In Our Time: The Roman Republic

The Roman Republic was the subject of an In Our Time episode all the way back in 2004 – we listened to it last August while there weren’t any new In Our Times airing. It’s a pretty broad subject for a 45 minute programme – 500 years of history plus its rise and fall – so of necessity it was painting with fairly broad brushstrokes and looking at themes and commonalities across the centuries. Tackling it were Greg Woolf (St Andrews University), Catherine Steel (University of Glasgow) and Tom Holland (historian and author). (NB: Institutions presumably out of date, it being 12 years ago.)

They started by talking about the foundational myths of the Republic as the stories they told themselves shaped how the Republic functioned. This isn’t Romulus and Remus – they are a foundational myth for the city – instead the two key stories are the rape of Lucretia and Horatius on the bridge. Lucretia was raped by the son of the King of Rome, and afterwards she committed suicide whilst calling on her kin to avenge her. This sparked an uprising (led by a man called Brutus) which drove out King Tarquin. Following this the Romans declared they would have no more kings. The second legend follows on directly from this one* – Tarquin didn’t take kindly to losing his kingdom like this, and enlisted the support of one of the nearby Etruscan cities. He returned to Rome at the head of an army and it seemed like the Romans were going to be forced to take their king back. However before this could happen Horatius stepped forward to stand on the bridge the army were marching over. He and two companions held off the army for long enough for the bridge to be destroyed behind them, preventing the army from reaching the city. So you have this ideal that the people will rule themselves (with no kings) and when a hero is needed a citizen will step forward to give his own life for his city.

*Well, that’s the way they told the legend on the programme, when looking it up on wikipedia to check spellings of names I saw that there it’s set much later in the Republic’s history – the point remains the same though.

The Roman Republic was the first constitutional democracy meaning that people were voted into positions of responsibility. (Athens was a direct democracy, where everyone voted on what should be done.) The political structure was based on sharing power around in two different ways. Firstly the many powers that a king had once had were distributed between several people. Secondly any given person only held a particular office for a short term (rather than for life). The ephemerality of power and glory were a key concept for the Republic. A consul was consul for a year. A general who’d won a victory was given a triumph and treated like a god for a day. Theatres and celebratory buildings (like triumphal arches) were temporary structures. Even the permanent infrastructure buildings weren’t built of stone but of more ephemeral materials. Which puts the Emperor Augustus “coming to Rome a city of brick and leaving it a city of marble” (as discussed on the In Our Time about the Augustan Age (post)) in a different light: that’s not just an upgrade to the buildings, that’s a change of ethos.

Clearly the Republic wasn’t static over its 500 years of history – in particular the balance of power between the people and the aristocracy was constantly shifting and evolving. But it was at heart a very conservative society which looked back to a prior Golden Age. Much was written in later days in the Republic about how it had been better in the early days (before whatever the most recent crisis had been) – and this genre includes most of the surviving texts written about how the Republic was founded. Changes were often brought in by announcing that they were returns to the ways things were done in the past – whether or not this was actually true. This continues after the Republic as well – they brought up on the programme that Augustus’s propaganda cast the beginning of the Empire as a restoration of the good old days of the Republic.

The end of the Republic can be thought of as it becoming a victim of its own success. Before they went out and conquered such vast lands it was possible for every key political figure to come back every year to Rome and vote for the new Consuls and so on. And when your campaigns only last a year and are nearby then the army can be based on the idea of farmer-soldier citizens. Every able-bodied land-owning male citizen was supposed to enlist – easily done when he comes back in time for harvest, but what do you do about his farm if he’s on campaign for 5 years at a time? And once the land-owning requirement was abolished where do long term soldiers retire to when they’re done in the army? The Senate generally prevaricated over the provision of awards and recompense to these retired soldiers – which left a gap for the generals of the armies to fill. And if your reward would come from the charismatic general you were serving under, then your loyalty would be to him first rather than to Rome or to the Senate.

The Triumvirate of Pompey, Crassus and Caesar (the first stage in the transition from Republic to Empire) can be seen as having grown out of Pompey not liking his downgrade in status when he returned to Rome. Whilst out campaigning in the East he had been treated like a king, back home in Rome he was only one amongst equals. And not a particularly important one at that – having been away he was out of the loop, politically speaking. The experts said that Caesar’s motivation was probably that he saw there as being only so many “slots” for important people in any new regime and he wanted to make sure he occupied one of them.

The defining point for the end of the Republic was the crossing of the Rubicon by Caesar and his army. The Rubicon is a river between Italy and Gaul, and it marked the boundary between the provinces (where a general could be a king in all but name) and the core territories (where the general was no more important than any other aristocrat). The tradition was that you could not bring your army with you into the core – and so Caesar camps on the other side, which makes the Senate nervous. He’s given the choice between dismissing his army and crossing himself, or taking his army and leaving. But Caesar knows that if he does this then he loses all the power he’s worked for – and so he brings his army across the Rubicon.

I said that was the defining point of the end, but as they discussed on the programme that’s only obvious with hindsight. It probably wasn’t clear to the Romans that the Republic was gone forever until one Emperor inherited from another … and perhaps not even until an Emperor was deposed and yet still the Republic was not not restored.

In Our Time: The Augustan Age

The Augustan Age is the period between 27BCE and 14CE when the Emperor Augustus ruled the Roman Empire. It was discussed on In Our Time (in 2009) by Catharine Edwards (Birkbeck College, University of London), Duncan Kennedy (University of Bristol) and Mary Beard (Cambridge University). They were primarily considering the politics and arts of the Emperor Augustus’s reign and how these were linked. Politically speaking it’s the beginning of the Roman Empire and a period of peace after the instability of the civil war that marked the end of the Roman Republic. And in terms of the arts this period includes some of the names that one thinks of when one thinks of Roman literature: Virgil, Ovid, Horace.

The Emperor Augustus was called Octavian before he became Emperor and was the adopted son of Julius Caesar (so is sometimes referred to as Caesar). He was named heir in Julius Caesar’s will, but when Julius Caesar was murdered Mark Anthony tried to grab power and civil war broke out. When the dust settled Octavian didn’t restore the Republic, instead he became the Emperor Augustus and inaugurated the Roman Empire. He managed to leave the Senate a sense of dignity and respect (thus heading off the likelihood of an end like Julius Caesar’s) whilst actually retaining sole control himself. For instance he chose a role from the standard Roman Republic’s kit to hold in perpetuity (Tribune) that was actually one of the more junior roles but it was also the one that spoke first in the Senate allowing him to direct the proceedings. He also made a point of knowing all of the Senators, and Beard said that he’s supposed to’ve greeted them all by name at the beginning of each session – which, as she pointed out, must’ve come across as rather fake & tedious to the Senators who weren’t whole-heartedly buying into the cult of Augustus.

His propaganda characterised his reign as a return to the good old fashioned Roman virtues – a bit like the Tory Party narrative of “family values” in modern politics, looking back to an idealised 1950s that never was. Augustus cast the civil war and turmoil as being the result of Rome and the Roman citizens’ fall from virtue over the preceding decades. The bedrock of Roman virtue is the mythos of the farmer-general who leaves his plough to lead the armies of Rome to glory. It’s rooted in rural and agricultural life, and military values; and this is juxtaposed with the sins of decadent urban life where citizens live in luxury. Which I found quite amusing as the way we remember the Roman Empire includes quite a lot of salacious scandal about “my goodness what those Emperors and their families got up to!”. And it seems that Augustus would be horrified by this image of his Empire. He envisaged his family’s role as playing the part of “Good Old Fashioned Roman Family” as an example for everyone else to live up to. For instance his wife spun the cloth that made his clothes, just as a good Roman housewife should. He was not entirely successful in achieving the family image he intended (see below), but he did succeed in successfully re-inventing himself. Which was quite an achievement, as during the civil war Octavian had been somewhat of a young thug. There are multiple stories of his ruthlessness and cruelty, including one tale of him ripping out someone’s eyes with his bare hands! Not quite the good and virtuous first-amongst-equals farmer-general of his later propaganda.

