CJ – Online Review ~ Two Oxen Ahead: Pre-Mechanized Farming in the Mediterranean

Two Oxen Ahead: Pre-Mechanized Farming in the Mediterranean. By Paul Halstead. Wiley Blackwell, 2014. Pp. ix + 372. Hardcover $102.95. ISBN 978-1-4051-9283-5.

Reviewed by Jean De Groot, The Catholic University of America

Our knowledge of the technology of food production in the classical world comes from artistic and literary references, artifacts, and the archeology of towns and villas. Paul Halstead’s book Two Oxen Ahead: Pre-Mechanized Farming in the Mediterranean adds to these sources a fine-grained study of family (or bachelor) farming around the Mediterranean just before and after the Second World War. It is based on oral histories from the elderly, both men and women, compiled since the 1970s. Informants report from a variety of locations around the Mediterranean but mainly in Greece (4-5). Their experience, though relatively recent, extends backward in time insofar as pre-mechanized agricultural tutelage was intergenerational in families and between households. The personalities of his informants, conveyed by Halstead with wit and respect, enliven accounts of the unceasing drudgery of manual labor that constitutes small-scale farming.

Some might be surprised that anything from the twentieth century could shed light on ancient agriculture. The history of agricultural technology, however, has always turned on a few of the five “powers” (Hero of Alexandria)-simple machines, in particular the zeugon, or yoke (balance), and the arotron or plough (wedge). Halstead’s research is part of the broad tradition established by Fernand Braudel’s pioneering work on the longue durée. Although the term has come to mean simply taking a long view or describing grand themes in history, Braudel’s longue durée tracked the constants of geographically situated subsistence culture, which outlive battles and the rise and fall of empires.

Halstead’s research fosters caution concerning expansive hypotheses about cultural change in pre-history (329-330, 336-338). He does not think that significant changes in agricultural technology, like the introduction of draft animals to the plough, can be made the sole drivers of other cultural changes in pre-history, like economic and social inequality (58-61). The evidence available from subsistence and cash crop farmers working without engines or seed catalogues, i.e. Halstead’s twentieth century informants, provides a more nuanced and complex picture of how farmers used different techniques on different terrains all at the same time.

Halstead’s portrait starts with breaking the ground (chapter 2) and proceeds through planting and harvesting (chapter 3) to the threshing floor or stook (a bound stand of sheaves in the field; chapter 4). Each chapter presents a dense account of traditional practices, tools, and environmental constraints in the Mediterranean. To give an example, how many times a field is plowed between plantings depends on the purpose of the field in the next round of planting and in what season it will be planted. Each plowing is in a different direction from the preceding one. Halstead continues:

In March to May, some fallow fields were planted in summer crops (e.g., maize, sesame), and once these were harvested, the fields should be plowed again. The number of plowings grew as Alexis [the informant] warmed to his theme. Other elderly villagers claimed that earlier generations had plowed nine times, citing a false folk etymology for niáma, the word used in many parts of Greece to denote tilled fallow or the first plowing of the fallow period. However exaggerated, these accounts underline the value placed on repeated plowing of fallow-echoed by the Cretan and Cypriot term for tilled fallow (kalourgiá, kalourkâ), which literally means ‘good working.’ (12-13).

Good working made for a cleaner crop, which saved labor in harvesting and could increase yield (335). Careful tilling also carried social benefits-the admiration of one’s neighbors and a reputation for high quality crops. Halstead interweaves diverse themes in each area he treats, creating a more complex picture of basic agriculture than would be possible without these testimonies.

He points out that the “agricultural regime” described in most ancient literary sources reflects experience on large land-holdings (60-61). His modern informants testify, however, to the advantage held even on a small scale by a household well enough off to own oxen, the strongest pull animals, or cattle. Draft animals are for both tilling and carting the crop to safe storage at harvest time. It is possible for the use of draft animals to outstrip human ability to reap the benefits of large-scale planting. Sheer time is a factor in harvesting, a problem ameliorated by having either a large family or hired help (chapter 6).

