Lacking in love or not, the Greeks’ and Romans’ celebration of marriage was still marked by particular customs. Some of their marital traditions form the roots of modern practices today. For instance, while the Romans might not have gifted diamonds ...

OUPblog » Classics & Archaeology

How much do you know about ancient Greek and Roman marriages?

Today is Valentine’s Day, a holiday centered on celebrating love and romance. The notion that love forms the core of romantic relationships and marriages is a rather modern concept. Indeed, throughout much of history love in many cultures had very little to do with marriage.

Marriage in ancient Greece and Rome, particularly among the upper classes, was a contractual arrangement engineered by fathers or male relatives of different families. Such betrothal agreements were primarily political and/or financial in nature, and the resulting marriages were chiefly concerned with dowries and the procreation of legitimate children to continue a family line. Lacking in love or not, the Greeks’ and Romans’ celebration of marriage was still marked by particular customs. Some of their marital traditions form the roots of modern practices today. For instance, while the Romans might not have gifted diamonds and other “bling” as frequently as suitors do now, an intending husband did solemnize his engagement with a kiss and an iron ring (anulus pronubus) placed on the third finger of his partner’s left hand.

Test your knowledge with this quiz below to see how much you know about Greek and Roman marriage customs, and perhaps learn a few new facts!

Quiz background image credit: “Roman marriage vows,” by Ad Meskens. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Featured image credit: “Wedding preparation,” by Shakko. CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The post How much do you know about ancient Greek and Roman marriages? appeared first on OUPblog.


Five tragic love stories across time

This time of year is often filled with images of romance, hearts, and cupid’s bows, but not all love stories end in ‘happily ever after’. Who among us hasn’t had their heart broken, or felt the sting of rejection? But we all know that life without love (even if it’s painful) isn’t much of a life. As Charles Darwin once said, ‘Much love much trial, but what an utter desert is life without love’.

We had a look through myth and time and discovered the following couples whose course of true love did not run smooth. Who would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments below or via social media.

Antony and Cleopatra

Cleopatra, the Queen of Egypt, had a number of romances that ended in tragedy. It is said that Cleopatra met Mark Antony (a Roman general) in Rome after the assassination of her lover, Caesar. They quickly fell in love and Antony followed her to Egypt, abandoning his own wife Octavia. They ruled together, but after their defeat in the Battle of Actium Antony committed suicide (some accounts attribute this to his being wrongly informed that Cleopatra was dead), and Cleopatra followed him eleven days later. Shakespeare later used this fated story as inspiration for his play Antony and Cleopatra.

Héloïse and Abelard

Peter Abelard was a French theologian and philosopher during the 11th and 12th centuries. When he was in his thirties he became the tutor of 17-year-old Héloïse, at the request of her uncle Canon Fulbert of Notre Dame. Over time they fell in love and had a child, but when the affair was discovered they fled and were secretly married in Paris. That did not stop Héloïse’s family, however, who eventually found them, separated them, and had Peter castrated. Peter became a monk, and Héloïse a nun, but on their deaths they were reunited and buried together.

'Mugahl emperor Shah Jahan and his empress Mumtaz Mahal' by Unknown. CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.
Image credit: ‘Mugahl emperor Shah Jahan and his empress Mumtaz Mahal’ by Unknown. CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal

Everyone knows and can picture the Taj Mahal in their mind – one of the great wonders of the modern world. But did you know that it’s a mausoleum created by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to commemorate his wife, Mumtaz Mahal? They met at the palace, in a holiday bazaar, and Shah Jahan immediately fell in love. They were married five years later, and he was devoted to her for the rest of her life, giving her the largest income ever given (10 million rupees), and entrusting her with his seal. When she died in childbirth, in her thirties, he assembled artists and craftsmen from all over India, Iran, and Central Asia to create the Taj Mahal. Construction lasted over ten years and cost more than 5 million rupees, eventually becoming the burial place for Shah Jahan himself.

Lancelot and Guinevere

Guinevere, the wife of King Arthur in the Arthurian legend, fell in love with one of the king’s Knights of the Round Table – Sir Lancelot. When the king learned of their adulterous affair he condemned Guinevere to death, but Lancelot managed to save her from the stake, and they ran away together to Brittany. Arthur chased after them, but was swiftly called back to Britain to fight against Mordred, his nephew. Hearing of this, Lancelot (being a good knight) followed Arthur back to Britain to help in the fight, but he was too late to save Arthur, who dies. Lancelot tried to find Guinevere again, but found that she had entered a nunnery.

