Review: Rome’s Lost Empire

Not sure how long this one will be up on Youtube, so it might be a good idea to watch it now … my review follows:

We’ll begin by noting that when this one first appeared on the BBC a week or two ago, it seemed to be universally-panned by folks on twitter and facebook. It had been hyped by the BBC (who produced the program).and by the University of Alabama (whence comes Sarah Parcak, whose work sparked the show: Birmingham Egyptologist Sarah Parcak featured in BBC show on lost treasures rediscovered from space). In case you didn’t know, Parcak was the “space archaeologist” who was in the news a year and a half ago for finding a pile of Egyptian sites (including pyramids) using her satellite methods (e.g. Egyptian pyramids found by infra-red satellite images … BBC). She also gave a very interesting TED talk that you should check out if you get a chance: Sarah Parcak: Archeology from space ).

That said, we have to note that this particular documentary has a pile of the ‘devices’ that I find incredibly annoying in documentaries about the ancient world, and all of them are connected to trying to create ‘drama’. For example, although the thing is hosted by the very capable Dan Snow, I really don’t care about his parents dragging him around ancient sites or Dr Parcak’s imaginary space ship.  We really don’t need silly statements about Dr Parcak being an ‘ordinary lecturer’ by day, but someone who sits in front of a computer at night doing research (don’t we all do that?). I don’t like the ‘contrivedness’ of having Dr Parcak being set up in the ruins of Portus/Ostia (can’t tell which), supposedly doing the research for the first time when we all know it was all done well in advance of any footage being shot. We also don’t need the shots of her working long hours into the night or confessions of self doubt, yadda yadda yadda. The UK version of all this is an hour and twenty minutes long; when the program comes to the US this summer, it is apparently going to be shorter. If they’re looking for things to cut out, that’s a nice list.

As long as we’re talking about editing things out, I should also note that in general, the documentary puts one in the same mood as one might have been listening to the Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street for the first time: so much good stuff if the other bits were stripped out. In particular, the supposed unifying element in this program — the question of how Rome maintained such a vast empire with so few soldiers — is completely unneeded and the focus should have been from the start simply what the new technologies can tell us that we didn’t need to learn before. We don’t need to make it look like we are suddenly coming up with a new theory when we’re just finding evidence confirming what is already believed by a majority of scholars.

That said, there is some really good information here, but not all of it is without controversy. The first segment is devoted to Portus and is seeking to help Simon Keay and crew find things like canals and the lighthouse. Back in 2010, a canal find at Portus was big news (Major Roman Canal from Portus!). In 2011, we read about a shipyard find (Huge Roman Shipyard Found (Maybe)) .

Unfortunately, the segment with Keay and crew is just an introductory tease and we are taken to the land of the Dacians — which, of course, is more dramatically referred to as ‘Transylvania’. Outside of the use of sonar to ‘sort of” find the footings of the bridge Trajan built across the Danube (and the expected graphical recreations), what is really important here is the use of LiDAR to find evidence of rampants around Sarmizgetusa. The segment involves a big gun in Dacian archaeology (Gelu Florea) and really deserved a bit more attention than it had. But it’s really our first indication of what these new technologies can reveal to us.

Back to Portus where Parcak has (finally, it dramatically appears) located something with her infrared-enhanced satellite technology: a major canal running up the *east* side of the Tiber. This is an incredible find and it would have been very nice if they could have somehow followed it further to see how far it actually went. As with the previously-mentioned canal find (above), I can only ask  what effect all these canals had on the water levels of the Tiber. Someone needs to correlate reports of flooding of the Tiber to construction of canals like these.

Unfortunately (again), they don’t really go very deep into the matter and suddenly have a need to dash off to Jordan. There’s lots of dramatic silliness until we meet up with Chris Tuttle, who has been working in the environs of Petra over the past few years. The goal of this segment is to find evidence of “abundance” under the pax Romana and Parcak locates a promising site with the infrared satellite thing. The trio (Snow, Parcak, and Tuttle) do a quick survey and find potsherds, some of which are apparently Roman. Supposedly this is evidence of “abundance” … more detail is needed here.

