This Week’s TV Including Romans, the Indian Ocean, Jewish History and Cute Fluffy Animals

Mothers, Murderers and Mistresses: Empresses of Ancient Rome

Catharine Edwards presents this series about the women with power in the Roman Empire. While there was no woman who was an Empress in her own right there were still women who helped to shape the politics of the empire. In the first episode Edwards’s focus was on Livia who was the wife of the first Emperor, Augustus. Her public role was as the epitome of the perfect Roman matron – she was submissive & demure, and attended to the domestic sphere rather than the political (spinning & weaving for instance). Augustus used this public persona of Livia’s to his advantage – first to contrast her with Cleopatra. And also to help his personification of his rule as back to basics & himself as just the first amongst equals. Behind the scenes Livia wielded more power & there are references to her influencing the outcomes of trials, and pulling strings to get things done. After Augustus’s death she was given the title Augusta & made the high priestess of his cult, and she started to wield power somewhat more overtly (which her son Tiberius who was now Emperor wasn’t so keen on).

During the programme Edwards also told us about Julia, the daughter of Augustus and Julia’s daughter Agrippina. Both of these women misjudged their way in the balance between power & appearances. Julia behaved scandalously – although her children were all presumed to be her husband’s this was because she’d made sure to only take lovers while she was pregnant. But the scandals were to be her downfall, she didn’t fit in with the image of the imperial family that Augustus wanted to portray, and she ended up exiled for her behaviour. Agrippina was married to one of Livia’s descendants and was the mother of Caligula. After her husband’s death in suspicious circumstances, which she blamed on Livia & Tiberius, Agrippina returned to Rome to fight for justice & for her family’s right to the throne. She too ended her days in exile.

The second episode covered Agrippina the Younger & Messalina. This Agrippina holds the distinction of having been sister of one Emperor (Caligula), wife of the next (Claudius) and mother of the one after (Nero). Messalina was the wife of Claudius when he became Emperor & she and Agrippina were bitter rivals during Messalina’s lifetime. Edwards spent some time discussing Messalina’s ruthlessness in getting rid of rivals (including Agrippina’s sister), and also Messalina’s bad reputation. She’s been immortalised in history as a nyphomanic, but Edwards pointed out that this sort of gossip was a way of attacking the power of the Emperor – if he can’t even control his wife, how can he rule the Empire? Of symbolically castrating him. So the reputation is probably undeserved. However, it was sexual misconduct that brought about her downfall – she is said to’ve undergone some sort of a marriage ceremony with a lover in front of witnesses & “spent the night with him as man & wife”. When Claudius heard of this she hoped to be able to talk her way out of it, but some of Claudius’s loyal freemen had her executed before she could do so.

After Messalina’s death Claudius married Agrippina – she engineered this, but it made sound political sense as she was a direct descendent of Augustus (unlike Claudius who was descended from Livia). But he was also her uncle, which made it an illegal marriage so it needed special dispensation from the Senate. Agrippina pulled strings to get this to happen. After her marriage she was pretty much an equal partner in the government of the Empire, and publicly visible as such – which the various later Roman historians like Suetonius and Tacitus did Not Approve of. She took care to organise things so that her son Nero would become Emperor next, rather than Claudius & Messalina’s son. This included having Nero adopted by Claudius, and by having Nero marry Claudius’s daughter. So the woman Nero was married to was a) his wife, b) his step-sister, c) his adoptive sister and d) his first cousin once removed. Which seems a few more relationships than are really necessary 😉 And he didn’t like her, either. Once Claudius died (conveniently timed for Agrippina, and probably at her orders) Agrippina attempted to continue to rule as the dominant partner with Nero as the junior. Edwards pointed out the Agrippina wasn’t one to compromise or persuade, and Nero as a teenager who was being taunted about being under his mother’s thumb did not appreciate her “help”. Eventually he had Agrippina murdered.

The Burrowers: Animals Underground

This series presented by Chris Packham is looking at the underground life of three burrowing British mammals. The first episode introduced us to the animals – rabbits, water voles & badgers – and showed us how the team have built burrows for each species that have cutaway sections where the researchers & cameras can see the animals. So far the rabbits moved in and started breeding like rabbits. The pair of water voles seemed less keen on each other, separating to opposite sides of the burrow, but at the end of the programme we were show indications they may’ve bred after all. And the badgers are all orphan cubs, which are bonding to form a social group – the drama here is that the last addition might or might not integrate (and won’t survive if she doesn’t).

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The last instalment of how we’re screwing up the planet, Indian Ocean edition, covered Indonesia to Australia. Along the way Simon Reeve visited an area of Indonesia where they’re enforcing strict Sharia law, including arresting teenagers who are incautious enough to make public displays of affection. He also visited a team who study slow lorises, which are really very cute and very endangered. The team don’t just study them in the wild they also rehabilitate animals that’ve been sold as pets and subsequently confiscated from their owners – they are generally mutilated before sale, their teeth are removed because their bite is poisonous. Reeve managed to surreptitiously film in a pet market in a nearby city where there were slow lorises openly for sale, along with other endangered species, all kept in poor conditions.

Once in Australia Reeve started by visiting a fish farm & the helping to catch a salt water crocodile. These are very dangerous animals, and so if they start harassing an area where people live they need dealt with – often they’re shot, but they are also endangered. So the people Reeve was helping catch them & put them in a wildlife sanctuary instead … it was a pretty hair-raising sequence, much respect for people who willingly get that close to an over 8 foot crocodile. After that he visited the mainland of Australia to see the sorts of places where vast industrial complexes are being built to get at the mineral resources. The programme did end on a note of hope though – a team in south west Australia who are championing establishing National Parks in the oceans around Australia. Over fishing has been a theme through the series, and this scheme is a part answer to that problem – if there are areas where people cannot fish, then the wildlife recovers and this will spill over into replenishing fish stocks in the surrounding ocean too.

This has been an interesting series, but interesting in a sobering way. Although Reeve did visit some nice places & see some interesting things the theme was mainly how we’re screwing up the environment through our (the West in particular’s) desire for cheap food, and how people are treating each other badly.

The Story of the Jews

The second episode of Simon Schama’s series about Jewish History covered over a millennium from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem through to the expulsion of the Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492. The title of the episode was Among Believers & this was one of the threads tying the programme together – the Jews lived in Christian or Muslim societies through the majority of these years. Schama looked at both how they worked at staying Jewish & at what this cost them. To keep their faith & culture in the absence of the ritual centre (the Temple) the Jews turned to even stronger veneration of the word. In the early years their Bible was extended with commentary and the oral traditions of the Jews, and books were written that reorganised & gathered together the laws & teachings – so you could for instance look up what was & wasn’t permitted on the Sabbath in one place rather than search through the text for all references. This was later extended further with commentaries (and still, I believe, gets extended) and commentaries on the commentaries into the Talmud. This collection of the original text & the thoughts of Rabbis over the years on these texts is part of an on-going conversation or argument across the centuries about how to be Jewish in the changing world around them.

In terms of what it cost them – demonisation of the Jews started early in Christianity, with Paul. His message of the Christ killers who didn’t recognise the Messiah was taken further by John Chrysostom who preached against the Jews as not fully human devil worshippers who sacrificed their own children. Unsurprisingly when Islam first arose Jewish relations with Muslims were better – there was even a brief period right at the start when it looked like the two traditions might exist in harmony (it didn’t last). But in the medieval Islamic world Jews (and Christians) were “only” treated as second class citizens – they had to distinguish themselves by their clothing, there were whole lists of petty things they couldn’t do (like not ride horses, too dignified, only riding donkeys side-saddle like a woman was permitted). But at least they were treated as human beings rather than demonic devil worshippers. Muslim Spain was a particular centre for a flourishing of Jewish culture – Schama quoted us poetry & show us beautiful books & architecture from that time. Sadly the Reconquest of Spain by the Christians and the replacement of the Caliphate with fundamentalist Islamists from Morocco brought this golden age to a close ultimately ending with the expulsion of all Jews from Spain.

