In Our Time: The Estruscan Civilisation

The Etruscans were one of the other cultures to live in Italy in the 1st Millenium BCE. They are often overlooked in favour of the Romans (who conquered them), but they were a power in their day and even ruled over Rome for a while early in its history. They were the subject of an In Our Time episode from 2011 which we listened to recently, and discussing Etruscan history and culture were Phil Perkins (Open University), David Ridgway (University of London) and Corinna Riva (University College London).

The Etruscan culture began around 800 BCE and lasted for the next 800 or so years. They lived north of Rome in an area roughly the same as modern Tuscany – the similarity of the words Etruscan and Tuscany is not a coincidence. Their origins are obscure, Herodotus said they came from Lydia (in modern Turkey) and there is some controversial DNA evidence that suggests a Middle Eastern origin but as described by Perkins* this is unconvincing. The study only looked at Y chromosome sequences from modern inhabitants of Tuscany, and it’s not clear how (or if) they decided who was likely to’ve been descended from the Etruscans. Nor did their results give any indication of when this Middle Eastern origin was so it’s not clear if it has any bearing on distinguishing the Etruscans from other inhabitants of Italy – after all, most of our ancestors in Europe came via the Middle East on the way out of Africa many 10s of millennia ago! The consensus from the experts on the programme was that this was all rather implausible, and it was more likely that their immediately preceding history was as inhabitants of Italy. Interestingly, however, their language is not an Indo-European language and has no modern relatives.

*Perkins didn’t explain it terribly well though – I wasn’t clear if he didn’t understand it very well or if he just wasn’t producing a coherent explanation.

There is not much surviving textual evidence from the Etruscans themselves – most of what is written down is by the Romans. There is no surviving Etruscan literature at all, and only a few inscriptions. These are in both temples and tombs and written in a modified Greek alphabet, but they just tend to name people or gods and give genealogies. Why there is no literature is an interesting question with no clear answer. It seems implausible that they didn’t produce any written literature – given the time and place where they lived, and the level of sophistication, wealth and power shown by the archaeological evidence. This implies that the literature was destroyed – and one persistent theory is that there was a purge during the time of the Roman Empire (after Claudius was Emperor, I think they said) to wipe out the memory of their rival civilisation. Nobody on the programme was willing to say that this was true, but they seemed to agree that it was pretty plausible it’s just there’s no evidence for it one way or the other.

In contrast to the paucity of texts from the Etruscans there is a wealth of archaeological evidence. The way they phrased it on the programme was that in Tuscany it’s not the Roman ruins you go to see, it’s the Etruscan ones. Even by the standards of Italy this is an area rich in ancient sites. Tombs and graveyards are the main sources of information about the Etruscans – these sites include grave goods, wall paintings and some inscriptions. A few temples and city buildings have also been excavated.

Thinking of the Etruscans as a state is anachronistic. Like Greek culture of the time they were a group of independent city states which shared a common language, culture and religion. Their religion is only known from what the Romans wrote about it, but it appears to’ve been different in emphasis to the surrounding cultures. The origin story for their religion is someone (a mythical/mystical figure) teaching them how to interpret the omens. The worshipper doesn’t pray to the gods and ask them for help or favours. Instead one’s religious duty is to interpret the messages the gods are sending via signs & portents – a one way route of communication.

The 6th Century BCE was the heyday of the Etruscan culture. The hills of Tuscany have rich mineral deposits including both tin and copper. Together these metals make bronze – and so were much sought after at the time. The Etruscans could not only outfit their own people with weapons and tools, but also traded extensively around the Mediterranean. They were later called a warlike people, but the consensus on the programme was that there’s no evidence of them being worse than anyone else at the time. This was, after all, a warlike period. Their artistic culture is sometimes dismissed as “copying the Greeks but getting it wrong” but the experts were unanimous in declaring this bobbins (rather more politely tho). The Etruscans had a sophisticated artistic and architectural style, which had clearly been influenced by the Greeks but was also uniquely their own. They did often employ imported Greek artists, as they were seen as the best of their day. Ridgway referred to their style as being less bland than the Classical Greek style.

The Etruscans had an influence on Roman art, culture and politics. This is not surprising, as Rome is not very far from Etruscan territory and early in its history it was “just another city state” rather than being the juggernaut of empire that it later became. Early in Roman history they were even ruled by one of the Etruscan city states. Later however the Romans conquered and assimilated the Etruscans. As pointed out above, the Etruscans weren’t one cohesive unit so the Romans could conquer them a bit at a time rather than face all of them en masse. They had influence in the Roman political arena much later than one might expect, given they were conquered by Rome around the 4th Century BCE. The Emperor Augustus was supported during the civil war (preceding him becoming Emperor) by several old Etruscan families. These families were the aristocracy of the old Etruscan city states but had been assimilated into the Roman society and political elite by this point. However they were seen as a distinct and influential cultural bloc, that was necessary to get “on side” if you were making a power play. Later still Claudius was married to the daughter of one of these families (who persuaded him to write a history of the Etruscans, now sadly vanished without trace).

I knew pretty much nothing about the Etruscans before I listened to this programme, beyond the simple fact of their existence. I know the British Museum has a room displaying their culture, and this programme has made me want to have a proper look at it sometime.

In Our Time: Aesop

Aesop’s Fables are so deeply embedded into our culture that references to them are common parts of the language – “sour grapes”, “crying wolf” and so on. But we don’t often think about who Aesop was, where these stories originated or what the point of them is – or at least, I certainly didn’t! Discussing Aesop and the fables attributed to him on In Our Time were Pavlos Avlamis (Trinity College, University of Oxford), Simon Goldhill (University of Cambridge), and Lucy Grig (University of Edinburgh).

Aesop almost certainly didn’t really exist. He’s a myth or archetype in a similar fashion to Robin Hood – there’s a general shape to the myth but the other details often vary. What Aesop has in common across all references is that he’s ugly, he’s a slave, he’s clever and he speaks truth to power. Even the earliest mentions of Aesop say he’s been dead for a century – he’s a mythic figure from the past whenever you are. One of the most complete stories about Aesop himself that we have is a story from the 1st Century AD called the Romance of Aesop. In this narrative Aesop is an ugly slave whose master is a philosopher – but he frequently outwits his master. For instance his master goes to the baths, and asks Aesop to bring the oil flask. When Aesop does, his master asks why there’s no oil in it … and Aesop replies that he wasn’t asked to bring any oil! This sort of quickwitted trickery is the reverse of audience expectations for the story – after all, isn’t the master a philosopher who should be both clever and quick thinking? And outward appearances were expected to mirror the internal qualities of a man – so who would expect an ugly man to be clever? It’s also pretty subversive – lots of acts of petty rebellion which make the master’s life a misery.

