Tuesday, May 23, 2006

London adventures

I've had my attention drawn to the following two news items concerning Roman (or maybe-Roman) sites in London.

First, Bucklersbury House and the area around London's Mithraeum, or Temple of Mithras, are to be redeveloped. It's not completely clear from the article, so I wouldn't like to say for sure what they're going to do with the Mithraeum without actually seeing the plans; but it would appear that the idea is to create an area called Walbrook Square, which presumably will open just off to the west of the current Walbrook. The Mithraeum will be in the centre of that, so approximately back in its original location (though presumably not at its original depth) and original orientation (the Times article says that the temple has been reorientated from north-south to east-west, but it's actually the other way round). This will make many historians and archaeologists very happy (notably Roger Wilson, who complains at length about the current presentation of the Mithraeum in A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain). Of course, it may be that the money will run out and they'll end up building the development around the Mithraeum's current position. But that seems unlikely. Hopefully they will have the sense to ditch at the same time the crazy paving that currently mars the Mithraeum.

The other thing is that the building in which the London Stone is displayed is also coming down (planning approval was actually granted as long ago as 2002). The Stone itself will go into the Museum of London for while, before being put back into a better display in the new building on the current site.

The Stone is a bit of a mystery. It's been suggested that it was either a milestone from which all distances in the Roman province of Britain were measured, or that it was part of a stone circle that stood on St. Paul's. Unfortunately, there's no documented reference to it before 1198, though John Stowe, writing in the sixteenth century, claimed that there was a tenth-century mention of it. It is generally accepted that there's a lot less of it than there once was (and I mean a lot - what's now no bigger than a large television was described as 'very tall' in 1598). And that's about it. My gut instinct tends to be 'not Roman', but I don't have a good reason for believing that, and I'm not too happy about a pre-Roman existence either, which tends to get mixed up with mediaeval legends of the pre-Roman foundation of London - legends I don't believe, as I think they're more about promoting the new Anglo-Norman capital of London at the expense of the old Anglo-Saxon capital of Winchester.

Anyway, I'm pleased that both monuments will get a better display than they currently have, and perhaps Londoners will become more aware of their heritage. Both objects feature in my regular walk for the students around Roman London (as well as the very neglected Roman beam in the forecourt of Church of St Magnus the Martyr on Lower Thames Street), though I'm guessing that this may be the last year that I'll be able to visit them both.

And what nobody's mentioned is that these two redevelopments offer opportunities for some very exciting archaeology. I bet MoLAS (Museum of London Archaeology Service) are champing at the bit for a chance to get back to the Mithraeum site.

Simon Brown, Troy

Just posting a link here to a review in Strange Horizons of Simon Brown's collection of short stories inspired by the Trojan War, by Ben Peek. This is as much so that I remember it as anything else, as this sort of thing is, of course, important for my project on SF and the Classics.

Whenever I see something like this, I always think "Oh, I wish someone had asked me to review this book!", but such is life. And I suspect from the book's absence from Amazon.com that it's only been published in Australia. Some of the short stories, however, are on Brown's website (which hasn't been updated since 2003), and I shall catch up with those sometime.

I'll comment briefly on a short passage from the end of Peek's review:

Comic writer and artist Eric Shanower is brilliant at recreating the Iliad, in his series Age of Bronze, as a realistic historical drama without any element of the fantastic; fantasy author David Gemmell is set to release Troy: Shield of Thunder, the second book in his Trojan War reimagining later this year ...

Note how Peek talks of Gemmell being a 'fantasy author', rather than describing his version of Troy as fantasy. This is important, because, as I've noted, the first in the series has no more of the fantastic than Shanower's version.*

* By which I am not as impressed as some. The artwork is beautiful and meticulous, and the research behind it extremely thorough. But because Shanower is telling the story of the Trojan War, rather than using the War as a background against which to tell stories, as the Greeks did, and because he includes nearly every single incident recorded in any source, the narrative can be quite shapeless and dull. Also, he's nowhere near recreating the Iliad yet - as of the most recent part published the Greek army has yet to arrive outside the walls of Troy.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Chuffed by Carnivalesque

This month's Carnivalesque, the pre-Modern history blog carnival, is up, hosted at Siris. This is one of the bimonthly ancient/mediaeval ones. Go have a look. It shouldn't take long to see why I'm quite pleased with myself right now. But there's also plenty of stuff linked there that will be worth reading.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Hannibal starring Alexander Siddig

Oh dear.

Again, I wasn't watching this as closely as I should have been, as I was taping it as well - but I managed to put the wrong tape in, and it ran out, so I can't go back and watch it all properly. Never mind, I doubt it would be worth the effort. I did catch things like the younger Scipio's opposition to Fabius Maximus' policy of non-engagement, and Hannibal's assumption that an attack on Rome would be unnecessary. Now, neither of these is impossible. Scipio's clash with Fabius is not backed by evidence, but I suppose it's not impossible given Scipio's links to the Aemilian faction in the Senate. And people do often find it hard to imagine why Hannibal should not have attacked Rome after Cannae - personally I find rather more plausible the notion that he knew he couldn't besiege the city and take it. The trouble is, the authorial narration that this film had makes people think that this is how it is definitively known to have happened - this is backed up by an opening caption that the film is 'based on actual events ... recorded by the historians of the time, verified by scholars of today'.

In which context, the misrepresentation of what happened in Spain is unforgivable. From this film, one would assume that nothing happened in Spain until the younger Scipio arrived to take over in 210 BC. This is not true. Scipio's father in 218, when he found out that Hannibal was heading for Italy, had returned himself, but sent his army with his brother on to Spain. The film acknowledges that Scipio did not take his army back to Italy, but raised a new one (actually took over two legions that were already there), but does not say where the army went. When the younger Scipio arrived, he was taking over a campaign that had already been going on for eight years under his father and uncle, who had both just been killed, not launching a new initiative as the film implied.

