The replica gods of Roman Messene

As well as preparing for the upcoming conference on Public Statues Across Time and Cultures – 28-29 September, do check out the programme– I’ve been working recently on an article about the different settings where statues were set up in the city of Messene. If you’ve never been there Messene is an incredible site in the southwest Peloponnese in the region that was liberated from Spartan control in the late Classical period – I’ve blogged about it here. This isn’t the follow-up I promised a while ago to my piece on the statues of the Messenian Artemision (I will get round to that soon) but something else about the statues of gods that are known to have stood in various places around the city.

Hermes of the Andros type, found in the gymnasium at Messene

Anyone who’s visited a museum gallery displaying statues from antiquity will, I’m sure, have seen the label “Roman copy of Greek original”. It’s a fascinating phenomenon. At the time of the Roman Empire certain well-known statue types in crop up everywhere, many of them thought to be replicas in marble of much older pieces of sculpture by Greek artists that have long since disappeared and which were probably made of bronze. Seeing all those near identical Venuses and Herculeses it’s easy to imagine them decorating Roman villas and bathhouses – which they surely did – and to find them somehow reassuringly familiar. As pieces for decoration, designed to advertise the culture and learning of their owners, the Roman way of displaying and relating to these statues seems little different to the way in which English gentry displayed ancient statues in their 18th century mansions, a subject explored in a fascinating and beautifully illustrated book that I read recently and highly recommend – “Owning the Past” by Ruth Guilding.

Now, one of the puzzling things about this Roman habit of copying Greek statues is just what it meant to the Greeks whose ancestors had made the statues that were being copied. In Greek culture in Classical and Hellenistic times statues of gods don’t generally seem to have been made just to serve as pieces of art but, more often were set up as objects of religious devotion, whether to physically embody the power of the god or as a votive honour. So how did the Greeks respond to new Roman ideas about sculpture once they became part of the Empire?

Of course there are sculptures of gods from Roman Greece that do seem to be largely decorative, such as the Tritons and Giants from the 2nd century AD rebuilding of the Odeion in the Athenian Agora (though even here I’ve argued that something more meaningful might be going on) but the thing that makes Messene so intriguing is that statues have been found that are recognizable copies of well-known types but which seem to have stood in decidedly religious settings.

First, from the gymnasium a Heracles and a Hermes, both of types known from other Roman copies have been found. There’s a photo of the Hermes at the top of this post – all that survives of the Herakles are fragments. A gymnasium, like a bathhouse, is admittedly just the kind of place where we might expect purely decorative sculpture in the Roman period and Herakles and Hermes are gods that are often seen in such settings and generally interpreted in what we might call purely secular terms – as images of the brawn and brains that young men exercising and studying in the gymnasium were meant to be cultivating. The gymnasium at Messene, however was uniquely, home to a number of public burials from the period, which suggests it was thought of as, in some sense, a religious space. The statue of Hermes may even have stood atop one of these grave monuments as statues of this type are known to have done elsewhere in the Roman world in cemeteries.

A third statue found in the gymnasium is an example of one of the most copied of all in antiquity – Polycleitus’ Doryphoros or spear bearer. Nobody knows for sure who this famous statue was meant to represent when the original was made in the 5th century BC but Petros Themelis, the excavator of Messene has argued that here it may have been used to represent Theseus, the Athenian hero who killed the minotaur, whose statue Pausanias also saw in the gymnasium.

The Doryphoros (from, left: Pompeii; right: Messene)

Perhaps even more intriguing is a piece of a statue of Aphrodite found on the agora. It is just a bit of a thigh but that is enough to allow it to be recognised as belonging to the famous “Crouching Venus” type known from countless examples. Some of you may have seen the one displayed in last year’s “Defining Beauty” exhibition at the British Museum.

Crouching Venus with Messene thigh fragment overlain*

Pausanias tells us that Aphrodite had a temple on the agora at Messene and while we can’t be sure that this statue came from the temple the coincidence of location least raises that possibility and suggests that at Messene this statue too was thought of as having some deeper religious meaning than we might normally be inclined to ascribe to the work.

Statue of Isis Pelagia found at Messene
Statue of Isis Pelagia found at Messene

There seem to be other examples of copies of statues at Messene in religious settings too though not of such well-known types. Two fantastic statues of Isis, one found in the sanctuary of that goddess, the other found in the theatre but surely also originating in the Iseion, Professor Themelis has argued to be copies of older Hellenistic models. The first can be seen in the site museum and is of Isis Pelagia, goddess of the sea, striding forth on the prow of a ship.


Statue of Isis suckling the baby Horus, from Messene

The other shows the her suckling the baby Horus, a well-known image from antiquity that may well have influenced later representations of the Virgin Mary. It was found more recently and so is not yet on display. Neither type has exact parallels elsewhere in the Empire but the iconography of both is known from other media such as reliefs and coins which makes it likely that they too were what we would call copies. A 3rd century Artemis, found in what seems to have been some kind of public hall bears a close resemblance – thought it is far from identical (look at the clothes, hairstyle and stance) – to one that I saw earlier this year at Blenheim palace. While there’s no reason to think that this building had any particular religious significance the other examples mean that we can’t rule out that the statue did.

Statues of Artemis (from, left: Messene; right: Blenheim Palace)

What this all comes down to is that thinking spatially about the setting in which statues were set up can help defamiliarise them and open our minds to new ways of looking at them. It’s easy to think of Roman period statues as largely decorative or allegorical because that’s how we’ve been looking at statues for the past few hundred years but there’s every reason to think that the Roman period Greeks saw them very differently.

And thinking spatially about the meaning of statues isn’t just worth doing for antiquity. The different ways that cultures throughout history have used and responded to public statues is a subject that I don’t think has received anywhere near the attention it deserves which is the reason why I’ve organised a conference around that very theme. So, to end as I began – with a plug – it’s an exciting programme with papers on Roman Palmyra, Hellenistic Athens, Ancient China, the Renaissance and lots more. And the event isn’t just meant for stuffy academics so do check it out. Registration closes on 21st September.

Hopefully I’ll see you there……



*The image of Venus is taken from Professor Themelis’ excellent guide to the site:

Themelis, P. (2003). Ancient Messene. Athens, Hellenic Ministry of Culture – Archaeological Receipts Fund.


Public Statues Across Time and Cultures


It is a pleasure to be able to announce that registration is now open for conference that I have been organising on “Public Statues across Time and Cultures” which will take place at Lincoln College, Oxford on 28th and 29th September. Over two days leading historians, art historians and archaeologists from the U.S., Europe and the UK will present papers exploring the role played by public statues in historical cultures ranging from ancient China to Renaissance Italy, from Palmyra to Georgian England. I am extremely pleased with the final line up (although there is one slot still to fill due to somebody having to pull out) and am really looking forward to what is going to be a fascinating and fun event.

Throughout history and across cultures people have set up statues in public spaces – to honour rulers, to reward benefactors, to worship gods and goddesses or simply to admire. There’s been a lot of fascinating research into the role of public statues in particular societies but, in my opinion, not enough consideration given to the bigger picture of differences and similarities in the ways in which different cultures have used and responded to their statues.It is hoped that bringing together experts working on similar issues but for different times and places will suggest new perspectives for thinking about the ways that statues have been used around the world throughout history.

The event is open to anybody with an interest in sculpture, public space or comparative history and will be taking place in Lincoln College’s wonderful new conference centre, which only opened last year.


You can register for the event by following this link to the online storeThere is a charge of £7.50 per day to cover the cost of the room and refreshments. You are also more than welcome to pay and sign up for the optional lunch (£13.50 per day).

Please not that registration will close on 21st September.

For any questions please send me an email or leave a comment below.

Here is the full programme:

Public statues across Time and Cultures

 A two-day international conference

Lincoln College, Oxford

28th-29th September 2016

This event is generously supported by the Marie Curie Fellowship, John Fell Fund, the Zilkha Fund and the Craven Committee.


Day one – Wednesday 28th September

10:00 Opening – Dr. Christopher Dickenson (Oxford)

10.30 Dr. Matthew Craske (Oxford Brookes) “The erection of public monuments to historical figures and the politics of nostalgia in early Hanoverian England”

11:30 Tea and coffee

12:00 Prof. Sheila Dillon (Duke University) “Public Sacred Space, Private Portrait Statues: the case of the City Eleusinion in Athens”

13:00 Lunch for speakers and chairs, optional for delegates

14:00 Dr. Peter Dent (University of Bristol) “Looking up in Public: Subordinating the Viewer in the Squares of Medieval and Renaissance Italy”

15:00 Tea and coffee

15:30 Dr. Kathleen Christian (Open University) “‘Statues in Renaissance Rome and the Possesso of Leo X, 1513”

16:30 Prof. Lukas Nickel (University of Vienna): “Public Sculpture in Early Imperial China, 3rd to 2nd century BC”

17:30 Reception

Day Two – Thursday 29th September

9:30 Prof. Rubina Raja (Aarhus University) “Public display of statuary in Palmyra – between tradition and innovation”

10:30 Dr. Paroma Chatterjee (University of Michigan) “Ancient statues as markers of time in the Parastaseis and Theophanes Continuatus”

11:30 Tea and coffee

12:00 Dr. Campbell Price (Manchester Museum) “How accessible was elite temple sculpture in Pharaonic Egypt?”

13:00 Lunch for speakers and chairs, optional for delegates

14: 00 Dr. Stijn Bussels (Leiden University) “Shiver and Admire in the Dutch Golden Age. Artus Quellinus’ Statues in the Amsterdam Tribunal”

15:00 Tea and coffee

15:30 Dr Faik Gür (Özyeğin University)  “High Modernism and the Politics of Public Statuary in Turkey”

16:30 Summing up and general discussion



The positive side of freedom of movement

I’m in Italy at the moment and having a great time seeing sites and museums but, like most of us, I’ve also been thinking a lot about the upcoming referendum next week. Having lived abroad for 15 years I believe I have a perspective on the EU that hasn’t received much attention in the debate. I’m voting to remain and, for those of you who can forgive this excursus away from ancient monuments here’s why….

DSCF0686 copy
A scene from my life in the Netherlands

In the summer of 1999, I’d just finished by BA degree in Ancient History and Archaeology and went to work as a volunteer on archaeological dig in the Netherlands – at an Iron Age/Roman period site in a small town called Oss. I’d dug at the same site the previous summer and was glad to get back to the sun and the sand and the cool beer that felt so deserved at the end of a hard day’s manual labour. By the end of the campaign season I was at a bit of a loose end and decided I’d like to stick around in Holland for a bit to see what life was like in Leiden where my new friends were all still studying. I thought I’d get a job in a factory or picking tulips or something for a few months and move back to Britain by Christmas, my thoughts clearer about the direction my life was going in. Little did I know I’d end up living there for fifteen years and would return with a PhD, a Dutch wife and a beautiful little daughter.

In the first few weeks of trying to establish some kind of normal life in Leiden I was sleeping on someone’s floor, had no job, no bank account, no social security number and no certainty that my plan was going to work out. I can remember one of my friends saying “I don’t think that it is that easy to just decide you want to stay” but I just took it for granted that I could and I turned out to be right. I soon had a room in a shared house and a great job working for a commercial rescue excavation company, essentially getting paid to do what I’d been doing over the summer only in worse weather as the autumn crept on and in sluggish wet clay that clung to the spade instead of the light sands that I’d been used to. It was a great life. It was only some time later after I’d been living there a while that I gave it any thought that it was because of the freedom of movement allowed within the EU that I’d been able to choose to move to Holland.

After getting so much out of my time abroad I’ve been getting a bit frustrated in the run up to the referendum that so little attention is being paid to the positive side of freedom of movement – to what UK citizens like me have been able to get out of it and the possibilities that the EU has opened up to so many British people, particularly young people at that stage in their life when they aren’t tied down by commitments and seeking foreign adventure is still a viable option. Most of the talk about freedom of movement is about immigrants coming to the UK committing crimes, sponging off the NHS and our benefits system or taking jobs. (How immigrants can, on aggregate, be both out of work parasites and job-stealers is one of the big unresolved mysteries of the whole referendum debate).

When UK citizens abroad are mentioned they are usually the retired pensioners living on the Costa del Sol. I’ve no idea how many younger people have moved to Europe for work and it may well be that that demographic is an insignificant minority in the bigger scheme of things. Nonetheless, it is the opportunity to look for work abroad and the enormous benefits that can come from taking that opportunity that I believe means that freedom of movement deserves a fairer hearing.

Moving to the Netherlands turned out to be extremely beneficial for my future career. While still working in commercial archaeology I took my MA there, then got a PhD and then worked as a lecturer before moving back to the UK, with an EU funded fellowship. But the fact that I’ve benefitted from the EU’s freedom of movement is unlikely to persuade anyone else to vote to stay in EU. I’ve been very fortunate I know. More relevant to the argument are the things I learned from living abroad both about Dutch culture and about how society can be run. I can now see that many of things that we in the UK assume – or are told – have to be the way they are do not. This is a lesson that I believe we could all benefit from learning and I’m convinced that Britain will be a much poorer place if we block opportunities to do so by closing ourselves off to Europe.

I learned that trains can run on time, don’t need to be overcrowded and can be a great deal cheaper than they are in Britain. I learned that there doesn’t need to be a black and white choice between students paying exorbitant tuition fees or having free university education. Dutch students pay fees but they are significantly lower than the £8,000 per year now charged at some UK institutions.

I learned – from personal experience in being temporarily out of work – that unemployment benefits can be high enough to live comfortably on. In Holland you would now get 70% of your last salary, significantly more than dole money in the UK and I think it might have been higher than that a few years ago. There is a requirement that you have to have worked first, to have paid something into the system before you get something back, something that many people would like to see in the UK. But the required period is 26 of the last 36 weeks, significantly less than the four years that David Cameron seems to have plucked arbitrarily out of thin air. There is clearly more than one way to reach a balance between fairness and generosity.

I also learned, incidentally that there are UK citizens in Holland taking advantage of the Dutch system by working in seasonal jobs like bulb planting and living a pretty good life on benefits in between seasons. Not that I’m advocating British citizens moving abroad to do just that but it does put a different perspective on the issue of benefits tourism than the one we hear so much about.

Having gone on to pursue a career in academia another thing I learned is that it’s possible to have a system where PhD students can get paid as members of staff at a University for carrying out their research. How many UK PhD students, paying fees and often working part-time to support themselves while struggling to write their thesis realise how incomparably worse their situation is than that of some of their continental peers?

Some of the other eye-openers that life in the Netherlands had in store for me were that houses don’t have to be overpriced and undersized, that everything sold in a supermarket doesn’t need to be excessively wrapped in wasteful plastic and that it is possible to use a bike or the bus as your regular means of transport instead of your car.

Now I’m not saying that all of these things could be implemented in the UK or would necessarily work here. I’m also not saying that the Netherlands is some kind of perfectly ordered Utopia because it certainly isn’t. What I am saying is that looking beyond our borders can give us a wake up call to problems in our own country that we didn’t even know existed. Just think what might happen if enough people started asking why it is that the Dutch can have a generous benefits system without bankrupting the country and we can’t, or why it is that their public transport is so much cheaper and more efficient than ours.

Freedom of movement – people spending time in other countries, getting to know how they work is such a valuable resource in thinking about how to improve our own society. And of course it isn’t just Holland where certain things are done better than they are in the UK – the EU makes it easy to look to Sweden, France, Spain, Belgium or any of the other member states to get ideas for how to improve our own lives. And they, of course, can and should also being looking to us for the things that we get right. Poised on the edge of Brexit we’re in real danger of throwing that resource away.

Seeing that certain things can and do work differently in different countries within the EU also puts the lie to the argument about surrendering sovereignty and clearly shows how much power national governments still have. I don’t believe for one second that all of Britain’s current woes are caused by the country being inundated with immigrants as the Leave campaign would have it, but even if that were true then surely we should be asking why other wealthy EU countries, like the Netherlands aren’t suffering to the same degree as we are from things like a chronic shortage of affordable housing and an overstrained health service. If our benefits and healthcare system really do act like magnets drawing in parasites from all over Europe – and again, to be clear I should stress I don’t believe they do – then we have to blame our own government and not the EU. Again, we only need look beyond our borders to see that the way we organise these things in Britain can’t have been imposed on us by the EU because other EU countries do things differently.

Of course you might by this point be wondering ‘if you love the Netherlands that much why don’t you just move back there?’. Perhaps one day I will. However, I’m also very happy living in the UK because there are many things that I love about this country and that brings me to the other great thing about living abroad – it also puts a new perspective on the things you value most about your own country so that you can better appreciate them when you come back. Living in Holland I missed the English landscape, the rolling hills, the river valleys, the woodlands. I missed the history, the crumbling stone castles and the magnificent cathedrals. I missed certain food – fish’n’chips, Cadbury’s chocolate and Chinese takeways (most Dutch Chinese takeaways are actually rather more Indonesian in their cuisine, a product of Dutch colonial history, and though they’re pretty tasty they’re somehow just not the same). I missed English television and I missed the British sacred respect for not pushing in front of anybody in a queue.

They say that travel broadens the mind but that’s only true if you actually spend time in another country and really soak up something of its way of life. Two weeks each summer in the South of France or a weekend break in Venice doesn’t teach you about that country, or about yourself and the place you come from, in the same way as actually living abroad.

My big worry about a vote for Brexit next week isn’t about the economy or what will happen to the NHS – the things that are in the limelight – it’s about the enormous loss to our own culture that will result from shutting off young people’s opportunities for easily spending a lengthy time abroad like I did. My children – I now have two – are lucky in that they have joint UK-Dutch citizenship and will still be able to move around the EU even if Britain does vote for leave but young British people wouldn’t. And if a Brexit vote triggers a domino-effect and brings about the collapse of the EU – a far from impossible outcome – then my children won’t either.

If our young people are not able to move abroad, to follow their dreams and possibly to return with new ideas about how to make their country of origin an even better place it will be a sad loss for all of us.

Statues in situ – the Messenian Artemision

The key issues at the heart of my Monuments of Roman Greece project is how the meaning of statues and other monuments were shaped by their surroundings. Drawing on archaeological, epigraphic and literary evidence I’m trying to build up as complete a picture as possible of the spatial setting of individual monuments and types of monuments. It is very rare that the three types of evidence come together to give you the feeling that you’re able to (almost) fully reconstruct a particular monumental space but over the last few days I’ve been reading up on a fascinating set of statues for which that is the case: the statues of the Artemision at Messene.

Loyal followers of this blog might remember that I visited Messene on my trip to Greece last year. The city, in the southwest Peloponnese, was founded in the 4th Century BC when the Thebans liberated the region from the oppression of Spartan rule. That made it a relative new comer to the Greek urban scene and almost all of the visible remains date to a period of prosperity that seems to have lasted from the late Hellenistic period through to the height of the Roman Empire.

Areal photo of the Asklepieion (from


Reconstruction plan of the Messenian Asklepieion

The Artemision or “Oikos (house) of Artemis” as it is often called was a smallish room that was part of a larger religious complex dedicated to the god Asklepios (marked K on the map above). Asklepios is best known as the god of medicine but in Messene – a testament to the diversity of Greek religion – he seems to have been a more civic god. The Asklepieion, which is remarkably well preserved consisted of a central courtyard dominated by a temple to the god himself surrounded by a continuous colonnade behind which were various rooms. In the eastern wing was a small theatre-like meeting space, perhaps for political gatherings or religious performances. Inthe western wing was a row of so-called “oikoi” (plural of oikos) dedicated to various heroes and gods of local importance.

We happen to know which gods and heroes were housed where because the 2nd century AD travel writer Pausanias tells us. From south to north they were: (i) Apollo and the Muses, (ii) a personification of the city of Thebes, Herakles and Epaminondas (the Theban general who liberated the area from the Spartans), (iii) Tyche (Fortune) and (iv)Artemis. Pausanias also tells us that the artist who created most of these statues (all except that of Epaminondas) was a local man called Damophon who’s work on religious statues is known from other passages in Pausanias and from various inscriptions found at Messene and elsewhere in the Peloponnese. Damophon seems to have been active in the late 3rd/early 2nd century BC. This evidence makes him the Hellenistic author who we know most about. There are also some amazing pieces of surviving sculpture by Damophon from a sanctuary at place called Lykosoura in the Peloponnese which I (very nearly) visited on my trip last year.

Head of Apollo by Damophon, Messenian Asklepieion


Herakles Messene
Head of Herakles by Damophon, Messenian Asklepieion

To return to Messene, as if Pausanias’ description weren’t interesting enough, fragments of some of Damophons statues were also found within the oikoi of the Asklepieion including some pieces of the cult statue of Artemis. By the time Pausanias saw the statue it would have been standing on the base at the back of its Oikos, which also, incredibly, survives for over three centuries. While the statues in the other oikoi might not have been the focus of religious worship it’s clear that the statue of Artemis was what we can conveniently call a cult statue because outside the oikos in the central open space of the square was an altar on which sacrifices would have been made to it. Pausanias refers to the statue of Artemis Phosphoros (Light Bearing) so even though not enough of the statue survives to be completely sure what she looked it is probably reasonable to imagine her holding aloft a torch. The chamber itself would probably have been fairly dark and may well have been illuminated by torchlight, perhaps only at times of cultic significance.

This already brings us spine-tinglingly close to the experience an ancient worshipper would have had when worshipping the goddess but there is more. For a start there’s an older temple of Artemis just outside the main square so we know that the cult must be one of the oldest and most important in the city. We also know that for some reason that the Hellenistic Messenians were keen to integrate the cult within their new Asklepieion complex so as to give the goddess a place alongside the other heroes and gods considered to be of particularly local significance; the entire complex is generally seen as a programmatic expression of Messenian identity during a period of political and cultural ascendance.

The most remarkable thing about the Artemision, however, is that within it several monument bases were discovered (!) bearing inscriptions (!) together with no less than 8 (!) of the statues that once stood on them. The statues are all headless – presumably vandalised like the statue of Artemis itself by the Christians of a later era – but are otherwise very well preserved. Five are of young girls, three of older priestess, all of whom served the goddess in some aspect of her cult. Together the inscriptions and pieces of sculpture provide some tantalising insights into the nature of the worship of Artemis in the building as well as into the way in which statues were used to make religious and political statements and to shape the cultic experience. But more on these statues next time…..

Measuring wealth in wasps and hamburgers

A Wasp

Last summer my wife was enjoying sitting in the back garden with some friends who were visiting from the Netherlands when they realized that there were an awful lot of wasps buzzing around. On investigation they discovered two nests in one of the garden walls. “We had that problem last year.” one of the friends said “Two nests. Called someone out to get rid of it. Cost about 35 euros”. Imagine my surprise then when I phoned to get a quote for solving the problem and was quoted a figure around £200 by two different pest control companies. At today’s exchange rate that means that getting rid of wasps’ nests is apparently seven times (!) more expensive in the UK than it is in the Netherlands. It would almost be cheaper to get a Dutch company to send someone over for the day on an Easyjet flight.

And that’s not the only thing that’s pricier. I lived in Holland for fifteen years and moving back here the cost of living has taken some getting used to. In my local supermarket in Nijmegen I used to buy 15 oranges for 3 euros (£2.30). Here I’ve not been able to find them cheaper than £1 for three, which means they are more than twice as expensive. Car insurance, public transport, food, hairdressers, childcare, dry-cleaning, show repairs –  all are considerably more expensive here, to say nothing of rent which is astronomically high – in the UK for people who rent the cost accounts for a higher proportion of their wages than in any other country in Europe. To be fair my wife tells me that health and beauty products are cheaper in Britain than they were in Holland but they hardly account for a big chunk of your weekly expenses.

Our politicians continually try to win our support with promises to put more money in our pockets. There seems to be a widely accepted idea in Britain that if you can earn a bit more and pay a bit less in taxes then you’ll be better off. Ed Miliband’s “cost of living crisis” never really caught on but I’d say there’s something in it. I earned less in the Netherlands than I do here and I paid proportionately more of my wages in tax but I was financially better off there. Living in Holland has showed me that paradoxically there’s more to being rich or poor than how much money you’ve got. It’s how far that money can stretch that matters.

So what’s prompted this decidedly non-archaeological post on today of all days? It’s a piece I read in the Guardian this morning which claims that the new so-called “living wage” (can’t we please just call it what it is, a rise in the minimum wage?) means that according to the Big Mac Index British people on the minimum wage are going to have more spending power than in any European country except for Luxemburg. And no it’s not an April Fool’s joke, the Big Mac Index really does – the Big Mac is apparently used, as a widely available and relative cheap product, to measure relative spending power around the world.

I’ve checked online and a Big Mac is a rare example of an item of food that costs almost exactly the same amount in the Netherlands as it does in the UK £2.69 here and  € 3,45 (£2.70 at today’s exchange rate) in Holland . So, it seems to me that this doesn’t so much prove that spending power is higher in the UK as that Big Macs for some reason are one of the few things that are relatively cheap here. And why might that be? Might it be because fast-food chains somehow have lower costs in the UK so that they can keep down their prices and still make a healthy profit? And if that is the case where might those savings be made? Well, one possibility that springs to mind is that it might have something do with employment conditions in the UK where people working in fast food chains are presumably very often on zero-hours contracts so that even if their employer does pay them the new, higher minimum wage they will still be making savings on pension contributions, sick pay and holiday pay? Is it just possible that measuring wealth in Hamburgers isn’t so useful after all? Just a thought…..

Of course we’re all thinking a lot at the moment about Britain’s place in the EU. I’d say that one of the best things about membership is that it makes it easier for us to spend time living in other European countries, and living abroad can open your eyes to the things that work well in your home country and the things that work less well. My understanding of economics is shaky to say the least and I don’t pretend to understand why life is so expensive here compared to some other countries but this does seem to me to be a major problem in the UK and I suggest that to find a solution we could do worse than to consider why it’s a problem that other countries on our doorstep don’t seem to have.

