The Ides of March: Performance Politics in ancient and modern worlds


Does the removal of a tyrant remove tyranny? This question is worth having a stab at, especially in terms of understanding how political performances are used to engage an audience. Caesar’s epic assassination, which has inspired and foreshadowed so many acts of liberators against tyranny, has many insights to offer, both as an historic event and as a political performance. In a modern world of Twitter and Instagram, images and acts often supercede words, going “viral” to a broad audience in a matter of hours. In the ancient world, however, a broader audience could only be reached during large public events, and afterwards by word of mouth or subsequent accounts. This meant that actions and, particularly, performances played a profound role in shaping public consensus. It was not only what people said, which could always be subject to manipulation, but how people behaved, that affected the public perception of an event. Modern neuroscience has recently proven what leaders like Caesar already knew: people don’t follow or recall words as clearly or as quickly as they interpret imagery.

Performance culture is so effective in ancient and modern contexts because it is an act that engages all the senses. Spoken words engage the ears, written words engage the eyes. But a performance appeals to numerous sensory receptors simultaneously. The more senses employed to corroborate an account, the more credible it seems, and the more likely it is to survive as a memory. In order to understand political life and the surviving literary accounts, one has to consider how experiencing public events can shape a narrative, not only in terms of what a person sees but also in what he/she remembers. Neither perception nor memory are perfect. How one feels about an event can fundamentally impact both of these processes. Part of reconstructing an historic event is reconstructing the experience: the stage, the characters, the actions (the performance) and the reactions (the audience’s response).

Caesar’s assassination is an excellent case study for experiencing history. Surviving historic accounts by Suetonius, Plutarch and Cassius Dio paint a vivid picture of events before and after Caesar’s murder. This imagery has been used by subsequent authors, such as William Shakespeare, to recreate a dramatic performance of history, that has been the subject of reinterpretation for hundreds of years. The assassination of Julius Caesar represents both a moment of political transition from republic to monarchy as well as one of life’s most difficult quandaries: is murder ever justified?

Although ancient accounts reflect different perspectives and agenda, perhaps the most interesting aspect of Caesar’s assassination, as it is recorded through three different characters in Plutarch’s Lives (Antony, Brutus, and Caesar) and interpreted in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, is the absence of a hero or a villain in the tale. Rather than offering a judgment, this episode offers a demonstration of how political culture operated in ancient Rome and particularly, how politicians used performances and public media to convey a message. The victor, not necessarily the hero, is the man who manipulates the crowd.

Did Caesar want to be king?

“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown” –Shakespeare, Henry IV Part II, Act 3 scene 1

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The prevailing question for many historians is whether or not Caesar wanted to be a king. The fact that most ancient sources were written afterwards, when the Emperor Augustus and his successors were indeed trying to establish a monarchy, imposed considerable restraints (more detailed study here). Claims of kingship, had a profoundly negative reception in Rome, kings were expelled, and people accused of behaving in a kingly manner (e.g. Tiberius Gracchus) were cudgelled to death on the steps of the Capitol. For someone as politically savvy as Caesar, moves towards outright kingship would have been a very risky manoeuvre. More likely, Caesar was beginning to behave like a bit of a “diva”: not a god or a king but someone who expects preferential/ “royal” treatment. He did hold an unprecedented concentration of political power, especially after being awarded the title “dictator for life” by the Senate, for which he seemed to expect a degree of preferential treatment. A few key events are cited by Roman historians as illustrations of Caesar’s increasingly majestic airs: his triumphal return to Rome (Autumn of 45 BC), the “statue incident” (ca. early 44 BC), and his behaviour at the Lupercalia festival (mid February 44 BC). *The exact chronology of the last two events is not clear: timing switches between Suetonius and Plutarch.

Caesar’s Triumphant Return to Rome:

Plutarch’s account of Caesar’s return to Rome presents the Roman audience as the crown bearers for Caesar: “…the Romans bowed their heads before Caesar’s good fortune and accepted the bridle”. The triumphal procession, in which a successful general returned on a chariot in purple robes bearing a crown of victory, likely derived from Etruscan traditions, did present a victor in a royal manner. However, this was an established ritual for victors in Roman culture. Caesar’s subsequent behavior towards those who had fought against him (Brutus & Cassius) was merciful, as was his treatment of Pompey, his deceased adversary, whose fallen statues he restored (Caesar 57). Caesar’s refusal to take on a personal guard (the hallmark of a tyrant) was also exceptional: “he refused personal guards, instead he wore his popularity, which he regarded as his best and reliable protective talisman….”. Shakespeare’s play begins with members of the crowd (a carpenter and a cobbler) in awe of Caesar’s triumph, for which they have been given a holiday (something guaranteed to win public approval).

