Mary Beard on Caligula

As folks in the UK know, Mary Beard was recently on the telly doing some Caligula revisionism … see Adrian Murdoch’s roundup of the reviews (Reviews of Mary Beard’s Caligula … he also mentioned a while back that another Caligula doc which he played a role in is now up at Youtube: Caligula: 1400 Days of Terror Now Online). Just prior to its appearance, however, Dr Beard did give us a hint of her mindset:

Our modern idea of tyranny was born 2,000 years ago. It is with the reign of the Caligula – the third Roman emperor, assassinated in 41 AD, before he had reached the age of 30 – that all the components of mad autocracy come together for the first time.

In fact, the ancient Greek word “tyrannos” (from which our term comes) was originally a fairly neutral word for a sole ruler, good or bad.

Of course, there had been some very nasty monarchs and despots before Caligula. But, so far as we know, none of his predecessors had ever ticked all the boxes of a fully fledged tyrant, in the modern sense.

There was his (Imelda Marcos-style) passion for shoes, his megalomania, sadism and sexual perversion (including incest, it was said, with all three of his sisters), to a decidedly odd relationship with his pets. One of his bright ideas was supposed to have been to make his favourite horse a consul – the chief magistrate of Rome.

Roman writers went on and on about his appalling behaviour, and he became so much the touchstone of tyranny for them that one unpopular emperor, half a century later, was nicknamed “the bald Caligula”.

But how many of their lurid stories are true is very hard to know. Did he really force men to watch the execution of their sons, then invite them to a jolly dinner, where they were expected to laugh and joke? Did he actually go into the Temple of the gods Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum and wait for people to turn up and worship him?

It is probably too sceptical to mistrust everything that we are told. Against all expectations, one Cambridge archaeologist thinks he may have found traces of the vast bridge that Caligula was supposed to have built between his own palace and the Temple of Jupiter – so it was easier for him to go and have a chat with the god, when he wanted.

So the idea that Caligula was a nice young man who has simply had a very bad press doesn’t sound very plausible.

All the same, the evidence for Caligula’s monstrosity isn’t quite as clear-cut as it looks at first sight. There are a few eyewitness accounts of parts of his reign, and none of them mention any of the worst stories.

There is no mention in these, for example, of any incest with his sisters. And one extraordinary description by Philo, a high-ranking Jewish ambassador, of an audience with Caligula makes him sound a rather menacing jokester, but nothing worse.

He banters with the Jews about their refusal to eat pork (while confessing that he himself doesn’t like eating lamb), but the imperial mind is not really on the Jewish delegation at all – he’s actually busy planning a lavish makeover for one of his palatial residences, and is in the process of choosing new paintings and some expensive window glass.

But even the more extravagant later accounts – for example the gossipy biography of Caligula by Suetonius, written about 80 years after his death – are not quite as extravagant as they seem.

If you read them carefully, time and again, you discover that they aren’t reporting what Caligula actually did, but what people said he did, or said he planned to do.

It was only hearsay that the emperor’s granny had once found him in bed with his favourite sister. And no Roman writer, so far as we know, ever said that he made his horse a consul. All they said was that people said that he planned to make his horse a consul.

The most likely explanation is that the whole horse/consul story goes back to one of those bantering jokes. My own best guess would be that the exasperated emperor one day taunted the aristocracy by saying something along the lines of: “You guys are all so hopeless that I might as well make my horse a consul!”

And from some such quip, that particular story of the emperor’s madness was born.

The truth is that, as the centuries have gone by, Caligula has become, in the popular imagination, nastier and nastier. It is probably more us than the ancient Romans who have invested in this particular version of despotic tyranny.

In the BBC’s 1976 series of I Claudius, Caligula (played by John Hurt) memorably appeared with a horrible bloody face – after eating a foetus, so we were led to believe, torn from his sister’s belly.

This scene was entirely an invention of the 1970s scriptwriter. But it wrote Hurt into the history of Caligula.

The vision even spread to comics. Chief Judge Cal in Judge Dredd was based on Hurt’s version of the emperor – and appropriately enough Cal really did make his pet goldfish Deputy Chief Judge.