In his concluding Chapter 7, Halstead evaluates the method of “analogy” to still-existent traditional practices for its contribution to knowledge of ancient culture. He points out that oral tradition shows that Mediterranean farmers understood crop rotation, irrigation, and terracing (chapter 5). They combined reasoning with close observation to become adequate or master farmers. Cost-benefit analysis calculated with the measure of bags, stooks or grains per sheave is part of folk agronomy (344-45).

This book by a seasoned expert makes a substantial contribution to the study of what is “off the grid” of ancient archeology. It is, however, also of value to any scholar of antiquity interested in the context of literate ancient culture. Halstead’s informants raised the same crops mentioned in ancient texts and quite probably in the same terrains and for the same purposes. No one who reads this book can think of Heraclitus’ bitter vetch or Aristotle’s grain ruined on the threshing floor in quite the same way again.

Posted with permission …

©2017 by The Classical Association of the Middle West and South. All rights reserved.

CJ-Online Reviews Archive

CJ – Online Review ~ Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica, Book III.

Valerius Flaccus: Argonautica, Book III. Edited with commentary by Gesine Manuwald. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp.x+286. Paperback, $39.99. ISBN 978-1-107-69726-3

Reviewed by Jessica R. Blum, Wabash College

Long on the outskirts of the Classical canon, Valerius Flaccus’ Argonautica has, in the last three decades, benefited from renewed interest in Flavian epic and emerged as lively new ground for study. The publication of numerous articles, a Brill’s Companion, and a remarkable number of commentaries (21 since 1980), has significantly advanced the field. In the midst of this wave of scholarship, however, Book 3 has been largely overlooked. Manuwald’s new text with commentary fills this signal gap.

In keeping with the Cambridge Greek and Latin Series, Manuwald brings the Argonautica to a wider audience, with a commentary aimed at graduate and advanced undergraduate students as well as specialists. One of the volume’s most valuable features, therefore, is its presentation of the Argonautica as an archetype of Flavian epic: both commentary and poem offer an accessible and engaging entry point into the field as a whole.

As Manuwald notes, Book 3 particularly lends itself to this project, and she convincingly presents it as a distillation of the poem’s main themes. Two principal episodes may be read separately or together: the Argonauts’ night-battle in Cyzicus, in which they are tragically blown back to friendly shores and unwittingly attack their hosts, and the rape of Hylas in Mysia, which precipitates Hercules’ departure from the expedition. These two sequences exemplify Valerius’ distinctive engagement with, and revision of, traditional material, principally from Apollonius Rhodius and Virgil. Both episodes, furthermore, illuminate key issues for the Argonautica’s interpretation-its representation of the gods and fate, and its characterization of the protagonist Jason. Both introduction and commentary keep these issues to the fore throughout the volume.

The introduction comprises four sections, on poet, poem, Book 3, and text. It begins with a survey of the scant historical evidence for Valerius and summarizes the much-disputed question of the Argonautica’s date of composition. This debate centers on whether Valerius was working primarily under Vespasian, whom he addresses in the proem, or Domitian, who completed the Templum gentis Flaviae to which Valerius may refer at Arg.1.15-6. Manuwald wisely does not offer a definitive answer, but rather-and more importantly-explains its interpretive significance-how the Argonautica’s possible Roman points of reference (e.g. its frequent criticism of tyrant figures) may be read as commenting on contemporary society. She shows how the theme of the Argo’s opening of the seas unifies the poem and informs its historical relevance to the Flavian political program. Addressing the poem’s intended length and degree of completeness, she summarizes the structural evidence for an original eight books, with the final half-book either incomplete at the time of the poet’s death or lost at an early stage of transmission. The text largely agrees with Liberman’s (1997); textual problems and emendations are thoughtfully and thoroughly discussed.