And to finish on a lighter note: just in case you’re wondering, the landlord paid to get the exterminators in so it isn’t all doom and gloom. Well, not unless you’re a wasp.

Putting monuments in boxes – or the trials and tribulations of setting up a research database

I’m pleased to be say that of last week my “Monuments of Roman Greece” project has its own website ( The main feature of the website is that it gives access to a searchable database of public monuments in Greek cities. Both the website and the database are works-in-progress. A more user-friendly search platform is still being developed and I’m still busy expanding the catalogue of monuments. But I wanted to get it online as soon as possible both so that people could start using it and so that, hopefully, I can get some feedback on it. I’ve been meaning to write a blog piece about the database for some time now and now seems an opportune moment.

Screenshot 2016-03-22 14.08.41
Screenshot of one of my database entries

The intention behind the database is to bring together things that were once found together but which have become separated, both through the chance survival of different types of evidence and the practices of modern scholarship. I’m talking, of course, about the statues, tombs, carved reliefs and other monuments that filled the public spaces of Greek cities under the Roman Empire. Few of these monuments survive intact but evidence for hundreds of them does survive in the form of (broken) pieces of sculpture, inscribed statue bases or mentions by ancient authors. The basic premise behind my project is that not enough attention has been paid to the extent to which spatial setting contributed to the meaning of ancient public monuments. I’m interested in questions such as how setting up different types monument in the same space – for example statues of benefactors and gods in a city’s agora – might have had an effect on how such monuments were read and experienced, how different spaces were frequented by different groups of people who would have been the audience for these monuments.

Probably the biggest challenge in putting the database together was deciding on the different categories of monument and public space that I want to be able to distinguish especially because one of the key aims of my research is to test the usefulness of the distinctions we usually tend to draw between ancient monuments, and statues in particular. Labelling is reassuring because it gives us a feeling that we understand whatever subject we’re studying but that feeling can be misleading. In the case of ancient monument, I’m not so sure that the distinctions we draw between, say, portraits statues set up as political honours and those set up as votive offerings to the gods, or even between portrait statues and statues of emperors, heroes, and gods were anywhere near as clear-cut in the ancient world as in they are in academic books and articles.

All of these different statues spoke a similar visual language and, crucially, stood side-by-side in the same areas of public space. This created potential for ambiguity so that a statue of a muscular nude athlete could be mistaken on first glance for a hero or a long-dead Hellenistic king. It also meant that anybody who was granted a permanent likeness of themselves in stone or bronze had something in common with the gods that their fellow mortals did not. Thinking spatially, about just how different configurations of different types of monument were created in different settings is a useful way of exploring the overlapping meaning between these different types of statue.

To create a database that would allow me to do that it soon became clear that it wouldn’t be very useful to work with the standard categories like “honorific portrait”, “votive portrait”, “Imperial portait”. However, it was equally clear that in finding new ways to classify monuments there was a danger of simply creating the pattern that I was expecting to be. And of course, a further problem, is that I want the database to be useful to other people which it wouldn’t be if I strayed too far from conventional classifications.

I think that the categories I’ve come up with are suitably broad to allow monuments that might have had something in common to end up in the same category, while still allowing others to distinguish between the types well-known to modern scholarship. Statues of emperors, honorific monuments to politicians and portraits of family members set up as dedications to gods can all be found under portrait statues but, where we have that information I’ve also included fields to show who they were set up by and who they were set up for. Statues of gods, personifications and heroes are separate categories, as are votive offerings (of non-human subjects), public graves and paintings.

In entering the data I’ve come across quite a few problem cases which it was hard to know how to categorise. Should a statue of a real man, set up to honour him for political service to his city, but which names him as a “hero” on the base be put in the same category as a statue of a mythical hero like Theseus? To which category do statues of Herakles, the hero who became a god, belong? And, if it’s straightforward to categorise statues of “The Demos” (the People) as personifications to distinguish them from “real” gods and goddesses like Zeus, Athena and Aphrodite, what about statues of Eirene (Peace), Ploutos (Wealth) and Hygeia (Health)? In many cases I’ve had to make snap judgements that simply cannot be completely satisfactory but which I hope makes enough sense to allow me to use the catalogue to investigate the kind of issues I’m interested in, while still allowing others to find the kinds of information they might want to draw from the database.

Making the database has been an education and I suppose the main lesson I’ve drawn is this: databases are useful for investigating the past because they let you order reality and put it into neat little boxes but you need to think hard about the shape and size of those boxes, especially when it is the messiness of historical reality itself that you are trying to examine.


Postscript: as I stressed at the beginning the database is a work in progress so I’d be glad of any feedback on either how I’ve set it up or on the individual entries. Please do leave comments here or use the feedback form on the website.

“Doing an Athens”. Is ancient history telling us to vote leave the EU?

Classical Athenian vase showing Hoplites fighting – was democracy or warfare more important for Athens’ greatness?

The wonderful thing about ancient history is that it can so easily be held up as a mirror by which to look at modern problems in a new light. It can also be made to mean pretty much whatever you want. Last Saturday in the Spectator Peter Jones described the upcoming EU referendum as a chance for the people of Britain to “do an Athens”, to shake off foreign oppression, assert our autonomy and achieve the level of cultural greatness experienced by that Greek city in the 5th century BC. The trouble is that you could argue that ancient Athens has a very different lesson to teach us.

Leaving aside the obvious issue that it’s very unlikely that leaving the EU would actually place power in the hands of the British people to the same degree as in the “radical democracy” of Classical Athens a more serious problem is that Jones’ vision of the causes and effects of Athens’ greatness is very one sided.

He cites the reforms of Solon (early 6th Century BC) as paving the way for Athens’ democracy but doesn’t mention that one of Solon’s economic measures was to actively encourage foreign immigrants, or metics, to come to Athens – hardly a policy that would win votes with the Leave campaigners. He glorifies the decision to invest in the fleet as an assertion of independence but skirts around the way that the fleet was used to reduce hundreds of other Greek city states to the status of tribute paying subjects. Whether democracy or empire played a bigger role in Athens’ cultural greatness continues to be debated but the wealth that military control of the Aegean brought with it can hardly have been a handicap. Should Britain also emulate Athens in this respect?

Ultimately it wasn’t long before the expansion of Athenian power led to a brutal and drawn out war with the other major Greek power, Sparta, and her allies. It is perhaps the biggest tragedy of Greek history that the spirit of cooperation between the separate city states that had brought so many of them, including Athens and Sparta, together to fight the Persians in the early 5th century failed to maintain its momentum, as they rapidly fell into two competing power blocks.

In 404 BC, three quarters of a century after the major investment in the fleet that Jones points to as the radical decision that should inspire us to vote for Brexit, Athens lost the war against Sparta. For the same amount of time that it took the Athenian Empire to rise and fall, the countries of northwest Europe have been at peace. Whatever the shortcomings of the EU that achievement is without parallel in ancient Greek history.

In the 4th century BC Athens recovered something of her power and influence but, the florescence of culture that produced the great 5th century tragedies and comedies and the buildings on the Acropolis, was never to return. Athens’ Golden Age was like a briliiant firework display, blinding in its intensity but which fizzled out all too soon. Is that what Jones hopes for for Britain?

Hellenistic Kings in Roman Athens

A name that’s cropped up quite a bit in this blog is Pausanias. He was a Greek from Asia Minor, who travelled extensively around Greece in the 2nd century AD writing a description of the country at that time, focussing mainly on old and sacred monuments. His work survives and is an invaluable – though partial and in many ways problematic – guide to the types of monuments that could be seen in Greek cities at that time. Recently I’ve been busy working through his descriptions of Messene, Corinth and Athens cataloguing the monuments he mentions for a database I’m working on (on which, more next time!). Rereading his description of Athens has set me to wondering about what’s always struck me as a curious feature of his description of that city – the sheer number of statues of Hellenistic kings he says he saw there.

The so-called Therme Ruler – a surviving bronze statue of a Hellenistic king?

These kings dominated the Mediterranean from the 3rd-1st centuries BC, ruling over territories that had been carved out of the empire of Alexander the Great by his generals following his death. Historians call the period “Hellenistic” because it was a time when Greek (or Hellenic) culture was spread over a larger area than previously. Originally, the three most powerful kingdoms were Macedonia, Alexander’s homeland in northern Greece, Egypt, and the vast Seleucid Empire that at one time covered most of Asia Minor and much of the near East. Over the course of the centuries the fortunes of the big three waxed and waned, borders changed, mainly as the result of war, and various smaller kingdoms also rose to prominence. Eventually the fate of all of these territories was to be absorbed into the expanding Roman Empire, with the Hellenistic period coming to an end when the last of them, Egypt, was made a province under the first emperor Augustus. Throughout these centuries southern and central Greece, the part of the ancient world I’m working on, found itself stuck between these great powers and struggling to assert its independence, often through trying to play them off against each other.

Now, in Pausanias’ description of Athens he mentions seeing some 11 statues of different Hellenistic kings, most of them on the city’s agora. All of the major dynasties and a couple of the lesser ones are represented. There’s no other evidence at all that most of these statues existed; the inscribed bases haven’t been found and the statues themselves, probably of bronze have long since disappeared, melted down like most bronze statues from antiquity. They probably looked a bit like the few statuettes of kings that do still exist or like the so-called Therme Ruler, found in a bathhouse in Rome and thought to be the only full-sized statue of a Hellenistic king to survive from the ancient world.

We know that it was fairly common in the Hellenistic period for cities to honour kings with statues, mainly as a thank-you for benefactions bestowed (grain, military aid, payment for festivals or buildings) or as an attempt at flattery to encourage such gifts. We also know, from other sources, that Athens definitely did honour certain kings in this way during their lifetimes. However, the number of statues of different kings reported by Pausanias at Athens is unparalleled for any other city, which raises all sorts of questions both about what was going on in Athens in Hellenistic times and about the survival of older statues in Greek cities into the Roman period:

Firstly, did Athens really set up far more statues of kings than any other city? At other cities statues where statues of kings are attested – in written sources or in inscriptions – they typically don’t number more than a handful. The position of Athens was, in Hellenistic times, in many ways unique and that might explain the large number. The city was then already revered for its cultural achievements in the Classical period – the art, literature, architecture, philosophy, still marvelled at today – and Hellenistic kings, keen to show off how cultured they were, took a keen interest in the city and showered it with gifts of the type mentioned above. The so-called Stoa of Attalos, that today can be seen lining one side of the agora, is a modern reconstruction of just such a benefaction, paid for by Attalos II of Pergamon, a kingdom in northern Turkey that grew to prominence in the 2nd Century BC. It is, therefore, just possible that the city really did set up more statues of kings than other cities did.

The Stoa of Attalos at Athens – a modern reconstruction of a 2nd C BC building

On the other hand, however, Athens was the first city Pausanias described in his book and, at that time, he doesn’t seem to have had as clear an idea about what his project was about as he did later. He tells us explicitly in his description of Athens that he thought that the Hellenistic period of Greek history hadn’t received the attention it deserved (he doesn’t use the word “Hellenistic”, of course, – that’s a modern invention) and he uses his mentions of various statues at Athens as springboards to lengthy digressions on the history of various kings and dynasties. This means that it is also possible that he only mentions the statues at Athens as an excuse to tell us these stories and doesn’t mention statues of kings at other cities simply because by that point he’s already dealt with the period and, in any case, seems to have lost interest in the period.

Secondly, did more statues of Hellenistic kings survive into the Roman period at Athens than at other cities? We have evidence, as mentioned above, for other cities setting up statues of kings in Hellenistic times but no evidence that these statues were still standing in the 2nd century AD. Here the problems are similar to the first question. Did Pausanias refer to more statues of kings at Athens elsewhere because there were more statues – perhaps they’d been removed at other cities – or just because he is being highly selective in what he describes.

Another important question is when were the statues at Athens set up? Where these statues have been considered in modern scholarship people have tended to assume that they must have been set up in the lifetimes of the king in question. This connects to a more general tendency to assume that Pausanias’ references to monuments are fairly good evidence for the history of earlier periods. In the case of our statues of kings, in some cases this is a plausible assumption – we know from other sources certain kings had a definite link with Athens and had statues erected there, such as Demetrios Poliorcetes (“The Besieger”): he freed Athens from a tyrant in the late 4th century, had all sorts of honours lavished on him by the citizens, including a gilded statue in the centre of the agora and being worshipped like a god, only to then act like a tyrant himself, installing himself in the Parthenon and throwing wild parties there. Pausanias saw one of his statues on the agora. Pausanias also reports several statues of various Ptolemies – the kings of Egypt who all had the same name, Ptolemy – and we know that the dynasty made gifts of grain to the city in the 3rd century and that one of the kings built a gymnasium there in the 2nd. Again, it is quite likely that one or more of these kings would have had statues granted them in their lifetimes.

However, it is less easy to find a connection to Athens for certain other kings Pausanias mentions, such as Lysimachos one of Alexander’s generals who, for a short time ruled in Thrace in the northern Aegean, or Pyrrhos, king of Epirus, to whom we still owe the phrase “Pyrrhic Victory” from his expedition into Sicily to fight the Romans which resulted in a win that nearly wiped out his own army. Pausanias even saw statues of Alexander the Great, and his father Philip II of Macedon, and we know that there was no love lost between these kings and the Athenians – Athens fought wars to stop Philip’s increasing expansion into southern Greece and showed its distaste for Alexander’s rule over it by rebelling against the Macedonians as soon as he died. As the Hellenistic period progressed, and certainly by Roman times, these old grievances lost their sting and Alexander’s stature increased to legendary proportions as one of the great heroes of Greek history. It is therefore almost certain that his and Philip’s statues were set up at Athens posthumously. Possibly then, the same is true for other of the statues Pausanias reports.

We know that the Athenians did at times set up statues for historic figures, often many years after their deaths, such as the statues of the 6th century lawgiver Solon that stood in the agora which cant have been set up before the 5th century when public portrait statues began to become common. Or those of the Classical 5th century tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides that were put up in the theatre at the end of the 4th century. So it’s likely then that Philip and Alexander’s statues were also posthumous, which raises the possibility that some of the others might have been as well. Was the statue of Ptolemy I really set up in his lifetime at the very beginning of the Hellenistic period or might it, for example, have been erected some time later. Perhaps – to raise just one possibility – when the city honoured a later Ptolemy in the 2nd Century BC for building the gymnasium they also set up a monument to his famous ancestor. And might some of these statues even have been set up in Roman times during some burst of enthusiasm for this period in the city’s history?

The last question raised by Pausanias’ testimony is: where were these statues originally set up? Even if we suppose that most of them were set up in the lifetimes of the people they represent, or in the course of the Hellenistic period, as opposed to say, a couple of decades before Pausanias’ visit, we still can’t be sure if they had originally stood where he saw them. We know that in the time of the first Emperor Augustus a whole temple from a village in Athens’ territory was dismantled, transported to the agora and reconstructed there. By comparison statues would have been fairly easy to move. The sheer concentration of statues of the same time of subject – Hellenistic kings – in the same place – the agora – could be explained simply by this being thought of as the natural place for this type of monument. On the other hand it does raise suspicions that they might have been collected at some point in time to form a thematic collection. Perhaps for some reason the Roman period Athenians shared Pausanias’ fascination for the Hellenistic period of their history and had gathered the statues together sometime under the Empire. Even if they had always stood in the agora there’s a chance they might have been moved around within the square. Apart from the temple that was moved there under Augustus there was also an enormous odeion (indoor theatre) built there at the same time that took up a lot of room. At least one scholar has assumed that the statues of Hellenistic kings originally stood where the odeion was built.

Reconstruction model of the Athenian Agora in the 2nd C AD. The Odeon is the big, tall building in the centre

In short, Pausanias’ references to all these Hellenistic kings in Roman Athens raise more questions than we’re able to answer. Asking these questions is worthwhile because they alert us to some of the key issues relating to ancient public monuments that are worth thinking about further. They also remind us how fragmentary our evidence and of how looking at ancient written sources, archaeology and inscriptions can result in very different impressions – after all, there’s no archaeological evidence for these statues of kings at Athens so without Pausanias we wouldn’t know that they’d ever been there at all. The fact that we don’t have an archaeological evidence for such statues at other cities in Greece from Roman contexts, therefore doesn’t necessarily mean that these places weren’t also full of such statues. The fact that Pausanias, doesn’t mention them elsewhere is frustrating but it too doesn’t mean he didn’t see them. For all sorts of reasons, as mentioned here, he might just have chosen to ignore them.



A dark depressing vision of the future of the academic library

Last week I had a rather disturbing glimpse of the future when I had to go to the Bodleian to read a chapter in an e-book that the library didn’t have in printed form and which could only be read on one of the computers there. “Yes, this is something new”, the librarian explained to me, “Just like with a printed book these new e-books can only be read here and only by one person at a time”. So I went to the reading room, logged in, accessed the chapter I needed through the library catalogue and spent half an hour in the glare of the screen, trying to force myself to reach a level of concentration that would have come easily if I’d had an actual book in my hands.

 Like most people working in academia I make a great deal of use of e-scholarship and am extremely grateful for its existence. Countless academic books and articles are now available online, at least if you are a member of a library with access to services like JSTOR. These resources save a lot of time and have a number of advantages over printed books and journals: you can follow up references without leaving your desk if you are working in an office or at home, you can do keyword searches to quickly see if an author has anything to say about a particular subject, you can quickly compile a bibliography on whatever it is you’re working on and you never have to worry that the book or article you need has been borrowed or has gone missing.

There are, however, also a number of disadvantages to scholarship in electronic form. Most importantly, studies have shown that I’m not alone in finding it harder to absorb on-screen text. Perhaps it’s to do with the fixed angle of the screen that forces you into a rigid upright posture, or the way the text is back-lit, or the way that you can’t hold the text in your hands and adjust the distance between your eyes and the printed word or the way that your progress through the text is no longer tangibly measured by how many pages you’re holding in each hand. Whatever the reason, reading on-screen seems to be much better for skimming and browsing than for thoroughly digesting a complex piece of prose. Wordpress lets me see statistics for how many people have ‘read’ my blog every day or week but it would probably be fairer to say that the numbers indicate how many people have skimmed through which, to be realistic, is probably what you are doing right now.

I have found that using my iPad as an e-reader compensates a bit for some of these problems and it has certainly helped reduce the ridiculous amount of waste I was producing by printing out articles, but even an e-reader is no substitute for a real book. And frustratingly, as I already mentioned, the only way to access the book I wanted was on one of the library’s own computers and through a rather cumbersome user interface that didn’t even reproduce the pages as they would have looked in the book. The book was about Roman art and for one thing the photos of the objects being discussed were irritatingly shown on separate pages from the text surrounded by unnecessary white areas when I know that they would have been integrated in the text in the hard copy.

The Bodleian reading rooms are an inspiring setting to work in as I’m sure anybody who’s been there knows and anybody who hasn’t can imagine. Surrounded by shelves stacked with weighty tomes and with distinguished university benefactors and scholars past looking down austerely from their portraits on the walls it’s hard not to feel that, in some small way at least, you are part of an unbroken chain of scholarship that reaches back into the Middle Ages. Yet sitting there struggling to get through the chapter of that e-book I couldn’t help wondering: is this the future of the academic library?

Surely that would be the worst of all possible worlds – all of the disadvantages of electronic scholarship with none of the advantages and all of the disadvantages of actually visiting the library with none of the advantages. I can see that placing restrictions on where these e-books can be read and by how many people at a time must be a way of saving money through the licensing arrangement that the library has with the publisher and e-books are of course, in any case, cheaper than proper books because there are no printing costs. Still, its a pretty depressing prospect that in a few years one of the key reasons for visiting a library as wonderful as the Bodleian might be to sit amid the books, staring at a screen skimming through articles, half absorbing the content and remembering that for a few short years this was something we were able to do from the comfort of our own armchairs, in the bus or on a park bench. Or worse, sitting there waiting to access an article that somebody else is struggling to read because of an artificial limitation that only lets one person see the file at a time.



A “Romantic” Encounter in Hamburg

Since yesterday I’ve been in Hamburg. I was invited to give a talk last night about my research at the Archäologisches Institut. Even though I rather predictably stayed up quite a bit later than I’d planned, enjoying dinner and German beer with the staff and students of the institute, I got up early this morning and have been trying to cram as much into my short stay as possible. I’ve never been to Hamburg before and didn’t know what to expect but I’ve had a very interesting day and one surprisingly filled with Greeks and Romans.

This morning I had the pleasure of being shown around the antiquities section of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe by the curator. I must confess I didn’t know much about the museum before but they have a very impressive array of Greek, Roman and Etruscan pieces, well lit and displayed in an inventive and thought-provoking way. I’d definitely recommend visiting if you happen to be in Hamburg. I’m only sorry that I couldn’t take any photos. I decided to travel light with only hand luggage which meant no room for the camera. It’s one of the few times that I’ve found myself wish I’d joined the 21st century and got myself a smartphone instead of my old trusty basic-as-they-come Samsung.

This afternoon, after rushing around the streets trying to see as much of the city as possible I decided to go to the Kunsthalle,  thinking it would be nice to get lost in the paintings without thinking about ancient history for a couple of hours. I didn’t expect to find myself walking around a fascinating exhibition of work by an early 19th century artist, full of paintings to do with Greek and Roman antiquity.

I’d never heard of Franz Ludwig Catel (1778-1856) before and was rather wondering if I should have. Now that I’m back at the hotel I’ve discovered there isn’t much about him on the internet either (not much more than  a  Wikipedia page and the pages about the exhibition) so I now feel a bit better about my ignorance and suspect that he probably really isn’t that well known, at least not outside of Germany. He is, however, an artist that anyone with an interest in Greek or Roman antiquity should know. A large proportion his work consists of scenes set in Italy and Greece with ancient monuments and buildings in the background.

Catel spent a lot of time in Italy and was an associate of people like Goethe and Schiller. Although he lived into the mid 19th century he seems to have been at his most prolific in the 1810s and 20s, the period of Byron and Shelley. His paintings are very much in tune with the Romantic spirit and are filled with themes such as the wildness of nature (there were some evocative depictions of Vitruvius smouldering above the bay of Naples and even a couple of views into the crater itself) and glorifications of the simplicity of the peasant way of life (There were plenty of  Italian peasants in traditional costume and riding donkeys – in one a woman was even managing to breastfeed a baby while riding a donkey!). There were also a couple of imaginings of episodes from ancient history including Pompey visiting Cicero at his villa, the two men sitting at a table on a terrace, attended by slaves, with a magnificent seaside vista in the background.

But the paintings that really intrigued me were the ones of Greek and Roman antiquities. Most of them were of monuments in Italy including  views of the archaic temples at Agrigento in Sicily and some showing tomb monuments along the Appian Way. The paintings are so interesting because this was the formative period in the history of the discipline of Classical archaeology, when antiquarian scholars were, for the first time, becoming interested in studying these monuments and thinking about what they might teach us about the ancient world. So, the paintings don’t just capture the monuments, they also capture the enchanting power that antiquity had in early 19th century culture.

There were also a couple of paintings that showed monuments in Athens. Their subject was the Greek War of Independence, which was raging as the artworks were being made. In keeping with the Byronic mood of the time, they depict the heroic battles of the Greeks against the oppressive Turks. Perhaps it’s not too surprising that these fights were set in and among the monuments of ancient Athens because it was, after all, the growing interest in ancient Greece that lay at the heart of the identification with the cause among the northwest Europeans. What I did find surprising, however, is that Catel had apparently never actually been to Greece even though the monuments were depicted extremely accurately. Of course he must have based the works on paintings or drawings he’d seen by somebody else but by who might that have been? The information boards frustratingly didn’t say.

The fighting in one scene was taking place in the Pnyx (the meeting place of the Classical Athenian assembly) and the point of view was nearly exactly the same as a rather fanciful reconstruction of Perikles’ famous funeral oration by fellow German Philipp Foltz that is very well known and which I suspect many lecturers dealing with Classical Athens have – as I have – shown to students when discussing the speech.

“Pericles’ Funeral Oration” by Philip Foltz (1852)

But Foltz painted his scene several decades after the one by Catel so that can’t have been what Catel worked from. In any case Catel’s painting includes the so-called Frankish Tower built at the entrance to the Acropolis sometime between the 13th and 14th centuries, which isn’t on Foltz’s for obvious reasons. (In case you’re wondering, the tower was controversially demolished in the late 19th century to restore the Acropolis to something closer to its Classical appearance). I wonder if there might have been a view of the Acropolis from the Pnyx in Stuart and Revett’s “The Antiquities of Athens”, published in 1762 but I won’t be able to check that until I’m back in Oxford.

Photograph of the Athenian Acropolis c.1860 with the “Frankish Tower” still there

Again I wish I had pictures to show of Catel’s own paintings but again I don’t – this time not only because I didn’t have my camera but, of course, because I wouldn’t have been allowed to take photos in the exhibition anyway. There is a book about Catel and the exhibition on sale in the museum shop but it’s a hefty tome and I was doubting whether I’d be able to get it back with me. Having, now discovered that there are very few of his paintings online and that the handful on the museum website don’t include any of those to do with the ancient world I think I’m going to have to go back tomorrow to get it – after making my Beatles pilgrimage to the Reeperbahn. The Catel exhibition almost makes up for finding out that the Beatlemania museum here sadly closed down due to lack of interest just three years after it opened

The Catel exhibition is going to be on until 31st January so if you do find yourself in Hamburg before then it is definitely worth taking a look. I’d also be glad to hear if anyone knows anything more about Catel or has suggestions as to where he might have found his inspiration for that picture of the Pnyx and Acropolis.

Whatever happened to that “Monuments of Roman Greece” blog?