Schama also covered Jews in the rest of Christendom during this period – using Lincoln as his example because it had good examples of both threads. On the one hand Jews were terribly useful to the governments of the day – they would lend money (at interest) to Kings, nobles or the Church, which was a sin for a Christian. Aaron of Lincoln was one of this money brokers, who became very rich from lending money to build such places as Lincoln Cathedral. But then they were resented as they got rich, and the same people who took advantage of their loans would look the other way while angry mobs attacked them (and conveniently destroyed records of loans, oh how fortunate). And the mobs were fuelled by the sorts of things Chrysostom had preached about so long ago – in Lincoln there was an incident of a young boy, Hugh, who was murdered. Fury was whipped up by a story that he’d been tortured & killed by Jews in a mock crucifixion – the blood libel that has often been falsely raised against Jews. While Hugh wasn’t officially canonised there is still the remains of a shrine to “Little Saint Hugh”, and only shockingly recently has the sign next to it been changed to reflect the fact that the stories told about his death were lies.

The other thread running through the programme was a quote from Deutronomy:

I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that I have set before thee life and death, the blessing and the curse; therefore choose life, that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed;*

Schama used this to illustrate how even after being expelled from their homes, after being demonised & libelled, the Jews continued to choose life & to choose to continue as Jews. Their books of may’ve been designed to be portable – suitcase ready, Schama said – but they were still beautifully made, and treasured. Even tho ultimately their homes may’ve been temporary and were only theirs at someone else’s sufferance, they built beautiful synagogues to meet in.

*I looked this up to check the wording, but only via Googling for it, so hopefully I have the text correct. I used this wording because the site is explicitly saying it’s Jewish rather than Christian.

Life and Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum (Exhibition at the British Museum)

Back at the end of July J and I visited the British Museum’s current major exhibition – Life and Death in Pompeii & Herculaneum – which is still on till the end of September. We timed our visit for a morning coz it’s been selling out & we figured the least crowded time would be earlier, it was still pretty busy tho.

(No photos, never any photos from temporary exhibitions.)

The exhibition opened with a handful of objects to give an overview of the sorts of things in the exhibition, including a small table and a cast of a dog. Then on to a film about the destruction of Pompeii & Herculaneum by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 – I really liked the style of this, it was mostly graphics illustrating captions (with a voiceover) and the words in the text moved about like the thing they were describing. For instance the bit about the initial pyroclastic surges that were stopped by Pompeii’s walls had a caption that came rushing in from the side before piling up in a heap next to the wall.

The bulk of the exhibition was about what this cataclysmic destruction of the two towns has told us about how the Romans lived. Because most stuff was still there in the towns when they were destroyed (and indeed many people were still in the towns) the archaeologists have a snapshot of the daily lives of the period. The way the two places were destroyed also helped to preserve things that generally don’t last the millennia – I think it’s from Herculaneum that they’ve found wooden furniture for instance. So to best display this way of looking at it (life instead of death) they’ve laid out the central portion of the exhibition following the floor plan of one of the houses in Pompeii. The objects associated with each area of the house are therefore in the right places & it gives you a definite sense of both how similar & how different they were. For instance, there are obviously beds & makeup/haircare accessories are in the bedroom which feels very familiar, but the other accessories & decor are much more overtly sexual than we’d expect. Like lamp holders in the shape of winged phalluses (a good luck symbol, I think as well as the sexual meaning rather than instead of).

So after the video the route through the exhibition turned a corner past a boundary marker – on one side it was this person’s property & on the other side it was someone else’s, the remnant of some dispute between the house owners. Then we were outside the entrance to the house. This particular house they were following the plan of had shops in the front (as many did) – I think not necessarily run by the house owner or his/her slaves, and perhaps not even owned by them. They had some objects from shops in this section, including a couple of bottles of garum sauce. One of which was the “finest” variety of this particular brand’s selection, the other was kosher certified. Which surprised me, but shouldn’t’ve. After all by 79AD the Jews were thoroughly a part of the empire & so obviously there would be kosher groceries for them.

Next into house proper, entering the atrium – a public-ish space, where a Roman would receive his or her clients or visitors, and also do much of the day to day life of the household. In the exhibition they had a faux-pool in the centre (which would’ve been filled with rainwater in the original house), and a variety of fine pieces of painting or statuary around the room. I particularly like the one-legged table with the leg in the shape of a panther, which would be used to display & show off the silverware of the family. Off the atrium space they had a mock-up of a bedroom – just one, even tho there were several off the atrium. These would’ve had no windows, so been totally dependant on light from oil lamps (hung off phalluses in some cases!). In this as well as part of an adult’s bed they had the cradle which was found in Herculaneum – we’ve seen it in a few programmes about Pompeii & Herculaneum, but I don’t think I’d been told before that the remains of the baby were found inside it which is rather sad. Among the jewellery & toilette items on display here there were also two sets of jewellery to compare – one had belonged to an elite woman, the other was clearly mimicing this high class stuff but in bronze & glass instead of gold & jewels.

After this it was through to the garden. Obviously there wasn’t an actual garden in the exhibition, but they had some statuary & so on which had been found in gardens. Again some of this was familiarish & some not so much. The drunken Hercules pissing on the ground reminded me of the “wee boys weeing” fountains you seem to see all the time in garden centres (or did back when my parents were taking me to garden centres & I was trying to find something entertaining about the trip). And off in a little side room they had some of the more eyebrow raising pieces, including a fairly large statue of Pan making love to a goat – when it was found in the 18th Century it was regarded as so shocking it wasn’t displayed to the general public. And even now it was set off from the side of the exhibition with a note so parents could avoid taking their children in if they so wished. As well as statuary they had some graffiti from gardens, apparently the inhabitants saw no problems with scribbling notes to themselves carved into the walls. They also had some frescos from a garden room – one wall of the room would’ve opened onto the garden and the rest of the walls were painted to look like a garden. A blurring of the boundary between the real & the representation. Obviously this would be a very idealised garden – with a selection of flowers with no attempt to make sure they’d be flowering at the same times. And also as part of the fresco were some disembodied heads, painted as sort of suspended from the tops of the walls – I don’t think the labels explained what was going on there, it was a bit odd.

The last couple of rooms of the living part of the exhibition were the kitchen & dining room. In the dining area they also showed how the homes were decorated, with examples of frescos of the various styles. My favourite of the mosaics was in this room too – one of a skeleton carrying wine jugs, they’d labelled it as a reminder that death comes for everyone (and this time he’s bringing the wine) 🙂 The kitchen area included some carbonised remains of actual food, which means quite a bit is known about the diet of the Romans in the towns (well, the food remains and the remains in the sewers of Herculaneum have provided that information). There were also a selection of pots & so on – including a dormouse fattener. This was a clay pot that made me think of an inside-out version of the sort of pot you grow strawberries in – a tallish cylinder & on the inside there were little ledges for the dormice to scamper up & down to get their food & just to run about. The household toilet would also have been in the kitchen, the section of the exhibition about it had an example of a fresco with protective decoration above the toilet. Which was the goddess Isis watching over the defecator to protect him from whatever they worried they might catch from the toilet (presumably food contamination was a frequent occurence). A bit of a let down for a mighty Egyptian goddess, I think 😉

The last part of the exhibition was about the eruption. It included a few of the plaster casts made from the Pompeii dead, as well as some of the associated items from both Pompeii & Herculaneum. There was also one cast that had been made with resin – so the bones of the victim were dimly visible inside (and jewellery had been retrieved from inside the cast, because it could be seen). They’d done a good job with the lighting & layout here to make it a bit more subdued & respectful. Quite a sobering section.

I’d sort of thought we might go back & see the exhibition again, but not sure we’re going to end up having the time – a shame. It’s well worth seeing.

In Our Time: Queen Zenobia

I’m sure I’d heard the name of Queen Zenobia before, but I’m equally sure I’d got no idea who she was other than a vague sense of “classical era?”. After listening to the In Our Time episode about her I now know rather more. The experts who talked about her were Edith Hall (King’s College, London), Kate Cooper (University of Manchester) and Richard Stoneman (University of Exeter).