Given that Aesop is probably a mythic character it’s unlikely that he actually wrote the fables he’s credited as the author of! They are most likely an oral tradition dating back to at least the 5th Century BC in Greece. It’s possible that they originated in Mesopotamia before that and if there was a historical Aesop then he was perhaps a slave from that region who told their fables to Greeks. The fables were written down later, but the repertoire changes over the centuries so there’s still an oral tradition running alongside the written one. During antiquity the fables spread from Greece to the Roman world and throughout the Roman controlled territories. They even got as far as the edge of China – there’s a version known that was written down in a Turkic language from Chinese controlled territory. In the Renaissance Aesop’s Fables were rediscovered and translated into many European languges, where they’ve remained current since. This rediscovery wasn’t limited to Europe – the new translations of the Fables spread to Japan as well.

Fables are a specific genre of stories – they are short, generally told with animal or stock characters with a moral attached. The moral doesn’t necessarily come at the end, it can be at the beginning or even in the middle. Different tellings of the same story can have different morals attached. And interestingly the moral doesn’t necessarily have to match the scenario in the story – the cognitive dissonance this causes can be part of what makes the fable memorable and/or useful. You do find the stories from fables turning up without morals, in joke compilations, but I think the experts were saying they don’t count as fables then. So what’s the point of these fables? They’re not just entertainment (although obviously that’s part of the point) – in modern times they’re children’s stories and that was always part of their use. They teach lessons about how the world works, in bite-sized and amusing chunks. The stories and morals are often about power relationships, approached from a bottom up perspective (and the Romance of Aesop is a sort of meta-fable fitting into this category). So they teach children (and adults) how to navigate a hierarchial society like the Roman one. In antiquity they might also be used by adults as a subtler and politer way of getting a point across to someone more powerful than oneself.

The programme finished up by considering the wider connections of fables – mostly this section was about how there are interesting similarities between Aesop & his fables and Jesus’s parables. The stories themselves are not the same, but they’re the same genre – short tales, with a moral, about power and told with a bottom up perspective. While I was writing up this blog post I also wondered if Br’er Rabbit fits into this genre – I can’t remember enough of any Br’er Rabbit story to be sure it fits the genre, tho.

In Our Time: Josephus

Josephus was a Jewish and Roman historian in the 1st Century AD who wrote (amongst other things) about the Roman-Jewish war that lead to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. In the 18th Century this book was widely read by Christians as it appears to provide historical evidence for Jesus; and Josephus was held up as one of the great historians. However to Jews he was a much more controversial figure and wasn’t read or referred to until much later in the Enlightenment. Talking about Josephus’s life, times and legacy on In Our Time were Tessa Rajak (University of Reading), Philip Alexander (University of Manchester) and Martin Goodman (University of Oxford and the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies).

They started the programme with some context for the Jewish-Roman war. In the 2nd & 1st Century BC under the rulership of the Maccabees Judah had become independent. During this period it had formed a sense of itself as a Jewish nation, and so when it became a province in the Roman Empire Judah didn’t assimilate into the Empire as well as the Romans would’ve liked. To some extent the province had a special status – they had a bit more independence than was generally the case. The Jews & their religion were well treated and the Herods ruled as client kings of the Romans. However there was a strand of thought within Judean society that they should be independent, and this was particularly pronounced in the priestly classes and the elite.

Josephus was born in 37AD to a family in Jerusalem who were members of the priestly elite. He was highly intelligent and well educated. Stories about his education have parallels to the stories told about Jesus’s education – the bright boy who quickly surpasses his teachers in knowledge and understanding of the scriptures. When the Jewish-Roman War broke out in 66AD he, along with many other intelligent educated sons of the priestly elite, became a general. He had no experience in leading troops, nor did his fellow generals. Unsurprisingly the war is a disaster for the Jews, and the Romans quickly put down what they see as a rebellion of one of their provinces. However, it’s important to remember that most of what we know about this war comes from Josephus. And he wrote about it after the fact when he had become Romanised and for a Roman audience. So his bias is against the Jews.

Josephus doesn’t entirely whitewash his own actions in the war when he’s writing about it. One of the stories he tells reflects badly (by the standards of his community) on him – possibly he only tells it because it was widely known and so better to put his own spin on it rather than miss it out completely. During the war he was leading troops who were holding out against a siege, but they were losing. The acceptable thing to do in these circumstances was to commit suicide rather than surrender, and this is what the others want to do. Technically it’s not suicide – each man is to kill another until there is only one left who will commit suicide. Josephus tries to talk his troops out of this, but fails. Eventually there are only two people left, Josephus and one other, and finally Josephus succeeds in talking this other man into surrendering rather than dying. This failure to pursue the honourable path is one of the things that shaped Josephus’s later legacy amongst the Jews.

When he surrenders Josephus is captured by Vespasian and taken to Rome as a slave. He tells Vespasian that he has had a vision that Vespasian will become Emperor – which at the time seems extremely unlikely. However, two years later this comes to pass. This little story needs to be taken with a large pinch of salt as the only sources for the vision and timing of the revelation of said vision are Vespasian and Josephus who both have vested interests in it being true.

Josephus worked for Vespasian as a scholar and interpreter, first as a slave and later as a Roman citizen. He wrote a history of the Jewish-Roman War, which is one of the books that he is remembered for. This was written for a Roman audience, and so it was tailored to please his masters and his potential customers for the book. For instance Josephus justifies his defection to Rome by saying that he believes God has withdrawn his blessing from the Jews and it has passed to the Romans. He does also explain the Jewish side of the war and this theme is taken up again in a later book about Jewish history, laws and customs. This is again written with his Roman audience in mind, and is a thorough explanation of his home culture to the people of his new culture.

Josephus’s legacy is two-fold. Amongst early & medieval Christians he was revered as a historian, in large part because there is a passage in the Jewish history book which refers to Jesus. This would be the earliest historical (i.e. non-Biblical) reference to Jesus and was tremendously important to Christian readers of his books. The experts all agreed that this reference was almost certainly inserted into the text in the 3rd Century AD by a Christian bishop. It’s possible that there was some stub of a reference to Jesus but not the longer description and reference to his Christian followers that is in the version that we now know. The originals of his works did fall into obscurity but in the 18th Century were rediscovered and re-translated. And at that time his history books were widely read by ordinary Christians.

His legacy amongst the Jews was much less positive. He was remembered as a traitor – both for failing to commit suicide when he should’ve and for later becoming a Roman citizen (and for his belief that God had changed his mind about who His chosen people were). As a result his books were not much read by the Jews, and were not translated into Hebrew. However much later, in the Enlightenment, there was a shift in attitude to the story of Judaism in some parts of the Jewish community. Some wanted their history told in the new scientific style of the Enlightenment era, which was quite a change from the Rabbinical tradition (which is fairly ahistorical). Josephus’s works are a good source for what Judaism was like before the Temple was destroyed. They also provide perspective on the immediate impact of the Temple’s destruction – as at the time it was assumed it was a temporary setback, not the permanent disaster hindsight showed it to be.

Defining Beauty (Exhibition at the British Museum)

Back in April J and I visited the Defining Beauty exhibition at the British Museum which finished in early July. It’s the only one of their exhibitions where I’ve been as ambivalent about it on the way out as I was on the way in – which says rather more about me than the exhibition, I think. The subject of the exhibition was Ancient Greek sculpture and the incredible impact it has had on the modern Western definition of beauty. And I’m afraid that when it comes to Greek sculpture I’m somewhat of a heretic – I find all those gleaming white idealised bodies rather … bland. Even as I grant that it has indeed had a major impact on the art of more modern times (modern here meaning in the last five or six hundred years) and a worthwhile subject for an exhibition.

