Wednesday, July 30, 2008

A Roman Tombstone

This is the tombstone of Insus, son of Vodullus. It was found in Lancaster in 2005, and a BBC news report last week (from which I have taken the photo) talked about plans for it to go on display in the Museum of Lancashire by the end of the year. The inscription reads:


which means (filling in the gaps):

To the spirits of the departed. Insus, son of Vodullus, citizen of the Treveri, cavalryman of the Ala Augusta, curator [a junior officer] of the troop of Victor. Domitia [made this?].

But what I want to talk about is a comment by Stephen Bull, the Museum's curator of Military History and Archaeology. He says:

To depict him in such a dramatic and war-like position, when none of the other tombstones of this period show such a thing, makes it very likely that we are looking at something either real, or very similar to an event that happened.

I find that a very curious thing to say. Because this sort of image, of a cavalryman riding down a barbarian, is not uncommon on Roman tombstones. As it happens, I've been making student assignments on this sort of image over the weekend. This, for example, is the tombstone of Flavinus from Hexham Abbey:

Other examples I can think of are those of Longinus Sdapeze from Colchester, Rufus Sita from Gloucester, and Sextus Valerius Genialis from Cirencester. It's also found in non-funerary contexts. This is a detail from a distance slab put up by the II Legion Augusta on the Antonine Wall, found in Bridgeness and now in the National Museum of Scotland, where I was admiring it on Saturday:

According to this report, there are a dozen such reliefs that have been found in the UK. The beheading shown on the tombstone of Insus does appear to be unique. But is there any need to see this as anything more than a variation on a theme? Is it even necessary to connect it with Celtic head cults, as David Shotter does? Real events were sometimes depicted on tombstones, as, for example, when Tiberius Claudius Maximus depicted his encounter with the dying Dacian king Decebalus. But he also added a detailed text explaining the event. This is not the case with Insus.

Some of Bull's other comments (e.g. "The carving and inscription will add detail to what we know about the Roman auxiliary cavalry and its equipment.") seem perfectly sensible. What I think has happened here is that he has succumbed to the temptation to 'sex the story up' by suggesting that there is an actual event being depicted, rather than just generic imagery. It's the same motivation, to make things more concrete, that is behind suggesting that a Roman bust is of Julius Caesar when there isn't really any evidence.

But perhaps I'm being unfair. Perhaps Bull (an expert in 20th century military history and that of the English Civil War) has addressed these issues. He has written a pamphlet on the tombstone, which I'll be following up. If nothing else, I want to know what he thinks about Domitia. A lot of tombstones have text at the end suggesting that the soldier's heirs (usually fellow soldiers) set the tombstone up. Sometimes it's someone else. Here it's Domitia. Who was she? soldiers weren't officially allowed to marry, but often had common law wives. Is that who Domitia was?

* There's a nice picture of the inscription on this webpage, though their translation is a bit odd.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

They found Boudicca's brain!

Bonekickers is a show that seems to divide people. The division is between those who think it's utter nonsense, and those who think it's utter nonsense but enjoy it anyway.

This week's seemed more nonsensical than usual, but perhaps because I know the history that's being abused more than in previous episodes. But maybe it's the arsenal of live Roman napalm grenades. It's almost not worth listing all the lunacies in this. Mosaics on walls? Well, perhaps. The Life of Marcus Quintanus is, of course, completely made up - but can you really imagine that if they'd been researching this they wouldn't know that there were other more complete copies? And palimpsests made out of printed pages? Do what, guv'nor? And why does Professor Parton wear his hat at night?

It might have been interesting to spin off this into a discussion of the attitudes towards Boudicca that the programme shows, especially Boudicca as British queen, sheltered by villagers in the West Country, when there's no evidence that she cared about them or that they cared about her. But really, this is so bonkers and bears so little relationship to history that it's hardly worth it. (If you want to read what I think about Boudicca, it's all here.)

But yes, I'll be watching next week.

Sunday, July 20, 2008


Hadrian is probably emperor of whom people in Britain are most likely to have heard, through his association with the Wall that runs across Northumberland and Cumbria. But not many people will know much more than that about him. His biography has not really seeped into the public consciousness. I can't, for instance, think of a single screen portrayal of Hadrian off the top of my head, whereas I can immediately think of at least two or three for the likes of Augustus, Claudius, Nero, Vespasian, and other first century AD rulers. I'm sure such portrayals of Hadrian exist, and if anyone wants to point them out I'll be happy to hear of them, but it doesn't change my point. The fact that I can't think of any shows how little Hadrian is known in this respect.

