June 26, 2017

What Latin Sounded Like – and how we know

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 12 Aug 2016

Classical Latin went extinct, yet we still know how to pronounce it. Proof!

Take a trip with me back to Catholic school, then back even further to old Rome. We’ll see what Latin pronunciation did – and did NOT – sound like in the mouths of the Romans. Thanks to ancient authors and modern Romance languages, we’ll even glimpse a range of evidence for the speech of Caesar and pauper alike!


June 11, 2017

His Year(s) – Pompey (56 to 52 B.C.E.)

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 4 Apr 2017

June 4, 2017

Emperor Claudius

Filed under: History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Victor Davis Hanson outlines the career of the fourth Roman Emperor and makes an unusual comparison:

The Roman Emperor Claudius, who reigned from 41 to 54 AD, was never supposed to be emperor. He came to office at age 50, an old man in Roman times. Claudius succeeded the charismatic, youthful heartthrob Caligula — son of the beloved Germanicus and the “little boot” who turned out to be a narcissist monster before being assassinated in office.

Claudius was an unusual emperor, the first to be born outside Italy, in Roman Gaul. Under the Augustan Principate, new Caesars — who claimed direct lineage from the “divine” Augustus — were usually rubber-stamped by the toadyish Senate. However, the outsider Claudius (who had no political training and was prevented by his uncle Tiberius from entering the cursus honorum), was brought into power by the Roman Praetorian Guard, who wanted a change from the status quo apparat of the Augustan dynasty.

The Roman aristocracy — most claiming some sort of descent from Julius Caesar and his grandnephew Octavian (Caesar Augustus) — had long written Claudius off as a hopeless dolt. Claudius limped, the result of a childhood disease or genetic impairment. His mother Antonia, ashamed of his habits and appearance, called the youthful Claudius “a monster of man.” He was likely almost deaf and purportedly stuttered.

That lifelong disparagement of his appearance and mannerisms probably saved Claudius’s life in the dynastic struggles during the last years of the Emperor Augustus and the subsequent reigns of the emperors Tiberius and Caligula.

The stereotyped impression of Claudius was that of a simpleton not to be taken seriously — and so no one did. Claudius himself claimed that he feigned acting differently in part so that he would not be targeted by enemies before he assumed power, and to unnerve them afterwards.

Contemporary critics laughed at his apparent lack of eloquence and rhetorical mastery, leading some scholars to conjecture that he may have suffered from Tourette syndrome or a form of autism. The court biographer Suetonius wrote that Claudius “was now careful and shrewd, sometimes hasty and inconsiderate, occasionally silly and like a crazy man.”

Sound familiar?

May 27, 2017

Currently reading

Filed under: Books, History, Personal — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

You could say that I don’t follow a particularly chronological pattern to my reading list.

Pax Romana, Adrian Goldsworthy
AD69: Emperors, Armies & Anarchy, Nic Fields
All Propaganda is Lies: 1941-1942, George Orwell
The New Cambridge Modern History: II The Reformation 1520-1559 (no longer a library book despite the spine markings)

April 16, 2017

Damnatio memoriae

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

The Latin in the title is a modern construction, but it describes a fairly common way that Romans would (to borrow from Orwell) push memories down the memory hole, including even former Emperors:

In the Soviet Union, Josef Stalin didn’t just defeat his political enemies – he purged their memories from existence. Photographs were altered and history texts changed to eliminate any trace of those who stood against him, a practice that inspired George Orwell to write 1984. But Stalin was far from the first leader to erase his enemies. The ancient Romans, too, tried to erase people from history – even Emperors.

A new show on now at the British Museum explores the use of memory sanctions against Roman emperors and their families in antiquity. It also evaluates the physical treatment of objects deemed “pagan” or heretical in the Christianized empire of Late Antiquity.

But what was the point of “damnatio memoriae“? And can you ever fully expunge someone from the historical record?

A Basanite bust of Germanicus that has a series of cuts around his ear, a shorn nose, his right ear chipped away and a cross etched on his forehead. The bust is on display now at the British Museum. (Photo by Sarah E. Bond)

The British Museum is currently displaying an exhibit on ancient memory sanctions called: “Defacing the Past: Damnation and desecration in imperial Rome.” It is a fascinating look into the ways in which we interact with objects as a proxy for the actual person. It is also a look into what ancient historian Harriet Flower has called the “art of forgetting.” Although such sanctions are often called “damnatio memoriae,” this is a modern Latin phrase and thus a construct that did not in fact exist in antiquity. Use of the term suggests a monolithic way in which Romans could legally damn the memory of a disgraced or unpopular Roman emperor, when in fact there was no one term for such sanctions or even a fully systematized procedure for it. What we have today is instead the material remnants of various senatorial, imperial, and ecclesiastical decrees — as well as a number of personal choices.

Sanctions against the commemoration of a person could take many forms in ancient Rome and can be traced back to the Republican period. The dictator Sulla had the statues of his rival, Marius, pulled down. He also banned the display of wax imagines carried in funeral processions. We are told by Plutarch (Caes. 5) that the nephew of Marius, Julius Caesar, displayed these wax casts of Marius’ face for the first time in the funeral for his aunt Julia in 69 BCE. Julia had been Marius’ wife and was Caesar’s aunt. The disgraced general and his consorts were earlier declared hostes (enemies) of the Roman state, but their memory was clearly not forgotten. The absence of the imagines under Sulla had in fact always been conspicuous, rather than a tactic that led to the erasure of their deeds or memory.

April 12, 2017

Construction on the A1 near Catterick, North Yorkshire, reveals lost Roman settlement

Filed under: Britain, History, Science — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Rossella Lorenzi reports for Live Science on recent finds during roadwork on the A1 in North Yorkshire:

Excavations at Catterick earlier this year. The features on show are the foundations of ovens and hearths dating to the 4th century. © Historic England

Construction work to upgrade Britain’s longest road into a major highway has revealed a treasure trove of rare artifacts from one of the earliest and wealthiest Roman settlements in the country.

The findings include ancient shoes, cups, a rare silver ring, keys, a high-relief glass bowl and an elaborately carved amber figurine, archaeologists with the public group Historic England announced yesterday (April 6).

Archaeologists uncovered the artifacts in North Yorkshire along the A1, which stretches 410 miles (660 kilometers) from London to Edinburgh, Scotland, during a major project to improve the existing roadway. [See Photos of the Excavation and Roman Artifacts]

“It is fascinating to discover that nearly 2,000 years ago, the Romans were using the A1 route as a major road of strategic importance and using the very latest technological innovations from that period to construct the original road,” Tom Howard, project manager at the government agency Highways England, said in a statement.


The excavations have also led to the discovery of a major Roman settlement at Scotch Corner, one of the best-known junctions in the country.

Taking its name from an old Roman road called Scots Dyke, Scotch Corner links Scotland with England and the east coast with the west coast.

Right there, the archaeologists with the professional consultant group Northern Archaeological Associates unearthed the remains of a large settlement dating back to A.D. 60, thus predating settlements in York and Carlisle by 10 years.

October 2, 2016

The Brothers Gracchi – Lies – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 24 Sep 2016

James talks about our mistakes, and adds additional stories, for the Brothers Gracchi!

September 21, 2016

Gracchus the Elder – Prequel: In His Footsteps – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 10 Sep 2016

Special thanks to Mike Duncan for writing this episode! Check out his History of Rome podcast: http://thehistoryofrome.typepad.com/
Before Tiberius and Gracchus got famous, their father led such a break-out political career that it must have seemed impossible to live up to his legacy. Yet, his success set the stage for their falls…

Tiberius Gracchus the Elder has been overshadowed by his sons, but in his lifetime he had the most successful political career imaginable. Born just as the Second Punic War came to a close, he arrived on the political stage just in time to befriend the Scipio family during the Seleucid War. He secured a route of safe passage for their soldiers which led them to catch and defeat King Antiochus. The Scipios planted themselves in the east, dealing with the spoils of war and enriching themselves in the process. Upon their return to Rome, they were charged with corruption for accepting bribes, but Tiberius Gracchus the Elder had just been elected tribune of the plebs, and he voted their trial entirely. Scipio Africanus rewarded him by giving him the hand of Cornelia, his daughter and an amazing woman in her own right. Tiberius Gracchus went on the be elected aedile, and threw such lavish public games that the Senate passed a law restricting future games. It worked for him, though: he won his next election and became a praetor assigned to nearer Spain, where he launched a fierce and successful military campaign buffered by a land redistribution effort. In that way, he solved the underlying problems of poverty among the Celtiberians and secured peace for 25 years. For his success, he received a triumph and was elected consul, two of the highest honors in Roman politics. But here he played a dangerous game. Already allied with the Scipiones, he served as consul alongside their family’s biggest rival: a Claudius. He won the game and formed a relationship that would later provide his sons with important allies. Next he went to Sardinia to protect against rebellious tribes, and again he succeeded. The Gracchi name was now honored in both Spain and Sardinia, a legacy his sons would rely upon. This won him a second triumph and a role as censor, after which he joined a traveling embassy of senators to assess Rome’s client kingdoms. Tiberius Gracchus used this opportunity to forge friendships with foreign kings, like the King of Pergamum who would one day form a key part of Tiberius’s efforts to redistribute land. Finally, he won a second consulship, but here he made the mistake of screwing over a man whose son would one day lead the assault that killed Tiberius in the forum. At the end of his days, Tiberius Gracchus the Elder wasn’t just a prominent senator, but one of the most powerful men in Rome. It was the duty of a son to surpass the fame of his father, which must have seemed impossible… but Tiberius and Gracchus, building on the legacy he left, did exactly that.

P.S. If you’ve read this far, we think it’s only fair we tell you that Mike Duncan is aware the proper Latin name for the Scipio family is “Scipiones” but he allowed us to shorten it to “Scipios” to make it easier for non-Latin speakers to understand. Cheers!

September 17, 2016

The Brothers Gracchi – V: The Final Fall – Extra History

Filed under: History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 3 Sep 2016

The Senate stole credit for all Gaius’s proposals, and stole his popular support. Once he failed to win re-election for tribune, the Senate repealed his reforms. Gaius organized a protest, but the Senate brought it down with armed force and killed Gaius. Not a century later, the Republic would fall.

Gaius made a series of proposals to ease the strains on the poor people in Rome, such as new Roman colonies to ease overcrowding or renting public land to the people. The Senate, led by a man named Livius Drusus, decried him for pandering, only to implement those ideas themselves, take all the credit, and make sure that Gaius got to have no involvement with the administration of these popular public programs. Public support drained from Gaius, and he struggled to find a comeback. When he ran for a third term as tribune, he lost. With Gaius no longer a threat, the Senate started repealing all of the forms he’d fought for. Gaius organized a mob to protest these repeals, but one of his supporters got in a fight with a Senatorial supporter and killed him. The Senate seized this opportunity to declare martial law the next day. In response, Gaius planned a peaceful occupation of the Aventine Hill. The Senate sent representatives to negotiate with him, but they demanded Gaius and his closest supporters give themselves up, and his supporters refused. With no resolution in sight, the Senatorial faction had archers begin to fire into the crowd. Gaius and his supporters fled, but he did not escape: Gaus was caught and captured, his head taken for a bounty and his body thrown into to the Tiber River. The Senate congratulation itself for defeating him by building a temple to Concord, but an anonymous citizen graffiti tagged it as “The Work of Mad Discord.” A deep rift had been opened, and the Republic never managed to close it. The reforms proposed by the Gracchi were right and necessary, but extreme factions, fearmongering, a rhetoric of violence, and abuse of the letter of the law all deteriorated the democracy that held Rome together. Less than a century after Gaius falls, so does the Roman Republic.

September 14, 2016

The Brothers Gracchi – IV: Enter Gaius – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Published on 27 Aug 2016

Gaius Gracchus took up the mantle of his dead brother, overcoming resistance from the Senate and the elites to win the election for tribune. Although he had a hot temper, he shared his brother’s charisma and talent, so he built a powerful base of popularity by creating programs for the poor, the army, and the middle class.
With Tiberius dead, it fell to his brother Gaius to take up his mantle. Both brothers were talented and charismatic, but Gaius had a much more fiery temper that made the Senate wary. During his political post, as a quaestor assigned to Sardinia, they tried to bind him to his post to prevent him from running in another election. Gaius broke tradition and defied the Senate’s orders, but when they put him on trial, he brought the citizens over to his side and walked away freely. As they had feared, he ran for tribune: the same office his brother had held. Despite heavy opposition from his enemies, he won. Support for him both in and outside Rome had grown so large that people flooded the city just to vote for him. In his first act, he passed a law which applied retroactively to punish Popilius Laena, the man who had banished Tiberius’s supporters after his death. Popilius fled rather than face the law. Over the remainder of his term, Gaius proved extremely active and efficient: he passed new laws and implemented programs to help the poor, the soldiers, and the middle class through measures like the grain dole. At the end of his term, he planned to step down from politics for a while, but there weren’t enough people who won the election for tribune that year so he was reinstated by default. Now he had what his brother had died for: a second term as tribune.

September 8, 2016

The Brothers Gracchi – III: Ochlocracy – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 20 Aug 2016

To protect himself from retaliation for his populist policies, Tiberius Gracchus ran for tribune a second time. On election day, he sought protection from the crowd among rumors that wealthy elites planned to assassinate him, but accidentally sent a message that he wished to be not elected, but crowned as king. A Senator formed an opposing mob that killed Tiberius and 300 of his supporters on the spot.

Tiberius looked to shore his support as many people questioned the way he’d stripped Octavius of office. His chance came when the King of Pergamum died, and left his kingdom and all its land to Rome in his will. Tiberius stepped in to tell the Senate he would draft a bill to deal with this new land and submit it directly to the people. This outraged the Senate: foreign policy had always been their domain, and even those who had been silent during his squabble with Octavius now spoke against Tiberius. Fearing retribution, Tiberius ran for tribune a second time: an unprecedented political act that would make his person sacrosanct. On Election Day, Tiberius received a warning that the wealthy elites of Rome planned to assassinate him and stop his re-election. He tried to indicate to his supporters that his life was in danger, but since they couldn’t hear him above the din, he did so by pointing at his head. One onlooker interpreted this as him asking for a crown, and brought this news to the Senate. They called upon the consul to stop it, but he said he would just nullify the vote if that happened. One Senator did not accept this response. He gathered his own mob to take things into his own hands. They caught Tiberius and killed him, along with 300 of his followers. Many who escaped were later executed or exiled, and Gaius – the brother of Tiberius – was refused when he asked for his brother’s body back to hold funeral rites. It was the first great act of political violence in Rome, and it set the stage for a new age of violent upheaval. After all, harming a tribune was supposed to be not only illegal but a sin before the gods, so if this mob had done just that and escaped without punishment, what other laws could not be broken? Into this troubled stage stepped Gaius Gracchus, already known for his fiery disposition and now determined to take up his dead brother’s cause.

September 4, 2016

QotD: Polybius on Roman incorruptibility

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Again, the laws and customs relating to the acquisition of wealth are better in Rome than at Carthage. At Carthage nothing which results in profit is regarded as disgraceful; at Rome nothing is considered more so than to accept bribes and seek gain from improper channels. For no less strong than their approval of money-making is their condemnation of unscrupulous gain from forbidden sources. A proof of this is that at Carthage candidates for office practise open bribery, whereas at Rome death is the penalty for it. Therefore as the rewards offered to merit are the opposite in the two cases, it is natural that the steps taken to gain them should also be dissimilar.