After his election as “dictator for life” (dictator perpetuo) by the senate, concerns arose regarding Caesar’s role: “…when permanence is added to the unaccountability to the autocracy, tyranny is the result.” (Plutarch Caesar 57) There was a public incident where two men had dressed Caesar’s statues with filleted laurel wreathes (the sign of a King). The tribunes Epidius Marullus and Caesetius Flavus, who appear in the opening lines of Shakespeare’s play, shoo these men away (they were arrested according to Plutarch & Suetonius) and remove decorations from the statues. Caesar’s reaction, taking the tribunes to the senate and having them stripped of their office, was probably a bit heavy handed. While Caesar claimed that he had wanted a chance to refute the claims himself, many believed that his actions reflected his growing pride and arrogance. From this point onwards, Plutarch and Suetonius cast Caesar as a man with royal aspirations. It is probably worth differentiating between behaving like a “diva” and believing that one should be king. When called “King” by the crowd Caesar responded clearly “I am Caesar, not Rex” (Plutarch, Caesar, 60-61, Suetonius Julius 79, Cassius Dio 44.10 and Appian’s Civil Wars 2. 16. 108). The opportunity to publicly refute claims of kingship to a broader audience was clearly something that Caesar desired.

Caesar at the Lupercalia: Whipping up popular support

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Caesar’s behaviour at the Lupercalia, one month before his assassination, is often presented as key point of agitation for his assassins (Suetonius Julius 79 and Plutarch Antony 13). The Lupercalia (  See my blog entry ) was a raucous festival of role reversals, where young aristocrats (including Mark Antony) were oiled up and ran about in their pants with a piece of goatskin, playfully whipping matrons for fertility. It is important to understand this context: the Lupercalia was a popular festival with a large public audience and a relaxed and jovial atmosphere. Any political message conveyed in this context was likely to be light hearted:

“They (the Luperci) run about in sport and strike at anyone they meet. Antony was one of these runnners but instead of carrying out the traditional ceremony. He twined a wreath of laurel around a diadem and ran with it to the rostra… placing the diadem on Caesar’s head, implying by this gesture that he deserved to be made king, At this Caesar made a show of declining the crown, whereupon the people were delighted and clapped their hands… this pantomime continued…. the crowd greeted every refusal with shouts of applause”: Plutarch Antony 12 trans. I. Scott-Kilvert (Penguin edition) 281-282.

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Caesar playfully entreats Mark Antony to remember to whip his wife Calpurnia, to which Antony replies “I shall remember. When Caesar says ‘do this’ it is performed.” This is a clear reference to performance that the two have scripted for the day, which Plutarch described as a “pantomime”. The Greek is διαμαχομένων “a struggle or fight” but the playful context and the fact that one of them was mostly naked presented a comic altercation with a clear message: people might want to crown Caesar but Caesar did not want to be crowned. Casca, one of the chief conspirators, reports the event as “mere foolery” in Shakespeare’s version.

While Plutarch considers the ulterior motives that may have been at work, he also notes a crucial dichotomy in the audience: though they are willing to be ruled by a kingly figure, they unanimously reject the title. Caesar seems to have understood this, as did his successor Octavian (later the emperor Augustus), who made a show of turning down honorary titles offered by senate. The need to juxtapose and differentiate Augustus from his predecessor may also explain why Caesar is presented in in later accounts with such a lust for power and kingship. The idea that Caesar, who was widely viewed, even by a disapproving Cicero, as a savvy spin doctor, chose to ignore his audience’s innate hatred of kings, is hard to accept. At the Lupercalia, in a merry context before a large audience, one could see Caesar’s performance (almost certainly pre-planned) as a light hearted attempt to diffuse a potential public relations disaster. Rather than casting Caesar as a king, his role at the Lupercalia more likely represents an attempt be viewed as one of Rome’s founders, like Romulus and Remus: For a more detailed analysis the event see  J. North’s compelling article.

Beware the Ideas of March! Caesar’s Assassination

The Ides of March (March 15th), the feast day of Anna Perenna, whose name “to live (and last) throughout the years” refers to the perennial turning of years (in the old Lunar calendar, it referred to the first full moon). The festival of Anna Perenna, according to Ovid (Fasti 3.523-696.) took place in her sacred grove outside the city, by the first milestone of the Via Flaminia. Young Roman couples stayed up, camped out in the trees, drank together and …. it was probably not dissimilar to modern festivals with songs, mimes and dancing, literally and figuratively “letting their hair down” (e.g. Woodstock, Glastonbury).

The people come and drink there, scattered on the grass,

And every man reclines there with his girl.

Some tolerate the open sky, a few pitch tents,

And some make leafy huts out of branches….

..But they’re warmed by sun and wine, and pray

For as many years as cups, as many as they drink.

to celebrate the perennial changing of the seasons.

Ovid Fasti 3. Trans. Online A. Kline

But it was not all song and dance. Despite Ovid’s raucous accounts her festival, the recent discovery of a fountain for Anna Perenna off the Via Flaminia in Rome in 1999 (photo) revealed numerous curses (including amulets, lamps containing metal tablets and dolls with nails struck through them) Marina Piranomonte’s article of magical finds from the fountain. These objects, beautifully studied and displayed the Museo Nazionale Epigrafico in Rome (Link), attest to a darker more vengeful side of perennial sentiments. The beginning of one cycle and the end of another, the Ides of March was the perfect context for both a political transition between republic and empire, as well as the thin line between love and hate.

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Caesar’s assassination was not a “public” event: it took place in the Curia Hall of Pompey’s theatre, in the shadow of Caesar’s former adversary: Pompey. Accounts of how Caesar died, how he delayed attending the meeting, how the plot was nearly foiled, add to the dramatic quality to the event as well as the sense of ensuing chaos. Suetonius records how Caesar fought the first blow, stabbing Casca with his stylus, but when he saw all the men, he covered his face and hiding his legs (Julius 82).  Suetonius acknowledges other accounts, where Caesar spoke to Brutus in Greek : καὶ σύ τέκνον “And you my child”. While it is unlikely that a dying man, recently stabbed in the throat, spoke (in Greek?), Caesar’s final comment hangs like a ghost in the air. It acknowledges the depth of Brutus’ betrayal and foreshadows Plutarch’s account of how Brutus was haunted by Caesar’s ghost.

“he fell on the ground on the pedestal on which the statue of Pompey stood: and the pedestal was so drenched with blood from the murder that it seemed as though Pompey himself had presided over the punishment of his enemy, who lay on the ground jerking convulsively from his many wounds…in an revealing outcome, a number of conspirators accidentally wounded each other in the process.” (Plutarch Caesar 66; Brutus 17).

Caesar’s assassination was not a public event, but outcome was still chaotic: Caesar fell at the foot of Pompey but no one steps up to fill the void. The senators rushed outside and fled in confusion, an act which appeared to the public as panicked rather than triumphant. The Roman people fled home and locked their doors (Plutarch Caesar, Suetonius, Julius 82), a PR outcome that would have left Caesar turning in his grave. The “liberators” were so focused on the assassination they did not take the time to plan or coordinate the practical consequences: how to spin Caesar’s murder in their favour.

The Funeral: Inflaming the Public

“Stike me down and I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” –Obi Wan Kenobi


The lack of planning by the conspirators became clear in the days that followed. The same men who betrayed their pacts of forgiveness with Caesar, entered naively into a truce with Mark Antony. To legally justify their actions, the liberators needed to declare all actions of Caesar null and void. However, the clementia (mercy) these men had betrayed came back to bite them as Senators realized that offices, promotions and the settlements for Caesar’s army would also be nullified. Brutus’ arguments to save Mark Antony’s life and his approval of Antony’s request for funerary oration were acts of great virtue, but they would eventually result in Brutus’ death. While senators tarried, Marc Antony got hold of Caesar’s will, which (supposedly) contained a settlement of 3 gold pieces for every Roman citizen.

While Shakespeare’s play made compromises in historical accuracy and timing, the speeches of Brutus and Antony are brilliant reflections of character, and in particular, their ability to sway popular opinion. Brutus’ words are straightfoward and connect his actions with virtues.

As Caesar loved me, I weep for him;

as he was fortunate, I rejoice at it; as he was
valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I
slew him. There is tears for his love; joy for his
fortune; honour for his valour; and death for his

The crowd replies positively “live Brutus live!” then they suggest that he be Caesar: “Caesar’s better parts shall be crown’d in Brutus”. This popular response highlights Plutarch’s claims: the Roman people didn’t want a liberator, they wanted a Caesar. Brutus’ attempts to depose Caesar have only created a void for Brutus to fill.

Reacting to the popular response, Mark Antony offers a more compelling impression of Caesar. Although his speech was recreated for dramatic effect by Shakespeare, it follows the sentiment of Plutarch’s account, in which Antony “casts a spell over the people” by his words and sways them with a performance (Plutarch Brutus 20, Antony 13, Suetonius Julius 84). Antony’s speech is the antithesis of earnest values and virtues presented by Brutus. His words stand in contradiction to his actions and the performance he presents, complete with props (a will, tears and a bloody robe).

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him

Antony asks the Romans for their ears, but he appeals to their senses. And of course, he is there to praise Caesar. Rather than citing intangible virtues, Antony relies upon public consciousness and memory: Caesar’s victory processions and the money he brought, his tears for the poor, Caesar’s refusal of the crown at the Lupercal. Were these acts ambitious? By accessing existing memories of public events, Antony provides a more persuasive proof. His audience is swayed by what they can see, touch, hear, and remember. The opinion of the crowd shifts, as one observes the grief in his tone, the redness of his weeping eyes.

