Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Ancient Guide to Modern Life

From The Guardian, by Jessica Holland
The Ancient Guide to Modern Life by Natalie Haynes
If you're looking for something that captures the spirit of ancient epics, says Natalie Haynes, forget the Hollywood versions of Troy and Beowulf. Watch television. Deadwood, The West Wing and Battlestar Galactica will do; better still is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which evokes the lonely, difficult heroism of Virgil's Aeneid. For "purest Sophoclean tragedy", you can turn to The Wire, in which Stringer Bell, like Oedipus, seals his fate by trying to change it.
As a standup and former classics scholar, Haynes is in an excellent position to tell ancient stories, although she doesn't seem too bothered about turning them into a self-help guide, as the title suggests. (Alain de Botton has that corner of the market covered, anyway.) Instead, she rattles through the politics, religion, philosophy and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, pointing out which ideas have caught on and which definitely haven't.
In the second category is the Roman practice of stuffing certain criminals into a bag with a snake, a rooster, a dog and a monkey and throwing them in a river; their suspicion that Christians were cannibals; and the Spartan tradition of having brides shave their heads and dress up like men for their wedding nights. "Anachronism isn't a healthy indulgence," Haynes writes, "but one still cries out to know what Freud would have made of all this."
In the other group are 2,000-year-old sayings we overhear every day. Next time someone tells you: "One swallow doesn't make a spring", ask them whether they knew it was Aristotle they were quoting and that the thought ends: "Similarly, one day of happiness does not make a man blessed." Another hijacked phrase is the Roman satirist Juvenal's: "Who will watch the watchmen?", which was originally about women in general being so slutty they couldn't even be locked up, because they'd seduce their guards.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Romans Who Shaped Britain

From Literary Review, April 2012
Peter Jones reviews 
The Romans Who Shaped Britain 
by Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard 
(Thames and Hudson 288pp £18.95)

1066 And All That begins with Julius Caesar’s arrival in 55 BC and the woad-covered Britons’ heroic defence ‘under their dashing queen Woadicea’. The Conquest was ‘a Good Thing since the Britons were only natives at the time’. The Romans built a wall to keep out the Picts, but then the legions left to take part in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall, caused by the Romans’ desire for bread and circumstances. This ‘left Britain defenceless and subjected Europe to that long succession of Waves of which History is chiefly composed’. Britain was soon overrun by Angles, Saxons and Jutes, led by ‘Hengist and his wife (or horse?) Horsa’.

This is my sort of history: a strong, clear story line, people at the heart of it, and a lurking suspicion of theory (in this case, the ‘Wave’ theory). Sam Moorhead of the British Museum and David Stuttard take precisely the same view. The result is splendid, easily the most attractive available narrative account of Roman Britain from Caesar to the departure of the legions c. AD 410.

This is some achievement. The fact is that, with a few exceptions such as Julius Caesar’s account of his expeditions into the island in 55 and 54 BC, our literary sources are pretty scanty; and while archaeological work continues at a great rate, there is a limit to the story that mute shards and post-holes can tell. M-S do a first-rate job of integrating the two into a compelling narrative that does not disguise the interpretive problems – amply discussed in the sensible notes at the back, with full bibliography – but does the best job possible with the existing evidence.

M-S’s decision means that the story is told largely from the Roman point of view. It is not uncritical, but with little of the modern breast-beating about rotten Romans’ evil, exploitative ways. This is something of a relief. Every nation would have done precisely the same, had they been able to. They were just up against a relentless military and (for the most part) intelligent, flexible institutional system that kept the Roman empire going for c. 700 years. For many Germanic peoples living beyond the Rhine-Danube frontier, Rome’s streets were paved with gold. When the empire folded in the West, economic recovery took 200 years.

Britain, however, was not an easy province to govern. It always required standing legions. The Scots, eternal losers even then, caused pointless trouble whenever legion numbers dropped, quite incapable of seeing that it was to their advantage to reach a modus vivendi with their vastly more successful and powerful southern neighbours. Nor did the province pour much into Roman coffers.

