Quotable: The Poetic Benefits of Latin

Frances Myatt in the Guardian, inter alia:

While drama also taught me the various names used to describe the form and structure of poetry, it was Latin that really taught me how poetry worked. It was in Latin lessons that we studied in detail why that word was next to that one, how having a verb at the beginning of a line affected the feeling of the poem, or why an unusual word gave a unique flavour to the piece of writing. The rigour of translating from Latin to English, and having to think about how to convey the effect of structure, word order, alliteration and so on, helped me understand poetry like nothing else. In one lesson our Latin teacher even got us to write our own poems in English, so that the process of creation would help us understand the Latin poetry we were reading. Writing your own poetry is a brilliant way of coming to appreciate poetry, but while we wrote poetry in Latin classes, in 12 years of English lessons I only wrote a poem once.

Speaking of Pompey’s Murder …

As part of our ‘Grand Tour’ this summer, our relatives took us to the Chateau  de Modave, which is in the province of Liege in Belgium and is a fine example of what the ‘second’ and ‘third’ tier nobility of the Renaissance would have enjoyed as a country house. Amongst several items of Classical interest (which we’ll return to, as time allows), is a rather large tapestry depicting the presentation of Pompey’s head to Julius Caesar:


photo D. Meadows

Interesting how ‘Renaissance’ the Romans look and how ‘eastern’ Pompey’s head seems to look … notice the bundle of fasces in the crowd at the back … the city in the background looks like Liege (the twin towers of St Bart’s)  … and is that a ‘pygmy’ delivering the goods? So much going on in this one ……

About Our Header Image: Sirens vs Muses

One of my favourite images from antiquity that I’ve come across long ago became the ‘official’ header image of rogueclassicism (scroll to the top of the page if you’ve never seen it). It comes from a sarcophagus currently in the Metrolpolitan Museum and depicts an incident mentioned in Pausanias (via Perseus):

On the market-place of Coroneia I found two remarkable things, an altar of Hermes Epimelius (Keeper of flocks) and an altar of the winds. A little lower down is a sanctuary of Hera with an ancient image, the work of Pythodorus of Thebes; in her hand she carries Sirens. For the story goes that the daughters of Achelous were persuaded by Hera to compete with the Muses in singing. The Muses won, plucked out the Sirens’ feathers (so they say) and made crowns for themselves out of them.

The official description of the Met piece doesn’t mention the story, alas:

On the front, the deities Athena, Zeus, and Hera, assembled at the far left, preside over a musical contest between the Muses and Sirens. The Muses, associated with man’s highest intellectual and artistic aspirations, are defeating the Sirens, creatures that are half woman and half bird who lured men to destruction with their song. […]

… especially the detail about the Muses actually winning and plucking feathers out to make their crowns.

Whatever the case, I can think of few images that better encapsulate the ‘struggle’ of using the Internet for one’s research. Does one heed the inspiration of the Muses and prevail or succumb to the song of the Sirens and get plucked?

Mindy Kaling on the Aeneid

In case you missed her comments in the New York Times on studying at Dartmouth:

I loved translating the “Aeneid” from Latin. Poor Aeneas and his pietas. That guy could not catch a break. I also love stories within stories, and the “Aeneid” is full of that.

… see also: Mindy Kaling on Latin and Mindy Kaling Does Latin! … folks seem to be interested in her Classics background every couple of years.

In Search of Roman and Pre-Roman Distaffs

Background: Dr  Elizabeth Barber and Kim Caulfield are investigating Roman and pre-Roman distaffs and are seeking help finding examples, since they are often misidentified in collections.  I include both the pdf they sent me as well as a html version of their “Wanted Poster” below since I could not extract some of the images (best seen in the pdf).

The PDF: distaff flyer


We are studying ancient hand-held distaffs of various materials (wood, bronze, bone, ivory, etc.), and especially the spiral glass distaffs made by the Etruscans and Romans. The glass ones (and some of the others) have a ring at the bottom through which the spinner passes her little finger so as to hold the distaff in a relaxed way (making it possible to spin for much longer periods of time). Making cloth and clothing was extremely important, and time-consuming, in ancient cultures.

We would appreciate information about distaffs in museums and private collections, and we are also looking to study some of these artifacts straight from the excavations, before they are placed in museums. The reason we are sending this “Wanted poster” around is that distaffs are frequently misidentified, so that it is extremely difficult to “search” them in electronic databases. Such artifacts are frequently described as “Wine Stirrers” or “Stirring Rods,” “Dippers” or “Spatulas,” a few even as “medical” tools. Those found at archaeological excavations, instead of on the art market, however, virtually always occur in textile contexts. Please keep an eye out for them, no matter what aliases they may have: they can be hiding in plain view! Have you seen any of the following?

Glass Distaffs

3 glass distaffs from a private collection. 