Helen of Troy and Paris

Famously ‘the face that launched a thousand ships’, Helen of Troy was half human and half god, daughter of the Spartan princess Leda and the god Zeus. Of all her suitors she chose to become the wife of Menelaus, the wealthy Spartan king. However, Paris (the Trojan prince) was promised Helen by the goddess Aphrodite, in return for choosing her as the fairest goddess. During a visit to Sparta Paris and Helen became lovers and he took her back to Troy, beginning the great Trojan War, where Paris eventually died. Helen returned to Sparta once the war was over as Menelaus’s wife once again.

Featured image credit: ‘Wilted and brittle’ by A. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

The post Five tragic love stories across time appeared first on OUPblog.


What is new about Roman law?

Aside from the field of history itself, few disciplines routinely reach out to texts dating back several millennia to reassess fundamental issues. Theology is one, for obvious reasons. Another is philosophy, where the texts of Plato or Aristotle, not to mention more obscure writers, routinely warrants attention. In legal scholarship, a similar foundational position is held by Roman law. It formed the fundamental framework of legal thought which still unites Western law.

New scholarship claims that it offers new approaches to the study of Roman law. What makes these approaches new?

The dirty secret of all studies on classical Antiquity is that rather than improving, the knowledge basis of your average scholar is actually getting worse. The scholars of nineteenth-century had read Latin and Greek from childhood, from the modern standpoint enormous parts of the school curricula were devoted to ancient languages and cultures. It’s simply not possible that one could now reach the same fluency with ancient languages, cultures, and laws as was normal for scholars then. However, these studies were tinted with idealization and selective readings guided by classicism. The classics were read with an eye for the present, a male upper-class white reading that supported the world views of the elite. Traditional Roman law was similarly used to legitimize and to give a pedigree to the existing legal orders.

New studies set out to change the perspective of the reader to include the persons, groups, and things that were previously invisible. Women, the lower classes, slaves, and foreigners are given a prominent place in this new history. Their agency, often in contrast to the rules of the law, is highlighted. In her work, Verena Halbwachs elaborates how despite the official exclusion from legal agency and public office, women were prominent in the actual legal cases as active participants.

Mosaic of Justinianus I, Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna). Photo by Petar Milošević. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Mosaic of Justinianus I, Basilica San Vitale (Ravenna). Photo by Petar Milošević. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

While the earlier classicizing history writing relied on the establishment of a connection and identification between the classics and the reader, the new history of Roman law seeks to demonstrate how the past is truly a foreign country. The influence of religious rituals is demonstrated, the permanence and permeability of patriarchal structures and social conventions is explored and the pluralism of legal regimes, especially in the provinces, is underlined. Rejecting the neat and logical, even quasi-modern idea of classics, these studies establish a new way of looking at the often messy interaction between the rules and practice of law, not simply the law in books, but also the law in action. For example, Christopher Fuhrmann dispenses with the myth that ancient Rome was a society without police and examines the different forms of public order and security that have thus far been overlooked.

In addition to examining social and cultural practices and their implications for the law(s), they apply many of the methodologies of contemporary social sciences to ancient materials, from anthropology to economic theory. What this means is that the new approaches are used to help frame new questions and new answers to old questions. Like the heterogeneous field of studies titled “law and …”, law and society, law and economics, law and literature, law and anthropology, the aim is to critique, to subvert, and to complement the traditional approach to law with novel ways of looking at law in society. For example, Michèle Lowrie approaches the texts of Roman law as texts between orality and literacy, drawing inspiration from speech act theory.

Not long ago, professor Bruce Frier, wrote about the “descent of Roman law into history,” meaning the transmission of interest in Roman law from law schools into the departments of history or classics. Whether such a move is happening is questionable on a global scale, as is evident from the strength of the scholarship taking place in law schools (over half of the authors are lawyers by training or working at law schools), I would in fact describe the phenomenon as the opening up of Roman law. Not only has the field been enriched by scholars from classics and history, but equally the broadening of methodological horizons has given scholars new tools and helped them participate in new discussions.

Featured image credit: Cicero Denounces Catiline, fresco by Cesare Maccari. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The post What is new about Roman law? appeared first on OUPblog.


