Also Seen: On ‘Greek Life’

Lucy Ferriss at Lingua Franca/CHE ponders something I ponder every now and then … in medias res:

[…] Here’s a sign of my generation: For years after I began teaching in the 1980s, I didn’t understand what Greek life referred to. I thought GLO stood for some sort of financial category, as in “We’re having a lot of problems with GLOs this year.” Yes, I’d seen Animal House with its toga party, but the toga was an outfit worn in ancient Rome, not ancient Athens. My mother was a Kappa Alpha Theta and remembered her sorority chant, but she went to college during World War II. Attending college on the West Coast, I knew these organizations existed, but they didn’t add up to any sort of life, much less a Greek one.

By now I’m used to hearing Greek life bemoaned, but I got curious: How have the Greeks, those exemplars of philosophy, Olympic games, and misbehaving deities, become a metonym for student-run social clubs? It turns out that the Greeks themselves had such clubs, known as phratries, membership in which was at one point a requirement of Athenian citizenship. They seem to have been hereditary and to have been associated with various Greek deities. The idea of club membership didn’t begin with the Greeks, of course, and it persisted both in and out of academe right up to the founding of the College of William & Mary in 1693. But the Greek motif returned when a group of William & Mary men grew sick of the secret organizations on campus that were “noted only for the dissipation & conviviality of members.” They chose Greek initials for their new, more high-minded organization because many of the societies already on campus were Latin-themed; and although all students (unlike most today) entered college with some Latin and Greek under their belts, Greek was considered more scholarly and esoteric. As all current members know, the initials they chose, ΦΒΚ, or Phi Beta Kappa, stood for Philosophia Biou Kubernētēs, “Philosophy [is the] guide to life.”

Obviously, there’s a difference these days between honorary organizations like Phi Beta Kappa and Duke’s recently suspended Kappa Sigma. But what strikes me is how “Greek life” has changed its meaning from, say, 1895, the high point of the phrase’s use according to Google Ngrams, when it referred to the thought and customs of people living by the Mediterranean “from the age of Alexander to the Roman Conquest.” In the more recent uptick of the phrase, beginning in 2001, it refers more to Torn Togas: The Dark Side of Campus Greek Life or to Fraternities, Sororities, and the Pursuit of Pleasure, Power, and Prestige. […]

On the Possible Origins of Rome’s “Architectural Hubris” at Gabii

Excerpt from an item in the New York Times:

[…] Any definitive insight into the formative stages of Roman architectural hubris lies irretrievable beneath layers of the city’s repeated renovations through the time of caesars, popes and the Renaissance. The most imposing ruin of the early Roman imperial period is the Colosseum, erected in the first century A.D.

Now, at excavations 11 miles east of Rome’s city center, archaeologists think they are catching a glimpse of Roman tastes in monumental architecture much earlier than previously thought, about 300 years before the Colosseum. They have uncovered ruins of a vast complex of stone walls and terraces connected by a grand stairway and surrounded by many rooms, a showcase of wealth and power spread over an area more than half the size of a football field. They say this was most likely the remains of a public building in the heyday of the city-state Gabii, or possibly an exceptionally lavish private residence.

The discovery was made last summer by a team of archaeologists and students led by Nicola Terrenato, a professor of classical studies at the University of Michigan and a native of Rome. At the end of this summer’s dig season, Dr. Terrenato said last week in a telephone interview from Rome, about two-thirds of the complex had been exposed and studied to “tell us more about how the Romans were building at that formative stage” — between 350 B.C. and 250 B.C.

Dr. Terrenato noted that the findings appeared to contradict the image of early Roman culture, perpetuated by notables like Cato the Elder and Cicero, “as being very modest and inconspicuous.” It was said that this did not change until soldiers returned from the conquest of Greece in the second century B.C., their heads having been turned by Greek refinements and luxuries.

“Now we see the Romans were already thinking big,” he said.

The Gabii dig site is a gift to archaeologists. Not only was the city close to Rome, with many ties, but most of its ruins were buried and never built over after the city’s decline in the second and third centuries A.D. The building complex is on undeveloped land in modern-day Lazio.

At the time, Rome had surpassed Gabii in size, but some historians think the neighboring city could have exerted an influence on the Romans. Previous excavations by the Michigan group, beginning in 2007, had uncovered a significant part of the city, including private houses, wealthy burials, city walls and a temple. Of possibly more importance, Dr. Terrenato suggested, the recent research shows that people were practicing some degree of urban planning at Gabii.

Scholars of ancient history and other archaeologists were either unfamiliar with the Gabii findings or cautious in their comments. Richard J. A. Talbert, a historian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and scholar of ancient geography in the Mediterranean world, visited the Gabii excavations last year. Dr. Talbert noted that in later Roman tradition, Gabii was seen as “a source of ideas and culture.” But he added, “We really don’t have enough evidence yet to say how influential Gabii was on Rome in these early periods.”

Christopher Ratté, the director of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology at Michigan, said the excavation was part of a concentrated examination of the social environment in central Italy before the rise of Rome as a world power. “It has been quite a surprise,” he said, “to find that it was still possible to break new ground like this in a region that has been so well researched.”

The Gabii Project, supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and in collaboration with the Italian Archaeological Service, had explored and mapped the more than 170 acres of the ancient city, which was built on the slopes of an extinct volcano where the crater had become a lake. Then the archaeologists encountered the elaborate building complex. Dr. Terrenato said he was immediately struck by the size of the stone blocks in the retaining wall on the slope inside the complex. Each one weighed thousands of pounds.

