Archive | Ancient History – Just the Best Bits RSS feed for this section

Fulvia and Florence, a Formidable Pair

8 Apr

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you’ll know that when I announce that I’ve got an article in a magazine, I usually provide a tasteful, cropped photo of the article – an image that shows enough to help you find it in the magazine and hopefully want to read more, but not enough to upset the people at the magazine who deal with copyright and fair usage.

This time is a bit unusual because, although I currently have an article in two magazines, I don’t have a copy of either of them. I moved home almost a year ago, but while I thought I had updated my address with all my contacts while I was still having my post forwarded, in fact I obviously didn’t, and the magazines are probably confusing the person at my old house, or sitting in a forlorn corner of a sorting office. It makes me wonder what else I may be missing…😕 Continue reading

The Archaic Smile

15 Apr

Just a quickie to say that my short story ‘The Archaic Smile’ has been published on The Ogilvie literary review. It is free to read online, so go and have a look.

The story is about an archaic kouros – that’s a type of Greek statue (like the one in the picture to the left), but it is more eventful than you might think for a story that has a statue as its hero. The Ogilvie said it had ‘subtle prose and artful suspense‘ so really, go and read it!

Rio’s Hug

10 Aug

This blog post is simply going to direct you to another blog post, on Premier Christianity‘s website. But no, I’m not being lazy, because I wrote that post too.

If you have seen the statue of Christ the Redeemer on your TV during the Olympics, and want to hear my musings about its significance, and how it connects to the Games, please do have a wee read:

Christ the Redeemer: Why Rio’s statue is the true God of the Olympics

2199847917_266917357b_b

Photo: Paul Mannix

The compassionate embrace includes everyone, from Olympic athletes to drug dealers, from top politicians to favela kids.

Are you a dangerous woman?

11 Jul

Did you know Cleopatra had a sister? Quite possibly you have never given it any thought, but in my research for the novel I’m working on (and which I will finish this year), The Gates of Janus, I have bumped up against Cleopatra’s younger sister, Arsinoe. She only turns up in the odd line in Strabo, Cassius Dio and Appian, but they are throwaway lines that are suggestive of a fascinating life that lies behind them.

So when I saw that the Dangerous Women Project was open for submissions, I thought I would really like to shed a bit of light on “The Other Ptolemy Girl“. (Yes, I totally lifted that title from Philippa Gregory.)

If you would like to learn a bit more about Cleopatra’s little sister, and how these siblings were both dangerous in their different ways (I’m glad I wasn’t born into that family), head over to the Dangerous Women site. The current submissions period is open until 7th August 2016, so if you have some views on dangerous women, too, why not submit your tuppenceworth as well?

Why did the general cross the Rubicon?

4 Jun
alea 2

“The die is cast” – Julius Caesar’s words as he crossed the Rubicon

Recently (ok, not that recently – I’ve been busy) my cousin and fellow author posted on Facebook that a Rubicon had been crossed because he had taken his sunglasses out of the drawer. If you’re reading in a sunny country, understand that this is a bigger deal in Scotland. A friend of his replied to ask what on earth a Rubicon was, and I suppose the question was fair enough, because these days the name Rubicon is more likely to be used of tropical drinks than of a geographical feature in northern Italy.

The short answer to the Facebook question is that the Rubicon is a river, and crossing the Rubicon means passing a point of no return. Two minutes of googling can tell you the reason that crossing a Rubicon means passing a point of no return (and indeed the origin of “point of no return”, which is one of a surprising number of expressions from aviation), but as it’s an ancient history thing, I thought I might weigh in, albeit far too late and on a different media platform.

Thousands, probably millions of people have crossed the Rubicon, which is thought to be the river Fiumicino (meaning, imaginatively, “little river”), but the significant moment was when Caesar crossed it in 49BC. It was the start of something and the end of something, a definitive moment. It was in some ways like the shot that killed Franz Ferdinand. Months and years of manoeuvring to avoid a particular scenario, and then one action revealed how the manoeuvring had actually made that same scenario near inevitable. With Franz Ferdinand’s assassination it was the First World War; in Caesar’s case it was the end of the Roman Republic, leading to half a millennium of autocratic rule by emperors. (The Roman Republic was, you see, technically a democracy, although as in the case of Athens, “birthplace of democracy”, hardly anyone could vote, and at Rome it didn’t make that much difference when they did. Much like modern Western democracy. But I digress.)