Back to Portus, where Parcak identifies what is possibly a Roman amphitheatre. This is presented as a new find and is really quite dishonest as presented. In fact, Keay made the claim to have found this back in 2009 — and for some reason it doesn’t seem to have been mentioned by me. Happily, the Science Daily coverage is still up: Archaeologists Discover Amphitheatre In Excavation Of Portus, Ancient Port Of Rome … as is Mary Beard’s criticism of all the hype: The luxury amphitheatre at Portus. After the tease, we are shown the shipyards mentioned above (also not a new discovery, obviously).

Then we’re off to Tunisia, which apparently was “Rome’s granary” (as if Sicily and Egypt suddenly weren’t producing). The big name here is David Mattingly, who is pleased to learn from the satellite technology about a fort (which the gang explores … and it is apparent that some diggers have already been there). Along the way we are shown remains of a Roman frontier wall … it would have been nice to see the extent of this — does it rival Hadrian’s Wall?

Finally, we head back to Portus, where this time the LiDAR is used to identify a big platform. Keay concludes that it must be the platform the lighthouse stood on and there follows much recreation — interestingly, the Portus Project’s webpage sort of downplays the recreation of the lighthouse, although it finds it useful. Missing in this segment would have been an overlay of the harbour itself to see if this platform actually extended into the water. As presented, it’s a few dotted red lines on a satellite shot. I still can’t quite figure this one out.

In closing, I should also mention something that I found annoying in all this: there were no subtitles to identify the various archaeologists and they don’t appear to be mentioned individually in the credits (although they might be clipped from the Youtube version).  Definitely something that should have been included, if only to allow people to follow up on things. Stripped away of the docuembellishments and other shortcomings, though, the program does go far to show the utility of Parcak’s satellite-infrared approach to finding sites as well as the incredible potential for LiDAR. We’ll very likely be seeing similar docu-applications in the future.

Some other reviews:

Latin Not Tough Enough Redux

T’other day facebook (of all people) pointed us to an article in the Independent which was reporting a paper by John N. Davie, with the spin that as taught currently in UK Schools, Latin wasn’t difficult enough and (somewhat paradoxically) that Latin should be taught in all schools (Latin Not Tough Enough … and Should Be Taught in Every School). In the wake of that item, Liz Gloyn and Stephen Jenkin tracked down the original “pamphlet”, which is available as a pdf here. While I encourage all to read it, there are a couple of points worth noting … first, the ‘not tough enough’ part appears to be connected to the whole language approach of courses such as the CLC:

Today in schools, prep and secondary, where once it was normal to provide pupils with a sound linguistic basis for their studies, the subject is everywhere taught through the medium of “readers” such as The Cambridge Latin Course, easily the most widely used course as a preparation for GCSE and A-level.* The rationale behind this “modernist” approach to the teaching of Classics was that the traditional emphasis on language-learning before reading texts was alienating modern pupils, who were comparing their Classics lessons unfavourably with the experience of learning French or Spanish or Italian.

In modernist courses such as the CLC, there is (deliberately) no systematic learning of grammar or syntax, and emphasis is laid on fast reading of a dramatic continuous story in made-up Latin which gives scope for looking at aspects of ancient life. The principle of osmosis underlying this approach, whereby children will learn linguistic forms by constant exposure to them, aroused scepticism among many teachers and has been thoroughly discredited by experts in linguistics. Grammar and syntax learned in this piecemeal fashion give pupils no sense of structure and, crucially, deny them practice in logical analysis, a fundamental skill provided by Classics.