One of the things Augustus does to return virtue to Rome is to pass new laws enforcing proper moral behaviour. Notably these included laws against adultery. This was the area in which his family fell short of the image he was hoping they’d convey. Augustus’s daughter Julia had been married off “advantageously” but clearly not to her tastes – she committed adultery in a particularly noticeable and notorious fashion. Augustus was forced to take action using his own laws, and she was exiled and some of her lovers executed. Then a decade later Julia’s daughter (also called Julia) went on to do much the same thing as her mother – with much the same consequences. So much for the Good & Virtuous first family!

Augustus poured money into the city of Rome – he is said to’ve come to Rome as a city of brick and left it a city of marble. His building projects were wide-ranging and numerous, and many of the buildings we think of as Ancient Rome come from his infrastructure overhaul. This is notably not a return to the “Good Old Days” – we listened to an In Our Time episode about the Roman Republic about three weeks after we listened to this one, and it made the point that the ephemerality of power was a key concept in the Republic. So building infrastructure out of ostentatious and permanent marble was a change of paradigm, reflecting the difference between Republic and Empire as governmental systems.

The flowering of literature and poetry during the Augustan Age is tied into Augustus’s propaganda machinery. It’s a part of the return to the old virtues and of the idea of making Rome great again. Augustus was definitely a patron of the arts – it’s not known how much he paid the writers, but there’s evidence that he did pay them, and pay them well. He also writes some of his own poetry, but there’s no evidence one way or the other about whether or not he also “collaborated” on the others’ poetry. Some of the well known works that survive to the present also have Augustan propaganda as part of their subject matter. For instance Virgil’s Aeneid has a section early on where Jupiter prophesies the future of the city Aeneas has founded (which is Rome). This details the future of Rome through to Augustus as the necessary, pivotal and inevitable Emperor, after whom Rome will rule the world forever. It situates everything Augustus did to gain power and how he is now ruling as the things that are necessary for the future glory of Rome (rather than self-serving). Augustus also traces his ancestry to Aeneas (just like medieval English kings will later link themselves to Brutus and/or King Arthur).

Horace’s poetry is also a part of the propaganda machinery (on the family values side of it) but Ovid is less obviously a part of this. His work is lighter and more comedic than the other two poets, and much more about sex than the new morality of the Augustan Age is really comfortable with. There’s also evidence that Ovid himself didn’t sit comfortably in this new morality – he was perhaps a part of the Younger Julia’s disgrace, and was exiled from Rome. He missed Rome while in exile, considering it the only place worth living – even if his work was more light-hearted than the tone of the age, he was still very emotionally invested in the new Rome that Augustus had built.

Near the beginning of the programme they mentioned the Elizabethan Age (of Elizabeth I of England) as a way of explaining the term “Augustan Age”, and once one’s mind has been drawn to it there are some coincidences in more than the terminology we use for the era. Both are periods of calm after a period of chaos and disunity, the leadership of each country is presented as benign yet is actually pretty tyrannical, both have a flowering of literature which is state-controlled propaganda as well as art. And Elizabeth I was crowned on nearly the same day as Augustus took power (only 1585 years and 1 day later…).

In Our Time: The Eunuch

Modern Western culture is unusual in having no role for eunuchs in the machinery of bureaucracy – throughout history in a variety of different cultures castrated men have played an important part in governance (and in some cases in the arts). The In Our Time episode about eunuchs took a compare and contrast approach to three cultures in which eunuchs were particularly important. The three experts each had a different speciality: Karen Radner (University College London) talked about Assyria, Shaun Tougher (Cardiff University) discussed Rome and Michael Hoeckelmann (King’s College London) was an expert on China. The aim was to draw out the parallels between the three situations but it didn’t quite gel into a cohesive picture for me – particularly the Rome section as it always seemed to be different to the other two. So although all three threads were interwoven in the programme I’m separating out the Roman bit in this write up.

In Assyria and China the origins of using eunuchs in the bureaucracy came from the idea that they were safe to have around the royal women. They were trusted palace servants whose lack of family ties were an important part of that trustworthiness. In addition the future ruler was often brought up with & by his eunuchs, so the bond formed between them was particularly strong. In both these societies being a eunuch was seen as a way to get ahead if you were from a poor family.

Whilst a lack of family ties was part of the rationale for creating eunuch servants it seems that the level to which this was true varied over time in Assyrian and particularly Chinese culture. Eunuchs might seek favours for their birth families, using their closeness to the ruler to their family’s advantage. The position of eunuchs in Chinese culture was cyclical and later in each cycle eunuchs would start adopting children and posts might become “hereditary” – which rather defeats the original purpose of using eunuchs in these roles. This cycle was tied to the history of the dynasties of Chinese rulers: as a dynasty began to decline the eunuchs would gain more power. Then when a new dynasty conquered/overthrew the previous one they’d stamp their authority more firmly on their servants.

Radner, talking about the Assyrians, was keen to point out that as a farming society they would’ve been castrating their livestock and so knew the effects (on size & strength) before they started to do this to people. A noteworthy feature of eunuchs in Assyrian society was that they were also the ruler’s bodyguards as well as his bureaucrats. Not quite the effete image that we have of eunuchs (mostly based on Italian castrato singers, I think).

In Assyria the eunuch was created by cutting between testicles & penis – the minimum necessary operation. However in China the entire apparatus was removed, and kept in a jar to show the Emperor on demand. Chinese eunuchs were an interesting exception to the normal Confucian idea where family was more important than anything – and this is a part of why they were restricted to serving the Emperor. He was the only person important enough (as semi-divine Son of Heaven) to be able to over-ride the proper order of things. And there’s a paradox as well: eunuchs had status and power, yet castration was also used as a punishment. The two things co-existed but were entirely separate (you didn’t become a eunuch after punishment by castration).

In contrast to these two cultures, in Rome having eunuch servants was a status symbol. They are a part of the Roman obsession with Greek culture, and the Greeks had got the idea from Persia (via Alexander the Great’s conquest). So a eunuch servant was a luxury, and having one showed that you were sophisticated and rich. It wasn’t restricted to the ruler (or ruling class), even though later (in Byzantine times) the eunuchs became important in the bureaucratic machinery of the Empire. They also became prized for their singing voices – and in Europe this lasted into the 20th Century.

As I said at the beginning of this post, the programme felt a little disjointed – perhaps they needed to pick a different third culture (if there is one). Tho I can see why Rome would feel the obvious choice.

In Our Time: Spartacus

Spartacus was not just the subject of a famous film, but also a real life gladiator in the 1st Century BC who successfully escaped and orchestrated a slave rebellion in Italy. He had some success for a couple of years before being killed by Crassus, and his rebellion was put down. Talking about it on In Our Time were Mary Beard (University of Cambridge), Maria Wyke (University College, London) and Theresa Urbainczyk (University College, Dublin).

The programme began by putting the era in context. The 1st Century BC is a time when Rome has conquered large swathes of the the land around the Mediterranean, but has not yet become an Empire. It is still running this territory using the political mechanisms and infrastructure of the city state it used to be. The line between politicians and generals is blurry, and both roles are filled by the same people – to be a general you need to be elected to public office. The republic runs on slavery, there are large numbers of slaves throughout Roman ruled Italy. This segment of the programme overturned an idea I’d acquired (I don’t know where from) that the more recent slavery in the US was somehow qualitatively different from slavery in the classical world. That slavery in the classical world was more along the lines of being unable to leave your job, rather than being penned in at night and treated as if you weren’t really human. But Beard explained that whilst house slaves might not have such a bad life, the majority of the slaves were agricultural slaves. And Italy was covered with plantations – large farms each owned by a family who kept a large number of slaves to work the land, and treated them poorly and kept them penned in under guard when they weren’t working.