But if the modern world has partly invented Caligula, so it also has lessons to learn from him and from the regime change that brought him down.

Caligula was assassinated in a bloody coup after just four years on the throne. And his assassination partly explains his awful reputation. The propaganda machine of his successors was keen to blacken his name partly to justify his removal – hence all those terrible stories.

More topical though is the question of what, or who, came next. Caligula was assassinated in the name of freedom. And for a few hours the ancient Romans do seem to have flirted with overthrowing one-man rule entirely, and reinstating democracy.

But then the palace guard found Caligula’s uncle Claudius hiding behind a curtain and hailed him emperor instead. Thanks to Robert Graves, Claudius has had a good press, as a rather sympathetic, slightly bumbling, bookish ruler.

But the ancient writers tell a different story – of an autocrat who was just as bad as the man he had replaced. The Romans thought they were getting freedom, but got more of the same.

Considering what happened then, it’s hard not to think of the excitements and disappointments of the Arab Spring.

That said, long-time readers of rogueclassicism will know we’ve dealt with some of these questions ourselves in the past:

Mary Beard at Town Hall

From the New York Review of Books:

On February 5, The New York Review celebrated its 50th anniversary at Town Hall in New York City. In this recording from the event, Mary Beard discusses the Review’s coverage of the classics from its first issue through to the present day, and the “inextricable embeddedness of the classical tradition within Western culture.”

The audio is here:

Mary Beard Talks About Roman New Year and Religion

Nice little video on the BBC:

… and Dr Beard, OBE reflects on the production:

[question in passing: does the UK have a semi-religious 'Thought for the Day' programme on TV early in the a.m.? Such used to be the case in Calgary when I was a wee lad ... it was always the thing you were waiting to end (it was only 15 minutes long or so) so the cartoons could start]

Pompeii’s Pyroclastics Phollow-up

T’other day we had a couple of postings mentioning the final hours of Pompeii, both of which used the dreaded “lava” word in their various descriptions (which commenter Walter Muzzy pointed out: Blogosphere ~ Top 5 Representations of Pompeii (from Pop Classics) and Reconstructing the classics: from Pompeii to Athens. (Mary Beard)). It apparently also got the ‘ire’ of Dana Hunter over at Scientific American going enough to write Mary Beard:

[...] So how could Cambridge Professor Mary Beard, who had actually written books about Pompeii, get that important geological detail so very wrong? I figured I’d better ask. We had a brief conversation on Twitter, which brought to light the fact that she uses the word “lava” as a way of saying she’s not a volcanologist, and her book isn’t about the eruption but about life in Pompeii (not just the last few minutes of it). Fair enough. I asked her if she could at least use ash instead, to spare the feelings of geologists everywhere, and we ended up deciding that the Italian word “fango,” which means “mud,” must be popularized. It wasn’t mud that destroyed Pompeii, but the pyroclastic flow deposits did get reworked into lahars by water after deposition, so I’ll take it.** I’m glad Professor Beard wrote this article, and I’m even glad she made geologists the world over grind their teeth, because it’s a thought-provoking look at how we react to the people of Pompeii. It also points out that the city we see today is a lot more put together than Vesuvius left it. And her intentional use of the word “lava” makes us look harder at what really happened to Pompeii. I think a lot of us see the restored ruins and think of ash raining down, almost gently. Sure, it suffocated people and buried them, but it also lovingly preserved the buildings. Look! Even crockery is intact!

… the article goes on to give a very nice discussion of the various phases of destruction at Pompeii.

Plebs

In case you’re wondering what Mary Beard has been up to lately …. from the Independent:

The much-loved classicist Mary Beard continues to conquer the airwaves, this time as an advisor on Plebs, a new sitcom set in Ancient Rome.

“She’s given us a few pointers,” says Tom Basden, co-writer of the show, with Sam Leifer. “She’s interested in the normal, powerless city folk of Ancient Rome, the graffiti on toilet walls, that kind of thing.”

The six-part series, which will air on ITV2 in the Spring, follows the lives of three 20-something men who move to the big city to make their fortune and meet girls. Think The Inbetweeners in togas.

