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The destruction of an Assyrian palace

In March 2015, ISIS released a video depicting the demolition of one of the most important surviving monuments from the Assyrian empire, the palace of Ashurnasirpal in the ancient city of Nimrud.
As archaeologists, we are all too familiar with destruction. In fact, it is one of the key features of our work. One can only unearth ancient remains, buried long ago under their own debris and those of later times, once. It brings with it an obligation to properly record and make public what is being excavated. The documentation from Ashurnasirpal’s palace is generally disappointing. This is due to the palace mostly having been excavated in the early days of archaeology. Still, the resulting information is invaluable and will continue to allow us to answer new questions about the past.

Ashurnasirpal’s palace was constructed around 865 BCE during a period in which Assyria was slowly becoming the empire that would rule most of the Middle East two centuries later. The palace had probably been emptied by those who conquered the empire in 612 BCE and by those who reoccupied its remains thereafter. (This explains why its rooms were mostly devoid of precious objects.) It is the first known royal palace from the Assyrian Empire (little has survived from the centuries before), and is among the few Assyrian palaces to have been excavated (more or less) in its entirety. Measuring at least two hectares, it must have been one of the largest and most monumental buildings of its time. Though Nimrud itself is 180 times the size of the palace, and still mostly unexplored, the palace’s destruction is yet another blow to the cultural heritage of Iraq. It was without doubt one of the most important sites from that time in the world.

The palace was first excavated from 1847 onwards by Austen Henry Layard, with most finds ending up in the British Museum, which was just being constructed. Contrary to the later royal palaces, it used war scenes sporadically in the decoration of the palace, only using them in the throne-room and in the two reception rooms to its southwest. Hardly any of these reliefs remained in Nimrud, many were taken away during the reign of King Esarhaddon (680-669 BCE), when the palace no longer functioned as a royal residence, to be reused in his new palace. Most reliefs with war scenes were later shipped to the British Museum by Layard.

The British Museum: Room 7 - 'Paneled Wall Reliefs from the North West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud' by Mujtaba Chohan
The British Museum: Room 7 – ‘Paneled Wall Reliefs from the North West Palace of Ashurnasirpal II at Nimrud’ by Mujtaba Chohan. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The other monumental rooms of the palace were decorated with apotropaic scenes that depicted different otherworldly creatures. The palace depicted a varied group of such figures, but most walls depicted only a single type. In order to limit the number of reliefs coming their way, the British Museum asked Layard not to send “duplicates”. Layard therefore started giving them away to people visiting his excavations. People continued to visit the site in the decades thereafter to take away reliefs for their own, and as a result, the palace’s reliefs ended up throughout the world. ISIS has now destroyed the last reliefs that remained in Nimrud.

The remaining contents of the palace were also taken away during excavations, with the valuable finds mostly ending up in museums in Iraq and England. Original items still remaining included architectural features, such as floors and drainage, and stone reliefs that had been deemed less valuable by European museums and collectors. The walls blown up by ISIS were mostly reconstructed during the past decades.

A sense of irony pervades the tragedy of the destruction. The Assyrians were renowned destroyers of cultural heritage themselves and masters in letting the world know about their deeds. They were highly skilled in the art of propaganda and used all the media available at the time. Their propaganda was so effective that the Assyrians have had a bad reputation throughout most of history.

ISIS uses propaganda as an art of misdirection. Overall it has been destroying less than it claims, and much more than the ones that have made headlines. To a considerable degree, ISIS was blowing up a reconstructed, excavated, and emptied palace. There should, however, be no doubt about the cultural and scientific value of what had remained. The damage is irreparable and heart breaking. The amount of destroyed heritage is only countered by the daunting potential for more damage. ISIS controls numerous archaeological sites of universal importance. Some of these are known to have been pillaged in order to profit from the illegal sale of antiquities. It is a problem that goes well beyond the area controlled by ISIS and one of which Europe is not always on the good side. Unsurprisingly, ISIS has been less eager to highlight how the art they say to despise is supporting them financially. Since sites can only be dug up once, looting forever robs us of the chance to learn about the past.

