LLR Books

Laughter In Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, And Cracking Up by Mary Beard

Why so serious? asks Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight as he describes how his laughing, drunken father took a knife to his face to create a smile. We don’t know whether he’s telling the truth, but we do know, immediately and completely, that this joker is one who will terrorise us at least as much as he makes us laugh. It’s a moment which can’t fail to come to mind when Mary Beard describes an almost identical, though self-inflicted, scene from Les Chants de Maldoror: the misanthropic Maldoror cuts his own face open to try to replicate the laughs which he can see all around him but can’t feel himself. As she tartly observes, no laugh is created, only a bloody mess.
Which is an appropriate image for this book. Beard cheerily admits that: “One of the aims of this book is to preserve some of this disorder in the study of laughter, to make it a messier rather than a tidier subject.” And the laughter which she brings us from ancient Rome is bloody and messy in equal measure. In considering the power dynamics in play with laughter – hiding a laugh, forcing one, demanding one – we’re constantly made to think about just how aggressive laughter can be.
She tells some chilling stories to illustrate the point. The emperor Caligula, according to arch-gossip Suetonius, once forced a man to watch the execution of his own son, then invited him to dinner and forced him to laugh and joke. “Why on earth did the man go along with this? asks Seneca. There is a simple answer: because he had another son.”
It’s a neat counterpoint to the kind of laughter which opens the book: the hidden, disguised laugh of the historian Cassius Dio, when faced with the emperor Commodus in the arena, brandishing an ostrich head and a bloody sword. Dio admits to chewing laurel leaves, in order to disguise his laughter. Though his laughter isn’t because he doesn’t feel threatened; Dio begins the story by saying that Commodus had put him and his fellow senators in fear of imminent death. As Commodus beheads the ostrich, he perhaps intends them to think, so he might behead them. So is Dio laughing because he’s rightly afraid for his life? Because the scene with the decapitated bird is intrinsically ridiculous? Or because the emperor, however threatening, is ultimately risible?
This one story alone reveals that Beard really isn’t kidding when she says, at the start of Chapter 4, “The study of Roman laughter is in some ways an impossible project. That is partly what makes it so intriguing, so special, so enlightening, and so worthwhile.” When we can’t even tell why someone who tells us they were laughing (and at what) was laughing, what hope do we have of working out what other Romans laughed at, with any real certainty?
Beard never promises us certainty. Instead, she promises and delivers a journey around laughter: the jokes, the butts, the laughers and the refuseniks. She discusses the difference between laughter in ancient Rome and Greece: the Greeks had lots of words for different kinds of laughter (kichlizein – to giggle – is surely her favourite), but only two words for joke. Latin, on the other hand, mostly uses variants of one verb – ridere – to laugh. But it has a huge number of words for different kinds of jokes and witticisms.
She’s particularly good when discussing the triangulation of jokes in Rome: the maker of a joke, the laugher at a joke and the butt of the joke all exist in relation to each other, in a way that seems deeply unfamiliar to a modern audience. But other aspects of laughter are less opaque: there’s nothing worse (according to Strabo in Cicero’s analysis of laughter, On the Orator) than using a line “risum quaesivit” – just to get a laugh. Hacks have been hacks throughout the ages.
Cicero is also the first person to point out that there’s no better way to kill a joke than to pick it apart and find out how it works. And while that’s often true, Beard embraces the opportunity to amuse us. Any book which contains the phrase, “It is clear enough, for example, that Pliny’s views on tickling are Aristotelian in a broad sense,” is clearly sticking out its tongue at Pseud’s Corner, and sniggering.
There’s little about the delivery of jokes: the timing, the vocal tone, the facial expressions, the physicality, because this information is largely lost. But it’s hard to appreciate jokes without their delivery. Tommy Cooper’s set, written down and read by someone who’d never seen him perform, would look (in parts) eerily similar to the gags in the Philogelos, a joke-book from the late Roman Empire. Ultimately it is, surely in the ancient world just as now, the way he tells ’em.