Highlights of Manuwald’s introduction are her discussion of Valerius’ interaction with his poetic models (Section 2.6, and passim) and a detailed outline of Book 3 (Section 3.1). She well shows the correspondences between Book 3’s two episodes and emphasizes their indebtedness to Virgilian models; the text will thereby be readily accessible to students familiar with the Aeneid. This approach likewise addresses one of the Argonautica’s most distinctive features: its pervasive system of multi-level and multi-genre allusion. Valerius’ language and narrative are notoriously elliptical, regularly relying on allusion to supply information and meaning. This poetic technique not only resists straightforward interpretation, but is also partially responsible for the traditional dismissal of Valerius as derivative-a highly Virgilian ‘successor of Virgil’. Manuwald’s focus on engagement rather than imitation demonstrates how this quality produces richness rather than sterility, and so introduces the poem on its own terms.

The introduction draws on Manuwald’s prior scholarship, identifying the knowledge gap between men and gods as a key element of Valerius’ response to the literary tradition and to contemporary Stoic doctrine (Sections 2.4, 2.5). Without access to a divine plan, not only Jason but the reader as well is left uncertain as to the significance of his actions. This interpretation informs the discussion of the place that Valerius’ Jason occupies within a literary tradition that frequently questions his heroic status in comparison to (e.g.) Hercules or pius Aeneas. Book 3 is particularly apt for this inquiry. Jason’s remorse after inadvertently killing his host Cyzicus, and his distress over whether the crew should leave Hercules behind in Mysia, act as litmus tests of his heroic character.

The commentary itself is structured by the two principal episodes (Cyzicus, 1-461, and Hylas, 481-740) and an interlude (the rowing contest). Each section begins with a detailed introduction to its content, major themes, and relevant bibliography. For teachers, a particularly attractive feature of the commentary is the frequent explanation of how discrete sections fit together in structure and theme, which helps the student to move beyond the minutiae of grammar. Detailed explanations of mythological and literary references will provide a welcome starting-point for discussion. Some notes seem oriented more to the undergraduate than the graduate student and pay far more, perhaps inordinate, attention to references to Virgil than those to Apollonius, who most often is noted as a point of contrast.

While the interpretive angle of Manuwald’s commentary will not surprise those familiar with her scholarship on Valerius, this is by no means a limiting factor. The volume is an engaging introduction to the Argonautica, which offers in-depth philological analysis while setting the poem in its literary and historical contexts.


Posted with permission …

©2017 by The Classical Association of the Middle West and South. All rights reserved.

CJ-Online Reviews Archive

rcReview ~ Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano #ROMPEII

Back in June, I was one of a group of blogging types whom the Royal Ontario Museum graciously allowed to attend the media opening of their Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano exhibition (which, it should be noted, is NOT the same one that was at the British Museum a while back, although it has several of the same artifacts). Even better, they allowed — nay, encouraged — photography of the exhibition, a stark contrast with the Pointe-a-Calliere’s The Greeks: From Agamemnon to Alexander the Great (which I awkwardly live-tweeted without photos as guys in suits eyed my suspiciously).  This was another indication that the Royal Ontario Museum is leading the way when it comes to making good use of social media to promote exhibitions, and I happily Storified my photos from my live tweeting of the media preview. Even so, I’ve held off writing a formal review at the time in anticipation my wife and I celebrating our twenty-fifth anniversary with a Grand tourish sort of thing which would include a number of museums in Italy and, of course, a trip to Pompeii. And so what follows is a review written with ‘the real Pompeii’ and related displays in Europe in mind.

The promotional material for the exhbition includes a sentence which defines the exhibition succinctly:

[…] Displayed in the ROM;s Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall, Pompeii features approximately 200 artifacts that tell the dramatic story of an ancient city captured in time. […]

As with all decent exhibitions (as opposed to the static displays on higher floors), the Pompeii exhibition at the ROM has a narrative and is trying almost to recreate the experience of being in Pompeii before, and in the wake of, that fateful August day. As such, it is useful to early on express our umbrage at two of the earliest reviews of the exhibit from two of Canada’s largest newspapers, neither of which/whom ‘gets it’.  Murray Whyte’s review for the Toronto Star opined, inter alia:

In an era where museums are desperate to reconfigure their relationship with viewers, this show is distinctly short on experience and long on information, and that’s the problem.