Headline image: Portal guardians mark the entrance to what once was the Northwest palace in the ancient city of Calah, which is now known as Nimrud, Iraq. Photo by Staff Sgt. JoAnn Makinano. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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The ‘Golden Nikes’ for Greek tragedy

With Greek tragedies filling major venues in London in recent months, I have been daydreaming about awarding my personal ancient Greek Oscars, to be called “Golden Nikes” (pedantic footnote: Nike was the Goddess of Victory, not of Trainers). There has been Medea at the National Theatre, Electra (Sophocles’ version) at the Old Vic, and Antigone, which recently opened at the Barbican. There are yet more productions lined up for The Globe, Donmar, and RSC.

Most obviously, there has to be the Golden Nike for ‘Best Tragic Heroine’. And it goes to Kristin Scott Thomas for her tense, nuanced, and moving Electra – although Helen McCrory’s Medea would win if there were an award for ‘Voice’. (I’m afraid that Juliette Binoche showed that she is better in the cinema than the theatre.) ‘Best Supporting Actor’ definitely goes to Diana Quick’s dignified but hopelessly damaged Clytemnestra in Electra.

In the long run, though, it may be more interesting to think about the huge differences between these three productions, and how each found such very different tensions and tones and thought-patterns in three plays that all come from the same society and setting and the same brief period in the Athens of nearly 2,500 years ago. Medea tapped into a dark undergrowth of resentment and deceit; Electra revolved around the pathology of grief and the cramping bonds of family ties; Antigone brought out the menace of power and the allure of death-wish. They were so fascinatingly varied in their incorporation of music, for example, their use or non-use of the chorus, their playing on light and dark, and the degree to which they were in some way “Greek”.

The Goddess Nike (Winged Victory) on top of Skipton War Memorial by Chris Tomlinson. CC-BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Naturally, as a translator, I have a special interest in their scripts – the degree of adaptation, their diction and poetry, their use of the familiar and the strange. You might say that they could hardly have been more different. Actually, the range of modern versions is so incredibly various that you could put another twenty versions side-by-side and find them no less different from each other than these three.

Ben Power’s Medea, called “a new version”, was the most adapted and furthest away from the Greek original. Critics praised it as “lean and mean”. This is one way of saying that only about a quarter of the Euripides made it into the version. And there is a significant layer of additions, including most of the opening scene. Power’s priorities are open: he is going for clear basic narrative, simple accessible language. His driving priorities might be put as negatives: “avoid making it difficult or strange or high-flown”. Complex ideas, striking twists of expression, musical sound-patterns: these are all avoided like the plague in this simplified version.

Electra used a pre-existent text by the Irish playwright Frank McGuinness. This is relatively complete and close to the original, and does more to reflect the non-naturalistic dictions and rhythms of Sophocles. The word most used of it by reviewers was “strong”. This is high praise – I would be delighted if my versions were called “strong”. At the same time McGuinness’ language did not surprise or disconcert; it felt well worn rather than fresh.

Anne Carson is the only one of three writers to have worked from the Greek, and so it is all the more remarkable that her Antigone is by far the strangest and most idiosyncratic. Carson is both a classical scholar and an exceptional lyric poet. Her own poetry has an unmistakable “voice” – a poignant terseness, a sardonic wit, and an unpredictable swooping between highly wrought artifice and almost bathetically everyday idioms. She has not changed her voice at all for confronting tragedy, and the result is that this new Antigone has a script that is full of strange surprises and puzzling twists, darting between high peculiarity and deflationary colloquialism. This is not merely willful because the Sophocles original is also variable and unexpected in tonal variation; it is quite mistaken to think that the language of Greek tragedy was level and stately.