It’s been a long time since I posted anything on here and somehow it wouldn’t feel right to just launch into another post about Roman statues without providing some account of what I’ve been doing and why I’ve had so little time for blogging over the last three months. So, for anyone who’s been losing sleep wondering if the Monuments of Roman Greece Blog was ever going to be up and running again here’s a brief update.

The major reason I have been a bit preoccupied of late is that at the beginning of September I became a father for the second time. I now have two beautiful daughters, one nearly three, the other just turned eight weeks. Even though we couldn’t really ask for a more easy going baby – she hardly cries and is already sleeping well at night – the demands of parenting have been taking up quite a bit more time than when we just had the one.

After two weeks’ paternity leave, however, I have been back in work and have actually been rather busy. Firstly, I was working through the editors’ comments for an article of mine that is about to appear (any minute now) in the journal Hesperia. The title: “Pausanias and the “Archaic Agora” at Athens”. It’s about how we can use the second century AD traveller writer Pausanias, who’s featured a lot in this blog, to work out where different monuments were in Roman period cities, and in particular in Athens. I’m quite excited about the article appearing in Hesperia, the journal of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, because a lot of scholarship about the Athenian Agora, which played a big role in my PhD research, was published there .

And that is the second thing that’s been keeping me busy – turning the PhD thesis into a book, or at least the first half of it. The thesis was about the changing use of the Greek agora in Hellenistic and Roman times. The thesis ended up rather long and because it was made up of two halves that really made different arguments and took a very different approach to the subject I decided to split it into two books. I originally wanted to get the first part to the publisher two years ago but – a familiar story in academia – teaching work got in the way and, without continuous blocks of time to work on it progress was hard going. Since arriving in Oxford I’ve been working on it alongside the new project on public monuments so it’s still been difficult to get it finished but now I finally have managed to send it off. I have to wait for it to be reviewed so I don’t know yet for sure whether the publisher wants it but this already feels like quite a milestone.

The third thing that took up a bit of time was a workshop on the Functional Differentiation of Public Space, hosted by the Topoi Institute in Berlin. I was very honoured to be invited to give the keynote talk. The event was a big success – one of the most productive workshops I think I’ve been to – well organised with some great papers. It was also a good chance to practice my German, after having followed a course here in Oxford last year, though everybody of course spoke excellent English and the only real discussion I had was with a kind couple at the train station who tried to help me when I couldn’t get one of the luggage lockers to work. I only had a couple of days in Berlin but I did manage to visit the amazing Altes Museum for the first time, hence the photos I posted on Twitter. If it hadn’t been for my argument with the luggage locker I might have made it to the Neues museum as well but Nefertiti will have to wait for next time.

On the public monuments front I’m happy to report that very soon I’ll be launching a website version of a searchable database I’ve been working on. I’ve hired somebody to construct the database and website for me and I’ve now seen a template version and I’m very pleased with the way it has turned out. Once it is up and running it will also be possible to follow the blog through the website. Now that the book is out of the way – at least until I get the reviewers’ comments – I’ll have more time for blogging so expect an update on the website and database as well as more about Roman Greece soon.

Blood on the orchestra floor – gladiator games in Roman Greece

Last week somebody sent a question to my blog: “Why are there no amphitheatres in Greece?” I’ve somehow managed to lose the question but in the hope that whoever asked it is reading – and because I find this an interesting subject – here’s an answer.

At the outset a disclaimer: there’s actually a very good article on this very subject by Katherine Welch*, Professor of Fine Arts at New York University and author of a book about Roman amphitheatres so much of what I’m going to say here is based on her work.

Leaving aside the thorny problem of “Romanisation” familiar to any student of ancient history, it pretty straightforward to see how the culture of northwest Europe was transformed when the area became part of the Roman Empire: an iron age tribal culture was transformed into one in which people lived in cities, used Roman coins to buy Roman goods and went to the baths. It’s always been more difficult to see what exactly changed when the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Mediterranean was conquered by Rome.

After all, the people had lived in cities for hundreds of years, worshipped (more or less) the same gods as the Romans and enjoyed a loosely similar form of political organisation and agrarian economy. Roman culture had of course itself been deeply transformed through contact with the Greek world – Rome had been “Hellenized”. So what did change in the Greek world? There are a few markers that scholars have tended to point to as evidence for a more Roman way of life: worship of the emperor (the Imperial Cult), Roman-style bathhouses and watching the bloody entertainments that have become synonymous with Rome in the modern imagination – gladiatorial games.

And there is, perhaps surprisingly, evidence enough that the Greeks did watch gladiator fights – inscriptions, grave stones and even – at Ephesos in Turkey – what is believed to have been a cemetery full of gladiator skeletons. The person who asked me the question was right, however, there is almost no evidence for the type of building that the Romans used for these fights in other parts of the Empire – the amphitheatre.

The Theatre of Dionysos at Athens - showing the Roman period barrier
The Theatre of Dionysos at Athens – showing the Roman period barrier

Instead the Greeks tended to convert existing structures for that purpose. In Athens a barrier was erected in the orchestra of the Theatre of Dionysus to transform that building into an arena for Roman-style blood sports. I remember pointing the barrier out to a group of students when I was teaching the Roman part of the British School at Athens summer course and a friend of mine, responsible for teaching the Bronze Age component remarked that they must have been very short gladiators – the barrier is, it’s true, only waist high. But I don’t think the idea was to stop the gladiators from running away. We shouldn’t imagine that all gladiators were like Spartacus waiting to rise up and fight for their freedom. It was probably quite rare for gladiators to fight to the death – for one thing that would have been too expensive for their owners – so for slaves of a certain violent disposition being a gladiator was probably not too bad a life. No, I think that the idea of the barrier was more to make sure that no gladiators fell with their swords or tridetnts on the rich, important people who would have been seated in the good seats at the front.

It’s hard to be sure exactly when the barrier was added but we know the theatre was modified by a local elite sycophant at the time of Nero so it seems a reasonable guess that it was around then. That, at least is what Welch and others assume. We can be sure that the barrier was for this purpose and that the theatre was indeed being used for gladiator fights because a Greek author, Dio Chrysostom (the Golden Mouthed – named for his oratorical skills), expresses his disgust at the fact it in the late first century AD – he found it a travesty that this building where great works of tragedy and comedy had been performed and where the Athenian assembly had met to vote, a sanctuary of the god Dionysos – was now being used for this unseemly purpose.

The complaint is repeated in the 2nd century by Lucian and in the early 3rd century biography of a legendary contemporary of Dio Chrysostom, the miracle-working sage, Apollonius of Tyana, written by Philostratos. We shouldn’t imagine, however, that this distaste for gladiator fights was necessarily an anti-Roman sentiment. Some members of the Latin-speaking western elite are also known to have been critical of the games. Enough people in the Greek world must have enjoyed Gladiator fights or else there would have been nothing to complain about so their dislike was probably inspired part by genuine human compassion, part snobbery towards a popular form of lower class entertainment.

The theatre of Delphi with a piece of the barrier preserved to the left of the tourists
The theatre of Delphi with a piece of the barrier preserved to the left of the tourists

Other theatres in Greece were also fitted with barriers so as to accommodate gladiator fights. I know there’s also a barrier in Delphi and I’m sure I’ve seen one at some other theatre in Greece but I can’t remember where now (if anyone knows of any please let me know). I know that at Ephesos they assume gladiator fights were held in the theatre. There instead of having a barrier the cavea (seating area) was raised up above the orchestra. The main reason Greek cities didn’t build amphitheatres is therefore probably that it was simply more cost-effective to convert existing buildings.

The stadium at Messene converted into an arena with addition of late antique wall
The stadium at Messene converted into an arena with addition of late antique wall
The stadium of Aphrodisias - similarly converted into an amphitheatre
The stadium of Aphrodisias – similarly converted into an amphitheatre

In a much later period at other cities it was the stadium, the arena for athletic competitions, that was converted to serve as an amphitheatre. At both Messene, in the southern Peloponnese and Aphrodisias, hundreds of miles away in western Turkey, probably in the 4th century AD, a makeshift curved wall was inserted into the running track to close off one end of the stadium to accommodate gladiatorial fights. At Aphrodisias small rooms were even added around the base of the seating area that were presumably used as cages from which to release animals for beast fights.

I said that there is almost no evidence for amphitheatres in the Greek world but – to come clean – there are actually a few cities that did have them, though not imposing stone buildings like the famous Colosseum. These tended to be cities where there was a particularly strong Roman influence – Gortyn and Knossos on Crete, the first the Roman provincial capital, the second an Augustan colony and, in Greece itself, Corinth, an old Greek city but one also re-founded as a Roman colony by Julius Caesar. There isn’t all that much to see of the amphitheatre today and even in antiquity it was an earth-bank structure. Dio says that in his day the Corinthians watched gladiator fights in a ravine outside the city. In keeping with his negative attitude to this form of entertainment this might have been his sneering way of referring to the amphitheatre.

Finally, it is possible that at some cities gladiator fights might have been held in the agora. We know that in Roman culture gladiator fights were originally held on the Forum and at early Roman colonies in Italy post-holes have been found that may have been for grandstands for such spectacles. Writing in the age of Augustus the architect Vitruvius recommends that Roman fora should be rectangular, unlike Greek agoras that tended to be more square, because that shape was more suitable for spectators watching gladiator fights. For what it’s worth the Forum of Corinth follows his recommendation so maybe – although I’ve never heard of anyone else making the suggestion – that’s where the fights took place before the amphitheatre was built.

Artistic reconstruction of gladiator fights on the agora of Hierapolis
Artistic reconstruction of gladiator fights on the agora of Hierapolis

At Hierapolis in Asia Minor the excavators have also speculated that gladiator fights took place in the agora. An imposing stoa-basilica that lined one side of the square was decorated with reliefs depicting gladiatorial scenes. The outside colonnade of the building facing the square would have made a suitable grandstand and the unusual propylon (monumental entrance) at the centre of the colonnade might, at times of spectacles, have been where important local dignitaries would have sat. The capitals of the columns of the entrance are unusually decorated with sculpted lions attacking bulls which might have been intended to evoke the beast-fights that along with gladiatorial combats were a popular form of Roman entertainment, the two often being staged together. At the very least the presence of gladiator reliefs in this Greek speaking town in distant, land-locked Phrygia, attest to how deeply this Roman “sport” had become embedded in Greek culture. With the Roman conquest things certainly had changed.

Did the 2015 election campaign really happen?

Maybe a bit off topic this one but does anybody else remember the 2015 general election campaign? The Ed-Stone? Cameron rolling his sleeves up and getting pumped up? Russel Brand? #Milifandom? Endless Borgen style TV debates? I’m hoping somebody does because I’m beginning to think I dreamt it all or have slipped into some parallel universe where it never happened.

At the time it seemed like it was never going to end. Endless polls predicting a hung parliament, interminable comment pieces in the newspapers, ancient history being drowned in a sea of politics in my Twitter feed. Yet since May 7th every analysis I’ve seen about why the Conservatives won and Labour lost has managed to completely avoid talking about the campaign, as though it was completely irrelevant.

We’re constantly hearing how the “electorate” (as if that’s some amorphous amalgamated alien life-form that we’ve all been subsumed into) rejected Labour and endorsed the Tories because we didn’t find Ed Miliband’s party credible when it came to the economy. That’s the standard line taken by journalists and BBC interviewers and, apparently, by all of the Labour leadership candidates apart from Jeremy Corbyn. Liz Kendall who’s supposed to be the one who’s willing to “ask the difficult questions” miraculously seemed to have the answer to that one to hand before the results even came in!

If it really is that simple then I can’t help wondering why the economy was so conspicuous by its absence in the weeks leading up to the election. Yes, the Tories did hammer on about “sticking with their long term plan” and Miliband spent a lot of time staring earnestly into cameras trying to hypnotise us into thinking that he didn’t want to borrow more. But these weren’t the issues everyone was talking about. The big issues that I remember hearing most about were whether Miliband could be taken seriously as PM, about letters of support by big business and celebrity endorsements and, most of all, about the danger of Labour teaming up with SNP to form an unholy alliance hell bent on turning Britain into a third-world state. Did none of this matter at all when it came time to the crunch? That certainly seems to be what we’ve managed to fool ourselves into believing.

Of course we’re not really swayed by trivial stuff like whether a man can eat a bacon sandwich properly. When it comes down to it it’s only the policies that matter and we all take a sane and balanced appraisal of what each party’s offering and make our decision purely on the content, don’t we? The trouble with that view, however, is that if it’s true you have to wonder why political parties bother to run election campaigns at all. Think of all the money that could have been saved on those posters of Miliband in Alex Salmond’s pocket if they had no effect whatsoever.

Sadly, in reality, election campaigns do matter and our political decisions aren’t decided purely on the basis of policy. That isn’t how our democracy works and it hasn’t done for a long time, if it ever did. Instead of politicians trying to win our vote by persuading us of their views – democracy as they would have recognised it in ancient Athens or even in the UK a few decades ago – what we’ve got is democracy by focus group, parties carrying out market research to find out which buttons they can press to appeal to scrape together enough votes to get into power.

New Labour were masters of using focus groups which is one of the reasons Tony Blair was so successful for so long (as brilliantly examined in the third part of Adam Curtis’ film ‘Century of the Self“). It’s also one of the reasons why Jeremy Corbyn seems such a breath of fresh air compared to the other Labour candidates because he is an old-style politician who is trying to persuade us that he’s right instead of being afraid to have an opinion before he’s found out what we all think so he can appeal to the lowest common denominator. And yes, the Conservatives certainly did use focus groups to see how their “SNP scare” strategy was playing out with the voters and must have spent a considerable amount of time and money doing so.

I’ve also still yet to see a convincing analysis of why the polls managed to get the election result so wrong. The “shy Tory” analysis just doesn’t make sense to me because it doesn’t account for why the exit polls did get it right. Surely people would be less embarrassed to admit they were going to vote for a party of dubious moral standing when speaking anonymously to someone over the phone than they would be standing outside a polling booth looking another human being in the eyes where a passing friend might overhear them.

I’d say that the polls were probably right that the result was a far closer call than we now assume it was with hindsight. It might well be that economic competence was an issue but it is naive to pretend it was the only, or even the most important, issue. What happened over the course of the campaign must have had some effect over the outcome. We’ll never know how people would have voted if the election had taken place five weeks earlier but I find it hard to believe that all those polls predicting a hung parliament can have been so far off the mark and think it probably really could have gone either way. And that’s something that’s worth reflecting on for those on both sides of the political spectrum who are peddling certainties about what’s going to happen in 2020.

Exhibiting beauty – defining expectations

Last Wednesday I finally went to the Defining Beauty exhibition in the British Museum. The show has deservedly received a lot of attention in the press and with the exhibition due to close on 5th July (it seems almost as though the gods that have been gathered there knew what a momentous date in Greek history that would be) I know there isn’t really any need for a new one so I hope that you’ll indulge my sharing a few impressions here. Seeing so many of the most famous of Greek sculptures together in one place – some of which I only knew from photos – beautifully lit and without too many people bustling around to spoil it was almost as magical as I’d been hoping it would be. I came away with my head spinning with ancient sculpture and painted pottery and if it’s only now that I’ve got around to posting something about it it’s because I needed to let the impressions settle before I worked out what I really thought of it all.

The exhibition was well laid out with plenty of interesting and thought provoking juxtaposing of pieces and the calibre of artworks on display meant it could hardly be anything other than a visual treat. Some of the things I enjoyed seeing most were the bronze Apoxyomenos (athlete scraping off dust and oil), recently fished out of the sea near Croatia, a miniature bronze Zeus and a modern attempt to recreate a gold Athena by Pheidias (the 5th C Athenian artist responsible for the Parthenon sculpture), known only from literary sources.

The Croatian Apoxyomenos (as normally displayed in Zagreb)
The Croatian Apoxyomenos (as normally displayed in Zagreb)

I did have a few minor reservations about how certain pieces were arranged. Firstly it did seem something of a missed chance putting the statue of the Roman matron in the guise of Venus in a room before a Venus of exactly the type on which it was based. Even if the label did explain how the matron statue was a copy of a well-known prototype in idealising Classical style with an incongruously realistic looking portrait head, exactly what was going on there would have made much more sense if the actual Venus had come first.


It also did feel rather as though the final room, with the theme “the shock of the new” (or something like that) had been arranged as a bit of an afterthought. I’m sure that can’t have been the case because that’s where two of the exhibition’s highlights were placed – the Dionysus from the east pediment of the Parthenon (moved like a lot of the exhibits from elsewhere in the BM) and the famous Belvedere Torso, on loan from the Vatican. But somehow the way the room was arranged didn’t seem to grab the attention in the way that the other rooms had and the theme – just how surprising genuinely Classical art was when it was first rediscovered in the Renaissance and then, in the case of the Parthenon marbles in the 19th C – just didn’t make the impact it could have. A sketch by Michelangelo, made in preparation for painting the Sistine Chapel, and clearly showing the interest of the Belevedere Torso, was tucked away and it seemed that most visitors were ignoring it as the made a beeline for the gift shop.

Perhaps the thing the exhibition made me reflect on most is the way that exhibitions themselves work – about the extent to which the way that statues and artworks are displayed can shape our expectations of them. From the moment you enter an exhibition called “Defining Beauty” you are primed to think about the objects you are viewing in terms of their visual allure and as you move around the rooms you are provoked by information boards, and confronted by way objects are shown side by side to think about them in these terms. You find yourself asking questions – as you are, of course supposed to – about the way that the Greeks used art to reflect on human beauty, about what types of bodies and faces the Greeks found beautiful and not so beautiful, and about whether the art itself is beautiful, and if it is, just why it is. Now, I’m absolutely not saying there is anything wrong with any of this – creating meaningful connections that make us think is exactly what exhibitions should do and this one does it well. I’m also sure that the Greeks did use art to reflect on the question of beauty, and that looking at their art is a legitimate way of trying to understand exactly how they did see such things. At the same time, though, I find it interesting to think about how the very same statues and artworks in a different setting might provoke a very different response. After leaving the exhibition I found the perfect opportunity to do just that.

I wanted to visit the Hellenistic galleries of the museum but frustratingly they were closed and wouldn’t be open until 3 o’clock. They had also been closed last time I was there – some of the few galleries that seemed not to be open which I suppose says a lot about what visitors are interested in or are thought to be. Anyway, I decided to wait this time because I really wanted to see some of the Hellenistic sculpture and, finding myself with some time to spare, I wandered rather aimlessly into a series of rooms displaying objects to do with the enlightenment. The walls were lined with book cases of rare manuscripts, the large halls filled with glass cabinets that looked like they were themselves genuine survivals of the 18th century in which all manner of scientific curiosities – rare minerals, animal specimens, scientific instruments – could be seen. It really all was incredibly fascinating. Dotted about the place were sculpted busts of eminent enlightenment scientists like Joseph Banks. And spaced fairly evenly around the sides was a rather interesting collection of ancient statues, mostly Roman, some copies of earlier Greek works of art, just like many of the statues in the Defining Beauty exhibition.

Ancient statues and book cases in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum
Ancient statues and book cases in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

Admittedly most of these statues weren’t quite of the same artistic standard as those in the exhibition but they were still pretty impressive. One of them – a marble cupid stringing his bow, well-known from a series of Roman copes – was actually a counterpart of a very similar piece that was in the exhibition. There was also a bust of Hercules, found apparently somewhere near Vesuvius in the 18th century, that looked quite a bit like one from Hadrian’s villa in Tivoli that was also to be seen in Defining Beauty.

Bust of Hercules, found near Vesuvius and presented to the British Museum in 1776 by William Hamilton
Bust of Hercules, found near Vesuvius and presented to the British Museum in 1776 by William Hamilton
Statue of Cupid in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum
Statue of Cupid in the Enlightenment Gallery of the British Museum

If this collection of 2,000 year old sculpture had been brought together in a different setting, perhaps in a different museum where it was up against less competition then I’m sure it could command the serious attention of visitors. Here, however, these statues simply served as a backdrop to the story of the enlightenment, helping to conjure up a suitable ambience of amateur gentlemanly scholarship and pioneering discovery. I was pretty much alone among the visitors in giving the statue more than a cursory glance. I was reminded of visiting the Uffizi where people tend to ignore the rather splendid collection of ancient statuary – all except for the Medici Venus, which has its own room and is meant to be marvelled at – and focus on the Renaissance paintings.

If there’s a lesson to be drawn from any of this I suppose that it’s about the way in which the setting in which artworks are displayed and our expectations in viewing them have a profound influence over the way we experience them. People really did see Greek statues differently in Renaissance Italy than they did in Enlightenment England; both cultures saw them differently than we do and we see them differently whether we’re looking at them in in a display about the 18th Century or a thematic exhibition. Thinking away our preconceptions is the big challenge in really trying to get at how the ancient Greeks might have seen their statues.

I believe that imagining them not in a museum but rather in bustling public places surrounded by the buzz of daily life is a start. If you’ve been to the Defining Beauty exhibition then try just for a moment what impact the exhibition would have it was transported piece for piece and set up amid the chaos at Terminal One, Heathrow Airport, Kings Cross Station or in your local Sainsbury’s. I’m not saying that’s exactly what it was like to see these statues in their original context – without the distractions of smartphones people might actually have noticed them for one thing – but in many ways I believe that’s quite a bit closer to the way the ancients would have encountered them than the rarefied modern museum experience. While bringing us physically so close to ancient statues and other artworks there’s a certain irony that museum exhibitions – even fantastic ones like Defining Beauty – can take us so far away from the way these works were originally experienced.

The problem of power vs influence – now and in the ancient world

“He’s much less powerful than he used to be” – that was Ed Miliband’s assessment of Rupert Murdoch when asked about press regulation in that Russell Brand interview. It was no secret that The Sun, Murdoch’s top selling UK tabloid paper, together with much of the right wing press were waging a drawn out and viciously personal campaign against the Labour leader. A week before the election The Sun urged its English readers to vote Conservative, its Scottish readers to vote SNP, a seemingly schizophrenic strategy considering that David Cameron was hammering on about the SNP being the biggest danger facing the UK while Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly told us how she wanted nothing more than to “lock the Tories out of Downing street”. But it was a strategy deliberately calculated to stop Labour from winning. I can’t help wondering how Miliband must feel about what he said to Brand now that his dreams of becoming prime minister have ended in an unplanned holiday to Ibiza and in Rupert Murdoch getting exactly the election result he was hoping for.

Still from Russell Brand's Ed Milband Interview
Still from Russell Brand’s Ed Milband Interview

It is hard to be sure how much influence the press had over the outcome of the election and I’d find it very depressing to think that it was Murdoch “wot won it” but the very fact that British newspapers – of all political persuasions – try so hard to steer their readers to vote a certain way should alert us to a fundamental reality of the nature of power in our democracy: to understand where power lies it is not enough to look merely at the workings of our political institutions. In the UK questions of power are not decided solely through elections, debates in the houses of commons or cabinet meetings; lobbying groups, personal connections, public opinion, public knowledge, the media and countless other factors all play an important role. Figures like Rupert Murdoch also remind us that it is often difficult to draw a distinction between “power” and “influence” and to decide where one begins or the other ends. These problems are not unique to Britain. They are surely a feature of any complex society and, as such, they are problems that any historian faces – ancient historians included – when they want to explore the workings of power in past societies.

Both the Greeks and Romans were well aware of the potential tension between “influence” and “power” and of the ways in which there could be a mismatch between the theoretical government of a state as expressed in its constitution and the political reality. In the 5th Century BC Thucydides, talking of the leadership of Athens by Perikles, said that the city was “a democracy in name but in reality the rule of one man”. The first Roman Emperor Augustus on the other hand could make the bold claim in his “Res Gestae” – an autobiographical text summing up his career and erected posthumously outside his mausoleum – “I exceeded all in influence, but I had no greater power than the others who were colleagues with me in each magistracy.” The question of what we are to make of these passages has, unsurprisingly, attracted considerable attention from modern scholars.

The Temple of Roma and Augustus in Ankara - the site of the most completely preserved copy of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti
The Temple of Roma and Augustus in Ankara – the site of the most completely preserved copy of the Res Gestae Divi Augusti

Many historians have disagreed with Thucydides’ assessment of Perikles’ influence in 5th century Athens and have argued that the city really was a radical democracy where power for all the most important decisions was truly in the hands of the people; the citizens were, after all, free to vote against Perikles’ proposals in any of their regular assembly meetings and did, once in his career, chose not to re-elect him as one of the city’s ten “strategoi”, or military generals. On the other hand, it’s hard to get away from the fact that Perikles really does seem to have been the driving force behind Athenian policy for nearly three decades, which has led other scholars to argue that Thucydides words must contain a grain of truth.

Augustus’ statement on first consideration looks less problematic. Many of the institutions of the Republic had, officially been left in tact by Augustus, following his emergence as the victor in the last of a succession of civil wars, and his tremendous personal influence was certainly extremely important in ensuring that his will was enacted. Elections continued to be held for key magistracies, for example, but Augustus put forwards the candidates so that the people could obligingly vote for them. The powers bestowed by the individual magistracies that he held were also, one for one, little different to those bestowed on other men who held the same titles as colleagues at the same time.

A key difference, however, was that while magistracies were usually held individually and temporarily Augustus held several at the same time – or at least held the powers associated with certain magistracies – and held these powers in perpetuity. By monopolising control over the army – also achieved through institutional means – he was also able effectively to quell any dissent. What we see here then is a cunning subversion of pre-existing Republican institutions to bolster up the his one man rule. Still, disentangling Augustus’ powers from his influence (Latin: “auctoritas”) and deciding which played the greater role in making him the first Roman Emperor is still a tricky issue.

The Greeks and Romans were also no strangers to the idea of outsiders trying to exert influence over the internal workings of political constitutions. Throughout the Peloponnesian War, which pitted Greek against Greek as the coalitions led by Athens and Sparta struggled for pre-eminence in the Aegean, both of those powers attempted to detach cities from their enemy and win them over to their side by installing governments of citizens favourable to their rule: in full acknowledgement that this is a gross-simplifcation – Athens tended to favour democracies, Sparta oligarchies. Toward the end of that war the Athenian government was itself overthrown temporarily and replaced by an oligarchic government of 400 upper class men who had been promised by the Persian King that he would donate funds to their cause on the condition that they ended the democracy – an investment that I am sure many modern non-dom CEOs could relate to.

In the event Athenian democracy was restored and Sparta won the war, herself making use of Persian financial support, and an even narrower oligarchy was installed at Athens who became known as the Thiry Tyrants because of their brutal and violent oppression of their opponents. Understanding configurations of power at the local level, therefore, often requires taking account of complex outside influences, thereby complicating further the task of working out who was really in charge in a given state at a given moment in time.

For Roman Greece, assessing the balance of power and influence is arguably an even thornier problem because of the nature of the evidence, which mainly comes from inscriptions. Cities throughout the Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire tended to describe themselves in their official documents as democracies yet it is clear enough that small cliques of elite families monopolised key political positions such as magistracies and seats on local councils and were honoured with statues and other rewards for using their wealth to bestow benefactions – of grain, festivals, buildings etc. – on their communities. The prominence of these elite benefactors has been enough to persuade many historians that these so-called “democracies” were, in actual fact, “oligarchies” run by, and for the benefit of, these elite families. Political assemblies of citizens might still have met but their business consisted mainly of finding ways to honour these benefactors instead of debating issues of real importance. And what important issues were left to debate now that these cities were under the control of an empire and no longer free to wage war on one another? This largely pessimistic vision was for a long time the consensus view regarding the Roman period polis.

An honorific statue base of a type common in Roman Greece - from the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens
An honorific statue base of a type common in Roman Greece – from the Theatre of Dionysos in Athens

Recently, however, the tide has begun to turn and certain historians have begun to challenge this vision arguing that the Roman period poleis has suffered unfairly by comparing it to Classical Athens. They have stressed that even in Classical times no polis had as radical a democracy as Athens, where all male citizens could meet regularly to debate the issues of the day and were chosen by lot to occupy key magistracies. Many cities even then had been ruled by oligarchies and Athens itself, as an imperial power, severely limited the political freedom of around 150 Greek cities that it effectively ruled over. In Roman times, such scholars argue, the business of honouring benefactors was an effective means of choosing the men most suited to governing the local city and that important business did still have to be decided upon locally – management of the food and water supply, organising the religious festivals that were the lifeblood of civic life and choosing ambassadors to send to Rome to secure imperial favour. Inscriptions honouring benefactors were not displays of sycophancy but rather a way of advertising the power of the polis to decide which men (and more rarely women) were deserving of such honours. Such scholars have also drawn on passages in key literary sources that describe civic assemblies to argue that the level of participation in political life on the part of ordinary citizens remained high and that such meetings were characterised by a lively level of debate.

One of the key problems to do with Roman Greece is, therefore, that using exactly the same evidence, scholars are able to argue for two very different visions about where power was concentrated and where the dividing line between power and influence lay in the poleis of that time. The reason for the problem is easy to appreciate – if it is hard working out where power lies in our own society it is extremely difficult when the evidence we have is extremely patchy and largely concerned with one facet of political behaviour. If only we had transcriptions of what was actually discussed at political assembly meetings or lists of attendance figures then our impression might be clearer. Sadly we don’t. Faced with the enormous ambiguity in the evidence the debate seems to have become deadlocked with both sides defending their position yet doing little to convince their opponents.

The debate above all illustrates that “democracy” is a relative concept. I’m not sure that I’ve really completely made up my mind about where power lay in the Roman period Greek polis but if I generally find myself more sympathetic to the optimistic view that these were “real democracies” it’s perhaps because I’m largely pessimistic as to the extent to which power in our modern democratic system really is in the hands of the people. “People power” is, after all, the literal translation of the ancient Greek word. Even if power effectively was in the hands of the oligarchs in these cities, however, their rule still depended on a level of interaction with the rest of the population, which I would argue is unparalleled in pre-modern times. That in itself makes the question of how power operated in the Roman period polis a question worth asking.

To consider how power operates in 21st century Britain we need to look beyond elections and political parties to take account of the role played by the media and advertising in shaping opinion and to account for the potential influence of public figures like Rupert Murdoch and even Russell Brand. The same is true for the Greek city of Roman times. The honorific monuments that the poleis set up could be seen everywhere in public spaces such as marketplaces, gymnasiums, theatres and bathhouses – they educated people into the political realties of their time in the same way that The Sun, the BBC News, or Twitter do today. Looking at the impact of these monuments on the urban landscape – as opposed to merely analysing what the inscriptions inscribed on their bases have to say, which is where the emphasis in previous research has been – is, I believe, a useful way to move beyond institutional politics and to think about where power and influence in these cities really lay

When archaeological reconstruction is not a good idea

Last Thursday I arrived back in Athens after my trip around the Peloponnese, where I’ve been joined by my wife and a friend of ours. I lived in Athens for a year and a half while writing my PhD and returning always feels like something of a homecoming. I’ve been having a productive and enjoyable time – sampling the delights of Greek cuisine, wine and raki in the evenings, working in the library of the British School and visiting sites by day. I particularly enjoyed stolling up to see the Philoppapos monument and the Pnyx again – sites set in a surprisingly large area of undeveloped parkland to the west of the Acropolis where it’s possible to escape the traffic and the tourists and forget you are in a city inhabited by around four million people – at least that is until you reach the top of one of the hills and get a magnificent view of the seemingly endless urban sprawl.

Yesterday my wife and I had a very pleasant stroll around the South Slope of the Acropolis, another of the more peaceful archaeological sites, where you can see the remains of the late Classical  theater of Dionysos  and several other ancient buildings. There’s also an excellent collection of inscribed bases of statues that had been set up in the area, many in the Roman period, which makes them of particular interest toe me. We had a nice time and I managed to get a few new photos of things that I’ve probably already photographed before. I was, however, horrified, at the sight of a rather garish archaeological reconstruction project that’s being carried out in the area above the theatre.

When I last visited the area a few years ago it was still possible to see, cut into the rock of the Acropolis on eastern end of the southern face, a row of small caves, the largest and easternmost of which had been carved in antiquity into a regular square opening. Looking back at the photos I made then I can see that they’d already begun setting up marble pillars in front of the cave then. Now, the cave has been almost completely obscured by this modern building which is evidently going to be a complete reconstruction of the so-called Thrasyllos monument that was set up across the front of the cave in the late Classical period.

The caves above the theatre of Dionysus in 2009
The caves above the theatre of Dionysus in 2009
The cave above the theatre yesterday (2015)
The cave above the theatre yesterday (2015)

In Classical times, Athenian plays were performed in the context of a religious festival to Dionysos. Rich citizens would taken on the role of “choregos”, or financer of these productions, and plays were pitted against each other in competition for the best performance of that year within the two genres of comedy and tragedy. The winners were determined by popular vote and the winning choregoi were allowed to set up a tripod monument (a large bronze cauldron) somewhere on the road approaching the theatre. The choregoi were given a lot of freedom to decide what they wanted the base of their monument to look like and in the course of time they became increasingly grand. One is known to have taken the form of a small temple. The most famous is the Lysikrates monument that still stands in modern day Plaka, erected in the late 4th century BC. The Thrasyllos monument, which was constructed around the same time was another such choregic monument.

The Lysikrates monument in Athens
The Lysikrates monument in Athens

We know what the Thrasyllos monument looked like because it was drawn by visitors to Athens in the late 18th Century. It consisted of an architectural façade across the front of the cave with rectangular pillars supporting an architrave decorated with a frieze and dedicatory inscription. The structure supported a statue and, without doubt, the tripod monument itself. In Roman times (the period I am most interested in) Pausanias reports seeing a representation of Apollo and Artemis slaughtering the children of Niobe inside  the cave, which might have been a painting or a sculptural group or relief. The 18th century drawings show that by that time the front had been walled up, except for a door, and was in use as a chapel.

Drawing of the Thrasyllos monument by Le Roy. 1782.
Drawing of the Thrasyllos monument by Le Roy. 1782.

Just as I discussed for the Hellenistic Tower of the Winds in an earlier post, these drawings were a great inspiration to contemporary architects working in Europe and America and several buildings were modelled on the ancient monument. There’s a good discussion of the influence of the Thrasyllos monument on western architecture by Calder Loth here. I didn’t realise until now that the building had such a big influence. One of my favourite examples of a building modelled on the monument is this early 19th century folly in Temple Gardens, near Lincoln, which I’d very much like to see in real life.

Early 19th C folly based on the Thrasyllos Monument - in Temple Gardens, Lincoln
Early 19th C folly based on the Thrasyllos Monument – in Temple Gardens, Lincoln

Tragically the Thrasyllos monument was completely destroyed by the Turks during the Greek War of Independence when they tried to recapture the lost city and besieged the Acropolis in 1827.

The modern reconstruction project is clearly aimed at reversing this catastrophe by completely rebuilding the architectural façade. I don’t know whether any fragments of the original monument survive and will be incorporated in the reconstruction but, to judge from the pillars that have already been erected and the huge collection of marble blocks piled up at the eastern end of the Acropolis ready for use, it looks likely that the structure is going to consist near enough entirely of new material. The vast quantity of marble makes me wonder just how much of the ancient Acropolis they are actually planning on rebuilding! My wife said that the scene reminded her of a storage yard of a kitchen supplier.

Marble blocks and other building equipment at the east end of the Athenian Acropolis
Marble blocks and other building equipment at the east end of the Athenian Acropolis

Modern tourists to the site will soon be confronted with a modern replica of the Thrasyllos monument, in shiny new white marble that jars horribly with the mellowed, slightly yellowy stone of the truly ancient buildings on the Acropolis. I really cannot see much point to his reconstruction at all. Most visitors will probably have little idea that what they are looking at is not a genuine survival from the ancient world, though to be honest, I suspect that few will pay the structure much attention, overshadowed as it is – quite literally – by the majesty of the Parthenon and the other Periclean buildings. The project is hardly likely to attract new visitors to the Acropolis which is already one of the most popular archaeological sites in the word.

It also isn’t going to teach us anything about the building that we didn’t already know from the 18th century drawings and if we are looking to model the experience of viewing and moving around the building a computer reconstruction already exists. I very much doubt that visitors are going to be allowed to actually enter the caves because they have always been off limits. And while little will be gained by the reconstruction much will be lost – the only truly ancient thing about the monument – the cave to its rear – will sadly disappear completely from view. I’m reminded of a similar project at Epidauros, the site in the Peloponnese famous for its theatre. There, a fascinating, well-preserved and highly unusual ancient underground labyrinth, which was once on view to visitors, has been covered over by a completely modern marble reconstruction of the Tholos building that originally stood on top of it.

I have absolutely nothing against archaeological reconstruction if it is done well and if – for me the biggest if – substantial amounts of the original building still survive. I saw some excellent examples of reconstruction last week in my visit to Messene. I’m also a big fan of the reconstructed Stoa of Attalos on the Athenian Agora, which was carried out with great attention to detail and incorporates the entire rear wall of the original building, which had stood in tact into modern times. The Stoa allows visitors to experience what it was like to walk around such an ancient building, provides welcome shade from the heat in the summer and is a perfect location for the site’s museum. A few years ago I was also lucky enough to be taken to see the Parthenon reconstruction project, which is being carried out with meticulous care and will result in a building that consists of more than 2/3 original architectural pieces.

What I do object to, is the complete fabrication of ancient monuments, that have been lost to us, particularly when such projects mean that authentically ancient remains will no longer be visible. We cannot turn back the clock and undo the destruction wrought by Turkish gunpowder and i just don’t understand why we would want to.

Roman Corinth

I’m on the home run of my Peloponnesian tour having got up early to drive from the southern most region, Messenia back to Corinth in the top right hand corner of the peninsula, near the so called Isthmus . In antiquity the Isthmus was a narrow strip of land where the Adriatic and Aegean seas very nearly met. Since the late 19th century construction of the Corinth canal ships can actually pass from one sea to the other here which I suppose, technically, should make the Peloponnese a proper island, connected to the rest of Greece by a bridge. This key intersection of both seas and land masses was a perfect site for a city to thrive, as Corinth  did in Archaic and Classical times, earning itself the sobriquet “Wealthy Corinth”. Visitors to the site today, however, see few remains of this period and are confronted almost entirely by ruins of the Roman period.

In 146 BC the city of Corinth was sacked by the Roman general Mummius. It is still a matter of discussion among scholars what happened to the Greek inhabitants – it was very interesting to hear the views of Guy Sanders, director of the ongoing excavations at the site on that very subject today. It is certain, however, that the city was re-founded by the Romans, under Julius Caesar as a colony which led to a complete rebuilding of the main civic centre from the period from the 1st century BC to the late 2nd century AD. The Romanness of this city can be seen in features such as the podium-style temples erected along the west of the Forum, in the fact that this was the only city in Greece to have an amphitheatre for gladiatorial games (other Greek cities held them in their theatres) and in the fact that the language of administration, as seen on inscriptions at the site, was, up to the time of Hadrian, Latin not Greek.

Corinth - the Archaic Temple with Acrocorinth in the background
Corinth – the Archaic Temple with Acrocorinth in the background

I’ve been to the site quite often and studied it for my PhD thesis so I think I understand it quite well but I’m sure it looks more than a bit bewildering to most visitors today. The colonists had created their forum – essentially the area accessible to visitors – be creating a series of level terraces in what had previously been a shallow valley. However, it’s very hard to discern these terraces today because when the site was excavated in the 19th and early 20th centuries the archaeologists dug down to different levels in different places creating a very uneven appearance. To compound the problem blocks from various buildings and monuments are piled up around the site. There are also few information boards and as yet no adequate guidebook. I know that someone was working on a one, which I am also sure will be very good, but I have no idea when it will be ready.

Architectural fragments piled up at the site of Corinth
Architectural fragments piled up at the site of Corinth

One of the things that attracts visitors to Corinth is the city’s association with St. Paul who, of course wrote letters to the Christian community here and was hauled before the Roman governor when he fell out with the local Jewish population. At the centre of the forum is a bema, a speaker’s platform, which has recently been in part restored and which is where Paul may have faced the governor. That interpretation has been challenged recently by a scholar who thinks his interrogation was in one of the Forum’s three basilicas, but I like the idea and I’ve argued in my PhD thesis that the use of the bema on such an occasion was actually quite likely from what we know of the use of such platforms elsewhere.

Highlights of the site include the old Archaic Temple (probably to Apollo), which was one of the few pre-Roman buildings to be incorporated into the new city and the Peirene fountain, sadly inaccessible to tourists but you can get a good view of it from the hill of the temple. This was the spot where the hero Bellerophon was believed to have tamed the winged horse Pegasus, and it gets a mention in Euripides’ Medea, a play set at Corinth as a place where old men sat around playing dice. There was indeed a fountain at the spot already in Archaic times connected to an incredible labyrinthine network of tunnels, several kilometres long tapping the water of an underground natural spring. You can still hear the water gushing into the fountain’s reservoirs today. The fountain was in use throughout the Greek and Roman periods of the site and over the centuries became increasingly monumentalised, becoming fronted by an architectural façade and surrounded by a courtyard. There’s an excellent, and fairly recent, monograph exploring the various phases of the building by Betsey Robinson.

The Peirene Fountain at Corinth - note the openings in the facade
The Peirene Fountain at Corinth – note the openings in the facade

As I said, I’ve been to the site many times and today, although I had a stroll around it today I spent my time mainly in the museum studying the wonderful collection of sculpture. I’d of course been there before as well but I’d forgotten quite how many treasures are on display there. Here too most of the material dates from the Roman period. There are plenty of statues of Roman emperors, including a particularly well-known over-life-size group of Augustus and his two grandsons, Lucius and Gaius. Singled out by Augustus to be his successors, both died too young to bring his dynastic ambitions to fruition. At the opposite end of the gallery there are the colossal eastern barbarians that were part of an architectural façade that was erected across the front of one of the forum’s basilicas, the so-called Captive’s Façade. There are also plenty of heads and torsos of various other statues of gods and emperors and, in the museum’s courtyard and surrounding walkway as well as a whole group of headless togate statues that had presumably been erected to civic benefactors.

Headless togate statues in the courtyard of the Corinth museum
Headless togate statues in the courtyard of the Corinth museum

I had a good look at all of this material, taking plenty of photos of details that caught my eye and. All of these statues have been studied and published but because the Corinth excavations took place so long ago, a lot of this scholarship is open to reinterpretation in the light of advances in our knowledge. In fact there’s quite a bit of work being done at Corinth by archaeologists going through the old excavation notebooks and making use of improved understandings of the chronology of pottery – the fragments of which are so important for dating archaeological layers – to challenge old interpretations and arrive at new ones. Having studied the statues and pieces of sculpture firsthand I now need to go away and (re)read what has been written about where they were found, how they were dated, and what previous scholars have said about the details that caught my eye in order to think about the impact they might have made on ancient viewers in public space.

Tomorrow I’ll be heading back to Athens to spend a week in the libraries some of the museums there. On the way back, however, I’m planning to visit two more sites – Perachora and Isthmia. The first is an Archaic and Classical sanctuary, not particularly relevant to my research but one of those sites that every Greek archaeologists really should have seen and which I, to my shame, have never got around to visiting. The second is Isthmia, the major sanctuary of Poseidon and venue of the Isthmian games, one of the four big Panhellenic Games, alongside Olympia, Delphi and Nemea. I have been there before but the museum was closed for refurbishment. Now it should be open – fingers crossed – and there should be some interesting Roman period monuments among the treasures there.

As a closing note I have to say that I did a pretty good job of not getting lost today. The only time I strayed off the beaten track a bit was when I left the ancient site of Corinth and tried to head for the modern town. I could see the town in the distance near the sea and thought if I picked a road heading towards it I’d be fine. I soon found myself on a gravel road skirting the highway, which I really need to cross somehow and then suddenly the road turned off to the left, away from modern Corinth and back into farmland at the foot of Acrocorinth. Out of the corner of my eye up ahead I thought I saw something that looked like a scarecrow but then I recognised it as a strung up teddy bear. There were actually a few of them but I only had the nerve to stop and take a photo of one. When you find yourself in a place where they’ve been lynching teddy bears you know you’ve got to get out and I did – fast!

A lynched teddy bear
A lynched teddy bear

A panegyric to ancient Messene

At the height of the Roman Empire, in the 2nd century AD, superstar Greek orators, known as sophists, travelled the cities of the eastern half of the Mediterranean giving performances of their art to assembled crowds. Among the repertoire of speeches that they gave were panegyrics in praise of the cities they visited. Surviving examples of this genre include several speeches by a sickly or possibly hypochondriac rhetorician called Aelius Aristeides in which he celebrates Athens, Rome and Smyrna, the city in Asia Minor that he made his home for a while. If I were a sophist the first ancient city I would write a panegyric for would be Messene, which is probably my favourite archaeological site in Greece.

Messenia, the most southwest region of the Peloponnese was, in Archaic and Classical times, under the control of Sparta. It was where the famous Helots lived, the native population who the Spartans had reduced to a slave-like status, and who were forced to farm the land so that the Spartan citizens could devote their lives to full-time military pursuits. In the early 4th century BC that situation changed when Sparta experienced a series of catastrophic military defeats by Thebes. The Thebans, under their talented general Epaminondas, liberated Messenia and helped the people of the region found a new city to hold Sparta in check and prevent any resurgence of her power. Elite Messenian refugees, living in exile in other parts of the Greek world, also flocked back to Greece to take part in building this new city.

From the spectacular remains uncovered through excavation – mostly in the last twenty years or so – it has become clear that Messene prospered and thrived until well into the Roman period. Because there is no modern town at the site – it seems to have been more or less completely abandoned with the Ottoman takeover of Greece in the 14th century – the archaeologists working there have been able to uncover a vast extent of the main civic centre. The level of preservation of the remains has turned out to be spectacular and has allowed accurate restoration of many of the principle monuments.

Both excavation and restoration work at the site are still ongoing under the direction of Professor Petros Themelis. Digging takes place in the summer months while the job of putting the ancient buildings back together, financed through various generous benefactions, proceeds continually throughout the year. I was fortunate to be able to meet with Professor Themelis at the site, busy restoring a public building on the agora and a newly uncovered palaestra (wrestling area), in the southern gymnasium, and he kindly discussed some of his recent work with me.

The site of Messene seen from the village of Mavromati
The site of Messene seen from the village of Mavromati

There are many things that make Messene a truly remarkable place to visit. For a start, the setting in the landscape is breathtaking. The city lies at the southern foot of Mount Ithome, a point of key strategic importance, described by some ancient authors together with Acrocorinth (I’m going to Corinth tomorrow) as being like the horns of a bull – whoever controlled both controlled the entire Peloponnese. From the delightful modern village of Mavromati, slightly higher up the slope and where I’ve been staying, it is possible to survey the entire site: from the theatre and agora in the northern part to the stadium and gymnasium in the south. It is also possible to see a good stretch of the incredibly well-preserved city walls – without doubt the most substantial surviving ancient city walls in Greece – cutting through the hills to the west and punctuated by several imposing defensive towers.

Because the site runs down from north to south the ancient Messenians constructed a series of level terraces on which to build the city. Watching some of the Greek workmen hacking away at the soil with great effort with pickaxes to uncover the base of a column being re-erected in the palaestra made me realise just how enormous a task it must have been to landscape the entire city in antiquity with similar tools and no modern industrial machinery.

Because there are no modern buildings in the way, unlike for instance at Argos, it is possible to really explore the site and get a good feel of how the ancient city – or at least the public spaces in the heart of it – fitted together. You enter the site near the theatre, constructed on level enough ground to have required massive retaining walls to create a sufficient slope for the seating. It has now been restored and serves as the venue for modern theatrical performances. Other highlights of the site include the grand north stoa of the agora, of which substantial sections of the back wall are preserved, the Asklepieion complex – a small square to the south of the agora with a temple to the god of medicine and surrounded by various rooms housing cult spaces to local gods and heroes and a splendid indoor theatre – and the vast stadium, a u-shaped sporting arena that stretches away to a building that looks like a temple but was, in fact, the ostentatious tomb of a local elite family.

The theatre of Messene
The theatre of Messene
The stadium of Messene - with the temple-tomb at the southern end
The stadium of Messene – with the temple-tomb at the southern end
The temple-tomb at the end of the stadium in Messene
The temple-tomb at the end of the stadium in Messene

The entire site is littered with various bases for statues and other monuments lots of them bearing inscriptions. Many were discovered fallen over very near where they had originally been set up so it is possible to get something of a feel for where different types of monument originally stood. For example, there is a cluster of statue bases in the north stoa of the agora to Roman emperors of the Flavian dynasty (late 1st century AD). One shows very clear signs that inscription in honour of the last emperor that dynasty, Domitian (one of the so-called bad emperors) had been purposely hacked away in as part of the so-called “damnatio memoriae” that many of his monuments throughout the empire were subjected to following his murder. Another cluster of statues to emperors, this time those of the 2nd Century AD, were clustered to the south of the temple of the personified Goddess Messene. Both groups have been discovered in the last few years.

Monuments connected with the ephebes (youths passing through an offical state programme of physical and mental education) and the magistrates responsible for training them, the gymnasiarchs, stood in the gymnasium next to the stadium. In many areas of public space in Messene, there were also grave monuments for people who had died fighting for the city in the Hellenistic period or for local notables of Roman imperial times. Such large numbers of public tomb monuments in the heart of the city are not common for Greek cities where cemeteries were usually located outside the walls. Because Messene did not exist as a city before the late Classical times almost all of the remains are Hellenistic or Roman which means that here, more than at most other places in Greece, you can really get a feel for the role monuments played in shaping public life in a Greek polis in just the period I am interested in.

Two statue bases at Messene
Two statue bases at Messene

As I walked around looking at the remains of statue bases and other monuments I was thinking about how visible they might have been, about the direction that were facing, about how they were positioned in relation to other monuments, and about the impact that they might have had on the use of the spaces in which they stood. These are the types of questions that are at the heart of my current project and I certainly came away with new insights as well as new questions about such issues that I will need to address. It was an extremely fruitful visit and will certainly be of considerable use in helping me understand the latest excavation reports.

Another reason why Messene is such a great site to include in my research is that Professor Themelis is extremely diligent in making sure that the latest excavation material is published fast so that it is accessible to the scholarly community. Even though the fieldwork is still taking place, and detailed studies of parts of it are still in progress, several monographs have already appeared on various buildings and the regular annual fieldwork reports are highly detailed, to the point of even giving the full texts of recently discovered inscriptions, which is certainly not common practice.

The excavations at Messene have also yielded very impressive pieces of ancient sculpture, the best of which are displayed in the excellent site museum, again of Hellenistic or Roman date. These include an over-life-size Hermes, a statue of Isis striding forward on the prow of a ship, a goggle-eyed late Roman emperor and a beautiful statue of Artemis the Huntress found in a grand private dwelling to the southeast of the agora. There are also several pieces of sculpture by the Hellenistic artist Damophon, who I mentioned briefly last time. I also spent quite a bit of time in the museum photographing the statues from every conceivable angle, scrutinizing the details and trying to think about the impression that they would have made on ancient viewers. I was particularly struck, for instance by the sense of forward motion of the Isis and the air of divine distance, almost arrogance, of the Artemis.

Statue of Isis with late antique Roman emperor in the background
Statue of Isis with late antique Roman emperor in the background

A series of small – about 1/3 lifesize – statues of girls form the temple of Artemis in the Asklepieion had all been set up by proud families to commemorate their daughters’ initiation in the cult. They all show the girls in similar dress with characteristic pleats gathered in knots on the shoulders of their dresses. They also demonstrate, however, how within this standard form there was room for variation in terms of size, posture and artistic style. Seen as a group these subtle variations gave the statues a rather jumbled impression which made me think about the way that ancient aesthetic sensibilities must have been different to ours – we’d probably aim for greater uniformity between monuments set up together side by side.

There’s no need to resort to the kind of hyperbole that the ancient sophists used in their panegyrics to cities. The remains of ancient Messene speak for themselves and make the city well worth a visit, every bit as much as other large sites in Greece, such as Delphi or Olympia. Mavromati is also a lovely village to stay in with delightful local guestrooms and a great restaurant where you can eat overlooking the archaeological site. There’s a local spring in the village with deliciously refreshing water from which I filled my bottle. The only downside is that most of the locals seem to have guard-dogs which spend half the night barking back and forth to each other like the communication network in 101 Dalmatians. I forgot to bring ear-plugs. Still, the site is open from 8 till 8 so I was able to have a lie-in without missing closing time! (I heard, by the way, from Professor Themelis that Lykosoura is permanently closed at the moment so it really wasn’t my fault for being late that I couldn’t get in there).

I’ll be sorry to leave Messene tomorrow but I’m also looking forward to visiting Corinth again and I’m sure I’ll be back here next year. I wonder what new delights the excavations will have revealed by then…..

From Tripoli to Lykosoura

Tripoli is a rarity among the larger towns of modern day Greece in that it isn’t located at the site of an ancient polis. As the major town of Arcadia it is, however, home to a museum housing finds from various sites throughout that region including the Classical poleis of Tegea, Mantinea and Megalopolis, the “Great City” which was founded in the early 4th century BC as a synoikism (a bringing together) of most of the smaller polis in the area – it was an idea on the part of the Thebans to create a mighty centralised power in the region to hold Sparta in check. A lot of small towns in Greece have their own museums (as does modern Tegea, for example) and most of the really impressive artefacts from the smaller sites have ended up in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens so I was very curious today to see what exactly the collection at Tripoli was like.

I’ve never quite got used to the way that in local Greek museums the museum guards are required to follow you closely as you make your way through the galleries. When you are the only one in the museum, as I was today, that means that the guard constantly hovers no more than a few metres away. The lady shadowing me was very friendly and helpful but even so it is a little off-putting and makes it hard to relax and really take in what you are looking at.

I think that one of the reasons the guards at Tripoli museum are required to be so vigilant is that they enforce an almost total ban on photographs. You often find that you aren’t allowed to take photos in Greek museums because certain artefacts have yet to be published in academic journals. Particular researchers have been assigned the rights to work on particular artefacts and they don’t want images of them circulating too widely before their work is finished. Unfortunately there is a lot of material sitting in museums in Greece that has been waiting for publication for a very long time. I think that nowadays new discoveries tend to be published quite quickly and efficiently but it is frustrating that some of the older discoveries still haven’t been and I find a great shame that I wasn’t allowed to capture some images for my own record of some of the things I saw today.

I should stress that I’m only surmising that in this case the problem was publication rights and strangely there was at least one artefact in the museum – a famous inscription from Mantinea – that has been published and which you still aren’t allowed to take a snap off. Still, I’d been warned about that by a colleague so I wasn’t too disappointed. There were a few objects that I was allowed to photograph and the guard very kindly pointed them all out to me but, to be honest, most of them weren’t the things I was most interested in, with the exception of this rather beautiful female portrait head of Trajanic period, with a particularly elaborate and well executed hairstyle. It was apparently found at Lykosoura, the site I was going to see this afternoon.

Trajanic (98-117 AD) female portrait head - found at Lykosoura
Trajanic (98-117 AD) female portrait head – found at Lykosoura

Apart from that head some of the other exciting things I saw included a couple of reliefs showing the Dioscouroi (Castor and Pollux) standing facing each other, holding the bridles of two horses, fascinating because they apparently date to the 4th Century AD, a time when paganism was waning and Christianity was taking hold of the Roman Empire. I was also particularly impressed with a whole collection of sculpture – statues and reliefs – that came from the estate of Herodes Atticus at Loukoi. Herodes was without doubt the richest man in Greece in the mid 2nd Century AD. He associated with emperors such as Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius and paid for a whole range of major benefactions at his home city, Athens, as well as at Corinth, Olympia and Delphi. He had various estates in Greece, including one near Marathon in Attica and the one at Loukou in the Argolid where these sculptures came from.

Apparently there are other sculptures from this villa site at another Greek museum which have also not been published though there is supposed to be dissertation about some of them. I am definitely going to look into what has been written about this material. The sculptures at Tripoli include a few Hellenistic grave monuments, each a couple of metres tall and in high relief, one of the strangest portraits supposed to be of Marcus Aurelius that I’ve ever seen and a rather lovely portrait bust of a boy Herodes adopted called Polydeukes, who died young and who is known from other statues. There was also an amazing relief showing a sacrifice to Apollo with the god Pan in attendance. Tripoli museum also has an impressive collection of pottery and bronze artefacts and is definitely worth a visit.

After leaving Tripoli I set off for the site of Lykosoura, a site that has long held a deep fascination for me but which I’d not previously visited. For all sorts of reasons this rural sanctuary has always struck me as one of the most magical of archaeological sites in Greece. In the first place because it is one of the few places where ancient cult statues have actually been discovered – not just sculpted representations of the gods, which were fairly common in the ancient world and are indeed well represented in modern museum collections – but the actual, over life-size statues that were worshipped in the temple itself – or at least substantial pieces of them.

Lykosoura was home to a cult that centred on a local variant of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, which I discussed a few pieces ago in connection with the famous mystery cult of Eleusis in Attica. In the 19th century archaeologists discovered the heads of Demeter, Artemis and the Titan Anytos, who both played an important role in the cult at the site. The head of Persephone, or Despoina (the “Mistress”), as she was known here, was not discovered but several other pieces of the sculpture were. These were so-called Acrolithic statues, made part from stone and part from wood, which has naturally long since rotted away. These sculptures are now in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and I’ve always found it a slightly eerie sensation standing before them there to think that these were the very statues that people stood before over two thousand years ago believing they were in the presence of the gods. I don’t actually have any of my own photos of these statues so I’m looking forward to seeing them again when I get back to Athens. I’ll post some pictures here or on Twitter but for now here are the photos of them from Wikipedia:

The Lykosoura sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens
The Lykosoura sculptures in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens

The reason that we know these are the actual cult statues is that they are vividly described in Pausanias’ second century AD description of his travels in Greece, which is the second reason that I find Lykosoura such a magical site. When we look into the faces of these statues in Athens we know that they are the same faces that stared impassively back at Pausanias when he visited the temple. Lykosoura like Eleusis was also home to a mystery cult where people were initiated in secret rites in the hope of a better life after death. Pausanias’ religious scruples here, as elsewhere, prevent him from describing those rites but he does give us one wonderfully evocative detail about the cult – he says that there was a mirror near the entrance and that on leaving the temple, if you gazed into the mirror you would see the reflections of the cult statues standing on their bases but would be unable to see your own reflection. I’ve sometimes thought they should put a mirror next to the door of the gallery where the statues are displayed in the National Archaeological Museum to see what happens!

The final reason that I’ve always found Lykosoura so alluring is that Pausanias also tells us who these statues were made by – an artists called Damophon from Messene, the other city that was founded in the 4th century BC to hold Sparta in check, in the southwest Peloponnese. That’s where I’m heading for tomorrow. Damophon is, thanks to Pausanias’ work, probably the Hellenistic artist who we know most about, even though he isn’t mentioned by any other ancient authors. Pausanias tells us that he was responsible for repairing the famous 5th century BC statue of Zeus at Olympia. He was also responsible for a series of statues that stood at Messene itself. Thanks to those discoveries, and a few inscriptions that mention him, scholars, and in particular, Professor Themelis, the excavator of Messene, have been able to gain quite a bit of insight into Damophon’s career and his artistic style and to date his activity to somewhere around the early 2nd Century BC. So the statues from Lykosoura aren’t just special because they are cult statues they are special because they are some of the only surviving original works from the antiquity by a named artist. Most of the other works of named artists that we have survived only as later copies.

So, did the visit measure up to my expectations? Well, after mentioning yesterday that I’d bought a very good map of the Peloponnese you might be surprised to hear that I spent a good hour and half driving around looking for the site this afternoon. It’s in the vicinity of Megalopolis, a modern town at the site of the ancient polis, which now lies next to an enormous industrial plant with a coal power station at its heart. It was quite surreal driving along windy country lanes and through otherwise typically quaint Greek villages but with a colossal chimney in the background and every so often driving beneath shoots transporting coal from one part of the site to the other. I made a lot of wrong turns, came to a lot of dead ends and finally only found the site by asking people for directions, which is what I should have done in the first place.

The site was far more off the beaten track than I’d imagined, at the end of a winding road through thick green forest. As I approached the site I felt that I was really in Arcadia the idyllic pastoral paradise that had inspired the imagination of writers such as Horace in antiquity and Keats in more recent times. I even drove past a strangely wise looking old goat, with shaggy brown hair and a slight limp and could imagine for a second that this was Pan himself. It took me a good twenty minutes to reach the site from Megalopolis and that gave me a very good impression of what it must have been like for ancient pilgrims such as Pausanias making their way through what I can only assume must have been a rather similar landscape in antiquity. I’ve always found that one of the most useful things about travelling around visiting sites in Greece is getting a feel for how the landscape fits together and for how easy or difficult it was to get from place to place in antiquity.

The ruins of Lykosoura - view from over the fence
The ruins of Lykosoura – view from over the fence
Arcadia - the view from Lykosoura
Arcadia – the view from Lykosoura

Finally arriving at Lykosoura I was strangely not as disappointed as you might expect to discover that the site was shut – fenced off and with heavy chains on the gates. Perhaps I had, once again, arrived too late although I wouldn’t be surprised if a site as remote as this was rarely open. I can’t imagine it gets many visitors and even though I’d found a website saying it should be open Sunday to Saturday 9:00-16:00 it’s possible that it’s now only open in certain months of the year. I could make out some of the walls of some of the sanctuary buildings and that was about it. I thought about climbing the fence but for one thing, that wouldn’t be right and for another I didn’t want to find myself lying at the bottom of it with a broken leg waiting days for somebody to find me. But anyway, I was content to just get a feel for the place; to stand there on top of the hill looking out over miles of woodland, as if Megalopolis and the power station were part of a different world. Maybe I’ll go back there one day, but for now Demeter and the Mistress had managed to keep their secret from me, just as Pausanias would have liked it.

Now I’m in Kalamata in the very south of the Peloponnese. After a long day on the road I am about to head off for another fish supper by the sea. Tomorrow I’ll be off to Messene. I’m going to stay there for a couple of days and will be meeting with the archaeologists working there. I don’t know if I’ll have internet access or time to blog there but I’ll post something about the site soon.

The ruins of Argos – report of a visit

Today was the first day of my big Peloponnesian adventure. My main goal is to spend a couple of days at both Messene and Corinth, two sites that I’m focussing on in my research as case-studies because a real wealth of Roman period material has been found at both sites. But I’ve decided to fit in a few other sites as well – mostly places I’ve never been to. Today, however, I began the trip by going to Argos, a place that I have visited several times already, because I wanted to spend a bit more time looking round the Roman bathhouse than I had before and to visit the museum because I couldn’t quite remember what Roman period stuff they’ve got on display there. The visit didn’t quite work out as planned.

After I’d managed to negotiate my way out of Athens’ frustrating one-way system I made good progress but then I stupidly took a wrong turn just before Corinth which ended up costing me a good hour’s travelling time. Stupid to think I’d really memorised the directions I’d looked up yesterday on the internet. I’ve now bought a very good map of the Peloponnese which I should have done before setting out! When I finally got to Argos I managed to got lost in that town’s one way system – I blame the poor signposting to the site – but I finally found the bathhouse, theatre and agora at around 14:45. I thought I would have a good hour and a quarter to look around but it turned out that the information I’d found on the internet was wrong and the site shuts at 15:00 rather than 16:00. On top of that it turned out that the museum is currently closed for renovation and won’t be open for a couple of years.

I did manage to quickly run around and get a few photos of the bathhouse and theatre.

The imposing remains of the Roman period bathhouse at Argos
The imposing remains of the Roman period bathhouse at Argos

The agora part of the site was completely closed and looking very overgrown. I expect that they will cut it back soon after leaving it for the winter. I didn’t mind too much that I didn’t get onto the agora because the site played a big role in my PhD thesis and I’ve spent quite a bit of time there. Despite not seeing the museum and only managing to rush around the bathhouse my journey certainly wasn’t wasted because I also managed to visit a few sites in the town that I’d never seen before. The other times I’d visited Argos I went from Athens by bus and the timing of the last bus back meant I was always quite rushed.

I drove up to take a look at the medieval castle on the Larissa hill overlooking the town, the old Acropolis of the ancient city (a bit hair-raising for someone with a fear of heights!); I also saw the remains of a sanctuary of Apollo at the foot of that hill. The most impressive thing I saw, though was a monument I’d wanted to see ever since Carole (@carolmadge) of the Following Hadrian blog (well worth reading and subscribing too!) tweeted me a photo of it a few months back- the Hadrianic Nymphaeum. Nymphaea are ornate public monumental fountain houses that take their name from the Nymphs (water-sprites) and which became very popular in the Greek world in the 2nd century AD.

The one at Argos was certainly constructed at the time of Hadrian and was possibly paid for by him. Hadrian was the most Philhellenic of all Roman Emperors and well known for his benefactions to Greek cities. Hadrian certainly did pay for an aqueduct to improve the city’s water supply by bringing water 30km from the surrounding hills because an inscription was found in the city that refers to that gift. The nympheum is located a couple of hundred metres to the east of the bathhouse and unlike that site isn’t fenced off.

The Hadrianic Nymphaeum at Argos
The Hadrianic Nymphaeum at Argos

An abundant water supply was seen as a sign of prosperity and success for Roman period Greek cities, which is a big part of why Nympahea became so popular in imperial times. Cities, of course, also needed lots of water for bathing in their new grand Roman-style bathhouses, of which the one at Argos, has some of the most impressive remains in Greece. The Romans, of course, were also experts at the technology required to bring water over great distances to supply cities which made such luxurious uses of water possible. It is, however, also worth recognising that there’s an important political dimension to this.

In the days before the Roman conquest there wouldn’t have been much point in Greek poleis trying to bring in vast quantities of water from far away because these city-states were constantly warring among themselves. In times of conflict, citizens retreated behind their city walls for safety. If they’d been reliant on miles of aqueducts for their water supply these structures would have been natural targets for enemies to demolish or damage. So, if one answer to the question “What did the Romans ever do for the Greeks?” is “Gave them aqueducts”, it’s also important to recognise that Roman conquest brought the political stability needed to make investment in aqueducts worthwhile. Whether that stability came at the cost of oppression is a tricky subject and one I’ll come back to in a future blog, as promised yesterday.

The Nymphaeum at Argos must have been a very grand affair. The thing that impressed me most about the ruins was the way in which you could see how the lower part of the momument had been carved out of the hillside with steps cut away on which the upper, brick part of the building rested. The whole thing would no doubt have been covered in marble revetment, thin sheets of marble veneer, a cost-effective technique that the Romans developed to make their public buildings look suitably grand without having to make them of solid marble blocks. A large niche in the centre of the rear of the building would probably have held a statue, perhaps of the emperor Hadrian if he was indeed the building’s benefactor.

The Roman Nymphaeum at Argos (detail showing brickwork resting on rock cut construction)
The Roman Nymphaeum at Argos (detail showing brickwork resting on rock cut construction)

I did find myself wondering where the building might have stood in relation to the rest of ancient Argos. A helpful 3D reconstruction is displayed for tourists nearby with the locations of all of the structures that have been excavated in the city, including the nymphaeum and with the locations of some of those known to have existed from inscriptions or literary sources guessed at.

Reconstruction drawing of ancient Argos c. 160 AD
Reconstruction drawing of ancient Argos c. 160 AD

The drawing gives a vivid impression of what a town like Argos must have been like in the Roman period but the truth is that there are a lot of holes in our knowledge of the topography of the city. In fact, more than any of the ancient city sites I know in Greece it has been difficult at Argos to match the buildings that have been excavated to the ancient literary sources, and in particular to Pausanias’ mid 2nd century AD description of the site. What this means is that we don’t really know exactly what a lot of the excavated structures were and that a lot of the structures mentioned in the sources still haven’t been found.

The problem arises because, as at so many other Greek sites a modern town has been built on top of the ancient one so that excavation has only been possible at certain spots within the city. The photo I took from the Nymphaion overlooking modern Argos provides a sharp contrast with the reconstruction drawing showing a view in the same direction but from slightly further away. It gives a good idea of just how much of the ancient city may still lie buried beneath modern buildings.

The view of modern Argos from the Nymphaeum
The view of modern Argos from the Nymphaeum

In a few days time I’ll be visiting Messene which is a rare example in Greece of an ancient city that hasn’t had a modern town built on top of it – there is a modern Messene but for some reason it’s 20km further south. At ancient Messene the archaeologists have unearthed some of the most impressive remains of public buildings and monuments anywhere in Greece and it’s much easier to get a sense of the scale of the ancient site and see how the city fits together. I can’t wait to get back there and see some of the exciting finds that have been made in the last few years.

Now, after a day on the road I feel that I’ve earned a relaxing evening and am about to head out for a meal by the seaside. I’m staying in an extremely touristic place called Tolo where every other building seems to be a hotel and where you can get English breakfasts and the Germans can enjoy “Zimmer am meer” (rooms with a sea view – I didn’t follow that course for nothing!). Tomorrow I’m head off to Kalamata in Messenia so that I can get to Messene on Monday. First, tomorrow I’m going to see a few sites in Arcadia, the central part of the Peloponnese including Lykosoura, a rural sanctuary where some of the only actual cult statues in Greece were discovered in the late 19th Century and the museum in Tripoli. I hope it isn’t closed for restoration works.

What does #GE2015 tell us about power?

It’s been a few weeks now since I posted anything here. I’ve been busy: trying to finish the book version of my PhD thesis (it’s getting there), studying for a German exam (I took it on Wednesday), preparing for a trip to Greece (I arrived yesterday!) and carrying on gathering evidence for my database on public monuments n Roman Greece. Apart from all that I’ve also allowed myself to get rather absorbed in the twists and turns of the never-ending election campaign: watching the debates – or the reality TV-shows David Cameron allowed us to have instead of debates – reading commentaries in the newspapers and avidly studying the polls trying to predict how any workable government is ever going to emerge from the messy situation we’ve arrived at. A big part of my research is to do with the nature of power in the ancient world and following the election closely has got me thinking a bit more about how power works in our own society.

What fascinates me most about the way the battle for Number 10 has played out over the last four weeks is just how far removed it all is from the way that the democratic process in theory is surely supposed to work. In theory we’re supposed to be faced with a choice of politicians and parties trying to persuade us that their policies are in the best interests of the country so that we can decide who we want to vote for. Instead the whole thing has taken on the character of an excruciatingly intricate game of strategy with each of the players trying to outmanoeuvre their opponents to gain the minutest of advantages. It’s clear that neither Labour or the Conservatives are really playing for a majority by this stage and there’s been a lot of speculation in the media about possible coalition arrangements once we get our inevitable hung parliament.

It seems to me, however, that the real stakes of the game are about a term that’s been thrown around a lot over the last few weeks but hasn’t really received the scrutiny it deserves, “legitimacy”. We don’t have any constitutional rules to cover the likely outcome of next week’s election and by precedent any government that can survive a vote of confidence in the Houses of Parliament would in fact be legitimate. However, Cameron and Miliband know that whatever other obstacles they might face in trying to put together a coalition, or in governing as a minority government, they are more likely to be seen as ‘legitimate’ by the public if they can achieve one, or ideally both, of two magic numbers – the most seats in the Houses of the parliament and the largest share of the popular vote. And to achieve that end various strategies have been deployed – information is withheld from the electorate, bribes are offered, all sorts of underhand tricks are resorted to. I’ll leave it to you to decide which of our two main parties is more guilty on that score.

Maybe it is naïve to hope that power should be contested on the grounds of ideas but I believe that ideal is at least worth striving for and this election is demonstrating how pitifully small a role the clash of ideas actually is actually playing in deciding who gets the keys to Downing Street. Even in last night’s Question Time, there was no real debate, no real discussion. The politicians predictably ducked and weaved, changed the subject, repeated well-worn platitudes and gave very few actual arguments that might change anybody’s mind – about anything. But even the questioners, much lauded in the press for their aggressive hard-line approach, weren’t open to discussion – they weren’t really asking questions in the hope of hearing answers. They were baying for blood and out to savage whichever of the leaders they personally disliked the most.

I find it very hard to believe that at this stage in the election there can really be as many undecided voters out there as there are supposed to be. I made up my mind who I wanted to vote for weeks ago and if the Question Time audience is as representative as it is supposed to be the Great British public are even more opinionated than I am. It’s almost as though we don’t want any real discussion of the issues anymore because we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that that isn’t really what matters in determining power in our democracy. We’d rather be steered by kneejerk reactions to Ed Balls having the gall to point out that that note was meant to be a joke (of course it was meant to be a joke as even David Cameron knows. Whether it was a funny joke is a different matter) or to David Cameron forgetting what day the election was on.

And if power in this country isn’t determined through discussion and disagreements over ideas the election is also making it abundantly clear how many other individuals, groups and forces do exert an influence on the whole process. Newspapers pursue an openly partisan agenda. The tabloids are of course the worst offenders, bombarding their readers with propaganda designed to tell them what to think and make them vote for the party that will best serve the interests of the moguls who run them. But even the broadsheets openly take sides in a way that would be unthinkable in the Netherlands, where I lived for fifteen years. And then there are of course the comedians, columnists, the Twitterati who’ve been courted, attacked or ostentatiously ignored over the last few weeks and who undoubtedly exert at least some subtle influence over the ways their followers and readers think.

Finally, and I believe, exerting the biggest influence of all over the political process are the various means by which everybody concerned is trying to predict everybody else’s behaviour. First there are the focus groups that the parties employ to try to devise tactics to achieve a maximal increase in their share of the vote for minimal effort (and if you want a powerful argument for just how pernicious a force focus groups are for modern democracy I highly recommend the Century of the Self films by Adam Curtis). Then there is the unending succession of polls, which seem to have arrived with daily frequency throughout the entire time the coalition has been in power, polls that I find deeply irritating and strangely addictive at the same time.

The first problem with our obsession with polling as I see it is that the polls themselves can play a big role in setting the terms of the debate through the types of questions they ask. A question like “which party do you trust more to manage the economy?”, when asked as often as it is cannot but reinforce the idea that the “economy” is the one issue above all others that we should be most concerned about. Asking the question “which leader do you think would make a better Prime Minister?” in no small way contributes to the increasingly presidential style of our politics. But an even bigger problem with the polls ask is what happens when everybody constantly knows – or at least believes they know – exactly how much support each party can count on. That, together with the constant analysis of the polls in the press, is arguably the biggest reason that the progress of all our political parties has become deadlocked and has barely shifted in weeks. Having arrived at what seems to be some sort of natural balance none of the parties are willing to take any more than the most minimal risks to upset that balance for fear that their opponents will be the ones to gain by it.

To return to my metaphor of the election as a game he whole thing reminds me very much of a very public chess match I once saw by the seaside in Greece. Two old men were playing on one of those enormous boards where the pieces are all waist high, surrounded by groups of other old men shouting them on as if they were at a football match and giving warnings about both players’ game plan. When spectators are shouting “Watch out for the bishop!” and “He’s three moves from checkmate!” it’s no wonder that the players become agitated – as these two men most certainly did – and no wonder that our politicians are doing the equivalent of moving their kings back and forth behind a solid row of pawns waiting for their opponents to make a mistake.

I can’t help wondering what Athenian democracy would have looked like if the Classical Greeks had had opinion polls. They didn’t need them, of course, because theirs was a direct democracy where citizens voted themselves on the issues of the day, with civic magistracies filled randomly by a sort of lottery, and only a few elections for the most important positions. They did, however, still have politicians, men who were more active than others in steering the course of policy. If ComRes or Ipsos Mori had been around at the time of the Persian Wars then Themistokles would still have been deliberating as to whether he should cautiously propose evacuating the city as the Persians poured over the walls and massacred the citizens. The story of what did actually happen is in Herodotus (or 300: Rise of an Empire presumably. I haven’t seen it) but even without knowing the story I think you can get my point.

Imagine how exciting the current UK election would be if polling was prohibited for the period after parliament has been dissolved. We might then have even less of an idea than we do now what next Friday holds in store for us. But we’d probably find our politicians were taking the risks that would give us a more decisive result than the one we’re almost certainly facing. Having only briefly mentioned the ancient world here, in a future blog post I want to talk a bit more about the nature of power and influence and in particular why working out who had power is one of the biggest problems and most controversial issues for understanding Roman Greece.

I’m actually in Greece at the moment, as I mentioned near the beginning of this piece. I will be travelling around over the next week visiting some sites and museums for my project.  I’m also hoping to find time to write some shorter posts about some of the things I see and will definitely be posting some photos on Twitter. So watch this space!

Still on Trac?

If physicists want to study weird distortions of time then they could do worse than to observe academic conferences. A twenty-minute paper can either fly by or feel like it lasts forever when you’re listening to it. When you’re standing before the audience yourself trying to squeeze your elaborate argument into the allotted slot it can feel as though you’ve only just started speaking when the person chairing the session gives you the signal to wrap things up. A conference that lasts a couple of days can feel like a week because the experience is so intense – listening to so many presentations, learning so many new things, meeting so many new and interesting people. Yet once its over it can feel as though it whizzed by in the blink of an eye. Now that I’ve been back in Oxford for three whole days the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference (or TRAC) already feels like it was weeks ago.