But the quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions. I believe that it is the very thing which among other peoples is an object of reproach, I mean superstition, which maintains the cohesion of the Roman State. These matters are clothed in such pomp and introduced to such an extent into their public and private life that nothing could exceed it, a fact which will surprise many. My own opinion at least is that they have adopted this course for the sake of the common people. It is a course which perhaps would not have been necessary had it been possible to form a state composed of wise men, 11 but as every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, the multitude must be held in by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry. For this reason I think, not that the ancients acted rashly and at haphazard in introducing among the people notions concerning the gods and beliefs in the terrors of hell, but that the moderns are most rash and foolish in banishing such beliefs. The consequence is that among the Greeks, apart from other things, members of the government, if they are entrusted with no more than a talent, though they have ten copyists and as many seals and twice as many witnesses, cannot keep their faith; whereas among the Romans those who as magistrates and legates are dealing with large sums of money maintain correct conduct just because they have pledged their faith by oath. Whereas elsewhere it is a rare thing to find a man who keeps his hands off public money, and whose record is clean in this respect, among the Romans one rarely comes across a man who has been detected in such conduct…

Polybius, Histories VI, 56.

August 30, 2016

The Brothers Gracchi – II: Populares – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 13 Aug 2016

Tiberius Gracchus took up the cause of land reform, determined to restore property rights to the average citizen and curtail the abuses of the rich. But another tribune vetoed his proposed law, so Tiberius began to fight back with his own veto and ground the government to a halt. At last, he held a special vote to remove his opponent from office so that his land reform bill could pass. ____________

Tiberius Gracchus returned from war to find a Rome where soldiers reaped no rewards for their service, and the rich worked all the farmland with slaves who were the spoils of war. Determined to fix this, he took up the cause of land reform. His first goal: to restore the ager publicus, or “public land.” Tradition held that some of the land won in war would always be set aside and distributed to the citizens, with no one allowed to hold more than 500 acres of it, but the rich had ignored that law so long that no one even tried to enforce it. Tiberius got himself electrd as tribune and wrote a law that didn’t punish the rich, just asked them to surrender their illegally held land after the state paid them for it. Nevertheless, the richest of the rich accused him of trying to foment a revolution. They tried and failed to turn the people against Tiberius, but when his law passed anyway, they recruited one of his fellow tribunes to veto the law. Tiberius responded by drafting another, harsher version of the law – only to see this one vetoed also. He began using his own veto in retaliation, refusing to let any other law pass and stopping the senate from withdrawing money from the treasury. Government ground to a halt. Roman government had always relied on the responsible use of powers that were now being abused, and the snowball began to roll downhill. Tiberius took the unprecedented measure of holding a special vote to get his opponent, Octavius, removed from office by popular vote. Despite Octavius’s efforts to hold out, the people voted with Tiberius: Octavius was stripped from office and barely escaped from the Campus Martius with his life after an angry crowd turned on him. But at last, with no more opposition from Octavius, the agrarian reform law proposed by Tiberius Gracchus passed.

August 25, 2016

The Brothers Gracchi – I: How Republics Fall – Extra History

Filed under: Europe, History, Politics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 6 Aug 2016

Rome had doubled the size of its empire in a single generation, but such expansion came at great cost. The wars enriched the wealthy and impoverished the soldiers who fought in them. Into these turbulent times came a talented and well-connected young man named Tiberius Gracchus, who soon learned the power of appealing to the populace over the elite.