So it’s not that surprising that slave revolts were a thing that happened in this time period. Spartacus may’ve lead the most famous one but it was neither the first nor the most successful. There had been a couple of large scale revolts during the century preceding Spartacus’s revolt. Both of these lasted for 5-10 years before being put down, and in one of them the former slaves took over Sicily and set up their own independent country (state? community? I’m not sure of the right word here). It wasn’t always just slaves that got involved, either – disaffected free people from the various Italian city states that had been subsumed into the Roman Republic also rallied to these rebellions.

What’s known of Spartacus’s early life is pretty slim, he was originally from Thrace in what is now the Balkans. He was captured, along with his wife, and sold into slavery. There is some speculation that he may’ve been in the Roman army for a while (before capture? after capture? I’m not sure) due to his later success as a general. He definitely ends up as a gladiator in a training school in Capua by 73BC, and whilst being a gladiator was often a punishment there’s no evidence it was for any particular reason perhaps increasing his sense of injustice. Spartacus along with 70 or so of his fellow trainees successfully escaped from this gladiatorial school. As Beard said, escaping was the easy bit – keeping highly trained fighting men locked in once they decided to get out was almost certain to be beyond the resources of the school. There is one source that says the men escaped using kitchen implements as weapons, before finding a cache of gladiatorial weapons after they’d got out.

Once out the gladiators made for the slopes of Vesuvius (which was not actively volcanic at the time) trying to evade the Roman soldiers who were now hunting them. The sources say that the gladiators and others led by Spartacus set up camp in an area surrounded by steep cliffs, with only one narrow path out – and so the Romans set up camp at the end of the path and planned to starve them out. But Spartacus displayed the military ability he was to become famous for, and organised the men to make ropes from the abundant vines in the region they were camping. They then abseiled down, snuck round to the Roman camp and took them by surprise. After this they were armed with army grade weapons, made for practicality, rather than gladiatorial weapons (made as much for show as use).

After this quite a lot is known about what the force did and where they did it, but nothing about motivation. So it’s known that many people joined this revolt over the two years it lasted, both slaves and free people as I mentioned above, and by the end there were about 10,000 people involved. It’s also known that early on the group split more than once with a Spartacus led force going one way and a force led by someone else going the other way. Generally what happened there was that Spartacus won his battles, the other leaders weren’t so successful. But what we don’t know is why this happened – arguments over leadership? disagreements about where to go? attempts to spread themselves out to make better use of available resources?

Spartacus led his force up to the north of Italy to the alps, but once there didn’t cross and instead led his army back down through Italy to the south of the country. Some people speculate that this was because he changed his mind – initially they say he intended just to go home, but then he decided to try and take down Rome (whether to replace it, or to abolish slavery or some other reason). But the experts on this programme seemed to think it was much more likely that if his original intent had been to go home he’d’ve gone across to the east coast of Italy and got on a boat for Thrace as quickly as possible. Instead they speculate that the movement up and down the length of Italy was partly to keep the army fed – they were basically scavengers and keeping a large force fed off the land (even with help from sympathetic locals) would mean they would need to keep moving. And also by marching throughout Italy they could gather support from the non-Roman city states – ending up in the south of Italy perhaps with an eye to getting to Sicily where a previous revolt had been successful for a while.

But Spartacus was to be defeated in 71BC by an army lead by Crassus. Crassus was a wealthy Roman citizen who was a general and politician. Bragg referred to him as a statesman, but Beard corrected this to “thug”. It’s important to remember that as officials were elected every year then it would be very useful to someone like Crassus to have a victory under his belt to show off about to the electorate. So Crassus took a considerable fighting force to hunt down Spartacus, and was in the end successful. Opinion was divided between the three experts as to whether or not the average Roman would actually have been much bothered about this slave revolt. One point of view was that if you were living in Rome it would all seem to be happening “over there, somewhere else”. But the other was that being surrounded oneself by slaves all of the time would make it a frightening time.

Spartacus’s legend grew after his death. This is down, in large part, to the needs of Crassus’s PR campaign. By building up the rebellion lead by Spartacus to be a big deal he made his own victory look that much more impressive. In actual fact it wasn’t, as I said earlier, the most successful slave revolt. Much later, in the 18th Century AD the legend that had grown up around Spartacus was taken up by the movement for the abolition of slavery. And since then it has been used by many different groups of people as a rallying point for their cause – ranging from the left wing (ie Karl Marx) to the right (ie Ronald Reagan).

In Our Time: Strabo’s Geographica

Strabo was a Greek scholar who lived in Rome (and other parts of the Roman world) from the 1st Century BC to the 1st Century AD. During this time he wrote his Geographica which was a large work describing the “known world” of the Romans. Discussing it on In Our Time were Paul Cartledge (University of Cambridge), Maria Pretzler (Swansea University) and Benet Salway (UCL).

They started the programme with some context for both Strabo and the world he lived in. He was born in what is now Turkey in around 64BC, which at the time was a part of the Greek world. He lived through a time of great expansion of Roman territory, and the change from Republic to Empire. Not long after he was born the Romans expanded eastwards past his homeland, when he was around 30 Egypt became a part of the Roman empire, and Julius Caesar’s first campaigns in Britain were within his lifetime too. So this is a time when the geography of the Roman territory was changing rapidly, and also a time when a lot of Greek intellectuals like Strabo were incorporated into Roman culture. We don’t know much about Strabo himself, Cartledge (I think) noted in passing that we don’t even know his full name. Strabo means something like “squinty eyed” and would once have been a nickname, but got incorporated into Roman names as a cognomen. Strabo first came to Rome when he was around 20 for his education, and also spent time in Alexandria which was one of the other major intellectual centres of the classical world. As well as the Geographica Strabo is known to have written a history – which has not survived. It was also an ambitious work and it updated a previous work to bring it up to the “present day” of Strabo’s time.

The Geographica is about 17 volumes, and as I said in the opening paragraph it covers the “known world”. The Romans were aware that the Earth is a globe, and Pretzler said that they were even fairly close to being right about the size of the world (although I think she implied that the calculations used were wrong but they got to the right answer anyway). So they were aware that there was a lot of world unaccounted for – their known world was about a quarter of the globe. There were different theories at the time about what else was there – one was that there was ocean filling the rest of the space. This lead some Romans to be dubious about the existence of Britain even after Julius Caesar had campaigned there – it wasn’t logical, because it was off the edge of the land. And Strabo wasn’t convinced by reports from an explorer of islands to the west of Britain – what we now know as Ireland and Iceland.

The first couple of volumes are introductory in nature. This is, in fact, where most biographical details about Strabo come from. The text also says that Strabo is very widely travelled and knows much of the world first hand, but Pretzler explained that this was a standard thing for geographers and historians of the time to say. It was intended to give them some authority but wasn’t necessarily true. She said that you can make some reasonable guesses about which bits were first hand and which weren’t – in part because the first hand bits are so much more vivid (and accurate). In these introductory chapters Strabo also explains the many sources he has consulted – I think they said it was a couple of hundred, of course only a few of these are his major sources. He also takes the time to write about Homer’s geographical knowledge in the Iliad and the Odyssey. These volumes of the Geographica also go into the theory of geography of the time, and the mathematical principles behind drawing maps.

