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.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Sleepiest Consul

I'm going to show off today. Big time.

Before Claudius became emperor, he often fell asleep during the Senate sessions. One time, the other senators put his slippers on his hands, so he'd rub his eye with them upon waking up. Real mature of the patres conscripti. And how fortunate for them that Claudius did not hold a grudge after becoming the most powerful man of the empire. So, if this makes Claudius Sleepy, then I guess Tiberius would be Grumpy, Caligula would be Happy... no, wait, because it actually makes more sense if Claudius is Dopey. Never mind, no cartoons today, I'm showing off!

So, how do I know that? Because I just read it in a book called Das Buch der antiken Rekorde, written by Swedish archeologists Allen & Cecilia Klynne. And guess what, it doesn't have an English translation yet. I feel so well informed right now.

In case you haven't figured it out already, the title translates as The Book of Ancient Records – but I'm sure you've figured it out, after all, you're smarter than I am, even if you can't speak German. Heh.

The book is fun, relaxing, perfectly suited to be read on the subway. If you're looking for hard-core facts, go look somewhere else – it doesn't even have a list of references – my edition, at least – but that doesn't mean it's not well researched. It just means you'll have to retrace the research if you find anything you'd like to quote in your own paper, and this is quite annoying. In return, you'll find a lot of useful information about the oldest stallion ever recorded, the largest number of elephants in one place, the biggest dog, the most educated bird and so on.

I wouldn't vouch for all the facts mentioned in the book, but I'm not going to spend any amount of time trying to prove the authors wrong, unless my life really depends on it. Just a hunch – for instance, at the best paid actor category, the winner is Laberius, who received 50,000 seseterces from Caesar for his performance, but, when he got on stage, he recited a very harsh monologue against Caesar's political agenda. It may be so, but that's not how I remember the story with Laberius. In my book, he gave up on his equestrian rank in order to come on stage as a mimus (I don't use mimus just to show off, though this is the theme of the day, but it just wasn't the same as today's mime. They weren't dressed in black and white stripes. And they had text to recite).He did speak against Caesar's agenda in a contest, lost the contest, but gained back his equestrian rank, as Caesar just couldn't wait to find more people to pardon, like always. I have no idea what's up with the 50,000 sesterces, but the amount was surely not for the contest, which he lost. Maybe it was a gift from Caesar to allow Laberius to meet the financial conditions for becoming a knight. Not that it matters that much – just an example thought how easier my life would have been if the authors quoted their sources.

So, do you know who was the heaviest drinker? How much was the most expensive cloth? Or maybe you're planning a business trip to ancient Rome, and need to know the most expensive perfume, so you know what to pack. And now you also know where to look for all these facts.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Quality of Life in Classical Antiquity

Oh, yes. Demographics and economics. Remember when I warned you that history was boring? Sure, counting the mistresses of Caligula and the follies of Nero is fun, and even archeologists have their day in the spotlight when they stumble upon a piece of jewelry or a statue that actually has a head attached to it – but when you go into the bowels of history, it's still about dates, stones, trade routes and birth rates.

So here's a rare attempt to make these a bit sexier: The Quality of Life in Classical Antiquity is a videocast of a presentation held by Stanford's Walter Scheidel in Athens, at the inauguration of the new Onassis Center. Be warned that the video is about an hour long, so go get a cup of tea before you start watching it.

Notice that I said tea, not coffee. Professor Walter Scheidel may not be a glitzy presenter like those who get invited at TED conferences (or does not have the team of advisers TED makes available to the speakers – I've always wondered about that) but anyway, I didn't fall asleep, and yes, the presentation was about demographics and economics, with numbers and tables and charts. Yay! Maybe it's time to confess that I find charts rather sexy in a presentation. Even sexier than pictures, in a kinky way.

The premises of the conference were quite intriguing, starting with the modern concept of the quality of life. Can't say I've paid much attention to the concept before, aside from the constant whining about the quality of my life, but I've found out some neat stuff watching the videocast. For instance, there's something called the gross national happiness index – which takes into account factors such as education, culture and so on, and a little something called “use of time” - whether people are coerced or make their own decisions regarding how they spend time. Y'know, occasionally these indexes actually make sense.

