migrants from North Africa in Roman Britain. Medieval records explored by the England’s Immigrants 1350-1550 project are largely “colour-blind,”  but there is other evidence for both black Africans and North African “Moors” in medieval England. It would be surprising indeed if none of these people had had children. Elsewhere in Europe, African migration—both voluntary and forced—was significant too. The retinue of Emperor Frederick II, thirteenth-century ruler of Germany and Sicily, included black Africans. Ethiopian Christians travelled to Europe: some became monks at Santo Stefano in Rome. From the fourteenth century, St Maurice was often depicted as black in German art.

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Although many details regarding the birth of Alessandro de’ Medici remain uncertain, it is believed that his mother may have been a slave in the household of his grandmother. Image by Art Gallery ErgsArt. Public Domain via Flickr.

In the fifteenth century, the beginning of the Portuguese trade in enslaved Africans gave a new and traumatic dynamic to this world. Slavery was already a part of the social fabric in Mediterranean societies, but in early fifteenth century Italy, many slaves came not from Africa, but from the East. Cosimo “the Elder” de’ Medici (1389-1464), had an enslaved Circassian mistress named Maddalena. Their son, Carlo, was born around 1428. Brought up with Cosimo’s legitimate heirs, he had a career in the Church and helped pave the way for later Medici sons to become cardinals.

In the frescos painted in the middle of the fifteenth century for the chapel in Palazzo Medici, a black African archer is shown prominently alongside a procession of Florentine dignitaries. By the beginning of the sixteenth century, Africans were a much larger proportion of the enslaved population in Italy, particularly in Naples, hometown of Alessandro de’ Medici’s grandmother Alfonsina.

There is still a battle, though, to bring this European history to the public. It took an American museum, the Walters, to put together the first major exhibition on the African Presence in Renaissance Europe. Race is almost absent as an issue from the museums of Florence (and indeed Italy), whether the period is the Roman Empire, the Renaissance or the twentieth-century imperialism of Mussolini.

A part of the difficulty here is the way the Renaissance is packaged and sold. This is a glamorous world of art and luxury—and, yes, of violence, but of the dramatic Borgia-style vendetta not the institutionalised systems of oppression. You might say the same of British country houses, where the Downton Abbey image leaves little space for their connection to the profits of slavery or Empire. There has been some positive work on this front recently, for example at Kenwood House, which in the eighteenth century was home to a biracial woman, Dido Elizabeth Belle (subject of a recent film by Amma Asante, which deserves wider public attention). Such developments are largely thanks to the efforts of community activists and the provision of public funding to engage a wider range of audiences. There is a long way to go, particularly in the privately-owned heritage sector.

But everyone wants a history, and perhaps one consequence of the growing number of mixed-race families in the twenty-first century will be a growing interest in such families in the past. This is far from an easy issue. All too often these family histories are entangled with enslavement and Empire, with violence and with deep inequalities of power. In my own family tree I find twelfth-century Jewish migrants to England on one side, and twentieth-century British missionaries in India on another. I always knew they were there, but writing The Black Prince of Florence has made me think anew about questions of race and ethnicity in my own past, as well as in the lives of others.

* The UK research differentiates between certain white ethnicities.

 Featured image credit: “Medici Chapel roof” by virtusincertus. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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The last -ism?

There has lately been something like an arms race in literary studies to name whatever comes after postmodernism. Post-postmodernism, cosmodernism, digimodernism, automodernism, altermodernism, and metamodernism rank among the more popular prospects. Each of these terms ostensibly describes a new mode of literary production after the alleged death of postmodernism. Yet the push to name a new period necessarily raises two important questions that should cause us to look back even as we squint toward the horizon:

  1. What is an -ism?
  2. Do we need periods at all?

If there is some kind of shift happening, if something new is taking place, if metamodernism, for instance, is supplanting postmodernism, then we implicitly assume that this new thing is new in contrast to the old thing that came before. In other words, to name a new -ism requires us to set the previous -ism in stone. But is, or I guess I should ask, was postmodernism ever an -ism at all?

In literary studies, we often use -isms to describe dual phenomena: historical periods that also seem to have their own unique philosophies of art. Now, of course things are never as neat and tidy as an -ism like romanticism seems to make them. Nearly all scholars would agree that romanticism does end on Tuesday, April 11, 1861, and they would agree it didn’t spring forth fully formed from a particular writer or literary work. Nevertheless, we use these historical-philosophical categories to make an otherwise unwieldy history a little more, well, wieldy. Literary historians have theorized and developed these -isms over time to better understand these writers, works, and time periods. We have also used these -isms to make these writers, works, and time periods more accessible to students. Such categories make it much easier to hold a lot of information in our heads.

Did postmodernism represent a return to some earlier literary form or was it an entirely new practice?

But there has never been the kind of consensus about postmodernism that there has been about romanticism, realism, or modernism. That’s not to say that there’s no scholarly agreement, but it is to say that postmodernism has not been nearly as easy to presume in our attempts to name whatever comes next. After all, what was postmodernism? Was it an architectural aesthetic? Was it a philosophy? Was it a culmination of modernism or its antithesis? Did postmodernism represent a return to some earlier literary form or was it an entirely new practice?

The problem is the particular form of the -ism as a historical marker. An -ism, according to the OED, is “a form of doctrine, theory, or practice having, or claiming to have, a distinctive character or relation.” Platonism is a good example. Plato’s philosophy can be defined by a system of orthodoxies that, taken together, make up Platonism. When we use the -ism to periodize, however, we necessarily tend to treat what should be a story as a system. We treat history as doctrine. We treat what should be narrative as a list of principles. We conflate history and aesthetics, or maybe history and philosophy.

The question, “what is an -ism?” can thus prepare us for the question, “do we need periods at all?” In short, we need periods. Fredric Jameson says it this way: “we cannot not periodize.” The late Jacques LeGoff puts it like this: “So long as humanity is unable to predict the future with exactitude, the ability to organize a very long past will not lose its importance.” Periodization helps us account for changes in history; it helps us retain information; it makes the past more manageable. But there are many different ways to periodize. The -ism is only one approach. After all, we haven’t always used -isms this way. If literary historians must periodize, then perhaps the next question to consider is: should we continue to use the -ism to do so?

Featured image credit: The juxtaposition of old and new, especially with regards to taking styles from past periods and re-fitting them into modern art outside of their original context, is a common characteristic of postmodern art by Petri Krohn. CC ASA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

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