Zenobia lived in the 3rd Century AD, and was the daughter of the Governor of Palmyra in Syria. Her family were Roman citizens and the experts suggested that they probably thought of themselves as Romans first & Syrians second. Zenobia claimed descent from the Ptolemies (so also from Cleopatra) and was also related to a previous Roman Empress (Julia, who was married to Septimus Severus who was Emperor around the turn of the 2nd Century AD). She was married to Odaenathus, as his second wife, who was Governor of Palmyra after her father’s death. Odaenathus died in suspicious circumstances, as did his eldest son (whose mother was not Zenobia). Stoneman said that there was no evidence that Zenobia had organised her husband’s murder, but there is also no evidence for it being someone else. His opinion was that it was a rival of her husband’s who had done the deed, but then Zenobia had taken charge before the rival could. She then governed Palmyra – at first on behalf of her son, but later in her own right.

Palmyra was an important city in the trading network that stretched from the Roman Empire across the lands to the east. It was situated in an oasis that had been a caravan stopping place for millennia, and the town had become rich from the control & protection of trade. By Zenobia’s time it had been a part of the Roman Empire for quite some time, and the experts seemed sure that Zenobia’s father would’ve regarded himself as a Roman keeping order for the benefit of Rome. By later in Zenobia’s reign it was clear she didn’t.

At this period the Roman Empire was in a bit of a shaky state – there’d been 19 Emperors in 30 years (by the late 260s AD) most of them having been assassinated. Unrest and barbarian incursions in the north and west of the Empire had distracted attention from the east, which was mostly left to its own devices. Zenobia took advantage of this and quite quickly conquered an empire of her own that ranged from parts of modern day Turkey round the east coast of the Mediterranean to Egypt. The experts suggested that her method of “conquering” was mostly to offer a more stable & powerful state to the leaders of the various towns & regions – capitalising on her family & personal networks of contacts & allegiances. The experts disagreed about whether conquering Egypt was a good idea or not – I think it was Hall who was suggesting it made strategic sense as the place to put her borders, but Stoneman thought that it unnecessarily antagonised Rome. Hall was also suggesting that Zenobia had sentimental reasons for including Egypt in her empire – due to her claimed descent from Cleopatra.

Unfortunately for Zenobia’s fledgling Palmyrene Empire the Roman Emperor Aurelian (who came to power in 270AD) was more effective than his predecessors. He recaptured the breakaway western parts of the Empire (in Gaul & Britain) and defeated some of Northern barbarians. He also regained a bit more control over the economy and political situation in Rome. So now he was free to turn his attention to the east, and deal with Zenobia. As I mentioned in the last paragraph Stoneman pointed out that Egypt was where a lot of the food for the Empire was grown, and so Zenobia had made herself a target that couldn’t be ignored.

There were two, or possibly three, major battles in Aurelian’s campaign against Zenobia & the Palmyrenes and Zenobia was defeated and forced to flee in all of them. After the last one Zenobia was captured, and Palmyra was eventually sacked (I think not immediately after Zenobia’s defeat but after it tried rebelling a subsequent time). Zenobia was to be taken to Rome, to be paraded as a captive through the streets of Rome in Aurelian’s triumph. There are doubts as to whether that happened or not, and what subsequently happened to Zenobia. Stoneman thought that after the triumph Zenobia was allowed to retire to a villa and live out the rest of her life in obscurity, rather than be executed. Hall & Cooper gave another couple of possibilities – Zenobia may’ve been executed, but she also may never’ve reached Rome. She might’ve died of disease on the way there, but Hall was convinced that Zenobia would’ve suicided rather than be paraded as a captive.

There was a bit more of a “herding cats” feel to Bragg’s moderation in this episode – Hall and Cooper were both very enthusiastic, and all three experts got a bit sidetracked from time to time with other subjects that weren’t quite the subject of the programme.

She Wolves: England’s Early Queens; Caligula with Mary Beard; Royal Institution Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain

The last episode of She Wolves: England’s Early Queens covered the three Tudor Queens. Castor started by giving us a bit of context – when Henry VIII died his son Edward succeeded him, at the age of 9. Edward took ill & died at the age of only 15, before he’d had a chance to produce an heir. Which was a problem, as that meant there were no legitimate male heirs and England would have to be ruled by a Queen. Castor didn’t dwell on it, but I thought it was interesting that no man tried to seize power at this point – perhaps it wouldn’t be legitimate, but it’s not like Henry VII had a terribly good claim to the throne. Times had changed a bit from the more “might makes right” of previous centuries.

Henry VIII’s will had provided instruction for who was to succeed Edward VI if he died without heirs – first Mary, Henry’s eldest daughter, then Elizabeth. But for the staunchly Protestant Edward & his equally Protestant regency council this was a problem – Mary was very much a Catholic, and they felt that this Would Not Do. So even before he became ill Edward set about drafting a new order of succession if he was to die without heirs. He used the fact that Henry had declared both Mary & Elizabeth illegitimate to say that the next legitimate claimants were the descendants of Henry’s sister Mary. He skipped over his cousin Frances in favour of her three daughters, and his initial draft excluded women from ruling directly and was to leave the throne to the heirs male of the Grey sisters (in order, by age). However when it became clear he was dying the Grey girls were still too young to’ve had children (although Jane was married by this stage), so he altered this to leave the throne to “Jane Grey and her heirs male”. Castor pointed out that Edward’s council were also probably heavily involved in this – Jane’s father-in-law (the Duke of Northumberland) just happened to be the head of the council.

So Edward dies & Jane is summoned to meet her father-in-law & the rest of the council … much to her surprise she’s offered the throne. Castor said Jane tried to refuse it, because she believed Mary was the rightful heir, but she was “persuaded” to accept. After that Edward’s death & Jane’s ascension to the throne was announced to the country – met, Castor said, by somewhat confused silence by the general population who thought Mary was next in line. Jane moved to the tower to prepare for her coronation, but alas that was not to be – only 9 days later Mary had succeeded in rallying her allies and installing herself on the throne as the rightful Queen. Northumberland died a traitor’s death, but Jane was spared at first and remained in the tower as a prisoner. Even if Northumberland had succeeded in keeping Mary from the throne it seems unlikely that Jane would’ve been the obedient & docile pawn he’d’ve hoped for. Even in the 9 days she was Queen she’d started to show her Tudor heritage of strength of will & intelligence. Northumberland had assumed that his son would be crowned King when Jane was crowned Queen, but Jane was quite clear that she would make her husband a Duke but he would not be King.

Mary’s most pressing concern after actually taking the throne was to have an heir – a proper Catholic one. So she needed to marry, and soon, because she was in her late 30s by this stage. She too had the problem that if she was Queen then was any husband of hers to be King, and she too was adamant that this would not be the case. Her solution (a bit to the dismay of her council) was to marry Philip of Spain – he was the son of her biggest ally (the Holy Roman Emperor) and was already ruler of Spain. She drew a distinction between herself as a woman (who was subordinate to her husband) and herself as a Queen (who ruled England) and marrying a foreigner of the same status as herself meant that she wasn’t subordinating herself to someone she also ruled. And there was a lot of diplomacy involved in making sure she did rule England, rather than Philip doing so, and to ensure that in the event of her death Philip had no claim on the throne.

Castor next ran through the sad story of Mary’s two phantom pregnancies, and the increasing crackdown on Protestants in the country. Castor presented the two things as sort of linked, in that as Mary became more convinced she wouldn’t have a Catholic heir she also became more keen to stamp out Protestantism so that Elizabeth couldn’t bring it back. It’s for her fanaticism that Mary is most remembered (as Bloody Mary), but Castor tried to spin that as being hyped up because Mary was a woman and this was unwomanly behaviour. It wasn’t an entirely convincing take on the reputation, although I do agree that Mary probably got worse things said about her than a King might’ve done for the same behaviour – just that condemnation for burning people at the stake seems perfectly fair to me.

After Mary’s death Elizabeth was next in line for the throne, and this transition went relatively smoothly. There was again the assumption that Elizabeth would marry promptly, and that her choice of husband would indicate the direction her rule would take the kingdom. But Elizabeth had other ideas – her solution to the “who is in charge” problem for a married Queen was not to marry. Castor pointed out that Elizabeth’s method of dealing with this – with prevarication & putting off decisions to a later time – was the method she used throughout her life to keep from being railroaded into decisions by her councillors. She also “failed” to choose either fanatical Protestantism or fanatical Catholicism, famously saying that she would “not make windows into men’s souls” – as far as she was concerned if you had the outward appearance of conformity to the Church of England then that was sufficient. (And she returned the Church of England to a not quite Protestant, not quite Catholic state after the pendulum swings of the previous two reigns).