Having gained both the ears and the emotive sympathy of his audience, Antony presses his advantage: setting out the terms of Caesar’s will, which (supposedly) promised each citizen three gold pieces. Finally, he picks up Caesar’s bloody robe. After two days, the sight, the smell of Caesar’s body and the robe must have been wretched but truly gripping imagery. So inflamed were the people that they ran for wooden benches and tables and began a pyre (Plutarch Antony 13, Brutus 20; Suetonius Julius 85). Afterwards with torches, they threatened the homes of Cassius and Brutus.

Liberty or Death: Visual Media & the Roman Legacy of Ides of March

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The assassination of Caesar was not a success for the liberators. Brutus may have wanted liberty for the Roman people, but did his audience understand this aim? The aim of the liberators was to free the Roman Republic. However, as advocates of a constitutional government, the liberators actions defied its most fundamental tenet: murdering a Roman citizen without of proper trial. If one has to operate outside of a system of laws in in order to support them; then what it the merit or values of these laws. The only person with the legal power to take a citizen’s life in Rome was a Dictator. However Caesar might have behaved, his wielded this particular power with far more care than his opponents, leaning towards clemency, rather than death.

How does one legitimise an illegitimate act? The coins (a few gold (aurei) but mostly silver (denarii) minted by the liberators were designed to convey solidarity and positive imagery for the assassination to a broader audience. They present Brutus’ portrait and name and the title “Imperator” and image of two daggers and a cap with the insignia “EID MAR”. The reference to the calendar and a day of “turning the years” implied turning point for the Roman people towards liberty. However, the existence of only two daggers (for Brutus and Cassius?) does not present the murder as a collective act. Brutus’ use of his own portrait on the coin, discussed by Cassius Dio (47.25) was a potentially confusing contradiction: if putting his face on coins had made Caesar a tyrant, how were Brutus coins different? Replacing Caesar’s portrait with his own cast Brutus in a similar role: as Caesar’s replacement. Attempts to equate or juxtapose Brutus with Caesar were also unflattering: Caesar was a legally appointed ruler whose actions had been formally legitimised by the senate, Brutus’ role and his actions as a “liberator” were not (though they were pardoned).

The legacy of the Ides of March lived on. Octavian, whose legitimacy was defined, at least initially, by his relationship to Caesar, made an ostensible show of loyalty. He called himself “Caesar” and continued building projects in Rome (including a temple to Mars the Avenger). He commemorated the Ides of March in 40 BC with the sacrifice of 300 prisoners of war from the siege of Perusia on the Altar of Divine Julius in Rome (Suet. Aug. 15, Dio 48.14.2). There is a public performance with a very clear message. In addition to avenging Caesar’s death, the triumvirs (Mark Antony, Octavian and Lepidus) and the emperor Augustus sought to reinscribe history in the written accounts of the assassination and in Rome’s urban space. Pompey’s Curia Hall was converted to public latrines and the statue of Pompey was moved to the stage. The arrival of Halley’s comet after Caesar’s assassination was seen as a symbol of deification for Caesar, shifting focus away from his death even further.

Reception : Sic Semper Tyrannis “Thus always to tyrants”- words shouted by John Wilkes Booth after shooting Abraham Lincoln, attributed to Brutus.

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Of all the political assassinations in the history of world, why has Caesar remained such a prominent model across history? Greg Woolf‘s book “Et tu Brute” is an excellent attempt to examine this phenomenon across the Roman world and beyond. The legacy of assassination haunted the majority of Roman emperors, whether plots were successful or not (they often were). The accessibility and the popularity of Plutarch’s Parallel lives, whose engaging, enlightening, and often moralising accounts of Rome’s most honourable men, inspired Christian audiences (particularly monks making copies of illuminated manuscripts). As questions of political power and monarchy arose in the Renaissance, Caesar presented a captivating figure.

Printing presses and a rise in multi-lingual translations increased the audience of readers. Shakespeare used Thomas North’s 1577 translation of Plutarch for his historic plays. Plutarch’s Parallel lives were an inspiration for a number of America’s founding fathers, including Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton. Shakespeare’s play has carried a legacy of its own with each new generation re-interpreting history through the lens of the present. John Wilkes Booth, the assassinator of Abraham Lincoln, appeared in at the Winter Garden in New York City in a version of Julius Caesar (as Antony). Orson Welles 1937 production viewed Caesar (who was idealised by Mussolini) through costumes in Fascist and Nazi styles.

Recent American productions of the play have cast Julius Caesar as a presidential figures including John F. Kennedy, Hilary Clinton, Barack, Obama, and recently in New York Public theatre (June 2017): Donald Trump.  While there were some protests, reviewers sought to place the performance in context: this historic episode/play does not advocate assassination, rather, it reveals its perils of political violence (Photo). A recent production (2018) by the Bridge Theatre in London, which placed the audience within the stage, portrayed this in a captivating dramatic performance, where the audience could truly experience a version of history.