(You might be asking why on earth I went to see it! But there’s been exhibitions at the British Museum in the past where I’ve not been enthused in advance but have been by the end, so it was worth a try. And as we’re Members we have free entry so it’s easy to pop into an exhibition just because it’s there.)

The exhibition opened with a bit of scene setting. Part of this was a map of the extent of the Greek world in Alexander the Great’s time (after he did his conquering bit) – despite knowing he conquered vast swathes of the known world I’m always a bit taken aback at how big that is on a map. The other piece of information that particularly struck me was that what’s known about Greek sculpture mostly comes from Roman copies of Greek originals. And one of the pieces in this room was Lely’s Venus (normally on display near the Assyrian Galleries in the BM), which is one of these Roman copies. The other sculptures in this introductory room illustrated the range of styles of sculpture – using three pieces by three different artists who were all training & active in the 5th Century BC. The variation came in whether they were interested in things like mathematically perfect proportions of bodies, or representing the fluidity of movement.

The first half of the next room was the stand out highlight of the exhibition for me. They had half a dozen replicas of sculptures painted as we think they would’ve been at the time. And given my “complaint” about this art form is that it strikes me as bland, well this was anything but. Perhaps a little garish, but so much more interesting. One of the pieces was a large (plaster replica of a) bronze of Athena – it’s easy to remind oneself that the dull green of bronze was once a shiny gold, but it’s quite another thing to see it. I also liked an Athene wearing her snake-trimmed cloak, in a vivid green with the snake heads picked out in colours. And did you know the Persians wore brightly coloured onesies? Me neither!

The next room looked at what made Greek art different from other contemporary (or just older) cultures art styles. One section was a compare and contrast with Egyptian and Cypriot sculpture – three statues in a row each of a young man striding forward, one from each culture. The Greek one was noticeably more natural in appearance, with the Egyptian and Cypriot ones looking very stiff and stilted in comparison. The Greek one was also naked, which came up again in more detail in the other compare & contrast – this time between Assyrian reliefs and Greek reliefs. Again the subject matter was similar, both reliefs were battle scenes – and again the Greek example had more fluidity and motion. The use and meaning of nudity was markedly different between the two cultures. In the Assyrian example it was the defeated prisoners who were naked – a sign of their low statues, shame & humiliation. In the Greek example the heroes are naked to show off their virility and their virtue.

The third room also had a few other themes, although they made slightly odd bedfellows. One of these was a case talking about women in Classical Greek art – most of what I remember from this is the juxtaposition of male nudity as virtue and women clothed for their virtue. There was also a section about representation of the gods, where the key point was that the gods were people. Impossibly beautiful, divine people, but people nonetheless.

The next room started with a look at representation of the stages of life, and ended with the erotic in art – again a slightly odd juxtaposition. The stages of life looked at were birth, marriage and death and my favourite piece in this section was a stunning representation of a baby. The labels here talked about how representation of childhood and children as they really were was a departure from previous art styles. The section on marriage was mostly concerned with how marriage was thought of for women – analogised with abduction (which I was previously aware was a trope) and with death. Having side by side pieces where women are moving from girlhood to wifehood as if they’d died next to gravestones for young warriors slain in battle was quite striking.

In the penultimate room we moved forward in time past the golden age of idealised beauty (or blandness, depending on taste) to sculptures that had more differentiation. Faces in particular began to look like real people – although quite probably not the person they’re were supposed to be. The room ended with a pair of pieces representing knucklebone players, with very different flavours. One of these was two girls playing a peaceful friendly game as a last hurrah before marriage and womanly respectability. And the other was the remains of piece where two boys had come to blows over a disagreement about the game. Only one of the boys was still intact, all that remained of the other was the arm that the first boy was biting – which made the piece very striking in a way the artist wouldnt’ve expected.

That room also had a case looking at the representations of (North?) Africans in Greek sculpture – sometimes as caricature, but sometimes in a more nuanced and human fashion. The piece that caught my eye here was a centrepiece for a table of an acrobat and a crocodile. This part of the room neatly segued into the start of the last room, which looked at the way that Greek art changed as it met the other cultures that Alexander the Great brought into the Hellenistic world – in particular India.

The exhibition finished with two large reclining male nudes which had a particular impact on the Renaissance. The thematic statement for the exhibition, if you will. These pieces when discovered changed the way artists represented bodies in Western art. Think of the way that Medieval art has these stiff clothes horses that don’t really look like they’d move like people, and then think of the art of Michaelangelo or Leonardo da Vinci and you’ll see what a difference this renewed interest in the idealised beauty of Greek sculpture had.

As I said at the beginning, this exhibition wasn’t really my cup of tea. Which doesn’t mean it was bad, far from it – just I’m a bit of an uncultured barbarian 😉 What I came away from it thinking was that I would like to see more of the painted replicas – knowing they were painted and seeing what they looked like are two very different things.

In Our Time: Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is one of the most well known Roman historical figures. He conquered Gaul, changed the nature of the Roman state from republic to almost empire (although it took Augustus to finish that job), and his writings are still read today in Latin classes. Discussing him on In Our Time were Christopher Pelling (University of Oxford), Catherine Steel (University of Glasgow) and Maria Wyke (University College London).

Caesar was born in 100BC and grew up in a turbulent time for the Roman Republic. He was the son of a patrician family, which meant his family could trace their lineage back to the beginning of Rome and beyond (somewhat mythologised as these things often are – apparently he could trace his ancestry to Aeneas and thence to Venus). Theoretically being a patrician didn’t give you any extra power, but in practice there was still a certain degree of political cachet attached to this status and it was the ticket to an easier entry into politics. During Caesar’s teens and early 20s the Republic was embroiled in a civil war, which the general Sulla eventually won – this was not the side that Caesar’s family were on. Sulla carried out purges of those who had been on the opposing side, so this was a time of danger for the young Caesar, he was also under pressure to divorce his wife. He began his military career as a way to keep out of the way. Although they didn’t mention it explicitly on the programme another destabilising event during these years was Spartacus’s slave revolt (post about the In Our Time episode on that).

After Sulla’s death Caesar embarked on a political career (they said on the programme that the military and politics were very closely intertwined). During this time he often promoted populist policies. These included things like ensuring people had a right to a trial rather than magistrates being able to order executions just as they saw fit. The experts said this was a deliberate political strategy on Caesar’s part, in order to have popular support during elections. Caesar was successful in his career, becoming Consul in 59BC.

After his consulship Caesar became Governor in Gaul. Generally after being a Consul you got a province to look after for a while. Gaul at the time really only consisted of the south of what is now France, plus the region spanning the Alps in modern Italy (then called Cisalpine Gaul). Under Caesar’s rule Gaul was extended to the Rhine in the north and the coast in the west. He also (as I’m sure we all know) crossed the Channel to Britain but wasn’t inclined to spend the time conquering it. Caesar established a reputation for being ruthless and fast moving as a general. He conquered large amounts of territory by the practice of marching his legions deep into the non-conquered territory then defeating one of the tribes there. He would then declare the territory behind that point conquered and work on pacifying it.