These artifacts are usually 20-30 cm. (8-12 inches) long; they have slender twisted glass shafts formed into a loop at one end. They often have a bird on the other end, though sometimes just a knob or flattened piece of glass. Some, like one distaff in this picture, have a whorl on the shaft. These are of particular interest to us, as they have a special function in spinning.

Bone and Ivory Distaffs

The Romans sometimes made distaffs of bone. We are particularly interested in distaffs with a loop on the lower end (for support by the little finger) and also possibly one or more discs on the shaft (to support the fibers as they are paid out into the thread). Bone and ivory distaffs of this type sometimes have animals carved on their tops, but many have goddesses. Here is a lovely example with a goddess.

from http://artefacts.mom.fr/en/result.php?id=QNL-4034&find=QNL&pagenum=1&affmode=list

Metal Distaffs

There are a few Roman bronze distaffs with finger loops. Here is an example.

from http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/244570

The bronze distaff below is from Jordan, 1500-1300 BCE. We would like to know of others that are similar—that is, with a whorl fixed near the middle of the shaft (where it makes use as a spindle very difficult, but aids use as a distaff). This one was called a spindle, so others may be mislabeled as well.

from a private collection

Thin bronze shafts with multiple discs or whorls fixed along the shaft, each at about a finger-width distance from its neighbors, may also have been distaffs, although usually catalogued as cloak pins. (In spinning, such discs help to control paying out the fibers into the thread as it forms.) Clearly, information concerning exact find-spots will be needed to sort out this problem.

According to ancient literature, there were also distaffs made of silver and gold. We would like to know of any examples.


There are, of course, other forms of ancient hand-held distaffs, and we would like to learn of them too. These were of wood, metal, bone, ivory, or glass. Again, they were generally 20-30 cm (8-12 inches) in length. Some had support rings—that is, whorls or rings fixed on the shaft for the spinner to rest on top of a finger, both to support the spindle and to draft fibers over. Some had movable whorls across their shafts. There are other artifacts that are not unsimilar and often confused with distaffs, including spoons, hair pins, medical tools, and sometimes spindles. Sometimes it is hard to be sure what an artifact is without handling it, or experimenting with a reproduction.

We are hoping to learn of what are probably numerous distaffs in museums and private collections, and we would like, if possible, to collect statistics such as length and weight, as well as photographs. But we are also hoping to locate distaffs as the excavators discover them, in the hopes that they will be easier to study closely before they go to museums or sales. There are some key attributes, such as balance, that can be evaluated only by touch.

Vital statistics:
Current location:
Accession or reference number:
Place of origin (provenance):
Date of artifact:

We are trying to understand both the evolution and the use of these surprising tools, and are happy to share what we are learning. If you spot a distaff, or a possible distaff, please contact Dr. Elizabeth Barber at barber AT oxy.edu or Kim Caulfield at kimcaulfield AT mac.com

Many thanks for any time and attention you can give to this quest!

Quote du Jour: Werner Herzog on Diodorus Siculus

From an interview in the Telegraph, inter alia:

What is he reading? “Ah, some old Greek writer, a historiographer, Diodorus Siculus. I’m only reading him because he has the best details on Alexander the Great’s father, Philip II of Macedon, who was a very, very fascinating person.” He considers a moment, then gives forth a miniature Herzogism: “You can’t get wilder soap opera than reading Diodorus Siculus on Alexander the Great’s father.”

In Explorator 17.35

I’ve done this sporadically in the past and honestly don’t know why it isn’t a weekly thing, especially now that I’m generally swamped at school and have neglected the blogging in favour of tweeting of late … in any event, here are some items from my Explorator newsletter’s edition du jour which might be of interest (some of this has appeared on Twitter, but there are some items that haven’t):

Interesting implications/suggestions from an oddly-decorated Egyptian coffin:


Some antiquities smugglers were caught at Cairo’s airport:


An 1800 years b.p. Jewish inscription in a 19th century Muslim mausoleum:


In case you missed it last week, there’s a ton of coverage this week of the indictment of a ‘gang of six’ who were illegally excavating in the area where the DSS were found:


Drought reveals Ottoman structures in Lake Van:


A late Bronze Age settlement and necropolis from Platamonas:


Polish archaeologists believe they have found the ‘heart’ of Nea Paphos:


A pile of artifacts emerge from the British Ambassador in Rome’s garden:


Feature on the dig at Capitolias (Jordan):


Cyprus’ ‘Elgin Marbles’ is the Cesnola Collection:


Nice overviewish things on what was found at Elveden:


Studying the role of water in the rise of the Roman empire:


Plenty of coverage of the Lego Acropolis getting into the Acropolis Museum:


Feature on the Meroe head of Augustus:




A Danubian horseman relief from Viminacium:


Flood waters engulfed the Temple of Artemis at Vavrona:


Another feature on Heracleion:


Suggestion that ‘slow compensation’ in Greece for antiquities finds isn’t a good thing:


More hype for Antikythera shipwreck finds:


Pink Floyd and the Pope are spurring a Latin comeback, apparently:


Honours for Timothy Winters:


Recognition for a Roman dig in Cumbria:


There’s a new PhD program at WashingtonU St Louis:


Feature on Pompeiian graffiti:


Feature on MU’s cast gallery:


Umbria wants to cash in on its archaeological heritage:


… and everyone seems to have an opinion on the Elgin/Parthenon Marbles:


… and the occupant speculation continues at Amphipolis:


More on those shackled Roman burials in France:


More on recent Zeugma mosaic finds:


More on Roman and Pictish coins (etc.) from an Aberdeenshire field:



More Greek manuscripts online:


Big bucks for Rosetti’s Venus Verticordia:


Pagan connections to Christmas:


Review of Lepore, *Secret History of Wonder Woman*:


Review of Johnson, *Lives in Ruins*:



The Greeks:


Greece of Origins:


Thracian Gold:


In case you missed it among the Elgin Marbles thing, the Hermitage is celebrating its 250th anniversary:



Germany wants to ‘crack down’ on antiquties theft:


Latest Anonymous Swiss Collector Culture Crime News:


A Roman hoard from Shropshire has been declared treasure:


Hopes that another hoard will stay at the Aethelstan Museum:


Rethinking Achilles and PTSD

From Manchester Metropolitan University comes a challenge to Dr Jonathan Shay’s work:

AN HISTORIAN from Manchester Metropolitan University has refuted one of the most long-standing theories about the link between Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Ancient Greece.

In his book chapter Beyond the Universal Soldier: Combat Trauma in Classical Antiquity, Dr Jason Crowley argues against the commonly-held idea that sufferers of PTSD can be found as far back in history as Achilles and Odysseus.

The article will be published in the Palgrave Macmillan book Combat Trauma and the Ancient Greeks, in September.

Dr Crowley said that the roots of this belief in the universality of PTSD can be traced back to the end of the Vietnam War.

Universalist view

He said: “There is the view – and I think it’s quite appealing – that people are generally good. Generally good people, when they see horrible things, are upset and traumatised – that idea has an obvious human appeal.

“This idea was sharpened by the Vietnam War when a lot of men came back from South East Asia having lost the war and no longer able to function in society.

“When they came back, some veterans of World War Two unjustly ridiculed them because they won their war – a bigger, nastier, hotter war – and they put about the view that America lost this smaller war because the men fighting were morally weak.

This view of a morally weak generation was understandably rejected by the Vietnam veterans and those involved in their treatment, and they set out to prove that they were no different from any other soldier, and one of the first places they looked for proof was ancient Greece.

Achilles’ suffering

Scholars initially looked at the Illiad, the account of the doings of the “biggest, bravest soldier of them all” Achilles, and saw there what they believed to be evidence that the Greek hero suffered from PTSD.

This led to a wave of “retrospective diagnoses” on everyone from Greek heroes to bloodthirsty Spartans.

Dr Crowley said: “It seems harmless enough until you realise that the people treating our soldiers believed this and so treated everyone the same. I wanted to refute that idea so I modelled the cause of PTSD and what I noticed was that all the causes of PTSD are cultural.”

He said that unlike modern soldiers, Greek men believed that enemies existed simply to be killed and that a man’s worth could be valued by the number of enemies he had slain.

Protective factors

In addition, soldiers in ancient Greece didn’t suffer from social isolation, prolonged artillery bombardment or exhaustion in the way that their modern-day counterparts do.

He said: “One of the causes of PTSD is when you have no ability to take direct action – you can’t evade or remove a threat,. For example, sitting under shellfire is psychologically malignant. For ancient Greeks that wasn’t a problem – they could take direct action, they could either run away from their enemy or they could kill him.”

He added that there were also factors in the ancient world that could actually protect soldiers from PTSD, particularly the normalcy of killing created by living in an ultraviolent society.

He said: “They were surrounded by violence and death in their daily life. You were conditioned to deploy violence and that wasn’t seen as transgressive, it was seen as the morally right thing to do. Modern soldiers, if they kill an enemy soldier have the unjust feeling of doing something wrong. That feeling, that ‘I’ve done something I shouldn’t have’, was entirely absent in ancient society.”

Dr Crowley concluded by saying: “PTSD is not universal – it’s historically and culturally specific and when we treat soldiers we should do so on that basis, not that everyone is the same. The people who compared the Vietnam veterans to Achilles meant well, but they are doing the soldiers a disservice.”

So which came first, PTSD or ultraviolence?