Back to the presentation, the charts depicting the relation between the population and the real wages were bone chilling. I know that people make more money in the periods when the population is reduced, such as after a war, an epidemic or a cataclysm, but seeing the numbers is not funny. My co-workers would get double wages if I died in a smallpox epidemic.

Needless to say, I won't tell you the conclusions of the conference, regarding how the quality of life in ancient times compares to that of modern days. Go watch it, in all due honesty, if you've read this post so far, you probably have what it takes to listen to one hour of ancient demographic data.

Walter Scheidel is the author of Death on the Nile: Disease and the Demography of Roman Egypt, which has been on my reading list for a while, but, I have to confess, I find the current price a bit prohibitive. So I guess I'll keep myself occupied with the other Death on the Nile. The one by Agatha Christie, of course.  

Friday, January 14, 2011

Hercules, the Pop Hero

Of all the Greek / Roman mythological characters, Hercules seems to be the most successful these days. The key word is seems – I haven't done a thorough research on this, but I just might. I mean, there must be some very elaborate explanation for his recent Hollywood success; until the 19th century, Ulysses / Odysseus was the most popular guy in the class.

I assume Ulysses faded out of fashion as an age of exploration and discovery came to and end, but what's with the sudden need for a primordial hero of civilization? And with the comeback of huge pectorals?

I've read somewhere that the creators of Superman were heavily inspired by the myths of Hercules, same as for He-Man (wish they'd have put more thought into the name). So, ok, he was the quintessential representative of masculinity, but his arch-enemy was a woman, and it was also a woman who killed him in the end. I'd just love to see Superman in such a conundrum.

Which brings me to the most ardent question: if Superman fights Hercules, who'd win? I'd say Superman, it's commonsensical, with all the powers he's got, compared to just the super-strength of Hercules, but I'd better quantify that.

1. The cape of Hercules was made of real fur; Superman would never be so environmental unconscious. (+1)

2. Only Hercules went mainstream with the story of his marriage; while Superman kept his out of the spotlight. (+1 – I mean, what's the point in making your wife the target of the paparazzi?)

3. Both of them allegedly killed their wives / girlfriends at some point (yes, allegedly, even for Hercules; some people say Megara survived and went on to marry Iolaus, Hercules' best friend and lover. Myths are just as complicated as comic books.) but only Hercules killed his children. (+1)

4. All that facial hair on Hercules. (+1)

5. Superman in tights. (-1. Tragic, but Hercules, in the nude, wins this round.)

6. Hercules died. (+1)

7. Superman can fly. On the other hand, Hercules may not perceive that as a strength, in his time, only useless fancy boys like Mercury were flying, real men were not afraid of walking the earth. (tie)

8. Hercules became a god after dying. (-1, and very tricky for Superman, as it means he won't be able to kill the immortal Hercules now. Then again, Superman should be able to go back in time and kill Hercules when he was still alive. Heh.)

9. Superman has a bunch of superhero friends he can bring along to the battle. Hercules has a bunch of god friends. (tie)

10. Hercules gets Wonder Woman. (+1. Yes, +1, the round goes to Superman, because Hercules is married. To Hebe. How rude of him to cheat after she washed his shirts for 3,000 years. And don't even get me started about Wonder Woman. What's she thinking?)

So, there you have it: +4 – clear scientific proof that Superman wins, and by a landslide. And I have a very severe form of the Peter Pan complex. Oh, how about Peter Pan vs. Mercury?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

David Wishart – Ovid

Yes, I know it's already 2011, so I should be reviewing “Bodies Politic” or, in the worst case, “The Horse Coin”, but I have to admit I just read the first novel by David Wishart last week. The good news (for me, of course) is that I started from the beginning with the adventures of Marcus Corvinus, that is, with “Ovid”.

In case there's somebody who hasn't heard of Wishart's series, there are now thirteen volumes out, with Marcus Corvinus as the Philip Marlowe of Rome during the times of Tiberius. Corvinus is actually such a splitting Marlowe image, that we'd have to wait for a new Bogart to be born, before we can hope to see an adaptation of this series on screen.