TRAVEL: The grandeur that is Greece

WIth old charm and icons, Athens still captivates

TRAVEL: The grandeur that is Greece

 By RICHARD FIANDER, Travel Writer 

Greece has been a very popular travel destination for many decades and its popularity continues, growing to record numbers of visitors in 2013.  The country offers a plethora of reasons to visit, including Athens and its antiquities, where Western civilization got its start, and the gods still dwell.
Inhabited for 7,000 years, Athens has been a city for half that time, and is considered one of the world’s oldest.
Its Golden Age was during the fifth -century when the Athenians controlled much of the eastern Mediterranean. The heritage of the Golden Age is evident throughout Athens, represented by ancient monuments and works of art, including the Acropolis and the Parthenon.  Today, Athens is a sprawling, busy, cosmopolitan city of a little more than 4 million people.
In a quiet neighborhood, the mid-range priced Herodion Hotel (www.herodion.gr) is contemporary, has lovely common areas and simple but tidy rooms.  There is an attractive atrium restaurant and friendly bar.  With two open-air Jacuzzis and comfortable lounges, the roof terrace is a great place to end a long day nursing a glass of retsina, while enjoying a dramatic view of the nearby Acropolis
To a person, the staff members at the hotel are polite, friendly, and go the extra mile.  The primary plus for staying here, however, is its location.  It is minutes away from the Acropolis metro station (looking more like a museum than a transport hub) where fast, reliable trains arrive and depart every five minutes for destinations throughout Athens and the metropolitan area.
The Herodion is also an easy few-minutes’ stroll to a pedestrian walkway that, along its almost two-mile route, that leads to Athens’ most famous ancient sites and places of interest.
The sort of itinerary a visitor to Athens might follow depends on the amount of time available, personal interest, desired pace, and sense of adventure.  A person could spend an intense morning savoring the wonders of the Acropolis, followed by a casual afternoon in Athens’ loveliest and quirkiest neighborhood, Anafiotika, and in the Plaka, the historic heart of Athens, where travernas, cafes and antique shops beckon.
The New Acropolis Museum
A top attraction is the New Acropolis Museum.  The Old Acropolis Museum, situated next to the Parthenon, was always thought to be too small and worn to do justice to the sculpture and architectural pieces it housed. But the new museum, a multi-story, all glass architectural showpiece, is a spectacular setting for the stunning treasures of the Acropolis.
The guide who was assigned to my group the day we  visited had to cancel at the last minute and a replacement was pressed into service.  But what a replacement!  He was a full-time staff member, a veteran professional archeologist, and a wonderful story-teller.  The museum houses 4,000 priceless pieces, and I’ll bet he is familiar with each piece.  He mesmerized his audience with history, tales of gods, goddesses, monsters, heroes, triumphs and tragedies.  A great experience.
The Acropolis
A short distance from the museum on the pedestrian walkway is the Acropolis plateau and the greatest temple of Periclean Greece, the Parthenon.
Now one of the world’s most famous buildings, the temple was built to be completely symmetrical.  The many columns that framed it were ingeniously curved to effectively create the optical illusion of harmonious, perfect form.
Yes, it’s impressive, but also make sure to explore the reconstructed Temple of Athena Nike and the elegant Erechtheion temple, bounded on its south side by the famous Porch of the Caryatids. Understand, though, that these maiden statue pillars are reproductions. The originals now reside in the New Acropolis Museum.
While here, pause and enjoy the stunning views of Athens.
Ancient Agora
Lying just below the Acropolis, the Agora was the heart of ancient Athens.  The Times Square of the ancient city, it was here where news was exchanged, merchants squabbled, tradesmen haggled with customers, deals were struck.  It was here where democracy was born and practiced in council sessions and open meetings.
Here Socrates and Plato discoursed and, centuries later, St. Paul preached.  There were theaters, schools, houses, shops and stoas, or  covered walkways or porticos open to the public where merchants could sell their goods, artists could display their artwork and religious gatherings could take place.
The grassy Agora is a great place to wander.  The Stoa of Attalos was destroyed by fire in A.D. 267 but, helped along by a large donation from John D. Rockefeller, it was reconstructed between 1953 and 1957 through the use of  the original foundation and ancient materials. , was reconstructed between   The stoa now contains an impressive museum whose exhibits reveal the great diversity and sophistication of life in the ancient Athenian world.
The highlight of the Ancient Agora is the Hephaestus, the best preserved Doric temple in all of Greece.. It never quite makes the same impact as the younger Parthenon, mainly because it lacks a noble site and cannot be seen from below, but it is magnificent.
Sunday in Athens
Planned right, Sunday in Athens can be a great day.
Syntagma Square, the center of modern Athens, is a prime spot for shopping and people-watching.  It is also home to the Greek parliament.  The building’s forecourt is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument to the country’s fallen, guarded by presidential honor guards, or Evzones,  complete with red fez, pleated kilt and pom-pom clogs.  The Evzones  are changed every hour on the hour to the delight of gathered spectators, and it makes for a great Kodak-moment.  They are best seen on Sundays and major holidays at 10:45 a.m. when they engage in an extended ceremony that includes a military band.
As early as you can on a Sunday, head to Monastiraki Plaza and its radiating streets, where a sprawling flea market takes place.  You’ll love the color and chaos.  Amidst the usual shops, restaurants, cafes and food carts, traders display their goods in stalls, on temporary tables, the backs of trucks, the trunks of cars, along the sidewalks and curbs.  The variety of what’s available for sale appears limitless, often of good quality and at low-prices.  Good-natured haggling is expected.
Plaza Avissynias is a small, lively part of the flea market.  Thousands of items for sale are crammed into the shops and spill out into the square, including fantastic kitsch.  After the purchase of some goodies  for  folks back home, my attention was attracted to a nearby café by some lively music, a soaring mesa—soprano voice, enthusiastic clapping and shouts of pleasure and encouragement.
Curious, plus interested in a late lunch, I entered the Café Avissinias (www.avissinia.gr).  The place was packed.  The small dance floor was crowded with smiling couples dancing together and clusters of men and women dancing separately.  The café offers live music and entertainment weekly, starting Thursday night and over the weekend through Sunday afternoon until 7 p.m. Locals come to sing, dance and have a rousing good time.
The Café Avissynias was opened 29 years ago by Ketty Koufonikola.  She works most days but wasn’t there the day I visited, at home instead finalizing her second cookbook.  Her replacement was her able, very friendly son, Mihail.
The food served in the restaurant is mostly the cuisine of Ketty’s native Macedonia, granny-style traditional -- and excellent.  The first floor includes a large bar, an elegant wood and glass ambience, and seats 60 people.  The second floor dining room has picture windows and jaw-dropping views of the Acropolis and the Temple of Hephaestus.
The room is also, well, different, with quirky colors, unmatched furniture, antiques and curbside-found curios.  There is plenty of eclectic art work in the form of  oils and watercolors that range from special, valuable, to numerous pieces picked up at the flea market.  There’s also a lovely pen and ink sketch proudly displayed, created by a talented customer-artist between courses.
Upstairs, the romantic roof terrace is available for dining most of the year. The view, a visual treat, will make the heart skip a beat or two.
When dining at Café Avissynias, for a special, extremely flavorful treat, try the lamb with bulgur wheat.
National Archaeological Museum
While there are many top attractions to enjoy in Athens, the one certainly not to be missed  is the National Archaeological Museum, founded at the end of the 19th century to house antiquities from all over Greece.
The priceless collection was dispersed and buried underground during World War II to protect it from possible damage.  Today, this superb museum showcases a most formidable collection of ancient Greek artifacts, making it without doubt one of the world’s finest museums.
There are many unique exhibits to amaze, including the stunning gold treasures of the Mycenaean collection.  Impressive, but I was wowed by the sculpture collection, especially several of the bronzes, including the bareback Jockey of Artemision, a Second- Century BC bronze salvaged from the sea and from the same excavation, the bronze Artemision Poseidon (some say Zeus), poised and ready to fling a trident (or thunderbolt), thought to have been created in 460 B.C., amazingly, about 2,500 years ago.
Day Trips
There are many wonderful, inexpensive, easily arranged day trips from Athens worth considering.  One is a half-day scenic drive along the coast to Cape Sounion and the showstopper Temple of Poseidon, perched 197 feet above the sea.
Also, there is a memorable one-day excursion to Delphi, home of the most venerated and consulted Greek oracle of old.  The site is breathtaking and the artwork unforgettable.
There are a staggering 227 inhabited islands scattered throughout the Aegean and Ionian Seas. The vast majority have played an important part in Greece’s history and its contemporary culture, including Crete, Corfu, Santorini, Mykonos and Rhodes, to name a few.  I look forward some time in the future to an idyllic, slow-paced visit to a number of them.
Meanwhile, there is a very satisfying one day, three-island cruise offered by several companies.  The one I selected was Athens One Day Cruise (www.onedaycruise.gr) and included visits to Hydra, Poros, and Aegina, islands in the Saronic Gulf.
Hydra is a favorite of the chic and artsy crowd partly because it is in a time-warp.  By decree, the town must be preserved as it was 50 to 60 years ago.  Little has changed since Sophia Loren filmed the movie “Boy on a Dolphin” there in 1957.  Cars are prohibited.  Transport and muscle are provided by donkeys.
The port is lovely, no doubt, but Hydra’s special charm is in the lanes and alleys that run up the gray sides of the steep hills from portside, where a very traditional Greek way of life can be glimpsed , and multitudes of magnificent bougainvillea.
Poros is the smallest of the islands, with a pretty harborside.  The largest of the islands visited is Aegina, so close to the port of Piraeus and, therefore, Athens, that many people take the 25 to 30-minute one-way commute daily.  The harbor is very interesting and there was a worthwhile visit to the Temple of Aphaia, which proudly bears 25 of its original 32 columns, dating back to the early 5th century B.C.
During the cruise, an excellent buffet was provided for lunch.  There was a spirited Greek show with singers and dancers and much cheerful, energetic audience participation.  Great fun!
The adult cost for the three island cruise was a bargain, $99 EU.

Astylos of Crotona

Astylos of Crotona was a runner in ancient Greece. Though you’ve likely never heard of him he’s important in the history of sports because he was the world’s first free agent…only he was a free agent in a time when being one meant having your home literally turned into a prison because Ancient Greek people were funny like that.
Astylos was mostly active through the years 480-488 BC, during which he accomplished a feat few runners in history have ever managed, winning the same two events in three consecutive Olympic games. The events in question were the stade and diaulos. For those of you who aren’t following this series of articles, the events are roughly the equivalent of our modern 200-meter and 400-meter races, respectively.
To really rub it in, Astylos also competed and won an event known as the hoplitodromos during his career too. This race required the runners to wear full hoplite armor consisting of heavy bronze greaves, a helmet and a traditional bronze shield. The total weight of this armor was recorded as at least 50 pounds and the race required runners to sprint a full 200 meters. We should point out that Astylos and his peers were the last few athletes to run with the greaves, since a few years later runners no longer needed to wear them for the event. We’d also like to point out that although wearing armor was compulsory for this race, runners didn’t wear anything else with it.
So to sum up what we know about Astylos so far, he won the 200 and 400 meter sprint events for eight years running (ha!), who also dabbled in sprinting completely naked with a set of golden greaves framing his dong for no other reason than Screw you, I want my dong framed in gold. If that doesn’t sound exactly like the kind of man you’d want on your team you’re either stupid or a member of Cobra Kai, either way you’re not fit to behold the magnificence of a man like Astylos or the ethereal beam of light his penis gave off when he ran.
After hearing rumors of this golden-wanged gentlemen running so fast his farts can occasionally still be smelled in Greece if you run backwards fast enough, the tyrant king of Syracuse had his officials approach Astylos with an offer. The offer was basically a contract for Astylos to run for the city of Syracuse instead of his native, Croton. To sweeten the deal Astylos was also offered a ton of money for his services, making him effectively the first free agent in sports history.
The city of Croton didn’t take Astylos’s betrayal well and angrily tore down the statue they’d built to honor him. To further prove how fickle sports fans back then were, they also turned his home into a prison. Because there’s mad and there’s we’re-filling-your-childhood-home-with-murderers mad.
We presume one of the reasons people were so angry had something to do with the fact that Astylos’s sporting achievements were remarkable. His three consecutive victories in the Stade and Diaulos coupled with his victory in the Hoplitodromos were feats that weren’t matched for another 300 years. In fact, in the city of Sparta they literally had to add a small section at the bottom of a statue celebrating their own running hero, Chionis, explaining that the hoplitodromos didn’t exist when he was alive, because Astylos’s dominance made him look like a chump. When you run so hard the Spartans have to explain why they suck compared to you, you know you’ve made the big time.

Despite his achievements the end of Astylos’s story is a sad one. Because of his betrayal, he was banished from his hometown and most sources agree that he died a lonely man. Granted, a lonely man with millions of ancient world dollars and enough Olympic victories under his belt to backhand everyone he ever met and get away with it, but still a lonely man.

MY WRITERS SITE: The unexamined life

MY WRITERS SITE: The unexamined life: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Socrates

Ancient Roman Military Camp Unearthed in Eastern Germany

Ancient camp. Boot nails and other objects were found at the Hachelbich site, along with soil marks where Roman soldiers once dug a trench to defend their temporary camp.
Ancient camp. Boot nails and other objects were found at the Hachelbich site, along with soil marks where Roman soldiers once dug a trench to defend their temporary camp.
Archaeologists have confirmed the presence of a long-lost Roman military camp deep in eastern Germany. The 18-hectare site, found near the town of Hachelbich in Thuringia, would have sheltered a Roman legion of up to 5000 troops. Its location in a broad valley with few impediments suggests it was a stopover on the way to invade territory further east.
“People have been searching for evidence of the Romans in this part of Germany for 200 years,” says team leader Mario Kuessner, an archaeologist working for the state of Thuringia. “It took a long time before we realized what we had, and we wanted to be sure.”
After a stinging defeat in 9 C.E., Rome largely abandoned hope of conquering the fractious German tribes north of the Rhine River. Yet written sources suggest that the Romans occasionally campaigned in Germany, probably to punish German tribes for raids on Roman territory. Until recently, the reports have been largely dismissed as braggadocio. The Hachelbich site, along with a battlefield near Hannover uncovered in 2008, show that the reports had more than a kernel of truth to them—and that the Romans were willing to cross their frontier when it suited their political or military needs.
The encampment was discovered in 2010, during routine excavations as part of a road-building project. In the years since, Kuessner and his collaborators have excavated more than 2 hectares and used geomagnetic surveys to analyze disturbances in the soil over an additional 10 hectares to reveal the outlines of the camp.
A rough rectangle with round corners, the camp is standard Roman military issue. No matter where they were, legions on the move set up a minifortress in the wilderness at the end of each day’s march. At Hachelbich, the meter-deep trenches dug around the camp were the easiest feature to spot in the soil. Two perimeter trenches have been found, each more than 400 meters long.
On the camp’s northern edge, the soldiers built a gate protected by another trench that projected out past the perimeter. “It’s typically Roman—no Germans did that sort of thing,” Kuessner says. The trenches were part of a simple, but effective makeshift perimeter defense: A low wall of dirt was thrown up behind the trench, then topped with tall stakes, to create a defensive barrier almost 3 meters wide and 3 meters high. Erosion wiped away the wall long ago, but it left discolorations in the soil where the trench was dug.
Additional evidence of an ancient encampment includes traces of eight makeshift bread ovens not far from the camp perimeter and a handful of artifacts, including four nails from the bottom of Roman boots, a piece of horse tackle, and part of a scabbard. The style of these artifacts—and a few radiocarbon dates—place the camp somewhere in the first 2 centuries C.E., too broad a range to be linked to a known specific event in Roman history.
Michael Meyer, an archaeologist at the Free University of Berlin, who was not part of the team but who attended a press conference about the discovery last week, says that any of the elements by themselves wouldn’t have been convincing, but together the find is compelling. “Now we have the first camp that’s clearly more than a day trip from the edge of the empire,” he says. “It’s no isolated frontier outpost, but something that clearly points to the Elbe River,” hundreds of kilometers deep in German territory.
The site’s exact whereabouts are being kept under wraps, to protect it from metal detector hobbyists who might loot or disturb it. When the fields of wheat and canola that cover it are harvested in the fall, excavations will continue. “The best would be if we could find coins or something with the legion number written on it,” Kuessner says. “That would help us pin down the date.”

In Spain, a mosaic of ruins forms a picture of life in a major outpost of the Roman Empire

By Miranda S. Spivack  

 On a sunny Saturday near the Spanish coastal city of Tarragona, my husband and I stood in a small building with a rounded ceiling, gazing at a finely crafted mosaic that’s said to be about 1,500 years old. The building is surrounded by an empty field and has a small paved parking lot, also empty.
It quickly became clear that on this day, we were the only tourists there. Surely there had been others the day before? One of the two curators on the site shrugged, paused a moment, and then gave his answer. “Quizas tres,” he said, with a shrug. Maybe three.
 Really? Only three people had come out to see this extraordinary Roman-Christian relic, known as Centcelles? Many art historians say that it’s among the world’s finest examples of a ceiling mosaic, crafted long before Michelangelo lay on his back to paint the Sistine Chapel. We had it all to ourselves.
The Centcelles mosaic portrays hunting scenes with wild animals, including lions, as well as Bible stories, and other scenes still defying interpretation. It is at least 30 feet above the ground, a tribute to both artistry and engineering. How did the artist get up there and stay there? There’s plenty of time to contemplate that in the quiet inside the building. As was the case with most of our other visits to many of Spain’s carefully preserved Roman sites, we were able to enjoy Centcelles virtually alone. There were no other visitors muscling us aside for a better view, or disturbing the peace by answering ringing cellphones.

Details: Roman ruins in Spain
A year earlier, on the hunt for Roman ruins in Italy, we’d found ourselves in different circumstances. Many of the houses in Pompeii were closed, with no sign of when or whether they would ever reopen, and what we were able to see wasn’t exactly awe-inspiring. In Naples, there was so much trash in the street near the train station that I assumed (wrongly) that there was a garbage strike. One day, the commuter train from the coastal town my husband and I were using as our base just didn’t show up. And in Rome, major sites such as the Colosseum and the Forum were so packed with tourists that it was tough to absorb the splendor of the surroundings.
Spain attracts more than 50 million visitors annually, according to government data. But the vast majority strike out for the cities and beaches and never make it to some of the country’s lesser-known but well-protected Roman ruins, thereby missing out on opportunities to delve into world history, examine architectural marvels and see some great works of art in the open air — in many cases, in better condition than in Italy. Add to that the economics of visiting Spain — where a tapas snack and a drink in a restaurant can be had for about $9 or less — and the ease of traveling on Spanish trains and buses, and it’s tough to find a reason to stay away.
We reached Centcelles on a public bus from Tarragona (about $4 round trip) and then walked to the site. A few years earlier, we’d visited Italica, a Roman site with good mosaics and a coliseum near Sevilla, also getting there on the city bus. In Mérida, which Rafael Sabio, a curator at the National Museum of Roman Art, says is “Spain’s Pompeii,” we arrived after a four-hour bus ride from Madrid and made our way on foot to the well-preserved theater, the Circus Maximus or racetrack, and an aqueduct, as well as to the museum, which has one of Spain’s deepest collections of Roman artifacts.

One big archaeological site
Despite the Crisis, as Spaniards call their wrenching economic downturn, Spain and its local governments have managed to protect many Roman ruins and to safeguard many relics in nearby museums, sometimes right on site. And by doing so, they’ve also preserved numerous examples of the long-lasting effect the Romans had on civic society for centuries after the empire collapsed.
Not only did the Romans in Spain have glass, fine jewels and beautiful mosaics, but they also built fancy thermal baths, figured out how to provide running water and developed sewage and central heating systems. They built huge aqueducts without using cement, fitting the pieces together without any bonding material. They built bridges still open to pedestrians today in Cordoba and Salamanca and in the province of Burgos, using a design that’s replicated on structures such as Washington’s Arlington Memorial Bridge. They designed coliseums, many still well preserved, such as the ones in Italica, Segobriga (about an hour’s drive from Madrid) and Tarragona, where the coli­seum overlooking the Mediterranean is a short walk from the train station.
Spain is essentially one big archaeological site, much of it dating from the Roman era. Entire cities, such as Barcelona and Valencia, were built over Roman ruins, which are still viewable in museums that allow visitors to walk along glass-bottomed walkways to see the remains of small shops, public baths and city houses. The small city of Antequera, accessible by the AVE train or an hour’s bus ride from Malaga, has one of the world’s best statues of a Roman boy, the Ephebus of Antequera. Museums in Cordoba and Sevilla have extensive Roman collections.

