Monday, December 19, 2011

At Least They SMELL Like Christmas

'Tis the season to be jolly, to buy shiny crap and to bake stuff, so watch out for the cookie monsters. They actually smell a lot better than they look. And they taste like Jamaican rum with cinnamon. Maybe I can create a new cocktail recipe - one that doesn't involve baking, only drinking. Except that I don't really like cinnamon.
So, anyway, I just wanted to brag about my cookie monsters - with an assortment of chocolate chips, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and some red berries that may or may not be poisonous.
One of the reasons why I don't go to live in ancient Rome is that they don't have rum.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Translator's Oath

I don't think I've made this confession before on this blog, but I've been working in the translation industry for the past 6 years. More specifically, in the software localization industry, which is the evil, albeit more interesting, sister of the translation industry.

Today, being forced to do some research on the Rosetta Stone, something hit me. What if, 3,000 years on, they will have no other record of my mother-tongue, except for this over-rated, over-priced piece of software I'm currently working on? What if something I translated becomes the only method future people will have to decipher my language? Will the translation stand from a linguistic and stylistic point of view? Will it at least be useful? Or will the Champollion of the year 5011 look confused and say: “OK, this language seems to have a vocabulary of maximum five hundred words and only a present tense”?

I bet the people doing administrative paperwork (or rather, administrative stonework) in Demotic, Egyptian and Greek weren't aware of the importance of their endeavor. Most likely they were cursing the pay, the deadline and the quality of the source text, like the rest of us.

Maybe we need a Hippocratic Oath for translators. We can call it the Rosettan Oath: “I solemnly pledge to convey the meaning of the source text as accurately as possible, while doing no harm to the target language. I will protect my mother-tongue the same way I protect my trust fund investments, and I will insure the best representation of its interests against today's clients as well as against future alien races that will attempt to communicate with us.”   

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Pompeii by Robert Harris – Book Review

I am a huge, huge fan of Robert Harris, and I strongly believe he is one of the best contemporary British novelists – and there's some stiff competition out there. So imagine how thrilled I was about Pompeii – a novel by one of my favorite authors, set in one of my favorite time periods, the Flavian dynasty, and whose main character is the little working hero of the Roman empire, the engineer.

Young engineer Marcus Attilius Primus is appointed to take care of the great aqueduct Aqua Augusta when the previous chief engineer disappears without a trace. Yay, mystery. He meets a girl and they fall in love – yay, romance – but her evil father gets in the way – yay, Romeo and Juliet. The real hero of the novel is, as you might have guessed, Vesuvius itself, on the verge of producing one of the biggest natural disasters in ancient Rome. There's also a cameo appearance by Pliny the Elder – I would have been very disappointed without it.

Even for a freak like me, it doesn't get any more Roman than a story about an aqueduct and an engineer.

I guess I was over-excited about this book for the first 50 pages or so. Then, it started getting on my nerves. The characters are stereotypical, the storyline falls flat – we pretty much know the volcano is going to erupt, can we get some action going in the meantime? - and the descriptive paragraphs just fail to accentuate the drama. Somehow I always assumed the great dualism, on a descriptive level, was between the mild, inviting, serene landscape of the area and the brutal destruction it revealed to be capable of – but Pompeii didn't confirm that. And didn't give me a better idea, either. I assume the great eruption is a subject better fitted for a painter than a writer.

After 100 pages or so, I started to notice the anachronisms, which is not a good sign; and I was dragging along over the lava-filled ending. I could very well see Robert Harris' Pompeii turned into a B movie, like those about the earthquake, the snake invasion, the killer bees invasion or the natural disaster of your choice wreaking havoc in the city of your choice.

All in all, Robert Harris' Pompeii is too dry to be a historical whodunit, too simple to be great historical fiction, too inaccurate to present itself as decent historical reading, and I can only say: don't judge Rober Harris on this book. He's got some great ones out there.  

Friday, August 5, 2011

How to Commit a Crime for Fame

Many people commit crime for money, some for love, and then there are those who'd go at extreme lengths for fame. But what does it take to become a successful criminal, if your goal is just to be remembered?

The Crime of the Century

The crime of the century (the 20th century that is, which makes it pretty ancient today) was the kidnapping of the 18 months' old Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr., son of famous aviator Charles Lindbergh and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. A gigantic man-hunt followed, kidnapping became a federal crime and thus the FBI got involved, one of the witnesses committed suicide due to violent police tactics, and, after the child's body was discovered, Bruno Hauptmann (one of the names we should forget) was arrested and sentenced to death in a circus-trial.

What's more interesting is that, during the investigation, over 200 people came forward with false confessions, claiming to have kidnapped the child. Their motivation? They wanted their names in the newspapers. In fact, studies suggest that most voluntary false confessions are driven by the same motivation: fame. (How unimaginative. Go commit your own crimes, the real criminals must think.)

Let's Just Remember John

Also in the ancient 20th century, there was a guy who identified himself with Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye and with Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. That's not a crime, is it? It also won't make you famous. So this guy, Mark David Chapman (one of the names we should forget), found another method. 25 years later, he pretty much admitted that he killed John Lennon for fame: "The result would be that I would be famous, the result would be that my life would change and I would receive a tremendous amount of attention, which I did receive.”

The Media is to Blame... Not

Let's turn off MTV for a moment to get real ancient here, with one of the Seven Wonders of the World: the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus, possibly the first Greek temple made in marble, with columns standing about 40 feet high. When it was completed, the temple became an instant hit and a major tourist attraction... for a very short while.

On July 21, 356 BC (notice how exact we are with dates here), Herostratus set the temple on fire, for the sole purpose of getting his name remembered for generations. Apparently, for every seven wonders of the world, there is one maniac who'd do anything for fame. The catch here is that messing with a wonder of the world may get you a little more than the regular 15 minutes of fame, as Herostratus proves. (We know the exact date because it's also the day when Alexander the Great was born. Plutarch, with his weird sense of humor, noted that the goddess Artemis was too busy delivering Alexander to take care of her own temple that day.)

Herostratus was swiftly put on trial and sentenced to death, but the judges of the time also instituted a more appropriate punishment: his name was to be erased from all documents, and nobody was to mention him anymore, under threat of death. Appropriate punishment, but nonetheless an epic fail: two thousand years later we still have the phrase Herostratic fame and the German word Herostrat, meaning basically somebody who commits crime just for glory.

Fortunately, today we no longer have to destroy a wonder of the world to get famous. That's what Facebook is for.   

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Praying to Ancient Gods for Inspiration

I got a gig to write about the literary image of Dionysus, and I was pretty excited about it all. I rarely get paid to write about what I like and know, and this seemed a rare opportunity.

But the paper was going nowhere. I did tons of research, drew the outline, named the chapters, but the words would not sit on my computer screen. Three days before the deadline I only had a bunch of unattached phrases and a ton of spelling mistakes.

Then I thought – this is about Dionysus, the god of inspiration and theatrical representation. Why not ask him for some help? So I turned to wine, and a couple of bottles later the only achievement was that I completely forgot about my deadline. Not good.

And then, the 3 am miracle, the epiphany: I was doing it all wrong. The inspiration was not in the glass of wine, Dionysus does not approve of such behavior. He's not the god of binge drinking, what was I thinking? Dionysus is the god of social binge drinking!

