classics news

news archive 3

April 1998 - April 1999

  • "Changing Rooms" at Pompeii
    New discoveries at Pompeii suggest that the average Pompeian may have been more interested in DIY ("fac id ipse") than in "balnea, vina, venus". Excavations in The House of the Vestals show six major revamping projects were carried out, continuing after the earthquake of 71, and still in progress when all work ceased in 79 AD. Work included an extension, converting a kitchen into a playroom, adding a swimming pool. It's clear that the family had moved out to let the builders in at the time of the eruption, because of the presence of a larger than normal colony of snails. They only like damp conditions, and very few are found where a house in being lived in normally. Experts relate the building boom to the growing prosperity of Pompeii as a trading port in the 1st century AD. [Note :"Changing Rooms" is an absurdly successful program on BBC TV, where couples redecorate rooms in each others' houses. ] [The Independent on Sunday - article and pictures - Sunday April 25 1999]

  • Roman Ships - from the mud of Pisa
    No fewer than eight complete ships from the Roman period have been discovered buried in the mud of what was once the harbour of Pisa, on the west coast of Italy. According to British archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, "[the wood] is as fresh as the day the ships sank. This is a very exciting find. ...Perhaps a fifth of the of the boats have been uncovered ... there is even more to come."
    The ships vary in size ( 24ft to 90 ft), date (3rd century BC to 5th century AD) and equipment (some were oared , some had sails). Most of them (although one may be a warship - if so it's the first "navis longa" ever found) were smallish coasters - maybe used to reship goods from larger vessels moored offshore, or for short trips along the coast. The cargo was varied - some contained the usual amphoras used to transport wine or oil, but there is also a wild boar's jawbone, complete with tusks. Opinions vary as to whether all the ships foundered in a freak storm, or went down separately in a number of incidents over the years. [The Times - article and pictures - Wednesday April 21 1999]

  • Londinium Lady
    The lid was opened on Wednesday (14 April 1999) on a find that could rewrite the history of Roman London. Under full glare of media attention, and live TV coverage, a massive Roman stone sarcophagus containing a beautifully decorated lead coffin was opened for the first time since the 4th century BC. Inside, preserved by the fine silt which had entered the coffin soon after burial, turned out to be the perfectly preserved skeleton of a wealthy young woman. Stone and lead were signs of exceptional wealth in days when even a wooden coffin was the mark of a rich person. Archaeologists expect to find jewellery, scaps of textile, and maybe her shoes (a beautiful glass vial, and a thread of gold, and even leaves from the garland that was on her head have already been recovered from the mud) - but they are having to work against the clock - as the skeleton began drying out as soon as the lid was lifted. It is certain that the young woman must have belonged to one of the leading families of Londinium. She's on display at the Museum of London until 25 April only.[The Guardian - article and picture - Friday April 16 1999]

  • Balnea vina venus corrumpunt corpora nostra
    "Baths, drink and sex ruin our bodies" bemoaned Martial. Now we know why. Those Romans had TV in their baths! An item in the Guardian (14 April 1999) - with fine cartoon - says:"Lancaster city museum has received a letter claiming that a TV detector van had honed in on an unlicensed set at the ruins of the Roman bath house, which was last lived in around 340 AD."

  • Medea Violence
    Young children in a Liverpool school are studying "Euripedes' Medea" (sic) as part of the city's work on violence prevention. 10-year-olds are being helped to deal with the violence in their own families through acting out with masks the confrontations between Jason and Medea. "Why is Medea dangerous?" asks the drama teacher. "She cut up her brother and threw his limbs into the sea." (TES Friday Magazine, March 12 1999)
    Whatever happened to the concept of copy-cat violence? Let's hope there'll be no siblings' severed limbs floating down the Mersey.

  • Rubicon
    Two separate headlines in today's Guardian (24th February 1999): "Blair Crosses Rubicon" and "Caesar Blair casts the die". (Referring to his decision to join the European Monetary Union - eventually.) Neither article mentioned that the Divine Julius crossed the stream called Rubicon in order to begin a Civil War. But that's not the worst - an exotic fruit-flavoured fizzy drink is currently available under the name of Rubicon Passion! Keep it away from the Prime Minister.

  • Dithyrambus lives!
    According to the more lurid sections of the UK press (Sunday 21 Feb 1999) it will be in theory possible for men to carry a a foetus, once produced through in vitro fertilisation - in any "appropriate" part of their anatomy. The bowel was suggested by one "scientist" - but once again science struggles to catch up with myth. Know they nothing of Zeus stitching the soon-to-be Dionysus into his thigh after the incineration of his mother Semele? (Hence his epithet "Dithyrambus", the twice-born). Or Athena - springing from the head of Zeus? Are such nativities to become commonplace in the 21st century?

  • Latin to be legal no more
    Lord Irvine, Britain's Lord High Chancellor, wants lawyers to abandon Latin and other antiquated jargon, according to an announcement on his website. From April 26th, 1999, it will be plain English, if his lordship gets his way. See an amusing leading article in the Guardian, annotated for your illumination (and corrected - it's a sign of the times that an article about Latin is riddled with lexical and grammatical solecisms: they should have checked it with the Classics Pages first - as a recent correspondent from Florida did before painting his motto on his Harley-Davidson) (Leader in The Guardian February 1999)

  • Sleaze-free Olympics
    Revelations this week (30 January 1999) about bribery and corruption at the highest levels in the modern Olympic Games prompt two observations: bribery was a problem in the ancient games, punished by forcing the guilty party to pay for a bronze statue of Zeus, to be prominently dispayed by the entrance to the stadium. Six bronze "Zanes" (as they were called) should now be on order for Sydney.
    Second thought: why not ignore the whole sordid "official" games altogether, and support the Olympic Games in Gloucestershire, England. Long before de Coubertin ever had his much-misunderstood idea for a revival of the ancient Olympics, Robert Dover had re-founded the "Olympicks" in the Cotswolds. That was back in 1612. Events included horse and foot racing, cock fighting, wrestling, stick fighting, hammer throwing, bowls, chess, card games and dancing - but the blue riband event was, and remains shin kicking, wearing the traditional straw-padded trousers. The only bribery anyone can remember was when a farmer once had to be sweetened with a bottle of whisky to remove his sheep from the arena. (Article in The Guardian January 30th 1999)

  • Asterix is coming
    One of the most expensive films ever made in France, based on the cartoon characters Asterix and Obelix and starring Gerard Depardieu (guess who he plays?)is on its way (opening in France on 3 February 1999). The intiguingly named Laetitia Casta plays Falbala. Report in Paris-Match.

  • Welcome to MIM, or whatever it is
    The Millenium is bugging Classicists as well as lesser mortals: what advice will they give to TV companies (and others) who still want to feature those pretentious Roman numerals at the bottom of their credits? Simplest way to denote 1999 would be MIM, following the modern practice of subtracting the smaller unit when placed in front of the larger (as in IV, IX etc - note that really old clocks always have IIII and VIIII). But MIM looks pretty uncool when pompousness is the main intention - so maybe we shall see a more authentic MDCCCCLXXXXVIIII or a compromise MCMXCIX. Watch the endscreens of those programmes. But next year there'll be no escape from MM - perhaps an opportune moment to abandon "Roman numerals" for ever. (see Guardian 1st January 1999)

  • Top of the PhilOsoPherS
    Not since Monty Python's famous football match between the Greeks and the Germans has there been such excitement in the world of Philosophy. Philosophers' Magazine conducted a poll of philosophy students and teachers who were asked for their opinion on who have "contributed most to the advancement of human understanding." Top six were:
    1. Aristotle 183 votes
    2. Plato 158
    3. Kant 152
    4. Nietzsche 114
    5. Wittgenstein 111
    6. Hume 99

      So it's dear old Aristotle still at the top after 2,400 years.

    (seeGuardian 2 December 1998)

  • Carry On Cleo, Underwater
    French archaeologists have this week recovered a black granite sphinx from the harbour at Alexandria in Egypt. It has the unmistakable facial features (hooked nose and protruding chin) of Ptolemy XII Auletes (the"Flute Player") - father of Cleopatra. Together with recent discovery of remains of the Pharos and of the Royal Place, the newly-recovered sphinx has increased speculation that the whole underwater complex may be preserved in a sub-aqua museum, where visitors could walk through glass tunnels, or travel in a glass submarine to view the remains in situ. (Guardian 30 October 1998)

  • Herod's Palace in danger
    The amazing 1st century AD palace built by Herod the Great's engineers on the vertiginous windswept northern end of the rock of Masada in Israel (later to be made famous by the desperate defence against the soldiers of the emperor Titus) is crumbling like a cheese. Holes in the soft limestone walls need to be filled soon - otherwise the entire structure will slide down into the valley below next time there's an earthquake, or maybe just next time it rains. British archaeologists are leading the rescue bid - in a race against time to save one of the more spectacular architectural triumphs of the ancient world. It's at the far end of the picture - which shows the remains of the ramp built by the Romans to capture the last stronghold of free independent Jews - the last to control any part of their country until 1948.(Guardian 28 October 1998)

  • Oedipus Sheepibus
    Jocasta's remarks about mother-love ("every man has dreamed of it" ie sleeping with mother), built by Freud into a whole psychological system, have now been confirmed by strong biological evidence. Experiments at Cambridge University on sheep and goats have shown that male sheep, when brought up by nanny-goats, have a distinct sexual preference for nanny-goats when they grow up. In other words, they want to marry a girl just like mum. According to the report, published in Nature, the goat-reared rams "strongly preferred to socialise with females of their maternal species" - even though the rest of their behaviour was appropriately sheep-like. Interestingly, fostered female sheep showed no such inclination to bond with their mothers. (Guardian 17 September 1998)

  • But is it Art?
    Archaeologists have unearthed yet another "find of a lifetime". Digging near Tintagel, Cornwall (whose inhabitants have long had a nice little earner selling "King Arthur" mementoes) thay have found a piece of slate, with the following scratched on it:

    The script is 6th century AD, and it looks like Latin (just about). At any rate the letters A_R_T are believed to be the first actual proof for the existence of the legendary King of Camelot (traditionally identified with Tintagel). This does not of course have any bearing on the authenticity of the legends (Merlin, Excalibur, Guinevere etc) - which appear first in Malory, but it would back up Geoffrey of Monmouth's references to Artorius, who would have been a Romanised Briton, possibly a local warlord, leading opposition to the infiltration of invaders from the continent. (Guardian 7 August 1998)

  • Dig damned!
    Members of the Ultra Orthodox United Torah Judaism group - last heard of protesting about the victory of saucy transsexual "Dana International" in the Eurovision Song Contest - have persuaded Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu effectively to ban archaeology. All digs are now subject to their religious veto, and sites are being monitored to prevent any disturbance to Jewish bones. Cynics say that archaeologists will discover that most ancient bones belonged to Christians. (Guardian 30 June 1998)

  • Marbles Row: Hotting Up
    Friends of the Acropolis struck back at the Greek Ministry of Culture yesterday: workers building the new Acropolis Museum, designed to hold the marbles when they return, have apparently been ordered to ignore any archaeological remains on the site, to ensure it's ready for 2002: "Whole layers of history are being cast aside" because of the "indecent haste". The Ministry of Culture hotly denied any such thing, but foreign jounalists are totally excluded from the site anyway. The Greek press is enjoying comparing the 60-year-old British vandalism to the marbles (see below) with the current behaviour of the English sporting ambassadors in Marseilles [World Cup Football].(The Times 19 June 1998)

  • Scrubbers condemned
    The Greek Deputy Foreign Minister, George Papandreou (son of Andreas) criticised the cleaning of the Parthenon sculpture by the Briitish Museum: "There has been very great damage. History has been lost. We would like these statues back as soon as possible." A British spokesman said: "The marbles will stay in the British Museum where they belong". (The Times 18 June 1998)

  • Troy Exhibition in Russia
    Objects from Troy, some donated by Heinrich Schliemann, others "acquired" in Germany are on show in the Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

