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ARCHIVED ENTRIES FOR NOVEMBER 2014

November  27,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

Contrary to popular opinion, we are not starved of evidence: enough material survives from the Roman world alone to last any historian's lifetime; and if you include relevant material from Judaism and early Christianity, the problem is one of excess, not shortness of supply.  Yet historians still start their books with a ritual lament about 'the sources' and their inadequacy.  The lament is not entirely insincere (though it is something of a self-constructed problem): the sources often are inadequate for the particular questions that historians choose to pose.  But that is part of the ancient-historical game: first pick your question, then demonstrate the appalling difficulty of finding an answer given the paucity of the evidence, finally triumph over that difficulty by scholarly 'skill'.

--Hadrian and His Villa collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

November  26,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

To be fair to Birley, he does signal his conjectures, guesses and inferences for what they are. Obsessively so.  His text is littered with the technical terminology of 'careful' ancient history: 'presumably', 'one may readily postulate', 'the odds are that', 'it is no more than a guess', 'no doubt', 'in all likelihood', 'on this hypothesis'.  Such phrases occur literally hundreds of times throughout the book.  The problem with this method is not its dishonesty (though readers should be warned that many of Birley's terms are used in their narrowest academic sense: 'no doubt' means 'this is an extremely dodgy speculation').  The real issue is that this veneer of scrupulous scholarship ('I shall claim nothing as fact that I cannot firmly authenticate') turns out to act as a brilliant alibi for outright fiction.

--Hadrian and His Villa collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

November  25,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

The wilder the speculation, the greater the panoply of scholarship.  Fragmentary inscriptions are dissected in detail (largely because Birley conveniently assumes that an inscribed dedication to Hadrian in town X means that Hadrian actually visited town X - when there are plenty of other reasons to account for such displays of local loyalty).  Poetry is grilled for 'facts' that it could never yield.  In one horribly memorable argument he takes a fragment of an epigram by the poet/historian Florus ('I don't want to be the emperor/Strolling about among the Britons') as evidence to support his claim that Hadrian made his first inspection of Hadrian's Wall on foot.

--Hadrian and His Villa collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

November  24,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

Why, then, was Nero overthrown and demonised, while Hadrian died safely in his bed and escaped with nothing more damning than an awkward question mark over his aims and motives?  Partly, no doubt, because Hadrian walked the tightrope of imperial image-making more deftly than Nero.  The Golden House caused offence because it monopolised the heart of the city of Rome itself ('Romans flee to Veii - your city has become one man's house' was a well-known joke against Nero's building schemes), whereas Hadrian's yet more grandiose Villa was at a discreet (enough) distance from the capital.  Partly, the question provides its own answer: most Roman rulers were not overthrown because they were demons or demonised (my guess is that assassinations were more often the result of self-serving rivalries within the palace than of political principle or moral outrage), they were demonised because they were overthrown.  If one of the many attempts on Hadrian's life had been successful, he, too, would most probably have been written into history as a tyrannical maniac.  Instead, whatever the truth about his regime, his loyal and chosen successor, Antoninus Pius, made sure that posterity did not treat him as badly as it might have done - or (who knows?) as he might have deserved.

--Hadrian and His Villa collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

[N.B.:  Mary Beard should write an updated The Prince.]

November  23,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

The Emperor Hadrian once went to the public baths and saw an old soldier rubbing his back against a wall.  Puzzled, he asked the old man what he was doing.  'Getting the marble to scrape the oil off,' the old man explained, 'because I can't afford a slave.'  The emperor immediately presented him with a team of slaves and the money for their upkeep.  A few weeks later, he was in the baths again.  Predictably, perhaps, he found a whole group of old men ostentatiously rubbing their backs against the wall, trying to cash in on his generosity.  He asked the same question and got the same response.  'But haven't you thought,' replied the canny emperor, 'of rubbing each other down?'

--Hadrian and His Villa collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

November  22,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

There is, however, a bigger question raised by Champlin's Nero, and by any biographical study, ancient or modern, of a Roman emperor: just how influential on the wider developments of Roman history was an individual ruler?  Imperial biographers are professionally committed to the idea that the emperor is crucial, and Champlin does his best to demonstrate that there was a significant imperial programme at work during this reign that can be raced back to Nero himself.  This approach would, no doubt, draw support from Tacitus' comments on the influence of changing rulers, the fear and flattery they provoked, on the pattern of Roman history writing.  But Tacitus could also be taken to support almost exactly the opposite position: namely, that so long as the right words were mouthed, praise and blame delivered in the expected quarters, business could go on as usual from reign to reign, no matter who was on the throne.  Even if you had been an elite ally of the last emperor, all that was required was some well-honed denunciation of the previous regime to keep your place in the new hierarchy.