The point about crossing the Rubicon was that it marked the boundary of Italy at that time. A general in command of an army was not allowed to just march his army into Italy, for obvious reasons of public safety and avoiding coups. If you raised an army in Italy, or brought one with you into Italy, you were revolting against Rome (except in particular circumstances which don’t apply in this case and which we won’t go into here). On the other side of the Rubicon (which was not a particularly formidable river, by the way, more of a brook – hence, Fiumicino) was Gaul, where Julius Caesar was quite legitimately commanding an army, for the purpose of attacking, killing and enslaving Gauls and Britons. That might not sound very nice if you were a Gaul or a Briton, but it was the sort of thing Rome heartily approved of.

So when Caesar crossed the Rubicon he went from being an astoundingly successful Roman general to leading a revolt against Rome, and there was no going back from that. Catiline had done something similar a decade and half earlier, and it had not ended well. But Catiline was in debt, accused of all sorts of crimes, and couldn’t get anywhere in politics, whereas Caesar was rich (from all the plunder), enjoyed legal immunity because of his military command, and was one of the two most powerful men in Rome. So the more interesting question is not “what does crossing the Rubicon mean” but “why did Caesar do it?”

To understand that you have to at least dip your toes into an extremely confusing period of history. I am currently writing a novel set during the Roman civil wars of the first century BC (The Gates of Janus), so believe me when I say it is fiendishly complicated. What follows is my attempt to make Caesar’s situation easily comprehensible without over-simplifying.

The three most powerful men in Rome around the middle of the first century BC were Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus, and in order to increase their power they had made an informal alliance, which we usually refer to as the First Triumvirate. Caesar was a brilliant general who was popular with the common people. Pompey was a brilliant general who was popular with the upper classes. Crassus wasn’t half the general they were, but he was staggeringly rich (we say “as rich as Croesus, but we could justifiably say “as rich as Crassus” instead), which made him popular with anyone who needed funds. This arrangement sort of worked and kept the power in Rome balanced between them, staving off the threat of dictatorship, which was what everyone was worried about (especially since current politicians had lived through Sulla’s dictatorship). Unfortunately Crassus died in a disastrous war with Parthia (Persia, more or less), and Pompey’s wife, who was also Caesar’s daughter, died in childbirth. Now there was nothing holding them together, and the Senate (like Parliament) was worried that one or both of them would try to seize sole power.

Supporters of Pompey (or those who thought Caesar was the bigger threat) pushed through a bill on bribery which would allow people to be prosecuted for offences committed up to twenty years earlier. There genuinely was a problem with bribery in Rome, so a new law about it wasn’t a bad thing, but the backdating made it dangerous for Caesar, who had spent much of the previous twenty years bribing people to get into the position of power he now enjoyed. Of course, that was the whole point of the law.

Caesar was protected as long as he was a general in command of an army, but in 49BC his period of command was coming to an end. Pompey’s wasn’t. Caesar expected to be elected consul (similar to Prime Minister) for the following year, which would also make him immune, but there would be a tricky interim period during which he could be prosecuted. Caesar applied to have his command extended until he took office as consul. He was refused; many senators thought he was already too dangerous, what with his army, wealth and popularity with both the troops and the mob. One of his supporters (Caesar had bought his support – seriously, bribery was big in Republican Rome) suggested that Pompey could lay down his command early, at the same time as Caesar, to even things up. Pompey said he would – but didn’t actually take any steps towards doing it.

Suddenly a rumour went around that Caesar had already entered Italy. Caesar’s bought man in the Senate assured them it was untrue, but the current consul ordered Pompey to gather an army to oppose him anyway. Caesar (still outside Italy) said he would give up most  of his his troops and territory, keeping just a little bit so he still had immunity. Pompey was happy with that, but the Senate refused. Finally Caesar said he would be willing to lay down his command at the same time as Pompey, but if Pompey kept his command, he would “avenge his country’s wrongs, and his own.”