News from Pompeii: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Catching up with what’s been happening at Pompeii … first, from ANSA, we read of 10 ‘new’ houses being opened to the public:

From the sumptuous frescoes of the Hunting Lodge (Casa della Caccia) to the exquisite decorations of the House of Apollo (Casa di Apollo) and vivid reliefs of the Trojan War, Pompeii is seducing visitors this summer with 10 newly restored houses, some of which had never been open to the public before. After long controversy regarding the lack of personnel at Pompeii, the ministry of culture has dispatched 30 new keepers for the holiday season, a State exam to select new janitors is in the works, and extended opening hours on Friday mean the public can stroll through the ruins after sundown. Tourists are enjoying the new sites: more than 13,000 visitors flocked to Pompeii on the August 15 national religious holiday, bringing proceeds in excess of 114,000 euros, while 122 people decided to explore the city preserved in lava during night visiting hours.

The 10 new houses include the Thermopolium (Latin for restaurant) of Vetutius Placidus, where people could buy cooked food to go. It boasts shrines to Mercury and Dionysus (the gods of commerce and wine, respectively), a dining hall, and an adjoining mansion with a vestibule, a garden, and a dining room.

The Ancient Hunting Lodge (Casa della Caccia Antica) is another must-see at Pompeii. According to experts, it had just undergone renovation when it was buried under meters of ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. An extensive hunting scene is still visible on one of its garden walls, and its interiors are luxuriously decorated with beautiful paintings and marble-like coverings.

Also noteworthy are the Domus Cornelia and its exquisite sculptures, the House of Apollo adorned with images of the god to which it owes its name, and the House of Achilles with its impressive reliefs of the Trojan war.

… but then we hear of a French tourist being caught trying to take some tiles home as a souvenir (this is the Bad) … from the Local:

A French tourist was arrested on Tuesday after stealing a relic from the ancient ruins of Pompeii. It is the latest in a string of thefts from the site which one tour guide told The Local “is all too easy to steal from”.

The 51-year-old was arrested for theft while trying to escape from the site in southern Italy, Articolo Tre reported.

He had taken pieces of red plaster and fragments from an amphora handle as a “souvenir”.

The latest theft comes just a few months after a tourist from Georgia was caught trying to steal tiles from a mosaic at the site, also to take home as a keepsake.

Giorgio Melani, from Guide Pompei, told The Local that the vast site is easy to steal from because there are few custodians guarding the relics.

But Giuseppe Galano, a tour guide at Visit Pompeii, believes some tourists visit the site specifically to leave with some of its “treasure”.

“I question whether they would do the same thing at home. They know Pompeii is famous and they want a piece of it,” he said, adding that the summer is peak season for theft.

“Especially on the first Sunday of each month when the entrance is free. About 14,000 people passed through the gates last Sunday; how can you control that?”

While the relics from the latest thefts are now back in safe hands, others from Pompeii have made it as far as eBay.

Just last week an Australian auction advertised a mosaic from the site, but the advert was quickly removed after it caught the attention of the Italian police

In January, a brick supposedly taken from the ruins in 1958 was also put up for sale on the online retail site for just $99, or a little over €70. The listing, which included four photos of the brick, soon caught the attention of online surfers and, eventually, the police.

As for the Ugly (in the sense it’s probably something you don’t want to see), here’s the Telegraph coverage of a story that’s been making the rounds over the past week:

Among the most popular attractions in the ancient city of Pompeii are the colourful frescoes which depict the lurid sexual fantasies of those who lived there 2,000 years ago.

Inspired by the images, a French tourist and two Italian women decided to make their personal fantasy a reality. They were caught climbing the walls of the UNESCO World Heritage site late on Tuesday night, heading for the city’s Suburban Baths.

The communal baths were once a lively meeting place for wealthy merchants and political leaders before the city was wiped out in the devastating volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD.

The bath walls were vividly decorated with explicit sex scenes, including group sex, for patrons who were looking to visit the prostitutes nearby.

The trio – a 32-year-old French man from Lyon and his companions – were seeking to bring those images to life when they were caught by custodians in a Pompeii piazza and handed over to police.

One Italian report said they were semi-naked and confessed to police that they were looking for the baths to fulfil their desires.

Pompeii officials said the three had neither damaged nor stolen anything from the historic site and police said they were only charged with trespassing.

But their escapade has provoked plenty of debate in an Italian press more accustomed to writing about tourists stealing souvenirs or etching their names in the walls of the country’s ancient treasures.

“There is fornication and fornication,” said commentator Pietro Treccagrioli from the daily, Il Mattino. “If it is done for art, it deserves applause.”

Experts say six frescoes in the apodyterium or changing room of the Pompeii bath house offer an “erotic catalogue” of the era and many of the villas in Pompeii also display the remnants of erotic images and statues.