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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.


30 May

Catiline – the man who wanted to “destroy the world by fire and slaughter”.

Well that’s according to Cicero, anyway, but as Cicero was trying to push for a death sentence, he may have been a bit biased.  What Catiline really wanted was to become consul – essentially Prime Minister of the Roman Empire, except that the role was shared between two people and only lasted a year at a time.

Catiline (Lucius Servius to his pals) had gone about trying to become consul the usual ways.  He had gathered a collection of influential friends, he had bribed a lot of people, and when that had failed he had made a lot of rash promises to the worst sections of society – people who, like Catiline, had a lot to gain from a general cancellation of debts, for example.

When none of this worked, isn’t it understandable that Catiline got a little miffed?  Understandable, yes, but that doesn’t actually justify raising an army against Rome.  Here I have to confess that I have a bit of a soft spot for Catiline.  He was colourful and bold, and I always have a weakness for a good baddie.  But the fact is that Catiline isn’t a fictional character, he was a real historical figure, and I’m sure that if I had been around in Rome at the time I would have been calling for his arrest as loudly as anyone else.  (Which is to say, calling quite quietly, so his armed thugs wouldn’t kill me.)

Catiline had been trained in violence and ruthlessness under Sulla.  During the period of the proscriptions (70s BC), when Catiline was a young man, he was on Sulla’s side so he got away with murder, literally, as well as pillaging the property of those he killed.  Catiline didn’t just know how to acquire money, though; he knew how to spend it, too. He ended up in huge amounts of debt, which made it all the more important that he become consul.  The job wasn’t paid, but the year after being consul the ex-consul would be sent out as governor of a province.  That gave you the right to tax and generally exploit the local people (although you could be prosecuted if you went too far).  This would have cancelled out all of Catiline’s debt problems, and he gambled on this when he paid out bribes all over the place, but due to bad luck, lack of money (on the second attempt) and probably reservations about his character, he failed in both attempts to become consul.

It’s what he did next that he’s remembered for.  Gathering supporters both from the senatorial class (the top class, who made up the governing body) and the lower orders, he formed a band of conspirators within Rome and set up a military camp in Etruria, another part of Italy, under the command of a general called Manlius.  Then he set about trying to kill Cicero, the man who had beaten him to the consulship in 63BC.  Unfortunately for Catiline, Cicero had informants telling him all of Catiline’s plans.  There wasn’t all that much that Cicero could do, however.  Catiline needed to be proved guilty of a crime, and he protested his innocence.  He still came along to the Senate (parliament) and took part in public business, making things very awkward for Cicero.

By use of a powerful speech (Against Catiline I) in which he revealed just how much he knew of Catiline’s plans, Cicero managed to persuade Catiline to leave Rome.  Of course, he went straight to the camp in Etruria, where he gained more and more supporters from discontented Italians.  To add to the problem he posed to Rome, Catiline had left supporters in Rome who were supposed to kill Cicero, since he was the main obstacle to power.  (A number of the Senate were on Catiline’s side, after all.)  This plot also backfired because of Cicero’s informants, and so it eventually came to a pitched battle, Catiline’s troops against the Roman army.  Catiline died in 62BC, leading from the front.  Whatever else he was, he was a brave man.

Cicero felt justly proud of himself for dealing with this danger to Rome when no one else was really taking the threat from Catiline seriously.  The trouble was, though, that the circumstances which threw up the Catilinarian conspiracy still existed.  There were plenty of young men like him, born to power but unable to reach it because of debt caused by living the lifestyle that was expected of them.  There were plenty of locals outside Rome who were unhappy with the crumbs thrown by Rome and who would join forces against the status quo.  And there were other men like Catiline – ambitious, bold and ruthless – who realised that with an army behind you, power was only a few battles away.  These men – Pompey, Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony and Octavian – would tear the Roman world apart in civil wars, and would eventually lead to the fall of the Roman Republic itself.

Marius and Sulla – Tyrants of Rome

23 Nov

Marius and Sulla are not well known names now, but they were giants of the early first century BC. Ruthless, violent, single minded, they both had their sights set on ultimate power in Rome. Marius made his play first while Sulla was away, then Sulla came back to town and showed him how it should be done.

Born in 157BC, Marius was almost twenty years older than Sulla. He was from the equestrian class – well off, but not as rich as people from the senatorial class, like Sulla. He managed to rise to high political and military positions with help from aristocratic backers and by proving his own merits.

Marius was the kind of man you wanted to have on your side in a war. He was a ruthless commander who impressed ordinary soldiers with his willingness to suffer the same conditions as them, and impressed voters with his ability to get the job done in Rome’s wars. (He impressed them so much that he had been consul six times by the time of his final run-in with Sulla, and there was a prophecy, which may have been made up by Marius, that he would go on to have seventh consulship.)

When there wasn’t a war on, however, Marius was a bit of a spare part and ended up getting involved in fairly dirty politics. Fortunately for Marius, there were plenty of wars during his lifetime. Apart from his military victories and record number of consulships, Marius has two other claims to fame. Apparently, he was the man who first came up with the idea of making Roman javelin heads weak on one side. This meant that while they could still stick your enemy, once they had landed the neck would be bent and the enemy wouldn’t be able to throw them back at you. Clever.

The other, more significant thing, is that he was the first to recruit soldiers who didn’t meet the property qualification. This was from necessity, not planning, but it meant that these new rectruits didn’t have a farm to go back to when the war ended and had to rely on their general to be successful and be able to provide them with land he had captured. It was the beginning of a professional army, but it was also the beginning of armies that were loyal to their commanders, not to Rome, and that opened the door to the civil wars that racked Rome in the first century BC, and terminated with Augustus becoming Emperor.