At the same time, I have to say that the Carson is so odd and individual that, in my opinion, it works better on the page than it does in performance on stage. So the Golden Nike for ‘Best Acting Script’ goes to Frank McGuinness and the Golden Nike for ‘Best Creative Translation’ to Anne Carson. And what her version does do in the theatre is to call for its audience to listen to every word, and to realise that this drama is not expressed in simple everyday language. I like that. I hope that my versions, in their different way, do the same.

Featured image credit: Winged victory, Nike statue, Rome, Italy, by Mstyslav Chernov. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Five lessons from ancient Athens

There’s a lot we can learn from ancient Athens. The Greek city-state, best recognized as the first democracy in the world, is thought to have laid the foundation for modern political and philosophical theory, providing a model of government that has endured, albeit in revised form. Needless to say, the uniqueness of its political institutions shaped many of its economic principles and practices, many of which are still recognizable in current systems of government. Today, in a global environment of economic turmoil, ancient Athens may be even more relevant that ever before, imparting a handful of lessons for today’s citizens of the world.

1.   Freelancing is the best way of life.

No Athenian citizen had a full-time job. It was beneath their dignity to work for someone else. Nearly all citizens had a farm so they would spend some time working there, but few farms produced a saleable surplus and most people had to buy much of their food. They might be called up for a military or naval campaign, which would bring in a little money. They got paid if they attended the assembly, though it only met a few days per month. They could also get paid if they were selected by lot to sit on a 500-person jury, but this was necessarily sporadic. To make ends meet, most people turned to manufacturing, making simple objects for their own use, for exchange with neighbours, or for sale in the marketplace.  Besides the freedom to spend time philosophising, attending festivals, and going to the theatre, this flexible lifestyle allowed citizens to attend to their formal democratic responsibilities in the assembly and in the courts.  It is what enabled Athens’ democracy and her justice system to function in a way we can only envy.

DGJ_4727 - Greece Vase - Amphora. by Dennis Jarvis. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr
“DGJ_4727 – Greece Vase – Amphora” by Dennis Jarvis. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

2.   Casual manufacturing is a good way to supplement your income.

Before the industrial revolution, most manufacturing was done in small craft shops by a handful of people. There were only a few ways to build a large business, essentially through branding a product that required more than one person to make, or through pre-empting a valuable location, like a mine access point for ore processing or a permitted site for tanning. The industrial revolution brought cost and information benefits to those who could invest in large-scale operations, and in developed economies the small craftsman almost disappeared.  New technology is changing that dynamic again and eliminating the advantages of scale on every front, from online apprenticeships and 3D printing to desktop CNC machinery and sales and promotion. The effort involved in making things for self or for sale is once again competitive with shop prices, and casual manufacturing can form a satisfying and financially important part of a freelance portfolio.

3.   You don’t need business regulation to enforce community standards.

The Athenians had a very strong belief in fairness and justice—so strong it enabled them to dispense with business regulations. If you made a contract, you were expected to abide by it. Anyone who felt aggrieved by the actions of an associate could bring a legal case and it would be judged by 500 of his fellow citizens, selected by lot. The judges were not concerned with legal interpretations and precedents, just with who seemed believable and what seemed fair.

4.   You can finance public goods without an income tax system.

The Athenians had no income tax system yet managed to pay for a lot of public goods, far more than could be afforded out of the state’s main sources of revenues, which were harbour taxes, mine leases, and protection money from its allies. They also believed it was important that public goods should be paid for by those who could best afford it. To achieve this, they developed a system of donations or “liturgies” ensuring that costs fell on rich Athenians, who might be asked to fund a boat, a festival, or an unexpected military contingency.

If you were selected for a liturgy, there were two ways of getting out of it. You could show you had made one recently—which could be easily checked—or you could point to someone richer than you and say they should do it. There was one catch: you had to offer to swap all your assets for theirs, so you would want to be sure you were right.