Homes of the rich and famous 
We began our most recent quest for Roman ruins in Madrid, where the treasure-filled National Archaeological Museum reopened in early April after being closed for six years. It’s a good starting point for gaining an understanding of Roman Spain, with its cache of mosaics, jewelry, sculptures, vases, glass containers and Roman tablets spelling out laws.
Then, with Madrid as a base, it’s easy to make day trips or longer journeys to the dozens of Roman sites across Spain, for centuries one of Rome’s most remote but thriving outposts. Many local museums have extensive collections of Roman relics, including jewelry, ornately carved marble sarcophagi and bronze and marble statues. In almost every municipality, there’s a local tourist office — often more than one — usually with a young Spaniard eager to test out his or her English, and with brochures in several languages.
A few days after we spent several hours in the Madrid museum, we rented a car and drove about an hour to Carranque. The sprawling site just outside the town of the same name includes the remains of three buildings, including what appears to have been a 20-room Roman villa whose wealthy owner commissioned dozens of mosaics for the floors and walls. The mosaics are in their original locations in the villa, viewable from a walkway constructed about six feet above. The curators at the site rely largely on natural light to show them off, which makes close inspection a bit difficult.
Still, Carranque offers one of Spain’s most easily accessible on-site examples of what life might have been like for the rich and famous in Roman Spain in the late 4th century A.D. Carranque, it turned out, foreshadowed the end of an era; it was built about 100 years before decadence, bad crops and invasions from the north helped spark the decline of Rome’s Spanish outposts, and eventually of the entire empire.
When we arrived at Carranque about 10:30 a.m. on a Saturday, we found ourselves alone in the empty parking lot. By 11 a.m., when an hour-long tour in Spanish was to begin, perhaps a dozen people had shown up. Once we completed the tour, helped out by a free brochure in English, most of the others took off, leaving us nearly alone. We took our time going through the villa again, pausing for as long as we wanted to admire the mosaics, which include a stunning piece with a large head of Oceanus. We examined the artistic flourishes, including what our guide had said was the artist’s signature, and a geometric design said to be the symbol of the homeowner, whose name, the experts believe, was Materno.
As we were preparing to leave, a young Spanish couple with two small children stopped us to ask what we thought of Carranque. Like many Spaniards, they were proud of their heritage and worried about what the world was thinking about the economic downturn and its effect on tourist sites. We spoke enthusiastically about Carranque, but the man told us that the site was nothing like it had been before the Crisis. Then there was a restaurant, now only a small vending machine with mediocre coffee. The mosaics, he said, were once easier to view because there was better lighting. And the site used to be open year-round, not just in the warmer months. Then he reeled off the names of other sites that he said were much more worth our time.

Life in Roman times
Could there be something better than the 20 detailed mosaics at Carranque? A few weeks later, we decided to find out, renting a car for the trip to north-central Spain.
First we visited Numancia, a valiant hilltop outpost where the residents fought off the Romans for two decades before succumbing. Several families were visiting the place during Holy Week, but it was hardly overrun.
Many visitors are intrigued by the site’s rebuilt Celtiberian and Roman houses, which are furnished with bedding, kitchen equipment and even a loom that preservationists believe are historically accurate. Admission was a whopping 0.60 euros, or about $1. Then it was on to La Olmeda, outside Saldaña , a site discovered in 1968 by local farmer Javier Cortes, who had turned over mosaics while tilling his land. For about a decade, he took care of the site, which has a rare mosaic of Achilles dressed as a girl as his mother tries to protect him from Ulysses’s effort to get him back to fight in the Trojan War. Though La Olmeda gets a good number of visitors, reporting about 2,500 during Holy Week this year, we were once again alone when we toured it toward the end of that week.
The next day, we drove to Clunia, a well-preserved Roman city that was once a regional capital and boasted about 30,000 residents. It was Easter Sunday and a bit rainy, so this time we weren’t surprised to be by ourselves.
We first took a look at the majestic theater, which had a larger capacity than the one in Mérida, we were told. Then we walked around to see several stunning mosaics with some geometric patterns that we hadn’t seen before. Because it was Sunday, Clunia was shutting down at 2 p.m. After checking out the mosaics, we just had time to see the short film about the site and then to wander through the small museum, which held some remnants of Roman statues and pottery. Afterward, we drove down the hill to the only bar open in town, appropriately named El Mosaico, where we had a few tapas.
Heading back to Madrid a few days later, we stopped at La Villa Romana de Almenara-Puras, about 90 minutes north of the city. It was 4:30 p.m., and the place, surrounded by cultivated flatland, was deserted. It was cold and people were at work, one of the curators said, trying to explain the lack of visitors. We toured the museum with an English audioguide, listening to a detailed discussion of Roman life. Alone, we walked on the walkways above the mosaics, getting close views of the highly detailed and well-preserved collection, which includes a rare mosaic showing Pegasus in two different scenes.
Eventually, a few families showed up. After giving us all as much time as we wanted to view the villa and the mosaics, the curators gathered us for a guided tour in Spanish of a full-scale model of a Roman villa, constructed by the government next to the real thing. It seemed like a life-size playhouse, complete with an interior courtyard, kitchens and bedrooms, spa rooms with neatly folded towels, and communal latrines, typical of the Romans.
The model offers a chance for visitors to fully visualize how the low stone walls on the actual site would have looked had they been completely preserved. The guide spoke in detail and entertained all questions and then left us alone.
As the other visitors headed back to the main site, we paused to take in our surroundings. Only the wind over the nearby fields, which are said to look the same as they did 1,500 years ago, broke the silence.

Spivack, a former Washington Post reporter, is living temporarily in Spain.