Rome had expanded rapidly during the 2nd century BCE. It now stretched from Spain to Greece, with holdings in Africa, and showed no signs of stopping. At home, this growth destabilized the entire economy. Slaves from captured lands became field workers for the wealthy. Common soldiers who used to own land could no longer tend it during the long campaigns, and returned to find themselves either bankrupt or forced to sell to the large slave-owning elites. Now these displaced landowners flooded Rome looking for work, but many of them remained unemployed or underemployed. In the midst of this, two boys named Tiberius and Gaius were born to the Gracchus family. They were plebeians, but of the most distinguished order. Their mother, Cornelia, was the daughter of Scipio Africanus. Their father was a two-time consul who’d celebrated two triumphs for winning great campaigns. But their father died early, so Cornelia raised her children alone and made sure they had a firm grounding in the liberal arts. As soon as he could, the elder boy, Tiberius, ran for office as a military tribune and joined the final campaign against Carthage. There he earned great honor for himself, and learned from the Scipio Aemilianus, his half-brother who also happened to be the leading general. Upon return to Rome, he ran for quaeastor and was sent to serve in the Numantian Wars in Spain. This time, the general he served under was struggling and suffered defeat after defeat. At the end, he tried to flee, only to be captured by the Numantians along with the entire army. The Numantians insisted on discussing surrender terms with Tiberius Gracchus, whose father had long ago earned their respect, and he successfully negotiated the release of 20,000 captured soldiers. In Rome, however, the elites looked on his treaty with scorn: they felt his surrender made Rome look weak. The families of the soldiers had a far different perspective: they celebrated Tiberius, and even saved him from punishment at the hands of the Senate. He had learned that power could be found in appealing to the people.

August 8, 2016

The legacy of the Loeb Classical Library editions

Filed under: Books, Education, Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

While I sometimes feel old enough to have construed Latin in school, it departed the curriculum a few years before I reached high school. As a result, while I was vaguely aware of the Loeb Classical Library, I never had a need to obtain or depend on them for my academic career (thank goodness). Back in 2011, John Talbot described them as the “bright ghosts of antiquity” for New Criterion:

The gist of an old joke — it has a dozen local iterations — is that the Loeb Classical Library translations are so baffling that you have to consult the original Greek or Latin on the left-hand page to decipher the English translation on the right.

Funny or not, the wisecrack catches the condescension long directed at the Loebs, that venerable series of Greek and Latin classics in uniform volumes with facing English translations. Professors of classics in particular used to frown upon them. Until recently, merely to be seen on campus with a Loeb was to court scandal. There were gradations of disgrace. Those Loeb editions of Boethius, Bede, and Augustine I saw on the shelves of the professor who taught me Anglo-Saxon: those were permissible for an English scholar. But I, as a classics major, was to eschew the very same volumes. Even as an undergraduate, though I prized my Loeb edition of The Republic, edited and imaginatively annotated by Paul Shorey, I knew better than bring it to my seminar on Plato. That same tact — that same hypocrisy — accounts for the care I took, as a graduate student, to avoid detection as I sifted the used bookshops of Cambridge for second-hand Loebs. For many of us, the pleasure we took in the Loebs was tinged with guilt.

But attitudes are changing. Once treated as evidence of the decline of Western civilization, the Loeb Classical Library is now, in its centennial year, more often regarded as, if not quite a pillar of our culture, at least one of its more enduring and useful props. The centenary invites consideration of how the Loebs have both reflected and, increasingly, shaped our literary culture.

First, to deal with that joke: Are the Loeb translations really so convoluted? They are not. What is true, though not true enough to justify the slur, is that some of the translations, especially those of the Library’s first few decades, do make hard going for the reader, not because they are incomprehensible but because they are written in one of two different varieties of translationese. About the first kind, the Times Literary Supplement reviewer got it right when he complained that the 1913 Loeb Catullus was translated not into English exactly, but that other dialect, “the construing lingo beloved of schoolboys, but abhorred by man and gods.” He had in mind such clunking touches as “remains to be slept the sleep of one unbroken night” for Catullus’ suave nox est perpetua una dormienda, a solution which confirms, as though to satisfy a schoolteacher, the translator’s grasp of the future perfect passive, whatever the cost to English idiom.

H/T to Never Yet Melted for the link.

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