A day before the deadline, I made paella, asked some friends over, downed several bottles together, ate melons and ice cream, drank some more, and there you have it, my paper was ready, delivered with plenty of time to spare (hey! 30 minutes is plenty of time to spare. You just have to cherish every second.) and today it got approved and paid.

It pays to pay for the ancient gods for inspiration. Thank you, Dionysus. Now, what are we going to do about the headache?  

Euripides' Bacchae - Character Analysis: Dionysus

The storyline was undoubtedly familiar to the public of the time, as it should be to modern audiences as well. Dionysus, the god in human form, comes up on stage in the very beginning to detail the plot line, announcing straightforward that he's seeking revenge for the treatment he and his mother received from their mortal relatives. The god is angry and vengeful – but without his direct announcement, the audience would have no way of knowing – throughout the rest of the play, Dionysus is the embodiment of calm grace.

The force behind events that change the world, Dionysus himself is a static character: gods don't change. He is multi-faceted and ambiguous, and the human form he takes on stage is just one his many; however, he does not evolve – rather, he pushes others on the path of spiritual evolution. Unchanging, Dionysus is the god of transformation and rebirth, and of all the perils that lie when one renounces social individuality in search of deeper inner knowledge. Even more, Euripides' Dionysus is the god of the mask, not just of theater masks, but the ones people wear every day to maintain their social status. In the same line of interpretation, he's also the god of letting the mask drop to reveal the deepest secrets. Dionysus slowly pushes the proud Pentheus to reveal himself, showing that there's nothing behind the ruler's mask – nothing but death.

The entire play is heavy on dualities: law and chaos, civilization and barbarism, Pentheus and Dionysus, old (Tiresias and Cadmus) and young Asian Bacchae, humans and gods, hunt and murder, religious tradition and innovation. For Dionysus the god, there's an interesting parallel drawn early on, by Pentheus, who claims the women of his land are not praying to the new god, but rather lust for carnal pleasures: “Bacchios! Nay, ’Tis more to Aphrodite that they pray.” This is the first sign that Pentheus refuses to accept the sublimation of deep, inner instincts brought by Dionysus, and prefers the most common, earthly version that people are simply seeking to satisfy their primordial instincts.

The interpretation of the godly powers of Dionysus gathers immediately a new dimension, when the blind prophet Tiresias draws a new parallel, this time justly so, with Demeter, mother Earth. Both Demeter and Dionysus were gods of rebirth, and both were celebrated in mysteries that remain covered in shrouds to this day. It should also be noted that the two old and wise characters, Cadmus and Tiresias, both decide to embrace the cult of the new god and feel his rewards, without being caught in the spell cast by Dionysus over Thebes:
Aye, men will rail that I forgot my years,
To dance and wreath with ivy these white hairs

For the audiences of the time, there was no need to prove Dionysus as a rightful god, it went without saying, but Cadmus and wise Tiresias both act as literary reinforcements of the cult's legitimacy.

The effeminate looks of the human form of Dionysus are essential in understanding the character and the impact he makes, and Pentheus never ceases to mention them. The first thing Pentheus wants to do when he apprehends Dionysus is to cut his curly hair, and he receives the answer: “I have vowed it to my God; 'tis holy hair”. That's a strange argument to hear from Dionysus the god, it means that his hair is vowed to himself, a very early “beauty for beauty's sake” argument.

Dionysus' intervention in the human world is not brutal and direct; rather, he unleashes the hidden forces of human nature, and lets events unveil at their own pace. He could strike down Pentheus and Agave, he proves so when he destroys their palace with an earthquake – but then again, he is a god, and doesn't need to prove anything.

Dionysus is without a doubt cruel, all ancient Greek gods were. The image of Agave carrying her son's head, boasting about her kill, is bone-chilling, surpassed only by the moment when she realizes she murdered her own son. Euripides' Dionysus doesn't push anybody to murder – he simply allows people to follow their instincts – which prove disastrous. The question that lingers at the end of the play is would Dionysus allow Pentheus to live, had he seen his errors and embraced the new cult? In mythology, events are fixed, and once the spell is cast on the women of Thebes, there is no turning back. From a literary perspective, however, Euripides' Dionysus subtly hints that redemption is not utterly impossible.

Death of Pentheus

The most important question is now what meaning has Euripides' Dionysus mean for a modern audience, for those who know relatively little of the conventions of ancient Greek, and have limited time for finding more. Beyond the respect we owe to a piece of ancient literature, does this character still speak to a contemporary sensibility? We are no strangers today to various escapism methods, but we also tend to seek confirmation for our preconceptions in theatrical and all other entertainment experiences, so Dionysus still stands as a stern reminder of balance in duality. There is no reality without fantasy, no order without chaos and no law without transgression.  

Monday, August 1, 2011

Top 10 Songs with Latin Lyrics

You know anyone who still uses the Latin language today? Except for your Latin teacher, I mean. There are quite a few bands out there, and here's my very personal top 10 songs with Latin lyrics. Before we get to it, a word about one of the most popular songs in Latin, which you won't find in the top: Helloween's Lavdate Dominvm. I listen to Hellloween every now and then, and they're coming to a town near me for a concert this summer, but this particular tune is getting on my nerves.

10. Rhapsody of Fire - Lux Triumphans
There's quite a large number of progressive rock bands that use Latin lyrics; I can't – or rather, don't want to include all of them. I am a little partial to this band called Rhapsody of Fire (if I'm not mistaken, they previously called themselves simply Rhapsody), that makes an interesting mix of Latin and English lyrics:
Furia cieca, caos in me
Lead me to your horned beast named king

9. U2 – Gloria
Again, a combination of English and Latin lyrics, but let's get to what really matters: wasn't Bono young? Weren't we all back then?

8. In Extremo - Totus Floreo
"Sile philomena pro tempore 
Surge catilena do pectore
O, o, totus floreo"
Anyway, In Extremo have a bunch of other songs in Latin, which is somewhat better for my ears than when their singing in their native German.

7. Simon and Garfunkel – Benedictus
Not a lot of creativity here, but never met anyone who didn't like these guys.

6. Deus ex Machina - Perpetua Lux
I mean the Italian band called Deus ex Machina (there are at least three bands with that name that I know of, most likely more). The entire album - De Republica - is pretty awesome on the whole, and full of Latin lyrics, if you're into progressive rock. 

5. My Dying Bride - Sear Me
So, now we're getting serious with some heavier stuff. I'm a bit surprised that there aren't more death/doom bands using Latin words, seems to suit their genre in a way. Not that it matters, 'cause nobody understands the lyrics anyway. Argh, never mind. My Dying Bride is one of the best bands out there, by the way. 

4. Cat Stevens - O Caritas
When I was 17, I spent an entire year listening to nothing but Cat Stevens. If you're looking into learning Latin, I suggest you start with this song. It's like learning German with Rammstein. 

3. The Cranberries - Electric Blue
One more combination of English and Latin lyrics (I'm going to brand this an Irish thing and won't comment on it). I've seen The Cranberries live, by the way. Totally off topic, just wanted to brag about it. 

2. Kamelot - Memento Mori
I had to search the lyrics four times to find the Latin bits, but this is one of the my favorites this year, so who cares if all it has is "Dulce et decorum est / Pro patria mori / memento mori"? It's quite enough to make it on my list. 