The event was hosted by Leicester University – soon to be renamed King Richard University (I know April Fool’s Day was yesterday but I’m still allowed to pass on someone else’s joke aren’t I?). The weekend kicked off with an excursion to see the Hallaton Treasure and Burrough Hill Iron Age hill fort on Friday, in perfect weather, which was followed by two days jam-packed with papers on fascinating topics ranging from cult places to Mithras in Roman Britain to the reuse of Greek funerary reliefs in Imperial Rome, from Christian destruction and transformation of pagan shrines in Hierapolis in Turkey, to the mystery of the lack of evidence for Roman occupation in Jerusalem. My own paper was about how we approach the transformation of the Roman Forum under the first Roman Emperors. I’m not an expert on the site but it was a nice opportunity to try out some of my ideas relating to public space in the Greek part of the Empire on the most important public space in the imperial capital itself. It was also great to catch up with some familiar faces and to make some new contacts.

All in all there were nearly eighty presentations, running in parallel sessions of course so that some hard choices needed to be made. I was particularly sorry to have to miss a session on ancient magic because it clashed with the one I was presenting in but it’s impossible to plan these things to please everybody and the organisers (PhD students in Leicester) really did a fantastic job. Often at conferences the papers can be a pretty mixed bag but here – at least in the sessions I went to – the quality was impressively high.

If I am allowed one critical note, however, I did find myself wondering at several points during the conference if the focus really was theoretical enough considering that this was supposed to be the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference. Most of the papers did draw on exciting new theories – some borrowed from other disciplines like sociology, anthropology or geography – to find innovative ways of looking at the past. There weren’t many papers, however, where the focus was really explicitly on the theory itself. The discussions after the papers, at least in the sessions that I went to, were also very much focussed on the material and not on the way we approach it.

On the one hand, I think that the problem is that really doing archaeological theory properly – debating the assumptions we make about the way we interrogate our evidence and arriving at new ways of thinking requires a certain type of mind. Scholars that actually publish about archaeological theory are a rare breed and include Andrew Gardner, of UCL, who gave the thought provoking keynote speech and David Mattingly, of Leicester University, whose inspiring summing up closed the proceedings. Most of the rest of us, I think, go along to events like this keen to talk about the ancient world, to show what new insights we’ve arrived at through our own particular approach and hopefully to pick up a few new theoretical tricks from others that will be useful in our research.

On the other hand, I think that the other reason that there wasn’t too much explicit focus on theory in either the presentations or discussions is that nowadays the majority of us take it for granted that faced with a limited body of evidence we need to use theory if we are to arrive at new understandings of past culture or society. There can’t be many archaeologists, historians or even Classicists who graduate now without haven’t been made to realise the importance of thinking critically about the assumptions we make when we think about our evidence. And thinking critically and trying out new ways of thinking about the past is what theory is all about.

Still, the fact that most research these days does have such a strong theoretical component means that most of us the papers at last weekend’s conference could have been given in exactly the same form in a completely different setting. Indeed I suspect that most of us probably would have given the pretty much the same paper in a different setting – say in a smaller conference with a theme more closely related to our research interest or perhaps at the RAC (Roman Archaeology Conference).

TRAC was founded 25 years ago because a group of up and coming Roman archaeologists at that time thought that the subject wasn’t theoretical enough. That a quarter of a century later so much research in the field is so purposefully theory driven shows just how effective their initiative has been. TRAC is clearly a big success story. At the same time, however, there does seem to be a danger of the event becoming a victim of that very success and no longer having anything to distinguish itself from its slightly younger and ostensibly atheoretical brother (RAC was founded three years after TRAC).*

I’ve never attended RAC but browsing through the programme of last year’s event online there seem to be quite a few papers that must have been pretty much as theoretical as those I attended at this year’s TRAC. I have been invited to contribute to a panel at RAC next year when it will be in Rome, which I am of course looking forward to already. I’ve heard that TRAC will be held together in the same venue – they’ve organised the two events in tandem before. I’m very curious how easy it’s going to be to distinguish which sessions belong to which of the two conferences. But even if the two events do merge into one in yet more weird distortions of space and time, if the quality of this year’s TRAC papers are anything to go by, I am sure it will be an enjoyable and stimulating event.

*My thanks to the official Twitter account of TRAC (@Trac_conference) for pointing out a mistake in the first version of this post. TRAC was founded first (1991) before RAC (1994). Post amended 2/4/2015 at 11:12.

A tale of two traditions – portrait statues in Rome and Greece

In the piece before last I talked about the idea of seeing ancient cities as museums, inspired by the book I was reading at the time – “Ancient Rome as a Museum” by Steven Rutledge. I announced that “next time” I’d discuss an issue that the book had made me think about which is of relevance to my own research. Then a sacred pig ran across my path (metaphorically in the form of a blog post by Mary Beard) just as the poor animal had run across the path (literally) of a group of cart pulling donkeys, leading to its commemoration by its bereaved owner on one of the more bizarre grave monuments to survive from antiquity. I ended up writing about that instead. So now to return to the issue I was planning to discuss: the possibility that both Greek and Roman culture might have  independently developed the tradition of erecting honorific statues to reward service to the state.

Rutledge’s book considers a wealth of (mainly literary) evidence for the vast array of “cultural property” (statues, paintings, weapons, tapestries, silverware etc.) on display in ancient Rome. Most of the evidence he talks about clusters in the period of the late Republic/early Empire (1st century BC/1st century AD). In and among all the artwork looted from conquered cities, much of which consisted of Greek statues, were a number of genuinely Roman monuments that had originally been set up in the city over more than half a millennium of history. Although I knew about some of these monuments already, what struck me on seeing them discussed together , was just how many supposedly early commemorative portrait statues there were in the city, and just how old these monuments were believed to be. The writers who tell us about them believed that some were set up right back at the beginning of the Republic some half a millennium ago, or even before that.

Horatius Cocles defending the Bridge  by Charles Le Brun (1642–43)
Horatius Cocles defending the Bridge by Charles Le Brun (1642–43)

Livy and Pliny the Elder, writing respectively in the late 1st century BC and mid first century AD, both mention the statue of Horatius Cocles that had been erected on the Forum to commemorate his heroic one-man defence of a bridge against an entire invading Etruscan army. The war in question – whether the battle itself took place is another matter – is now thought to have taken place around the year 509 BC. Pliny also tells us about a statue of a magistrate erected in the mid 5th century as a reward for reducing the price of grain in the city.

Among only four statues of women known to have been set up in the city in the pre-Imperial period, one was believed to have been even older than the statues of these great men. It portrayed Gaia Caecilia the virtuous wife of Tarquinius Priscus, the fifth king of the seven kings believed to have ruled Rome before the founding of the Republic. The early history of Rome is extremely hazy and Tarquinius Priscus may have been nothing more than a legend but if there was any grain of truth to his, or his wife’s, existence then they would have to have lived in the late 7th or early 6th century BC.

Now there’s nothing particularly incredible about the Romans having portrait statues at such an early date. The Greeks were setting up statues of men and women in archaic times and began sculpting lifelike portrait statues in both stone and bronze in the fifth century BC. Around the same time Rome’s immediate neighbours the Etruscans, quite likely under Greek influence, were producing (fairly) realistic human statues, mainly in terracotta, to represent the dead on their tombs and to portray the gods in their temples. The Romans may therefore have been influenced by Etruscan culture to develop their own portrait statuary around the same time. What makes the Roman statues I’ve just mentioned so intriguing is that they were apparently believed to be commemorative statues, erected by the community as rewards for exceptional service to the state.

Sarcophagus of Spouses. Painted terracotta. C. 520 BCE. Banditaccia Necropolis, Cerveteri, Italy (Source: Boundless. “Archaic Art.” Boundless Art History. Boundless, 03 Jul). 2014. Retrieved 23 Mar. 2015 from
Sarcophagus of Spouses. Painted terracotta. C. 520 BCE. Banditaccia Necropolis, Cerveteri, Italy
(Source: Boundless. “Archaic Art.” Boundless Art History. Boundless, 03 Jul). 2014. Retrieved 23 Mar. 2015 from

There is no evidence, so far as I know, for honorific public statues in Etruscan culture. The habit of erecting such monuments in Greek culture – a habit that would spread throughout the Greek world and persist into well into the period of Roman rule – according to the current scholarly consensus didn’t take off until the 4th century BC. It wasn’t until the Romans began to expand their political influence in the eastern Mediterranean in the late 3rd century BC that the well-known and profound transformation of Roman culture under Greek influence took place. The reports of these statues therefore raise the possibility that the Romans and Greeks developed their own, largely independent traditions, of erecting honorific statues. For my purposes this would raise all sorts of questions about how these two traditions then became intertwined once Greece became a part of the Roman Empire.

Of course we should be extremely sceptical as to whether the early statues attested in fairly late sources were really as old as those authors claimed. I’ve already discussed the way that in the Roman period the Greeks seem to have made up stories about having ancient tomb monuments in their cities and there’s every reason to suppose that the Romans too would have made up such stories about statuary monuments to create tangible links with legendary heroes from their distant past. Still it is hard to imagine that such statues were complete fabrications and that they had actually been set up near to the time that Livy and Pliny were writing. It is rather more likely that that they were either statues that had been standing for some time and which had become misinterpreted or that they did indeed represent the subjects that they were believed to but that they had been set up posthumously, perhaps centuries after their deaths and not during their lifetimes.

The so-called "Capitoline Brutus"
The so-called “Capitoline Brutus”

There is a rather famous bronze portrait bust found in Rome and known as the Capitoline Brutus, because it was once believed to portray the late 6th century founder of the Republic. There are actually no grounds whatsoever to think that the bust does represent Brutus. In any case it seems to date stylistically to the 4th century BC at the earliest and more likely to the 3rd. It therefore clearly cannot have been a contemporary portrait of the man. Whether it was intended to represent an historical figure like Brutus or somebody from the period in which it was made the statue at least shows that the Romans were erecting lifelike portrait statues around the time when portrait statues were really taking off in the Greek world.

Perhaps the statues of Horatius Cocles and Gaia Caecilia were also monuments of the 4th or 3rd centuries. Maybe the Romans of that time had erected them in a similar spirit of antiquarianism to that in which the Victorians erected the statue of Richard the Lionheart that still stands outside the Palace of Westminister. By the late Republic/early Empire the circumstances in which such statues were set up could easily have become forgotten so that people mistakenly thought they were much older.59935465

All in all I would say it looks likely that the supposedly ancient statues at Rome, like those mentioned by Livy and Pliny were already at least a few hundred years old by the time they were writing. Even if these monuments had been set up as late as the 3rd century BC that would still make them old enough to have been set up without much direct influence by contemporary developments in the Greek world.

Whether the Romans really did develop the custom of setting up honorific statues in parallel to the Greeks, rather than in direct emulation of them, however, what is perhaps most interesting about the reports of these statues is that this seems to be what the Romans themselves (and presumably the Greeks) believed had happened. While Roman literature from the late Republic and early Empire demonstrates a keen awareness of many areas in which interactions with the Greeks had influenced (or corrupted as many of the sources would have it) Roman culture, the Romans apparently thought that they had been setting up honorific monuments since their earliest history and for at least as long as the Greeks, if not longer.

The existence of these two traditions of erecting honorific monuments raises some very important questions for my own research into the public monuments of Greece in the Roman period. In the centuries I am looking at Greek cities set up statues not only for their leading citizens but also for powerful Romans. Romans from Italy moved to Greece and were among the people who would have seen these monuments. At the same time the Greeks, and especially local elites themselves fell increasingly under Roman influence, were made Roman citizens and can be thought of as “becoming Roman”. Against this background it is worth thinking about the various intentions of different groups and individuals in erecting such monuments and the response of different kinds of viewers to seeing them.

Would a citizen of Rome given a statue in Athens see the honour as carrying connotations of heroic valour as exemplified by Horatius Cocles’ statue? Or would he be more sensitive to local traditions of honorific portraits where statues were, in contrast to Rome, more often awarded to politicians, orators or philosophers than to conquering generals?

When a Greek community honoured an emperor with a statue was the implication that he was being equated the semi-divine heroes whose statues had adorned Greek public spaces since time immemorial yet who had no direct equivalent at Rome? Or would they have been aware of Roman statuary traditions and have been aiming to flatter the emperor that he shared something of the Republican virtues of the first consul Brutus?

And would the wife of a Roman governor honoured with a statue at a small town in Greece know or care that the tradition of erecting statues for women had a much longer history in that part of the world than it did at Rome but that women there typically received statues to honour their role as representatives of their family rather than to exalt them for their own perceived virtues?

It is a particularly thorny problem to try to disentangle the strands of cultural interplay that took place when the Romans, themselves profoundly influenced by Greek culture, conquered Greece and began to coerce and entice the Greeks into their own way of life. I am hopeful that by looking at the types of monuments that were erected in different types of public setting, by considering their intended audience and how the drew on other monuments in the same setting for meaning, it is going to be possible to offer answers to at least some of these questions.

On the death of the friendly pig. A tale of tragedy and disappointment, both ancient and modern

Like, I suspect, most people interested in the ancient world I’m a keen reader of Mary Beard’s blog “It’s a Don’s Life”. This week my imagination was captured by a puzzle she posed her readers – the interpretation of a grave stele from Roman Macedonia which seems to commemorate the death of a beloved pig. The stone was inscribed with a verse inscription extoling the pig’s friendly character, describing his travels and ending with his tragic demise in a road-traffic accident, crushed “by the force of a wheel”. The scene of the animal’s death is vividly depicted in a carved relief at the top of the stone, which shows him being trampled by some donkeys drawing a cart. What exactly was this monument Mary Beard asked? Was it real or some kind of spoof, perhaps the grave of a man who’s name for some reason was “pig” or sounded like pig, or a literary exercise given permanent form in stone?

My first instinct was to take the monument seriously as a real grave monument to a pig. If it was just a joke then it must have been a rather expensive one, as Mary Beard herself remarked. The first association that came to my mind was with Eleusis, the site of an extremely important ancient Athenian cult based on the myth of Demeter and Persephone, or Kore (the maiden). Persephone had, of course, been taken by Hades to the underworld to be his wife and her distraught mother Demeter searched the earth for her. As goddess of agriculture Demeter’s grief stopped the plants from growing and caused misery for mankind. Eleusis was the place where, during her wanderings, she was believed to have taught mankind the secrets of agriculture. Demeter eventually found her daughter and made a compromise with Zeus, the king of the gods, that she be allowed to return to the earth for so many months of the year spending the rest of her time with her new husband in the world of the dead. For nearly a millennium at Eleusis, at a big annual festival, people would come from all over the Greek speaking world to be initiated into a cult of Demeter and Persephone in the hope that Persephone would intercede with Hades on their behalf to secure them a better life after death than the miserable shadowy existence that awaited non-initiates.

Marble statue of a pig found at Eleusis
Marble statue of a pig found at Eleusis

But what has all this got to do with pigs? Well, we don’t know a lot about what went on at Eleusis. The cult was a “mystery cult”, so-called because initiates were supposed to keep their experience of initiation a secret. But from a few scraps of information in the ancient sources, and in some later polemical Christian writers who were naturally very hostile to the cult, one of the things we do know is that initiates had to spend a period of some months rearing a sacred piglet. If I remember rightly what I’ve read about this they then had to take a bath with the pig in the sea at some point before taking it along to their initiation where they presumably sacrificed it. A marble statue of a pig has even been found at Eleusis which was most likely a votive offering left behind by someone who’d gone through the rites.

The grave monument from Macedonia seemed to me to suggest a parallel to the Eleusinian mysteries. The inscription speaks of the pig’s travels through various places in Macedonia and ends by saying “I have now lost the light longing to see Emathia and the Phallic Chariot. Here now I lie, owing nothing to death anymore”. Another thing we know about the rites at Eleusis is that they culminated in a moment in which certain sacred objects were shown to the initiates. Although we don’t know what these objects were, one theory is that they might have included a phallus, as a potent symbol of fertility. The epitaph sounds to me as though the pig, and his owner, were also heading for some cult place where they too hoped to experience a moment of revelation. I know rather little about the cults of Macedonia and from a brief online search I wasn’t able to find anything about a mystery cult at Emathia but it is quite conceivable that there was one. If the owner had had to spend some time looking after his pig, like the initiates at Eleusis, that would explain why he had become attached to it. For the animal then to be killed in an accident before the initiation could take place would have been tragedy enough to explain the setting up of the monument.

So, what did I do with these ideas? Well that’s where the modern tragedy and disappointment begins. I compressed them down into the 280 characters allowed by two messages on Twitter and with a degree of trepidation tweeted them to Mary Beard. Would she retweet my idea or mention it the comments section of her blog? I sat back and waited but no response came. I have never met Mary Beard and I know from things that she’s written about Twitter that she gets inundated with tweets so most probably she hadn’t even seen my message. Or, I wondered, perhaps she had seen it but just thought that the idea was plain daft. I thought about posting it again as a comment on her blog page but that seemed a little pushy. I had other things to do so I let it go and forgot about it.

Until, that is, yesterday evening when I looked at my Twitter feed and saw the following message by the Humanities Division of Oxford University:

“Via ‪@wmarybeard: The real experts have given a view on that pig’s epitaph ‪ including ‪@oxfordclassics Peter Thonemann”

I’m an admirer of Peter Thonemann’s work and I’ve met him – just a few times – since I’ve been in Oxford. He’s read some of my work and given me some useful feedback. I was sure that he’d have something sensible to say on the subject of the pig’s monument so I clicked on the link. I was, I confess, also sneakily hoping that that “including” meant that others were also going to get an honorable mention and that my idea about the mystery cult might have got through after all. Imagine how I felt when I read the following correspondence from Dr Thonemann posted by Mary Beard:

“It’s a perfectly bona fide pig, killed in the course of an Edessan festival, probably to Demeter. The pig’s owner had come a long way (along the via Egnatia, nicely described in the epigram) as a pilgrim to the festival. The pig was run over by a four-horse chariot carrying a monumental phallus (depicted on the stele) during the main festival procession. This numinous death gave the pig’s owner the spooks, and prompted the surprisingly lavish high-quality stele for the unfortunate porker. The pig’s owner had probably been intending to sacrifice this very pig later on in the course of the very same festival.
Just think – if you’d brought a pig a hundred miles to sacrifice it at a festival, only to find that the goddess preferred to see it crushed under the wheels of a chariot carrying an enormous willy, wouldn’t you set up a stele to commemorate it?”

Apart from the fact that he thinks the pig’s accident occurred during the festival and my reading was that the poor animal never made it that far the interpretation is near enough exactly the same as my own!

Now I don’t think for one second that Peter Thonemann has stolen my idea. It often happens in the world of science that two researchers arrive at the same eureka moment independently. Just as Newton and Leibniz were both working on the invention of calculus at the same time without knowing it and Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace simultaneously formulated their independent theories of evolution by natural selection so too, it seems, with the solution to the Mystery of the Macedonian Pig Monument.

I must admit I draw some satisfaction from knowing that my idea was a sound one – sound enough for Peter Thonemann to also come up with it, and Mary Beard to accept it. Still, I can’t help feeling just a little a bit like Elisha Gray must have when he arrived at the patent office to register his new invention of the telephone only to discover that Alexander Graham Bell had got there slightly earlier on the very same day.

I’m sure there’s a lesson to be learned from all of this. Perhaps it’s to do with how best to use social media to put your ideas across. Or maybe it’s simply that it’s always advisable to keep your sacred pig on a short leash.

On ancient cities as museums

One of the few work-related advantages of living in a small village nine miles away from Oxford is that the forty-minute bus trip each morning and evening gives me a lot of time for reading. I know that a few weeks ago I was moaning about the sheer amount of scholarship researchers in the humanities are now forced to grapple with but I wouldn’t be doing the work I do if I didn’t greatly enjoy reading about ancient history and archaeology. After spending the last few years teaching and having my reading load largely determined by what I was required to cover in lectures and seminars it’s great to have the freedom to get stuck into some good books on topics more closely connected to my research interests.

This week I’ve been engrossed in the recent publication by Steven Rutledge, “Ancient Rome as a Museum”. In the book Rutledge uses theories from modern museum studies to explore what the vast array of what he calls “cultural property” on display in ancient Rome – paintings, statues, ancient weapons, tapestries, silverware etc. – can tell us about Roman identity and structures of power within the city. A recurrent issue in the work is the way that the meaning of such artefacts was heavily dependent on setting – where they could be seen and how they were grouped together – which is a central concern of my own research into the public monuments of Roman Greece. Indeed much of Rutledge’s “cultural property” falls into the category of what I would call monuments.

Of course Rome was a very different place than the Greek poleis I’m dealing with. By the late Republic/early Empire – the period covered by my research and the period when most of Rutledge’s evidence clusters – Rome was the capital of an Empire spanning three continents and a city with probably close to a million inhabitants. While most of what we nowadays tend to call cities in ancient Greece were home to no more than a few thousand or tens of thousands of people, Rome came close to fitting our modern expectations of what a city should be like, at least in terms of scale.

In terms of the sheer amount of statuary and cultural bric-a-brac on display in its public spaces and buildings, however, Rome, like the cities of Greece would have looked rather odd to a modern viewer. A few days ago I read, in a different book, an estimate that by the 3rd Century AD there may have been as many as 500,000 statues in Rome, which would be one for every three of the million and a half inhabitants! Throughout its long history Rome had accumulated a fascinatingly diverse array of monuments and public artworks. Some had originally been erected in Rome itself but, by the time of the emperors, the vast majority of cultural treasure to be seen was comprised of artefacts taken from elsewhere, and in particular from the Greek world, whether captured as war booty or acquired through trade from conquered peoples.

From the late 3rd to the late 1st century BC as the Romans worked their way clockwise around the Mediterranean absorbing the old Hellenistic kingdoms into their expanding Empire they brought increasing amounts of Greek statuary and other artwork back to adorn the city of Rome. By the time of the first emperor, Augustus, Rome could boast sculpture and paintings by some of the most famous artists of Greece’s glorious Classical past including Pheidias (he made the statue of Zeus at Olympia, reckoned among the so-called Seven Wonders of the World), Praxiteles (famous for being the first artist to sculpt Aphrodite in the nude) and Zeuxis (a painter whose painted grapes were so realistic that birds flew down to eat them). None of the works by these great masters that adorned the city have survived but we are informed about them in literary sources such as Pliny’s Natural History, a book written in the mid 1st century AD, which has a strong claim to be the world’s first, or at least the earliest surviving, encyclopaedia.

One of the more wondrous monuments to have been lost to us, in my opinion, was a set of twenty-five statues of warriors on horseback commissioned by Alexander the Great to commemorate his comrades who had fallen at the Battle of Granicus by his favourite sculptor Lysippos. The group had originally stood in the religious sanctuary of Dion in Macedonia (incidentally a site with extremely impressive Roman period remains and well worth a visit) and was shipped back to Rome in the mid 2nd century BC by the victorious general who annexed the region as a Roman province. Possibly the weirdest monument to have stood in the city was another mounted statue, again by Lysippos, of Alexander himself, whose portrait features were remodelled to look like Julius Caesar while the front hooves of the horse were refashioned to look like human feet because that’s what Caesar’s horse was supposed to have looked like!

Ancient mounted statuette of Alexander, suggested by Rutledge as giving an impression of what the life-size statue may have looked like
Ancient mounted statuette of Alexander, suggested by Rutledge as giving an impression of what the life-size statue may have looked like

I must admit that when I first heard about Rutledge’s book I was suspicious that I wouldn’t agree with its central argument because of the word “museum” in the title and because of the way that that word has been used to describe what happened to the public spaces of Greek cities in the period of Roman rule. In researching the transformation of the Greek agora (main public square) in Hellenistic and Roman times for my PhD thesis I frequently came across scholars pronouncing that the agora at that time became more and more like a museum, by which they meant that it gradually ceased to be the vibrant public square it had been in earlier periods.

Saying that agoras became like museums implied a number of things and none of them good: firstly agoras had become so cluttered with statues and other monuments that there was little room for the exciting types of human interactions that had taken place there in the Classical period; furthermore, a lot of these monuments were in honour of local oligarchs or Roman Empires and therefore symbolised the decline of democracy and a reduced role in political life for the ordinary citizen; finally, the interest bestowed upon older monuments was a symptom of a backward looking culture sapped of its earlier vitality.

Until very recently there was very little comparative research into the Hellenistic and Roman agora at all and such conclusions were generally tacked on to the end of discussions about the Classical agora, which was glorified as the quintessential public space, where people of different backgrounds rubbed shoulders, where politics was fervently debated, where philosophical conflicts were played out and where new ideas came into existence. To say that in later periods the agora became like a museum implied that it had very little in common with the famous Classical Athenian Agora where Socrates had harangued the citizens and democracy had been born.

My thesis, which I’m now working into book form for publication, is an argument against this interpretation. It aims to show that the agora remained a dynamic public space until well into Roman times and that it is worth looking at issues such as how people interacted on the agora, at the public discourse surrounding behaviour on the agora, at public violence and the transformation of the built environment of the space itself because to do so can deepen our understanding of the nature of polis society.

The number of monuments in public spaces might have increased under the Empire but this didn’t mean that these spaces became like museums because the display of monuments was never the primary purpose of these spaces. Except for a few tourists, people didn’t go to the agora to stroll around gazing at monuments, they went there to shop, to barter, to witness public trials, to worship the gods at temples and to talk with friends. The fact that this activity was taking place surrounded by statues that numbered in their hundreds raises fascinating questions about the impact these monuments had on day-to-day life at this time. I’ve already used the analogy in an earlier post but try imagining what it would be like if your local supermarket or leisure centre were cluttered with statues and you can begin to appreciate just how different these cities were from our own.