I personally have no experience with the CLC (I’m a Wheelock guy), but I can say that different people respond to different methods differently. In Greek, e.g., I could not make heads or tails with the JACT course while an undergrad, but made definite progress with Chase and Philips. At the grade school level, we’d recognize this and incorporate differentiated instruction in some way … it’s something that really needs to come to Classical languages in general … a sort of parallel text (the JACT Latin comes close, I think).

After the criticism, however, there’s a bit of a non-sequitur ‘good old days’ paragraph:

Previously teachers could assume in A-level students a fair grasp of the language and how it worked. This meant that no formal exams were sat at the end of the first year of A-level. Instead pupils were introduced to a wide range of authors and given a sense of the scope of the subject. By Christmas few were not thoroughly convinced they had made a good decision and (crucially) their reading was enjoyable because their linguistic knowledge gave them the confidence and ability to meet ancient authors, especially poets, on their own terms. In their final year they studied two or three set texts in depth and were examined thoroughly in these, reading them from first line to last in the original language, learning how to evaluate literature through criticism and, if they chose, studying ancient history in tandem, reading primary sources in the original language, and regularly writing essays, in which they acquired the skills of marshalling facts logically and producing arguments.

… I’m sure that the proportion of those who ‘got it’ previously were pretty much the same as now … they just ‘got it’ in the same way that Mr Davie and his generation ‘got it’. It continues after a bit:

In addition pupils were introduced to prose-composition from the beginning of their last two years, turning passages of continuous English into Latin and Greek, based on their experience of writing a simpler form of this at O-level. In consequence all gained in confidence and appreciation of the language and some attained a high standard. We know that this exercise formed part of the curriculum at Stratford when Shakespeare was a boy.

… definitely important; I’m not sure what the situation is with the CLC and what follows, of course. After a bit, we hear about the exam itself:

For language they are required to translate a short passage of Latin or Greek prose into English, having learned a specified list of words in advance and at the same time having the benefit of several words whose meaning is given below the passage. The level of difficulty is not substantially higher than that of GCSE, and yet this is the exam whose grades and marks are consulted by the universities when they are trying to determine the ability of candidates. As so many students achieve an A* grade, it is no surprise that considerable importance is now attached to the interview. Having learned the translation of these bite-sized chunks of literature with little awareness of their context or the wider picture (as at GCSE, it is increasingly the case that pupils are incapable of working out the Latin/Greek text for themselves, and so lean heavily on a supplied translation), they approach the university interview with little or no ability to think “outside the box”. Dons at Oxford and Cambridge regularly encounter a lack of independent thought and a tendency to fall back on generalisations that betray insufficient background reading or even basic curiosity about the subject. This need not be the case and is clearly the product of setting the bar too low for these young people at school.

… welcome to the world of ‘teaching to the test’, which is the inevitable result of standardized testing and all the criticisms leveled here are the same as those which are levelled at standardized tests in practically every subject and at every level. There seems to also be an expectation that students of this age are capable of significant ‘independent thinking’, which may or may not be possible in today’s education system. In the ‘good old days’ classes were fewer and longer. There was more time to cover things thoroughly and students could spend more time outside of class potentially ‘thinking’ about it (which is where any thinking happens). Times have changed, and by the looks of things the exams in the UK have changed along with them to reflect that.

After a brief section on the effect of teaching at the university level, the recommendations come:

When I asked Classics dons at Oxford and Cambridge what they would like to see as a basic skill in prospective students coming up to university to study their subject, the majority gave me the same reply: a secure grasp of the principles of Latin and Greek grammar and a working knowledge of the syntax.Of course, as interviews increasingly show, they look also for imagination, a logical mind and the ability to think laterally, but the general view is that with the languages in place anything is possible for a young person of curiosity and commitment.

… one could argue that if a student has curiosity and commitment, a deficiency in the languages will quickly be made up at the university level where the ‘need’ for such things would be much more apparent.