During this time Caesar wrote the work that is still taught in schools – the Commentaries on the Gallic War. I had to translate a chapter of this in my Latin GCSE nearly 25 years ago, so I suppose I don’t know more recently than that but given it’s 2000 years old plus/minus 25 years gets lost in the rounding errors 😉 Caesar wrote this is a propaganda tool and it was probably sent back to Rome piece by piece as he wrote it. He was out of Rome for 5 years during these campaigns and this was a way of keeping him in the minds of the people. He wrote it in a third person format, as if it was an objective report, but it seems clear that he picked and chose his events to suit his needs.

On his return to Rome Caesar had fallen somewhat from favour, and his alliances had broken down (despite his propaganda). He had for a while been allied with Pompey, who was married to Caesar’s daughter as a means of sealing that alliance. But Julia died in childbirth, and Pompey didn’t renew the alliance. Caesar felt that if he came back to Rome without his army (as was customary) he would be arrested and prosecuted, so he brought his army with him. This ignited a civil war between Caesar and a Senate faction led by Pompey. It is from this return to Rome that we get the phrase “crossing the Rubicon” – the Rubicon was the river that marked the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul (where Caesar was entitled to have an army) and the territory of Rome itself (where Caesar was not).

Most of the early fighting of this civil war took place out in mainland Greece. The experts said this was what tended to happen at the time – the armies would move eastwards and actual battles didn’t happen near Rome. Although his opponents were tenacious (and good Generals) Caesar was victorious. This was probably due to the fact that his army were men he’d commanded and worked with for the last 5 years, rather than the newly raised forces of the opposition. It’s during this war that Caesar spent time in Egypt and met Cleopatra. During the war and after he had won Caesar used his now overwhelming support in the Senate to become first Dictator for a year (a customary position someone could be appointed to in a time of crisis) and subsequently Dictator for life (rather less customary).

After the war was over Caesar embarked on reforming the government of the Roman Republic – harking back to his original populist politics. The experts said it wasn’t a grand programme of cohesive reform, more that Caesar was focusing on things he saw as causing the problems he saw in his time growing up in the chaos of civil war. He also established himself as a god, and more shockingly flirted with kingship. A large part of Rome’s underlying mythos at the time was that they had Got Rid of Kings. So looking like you might want to be King – by, say, wearing the traditional ceremonial robes of a king – was a good way to unsettle and upset the Senate. This, then, was what lead to Caesar’s political opponents assassinating him – and many of that faction hoped it would bring a return to the previous political situation before Caesar had started edging towards kingship. Sadly for them instead it ignited yet another civil war, which eventually lead to the establishment of the Empire by Caesar’s grandnephew Augustus.

At the end of the programme they spent a little bit of time talking about what we know about Caesar’s personality – which is not really very much. One of the experts (Wyke or Steel) emphasised his ruthlessness and compared him to more recent figures such as Mussolini. They’d also a little earlier in the programme talked about how he was also known for his debauchery and jadedness – his fling with Cleopatra wasn’t an aberration in otherwise abstemious lifestyle!

Archaeology of Portus: Exploring the Lost Harbour of Ancient Rome (Course on Future Learn)

The third course I’ve done on Future Learn was about archaeology & the Roman port Portus. And sadly I found it a bit disappointing. The course was run by Southampton University, whose archaeology department are one of the partners in the excavation of the site at Portus. Portus is in Italy, near Rome & to the west of it. From the 1st Century AD it was the main port serving the city of Rome, remaining in use until the 7th Century. Since then the coastline of Italy has changed and the whole site is now inland. Portus was one of the sites that featured in Rome’s Lost Empire which we watched over a year ago (post) and that’s part of what drew me to this course.

Over the first 5 of the 6 weeks that the course ran they had three strands of information. One of these was following the development of Portus from its foundation by Claudius in the 1st Century AD through to its use by the Ostrogothic rulers of Rome after the Western Roman Empire had fallen. The second strand was putting the port in context with the wider Roman (and post-Roman) world – looking not only at things like what sorts of goods & from where passed through the port but also at what was going on in historical terms at the time. The third strand was about archaeological methods – ranging from really basic stuff covered on any archaeology documentary, through to descriptions of cutting edge techniques. The final week was intended to pull the whole thing together and to get us involved with actual work going on right then at the site. It had a section where you could ask them to photograph things on site or answer questions about particular things. And the assignment was to look at some actual data & try and draw some conclusions.

As I said at the beginning I was rather disappointed, and in fact I never finished the final week. In part this was because it didn’t feel like it was pitched at people like me. I found the way the material was presented somewhat patronising on more than one occasion, and over all I felt they were interacting with us as pupils rather than as fellow adults (if that makes sense). This is in contrast to the other Future Learn courses I’ve done (or am doing) – the two Shakespeare ones and the English literature one I’m currently doing have managed to present technical terminology and explain details of their subject without resorting to phrases like “Well, I seem to be using a lot of big words in this one!”. I’d hesitate to say that to a primary school child for fear of offending them, let alone to a large group of adults.

I found the material in the course itself felt somewhat repetitive, and thus a bit shallow. I think that was an artifact of the way it was presented rather than actually being the case. Most sections had both a short video and a short article, with a lot of overlap in the material but some unique pieces of information in each. So to get all the information you had to watch the video and read the article, hence the feeling of repetition. Some videos were better than others – the ones where one of the educators was talking to camera on their own were the best. The ones where a student was conducting a very staged feeling interview with the educator in question were the worst – it was a good idea, I just think they failed to pull it off.

On the positive side they did give a lot of links to further information in each section. I confess I rarely followed them, because I wasn’t feeling particularly engaged with the course. There were also extra “Advanced” sections where they explained some techniques in more detail, and some of those were the more interesting parts of the course.

Overall, a rather disappointing experience. I was too put off by the tone and the feeling of repetition to ever really get properly into the subject matter.

Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities; Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History

Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities was a series about the history of Byzantium aka Constantinople aka Istanbul presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore that we watched in December last year finishing just before Christmas. Montefiore seems to be specialising in serieses about holy cities – his previous ones have been about Jerusalem (which we watched before I started writing blog posts) and Rome (post).

Byzantium started out life as a strategically well placed Greek town at the eastern periphery of the Greek (and later the Roman) world. It rose to greater prominence as the centre of gravity of the Roman Empire shifted towards the east, and Constantine moved his capital there at the same time as establishing Christianity as the official religion of the Empire. The Greek pagan past was swept very much under the carpet as the newly renamed Constantinople was positioned as the Christian centre of a Christian Empire which it remained until 1453AD. Something easy to forget from the way the subject was taught to me as a child is that the Roman Empire continued in the East long after the fall of Rome – seamlessly becoming what we now call the Byzantine Empire. Montefiore talked about how Constantinople came to be regarded as associated with and under the protection of the Virgin Mary, one-upping in their minds the association of Rome with St. Peter. And he finished up the first episode with a discussion of the rising tensions between the Western Church and the Orthodox of Constantinople, culminating in the excommunication of the Patriarch by the Pope and the Great Schism.