But the pride in controlling such a mysterious, distant territory was intense, rather as we might regard a colony on the moon. Caesar’s first brief, shambolic sortie in 55 BC brought him a 20-day thanksgiving in Rome. When Claudius’ legions conquered it in AD 43, there were celebrations all over the empire. A relief in Aphrodisias (central southern Turkey) shows a youthful, heroically nude Claudius beating down a defeated Britannia, one breast bared, the first depiction we have of our island goddess (one of many magnificent illustrations). Romans wrote it up as place almost beyond imagination, where ‘they endure hunger and cold and any kind of hardship; for they plunge into the swamps and exist there for many days with only their heads above water’. That would be the Highlands, then.

But M-S emphasise how important Britain became in the end-game of the Roman empire, when its granaries were ransacked to supply the hard-pressed Roman armies on the Rhine facing Germanic incursions. This did not go down well with the Britons, and may be one reason for Britain’s brief secession from the empire (AD 286-c. 293) under the Belgic Carausius. He demonstrated his classical learning by issuing coins stamped with references to Virgil’s Aeneid, as if he were a second Augustus, promising a new age of prosperity. One wonders what the Brits made of them. They did not impress the Romans.

There is one bizarre misjudgement. Each of the twelve chapters begins with a brief vignette of an incident in it. In these, grizzled veterans with narrow, piercing eyes unleash tidal waves of fury among troops, with their swords or armour flashing in the chilly dawn or the midday, afternoon or, as it may be, dying sun, while their horses, sleek, groomed or foam-flecked, whinny, paw the ground, snort or with flying hooves thunder over the bracken and heather in the grey drizzle of a raging storm at sea. Reader, avert the gaze.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012


From The Sunday Times, February 2012

Mary Beard reviews
Thames & Hudson £18.95 pp287

The ancient Roman geographer Strabo had strong views about Britain. Writing in the early 1st century AD, he appreciated some of its more useful exports (grain, cattle, gold, silver, slaves and hunting dogs). He was impressed with the sheer size of the inhabitants (a good six inches taller than the average Roman, although with a tendency to be bandy-legged). But, with a flash of economic rationality rare in the ancient world, he was opposed to any attempt to conquer the island: quite simply, he observed, the cost of the occupying army would be more than the tributes and taxes gained for the Roman treasury.

I suspect that many Romans would later regret not taking Strabo’s advice. For more than 400 years — from the successful invasion in AD43 under the emperor Claudius, who formally turned the place into a province, to the final withdrawal of the last Roman soldiers in the early 5th century — Britain was Rome’s Afghanistan. The island was never fully under Roman control and the native guerrillas knew exactly how to make life dangerous for the occupying legions. There were some significant Roman defeats, incon¬clusive battles presented as Roman successes (starring from Julius Caesar’s ramshackle skirmish in 55BC and 54BC), and, just occasionally, a real victory over the barbarians, extravagantly hyped by the PR machine of the imperial court. Every now and then, the emperor himself or an imperial prince would visit the place for the ancient equivalent of a “mission accomplished” photo opportunity. Claudius marched into Colchester in AD43, when most of the initial fighting was safely finished, Hadrian came almost 100 years later to inaugurate his wall, and in AD297 Constantius Chlorus rode into London to reclaim Britain after a few years of rule by a provincial usurper (an event commemorated on a gorgeous gold medallion, illustrated in Sam Moorhead and David Stuttard’s new book, showing Constantius being welcomed by a kneeling Briton, along with the slogan “Restorer of Eternal Light”). The authors tell a lively story of Roman interventions in the province. It is an unashamedly “great man” view of history. There’s no truck here with what they call “the fog of academic theory” and little interest in the deeper structures of Roman rule or even in Strabo-style economics. But the book has the great merit of getting to grips with the story of the province well beyond Hadrian — after whom most people’s knowledge of Roman Britain tends to flag — and it offers a wonderful gallery of later characters, whose careers in part “shaped” the province. 