The elder Scipio is, I feel, always undervalued. His decision to continue the war in Spain (he went out to take command in 217) arguably resulted in Hannibal losing the war. (Given that Hannibal has a line in the film about invading Italy in order to protect Spain, you might have thought it was worth mentioning that his strategy didn't work.) The film's failure to mention this strips context away from the Carthaginian Senate's decision to send reinforcements to Spain rather than Hannibal. This wasn't purely jealous pique (though Hannibal probably believed it was) - there was a genuine threat to Carthage's territories that had to be faced.

In the end, this was not that much better than Channel 5's documentary from last year, which I've written about before.

Edited two hours later to add: Well, the film may have distorted the chronology of the Spanish campaign, but at least it didn't leave it out altogether. Which is what the accompanying documentary did. You can't discuss the Second Punic War and leave out the Roman campaigns in Spain - it's like providing an overview of the Second World War without mentioning the Eastern Front.

It's a shame, because up to that point the documentary had been fairly sensible. It did reveal that the notion that Hannibal expected the Romans to roll over after Cannae is that held by Adrian Goldsworthy. Goldsworthy is a pretty sensible historian, but I'm not sure this reading of Hannibal's motives can be demonstrated. He certainly hoped that Rome would give up or that Rome's allies would desert if he could humiliate the Roman army. But he may have realized that this was a gamble. It might not have been a surprise that Rome didn't give up after Cannae - but there wasn't much else he could do about it.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


As you'll see, I've changed the template for this blog. Partly this was out of boredom, but I think the end result looks nicer, and allows me to include larger pictures without interfering with text in the sidebar. I've gone back over several entries and increased the size of pictures. I've also revised this post, replacing, where possible, photos taken off the Internet with photos from my own collection (and adding a couple - completion of this process will have to wait until my next trip to Rome).

Oh, and that's the statue of Augustus as pontifex maximus in the top left corner, taken in the Muzeo Nationale at the Palazzo Massimo alle Terme.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Recent TV

Sunday night ITV3 had a programme called Boudicca. With the usual dramatized reconstructions, it purported to be a historical account of Boudicca's life, but pretty soon it was making things up. Of course, you almost have to do that to get an hour's programme out of Boudicca's life, as the sources are so patchy. But this sort of programme is very bad at making clear what is backed by evidence, and what is speculation. And once something is stated with authority, it gets treated as a 'historical fact', regardless of evidential foundation. So, for instance, this programme had a detailed list of the tribes that joined the rebellion, whereas there is only evidence for two. All the others have been added by 'later tradition', which could be no more than someone's guesswork in the eighteenth century. But it's not worth going on about this. I've set out my opinions on Boudicca, and most modern treatments of her, here, here and here (and you can find a bit more if you scroll far enough down the comments here).

Rather better were Monday and Tuesday's repeats on UKTV History of the Greek Gods and Goddesses series, presented by Olympic athlete Jonathan Edwards. I wrote a little bit about the first one, on Jason and the Argonauts, when discussing Michael Wood's programme on the same subject. There were a few mistakes in this programme - not all Hollywood versions of the story keep Heracles to the end, the famous 1963 version getting rid of him mid-story, as per the legend, and the encounter with the Sirens belongs to the return from Colchis (which was misspelt on a map), not to the journey out. And it is interesting to see Medea presented as exemplary of good helpful womanhood, editing out her betrayal of her brother and her subsequent crimes. But I found interesting the presentation of the Jason legend as a 'rites of passage' tale, and a series of lessons about what Greek men needed to know. I still think one needs to be aware of the possibility that the original legend has grown in the telling - both Heracles and the Sirens I think are later additions. But that doesn't necessarily invalidate the reading Edwards presents of the story as it stands.

The second programme, on the Odyssey, had the potential to be more clearly focussed, centring on the tale as told by Homer, rather than a general aggregation of various tellings. Unfortunately, it cherry-picks the story to such a degree as to give a somewhat distorted version. Gone are the Lotus Eaters, Aeolus, the Laestrygonians, Circe, and the cattle of Helios. More importantly, gone is the theme of the wrath of Poseidon, and Odysseus' tendency to lie is underplayed. And the sanitization seen in the previous programme's view of Medea takes over at the end, and the slaying of the Suitors is completely excised.

This morning I also caught Alexander Siddig on BBC Breakfast (there's an article with a link to the interview here), talking about his role in Hannibal, to be broadcast this Sunday on BBC1, with a documentary on BBC2 either later the same night (if you believe the BBC History page), or the following night (if you believe the BBC Two listings). Siddig was talking about what a great general Hannibal was, almost as good as Alexander. Well, tactically, yes, and as a leader of men. But strategically Alexander succeeded and Hannibal failed (though his high-risk gamble was admittedly about the only thing that was likely to bring Carthage success against Rome). We shall see what the programmes are like. (Tom Holland apparently wrote about the programme in the Daily Mail, but I can't find it online and wouldn't link to it if I could.)*

Winner, predictably, was BBC4's programme Lost In Egypt on the Oxyrhynchus Papyri, misleadingly sold in the listings as giving an insight into ancient Egypt, though actually they reveal daily life in Roman Egypt, and lost literature of ancient Greece. Lots of people I know or know of as talking heads, all done with BBC4's usual intelligence. This one will repay rewatching when I'm not distracted by making the dinner and feeding the cats.

* Please note, this is due to an objection to the Daily Mail, not to Tom Holland.

Monday, May 08, 2006

I appear to have been flamed


Predictably, I suppose, it's on the King Arthur post.