I'm not sure – yet – how the Corvinus series relates to the other whodunits set in ancient Rome which have flooded the shelves recently, I'd have to go through at least three more volumes for an accurate evaluation, but I'm very excited about how it started out. I guess it's because I was perfectly prepared to be disappointed after the first twenty pages or so, partly because the main line of the plot is very uncharacteristic to the Roman world (not telling you why – go read the book), and partly because of some vocabulary issues – some terms that seem adapted to the modern world in an awkward way. I was already expecting to see Corvinus going to the mall and ordering a martini, but I was wrong.
The book is actually very well documented; the author strays from the historical truth within limits that even an annoying and frustrated purist like myself deems acceptable in fiction. Plus, it's funny and the main character is as authentic as you might expect him to be. I had a quick look at other reviews, and some people seem to believe the language is too coarse for a historical fiction piece... which makes me believe those people have not read anything since the days of Livy. Or maybe they have both Ovid and Suetonius in censored editions. The jokes in Wishart's Ovid are actually more along the line of what topics to avoid when making small talk with Oedipus and what marketable skills one might pick up from Mercury. Funny in a geeky way.

The political mystery to be solved by the hero is not badly chosen, either, as the causes for Ovid's exile to Tomis are still unknown today. So I'd say Ovid himself would have approved of this book, despite the lack of proper hexameters. I, for one, am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Modern Garum Alternatives

It seems to me garum was somewhat in between ketchup and caviar for the Romans – a condiment just as common as ketchup is today, but with such a huge price range that the best sorts could cost a fortune. But the best part about garum is that it seems to be one of the elements that define the romanitas, the quality of being a Roman citizen, along with drinking wine mixed with water, going to the baths every day to socialize and watching gladiatorial games. Oh, and the rest of the useless and unimportant stuff, like speaking Latin, getting involved in politics, considering suicide a dignified way out, and so forth.

Unlike all the other things I mentioned, garum is something we can actually try today. Well, we can try the wine too, but it seems we're missing something all the time, even if the ancient wine-making methods are so often detailed in various books. We can also try the dignified way out, by the way, but I'd rather stick with garum.

The only problem is that the actual authentic ancient recipe seems a huge pain, just to have a taste of the Roman sauce. In fact, it was such a pain that garum producers were located outside of the towns, so as not to disturb the other citizens with the smell of their trade – as the remains from Pompeii prove. It seems though that just the manufacturing process produced the stench, the actual end-product didn't smell.

By get directly down (Flickr: Mosaic of Sea Creatures) [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I started thinking about this yesterday, when I cooked a piece of beef using a Jamie Oliver recipe, with a marinade made of spices and anchovies. So, fish, salt and aromatic herbs – that's very, very close to the original garum recipe, I'd say. (By the way, the result was great, and an off-topic, but heartfelt thank you to Jamie Oliver for saving my family from starvation and myself from dying from exhaustion in the kitchen once again.)

So I looked for the original recipe – I could have sworn Apicius had one, but apparently he doesn't, just a recipe for how to recover the sauce after it's gone bad (it's a sauce made of rotten fish guts... how do you know when it's gone bad?). If I'm not mistaken (again) this means the only complete and reliable recipe comes from Gargilius Martialis who is anyway completely unreliable and incredibly boring. But let's work with what we have: take a container that can be sealed; make a bottom layer of aromatic herbs, a second layer of fish bits or small fish, and a third layer of salt; repeat until container is full. Seal the container and leave it in the sun for a week, and then open and mix it daily for another 20 days. According to other authors, it should be left for two or three months, or even longer.

Well, I'm not going to experiment with this recipe, not because of the smell (my neighbors deserve that anyway), but because I don't get two or three months of Mediterranean summer sun where I live. I've read somewhere of a modern method using an incubator, but would that still drive my neighbors away? What I find weird is that the end-product is supposed to be a clear liquid. I've used various sauces made with anchovies, including on the white pizza recipe called pissaladiera, but turning fish guts into a clear, transparent liquid is not a process I can picture. I'm willing to try, though, because Seneca hated garum, which makes me think I'd love it.