5.   The public has a right to know exactly how its money is spent.

The Athenians had a very clear system of accountability for public projects. They were approved by a democratically elected council and the general assembly, and the task of supervising delivery and costs was assigned to a representative body of citizens to whom the “architect” (project manager) would report. There were no attempts to claim that contracts were commercially confidential and full details were published. Inscriptions on stones near temples carried the names of everyone who worked on the project, their social status, and details of what they did, how many days they worked, and what they were paid. Another inscription by the city walls giving detailed financial records says it was prepared for “anyone who wants to know how the finances were managed.”

Image Credit: “Odeon of Herodes Atticus, Athens, Greece. 2003″ by black.stllettos. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. via Flickr

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The top sci five classical receptions on screen

Recently, a number of prominent publications have featured a growing body of work on classical receptions in science fiction and fantasy, including Mélanie Bost-Fiévet’s and Sandra Provini’s collection L’Antiquité dans l’imaginaire contemporain (Garniers Classiques 2014), a special issue of the journal Foundation on “Fantastika and the Greek and Roman Worlds” (Autumn 2014), and our own collection, Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (OUP 2015).

This focus on science fiction, now an important part of popular culture, reveals much about how ancient classics are being received by modern audiences, particularly when it comes to the silver screen. For example, contributors to our collection wrote on topics including inorganic beings and tropes of disability in Blade Runner and ancient literature; how Forbidden Planet evokes mid-20th-century Aristotelian visions of tragedy; and modern Hollywood visions of imperial Rome in The Hunger Games trilogy. Still other examples were discussed at the recent “Once and Future Antiquity” international conference.

However, this burgeoning field is wide open for exploration not only by professional classicists, film theorists, and other scholars, but also by fans of all of these genres. In order to invite readers to join the ongoing conversation, we note the Top Sci Five Classical Receptions on Screen that we would love to see examined at greater length and depth.

"Poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey" by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Fair Use via Wikimedia Commons.
“Poster for 2001: A Space Odyssey” by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Fair Use via Wikimedia Commons.

2001: A Space Odyssey

Stanley Kubrick’s seminal film, developed in close collaboration with Arthur C. Clarke, is a bald-faced classical reception. Kubrick deliberately chose the subtitle to suggest that this–a long and fantastic journey through the mystery and remoteness of space–is perhaps the modern Odyssey. Yet unlike some other notable examples of ‘incredible voyages,’ 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick 1968)  is neither parodic nor vaguely monomythic, devoting as much attention to the disconcerting metaphysical implications of homecoming as to its spectacularly realistic depictions of travel through space.

As outer space and inner spaces overlap, ‘What is out there?’  becomes a way of exploring ‘What is in here?’ and ‘Who are we / am I?’ in ways readers of Homer and Virgil are apt to recognize. Although such questions can be attributed to the film’s modern sources of inspiration—above all Clarke’s own “The Sentinel” (1951) and Childhood’s End (1953)—they also resonate deeply with ancient themes, including Odysseus’s various self-descriptions when confronted with versions of his past and Aeneas’ question of what it means to pursue a new home by divine command.

Deleted scene: As if in unconscious evocation of classical antiquity, the film’s most iconic character, the artificial intelligence and archvillain HAL 9000, was originally going to be named Athena.


Although not strictly ‘classical’ in its involvement with Greece or Rome, Stargate (Emmerich 1994) is enthusiastic about ancient studies insofar as ancient Egyptian culture is, in the film’s central conceit, the result of an intervention by a technologically advanced visitor from another world. The film thus presents a variation of gods as extraterrestrials, a theme related to both the ancient theory of Euhemerism (stating that gods are post-humans) and the modern ‘Chariots of the Gods’ theory (after Erich von Daniken’s 1968 book.) Moreover, it envisions a universe in which the study of ancient language and culture is, paradoxically, a guide to humankind’s possible future.

Of course, the film operates under somewhat unexamined assumptions about American exceptionalism, as Egyptologist Daniel Jackson (James Spader) certainly conforms to assorted stereotypes of his academic field: e.g., he is white, male, heterosexual, bespectacled, physically unprepossessing, and allergic to seemingly everything. But Jackson nonetheless also embodies a kind of triumph of the intellectual over the merely physical, leading not only to military victory against the cruel alien masquerading as Ra, but also to cross-cultural understandings.