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How do we understand history? politics? propaganda? How do we separate performance from reality? Each of us is a member of a media audience, which has expanded in recent times from being physically present at an event to being global viewers of visual and social media. Part of navigating this increasing media labyrinth is understanding our role as an audience. How are emotions and opinions can be manipulated by what we see, hear and experience. Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of Caesar’s assassination and Shakespeare’s play is the image of history it presents: an event with no villains or heroes but a world where virtues, vices, friendship, honour and patriotism clash, tearing at the fabric of society. It feels remarkably like the present.

What lessons can we learn for Caesar’s assassination? Forgiveness has a price. Violence often results in more violence. Ideological actions without practical considerations (e.g. an exit strategy) can be disastrous. Our eyes, ears and memories, may not be as reliable as we think. These are life’s perennial struggles as the years turn, they are what the Ides of March and the feast of Anna Perenna prompt us to remember: it is through the lens of past that we come to understand our role in the present, both as an audience and as a performer.









Lost in Publication: My Secret Life as an author of Bodice Rippers.

Getting published can be a long and painful process, which often leaves writers with a sense of accomplishment, awe & relief at the end, but when is the end of the process, when the book is in your hand?  No; this is only the beginning. Your peer-reviewed work is about to be reviewed again and also set out to a general audience, neither of which, are likely to hold back on a candid response. You don’t get this far as an academic and/or author without a thick skin; brutal honesty is expected. What I did not expect was the fundamental disorder of online review sites, which so many readers use.  My experience trying to claim authorship of my book on Goodreads website has all the mistaken identities, existential crises and missed connections of a Greek tragedy.  

A bit of context. When I took over writing The Romans: An Introduction (Routledge) in 2011, the previous author, Antony Kamm, who sadly passed away that year, left a lovely legacy of ‘old school’ history & humour together with his widow, Eileen, one of the nicest & most generous human beings I have met. It was wonderful taking a book that was fun & engaging and bringing the new ideas, methods, themes & approaches. As a convenor of two introductory undergraduate courses, I enjoyed creating a book that was tailored to the needs of my students, with resources, critical analysis, humour, and an OPEN ACCESS companion website .  One can only change so much in a new edition, and editions may change very little.  The Romans 3rd and 4th editions, however, required substantial revisions & updates. This is evident in page numbers alone: 2nd ed: 244; 3rd ed: 310; 4th ed. 344.

A Secret twin? My Bodice Rippinng Doppelganger

 When I logged onto “Goodreads” a year after the 4th edition was published, to see if there were any reviews, comments on my new edition, there was some scar tissue and open wounds, but not quite the kind that I was expecting.  First, the most recent version of my book (May 2020) had no reviews or ratings, nor was it connected to any previous editions. This seemed strange: I had feedback that new reviews had been posted on this site.  Though there were 5 different entries, all had no information, except about the author…

Screen shot from Goodreads page for my textbook, connected with Goodreads author, Abigail Graham

And here’s where it gets truly interesting: the Abigail Graham ascribed to the 4th edition was already an established Goodreads author, who had, in fact written over 30 popular and scintillating works.

While I (the less appealing Dr. Abigail Graham) also had gone for a cover with a scantily clad and dangerously handsome male together with a woman of cascading Titian locks; I was slightly curious as to how these genres had gotten mixed up. The site encourages authors to claim their work and answer questions/ engage with readers (both excellent ideas!), but it is clearly not what has happened here. With authorship already ascribed to my bodice ripper doppelganger, there was nothing I could do but contact the website.  At least it explained why none of my doppelganger’s readers had reviewed my book: as a title, it hardly competes with “The Bad Boy Next Door”, “Player’s Princess”, my personal favourite, “Riding Wood”  whose tagline : “a sweet and smutty quickie” could also work for a brief history of Roman Myth…   

I’ve read quite a few bodice rippers in my day, and in terms of getting authors confused, I think I definitely got a better deal than my doppelganger, who is now riddled with references to an introduction to Roman history and culture.  Intrigued, and certainly not ready to give up, I decided I would simply connect the 4th edition to their entries for the 3rd edition.  Only this entry, despite an image of the book cover with my name, did not list me as an author: that was a bit of problem. 

I did try, opening an account on Goodreads, providing proof of identity, proof that the book was published (superfluous for a work that is already listed as a publication), and the email of my editor. My application was denied. It makes me wonder, with this rigorous process in place, how on earth was my doppelganger accidentally linked to numerous entries of the 4th edition?  

 Undaunted, I also posted a comment to Goodreads books & authors teams about how my work was being misrepresented. I got a one line reply from Faith “a community legend” (thumbnail picture of a cat) “Post all book related questions and requests in the Librarian management group”.  Forwarding the message herself was far too much effort for a tabby cat.

