Classics News

Archive 4

May 1999 - December 1999

  • The Colosseum comes out against Death
    The Flavian Amphitheatre - where condemned prisoners were once casually put to death to entertain the bored crowds at lunchtime - is to be a new symbol of Italy's campaign against the death penalty worldwide. The new brilliant white lighting will change to gold for 48 hours every time a convict ondeath row is reprieved, or a country abandons the death penalty. The organisers - who include The Vatican, Amnesty International and the United Nations hope to put pressure on backward nations with this clever way of equating ancient and modern barbarity.[December 13, 1999]

  • The Marbles will stay
    The Marbles saga (will Tony Blair be able to keep them?) is almost as hilarious as the London Mayoral election nonsense - unless you are Greek, or a Hellenophile. Only three months after deciding to discuss the matter, Tony Blair has announced that the return is not a matter for discussion. I shall say no more on the subject - unless I decide, like Cato, to end every news item with "marmora reddenda sunt". [December 13, 1999]

  • Welsh rugby kicked into touch?
    A £5m National Rugby Centre for Wales may not now be built, because Roman remains have been found on the 28 acre site near Caerleon. Conservationists and local residents were already opposed to the development - the discovery of a Roman road and civilian buildings (part of the town which grew up to service the legionary base at Castra Legionum) may be the answer to their prayers.[The Guardian December 2 1999]

  • Ted Hughes' Oresteia

    According to George Steiner, Hughes' last work "pays perfect homage to the most necessary play of all time." Now available from the Classics Page Bookshop.

    [Observer October 24, 1999]

  • Those marbles (again!)
    For the first time in nearly 200 years the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece is to be considered by a parliamentary committee. You can read much of the recent saga by browsing through my news items - but the story so far is:

    • 5th century BC - created by Pheidias and his workshop
    • 1687 - damaged while Athens was under Turkish rule (they were keeping ammunition there which blew up when a Venetian shell scored a hit)
    • 1801 - Lord Elgin gets official permission from the Ottoman Turks to remove sculptures.
    • 1816 - Bought by British government for £35,000. The British Museum was orderd to look after them intrust for the nation.
    • 1939 - Lord Duveen's staff bribe cleaners to whiten them, to conform with his idea of ancient sculpture
    • 1998 - Scandal of scraping revealed
    [Daily Telegraph September 20, 1999]

  • 2,000-year-old Champagne
    The French have always claimed that Champagne was invented in France in the 17th century, but a professor at Rheims university (really!) now points out that "bullulae" (bubbles) in wine were appreciated by the poet Lucan, 1700 years before Dom Perignon. It was then as now a drink for special occasions - especially romantic ones. Bubbly of whatever source according to Professor Tran Ky "acts as a vaso-dilator and favours erection...sharpens our sensory perceptions ... and suppresses our inhibitions. And, unlike Viagra, it helps prevent heart attacks." Make sure you have plenty for Champagne's third millenium! [Guardian September, 1999]

  • Return of the Getty
    The Getty Museum has returned three items to Italy, which it agrees where "illegally excavated" (a cup by Euphronios painted by Onesimos), "stolen from a store-room of an excavation" (marble diadoumenos head: Roman copy of Polycleitos, from ancient Venusia) and "missing from a private collection" (torso of Mithras). The combined value woulld be several million pounds. [Daily Telegraph September 20, 1999]

  • L'uomo del ponte ha detto sì
    Between Scylla and Charybdis A dream of Italians and Sicilians since 251 BC has been a bridge over the straits of Messina. What The consul L.Caecilius Metellus couldn't achieve now looks distinctly possible. Patently foolish ideas like an undersea tunnel, creating an artificial isthmus have been abandoned in favour of a single span suspension bridge. The man from the bridge (Nino Calarco) has said "yes!". [Oggi 18 Sept, 1999]

  • Latin and Greek get best grades!
    Nearly 50% of the candidates in GCSE Greek this year got the highest possible A* grade: next best was Latin with 30%. The nearest rival was Physics, with a mere 18%. So the message is clear: if you want the top grades, choose Classics. [Daily Telegraph August 26, 1999]

  • All you wanted to know about sex in Greece ...
    [Greek Homosexuality by Kenneth Dover] [Sex and Social Justice by Martha Nussbaum] A new book about ancient Greek sexuality is on the best-seller lists (in Greece). It's already been translated into 5 languages. It's called (in English) Love, Sex and Marriage, A Guide to the Private Life of the Ancient Greeks by Nikos Vrissimztis. But, contrary to most scholarly work of the last 20 years, it attempts to show the Greeks as repressed Victorians. He ignores the brilliant work of Sir Kenneth Dover in unravelling the subtleties of same-sex relationships, discounting the vast amount of contrary evidence in order to preserve his illusion of the purity and nobility of the ancients. "The Greeks had a healthy aversion to abnormal relations", he avers. It's not available from Barnes and Noble yet - in the meantime read Dover's Book Greek Homosexuality - or, a more recent and superbly balanced assessment of his views - Martha Nussbaum's Sex and Social Justice. [Article by Ben Rogers in the Guardian, August 26, 1999] Click on the thumbnails for more details:

  • Words from the Etruscans
    The Etruscans - an ancient Mediterranean people even more mysterious than the Phoenicians have dropped a few more clues to deciphering their language. 27 new words have been added to the vocabulary of 500 by the discovery of a 2,300 year old bronze tablet - known as the Tabula Cortonensis, after the Tuscan hill town of Cortona where it was found in 1992. Maybe there will now be enough to settle the ancient problem of the affinities of the language - although a recent book published in Spain claims to prove it was connected with the enigmatic Basque language, and that of the Tuareg in North Africa. [UK Press July 2, 1999]

  • World's oldest wine?
    Jars 4000 years old found on the Greek island of Santorini (ancient Thera)show grapes in cultivation. Carbonised grape seds have been found in the ash from the 1550 BC eruption. Wine has possibly been made there longer than anywhere else in the world - but, at long last, it's come to the attention of the connoisseurs. The very dry white wine (called Atlantis after the theory that ancient Thera was the site of the legendary state - but see my views!) is now officially world class. [UK Press July, 1999]

  • Words from the Etruscans
    The Etruscans - an ancient Mediterranean people even more mysterious than the Phoenicians have dropped a few more clues to deciphering their language. 27 new words have been added to the vocabulary of 500 by the discovery of a 2,300 year old bronze tablet - known as the Tabula Cortonensis, after the Tuscan hill town of Cortona where it was found in 1992. Maybe there will now be enough to settle the ancient problem of the affinities of the language - although a recent book published in Spain claims to prove it was connected with the enigmatic Basque language, and that of the Tuareg in North Africa. [UK Press July 2, 1999]

  • Eureka!
    The Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore is dispaying a unique manuscript (until September 5th). Its history is this:
    • Archimedes wrote "On Floating Bodies" - containing his famous "principle". He was killed by a Roman soldier at the siege of Syracuse in 212 BC.
    • Copies of the original MS (including the 55 diagrams) would have been regularly made over the next millenium or so.
    • Between AD 950 and AD 975 a copy was made on to vellum by a scribe - probably in Constantinople.
    • About 1150 AD a pious monk attempted to scrub off the existing writing and diagrams, and recycle the vellum for use aa a prayer-book. He rebound the fine leather pages, after cutting each in half (as you might cut an A4 landscape page to make 2 A5 portraits).
    • From about 1400 AD to 1830 it was in a monastery in the Judaean desert (now the West Bank" of Jordan): it was removed to the library of the Orthodox Patriarch in Jerusalem.

