Discovering the obvious – the Blenheim sarcophagus

Earlier this month a story that made a splash in the national and international press and that was all over my twitter feed was the ‘discovery’ of an ancient Roman sarcophagus at Blenheim palace. The story was reported by the Daily Mail, the BBC, the Oxford Mail, ITV News,the Times and the New York Times among others. The newspapers reported that an antiques expert has identified the piece, finely carved with Dionysiac reliefs being used as a flowerpot in the palace grounds. The managers of the estate were apparently unaware of what the object really was and have since had it restored and moved to inside the palace.


I’ve only now gotten around to writing about this because I was bit ill when the news appeared (one of the hazards of having small children) and a bit busy with other things since then. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit, though, because the thing is I remembered seeing the sarcophagus myself on my first visit to Blenheim last April. Above is the photo I took of it – you can see the date if you want proof I really spotted it before it made the news.

My first reaction was to think that I should have been the one to ‘discover’ the sarcophagus and have had my fifteen minutes of fame (the antiques expert who did discover it remains anonymous). I soon realised, however, how extremely unlikely it is that I really could have been the first one to have realised that this plant box was really a 1700 year old Roman grave monument.

Blenheim is within a short bus ride of Oxford, home to the largest Classics Faculty in the world. Over the years countless academics and students must have visited the palace and known immediately what they were looking at. Among the hundreds of thousands of tourists who go to Blenheim each year there must also have been quite a few who knew what it was. When I mentioned to my wife that I was going to write this blog piece and told her about the Blenheim sarcophagus she said nonchalantly ‘Oh yes, I remember seeing that’. She’s not an archaeologist but she’s been with me to quite a few museums and the truth is that you really don’t need to be an expert to recognise a Roman sarcophagus once you’ve seen a few.

I’ve now done some very superficial internet research to see if anybody else had mentioned the object anywhere prior to the discovery and sure enough they had. Zahra Newby, an expert in Roman Art based at Warwick University discusses it in an article in a book on sarcophagi published in 2011. It is also mentioned in the 1882 publication Ancient Marbles in Great Britain by Adolf Michaelis (sadly the page in question isn’t viewable online so I’ll have to wait till I can get to the library to see what it says). By searching through Twitter I found that Peter Stewart, head of CARC (the Classical Art Research Centre at the Classics Faculty in Oxford) pointed out there that the sarcophagus is included in this publication when news of the ‘discovery’ broke two weeks ago. I’m sure he must have visited Blenheim and seen the sarcophagus himself.

I also found a drawing of the sarcophagus in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago (viewable on their website) by the early 16th century artist Girolamo da Carpi. The drawing is particularly interesting because it preserves details that have now been lost to damage or to wear. The website calls the picture the ‘Blenheim Sarcophagus’. That can’t of course be what it was known as when the drawing was made because the sarcophagus must still have been in Italy at the time and because Blenheim Palace wouldn’t even be built for another century and a half (between 1705 and 1722 and named after the Battle of Blenheim of 1704). It seems unlikely, however, (and I should follow this up) that the name has only been given to the drawing in the last few weeks so this too seems to be further evidence that the sarcophagus was already rather well known. Finally, in 2010 somebody anonymously posted a photo of the flowerpot on TripAdvisor with the comment that it ‘looks like a Roman lenos sarcophagus’.

So, it is clear enough that over the years plenty of people – probably far more than my brief survey uncovered – have recognised the sarcophagus for what it really was. So why is it only now that it made the news?

The truth must surely be that everybody who saw it and recognised it simply assumed that the people at Blenheim were fully aware what it was. That was certainly my assumption. I found it a shame that it was outside and exposed to the elements and would have preferred the board in front of it to have given some information about it instead of saying ‘Keep off the grass’ but I thought that the sarcophagus had probably been placed there on a whim of one of the past Dukes of Marlborough and had been left there because it was now part of the history of the place and everybody had grown used to it. Not for a moment did I think about approaching someone who worked at the palace and saying ‘Hey, do you realise that ornamental plant box is really a Roman tomb monument?”