By now, even though no blow had been struck, Caesar was officially at war with Rome. He was declared a public enemy, Pompey was declared the protector of Rome, and Caesar’s supporters were driven out of the Senate ‘for their own safety’. Even so, when he came to the Rubicon, he still paused. Yes, he was an enemy of Rome, and Pompey was gathering an army against him, but no blood had been shed yet, and politicians could change their minds; Caesar’s friend Mark Antony would later be declared a public enemy, but go on to rule half the Empire.

“If I stop here,” Caesar reportedly said, “it will be the beginning of misfortune for me; if I cross, it will be the beginning of misfortune for all mankind.” So, being as selfless as most military dictators (or for that matter, most people), he crossed.

The rest is history. But in case it’s history you’re unfamiliar with, here it is in a nutshell: Caesar wins and becomes sole ruler, but in a semi-constitutional way. Then he is assassinated, the Empire descends into full-scale civil war, and in the ensuing chaos Julius Caesar’s heir, Octavian, increases his power base and eliminates his rivals until he is supreme leader of Rome in a very unconstitutional way. By the time he dies he is the Emperor Augustus, founder of a new dynasty.

So that’s why crossing the Rubicon is a big deal, much like breaking the summer clothing out in Scotland. By the way, an interesting fact that I discovered when doing some research for this post (yes, I do carry out research for blog posts – is that so surprising?) is that Rubicon tropical drinks are also named after Caesar’s crossing. The founders of the company left their secure jobs to start the venture, and there was no going back. Caesar may have been a dangerous man, but he had a sense of humour; I like to think he wouldn’t mind having a can of guava juice named after the most momentous decision of his career.

Game of (Heavenly) Thrones

17 Mar

I was very excited a couple of days ago to receive through the post my author copies of Augustine: The Truth Seeker. It’s a brilliant feeling to hold your own book in your hand, and I have been waving a copy in the face of everyone I know, with what must be very irritating squeals of excitement.

Game of Thrones

I was going to write a post telling you about the book, and how you can get hold of it. (This is still something of a mystery – I have my copies but no bookshop seems to yet. Can’t be long now.) However, I have been watching a lot of the HBO series Game of Thrones recently – all three seasons in just over a week in fact, because we got a short-term Sky Entertainment pass. And I noticed some interesting similarities with my own work. Therefore, instead of telling you all about how wonderful Augustine: The Truth Seeker is, let me tell you why it’s just like Game of Thrones – but with a PG certificate instead of an 18.

  • It’s about an ambitious young man from a semi-noble, but not monied, provincial background trying to make it in the big cities of the empire. Remind you of Littlefinger?
  • Barbarian hordes start invading from the north and east.
  • Some people hold to the old gods, some to the new, and there are weird mystery religious from foreign lands with a worrying hold over believers.
  • Pretenders to the throne keep cropping up, and at one point in the book there are three monarchs, including a King (ok, emperor) in the North who comes south to try and take the whole lot.
  • Crossing a narrow sea was quite a big deal in both Game of Thrones and Augustine’s time. Especially when you did it with an army.
  • Family members scheme to undermine each other’s power base. (I’m thinking of City Prefect Symmachus and Bishop Ambrose – and just about any of the Lannisters, Barathaons and Greyjoys.)
  • Both have an emphasis on mothers who wish they had more influence over their wayward sons (Monica with Augustine, Catelyn Stark with Rob and Bran, and of course Cersei with Joffrey).
  • There’s a lot of celibacy, in the Night’s Watch and various religious orders of George R. R. Martin’s world, and in Augustine’s Monastry in the Garden. There’s also a lot of the opposite, when Augustine was a younger man – and everywhere in Game of Thrones.
  • Illegitimate sons who are dear to their fathers have an important role to play.
  • People drop like flies. Don’t get too attached to the characters in Game of Thrones or Augustine.

Of course, I’m being a bit facetious. It’s not just the lack of dragons in Augustine that distinguishes it from Game of Thrones; there are far more fundamental differences, the key one being that in Augustine’s world there is a truth that can be discovered, and the one who sits on the heavenly throne turns out to matter a great deal more than the earthly game of thrones. There’s also a lot less nudity and swearing of course, although there is some violence and “mild sexual references”. It’s aimed at the 12 to 14 age group, or mature ten-year-olds, so nothing too graphic.

So there you have it: Augustine: The Truth Seeker, the PG Game of Thrones. I await the phonecall from HBO about TV adaptation rights.

Gaudeamus igitur linguam latinam dum loquimur

28 Dec

(Let us rejoice, therefore, because we speak Latin.) Christmas is one of the few times that speaking, or at least singing Latin is commonplace. You may well have belted out the words “gloria in excelsis”, “in dulce jubilo” or (if you’re hardcore) “adeste fideles” yourself this festive season. While teaching the Sunday school about Christmas I noticed how ubiquitous it is at this time of year. “What does ‘advent’ mean?” “It’s from the Latin for ‘arrive’.” “What does’ nativity’ mean?” “It’s from the Latin for ‘born’.” And so on. It’s not just in church that you find Latin though. There are bestsellers other than the Bible that benefit from a little Latin magic – literally, in the case of Harry Potter. Most of the spells taught at Hogwarts are just instructions in slightly mangled Latin, and there are secret wee clues on the books for Latin speakers, too. I was kicking myself when I discovered the secret about Remus Lupin because it was there in his name all the time. J K Rowling isn’t the only author putting her classical education to use. The author of The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, uses a lot of Greek and especially Roman references, particularly in the names of Capitoline characters. When I found out that the name of Panem, her fictional land, was from panem et circenses, bread and circuses – the only things the Emperor Tiberius said Romans cared about – it gave me a lovely satisfied feeling all day, it was so right. The moral, clearly, is if you want to write a best-selling book for younger readers, speak Latin. In all seriousness, though, Latin is amazingly useful. I often say that it was the most useful subject I ever studied (barring reading, writing and arithmetic, which are the sine qua non of any education) and that’s no exaggeration. In Latin classes I learnt not only how to read Latin (although that’s sometimes handy) but also European history and geography (which weren’t really covered in History and Geography classes at that time, due to the vagaries of educational fashion). I picked up the bones of all Latin languages, so that I have an advantage when it comes to understanding Italian, Spanish, French, Portuguese and even Romanian. What’s more, by studying a dead language I learnt how to take a language apart, understand its components, and put it back together again. That has made it so much quicker and easier for me to pick up any language, as well as making my English grammar pretty much impeccable – no bad thing for a writer. Latin classes were also my first introduction to another culture, one that still fascinates me now. It was because I enjoyed GCSE Latin that I went on to study Classical Civilisation at A Level, and then Ancient History at university. If I hadn’t learnt Latin I might never have met my darling Alexander, and would almost certainly not have written my new book Augustine: The Truth Seeker. It’s no exaggeration to say that the course my life (my curriculum vitae, if you like) would have been quite different if I had never studied Latin. For centuries, Latin was the international language, spoken by all educated people (although admittedly the proportion of people who were educated was a lot lower than it is now). All those old documents and inscriptions in Latin were written not so that people couldn’t read them, but so that they could. With a knowledge of Latin you could study at any university in Europe in the Middle Ages, because that was the language they all taught in. Even today, the University of St Andrews (my alma mater) uses Latin in its graduation ceremony, so that I became a Master of Arts by the use of the secret magic words “et super te”, or Super Ted, as we liked to call it. These days, Latin is a bit of an elite pursuit, usually available as a subject only at private schools. I think that’s a terrible shame. Such a useful subject (and an enjoyable one, if you do the Cambridge Latin Course) should be available to everyone. So if you ever do get the chance to study Latin, seize it! Or to put it another way, carpe diem! For those of you who already speak Latin (or rather, read it, since conversational Latin isn’t very useful), here’s a wee Christmas treat to make you smile: image

The Consolations of Growing Up

23 Oct

Last week I unwisely finished reading The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman shortly after watching the end of Peter Pan (2003) on TV. Both of them have bittersweet endings involving the hero or heroine growing up and leaving behind friends or family who are unable to join them – either because they are ghosts (in the case of The Graveyard Book) or because they are Peter Pan, and have vowed never to grow up. Both of them left me in tears – although, to be fair to myself, I had been working rather hard, feeling stressed and staying up too late, which can make anything seem worth crying about.

Absorbed in quick succession these works can leave you feeling that “to grow up is such a barbarous business”, that growing older is not just a tragedy but also some kind of failure, as if every year you allow to slip by is a betrayal of the happiness of your youth. For me personally it doesn’t help that I’m approaching a milestone. Not that this is your average milestone, mind you. I’m not turning thirty or having a child or anything, but I will soon be older than Alexander the Great ever was. That probably means nothing to you but I’ve idolised him since I was 17, and now that I’m about to outlive him (barring accident), it’s impossible not to notice that he achieved more with his life by this point than I have.

Fortunately, I have an excellent antidote to all this morose calendar-watching. I am currently studying the life of St Augustine, another towering figure from antiquity who, like Alexander, suffers a lot of misunderstanding and bad press. Unlike Alexander, though, Augustine spent quite a lot of his youth faffing around, getting into trouble and wondering what it all means. It wasn’t until he was about the age that Alexander died (incidentally also about the same age that Jesus died – a strangely significant age, apparently) that he surrendered to God, pulled himself together, and made something of his hitherto pointless life. He went on to write some of the greatest works of Christian literature and to use his remarkable rhetorical powers trying to bring unity to the church and godliness to people’s lives. He lived to be 75.

Most of us don’t achieve that much with our early lives. Although there are always exceptions, like Alexander the Great, Pitt the Younger and Premiership footballers, most of us are just getting started by the time we’re thirty – which is fine, because there’s a lot of life still to come. In fact, much as we may look back with fondness on the “blue remembered hills” of our childhoods, we tend to get better at almost everything with age. Adults are more skillful than kids. I find I can knit better than I could as a child, translating Latin has mysteriously become easier (although it’s still extremely hard), and don’t even get me started on child actors or (shudder) children singing.

In fact, it’s not even clear if the sadness in Peter Pan is that Wendy must grow up, or that Peter never will. Their separation is caused by the combination of those two factors, not by one or the other. So I will be sad to overtake Alexander and leave him behind me, eternally youthful, but perhaps more for his sake than mine. After all, getting older might sometimes be pants, but it’s better than the alternative.

Too Great?

29 Jun

Some time ago I promised that I would write a post in my series “Ancient History – Just the Best Bits” on Alexander the Great. This is not it.

I actually started writing the piece on my nice wee smartphone. I wasn’t really happy with it. It’s near impossible to do Alexander justice in a short piece. Without me actually standing there, all flashing eyes, breathiness and enthusiastic hand gestures, it comes across as an over-abridged history lesson. Perhaps I was being too harsh or perhaps I could have improved it. It’s all moot now; my smartphone has come to a watery end, and the post with it.

It’s probably for the best. You can’t (or at least, I can’t) sum up such an amazing man in a couple of pages, or even a couple of books. I’m reminded of the verse at the end of John’s Gospel about Jesus: “[He] did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”

So perhaps I will never write that post, or perhaps one day I’ll add to the ridiculously large number of books that have been written about Alexander. Either way, I’m going to take the smartphone incident as a sign and abandon the topic for now. If you do want to find out more about Alexander, you could do worse than read The Alexander Trilogy by Mary Renault. Those were the books that made me fall in love with Alexander originally, over the summer holidays before studying him in A-Level Classical Civilisation. They’re fiction, but the kind of really good historical fiction that tells you more about the subject, in some ways, than a pure history book would.

Anyway, in lieu of a proper post about Alexander the Great, I’ll leave you with the verdict of Arrian, my favourite of the four major historians of Alexander:

Anyone who belittles Alexander has no right to do so on the evidence only of what merits censure in him; he must base his criticism on a comprehensive view of his whole life and career. But let such a person, if blackguard Alexander he must, first compare himself with the object of his abuse: himself, so mean and obscure, and, confronting him, the great King with his unparalleled wordly success, the undisputed monarch of two continents, who spread the power of his name over all the earth. Will he dare to abuse him then, when he knows his own littleness and the triviality of his pursuits, which, even so, prove too much for his ability?

It is my belief that there was in those days no nation, no city, no single individual beyond the reach of Alexander’s name; never in all the world was there another like him.