Elizabeth was the last of the Queens that Castor was discussing so the end of the programme was wrapping up – a combination of “look how far we’ve come” and “look how little has changed”. While I’d agree with Castor that the political power in our country is still disproportionately held by men, I think I’m more optimistic about how far we’ve come than she is. I was also surprised that she drew a distinction between these Queens she talked about & later ones as the earlier ones ruled, and the later ones just reigned. And she postulated that’s why our current Queen, for instance, was accepted as Queen without any worries about her gender. My surprise was because I thought the myth of Good Queen Bess was also instrumental in changing attitudes – finally a precedent of the country not falling to pieces when a woman ruled.

Overall an interesting series, particularly as it told us about the history of some key players in England’s past that aren’t often given a lot of screen time. However, I’m not sure the evidence Castor presented always supported her thesis (that these women have bad reputations because of misogyny & they’d be better remembered if they’d been men doing the same things). But that could partly be due to streamlining the story for television, I should read the book and see what I think of that.

Caligula is one of the most notorious Roman Emperors – remembered for levels of debauchery & tyranny that were shocking even by the standards of the Romans. Mary Beard presented this programme about what we actually know about the man behind the myth. The answer is “surprisingly little” when it comes to his actions once he was Emperor.

Caligula was born Gaius Caesar Germanicus (sometimes he was refered to as Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus & I wasn’t entirely sure if that was him adding to his name once he was Emperor or if it was just a variant version of his name). He was the son of Germanicus, a popular Roman General who was the nephew of the Emperor Tiberius, and was thought likely to become Emperor. Caligula’s mother was Agrippina, the granddaughter of the Emperor Augustus. So on both sides he’s descended from the rulers of Rome. He was brought up mostly in army camps in the north of the Empire, in modern Germany. He was a sort of military mascot – his mother dressed him up in a miniature legionary’s uniform. This is where he got his nickname from – “Caligula” is a diminutive which refers to the caligae, the boots, that a legionary wore. Beard said it was a bit like calling the boy “Bootikins”. Unsurprisingly the adult Caligula became did not like being called that – and would’ve been furious if he’d known that was how he would be remembered in the future.

When Caligula is still relatively young his father dies – probably poisoned, certainly that’s what Germanicus said with his dying breath. There was a trial in Rome, but the accused man conveniently committed suicide early on in the proceedings so the trial became more of a public inquiry. Beard showed us one of the proclamations that were put up in all major cities afterwards – which basically say “the accused was acting on his own, nothing to do with Tiberius, no sir not at all”. After his father’s death Caligula lived with the Emperor Tiberius, Beard said it isn’t clear quite why – was he a hostage? did Tiberius like him? did Tiberius see him as heir & so want to make sure he was kept an eye on? However while he was living there most of his other relatives died – bumped off by Tiberius’s agents.

Succession to the position of Emperor wasn’t well defined – Beard laid this partly at the door of the Emperor Augustus. While Augustus had children, and Augustus’s wife Livia also had a children, they didn’t have any children with each other and so there wasn’t an obvious “legitimate” heir. So the succession tended to involve the removal either before or afterward of other potential candidates. And assassination of the ruling Emperor by the next-in-line was also common. It’s thought that Caligula smothered Tiberius, or instructed someone to smother Tiberius.

When Caligula became Emperor he was only 24, and in many ways he was trading on his boyhood status as military mascot to keep the army onside. He only reigned for a little under 4 years, and in the end he was to be assassinated by the army – Beard pointed out that’s a problem a lot of tyrants & despots face even today. If you use the army to gain power, the army can tear you back down again – the army has the real power.

A lot of the information we have about Caligula’s time as Emperor comes from Suetonius, and he wrote later and his biographies of the Emperors are full of salacious gossip. Tho even he couldn’t quite bring himself to say that Caligula did have an incestuous relationship with his favourite sister, just that “some men say that …”. There is some contemporary evidence for Caligula’s personality & actions as Emperor, though – Beard told us about an eye-witness account of a delegation from the Jews of Alexandria who went to meet Caligula. Instead of getting to business at their appointment, instead they had to trail round after Caligula as he decided how he was going to renovate a part of his palace. And then when he deigned to notice them he was more interested in why they didn’t eat pork rather than the business they wanted to discuss with him. As Beard pointed out this was a power display – they weren’t worth his time or attention, and he could humiliate them on a whim.

Beard also made the point that many of the tales of debauchery may also be tales about Caligula showing his power – stories of Caligula eyeing up the wives of important Romans at dinners, and then choosing one to take off & have sex with, only to return and make some remark about her not being much good in bed. That’s a display of power, and a humiliation for his target. Beard also talked about the story of Caligula making his horse a Consul, which is a later story she thought was likely to’ve derived from some petty humiliation by Caligula. That he was saying something like “you lot are all useless, my horse could do a better job than you, I should make him a Consul”. (She also said, imagine it as if the Queen has called one of her corgis “Prime Minister” – we’d all know what that would mean about the Queen’s opinion of her government.) And later writers turned that into a done deed, not a petty remark.

Caligula lived in a paranoid world where assassination could be just around any corner, and in the end it was. He only ruled for a little under 4 years, which surprised me to learn – I’d assumed he was in power for longer to’ve built up quite such a reputation. After his assassination there was some brief attempt to return to the Republic as a mode of government, but Claudius (Caligula’s uncle) was soon Emperor.

An interesting programme 🙂

The second lecture of the 2011 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures was called “Who’s In Charge Anyway?”. It felt a little more disjointed than the first one, with a bit less information & a bit more entertainment. It covered memory, learning & how the sum total of your memories shapes who you are. And also the frontal lobes & their role in personality & decision making. Again, not a lot I didn’t already know but still fun to watch. Things that particularly stuck in my mind were the demonstration of how poor eyewitness testimony can be (they had someone run off with a cuddly toy, then a later line-up of possible people & the audience mostly got it wrong). And also the “did you see that gorilla?” thing, which demonstrates how you can just not notice even quite strange things when you’re concentrating on something else.

The Other Pompeii: Life & Death in Herculaneum; Chivalry & Betrayal: The Hundred Years War

Pompeii is the city most often mentioned when talking about the places destroyed by Vesuvius erupting in 79AD, but Andrew Wallace-Hadrill explained that Herculaneum actually tells us even more about how the Romans lived than Pompeii does. He started this programme by explaining that the way that Herculaneum was covered up by the ash from Vesuvius means that there is a lot of stuff preserved in Herculaneum that isn’t preserved in Pompeii.

So as well as buildings and the wall paintings & mosaics, there is also a lot of wooden furniture that has survived. This includes things like decorated wooden screens between rooms, or beds and so on. Some of these pieces of wood still have traces of paint & he showed us some wooden ceiling panels where that’s the case. He was telling us that they’ve done analysis of the paint traces and then showed a reconstruction of the vivid colours that it would’ve had originally. Also along that sort of line he showed us the head of a marble statue that had been discovered still with a large amount of the original paint – the hair was a ginger colour and you could see the painted eyelashes & irises of the eyes.

The preservation of wooden objects in Herculaneum also means that a lot of the town’s legal documents were preserved – originally these would’ve been written on wax tablets and the wax is long gone but the traces of the writing are still visible on the carbonised wooden frames. These documents are invaluable for telling us about the inhabitants of the various houses and their lives. He told us about one set of tablets that were a slave girl challenging her status – we don’t know if she won or not, but she was able to go to court and have witnesses called to determine if her mother was a slave when she was born or not (which would determine her own status). He also showed us the citizenship documents of an ex-slave who had managed to make use of the legal system once he was freed in order to become a citizen. Upward mobility appeared to be very common among the inhabitants of Herculaneum, and there were many freed slaves. Interestingly Margaret Mountford said in her programme about Pompeii that Herculaneum was a resort town, but Wallace-Hadrill didn’t mention that idea at all.

