Classically Inclined

August 24, 2016

What would Cato have made of the Great British Bake Off?

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 2:11 pm
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It’s a Wednesday towards the end of August, and that can only mean one thing – the British viewing public are gearing up for the return of the Great British Bake Off to their screens this evening. If you have missed this landmark in British cultural history, it is essentially a baking competition where twelve bakers compete in a marquee over who can bake the best version of whatever fiendish concoction Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood have come up with to vex them, while Mel and Sue (now so well known they no longer require surnames) try to get as much smut into their commentary on proceedings as possible. One evening this week, after I reminded my husband that the annual baking fest was about to revisit our screens, he came up with a great test of true cultural value – what would Cato the Elder have made of it all?

For those unfamiliar with Cato the Elder, who lived during the middle of the Roman Republic, there were two things he was particularly famous for: his unabated hatred of Carthage and his commitment to traditional Roman virtues, exemplified by his personal behaviour and his actions when he held the office of censor. During this period, a pair of censors were appointed every five years to review the membership rolls of senators and knights, and remove those who were deemed unsuitable; the review of Cato and his co-censor Valerius Flaccus was particularly severe. One good source we have for Cato’s life is the Parallel Life that Plutarch wrote about him; while it was written many years after Cato’s death, and in all likelihood a lot of popular stories about Cato less than completely grounded in fact have found their way into the narrative, it’s a good way to think about how the Romans defined quintessentially Roman behaviour. Even though a lot of his behaviour seemed unpopular, taken together they created a figure who was respected for his “wise leadership, sober discipline and sound principles” (Life 19). So what would Cato have made of Bake Off?

Why are these people cooking? Our first instinct might be that he would disapprove of freeborn citizens baking at all – ancient Rome was, after all, a slave-owning culture, and surely that’s what slaves were for. Cato was, however, a bit different in that respect. Despite his own position of authority, he worked alongside the labourers at his farm (Life 3), and bought the fish and meat for his own dinner at the market (Life 4). So perhaps the idea of people wanting to demonstrate their grasp of skills his fellow Romans might have deemed below them would not have shocked Cato.

The ‘new men’: in an odd sort of way, Cato may have found himself having a love-hate relationship with the particular genre of reality television that Bake Off belongs to, where one wins based on actual hard-won talent and skill rather than popularity. As a new man, or novus homo, Cato himself had no prior familial advantage to give him a leg-up into public life, so he may have found the ability of someone to enter the public eye through demonstrating mastery of a particular skill (and so gain glory within the state) weirdly appealing. At the outside edge of possibility, I can almost imagine a scenario where he might argue that given the debased state of our political system, finding alternative ways to demonstrate one’s excellence was the only possible route for a sensible person to take, but I’ll admit that’s pushing it. (more…)

February 18, 2013

Death, Rome and the Mitfords

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 11:31 am
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Last week was one of those weeks when my personal reading and my teaching prep coincided in unexpected and rewarding ways. I’ve just finished reading Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death, and have also finished preparing a lecture on Roman attitudes to funerals and memorialisation. The American Way of Death is a sharp-tongued exposé of funeral practitioners in America in the 1960s; I read an original edition, but Mitford published a revised version shortly before her death. You wouldn’t expect many points of intersection between the two cultures, but I was quite surprised by how many similarities there actually were.

I want to elaborate on two examples. The first concerns the treatment of the body after death. Mitford is particularly scathing about the practice of embalming (supposedly carried out for reasons of ‘public health’, although she can find no doctor who agrees with this) and open casket funerals, which embalming enables; she points out that the open casket is a peculiarly American practice, and that the funeral director’s obsession with creating ‘A Beautiful Memory Picture’ of the deceased is based on sentiment rather than hard psychology. The open casket also, she feels, is sold as an opportunity for ostentation (in loving memory of the deceased, of course) rather than a genuine act of remembrance.

Detail from the funeral monument of the Haterii in Rome. Photo credit: Barbara McManus, 2007.

Detail from the funeral monument of the Haterii in Rome.
Photo credit: Barbara McManus, 2007.

The Romans would have been right on the side of the funeral directors for this one. Particularly for wealthy families, displaying the body in the hall of the house (Italian weather, one suspects, permitting) was a standard practice, sometimes for up to seven days if the dead person had been particularly distinguished. The picture to the left depicts the laying in state of a woman’s body depicted on the tomb of the Haterii; she’s lying on a couch in her hall, surrounded by mourners and musicians. The display of the body allowed visitors to come and pay their respects – and see and be seen. Once the body had been displayed for an appropriate period, it would be carried to the forum on the couch, open to the elements and visible to all who passed the procession. When the procession reached the forum, someone, normally the eldest surviving son, would give an eulogy about his dead father, emphasising his achievements and accomplishments in public life – and, incidentally, not-so-subtly indicating that the speaker too was part of this successful political lineage. The Romans also took great care to dress the deceased in appropriate clothing (so a senator would be dressed in his senatorial toga) – just as the American undertakers Mitford explores have a range of dedicated clothing catalogues at their disposal to make sure that the deceased is properly fitted out in comfortable footwear. Of course, this is for the wealthy – the Roman poor would probably have been buried as soon after their deaths as possible, and I don’t think we have enough evidence to judge whether they would have buried in their best clothes. But the public display of the corpse for social purposes feels like something the Romans would have found fairly familiar.

