Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ray Laurence – Roman Passions

Here's to all the nice people out there who write good books for the long winter months. Ray Laurence's “Roman Passions – A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome” is precisely one of those readings that require a cup of hot cocoa and soft carols in the background. And a cat purring somewhere on a rag.

I was a bit reluctant with this one, since the title made me believe it would be one of those tabloid-type works, but it's not – quite to the contrary, it's well balanced and carefully documented. Guess the title was just for marketing purposes – and I wonder if it didn't work the other way round – people who actually bought the book were disappointed and found it dry history, while those searching for serious history overlooked it. (I got it as a birthday present. To be sure, I would have bought it anyway, I buy everything Rome-related, even when I suspect it's the biggest junk in the world.)

In “Roman Passions”, Laurence manages to present a coherent vision about Roman aesthetics, and does a great job in selecting the common, as well as the exotic bits that shaped it. It was particularly nice to see how he emphasized the fact that the Romans were a rather puritan bunch, and the scandalous stories of the age were just that – stories. This is an idea I found most often in French historic literature, the English-language school seems to ignore it (or take it for granted, with Brits it's always hard to say).

I was a little surprised that the author chose to ignore the games and theaters – or rather, to include them under the generic chapter of “Violence”, when I've always felt that the amphitheaters, odeons and circuses were a social and cultural space in their own right, creating “internal” rules that skewed the natural order of the Roman society quite a bit. Also surprising is how little Laurence quotes Ovid – I'd say he was the supreme authority on Roman pleasure (of course, I'm biased. I like Ovid.)

The uneasy relation Romans had with their own pleasures is well underlined (guilty of feeling good, long before Christianity made it a standard), but more demographic data would have helped me understand Laurence's point of view easier. At times I wasn't sure whether his statements referred to the mindset of the ruling aristocracy or to the masses of Roman citizens.

So, all in all, a good read when it's dark and snowing outside, and may contain some starting points for more serious research in the coming year. If you're still unsure, you can check out the writer's style and ideas in this blog post: Top 10 Passions of Ancient Rome: Sex, Binge Drinking, and the Culture of Pleasure.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part IV

The Voting System

Compared to the rather straightforward – one man, one vote – system of most European states, the first-past-the-post voting system of the United States appears quite complex. No clear majority is needed for the successful candidate, no proportional relationship between the number of seats and the overall vote, and then there's the whole absentee voting thing...

The ancient Roman system was equally confusing. From what we can understand today, each citizen could vote, in theory, but, as the rich were the first to vote, and their opinion had a lot more weight in the final result, the process was stopped when a winner could be named, which was usually way before the poorer citizens got to cast their vote.

Weird as it may be – and in no way the direct democracy the Athenians dreamed of – the system worked for a long time, before it collapsed under the pressure of corruption. And even then, it was formally maintained, and probably quite effectively in place at local level in some cities of the empire.

The Decadence Obsession

The Roman civilization was not decadent, as neither is the US today – at least compared to its Western European cultural counterpart. Quite to the contrary, the Romans were a rather solemn, puritan and somber bunch – and they went down in history for their luxury and decadence because they made such a big fuss about it.

Truth is, there's not a shred of hard evidence that those infamous orgies ever took place. More likely, each meal that consisted of more than bread, cheese, figs and a bit of wine with water was branded as an orgy by the outraged neighbors, because it broke away from the frugal traditions handed down from the ancestors. Ecology and the green current wasn't big at the time, but still, a lot of voices from the end of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the Empire pleaded for a return to a simpler way of life, one closer to nature and to the first roots of mankind.

The Legal System

You know all those lawyer jokes? The Romans invented them. Young politicians made a name for themselves in court, by suing old politicians for the most trivial of reasons, and sometimes for the best reasons, when they knew perfectly well they couldn't win. And they couldn't care less, either way – it was the fame of the trial itself that mattered, not the outcome.

The funny thing about Roman lawyers was that they weren't paid for the job – they were supposed to defend their client out of honest belief they were doing the right thing. As you can imagine, the work was far from pro bono, and the fringe benefits associated with being a successful lawyer were huge.

Go to:
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part I
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part II
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part III

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Amymone and Poseidon

Amymone and Poseidon are one of the less known couples of the ancient Greek mythology. Poseidon, god of the sea, earthquakes and horses was, as we all know, happily married to Amphitrite, but, like all gods, had an occasional affair every once in a while.

Amymone was one of the daughters of King Danaos, which meant that she was a Danaid, and also that she had 49 sisters at home. The funny thing about Danaos having 50 daughters is that his twin brother, Aigyptos, had 50 sons. Long story short, Aigyptos wanted his sons to marry their cousins, Danaos didn't, so he took his girls and fled.