The remaining volumes cover the actual geography – not just the physical geography but what we would now call political and social geography: what the countries/provinces are, what the people are like. The text was organised following the then current convention of moving around the coast of the Mediterranean from Spain to the east of the sea, and the back westwards along the north coast of Africa. Obviously to fit in the whole of the known world of the time Strabo also needs to take a couple of detours – one when he fits in Asia Minor up to around Afghanistan, and one to cover India.

The contemporary audience for the work would’ve been fairly wide. Cartledge said that it was written in a style that would be accessible to the general literate & educated population of the time. Strabo himself made the assertion that he intended it to be of particular use to generals and politicians. Remember this was a time of expansion for the Roman Empire, and although we know in hindsight that it had reached its furthest extent during Strabo’s lifetime that wasn’t clear at the time. Strabo was making the point that if you know the geography & the sorts of peoples living in each part of the world then you can better plan your conquests, and your ruling of the territory afterwards.

After Strabo’s death the Geographica isn’t cited much for the next few centuries – in part because the conventions of the time were not to cite recent works. People were keen to root their new works deeply in the classical past, and Strabo was too recent. I think the experts thought he was probably read by these later authors just not referenced. The only mentions of Strabo’s work from that sort of era are by Josephus, the Jewish Roman historian. Strabo’s Geographica was rediscovered in the Renaissance, and had an influence on map making for a couple of centuries after that. One of the experts (possibly Salway?) was saying that even into the 18th Century there would be maps made, for instance of Africa, where the coasts were done with the new modern mapmaking methods, but the inland regions might come straight out of Strabo.

In Our Time: Galen

Galen was a Greek doctor who lived in the 2nd Century AD and wrote an incredible amount about the practice of medicine. His works were still used as the standard medical texts in Europe & the Islamic world until the Renaissance era – and some parts even after that. The experts discussing it on In Our Time were Vivian Nutton (University College London), Helen King (Open University) and Caroline Petit (University of Warwick).

Galen was born in Pergamon, Greece (the city of the Pergamon Altar, now in Berlin) and was the son of an architect. At this time Pergamon was a rich city and was spending a lot of money on civic buildings, so Galen’s family were well off. Galen was bring brought up as an intellectual, but then when he was 17 his father had a dream where the god of medicine appeared to him and told him that Galen must become a doctor. His medical education began in Pergamon, and later he moved to Alexandria. There he learnt about anatomy, pharmacology and other areas of medical knowledge. Apparently he didn’t much enjoy his time there – Nutton said Galen wrote that he hated the country, he hated the people, he hated the weather, he hated the food. But nonetheless he stayed there for around 5 years, before returning to Pergamon at the age of around 28.

He began to practice medicine in his home town, where he became the doctor who looked after the gladiators. A couple of years later moved to Rome. It’s not known why he moved – maybe just for ambition, or maybe he had other reasons to wish to leave his home town. Once in Rome he gradually built up a reputation as an exceptional doctor. He did this in part by demonstrations, and in part by treating people who then spread the word about being cured by him. Eventually he rose to become the Emperor’s doctor.

Galen wrote a lot. He wrote primarily about medicine, but also about philosophy and about his own life. All three experts agreed that one of the problems with studying Galen is that the best and often only source for his life is himself – which obviously means that any exaggeration or shading of the truth is hard to detect. Galen’s medical texts were partly based on what he had learnt during his education, but they contained a lot of innovative ideas and were grounded in Galen’s own observations of diseases. One of Galen’s primary focuses was on prognosis (and one of his better known works is called On Prognosis) – he was interested in using his observations of the patient’s body and environment to predict what would happen next in the disease. He used a variety of techniques to treat disease – he followed the acknowledged path of the day to first try to cure via the diet of the patient, then use drugs (generally plant based) and then to try surgery. Unusually for an elite doctor of the time Galen did his own surgery, rather than regarding it as too “manual” for a person like himself.

Even by the end of Galen’s lifetime he was beginning to be regarded as the place to turn when learning about medicine. And this grew over the next few hundred years. His works were gradually streamlined into a canon, that weren’t necessarily the whole story, and then were translated via Arabic into Latin. Medieval doctors relied on the information in Galen in their medical education, even though complete texts were hard to come by. But in the Renaissance some of the fundamental underpinnings of Galen’s work were queried – Vesalius began to do dissections on humans and realised that much of Galen’s anatomical knowledge was derived from animals (a point I think they could’ve brought out more earlier in the programme). And Harvey’s work on circulation showed that the four humours theory of how the body works was clearly not the case. But even after this Galen’s pharmacology was still useful (and some parts still are today).

The programme seemed to run out of time a bit abruptly towards the end, so there wasn’t as much on Galen’s legacy as I might’ve liked to hear.

The Week’s TV Including Greeks, Romans, the Indian Ocean, Apocalyptic Volcanoes & More

I’ve decided to change the way I’m writing about TV programmes, because we’ve increased the amount of TV we’re watching (to try not to run out of space on the PVR) and it’s been taking a lot of time to write long posts about each programme. So instead I’m going to do a post a week of mini-reviews of what we watched, and perhaps every now & then a longer post about something that particularly catches my attention.

The Mystery of Rome’s X Tomb

This one off documentary was about a relatively recently discovered tomb in the catacombs under Rome. In 6 linked chambers there were the remains of about 2000 bodies, and at first the discoverers had no idea who they were, when they’d lived or what they’d died from. Michael Scott presented the work that’s been done in the last 10 years to try & find out some answers – it’s still a work in progress so he offered no “proof” or “solution” just the theories so far.

The bodies definitely weren’t all interred at the same time – not enough space in the chambers, carbon dating shows a range of dates & the few bits of jewellery & coins do too. So they seem to date from the 1st to 3rd Centuries AD, in several batches. There are no signs of violence, particularly not the sorts of trauma that end lives. Work has just started on trying to identify any pathogens from DNA traces left in teeth. Most of the bodies are young adults or teenagers, both men & women. They were buried in a high status fashion. The chambers are directly underneath what’s known to be the burial ground for an elite cavalry unit, and Scott speculated that these mass burials could’ve been members of this unit and their families & slaves who succumbed to plagues that swept through Rome in this era. He also speculated that these chambers might’ve been the nucleus of the later custom of burying people in catacombs under Rome.

Interesting, and also nice to watch a programme about a historical & archaeological mystery that didn’t “solve the mystery” but instead was willing to present the theories so far.

Indian Ocean with Simon Reeve

The BBC just recently re-showed an older Simon Reeve series about the Indian Ocean. The first episode covered the region from the tip of South Africa to the island of Zanzibar. As seems to be Reeve’s style we saw not just the beautiful scenery etc, but also the less savoury side of life round the coast. In South Africa and in Mozambique this was centered around trade in luxury foods to China – abalone in the former case & shark fins in the latter. The abalone trade is particularly unsavoury as it’s linked to the drug trade – both in that addicts poach the shellfish & sell it to the drug gangs to afford to buy drugs, and in that the drug gangs are involved in smuggling the abalone out as well as the drugs in. There was also foreshadowing for Somali pirates showing up in a later episode. But on a bit more of an optimistic note Reeve visited an old hotel in Mozambique which is now a refugee camp – the optimism comes from how it’s formed into a functional mini-state, with elected officials & rules, so the people have more stable lives than one might expect.

Doctor Who Live: The Next Doctor

This programme doesn’t really belong in either fact or fiction so I’ll just include it here. The BBC announced who the next Doctor was going to be live on telly – we hadn’t really planned to watch it, but did anyway. The build up involved interviews with random celebrity fans (more than half of whom I failed to recognise), and also past Doctors & companions. I also didn’t recognise Peter Capaldi’s name, but J pointed out we saw him play one of the politician/civil servant people in the Torchwood Children of Earth series, so that’s why I vaguely recognised the way he looked.