I also suspect that the monetary value of the sarcophagus is a big part of the story. I was drawn to the object by its historic interest as a relic of both the ancient world and the great period of the gentleman collectors in the 18th century when I would imagine it was brought to Britain. I had no idea that it would be valued, as it now has been, at £300,000. It took a very particular kind of expert for the alarm bells to start ringing at the thought of this rare, and extremely expensive object, being slowly but steadily worn away by the British rain – somebody who knows both about the market value of ancient art and knows that people who run historic properties sometimes don’t understand the nature of the objects they house. In other words it wasn’t so much a question of ‘discovering’ the sarcophagus as having the insight not to take for granted what so many others evidently have taken for granted over the years.

I suppose that the lesson to be drawn here is: never be afraid to point out the obvious. The next time I visit a stately home and see the marble head of an emperor being used as a doorstop or an Athenian kylix put down as a dog bowl I’ll make sure I speak up.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Inventing ancient tomb monuments in Roman Greece

Up to now this blog has been circling around what my “Monuments of Roman Greece” research project is actually about. The issues I’ve talked about – the changing meaning of public monuments and how we use different kinds of evidence to get at that meaning – are of central importance to my research. However, here I’ve talked a lot about fairly recent historical monuments instead of Roman ones, paid a lot of attention to buildings when the project is more concerned with smaller monuments such as statues, and have said a lot about Athens when Athens is only one of the cities I’m investigating. In this and the next few pieces I’m going to get to the heart of what my research is actually about by talking about an article I’ve been working on.

In my first two and a half months in Oxford when I haven’t been writing blogs about 18th century buildings, following a German course and acclimatising to being back in the UK after a fifteen year absence, I’ve been writing the first draft of an article about public tomb monuments in Roman Greece. The idea is to explore in parallel two phenomena, which I believe need to be interpreted in light of one another, neither of which, in my opinion, has received enough attention by historians or archaeologists.

The first is an increase in public burials for important benefactors and politicians in Greek cities in imperial times. For hundreds of years the cities of the Greek world had found various ways of rewarding people who provided important services for the community – statues, titles, front row seats at festivals – but it’s only under the Empire that it became at all common for benefactors to be buried in monumental tombs in public spaces such as the marketplace, gymnasium or stadium. We’re still only talking about evidence for a handful of such monuments – this was a great honour indeed and reserved for the pinnacle of the Greek elite – but this handful is still a marked contrast with how rare public burials were in earlier periods. This is, I believe, one of the most striking ways in which Roman period Greek cities looked different from our modern towns. Just imagine for a second how strange it would seem to see tombs of politicians and celebrities in our supermarkets, cinemas and leisure centres. I’ll talk more about these new Roman period burials in a later blog.

Here I want to focus on the other phenomenon I’ve been exploring and the one that I’ve so far written most about – probably too much considering I’ve already exceeded my self-imposed word limit – the invention in Roman times of monuments that were claimed to be the burials of illustrious figures from mythology or the distant historical past.

There’s a considerable amount of evidence from Roman period literary sources that in cities all over Greece, at the height of the Roman Empire, it was possible to see such heroic tomb monuments. Like the new graves of benefactors these monuments were typically found within the city in public spaces where the inhabitants went about their day-to-day business. A lot of this evidence comes from Pausanias, an author we’ve encountered before (if you’ve just tuned in Pausanias was a Greek from Asia Minor who’s left us a description of Greece in the 2nd Century AD). There are, however, other authors, such as Plutarch (he lived slightly earlier in the 1st Century AD and is most famous for his biographies), who also mention such tombs.

Most of the names of those believed to be buried in these tombs are now so obscure that even few Classicists can have heard of them. Some are known only because of the references that mention them in connection with the tombs; they must, however, have had great significance, at least at the local level, at the time. Others are still famous today – Prometheus, the Titan who stole fire from the gods to give to mankind, had his grave on the agora of Argos. (Argos incidentally takes the record for having the most graves of figures belonging to the distant mythical past in its civic centre – Pausanias mentions no less than thirty!) Leonidas, the Spartan general who died defending the Thermopylae pass in the Persian War (popularised as a comic-book-style epic in the film 300) had a tomb in the centre of Sparta. Pausanias tells us that the Spartans retrieved his bones from Thermopylae some forty years after the battle. Hector, the greatest warrior on the Trojan side in the Trojan War supposedly had his grave at Thebes. The Thebans had reputedly brought the bones over from Troy in accordance with an oracle.

I’ve already said that I’m interested in is what I term “invented tomb” monuments so it probably won’t come as too much of a surprise to hear that I believe that a large number of these monuments weren’t quite what they were claimed to be. For a start there is the obvious problem of whether figures like Prometheus or Hector had any basis in historical reality at all. If they did then this must be looked for some time in the pre-Archaic period of Greek history (let’s say before 700 BC), before these myths were first written down. Now, there is some archaeological evidence for heroic burials at this time but not very much – not enough to account for anything like the number of such tombs mentioned in the Roman period authors. A bigger problem for accepting the claims made of these tombs, however, is that there is actually concrete evidence that some of them must have been made up at some point.

The sources give evidence for several instances where multiple cities made claims to having the remains of the same hero. Seeing that it is clearly impossible for individuals to be buried in more than one place, in such cases at least one – possibly both – of these claims must have been fictitious. For instance, a city called Opos, far less well known and less significant than Argos, also claimed to be the final resting place of Prometheus. Pausanias tells us he was more convinced by the claim of the people of that town. He also tells us that both Sparta and a polis called Aegion claimed to be the burial place of a hero called Talthybios. Both Athens and Troizen had graves of the mythical hero Hippolytos. There were also graves of Themistokles, the Athenian Persian war hero (Yes, he of 300, Rise of an Empire fame) at both Piraeus, the Athenian harbour town and Magnesia in Asia Minor where he had died in exile. I’m going to say more about Themistokles’ tomb in a future blog. There are several other examples of such contested claims in the sources.

In addition, some of the details that the sources give us about certain tombs sound just too good to be true. For instance, there is a story preserved in the work of Plutarch about a messenger in the Persian war being buried at Plataea, the site of a decisive battle in that war, after he collapsed and died after running all the way to Delphi and back to bring back sacred fire for the founding of a cult. The story just sounds far too much like the much more well-known story, which you’ve probably heard, about the Athenian messenger who collapsed and died after running all the way to Athens to report the victory at the Battle of Marathon (the original Marathon run). That story, though set in the fifth century and fairly widely accepted as true even among ancient historians, is itself, incidentally, also only mentioned in Roman period sources written over five centuries later.

Many of what I believe to be invented tomb monuments have also been accepted in modern scholarship. That’s not so much because they’ve been given a lot of attention. They haven’t. Rather, the references in Pausanias and other Roman period authors have been drawn upon by scholars who are mainly interested in much earlier periods of Greek history, mainly the Classical period – c.500-323 BC, the period of Athenian democracy, the great tragedians and philosophers. The Roman period references to early tombs seem to provide extra snippets of information that aren’t provided by contemporary sources.

We need to keep in mind, however, that the time that separated an author like Pausanias from the Persian Wars was over 600 years, or nearly the same amount of time that separates us from the Black Death or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Many of the ancient tomb monuments reported in Roman sources were supposed to be even older than that. I believe that we need to be far more sceptical in accepting that these late sources provide reliable evidence for Classical, or pre-Classical history. I also believe that it is far more interesting to think about these references in the context of the time in which they are written. It’s only when we look at the Roman period references to heroic tombs all together that it becomes clear that making up stories about tomb monuments was a widespread phenomenon and one that deserves historical attention.

So far, in writing my article, arguing the case that the invention of tomb monuments was widespread in Roman Greece has taken up quite a large chunk of my allotted words, just as it’s run into yet another fairly lengthy blog piece. (I keep promising myself to try to post shorter pieces!). However, what I’ve been finding most fascinating is trying to find answers to the questions that arise from this argument:

When exactly were the stories that Pausanias and others tell about these grave monuments made up? If these monuments weren’t authentic ancient graves then what were they? How did the names of figures of myth and legend come to be attached to them? Why were such invented tomb monuments so common? And who gained most by inventing them?

These are some of the issues I’ll be discussing in my next couple of pieces.

How to read (or over-read) an ancient monument

If you’ve read either of my last couple of pieces then you’ll know that just before I arrive at my place of work in Oxford each morning I pass by a building that copies aspects of the Hellenistic Tower of the Winds in Athens, the 18th Century Radcliffe observatory. A couple of minutes before that I pass by another monument, far less imposing, which also makes a reference to the ancient world. It’s a fountain in the form of the merman Triton, the son of the sea god Poseidon. With bulging muscles he holds a shell above his head and is blowing a jet of water through a hole in the bottom. It stands in front of the old Radcliffe infirmary which now houses The Oxford Research Centre for the Humanities (TORCH for short), which I’m technically a part of though I’ve only been in the building once so far.

The Triton Fountain outside the Radcliffe Infirmary
The Triton Fountain outside the Radcliffe Infirmary

I didn’t really pay the fountain too much attention in my first few weeks of being here. I usually get a ridiculously early bus into Oxford to avoid the journey time being doubled by the rush hour traffic and by the time I arrive at work the only thing on my mind is coffee. But I’ve now discovered that the fountain is actually very interesting for thinking about the way that different layers of meaning can be packed, concertina-like into the history of a single monument.

The 19th century Radcliffe Triton - now in storage
The 19th century Radcliffe Triton – now in storage

It turns out that the current statue was set up very recently in 2012, a copy of a mid 19th century statue that had stood on the same spot. The original statue was set up in 1858 to enhance the appearance of the courtyard in front of the infirmary, which had been opened in 1770. This statue was made of terracotta and had become badly damaged as in winter water seeped into cracks and froze. That statue was itself a copy of the apparently famous Fontane del Tritone (though I’ll confess that I shamefully didn’t know it) that was set up in Rome by Pope Urban VIII, and created by the master sculptor of the baroque, Bernini.

Bernini's Fontana del Tritone
Bernini’s Fontana del Tritone

Well, the Oxford fountain isn’t an exact copy of Bernini’s. For some reason the artist John Bell has substituted a flat, disc-like shell for Bernini’s conch, which does look rather less natural a thing for Triton to be blowing through. Bernini’s triton, raised aloft on the fanned out tailfins of four Dolphins is also far more grandiose and if it had stood outside the infirmary would no doubt have caught my eye even before I had my first shot of caffeine of the day. But, reducing the height of the Oxford fountain was definitely a good decision. The fountain embellishes the square without dominating the space.

The layers of meaning don’t stop with the fountain at Rome because Urban VIII in commissioning Bernini to sculpt his Triton was inspired by a verse in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which Triton is described as blowing his shell as a trumpet to command the waves. Ovid in writing his masterpiece in the late first century BC was in turn heavily influenced by Greek mythology and earlier Greek poets and may therefore well have drawn on an even earlier source or sources for his description of the water god. So, the Radcliffe Triton is a brand new replica of a Victorian statue, modelled on a baroque masterpiece, inspired by a Roman reworking of a Greek myth!!

The reason I want to talk about the fountain here, however, is because it got me thinking about how we go about trying to read the meaning of ancient monuments. You might remember from my last two pieces that the figure of Triton also stood atop the Athenian Tower of the Winds where he functioned as a weather vane, whereas Oxford’s “Tower of the Winds”, the Radcliffe Infirmary is topped by statues of Atlas and Herakles supporting a celestial sphere. If the observatory and the Radcliffe Triton were ancient monuments, considering that they stand in very close proximity to one another, it would certainly be tempting to ask whether the Triton-connection between the two had any significance. To reflect on how historians and Classical archaeologists try to answer such questions for ancient public monuments I want to think about how we might try to “read” the connection between the fountain and the observatory if we were able to look back on these monuments from a vantage point some two thousand years into the future. Of course the evidence available to us would need to be just as patchy and fragmentary as we are faced with for an ancient city like Rome or Athens.