“This was like Lego construction,” he said. “They were stacked one on top of each other without any glue binding them together. This is the only technique they had access to, and it must have been the desire for this kind of grand construction that drove them to the invention of mortar about 125 years later.”

The researchers also admired some of the architectural details: rows of stone pillars, courtyards and terraces covered in mosaic tiles in geometric patterns, a 21-step staircase cut into bedrock. They said this showed that the people were beginning to experiment with modifying their natural environments — cutting back the natural slope and creating a retaining wall.

“All this only whetted our appetites,” Dr. Terrenato said as he looked ahead to next summer’s continued excavations and a hoped-for extension of the project beyond 2014.

The The Gabii Project does have a website with some interesting stuff to augment this report (see esp. Fieldwork at Gabii: 2007-present). There’s far more to be found, though, at the Lapis Gabinus dig blog, which is possibly the best dig blog I’ve come across … weekly updates (the current season just ended) and plenty of photos. Definitely worth spending some time at …

Also worth a look is UMichigan’s press release which spawned the NYT piece:

Hadrian’s Tunnels at Tivoli

This item from the Guardian is genuinely interesting … here’s the first bit:

Amateur cavers have mapped a vast network of tunnels underneath Hadrian’s Villa outside Rome, leading archaeologists to radically revise their views of one of ancient Rome’s most imposing imperial retreats.

Lowering themselves through light shafts found in fields around the 120-hectare (296-acre) site, local speleologists have charted more than a mile of road tunnels – passages where, in the second century, oxen pulled carts loaded with luxury foods for banquets and thousands of slaves scurried from palace to palace, well out of sight of the emperor.

“These tunnels lead us to understand that Hadrian’s Villa was organised less like a villa and more like a city,” said Benedetta Adembri, the director of the site, who is planning, in the autumn, to open stretches of the tunnels to the public for the first time.

Never an emperor to do things by half – his idea of homeland security was to build a wall across the top of England – Hadrian built his country hideaway near modern-day Tivoli to escape the noise and crowds of Rome, but managed to take half the city with him.

Archaeologists have identified 30 buildings, including palaces, thermal baths, a theatre and libraries, as well as gardens and dozens of fountains.

“We think the villa covered up to 250 hectares but we still don’t know the limits,” said Abembri.

Abandoned after the fall of the Roman empire, the villa was taken apart piece by piece over the centuries, with one local cardinal stripping off marble to build his own villa nearby in the 16th century, leaving weed infested ruins.

That is where an Italian association of archaeo-speleologists, equipped with ropes, and remote-controlled camera mounted vehicles, has entered the fray, exploring the pristine tunnels under the site, as well as the nine miles of sewers and water pipes hooked up to the local aqueducts.

“What we are exploring is, to a certain extent, the real villa, because the tunnels will show us where the confines of the property really are,” said Marco Placidi, an amateur caver, who has led the search.

Although experts have long known that tunnels snaked under the property, Placidi’s team was the first to drop through light shafts to wander through them. They have mapped a main tunnel, 2.40 metres (7ft) wide, which runs more than half a mile to a circular spur, about 700 metres long which could been used to turn one-way carts.

A sea shell from the Red Sea, possibly used as decoration in the villa, is among the discoveries form the site.

Most importantly, the cavers stumbled upon the entrance to an uncharted tunnel, double the width, at five metres, that could accommodate two-way traffic. It is presently packed with soil almost to the roof.

“We have tried to squeeze in on our stomachs but we still don’t know where it goes and it could lead to buildings we know nothing about,” said Vittoria Fresi, an archaeologist who has worked with Placidi. […]

The Telegraph coverage adds an interesting detail:

The newly-discovered underground passageway has been dubbed by archaeologists the Great Underground Road — in Italian the Strada Carrabile.

… and here’s the Il Messaggero coverage in case you want to read more from archaeologists:

This past November we heard about a Mithraeum among the tunnels beneath the baths of Caracalla (Mithraeum Reopening to the Public)

Classics Threatened at the University of Alberta?

Sharing an item from Tom Sienkewicz

Cuts at the University of Alberta include Classics

In a memo dated August 16, 2013, Dean Lesley Cormack of the Faculty of Arts at the University of Alberta announced plans to suspend twenty undergraduate programs and concentrations, with new admissions to be halted immediately. These suspensions are in response to a reduction in government funding of $56 million for the university.

At http://artssquared.wordpress.com/2013/08/18/open-letter-from-alexander-beecroft-classics-comparative-literature-university-of-south-carolina-ba-ualberta-1995/ you can read a letter of concern about this decision by Alexander Beecroft, an alumnus of the University of Alberta, an Associate Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at the University of South Carolina, and a CAMWS member. Prof. Beecroft has also initiated a petition to Dean Lesley Cormack, Faculty of Arts, University of Alberta to save these programs. You can read about this petition at

http://www.change.org/petitions/dean-lesley-cormack-faculty-of-arts-university-of-alberta-save-20-undergraduate-programs-at-the-university-of-alberta.

Si vales, valeo.

Tom Sienkewicz

CAMWS Secretary-Treasurer

I’ll append some press coverage … we’ve seen this ‘argument’ from the beancounting administrators before: