Sunday, June 29, 2008

Roman Bodies. Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century

While I was researching other works published by The British School in Rome, I came across a listing for this fascinating-sounding book, Roman Bodies. Antiquity to the Eighteenth Century, edited by Andrew Hopkins and Maria Wyke:

The seventeen wide-ranging and interdisciplinary essays explore dramatic changes in Western conceptions of the body. Divided into three sections, ‘Empire’, ‘Church’ and ‘Religion and science’, topics discussed include gender, sexuality, social and political identity, health and sickness, the body in death and after, and corporeal aesthetics.

[1] The body of Rome: introduction, Maria Wyke and Andrew Hopkins; [2] Archetypally Roman? Representing Seneca’s ageing body, Catharine Edwards; [3] Circumcision, de-circumcision and self-image: Celsus’s ‘operation on the penis’, Ralph Jackson; [4] A Roman perspective on circumcision, Pierre Cordier; [5] In the foreskin of your flesh’: the pure male body in late antiquity, Gillian Clark; [6] Headhunters of the Roman army, Nic Fields; [7] Execution in effigy: severed heads and decapitated statues in Imperial Rome, Eric R. Varner; [8] Disabled bodies: the (mis)representation of the lame in antiquity and their reappearance in early Christian and medieval art, Livio Pestilli; [9]Truth, perception and the pagan body in the Roman martyr narratives, Kristina Sessa; [10] The paradoxical body of Saint Agnes, Lucy Grig; [11] The relic translations of Paschal I: transforming city and cult, Caroline Goodson; [12] Majesty and mortality: attitudes towards the corpse in papal funeral ceremonies, Minou Schraven; [13] A theatre of cruelty and forgiveness: dissection, institutions and the moral discourse of anatomy in sixteenth-century Rome, Andrea Carlino; [14] Not torments, but delights: Antonio Gallonio’s Trattato de gli instrumenti di martirio of 1591 and its illustrations, Opher Mansour; [15] Ancient bodies and contested identities in the English College martyrdom cycle, Rome, Richard L. Williams; [16] Secrets of the heart: the role of saintly bodies in the medical discourse of Counter-Reformation Rome, Catrien Santing; [17] Contesting the Sacred Heart of Jesus in late eighteenth-century Rome, Jon L. Seydl."

I thought the sections on executions in effigy and the decapitation of statues in Roman art as well as the discussion of the misrepresentation of the disabled in antiquity sounded particularly interesting.

Private Worship, Public Values, and Religious Change in Late Antiquity

"Conventional histories of late antique Christianity tell the story of a public institution - the Christian church. In this book, Kim Bowes relates another history, that of the Christian private. Using textual and archaeological evidence, she examines the Christian rituals of home and rural estate, which took place outside the supervision of bishops and their agents. These domestic rituals and the spaces in which they were performed were rooted in age-old religious habits. They formed a major, heretofore unrecognized force in late ancient Christian practice. The religion of home and family, however, was not easily reconciled with that of the bishop's church. Domestic Christian practices presented challenges to episcopal authority and posed thorny questions about the relationship between individuals and the Christian collective. As Bowes suggests, the story of private Christianity reveals a watershed in changing conceptions of "public" and "private," one whose repercussions echo through contemporary political and religious debate."

"Dr. Kim Bowes joined the Art History faculty at Fordham in January of 2004 after a doctorate at Princeton University and a post-doctoral fellowship at Yale University. Her research focuses on the art, archaeology and history of late antiquity and early Christianity. Her particular interests are Christian practice in the home, domestic architecture and landscape archaeology. She has articles in the Journal of Roman Archaeology, Art History and the Journal of Early Christian Studies, and is the co-editor of two books, Between Text and Territory: Survey and Excavation in the Terra of San Vicenzo al Volturno (forthcoming); and Hispania in the Late Antique World: New Perspectives (Brill, 2005). Kim is also a practicing field archaeologist, and has excavated sites ranging from Israel to Portugal, most recently a Roman amphitheater in Albania. Kim spent the last year as a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome where she completed a monograph entitled, Possessing the Holy: Private Worship in Late Antiquity." - faculty profile, Fordham University.

- This book is scheduled for release August 31, 2008.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Steven Pressfield offers thought provoking insight into his writing goals posted an interesting interview with fellow Oregonian, Steven Pressfield. His current book is entitled "Killing Rommel" about the efforts of the British Long Range Desert Group (I think this group was the basis for the TV series "Rat Patrol") to assassinate the "Desert Fox" in WWII. This is quite a departure from the ancient world that has been his focus in "Gates of Fire", "Tides of War", "The Virtues of War", and "The Afghan Campaign".