So, it was with this prejudice against the idea of seeing ancient cities as museums that I began Rutledge’s book. It soon became apparent, however, that his use of the word “museum” implies none of the negative connotations that I’d encountered in scholarship on the agora. The book is interested in the way in which the meaning of monuments and other cultural property were transformed and reshaped to suit the interests of the present as the balance of power within the city shifted – first as competing generals and politicians struggled with each other for influence in the declining years of the Republic and then as successive Emperors sought to stamp their authority on the city and Empire. Rutledge’s museum city is very much a living place. I would have liked to have seen perhaps a little more attention for the types of things people did in the spaces where different kinds of cultural property were displayed but that wasn’t Rutledge’s main concern and the scope of the book in terms of the evidence amassed and the range of issues discussed is already impressive enough.

Rutledge’s book is a fascinating read and, as I expected, very useful for my project, both in terms of thinking about how I’m approaching my topic, and by providing a wealth of insight into the impact of artworks on the urban experience in Rome, which will help me tackle the rather thorny problem of potential Roman influence on how the Greeks dealt with their material heritage under the Empire. In my next piece I’m going to talk about an issue that I hadn’t really given much thought before but which occurred to me while reading the book – the way in which the Romans and the Greeks seem to have developed separate and quite distinct traditions of erecting honorific portrait statues and what this meant for the practice of setting up such statues once Greece became part of the Roman Empire.

What did the Greeks – and what do we – understand about economics?

One of the many, many words that the English language owes to ancient Greek is “economics”. The irony here is that the Greeks (or the Romans for that matter) had no understanding whatsoever of economics as we understand it today. The word derives from “oikos” (house) and “nomos” (law, order). In the early 4th century BC Xenophon wrote a book called the “oikonomikos” or “household manager” and that’s the closest thing we get to an actual economic treatise for the whole of antiquity. Looking up the word “economics” in the Oxford English Dictionary shows that the first attested appearances in English were in the 16th Century when it was also used to mean the “art of household management”. In a world where we’re constantly bombarded in the media with the importance of “the economy” it’s hard for us to imagine that modern economic thinking, and with it the modern use of the word, only really began in the 18th century.

An economic graph of the kind we're all so used to seeing
An economic graph of the kind we’re all so used to seeing

For the last weeks the volatile confrontation between Greece and the rest of the EU has dominated the headlines and generated endless speculation about the potential outcome. In the run up to the UK general election voters are polled constantly not only on who they will vote for but also which party they trust most to manage the economy. It seems to be much less common for voters to be asked where they rank the economy on their list of priorities and I often wonder about the extent to which such polls work to reinforce the idea that the economy (for which read: the pursuit of economic growth) matters above all else. Nonetheless there can be no escaping that the economy looms very large in the modern collective experience. To fully appreciate the strangeness and exoticness of ancient Greek and Roman culture we need to try to think away this way of looking at the world and recognize that their understanding of economics was minimal and that they may also have cared far less about economic issues than we do today.

Occasionally we do get glimpses in the written sources of governments carrying out what seem to be surprisingly modern economic policies. The 6th century Athenian lawgiver Solon is said to have banned the export from Athens of any product apart from olive oil, which seems to show a remarkable degree of government concern for stimulating trade; Perikles is supposed to have initiated his famous 5th century building project on the Acropolis of Athens – the project that included the Parthenon – partly in order to create work for people which sounds rather like the “New Deal” by which Roosevelt responded to the Great Depression. (Interestingly both these reports are found in biographies by the Roman period author Plutarch, which does raise the issue of whether economic understanding might have been slightly different then than it had been in earlier periods of Greek history).

On the other hand, however, there’s the notorious Price Edict of Diocletian, by which the late 3rd century AD Roman Emperor attempted to hold back inflation by making a list of the maximum prices people in the Empire were allowed to charge for all sorts of products. Needless to say this economic equivalent of King Cnut telling the tide to turn back was an unmitigated failure and demonstrates quite clearly how naïve thinking on economic matters could be in the ancient world even in the highest circles of imperial government.

An inscribed copy of Diocletian's Edict on Maximum Prices
One of many surviving  inscribed copies of Diocletian’s Edict on Maximum Prices

Nobody in ancient society would have recognized economics as a field of study or a force through which their world was shaped. That’s not the same thing, of course, as saying that there was no economy in the ancient world. Of course there was. People, for the most part needed to work in order to live, cities were dependent on foodstuffs, consumer products and services and the Roman Empire taxed its subjects to pay for its armies and infrastructure. The people of the ancient world were just as much bound up in an economic system as we are. The difference is that they don’t seem to have been much aware of that fact and don’t seem to have been too interested in finding out about it. The important question, and one which has steered the course of debate on this subject for nearly half a century, is the extent to which this lack of interest and awareness affected the way that the ancient economy actually worked.

Moses Finley (1912-1986) Cambridge historian and author of "The Ancient Economy" (1973)
Moses Finley (1912-1986) Cambridge historian and author of “The Ancient Economy” (1973)

I can’t think of many books in the field of ancient history that have had such a pervasive influence over a particular aspect of the subject as Moses Finley’s The Ancient Economy from 1973. In a nutshell Finley’s argument was that the way the ancient economy worked was fundamentally different to how it works since the emergence of modern capitalism. According to Finley trade in the ancient world was fairly minimal, there was little notion that capital could be invested with the prospect of increasing returns, cities functioned primarily not as producers but as consumers sucking in wealth from the countryside – and in the case of Rome from the entire Empire – like parasites, and as a result of all this there was no real economic growth.

The reason things worked so differently than they do now? Because all real wealth was concentrated, mainly in the form of land, in the hands of an elite. These elite looked down on any kind of work or business and who used their riches to indulge in conspicuous consumption, to act as benefactors to their civic communities and to buy up more land, as opposed to finding ways of intensifying the yield of the land they had. The evidence that Finley marshaled to make this case was, above all, literary – authors from Aristotle to Cicero sneering at traders and merchants and reinforcing this prejudice against economic activity. The fact that both Greek and Roman authors, who all came from the elite class, seemed to share this attitude led to a fairly static picture of the ancient economy, fundamentally unchanging from the time of Homer to the time of Constantine.

Over the last few decades most historians of the ancient economy have moved away from Finley’s model, though it’s a testament to his influence that it’s hard to find a book or article on the subject that doesn’t present its argument in opposition to his view. The general consensus now is that there was far more trade in the ancient world than Finley thought, that elite attitudes exerted less of a constraining force of economic activity and that even the elite used their wealth to engage in trade more often than the literary source suggest. Archaeological evidence for the movement of products around the ancient world has played a big role in moving away from Finley’s standpoint. In the new view the ancient economy might not have operated quite like ours but it was a lot more like it than Finley thought.

Amphora from a Roman ship wreck - archaeological evidence for investigating the ancient economy
Amphora from a Roman ship wreck – archaeological evidence for investigating the ancient economy

Now, I am certainly not an economic historian and I find myself largely convinced by the arguments of those who know far more about the subject than I do that ancient economy was less primitive and more modern than Finley believed. Still, I have to confess that I do find myself attracted to the key assumption that underlay Finley’s vision – the assumption that culture has the power to override economic forces.

It’s not the only historical argument to take that point of departure. The argument of Max Weber, the great German sociologist, that the it was the “protestant work ethic” that led to modern capitalism is famous and it’s probably no coincidence that Finley was greatly influenced by Weber and discusses him extensively in his own work. Weber’s vision too has come into criticism in recent decades – if Protestantism is needed to explain capitalism, how can we account for all those rich and successful Roman Catholic bankers of the Italian Renaissance? While it’s now clear that interpretations like Finley’s and Weber’s are far too simplistic I can’t help finding the alternative – the view that our destinies are driven purely by economics, and that culture and politics are just by-products of market forces – more than a little bit depressing.

We’re constantly having the message drilled into us that there’s little we can do to resist economic pressures – whether we’re talking about the extent to which governments pay heed to the demands of big business or the intrusion of commerce into higher education, which has resulted in one university that I know reducing the amount of study space in its central library to make way for an enlarged coffee bar (why would students go to the library if you don’t give them something fun to do there?).

Without passing judgment on policies of governments or universities it seems to me that it’s rather pessimistic to assume that we don’t have a choice when it comes to such issues because of the irresistible power of economic progress. I also wonder if economic historians in prioritzing the importance of the economy over culture and politics in looking at past societies aren’t also, probably not intentionally, doing their bit to reinforce the idea that people and communities are little more than tiny cogs in a machine over which they have no control. By telling us that things have always been this way they offer little hope that things might not have to be this way in the future.

That is probably why I’m not an economic historian. I’d rather think of myself as a citizen than a consumer and I’d rather think about the ways in which people’s lives were shaped through politics and culture than to examine how ancient society functioned as an economic system. I must stress that I’m not knocking the work of my colleagues who are economic historians. The questions they are asking are extremely important for helping us understand the past better. It’s just that by its very nature the approach they take and the methods they use – looking at the ancient world from the vantage point of modern economic understanding and using statistical analysis of data and the creation of models – doesn’t really concern itself with how people experienced life in the ancient world. Of course, economic concerns such as work, food, buying and selling were a fundamental part of day-to-day life in antiquity as they are today. But religion, politics, sport, and human interaction were the things that gave life meaning and that is what fascinates me.

I’m not so much interested in the Greeks and Romans were just like us as in the ways that they were very different. I’m fascinated by the public monuments of the cities of Roman Greece largely because I find it such a strange idea to imagine a city in which the hustle and bustle of daily life took place surrounded by statues, ancient and new, of men and gods, all competing for attention. Thinking about just how different life in ancient city was from life in a modern city illustrates the diversity of the human condition and can, I believe help us, to question the things about our own lives that we take for granted.

I’m not saying I would want to change place with a Roman farmer, soldier or even senator but realizing that their lives were very different from ours can help put our own way of life into perspective. It should also cause us to ask questions whenever anybody tells us that anything about our way of life – our political system, our moral values, the economy – has to be the way it is and is beyond our power to change.

Thinking about how little the ancient Greeks or Romans knew about the Roman economy does, however, also cause me to wonder whether most of us, if we are honest, really know as much more than they did as we like to think. It’s a cliché to say that economics is not an exact science but like most clichés it contains a great deal of truth. Leading economists do often take radically different views on issues of major importance. That doesn’t mean that they don’t know what they are doing, it is just an incredibly complex subject that even those who’ve devoted their lives to studying it only partially understand. So what hope is there for the rest of us?

How many of us really understands what happens when sums of billions of pounds are transferred between countries, why inflation is bad but so is deflation, what the knock-on effects for the rest of the world would be if Greece did default on its debts and leave the Euro, or what banking terms like junk bonds, collateralized debt obligations, deleveraging or naked short-selling mean. I took A-level economics and passed with an A grade (admittedly some time ago) and I’m happy to hold my hands up and say that I’m baffled by most of these issues. And on that note I’d like to finish with a proposal.

In view of the importance given to the economy in our society – the attention paid to economic issues in the news and the extent to which economic policies determine our political decisions – isn’t it an absolutely crazy situation that most of us know so little about the subject? My suggestion, therefore, is that economics should become a compulsory school subject. I haven’t gone so far as deciding for how long or at what level but even a couple of years of basic economic theory would be enormously beneficial. Then when the next generation cross their ballot papers at a general election their decisions about which party’s economic policy is best, and indeed the weight which they give to economic policies over other concerns, would at least be based on slightly better informed opinions than they are now.

Too much scholarship?

Like most people working in Ancient History, Classics or Classical Archaeology I subscribe to a free internet journal that publishes reviews of academic books to do with Greek and Roman culture, the BMCR (Bryn Mawr Classical Review). The journal sends regular emails with reviews and once a month a list of the new books received from publishers and available for review. The list is always a sobering reminder of just how much research is currently being carried out in the field and of the sheer impossibility of staying up to date with it all. This month there were 102 new titles on the list. (I counted them for the purpose of writing this blog – I don’t usually, don’t worry). If we take this number to be fairly typical, which it is, that means there are well over a thousand new books in the field each year. If you bear in mind that in addition to these monographs, conference proceedings and other collections of articles there are countless academic journals dedicated to Classical studies it is probably no exaggeration to say that there is more scholarship published in a single year than anyone could read and digest properly in a whole academic career.

Now of course, this situation is in many ways a good thing. It shows that interest in the ancient world is booming and much of this research is exciting and cutting edge and is leading to new and important insights into Greek and Roman culture and society. It also shows that large numbers of people are managing to have successful careers carrying out research into the ancient world. There also isn’t, of course, any need to read absolutely everything. The books on offer this month range from Roman wall painting to the reception of antiquity in 15th century Bohemia, from religion at the time of the Peloponnesian War to Roman girlhood. It’s enough to read those works that in some way or other directly connect to one’s own research interests. And reviews are, of course, a good way of staying abreast of recent trends and deciding which books might be worth at least a browse, which is the whole point of journals like the BMCR. Still, the sheer wealth of scholarship out there can seem overwhelming – particularly, when you realize that it has been growing exponentially for the last few decades – and I can’t help wondering if this explosion of scholarship on the ancient world for all its plus-points doesn’t also have a downside.

Borges' "Library of Babel" as visualised by Erik Desmazieres
Borges’ “Library of Babel” as visualised by Erik Desmazieres

As the forest of modern scholarship becomes increasingly overgrown is there not a chance of our becoming lost in it and losing sight of what we originally went there for? To extend the metaphor, there are certainly days now when writing about my research can feel like hacking away at thick undergrowth with a blunt machete. Days when every ancient source I want to cite, every monument I want to discuss, turns out to have been considered in some connection by somebody who’s trod that path before. Days when my life in academia feels like being lost in Jorge Louis Borges’ Library of Babel, an infinite series of rooms extending forever in ever direction and filled with books containing every possible combination of words and letters that ever have been or ever could be written.

Don’t get me wrong, reading past scholarship is rarely a chore. Some articles can be heavy going but for the most part I greatly enjoy reading about the ancient world. Otherwise I wouldn’t be doing this work. I daily discover wonderful new articles that display impressive depths of erudition and insight and which teach me something new. There is, however, a part of me that curses inwardly when I discover yet another article on Kimon’s repatriation of the bones of Theseus from Skyros that I really have to read so that I can refer to it in footnote 37 of the paper I’m working on or a discussion of the theme of drunkenness in Plutarch’s lives which I know will have bearing on my interpretation of a particular passage in his biography of Alexander. And now that the vast majority of academic journals and large numbers of books have been digitized and are fully searchable online there is absolutely no excuse for missing any potentially relevant references. But lest this seem like nothing more than laziness on my part there are I believe serious drawbacks to having to deal with so much secondary literature.

In the first place, all this scholarship clamours for our attention and takes up time that might otherwise be spent engaging directly with our primary sources, be they surviving literary works from the ancient world, inscriptions or archaeological remains. Of course, Classical scholars, still have to be deeply familiar with this primary evidence but the fact that we now have to read so much about what other people have thought about it can get in the way of approaching it with an open mind and arriving at new ways of seeing things. “Knowing” too much about a given subject can be constricting. Furthermore, time spent reading what someone else has written about Pausanias’ description of Argos or about the Philopappos Monument at Athens is time that could otherwise have been spent re-reading Pausanias or looking at the monument itself.

Secondly, the sheer volume of past scholarship, means that it is becoming increasingly difficult within the confines of an academic article or book chapter to really do justice to what has already been written on a particular subject. I constantly find myself struggling to find a good balance in how much attention I give to previous publications – ranging from a mere mention to detailed and critical discussion. Of course, too much attention to the work of others can lead to one’s own work becoming rather unwieldy, full of meanderings down side paths instead of driving forward with a clear and concise argument. On the other hand there’s something particularly unsatisfying about including superficial references to past scholarship, which do little to actually add to one’s own argument. I can’t help feeling just a slight twinge of annoyance when I see some obligatory reference to a key monograph in the footnote of someone else which, regardless of whether they have actually read the work or not, could have been made purely having read the blurb on the back of the book. But, here I’ll hold my hands up and admit I’m as guilty of including such references as the next person. The expectations of scholarship are such that it’s surely impossible not to.

A particular pet hate of mine – and something that I do at least try my best to avoid doing myself – is when I find scholars ascribing far more certainty to the arguments of their predecessors than is actually warranted in order to bolster up their own arguments. Often I see sentences like “As X has demonstrated….” or footnotes of the “See X” type to support pretty sweeping claims. If you happen to be familiar with said article by X, or actually bother to consult it, then you often find that X’s actual arguments were presented rather cautiously or were perhaps made merely as suggestions and, as such, don’t quite do what the person citing them has implied that they do.

Here I’m reminded in particular of an excellent short article by Benjamin Millis in the journal Hesperia in which he considers the actual evidence for the so-called “miserable huts” which had supposedly been discovered at Corinth and which were taken to be have been places where impoverished Corinthians lived following the city’s destruction by the Romans in 146 BC.* Through quite shrewd detective work Millis demonstrates (and here I do mean demonstrates) that even though these “miserable huts” had been referred to repeatedly in modern scholarship there is actually no concrete evidence for their existence whatsoever. They had been mentioned once decades ago in an unpublished lecture by a Corinthian scholar, had crept into some publication or other, which then became cited by multiple scholars who also in turn all cited each other. What seemed to be a solid edifice of proof thus, on closer inspection, vanished like a puff of smoke. This is an extreme example but one that well illustrates how if we aren’t careful “facts” about the ancient world can easily creep into modern scholarship, take root through constant repetition and require considerable energy and time to be weeded out. Perhaps I’m just a naturally suspicious person but this means that I tend to spend a lot of time chasing up references in other people’s footnotes so that each article I read leads to a handful of others that I feel I have to read ad infinitum – or at least that’s how it sometimes feels.

Having got all of this off my chest I must now come clean and concede that for all these frustrations I’m all too aware that I could not have actually have carried out my current research if I’d been working fifty years ago. It is true what they say about standing on the shoulders of giants and my own research, of course, my work builds upon what has been done before. I couldn’t have carried out my research in to the public monuments of Roman Greece if I’d lived at a time when historians assumed, as they largely did in the early twentieth century, that our best way of understanding the ancient world was through literary sources and that archaeology was merely a way of filling in background detail and providing illustrations for text books. I wouldn’t have been researching Roman Greece at all if my recent predecessors hadn’t realized and demonstrated how exciting and vibrant Greek culture continued to be even after the country had been conquered by a foreign empire. I do however wonder where the scholarship of the ancient world is headed and whether it can continue to grow exponentially into the foreseeable future. Can we really go on producing over a thousand new books on the ancient world for hundreds of years to come? And if we do, can that really continue to advance our understanding of the ancient world indefinitely? Or will we reach a limit at which all we’re doing is rehashing old ideas and thrashing out debates about points of increasingly miniscule detail with colleagues past and present? Perhaps above all I wonder if at some point late in this century, some young scholar will be cursing as her plans to meet some self-imposed writing deadline are thwarted by the discovery of some hitherto overlooked article by a certain C.P. Dickenson that she now has to trawl through. I certainly do hope so.   * Millis, B.W. 2006. ““Miserable Huts” in Post-146 B.C. Corinth.” Hesperia 75 (3):397-404.

Buried in the heart of the city – tombs, benefactors and heroes in Roman Greece

One of the most impressive Roman period monuments still to be seen in modern day Athens is the so-called Philopappos monument. This two-storey structure of Pentelic marble – the same local stone that was used to build the Parthenon – was constructed in the early 2nd century AD as a tomb for an eastern prince who had made his home in the city. Gaius Julius Antiochos Epiphanes Philopappos, to give him his full name, is the last known descendent of a dynasty that had ruled the small Hellenistic kingdom of Commagene in what is now southeast Turkey, before it was absorbed into the Roman Empire in the early 1st century AD.

The Philopappos Monument - Athens
The Philopappos Monument – Athens

Philoppappos was a member of the upper strata of the Empire’s elite – he rubbed shoulders with the emperors Trajan and Hadrian and even served as consul at Rome. After he settled in Athens he occupied important local magistracies and served as a benefactor to the city. He was also an acquaintance of the great biographer Plutarch, who addressed one of his moralising essays to him. When he died he was granted the honour of a grand public burial on the so-called Mouseion Hill within the city walls, a prominent spot that can be seen from the Acropolis and much of the surrounding area. Today the hill is better known as Philopappou after the man and his monument.

The monument itself, though only partially preserved, is of great interest because enough of the sculptural decoration survives to be able to think about how Philoppappos – or whoever was responsible for the tomb’s design – mixed different elements to project an identity that was at once Greek and Roman, kingly and civic. Perhaps I’ll talk more about the monument itself in a later piece. Here, however, I want to think about this monument as part of a broader phenomenon. There’s quite some evidence that Philopappos was not the only member of the super-elite of the Greeks-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire to be granted a public tomb at this time.

Anybody who has visited Ephesos in Turkey, or simply seen photos of the site, will be familiar with the now iconic Library of Celsus. Paid for by a Roman Senator of the same generation of Philopappos, the library also served as Celsus’ tomb. Other public burials from around the same time are also attested at Ephesos, which was the capital of the Roman province of Asia (roughly the western part of modern day Turkey) and at several other cities in Asia Minor including Miletos, Aphrodisias and Sagalassos.

The Library of Celsus at Ephesos
The Library of Celsus at Ephesos

In Achaia, the province on which my research focuses (roughly equivalent to southern and central modern day Greece) there is evidence for members of the elite being buried in public spaces at the cities of Messene, Argos, Eretria, Mantinea and Athens. In Athens in addition to the tomb of Philopappos, one of the richest and most prolific of all benefactors, Herodes Atticus, was buried in the stadium that he had bestowed upon the city – the stadium was rebuilt to host the first modern Olympics in 1896 and can still be seen at Athens. His other benefactions included a fountain-house at Olympia, an odeion (small theatre) at Corinth, a major renovation of the stadium at Delphi and the odeion at Athens, which still stands in the city and is used for performances in the annual Athens Festival. Herodes is a fascinating character and I’m sure that I’ll have reason enough to return to him in this blog. Although the stadium where he was interred lay some distance outside the centre of Roman Athens, it was nonetheless a very prominent public space. We also know from a literary source that his daughter was actually buried somewhere in the city centre.

In Greek culture it had always been highly unusual for individuals to be buried in the city centre. There doesn’t usually seem to have been any explicit legal prohibition of intra-urban burial as there was at Rome but for reasons of religion – and no doubt public health as well – the dead were usually buried in cemetery areas just outside the city walls. Exceptions had been made in Archaic through to Hellenistic times for particularly powerful individuals – city founders in new colonies or great generals – but before the Greek world became part of the Roman Empire such intra-urban burials were extremely rare – so rare that the handful of examples I’ve just mentioned as being clustered in the first and second centuries AD represent a marked increase in the practice.

In my last few posts I’ve talked about the ways in which Greek cities in Roman times began to invent tomb monuments, which they claimed belonged to illustrious figures from the historical or – what we would call – the mythological past. Claiming possession of the physical remains of such heroes was a way for cities to compete with one another for prestige and status and for recognition from emperors, such as Hadrian, for whom Classical Greek culture held a deep fascination. I’m exploring this phenomenon in the first part of an article I’m working on. In the second part of the article – which I’ve so far written far less of and hope to finish this week – I am going to consider how these two phenomena – “invented” ancient burials and new burials for the super-elite – might be connected.

There are inscriptions from cities in Asia Minor from this period that describe burial in a public space as the greatest honour that a polis (city) was able to bestow upon its benefactors. In these texts the individuals offered such graves – or their relatives if they were already dead – tended to accept the reward only under protest, presumably because it could be dangerous to seem to have too much status or influence, living under a political system ruled over by an all powerful emperor. But accept they did.

A public tomb was at once both a forceful statement about the wealth, power and status of the deceased and an expression of gratitude on the part of the city for whatever acts of munificence the individual had bestowed upon the community. Public graves were ostentatious and designed to be conspicuous amid the hustle and bustle of daily life. They stood in much frequented civic spaces such as agoras, gymnasia or stadiums. They represent the logical extension of an intricate system of lesser honours which the polis had for centuries – at least since the early Hellenistic period – been bestowing on its wealthy citizens in return for benefactions. Rich elites gave food, festivals and political service and in return received titles, front row seats at festivals, bronze statues. This exchange of gifts and honours was the glue that held the society of these cities together.

The fact that under the Empire Greek cities now began burying their most important benefactors in public tombs in their city centres is a striking phenomenon, which in itself deserves more attention than it has been given in scholarship up to now. One of the things that particularly fascinates me, however, is that this practice was on the increase at precisely the same time that cities seem to have been inventing “ancient” heroic tomb monuments. I don’t believe that can be coincidence.

Last time I discussed the case of Argos, which reading between the lines of Pausanias’ 2nd century AD description, seems to have invented more ancient tomb monuments than any other polis, probably as a way of overcompensating for its relative political insignificance. No archaeological remains of any of the 29 attested grave monuments have been found. Excavations at Argos have, however, discovered three different contemporary Roman period burials – two in the bathhouse and one on the agora, the very area where many of the heroic burials were apparently clustered.

We don’t know much about what the agora tomb itself looked like because not much of the superstructure has been discovered but a human skeleton* was found together with some glass containers, some 120 sheets of gold leaf and a coin in the jaws. If the prominent public location weren’t enough the gold confirms that this was an elite individual. The monument was dated to the mid 2nd Century, so around the time of Pausanias’ visit. So this individual had been laid to rest in the very area where the Titan Prometheus, the hero Danaos and the head of Medusa the Gorgon were believed to be buried. Did any of these mythological connotations rub off on this new tomb?

My project is all about thinking about the way that spatial context contributed to the meaning and perception of public monuments in the Roman period Greek city. If we recognise that these new elite burials were being constructed in the very spaces where great heroes of the distant past were believed to be buried then it looks rather likely that the two types of monuments would have drawn upon each other for meaning. The implication is surely that, by being buried among their most illustrious ancestors the super-benefactors who received this honour were, in some sense thought of in some sense as the equals of these illustrious figures.