    • About 1850 it was moved again - to Constantinople. Allthis time it was lovingly preserved as a Christian object.
    • 1899 - it was recognised as a palimpsest by Danish scholar, Dr Johan Heiberg, who tried to read and translate it, with some success. The MS was still in quite reasonable condition, but obviously difficult to read with only a magnifying glass.
    • 1908 - 1928: MS disappeared, to reappear in possession of a French family. Mould had set in, and some extra religious "art" had been added to 4 of the 178 pages.
    • 1998. Sold by the family to an anonymous American (but not Bill Gates!) Loaned to the Walters gallery for conservation and decipherment.
    • 1999. Work begins on multispectral imaging, which will reveal the full details of the text accurately.
    [Times June 30, 1999]

  • Phoenician Tomb in Cyprus
    The Phoenicians are most mysterious of all ancient Mediterranean peoples (except possibly the Etruscans). But a tomb found by chance during excavation for a swimming pool at Larnaka is helping shed some light. It was an undisturbed (ie unlooted) stone chamber, dating to 750 BC. It contained gold objects (brooch, necklace, bracelets, rings, daggers and tweezers) - and a female skeleton, along with skeletons of three horses than had been sacrificed. Sacrifice of horses remind one immediately of the funeral of Patroclus in the Iliad - and also the tomb at Lefkandi in Euboea. Both these burials are roughly contemporary with the Iliad - could such funerals have been inspired by Homer? [The Guardian June 26, 1999]

  • Nero's Domus Aurea reopens
    The amazing palace built in Rome by the emperor Nero (AD 54 - 68)has been reopened to the public after 20 years. First rediscovered in the renaissance (1494) - the word "grotesque" was originally coined to describe the art which decorated the walls. This was because the rooms had become like huge vaulted underground grottoes with the passage of time. In the entrance was the 30 metre gilded Colossus of the young genius himself (once thought to have given its name to the Colosseum, which was later built on the site). Among the hundreds of statues plundered from the Greek world was the famous Laocoön, now in the Vatican. The 12 metre high walls of the rooms were covered with 30,000 square metres of fresco - which included painted windows with fabulous views. 120 rooms are known, of which a mere 30 are now open, including the Octagonal Room, whose dome could allegedly slide back showering rose petals on the guests below. No doubt the opening will also reopen the controversy about Nero himself - the Domus Aurea was certainly one of the most imaginative projects ever undertaken in Rome. But does this mean that its inspiration could not have been a depraved tyrant? [Daily Mail June 24 1999 and other UK press]

  • Mummy! Mummy! Mummy!
    It was all because a donkey put his foot in it. In western Egypt, where its archaeological masters had been sweating unrewarded for four years, the patient beast slipped and revealed a tomb dating from the Graeco-Toman era (330 BC - AD400). Inside was not one mummy, not two, but 20 or more: altogether 105 have been founded in the four tombs so far excavated. But there is is a vast tomb complex - covering over four square miles. It's estimated the total haul will be about 10,000 mummies - but many will probably be left in situ for archaeologists of the future with maybe more sophisicated techniques than a bored donkey! (only joking). For more info see the Egyptian Exploration Society or Egyptology at Cambridge. [The Times - article and pictures June 14th 1999]

  • New culprits for the Decline and Fall: rats!
    varieties of Rattus rattus

    Excavations in the ancient port at Unguja Ukuu on the island of Zanzibar suggest that the Romans' appetite for ivory indirectly caused the end of their empire, and the start of the dark ages. In the 6th century AD ivory from the abundant herds of African elephants was shipped to Justinian's court at Constantinople from Zanzibar - but on the outward voyage there were the usual stowaways: rats. These would have been black rats (rattus rattus) - whose bones have been found together with typical contemporary Mediterranean pottery. The black rat is not indigenous to Africa, and must have arrived on board ship - then fraternised with the local rodents (immune to the plague which their fleas carried). Then they got back on board, taking the plague back in the ships' holds along with the ivory. The plague arrived in Constantinople in 541 AD - and started killing up to 16,000 people a day. Byzantine officials stopped counting the bodies when the toll passed a quarter of a million. Within ten years it had swept across Europe, and the Dark Ages had begun. [The Times - article and pictures June 8th 1999]