“The idea was to make the historical setting by-the-by and root it in modern concerns. We wanted to stay away from the clichés of camp silliness or austere classical actors,” says Basden, whose credits include Fresh Meat, Party on Radio 4 and There Is a War at the National Theatre. “Tonally, it’s much more Seinfeld than Up Pompeii.”

Tom Rosenthal (Friday Night Dinner) and Doon MacKichan star. As for the title, any echoes of a certain political scandal are purely fortuitous.

“We had the title for ages and we thought it was good but the Conservatives have done us a great favour in ensuring that every last man on the street now knows what it means,” says Basden.

… wonder if it’ll make it to this side of the pond …

Bloody Peasant! Oh What a Giveaway!

OK … so we erstwhile colonists are sitting here enjoying our lattes and watching the strangest bit of class(ical) name-calling going on in the motherland. It seems that one Andrew Mitchell MP took umbrage at a policeman and referred to him as a ‘pleb’! Here’s a timeline of how what is being branded a ‘scandal’ unfolded:

More interesting from our point of view is that all the newspapers feel a need to explain what a plebeian is and there is much handwringing over whether it’s a bad word or not. Mary Beard has written a couple of items:

Edith Hall also pondered the question:

Possibly connected is a column by Harry Mount:

… and so the BBC decided to interview Edith Hall and Harry Mount on the subject:

… and of course, in all this I couldn’t help but be reminded of one of my favourite scenes from Monty Python and the Holy Grail:

‘New’ Fragment of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti Found

Right now my Twitterfeed is overflowing with excitement over the apparent discovery of a fragment of the Res Gestae in Sardis. Mary Beard actually broke the story at her blog an hour or so ago … here’s an excerpt:

Well a new article by Peter Thonemann in Historia 2012 puts the kibosh on that. Because he has realised that a tiny and otherwise insignificant fragment of Greek text published in 1932 in a volume of the inscriptions of the town of Sardis (Buckler and Robinson, 1932) was actually (as Buckler in an unpublished letter had already suspected) a small fragment of the Res Gestae. And Sardis is not in the province of Galatia, but in the province of Asia.

… you’ll want  to read her whole article for what is being kiboshed and the Galatian reference:

That said, the Historia article is — as always — inaccessible to us poor peons whose coporeal forms do not penetrate the ivory walls of academe, but the standard collection of inscriptions from Sardis is available at the Web Archive … I’ve paged through it and can’t really find anything that looks res-gestae-ish, so perhaps it is in a supplement. Whatever the case, it would be interesting if some computer program could be written which compared the various collections of inscriptions found everywhere in the Greco-Roman world. I bet more fragments of the RG would show up (as well as multiple copies of other documents, I suspect).

Mary Beard is Everywhere!

This is one of those posts that has been on the backburner for a while because things just kept coming up, both on my side of the keyboard and Mary Beard’s, so I better get this out before it becomes a book unto itself. In any event, obviously in conjunction with her very interesting (from what I’ve seen, despite the fact that BBC’s iPlayer doesn’t have it here in Canada even if you pay the subscription fee) documentary series Meet the Romans, Mary Beard has been all over the interwebs talking about all sorts of interesting things. We’ll excerpt them below:

An item in the BBC commenting on the tombstone and inscription of a lad named Quintus Sulpicius Maximus (this is just the incipit; the original article also includes a photo of the monument and a video link or two):

In 94 AD young Quintus Sulpicius Maximus died.

A Roman lad who lived just 11 years, five months and 12 days, he had recently taken part in a grown-up poetry competition, a sort of Rome’s Got Talent. He had composed and performed a long poem in Greek.

And, though he hadn’t actually won, everyone agreed that he had done amazingly well for his age. The sad thing was that only a few months later he dropped down dead.

We know this because his tombstone still survives, put up by his grieving mum and dad. There’s a little statue of him in the middle, dressed up in his toga, and his poem is carved all over the stone – so everyone would know how brilliant it was.

