Monday, June 17, 2013


Roman Baths in Bath, Somerset, UK
CC Flickr User Kevin Oliver
It has been more than a decade since I spent a day at Bath in the UK. That day, my companion and I spent a lot of time admiring the depictions of Minerva Sulis and trying to see all the leaden/pewter curse tablets -- a class of artifacts I was not yet familiar with. They tended to wish one another ill, as the name implies, and make strange offers. Here is one from A Corpus of Writing-Tablets from Roman Britain :
Lord Neptune, I give you the man who has stolen the solidus and six argentioli of Muconius. So I give the names who took them away, whether male or female, whether boy or girl. So I give you, Niskus, and to Neptune the life, health, blood of him who has been privy to that taking-away. The mind which stole this and which has been privy to it, may you take it away. The thief who stole this, may you consume his blood and take it away, Lord Neptune.
Bath was crowded and probably under construction, but it was still impressive to someone interested in ancient history, although I thought more about Jane Austen than my friends the Romans.

A lot has gone on since then thanks to renovation funding.'s Guide to travel in the UK has posted an article on the 2013 Roman baths, at Bath, UK : Bathing in Bath Like the Romans Did.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Hercules Pulcher?

Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472–1553) Herakles bei Omphale; Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The idea of Hercules looking like anything but a brawny, calloused, hirsute, well-tanned (at least on his rear end) and presumably heavily scarred male amuses me. It's what makes artistic depictions of Hercules' time as a slave to Omphale so comic. Following Cicero's description of Clodius Pulcher or Clodius the Beautiful's desecration of the 62 B.C. Bona Dea celebration (Ad Att., I, 13, 3): "credo enim te audisse, cum apud Caesarem pro populo fieret, venisse eo muliebri vestitu virum idque sacrificium cum virgines instaurassent.") -- the same event that led Julius Caesar to divorce his wife for not being above suspicion -- mental images of both the Goddess and Clodius include the handsome transvestite's presence inside the women-only event. In 1964 William S. Anderson wrote about this and Hercules' related behavior in an article about a poet I really need to review, Propertius. The article is "Hercules Exclusus: Propertius, IV, 9," The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 85, No. 1 (Jan., 1964), pp. 1-12.*

Even if you sacrifice to Juno, bitter against me, she herself would not shut her waters from me. But if any of you are afraid of my face or the lion’s pelt, or my hair bleached by the Libyan sun, I am the same who has carried out slave’s tasks in a cloak of Sidon, and spun the day’s tally on a Lydian distaff. My shaggy chest was caught in a soft breast-band, and I was fit to be a hard-handed girl.’
A.S. Kline translation

quodsi Iunoni sacrum faceretis amarae, non clausisset aquas ipsa nouerca suas.
sin aliquem uultusque meus saetaeque leonis
terrent et Libyco sole perusta coma,
idem ego Sidonia feci seruilia palla
officia et Lydo pensa diurna colo,
mollis et hirsutum cepit mihi fascia pectus,
et manibus duris apta puella fui.

Propertius IV.9

Anderson's article suggests Propertius was deliberately playing on (what could have been a familiar fantasy) the idea that a man could get through the door even at the sacred events if his qualifications were properly like Pulcher's. Hercules had spent his year's atonement for murdering Iphitus in a violation of the rules of guest-host relationships [see Hercules Kills Iphitus and Abducts Iole ] by serving the Lydian queen Omphale. She took his symbols, while he dressed in female garb, instead of what was, for him, normal, masculine garb -- a lionskin. But back to Hercules' time in Rome following his destruction of the monster Cacus and his attempt to gain entry to the party.... The ladies within the house had good reason to let him in -- at least in the sometimes mad mind of the greatest Greek mythological hero. Of course the celebrants, less deluded than he about his physical attributes, don't. Had Hercules truly been pulcher would the Goddess have wanted him? Would the participants? What about the repeatedly transgendering Tiresias? Would he have been denied because he had at one time been a male or because he was blind and so, imperfect? While for males, being able to be a father, through adoption, if necessary, was what mattered legally [see Ulpian on Roman Eunuchs], so eunuchs were not automatically eliminated, what was the qualification for clandestine admission to a women-only event? Feminine beauty?

*A more recent, related article: "Hercules Cross-Dressed, Hercules Undressed: Unmasking the Construction of the Propertian "Amator" in Elegy 4.9," by Sara H. Lindheim; The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 119, No. 1 (Spring, 1998), pp. 43-66.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Library of Alexandria Trivia Quiz

A 19th century artistic rendering of the Library of Alexandria by O. Von Corven. PD courtesy of Wikipedia.

Yes it has been a long time, but I'm back.

Recently, I've been reading about the Library of Alexandria. The result is the absorption of some trivia. Let's see how well you know these rather obscure or technical points. I've provided answers at the bottom. Want to argue them with me? Please feel free in the comments.

1. The British Museum has owned the Rosetta Stone almost since it was discovered. How did the British acquire it?

A. Part of French the surrender terms.
B. The archaeologist who uncovered it was in the army of Admiral Nelson.
C. The British stole it from Napoleon.
D. The Egyptian government lent it to the British to put in the museum.

2. Following Admiral Nelson's defeat of the Napoleonic army, what famous sarcophagus was surrendered to the British?

A. The sarcophagus of Alexander the Great.
B. The sarcophagus of Cleopatra.
C. The sarcophagus of Mark Antony.
D. The sarcophagus of Napoleon.

3. In which structure was most of the manuscript copying thought to have taken place?

A. The Library of Alexandria.
B. The Museum/Museion of Alexandria.
C. The Serapeum of Alexandria.
D. None of them. The manuscripts were all begged, borrowed or stolen.

4. Which scholar from the Library of Alexandria was known as #2 or β?

A. Claudius Ptolemy
B. Eratosthenes
C. Euclid
D. Hypatia

5. Who is said to have destroyed the collection of books at the Library of Alexander?

A. Amr
B. Christian monks
C. Diocletian
D. Julius Caesar






1.surrender; 2. Alex; 3. Museum; 4. Eratosthenes; 5. All.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Tiresias' 7-Year Stint or How Could Tiresias Have Known Cadmus and the Epigoni?

I received a question about the blind seer Tiresias (Tieresias) that asked specifically about references for the seven-year transgendered stint. According to Timothy Gantz' Early Greek Myths, the first reference that we have to the seven years comes from Ovid's Metamorphoses, Book III. There Jupiter and his wife Juno make a bet as to which of them gets the most pleasure out of sexual intercourse. Their solution is to find someone who has experienced life as both a man and a woman. There is one person who fills the bill, Tiresias, who was changed to a woman for seven years after striking a pair of coupling snakes with a stick. After seven years, the now-woman seer saw the snakes coupling again. He struck them with his stick and once again, his gender changed, and he became a man, again.

Most of the ancient sources agree that Juno was displeased with Tiresias' answer and blinded him for it. Phlegon, Hyginus, Lactantius Placidus, and the Second Vatican Mythographer say Jupiter, who was, presumably, as pleased as his wife was upset, extended Tiresias' life to the span of seven normal lifetimes, which certainly explains why he appears in so many ancient stories.

Ovid. Metamorphoses. Translated by More, Brookes. Boston, Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922.
[316] While these events according to the laws of destiny occurred, and while the child, the twice-born Bacchus, in his cradle lay, 'Tis told that Jupiter, a careless hour, indulged too freely in the nectar cup; and having laid aside all weighty cares, jested with Juno as she idled by. Freely the god began; “Who doubts the truth? The female's pleasure is a great delight, much greater than the pleasure of a male.” Juno denied it; wherefore 'twas agreed to ask Tiresias to declare the truth, than whom none knew both male and female joys: for wandering in a green wood he had seen two serpents coupling; and he took his staff and sharply struck them, till they broke and fled. 'Tis marvelous, that instant he became a woman from a man, and so remained while seven autumns passed. When eight were told, again he saw them in their former plight, and thus he spoke; “Since such a power was wrought, by one stroke of a staff my sex was changed—again I strike!” And even as he struck the same two snakes, his former sex returned; his manhood was restored.—as both agreed to choose him umpire of the sportive strife, he gave decision in support of Jove; from this the disappointment Juno felt surpassed all reason, and enraged, decreed eternal night should seal Tiresias' eyes.—immortal Deities may never turn decrees and deeds of other Gods to naught, but Jove, to recompense his loss of sight, endowed him with the gift of prophecy.
Pseudo-Apollodorus Bibliotheca 3. 6. 7 (trans. Frazer) also refers to the transgendering:
[7] Now there was among the Thebans a soothsayer, Tiresias, son of Everes and a nymph Chariclo, of the family of Udaeus, the Spartan,1 and he had lost the sight of his eyes. Different stories are told about his blindness and his power of soothsaying. For some say that he was blinded by the gods because he revealed their secrets to men. But Pherecydes says that he was blinded by Athena2; for Chariclo was dear to Athena ... and Tiresias saw the goddess stark naked, and she covered his eyes with her hands, and so rendered him sightless. And when Chariclo asked her to restore his sight, she could not do so, but by cleansing his ears she caused him to understand every note of birds; and she gave him a staff of cornel-wood,3 wherewith he walked like those who see. But Hesiod says that hebeheld snakes copulating on Cyllene, and that having wounded them he was turned from a man into a woman, but that on observing the same snakes copulating again, he became a man.4 Hence, when Hera and Zeus disputed whether the pleasures of love are felt more by women or by men, they referred to him for a decision. He said that if the pleasures of love be reckoned at ten, men enjoy one and women nine. Wherefore Hera blinded him, but Zeus bestowed on him the art of soothsaying.“ The saying of Tiresias to Zeus and Hera.
Of ten parts a man enjoys one only; But a woman enjoys the full ten parts in her heart.