One memorable walk-on role is taken by Marcus Aurelius Mauseus Carausius: native of Gaul, claimant to the imperial throne and the man whose downfall Constantius’s medallion celebrated. In what is now a puzzling series of moves, in the late 3rd century AD, Carausius went from being a commander of Roman troops against German raiders to a break-away emperor based in Britain, with London as his capital city. “Barbarian” he certainly was not; in a way he was more Roman than the Romans. As Moorhead and Stuttard illustrate, he minted a series of coins and medals carrying quotations from Virgil’s Aeneid and Eclogues. No Roman emperor had used the classics of Latin poetry in this way before (though it is the ultimate precedent for the Virgilian tag, Decus a Tutamen — “An ornament and a safeguard” — on our modern £1 coin).

If the authors have a fault, it is one shared by many enthusiastic students of Roman Britain: on one hand, they tend to overestimate how important the province was to the Romans (there would have been no security crisis, but only a few lost photo opportunities, if the place had been let go — some¬thing that may be equally true of Afghanistan); on the other, they imply that the impact of the Romans on Britain was greater than it was. Historians have often liked to imagine that the province was “Romanised”, sharing its culture with Italy at the heart of the empire. The archeologist who dug up the Roman “palace” at Fishbourne in Sussex went so far as to claim that some of the wall decoration there had been painted by the same artist whose work was still visible on the walls of villas around the Bay of Naples, destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79.

That was, of course, a wild fantasy. The truth, as Moorhead and Stuttard more or less concede, is that the “Romans” who controlled Roman Britain were much more often provincial “Romans” from Gaul (such as Carausius), not metropolitan types from Italy. And for most people, peasant life went on much as it had done before they arrived. True, some people did move into the new towns of the province, learnt Latin and sported togas (another aspect of their slavery, as the Roman historian Tacitus put it); others, implacably opposed to Rome, made it their mission to terrorise the occupying forces. But when the last legions left (a story well told in this book) I doubt that the majority of Britons on their farmsteads noticed much of a difference — apart from lower taxes.

Tibullus: Elegies

Natalie Haynes reviews
Tibullus: Elegies, with parallel Latin text, tr. by AM Juster, with notes by Robert Maltby
(Oxford World's Classics)

The Observer, Sunday 25 March 2012
Tibullus is hardly the best known of the Latin love poets. An heir to the work of Catullus and a friend and inspiration to Ovid, he has somehow been overlooked where they have not. Perhaps it's because his work falls between them: he's neither as melodramatic as Catullus nor as arch as Ovid.
While Catullus burns with love for the fickle Lesbia, and Ovid advises the naughty people of Rome on the best place to cop a feel in public (at the theatre, where brushing up against someone is bound to happen…), Tibullus does neither. Sure, he fulfils the dramatic conventions of the lover: he is sickened by love, like a seasick sailor, burned and beaten by it, like a brutalised slave.
He's also locked out by love, or at least by a lover. Of his surviving 16 poems (the new Oxford World's Classics edition sensibly dismisses a third book once attributed to Tibullus as the work of another writer), three are paraklausithyra: songs at a locked door.
But his love isn't pure for Delia, the passion of his first book. He also has feelings for an urban courtesan, Nemesis, who inspires poems in the second book. In addition, he's infatuated with a handsome boy, Marathus, and all these relationships are coloured by further entanglements. As Robert Maltby's excellent notes for this new translation explain, Tibullus was a man with a very complicated love life.
AM Juster's translation is terrifically easy to read: he has captured plenty of Tibullus's Latin in his English. If we sometimes lose a pungent phrase (for me, the Latin "Who could bear arms against a god?" is rather punchier than "and who can fight a god?"), it is a small price to pay for a translation that tries and succeeds to recreate the confident style of a complex poet.