1. The Misfits - Halloween II
Latin should be the language of punk, if you ask me: short and to the point. There's a lot of meaning you can squeeze in two minutes or less. Besides, this has been a classic punk summer for me all the way – and it's not over yet.
There is one other reason this song is number one on my list: it's very creative use of the Latin language. This is not the standard stuff they teach in school, it's about witches and wolves and trees and stuff. 
"Formulae ueteres exorsismorum et excommunicationum
Strigas et fictos lupos credere
Daemon pellem lupinam
In trunco quodam cauae
Arboris occultandum"
Goes to prove that Latin is very much alive and kicking. So is punk.  

Filip Florian - Little Fingers - Book Review

In modern day Romania, once a border province of the Roman Empire, archaeologists working to uncover a Roman fort stumble upon a mass grave. As the bones surface, former political prisoners and the sensationalist media will stop at nothing to prove that this is the site of mass murders committed by the Communist regime. The archaeologists sulkily stand aside, waiting for the truth to be uncovered, (but whose truth?) so that they can go on with their work.

Little Fingers, Filip Florian's debut novel, has all the premises for a historical mystery, but it turns out to be something else. It's more of a gallery of picturesque portraits, interwoven to in a meditation on history – how long does it take for a crushed, devastated generation to let go of the past, allowing it to become history?

It's not really a book on ancient Rome, as you've probably figured out, but the ruins of the Roman fort serve as foundation for the unraveling modern events in Little Fingers. The theme is deep and disturbing, some of the portraits are memorable, and the style is brilliant in places. In a few places. Quite often, the abundance of adjectives makes it very inviting to skip a few paragraphs – that is, if the book would have any paragraphs. But it doesn't.

Little Fingers left me with an overall impression that it could have been a brilliant short novel, instead of a full-fledged novel that's dragging in places. The characters get a long introductory presentation, with very little development to follow – and the fruit-salad comparison for the archeologist's girlfriend is a trying experience for any reader. Same goes for the long and obviously dogmatic digression that introduces the Argentinian characters – that play little part from then on – and for the author's obsession to explain his metaphors and connections (if you are familiar with soccer, you'll get them without explanations, if you're not – you won't get them anyway, so several pages are an exercise in futility).

I'd say that Filip Florian's Little Fingers is an overly ambitious exercise for a first novel. You may want to pick it up when you have some free time on your hands – I had the feeling that I had to finish it in one sitting, or I won't pick it up again. Fortunately, it's short. You may also want to read it it you have an interest in the massively under-estimated Eastern European literature, or if you want to check out the first work of someone who promises to become an excellent novel writer.

By the same author: The Days of the King
(also dealing with Romanian history, and a much better literary achievement)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Iggy's Caesar Lives

In my previous post I mentioned Iggy Pop in a weird analogy, but that reminded me of something I've been meaning to say for quite some time now. As you all (should) know, Iggy has an album called American Caesar, and one song named Caesar - but perhaps fewer people know that he wrote a brief commentary to Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

I mean, for real. And it was published in an actual scholarly magazine called Classics Ireland. "I urge anyone who wants life on earth to really come alive for them to enjoy the beautiful ancestral ancient world." We should all listen to Iggy.

(Couldn't really bring myself to post Caesar, which I don't like that much, but here's something from the same album.)

The Story of Cytheris / Lycoris – or How to Make it Big as an Actress in Ancient Rome

It was around 70 BC and the Roman Republic was getting ready for its dying years when a new type of theatrical representation gathered popularity in the city: the mime. It was a show that included singing, dancing, acting, mythological references, bathroom humor, striptease, political jokes and a lot of improvisation – so pretty much throw in anything short of the kitchen sink, and you've got a show. Another thing about these mimes was that they allowed female actresses – the mimae – as opposed to the classic tragedies and comedies, where all the parts were played by men.

Troubled times bring new opportunities for those who know where to look, and the success of the mimes brought a shiny new career path for women in ancient Rome – especially since there were very few opportunities for them anyway.

At about that time a slave girl was born in the house of the Roman knight Publius Volumnius Eutrapelus. Years later, she became a famous mima, and when she was freed, she took the name of Volumnia, after her master, and the Hellenized cognomen of Cytheris – hinting to the Greek Aphrodite, the goddess of Cythera. However, Roman freed slaves were not actually free to go seek their fortunes as they pleased; they remained in the service of their master – so freeing an actress slave like Cytheris was not an act of gratuitous kindness. There surely was a hidden reason for it.

Hidden, and no so much – as shortly after Cytheris embarked in a passionate love affair with Mark Anthony (the one of Anthony and Cleopatra and “Brutus is an honorable man” fame). See, Anthony was a senator, and it wasn't proper for a senator to be seen with somebody else's slave all day long. It wasn't proper for a senator to be seen with an actress, either, but Anthony was quite famous for doing only improper things – and an actress was somewhat more acceptable than a slave.

And Eutrapelus? Well, there were troubled times, and power shifted overnight. It was important to have someone close to the power players of the day, and Cytheris and Mark Anthony could not have been closer. And the scandal erupted.

Political opponents made fun of Mark Anthony calling him Cytherius – Cytheris's man – and the self-righteous Cicero fumbled, pointing out that Anthony's entourage called the woman Volumnia – which would have been the name of the daughter of Volumnius of the equestrian order – instead of Cytheris – the cognomen which clearly placed her among freed slaves. Cicero's life was filled with such matters of the utmost importance, which is why nobody could blame Anthony for killing him several years later.

Anthony, sexy as always

Anthony made a fool of himself, as he usually did with ladies, but Caesar, still alive and very much in power at the time, would have none of it: so he ordered the love birds to break it off, which they quickly did.

After that, Cytheris had a short-lived affair with Brutus (of the “Brutus was an honorable man” fame), but that didn't last, mostly on account of Brutus being a fugitive soon to be dead traitor. It was also around that time that Cicero, somewhat reconciled with Cytheris now that Anthony was out of the picture, went to see her play, and was so impressed he wrote a letter on how moved he was by each verse she recited. Which, of course, was too little too late and he'd still wind up dead.

Things were on fast forward in those days, and soon Caesar was dead, Brutus was dead, Cicero was dead and Anthony was with Cleopatra and neither was feeling very well. The new man in the town was Octavian, and Cytheris decided (or rather, Eutrapelus decided for her) it was time to stay close to somebody from the new political elite, and that somebody was Gaius Cornelius Gallus, politician and poet (deadly combination), who had just taken the newly created position of prefect of Egypt.

Ancient Rome's Chelsea Girls

Gallus was supposed to be one of Rome's greatest poets, and he wrote four volumes of elegies to honor his beloved Cytheris, now poetically renamed Lycoris (following the Clodia – Lesbia tradition. Speaking of which, Gallus also complains of how cold and heartless his lover was to him, which we know cannot be true, so it must have been a poetic convention of the time, and this throws a whole new light on Catullus.)

So, Gallus was supposed to be this great poet and Cytheris now Lycoris was his muse – and we know that because Virgil, Ovid, and Martial all say so, and it's not wise to mess with the entire battalion of Roman poetry at once. It wasn't until 1978 that a few lines by Gallus were discovered on a papyrus in Egypt, and indeed they reference Lycoris. They're also crappy poetry.

