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1932 in a volume of the inscriptions of the town of Sardis (Buckler and Robinson, 1932) was actually (as Buckler in an unpublished letter had already suspected) a small fragment of the Res Gestae.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):