Then I thought, what I am doing?  My work may be misrepresented and misattributed, but I am far more interesting now, as an author with an incredibly diverse and successful portfolio, than I will be when readers realise that I am just a Roman historian/archaeologist with a focus on Roman epigraphy; not the exciting individual who penned “Baboon and Bad Revenge”.  So rather than raging against the faceless ether of online posts and community leader librarians with pet profile pics, I’m going to keep my mouth shut and simply ride the wave.  That’s what my bodice ripper doppleganger would do, she would ride the wave… in fact.. “Riding the Wave” could be a sequel title to “Riding Wood”…..

Reconstructing the Past: Lego Colosseum & 8 reasons why Lego is great training for an archaeologist

Before. Box I: Bag 3 After Box IV: Bag 35

Apart from the joys of building, does Lego offer an experience that can shape our character and how we come to view the world? 

Building Lego’s epic new Colosseum set has been a remarkable journey back into my childhood, the joy of opening a set on Christmas morning, the shake of thousands of pieces between my hands, the aspiration of a completed picture on the box. The comfortingly voluminous book of step by step instructions: if only life came in such a wondrous package.

Between following the piece by piece instructions, occasionally cursing at the small fidgety pieces that slipped through my fingers, the unfortunate pinches when my finger got trapped between the pieces, and cracked fingernails, my experience of building this monumental masterpiece as part of my #ColosseumChallenge has been reflective. I built for hours this Saturday, inspired by the passionate account of the Sutton Hoo excavations in Netflix’s “The Dig”, a fantastic account of one of Britain’s greatest treasures and a pivotal moment in the field of archaeology, as focus shifted to recognise practical knowledge of techniques, context, and fieldwork skills. These qualities are exemplified in the character of Basil Brown (played by Ralph Fiennes), an eccentric amateur archaeologist. Lego taught and inspired me, quite literally, to “think outside the box”, not just in building but also in life. It got me thinking about the roots of my career as an archaeologist: there a number of connections between the skills I’ve learned, those that I was experiencing anew, courtesy of my Lego Colosseum. The following are a list of 8 key attributes of archaeological training that had their roots in my childhood love of Lego.

Image of the Colosseum at Night from Conde Nast
  1. A Puzzling Past: History is an hopelessly incomplete set of Lego. Archaeologists spend their lives trying to piece together fragments of the past into a puzzle that will never be complete. Part of reconstructing a narrative of the past is using every possible source. Ancient evidence is like a Lego set with few if any instructions: intuition, evidence and creativity must come together. How do we find this balance?

2. The importance of every piece.  You know that horrible feeling when you’ve built a section of Lego then notice a few missing pieces… Welcome to archaeology!  Like archaeologists, Lego builders can’t just love the finished product, they have to appreciate every piece and how a structure comes together.  Early archaeology was often like a treasure hunt, seeking rare and precious items to corroborate ancient myths: “The Golden Cup of Nestor”, “The Mask of Agamemnon”.  Modern archaeology, as seen in the unique character of Basil Brown, however, requires a broader understanding of an entire context: soil & local geography together with the history of a site. It was not the gold that revealed the ship at Sutton Hoo: it was the rusted iron rivets that held it together. New evidence is always emerging, so theories have to be dynamic & flexible. 

3. Building from the ground up: Understanding Layers.   While excavation is often backwards (from the top down) the value of understanding each layer is crucial; a discovery on one level can impact others.  In “The Dig”, Brown notes how later tomb robbers impacted structure of a mound.  While we don’t have tomb robbers in the Lego Colosseum, the structure of the foundation (Box I:) impacts the integrity of the entire building. Excavators don’t know what lies beneath and rather than building, they often destroy levels as they traverse downwards into the past. Like a builder of Lego, the causes behind issues on one level may not be evident until they uncover the next. You learn to look for structural weakness in your theories and anticipate issues, not unlike a Lego construct: what is holding this together?

4. Teamwork: Building a group dynamic: Most of my Lego experience was building with my brother and/or friends. The differences between peoples’ interests and skills quickly emerged: my brother was the certified archaeologist & master designer, and I was the layman, great at finding and putting specific pieces together.  Fieldwork teams in archaeology require a similar (if not broader) framework of diversity.  While there are more & less experienced individuals, the more specializations one has on a team, the more dynamic their final product. Being united by a common goal (and often on digs, common working and living spaces) brings people and ideas together. The same was of true in my experience building Lego: my brother and I fought less playing Lego than doing anything else.