I’m already tired of the “is he gonna swear as the Doctor *teehee*” meme based on whatever it is he’s famous for … the man’s an actor, I’m sure he can play different characters differently, he’d not be very good otherwise.

Ancient Apocalypse

Mystery of the Minoans

We’d watched the first episode of this series some time ago, possibly not long after it aired (in April last year, when I wasn’t writing up TV I’d watched). It was about the end of the Old Kingdom in Egypt, hence why we watched it so quickly, but the other episodes are about other apocalypses. Mystery of the Minoans was about the end of the Minoan civilisation on Crete.

The basic idea is one we’d seen before (in a Bettany Hughes programme we watched in 2010 (post on LJ)) – the island of Thera (modern day Santorini) is the remains of a volcano that erupted 3500 years ago, just a few decades before Minoan civilisation collapsed and was conquered by the Myceneans. The various experts in this programme showed us evidence of how massive the eruption was (possibly bigger than had previously been thought) and what effects that would’ve had both immediately & more long term. Immediate effects included wiping out the towns on Thera itself, which were an important part of the Minoan trade network. They also included devastating tsunami that hit Crete, and would’ve destroyed a lot of towns & infrastructure and killed a lot of people. Longer term there was a noticeable effect on the climate – for instance we were shown tree rings from preserved tree trunks in the Irish bogs which showed no or very little growth for 10 years after the eruption.

It felt a little shallow, which was a problem with the first episode too if I remember correctly. Not dreadfully so, but more than once I’d’ve liked a little more detail on the data they were presenting – for example a brief explanation of how they had dated their tree trunks so precisely would’ve been nice. Or giving the date ranges for the various different bits of evidence so we could judge for ourselves how much it all added up. (Possibly I expect too much here 😉 )

The Maya Collapse

Sadly the third episode, about the collapse of the Mayan civilisation was more shallow rather than less. The worst piece of padding was when we got a couple of minutes of jaunty mexican music while our hero archaeologist walked up a set of stairs and then back down. With the camera lingering on his cowboy boots because he was a Texan. But there were several other bits of fluff that could’ve been cut out as well and replaced with a bit more info about the subject of the programme.

It concentrated on the end of the Mayan civilisation which appears to have been rapid and comprehensive – about 1200 years ago there were Mayans, and then the cities & villages are abandoned with only a few people who survived. The archaeologist we followed (I’ve forgotten his name :/ ) was an ex-banker who’d become obsessed with the question of what happened & after his bank collapsed had gone back to university & got an archaeology degree so he could work on the question. He actually came across rather well, despite the attempts of the programme to shoehorn this into a “those academics were too hidebound it took an outsider to think of the answer” story.

The apocalypse in this case was drought. The Yucatan region has no rivers or lakes & so the people who live there both then & now are completely dependent on the rainy season to fill up man made reservoirs. If the rains fail, disaster strikes. The archaeologist looked at various different bits of evidence (ice cores, climate models, old records of past climate, mud cores and more) and discovered that around the time of the Mayan civilisation vanishing there was the worst drought in the last 7000 years. In addition to the lack of water directly killing off people there is some evidence that the priests were blamed for failing to get the gods to make it rain, and so were violently killed – and also for society in general descending into violence & unrest.

Who Were the Greeks?

This is a two part series about the Greeks presented by Michael Scott (the same one who presented the programme about a Roman tomb I wrote about above). He’s taking as his jumping off point the idea that we all think we know about the Ancient Greeks – they were philosophers, the first scientists, artists, inventors of democracy. And in this first episode at least he was telling us about how they were also a culture that seems completely alien to our modern eyes. So the first part of the programme was about the Greeks as warriors – not just Sparta (although he discussed Spartans at length) but also the other city states including Athens. He also talked about the Greek notions of sexuality, which are not the same as our modern ones at all. There wasn’t this distinction between straight and gay, instead there were differences due to a man’s age – a young unmarried man was expected to want to form a relationship with a young teenage boy. Then he was expected to grow out of this (in the same way he’d grown out of being the boy in such a relationship) and to marry by the time he was 35. There were also cultural rules about what sort of sex was appropriate with one’s wife and that was different to what was appropriate with one’s mistress or a prostitute.

Scott also discussed the blurring between what we’d consider the seperate domains of science & religion – no actual concept of religion as we know it in Greek culture at the time. Instead the gods & their involvement in the world were just a part of the way the world is, and you could both expect the gods to come to you in a dream to cure you of an illness whilst also seeing a physician who prescribe treatments more like what we’d recognise today. He also talked about slavery, and how even the democratic society of Athens was built on a slave-holding society – sure it was a democracy, but only male citizens had rights & a vote.

One of his other themes for the programme was the way Greek society put a high premium on perfection – both of the body & of the mind. Babies were exposed if they were imperfect & weren’t expected to live, men were expected to work on their physique, and were expected to display their education & ability to think. Life was lived mostly in public, and scrutinised by your peers.

Royal Institute Christmas Lectures: Meet Your Brain

The last lecture in the series was mostly concerned with the social aspects of how our brains work. So there was some stuff about empathy & about how we develop a theory of the mind as we get older (I’m always surprised when I remember it kicks in as late as 3 or 4 years old). Both of which are a sort of mind-reading that lets one fit into groups better, by being able to work out what other people might be thinking or how they might react. And there was also a magician who did a few tricks during the lecture – using the way we instinctively follow someone’s gaze or look where they’re pointing to direct our attention away from where the substitutions & so on were being performed.

It’s been a bit odd watching this – I remember when I was a kid the Christmas Lectures were awesome and I didn’t think they were very “child oriented”, but now it seems very much aimed at the kids. But still quite fun to watch the series.

The Secret History of Genghis Khan

The Secret History of Genghis Khan was a programme we’ve had sitting on the PVR for a while. It was a mixture of re-enactment with voice-over and a few talking heads. The narrative was based on a text written after Genghis Khan’s death by his adopted son, which was part hagiography & part teaching tool for his successors. It has survived only in a Chinese copy discovered some centuries after it was written. The programme as a whole felt a little too uncritical of it’s source to me. Yes, it did present a different (and more nuanced) view of Genghis Khan to the traditional Western memory of him as solely a brutal butcher. And they did mention that it was written for a purpose rather than necessarily accurate, but I think it would’ve been nice to have more of an attempt to point out which bits were backed up by other evidence or not (for instance). It was definitely entertaining to watch, tho – the live action re-enactment scenes had a vaguely Monty Python air to them. Like the scene with a priest blessing the Christian knights before they went into battle who suddenly turns round with wide, startled eyes to see the Mongol army riding at him right now.

(More than once they had shots of people playing big drums and the music had drumbeats that sounded like they should be from those drums … but visuals & noises didn’t match up. Didn’t bother me that much, but it was driving J bananas!)

Treasures of Ancient Rome; The Iraq War; TOWN with Nicholas Crane

The third & last episode of Treasures of Ancient Rome was about the art during the declining years of the Roman Empire. Alastair Sooke opened by explaining that the canonical view is that the art of this period is poor & gets worse over time because the Empire is falling to bits. He sets out to show in this episode that this isn’t true – the art style might change but it’s no less good than what came before.

He started in the city of Leptis Magna which is in Libya and was prominent in the later part of the Empire. Sooke characterised this period of Empire as the periphery becoming as important (if not more important) as the centre. Citizens from the periphery could even become Emperor – Septimus Severus, for instance, was from Leptis Magna. The city is very well preserved, so several of Sooke’s examples of art from this period were from the city or nearby. These included a triumphal arch & the basilica, both of which combine classical Roman motifs with local elements. There was also a stunning mosaic depicting gladiators from a nearby villa that was only relatively recently discovered & has just been put on display in a museum (I think this was my favourite piece from the programme). And Sooke also visited another villa in Libya that has been part excavated – but he was visiting not long after the overthrow of Gaddafi and the Libyan archaeologist who was showing him around was explaining that sites like this are being neglected (now & under Gaddafi’s regime) and the art & artifacts that have been uncovered are deteriorating due to the neglect. From Libya Sooke went to Egypt, to show us the famous mummy portraits. These aren’t wholly Roman nor are they classically Egyptian, the two art styles & symbolisms have been merged together. And they are hauntingly beautiful images of the people whose mummies they’re attached to.