After writing his four volumes of what we now know to be crappy poetry, Gallus did something stupid and Octavian had him killed. Cytheris found consolation in the arms of an army officer, and went on with him to endure the not-so-harsh life in a Roman fort. That's where we lose her. Ever since, the mimae all over the empire took the stage names of Cytheris and Lycoris in her honor, and this makes it very difficult to trace where she went after she left Rome.

The romantic version of the story says that her former master finally let her go for good, and she married the said soldier and lived happily ever after as a family, with the one child she had with Mark Anthony. That's probably not true. So who cares? A couple of millennia later, I think of Cytheris and Anthony, Brutus and Gallus as a sort of weird mirroring of Nico and Lou Reed, Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop. Oh, and Caesar as Andy Warhol.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Eagle – Review

There's nothing like the boredom of hot summer months. Makes you do the darnedest things, like watch Hollywood movies set in ancient times. You know they're gonna stink, but you watch them anyway. So a few days back I sat down with a beer and watched “The Eagle.

Here's the thing: “The Eagle” is an action-adventure movie, and it counts on your suspension of disbelief. Grant it that, and it not a painfully bad movie. It has a bunch of historical anachronisms, not worse than other movies of its kind (the most annoying for me is the consistent use of stirrups – thought Hollywood would eventually learn, but they're there all the time). The action is also predictable – probably the result of being based on a book for teenagers. Oh, and the leading character's name is Aquila. Shesh! We get it already!

It's got Channing Tatum, with relatively convincing bangles (but that's about everything that's convincing about him), a likable Jamie Bell, who didn't shine, but made me somewhat curious to see what else he can do, and an underused and spectacular supporting cast. You'll recognized a lot of actors in secondary roles, but watch out especially for the talented Tahar Rahim from “The Profet”. I'll give you a piece of candy if you recognize him before his final scene. There are no women whatsoever in “The Eagle”, thus making it a passable chick flick, with a decent homoerotic storyline (but doesn't excel at that either).

The natives looked like ripped off from a prehistoric Mad Max. I don't claim I know how they looked back then – I only wish they weren't so cartoonized in “The Eagle”. I appreciated however that they weren't forced to speak English, and we, the viewers, had no idea what they said. Kinda put everything in a Roman perspective. (And, if the natives actually looked like that, made you understand why Romans used them for entertainment.)

Ignoring everything you know about fighting tactics and formations at the time, some of the battle scenes are really good. But the strongest feature of the movie is the eery landscape (is it so awful to say something like that about a movie?), highlighted by the great work of cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (remember him from Lars von Trier's "Antichrist"?)

There are movies worth seeing, and there are movies that happen to be there on a rainy Sunday afternoon. If you've got nothing else to do, watch “The Eagle”, it won't make you wanna rip your eyeballs off.  

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Yet More Ancient Plumbing!
Flushed by W. Hodding Carter – Review

Yes, I know, I have a fixation with ancient plumbing and toilets. Is it creepy that I find them entertaining? Especially the ancient Roman toilets, where people could have a nice chat and catch up on the news and gossip while doing their... business.

Well, at least I'm not the only one with such a problem with ancient plumbing, as proved by “Flushed – How the Plumber Saved Civilization Proves”. W Hodding Carter is funny and charming and turned this book into a really easy reading experience.

The journey starts from the earliest times, spends a lot of time in ancient Rome, moves on to worse experiences in the overcrowded London a millennium and a half later, and ends up with our modern facilities. Everything is spiced up by the author's attempts to recreate ancient toilets in his own backyard. (He did it so we don't have to.)

Flushed is funny, relaxing, and kept me awake on an airplane trip, which says a lot.

Don't buy it if you're an expert in plumbing or the history of plumbing and you're looking to expand your knowledge into what's already your area of expertise. It's not technical, and doesn't bring anything new. (Even if it's not a technical manual on how to build your own ancient Roman plumbing system, it could have benefited from some pictures and illustrations – which, sadly, are not there.)

Also don't buy it if you're a history buff and you're going to frown upon every little inconsistency. The sources are secondary, at best, and the accuracy is questionable.

If you're everybody else on the planet, go ahead and read it. You'll treat your toilet with much more respect after that.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Differences Between Aphrodite and Venus – Part II – The Extended Family

Did you miss part I – Differences Between Aphrodite and Venus? Go check it out.

It took a while before Rome adopted Venus, but when it did, it went all the way. Like most Roman gods, Venus did not have stories of her own, just “inherited” those of Aphrodite. And one of those stories made her the central character for Rome's history.

See, Aphrodite caused the Trojan war by making Helen fall for Paris. She remained loyal to the Trojan side, lost the war, the city, Helen and watched as all inhabitants were killed or enslaved. But she did manage to help a handful of people escape from the burning ruins of Troy, including Aeneas, her own son. (What? Gods getting a bit of nepotism in play? No! Who would've thought?!)

Son of Aphrodite, who was now slowly turning into Venus, Aeneas had an odd behavior, rejecting love for duty and filial piety, and ended up founding the Roman Empire, and continued one of the most complicated family trees in history, which started with Zeus and Electra, continued with Aphrodite and Anchises, then with Rhea and Ares (at this point fully converted into Mars) and ended with the Julio-Claudian family.

Do you know any Julio-Claudians? Look at them carefully, they are descendants of at least three major gods. The most famous of the Julio-Claudians, Julius Caesar himself, couldn't stress enough his relation to Venus. In one of his classic conceited propaganda moves, Caesar issued a coin which depicted Venus on the obverse and Aeneas with his father on the reverse. The text on the coin was clear and simple: “Caesar”.

Caesar insisted on a form of cult that gave the Greek Aphrodite a very Roman name: Venus Genetrix – Venus the Mother, the Birth-giver. Makes you think what all those births did to her figure.

Caesar allegedly took an oath to dedicate a temple to Venus in Rome if he won the battle of Pharsalus – which he won. He commissioned the Venus Genetrix statue to a certain sculptor named Arkesilaos, who did what artist of the time did best: he copied a Greek original. The Roman Venus Genetrix, clothed with a peplos that only underlined her female forms, was copied after a Greek Aphrodite sculpted by the famous Callimachus.

Caesar took the opportunity to add a status of himself and one of Cleopatra in his new temple of Venus. I wonder how Cleopatra felt, when she was compared to Venus on a daily basis.  

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Between a Muse and a Mermaid, with a Touch of Harpy

That's a siren for you: a reversed muse, a degenerate mermaid, a harpy with a harp. C'mon, the harpy with a harp part is funny.

To begin with, the sirens looked like harpies: half women – half bird, with claws and wings. And even if the bird used to manufacture a siren was just a common and humble sparrow, they were by no means less threatening: the sirens' song drew sailors to their island like a magnet. The island was surrounded by sharp rocks, which tore boats apart, leaving the shipwrecked sailors to die on the sirens' island. The entire island was covered with the white bones of those unfortunate sailors, and the sirens used those bones to make musical instruments. Gruesome. Though it's not clear who ever managed to get so close to the island to get this accurate description.