When we got to the segment of the programme about the sewers I remembered what we’d seen Wallace-Hadrill in before – Mary Beard’s programme about Pompeii had a section on the Herculaneum sewers where she talked to Wallace-Hadrill (he is the main man in the Herculaneum conservation project after all). Here he spoke to the people doing the investigation of the organic material from the sewers. They told us about the diet of the inhabitants of Herculaneum – a lot of fish, unsurprisingly for a town on the coast of the Bay of Naples. It seems Romans liked their fish whole & crunchy, the fish bones found in the sewers showed signs of digestion even the ear bones from the fish. Wallace-Hadrill then went to a market in the modern town & showed us that much of the fish & of the fruit & veg are still available today.

To corroborate the evidence from the sewers there is also data from the bones of the people found in the boat sheds. Wallace-Hadrill talked to the anatomists who are investigating these bones. They have done some analysis to see what sort of diets people ate (as this shows up in the bone composition) and this backed up the idea of a fish-rich diet. It also showed a lot of variety, they said it was hard to tell what factors affected who ate meat or fish and who was mostly vegetarian because of the social mobility meaning it was hard to identify who was or was not a slave or higher status. One thing they emphasised a lot while talking about the skeletons was that this is a unique resource – it’s a sample of about 10% of the population of the town from a variety of backgrounds & lifestyles. Because they all died simultaneously in this disaster it’s a snapshot of what the town was actually like.

An interesting programme, particularly when put together with the “how did they die” one we watched last week 🙂

The other programme of the evening was the first episode of a series about the Hundred Years War presented by Janina Ramirez. We’ve seen some of her programmes before – she did one about what medieval illuminated manuscripts tell us about the Kings of England, and one about Anglo Saxon treasures.

The Hundred Years War is a conflict between England and France in which started in the 14th Century. In this first programme Ramirez started off by setting the scene – when Edward III came to the throne of England in 1327 he was not just the King of England but also held two duchies within the kingdom of France for which he had to pay homage to the King of France. Edward also believed that via his mother he was entitled to the French crown once the King of France died. However the French disagreed & his cousin Philip took the throne. At this time the French and English courts were tied together not just by blood, they also spoke the same language (French) and had a common culture of chivalry.

Edward refused to pay homage to the new King of France, which lead Philip to try to confiscate his duchy of Aquitaine. Then Edward declared himself the rightful King of France and this started the war. The first major battle was at Caen, where Ramirez pointed out the unpleasant side of chivalry as a concept – it didn’t apply to everyone equally, fellow knights would be taken prisoner & properly treated if they made themselves known. But the townsfolk at Caen were slaughtered wholesale by the English army. After this victory Edward III marched his army nearly to Paris, and then lured the French army to Crécy where he and his army waited at the top of a hill. This battle was a disaster for the French, in large part because Edward III completely ignored the chivalric rules of war. Instead of allowing the numerically greater number of French Knights to close with the English Knights and fight it out he had stationed two divisions of longbowmen (who weren’t nobly born) to target the French as they advanced. The resulting slaughter of both men & horses was responsible for Edward winning the battle. The army then went on to Calais, where they also won.

I think we skipped forward about 10 years here – Ramirez told us some stuff about what was going on in England during this time but I think there weren’t any major battles in France. One of the significant events was the formation of the Order of the Garter – meant to call to mind the Knights of the Round Table this was an elite order of 26 Knights. But as usual Edward’s version of chivalry was heavily leavened with practicality – these Knights were chosen based on their demonstrated ability on the field of battle. The French King created his own order of Knights in response – the Order of the Star. Instead of 26 handpicked proven warriors this order consisted of about 500 Knights, who all swore an oath not to leave the battlefield while they could still fight.

The next campaigns were led by Edward’s eldest son, Edward the Black Prince. He started with his army from Aquitaine & marched towards Carcassone in the east. As the army passed through France they destroyed any villages, farms or mills they came across. They took the food they needed on the march and then burnt the rest. Once they reached Carcassone the knights at the town retreated into their fortifications, and the English could lay waste to the town (and kill the townsfolk). Again chivalry didn’t count for the ordinary people. Once the English had headed back to Aquitaine again, having made their point, the French King wrote a letter to the townspeople saying how he was sorry they’d suffered (but not actually doing anything about it). Ramirez emphasised how this campaign was a statement of power – look how the English could destroy the land and livelihoods of the French people and their King couldn’t do anything about it.

The Black Prince’s next campaign the following year went northeast from Aquitaine in much the same way. It ended up at Poitiers, where this time the French army was waiting for them. This time the English didn’t have the advantage of high ground, nor the surprise of their archers, but nonetheless they still won – and took the King of France (by this stage Philip had died and Jean II was King) into custody. He and other noble prisoners were taken back across the channel to England and held hostage. A truce was declared at this point (mostly due to the Black Death, Ramirez was saying) and then after a while a peace treaty was signed that gave Edward more lands in France (around Aquitaine mostly). He also held all his French lands in his own right, not as a vassal of the King of France. In return Edward was to renounce his claim to the throne of France … only somehow he never got round to that bit!

Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time; Howard Goodall’s Story of Music

There’s a British Museum exhibition about Pompeii & Herculaneum that’s recently opened, so there’ve been a few programmes on the BBC recently on the same subject. Last night we watched Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time – which was billed as a “drama documentary” so I was a little concerned (I don’t generally like too much dramatisation in my documentary viewing) but it turned out to be really good. It was presented by Margaret Mountford, and the way this was presented was as if I should know who she was – having looked her up on wikipedia it turns out she’s known for having been on The Apprentice (as a judge not a competitor). She’s not the presenter here as a “personality” – she’s recently got a PhD in Papyrology with a focus on Roman & Bzyantine Egypt, so she’s an expert in a field related to the programme’s subject. And as I was telling J this, he pointed out he’d heard of her coz she’s a trustee of the EES. I guess I probably should’ve heard of her 🙂

(I do tend to look up the presenters of programmes I watch on wikipedia if I don’t recognise them & even sometimes if I do – it’s interesting to see what else people’ve done.)

I do have some bits of criticism about the programme. Firstly, it suffered slightly from Discovery documentary syndrome in that it was constantly presented as “solving the mystery”. Also the script was oddly repetitive. Almost every time Mountford talked to an expert she’d ask a long detailed question, then the expert would repeat most of the question followed by their (short) answer, then Mountford would repeat most of the question prefaced with a phrase like “so now we know why …”. But those are just niggles, it was well worth watching.

Programmes we’ve watched before about Pompeii & Herculaneum (like Mary Beard’s one which I’ve got a brief write-up of on lj) have concentrated on what the towns tell us about how Romans lived. This programme concentrated on how they died, using what we now know about volcanoes and about the way that bodies react to different temperatures to build up a picture of the last day of these people’s lives. It was actually a fairly distressing programme – nothing gruesome shown, but they did a good job of bringing across the horror of the event and of making you empathise with the people. The “drama” side of this drama documentary was limited to some (really rather impressive) CGI of the eruption and some vignettes of people running through the streets or huddling in shelter – which was just about the right amount of drama for me.

Pliny the Younger had actually described the eruption from witnessing it across the Bay of Naples, but some elements of his description had been dismissed in more recent times as being the result of an overactive imagination. In particular he described a part of the column of smoke & ash as separating off and rolling down the mountain. “Obviously” this had to be wrong, surely only lava spills out over the land. This view was then completely overturned by footage of the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 – another way for a volcano to erupt involves a pyroclastic flow of superheated gas & bits of rock & ash that moves very very fast along the ground (at or over the speed of sound). Mountford talked to an expert who said that this happens when the magma has a lot of gas in it.

It was these pyroclastic flows that killed the people in both Herculaneum and Pompeii – the differences in the remains between the towns is caused by the different distances from Vesuvius. There were 5 pyroclastic flows in total, all of which reached Herculaneum. The people in the town had taken shelter in the boat sheds which would’ve been a safe place in the event of an earthquake (and the eruption was preceded by earthquakes). When the first pyroclastic flow reached Herculaneum it was still at a temperature of about 500°C. The people huddling in the boat sheds died instantly, and the temperature was sufficiently high to vaporise their flesh leaving only charred bones and cracked skulls from where their brains had boiled and exploded. As I said, gruesome.

