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.

Augustus Bimillennium Filmfest

To mark the bimillennium of Augustus’ death, here’s a little filmfest to help you remember why he’s so darned important (as if you needed it):

We’ll start with Adrian Murdoch’s Emperors of Rome podcast on Augustus to get a quick overview:

The fine folks at AIRC have just put up a nice little video which showcases a lot of the buildings (still around) which are associated with Augustus in the city of Rome:

A couple of podcasty type things about the Ara Pacis … the first from the Khan Academy:

… and the Ancient Art Podcast:

The Open University has a nice thing on Augustus’ house and the mythology tied to it:

For some reason, I’ve always loved this little excerpt when Octavian takes on the purple (from the Rome series):

… and Augustus’ death scene from I, Claudius (with commentary from the actors):

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem xiv kalendas septembres

ante diem xiv kalendas septembres

  • Vinalia — the second major wine festival of this name celebrated by the Romans
  • 43 B.C. — the future emperor Octavian enters his first consulship; Octavian’s adoption by Julius Caesar formally recognized
  • 14 A.D. — Augustus dies at Nola
  • 232 A.D. — birth of the future emperor Probus
  • 304 A.D. — martyrdom of Thecla at Caesarea
  • c. 306 A.D. — martyrdom of Agapius at Caesarea

Catching Up with Cambyses’ Lost Army

Longtime readers of rogueclassicism will recall a short series of posts dealing with claims about Cambyses’ army which supposedly disappeared in the Egyptian desert lo those many years ago:

As such, a press release from Leiden University (from a month or so ago) offering an alternative explanation is of obvious interest:

It is one of the greatest archaeological mysteries of all times: the disappearance of a Persian army of 50,000 men in the Egyptian desert around 524 BC. Leiden Professor Olaf Kaper unearthed a cover-up affair and solved the riddle.

Herodotus
It must have been a sand storm, writes the Greek historian Herodotus. He tells the story of the Persian King Cambyses, who entered the Egyptian desert near Luxor (then Thebes) with 50,000 men. The troops supposedly never returned; they were swallowed by a sand dune. A fantastic tale that was long the subject of many debates.

Long quest

Egyptologist Olaf Kaper never believed it: ‘Since the 19th century, people have been looking for this army: amateurs, as well as professional archaeologists. Some expect to find somewhere under the ground an entire army, fully equipped. However, experience has long shown that you cannot die from a sandstorm, let alone have an entire army disappear.’

Petoebastis III

Kaper is now putting forward an entirely different explanation. He argues that the army did not disappear, but was defeated. ‘My research shows that the army was not simply passing through the desert; its final destination was the Dachla Oasis. This was the location of the troops of the Egyptian rebel leader Petubastis III. He ultimately ambushed the army of Cambyses, and in this way managed from his base in the oasis to reconquer a large part of Egypt, after which he had himself crowned Pharaoh in the capital, Memphis.’

Spin doctor

The fact that the fate of the army of Cambyses remained unclear for such a long time is probably due to the Persian King Darius I, who ended the Egyptian revolt with much bloodshed two years after Cambyses’ defeat. Like a true spin doctor, he attributed the shameful defeat of his predecessor to natural elements. Thanks to this effective manipulation, 75 years after the events, all Herodotus could do was take note of the sandstorm story.

Pieces of the puzzle

Kaper made this discovery accidentally; he was not looking for it actively. In collaboration with New York University and the University of Lecce, he was involved for the last ten years in excavations in Amheida, in the Dachla Oasis. Earlier this year, he deciphered the full list of titles of Petubastis III on ancient temple blocks. ‘That’s when the puzzle pieces fell into place’, says the Egyptologist. ‘The temple blocks indicate that this must have been a stronghold at the start of the Persian period. Once we combined this with the limited information we had about Petubastis III, the excavation site and the story of Herodotus, we were able to reconstruct what happened.’

See also:

Seems like a reasonable explanation; I doubt it will stop folks from speculating, though …

Stephen Fine and YU Students Tracking the Temple Menorah

When last we heard about Stephen Fine and his crack teams of Yeshiva University students, they were detecting the colour of the Temple Menorah on the Arch of Titus (The Golden Menorah on the Arch of Titus). Now the WSJ reports on their activities checking into the semi-frequent claims that the Temple Menorah, after the sack, eventually ended up in some secret place in the Vatican. Definitely research we need on record here (and a tip ‘o the pileus to Joseph Lauer for alerting us to the article):

It is a tale that seems at home in an espionage thriller about ancient religious secrets, such as the “The Da Vinci Code.”