Monday, September 5, 2011

'Cleopatra Selene'

Vicky Alvear Shecter's Cleopatra's Moon explores what it would have been like to be a well-loved junior member of the famous Cleopatra's family. Cleopatra Selene was one of the children of Cleopatra and Mark Antony. The book falls within the purview of established historical fiction tradition in presenting an historically-detailed, romantic tale that ends in Cleopatra Selene's eventual marriage to the Mauretanian king. Think of Lindsey Davis' story of Vespasian's mistress, The Course of Honour.

Selena was the Greek moon titan/goddess, so Cleopatra Selene, the daughter of Antony and the Macedonian Cleopatra, bears two Greek names.

Cleopatra's Moon explores what life must have been like for children of the good-livers, who were more than bon-vivants, but also observers of court etiquette; how their rulers' suddenly and almost inexplicably changing fortunes might have been perceived by those around them;, and what happened to the Egyptians in the wake of impending doom. Augustus -- not one of my favorite Romans -- is definitely not one of the good guys, but a shrewd, conniving psychologist.

When the story moves to Rome, life changes substantially for the children who survived Augustus' eradication of all challengers to his legitimacy. Entrusted to Mark Antony's wife, Octavia, they live at the court of Augustus under the watchful eye of his very controversial wife Livia. Surviving there is even trickier, but Cleopatra Selene does so, and even gets a happier ever after ending.

Shecter's coming of age tale is for young adults, which means there is a limit to how far things go -- not that the plot is simplified, plus a realistic kid's eye-view of protocol and duty. It's also a satisfying, charming story for adults.

Friday, August 19, 2011

What Does LXC Equal?

When we first learn about Roman numerals, we learn very strict rules. To write 8, you have to write VIII. To write 4, you have to write IV. The larger numeral is on the left and you add to it as you go. If you are subtracting, the lower numeral is to the left of the higher and these two numerals can be added to the even larger numeral to the left. Thus, CXC = 100 + (100-10) = 190.

The only trouble is that this is not what you will necessarily see in Roman inscriptions. You may very well see IIII instead of IV and you might see 28 written as XXIIX instead of XXVIII. So, what do you do with a numeral like LXC? Do you assume it would simply never be written? Maybe, but if you try to figure it out, it becomes confusing. The XC part clearly goes together. It on its own = 90, but do you add it to the L (to make 140) or is the LX (60) to be added together and then subtracted from the C (100)?

Edwin Sandys seems to have the last word on the subject. In his Latin Epigraphy, p. 56 he writes:

"VIII is commoner than IIX, and XXVIII than XXIIX. Besides I and X, C is used in subtraction, as CD[symbol like L facing front and back] = 450 and C [infinity/M-like symbol to mean 1000]LX = 960, but V, L, and D are not so used."
Sounds like there is no subtracting the L from the C in LXC, but then, in a footnote, Sandys mentions that there may be a legitimate VL and CIL x 1273 uses the 1000 symbol before a 5000 symbol to equal 4000. There is no ambiguity about these atypical formations.

So what does LXC mean? Clearly, there are better ways to write it, but would it be legitimate for a Roman and would another Roman understand it?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Publicani and Mancipes

Reading about the tax situation in the late Republic and Principate, puts the time period in a whole new light. The oppressive tax census that is mentioned in the Gospels, for instance, may have been part of an Augustan effort to improve the lot of the exploited tax-payers, according to "Taxation in the Roman State, by Roscoe Pulliam; The Classical Journal, Vol. 19, No. 9 (Jun., 1924), pp. 545-553, a pretty clear, if old, article on taxation of this period. Pulliam says that before the census, provinces were assessed tax figures that bore little resemblance to what the inhabitants could reasonably pay. In addition, before Augustus installed salaried tax collectors, procuratores Augusti, the tax collectors were not paid by the state; instead, tax collectors, publicani, took their pay from the tax-payers. This led to extortion and prohibitively high tax rates not justified by modest Roman needs so much as the needs of the tax farmers and the magistrates whose pockets they lined.

The right to gather the taxes from the provinces was auctioned in Rome prior to Augustus' reforms. The contractors who bid were the manicipes. The men who went out into the provinces (publicani) were the manicipes' representatives. The highest bidding contractor would be chosen. He paid up front and then relied on his representatives to recoup the expense and more by gathering taxes from the people in the provinces. These tax farmers were generally equestrians.

Pulliam says that in addition to the taxes in the provinces, there were four main sources of revenue for the state from 167 B.C to the Augustan reforms. The early date is when Rome stopped directly taxing Romans. The four areas were:

(1) Rent from the public land (ager publicus)

(2) Indirect taxes like tariffs, tolls, manumission tax, and auction sales tax.

(3) Royalties from people using state monopolies in mining, fishing, and lumber.

(4) Rare special taxes for war that were more loans than taxes.

Picture courtesy of Wikipedia: The Virgin and St. Joseph register for the census before Governor Quirinius. Byzantine mosaic c. 1315.