On the other hand, such sauce is widely available in stores, as it's used all over South-East Asia. I've noticed a Thai version called Nam Pla (no idea if that's the name of the product or the brand), and several others that looked the same to me, which came from Vietnam, Korea and Japan. Upon inquiry in a Thai restaurant, I found out that the best fish sauce is the one that comes from the first press, same as with olive oil. In case you have never tasted it in an Asian restaurant, it doesn't taste like fish at all, it's rather like a combination of blue cheese and nuts. Then again, if you've ever eaten Thai food, you've probably tasted it, it seems to be in every recipe, just that it's rather subtle and you can't always identify it.

And, of course, let's not forget the most famous modern successor of the ancient garum – the Worcestershire sauce. Excellent for a Bloody Mary – hah, funny how these history references mix up in the kitchen, wouldn't you say?

If you still want to make your own garum, the modern approach seems to be to just boil everything together: small fish, salt (a lot of salt, about three parts salt for every four parts fish) and herbs, until the fish dissolves, literally. Then strain until you obtain a clear liquid. A second modern recipe I found suggested boiling anchovies into grape juice, but that's a bit far fetched for me – if I ever find myself making grape juice at home, I have about a thousand uses for it, instead of boiling it with fish bits.

If I ever decide to try out any of these recipes, I promise I'll keep you posted. Though I think I'll try my hand at beans à la Vitellius first.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Gwyn Morgan - 69 A.D.: The Year of Four Emperors

Just thought I'd share with you what I've been reading lately: 69 A.D.: The Year of Four Emperors, by Gwyn Morgan.

All the documentation work that went into writing this book is impressive, I'd recommend it without a doubt to anybody doing serious research on that period. Not so much to those who just want to read something simply for their enjoyment. (Yes, I know. Who reads history books for enjoyment anyway? Well, I do. Maybe there are others out there just like me - in outer space or somewhere.)

The book is a little dry - given that it's one of the juiciest years in history, it could have been a bit more alert, without falling into sensationalism. Also, considering that it's one of the best documented moments, with several of the major Roman historians relating the events, I feel that modern authors might try to express some personal ideas on the subject - even if it's just a footnote, originality hasn't killed anyone. Ok, maybe it has killed a few academic careers, but I'm not recommending high doses, just a little food for the thoughts of those amateur readers like myself.

One thing the book definitely needs is more maps. Lots of maps, since the author dwells so much on describing the campaigns and the routes of the armies. Hopefully the editors will take the hint and include some maps in the next edition; until then, read it with a good historical atlas at hand.

The first century is still one of the coolest times in history for me, by the way. Vespasian rules. So does Tacitus.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Differences between Cronus and Saturn

This issue has been bugging me for some time. Technically, the Greek Cronus should be one and the same with the Roman Saturn. I mean, if you look at their family tree, it becomes quite clear:

Cronus is the son of Uranus and Gaia; he married Rhea and together they had six children: Demeter, Hera, Hades, Hestia, Poseidon and Zeus

Saturn is the son of Caelus and Terra; he married Ops and together they had six children: Ceres, Juno, Pluto, Vesta, Neptune and Jupiter

But when you take a closer look at Cronus and Saturn, they couldn't be more different. Cronus is hectic, cruel, primitive and downright evil, while Saturn is actually quite a nice guy. Well, sure, he castrated his father and ate his children, but he also presided over Saturnalia, the coolest festival in Rome, and the Romans had the coolest festivals the world has ever seen anyway.

In Athens, the similar festival was called Kronia – and the same stuff happened, the normal social rules were dissolved, slaves were allowed to eat together with their masters and so on – but it took place in summer, and let's face it, summer festivals are not nearly as much fun as winter ones. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that you cannot drink as much as summer as you can during cold winter days. Plus, bear in mind that decent women were not allowed to attend – how boring is that?