Pompeii is about 5km further from Vesuvius than Herculaneum, and the first 3 pyroclastic flows didn’t reach that far. In fact it wasn’t until dawn the next day (about 18 hours after the initial eruption) that Pompeii was in true danger. This had been enough time that some people had even returned to their houses to grab their valuables & coin, which would be fatal. The fourth pyroclastic flow reached Pompeii, and the added distance it had travelled had reduced the heat to around 300°C. Mountford visited a lab in Edinburgh where they demonstrated what happens to a piece of pork wrapped in woollen cloth at that temperature. The outside edges of the meat were seared but the cloth was still intact & only slightly discoloured. And this is what happened to the inhabitants of Pompeii – they were instantaneously killed by the heat, but their clothing & flesh remained intact. They were then buried in ash which formed a solid shell around their bodies. Inside these shells the soft tissue & cloth gradually decomposed, and when they were discovered the archaeologists filled the spaces with plaster & then removed the ash. This left the casts around the bones that we see today – complete with impressions of the clothes the people were wearing.

The last part of the programme was about an artist doing facial reconstructions of two of the victims – a woman from Herculaneum and a man from Pompeii. These are always neat to see, and humanise the remains, but I do wonder how accurate they are. I mean, you can tell some stuff about facial structure from the bones, but would their mothers’ recognise them?

Glad we recorded it even though it said “drama documentary”, it was a good programme.

The sixth & last episode of Howard Goodall’s Story of Music talked about the last 100 years of music – the Popular Age. The biggest difference between this era and previous eras is that the advent of radio and of easily available recorded music changed how people could listen to music. It became more omnipresent and you could listen to what you wanted when you wanted to.

The main theme of the programme was that as classical music became increasingly remote and snobbish the vacuum was filled by popular music – starting with jazz. One example of this that Goodall presented was musicals. The same sorts of people who previously would’ve gone to operas in the 19th Century are those who go to the musicals performed on Broadway or the West End today. And popular music took over the role of commenting on current affairs as classical became increasingly abstract or irrelevant. He contrasted the Threepenny Opera* or Porgy and Bess with a surrealist ballet called Parade (score written by Satie; Cocteau & Picasso were involved). The former two were relevant (and well liked by audiences) whereas the latter was out of touch with the times and not accessible/interesting to a particularly wide audience either. Later, after the Second World War, popular music continued to provide social commentary – Vietnam protest songs, for instance, and Bob Dylan’s work.

*I had no idea that the song Mack the Knife was originally a German song in this musical! Odd & cool to hear it being sung in the original.

Classical music during this period moved towards things like Schoenberg’s abstract compositional style where the 12 notes of the western scale aren’t allowed to be repeated within a phrase, and where there’s no “home” chord. Basically we’re into the sort of thing that in my head I think of as “that modern classical stuff I don’t like”. But Goodall points out that this isn’t all that classical is doing during the last 100 years and people claiming that “classical is dead” clearly never go to the cinema! Most film scores are classical music and are written in a style that’s appreciated by a much wider audience than the more avant garde stuff.

Goodall talked us through some of the developments in popular music as well. Not just jazz, but also the rise of rock & roll and the way that was initially shaped by the new teenage market for music. He spent a while discussing The Beatles, and how they moved from their rock & roll beginnings. They not only innovated within their genre, inventing new styles & recording techniques, but also drew on the past of classical music (amongst other things). And this lead neatly into a discussion of how even though American rock & roll has spread throughout the world it has also started to incorporate music from other cultures (and there has also been a rise in people listening to the originals of this music). The Indian influences on The Beatles music were the first point in this segment of the programme, he also mentioned Paul Simon’s South African influenced album Graceland.

He also talked about how classical music was still the source of some innovations that were later taken up by popular music – he cited sampling, which originated with a classical piece but is now one of the foundational underpinnings of a lot of popular music. And he discussed how the cross-fertilisation between the two sorts of music is beginning to work both ways – some modern classical composers are taking ideas & inspiration from popular artists (he gave an example of a symphony that took inspiration from a Bowie album). So Goodall ended the series on a hopeful note for classical music – it’s not dead, and it’s even coming back to being relevant to a wider audience than music critics & composers.

I’ve enjoyed watching this series, it was both informative & interesting. It’s also pretty biased – very much it’s the story of Western classical music (even this last episode is more about the classical music of the era than the popular music). But then he does say right at the start of the first episode that “there are many ways to tell the story of music, this one is [his]” so that’s not a surprise.

Lost Kingdoms of South America; Rome: A History of the Eternal City

The last episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America looked at the Chimú people and their Kingdom of Chimor. They lived in the coastal areas of Peru from around 800AD through to 1400AD when they were conquered by the Incas. The coast of Peru is a desert broken up by river valleys created by the melt water from the Andes running down to the Pacific Ocean.

Cooper started the programme in the ruins of Chan Chan – the capital city of Chimor, which was fairly large & would’ve been inhabited by ~35,000 people at its peak. I’m not sure if this was just the people who lived inside the city (the elite in palaces, and the artisans in houses squeezed in between) or if it also included the poorer people who lived around the walled city & grew food etc. The city is now a tourist attraction & actually a lot of what you can see is reconstruction based on photos & drawings from the past.

The Chimú had arisen after the collapse of a preceding civilisation, the Moche. They grew from a small settlement to a medium sized kingdom on the basis of their irrigation works. Cooper spoke to an archaeologist who works on this, and he was saying that the biggest problem the Chimú faced was that “if all you do is add water to the desert, then you get nothing but wet desert”. Which made me giggle a bit, I liked the turn of phrase. Basically they had to bring in top soil from the river valleys as well as build canals. And unlike our canals which are built straight they built their canals with twists & turns to slow down the water & prevent it eroding the land so much.

The management skills that the culture had to develop to build up their irrigation systems translated well to the management of an empire, and the Chimú set out to conquer themselves one. One neat thing while watching this programme was that J & I had been talking just beforehand about something we’d seen a while ago about some other South American culture (the Lambayque people) and then it turned out they were one of the people’s the Chimú conquered. Cooper told us one reason the Chimú kept conquering was that each new monarch inherited the title from his or her predecessor, but the wealth was inherited by other members of the family. They had to make their own reputation to receive tribute, and the best way to do this was to conquer somewhere new & prove you were worth giving food & wealth to.

Before we watched this episode J & I had been laughing about how all the previous episodes had been dwelling on the happy, happy, hippy side of the cultures, and how all the cultures chosen had apparently got no or little hierarchy. But then this one was the complete opposite – the Chimú had a very strict hierarchy, and you couldn’t change the class you were born into. They even had it built into their creation legend – the commoners came from a copper egg, the women of the royal families came from silver egg, and the men of the royal families from a golden egg. The King was so important he walked on crushed Spondylus shells (which were even more valuable to the Chimú than gold).

And it seems that they practised human sacrifice, of children. The remains of some children between 10 & 14 years old, and in good health, have been found – each was bound and then had their chests cut open & the ribcage forced open. So here we’re back to the gruesome sorts of things one thinks of about Mesoamerican & South American cultures – like the Aztecs & the Incas. The sacrifices were probably due to the extreme weather events that the Chimú land suffered – during an el Niño year the desert can experience extraordinarily heavy rainfall. Around the time the child sacrifices were made there is a band of clay (wet desert!) in the strata, indicating a particularly bad spell of this sort of rainfall.

Overall this was a good series & Jago Cooper is a good presenter. I enjoyed seeing the remains of the different cultures & the scenery of the places they lived – and I thought they did well with emphasising both the differences between the sorts of lives these various people’s lived & our own, and with making them feel like real people. Perhaps a bit too much emphasis on the happy, happy hippy thing in some of the episodes (particularly the one about the Tiwanaku).

We finished off two series this week, because the third episode of Rome: A History of the Eternal City was also the last. This covered the 600 years or so of Rome’s history – at a gallop! It started where it left off last time – with the Papacy leaving Rome to take up residence in Avignon. Montefiore told us how St. Catherine of Siena was so horrified about the Papacy not being in Rome that she wrote several letters practically commanding the Pope to return, and then eventually travelled to Avignon herself and brought the Pope back.

During the Renaissance the Popes and the elite families of Rome indulged themselves in decadent & lavish palaces full of works of art. This is the time of the Borgia Popes, and the time of Michaelangelo etc. And even the Papal residences began mingling classical pagan themes with Christian themes in their decoration. To add to all this expensive building & decoration Pope Julius II (chosing his papal name partly in honour of Julius Caesar) decided it was time St. Peter’s Basilica was rebuilt in a suitable style. To pay for these works the Church sold indulgences – forgiveness for your sins (even the ones you hadn’t committed yet). And this is what so incensed Martin Luther that he kicked off the Reformation.