Let’s imagine that the Oxford statue of the Triton survives only in fragments – perhaps just a piece of the head and arm – just enough to be able to recognise that the statue is a copy of Bernini’s original which has itself long since been destroyed but is known from a couple of surviving photos. Perhaps there’s a record in a local archive in Oxford of the Radcliffe Triton being set up in the mid 19th Century but the date troubles the sculpture experts who have studied the surviving fragments because they can see that techniques were used that weren’t developed until the late 20th century.

The Radcliffe Observatory has been demolished to make way for office space but it is known from a 19th century painting. For the intended meaning of the building and the significance of its artistic references to the Athenian Tower of the Winds all that we have is my blog piece from last time – written two and a half centuries after the building was erected, highly speculative and citing only one slightly earlier scholar and giving absolutely no references to any 18th century sources. The Tower of the Winds miraculously does survive in tact. It is now four thousand years old and encased in a purpose built museum where it is surrounded daily by swarms of tourists who come from all around the world specially to visit it. Of course, for this exercise to work, we also have to imagine that the internet has disappeared, or perhaps that it has become so overloaded with information that it is impossible to find anything anymore. My blog survives in print form in a single surviving manuscript of a self-published collection of personal highlights.

Of course this is a bit of fun but the serious point I am trying to make is that this mishmash of scraps of information is pretty close to what we actually are faced with in reconstructing the monumental landscape of ancient cities……..if we are very lucky. Often the evidence is even worse. So what would an archaeologist or historian of the future be likely to make of this evidence?

Well, no doubt there would be considerable discussion about the mystery relating to when the Triton fountain was built. Was the 19th century archive date wrong or were the so-called experts mistaken in their analysis? Given time somebody would no doubt come up with the theory that the original statue had been copied and replaced at some point. The ingenuity of the theory would be accepted by some, seen as contrived and implausible by others. The fact that the statue copied Bernini’s fountain in Rome would surely capture the scholarly imagination and be attributed great significance. And in trying to understand just why this fountain was copied reference would probably be made to the spatial setting of the Radcliffe fountain and its relationship to the observatory.

The Triton, present in the fountain would no doubt be seen as a deliberate reference to his missing counterpart on the roof of the observatory. This would allow all sorts of speculation about the statement that was being made here. Perhaps this was a deliberate turning away from the philhellenism that had led to the observatory being based on an old Greek building by looking to a Roman model for the Triton of the fountain. But which Rome was being referred to here? Was the fountain a statement of preference for the values of ancient Rome or for the Counter Reformation Rome of Bernini and Urban VIII – a statement about a preferred kind of classicism or of covert allegiance to Roman Catholicism? The fountain’s playfulness as a decorative ornament might also be contrasted with the function of the Tower of the Wind’s Triton as a weathervane, and with the observatory as a building of scientific observation. This new preference for ornamentation over functionality might be put forward as a symptom of cultural decadence, or even seen as a piece of ostentatious revelling in frivolity. The fact that the fountain was “deliberately” placed so as to be seen before the observatory by a visitor arriving at the Radcliffe quarter from the city centre would also be stressed as significant. In short, the jumble of assorted facts would provide ample scope for several learned papers, each presenting their “reading” of the relationship between the two monuments as self evident. But let’s now return to the present and ask whether such readings would be right? I believe they would not be.

I am convinced that it is useful to interpret the design of the Radcliffe Observatory in the context of its time as an expression of growing philhellenism and Enlightenment scientific curiosity, as I argued last time. I am also convinced that when the Triton fountain was set up before the Radcliffe Infirmary in the mid 19th Century educated viewers were meant to recognise that Bernini’s fountain had served as the prototype, and perhaps even to think of Ovid’s verse. Looking for a Triton-connection between the two buildings, however, is I believe over-reading the evidence. The hypothetical readings I put forward for our historians of the future sound rather too farfetched and contrived. The basic problem here is that it is hard to believe that the figure of Triton, in either the 18th or 19th centuries was an important enough symbol for the connection to have been significant.