Cronus and his life-threatening sickle
Cronus and his life-threatening sickle 

The sickle Cronus has in his hand is the weapon he used to castrate his father. In the representations of Saturn, he usually has a sickle in one hand and a bundle of wheat in the other, which makes the blade far less threatening; it's just an agrarian tool like any other. By the way, the symbolism of the sickle is quite funny – the sons of Cronus/Saturn cut him into a thousand pieces with the same sickle when they became all-powerful, so it's sort of cruel to represent the Titan with it in his hand all the time. Oh, and in general, the sickle used in representations of agrarian gods (Saturn, but also Demeter/Ceres) was made of gold, the one used to castrate Uranus was made of stone. Ouch.

There's one more thing I don't get: the time when Cronus ruled the world was considered the Golden Age. Lies and deceit did not exist during that period, immorality had not yet been invented, everybody was pure, all humans spoke the same language and understood each other – in fact, even animals spoke the same language as humans. So... this means that castrating your father and eating your children is not immoral?

Saturn eating his children - such a misunderstood character!

In Roman mythology, on the other hand, the Golden Age began after Saturn was overthrown by his children. The Titan, now jobless, settled for a smaller task than ruling the world, moved to the Italian peninsula and created the perfect society there. Until he got bored with it, I guess – but still, it makes more sense than the Greek version of the story. That's why I like Romans more than Greeks – they make sense.  

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

History is Boring

I'm currently compiling the list of books to read in 2011, and I have lots of history books on it, and even more historical fiction. There are also some places I want to visit this year, archeological sites and a couple of museums where I want to have a second look at some artifacts to clear up some issues. I subscribe to a bunch of groups and feeds about history, and, of course, I have this blog. I bore myself to death sometimes.

And no, I'm not playing the devil's advocate. History is boring. It's mostly about years and maps, and dates that shift with the evolution of the calendar, and rivers that change their course over the years, and cities that vanish without a trace, and dwellings that show up after thousands of years without any reason for being there in the first place. And when you're done with those, you have to deal with even more boring stuff, like laws, customs, inflation rates, trade routes and the evolution of the horseshoe and its impact on migration patterns.

All these become important somehow – and, mind you, my interest in the Roman period was sparkled by Suetonius, who's no better than a Hollywood blockbuster; but in ten years I've evolved – or devolved – to a genuine interest in how wide-spread was the use of Archimedes' screw in the 2nd century. You have to know all the details in order to get the big picture, and, of course, you lose the big picture because you're too busy with the little details.

I've said it before, but let me re-state it for the new year: this blog is not about history. It's about the glamor, the intrigue, the personal drama, the jokes and the ironies of a period that's accidentally considered of historical interest. On occasion, actual bits and pieces of history might stumble in, because the boring part rubbed off on me. But rest assured, I'm doing my best to focus on the interesting parts, and to prove that... errr... actually, nothing. Because I can't prove that history isn't boring, since, you know, it is.  

Monday, January 3, 2011

Welcome, 2011!

Wohoo, new year, new beginnings, new everything! And it's all white and snowy and fluffy and january over here, a perfect fairytale – as I hope you've all enjoyed this winter season.

Speaking of January. I guess you've been taught in school that it was named after Janus, one of the very few major Roman gods that did not have a Greek equivalent. Janus, the god of doors and gates, locks and hinges, whose temple gates were open in times of war, and closed only when there was peace throughout the entire Roman world (which only happened twice. Guess all the priests in the temple died of cold and lack of privacy). Janus with two faces, looking forward and backward, the god of new beginnings, changes and crossroads – perfectly suited to preside over the birth of a new year: lessons learned from the past and ideals of the future, all rolled into one.

Makes sense, right? To us. Because for the Romans, January was not the first month of the year, it was the 11th. (with November being the 9th and December the 10th, duh)

So, Janus was a really cool god, but don't believe everything they teach you in school. Or everything you see on TV, or read on the Internet. You know what? Just don't believe anything, and make this your new year resolution. I'll be researching Janus and I'll post what I find, as long as you promise not to believe a thing.

God or no god, welcome, 2011, and have the best of all possible years, everyone!