Honorific inscriptions in Roman times sometimes do talk of benefactors in heroic terms. Modern scholars have tended to dismiss this as inflated rhetoric and to deny the possibility that these men and women were really thought of as in some way heroic – heroes in Greek thought were semi-divine figures and typically the focus of religious cult. While even the grandest of Roman benefactors probably weren’t thought of as possessing godlike powers I see no reason to doubt that they were at least thought of as closer in nature to the heroes of the past than their fellow mortals.

Elsewhere in Greece there is evidence for certain members of the elite trying to forge specific connections with older tombs believed to belong to their own ancestors. Plutarch, for instance, in his life of Aratos (a great general of the 3rd Century BC) emphasises the prominence of his tomb at Sikyon and the festival that still took place there. The fact that he also dedicates that work to a local family who claimed descent from Sikyon surely hints at the way that these members of the local elite drew prestige from the monument.

Even more striking is the example of the tomb of a man called Podares on the agora of the city of Mantinea. Pausanias describes how this tomb had originally been built for a local general who had died defending the city in the 4th century BC but had been taken over in recent times by one of his descendants who had achieved the Roman citizenship – a sure mark of elite statues in Roman Greece. Remarkably, the late 19th century excavations actually discovered this tomb, identified by roof-tiles marked with an abbreviated form of Podares’ name. Inside they found three tombs. The bodies were missing, probably decayed but the grave goods included writing implements, signs of an educated elite lifestyle, and a gold-leaf crown of the sort cities often bestowed upon benefactors.

The theatre at Mantinea
The theatre at Mantinea

This Podares then, and his family, otherwise unknown to us, were clearly important people in Roman Mantinea. Their family tomb monument at the heart of the community advertised their status and did so by explicitly making a connection to the distant historical past. Because the excavations were carried out so long ago there the reports are less complete than we might like but at least one recent scholar has remarked that there is actually little in those reports to confirm that this really was a late Classical monument.** In other words, there is a possibility that Podares’ claim to a distinguished family history and the antiquity of his tomb might have been nothing more than a useful piece of fiction.

There is fairly widespread evidence for members of the Roman period Greek elite claiming descent from famous individuals of the distant past such as Miltiades (the hero of the Battle of Marathon), Perikles (the leading Athenian statesman of the 5th Century BC) and Polybius (the great 2nd C BC historian). I wonder whether members of local elites wishing to advertise particular family connections might not have been a driving influence behind the invention of many of the supposedly ancient tomb monuments in Roman Greece. At the very least, it would have suited the elite class who might hope to see themselves rewarded a public burial to cultivate stories about ancient heroes having tombs within the public spaces of their cities.

To come full circle and to finish with the tomb with which we began it is worth considering what Pausanias has to say about the tomb of Philoppappos at Athens:

“This is a hill right opposite the Acropolis within the old city boundaries, where legend says Musaios used to sing, and, dying of old age, was buried. Afterwards a monument also was erected here to a Syrian.” (Pausanias 1.25.8)

The very fact that Pausanias mentions the two burials in one breath hints at the ways that physical relationships between monuments new and old were important to defining their meaning for the Roman period Greeks. Musaios was a mythical local poet – his name itself is derived from Muse, the name for the Greek female personifications of the arts with whom he was believed to have associated. The 2nd Century AD was a time when advertising their possession of Greek culture, or paideia –including knowledge of history, mythology and rhetoric – became increasingly important for elite self-representation. Could there have been a more appropriate hero for a sophisticated member of the imperial super-elite-  particularly one who came from the fringes of the Greek world, as Pausanias’ (perhaps somewhat condescending and geographically wrong) reference to a “Syrian” reminds us – to wish to associate himself with?

It cannot have been a coincidence that Philopappos, or his family, chose the very spot where Musaios was believed to have been buried to set up his tomb. It is not hard to imagine that they might even have breathed new life into this old myth in order to advertise the significance of the new monument. Surely the point that was being made is that Philopappos was, in some sense, to be thought of as a new Musaios – a man who surpassed his fellow citizens in greatness and who was, if not exactly a hero, at least closer to the heroes than most mere mortals were. And that I believe was the point of most of the new public tomb monuments of Roman Greece, something that can only be fully appreciated by thinking about these monuments, as the Greeks would have experienced them, in their spatial context together with the tombs of supposedly ancient heroes.

* The reports of the excavation in the late 1970s, frustratingly say nothing about how much of the skeleton survived or whether it was thought to be male or female but merely mention that the coin was found in the mouth.

** Nino Luraghi (2008b). “Meeting Messenians in Pausanias’ Greece” in Le Péloponnèse D’Épaminondas À Hadrien – Colloque de Tours 6-7 Octobre 2005. C Grandjean, (ed). De Boccard Paris. 191-202.

Roman Argos – heroic tombs and an identity crisis

“The Greeks who dispute most the Athenian claim to antiquity and the gifts they say they have received from the gods are the Argives” (Pausanias 1.14.2 – mid 2nd Century AD)

Reconstruction Model of the Agora of Argos (2nd C AD) - Argos Museum
Reconstruction Model of the Agora of Argos (2nd C AD) – Argos Museum

The city of Argos in Roman times is a fascinating and perplexing place. The city had been the setting for some of the most famous of all Greek myths. It was the birthplace of Perseus, the hero who beheaded the gorgon Medusa, the place from which the so-called Seven Against Thebes set out to conquer that city, the city of Agamemnon, the king who had led the Greeks against the Trojans, to bring back his brother Menelaos’ errant wife Helen. In the Archaic period – the formative centuries of Greek culture from say the 8th to the 6th centuries BC, when these myths were taking on their canonical form – Argos was indeed one of the most important poleis (cities) of Greece. By the height of the Roman Empire, however, that was all far in the past. Argos hadn’t been a major player on the political stage since the 5th Century BC, when it had been eclipsed by Athens and Sparta.

When Pausanias visited Argos in the 2nd Century AD it seems from his description that the city was undergoing something of an identity crisis. In my last two blog pieces I’ve talked about the subject that I’m exploring in an article I’m currently working on – the invention of supposedly ancient tomb monuments in cities throughout Greece in the period of Roman rule. It’s well known that the culture of Greek cities under the Empire became rather backward looking – old cults were revived, aged monuments were restored and local elites placed increasing emphasis on their (claimed) descent from great historical figures. These were all ways for cities to compete for prestige and status. With Roman emperors like Hadrian and his successors deeply enamoured of Greek culture, advertising Greekness in these ways could lead to real concrete benefits: tax concessions, the right to host important festivals, benefactions by the emperor himself. One of the key arguments I’m making in my article is that against this background the invention of ancient tomb monuments was far more widespread than has been recognized up to now. Any self-respecting Greek city of the 2nd Century AD could show visitors tomb monuments in its central public places that were supposed to belong to illustrious figures from the mythical or distant historical past. I’ve already given some of my reasons for thinking that a lot of these tombs must have been invented, not least because we know of so many instances where multiple cities made claims to be the resting place of the same hero. I also believe that the habit of making up such monuments reached its peak under the Roman Empire. At the end of my last piece I said that this time I would consider the question of how such monuments might have come to be invented and Argos is an excellent place to consider that question.

Pausanias, who provides our best evidence for the monuments that could be seen in Roman Greek cities mentions no less than 29 tombs of mythical or legendary individuals within the built up centre of Argos. Argos claimed to possess the graves of, among others, Prometheus, the titan who had stolen fire from the gods to give to mankind, Deianeira, the second wife of Herakles, Ariadne, the princess who Theseus had rescued from the Minotaur and Helenos, one of the sons of king Priam of Troy. Most of these burials were in or around the agora, the main civic square of the city. The head of the gorgon Medusa was also supposed to be buried somewhere on that square and Danaos, the founder of the city had his tomb there, which is mentioned by Strabo as well as Pausanias. The incredibly high number of heroic tombs at Argos– just over a fifth of the total for all of the cities of Greece together in fact – is already enough to cause alarms bells to start ringing that some of them might not all have been what they were purported to be. Fascinatingly Pausanias also provides direct evidence that many of the claims made of these tombs must have been made up.

At Argos, far more than for any other city he visited, Pausanias took a sceptical attitude toward the stories his guides told him. His description of Argos is peppered with phrases that hint at disbelief such as “they believe [such and such]”, “if [such and such a story] really is true” and even at one point “even the Argive guides have noticed something wrong with their story, though they still tell it”. I’ve counted no less than thirteen such references in his discussion of the city. Whenever another city made a claim to possession of the same tomb as the Argives – as was the case for the tombs of Prometheus, Deineira, Helenos and another hero called Hyrnetho – Pausanias favoured the claim of the other city. Pausanias even managed to disagree with what the Argives told him about a monument commemorating the death of the Hellenistic king Pyrrhos in the city (yes the one who gave us the phrase “pyrrhic victory” after the tremendous losses he’d accrued in winning his earlier military encounters with Rome). Pausanias couldn’t get away from the fact that Pyrrhos had been killed at Argos while attacking the city (a local woman had thrown a tile from a roof at his head) because it was too well known. He could, however, and did disagree with the Argives about where exactly in the city the great general had been cremated and then buried.

Perhaps the reason he was so suspicious of what he was told at Argos is that he had first-hand knowledge that at least some of the stories the Argives told about their monuments and history were made-up. He describes how the tomb of Ariadne had come to be identified when a temple of “Cretan Dionysos” in the city was been rebuilt and the workmen had discovered an earthenware coffin. In the most well-known version of the myth, after rescuing Ariadne from the Minotuar, the Athenian hero Theseus, in a bizarre fit of absent mindedness, had left her behind on an island where she was rescued by Dionysos and became his wife. A temple to the god of wine and extatic abandon was therefore an appropriate location for her grave. Pausanias tells us that an Argive man called Lykeas was responsible for making the identification. Now, all we know about this man, is what can be gleaned from a few mentions of him in Pausanias’ work but he was clearly a local poet, and apparently an expert on local folklore and history. There is some reason, based on the word Pausanias uses to describe him, to think that he was a guide of the sort that Pausanias himself describes speaking to elsewhere. He may therefore have still been alive when Pausanias visited the city which would mean that this grave at least had been “invented’ fairly recently.

We can imagine the scene. No doubt, some ancient skeletal remains had been discovered in trenches being dug for the reconstruction work. A crowd had probably gathered to marvel at the wonder just as people flock to archaeological sites in city centres today. A discussion must have arisen about just whose grave this was when Lykeas, that renowned local authority on Argive myth and legend, appeared and declared that this was the grave of no less a figure than Ariadne herself. A gasp of awe, a murmur of approval and a new local tradition was established. We can’t know who was actually buried at the site – it has not yet been discovered by archaeologists – but the truth is, neither could Lykeas or the Roman period Argives. In all probability it belonged to someone from a much more recent historical period than the distant bronze age/dark ages when whatever seeds of truth there are to the Greek myths had been sown. It may well have belonged to some local individual whose name had already become forgotten by Roman times. But, then as now, it was far more satisfying to identify tombs of the ancient dead as belonging to the famous and powerful, rather than to entertain the possibility that they might have to remain anonymous. We need only think of the recent excitement at the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in a Leicester car park or the desire to link the tomb recently excavated at Amphipolis with Alexander the Great.

So, I’m not claiming that the Greeks of the Roman period actually went to the trouble of building new monuments and pretending that they were ancient tombs. They didn’t need to. It was far easier to attach stories to existing monuments, whose original meaning had become lost in the mists of time.

Also at Argos Pausanias gives two examples of pairs of tombs of heroes having the same name being buried next to each other – two women called Hypermnestra and two men called Linos. Now it seems highly unlikely to me that the Argives of earlier times really would have buried people together simply because they had the same name. A rather more plausible scenario is that in the course of time people had forgotten exactly which Hypermnestra or Linos was buried at a given spot and to satisfy rival interpretations a compromise was reached in which it was decided that actually they were both buried there, with some nearby monument, conveniently old and obscure, being reinterpreted as one of the tombs. At the city of Megara Pausanias tells us about three different heroes buried beneath political buildings. We can almost hear the Roman period Megarians saying to themselves “Didn’t so-and-so, our great hero, have a tomb somewhere in our city centre?” “He must have. Our ancestors wouldn’t have deprived him of such an honour! But where…….?” “That council house is very old, I expect they buried him under that!”. On Salamis Pausanias reported a “sacred secret” that the hero Aiakos was buried underneath an altar at which he was worshipped. You have to wonder if this was such a secret why it was being told to visiting tourists. I suspect that the altar was probably a genuinely ancient monument and that at a suggestion made at some point that Aiakos was probably buried underneath had come to be accepted as fact. After all, who was going to dismantle a deeply sacred monument to find out if he really was?

There are, of course, countless parallels of stories becoming attached to places and monuments in this way throughout history. (If you have any personal favourites I would be very glad to hear them so please do post a comment below). The one that springs instantly to my mind, however, is modern day Athens where at least two separate locations have been identified as “the Prison of Sokrates”, neither of them on much more than fairly flimsy evidence and a large dose of wishful thinking.

But to return to Argos – where did all this fabrication of monuments and invention of local legends get the city? Well, although Pausanias tells us the city was deliberately competing with Athens (see the quote with which I began), we can be sure that Argos didn’t really come close to achieving the same level of status and prestige as that city. In the 2nd Century AD Athens was thought of throughout the Mediterannean as the capital of Greek culture and was an important centre of learning (philosophy and rhetoric) and artistic production. Argos, however, certainly did not miss out on the renewed economic prosperity enjoyed by much of the Empire in the mid-second century or on the favour of the Philhellene emperors.

The remains of the Roman bathhouse at Argos
The remains of the Roman bathhouse at Argos

Archaeological knowledge of the site is rather fragmentary (perhaps a subject for another blog) but there was quite a bit of construction work at the time – as there was throughout the Greek east. Many of the older buildings on the agora were spruced up, the city received a colossal bathhouse, impressive remains of which still stand, and Hadrian paid for the construction of an aqueduct to improve the city’s water supply. Pausanias might not have been too impressed with the stories the Argives told about their monuments but the ruler of the Empire was perhaps more of a soft touch when it came to their assertions of mythological greatness.

Not one of the twenty nine tombs mentioned by Pausanias has as yet been discovered at the site, unless the so-called Hypostyle Hall (a 5th C BC council-house type building on the Agora) really was the so-called Palinthos where Danaos was buried, as has been rather tentatively suggested. Intriguingly, however, excavations have revealed several tombs of members of the local-elite in the very same spaces where these heroic burials were supposed to have stood, dating to the Roman period. In my next piece – and for now my last piece on tomb monuments – I’ll consider how such new, Roman period public burials and supposedly ancient graves might have been connected and have might drawn on each other for meaning.

The resting places of giants

A name that’s cropped up quite a lot in this blog so far is Pausanias, a Greek from Asia Minor, who toured old Greece at the height of the Roman Empire (mid 2nd Century AD) and left us a description of what he saw. For my research project Pausanias is an invaluable source because he provides more details by far than any other ancient author  about the monuments that could be seen in the cities of Roman Greece. He is highly selective in what he talks about – his interests lie very much with things that were believed to be either very old, were of deep religious significance or both. This means he says next to nothing about the large numbers of Roman period statues that were erected in public spaces under the Empire and which are well-known from the surviving inscriptions and archaeology. Still, it’s fascinating to think about the ways that these new monuments must have jostled for space with the antiquities that Pausanias does describe. Exploring the interplay meaning between different types of monument – religious, political, ancient and new – is one of the main concerns of my project.

Pausanias’ work is an extensive description of the the Roman province of Achaea, which is roughly equivalent to southern and central modern day Greece and the heartland of Greek culture in the Classical period – the area where the great and famous poleis of Athens, Corinth, Sparta, Argos and Thebes could all be found. It’s clear from his work, however, that he had travelled widely beyond that country. He must have been in Rome because on two occasions he mentions how impressed he was with Trajan’s Forum. He was also clearly familiar with many of the Greek cities on the west coast of Asia Minor – the area he seems to have come from – and he makes occasional digressions to talk about them. One of his most fascinating digressions, and one that I’ve been reading again with some interest in writing my article on the tomb monuments of Roman Greece, concerns some extraordinarily large human skeletons he claimed to have seen.

Near the beginning of his work Pausanias describes the island city of Salamis, which lies to the west of Athens, just off the coast, near where the Greeks had their triumphant naval victory over the Persians in the early 5th Century. Salamis was the birthplace of the Ajax, one of the heroes of the Trojan War and this causes Pausanias to remember visiting Ajax’s tomb near Troy. (Ajax had killed himself near the end of the Trojan War in shame after a bout of insanity which had led him to try to kill his fellow Greek heroes – at least in the most well known version of the story preserved in Sophocles’ play). Pausanias tells us how the sea had washed away part of the tomb so that it was possible to enter it.

Myron's Discoboulos
Myron’s Discoboulos

He had been shown the remains by a local guide who had pointed to the skeleton’s kneecaps as an indication of how big it was. Pausanias tells us that the kneecaps were as big as the discus thrown by boys in the ancient Greek pentathlon. From surviving ancient discuses and representations of them Adrienne Mayor (on whom more presently) has estimated that these knee-caps must have been around 15cm wide! The picture of the famous ancient discoboulos (discus-thrower) statue gives an idea how big the discus thrown by adult men was. After a brief internet search I discovered that an average adult male kneecap nowadays is about 4.5 cm wide. So if Ajax was perfectly proportioned, as all Greek heroes of course were, he would have been more than three times as tall as an average man! At least, that is what Pausanias and his guide seemed to believe….

This excursus on Ajax’s grave leads Pausanias to tell us about several other remarkable heroic skeletons he knew of. On an island called Lade, off the west coast of Asia Minor oppposite the city of Miletos, he had seen the bones of a hero called Asterios, which were over 10 cubits, or 4.5m tall. He also discusses colossal human remains of a hero at a place called “the Doors of Temenos” in Asia Minor and those of a hero whose rib cage had fused together in a remarkable way, in another city in the same region. And Pausanias isn’t the only Roman period author to discuss such marvels. Philostratos, writing slightly later in the early 3rd Century AD discusses no less than seven tombs where giant skeletons could be seen, or parts of the Mediterranean where such remains were common, in his dialgoue “On Heroes”. Philostratos’ discussion also includes the tomb of Ajax, whose skeleton he says was 11 cubits, or neary 5m tall. He also tells us that the Emperor Hadrian – that lover of all things Greek – had visited the tomb and had paid for it to be rebuilt.

These remarkable accounts naturally give rise to the question what exactly were the Roman period Greeks seeing when they visited such remains? A theory that has been put forward by Adrienne Mayor in her book The First Fossil Hunters is that these were bones of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. Mayor doesn’t only discuss these heroic graves but also a wealth of evidence for people in ancient times interpreting fossils as monsters and mythical beasts. These ideas have also featured in Tom Holland’s BBC4 documentary Dinosaurs, Myths and Monsters. I must confess that so far I’ve only browsed in Mayor’s book but I do find it an extremely attractive and persuasive idea that the heroic skeletons of Pausanias and Philostratos were really the remains of extinct creatures from millions of years ago. What really fascinates me, however, is thinking about the ways that the stories invented to explain such bones might have been created.

Details in the literary accounts hint at the way that these traditions had been shaped through human agency. The story of Ajax’s kneecap, for instance, in the way that erosion had opened up the tomb, on first consideration reminds us of the way that fossils today are still uncovered by the sea on beaches. That is how a certain online encyclopaedia accounts for the story. However Pausanias’ explicitly tells us that the remains weren’t simply lying exposed to the elements but were actually inside a tomb that it was possible to enter. And the structure he saw must have been a predecessor of Hadrian’s building because Pausanias explicitly comments on it being in a dilapidated state. If the remains had originally been uncovered by the wind or sea had they perhaps been moved by the locals to a more impressive and convincing resting place?

Furthermore, even though Pausanias focuses on the kneecap he doesn’t actually say that that was all there was to see of Ajax. If this was nothing more to the skeleton than a kneecap it’s hard to see how this was enough to convince Pausanias – or anyone –that these really were the remains of a human-looking hero. If, on the other hand, there was more preserved than simply a part of the leg – or even if there was more of the leg than just the kneecap – then it is curious how the remains of a prehistoric animal could be thought to look anything like basically human in form.

For none of the examples mentioned by Pausanias or Phiostratos do we hear that the remains were either very fragmentary or didn’t look quite human. It would have surely been more natural to think that remains of dinosaurs or prehistoric beasts belonged to one of the many monsters that appear in Greek mythology – griffins, sirens, chimeras and so on – as the Greeks, indeed do often seem to have interpreted such remains. If the bones of Ajax, Asterios and the others really were animal or dinosaur fossils I wonder if they might not have been rearranged in some way to look more human for visitors. I’m reminded of the skeletons of the two “centaurs” that have  created by combining human and horse remains and which have are on display in two different American museums. The intention here isn’t to deceive, but rather to provoke a response and challenge viewers to think about how we make sense of buried remains. The artful placement of bones in antiquity could, however, have been carried out with rather less innocent motives.

"The Centaur of Volos" at The University of Tennessee-Knoxville's John C. Hodges Library
“The Centaur of Volos” at The University of Tennessee-Knoxville’s John C. Hodges Library

What we really need to understand these supposedly heroic burials properly, of course, is some archaeological evidence but sadly, so far none of these graves has been discovered. Two fossilised bones have been discovered at two different Greek sanctuaries, confirming that such remains were venerated in Greek culture. Pausanias too comments on seeing individual bones of monsters or giants in sanctuaries. Archaeologists, however, have yet to discover a prehistoric fossilised skeleton interred in an ancient Greek tomb. Personally I would find the discovery of Ajax’s Hadrianic tomb, complete with fossilised prehistoric remains, one of the most exciting discoveries imaginable in Classical archaeology.

For my the purposes of my research these stories of gigantic human remains open up all sorts of interesting questions – questions about the way that the Roman period Greeks thought about and related to the distant heroic past and about how they used monuments and physical remains to make that past relevant to the present. For a start these sources make me wonder if people reading the Homeric epics in Roman times really tended to visualise the heroes of the Trojan War – Achilles, Hector, Odysseus and the rest – as enormous giants striding across the battlefield.

It is also fascinating to think about how these sources attest to a desire on the part of the Roman period Greeks to physically touch and handle what they believed to be the remains of their ancient heroes. In Greek religious thought heroes were semi-divine beings whose super human deeds brought them closer to the world of the gods. Indeed they were often believed to have at least one god as a parent. The cults of the heroes are sometimes compared to those of the later Christian saints. Was the handling of heroic bones described by Pausanias and Philostratos done in a spirit of veneration (as in the case of saintly relics) or simply out of morbid curiosity?

Closer to my own interests are questions about the ways in which possession of such remains could be used to stake a claim to prestige and status in the world of the Empire. Last time I discussed examples of cities in Greece in the Roman period making rival claims to possessing the tombs of the same hero – a clear sign that at least one of those claims had been made up. It seems fairly clear that the stories of colossal skeletons belonging to heroes must also have been invented. Again Pausanias gives us direct evidence that cities were making competing claims to possession of heroic bones.

He proudly boasts of how he had challenged his guides at the Doors of Temenos that the bones they had shown him could not possibly be those of the giant Geryon because he knew that Geryon was buried at Gadeira (modern day Cadiz in Spain). The point of the story is to demonstrate that Pausanias was far too well travelled and educated to be taken in easily. It is, therefore all the more surprising that he goes on to say that when his guides immediately changed their story and now told him that these were actually the bones of a hero called Hyllos he was all to happy to believe them! An extra layer is added to this particular story because Philostratos also mentions the gigantic remains of Hyllos, but he places them in a completely different city. It seems from these stories that local tour guides in antiquity were, like their modern counterparts, often all to ready to tell visitors the sort of stories that they wanted to hear.

Making up stories about giant skeletons wasn’t new to the Greeks of Roman times. Some of you might know the famous story told by Herodotus in which the Spartans in the mid 6th century BC, in answer to an oracle from Delphi, brought the bones of the hero Orestes back from the land of their enemy to Tegea to their own city. Herodotus, writing a century later, tells us that the skeleton was reputedly 7 cubits (3.15m) tall and buried in a coffin, a detail which suggests that these remains (if anyone had actually really seen them) must have been fairly complete.

Still, it is striking that the vast majority of such stories are found in Roman period authors. Even the other well-known story of the Athenians recovering Theseus’ colossal remains, though set in the 5th century BC is actually told by Plutarch who wrote in the 1st century AD. There is, as we saw last time, also an abundance of evidence from the Roman period for cities in Greece making competing claims to possession of heroic tombs. In Greece itself, none of these tombs is reported as containing visible human remains but it is clear enough that we are dealing with the same phenomenon. Being able to actually display a hero’s bones was an obvious way of making such claims seem more credible. If Greece had less heroic skeletons than Asia Minor, perhaps that was the result of different geological conditions and different rates of survival of fossilised remains in the two areas. I’m looking forward to learning more about such issues from reading Mayor’s book properly.

I suggest that it is not merely a coincidence of survival in the sources that we have more accounts of such remains in Roman times but that this represents an increasing interest in heroic burials at this time. The argument I’m developing in the article I am working on is that in the Greek speaking eastern half of the Mediterranean, and in Greece in particular, it became increasingly common under the Roman Empire for cities to advertise possession of  tombs of mythical and legendary heroes in order to compete for prestige and status.

Next time I’m going to be looking at how exactly the invention of heroic tomb monuments in Roman Greece might have come about. If these weren’t genuine heroic tombs then what were they? I’ll also be thinking about why cities were so clean to stake claims to heroic remains and about who stood to gain most from inventing such stories.