Colin Kirk Sheds New Light On the Life and Death of Rome's First Emperor

The Augustan Age is characterized by vast territorial discovery, conquest and prosperity, much of it achieved during Augustus' lifetime. Sure, he found Rome brick and left it marble. He also found the embryonic world of Rome in bloody conflict and left it with vastly extended secure boundaries to enjoy the Pax Romana.
Augustus' public life started, age nineteen, with Julius Caesar's assassination, followed by twelve years of power struggles between the elite of Rome. Augustus then became the statesman who transformed Rome into the superpower of the ancient world. Kirk's fascinating new book, "Death of Augustus. His Conversion to Christ" tells how this was done and the subsequent ramifications.
Augustus is the outstanding figure in Ancient Roman military history, politics and the arts. He rose to power with a circle of friends that included, amongst the military and political elite of the day, poets, philosophers and historians. He used fair means and foul to become the first emperor of Rome. There are fulsome accounts available of his rise to power. Curiously though, only his early years of power are well-documented. There is nothing substantial available about the last 30 years of his life and almost nothing at all for the final decade.
Kirk sheds new light on the life and death of a curiously human, political superman. He has had to make careful study of the coinage, literary and epigraphic evidence to produce this portrait. The State records, contemporary chronicles and later histories of the years of Augustus in power were destroyed by Christian zealots at the end of the fourth century. "Death of Augustus. His Conversion to Christ" explores the reasons why.
"There's lots of information about Augustus' youth and how he gained power, some about his early years in power and then an abrupt halt. A great chunk of the record is missing. There was clearly some reason in the history of Christianity to tamper with the year of Augustus' death, which has been moved from 8 to 14 CE. Daniel had prophesied the year of Christ's birth. The year of Augustus' death was relevant. Sacred Chronologists had to prove, by the year of his birth, that Jesus was the Messiah. Why they had to destroy most of the record of Augustus' years of power too, is less obvious. Christ in majesty! Christ the Judge! Christ the Prince of Peace! are all far removed from the persona of Jesus. They had to have come from somewhere," Kirk observes.
"Death of Augustus. His Conversion to Christ" deviates from classical and modern histories of the period. Instead, Augustus' life and legacy are examined from the point of view of: Ovid, a great Augustan poet; Eusebius, a Church historian, author of a timeline from Creation to the birth of Jesus; Jerome, who translated the Bible into commonly spoken Latin and Ambrosius, who made Christianity into the State religion of the Roman Empire and thus of its successor States to this very day.

This compelling volume is a fascinating introduction for beginners and a source of fresh insights for scholars and historians. For more information on this book, interested parties may log on to http://www.XlibrisPublishing.co.uk.

About the Author
Colin Kirk has contributed to health and philosophical issues, written poetry and fiction, as well as classical history, whilst growing fruit and vegetables in a mediaeval walled garden, to prepare and cook for guests, at what his friends call a Pythagorean Guesthouse.
Death of Augustus. His Conversion to Christ. * by Colin Kirk
Publication Date: January 8, 2014
Trade Paperback; £13.99; 308 pages; 978-1-4836-9335-4
Trade Hardback; £23.99; 308 pages; 978-1-4836-9336-1
Ebook; £3.99; 978-1-4836-9337-8

Ostia Antica: The Multi-Ethnic District of Ancient Rome

By Martha Bakerjian

Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome, is a vast archeological site that can easily be visited as a day trip from Rome. Nicoletta Di Livio, a licensed tour guide with Overome, a Rome tour company that offers Ancient Ostia tours, gives us an insight into the people of Ostia during the 2nd century when Hadrian was Emperor and Ostia was at its peak as an important port city. Nicoletta says:
Ostia Antica was a very important city during the Roman Empire. But why this name? In Latin Ostium means "river's mouth"; in fact, the ancient city was founded in the 4th century BC at the mouth of the Tiber River, a strategically important place. It was the entrance to Rome for people coming from the Tyrrhenian Sea and it was only 30 kilometers away from the city.
Initially, Ostium wasn't a city but a castrum, a military fort for defense and control. The first village was near one of the most precious products of ancient times: salt. Ostia's salt pans were a great source of wealth for Romans. Salt was used to keep food fresh and it was so important that the Italian word salario (salary) derives from the custom to pay the soldiers with a bag of salt. Once extracted and shaped into slabs, salt was carried inland along Via Salaria. Then it reached the Adriatic Sea passing the Apennines. The importance of Ostia and its salt is still remembered today.
 Let's now talk about Ostia's people. During the Age of Hadrian there were about 50,000 inhabitants, almost as many as today in some of Rome's districts. They differed greatly from one another because Ostia was probably the biggest port of the Empire, so it gathered all the ethnic groups like a real Tower of Babel. The statues we still have today prove the greatness of this Empire: each face, each shape tells us a story about feelings and emotions! We just have to decode their essence to understand the people who lived there.
The Roman Empire opened the door to the subdued people creating the greatest multi-ethnic society in history. Ostia was an extraordinarily varied city with different languages and religions that coexisted without any problems because people were unified by one culture: "Roman's law". If someone didn't bow to authority it meant he was against the system and therefore an enemy.
Once this rule was accepted Romans were completely free. They could choose what to wear, the language to speak and adore their own God. There was no discrimination for skin color and society was based on a merit system. Even the vanquished were welcomed if respectful of the laws.
An example was Septimius Severus. He was a great emperor, even though he was from Lybia, an old enemy of Rome. His strong African accent, his dark skin and his Berber origins didn't stop him from reaching the top of Roman society.