A random muse

The sirens were descendents of the muses, daughters of either of Melpomene (who was initially muse of song, before becoming the muse of tragedy) or Terpsichore, the muse of dancing. Initially fair maidens who accompanied Persephone, they were transformed into bird-women and received their wings after Hades kidnapped Persephone, so that they could fly and find her faster. Others say that they got the feathers as punishment, because they weren't able to protect Persephone. And there are even some who claim that they were punished by Aphrodite, because they despised the pleasures of love and swore to remain maidens forever (but, seriously, we're too eager to blame Aphrodite for everything).

More random mermaids 

Because of their association with Persephone, queen of the Underworld, the sirens are sometimes considered the muses from below, offering inspiration to the damned and leading souls astray. Despite their association with sailors, sirens are not aquatic deities, even if they'll soon end up in a fishy form. See, they were so proud of their singing skills, which lured humans into their deadly trap, that they though they could challenge the muses to a duel. The scene is depicted on a Roman sarcophagus currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Sirens are often found in funeral art, because they're all-knowing creatures, like the sphinx, and thus they can help humans find their way in the world of the dead. Or because winged creatures look sort of cool.)

Needless to say, the sirens lost. So the muses plucked their feathers as punishment. No longer able to fly, the sirens adjusted and developed a fish tail, so that they could move at least in the water. Hence their association with mermaids. But sirens are not aquatic deities. For reasons that I fail to remember right now, it's important to keep that in mind.

Odysseus and Sirens. Image PD

The sirens could live only until a man heard their song and survived. The lucky one was Odysseus, returning from Troy, who tied himself to his ship mast, and thus heard the sirens' song, but could not follow them to their island of doom. (The Argonauts also passed safely by the sirens, but that's only because they had Orpheus aboard, who rocked way louder, so they couldn't hear a thing. So that doesn't count.)

So after that, the sirens killed themselves. The end.

Sirens were slightly resurrected during the Middle Ages, and popped up in various more or less documented writings. A certain Jesuit scholar wrote that women have “the glance of a basilisk and the voice of a siren – sight and voice together bringing voice and destruction”. Told you we should stop blaming Aphrodite for everything.  

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

More Ancient Roman Sewers and Toilets in the News

Who doesn't like news from the sewers? Ancient Roman sewers, that is, and some toilets and aqueducts and everything you need to flush properly.

Archaeologists have recently uncovered one of Rome's 11 aqueducts known as Aqua Traiana (5 points if you've figured out why it's called like that.) They found it by accident (aren't all great discoveries made like that?) when they were looking for another aqueduct – good thing there were so many of them!

The basin that collected water is richly decorated, painted with the expensive Egyptian blue; it contains a nyphaeum and a small temple, and might have been inaugurated by Trajan himself. The site is currently a waste dump for a pig farm.

Another striking discovery comes from Portus (one of Rome's ports, close to Ostia) where archaeologists recently unearthed a small, but stylish amphitheater, which might have been used by visiting emperors. They also find an elegant Ancient Roman toilet there, with marble walls and floors and three seats, for the emperor to have company when he was... well, busy. Now archaeologists are collecting dump from this Ancient Roman toilet to find out what people ate back then. They have all the fun, really they do.

Last but not least, a few years back Emperor Vespasian's summer villa was found North of Rome. I don't have a description of its toilets, but there must have been some, therefore I found it fitting to include the discovery in this small collage. After all, Vespasian did die of diarrhea, a fitting punishment from the toilet god for introducing a tax on urinals in Rome.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Differences between Aphrodite and Venus – Part I – The Beginning

Aphrodite and Venus... the only good excuse Renaissance artists had for depicting naked females. But I must say, not my favorite goddesses from the bunch – I'll tell you why some other time. For now, let me get to the differences between Aphrodite and Venus – a long overdue piece.

Before Aphrodite and before Venus there was an Etruscan goddess called Turan – a young girl with wings, believed to be Venus' great-grandmother, because she was a common decoration for mirrors, and because she was surrounded by swans and doves. And geese. Geese are the birds of love too, you know.

Before landing the job of ultimate swimsuit top-model, Venus started out as the goddess of gardens and vegetation. And before moving to the capital of fashion, love, good food and, well, capital of the entire world at the time, Venus resided in the small town of Ardea, where we find the oldest temple dedicated to the goddess (in 293 BC, on the 15 of August – if you want to be that specific, though you shouldn't ask a goddess how old she is). This aspect of Venus was perhaps prolonged later on, after her association with Aphrodite, when she was considered to be the mother of Priapus, also a god of gardens, vegetation, and, well, other things.

Venus de Milo Louvre Ma399

It's quite possible that this young Venus was seen as an intermediary for prayers, and, as original goddess of beauty, she probably presided over all aspects of beauty, not just that of women (naked, mostly). Even in this primitive form, Venus made her debut in Rome rather late, and sometime during the second Punic War the famous Sibylline oracle had to ask the Romans to import a foreign Venus to their city.

Similar to all Roman gods, Venus doesn't have any stories of her own, and overlaps with Aphrodite in literature and arts. (Which is ok, since Aphrodite had enough adventures and affairs to fill several volumes and an entire television series.)

With the town of Rome itself, Venus would have a rather special relationship. As Aphrodite, she started the Trojan war, lost it, and managed to save only her son, Aeneas. As Venus, she now protected the town of Aeneas, Rome. Things will get even more personal, as Caesar, and the entire Julian family, claimed to be direct descendents of Aeneas, and thus close family to Venus. Considering what we know of Caesar's life, the goddess of love favored him more than other mortals, so maybe there is some truth to this story, no matter how outrageous it may seem today.  

Monday, May 9, 2011

Steven Saylor - A Murder on the Appian Way - Review

I'm quite good at starting the review of a series with the most illogical item. So, keeping up with a good tradition, A Murder on the Appian Way is the fifth volume in Steven Saylor's “Roma Sub Rosa” series.

I've been meaning to write about the Roma Sub Rosa series for some time now, as it stands out from the dozens of whodunits placed against a historical background due to the impressive research work and accurate re-creation of the Roman world in the troubled moments when the republic was about to become an empire.

Argh, who am I kidding? If you like the historical mysteries genre, you'll like them all, and you must try Saylor's series.

The main character, Gordianus the Finder, is more realistic than his detective counterparts from similar books – wiser, kinder, more mature. Since he's not part of the nobility, his family, his home and his habits provide a believable reconstruction of the daily life of the regular people, in contrast with the unavoidable descriptions of the properties of the rich and famous.

That being said, I'm not sure I like Gordianus. He's old, happily married with children, which is not at all my idea of a mysterious, sexy, adventurous private eye. (Yes, it's a cliché. Go read Dostoevsky if cliches bother you that much.)

The murder on the Appian Way is that of Clodius, and Saylor takes the opportunity to recreate in detail the most famous of the famous Roman roads. This is one of the highlights of the novel, along with the delicate study of mob control techniques – not that different back then from what they are now. I also enjoyed the portrayal of Cicero, very close to how I imagined him, and not so much that of Clodia – but this is mostly my problem, Clodia keeps popping up in every book I've been reading recently, and she's so not worth all the hype.

If the historical part of the book is brilliant, I can't say the same for the mystery part, which was a bit disappointing. The action drags along at times, and the murderer is... well, go read it and judge for yourselves. A Murder on the Appian Way did not make it in my personal top ten, but it was definitely worth my time.

Monday, May 2, 2011

I write like...

I write like
William Shakespeare

I Write Like by Mémoires, journal software. Analyze your writing!