Taking liberties with the text: reflections of a translator

If you have ever tried to learn another language you already know that, even for beginners, translation is never simply a matter of looking the “foreign” words up in a dictionary and writing them down. The result is gibberish, because no two languages work in exactly the same way at the level of grammar (what the rules are) and syntax (how the sentence puts them to work). But more than that, and even once you’ve taken those differences into account, it’s hard to get a satisfactory resultsatisfactory to yourself as a translator learning the craft of a different language, never mind to anyone else.

Languages don’t just differ at a nuts-and-bolts level; they’re unlike each other in how they represent the world, how they convey the experience of being a speaker (which is to say, a person) within a culture. In what way, and to what kind of observer, does the sea in Homer “resemble wine” to the eye (its standard epithet, just as Achilles is routinely “swift-footed”)? Homer’s colour palette seems not just very limited, but also basically unlike ours, so the conventional rendering “wine-dark” is really just a guessor a fudge, to cover up that we are just groping in the dark when we try to guess at what he might be trying to get across.

Conversely, if I wanted to translate “I love you” into Homer’s ancient Greek (or Cicero’s Latin), I would have to think twice about what word or words to use because our word “love” has so much baggage attached. I love my wife, my parents, my dog, a glass of winebut not, thankfully, all in the same way. “Love” tells us that words are sticky; they pick up layers of meaning from new contexts (religion, chivalry, pop…) and it’s difficult ever to call time on their evolution (sex, family…what next?).

Things get harder still when the text we are translating won’t play fairrefuses to do a straightforward job of conveying meaning. When is a door not a door? When it’s a jar. Think for a moment on what a job you’d have putting that into French, German, whatever. And what if (even worse) the destination language expressed the world-view and experience of a culture that didn’t use doors; that was aware of jars (if at all) as a historical curiosity? No wonder translations of satirical and humorous writers so frequently need updating or replacing. Among ancient authors for modern readers and audiences, Aristophanes is a classic crux. His humour is topicaldo you swap out the references for rough modern equivalents, or render them literally? It mostly depends who you decide you are translating for, which determines what kind of version you need to deliver. A crib for language learners? A set text for ancient history students? Or a script for a contemporary stage?

“Sunrise, Phu Quoc, Island” by quangle, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Whatever way you slant it, something must be lost. Swap Cleon for Trump? You’ve muddied the sense of Aristophanes’ original! Leave Cleon as Cleon? Now no one is laughing!and that, for a comedy meant for a mass audience, is its own and perhaps inexcusable kind of infidelity. We always translate for particular audiences, in the first instance and perhaps always foremost ourselves (or else, why bother?), but we can never control which audiences will actually pick our version up and either castigate it or, sometimes worse, make it their own.

As with colours (Homer’s sea), so with sexual innuendos and outright accusations/braggingagain, the ancient world (through its languages) simply breaks up human experience into different chunks, processes, and categorises it differently. In a post-Foucauldian scholarly world, it’s common knowledge that “homosexuality” only came into being (initially through medicalisation) at the tail end of the nineteenth centuryand “heterosexuality” shortly thereafter; but that isn’t the half of it. To translate (as I have, and do) the first-century AD satirical epigrammatist Martial, who is perhaps the muckiest of ancient authors, is always to harbour the suspicion thatthrough profound cultural difference, expressed through language that is at the same time humorous, and colloquial, and obscenewe are being laughed at.

Will we ever get every last nugget of nasty innuendo out of his text? Perhaps we should be glad not tobut changing times bring new possibilities for Martial’s readers in English. For instance, in 10.68 Martial complains that a Roman girl of good conservative stock is making herself ridiculous by affecting the speech (“ah m’sieu!”) and mannerisms of a Greek courtesan. He even imagines her going so far as to wiggle and twitch her hips in a sexually suggestive manner: numquid, cum crisas, blandior esse potes? We have a word for it now. Criso, crisas, crisat: I twerk, you twerk, he, she, or it twerks; all this time, Martial’s Latin was waiting for us to catch up.

Featured image credit: “Home, Old, Door” by derRenner, CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay. 

The post Taking liberties with the text: reflections of a translator appeared first on OUPblog.


The Amazons ride again

The Amazons of Greek legend have fascinated humans for the past 3,000 years. The Amazon women were faster, smarter, and better than men, or so claimed the Greek author Lysias:

[The Amazons] alone of those dwelling around them were armed with iron, they were the first to ride horses, and, on account of the inexperience of their enemies, they overtook by capture those who fled, or left behind those who pursued. They were esteemed more as men on account of their courage than as women on account of their nature. They were thought to excel men more in spirit than they were thought to be inferior due to their bodies.