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April 4, 2012

Warfare, religion and the Romans

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 5:42 pm
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This post is prompted by a bit of research I’ve been doing for @richmondbridge, on behalf of one of her colleagues, about Roman ways of declaring war. This colleague had come across the idea that the Romans could declare war by throwing a spear through the body of an ambassador of the enemy nation in question. Now, I haven’t been able to uncover the supposed source for this incident, but I’ve been reviewing the material, and the stuff I’ve been going over is quite odd enough to warrant its own blog post.

The Romans would have been very confused by the separation of religion and politics that we have today. For them, religious and political spheres of activity were fundamentally connected, with each having impact upon the other; part of the reason for their success was, they argued, their status as the nation favoured by the gods. Part of the close connection between religion and politics was that one of the priestly colleges of Rome was the fetiales, or fetial, priests; their specific job was to do things connected to warfare.

Wiedemann points out that the fetials had an important role as peacemakers and concluders of treaties as well as beginners of war, but it is the latter duty which started off this conversation. Livy records for us in his first book the creation of the fetial priests, in quite considerable detail; he describes the ritual act of declaring war as follows:

It was customary for the Fetial to carry to the enemies’ frontiers a blood-smeared spear tipped with iron or burnt at the end, and, in the presence of at least three adults, to say, “Inasmuch as the peoples of the Prisci Latini have been guilty of wrong against the People of Rome and the Quirites, and inasmuch as the People of Rome and the Quirites have ordered that there be war with the Prisci Latini, and the Senate of the People of Rome and the Quirites have determined and decreed that there shall be war with the Prisci Latini, therefore I and the People of Rome, declare and make war upon the peoples of the Prisci Latini.” With these words he hurled his spear into their territory. This was the way in which at that time satisfaction was demanded from the Latins and war declared, and posterity adopted the custom. (more…)

February 16, 2012

Classics on television: Bullets, Boots and Bandages 1

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 10:42 am
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I sat down the other day with the BBC iPlayer and watched the first episode of Bullets, Boots and Bandages: How to Really Win at War. The official Twitter account of Vindolanda had mentioned that the fort was going to feature on the program, and I thought it would be interesting to see the material presented from a military historian’s perspective (in this case, the military historian is Saul David).

The program was very interesting, and I did get a different perspective on the Vindolanda evidence, especially from David’s progression to more modern examples. This episode’s focus was on the supply chain – so how you keep troops fed and watered, and generally in healthy conditions. The comparanda in question were Henry V’s French campaign; Wellington’s campaign against Napoleon; and the trenches of the First World War. (And also a communications disaster which I have completely forgotten the name of.)  There were two things that particularly jumped out at me that I thought deserved comment.

The first is the difference between Vindolanda and the rest of David’s case studies. Vindolanda was a settled camp, with a fixed location. That’s part of the pleasure of Vindolanda, being able to see the footprint of the permanent camp and get some solid evidence about the infrastructure of military installations on the provincial border. Getting a sense of how big rooms are, for instance, tells you a lot about the kind of living conditions the number of people billeted there would have endured (something David did not mention, despite praise of Roman glass windows).  However, all the other case studies were about armies on the move, shifting their location through enemy countryside, and how you would get provisions to them in good order. Dealing with supplies for a fixed spot would be a very different operation and, as my colleague Simon Esmonde-Cleary pointed out to me when we discussed the program earlier this week, meant that legions could send soldiers out on requisitioning missions all over the empire and have supplies brought back to them rather than vice versa.

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January 19, 2012

The principle of joint enterprise, Tacitus and Roman slavery

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 3:09 pm
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Yesterday morning, as I was brushing my teeth, I vaguely heard Today on Radio Four discussing the new proposals that the principle of joint enterprise in murder cases needs reexamining. This, for those unfamiliar with the statue, is the law that says it is possible to prosecute a group of people for a criminal action; it was the legal principle which allowed the conviction in the Steven Lawrence case earlier this month. The general idea is that even though only one person may have struck the killing blow, those in the group around him can still be held legally responsible for creating the environment in which the criminal act was possible.

Now, because I’m a classicist and a a bit strange, my mind immediately made a connection with Roman slave law. Bear with me here, this will shortly make sense. You see, there is in Tacitus’ Annals an account of what happened in precisely this sort of group situation:

Soon afterwards one of his own slaves murdered the city-prefect, Pedanius Secundus, either because he had been refused his freedom, for which he had made a bargain, or in the jealousy of a love in which he could not brook his master’s rivalry. Ancient custom required that the whole slave-establishment which had dwelt under the same roof should be dragged to execution, when a sudden gathering of the populace, which was for saving so many innocent lives, brought matters to actual insurrection. Even in the Senate there was a strong feeling on the part of those who shrank from extreme rigour, though the majority were opposed to any innovation.