This was the third attempt to have my writing analyzed on this site, but well worth it. The sample text, in case you're wondering, was taken from this blog. Go me.

And in case you missed me... I'll be back in a couple of days with more Shakespearean writing samples, apologies for a couple of dry months and crude ancient jokes.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Go Read a Book

Take a day off from history and unplug with a smart book.

And what can be smarted than a book about the human mind? Find a wide selection of books and reviews available on Mind Stories - a site that showcases books on the altered mind, including hypnosis, psychedelic experiences and other things I can't pretend I understand.

When's the last time you put yourself through a real challenge? Go read a book.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nero's Bowel Movements

History is all about finding pieces of the great puzzle, answers to fundamental questions, and solutions to timeless problems. Like constipation. What, you think emperors don't get constipated? And poor Romans didn't even have fiber supplements, digestive yogurt or bran muffins. Come to think of it, maybe they had bran muffins, I should check. And yogurt – I mean, how difficult is it to add whole grains to it?

Oh, dear. So many questions, so few answers uncovered until now. Let me get back to what we know for sure: what did Nero eat when he was constipated?

Oxyporium or oxyporum was a product designed to help digestion, based on vinegar or pepper – or both, for really stubborn cases. The name is a transliteration from ancient Greek, as I'm sure you've figured out already. Nero's favorite recipe included quinces, pomegranates, rowan berries (you'd say an emperor so obsessed with poisoning would be more careful about those), boiled in must with saffron and tanner's sumach (which, by the way, is also very toxic. Maybe emperors didn't get poisoned because somebody wanted them dead, they were just trying to regulate their bowl movements). Come to think of it, must is already a very strong laxative and diuretic; adding more laxatives to the combo makes me think Nero had a very, very bad case of constipation. Couldn't that explain some of his rather controversial decisions?

That's a rowan berry bush. I had to look it up.

Apicius gives a gentler recipe, calling it oxygarum:

“1/2 ounce of pepper, 3 scruples of Gallic silphium, 6 scruples of cardamom, 6 of cumin, 1 scruple of leaves, 6 scruples of dry mint. These ingredients are broken singly and crushed and made into a paste bound by honey. When this work is done or whenever you desire add broth and vinegar to taste.”

(Translation from Walter M. Hill, because I'm already lost among all the spices; text is public domain.)

I think (but don't quote me on that) you're supposed to add this mixture to the previously prepared garum, and use everything as a sauce. Or take a spoonful after each meal. Or you know what? Go get a bran muffin.  

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Differences between Hades and Pluto

The relationship between Hades and Pluto is a bit more complicated than the simple association between a Greek god and its Roman counterpart. The ancient Greeks weren't too fond of Hades – the Unseen - so much so, that they even avoided mentioning his name – and for the world, I can't imagine why. Well, he was god of the Underworld and spent his time among the dead, but still, there's nothing spooky or ruthless about Hades, quite to the contrary, he was a just and reliable ruler, and got a bad name just because he wasn't in the habit of allowing people to leave his kingdom and return to earth... which, putting things into perspective, seems fair enough to me.

Still, the Greeks always fancied the glitzy Zeus or Poseidon against the reliable and just Hades, so the god of the dead didn't even have myths of his own. He's only mentioned in the story of how Persephone was kidnapped – which belongs to the cycle of legends related to Demeter – and in another story in which Herakles descends in the Inferno, wounding Hades in the process. Of course, this second story belongs to the cycle of legends related to Herakles – leaving poor Hades with very little to say for himself. He does make some cameo appearances in the stories that involve all gods, like the battle against the titans – but those don't really count, do they?

Still, every now and then the Greeks had to mention Hades, and when this happened, they preferred to use a euphemism instead of his real name, and one of their favorites was Pluton – meaning “the rich” - which later was Latinized and ended up as the Pluto we know today. Now, Hades / Pluto was in a way the god of riches, especially those that came from underground – silver, gold and gems. Also, during the winter, the seeds of plants, being underground themselves, were in the care of Hades and especially of his wife, Persephone / Prosepina. For these reasons, both these gods were often represented with a cornucopia, symbol of abundance and riches, and, in the classical tradition, also a symbol of Demeter, Persephone's mother (family ties... nothing like them, in myth and in life).

Now, Pluto the rich should not be mixed with Ploutos, god of riches... oh, well, the similarities are striking, so let's talk a bit about this Ploutos, even if he doesn't technically belong here. He was the son of Demeter, and initially a companion of his mother and sister (the sister being Persephone, in case you've lost track of relatives). As society evolved, wealth increased, and Ploutos gained the right to become a proper god, not just a mere companion. But responsibility came at a price, and Zeus blinded him, to make sure he didn't see which humans were good and which ones were bad – and thus riches were distributed to all, randomly, and not based on their merits. See? Nothing to do with the just Hades / Pluto, who distributed rewards and punishments according to the merits and deeds done in life.

Before becoming Pluto, the Latin god of the dead was Dis Pater – father of all riches – an agrarian deity. There was also an Etruscan god named Orcus, originally ruler of the underworld, who was later on demoted to punisher of people who broke their oaths. Accidentally, Orcus may be the root which led to the word orc.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Differences Between Rhea and Ops

Being a woman was so little fun in antiquity, that not even being a goddess could compensate. Sure, some could pull it off by playing the virgin warrior or the eternal lover, but for most, there was no way out from the birth cycles.

So, let's talk about...

Rhea, a Titaness, wife of Cronus, mother of six.

Ops, a Titaness, wife of Saturn, mother of six.

End of story.

Cybele in a museum in Berlin. Because they didn't have Rhea

Awfully dull, nondescript entities, both of them got assimilated, early on, with the more exotic Phrygian goddess Cybele – which is amusing, because, at a first glance, they don't seem to have much in common. Cybele is adventurous, mysterious, all powerful, while Rhea and Ops are insipid, to put it kindly. The association was based on them being fertility goddesses, the great mothers of gods, which is even more amusing, since Cybele went through an initial hermaphrodite phase, before becoming the great mother, while Rhea and Ops were so great, they tolerated their respective husbands to eat five of their children each, before taking a stand and doing something to rescue their offspring.

Another Cybele, again in Berlin. Because they didn't have Ops, either

Ops was a more primitive version of a goddess of abundance, and as such, one of the many agrarian deities introduced to Rome by the mythical king Titus Tatius.

Sometimes Ops is also associated with Levana – one of the – again, countless – deities that protected children, in this particular case, her job starting after the child was recognized by the father (assuming he didn't eat the child in the process, of course).  

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Farm Frenzy: Ancient Rome

Since I did a little post a while ago about games featuring ancient Rome, I thought I'd drop a line today about the new arrival on the scene – Farm Frenzy: Ancient Rome, from Alawar.

I'm no expert on this matter – well, I'm no expert on anything – but I think the developers from Alawar were counting on people just like me, with a manic interest in ancient history and lots of time to spare, because otherwise, this doesn't strike me as the most inspired release.

When the first Farm Frenzy came out, it was a fun, but unoriginal time management game with a girl in charge of raising animals and selling agricultural produce. Not unlike Farm Tribe, Magic Farm, Orchard, Ranch Rush, Youda Farmer, Virtual Farm, Farm Mania, Fantastic Farm, Farm Craft, Tropical Farm, My Farm oh, did anyone mention Farmville? No, it's not time management, right, moving on – Kelly Green Garden Queen, Fiona Finch and the Finest Flowers, Magic Seeds, Sunshine Acres, Garden Dreams, Plantasia – oh, yes, they're all for real.