In fact, they were so capable that they managed to live without men at all, procreating by meeting up with a neighboring tribe only once in a while, or, in an even more titillating version of the story, by crippling men and keeping them as sex slaves.

But is there any truth behind these legends? During the latter half of the 20th century, while Western classicists argued that the Amazons were figments of the Greek imagination, Soviet archaeologists were busy unearthing graves of women buried with weapons. While literary theorists argued that the Amazons were simply an imagined “other” against which the Greeks defined themselves, archaeologists dug up evidence of what they called “Amazons” among Scythians, Sauromatians, and Thracians, all peoples whom the ancient Greeks associated with the Amazons.

Furthermore, Greek authors tell us that the Amazons did similar things as the Scythians, Sauromatians, and Thracians, all peoples for whom there is more historical evidence than for the Amazons themselves. Just as Lysias tells us the Amazons were the first to harness the use of iron to make weapons, so the Greek author Hellanicus tells us it was the Scythians who first made iron weapons. The discovery of iron weapons dating to circa 2500 BCE in the Ukraine, the region that would later be called Scythia by the Greeks, suggests that there just might be something to these tales. The Greek author Hellanicus tells us that the word Amazon means “breastless” (a=without, mazon=breast), because the Amazons removed one of their breasts in order that they could draw back a bowstring more easily. The Greek physician Hippocrates, on the other hand, suggests that it was Sauromatian women who cauterized one of their breasts. The Greek historian Herodotus, often called the “father of history” tells us that the Amazon women married Scythian men to form the Sauromatian tribe.

Statue of fighting Amazon outside Altes Museum Berlin. Photo by Christian Benseler. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Statue of fighting Amazon outside Altes Museum Berlin. Photo by Christian Benseler. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Yet the Amazons were associated by Greek authors with other historical peoples as well, namely the Thracians and Libyans. In the earliest Greek literature, the epic poet Arctinus asserted that the Amazon queen Penthesilea, who came to fight the Greeks during the fabled Trojan War, was “Thracian by birth.” In later Greek literature, Diodorus Siculus exclaimed that the Amazons originated in Libya, whereas Herodotus told us that the young girls of the Libyan tribe of the Auseans were taught to fight with staves and stones. As one digs through the evidence, both literally (archaeologically speaking) and figuratively (in Greek literature), it begins to sound more and more as though the Greek idea of the Amazon was based upon some historical reality of women who fought.

While some of the stories of the Amazons may have been, admittedly, exaggerations, the Amazons were a Greek reflection of more historical peoples. How else might we explain that they turned up in Greek literature in all the same places where nomadic women fought? On the steppes of Afroeurasia, women had need to defend themselves from enemies and other predators. There were no walls to protect them. But because the Greeks did not fully understand such a nomadic way of life, they saw women warriors on horseback as “masculine.” Hence they called them breastless, or “Amazons.” Comparison to Sanskrit literature is of interest here, as the ancient Indians also called women whom they perceived to be masculine “breastless.” Sanskrit literature furthermore suggests that the nomadic women of Central Asia, whom the Greeks labelled Amazons, were imported into India to become women bodyguards. Fabled for their fierceness, the nomadic women of central Asia made excellent bodyguards in the harems of South Asian palaces, where no man, not even a eunuch, might enter.

So, to return to the question at hand, were the Amazons of antiquity historical? It certainly seems that they were based upon a Greek understanding of historical nomadic peoples, even if the term Amazon itself was a Greek epithet. And while Classicists may be correct, at least in part, to understand the “Amazon” as an “other” against which the Greeks defined their own ethnicity, narratives of Amazons that parallel those of Scythians, Sauromatians, Thracians, and Libyans suggest that the “other” was not entirely a construction of the Greek imagination. It was based upon a historical reality that we are only now just beginning to understand.

Featured image credit: Ancient Roman sarcophagi in the Museo Ostiense (Ostia Antica) by Sailko. CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The post The Amazons ride again appeared first on OUPblog.


Contact UsPast IssuesJoin This ListUnsubscribe


Click here to safely unsubscribe from "OUPblog » Classics & Archaeology."
Click here to view mailing archives, here to change your preferences, or here to subscribePrivacy