--Nero's Colosseum? collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

November  21,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

There is also a wide range of more or less revealing anecdotes attached to [Livia's] name.  A fourth-century medical writer preserves a recipe for one of Livia's concoctions for sore throats and another for nervous exhaustion (without any hints of sinister side effects).  And from the vast compendium of useful knowledge assembled in the elder Pliny's Natural History, we learn that she put her longevity down to drinking wine from Friuli (a claim still used to advertise the vintage); and we glean hints of an unlikely rivalry between Livia and Augustus' granddaughter Julia over who owned the smallest dwarf (Julia won the male competition with a specimen of two foot five inches, Livia the female - height unspecified).

--Married to the Empire collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

November  20,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

The description of this procession [in honour of the god Dionysus, sponsored in the early third century BC by one of Cleopatra's predecessors on the throne, Ptolemy II 'Philadelphus' ('sister-lover')] oozes with amazement at the extraordinary spectacle.  Each of the floats required hundreds of men to pull them along, partly because of the ingenious, mechanical - and presumably very heavy - displays that they carried.  One of the highlights, and a triumph of Alexandrian engineering, was an eight-cubit-tall (approximately twelve feet) statue that 'stood up mechanically without anyone laying a hand on it and sat back down again when it had poured a libation of milk.'  Another attraction was the chariots not pulled by men or horses, but by ostriches.  Another was the 'wine-sack made of leopard skin and holding 3,000 measures', which gradually released its contents onto the processional route.

--Cleopatra: The Myth collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

November  18,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

It concerns the period just after the Battle of Actium in 31 BC, at which Augustus (then known as Octavian, or just plain Caesar) defeated the forces of Antony and Cleopatra and effectively gained control of the entire Roman world.  He was met on his return to the capital by a man with a tame raven, which he had taught to say 'Greetings to Caesar, our victorious commander.'  Augustus was so impressed that he gave the man a substantial cash prize.  but it turned out that the bird's trainer had a partner who, when none of the 20,000 sesterces came his way, went to the emperor and explained that the man had another raven which he should be asked to produce.  Predictably, the pair had been hedging their bets: this bird squawked 'Greetings to Antony, our victorious commander.'  The emperor saw the funny side and did not get angry - but simply insisted that the prize money be shared between the two men.

--Looking for the Emperor collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

November  17,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

The fate of Gavius from the Sicilian town of Consa, who was flogged, tortured and crucified for being a spy, despite the fact that he was a Roman citizen and so legally protected from such treatment, has remained a powerful political symbol.  Gavius died with the words 'Ciis romanus sum' ('I am a Roman citizen') on his lips - a slogan that was later adopted by Lord Palmerston when he sent a gunboat in support of the British citizen Don Pacifico, who in 1847 had been attacked by an anti-Semitic crowd in Athens.  It was famously wheeled out again in 1963 by John F. Kennedy in Berlin: 'Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was "civis Romanus sum".  Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is "ich bin ein Berliner".  Kennedy, presumably, did not know what happened to Gavius.

--Quousque Tandem ...? collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

November  16,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

Decapitation, and its attendant embellishments, was something of an occupational hazard for front-line political figures in Rome in the hundred years of civil war that led up to the assassination of Julius Caesar.  The head of Antony's own grandfather was said to have graced the dinner table of Gaius Marius in one of the pogroms of the early first century BC.  A cousin of Cicero had his severed head ('still alive and breathing', in Cicero's words) presented to the dictator Sulla.  And, in an even more baroque twist, the head of the unfortunate general Marcus Crassus, whose defeat by the Parthians in 53 BC counted among the worst Roman military disasters, ended up as a bit-part in a performance of Euripides' Bacchae at the Parthian Court.

--Quousque Tandem ...? collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

November  15,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

Pride of place in the Philogelos goes to the 'egg-heads', who are the subject of almost half the jokes for their literal-minded scholasticism ('An egg-head doctor was seeing a patient.  "Doctor", he said, "when I get up in the morning I feel dizzy for 20 minutes."  Get up 20 minutes later, than."').  After the 'egg-heads', various ethnic jokes come a close second.  In a series of gags reminiscent of modern Irish or Polish jokes, the residents of three Greek towns - Abdera, Kyme and Sidon - are ridiculed for their 'how many Abderites does it take to change a light bulb?' style of stupidity.  Why these three places in particular, we have no idea.  But their inhabitants are portrayed as being as literal-minded as the egg-heads, and even more obtuse.  'An Abderite saw a eunuch talking to a woman and asked if she was his wife.  When he replied that eunuchs can't have wives, the Abderite asked, "So is she your daughter then?"

--What Made the Greeks Laugh? collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

November  14,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

The tolerance of the Emperor Augustus in the face of quips and banter of all sorts was still being celebrated four centuries after his death.  One of the most famous one-liners of the ancient world, with an afterlife that stretches into the twentieth century (it gets retold, with a different cast of characters but the same punchline, both in Freud and in Iris Murdoch's The Sea, The Sea), was a joking insinuation about Augustus' paternity.  Spotting, so the story goes, a man from the provinces who looked much like himself, the emperor asked if the man's mother had ever worked in the palace.  'No', came the reply, 'but my father did.'  Augustus wisely did no more than grin and bear it.

--What Made the Greeks Laugh? collected in Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

November  13,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

The master in any art who abandons the methods of his mastery and falls back on prentice habits runs a fearful risk.  No lover, of any kind, not even the lover of himself, can safely turn from maturity to adolescence.  His adolescence is in his maturity.  The past may be recalled and redeemed in the present, but the present cannot be forsaken for the past.

--All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams

November  12,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

"The last infirmity of noble mind" can in fact make the mind so infirm that it becomes ignoble, as the divine Milton very well knew, or he would not have called it infirmity, nor caused Messias to reject it with such a high air; for paradise is regained not only by the refusal of sin but by the healing of infirmity.

--All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams

November  11,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

The hierarchy of the abyss does not know anything of equality, nor of any lovely balance within itself, nor (if he indeed be) does the lord of that hierarchy ever look up, subordinate to his subordinates, and see above him and transcending him the glory of his household.  So that never in all the myths, of Satan or Samael or Iblis or Ahriman, has there been any serious tale of that lord becoming flesh by human derivation; how could he be so supposed to submit, in bed or cradle?

--All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams

November  10,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

Wise readers of verse do their best to submit their voices to the verse, letting the words have their own proper value, and endeavor to leave them to their precise proportion and rhythm.

--All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams

November  9,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

He knew the derivation of the word "Clerk," and that the original Greek meant "inheritance."  The clerks were the inheritors; that was the old wise meaning--men who gathered their inheritance. 

--All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams

November  8,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

Behind her, Evelyn's voice said, "Oh come away!"  At the words Lester, for the first time in her life, saw a temptation precisely as it is when it has ceased to tempt--repugnant, implausible, mean. 

--All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams

November  7,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

Betty was far away, gone as lovers and wives do go, as Richard's wife had gone, gone to her deathbed.  Betty's own bed was cold, even like her chastity.  I would I were where Betty lies; no wedding garment except this fear, in the quiet, in the quiet, in the quiet, where a figure of another world stood.  All things rose fluttering round it; beetles? too light for beetles: moths, bright light moths round a flame-formed dark; the cloak of the dark and the hunger in the dark.  The high moon a moth, and he; only not Betty, Betty dead like Richard's wife, dead women int he street of the City under the moon. 

--All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams

November  6,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

She knew she had never really liked Evelyn, but Evelyn had been a habit, almost a drug, with which she filled spare hours.  Evelyn usually did what Lester wanted.  She would talk gossip which Lester did not quite like to talk, but did rather like to hear talked, because she could then listen to it while despising it.  

--All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams

November  5,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

She had the common, vague idea of her age that if your sexual life was all right you were all right, and she had the common, vague idea of all ages that if you (and your sexual life) were not all right, it was probably someone else's fault--perhaps undeliberate, but still their fault. 

--All Hallow's Eve by Charles Williams

November  4,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

I found I had begun to understand the meaning of the young man's prophecy that I would come to appreciate death and what it had to offer.  Death was my only means of getting away for good from this body and all its pseudo-symptoms of disease and fear, from the constant awareness of this body, from this person, with his ruthlessness and sentimentality and ineffective, insincere, impracticable notions of behaving better, from attending to my own thoughts and from counting in thousands to smother them and from my face in the glass. 

--The Green Man by Kingsley Amis

November  3,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

I could see through the window of a supermarket.  The place was still open; I went in and bought something I had never heard of by a writer whose first book, a satire on provincial life, I remembered had been commended at the time.  In the little cocktail bar of the University Arms, I got through about forty minutes' worth of this too, before going out and dropping it into a rubbish basket on the way back to my car.  To the endemic unreality of all fiction, the author had added contributions of his own: an inability to leave even the most utilitarian sentence unadorned by some verbal frill or knob or curlicue, recalling those savage cultures whose sacred objects and buildings are decorated in every square inch; a rooted habit of proceeding by way of violent and perfunctory transitions from one slackly observed scent to the next; and an unvaried method of characterization whereby, having portrayed a person as one sort of cliché, he presently revealed him as a predictable different sort of cliché.  Oh well, what had I expected?  The thing was a novel.

--The Green Man by Kingsley Amis

[N.B.:  I wonder if Amis is criticizing himself here--after all, Lucky Jim, his well-received first novel, was a campus farce regarding provincial life.]

November  2,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

On bad days, sitting in a cinema can give me a curiously strong foretaste of dying, out of some fortuitous combination of the darkness, the felt presence of unseen strangers, the vast, unnaturally coloured, ever-changing images, the voices that are not quite like voices.

--The Green Man by Kingsley Amis

November  1,  2014

Patrick: Lagniappe

Sorry, Dad, it wasn't the time to say it, I know, but there's nothing good about being self-sufficient except over things that don't matter or when you've got to be because there just isn't anybody else around, but that isn't so in your case--it's bad that you don't depend on other people, especially the ones that depend on you.  I can see you're feeling rotten, but if anything really crappy happened and it could have been prevented by you telling someone like me, or Joyce, what was going on beforehand, then you'd only have yourself to blame, or rather I'd blame myself too for not going on at you about it.

--The Green Man by Kingsley Amis