But, and that's the best part, our Farm Frenzy was a hit, and thus developed into Farm Frenzy 2, and then, most naturally, came the 3rd, followed by niche themes like
  • Farm Frenzy: Pizza Party
  • Farm Frenzy: American Pie
  • Farm Frenzy: Ice Age
  • Farm Frenzy: Russian Roulette
  • Farm Frenzy: Madagascar
  • Farm Frenzy: Gone Fishing
  • Farm Frenzy: Ancient Rome

The gameplay, needless to say, hasn't changed one bit, though the graphics have been adjusted a little to the theme at hand. So, if you're a die-hard fan of raising sheep on your computer, or if you're a weirdo like me, with an interest for ancient Rome that's close to a fetish, go play. This should be enough to keep you occupied until winter's over.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Differences Between Poseidon and Neptune

We got to have a sea god. Makes sense, there's a god of the sky, a god for the underworld – so, for the sake of symmetry, we now need a sea god. Even if we don't have access to a sea? Hmph.

That was the problem of Latins. Everybody else had a sea god, but then again, everybody else had a sea, the Latins didn't. So their god, Neptune, was in charge of fresh water in the beginning. Come to think of it, fresh water is more important anyway, humans and cattle alike need something to drink for basic survival, crops need water to grow, and rivers make great transportation routes until somebody has the decency to invent an engine.

The Greeks, on the other hand, had a different opinion. Who needs fresh water? Humans drink wine, cattle and crops don't grow on arid mountain sides anyway, and if puny rivers make good roads, the sea makes a super-highway. So they got their sea god, Poseidon – pretty scary fellow, too, with that trident of his (which, by the way, is more dangerous than you might think. It looks like a fancy fork for seafood, but it was in fact used to cause earthquakes, so don't mock it.)

Poseidon vs. Neptune: guess who got a planet?

The Roman Neptune is a mixture of the Greek Poseidon and, probably, the Etruscan Nethuns, the all-mighty god of the gall-bladder. If you're curious what's with the gall-bladder reference, and if you're really serious about studying Neptune, there's an exceptional study called "Quelques remarques sur Poseidon, Neptunus et Nethuns" by Raymond Bloch. In case you've never heard of him, Bloch is my all time favorite authority on Etruscans, and one of those annoying and inconsiderate people who write articulated and entertaining original theories, based on well documented facts. In French. (It's a conspiracy, I tell you.)

To complicate things a little, the name Neptune is not derived from Nethuns, and groups of scientists have passionately exchanged a lot of bad words trying to establish the proper etymology for the Roman sea god. Since we're amateurs, we can proudly admit that we have no idea where the name of Neptune came from.

Besides having a messed up name, Neptune didn't have any myths of his own (that we know of, at least) previous to the association with Poseidon (not that Poseidon himself had that many; probably the most famous of them all is the dispute with Athena over the city of Athens, which portrays him as a loser). In his Carmina, Catullus mentions briefly two Neptunes – one for fresh and one for sea water.

Poseidon vs. Athena: guess who lost... again

Neptune's origins as patron of springs and lakes is most obvious is his main festival, creatively named Neptunalia, and held in July, part of a series of festivities that honored groves, waters and springs, to ward off the summer drought. Besides taking over the sea and ocean waters at a later stage, Neptune, just like Poseidon, was also in charge of earthquakes and horses, thus becoming the patron of horse races in Rome – big responsibility in a world of avid gamblers. Another animal associated with both Poseidon and Neptune was the bull. In the strictly regulated world of Roman religion, Neptune was one of the few gods who accepted sacrifices of bulls.

Now, the fun part comes when we get to the women, of course. Poseidon is happily married to the rather dull queen of the sea, Amphitrite. The original Neptune, instead of a wife, had two paredrae, named Salacia, the impetuous, flooding waters, and Venilia, the still waters that run deep. Or Salacia was the sea water during low tide, and Venilia, during high tide. Or the other way around. Surprisingly enough, the ultimate authority on these two is St. Augustine, who seems fascinated by the topic, and I'd really hate to think why.

FAQ (meaning don't ask me, because I have no idea)

Q: What are these paredrae anyway?

A: Minor deities that represent various aspects of the main deity they're associated with. They're always of the opposite sex compared to the main deity.

Q: So how can you tell that a paredrae is not the spouse of the main deity?

A: You can't. Various authors make Salacia the wife of Neptune, and we're none of the wiser.

Q: How come Neptune is the only god that has these paredrae thingies?

A: He's not. The Virites, for instance, were the paredrae of Quirinus. Well, they appear to be related less to certain myths, and more to certain authors who interpret the said myths. (Hint: you might find a lot more paredrae when you're researching in French.)  

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Differences Between Persephone and Proserpina

Spooky goddesses, these two, spending half of their time in the Underworld like that. They're not involved in a great number of myths, which makes it even harder to find differences between the Greek and the Roman version, but I managed to track down a couple.

For having a mother in charge of making crops grow and a husband in charge of the Underworld, Persephone / Proserpina was considered responsible for the period when the seeds were underground, during their winter “death”, before the spring “rebirth”. During that period, the Romans did not mention the name of Proserpina, fearing they might distract the goddess and get the future crops killed.

It's quite likely that Pluto and Proserpina were celebrated during ludi Tarentini – some quite significant games, which, during the Empire, got replaced by ludi saeculares. The initial name of the games came, apparently, from a place called Tarentum – a location in the vicinity of Campus Martius, in Rome.

As the story goes, there was once a great epidemic causing havoc in Rome, and a man called Valerius came home one day to find his children sick. He asked the gods for help, and they told him to follow the river Tiber all the way to Tarentum and pray to the gods of the Underworld there. Valerius thought this meant the town of Tarentum, and, reluctantly, packed his bags for a long journey and set off. On the first night, he camped on the banks of the river, and asked a local shepherd what was the name of the place. The answer was “Tarentum”, and so Valerius understood he reached the destination of his journey before even starting it. Since there was no temple there, he decided to build one, but when he dug the foundation he found the remains of a temple already dedicated to Pluto and Proserpina, so he only had to rebuild that one. Of course, when he went home, his children were safe and happy.

The myth of Proserpina being kidnapped by Pluto and tricked into marrying him is just the same as the Greek version about Persephone, had the same success in art, with about a billion paintings and sculptures about it, and drives me nuts just the same. Is there any reason to consider Persephone / Proserpina a helpless victim? What if she chose to get married and stay in the Underworld, has that ever occurred to the unimaginative painters and sculptors? Really, they have about a billion nymphs who were kidnapped and raped, can they at least leave Proserpina alone?  

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Differences Between Hermes and Mercury

Humans make fickle worshipers. Bigger and better gods were completely forgotten, while Hermes / Mercury, a member of the supporting cast in his own time, now has a planet, a chemical element and his caduceus is all over the place, used as a symbol of commerce and various commercial organizations.