Because the subject of this series is Rome Montefiore then told us about the counter Reformation – the Catholic Church’s own answer to the excesses of the Renaissance. Although that didn’t mean giving up the lavish art habit – Pope Fig Leaf as Montefiore said he’s remembered (real name Pope Clement XIII) just had them paint over the genitalia in the Renaissance art so the paintings were more modest. And Montefiore went to a church which had a large Baroque statue of the Ecstasy of St. Theresa which might have everyone clothed, but it’s still spectacular & lavish & sensuous.

Montefiore moved us pretty briskly through the rest of Rome’s history picking out just a detail here & there. The sack of Rome by unpaid mercenaries at the end of the Reformation period was used to highlight the ludicrousness of a more modern Pope’s flouncing about being “practically a prisoner” when he wasn’t nearly so threatened (personally or physically). But the threat was still there as this was the end of the Church’s domination of Rome – the fascist Mussolini dealt the death blow when he confined the Pope’s authority to the area of the Vatican State, and the rest of Rome was then under secular Italian rule. And that’s pretty much where we left the story.

I did enjoy this series, but it felt very rushed to fit the whole three millennia into 3 episodes. Even though the theme was the religious history of Rome it felt a bit too much like a history of the papacy for the last couple of episodes.

Lost Kingdoms of South America; Rome: A History of the Eternal City

The third episode of Lost Kingdoms of South America was about El Dorado – and the cultures that might’ve been the truth behind this Spanish legend. The legend as we know it today is about a golden city, but the original Spanish writers talk about a man who scatters gold dust over himself “as if it were salt” and washes it off in a sacred lake – a man who regards the wearing of solid gold ornaments as “vulgar”.

The culture that probably gave rise to these legends are the Muisca who lived in southern Colombia until around 1600AD. They were a couple of loose confederations of villages covering quite a large area – no single leader for the whole group, but they shared a culture. There’s DNA evidence from burials that’ve been excavated which shows that the elite were not a hereditary caste – the burials with lots of grave goods aren’t more related to each other than they are to the burials without grave goods. The archaeologist telling us about this bit said they also didn’t use violence to determine who had power, but I’m not sure what he was basing that on.

They didn’t appear to regard gold as valuable in itself, nor did they wear gold ornaments. Gold is also not found on Muisca lands. But they did trade salt they mined from their land for gold from other peoples – and they ascribed spiritual significance to it and used it to make offerings to their gods. Cooper spoke to a man whose people carried on some of the ancient traditions and their stories tell that one of the rituals took place on a sacred lake, and this could well be the source of the El Dorado legend.

The form of their offerings (well, the ones that have survived) were little flat figures, each one uniquely decorated. They were made by the lost wax method of casting, where first you make a wax model of the thing you want to make, then you encase it in clay and fire that (so that the wax evapourates) and then pour in the molten metal. When it sets, you break it out of the mould. Cooper visited a man who makes replicas of these today, which was kinda neat – he used a blowtorch to melt the gold 🙂 The figurines are distinctive not just in decoration but because they don’t really seem finished – as they were never worn or displayed they haven’t been polished and there are still rough edges from breaking it out of the mould.

Cooper also talked about the Tairona culture who lived in north eastern Colombia on the Caribbean coast. They were a culture that had a common ancestral language & culture with the Muisca, that had originated in Mesoamerica. The Tairona also put spiritual significance on gold, but expressed this differently – their gold ornaments were very different in style (including reclining bat-men as fertility symbols) and they were finished & polished. Their significance was to do with their shininess, and other shiny things were also spiritually significant. There are descendents of the Tairona still living in Colombia today, and still living in traditional villages – there was a segment of the programme in one of their villages with Cooper talking to one of the few of the villagers who spoke Spanish.

The second episode of Rome: A History of the Eternal City covered the rise & fall of Christian Rome from the beginnings of Christianity until the Popes left Rome for France in the 14th Century. At the beginnings of Christianity’s presence in Rome it was just another one of the many small cults that had sprung up in the empire (like the Mithras cult we listened to an In Our Time about the other day). The thing that set Christianity apart was that Christians refused to make the proper sacrifices to the state gods (like the Emperor) and so when scapegoats were needed it was easy to see them as unpatriotic. So they were persecuted and their deaths were often public spectacles – especially during the reign of Diocletian.

This changed when the Emperor Constantine won an impressive victory after ordering his soldiers to display the sign of the cross. After this he tolerated, and promoted, Christianity within the western Roman Empire – even converting himself on his death bed. One of the things Montefiore showed us in the programme was one of the relics that the Emperor’s mother brought from Jerusalem to Rome. I knew she’d brought what she thought to be the cross that Jesus was crucified on to Rome, but I hadn’t known she’d brought a staircase back with her! This is apparently the staircase that Jesus walked up on the way to his trial by Pontius Pilate, and even today pilgrims come to go up it on their knees so that they have touched the place that Jesus put his feet.

St Peter (one of the apostles) was one of the early Christian martyrs in Rome – the obelisk he was crucified in front of still stands outside the church that was built over his tomb (St Peter’s Basilica). The Roman bishops used this link with St Peter to strengthen their position in the church – saying that they were better than other bishops because they were the successors of an apostle. Montefiore showed us the tombs of the early bishops of Rome, which have their title “Papa” which as their status increased gradually became the title of the supreme head of the (latin) Church.

The programme covered the next thousand or so years pretty quickly, dwelling on just a few stories. The first of these was the fall of Rome – sacked by the barbarians, who were actually also Christians (albeit of a different type). And another was the period around the 10th Century which is sometimes called the Pornocracy (it really is! or at least wikipedia agrees with my recollection of the programme). This was a scandalous period with a family that makes the Borgia legend seem tame – one of the key figures was a woman who was the lover of at least one Pope, had at least one Pope murdered and made sure her son (by a Pope) was raised to be Pope himself. Other Popes of the time were related to her family as well – one was her grandson.

Rome’s Lost Empire

Sarah Parcak is an archaeologist who uses satellite imagery to identify previously unknown ancient sites that might be worth excavating. We’ve seen her in a couple of programmes about Ancient Egypt, because she’s discovered the probable sites of several new pyramids as well as some towns. Rome’s Lost Empire was presented by Dan Snow and showed us the sites Parcak found when she used her technology to investigate the Roman Empire.

I’ll start with my criticism of the programme & get that out of the way – it felt more like a Discovery Channel programme than a BBC one. The narration by Snow was full of superlatives – everything was the most important whatever, or the best or the biggest. And they were setting out on a journey to solve a mystery! Which would revolutionise Roman archaeology and history forever! And now we have proof that this was the best something in the history of somethings! Which is … not a style I’m particularly fond of in documentaries. Particularly because every time someone announces that “this evidence proves X” I immediately start coming up with explanations Y, Z, α etc that might also fit the data. What’s wrong with a sober assessment of the probable explanation, with appropriate caveats and reservations. And it was unexpected, as I’ve not had that problem with previous programmes that Snow has presented. He did have some good lines tho, and the less bombastic stuff was good.

So we were treated to a mystery to be solved – how did Rome control such a large empire with such a relatively small army of professional soldiers (~300,000)? And this was the thread that tied together their investigation of four different areas of the Roman Empire – Rome’s main harbour (Portus), an army encampment in Transylvania, the area around Petra in Jordan and the North African Wall. I don’t think they really came to any conclusions, but it provided a lens through which to look at each area.

They also wove the programme together by splitting up the stuff about Portus and spreading it throughout the whole programme. I’m going to talk about it all at once though, as that’s easier. This was the area where Parcak had the most trouble with her technology as the site of the harbour is pretty close to the current airport, and those bits not under runways are pretty populated. However she did manage to find indications of three new sites. The first of these was probably a canal – it was previously known that there were canals between the River Tiber & the harbour, this is the first evidence of one that ran from the other bank of the river up to Rome itself. Which would be a great help in both getting ships to Rome fast (on a straight line path rather than the winding river) and in managing traffic flow on the waterways to Rome. The second of her potential sites was an oval shape, positioned in the land near the waterways & harbour proper – this was the right size & shape to be an amphitheatre, providing entertainment to the people who lived and worked there. And the third was potentially the base of the Portus Lighthouse, which is known of but has never been found. If they can excavate that and confirm it then that’s a pretty exciting discovery.