For nearly 2,000 years, stories have circulated about the ultimate fate of sacred Jewish objects plundered from the Jerusalem Temple by Romans in A.D. 70—including a human-size, solid-gold Menorah. One widely shared theory among some Jews holds that the artifacts are hidden inside the Vatican, which many believe inherited the wealth of the Roman Empire.

There is only one problem, say many scholars: It isn’t true.

Steven Fine, a Jewish history professor at Yeshiva University, has dedicated the past two decades to debunking these stories. This summer, he turned the question into the subject of his class on the Arch of Titus, an ancient monument still standing outside the Roman Forum that commemorates the capture of Jerusalem and depicts the Menorah being paraded through the streets of Rome in A.D. 71.

The assignment was prompted by a recent public flare-up: In late May, Mr. Fine spotted an open letter to then-Israeli President Shimon Peres. In it, Israeli Rabbi Yonatan Shtencel urged Mr. Peres to approach the Vatican and ask for the return of the Menorah, a cultural symbol so important it is pictured on Israel’s state seal.

“I have a myth to kill,” said Mr. Fine, speaking of the secret-Vatican-hoard theory. Mr. Fine is writing a book about the Menorah and its many legends, to be published next year by Harvard University Press. “If we don’t nip it, it’s going to get worse,” he said.

In their own letter to Mr. Peres sent last month, Mr. Fine’s students disputed each assertion in the rabbi’s letter, after contacting his sources and consulting rare books. They haven’t received a response from Mr. Peres, who left office this month, they said.

Rabbi Shtencel said he hadn’t read the Yeshiva University response because it is in English, but said, “These aren’t my claims. I am relying on several extremely serious sources.”

Among them: Shimon Shetreet, a former Israeli minister of religious affairs, who said he raised the question of the artifacts during a meeting with Pope John Paul II in 1996 and separately with the Vatican’s secretary of state, but got no answer. He wasn’t surprised by that, he said, because “they are a very silent organization.”

He said the issue wasn’t raised when Mr. Peres traveled to the Vatican in early June.

“No one can dispute that they were taken to Rome,” said Mr. Shetreet of the artifacts. “The question is what happened. It lies between legends, rumors and facts.”

The Vatican dismissed accusations that it had the objects in a statement provided to The Wall Street Journal.

“I had heard once in the past rumors about such [a] story. But I never thought it was worthy of attention,” said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman. “It belongs to the genre ‘mysteries of the Vatican,’ in which some people exercise their fantasy.”

Paolo Liverani, a professor at the University of Florence, said he received a handful of letters every year asking about the Menorah when he worked at the Vatican as a museum curator, but never came across the artifacts in the Vatican storerooms.

Still, he said, “it is very difficult to demonstrate things that don’t exist.”

Scholars say the myth surfaced in the U.S. during the 1950s and ’60s, as the Vatican was working to improve relations with Jews in the wake of World War II. Additionally, they say troves of lost, buried Jewish treasures do exist—many hidden by Nazis.

“There’s a whole world of subterranean manuscripts and antiquities,” said Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, director of the Global Institute for Advanced Research in Jewish Studies at New York University. “A lot of that world is real.”

But, he said, the Vatican theory isn’t. “The story was created in the 20th century,” Mr. Schiffman said. “There’s no historical continuity.”

Myths are also hard to uproot once they take hold, said Mr. Fine.

“People still feel pain,” Mr. Fine said. “It’s hard to get rid of that.”

Some of Mr. Fine’s students were initially wary of the class assignment. “At first I was almost afraid that this was anti-Jewish,” said David Silber, a 21-year-old rising junior at Yeshiva. “But as we went further, the truth is the truth.”

While the Arch of Titus and rabbinical sources depict the treasures in Rome in ancient times, that doesn’t mean they ended up in storerooms of the Vatican, which was founded centuries later.

Some books Rabbi Shtencel cited in his letter weren’t available in the U.S., so students had friends in Israel track down copies in university libraries there. Scouring the texts, they said they didn’t find any eyewitness accounts of the temple artifacts inside the Vatican, as Rabbi Shtencel had claimed.

Their research didn’t prove that the Vatican doesn’t have the treasures. But “I’m convinced that his proofs are not valid proofs,” Mr. Silber said.

There are many myths surrounding the fate of the Menorah, which is linked with the coming of the Messiah in Jewish lore, experts say. Some hold that it was stashed in a cave in Galilee, others that it lies submerged in silt under the Tiber River in Rome and still others that it is buried under a monastery in the West Bank.

Mr. Fine has his own theory: that it was taken by invaders who ravaged Rome in the fifth and sixth centuries and probably melted down.

“I say to people when I give lectures, ‘Gold doesn’t disappear. Maybe you’re wearing the Menorah in your ring,'” he said. “That’s a really unsatisfying answer for a lot of people.”