The second episode covered the period between the Great Schism in 1054AD, and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453AD. This is a period characterised by decline from former glories, punctuated brutally by the 4th Crusade. The Crusades started off because of the worries of the Byzantine Empire over the rise of Islam and how this new faith had conquered vast swathes of territory, including the Holy Land, and were now eyeing up Byzantine lands. They invited the Western Christians to lend their military might to hold off the Muslims, but this was an uneasy alliance. With the added political differences between Constantinople and Venice (supplier of ships for the 4th Crusade) the unease spilt over into outright violence and Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders. Montefiore had a bit of an air here of an outsider handing out the popcorn while he was discussing the lead up to this disaster, but he sobered up for the discussion of the atrocities afterwards. The programme ended with the final fall of a weakened Constantinople to the Ottomans, after they’d taken over all the surrounding territory.

The third episode covered the whole of the Ottoman Empire’s time in the sun. This was a second golden age for the city, now known as Istanbul – once again the centre of a large secular Empire it also became the centre of another religion. The Ottoman Sultans moved the seat of the Caliphate to Istanbul, and discovered (or moved in some cases) relics of the Prophet Muhammed and those close to him in the city. Montefiore dwelt on different aspects of the Ottomans to the series we watched earlier in the year (post). He didn’t gloss over the institutionalised fratricide of the Sultans as much, and he told us about some of the less successful holders of the title whose incompetance or brutality also shaped the city. He also spent a bit of time telling us about how the Jews were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire after their expulsion from Western Europe. This episode ended with a discussion of Attaturk and the new secular Turkey after the end of the Ottoman Empire.

As always with Montefiore’s serieses I I liked the cinematography as well as being interested in the subject matter. There’s a visual style to the programmes that I like, though I’d be hard pushed to describe it or distinguish it from other things – but that’s me lacking the vocab and knowledge, I think 😉

The other series we finished off over the last few weeks was Sam Willis’s series about Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History. This was a three part series that looked at shipwrecks around the British coast or involving British ships since Tudor times, with the main focus being on the 18th and 19th Centuries. The format was part telling the stories of individual disasters, and part drawing out what effects these disasters have had on British culture and British history. Willis did a good job of making the shipwrecks sound every bit as hideously dreadful as they must’ve been, whilst not overdoing it. And there were lots of interesting tidbits of history – like in the last episode he told us about the first weather forecasting system, the first life jackets, the fight Plimsoll had to undertake to get overloading of merchant ships regulated and several more. An interesting series, worth watching.

Other TV watched over the last couple of weeks:

Calf’s Head and Coffee: The Golden Age of English Food. Disappointing programme about Restoration era English food that couldn’t work out if it was about the history or about the food, and ended up falling short with both aspects.

Planet Ant: Life Inside the Colony – a bit like the series The Burrowers that we watched a while ago (post) but about leafcutter ants not cute fluffy bunnies etc. An ants nest was reconstructed in a lab and science is being done on it (and we got told how the nest worked and about the ants biology etc).

BBC 4 Sessions: The Christmas Session – recorded for Christmas 2011 I think, this featured various folk artists including the Unthanks and was a lot of fun. We watched it on Christmas Day.

Egypt’s Golden Empire – a three part series on one of the Sky documentary channels that we watched at J’s parents’ house. I confess I wasn’t always paying that much attention, but what I did watch seemed like a rather good and thorough overview of the New Kingdom period of Ancient Egypt.

Charlie Brooker’s 2013 Wipe – round up of the big events of 2013 presented by Charlie Brooker (and segments from others, which I felt worked less well).

Jool’s Annual Hootenanny – music and chat from Jools Holland and his guests (and audience). It’s our tradition for welcoming in the New Year when we’re at home – Jools on the telly and whisky to drink. Not the best one there’s ever been, but we still had fun heckling.

2013: Moments in Time – another roundup of 2013, this time of the main news stories of the year shown through the photos that illustrated them. And some discussion of the changing nature of these photos (and the rise of social media’s importance in news).

Episode 1 of Rise of the Continents – series about the geology of the continents and how that’s shaped them and their wildlife (and us) presented by Iain Stewart. This episode was about Africa.

Episode 4 of Tudor Monastery Farm – part re-enactment, part documentary about what life would be like living on and running a farm in 1500.

TV Including Greeks, Indian Railways, Sweets, Ottomans, Neolithic Britons and 20th Century Britons

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The last part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama looked at what happened after Greece was conquered by Rome. It felt a little less focussed than the previous two episodes, possibly because the Romans aren’t as much his thing as the Greeks? The theme was that Rome both preserved this art form (and Greek plays, too) and also changed it along the way. Early Roman culture frequently mimicked Greek culture. Scott positioned this as them seeing the Greeks as “this is how a civilised culture acts” and so imitating it to make sure everyone knew they were civilised too. Then later there’s more of an element of “we can do it bigger & better” – the temples & monuments still have that classical style but they’re much more over the top. So drama got a foothold in Roman culture as it conquered the Greek city states in Italy, and gradually became a common sort of entertainment. In Greece drama had been closely connected to the political process & the people who produced it (playwrights, actors etc) had high status. In Rome drama was only entertainment, and while playwrights might still command respect actors were much lower status. And woe betide the playwright who took too obvious a dig at the powers that be, much better to stick to safe subjects.

An interesting series about something I didn’t know that much about 🙂

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

In the second & final part of John Sergeant’s trip on the Indian railway he travelled from north to south. Along the way he talked about the construction of the railways. I hadn’t realised everything was shipped across to India from Britain, because there wasn’t the industrial capability in India to build it. This includes not just the tracks and so on, but the actual trains themselves. He also visited a Maharajah’s palace – once upon a time the train ran direct to the door, as part of the British Empire keeping the Indian Princes onside.

The railways revolutionised Indian transport – prior to the British building them transport for most people was by foot or by animal. The increased mobility both connects people to the wider country, and allows for a lot more trade. Obviously the British benefited from that first, but modern Indian businessmen still use the same railways for their goods transport. The railways also generated a lot of jobs (and many of those jobs went to people who would otherwise have been shunned – Anglo-Indians for instance who weren’t welcomed in either English or Indian societies). And this is still true today. Sergeant visited a laundry facility (where it seemed it was all done by hand) and a leather workshop (again, handmade bags for all the railway employees/business).

So the railways have brought much good to India, but it was at a high price. Sergeant visited Bhore Ghat just south of Mumbai where the engineering difficulties of building a railway through a mountain range in a hot country with Victorian technology lead to a lot of deaths. Europeans tended to die of fevers, the engineer who was supposed to be running the project died not long after he arrived in India but his wife took over the project management and it was still completed on time & under budget. The Indians tended to die from industrial accidents and many more of them died.