Poet’s take on classic tale of the fall of Troy

A CAFE in Hebden Bridge railway station is perhaps an incongruous starting point for a play about Ancient Greece, but it was here that Simon Armitage hatched a plan to bring the story of the Trojan War to the stage. “I was sitting there discussing Achilles and Agamemnon while the tea urn was gurgling in the background,” he says.
The Last Days of Troy, commissioned by the Royal Exchange Theatre, is Armitage’s retelling of a story made famous by Homer and Virgil. The play, published this week by Faber & Faber, has just begun a five week run in Manchester and then heads to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London next month.
Although best known as a poet, Armitage has shown himself to be a master of the written word in all its forms and during the past decade has adapted and translated several epic works, including The Death of King Arthur and Homer’s Odyssey.
“One of the reasons I do these projects every now and again is for that challenge of working with people and to do something collaborative,” he says. “Writing a play is collaborative, you’re in discussion with the director about the use of space, you talk to the actors and as the play develops there’s an increasing number of voices. You have set designers, costume designers, so there’s a real growing chorus of which you’re just a part.”
But writing a play is a different kind of challenge to writing a poem. “One of the big differences is the size of a play compared to a poem. With a play you have this panoramic story and performance on a grand scale, whereas I see my poems as being more like snow globes, microcosms writ large.”
Then there’s the text itself. “Until you actually hear the words in the actors’ mouths you don’t know how it will work. There was one scene where Patroclus tells Achilles to cut off a lock of his hair and the guy playing Achilles doesn’t have a hair on his head,” he says, laughing.
Some writers prefer to stick to what they know, but the Yorkshire-born poet enjoys the challenge and in this instance already had a pre-exisitng story. “This means you don’t have to worry about structure and characters because they’re already laid out for you and this allows you to explore it in terms of dialogue and language,” he says. “I really agonise over my poems and they can leave me scratching my head, but with a play I find I can write two, or three scenes in a day and that’s very liberating.”
Although he admits it did throw up a few numerical challenges. “If you think that Helen’s was the face that launched a thousand ships and that each ship carried 200 men, and you imagine that Troy had an equal number, then we’re already talking about 400,000 people and we have a company of nine or 10 to tell this story.”
It’s a story most people are at least vaguely familiar with. “I think people know scraps about these myths, they probably know about Achilles and they’ve probably heard of the wooden horse, but they perhaps aren’t quite as familiar with the whole narrative and where it fits in with history and myth. There are gaps here and I suppose I’ve tried to fill these.”
Armitage, who still lives in West Yorkshire, has tried to add flesh to the bones of these myths. “For me it was about re-imagining what people might say to each other because with both Homer and Virgil there’s not much conversation. There’s a lot of rhetorical speech but there isn’t the rapid fire dialogue.”
These myths have certainly stood the test of time but what is their enduring allure? “I used to think that these tales from Ancient Greece were the template for all contemporary stories, but I think also they’re just very good stories with great characters, they’re irresistible.”
The Last Days Of Troy, published by Faber & Faber, is out now priced £14.99.

Ancient Greek "Caryatid" statues get laser facelift

Greece is long praised by global tourists for its beautiful seaside scenes and amazing architecture. But just like every top tourist spot in the world, it occasionally needs some TLC. A team of experts is giving some of Greece's statues a facelift. In Athens, the marble statues of the maidens known as the "Caryatids" have been blackened by pollution, but the grime is being carefully lasered away.

Perched high above the city of Athens, the Acropolis dominates the city's skyline.

For 25-hundred years, six statues flanked the columns of the Erechtheion Temple on the Acropolis. One was taken to the British Museum in the early 19th century. The other five were moved to the Acropolis Museum in the 1970s for protection against the air pollution and acid rain. Now they are getting a makeover.
In the centre of the museum, laser machinery is being used to burn away the dirt from the marble maidens. Three goggle-clad conservators are busy zapping decades of grime off the statues.

Conservators use an award-winning technology that combines two infrared and ultraviolet wavelengths, to avoid causing discoloration or abrasion to the original surface.

The laser beam hits the layer of crust that has formed over the years. The crust, which has a much lower threshold than the marble, absorbs the energy and disintegrates, while the marble is unaffected.

Besides the laser operators, other conservators step in to stabilize cracks in the marble. Rather than putting the star exhibits into a lab for years, museum officials choose to do the job as publicly as possible, not only to make the museum more "alive", but also to avoid the potential hazards of moving them.

The cleaning is displayed on a closed-circuit television live to museum visitors. To limit exposure, laser operators spend a maximum of three hours on the job every day, and it takes about seven months to clean each of the 4.5-meter tall statues. Work began in 2011, and is expected to be finished in June.

Ancient Greek Language Said to Reprogram The Brain

by Konstantinos Menzel -

Several studies by Greek and foreign scientists have indicated that the Ancient Greek language, apart from being a living language, is also a therapeutic one, as it is said to posses the ability to cure many disorders, for example dyslexia.
According to a theory by British classicist Professor Eric A. Havelock, which is based on the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, the ancient Greek alphabet caused many abstract concepts to be conceived in the ancient Greek world, due to the unique brain activation of its users. The theory is presented along with many other conclusions by top foreign scientists, philologists and linguists in the 400-page volume ‘The Alphabet and the Brain: The Lateralization of Writing,” which was published in 1988 by Springer.
The scientific results that contribute to the theory of Havelock include:
1. The ‘Broca’s area’ in the left -usually- hemisphere of the human brain, which is linked to speech production, was activated more than usual due to the Greek alphabet, which for the first time had successfully employed vowels for writing.
2. The human brain was radically redesigned.
3. The above mentioned change in brain function caused a substantial change in the attitude of the ancient Greek alphabet’s users, for which the need of communication with other citizens through the art of theater appeared.
Another published scientific research by the team of Greek psychiatrist Ioannis Tsegos, showed that the measurable indicators of verbal intelligence and deductive thinking were accelerated across a group of 25 non-dyslexic children, who were taught Ancient Greek through accepted methods for two hours per week, between the ages of 8 and 12. In another equal group of children that weren’t taught Ancient Greek, the study revealed that the respective indicators were decelerated. Both groups were taught similar lessons.
Australian university researcher Kate Chanock, however, took Tsegos’ study a step further in her work “Help for a dyslexic learner from an unlikely source: the study of Ancient Greek” (2006: Literacy), the Australian researcher describes how she cured an English-speaking person from dyslexia by using Ancient Greek.
Meanwhile, children in elementary schools in Oxford, U.K., have been learning Ancient Greek since 2010 in addition to their other courses, while children of the same age in Greece aren’t learning ancient languages as they should, but instead are learning English.