In the course of the interview, though, he explained his theme and reasons for writing "Gates of Fire", one of my favorite books, as it pertains to members of the modern military that I found very thought provoking and inspiring:

"Randy, a Goodreads member and Marine comments, "Pressfield uses the battle of a backdrop for studying the psychological makeup of what a soldier should be. This is a great book for anyone who is thinking of, or soon will be joining, military service. Those who are confused as to why a friend or loved one wants to join the military can very likely gain their answers from this book." Gates of Fire is required reading at several military schools around the country. Why do you think this is the case? What is it about your book that appeals to the military-inclined mind? Who else could learn from your books?

Steven Pressfield: Gates of Fire has a theme, and the theme is courage. It's also very much about the camaraderie of fighting men and of the warrior ethos. Believe me, this is still alive and well, despite all P.C. efforts to exile it into the past. Today's Marines and soldiers, however, like the rest of us, are woefully undereducated. No one has studied the past, so we all feel as if we're the first people on the planet to be confronting the issues we're confronting. That's where a book like Gates fills a gap. Marines and Army guys read it and realize that the same stuff they're going through has been gone through by a lot of other warriors before them, and that those warriors and the societies they lived in had highly evolved codes of honor and conduct. It gives our young soldiers and Marines a longer historical perspective and inspires them that they're not alone and they're not the first; in fact, they're part of a long and honorable tradition of the profession of arms. It helps!" - more interview

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Last Pagan: Julian The Apostate and the Death of the Ancient World

"Since his death on a Persian battlefield in AD 363, the violent end of the Emperor Julian (Flavius Claudius Julianus, 332-363_ has become synonymous with the death of paganism. Vilified throughout history as the `Apostate', the young philosopher-warrior was the last and arguably the most potent threat to Christianity.
The Last Pagan examines Julian's emergence as the sole survivor of a political dynasty soaked in blood. It traces his journey from an aristocratic Christian Childhood to his initiation into pagan cults and his mission to establish paganism as the dominant faith of the Roman world."

I've been interested in Julian ever since I read Michael Curtis Ford's novel "Gods and Legions". It, too, was a sympathetic portrait of the last pagan Roman emperor. So, when I was researching Adrian Murdoch's work, "The Last Roman:
Romulus Augustulus and the Decline of the West' and noticed he had also written about Julian the Apostate, I couldn't help but order it to have a look. I also got a great buy up at the David Brown Book Company - only $6.98!

I found a very interesting "Meet the Author" interview up at OxBow Books. An excerpt:

Constantine’s reign is usually heralded as a golden age and is celebrated as the beginning of the Christian era. The Last Pagan adopts a different approach, mourning the death of antiquity. Is this how you feel?

Very much so. The Emperor Julian has often been portrayed as an anomaly and regarded with slight embarrassment. It’s useful I think to change historical perspective. Instead of seeing Julian as the young man who came along and upset a Christian empire, he stood at the end of a line of Roman emperors.

At the same time, one of the premises with which I started the book is that while Constantine is conventionally heralded as the great hero and saviour of the empire, as a person he’s always appeared to me as a cynical and ruthless political operative. A deeply unpleasant man. It was natural, I suppose, to make Julian’s actions and values stand in contrast to those of Christian relatives.

Julian died aged only 31. Do you think that he had the qualities as a ruler to have shaped history if he had lived longer?

Arguably the largest problem for any biographer is that you have the benefit of hindsight – you know how the story ends. The challenge is to remember this and to stop seeing your subject’s fate as preordained. It’s too easy to see portents of doom wherever you look. This is especially true of Julian as all of the contemporaries tripped over themselves to editorialise his fate: his supporters painted him as a tragic hero and his opponents saw him as doomed from the moment of his apostasy.

If I’m being honest, even had Julian survived the war he might not have survived the peace. Religion has always attracted extremists, and it’s unlikely that Julian and his Christian opponents could have found any kind of middle ground. Plots to murder the emperor were uncovered before his death and so impassioned was the opposition to Julian’s religious reforms that I suspect one assassination attempt would have succeeded before too long.

The Last Pagan remembers a time when conflict over religion was rife, coming to a head on a battlefield in present-day Iraq. Did these parallels with recent events inspire you to choose Julian the Apostate as your subject?