Nigel Slater: Life is Sweets

This programme was a combination of a history & survey of British sweets, and personal reminiscences by Nigel Slater. I think I would’ve preferred more history/survey & less autobiography – particularly as I only have the vaguest idea who Nigel Slater is. But it did fit the primary theme of the programme, that sweets can be very good memory triggers. And as the programme went on I definitely had my own trips down memory lane – sweets I remembered, adverts I remembered, memories associated with particular sweets (in particular I hadn’t thought about peppermint creams at xmas for years, I don’t remember when Dad last made them either. Marzipan fruits too!). The bits & pieces of history were also interesting – I don’t think I ever knew that cocoa (the drink) was being pushed by the Quakers as an alternative to alcohol in a part of the Temperance Movement in the Victorian era. Which “explains” the Quaker origins of the chocolate companies. I also didn’t know that UFOs and aniseed balls both derive from medicine packaging of a bygone era.

Fun, but I’m not sure how much appeal it would have if you aren’t of the right age & country to remember the sweets.

The Ottomans: Europe’s Muslim Emperors

This is a recent series covering the history of the Ottoman empire, with an emphasis on how this history affects the current politics & unrest in the Middle East today. In the first episode Rageh Omaar covers the beginnings of the Ottoman Empire, the first two hundred years or so. A lot new here for me, I don’t really know much about the history of the Ottomans. They start as a nomadic tribe of horseback warriors, who fight as mercenaries as part of how they survive. From settling down in 1300-ish near the Turkish town of Sogut they start to conquer the lands around them, and construct a settled Ottoman state. At first this included a lot of the land around Constantinople but not the city itself, but in 1453 Mehmed II’s army succeeded (with the help of their superior military tech – cannons) to capture the city and turn it into Istanbul (here, have a free They Might Be Giants earworm. You’re welcome)*. This was a hugely symbolic moment – it was seen as the victory of Islam over Christianity. This was also the point where the Ottoman state began to turn into the Ottoman Empire. So far the Ottomans had been fighting Christians, and fighting other Muslim states was not the done thing – this changed when tensions increased between the Ottomans & the Safavid Empire. As the Safavids were Shiite and the Ottomans were Sunni the “obvious” solution was to declare the Shiites heretics, and then they were fine to go to war with – which is still having repercussions today.

*Omaar gave the impression the Ottomans changed the name of the city, but while I was looking for that vid I ran across a few mentions that it might’ve been the Turks after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. I don’t know which is right, but I still got that earworm during the programme 🙂

Omaar also talked a bit about life in the Empire in this period – the Sultan with his harem of concubines, fratricide between rival sons of the Sultan, Christians as tolerated but second class citizens. In his eagerness to emphasise that life in the Ottoman Empire wasn’t as bad as later history might suggest (i.e. the folk history of the peoples in Greece & Bulgaria etc who were conquered by the Ottomans) I think Omaar went a bit too far towards apologising for them. In particular the “it wasn’t that bad” of children being taken from (Christian) conquered families as slaves – army for the boys, concubines for the girls) – was a bit tenuous: they wouldn’t take your last son! it was quite a good life! Or the comparison of the fratricide to the succession wars in Europe in the same time period (Wars of the Roses, Hundred Years War) – doing your killing by policy rather than sometimes having wars isn’t quite a good v. bad distinction to me 😉 How about two shades of grey?

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The second episode of Stories from the Dark Earth was desperately padded, with not much new stuff – if I’d seen the older series I think I’d’ve been rather disappointed. The two excavations were both of neolithic burials – one in Dorset & one in Orkney. The Dorset one is near a great earthwork called the Dorset Caucus – function unknown, and probably unknowable. One reason this burial is notable (apart from just because neolithic burials are only rarely found) is that in the original work they used isotope analysis of the teeth of the four skeletons to show that two had grown up in one area and two in the area where they were buried – the woman and the youngest child weren’t local, the two older children were. This was apparently the first proof of concept for using this sort of analysis on teeth, and all the problems that the PhD student (at the time) had had getting people to let her do analysis on their skeletons suddenly vanished once she’d been on telly. I suspect the way it was presented in the programme is likely to’ve been simplified to make a nice story 😉 One new thing for that burial was that in the last 15 years someone has done analysis of snail shell fragments in soil samples across the area, these have changed the perception of the landscape the people lived in – not dense forest across the whole region, but changing from wooded to cleared at the Dorset Caucus. The other new thing is that by correlating radiocarbon dates with archaeological evidence they’ve figured out there’s a 45% chance that the woman was alive when the earthwork was being constructed. A datapoint I was a trifle underwhelmed with (as I was also underwhelmed with the DNA evidence shown earlier about relationships between the woman & children) – the narrative of the show presented this as far more conclusive than it actually sounded like.

The Orkney burial had been in a pretty poor condition when discovered – fragile rotted bones & lots of missing bits. Originally assumed to’ve been as a result of a burial rite that involved letting the bones be picked clean by animals before interring them. But they’re now pretty sure this can’t’ve been the case – the missing bits include the bigger bones, not just the small ones. Some other bones from the area (and time period?) have had holes drilled in them after they’d been interred for a while, so clearly this culture had a different attitude to dead people than we do. No “rest in peace” here. And that was pretty much it for this half, only it was dragged out to about half an hour somehow. Oh, there was also something about a new tomb discovery only the excavations there aren’t very advanced yet.

A Hundred Years of Us

The second episode of this series was a mix of the fascinating and the banal. Banal included Phil Tufnell being a cheery chappy and finding out that Working On A Farm Is Hard (with c.1911 techniques) – not exactly news. But the segment on tuberculosis, and the start of the NHS, was fascinating – they had interviews with a woman who’d been a nurse in a sanatorium in 1948 and with a surviving patient from that sanatorium. The patient had been about 15 years old in 1948 and was one of the first people to be given streptomycin after the NHS started – if it had been left much longer she’d’ve died, and 12 weeks after treatment she was well enough to leave the sanatorium and go back home. If the NHS hadn’t been formed there’s no way she or her family could’ve afforded treatment, that’s why she was in the sanatorium waiting to die in the first place.

Other topics for the episode ranged from holidays (and the rise & fall of the Butlins style holiday camp), hats, to the end of rationing after WWII. There was some peculiar editing of the sat-on-the-sofa-chatting segments that meant people got obviously cut off and it didn’t look very smooth.

This Week’s TV Including Dogs, Evolution of Mammals, Greek Drama, Indian Railways, Roman Britain & the 20th Century

The Wonder of Dogs

The last episode of the dogs series was about dog personalities & dogs as pets. It made the point that although breeds have tendencies towards personality traits each dog is an individual. And that the first few weeks/months of a dog’s life are critical for enabling it to bond with people. They also talked about how it’s not that particular breeds are particularly prone to attacking people, but more the differences in what the dog does if it is badly trained/badly behaved – a labrador will tend to bite hands & arms and to bite & release. That’s much more survivable than the way a pit bull will go for face & neck and bite & hold on. So pit bulls have a reputation for being vicious when the average pit bull isn’t – the badly trained ones cause more problems tho.

They talked about the top 10 breeds kept as pets in the UK, and what about dogs makes them such good pets. Which basically boils down to the fact that we’ve bred them into forming close bonds with their owners. They showed us the classic owner-leaves-the-room experiments where the dog is visibly concerned until their person comes back. There was also demonstration of the fact that dogs generally want to comfort people – a researcher who hadn’t met the dogs before was faking crying, and each dog they tested went over to her to try & lick her face & cheer her up.