Danaos and his daughters found shelter in Argos, where the people had only good intentions, but were in serious trouble, because the entire region was dried up. That severe drought was Poseidon's doing. He and Hera competed for the supremacy over the new city, and Hera won. Poseidon decided to avenge his wounded ego by making the locals die of thirst.

The newcomers tried their best to help, and all the 50 daughters of Danaos went in search of water. Amymone went deep into a forest, hoping to find a spring, but instead, she stumbled upon a satyr, who was instantly charmed by her looks and attempted to rape her. Amymone's cries and shouts attracted the attention of Poseidon, who saved her from the satyr and kept her for himself. Before letting her go, he showed her the location of the springs of Lerna, so the region was saved.

Amymone and Poseidon had a child together (that's generally the whole point of these stories when a god mates with a mortal) named Nauplios, who was the grandfather of one of the Argonauts. Amymone did eventually marry her cousin, specifically the one named Lynceus – and was the only one to do so, as her 49 sisters killed their 49 husbands on the wedding night, but that's a different story. The children Amymone had with Lynceus started a long line of kings, which would culminate with Danae and her famous son, Perseus. Don't you just love how everybody is related to everybody? Just like a soap opera.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Alpheus and Arethusa

Assigning a god to every single object around you seems so much fun, I'm considering doing it for my household items. I'd have two gods for my desktops, a goddess for the laptop and a winged child for the netbook. Oh, and something in the shape of a snail for the cell phone. And then I'd start a war against the gods of the kitchen appliances.

That's how the ancients did it anyway. For instance, on the island of Ortygia, in Sicily, there was a river called Alpheus, which had its own god, and a well called Arethusa, which had its own goddess. The inhabitants noticed that the waters of these two communicated underground, as objects thrown in the river would resurface after a while in the well, so they quickly made up a love story.

As Ovid tells it, Arethusa was a Nereid and a follower of Artemis. One day she was bathing in a river, when the respective river-god, Alpheus, of course, saw her and fell in love. Arethusa ran away, seeking refuge with her goddess. Artemis hid her in a cloud, but Arethusa was sweating so much, she turned into a spring. Artemis decided to help her once more, so she caused the ground to split open, and the waters of the spring flew in the hole, creating a well. But the river-god found an underground passage to his love, and their waters would mix forever.

Another funny thing is how these minor gods end up playing cameo roles in big stories. When Demeter was desperately searching for her kidnapped daughter, Persephone, Arethusa informed her that she had seen Persephone underground, as queen in the realm of the dead. Alpheus is the river re-routed by Hercules to clean up the Augean Stables. He's also the father, or grand-father, of a soldier killed by Aeneas before fleeing from Troy. Big cast, these ancient legends had.  

Monday, December 6, 2010

Artemis and Aktaion

I was browsing Ovid's Metamorphoses the other day, looking for a reference, and I stumbled upon the story of Artemis and Aktaion. In case you don't remember what this was about, I'll save you the trouble: Aktaion was the hunter who accidentally saw Artemis when she was bathing; the goddess was so angry she turned him into a stag, and Aktaion was torn to pieces by his own hunting dogs.

(No, I didn't find the reference I was initially looking for in the Metamorphoses. Which is why you're reading this instead of the smart post I planned for today, based on the reference I didn't find.)

So, Ovid has the following description of Aktaion being torn to pieces by his dogs:

“Melampus and Ichnobates first gave tongue, wise Ichnobates Cnosius swift as the wind the rest came rushing on: Dorceus, Pamphagos, Oribasos, fierce Nebrophonos, sturdy Theron, moody Laelaps, Pterelas unsurpassed for speed, Agre for scent, bold Hylaeus lately wounded by a boar, Nape a slender bitch sired by a wolf, Poemenis with two pups, gaunt Harpyia Sicyonius, and Ladon, once a guardian of her flock; Dromas, Canache, Tigris, Sticte, Alce, dark-coated Asbolos, Leucon with snowy hair, Lycisce and his nimble brother Cyprius, huge stalwart Lacon, Aello, never tired; Thoos, his dark forehead crowned with a white star, Melaneus; rough-coated Harpalos; a couple of hounds born of a Cretan sire and Spartan dam, Labros and Argiodus; Hylactor, noisy bitch; and many more too long to tell. The pack, hot in pursuit, sped on over fells and crags, by walls of rock, on daunting trails or none he fled where often he’d followed in pursuit, fled his own folk, for shame! He longed to shout ‘I am Actaeon, look, I am your master!’ Words failed his will; their baying filled the sky. Melanchaetes bit first, a wound deep in his haunch; next Theridamas; Oresitrophus fastened on his shoulder. ”

Um... What? Ovid is generally quite good at selecting a juicy detail from the pages of dreary Greek myths, but clearly this was not his day. That's 36 named dogs.

Who cares about all these murderous Blitzen, Comet and Cupid of the ancient Greeks?

Well, apparently, the Romans did. About the same time as Ovid, another author, named Gaius Julius Hyginus wrote his Fabulae, and included the same story about Artemis and Aktaion. Now, this Hyginus is generally much, much more boring than Ovid, so I was already prepared for something worse... and guess what, it was worse:

“As a stag, then, he was mangled by his own hounds. Their names were (these are all male): Melampus, Ichnobates, Echnobas, Pamphagos, Dorceus, Oribasus, Nebrophonus, Laelap, Theron, Pterelas, Hylaeus, Nape, Ladon, Poemenis, Therodanapis, Aura, Lacon, Harpyia, Aello, Dromas, Thous Canache, Cyprius, Sticcte, Labros, Arcas, Agriodus, Tigris, Hylactor, Alce, Harpalus, Lycisca, Melaneus, Lachne, Leucon. Likewise there who devoured him - females: Melanchaetes, Agre, Theridamas, Oreistrophos. Other authors give these names too: Acamas, Syrus, Leon, Stilbon, Agrius, Charops, Aethon, Corus, Boreas, Draco, Eudromus, Dromius, Zephyrus, Lampus, Haemon, Cyllopodes, Harpalicus, Machimus, Ichneus, Melampus, Ocydromus, Borax, Ocythous, Pachylus, Obrimus; and females: Argo, Arethusa, Urania, Theriope, Dinomache, Dioxippe, Echione, Gorgo, Cyllo, Harpyia, Lynceste, Leaena, Lacaena, Ocyptete, Ocydrome, Oxyrhoe, Orias, Sagnos, Theriphone, Volatos, Chediaetros.”

That's 39 participants, plus 46 witnesses who might have been accessories to murder. Or not. You can count them if you want, I'm done with this story.

So, we don't know exactly what was the second of Ovid's terrible crimes, which led to his life-long exile in Tomis. We don't know whether Tacitus' name was Publius or Gaius. Not a single line survived from Agrippina's memoirs. But there you have it, 100 dogs went hunting. Makes you wonder what the little green aliens will find from our civilization 2,000 years from now. I'm betting on Blitzen, Comet and Cupid. No, not their Cupid. Ours.

Oh, and in case you missed the end of the story: the dogs were so devastated after tearing their owner to pieces, that Chiron the centaur made a life-like statue of Aktaion for them, which the dogs happily adopted as their master. So, if the reindeer ever eat Santa... never mind. Dumb story to begin with.   

Friday, December 3, 2010

What are the Ancient Gods Doing These Days?

Since nobody's worshiping them, and considering they are immortal and probably bored to death by now, I guess the ancient gods have to come up with new methods to keep themselves entertained. The winged Nike is deep into the production of sports shoes, the vengeful Eris got herself a droid, and Nero is burning CDs (well, Nero didn't make it as a god, but is related to so many, I guess he managed to sneak in using the backdoor after all).

So I was wondering what the twelve major gods of Greece and Rome are doing, besides the obvious (taking care of their respective planets, days of the week, months of the year, guest-starring in television series and Marvel comics and so on).

Apollo is by far the most successful with his space exploration program. Though it's a bit weird to have a Moon-landing initiative named after the sun-god. Why didn't they call it Artemis, after the Moon goddess? Misogynists.

Ares/Mars has a chocolate bar. And a company that produces the chocolate bar. Good enough, until the next world war comes along.

Athena/Minerva has the CERN antimatter research project. Quite adequate, for the goddess of wisdom and craft, but only if it proves really, really successful and makes a huge impact. Otherwise, Athena is massively under-rated these days. Misogynists.

Artemis/Diana... not doing much, to be honest, especially since hunting was banned in one of her main territories. There is a famous brothel in Berlin named Artemis. Weird for the virgin goddess, but times are hard, even gods take on whatever jobs are available.

Hephaestus/Vulcan made it big in showbiz, with the Vulcans of Star Trek. They're everywhere! Guess that was his comeback, after bearing the insult of having a hypothetical planet named after him (in the 19th century, the planet Vulcan was supposed to be hiding between the Sun and Mercury). A hypothetical plant for a major deity! Awful.

Hermes/Mercury has a chemical element. Who would've pictured the mischievous god of thieves in a laboratory?

Hades/Pluto has lost his planet, but can still show off his famous Disney character. Yeah, it's a dog, side kick to a mouse, but way more famous than any other cartoon character named after a god. And cheerful, too, for someone who lives in hell.

Hestia/Vesta had some fun when her Greek name was used as the informal name of Himalia, one of the moons of Jupiter. Wait. Moons have informal names? Are we supposed to call them Mrs. Moon?