Although I’d originally planned to draw parallels with the First Gulf War, the chapters on Julian’s invasion of Persia were written to a background of the build-up to the current conflict in Iraq. As Western governments began their build-up to what was obviously going to be an invasion last year, the parallels with Julian’s campaign made for distinctly uncomfortable writing – a foreign policy dictated by domestic necessity; support for the invasion from what is now Israel and the Gulf Arabs; debates about an illegal arms trade with Persia – swords of mass destruction if you will; a media campaign to encourage popular support for the war; even the fact that one of the most vocal opponents to the war was the administrator of Gaul. With Julian’s fate in mind (and the fact that his opponent outlasted his rule by some sixteen years) it is hard not to be discouraged about what the future holds.

Do you think that Roman paganism has any relevance for everyday life in the 21st century?

It’s more that the big questions that dominated Julian reign – the search for belief and the question of religious tolerance – are centre stage once more in the modern world. It’s easy to see similarities between Julian’s lack of comprehension of Christianity and the West’s frequent blindness to the Islamic world. It remains a historical irony that where Christianity was once the persecuted minority, it is now all-too often perceived as the aggressor.

At the same time, Julian’s search for his own faith as a young man mirrors the disillusionment and confusion that many today have with organised religion and the search for alternative forms of worship – a case in point is the startling growth in the interest in paganism over the past few years." - More

I'm not a big fan of Constantine either so I found Mr. Murdoch's comments quite interesting.

I also got "The Last Roman" since I wanted to read more about this era that essentially marked the formal end of the Roman Empire, especially after reading my friend, Boris Raymond's historical novel, "The Phoenix Circle" in which Orestes and Odovacar (Odacer) play major roles.

The Last Roman: Romulus Augustulus and the Decline of the West

“It is valid to ask whether one should attempt to write something that purports to be a biography about a character of whom we know so little. The answer has to be yes for three reasons. The first is that the drawn-out collapse of the Western empire makes it easy to forget the human aspect. All too often, historians get lost in the sweep of events, the broad brush strokes of barbarian settlements, military retrenchment and economic turmoil. Focusing on Romulus and his family gives a different and more personal perspective to the fall of the Roman Empire.

“The second reason is a growing interest – popular rather than just scholarly – in this period of late antiquity. It is an era that has always attracted poets and a smattering of novelists. The much-cited 1876 novel Der Kampf um Rom (‘The Fight for Rome’) by Felix Dahn is set in the first half of the sixth century. Despite its huge popularity, wild success and continuing availability, I must confess I fail to see its charms. Its 750 plodding pages have beaten me on several occasions. But the last few years have seen the later Roman Empire as a theme of films, books and computer games. The 2004 Antoine Fuqua-directed film King Arthur and the 2007 Doug Leffler film The Last Legion both have explicitly late Roman themes, the latter a fantasy on Romulus himself (they are both discussed in the final chapter of this book), while the latest addition to the immensely successful Rome: Total War computer game series is set around the barbarian invasions. There is increasingly a recognition among the public that this is a period in its own right.

“The third aim of the book is to make the case that 476 was important. It may seem arrogant almost to the point of lunacy to take the stand against some of late antiquity's greatest historians … [it] is not enough to argue for Romulus’ importance from the point of common usage, its canonisation, if you will. The Last Roman argues not just that something changed in AD 476, but that it was felt to have changed. The empire had been declining for decades, some would say centuries. Certainly, different Roman provinces declined at different rates. … There was no single moment. But 476 was what the sociologist and journalist Malcolm Gladwell would call a tipping point – a pivotal event after which it became impossible to return to the previous status quo. No matter how young he was, how little he affected his citizens or even how faint a historical footprint he left, Romulus Augustulus was the last Roman emperor. It was the end of autonomous Roman rule in the West. When he was forced into retirement, the baubles of imperial rule left Rome. Although Italy's new leaders continued to wear a toga for a few more years, they emerged as new types of rulers.

“The idea of decline had become so contagious by the time Romulus was placed on the throne that it had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.” - Author Adrian Murdoch

The Lost Gold of Rome: The Hunt for Alaric's Treasure

by Daniel Costa

"In AD 410, the Roman world suffered a catastrophe of unprecedented proportions when for the first time in 800 years a foreign army, led by the Visigoth King Alaric, sacked Rome and carried off its most valuable treasures. Alaric played a significant role in the dismemberment of the western Roman empire but he died before he could leave Italy. His followers buried him in a secret tomb laden with the plunder of Rome including, possibly, the sacred Temple treasures of the Jews. In The Lost Gold of Rome, Costa traces the life and death of Alaric and explores the modern quest to discover his grave."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Soldier of Rome: The Sacrovir Revolt: A Novel of the Twentieth Legion During the Rebellion of Sacrovir and Florus

"It has been three years since the wars against Arminius and the Cherusci. Gaius Silius, Legate of the Twentieth Legion, is concerned that the barbarians-though shattered by the war-may be stirring once again. He also seeks to confirm the rumors regarding Arminius' death. What Silius does not realize is that there is a new threat to the Empire, but it does not come from beyond the frontier; it is coming from within, where a disenchanted nobleman looks to sow the seeds of rebellion in Gaul.