The Portus segments also showed us some of the excavation work that is going on there. They had some pretty neat CGI to show us what the buildings they’re finding would look like superimposed on the actual landscape (with Snow, Parcak & the archaeologists they’re talking to standing there in front of them too – it looks pretty real). The harbour and its buildings were build not just for functionality but also to impress. So this was part of how Rome exerted control – by looking like it should be in charge.

The first of the non-Portus segments was about a site in Transylvania. When the Romans conquered Transylvania they first had to start by crossing the River Danube at a point where it’s about a mile across and has treacherous currents. So being the engineers they are, they built a bridge – it took two years, and as Snow pointed out, the psychological impact of this bridge being inexorably extended across the river to allow the Roman army to invade must’ve been considerable. Once conquered Transylvania had to be pacified, and there have been remains of Roman forts found in the dense forest of the region. They went to one of these, which is reasonably small – it would’ve been able to house about 1500 troops. Parcak then went up in a plane to use a technology called LIDAR to generate a map of what the landscape of the area around this fort looked like under the trees – I didn’t really understand the description of LIDAR, I think it’s a bit like RADAR but with lasers and somehow they can subtract the reflections from the trees and just look at the reflections from the ground. This allowed Parcak to identify what looked like a wider fortification around the known one, capable of housing a great number more troops on a temporary basis. They then trekked through the forest to see if it was really there (it was). That bit was a little amusing – they set off walking in a line, a couple of local archaeologists, Snow, Parcak … and a man with a gun. I guess the local wildlife is still pretty wild. Anyway, this segment illustrated conquering and controlling by armed force.

The next section was about Petra, and of course we were treated to them riding through the well known bit. The surrounding area is more desert like (now) and so Parcak’s tech worked well – she identified several square sites that looked to the eye of the local archaeologist as if they were potentially farmsteads. So they went out to visit one to have a preliminary look at the sorts of pottery you could find. This mean we had an amusing bit with Snow (a historian, not archaeologist) saying the sort of things we all think about how the ability of archaeologists to date pottery just from small fragments is astonishing & faintly magical. And then we saw Parcak and the other archaeologist confidently pick up a handful of broken bits of pot & say this was definitely occupied during Roman times 🙂 This segment was illustrating “conquering” an area not using military force – Petra was not only agriculturally rich in ancient times, but was also on the trade routes from the Arabian peninsula into the rest of the world and rich from charging tolls. Effectively the Romans extended their protection and help with enforcing the tariffs in return for a cut of the proceeds, and so everyone was happy.

And the last segment was about the North African Wall – which ran along the edge of the fertile North African plains to protect this farmland from the nomadic tribes to the south. This (like Hadrian’s Wall) wasn’t a hard & fast boundary that no-one was allowed to cross, instead it was permeable and allowed traders and civilians to go to & fro whilst providing a barrier to opportunistic raiders. The local archaeologist they met up with in Tunisia took them to see a part of the wall, and they discussed how hard it was for him to find where the forts that he knew must be there were in what is now a trackless desert area. Parcak’s imaging allowed her to pinpoint 30 or so square sites that looked like they might be fortifications and so they drove out to one. It had clearly been dug over by locals at some point, but one of the deep holes left showed them that there were centuries of occupation (and again pottery told them this was during the Roman era).

So while I took exception with the language of “we’ve proved X, we’ve solved mystery Y”, this programme did show us how Parcak’s imaging technology had provided four teams of archaeologists with new, potentially exciting sites to excavate. And they wouldn’t’ve discovered them anywhere near as fast by searching the old fashioned way by driving or walking over the land.

In Our Time: The Cult of Mithras

The cult of Mithras was one of several cults that sprang up in the Roman Empire during the 1st Century AD. It was a mystery cult and so what we know of it now comes from archaeological evidence and the writings of people who were not members. The experts who discussed it on In Our Time were Greg Woolf (University of St Andrews), Almut Hintze (SOAS, University of London) and John North (Institute of Classical Studies, University of London).

The historical origins of the Mithras cult aren’t clear – back in the late 19th Century it was thought that the cult had a direct connection to Zoroastrianism, mostly because there is a Zoroastrian god called Mithra. But more recent scholarship suggests that the connection isn’t particularly direct – it’s more like the Romans took the name & some very basic idea of the worship of Mithra and then reinvented it completely for their own cult. (Which meant it felt a little like Hintze was invited to the programme based on a faulty understanding, as she’s a Professor of Zoroastrianism – she did have other things to contribute, but I felt like she got unfairly cut off a few times.) Other cults that sprang up at the same time had similar types of origins, although possibly had closer links to their parent religion – things like the Roman Isis cult, or a Demeter cult. And of course Christianity can be seen as another of these – Pauline Christianity is partly a reinterpretation of Judaism for Gentiles.

The literary sources of information about the Mithras cult are pretty slim – a lot of it is written by Christians who are trying to show how their religion is a real one, and this Mithras nonsense is a work of the devil. That was apparently a mainstream Christian opinion during the first couple of centuries after Christ, that the devil had started up all these other cults so that the truth of Christianity would be obscured by competing cults. And later in the 4th & 5th centuries Christians were involved in the destruction of Mithraic temples (as part of a wider movement of the destruction of pagan temples).

The archaeology tells us more about the iconography & so on of the cult, but as I said at the start it was a mystery cult and so the iconography is not explained. One of the images that is present in nearly all excavated temples is of Mithras killing a bull, while a dog & a serpent lap up the blood and a scorpion & a raven are also involved in the killing. Hintze pointed out that this is very different from the Zoroastrian Mithra in the level of violence protrayed – whilst there is a Zoroastrian myth that death entered the world with the killing of a bull, it’s the force of evil who does the killing in Zoroastrianism and doesn’t come with so much violence. Whereas in the Mithras cult it’s the god doing this, and it’s a violent scene – still possibly having to do with creation of the cosmos in some fashion. Other scenes include some sort of story for how the bull ends up in the cave where it is killed (although these are not always in the same order which seems odd if they are a sacred narrative). And a meal that Sol & Mithras eat together.

The temples themselves represent a cave – the cave that the bull was killed in. And there are indications that the gathered worshippers (20-40 of them) ate a communal meal. There is also from one temple some recent evidence that there may’ve been some sort of ritual meal for non-initiates around the outskirts of the temple. But by the way this was presented on the programme it seems this is still very much a conjecture based on a single data point.

Another archaeological source for the cult are the dedicatory inscriptions from members of the cult. These are all from men, and as there are a few thousand of these (I think they said) this seems to suggest that there were no women members of the cult. They are also all from the middling sort of people – not poor, not rich. And are primarily members of the military or the bureaucratic hierarchy.

It seems that the cult had seven levels of initiate, the lowest ones were called ravens & the highest paters (fathers). One of the middle levels was called a leo (lion) and from some of the texts & inscriptions this seems to be the “normal” level of an initiate. There could only be one pater per temple, and when there were too many worshippers a new temple would be built. I think they have depictions of the initiation ceremonies for progressing up the levels & it seems that these were fairly brutal. Presumably they also involved transfer of the sacred knowledge, but we don’t have any record of this.

Towards the end of the programme they had a little segment doing a compare & contrast with Christianity, because that has always been one of the things that’s brought up when discussing Mithraism in a modern context. They talked about how the 25th December was supposed to be significant in the Mithras cult, but it seems this was based on a single calendar and it’s not even clear that that’s what the calendar meant! That’s the one I’d heard before, that Mithras’ birthday was the same as Christ’s but that doesn’t appear to be true. They also discussed how Christianity was actually more similar to the Demeter & Isis cult than it was to the Mithras cult – there’s no death & resurrection in the Mithras mythology (that we know of) for instance. And in the Mithras cult your position in the secular hierarchy was often reflected in your position in the initiate hierarchy – which is again not the case with Christianity.

When I set out to write this I wasn’t sure how much I was going to remember, but it seems the answer is “quite a lot” 🙂