  • Overkeen scrubbers
    The "Elgin Marbles" may have been irreparably damaged over 60 years ago while in the care of the British Museum, according to a new edition of William St Clair's Lord Elgin and the Marbles. The man responsible was Lord Duveen, who put up the money for the Duveen Galleries in which the marbles are currently housed. He apparently believed that Greek sculture should be white, rather than the natural honey colour of the Pentelic marble, and ordered that the pieces should be scrubbed. In fact, of course, Greek sculpture was painted to resemble flesh, but this was not realise d in Duveen's day. (Guardian, 8 June 1998)

  • Oldest Profession's oldest premises
    A brothel from Roman times is a new attraction in Salonika, Northern Greece. So far only a small proportion of it (about a tenth) has been excavated, but the finds (a clay dildo, a pitcher with a phallic spout, innumerable offerings to Aphrodite, and much other erotic paraphernalia) make its identification as the earliest bordello certain. It seems to have formed part of a first century BC "Leisure Complex" - also on offer was a restaurant, a sauna with 25 marble baths, and two swimming pools (one heated). The porneion is directly (about four feet) below the taverna: customers could have move downstairs to enjoy bathing or more intimate services after their meal - or beforehand to give themselves an appetite! (Report, with pictures, in the Guardian, 27 May 1998)

  • Villa dei Papiri: cash crisis
    The Greek library at the villa has been known since 1750, and thousands of Greek manuscripts have been recovered. Most are in the Naples Museum, where each summer scholars endure intense heat during the short period when work on the scrolls is possible: as the scolls were burnt, the writing is "black on black", and can only be read under bright natural light. No ventilation is possible: it might disturb the fragments. The villa may have belonged to Philodemus of Gadara, the Epicuream philosopher (110 - 35BC) - or perhaps he was just a frequent guest, as there's a large amount of his writings among the papyri in the Greek Library. Other claimmants include L. Calpurnius Piso, Caesar's father-in-law. But where is the Latin Library (which according to the Times report"contained lost works by Homer who was a frequent visitor to the villa" !)? Villas of this class normally had separate libraries for works in each language: but there's no money to look for it. (Article in Times May 25th 1998 - with inaccuracies!)

  • Bill's Sicilian Connection
    The Italian government is starting legal proceedings against Maurice Templesman, friend and advisor to Bill Clinton (and partner of the late Jackie Onassis), who is believed to have in his possession archaeological artefacts originally looted from the town of Morgantina, Sicily. The treasures, bought legitimately in London in 1980 include two archaic marble heads, and hands and feet from the 6th century BC statues of Demeter and Persephone. Persephone herself was kidnapped only a few miles away, while picking flowers near Lake Pergusa, near Enna. The Clinton regime is not thought to be implicated in this earlier disappearance. (Sunday Times May 24th 1998)

  • Dead or Olive?
    The oldest Olive Tree in Europe is no more. An arsonist destroyed it last week - and a living thing which had taken 2000 years to grow to 70 feet high with a circumference of 25 feet was a pile of ash. The tree, growing near Grosseto in Italy, was believed to have been planted by a descendant of one of the veteran soldiers settled on the land by Tiberius Gracchus in the 2nd century BC. The reason for the fire is unknown - but such arson attacks in Italy are often motivated by "business". (Compare the fire recently at the appropriately named La Fenice theatre in Venice). But dendrophiles should remember the sacred olive tree of Athena on the Acropolis, which sprouted again the next day after it was burnt by the Persians in 480 BC. (Guardian, May 15th 1998)

  • Oedipus for the blind
    "Oedipus could be naked, transsexual, Polynesian, older than his mother, riding a unicycle picking his nose and it would not matter." Why not? Tom Morris' new production of Oedipus Tyrannus at the Battersea Arts Centre, London will take place in pitch darkness. Apart from saving on costumes, makeup and electricity, Morris wants to force audiences (audience derived from audio, I hear), jaded with hi-tech productions, to get back to using their imagination. Personally, I'd find it very distracting to imagine that Jocasta might be a stark naked Fijian doing the Times crossword while massaging low fat margarine into her buttocks. Anyway, hasn't this guy heard of radio? (Report in the Guardian, May 12th, 1998)

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