The persistence of myth: Greek Gods in modern fiction

What attracts us to mythology? Is it the human fascination for tales, particularly those personifying natural phenomenon, or explaining the creation of the world and humankind in a way that is easily understood and without going into the big bang theory and evolution?
Old myths die hard and some never do, persisting in our consciousness - or rather, collective unconscious as per psychologist Jung - and frequently find cultural expression. And they turn out to be popular far beyond where they originally flourished. The Graeco-Roman pantheon can be a good example.
Zeus/Jupiter, his siblings and progeny have appeared in or inspired various cultural forms: epics, paintings, poetry, drama, comics (Wonder Woman), films, philosophy - Nietzsche's Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy - or even language (bacchanalian, herculean, odyssey, Midas touch and the like) through the ages.
Giving the gods of Olympus a new lease of life, certain authors have featured them in urban fantasies, bringing them into the cities of the world we live in, with some spectacular results.
American writer James Thorne Smith was the pioneer.
In "The Night Life of the Gods" (1931), a quirky inventor crafts a device that can turn living matter into stone and back. Testing it, he meets a centuries-old leprechaun who teaches him to accomplish the reverse. They then break into New York's Metropolitan Museum of Arts and try it on some impressive statues of Roman gods.
Chaos results as the newly-enlivened deities stride the metropolis - Mercury, also the god of thieves, proves to be an adroit pickpocket while Neptune creates havoc in a fish market before order is restored.
Parodying aspects of mythology, history or literature or using them as a theme in innovative but humorous ways, British novelist Tom Holt has focussed on Norse legends, characters like Arthur, Beowulf and Faust, as well as those from the Arabian Nights, fairy tales made famous by the Brothers Grimm and cult films. And, of course, the Greek myths.
"Ye Gods" (1992) gives an entire new spin to the man vs gods saga through a clash between megalomaniac Zeus and his human son Jason (a splendid parody of Heracles/Hercules) with the fate of mankind in balance. Adding to the divinely funny goings-on, there is the first joke, a chilling depiction of a world without laughter besides some savagely funny observations on reality shows and the advertising business.
Holt returns to the Greek gods in "Odds and Gods" (1995) but here, they are merely among assorted pantheons from across the world living in a retirement home somewhere in London and trying to escape their authoritarian housekeeper-minder.
"Gods Behaving Badly" (2007), by British author Marie Phillips, sees the 12 Olympian gods as well as Eros (the god of love) living in a suburban flat in London as their powers have waned.
Aphrodite, the goddess of love, now has a phone sex business, Artemis, the goddess of the wild, is a dog-walker, Apollo has a TV fortune-telling show and Dionysus, the god of wine, now runs a nightclub. Trouble ensues for two mortals whose destinies get entwined with them before all is satisfactorily resolved.
But it is Richard Russell 'Rick' Riordan's Percy Jackson series, as well as the later Heroes of Olympus cycle, that bring all aspects of Graeco-Roman mythology into the modern world most fully.
The books have an interesting origin. Riordan used to tell his son Haley, diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia, stories from Greek mythology at bedtime. When he ran out of matter, his son suggested he invent fresh ones using existing and new characters and thus was born the saga.
A troubled child unable to stick in any school, Percy finds out he is a demigod - the son of ocean god Poseidon, no less - and is brought to a camp near New York for others like him. There he makes the acquaintance of Annabeth Chase (daughter of wisdom goddess Athena) who accompanies him on various quests as they prevent the Titans (whom Zeus and his siblings had overthrown) from regaining power and uprooting life as we know it.
The stories are told in "The Lightning Thief" (2005), "The Sea of Monsters" (2006), "The Titan's Curse" (2007), "The Battle of the Labyrinth" (2008), and "The Last Olympian" (2009). The first two have also been made into films.
The second cycle introduces the gods' Roman personas as well as a similar camp on the West Coast for their half-human progeny. The two sides - Greek and Roman - must set aside their historical mistrust to jointly combat a fresh danger to their civilization from gods even older than the Titans and more destructive.
Beginning with "The Lost Hero" (2010), "The Son of Neptune" (2011)", "The Mark of Athena" (2012) and "The House of Hades" (2013) the story has reached a crescendo and how it will end will be known in "The Blood of Olympus", due this October.
(04.05.2014 - Vikas Datta is a senior assistant editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

Ancient bones show signs of struggle with coeliac disease

Ewen Callaway

If going gluten-free seems hard now, try doing it in ancient Rome. A well-heeled young woman with coeliac disease tried to adapt her diet in an unsuccessful effort to cope with gluten sensitivity, studies of her remains suggest.
The woman’s remains were buried in a 2,000-year-old tomb at the Cosa archaeological site on the Tuscan coast in Italy. The ancient Roman city's economy depended on growing wheat and olives and was not particularly prosperous, yet archaeologists discovered gold and bronze jewellery entombed alongside the woman’s bones. They concluded that she was relatively wealthy and would have had access to plenty of food.
Yet the skeleton of the woman — who researchers estimate was 18–20 years old — bore signs of malnutrition and osteoporosis. Both can be complications of untreated coeliac disease, which is characterized by a severe allergic reaction to gluten in the intestinal lining. Many of the woman's bones were eroded at the tips, and she would have stood just 140 centimetres (4 feet, 7 inches) tall.
DNA analysis had previously shown that the woman carried two copies of an immune system gene variant that is associated with coeliac disease2. Although coeliac is a complex disease in which multiple environmental factors may play a role, the gene variant is found in nearly all patients in contemporary populations.
The combination of those genetic risk factors and malnutrition in someone likely to have good access to food make coeliac disease a reasonable diagnosis, says Gabriele Scorrano, a biological anthropologist at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, who led the latest study, published this month in American Journal of Physical Anthropology1.
To determine if the woman altered her diet, he and his colleagues analysed carbon and nitrogen isotopes in her bones, which tend to relate to food intake. The chemicals cannot reconstruct a person’s diet perfectly but instead paint broad brushstrokes of the consumption of foods such as plants, meats, freshwater fish and seafood. They can also indicate whether an individual consumed foods that were different from others.
Scorrano and his team found that the young woman would have consumed more meat and possibly freshwater fish and fewer plants than did people living in the area in the sixth century and medieval times. Carbon and nitrogen levels in her bones were also distinct from those in most other inhabitants from the Imperial Roman period previously sampled, but similar to those in bones from an early Christian burial site in Rome, where individuals may have favoured freshwater fish.
Scorrano notes that malabsorption of nutrients could offer an alternative explanation for the unusual isotope levels in her bones.
Leonard Rutgers, an archaeologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, says that the researchers make a good case that the woman changed her diet to cope with coeliac disease. But he says it is unclear why she would have eaten freshwater fish, given Cosa's proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. Perhaps she moved to Cosa shortly before her death, he says.
The Greek physician Aretaeus of Cappadocia recorded symptoms in line with coeliac disease around the first century AD, but a definitive link between the condition and gluten was not made until the 1950s. Scorrano says that the young woman probably did not entirely avoid gluten. “If she had excluded cereals from her diet she wouldn’t have experienced these problems,” he says. "Probably she didn't understand she had this disease."