 

If the claim is new to you, you might want to check out The Vatican and the Temple Vessels (reprinted from the December issue of  Ami Magazine) which includes many comments from Rabbi Shtencel and Dr Schiffmann. Almost a decade ago, Dr Fine penned this (available online in pdf):

… which is good for showing why there might be a belief that the Vatican has it somewhere.

Augustan Stables to be Reburied?

From the Telegraph … skipping a bit:

Now, to mark the two millennia since his death in 14AD, a successful exhibition has been staged in Rome and Paris, while on Rome’s Palatine Hill newly restored rooms at Augustus’ house and elaborate frescoes in a dining area will go on display for the first time.

But at a large excavated site off Via Giulia, in the heart of the city, workers will start covering the remains of Augustus’s marbled stables with waterproof cloths, ready for reburial, left for future generations to rediscover.

Described as “extremely important” by Rome’s archaeological authority when they were first found in 2009 by a firm excavating to build an underground car park, the buildings gave a unique glimpse of how imperial stables were built, adding to shreds of information provided by digs at Roman military camps and mosaics found in North Africa.

Graffiti on the walls boasting of victories in races at the Circus Maximus provided a fascinating insight into the four racing teams that shared the stables and divided the fierce loyalties of Roman race fans.

In 2011, archaeologists celebrated when it was announced the stables would be preserved and open to visits, only for city officials to cancel the plans this year due to budget cuts.

Cataloguing discoveries before burying them is standard practice “when there are no funds to guarantee the work needed to safeguard the finds,” said Federica Galloni, a culture minister official.

Experts believe that once reburied, artefacts and remains do not risk erosion by the elements or the thefts they might endure if left exposed and unprotected, and can be re-excavated when funding permits.

The fate of the stables and Augustus’s mausoleum contrasts with other monuments in the city which have benefited from a new trend for restoration work paid for by Italian fashion companies. Shoe maker Tod’s is sponsoring a clean-up of the Colosseum while Fendi is funding repairs to the Trevi Fountain.

Officials have said the city of Rome did seek a sponsor to help restore Augustus’ mausoleum in time for the 2014 celebrations, but found no takers.

With just two million of a required four million euros available, work will now be finished in 2016.

Meanwhile, yards from the mausoleum, Augustus’s excavated and restored Ara Pacis – or “temple to peace” – is in much better shape and now hosting an exhibition devoted to the emperor. After it was discovered buried beneath a cinema in central Rome, fascist dictator Benito Mussolini decided in 1937 to excavate the temple at all costs in time to celebrate Augustus’ 2000th birthday.

Sparing no expense, experts dug down to retrieve the monument using innovative techniques to freeze the foundations beneath the cinema to ensure the modern building did not collapse.

History unearthed – and reburied

Reinterring ancient sites to protect them from the elements and thieves rather than leaving them exposed is becoming more frequent as funds for archaeology become a luxury in cash strapped economies like Italy and Greece.

An important thermal bath dating to the first century AD reign of the Roman emperor Titus, discovered close to the Colosseum in Rome in the 1990s, has been reburied until money is found for its preservation.

On the outskirts of Rome, experts are campaigning for cash to save from reinterring the stunning tomb of Marcus Nonius Macinus, the Roman general whose 2nd century AD campaigning helped inspire Russell Crowe’s Gladiator.

In Greece, an early Christian basilica, discovered in 2010 during the construction of an underground railway in Thessaloniki was reportedly reburied.

Not sure how I missed this discovery back in 2009. Back in 2008 we read of an impending restoration of the Circus (Circus to be Restored!), and shortly thereafter, about some entrepreneur’s plans to bring chariot racing back to the venue (Chariot Racing in Rome Redux), but then all we heard were tales of a beach soccer tournament therein (Beach Soccer in the Circus Maximus?).

The so-called ‘Gladiator Tomb’ has been its own saga … ecce:

… so apparently the campaign on that score is continuing. Hopefully publicity will bring a sponsor out of the woodwork …

 

Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews ~ 08/18/14

The latest:

  • 2014.08.29:  Sten Ebbesen, John Marenbon, Paul Thom, Aristotle’s Categories in the Byzantine, Arabic and Latin Traditions. Scientia Danica: Series H, Humanistica 8, vol. 5.
  • 2014.08.28:  Jason König, Katerina Oikonomopoulou, Greg Woolf, Ancient Libraries.
  • 2014.08.27:  Mika Kajava, Studies in Ancient Oracles and Divination. Acta Instituti Romani Finlandiae, 40.
  • 2014.08.26:  Angelos Chaniotis, Pierre Ducrey, Unveiling Emotions II. Emotions in Greece and Rome: Texts, Images, Material Culture. Heidelberger althistorische Beiträge und epigraphische Studien (HABES), Bd 55.