5. Getting your hands in: Sensory evaluation & archaeology  Building Lego is a 3-D sensory experience that builds dexterity as well as an innate understanding of how structures work: the satisfying click when the pieces come together, the earth shattering crack when they crumble, the resistance of a solid build and the way a weak build shifts ominously between your fingers. The Indiana Jones films, set in a similar time (just before WWII) as “The Dig”, promoted an active approach to archaeology, vying against traditional stereotypes of “armchair archaeologists” who focused their research largely upon books rather than on-site experiences. Basil Brown’s approach captures this beautifully:

Robert Pretty: Mr. Brown’s been telling us all sorts of things. For instance, what’s the most important part of an archaeologist’s body?
Edith Pretty: I don’t know.
Robert Pretty: His nose. If there’s something there, he’ll know it by the smell.

There is a knowledge that comes from hands-on and sensory engagement with objects that cannot be recreated. The ability to evaluate materials through cognitive pathways imbeds these materials in numerous memory frameworks and provides a practical understanding of how materials fit into a broader context.  How does it feel, how much does it weigh, is it solid and strong? These skills are crucial for an archaeologist as well: was a gold mask meant to be worn, was it decorative?  In an increasingly digital world, the value of physicality in engagements with materials should not be underrated. 

Imagine what this experience was like! A black & white Mosaic from the Parco Colosseo (Rome) depicts a man about to fight a very angry tiger: the text tells us that he won; the theta above the tiger reveals that it was killed.

6. Improvise! A tale of missing pieces. The Roman architect & writer Vitruvius (1st century BCE) describes the dimensions of an ‘ideal’ Roman theatre in his work (De Architectura), yet not a single surviving Roman theatre adheres to this ideal. Every work, like its builder, is unique. No one is perfect. In a set with nearly 10,000 pieces, there are going to be a few missing pieces. If we understand how a structure works, then we can make creative substitutions so always keep the extra pieces! I often discover that what I thought were “extras” are pieces I missed out, and these can be crucial both to improvising and to figuring out how I deviated from the instructions. Deviations or changes can the most fascinating aspect of a building.  

7. Built to Last? The value of building something tangible. The survival of ancient buildings illustrates the aspiration we all have to leave a lasting memory. While some might consider Lego to be merely fodder for the landfill, the structures we create are in many respects, more long-lasting than the digital creative worlds (e.g. Minecraft): only the former is likely to survive for future archaeologists in a landfill. My son is in tears when his Minecraft world is lost in a glitch or blown up by a marauding creeper;  these losses have no logic or lessons, they are part of an algorithm. Although I cried when my Lego builds crumbled, the experiences had a learning curve, a sense of responsibility (it was often my fault) and thus an opportunity to learn resilience. My structure was not lost in the ether, I could rebuild it, stronger & better from the rubble. The Colosseum was rebuilt numerous times: whether these were intentional additions, building errors, or an act of god (e.g. lightning struck the Colosseum in the early 3rd century CE, starting a fire in the highest wooden seating areas). Building blocks were reused and repurposed: the original building dedication (ca. 80 CE) was reused by another dedicator centuries later. Rome was constantly being reworked: material evidence provides vital clues to this process.

8. Reconstructing the Past: Where evidence meets Imagination. One of the most engaging aspects of archaeology are monumental reconstructions: when we try to imagine what a building looked like. These recreations are born of an understanding of a structure and the process that created it. We follow instructions not only to understand how to build a Lego set, but also to learn the broader building principles that will allow us to build independently. We can base an idea for a reconstruction on similar material from similar contexts, but the final product requires creativity & imagination. One of my favourite epigraphers, Prof. Silvia Orlandi (La Sapienza), who published & restored the inscriptions from the Colosseum (EDR) observed, “when we restore, we are dreaming…imagining what the missing section may be”. It reminds me of the first time I free-styled a Lego spaceship, it had aspects from previous Lego sets, but it was my own creation: a dream made real.

In short, Lego isn’t just good training for an archaeologist, it’s way of approaching the world and our place in it, of balancing life’s rules, expectations, and instructions with individuality, creativity and imagination.

Follow my journey on Twitter : @abby_fecit   #ColosseumChallenge

The Legacy of Destruction: How not to put History on a Pedestal.

Recent events following the brutal death of George Floyd have given the world and the individual, a great deal to think about, particularly, regarding how we see the world, and how the world sees us. This is not only self-reflection about issues such as race, but also addressing other preconceptions about monuments and history. If there is one thing I’ve learned as a scholar of monuments & monumentality, it is the need to continually re-evaluate history and our place within it. Facts, like words, are seldom set in stone, and there lies the danger of placing any person or an account on a pedestal. As Simon Schama  notes “Statues are not history; rather, it’s opposite”.  The historian Neville Morley’s recent response to John Cleese, also highlights the dangers of unquestioningly venerating and commemorating individuals in ancient or modern contexts.