It was a good series, although I think it’s a little unfair that dogs got a three part series & cats got a programme & a half on Horizon for a similar thing! 😉

David Attenborough’s Rise of the Animals: Triumph of the Vertebrates

The second & last part of the recent David Attenborough series about evolution of the vertebrates concentrated on the mammals. As with the first episode I have reservations about the language used – too much of a sense of purpose & direction to what’s a much more random process than was implied. However it was still a neat programme – I liked the mix of CGI and fossils. In particular the shrew-like early mammal skull that they showed turning into a little skeleton walking around on David Attenborough’s fingers. This episode had fewer surprises for me than the previous one – it name checked all the critical mammalian features (fur, warm-blooded, live young, milk) and took in the monotremes & marsupials on the way to placental mammals and eventually apes & humans.

Ancient Greece: The Greatest Show on Earth

The second part of Michael Scott’s series about Greek drama & Greek history talk about how when democracy & Athenian supremacy wobbled drama managed to broaden its appeal & go from strength to strength. One of the changes was the rise to prominence of actors, and the restaging of old plays – when drama first started it was the playwright who was the only named individual involved (in terms of records that come down to us) and the plays performed were the new ones for the festival that year. But over the 4th Century BC there begin to be awards for actors at the festival, and often the old classics are staged after the new plays. And this is really why we have copies of the surviving plays – the old classics were copied out many times, and so managed to survive intact.

Comedy also shifted in form – at the start of the period they were bawdy and pointedly aimed at current personages & situations whilst being nominally about myths. Whereas by the end of the period the bawdiness was toned down (no more strap on phalluses, as Scott put it) and the tone had shifted to being about ordinary people and stock character types. Much closer to modern comedy, in fact. This was part of how drama’s appeal was broadening as Athens and its democracy ceased to be the centre of the Greek world. Drama was becoming entertainment rather than a part of the political process. And that increased popularity across the Greek world meant that when the Macedonians (under first Philip & then Alexander) were taking over much of the known world they also spread theatres and drama throughout the empire.

The next part promises to be about the Romans, and their reaction to/inheritance of Greek drama.

John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire

This is a two part series about the railways in India. The premise is that John Sergeant travels the length and breadth of India on the train, and talks about the history both of the railroad and of India during and post British Empire. In this episode he travelled from Calcutta west & north-west towards the Pakistan border. Along the way he talked about the railway towns that grew up to house the men who worked on the railway. He met some of the modern day railworkers, who are devoted to the job of keeping the network running – regarding it as a vital service to their country. He also talked about modern disruption to the rail network by violent protests (blowing up bits of track etc) and about past violence. This included visiting a house besieged during the “Indian Mutiny”. He’s more pro-Empire than is currently fashionable, and this segment made me wince a bit because he was playing up the clueless Englishman abroad thing with “but don’t you think the British soldiers were heroic” while talking to a group of Indians who regarded the leader of the siege as the true hero – the start of the fight for independence. And I felt it came across as a bit patronising, particularly in the context of “paternalistic” attitudes from the British Empire back in its heyday.

The programme finished at the India/Pakistan border. He talked to some people who’d lived through the appalling violence after the partition of India post-independence, which was particularly disturbing to watch. And the next & last segment was filmed at the border itself – the two armies in their fancy uniforms prancing around like something out of a Monty Python sketch, while citizens of each country chanted encouragement like they were at a football match. For all it was funny to see, it was sobering too – keeping the tribalism going and the wounds open.

Stories from the Dark Earth: Meet the Ancestors Revisited

The premise of this series is Julian Richards revisiting the finds from some archaeological digs he’d been part of over a decade ago – ones that were filmed as part of a series called Meet the Ancestors. The episodes are interspersing the original footage with new work that’s been done on the finds. The first episode was about two Roman burials dating from the 4th Century AD. He’d been discovered in a lead coffin, and was buried in a way that showed he had (or his family had) pagan beliefs. More recent analysis of his teeth has shown that he was definitely a local man. A survey off all the Roman era bodies that’ve been found in Winchester showed that about 30% of them weren’t local – and who was who didn’t always match the theories that had been based on grave goods. Then, as now, some immigrants assimilated and some families kept their “home” traditions generations after they arrived.

The second burial was of a high status woman found in a lead coffin & stone sarcophagus in Spitalfields, London. We’d actually seen the coffin etc in the London Museum when we visited earlier this year, so kinda neat to see that (and a reminder I’ve not yet sorted out my photos from that trip!). When discovered she’d been thought to be Christian, but more recently it’s been suggested she was a member of a mystery cult possibly dedicated to Bacchus. Very recently analysis of her teeth has shown she grew up in Rome itself – which makes her the first (only?) Rome born Roman to be found buried in Britain. Quite exciting, and Richards was speculating that perhaps she was involved with bringing the cult of Bacchus to Britain.

A Hundred Years of Us

This series was originally aired in 2011 just after the census, and it’s a retrospective of how life has changed over the last hundred years. The format is Michael Aspell in a studio talking to guests, interspersed with bits of video about various topics. The primary guest in the first episode was Pete Waterman, which I initially rolled my eyes at, but he was actually pretty interesting. They also have a family of four generations, the eldest of which have been on every census back to the 1911 one – and so we got some reminiscences of WWI and the 20s & 30s in this episode. The programme started by talking about the 11 plus – using a pair of twins as examples of how passing or failing could change your life. There was also a segment about food and how that’s changed – in particular the influx of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and our national love affair with curry. Somebody (Phil Tufnell? who wikipedia tells me is a cricketer) went down a mine to see how coal mining was done in the early 20th Century – backbreaking labour, and the 75 year old man who had worked in mining since he was 13 was not impressed by the ability of this “young” man 😉 Oh, and a bit about tea, and how we love to drink it.

It’s a pretty fluffy programme but it is entertaining, we’re going to finish watching the series.

This Week’s TV including Cute Fluffy Animals, Roman Women, an Anglo Saxon Queen and Jewish History

The Burrowers: Animals Underground

The second episode of The Burrowers continued with the three main species they were looking at in the artifical burrows – with a main theme of “leaving the nest for the first time”. The rabbit babies had their first trip outside, the water voles got over their dislike of each other & had some babies who then visited the outside, and the badger orphans bonded into a group and took their first trip out.

As well as this they showed us what an actual wild rabbit burrow looks like – by pouring concrete down an abandoned one and then excavating it (which presumably actually happened before they built their artificial one). And Packham also told us about moles. I hadn’t previously realised that moles keep larders of zombie worms. When they catch a worm first they squeeze the dirt out, then they bite the head off and in the process they inject it with their venomous saliva which paralyses the worm. And then they put the still living, paralysed, headless worm in a larder where it stays fresh until they want a meal. o.O

The third episode was set in summer and was mostly wrapping up & talking about what the future holds for the various creatures. The rabbits by this stage had had three litters each – as soon as the female finished giving birth each time the dominant male mated with her. Thus ensuring that all the baby rabbits came out of the nest in waves (presumably there’s some initial way they set up the synchronisation for the first litter) to overwhelm the predators. Only one in ten rabbits normally survives to the age of 1 due to predation, which frankly is just as well given 10 rabbits turned into over 50 in just a few months. They didn’t say on the programme, but that behaviour also means non-dominant males don’t get much of a window of opportunity to impregnate the females. Most of these rabbits were apparently going back to the breeders, but some were staying for future study.