The British Museum's new exhibition clearly means to change that. I'll be talking about the exhibition itself after I go on August 3rd. What I want to write about now is the media commentary that's appeared in advance of the opening. There have been articles in The Guardian, The Telegraph and Sunday Telegraph, Times and Sunday Times. The BBC repeated a somewhat superficial Timewatch programme on Hadrian's Wall, featured the exhibition on Newsnight Review, and showed a not-too bad, if occasionally overheated, documentary by Dan Snow (all of which are still available, if you're in the UK, on the BBC's iPlayer page, though they'll gradually disappear over the next week). And that no doubt only scratches the surface.

What strikes me is how pro-Hadrian almost all of this coverage has been. A good example is this Guardian editorial; faults are noted, but overall he's seen as a good thing. Snow, though not ignoring such things as the suppression of Jewish identity, in an event as traumatic as the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem in AD 70, cannot hide his admiration of the man. Articles talk admiringly of how Hadrian pulled out of a war in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq (take heed, America's new president, seems to be the message).

But are these pieces all treating him as too modern, too much the benevolent dictator, too much someone we can identify with? After all, this was a man who was so hated by the Senate that only the threat of civil war forced through approval of his deification. His relationship with Antinoos always seems accompanied in these modern reports by a comment to the effect that such a liaison would not raise an eyebrow in the Roman world. Well, yes the ancients had different attitudes to sex between men than those we have, but, as Dan Snow reveals as he reads a passage from Aurelius Victor (De Caesaribus 14), reporting rumours attacking Hadrian for his lasciviousness, there were some Romans who though Hadrian went too far in this respect. I don't particularly want to go on about this, not least because I've already written on the subject, but I do wonder if we still can't see this emperor clearly.

Fortunately, we still have Mary Beard. She concludes a lengthy piece in The Guardian by pointing out how Hadrian's image is something that we have invented for ourselves, the modern version going back I would say to when he was canonized by Gibbon (whom Beard does not mention) as one of the good emperors. She points out how the goalposts are moved, partly because of the state of the evidence. Where Nero can only be seen as a tyrant, she says, if Hadrian does the same thing, it gets a much more favourable spin put on it. She's absolutely right.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Historical consultants

UK TV History are currently repeating Ancient Rome: The Rise and Fall of an Empire, the BBC's 2006 drama-documentary series. On an internet conference I frequent, someone said that it should be all right, because Mary Beard was the historical consultant on some of them. Unfortunately, it doesn't work like that. Mary Beard is undoubtedly a fine scholar. But the role of historical consultant in these sort of programmes is an advisory one. They are someone that the programme-makers turn to for ideas, but they do not write the scripts, or dictate how the programme should be made. They do not have the final say, and one suspects that they are often overruled. As a for instance, Mark Horton is the archaeological consultant on Bonekickers. Now, he may well have told the creators that anyone using a magnetometer must ensure that they have no metal about their person. He may even have said that this includes underwiring on bras. But I doubt he explicitly endorsed a scene where students are told by a member of staff to remove their bras, making that instruction in front of another, male, member of staff (something that I would expect to lead to a complaint of sexual harassment in any university I've ever been associated with). The power is with the programme and film-makers. The historians only know how to write books; the directors and producers are (they will argue) the ones who know what will work on the screen. And sometimes they will be right - good history does not always make good drama. Just look at Oliver Stone's Alexander, a film that (in my view) is dramatically weak because it pays too much respect to history. But sometimes decisions seem to me to be symptomatic of a lack of faith in their audience. Beard's post about her involvement with Ancient Rome is interesting. At a seminar, the producers explained that their prime objective was to prevent people changing channel. A lot of careful research has been done into people's viewing habits, and this is used to shape programmes. So complexity is avoided, for fear that people will change channel to something less taxing. If they want to get more of the story, the idea seems to be, they can always buy the accompanying book (I've certainly had that argument put to me, though not by a programme-maker). This seems unethical to me. History programmes should not be in the business of falsifying history. It's not enough to say that the true story is in the book - most viewers won't read the book. And the BBC's reputation as a maker of historical documentaries was not built on catering to the lowest common denominator. Programmes like Civilisation assumed an interested, intelligent audience, who might not know the subject being discussed, but didn't need patronizing. To return to my point about consultants - why do programme-makers make such a play of using consultants, if they will overrule them where necessary? Because consultants lend authority, to give the impression that their programmes are unquestionably historically accurate. This is important to programme-makers - a lack of perceived authenticity will hit their audiences. By hiring Mark Horton, the makers of Bonekickers hope to promote the notion that the show displays an authentic version of life in an archaeology department (which it isn't, of course). The hiring of Mary Beard and others allows the makers of Ancient Rome to back up their opening caption that the programme is dealing with real people and events, based on ancient accounts (as if those weren't problematic), and with the collaboration of modern historians. So what you see is true. Personally, I worry about the pernicious affect of such statements, and the way that the drama-documentary actualizes a particular version as The Way It Happened. Take, for instance, the programme on Tiberius Gracchus. Not only does the version show excise Tiberius' brother Gracchus from the account (too complicated, one presumes), but at the start brings together two pieces of evidence in a way that may not be sustainable. We know that Gracchus was present at the fall of Carthage in 146 BC. We also know that he won acclaim for being the first onto an enemy city's wall in the African campaign. But we don't know what the programme postulates, that the city concerned was Carthage. Indeed, one might suggest that it probably wasn't Carthage, as if it was, our source, Plutarch, might have been expected to tell us. Television drama strips this from the accounts. So, remember, don't consume the packaging. The quality of historical consultant is not necessarily a guide to the historical integrity of a programme. So why do historians still serve as consultants on these programmes? Obviously, I can't speak for anyone. And I shall put aside the notion of sheer ego-boost from being connected to the telly, though were I ever to be offered such a role (which is highly unlikely) it would be an influential factor for my decision. I think many get involved because they see an opportunity to do some good, at the very least to stop some mistakes being made. Bonekickers has its clearly 'educational' moments, such as the mini-lecture on how Bristol, though built on the profits of the slave trade, never actually had slaves in its ports. And Mark Horton has a series of mini-films on the website on the background. So those interested in learning more about the history can be directed. Maybe that's the right attitude, as long as your ambitions aren't too lofty - in which case you'll be disappointed, as Kathleen Coleman was when she worked on Gladiator. But maybe it's appeasing the enemy? Will Bonekickers have the same effect as Time Team, in encouraging a false view of what life in an archaeology department is like? I'm not sure I know the answer to that one. Edit (23/07): There's a good article here by Paul Cartledge, talking about his involvement in The Greeks, why he did it, and why he'd do it again (as indeed he did, for The Spartans).