Lucius Cornelius Sulla was from the senatorial class, a noble, but not very well off at the start of his life. A couple of legacies from women who were fond of him put that right, and he got his first break in the political arena under Marius. Sulla was chosen to serve under Marius as a quaestor (a junior politician) and in 107BC Marius took Sulla with him to Africa, which had been appointed as his field of command. The African king Jugurtha was defying Rome and Marius made a lot of progress in the war against him. It was Sulla, however, who captured Jugurtha alive by the risky strategy of trusting Jugurtha’s uncle, Bocchus, to betray his nephew to Sulla rather than the other way around. This was infuriating for Marius and from that moment on there was ill-feeling between Marius and Sulla. It didn’t help that Sulla had his signet ring inscribed with a picture of Jugurtha being handed over to him, or that Bocchus donated to Rome the same image hammered into a gold frieze.

Marius and Sulla’s animosity towards each other didn’t come to anything until the end of the Social War (91 – 89BC), a particularly nasty war since the Romans were fighting mainly against former allies. It had grown out of decades of political strife and violence over the question of land and citizenship for non-Roman Italians.

At the tail end of the Social War Marius started to take action against Sulla. He enlisted the help of a rabble-rousing tribune (a powerful politician outside the senate) called Sulpicius who had a group of six hundred supporters he called “the anti-senate”. Through sly dealing and plenty of violence they managed to get the real senate to withdraw the allocation of a command in Asia to Sulla, and give it to Marius instead, even though by this time Marius was getting rather old to be leading big campaigns. Marius was never satisfied with what he had, and the prospect of winning huge riches by defeating King Mithridates was too tempting to pass up.

When Sulla heard about this he took the army he had, which was all ready to go to Asia and fight Mithridates, and turned it towards Rome instead. This was the first time a Roman army had marched against the city of Rome, but it wouldn’t be the last. Sulla took control of the city, reversed all of the laws passed by Sulpicius, and had Sulpicius and Marius declared public enemies, so that they had to escape Rome or die. Sulpicius died, but Marius, after lots of adventures, made it to Africa where there were ex-soldiers who were loyal to him.

After sorting out the situation in Rome, Sulla acted as if life were going on as normal. He sent his army out of the city and performed his normal duties as consul (similar to a prime minister) until the end of the year. Then he went off to fight Mithridates as he had intended to do to start with. Sulla, who gave himself the nickname “lucky”, had a series of wonderful victories in western Asia and the Balkans, but while he was out of the picture Marius’ friends were active. With their help, Marius was soon back. He besieged Rome into submission, and then set about wreaking his bloody revenge on anyone who had ever opposed him, failed to help him, or even annoyed him. It got so bad that the gang of violent slaves who formed Marius’ huge bodyguard took it as a signal to kill people if they said hello to Marius and he didn’t say anything in reply. With Rome under his bloody thumb, Marius was elected consul a seventh time, as the prophecy had said. Much good it did him – he died of pleurisy just a couple of weeks later.

Sulla’s wife, Metella, managed to escape to him in Greece with their children, but most of his other friends and family had been killed. Furious, Sulla turned towards Rome. It wasn’t as simple as walking into Rome because Marius’ supporters, including his son, put up a fierce fight. Sulla had a well-trained army, though, and the support of a lot of the senate, who had been terrified by Marius’ random violence. They were prepared to welcome Sulla with open arms when he won.

He wasn’t quite the saviour they were looking for. Instead of restoring the state to its usual condition, Sulla declared himself dictator – sole ruler indefinitely, with the right to make up laws. Where Marius had been random and unpredictable in his violence, Sulla was much more organised. He made lists. Everyone on the lists, which were published, was declared an enemy of Rome. It was illegal to shelter them and there was a reward for anyone who kiled them. What was more, all their property was forfeit to the state, meaning that plenty of people ended up on the lists who had done nothing wrong except own a nice seaside villa or vineyard. This was called proscription, and it was one of the most sinister periods of Roman history.

Sulla was a man of contradictions, and while he was making the streets of Rome run with (largely innocent) blood, he was also using his power as dictator to bring in perfectly sensible laws about the regulations for holding political office, and he added new people to the senate to bring it back to full strength after all the murders. Then, after he had done all of this, he voluntarily retired from the position of dictator, remarried (Metella having died) and lived a quiet life until he died after a short illness a few years later, at the age of sixty. So both Marius and Sulla, who lived by violence, didn’t die by it. The legacy they left was more in keeping with their violent lives, though: Catiline, who failed in his armed struggle to become ruler of Rome in 63BC, and Pompey, who fought Julius Caesar for control of the Empire, got their training in civil bloodshed as Sulla’s supporters. Marius and Sulla’s civil war with each other set the stage for the more famous civil wars which were to follow.

If you want to read more:

Plutarch Life of Marius, Life of Sulla (easy, fun)

Appian The Civil Wars (a bit heavy, lots of detail)

Sallust The Jugurthine War, The Conspiracy of Catiline (pretty easy, exciting, reads like a novel)

Ancient History – Just the Best Bits

12 Nov

I am seriously thinking about trying to write something (“book” might be a bit ambitious at this stage) about the interesting bits of Ancient History.  It will be less an academic work and more an outpouring of idiosyncratic opinion.  I’ve already got a few suggestions from people: gladiators, Pompeii erruption, Christians and lions, Roman aristocracy, Salamis, and the Trojan horse.  And obviously, me being me, Alexander is going to feature A LOT.  However, I am still looking for more suggestions, which will be taken into consideration (no promises!).

This post is where I would like to collect them, because the ones I have at the moment are on a post-it note and are likely to get lost.  Please use the comment facility below.  Ta!