George Orwell on Antiquity

Not sure why, but Sfera online has a big excerpt from George Orwell’s essay on the Spanish War … inter alia he ponders the notion that we want to believe that a system founded on slavery has to eventually collapse, but notes that some civilizations founded on slavery endured for thousands of years. Then an aside:

When I think of antiquity, the detail that frightens me is that those hundreds of millions of slaves on whose backs civilization rested generation after generation have left behind them no record whatever. We do not even know their names. In the whole of Greek and Roman history, how many slaves’ names are known to you? I can think of two, or possibly three. One is Spartacus and the other is Epictetus. Also, in the Roman room at the British Museum there is a glass jar with the maker’s name inscribed on the bottom, ‘FELIX FECIT’. I have a mental picture of poor Felix (a Gaul with red hair and a metal collar round his neck), but in fact he may not have been a slave; so there are only two slaves whose names I definitely know, and probably few people can remember more. The rest have gone down into utter silence.

Battlestar Galactica and the Aeneid

Okay … I’m officially confused about this one. For reasons unknown, it is being presented as something ‘new’ and hitherto unheard of that Battlestar Galactica (presumably the new one) is actually a retelling of the Aeneid. Charlotte Higgins’ latest blog at the Guardian includes this bit:

Now, am I the only person who regards the sweep of the story of the sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica as a kind of re-reading of Virgil’s Aeneid? I am talking, of course, of the great Roman epic poem that recounts the flight of Aeneas and his followers from their conquered city of Troy to Italy, where, it is prophesied, their descendants will found Rome.

For a moment, let’s forget about the Cylons (although whenever I see one on the screen, I am reminded that the original, real-life Cylon was a wannabe tyrant of Athens, a failed coup leader in 632 BC, but surely that really is a coincidence. If you don’t know the series, these are the enigmatic attackers of the humans’ home planets, a race of cybernetic workers turned aggressive).

Let’s think about the humans for a moment. A leader leaves the destroyed wreck of his former civilisation (Troy/Caprica), which has been blasted into smithereens by an invading force (Greeks/Cylons). You might even see Gaius Baltar as a sort of Trojan horse. That leader is accompanied by his son: it’s Adama as Aeneas, and Apollo as Ascanius, if you follow me.

On they forge, guided by prophecies that the leader is initially unwilling to accept, towards their fated new home (Adama, like Aeneas in Aeneid book two, needs some persuasion that the various portents pointing the way are of any value.)


Canada’s own National Post picked up on this and asked if their readers saw any other connections. Sadly, this is Canada where there are probably even fewer folks who have read the Aeneid than read the National Post. That said, when the original Battlestar Galactica was the only one in existence, I thought it was well-established that it was a retelling of the Aeneid, with bits of the Odyssey thrown in (I’m sure we discussed this on the Classics list or somewhere else at some point … by the time I was paying attention to this sort of thing BG was long into reruns of its one and only season (the 1980 thing doesn’t count; I also acknowledge that there were early comparisons to Mormonism as well). A lot of the names pretty much point to such connections, but let me just give a trio of quick examples which I vaguely recalled and managed to track down on the web with fuller episodic descriptions.

  • In the original episode, the Cylons give the humans the impression that they are suing for peace (with a treaty) but really have taken their fleet behind a foggy moon … this fleet is actually discovered by Apollo (= Aeneas, more or less) and he warns his father (Adama); when the battle finally comes, only Galactica manages to escape. (Saga of a Star World)

  • For some Odyssey content, the third episode involves Apollo being stranded on a planet (with an old west type setting) and he ultimately has to defeat the ‘red eye’, which he does as the latter exits a saloon. (The Lost Warrior). There’s also reminiscences of Achaemenides in the War of the Gods, Part I episode.

I haven’t managed to see a complete episode of the new version yet, but it sounds like the parallels might be even more obvious. Still, I’m surprised that there seems to be so much ‘surprise’ about this.

Kizilburun Shipwreck

Not sure how I’ve missed the scattered news reports on this one over the past few years, but the Kizilburun Shipwreck ‘dig’ seems to be rather significant. As the name might suggest, the site is off the coast of western Turkey and is largely the project of Deborah Carlson (and others) from Texas A&M. The wreck itself is interesting because it was carrying some 50 tons of marble, obviously destined for some major temple-type building project. This past week, National Geographic was alone among the newsmedia in giving coverage to Carlson’s identification of the cargo’s ill-fated destination. An excerpt:

The Temple of Apollo at Claros, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) from Kızılburun, was at the top of her list during the July 2007 election holiday. She drove up to the deserted site and knew she was on to something when she looked at the fallen-down marble columns scattered on the marshy land. “I was struck pretty much right away,” she recalls. The columns were Doric, the same as the marble on the ship, and looked like the right size. She waded around in the spring water that floods the site, checking chunks of columns with a tape measure. “I thought, wow, this is definitely a candidate.”

A year-and-a-half later, it looks like Carlson’s first impression was right. Using a variety of techniques, she has linked the column in the Kızılburun shipwreck to its likely intended destination, the Claros temple—as well as to its origin, a marble quarry 200 miles (322 kilometers) away on an island in Turkey’s Sea of Marmara.


To figure out where the marble might have been going, Carlson started by ruling out homes and other small buildings. If the drums were stacked, the column would have been huge—more than 30 feet (9 meters) tall—so Carlson knew it must have been intended for a monument. She narrowed down the list of temples near the shipwreck to those of the right architectural style that were standing or being worked on in the first century BC—the date for the wreck, based on the amphoras (two-handled jars) the ship was also carrying. That’s how she ended up at Claros.

Like the famous Temple of Apollo at Delphi, the Claros temple featured an oracle. When visitors came, the oracle, a priest, drank water from a sacred spring and made cryptic pronouncements on behalf of the god, who was associated with truth and prophecy.

Fans of Tacitus might remember Germanicus’ Alexander-like trip to the oracle of Apollo at Claros, with the unAlexander-like presaging of his impending death …

See also:

Neutron Analysis

Last week there were piles of stories in the press about the utility of the ISIS Neutron scanning technology for various matters archaeological. Now Science Daily has come out with a piece that is closer to our purview with a report on plans to scan some bronze artifacts from a couple of high-status Roman pit burials in Kent, in the hopes of determining whether they were manufactured locally or imported from Italy.

Dixit Dana Goodburn-Brown (ancient metals specialist):

Our experiments will hopefully aid us in characterising different Roman metalworking practices and perhaps recognising the distinction between imported south Italian goods and high standard copies produced by skilled local craftsman. These artefacts represent a time of great change in Britain – they appear shortly after the Romans arrived in this country, and may represent locals taking on cultural practices of these ‘newcomers …”

Dixit Andrew Taylor (ISIS director)

“For these rare and highly-valued objects, analysis with neutrons can give fantastic insight. Neutrons are a very powerful way to look at matter at the molecular level and they give unique results that you can’t easily get with any other technique. The measurements are extremely delicate and non-destructive, so the objects are unharmed by the analysis and can be returned to the museums unscathed.

The neutron beams we have at ISIS are a very versatile research tool and we’re always keen to help researchers answer a broad range of questions. Here we realised that we could take the same analysis methods we developed to look at parts of aircraft and power plants and use them to help archaeologists understand how ancient objects were traded and manufactured.”