Legionary Artorius has greatly matured during his five years in the legions. He has become stronger in mind; his body growing even more powerful. Like the rest of the Legion, he is unaware of the shadow growing well within the Empire's borders, where a disaffected nobleman seeks to betray the Emperor Tiberius. A shadow looms; one that looks to envelope the province of Gaul as well as the Rhine legions. The year is A.D. 20."

Soldier of Rome: The Legionary: A novel of the Twentieth Legion during the campaigns of Germanicus Caesar

"In the year A.D. 9, three Roman Legions under Quintilius Varus were betrayed by the Germanic war chief, Arminius, and then destroyed in the forest known as Teutoburger Wald. Six years later, Rome is finally ready to unleash Her vengeance on the barbarians. The Emperor Tiberius has sent Germanicus Caesar, his adopted son, into Germania with an army of 40,000 legionaries. They come not on a mission of conquest, but one of annihilation. With them is a young Legionary named Artorius. For him, the war is a personal vendetta—a chance to avenge his brother, who was killed in Teutoburger Wald.

In Germania, Arminius knows the Romans are coming. He realizes that the only way to fight the Romans is through deceit, cunning, and plenty of well-placed brute force. In truth, he is leery of Germanicus, knowing that he was trained to be a master of war by the Emperor himself.

The entire Roman Empire held its breath as Germanicus and Arminius faced each other in what would become the most brutal and savage campaign the world had seen in a generation; a campaign that could only end in a holocaust of fire and blood.

About the Author
James Mace has served in the U.S. military since 1993. He is a full-time soldier with the Idaho Army National Guard and a veteran of the Iraq War. He wrote numerous articles on bodybuilding and physical fitness before turning his attention to writing historical novels. He lives in Meridian, Idaho.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Review: Nox Dormienda by Kelli Stanley

A history resource article by  © 2008

"The morning staggered by, still looking for a party. Saturnalia was officially over two days ago - unofficially there were still cockfights and dice throws, more wine-soaked quickies and the odor of vomit filling every alley."

Welcome to Kelli Stanley's world of Roman noir.

I have enjoyed "detectives in togas" for a number of years - particularly a late Roman Republican sleuth named Gordianus the Finder penned from the imagination of Steven Saylor. But I am not familiar with the private eyes that populate the books by Stanley's favorite author Raymond Chandler. Perhaps the closest I have come to this genre is reading James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux novels. Likewise, I have not shared my son's passion for noir genre films, although Bogart's Casablanca deserves its reputation as a classic. So I wasn't quite sure what to expect when Stanley sent me a copy of her book "Nox Dormienda", the first of a planned series of mystery novels featuring a crime-solving medicus in Agricola's Roman Britain promoted as a new genre, Roman noir.

For a child of the 50s and 60s raised on a diet of traditional historical epics, I found the "snappy-tough" noir-style dialogue jarring at first as I struggled to lose myself in the gritty reality of life in early Londonium. I felt like I had bought a ticket to see "Gladiator" but made a wrong turn inside the cineplex and stumbled into Tarrentino's "Pulp Fiction". But as the novel progressed and I got to know the interesting cast of characters, especially the quirky half-Roman, half-Britain medicus who could be gently caressing a puppy one minute and groping in the abdomen of a nearly eviscerated legionary the next, I succumbed to this author's efforts to conjure up a unique view of ancient Rome and began to enjoy the bumpy ride as Stanley's protagonist tugged me through Londonium's back streets, down into a mithraeum, up the back stairs of a seedy brothel, then into the provincial governor's palace where a weary Agricola, one of Domitian's most successful and honored generals, brooded over rumors of his pending dismissal as he realized his old soldier's boots may not be the best footwear to navigate the tightrope of imperial politics. I think what I enjoyed most was becoming an invisible member of the raucous household of Julius Alpinus Classicianus Favonianus (that's Arcturus to you natives or Ardur to any rheumy-eyed Trinovantean females) whose members so eagerly attempted to assist the Dominus in his investigations.