Bonus feature: The film inspired several television series of the same name, one of which centers on the lost city of Atlantis, reimagined as an ancient city-sized spaceship.


Ridley Scott’s two films in the Aliens series reveal a sustained interest in icons from classical myth that explore and articulate human suffering. In Alien (Scott 1979), the human crew of the spaceship Nostromo encounter the deadly xenomorphs on a planetoid identified as Acheron LV-426, a name that not only alludes to one of the rivers of the Underworld but anticipates the living hell the humans will experience. This makes Ellen Ripley, the film’s lone survivor, into a kind of science-fictional Greek hero who returns from the realm of the dead but now questions the very meaning and limits of humanity. Alien also complicates notions of humanity through the android Ash, who betrays the human crew in favor of his creators, the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, hardening distinctions between the human and inhuman. Scott later complicates such thinking in Prometheus (Scott 2012), wherein the android David, once liberated from his human master Weyland, proves more sympathetic—and even more humane—than human characters themselves.

Prometheus engages more obviously with the classics than Alien, evoking the ancient myth of Prometheus and his gift of fire to humankind in order to explore the unintended consequences of technoscientific discovery and reimagine the confrontation between humankind and its own creator. While Prometheus, at its outset, shares Stargate’s perspective that the study of ancient languages and cultures–in this case, archaeology and the myth of Prometheus–serves as a guide to for the future, the crew of the ship Prometheus soon discover that they have instead opened Pandora’s jar, as it becomes clear that humankind’s creators, the Engineers, seek to obliterate them with biological weapons (stored in actual jars).

Language selection: Prometheus includes a version of Proto-Indo-European, which the android David studies, with on-screen assistance from real-life linguist Anil Biltoo, in order to speak with the Engineers; one Engineer returns the linguistic courtesy by decapitating David.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show 

This cult favorite, based on a 1973 stage musical, is a science fiction/horror film ending in the revelation that the main characters are aliens from the planet Transsexual in the galaxy of Transylvania. And yet, amidst its rampant, Dionysiac transgression of generic and sexual boundaries, Rocky Horror (Sharman 1975) shows a marked interest in classical hard bodies, not only through the repeated appearance of neo-classical statuary but also in its focus on the mythic figure of Atlas.

Rocky, the creation of scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter, evokes in his physical appearance not Frankenstein’s monster (as we might expect) but the exquisitely sculpted Charles Atlas, the mid-20th century guru of masculine fitness and self-transformation. However, Rocky discovers himself not to be a self-made man like Charles Atlas, but rather a prisoner in a state of perpetual bondage like the mythic Titan Atlas, known for his perpetual suffering in holding the heavens upon his shoulders and depicted in stained glass over Furter’s bed. Rocky Horror thus mobilizes an ancient icon to cast doubts upon the promised liberation of the self through modern sex and science, hinting at the complex horrors inherent in practices of classical reception.

Easter egg: When Dr. Furter captures several of the characters towards the end of the film, he transforms them into statues using a weapon called ‘the Medusa transducer,’ whose sing-song name of course recalls the petrifying Gorgon.

The Transformers: The Movie 

The last item on our list is, in a way, also the first—the 1986 film that first crystallized our interest in classical receptions in science fiction. Like all Transformers properties, the film depicts an enduring war between forces of good and evil in the forms of Autobots and Decepticons. As fans will know, important Autobots have Latinate names; their leader is Optimus Prime, who is later replaced by Rodimus Prime. Important Decepticons, in contrast, have Hellenic names; their leader is Megatron, who is later upgraded into Galvatron. That contrast alone would have been sufficient fodder for the Wacky Classics Movie Night we held in our Greek and Latin House at Reed College in the fall of 1997: Are Latinates/Romans thus ‘good’ while Hellenics/Greeks are somehow ‘evil’?