Looking at the ancient world we equally run the risk of over-reading the evidence and I have come across these kinds of arguments in scholarship on ancient Greece. I’ve probably even made these kinds of arguments myself. Because our source material is so fragmentary and so slight we have an understandable desire to want to squeeze every last drop of significance out of each piece of it. I’m not saying that it isn’t possible to reconstruct something of the meaning of ancient monuments. I fully believe it is. That’s exactly what I tried to do in my first three blog posts, and that is the heart of my research project. But we do need to be aware of the danger of assuming that each and every connection we can find between different pieces of evidence or between different monuments must have had a profound significance in ancient times. Sometimes two Tritons standing in the same part of a city might just be a coincidence.

The Radcliffe fountain also raises two other problems that are relevant for my research into ancient public monuments: firstly how the meaning of monuments can change over time and secondly the extent to which passersby really pay attention to the monuments in the midst. There must have been some public feeling in 21st century Oxford that the old Victorian statue of Triton needed to be replaced – that the courtyard before the old infirmary wouldn’t look right without it. But how many of the hundreds of people who walk by it every day are now aware that it is a copy? How many know that it is based on Bernini’s statue, that Bernini drew on a poem by Ovid, or that it is a representation of an old Greek god? As I mentioned, I largely ignored it for several weeks and only paid it more attention because I happen to be interested in that kind of thing and was busy writing a blog in which the figure of Triton kept coming up. How many other people even notice the fountain? For my research the next question that the fountain gives rise to is whether the inhabitants of ancient cities paid more attention to their public monuments than we do today. Or did the fact that their public spaces were so cluttered with statues and other pieces of sculpture mean that they noticed them even less?

If accessing the intentions of those who set up ancient monuments is difficult, exploring the way that people responded to them in their daily lives often seems to be near impossible. I’m hopeful, however, that we can get closer to understanding both issues and that is precisely what I’m going to be trying to do over the next two and a half years.

But what do you think? How close can we come to knowing how people in historical times experienced their public monuments? To what extent do our own preconceptions get in the way of interpreting the evidence? Is there even enough evidence from Greek or Roman culture to answer these questions? If you’ve got any thoughts on the issue please do leave a comment.

The Two Towers (of the Winds)

In my last piece I considered what some pieces of Roman period architectural sculpture that copied sculpture from the Athenian Parthenon might tells us about how the Greeks living under the Empire thought about that Classical temple. For this, and my next piece, I’ve been inspired by an 18th century building in Oxford that copies architectural sculpture from one of the most familiar monuments of Roman Athens.

The Radcliffe Observatory

Every day just before I arrive at my office – I usually write there in the morning and head to the library in the afternoon for new research – I pass by the Radcliffe Observatory, an elegant octagonal tower in neoclassical style that would probably have become more familiar as an Oxford landmark if it wasn’t located a good ten minute’s walk to the north of the city centre and away from most of the old colleges. It is now rather tucked away behind the swish new, glass-fronted maths building in the so-called Radcliffe observatory quarter, an area currently under redevelopment by the university. Some of you might recognize the building because it featured prominently in a recent episode of the detective series Lewis (or so I’ve been told. Don’t tell me who did it, I haven’t seen it yet!). For some reason the Gibson building, where I actually have my desk hasn’t yet featured in Morse or either of its spin offs.

The Gibson Building
The Gibson Building

The Radcliffe Observatory functioned as an observatory from its opening in 1773 to 1934, when it was taken over by the Nuffield Institute for Medical Research. It became a part of Green College in 1979. That college merged in 2007 with Templeton College to create Green-Templeton college to which the building now belongs. It now houses the dining room and common room of the college. I’m hoping to get the chance to see the building from the inside at some point.

The first glimpse I ever caught of the building was when I visited Oxford some years ago and went on a highly enjoyable open-top bus tour. I don’t remember the audio guide saying anything about the observatory but in the distance, above the rooftops, I recognized it immediately as a copy of one of my favourite of the surviving monuments of ancient Athens, the enigmatic Tower of the Winds.