How had he died? As his parents explain, he had collapsed from too much hard work.
Continue reading the main story

So was little Sulpicius a prodigy, snatched by death from a waiting public? Or was he the victim of some very pushy parents – like all those modern kids drilled by their dad in maths, so they can grab the headlines by getting an A-level when they are six.

Who knows? But my bet is that this is a nasty case of the “pushy parent syndrome”. In fact, this Roman family reminds us of one universal lesson of parenting – it’s a good idea to give the kids a break from time to time.

Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Sulpicius’ mum and dad. Even more than we do today, ordinary Romans invested in their children.

The grieving couple who put up this memorial to their child were ex-slaves. Freed by their owner, they now had to fend for themselves. A celebrity poet in the family would certainly have done wonders for their finances.

And at a less glamorous level, in a world without pensions or social security, they really needed some children to look after them in old age. Not too many of them though, or else – almost as expensive 2,000 years ago as they are now – they’d eat them out of house and home.

This was a calculation that most Romans found hard to get right. There was no such thing in the ancient world as reliable family planning. [...]

Then we had a short excerpt from the second episode, just dripping with social history goodness:

In another video, she was talking about gladiators and was showing off (and almost donning … pun intended) a very nice helmet:

She did a History Extra Podcast for BBC Magazine (her segment is at the beginning after all the intro fluff) …

In another video, she shows us some items found in Herculaneum:

Then she did an interview with the Staffordshire Sentinel about Roman bathing and the like:

“THE Romans are dead,” says Mary Beard, above, “but they can still speak to us.”

A bit like the Liberal Democrats.

A world away from Russell Crowe and Frankie Howerd, Professor Beard’s series aims to show us what life for the average Roman was really like. “There’s an old saying,” she said. “If you want

to understand a culture, look to its lavatories.”

It’s to be hoped she never sees the ones at Hanley bus station.

“For ordinary Romans,” she explained, sat in, and on, a Roman communal toilet, “what we do in private used to be a far more public affair, everyone sitting together, tunics up, togas up, trousers down, chatting as they went.” Our street are thinking of doing the same. We’ve just got to square it with Severn Trent.

The reason Romans had communal lavatories was because they did everything – eat, wash, toilet themselves – outside the house. They only came home to sleep. In many ways they set the template for the modern teenager.

After a hard day watching a lion consume an ill-favoured eunuch, the public baths were another favoured destination. “Most Romans,” said Beard, “went to the public baths to wash and let it all hang out.” Good fun until you trap something in a cubicle door.

“Some baths were the size of small towns,” she continued. “Not just places to sweat and steam, but with stalls for food and maybe a bit of sex on the side.” You don’t get that at Dimensions.

“These were rough noisy places,” she went on, “full of grunting gym goers, men getting their armpits plucked, and loitering thieves.”

It will be similar at this summer’s Olympic Village.

“The baths were a great social leveller,” said Beard. “Imagine, everybody’s here in the nude. It’s then that the poor man aged 20 with a great body can turn the tables on the 60-year-old Roman plutocrat with the paunch and the hernia.”

You might not be 20, but you can get a similar feeling by stripping to the waist and walking past an old people’s home.

Unlike the British, a race who are generally happy with a bag of Maltesers and Countdown, the Romans were a people who revelled in luxury. “Baths, wine and sex ruin your body,” said one, “but they’re what makes life worth living.”

Although doing all three at once can be tricky if you’re at the tap end.

After a soak, meanwhile, a Roman would often fancy refreshment. “The ancient Roman bar,” revealed Beard, “ranged from seedy dens and strip joints to modern gastro pubs.”

Now that’s what I call a Cultural Quarter.

Now despite all this amazing information and clearly professional presentation, some proto-shallow-hallish-spawn-of-the-tanning-salon/critic-who’s-so-posh-he-doesn’t-even-have-a-first-name-but-just-a -pair-of-dittoed-initials took Dr Beard to task for not meeting his aesthetic standards, apparently (I have not been able to find AA Gill’s original column, by the way) … the responses from others have been swift:

… to name but three. Dr Beard herself wrote a lengthy piece in the Daily Mail, which culminated in an invitation:

[...] First, I’d like to invite him to a tutorial in my study at Cambridge and ask him to justify and substantiate his opinions. We could talk them through. Possibly then he would learn a little about the crass assumptions he’s making and why they don’t amount to anything more.