Poseidon/Neptune is really enthusiastic about the evolution of music and launched is own record label to promote new talents. I suspect it has something to do with his wife having dreamed of a singing career since she was just a young Nereid.

Demeter/Ceres is experimenting with some breweries and juice-production companies, but none of them had any success yet.

Zeus/Jupiter and Hera/Juno took a sabbatical millennium to explore other galaxies and reconnect with each other, before it's too late to save their relationship.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Fun Facts with Ancient Wine

1. The oldest bottle of wine ever found dates from 325 AD, and was dug up in 1867, near the town of Speyer, in Germany. The site of the discovery is a vineyard to this day. The content is still identifiable, though a large part of the bottle is taken up by what appears to be olive oil (a common method used by the Romans to seal up their wine).

2. Sweet wines were clearly the most popular in ancient Greece as well as in Rome, partly because of their staying power and partly because sweets were very rare and very expensive at the time

3. From ancient Greece, we know that the best wines were considered those from Hios, Thassos and Lesvos, while the region of Samos was ranked among the worst wine producers. In Rome, we can be even more specific: the best wine was the one from the year 121 BC, known as the Opimian (after the man who was consul during that year, who thus earned his place in history). A century later, reserves of that special wine were still available, although it was already spoiled; however, it was mixed with newer wines to increase their nobility.

4. If a Roman citizen caught his wife drinking wine, he had the right to kill her.

5. Horace wrote: “No poem was ever written by a drinker of water”. The most beautiful thing anybody could have said about wine.

6. Romans preferred aged wine, and, while preservatives and perfectly sealed containers did not exist yet, they considered that the best of wines had to be between 10 and 25 years old.

7. At the peak moment of wine consumption in Rome, it was estimated that the quantity traded was enough for every man, woman and child to drink half a liter of wine per day. (Remember that stuff I said earlier about women being killed if they drank wine? Yeah, that was no longer in fashion.)

8. A single amphora of good Roman wine, produced in Italy, could fetch abroad the same price as a slave.

9. Columella was a guy who lived in the 1st century AD and wrote a lot about the production of wine. He had the weird habit of writing in hexameter verse (seriously, who writes a technical paper in verse?) and describes in great detail the weirder habit of boiling the grape juice in a lead vessel to produce wine. The lead would add a bit of sweetness to the wine (while increasing its toxicity level, but that was secondary).

10. Volumes have been written about the Greek and Roman habit of mixing wine with water. Well, they mixed pretty much anything in, from salt water to honey and from lavender to rose petals. It has been speculated that the alcoholic content was higher in ancient wine, though the details we have about their production method don't seem to support this theory. Maybe it was just their well designed hangover protection method.  

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part III

Formalized Religion

Rome had a relatively tolerant religious setting, as long as whatever you worshiped at home didn't interfere with the official proceedings. Romans weren't exactly the deep spiritual type, but, if one of their precious ceremonies was disrupted even by a minor event (let's say, the official in charge made a mistake in reciting the text), everything had to be started all over again.

The military oath taken each year by the soldiers also had a religious form, irrespective of what the soldier actually believed in. A worshiper of Mithra, Mars or Glykon would take the same oath – very much like the oath taken on the Bible in courts to tell the truth and nothing by the truth – and Romans were completely puzzled when Christians suddenly had a problem with this formal arrangement.

Technology, rather than Philosophy

Technological advances are vital in dominating the world. Let the Greeks deal with frivolous subjects, like philosophy and theology; it's cement and catapults we need for now. It's quite obvious that the US rules the world from the technological point of view, either by direct contributions or by quick adoption of the developments made elsewhere.

The Senate

No point to make here, really, just thought it was worth mentioning. Plus, the whole classicist look of the Washington Capitol makes it really tempting to reference ancient history, though, as far as I know, the source of inspiration for the Washington building can be found in Paris, not in Rome.

Entertainment and Propaganda

The right mixture of entertainment and propaganda has eluded most governments in history. It's difficult to draw the line between being persuasive and being ridiculous, but usually the results are worth taking a shot.

We've seen Bugs Bunny and Betty Boop join in the efforts to support American troops in World War II. Romans employed a wide range of gods and mythical creatures, with the same effect.

The Family Issue

Both ancient Rome and the US share a common trend of viewing the family as the most important thing in a person's life, yet both allow a significant degree of freedom in personal choices, including the divorce. In Rome, as wealth increased and the lifestyle changed accordingly, divorces and families without natural children became more frequent, sparking outcries about the need to return to traditional values. They even passed laws to encourage families to have more children. Needless to say, the laws didn't help much, but society wasn't destroyed by the new, flexible family model either.

Go to:
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part I
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part II
The Roman Empire versus the United States – Part IV