Wednesday, July 09, 2008


There was a time when, whenever Time Team started, I'd turn the sound down and hum the theme to The Avengers, because I thought sometimes that this was the feel Time Team was going for. For Bonekickers, the new BBC1 action-drama about a team of dedicated archaeologists, I guess it should be the music from Torchwood (if it was more memorable). And that's basically what Bonekickers is - Time Team meets Torchwood. There are plenty of visual references to both shows. In terms of archaeology, there are a few authentic touches - points are scored early for telling people not to stand at the edge of the trench. This and other similar moments are no doubt down to archaeological adviser Mark Horton, who has lent the show the authority of his name, and apparently his wardrobe, to judge from how Hugh Bonneville is dressed. But anyone whose had any contact with real archaeology departments will soon notice the differences. For a start, the show promulgates the Time Team myth that all archaeologists have limitless supplies of top-of-the-range equipment. And I've never been to a black tie do-cum-book signing-cum-professorial welcome do. And certainly archaeologists, even on rescue digs, don't work round the clock unless there's a really good reason to do so, and never have their labs open all night. And they don't have silly adventures either. But then Bonekickers wouldn't be much of a drama otherwise, I suppose. It's not that it's particularly bad - it's no worse than Torchwood. It's just not particularly good. And there is a problem with shows like this, or Channel 4's unlamented Extreme Archaeology, that try to make archaeology breathlessly exciting. Archaeology's excitement is not of the adrenaline-rush variety; it's much more cerebral. You can communicate this through television - just ask Mortimer Wheeler, or (since Sir Mortimer's dead) Julian Richards. But I can't see Bonekickers succeeding, or getting a second season.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


I found this image in the Bridgeman Education database.

The database tells me that it is of Mercury, from Pompeii, now in the Naples Archaeological Museum, is in the Fourth Style of Pompeian wall-painting, and dates to the first century AD. What it doesn't tell me is which house in Pompeii it's from, and I can't find this painting illustrated in any of my books on Pompeii. Googling isn't producing anything. Anyone out there know?

Monday, July 07, 2008

What sort of emergency?

You may well have read over the weekend about a 'state of emergency' being declared at Pompeii. To anyone with an interest in Roman history, this will not exactly be a surprise. One regularly sees papers, or chapters, or news items, about how Pompeii and Herculaneum are about to be lost for ever. From personal experience, I can tell you how much less of the site (particularly in the private houses) was open in 2007 as compared to 1999 or 1986. It's not too surprising. Pompeii was never meant to last as long as it has. The bright colours of the graffiti on the walls was only meant to last for a short period, weeks, or moths at the most - it's not surprising that after two hundred and fifty years of being exposed to the Italian summer, it's all faded. The interior decoration was mostly repainted every decade. The houses were probably meant to be more robust, but most of them lost their roofs, and hence their structural integrity.