It does a sturdy job of unpacking Pompeii’s archeological significance: that its swift burial in the days after the eruption of Vesuvius made it a kind of vacuum-packed time capsule of everyday Roman life in the first century AD, and that its preservation is one of the keys to understanding what that life might have been like. […]

But it travels through an exhaustive, and exhausting, array of subsections, most of them cloyingly titled — “out on the town”; “open for business”; “better homes and villas” — that lard on information both useful and not. (The latter: an Onion-esque panel that assures you, “Romans used tables for the same things as we do.”)

In a similar journalistic passive-aggressive way, the Globe and Mail‘s James Adams concludes his (otherwise positive) review thusly:

In other words, Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano doesn’t lack the goods, be they exotic (a selection of copies of the famous plaster casts of the entombed victims) or everyday (pans, urns, furniture, lamps, coins, spoons). Where it does falter is in the presentation.

This has less to do with the show’s organization as a warren of compartments and departments (with titles such as “Better Homes and Villas” and “Out on the Town”) than its setting. As regular visitors to the ROM’s lower depths know, the Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall can be an unforgiving space. Its vertiginous walls, linoleum-like floors, thrusting supports and angled intrusions are, more often than not, obstacles to be overcome (or at least ameliorated) rather than opportunities to be embraced.

I’m no fan of the Garfield Weston Exhibition Hall at the best of times — it is basically a rabbit warren of a space with barely any right angles and with ceiling heights that drive many an average height person nuts. But what the above reviews don’t seem to get is that using this space is actually part of the narrative and works (I actually was chatting about this very thing with Dr. Jonathan Edmondson of York University, who was among the folks I chanced upon at the exhibition that day). The GWE Hall replicates very well the experience of wandering down the narrow streets of Pompeii itself. One expects things around the next corner, but is never sure what will be there; it actually adds to the experience of the exhibition.

To return to the ‘narrative’ aspect, however, I think the curators at the ROM have outdone themselves (following the aforementioned Storified tweets will help to understand much of the following description). The ‘tour’ begins with the usual quotes being projected on a wall and then there’s what I call the ‘touchy feely’ section. One can touch a bit of pumice from Pompeii, and then one gets one of the most famous pieces … the dog cast:


It’s probably the most famous piece to come out of Pompeii, of course, and if you go to the site of Pompeii itself, you can poke your nose/camera through an iron gate to see another cast of same that looks like this:


Whichever you prefer, the folks around you will generally go ‘awwwww … poor puppy’, especially when they see that he/she was likely tied up at the time of the eruption. I still remember one of my profs in a Class Civ class muttering how people seem to feel more about the puppy than the 1000+ humans who died in the event.  I’d like to think that the curation team at the ROM were well aware of the usual reaction to this piece and put it early on in the journey to  prevent it from hijacking the narrative later on.

Once you ‘go around a corner’, the real narrative begins. We first encounter plenty of statuary of people of various ages and positions; we are putting faces on the people who actually lived in Pompeii. We continue by wandering through various aspects of their lives at the time, with the expected nods to gladiators, theatre, and the like. We see images reflecting the  variety of religions which were current and occupations people worked and slaved at. Then the narrative grows a bit darker, and we’re reminded:


Many of these folks had probably lived through the earthquake a decade and a half before. There were warning signs …

There is more wandering though other things associated with Pompeii, and many which allow for connections outside the show itself. A prime example is the room which has the ‘adult’ material, which includes the famous Satyr and Goat piece:


… which thankfully (for teachers) is in a separate section so if you don’t want to look at such things (or can’t, because of the kiddies), you don’t have to. This is a practical contrast to the British Museum’s attitude to the piece, which probably limited the age of the audience and the usefulness of the exhibition for teachers. If you do go in, however, in addition to the expected brothel frescoes and penis lamps, one can ponder the ithyphallic Priapus and his possible penis disorder that was recently in the news.