It should not be beyond the wit of schools to provide this, as they did in the past, but first they need freedom to challenge their pupils. This means that inappropriate exams like GCSE and AS must be replaced by something altogether more rigorous and demanding. It is good that, unlike Modern Languages GCSE, Classics GCSE requires pupils to read some real literature but we need to create a situation where they do not simply learn a version supplied by their teacher but are in a position to read the Greek or Latin for themselves (with some help) and to realise how much they would be missing if an author like Virgil existed only in translation.

… or perhaps the exam system should be questioned further. Does performance on one or two days provide a fair assessment of a student’s abilities? Or does it just provide a snapshot of how they performed on a particular day?

This can only happen if, from their first lessons at school, they are required to learn the languages gradually in a systematic way, being introduced to the grammar in relation to English grammar and being encouraged to write as well as to translate Latin and Greek. In the past at traditional schools it was not uncommon for children to have the same teacher for English and Latin in their early years, and there is much to be said for this, given the apparent reluctance of so many English teachers to teach their own language. It is perfectly possible to teach the languages in a structured, logical way without sacrificing the social life and history of the Greeks and Romans.

… I have no problems with this, although time and commitment to provide other curricula must also be acknowledged. Classics and ancient languages have much to compete with, alas, and it will take much convincing of many people that it complements other curricula.

GCSE should be replaced by a modern version of the O-level that stretches pupils and does not hamstring them as at present. This would make the present AS exam completely unsuitable, and either a more challenging set of papers should be devised, if the universities wish to continue with pre A-level interviewing, or there should be a return to an unexamined year of wide reading before the specialisation of the last year.

… not in a position to comment on this, other than to reiterate my disdain for single exams determining a person’s competence in something …

Although the present exam, A2, has more to recommend it than AS, it also would no longer be fit for purpose and would need strengthening. As part of both final years there should be regular practice in the writing of essays, a skill that has been largely lost in recent years because of the exam system and is (rightly) much missed by dons.

… something which should be mentioned, of course, is that even if all these things were implemented, the dons would still find something to complain about in regards to the incoming class’ training or perceived lack thereof. It was always ever thus and always will be. Go into any school and ask a teacher how prepared their incoming class is and I guarantee there will be grumbling about the previous level not teaching this or that particular thing sufficiently. I like the recommendations about language teaching — heck, every year I write to the big guns in our school board offering to set up a Latin program — but I’m not sure the results in terms of ‘logical’ and ‘lateral’ thinking necessarily follow. There are other benefits that can and should be pushed at the grade school level (especially the effects on English grammar and syntax), and with any amount of luck, there will be spinoffs in the area of interest in Classics at the university level.

CFP: Subversion and Censorship from Plato to Wikileaks

seen on the Classicists list:

A THREE-DAY CONFERENCE “Subversion and Censorship from Plato to Wikileaks”

October 2-4, 2013

Papers are invited from scholars and researchers in all areas of the Humanities and all periods of history to explore important themes on the limitations of freedom of expression (in act, thought or speech). Instead of the more traditional focus on censorship ‘from above’, we especially invite papers dealing with the responses to repression—that is, any works or activities which aim at subversion, coded dissent and veiled criticism (i.e. forms of self-censorship).

The conference is organized by members of the Classics discipline at the University of Adelaide, South Australia (also the venue): Professor Han Baltussen, Associate Professor Peter Davis, and Dr Mark Davies (Postdoctoral Researcher) with a view to expanding the theme of their ARC funded project “The Dynamics of Censorship in Antiquity” (2011-2013/DP 110100915).


We invite proposals on significant topics from any period of history and from areas such as classics, history, politics, literature, law, media, and music. Panels of three papers under one theme will also be considered.

Please send inquiries and abstracts (up to 150 words by February 15, 2013) to

Prof. Han Baltussen (Hughes Professor of Classics) (han.baltussen AT adelaide.edu.au)

Assoc. Prof. Peter J. Davis (Visiting Research Fellow) (peter.davis AT adelaide.edu.au)