The Tower of the Winds stands near the eastern entrance of the so-called Roman Agora and is one of the best preserved of all ancient buildings in Greece. The design of the building is, at least in terms of the buildings that survive from antiquity, unique – both in terms of its architecture and its function. The fact that there is nothing to compare it with means that it is very difficult to date on stylistic grounds. We also don’t know who paid for it though scholars sometimes assume it must have been a gift to the city by some Hellenistic king or wealthy Roman. We do, however, know that it was already standing by the mid 1st century BC because it is mentioned briefly in a work written at that time by the Roman author Varro. The Augustan period architect Vitruvius (slightly later) also discusses the building. From these two literary references and from studying the building itself we do at least have a good idea what it was used for – it was a kind of public clock and weather station.

The Tower of the Winds
The Tower of the Winds

The ancient authors don’t actually call the building the “Tower of the Winds” – that name has been given to the building in modern times (there’s also no reason to assume that the term Varro uses to refer to the building, “horologium”, or “horologion” in Greek, must be what the Athenians knew it as, as some scholars do. The word describes what the building was, a timepiece, and isn’t necessarily an actual name for it). The reason for the modern name is that the tops of the eight faces of the building are decorated in high relief with representations of the eight directional winds, shown as flying men wearing clothing and carrying objects appropriate to where they come from. Boreas, the cold north wind, for example wears warm clothes and is blowing a horn to symbolize the ferocious gusts coming from that direction and Kaikias (“Badness”), the north-eastern wind, is carrying a shield full of hailstones. Now that I’ve seen the Radcliffe observatory up close it is clear that the building isn’t really a copy of the Tower of the Winds at all but it’s octagonal shape and its decoration with copies of the distinctive relief figures is enough to immediately evoke the Athenian building. But the issue of copying is one of the things I want to talk about next time. Here I’d like to focus more on the Tower of the Winds itself.

Apelliotes, the southeast wind, carrying fruit (left - Athens; right - Oxford)
Apelliotes, the southeast wind, carrying fruit (left – Tower of the Winds, Athens; right – Radcliffe Observatory, Oxford)

The Tower of the Winds was equipped with sundials on all eight of its faces, the lines of which can still be seen today. There’s been some debate in the scholarly literature about whether these sundials belonged to the original building or were added later. Lines scratched on stone are sadly impossible to date scientifically but I’m inclined to accept they were part of the original building. Vitruvius tells us the name of the building’s architect – Andronikos of Kyrrhos (a place in Macedonia). Varro also says it was built by a man from Kyrrhos. This Andronikos doesn’t appear in any other literary sources but he must be the same Andronikos of Kyrrhos attested in an inscription from the island polis of Tenos as installing a sundial in that city. Considering that the only two facts we have about this man are that (a) he built a sundial somewhere and (b) he built the Tower of the Winds, it seems to me rather likely that the sundials on the Tower of the Winds were also part of his design and nowadays most scholars seem to accept that they were.

Sundial on the Tower of the Winds
Sundial on the Tower of the Winds

The Tower was also equipped with a water clock, which would have allowed people to tell the time on a cloudy day. It would be going too far to say that water clocks were common in antiquity but they are known elsewhere. The simplest kind were those used back in Classical Athens for timing law court speeches and which simply consisted of vases with holes near the base that could contain enough water to time a particular type of speech. More complex public examples are known but the one in the Tower of the Winds seems to have been one of the most elaborate.

Water tank at the rear of the Tower of the Winds
Water tank at the rear of the Tower of the Winds

A tank on the outside of the building was fed by water from a spring from the Acropolis. The tank then filled a basin within the building, probably using a system of valves to regulate the pressure and to ensure the inflow speed was constant. Cuttings on the floor of the inside of the building suggest there must have been some kind of mechanism of moving parts which was presumably activated by a float rising in the basin. Some scholars have suggested that there may even have been moving statues – there are some references to such things existing elsewhere in antiquity – but unfortunately we will never know for sure. It seems clear, however, that people would have been able to enter the building and somehow, from the position of the mechanism, know what time it was.

Although the Tower of the Winds is a fascinating structure in so many ways I have particular affection for the building because it featured in a particularly important argument in my PhD thesis, which was about the changing use of Greek agoras in Hellenistic and Roman times. The argument has to do with what the Tower suggests about the area in which it stood.