Elsewhere, one can make comments on the recent restoration of the famous Cave Canem mosaic.  Torontonians might consider it timely to comment on this peacock fresco after the hijinks earlier in June:


But even without that, there is plenty to marvel at, whether it is the exceptionally fine mosaics (which startled me):


… or frescoes with subject matter which would endure through various painting styles:


… and on and on. I was impressed that the exhibit briefly mentions the controversy over the date of the eruption (did it happen in August?), but I would have liked a bit more on that score than this passing mention:


Whatever the case, one eventually winds through the GWEH rabbit warren and is met by this woman (from Herculaneum, not Pompeii … a reminder that Pompeii was not alone):


Proceeding down a short alley,  we are dragged back to realize the human toll, with another famous cast:


… which is definitely more dramatic than what you’d see at Pompeii itself:


… and suddenly you’re in a room with just casts. And it’s dead silent as the impact sets in on the audience, especially this piece, which includes some of the ‘new technique’ 3d casts which were in the news just as the exhibition opened:


… and this one, which looks an awful lot like a family just lounging in the backyard on a Canadian summer day:


And so the narrative ends and the human toll is definitely recognized and stressed.  I could contrast and editorialize about the (to me) bizarre casts display currently in a pyramid in the Pompeii amphitheatre, but that’s another story. Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano is a stunning exhibition and certainly rivals going to Pompeii itself, which has had to deal with strikes and accessibility issues lately (I doubt they can do anything about the 40+ degree heat we had to deal with). It’s easily the best exhibition I’ve seen in a long time, possibly ever,  and I’d strongly recommend that all Classics types in range of Toronto make a serious effort to see it before it departs for Montreal in January. School teachers can also make ancient Rome very real for their students (skip the one section, obviously) with this exhibition and a trip upstairs to the ROM’s generally excellent ancient Greek, Roman, and Egypt collections as well. Definitely worth it!!!

BMCR 2015.02.49 Soler on Grobéty​, Guerre de Troie

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2015.02.49

Gaël​ Grobéty​, Guerre de Troie, guerres des cultures et guerres du Golfe: les usages de l’Iliade dans la culture écrite américaine contemporaine. Echo, 11​. Bern; Frankfurt am Main; New York; Wien: Peter Lang, 2014. Pp. xviii, 349. ISBN 9783034315111. $106.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Matthieu Soler, Université Toulouse II​

Les historiens de l’Antiquité et du cinéma s’intéressent de façon soutenue à la réception populaire des stéréotypes anciens.1 Dans ces études, des scientifiques comme P. Payen ou M. Winkler, abordent en particulier la question de la guerre, en partie à travers la geste troyenne ou encore les guerres médiques.2 La question se pose du rôle que peut jouer la section de grec ancien dans ce travail de réflexion sur nos modes de pensée. Gaël Grobéty présente les classicistes comme un groupe à part, confronté à un supposé « inconfort du présent » ; idée qu’il nuance de loin en loin. Lui-même ayant fréquenté les bancs de cette section à l’université de Lausanne tout en étudiant l’histoire de cinéma, il propose au lecteur une vision tout-à-fait intéressante de l’image que se construisent les Américains des textes homériques. […]

καὶ τὰ λοιπά:

BMCR 2015.02.49 on the BMCR blog (http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2015/2015-02-49.html)

Bryn Mawr Classical Reviews ~ 08/20/14


  • 2014.08.35:  Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz, Taxing Freedom in Thessalian Manumission Inscriptions. Mnemosyne supplements. History and archaeology of classical antiquity, 361.
    2014.08.34:  Thomas F. Tartaron, Maritime Networks in the Mycenaean World.
    2014.08.33:  Rosaria Vignolo Munson, Herodotus: Volume 2, Herodotus and the World. Oxford readings in classical studies.
    2014.08.32:  Ilenia Achilli, Le ali di Clio. Massimo di Tiro e il pensiero storico classico. Biblioteca di Sileno, 5.
    2014.08.31:  Michele Alessandrelli, Il problema del λεκτόν nello stoicismo antico: origine e statuto di una nozione controversa. Lessico Intellettuale Europeo, 121
  • 2014.08.30:  Leonid Zhmud, Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans. (Translated from Russian by Kevin Windle and Rosh Ireland; first published 1994).