Classically Inclined

September 8, 2014

On emperors and exhibitions

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 9:23 am
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Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have been hard-pressed to miss the recent flurry of #Aug2K tweets as I live-tweeted my way through the Commemorating Augustus conference at Leeds, ably organised by Penny Goodman. The occasion for all the Augustus excitement is the bimillenium of his death – two thousand years ago in August, the first ever emperor carked it. (Penny has a blog post on how we know the precise date.) The conference was one of those wonderful assortments of people working on things that you’d not think fitted together but that actually each reflect on each other in really interesting ways. I particularly loved the panel my talk belonged to, which had three very different ways of reading Senecan and pseudo-Senecan texts plus a bit of a riff on Flavian coinage. But this is not the only Augustan honorific I’ve seen – I also managed to get over the Channel in time to see the Moi, Auguste exhibition at the Paris Expo before it closed. This show had travelled from Rome with some alterations – Mary Beard saw both versions and wrote about the comparison back in April. Having not seen the Rome version, I’m not in a position to comment, but I do have some thoughts about what I saw.

Obviously, the experience was hugely enhanced by being a classicist, and by going with a classicist – one sneaky reason for the quick trip across was to coincide with a good friend of mine who spends most of the year in the US but was in Europe for the summer. Statues and catching-up coffee – what’s not to like? This meant that when we saw the simply spectacular marble frieze of a naval battle (presumably Actium) featuring a centaur in Hercules’ lion-skin to represent Antony… oh, how we laughed. Honestly, it’s hysterical if you’re familiar with the political polemic of the period, in which Antony tries to associate himself with Heracles for his political benefit, and his enemies describe him as a centaur who can’t control his base physical desires. If ever a student asks whether we aren’t asking too much in expecting an audience to automatically associate a politician with his propaganda, the photo of this frieze is coming out. Subtle it ain’t – and it was expected to be understood long after it had been put up.


May 12, 2014

Classical reception at Eurovision 2014

Filed under: Out and about — lizgloyn @ 11:55 am
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As anyone who follows my Twitter feed will know, I spent Saturday night curled up in front of Eurovision. Because, frankly, we finally have a proper television, and I am fully in favour of anything that lets me watch great big showcase cheesiness. Of course, the problem with watching anything this pop-culture-y is that there is a fair chance that something related to classical reception will turn up on the screen, and my wee analytical brain will jump into action.

This year, the most sustained offering came from Italy:

This is La Mia Città performed by Emma Marrone. If you look at a translation of the lyrics, you will see it is a paean to modern city living, presumably in Rome – commuting, finding a parking space, urban narcissism, getting high heels stuck in manhole covers, the lot. Fine. However, the costume stylists clearly decided that urban commuter was not a look they were going for this season, so they tapped into the ancestral heritage of the country instead. Emma is given a marvellous white tunic with gold spangling that looks, certainly from the waist up, very reminiscent of a Roman military breastplate; a big white cape with a rather nice jewelled neck clasp, just in case we weren’t getting the military allusion, particularly at the start of the sequence; and a golden laurel wreath in her hair, the symbol of the military victor and holder of imperium. In fact, the whole band get to have golden laurels, even the keytar player. (I couldn’t get a good enough look at Emma’s shoes in the footage to establish their design beyond the fact they have very high heels, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there was some element of sandal straps in there.)

However, as far as classical reception goes, that’s it. From what I could see in the footage of the big stage screens, no ancient imagery turns up, although there were one or two glyphs that you might have argued were vaguely ancient if you felt like pushing it, and a bit of circling Greek keys pattern. The lyrics had no particular classical interest; they don’t even specify that the city under discussion is Rome, clearly aiming to have general appeal for metropolitan voters. The staging was not particularly interesting and didn’t make any use of the classical possibilities – the band stood still whilst Emma strode around (a time-honoured Eurovision pattern). Which raises the question – why bother going classical in the first place?

It’s not as if you can’t use classical reception in a really interesting way in musical performances – Madonna’s Superbowl half-time show in 2012 showed us that it’s possible to take the theme and do conceptually clever and witty things with it. Unfortunately, Italy this year haven’t gone in that direction. Instead, they’ve chosen to essentially run with a stripped-down basic visual semantics that says ‘ancient Roman imperialism’ that we’re all just supposed to get. Apart from a few suggestions that Emma was channelling She-Ra, in the main all the responses on Twitter seem to have happily gone along with it. Nobody’s saying ‘what the hell? Why? What does this mean? What are we meant to make of this visual combination of white and gold? What’s with the head-pieces?’ – because everybody knows how to read this stuff.

Sadly, the Italian team didn’t decide to do anything beyond telling us they know their own heritage, and know we know it. The only possible interpretation I can come up with is that it was a subliminal attempt to influence the voters at home by suggesting that the group had authority over Eurovision and were the only possible victors – not an angle supported either by the song or the staging. A wasted opportunity, methinks.


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.


December 5, 2012

Defining the Roman family

Filed under: Research — lizgloyn @ 11:28 am
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I’ve been talking around the idea of the Roman family, and the idea is central to my work, but I’ve realised that I’ve never actually explained what the family is on this blog The Latin word for family is familia, but while the two words look more or less the same, familia represents a very different sort of concept – our idea of the nuclear family would have felt very foreign to the Romans. The Roman idea of familia had a primarily legal meaning, which encompassed only those blood relatives who are agnates, or related through the male line, and not cognates, or relatives through the female line. Marriage did not necessarily mean a close legal tie; if a woman married without manus, she remained in the legal control of her father and thus in his familia, not her husband’s. The consequence of this was that she would not legally be part of her children’s familia either.

Another way to define the familia was as those under the legal authority of the paterfamilias, the oldest and most senior male. This definition included the slaves belonging to a household as well as those biologically related to each other through the male line. In fact, familia can be used to refer to the slaves of a household on their own, not including any of the biological family members at all.


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…)

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