The modern fame is not undeserved, as the messenger god was quite hard-working in ancient times, being in charge of... well, mostly everything – trade, thieves, inventions, borders, crossroads, travelers, poets, orators – on second thought, throw in all writers and literature as well, shepherds, athletes and athletic competitions, measures of all sorts – oh, and all these, while crossing to the Underworld every now and then, since he was one of the selected few with this ability.

The Roman Mercury is a copy of the Greek Hermes, and did not evolve from a local character, though speculations have been made that he might be linked to the Etruscan god Turms. Since we know so little about the Etruscan gods, we can link them anyway we want. Instead of morphing from one god, Mercury emerged from several – the so-called Dei Lucrii, a group of minor Roman deities of commerce, trade, and other lucrative activities.

The Romans made some efforts to welcome Mercury and include him in their legends, the most detailed of them being the one told by Ovid in his Fasti, according to which Mercury fell in love with a nymph (why not, everybody else was doing it) called Lara or Larunda, and their children were the Lares – extremely important Roman household deities. Among other things, the Lares were, just like Mercury, deities of borders and crossroads.

By another nymph, Mercury is sometimes credited as being the father of Evander, the man famous for having a small hut on the Palatine Hill long before Romulus and Remus were even born. In his Amphitryon, Plautus depicts Mercury as nothing more than Jupiter's servant.

Mercury's temple was located close to the Circus Maximus, fittingly in a commercial area, between the plebeian and the patrician neighborhoods, suggesting his position of mediator, but at the same time, outside the city sacred inner walls, indicating that the cult at least, if not the god himself, was a foreign one.  

Friday, January 21, 2011

Publish and Hit “Share”

The ancient Roman equivalent for posting something and then sharing it via the social networks was called publicare et propagare. Their equivalent of blogging was writing daily letters to a friend, preferably one who lived at the other end of the world, and who had absolutely no interest whatsoever in your letters. Then, once you had a respectable number of posts / letters, you got an editor to copy them, bind them nicely and sell them in a bookstore.

The collections of letters that survived to this day are considered one of the best sources of information about the ancient Rome, though we shouldn't forget that they were written with the intent of being published from the beginning, they're not as innocent and spontaneous as the author wanted them to appear. Just think that, 2,000 years from now, researchers will get their information about our society from archaeological remains, a handful of books and a couple of blogs that survived miraculously.

Something that would have been more useful for us, but did not survive, was the ancient newspaper. In Rome, it was called Acta Diurna, and it evolved from a serious publication into a nice tabloid. Can you imagine a tabloid without pictures of semi-naked wannabe starlets?

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Differences Between Heracles and Hercules

Heracles was Greek, Hercules was Roman. Both were dressed in a crude lion pelt, carried a club and mostly kicked everybody who crossed their path, but they were in fact rather complex characters. I'm done with the obvious for now.

Hercules is the one who's winning

One of the weirdnesses of Heracles / Hercules is that he's at the same time a mortal hero and a god – quite a unique feature for the Greek mythology. He should be representing the raw, brutal force, the original strength that allowed humans to subjugate nature. He was the first human hunter, the one who wasn't afraid to make a kill, if needed to survive, but wasn't seeking bloodshed either, since he had better things to do than club his neighbor to death. For instance, learn to use a plow. At the same time, Heracles is the ultimate hero of civilization, the one who removes the last monsters from the earth, so cities can expand and merchants can travel and spread the word without inhibitions. Heracles is credited with having taught the humans a number of useful things – the coolest, in my opinion, being that the Earth is a globe – something he learned while supporting it when Atlas was busy.

The Etruscan Hercle

The Roman Hercules is...well, not Roman, for the beginning. He was initially an Etruscan character named Hercle, depicted on coins and statuettes as early as the 6th century BC. Some scholars believe this Hercle was a sort of founding father of the Etruscans; or maybe even not a hero at all, but one of the main gods, given that, in some representations, he is associated with the goddess Menrva – possibly as her husband.

In other images, Hercle appears as a mature, bearded man, being breastfed by the goddess Uni. The myth behind this rather unusual imagery is unknown, but the coincidence is striking – the Greek Heracles was also breastfed by Hera, though that was accidental, and it happened when the hero was still a baby. (I assume you've guessed it, Uni – Hera – Juno are goddesses playing roughly the same role for Etruscans, Greeks and Romans).

The main thing left behind by this Hercle character was the interjection Hercle! or Mehercle!, which apparently was quite common in spoken Latin, often used in dramatic dialogues by Plautus. And Plautus being his funny little self, it's not impossible that this was a curse word.

The Romans adopted Hercle and, using the famous interpretatio graeca or interpretatio romana, which meant stealing other peoples' gods because there's no telling when you might need them, they mixed him with the Greek Heracles to obtain their own Hercules.
The first thing Hercules did in Rome was to shave

Hercules in Rome

Hercules visited Rome very early, when there was no Rome – just a few houses scattered here and there. He went to sleep and left his cattle unguarded, and a local thief slash fire-breathing monster named Cacus stole some. (Why was Hercules guarding cattle all the way in the Italian peninsula? It has something to do with his 10th labor, and, in all due honesty, he had just stolen the cattle himself from the previous owner, Geryon.)

Most naturally, Hercules killed Cacus and got his cattle back, as well as the eternal gratitude of the (few) Romans. Tired after the fight, Hercules saw Bona Dea (a fertility goddess) celebrating her rites, and asked her for a drink to quench his thirst. The goddess, however, did not allow him to drink from her spring, because her ceremonies were open only to women, no men allowed. So Hercules built his own temple on the spot, and banned women from entering it. Real mature. The temple was called Herculis Invicti Ara Maxima and stood in Forum Boarium – Rome's cattle market. (Spend your entire life killing monsters and saving people, and remain forever associated with cows because of one silly incident. Go figure.)

The Romans also believed that Hercules erected other buildings while in the area, including a dam and a road that separated lake Lucrin from the sea, in Campania. As always, the Romans were very serious about their roads.

As a god, Hercules took over some responsibilities he did not have in Greece: he was the patron of gladiators, stone quarries and thermal baths. No idea what's up with the baths. Herculaneum near Vesuvius and another town with the same name in Dacia were both famous for the thermal waters.

Commodus in carnival costume

A number of Roman emperors used the image of Hercules, the best known being Commodus, who was mad and cruel, but apparently not completely unworthy of the association, at least from the point of view of physical strength. Still, that club doesn't exactly scream sophistication.  

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Major Time Wasters

I've wasted a few good hours today playing with the celebrity morphs and look-a-likes from MyHeritage, and, after I used up all my friends' pictures, and all the pictures they ever posted on Facebook, I decided to try on some of the dead guys as well.

Seems like Octavia (sister of Octavian Augustus and wife to Marcus Antonius) would have a decent career in Hollywood today – though I still maintain she looks like Lorelai Gilmore.

For Julius Caesar, using the famous bust from Tusculum, I got 58% John Travolta, 62% Julian McMahon and 60% Tom Green. Heh. The MTV of the 1st century BC surely had a Caesar Show of its own.

Pompey looks like Mika Hakkinen and Rubens Barrichello, which only confirms my initial suspicions that he didn't belong with the rest of the bunch. Clearly not Hollywood material. Well, it's good to know he has a niche of his own after all, but I can't really picture him getting into an F1 vehicle.

I couldn't get anything for Cleopatra, since I don't have a decent image of her – not that there are many, anyway. I was thinking Barbara Streisand.