  • Euphronios arrested in Rome
    A fragment of a phiale signed by the great Euphronios (c520-470BC), one of the two great innovators in red figure vase painting (the other was Euthymides) has come to light in Rome. Its dodgy provenance - from a Swiss "collector" via Sotheby's to the Getty Museum, who voluntarily returned it to Italy - led to its seizure by the Roman art theft squad. Descibed by the Times as an example of both Trojan and Etruscan art, it's in fact, of course an example of Athenian vase painting at its best.
    At the left Helen (she's named on the pot)runs forward arms outstretched, palms upwards, towards her husband Menelaus. Euphronius has tried to show Menelaus in the act of spinning round, seeing his wife, and dropping his sword in amazement. His left leg is still moving away from his wife, while his right(which her left foot overlaps) moves towards her. Anatomically impossible - but artistically amazing! Behind them - as if the emotion of the occasion needed to be pointed out - hovers a tiny winged Eros, with his arms outstretched between the faces of the couple symbolically uniting them. [The Times - article and picture June 8th 1999]

  • Herod, the first wine snob?
    Herod the Great (c.73 - 4 BC), persecutor of the infant Jesus and owner of one of the most spectacular homes outside a James Bond film (see below), emerges - according to a new exhibition in Israel as a considerable wine buff. Despite the reputation of locally grown wines, he insisted on the best - from Italy, the Greek Islands, and Lebanon [whose Château Musar of more recent times I can confirm - as something of a wine snob myself - is a very fine drink indeed]. His wine cellar in his Masada palace has recently been excavated: the name of each vineyard duly inscribed on each ceramic jar. The exhibition - a light-hearted part of Israel's Millenium celebrations continues until January 2000. [The Times - article and picture Friday 28 May 1999]

  • Mycenae, rich in tourists
    The palace of Mycenae - ancient home of the House of Atreus famed for its bloody murders and cannibalism - is in serious danger from "schoolkids clambering all over it", according to the significantly named Dr Iphigeneia Tournavitou. The damage done by tourists, time, neglect and the weather over 7000 years has taken means that, after essential repairs have been carried out, it is likely that the 3000 daily visitors will be confined to walkways. I'm glad I've had my chance to clamber, though. [The Guardian - article and picture Saturday May 22 1999]

  • Swindon was once an architectural rival to Bath
    One of England's least exciting towns (hitherto famous mainly as the birthplace of the pneumatic Melinda Mesenger) was, in Roman times, site of a huge complex of international importance. Geophysical surveys have detected a temple (probably to a water-nymph whose spring still causes boggy patches in the field), and a host of buildings along a well-terraced hillside. Although there have been significant finds of fresco, mosaic tesserae and a silver bowl, there are no plans to excavate. Instead it will remain a green hiiside, where visitors will be able to borrow equipment to trace the underground lines of the walls. [The Guardian - article and picture Friday 21 May 1999]

  • "The most explicit item I have seen" (British Museum Director)
    The British Museum's latest - and (at 1.8 million) the most expensive - acquisition is now on show. The museum also regard it as its most important Greek or Roman buy of the last 30 years. It is a solid silver Roman cup, found originally in Palestine and dating from the 1st century BC. The workmanship is exquisite - and this is the reason for its purchase, according to Director Robert Anderson, not its subject matter. This is what's likely to attract the crowds, though: it shows explicit scenes of gay sex. It was collected in the early 1900s by US eccentric Edward Perry Warren (who commissioned Rodin's "The Kiss" - thought scandalously decadent at the time). It's recently been on view in the Metropolitan, New York. [The Guardian - article and picture Wednesday 5 May 1999]

  • Death of Sir James Cobban
    The former Headmaster of Abingdon School has died at the age of 88. Many Classicists who are as old as I am will have been introduced to Latin through his reader Civis Romanus, which he wrote with a colleague as a young teacher at Dulwich College (my old school - though he'd already moved on by the time I went there in 1950). In 1986 a party was held to celebrate 50 years of continuous publication - during which nearly half a million copies had been sold. The Cambridge Latin Course - a much more ambitious venture, of course, has sold over a million since the early 70s). But I was weaned on "Civis" and "Mentor" - in less than a week they had me addicted to Latin for life. [The Independent on Sunday - article and pictures - Sunday April 25 1999]

All older news items are still available in the News Archive:


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