But the film goes further in its tagline, ‘Beyond good, beyond evil, beyond your wildest imagination,’ to envision a universe inhabited by sentient machines taking a wide range of forms and occupying an equally wide range of moral positions. Five-faced judges with monstrous animal helpers recall the multiple judges of the ancient Underworld and the guard dog Cerberus, while scavengers who live on the scraps of earlier cultures emphasize practices of recomposition in post-classical periods. Above all, there is Unicron—also known as the Lord of Chaos, the Chaos Bringer, and the Planet Eater—whose destabilizing presence seems to evoke third-century BCE Hellenistic politics or, later on, the ‘barbarian invasions’ from the north.

Image Credit: “Planet Space Universe Blue Background Light” by spielecentercom0. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

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A great precedent for freelancing

In a recent survey, 87% of UK graduates with first or second class degrees saw freelancing as highly attractive. 85% believe freelancing will become the norm. In the United States, as reported in Forbes in August 2013, 60% of millennials stay fewer than three years in a job, and 45% would prefer more flexibility to more pay. While Generation X challenged the idea of a job for life, those entering the workforce today are challenging the idea of a job on any conditions.

What does this mean for our economy and our society? Commentators who express concern about fragmentation of the workplace and social obligations, and fear that the change can only be for the worse, are overlooking a highly encouraging precedent. In Athens at the height of her cultural, political and military glory (approximately the fifth and fourth centuries BCE) no citizen would have dreamed of taking employment. They all worked and made a living but they had time to do a lot of other things as well.

Probably because it was a slave society, it was infra dig for a citizen to work for someone else. If hard pressed you might agree to help a neighbour on his farm and be paid for it, usually in kind, but you wouldn’t sign up for long. You might work on a public building project, which brought kudos as well as income. Some civic duties were also paid, including military service, attending the assembly and being selected by lot as a juror, but, except in times of war, these payments would not support a family for long. Most citizens had a small farm, which provided some, but generally not all, of their food. Few would have had a marketable surplus and most would have needed to buy food.

Teatro Antico - Taormina. by 190.arch (aka bymamma190). CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. via Flickr.
Teatro Antico – Taormina. by 190.arch (aka bymamma190). CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. via Flickr.

The way many households chose to make ends meet was through making things, either for their own use or for exchange with neighbours or for sale in the Agora. Many households would have made their own pots: a mud kiln could be easily built and the technology was not hard to learn. All would have made their own clothes. If there were two women in a household of six, they would make just enough for the household; more women and they could make for market, fewer and they would have to buy clothes. Some households would have made simple metal objects for their own use and for sale. If you were rich and had your money invested in loans or factory slave gangs or mining leases, as most of the rich did, you could afford not to work yourself but your dozen or so slaves would be put to work making clothes, pottery or wooden or metal objects, generally under the supervision of the lady of the house. Women had fewer obligations outside the home, but in it they were the main economic decision makers. They were responsible for managing production and training the slave workforce and children. The household was the economic unit and the lady was the boss.

The lives that citizens, even of modest means, could live under these arrangements were varied and colourful. They had time to go to the theatre and games and some evidently had time to philosophise. Not having permanent commitments to an employer, they could respond instantly to a military call-up and were able to vote in the assembly and act as jurors when required (with some compensation for loss of earnings). Some might choose to work very hard to improve their income but few saw that as a major objective. They can hardly be described as lazy, though. This period, when the majority of the citizen body were freelance workers, marked the pinnacle of Athens’ military, cultural and political achievements.

Can we aspire to anything similar? Fortunately we can dispense with the two least attractive features of classical Athens. We no longer try to privilege men over women and for routine tasks we can use machines and computers instead of slaves. The internet gives us additional advantages; we can learn skills, buy equipment and raw materials and find customers for our output without leaving home. If we use these tools, and manage our time well, perhaps we can all learn to lead rich and varied lives, giving due time to friends, family and public affairs rather than in the single-minded pursuit of a career.

Featured Image: Sounio Greece by Daniel Enchev. CC BY 2.0. via Flickr

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