The next few artworks were from the northern reaches of the Empire. He very briefly touched on the art at Bath, which is a fusion of Roman & Celtic art, but wasn’t very impressed. The stuff he did hold up as truely great pieces of art was some of the silverware that’s been found in Britain & other parts of the northern Empire. This includes the Mildenhall Great Dish which he looked at with a modern silversmith to talk about how technically accomplished it is (as well as being good art). In this segment he also showed us the Lycurgus cup, which is made of carved glass. In the light it looks like it’s red, but in shade it looks green – this effect has been achieved by including particles of silver & gold in the glass. I wasn’t that keen on the design of the cup, so it seemed more of an engineering achievement than a piece of art to me.

And he finished up the programme by talking about how the art of the later Romans became the art of Western Christianity. To illustrate this he first showed us the mosaics in the mausoleum for a Roman woman (Galla Placidia) which date from the early 5th Century AD, and then the later mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale. As this dates from the late 6th Century AD it’s well after the end of the Roman Empire – but there’s definitely continuity between the two sets of decoration.

At the very end Sooke wrapped up the series by saying that he’d shown that the Romans should be famed for their art, not just their conquering. Having not seen the first one I’d not quite realised that was the premise! A good series, I’ll be looking out for more programmes from him.

One of the sorts of programmes that J & I look out for to record fit into a category we think of as “depressing current affairs” – and the recent BBC series about the Iraq War fits into that. The first episode looks at the road to war, starting in September 2001 and following the politics & intelligence service actions for the next 18 months. The bulk of the programme is interviews with the senior people involved, not just from the US & the UK but also from Iraq. And I mean really senior – for the UK the people interviewed included Tony Blair & Jack Straw, among the US interviewees were Dick Cheney & Colin Powell.

The story the programme told was the now familiar one – in retrospect it’s clear that the decision to effect regime change was made and then intelligence was gathered to justify it rather than the decision coming after the data. It opened with something I’d not heard before that after Bush did his “you’re either with us or with the terrorists” speech the Iraqi government (in the person of the Prime Minister I think) were poised to reply that Iraq would join the fight against al Qaeda. But then Saddam Hussein countermanded that & said he’d reply himself – and tried to turn it into “we’ll help if you drop your sanctions”. So that put up the US government’s collective backs, and regime change seemed like the obvious way forward.

I’m not going to attempt to re-cap this programme, instead I’ll just mention a couple of the other things that particularly struck me (other than how self-serving Blair always comes across as …). First was a thought sparked by the current/recent situation in Egypt. There’s been a fair amount of talk in the media about how the US is having to dance an interesting diplomatic dance where they can’t regard the military intervention as a coup because coups are Always Bad Things and they don’t want to condemn this particular one just yet. Yet the attempts by the US intelligence services to figure out a way to engineer a coup in Iraq were being held up as the moral thing to do without even a figleaf of pretence that ceci n’est pas un coup d’etat. So coups are Always Bad unless either we like you better then we’ll call it something else or we organise it ourselves coz then it’s Good. Glad we got that straight 😉

One piece of the intelligence that was used to justify the war stood out to me as a particularly revealing about the way things were handled – this was the information from a French journalist/informer who had access to the Iraqi Foreign Minister. He told the CIA that the Iraqi man was wanting to defect & that he confirmed that Iraq had WMD. The CIA were concerned to make sure the journalist really did meet with the man he said he was talking to – so there was some business with custom made suits and an appearance at the UN in one of them. But despite being suspicious enough to run that test, once he’d passed that test then it was just assumed he was telling the truth about everything. Not that it was 100% confirmed but everyone interviewed was clear that it coloured the way they looked at everything else. So “definitely met him” was turned into “probably telling the truth about the conversation” very quickly, not for any reason except that the reported conversation fit the desired answer. Which is why you shouldn’t make your decisions first then fact gather to justify them! Hard enough to avoid bias normally, let alone when the President’s busy saying “I want to do this, now make a case for why I can”.

Of course the thing about a programme like this is that hindsight is always 20/20. The bias of the narrative was that people should’ve known better but that doesn’t mean they were cynically ignoring things or falsifying intelligence. Good intentions don’t outweigh the mistakes, but it’s better than having bad intentions as well!

The second episode covered the immediate aftermath of the war. The familiar story here is that while the US had a plan for the war, they didn’t have a plan for the peace – this programme showed how that lack of foresight played out. Again I’m not going to do a full recap, just pull out some things that particularly caught my attention (so there’s definitely important events missing from my write-up that the programme did discuss).

After Saddam was deposed & the war “won” because there was no plan there was a power vacuum, which the first man on the ground (Jay Garner) did his best to fill. He was a retired US General who had worked with the Kurdish leaders in the past – so known to them & respected by them – and he got them together with the Iraqi opposition leaders who’d been in exile. Garner’s plan was to have them form themselves into an interim government very quickly, then they’d sort out a constitution and elections afterwards. For political reasons & because the situation looked poor (because it was) he was replaced by Paul Bremer.

And that’s where the slide downhill begins. Hard to say if it would really have ended up differently had Garner been in charge, his plan wasn’t well received by all Iraqis, but it certainly seemed like Bremer caused a lot of the later problems. I was particularly struck by him setting up his office in one of Saddam’s old palaces … it seems the sort of symbolism you’d want to avoid. He then follows up by telling the proto-government that Garner was trying to assemble that they’re not diverse enough to represent the whole of Iraq (true, but …) and so he’s the one who’s in charge not them. Coz obviously it’s better to have a random US diplomat who knows no-one & no-one knows. Maybe he was a better choice, but handling it like that seemed designed to put everyone’s back up.

And then there’s the debacle with the Iraqi army. The plan, laid out by Bush, was “don’t disband the army, putting 300,000 or so trained men with weapons on the streets seems a bad idea”. Bremer … failed to pay the army and then disbanded it. The payment thing was particularly eye-rolling in my opinion – there was a disbursement of wages to civil servants etc from the old regime, $20 each which was about 6 months wages. But nothing for the army because why should they pay what Saddam had failed to pay them? So after disbanding the army they had a large number of well trained & organised men who felt disrespected & dishonoured, and who had no money to buy food for their families. Not surprisingly a lot found their way instantly into the various insurgency groups & that’s when the real violence against the US & their allies kicked off.

The handover of power got further complicated because the main Shia cleric, Grand Ayatollah Sistani, issued a fatwa saying that elections should come before the constitution – i.e. that the constitution would be written by elected Iraqis not people chosen by the US. Seems simple enough, but Bremer had a hard deadline of “before Bush runs for President again” and that wasn’t time to get elections organised. The US administration of Iraq is therefore more concerned with how it looks in US domestic politics than whether it’s the best for the country they’re running … In the end Bremer just appointed someone to be Prime Minister and other people to be the government, which is directly against the fatwa that the Grand Ayatollah had issued and so is guaranteed to piss off the people who regard Sistani as their spiritual leader (i.e. the Shia Muslim majority of Iraqi citizens).

So now they have the army against them, the Shia Muslim authorities & believers against them plus the people who’d never been going to be with them. Maybe there were no good solutions once the war was won. One of the interviewees on the programme was a Sunni cleric who’d been leading an insurgency group since day 1 of the aftermath – he was quite clear that he’d not considered doing anything but fight the US. But even if it was hopeless, the way the post-war US administration acted didn’t help, and actively made things worse.