The water voles managed to have another litter as well – almost despite themselves as the breeding pair still didn’t seem to get along peacefully. They’re all being released into the wild in Scotland somewhere as part of a regeneration programme. And the badgers are also being released into the wild. They actually moved out of the pre-prepared sett and started digging their own in their enclosure. The researchers had been testing their response to badger calls by playing sounds in their sett, and they’d provided extra bedding while the badgers were away. So I reckon the badgers moved out coz they thought the old sett was haunted 😉 Noises in the darkness where there were no badgers, randomly appearing plants in rooms you didn’t leave anything in … who’d want to live somewhere like that? 😉

A fun series, although to be honest not much of note beyond “aww, look at the cute fluffy animals”.

Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome

The last episode of Catharine Edward’s series about powerful Roman women covered more ground & more women than the first two. The themes linking them together (other than “these are the rest of them”) were that these women were generally outsiders to the aristocratic Roman culture that the women of the first two episodes came from, and they mostly wielded their power more overtly. Edwards started by telling us about Caenis, who had been a slave to a member of the Imperial family (Antonia, mother of Claudius). Caenis had had an affair with Vespasian long before he was Emperor (and when she was still a slave). She was given her freedom, and after Vespasian’s wife died the two resumed their relationship – however her low social status meant that he could not marry her. Once he became Emperor she continued to live as his wife in all but name, and exerted quite a lot of influence over him including some degree of control over access to him. Next up was Berenice who provides an object lesson in how Roman Emperors weren’t as all powerful as they might hope. The Emperor Titus (son of Vespasian) had formed a relationship with the Jewish Queen, Berenice, while he father was still alive. Once he became Emperor he was forced to bow to public pressure & to set her aside – she was too old (i.e. past child-bearing age) and too foreign.

The next three women were all foreigners, and all related. The wife of the Emperor Septimus Severus was a Syrian woman called Julia Domna. She wielded power alongside her husband much more openly than previous Empresses, and was popular & respected when doing so. After Septimus’s death their son’s inherited jointly, which ended badly as one might imagine. Despite never forgiving her older son for murdering his younger brother she still helped to run the empire, and was grief-stricken at his death (although mostly because she wouldn’t have power any more after that). The next two Emperors were both put on the throne by female relatives of Julia Domna. Sadly the first of these teenage boys was utterly useless as Emperor, and despite the best efforts of his mother Julia Soaemias to rule through him he was overthrown by his aunt Julia Avita and her son Alexander. Alexander might’ve made it as a decent Emperor, but his mother forgot the cardinal rule of keeping the army onside and got stingy with their pay – with the obvious result.

Last of the powerful Roman women was Helena, who can’t really be missed out – mother of Constantine and discoverer of the True Cross (amongst other pious things). Edwards credited her as a major influence on Constantine’s move towards Christianity, and of his changing imperial policy to make the Empire Christian.

A good series, Edwards managed to make it both informative & fun. We did at times wonder how the Roman Empire had got anything done or lasted as long as it did – so many of the Emperors seemed useless or overly concerned with their own debaucheries at the expense of the Empire.

King Alfred & the Anglo-Saxons

The second episode of Michael Wood’s series about the Anglo-Saxons was mostly about Æthelflæd, the daughter of Alfred the Great. Alfred was succeeded by his son Edward in Wessex, and his daughter Æthelflæd was married to the King of the Mercians. The main political crisis of the time was caused by Alfred naming Edward his heir. Alfred had succeeded his elder brother and re-taken Wessex from the Viking’s who’d killed his brother. His nephew Æthelwold had in many ways a better claim to the throne than Edward, but was cut out of the succession by Alfred. So once Alfred died Æthelwold rose up in rebellion, with the help of the Vikings who still ruled East Anglia & Northumbria. He was eventually beaten back by an alliance of Wessex & Mercia led by Edward & Æthelflæd.

Æthelflæd is known as the Lady of the Mercians, and after her husband’s death she ruled on her own. Unusually for the time there is documentary evidence for her power & rule – the “official” record of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle doesn’t refer to her much, but there is a chronicle written detailing the same events from her perspective (in the sense of she’s the main figure of the chronicle not in the sense of a first person account). She is recorded as acting as a King – she leads armies, she plans military campaigns, she acts as a diplomat. Wood tells us that without Æthelflæd & her leadership of Mercia there would not have been England as we know it. Æthelflæd was even succeeded by her daughter, the only time this has happened in English history, but she was removed from power by her uncle (King Edward of Wessex) and he ruled Mercia as King of the Anglo-Saxons.

The Story of the Jews

The third episode of Simon Schama’s series The Story of the Jews covered the promise of integration of the early Englightenment, and the subsequent dashing of those hopes with the rise of a particularly anti-Semitic form of nationalism. At the start of the Enlightenment a spirit of toleration was growing – that put forward the idea that a Jew could be a person who just happened to follow the Judaic religion and should be treated like any other person. Many Jewish families in Germany & France began to integrate into the culture of the country they lived in, becoming members of society & even notable members of high society. Moses Mendelssohn was one of the first examples of this. Although some of his descendants (like Felix Mendelssohn the composer) were baptised, other families like the Beer family remained true to their Jewish religion & heritage. One of the prominent members of the Beer family was Giacomo Meyerbeer (who started life in Berlin as Jacob Beer, changing his name when he moved to Italy) who was a very popular composer of operas in Paris. He was an early patron of Wagner’s – encouraging him and providing him with opportunities to stage his own operas. Schama had other examples, including banking families & others – the common thread was that they generally thought of themselves as German or French or whatever people who happened to be Jewish, rather than Jews who happened to be living in whatever country it might be.

Sadly this promising mood of integration & an end to prejudice against the Jews didn’t last. Wagner as mentioned above might’ve had a Jewish patron initially, but he published anti-Semitic rants against Meyerbeer late. He took the stance that “true art” had much to do with nationalism and roots in a country and that Jews by definition could not be a part of that and so could not produce any real art – which frankly is wrong on so many levels it’s hard to know where to start to shake one’s head at it. This nationalistic stance was common in the late 19th Century, and incidents like the disgrace of Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jew in the French Army, for allegedly passing state secrets to the Germans hardened this anti-Semitism. The propaganda was that Jews could only be loyal to each other first, and their “adopted” countries second … along with the usual collection of prejudices dating back medieval times. And the rising anti-Semitism lead to a change in Jewish attitudes too and the rise of Zionism. Instead of integration into other countries & cultures many Jews now wanted their own country where they were already the culture.

The programme ended where one would expect – with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, as the extreme towards which that anti-Semitic strain of nationalism was tending. A sombre end to a period which had begun with such hope.