Next, for my Roman-style revenge on Gill, I’d force him to watch each of my programmes from start to finish. And to ensure he did so with appropriate diligence, I’d ask Clare to be on hand to enforce the penalty.

And as Gill is also a food critic —and I’m certain there is a veritable battalion of angry chefs and restaurateurs who would gladly volunteer to help with this bit — I’d force-feed him, like a goose destined for pate de foie gras, his least favourite dishes, while he sat and learned about the Romans.

And then we’d talk about them — and I mean about their substance, not just about my lack of lipgloss.

I do wonder, if he met me face to face, would he be prepared to reiterate the insults he has heaped on me in print? Somehow I doubt if he would have the guts.

I am often asked to review books in newspapers and I always make it a rule never to write anything critical in a review that I would not be prepared to repeat to the author face-to-face — a basic tenet of responsible journalism.

And I ask only one thing of anyone who chooses to condemn me for not quite living up to the stereotype Botoxed blonde Gill seems to want me to become: see my programmes for yourself and decide if it is worth investing your time in watching me, even with my grey hair, double chin and wrinkles.

… well done Dr Beard … on all of the above.

Greek Scandal at Cambridge!

University of Cambridge coat of arms.

Image via Wikipedia

A spelling mistake in ancient Greek on the doors to the Cambridge University classics faculty has left officials red-faced.

The stylish new entrance to the £1.3 million extension at the department, on the university’s Sidgwick site, boasts glass doors emblazoned with a quote by Aristotle, chosen by academics from the faculty.

But the quote – which translates as “all men by nature desiring to know” – includes the letter S, when it should in fact have the Greek letter sigma.

Prof Mary Beard, a member of the department, also criticised the electronic opening mechanism of the doors.

In her blog, she wrote: “Even the gods have shown their disapproval in their own inimitable way.

“We decided to have some nice ancient writing across the offending doors (partly another health and safety requirement – you can’t have plain glass doors in case someone bumps into them – I kid you not).

“One of the quotes we chose was that famous lines of Aristotle about ‘all men by nature desiring to know’. But look what happened to the S of ‘Phusei’ (by nature) . . . an English S not a Greek S.”

Prof Beard said the doors were too heavy for some people to push open manually – causing “rage and bottle necks” for staff and students.

The classicist said: “To open them, you have to press an electronic ‘open door’ button – and they then sweep aside dramatically in front of you. Dramatically and slowly. So, at busy times (like, on the hour, when lectures are changing over), there is a mass of bodies trying to get into and out of the building, but needing to wait for the stately pace of the doors’ operation.

“In any case, as soon as you push them open and then someone pushes the button from the other side, the doors take on a life of their own and come back and attack you.

“And as if that wasn’t enough, they repeatedly stop working anyway.”

The two-storey extension sparked a row with the nearby faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies when plans were announced. Prof Richard Bowring, a professor in Japanese studies, described the design as “far from being an elegant solution”, and predicted a “blind corner” at the site would lead to a “nasty accident”.

But Prof Malcolm Schofield, chairman of the classics faculty board, described it as “ingenious and elegant”.

The university declined to comment.

via Cambridge News | New doors are all Greek to classics department.

… kind of reminds me of the plaque I read every time I have a health and safety meeting at our union office. In very large letters we read “IN MEMORIUM” … shudder (ad nauseum (cuz I’m ‘sic’ of course) …

More coverage (you’d think there’d be a bit more creativity in headlines):

Boris Johnson and Mary Beard on Electioneering

Not sure how long this one from BBC4 will be available … here’s the description; audio file after the jump:

How were Roman political techniques for getting elected similar to those of today?
The Romans produced their first handbook on electioneering 2000 years ago, written by Cicero’s brother Quintus in the first century BC.
London Mayor Boris Johnson and classics professor Mary Beard discuss how some of the strategies for winning over voters are eerily familiar.

via Modern politicians ‘as ego driven’ as the Romans | BBC .