The principle here is much the same. If one slave murders their master, then it was customary for all the slaves of the household to die. However, much like the recent review, the Roman people felt this was unreasonably harsh. Not all the slaves had been responsible, they had not all been allies of the murderer,and thus they did not think the slaves deserved their fate. They even had some of the senate on their side, although I find it interesting to note that some crusty hardliners thought this sort of thing was the thin end of the wedge. (more…)

June 10, 2011

Naked youths, Barthes and the semiotics of the classical

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 9:29 am
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Working on the article I sent off to my editors last week on queer theory and classical reception introduced me to a number of new and exciting people engaged in producing classical receptions, one of whom was Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden [NB – definitely not safe for work], who lived on the Greek island of Taormina at the turn of the twentieth century. During the day, he took photographs of local youths in various poses (and normally very few clothes), and in the evenings his house was the scene of riotous parties. Although I encountered the work of Von Gloeden and his fellow photographers in the context of a broad history of homoerotica, I was quite interested in the classical codes that they used to provide a setting for their work. So to learn a bit more, I’m following up with an article that was cited in a footnote, and lo and behold, an interesting paragraph leaps out at me:

Perhaps a more serious appraisal of von Gloeden’s work is that of Roland Barthes (1978), which nevertheless mixes real insight with hermeneutic subjectivity. Barthes accuses the baron of “overloading … the code of antiquity … and mixing up signs without thinking about it … It seems he takes without any irony the most worn-out legends for cash value. Il est surtout Kitsch.” All this seems to add up to what is in fact the general response to von Gloeden: he was a silly old man who took sentimental naughty pictures; an amateur explotative, voyeuristic pornographer whose work is “soft-core” and amusing if one has the right kind of humour. (B. Russell. 1983. “Russell Wilhelm von Pluschow and Wilhelm von Gloeden: Two Photo Essays.” Studies in Visual Communication 9.2: 60.)

Now, what’s really interesting for me here is the Barthes quote. “Overloading the code of antiquity” is precisely the sort of thing I’m thinking through in terms of queering reception, and indeed reception in pop culture in general. That there is a code is indisputable – that the code is being used by von Gloeden to mask what could otherwise arouse the ire of the censors with a veil of classical learning is also pretty clear. I also feel that Barthes is being slightly unfair with his comment about “cash value” – von Gloeden was selling his photographs in order to support himself and his step-sister following the political disgrace of his stepfather, and one would expect him to photograph things that would sell for that reason alone. (Apparently Barthes also objects to the models in the photographs having swollen foreskins as this does not live up to the model of the ideal alabaster ancient Greek youth, an objection which Russell swiftly demolishes as an expectation based on unhelpful preconceptions formed by art from the eighteenth century.)

Putting aside Barthes’ artistic prejudices, I want to concentrate on his suggestion that it is possible to create a semantic overload of classical signs. From my perspective, reception studies tends to think about what a reception does with its interpretation of the classical, and what that can tell us about both the reception and whatever is being received. But the question of whether it is possible to receive too much, too indiscriminately, as Barthes seems to be suggesting von Gloeden does, is not one I’ve seen articulated. This is probably because a lot of pop culture reception work is interested in fighting against an elitist idea of what counts as a ‘reception’ and thus deserves study, and Barthes’ argument looks suspiciously as if it belongs to the other camp. It may, however, be a useful idea for me in terms of thinking about what one might uncharitably call ‘unimaginative’ elements of classical reception. Of course, I’ll have to chase down the Barthes quote in context to see whether it is actually useful, but it strikes me that if he’s saying what I think he’s saying, then there’s a very interesting point here about how we might approach classical reception in pop culture (which von Gloeden was, in the 1900s) – it might help explain the broad brand of classical semiotics which relies on shallow codes and symbols to signal an ancient setting.

Sadly, Russell’s article doesn’t do the kind of classical reception work that Barthes’ dismissal seems to invite, although it is jolly good from an art history point of view. L’annee Philologique doesn’t appear to record anything on von Gloeden or his contemporary von Pluschow. There’s clearly an opportunity here for some aspiring young reception scholar. I have to admit that I’m not particularly interested in von Gloeden himself except as a data point, an interesting example and some context for the tradition of using classical motifs as a figleaf for male erotica. (If this is the sort of thing you are interested in, then do go and find Thomas Waugh’s Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from Their Beginnings to Stonewall, which is where I first came across von Gloeden and his contemporaries. And if you can find a copy that hasn’t had a significant number of the illustrations removed, as the well-thumbed copy from Rutgers had, so much the better.) However, if ever a justification was needed for following up interesting references hidden in footnotes, this is it – if my hunch turns out to be right, Barthes might give me a very useful framework for tackling a certain kind of classical reception in Barbies. Stay tuned…

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