As a member of the senatorial class, Arcturus does not lead the hand-to-mouth solo existence of Lindsey Davis' Didius Falco. His extended family includes a cook, Venutius, who tries to win Arcturus over with cullinery experiments that often go awry, Draco, a hulking bodyguard with a legendary appetite who must be barely out of his teens as he's still growing out of his tunics, a steward, Brutius, who tries to keep Arcturus' adoring public at bay, Coire, a slave girl who would like to perform in the bedroom but is relegated to the examination room, and a love-struck freedman, Bilicho, who serves as assistant surgeon/gumshoe. As the story progresses, the seductive Gywnna, daughter of an aging Trinovantean auxiliary commander moves in along with her 10-year-old brother Hefin. Then, Bilicho drags home Stricta, his Egyptian girlfriend and one-time prostitute who also happens to be a witness to the murder Arcturus is attempting to solve. Add to this a faithful and much loved dog, Pyxis, her puppies, a cat, and a smattering of chickens and you definitely experience the "urbanity" of Roman life.

The only plot development that struck a sour note with me was introduction of an insane Christian legionary. Stanley seemed compelled to offer insanity as an excuse for his dichotomous behavior. Early Christians were not necessarily the pious, submissive victims of "The Robe", though. The violence of a soldier's profession would not have been viewed as incongruous with Christian teachings. This attitutde is clearly demonstrated several centuries later by the first so-called Christian emperor Constantine. Furthermore, a soldier who zealously berated his bunkmates for their embrace of other relgions of the period, like Mithrascism, would be doubtful in the inclusive polytheism of Roman culture. Acting like a near-zombie, chanting religious mantras with eyes glazed over, would have netted a man a quiet but violent fate in some back alley. The Roman army was still a well-oiled machine at this time and its members would not have tolerated such gum in the works for very long. That is not to say that there weren't any Christian legionaries. I just don't think the behavior exhibited by this character was needed to validate that portion of the plot.

Inevidentably, people who have read my review of Ruth Downie's "Medicus" will ask me how I would compare the two, since both not only feature a Roman medicus as primary protagonist but both set the stage for action in Roman Britain, albeit different time periods. Downie's Ruso is a regular army medicus recently transferred to the XX Legion in the remote port of Deva (now Chester). He is starting over after a ruinous divorce from a socialite wife that has left him almost penniless. His father has also died leaving a mountain of unpaid bills to Ruso and his brother struggling to scratch a living from a small farm in Gaul. Ruso's sense of "dignitas" drives him to not only attempt to reverse his family's financial misfortunes by writing a medical treatise, but to become a reluctant sleuth when a serial killer surfaces in the seedier part of town and no one else seems to view the lives of the unfortunate prostitute victims as worth the trouble. Ruso is a healer first and foremost and only consequentially an investigator. Arcturus, on the other hand, seems to eagerly embrace the opportunity to discover "who done it", welcoming the diversion from the humdrum of the normal practice of the governor's medicus. Both men, though, seem to be equally gifted with the healing arts.

Ruso's world is also decidedly different that than of Arcturus and, with the exception of Ruso serendipitously saving the life of the emperor Trajan in an earthquake, did not include encounters with the famous. But that is not to say that Ruso did not interact with equally intriguing characters. Downie's dilapidated military outpost teemed with vibrantly-drawn people thriving in the cauldron of a remote Roman frontier where two cultures attempted to co-exist. Arcturus' Londonium is nearly as primitive, since it is decades earlier. But, Arcturus' lineage from a native mother married to a Roman centurion provides Arcturus with an internal conflict in which his two halves attempt to co-exist in a single body. So, I would say both novels offer a unique perspective on the Roman experience in Britain and I look forward to the next installment in both of these series.

One last note - I truly appreciate the writing device Kelli Stanley uses to acquaint the reader with common latin references. Each time she uses a latin word, she places it in italics and includes it in a gloassary at the end of the book. Since I have read a number of novels and nonfiction works about the Roman Empire, I was familiar with many of the terms without looking them up. However, I welcomed the opportunity to expand my latin vocabulary. I was particularly pleased to learn that posca was a cheap alcoholic drink made from vinegar and herbs. I had to smile when I read that since it made me think of the personality of Julius Caesar's wannabe-strategist-slave, Posca, in the HBO miniseries, "Rome". I think a blend of vinegar and herbs aptly described him!