For something a little more light-hearted we finished off the series of TOWN with Nicholas Crane. This episode was about Enniskillen, which is on an island in a lake in Northern Ireland. Of course, as with a lot of places in Northern Ireland, the history of the town wasn’t terribly light-hearted. The oldest building is a castle that was built by Hugh the Hospitable in the early 15th Century, due to the strategically important location it was a target of the English when they were conquering & subduing Ireland in the 16th & 17th Centuries. Fast-forward to the modern day & The Troubles, and Enniskillen was the place where the Remembrance Day Bombing took place in 1987 killing 11 people.

The town is built around a single street running right across the island – it actually has 6 different names along the route, but that seems fairly arbitrary. Crane walked down this in a rather padded-out segment of the programme when he was making a big deal about how many independent stores there were on the street (and how they were clustered in types). The camera didn’t linger on the chain stores, but we still spotted them 😉 There were some interesting shops tho – particularly the butcher’s shop where they are so keen to ensure the quality of their bacon that they’ve purchased a nearby island to let their pigs roam free (until butchered).

The “future of the town” section concentrated on the fact that shale gas has been discovered in the area, and so there are starting to be plans for fracking to take place. I can see why people are concerned about this (“we’ll just explode the rock under your town a little” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence), but I did raise my eyebrows somewhat at the repeated allusions to The Troubles in this bit (not by the people, but by the programme). Crane said a couple of times that “the town needed to all come together against this just like they did during The Troubles”, which I suppose was like calling on Londoners to display Blitz Spirit during some later event … but it just felt a bit off to be comparing mining for gas (however intrusive) with killing people.

Overall the series was … OK. While we did watch all of it I wouldn’t say it was a favourite and I don’t think I’ll bother recording a further series.

Treasures of Ancient Rome; Treasures of the Louvre

We seemed to go through a phase of only ever discovering TV series after the first episode had already aired, so there’s a few things on our PVR waiting for episode 1 to be repeated. Treasures of Ancient Rome is one of these, and we decided just to watch the other two episodes anyway and come back to the first if we get hold of it. The series premise is Alastair Sooke talking about the art of Ancient Rome, putting it in its historical context. As a presenter Sooke comes across as very enthusiastic and keen to share all his excitement about the subject – reminded me a bit of Dan Cruickshank in that sense (who we call “the Gosh! guy” in our household because he frequently starts his explanation of what you’re looking at with “Gosh!”).

This second episode was about the art of the height of the Roman Empire – running from the Emperor Augustus through to Hadrian. Sooke showed us six or seven representative pieces ranging from a (very large) cameo to Trajan’s column. Along the way we also were treated to Sooke reading relevant excerpts from a translation of Suetonius’s book The Twelve Caesars – which is the biographies of Julius Caesar and the first eleven Emperors, all written with lots of scandalous detail. Sooke also spoke to some modern artists who use the same techniques as were used to create the pieces of art he showed us.

The title of the episode was Pomp & Perversion and the programme was looking at both the propaganda and the private art of the Emperors (and others). The propaganda was most clearly shown by Trajan’s column. It’s decorated with a spiralling mural all the way up the length of the column commemorating a victory of Trajan’s – there’s a museum where they have replicas of the reliefs set out so you can see them properly. I’m pretty sure the expert Sooke was talking to got an Asterix reference in when he was talking about it – pointing to the leader of the conquered tribe with an upraised hand he said “you can see him here saying “these Romans are crazy!”” 🙂

There were many examples for the debauchery side of the theme – for instance the Warren Cup. This is a silver drinking cup on display in the British Museum, it’s very well made and must’ve been a high status item. And it is decorated with two explicit scenes of gay sex. A different aspect of the Roman Empire’s reputation for debauchery was represented by one of the many copies of a statue of a man being flayed alive. It was mythological, but even so it says something about a culture if your garden ornaments are that gruesome.

There was also a segment of the programme where Sooke met a modern priest of the cult of Antinous. Antinous was a young man who was the lover of the Emperor Hadrian, and who drowned in the Nile at the age of 19 leaving the Emperor grief-stricken. A cult sprang up after his death, which was apparently on a par with the size of Christianity at the time (bear in mind this is 130AD so Christianity isn’t that big yet). Sooke didn’t say, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the grief of Hadrian had more than a little to do with the spread of the cult – a way of currying favour. The modern priest of the cult was explaining that in more recent times (18th & 19th Centuries I think he mentioned) having statues of Antinous or being a member of the cult was a good way for European aristocrats to covertly indicate they were gay.

I think my favourite of the art that Sooke showed us in this programme is one I haven’t mentioned yet – a fresco that would’ve adorned the walls of a room in the Empress Julia’s villa (wife of Augustus, mother of Tiberius). It was for a smallish room with no windows, a place that was a respite from the summer heat, and it was a painting of a garden with trees & flowers & birds. It looked like it would be very peaceful to sit & look at. (And a contrast to the rest of the things in the programme!)

By chance we managed to pick two very similarly titled programmes, both about art for Tuesday & Wednesday. The one we watched on Wednesday was Treasures of the Louvre which was presented by Andrew Hussey, who was another presenter I’d never heard of before – he’s the Dean of the University of London in Paris Institute, and a writer & historian. The programme was an hour & a half, and in that time it managed to fit a tour round the highlights of the Louvre, a potted history of France from the 15th Century onwards & a history of the buildings of the Louvre. Quite a lot but it didn’t feel rushed although it was very obviously only the highlights.

Hussey started with the oldest painting in the Louvre which is from the 15th Century – it’s a scene of Christ’s Crucifixion, surrounded by saints (including Saint Denis with his head in his hands …). But for the purposes of the programme the most important part was that it had a small picture of the Louvre in the background. Which doesn’t look anything like the buildings that’re there today – the Medieval Louvre was a fortress (and Hussey said his preferred etymology for the word Louvre is that it comes from a word for fortress). The foundations of the old Louvre are visible in the basement of the current building, when we visited a couple of years ago I took a photo of them.

The start of the transformation of the Louvre from fortress to museum (via palace) was brought about in the 16th Century by Francis I who ruled France roughly contemporaneously with Henry VIII in England. The Renaissance is beginning in France & Francis rebuilds the Louvre as a fitting palace for a “modern” King – his part of the building is the short end of the U shape of the building I think. He also was a patron of the arts & of artists, and encouraged Leonardo da Vinci to move to Paris when he was an old man. The Mona Lisa came with him & was the first acquisition of what is now the collection of the Louvre.

The Louvre was used as a palace until the French Revolution. As well as showing us different works of art Hussey told us about the King & Queen watching Huguenots get murdered in the courtyard in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. He also talked about the various building projects, including linking the Louvre to the Tuileries Palace with the half-mile long Grand Gallery. (Which is where the Renaissance era paintings are today.)

Hussey also told the amusing story of Louis XIV decamping to Versailles because he didn’t like the Parisiennes & the Parisiennes didn’t like him. Because of this move the Louvre was no longer the Royal residence, and so artists could move in – to learn from the works displayed there and produce their own. After the French Revolution the Louvre remained a working place for artists, and also took on the role of public museum. Hussey told us that the galleries were open for the first 6 days of the week for artists only, who were free to take paintings off walls, put chalk marks on paintings(!) etc. For the next 3 days it was open to the public, and on the final day of the 10-day revolutionary week it was closed to everyone for cleaning & necessary repairs. The government at this time also declared all art to be publicly owned so the collections of the Louvre grew.