The general consensus among scholars is that the “Roman Agora”, constructed with funds donated to the city of Athens by Julius Caesar and the first Roman Emperor Augustus, in some way came to replace the old Classical Agora which lay some eighty meters to the west of it. The idea is that the creation of the new building, which was almost certainly a commercial market, meant that the old agora, which had been the heart of the city for over half a millennium, now lost its function as a marketplace. This is generally accepted as a sign of the lamentable decline of the old agora, the vibrant public square where people had gathered to discuss philosophy and politics, while buying their vegetables and fish, in the golden days of the 5th Century democracy.

The Roman Agora at Athens with the Tower of the Winds in the background
The Roman Agora at Athens with the Tower of the Winds in the background

This idea that the new complex took over some of the functions of the Classical Agora is reinforced by the very name “Roman Agora”. It suggests that the old square had been the agora in pre-Roman times, while the market of Caesar and Augustus was the agora in Roman times. In my time spent in Athens I’ve heard people, and not only tourists but also students and scholars, talk about the two squares in this way. In truth the two agoras continued to exist alongside each other and the Classical Agora remained the more important of the two. Although we can assume that there wasn’t much need for a food market in the old square, there isn’t even any direct evidence that all forms of trading there came to an end.

The reason the Tower of the Winds is relevant to this issue has to do with timing. The market building was probably opened in sometime between 10 and 2 BC but Varro mentions the Tower of the Winds around 50 BC. He doesn’t give any indication that it is a new building. Construction on the Roman Agora might have begun that early – it probably took a long time to complete because of the troubled time of the Roman Civil wars but the important point is that the Tower of the Winds clearly predates the market building and possibly by quite some time. A case has been made by Hermann Kienast – a strong case in my opinion, for reasons that I won’t go into here – that the Tower of the Winds was constructed in the mid second century BC which would mean that it was over a century older than the Roman Agora.

The presence of a monumental clock suggests that this area was already an area of public space before the Roman Agora was built. It is more than likely that there was already a marketplace here because a desire to regulate trading hours would explain the need for a public clock. Furthermore, the only food shops that have ever been excavated on the Classical Agora, were on the very southeast edge of the square alongside a road that stretched toward where the Roman Agora would later be built. Curiously the idea that there was a marketplace here before the Roman Agora was built has actually been fairly widely accepted – and even by the same scholars who also hold that the Roman Agora took trade away from the old square. That makes very little sense to me. My argument is that all the Roman Agora did was provide more splendid premises for an activity that was already taking place on the same spot. This means that we cannot simply point the finger at Caesar and Augustus and give Rome the blame for putting an end to the old agora functioning as a marketplace. This at least puts a dent in the interpretation that public life in the city of Athens must have declined under Roman rule and calls into question how easy it is to draw conclusions about civic vitality from looking at monumental building programmes.

But lets return to the Tower of the Winds itself. As I already mentioned, as well as being a clock Vitruvius and Varro both describe how it also functioned as a monumental weather vane. There was a pointer on the roof that turned in the direction that the winds were blowing so that the relief figures were not only decorative but also served a practical function. Varro says that somehow the direction of the wind was also indicated inside the building, though no appropriate hole in the roof has been found. The vane, presumably made of bronze and sadly long since lost, had the form, so Vitruvius tells us, of a Triton, the half-man/half fish, son of Poseidon, who we encountered last time serving as an architectural support on the Roman odeion on the Classical Agora. Was this perhaps one more connection that people were meant to make when they saw that building in the second century AD?

I’ll return to that question next time when I want to think a bit more about what it meant in our more recent history when buildings and monuments made references to antiquity. I also want to consider how the ways that we “read” such architecture today can help with, or perhaps even get in the way of, how we think about the changing meaning of monuments in ancient times. I’ll be looking at the Radcliffe Observatory in a bit more detail and I’ll also be considering another monument I pass every day on my way to work, a statue that stands (by chance or design?) within a stone’s throw of the observatory. A statue of – yes, you guessed it – the merman Triton.