(Quotation from the Penguin edition, 1971, translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, pp397-8)
Alexander the Great

Of Caves and Monsters

31 Dec

Something a little arcane to end the year: an unimportant little theory that I’d like to share, namely that the decor of Tiberius’ dining-room-in-a-cave at Sperlonga was influenced by Etruscan tombs.  If that means nothing to you, I won’t be offended if you don’t read on.

(By the way, the date should be on this, but just in case, for referencing purposes it is 31st December, 2011.)

Dinner at Sperlonga

The first and only time I was in Aberdeen, I remember looking for a place to have lunch and stumbling across a Frankenstein-themed bar.  The decor was dark and gloomy with plenty of chains, and the menu was full of dishes and cocktails which referenced vampires, zombies, and monsters of all kinds.  It seemed to be a fairly popular place, with the student population especially.

It’s not only Scottish students who see the appeal of dining with monsters.  Domitian and Hadrian both gave pride of place in the grotto triclinia (dining rooms) at their villas to scenes of Scylla consuming her own personal menu of Odysseus’ sailors.  They lifted the idea from the most famous grotto triclinium at Sperlonga, the same cave where, in 26AD, Sejanus saved Tiberius’s life when the roof came down during dinner.

The Sperlonga sculptures, discovered in 1957, are a gift to ancient historians and art historians, not only because of the quality of the four sculptual groups (Scylla attacking Odysseus’ ship, the blinding of Polyphemus, the theft of Palladium, and Odysseus with the corpse of Achilles) but because they provided what a historian loves best, controversy.  Starting with what the statues depicted (since they were found in pieces), and progressing to where they were placed, who placed them there, why and when, the discovery of the statues sparked years of learned arguments, some of which are not settled even now.  There is still no consensus on the date of the statues to within less than a century.

The link with Tiberius is a given – it was the grotto at his villa, after all.  But whether he put the statues in before the rock fall, as a background for his dinner parties, or afterwards, when the cave seemed more sinister to him, is not as easy to answer.  A major argument for the statues’ being placed in the caves after the accident is that scenes of people being eaten and monsters being blinded is not appropriate to decorate a dining room – “not while we’re eating, thank you.”  Grottoes, including grotto triclinia, were supposed to be peaceful places where nymphs frolicked with Dionysus.

That might have been the Greek conception of caves, but across the Adriatic Sea caves had a different place in mythology and in the psyche.  For Etruscans and other natives of Italy, caves were the place where the living world met the underworld.  In beautifully decorated tombs such as the Tomba dell’ Orco you find monsters like Cerberus and Polyphemus and celebrity shades like Agamemnon and Ajax, in scenes both Homeric and non-Homeric.  Demons of the underworld and the god of death occur frequently in these late Etruscan tombs.

It all sounds rather intimidating and would have no bearing on the question of the Sperlonga statues, except for one other feature of Etruscan tombs, probably the most common of all: banqueting scenes.  Too many tombs to mention feature scenes of symposia, either with mourners honouring the dead or with the dead enjoying themselves in the underworld.  These feasts by no means always appear in tombs that also feature monsters and violence, but there are certainly incidences where they do.  There seems to be no contradiction, in the Etruscan mind at least, in having a party, complete with dancing girls and plenty of wine, within sight of hideous and frightening monsters, and of reminders of their own mortality.

If the Sperlonga grotto  followed the Etruscan / Italian conception of the role of caves, the argument that the statues wouldn’t be appropriate for a dining room looks pretty weak.  The influence of the other peoples of Italy on Roman culture is so completely accepted that it doesn’t bear mentioning.  The civilisation that gave Rome the gladiatorial games for which the modern world now remembers them, may well have also bequeathed the idea of a connection between caves, feasting and death, and allowed for the development of dark, monstrous grotto triclinia.

This kind of dining room chimes well with Tiberius’ character, of course, which probably lent itself more to scenes of graphic violence than to frolicking nymphs.  This was an emperor with a nasty streak a mile wide and a disposition that would make Gordon Brown look sunny.  So the triclinium at Sperlonga was probably a stylish (though none too safe) place to bring friends for a dinner party not in spite of the scenes of violence and monsters, but because of them.  Add a few aptly-named cocktails and the students of Aberdeen might feel right at home.