What interests me is some radical differences in how the story had been reported. The BBC report is much as you'd expect - statistics about how much is being lost every year through lack of funds. The Guardian has a rather different approach. Hardly a word there about the threat to the archaeology. Instead, the report is all about the poverty of the tourist experience:

The daily Corriere della Sera this week deplored the squalid conditions at Pompeii, where visitors run a gauntlet of hawkers and self-appointed car park wardens to a vast and poorly signposted complex with no restaurants and just three toilet facilities.

For a start, this seems a bit unfair. There aren't many toilets, but it's five, rather than three, and, unless it's closed in the past year, there is a restaurant in the shell of the Forum Baths. There are free maps given out at the entrance, and the official guides published by Electa Napoli in collaboration with the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei are as good as any other Electa publication (i.e. an exemplary model of how to do an archaeological guide).

The real question, though, is which report represents the intent behind the move to appoint a special commissioner. If he is to be led by the need to protect the archaeology above any other considerations, then that's by and large a good thing (though giving his salary directly to the Soprintendenza would be better). But if the initiative is to be tourist-led, then I rather share some of the qualms of Mary Beard (who, of course, blogged this before I got around to it). There are no toilets except by the exits and entrances because there's no running water on the site. Do we really want the roads of Pompeii ripped up to lay water pipes? Or Portaloos outside the amphitheatre? And where would one put further restaurants? In some of the houses? In one of the large gardens at the eastern end of the site?

So what is this all about? Protecting the site, or (as is mentioned in the video accompanying the BBC report) exploiting a cash cow?

Friday, July 04, 2008

Judea AD 33. Saturday afternoon. About tea time.

When I see a headline stating 'Doubt over date for Brit invasion' (original press release, and another report), I expect to find a dramatic change, redating it to 56 BC, or AD 54. Instead, it turns out that the date is being shifted by a mere four days, from August 26/27 to August 22/23.

So it's not really that significant. In any case, what do either of these dates mean? I can tell you what they definitely don't mean - they don't mean the 22nd/23rd or 26th/27th days of the month Sextilis (not renamed August until 8 BC) in the consulship of Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus and Marcus Licinius Crassus (yes that Pompey and that Crassus). The Roman civic calendar was in a mess by the first century BC. A failure to apply intercalary months properly meant that the Roman civic year was about three months ahead of the solar year, something that Caesar had to rectify in 46 BC. So the last week of 'August' would have the conditions that would now be expected in May. This is certainly not when Caesar invaded Britain. He clearly states in De Bello Gallico 4.20, that the invasion was launched when there was little of the summer left (exigua parte aestatis reliqua). So 'August 22/23' actually means 'the equivalent of August 22/23 if the Roman civic calendar and the solar year were properly aligned' (i.e. on the Julian calendar). At which point the dates become, for me, rather meaningless.

I'm not even sure that the event can be dated to where August would have been. Apart from the reference to the summer, the only other dating evidence is that the landing took place four days before a full moon. I'm not sure why September is ruled out - in 1940 the Germans were certainly contemplating invasion in late September. Perhaps the astrological work and the studying of the tides demonstrates that the invasion cannot have been four days before a full moon, but eight or nine days (a textual correction proposed by R.G. Collingwood in 1937). But even this may be open to possible objections (as raised by others) that changes to the coastline over two thousand years have altered the currents. In any case, neither the 'traditional' date nor the new one seem to me to be terribly helpful.

At least these dates are less meaningless than the recent attempt to date the return of Odysseus (full article) to April 16, 1178 BC, on the basis of astronomical evidence from the text. Now, I'm happy with the notion that genuine astronomical phenomena are described in the Odyssey. It may be that the reference to the obliteration of the sun at Odyssey 20.356 is meant to be an eclipse. What I find far less plausible is the notion that Homer is able to insert consistent astronomical data into his imaginative account, that point to an eclipse five centuries before he wrote. Even the authors concede that their theory only works if one assumes that Zeus sending Hermes to Ogygia represents movement of the planet Mercury. Given that there are perfectly good dramatic reasons in the framework of the Odyssey for this trip (he's been sent by Zeus to tell Calypso to release Odysseus, and who else would Zeus send than the messenger god?), I don't see the need for an allegorical interpretation.

What both these items share, it seems to me, is a positivist outlook on the ancient world. Caesar invaded Britain on a particular day. Odysseus returned on a particular day. Since these are facts (an arguable proposition for Odysseus' return), then, the idea seems to be, it must be possible, with enough investigation, to discover those facts. With my own little post-modernist toolkit, I conclude that some facts simply aren't recoverable.

The title of this post, by the way, is a quotation from Monty Python's Life of Brian a series of captions that satirizes exactly this sort of attempt to advance precise dates.