After the Revolution came Napoleon, who started new grand plans for both acquisition of art & for the buildings. He also commissioned grand paintings of his coronation & other state occasions to properly display his splendidness. During his reign the Louvre started to gain the Egyptian artifacts & also other spoils of Napoleon’s military victories (like The Wedding at Cana, which is a painting I particularly liked when we visited the Louvre). The building works on the Louvre now got to the stage where the plan was for the original Louvre at the end to be linked on both sides to the Tuileries Palace enclosing a vast courtyard.

During the next few changes of regime the museum collections grew. Particularly notable was the formation of the Department of Egyptian Antiquities during the Restoration of the Bourbon Monarchy. Champollion was put in charge of this – as the man who first deciphered hieroglyphs he was a very significant figure in early Egyptology. The next important moment for the buildings was the destruction of the Tuileries Palace at the end of the Second Empire. It was burnt down because it was the residence of the Emperor, but thankfully the Louvre itself was not.

Hussey skipped fairly briskly past the two World Wars to come to the second half of the 20th Century. As part of the post-war politics (I think) the Mona Lisa was sent off on a tour of the US – Hussey showed us footage of the painting being shipped to the US & from the Presidential reception for the painting. He said they treated it almost like a head of state, which is a bit mind boggling. The Louvre began to get a bit run down, and as part of sprucing it up and rejunvenating it the glass pyramid was built. Controversial at the time it seems to me to be better than the car park that Hussey told us was previously there. And which I presumably saw, I’m sure I must’ve been to the Louvre when I went with my parents to Paris in something like 1985 or 1986 – and the pyramid wasn’t finished till 1989. Maybe it was a building site? I really can’t remember though. And for the final segment of the programme Hussey talked about a bit of the building that wasn’t even open when we were there in Sept 2011 – the new Islamic Art galleries.

I really haven’t done the programme justice in this recap – I’ve skipped over most of the artworks that Hussey talked about in favour of talking about the history (because I find that easier to summarise!) and even with that I’ve missed out a lot of detail. A programme well worth watching if you want an overview of a large chunk of French history & art history – and an overview of highlights of the Louvre collection. It made me want to go back & see (some of) the things I didn’t look at last time – we spent a couple of days in the Egyptian Galleries but only saw a few key things in the rest of the museum, so there’s lots left to see.

In Our Time: Romulus and Remus

The primary founding myth of Rome is the story of Romulus and Remus, which we know from written sources from the 1st Century BC. It’s clear that the story is older than that, but opinions differ as to how old it is. The three experts who talked about the myth & it’s origins on In Our Time were Mary Beard (University of Cambridge), Peter Wiseman (University of Exeter) and Tim Cornell (University of Manchester).

They opened the programme by giving us a recap of the basic form of the myth, which opens with Numitor and Amulius. Numitor is the true King of Alba Longa, but his brother Amulius usurps his throne and tries to ensure there are no true heirs left. He installs Numitor’s daughter as a virgin priestess to prevent her from bearing more heirs to Numitor’s crown, but despite this precaution she still gets pregnant. One version of the story is that the father of the children is the god Mars who appears in the holy fire as a phallus and impregnates her (which must’ve been a trifle disconcerting for the lass!). The children, Romulus and Remus, are exposed on the banks of the Tiber but instead of dying they are suckled by a she-wolf for long enough to be rescued by a shepherd & brought up. Skipping forward to when they become adults they return to the city of their birth, and once they realise who they are they overthrow Amulius and reinstate Numitor as King. Wanting a city of their own to rule (as Numitor doesn’t look like to die any time soon) they set out to found one. Because they’re twins there’s no obvious answer to which one’s in charge, so they ask the gods to give them a sign. Both see a sign that they think makes them ruler, and in most versions of the myth the arguments continue until Remus is killed (most often by Romulus himself, or by his orders).

That’s the bit I knew already of the myth, but the story continues. Once the city was founded Romulus (and Remus if he’s still alive) wanted to attract new citizens, so that they had people to rule over. And so they allowed refugees and asylum seekers to join their population – regardless of the reasons they were unwelcome at their place of origin. So not just political refugees, but also criminals or runaway slaves were welcome. Most of these people were male, which presented a problem for the proto-city and its ability to sustain its population. So Romulus tried to negotiate marriage agreements with surrounding settlements – but these were turned down on the basis that the citizens of Rome were the dregs of society. So Romulus held a festival and invited all these other settlements to it – they came, with their daughters as well. And then Romulus and the citizens of Rome abducted the women – this is the rape of the Sabine women (which is a phrase I’d heard, but I didn’t remember the story if I’d ever heard it). The other settlements were obviously rather annoyed, and went to war with Rome – most were easily defeated but the Sabines were not. At the height of battle in Rome itself the women (who had now had children with their abductors) appealed to both sides to stop fighting – on the basis that their fathers were killing their sons-in-law, and this was senseless. The two communities made peace, and merged with Romulus now ruling jointly with the Sabine King. The Sabine King later dies, under suspicious circumstances which some versions of the myth pin on Romulus. Romulus lives to a ripe old age, then rather than dying he vanishes – in some versions ascending directly to heaven.

So that’s the story, and then the programme moved on to talking about how old it was and what the Romans themselves thought about it. There are no texts before the 1st Century BC, so what evidence there is for the story being older is more tenuous and based on art. Beard presented a couple of different things – a generally agreed upon one, that there was a statue of Romulus and Remus erected in Rome in the early 3rd Century BC. So there must’ve been a version of this myth then. The other piece of evidence is a mirror from the 4th Century BC which has a design on it that is a pair of infants and a wolf. Beard said that she thought this was pretty good evidence for the existence of the myth at that time. Wiseman disagreed – saying that the design also includes the god Mercury who has no place in this myth but does in a different with with twins in (but no wolf). He also thought that the myth cannot be older than 300BC because that’s when Rome & Sabine merged as a historical event so thus the story must have been invented to explain that.

And then the three experts had a very robust (yet utterly courteous) disagreement about myth, story and the origins of stories. This was clearly a debate these three had had before, they were all aware of each other’s positions on the matter before they started. I’ll attempt to summarise – Wiseman holds the opinion that a story has a single point of creation and that this is a conscious act by a specific person, who is inventing the story in order to explain some event. Beard and Cornell on the other hand think that the stories grow out of older stories and change with time and with telling. That you can compare the writing down of the Romulus and Remus myth in the 1st Century BC to the Grimm brothers collecting old folk tales by going and listening to people telling them and then writing down a “definitive” version of a fairytale which is not necessarily the only or the original version. I’m with Beard & Cornell, personally – I don’t see why there can’t’ve been a Romulus and Remus myth dating back a long time into Rome’s history (perhaps growing out of something earlier), that later incorporated bits & pieces of other stories and events as they seemed relevant to the people at the time*. Yes, Wiseman is right that by definition there must be a first time a particular story is told – but how do you decide when it counts as this story and stops being that other story that’s got a lot of similar features.

*Worth noting that the lack of evidence is lack of evidence for both theories – pre-1st Century BC it’s an oral tradition and we have no way of knowing what exactly that was.

At the end of the programme they also talked about how the Romans thought about the myth, and about what it said about what the Romans thought about themselves. Cornell (I think) pointed out that the Romans often seem embarrassed about this myth – it involves a fratricide, and the earliest Romans are “riff raff”. So some Roman authors try and explain away these elements to sanitise it and make it more “suitable” for their great civilisation. And Beard talked about how it’s interesting that this myth makes Romans foreigners in their own city – and even the other founding myth (Aeneas fleeing Troy and founding Rome) is still a tale of refugees. And I think it was Wiseman who talked about how during the civil wars around the 1st Century BC there was a feeling that of course Rome was turning on itself because didn’t their city start with a fratricide and weren’t they doomed because of this.