Whilst witnessing a number of thoughtful debates on monumental destruction from a number of scholars on social media, one also encounters stereotypes of scholars gripping tightly to bygone ideas and ideologies. It is worth addressing how scholars view monuments, which has often been presented “blinkered” and “lost in the past”. The first part is true: scholars of the past are often doubly distorted: we are not only stepping back in time with modern values, we can also regard the present from a future perspective, contemplating how the present will be viewed by successive generations. This is a somewhat odd way of looking at things, but useful, when it comes to understanding how destruction impacts monuments across time. Acknowledging and understanding how the lens of perspective shapes our vision is a useful skill for anyone. On my first excavation, I clung to a shard of Roman pottery with reverence: it was my first tangible engagement with the past. Like any love, however, one’s passion matures: 3 hours and 200 pot shards later, which had to be cleaned and catalogued, I was wondering: would anyone notice if I tossed some of these into the woods?

What is a Public Monument?  

A public monument, usually set up on public land with public approval, is a means of honouring and remembering the deeds of an individual. While the medium stone and/or metal represents permanency, a monument is a sentiment of a specific time and place, whose location reflects its role: to engage constructively with the public. Although the dedication is a moment of veneration, it is not guarantee or a mandate that veneration will “echo in eternity”. The lived reality of monuments, whether it is a female pharaoh in the 15th century BC, a disgraced Roman Emperor, a Victorian monument to a slaver trader or a TV personality and paedophile, is the same: monuments come and go. Less often explored are people’s expectations of monuments, for example, how long should a monument last? The public seems to accept the removal of memorials of more recent history, for example the withdrawal of public honours for Jimmy Saville after the posthumous revelation of his paedophilia. Should we treat the past differently?

In the past century, the field of object history has drawn more attention to the life-cycle of a monument from its creation to the present.  These studies reinforce the different ways that objects are presented and perceived: the mutability of monuments. Cleopatra’s needle at the Embankment in London, for example, is a granite obelisk that was originally set up by Thutmose III (1479-1425 BCE) in Heliopolis, Egypt.  200 years later, Ramses II added more inscriptions. Cleopatra had the obelisk moved to Alexandria in the mid 1st c. BCE, as a symbol of her new dynasty with Mark Antony. The obelisk was ‘awarded’ by the Egyptian government to the British Empire in 1801, and finally arrived at London in 1877.  This monument has a captivating 3,500 year history: it has been dragged thousands of miles, set up in 3 cities, sunk in (and recovered) from the Bay of Biscay, and marred by shrapnel from a bomb dropped by a German Zeppelin in World War I.  This enormous obelisk reaches desperately towards the sun, representing the both aspirations and failures of the empires that have employed it. Across time and space, it has meant different things to different people, its message is neither eternal nor immutable.  It records history as a process of change, of competing and overlapping events, influences and narratives.  The stone shows history is not set in stone, but something that changes as we do; the monolith shows history is not monolithic.

Learning from history does not require an intact monument, nor is it a process that requires one maintains the original meaning.

Cleopatra’s Needle on Embankment in London, shrapnel damage is evident at the base.

What is destruction?

In a modern context, destruction has a negative connotation, it is used interchangeably with annihilation, deletion, eradication. In practise, however, “taking down” does not necessarily imply that something is completely gone (lost forever). Some of the most well-preserved sites in the ancient world were ‘destroyed’ by natural phenomena, swallowed by lava for rising seas: Pompeii, Herculaneum, Baiae, Canopus (Egypt). These ‘destructions’ preserved an incredible scope of objects for posterity: it is all about perspective. Of course, not all acts of destruction come from nature, many are deliberate. In some respects, excavations could be seen as an act of destruction: we have to tear up each successive layer of history to get to the next (that is, if we cannot employ new survey technology used recently in Falerii Novii, watch this space!).

When considering the survival of monuments, destruction for reuse, which could be viewed as ‘disrespectful’ to the original monument, is a common outcome.  A number of the best-preserved temples in the ancient world have survived as reconsecrated churches, perhaps most famously the Pantheon in Rome. One of most striking portrait heads of Augustus, called ‘the Meroe head’, pierces viewers with his gaze at the British Museum. The rare survival of a statue head with intact eyes was achieved by an act of vandalism. Shortly after its erection, the residents of Meroe (Sudan) ripped down Augustus’ statue and buried his head beneath the steps of a temple, to be trod upon by generations. Would the head have survived without this destructive act?  We seldom question how objects have come down to us through history, but it is worth acknowledging that these paths are often unconventional, if not expressly irreverent.

Meroe Head
There is a text from Meroe which refers to the destruction of the statue at the British Museum, but it is displaced from the head in another part of the museum.

The destruction of monuments is an action as old as monuments themselves, but what does ‘destruction’ refer to?  Hatshepsut, mother of Thutmose III (above) was a female who ruled and represented herself as a pharaoh. Her name was erased from public monuments when her son took over, despite historic accounts suggesting that her reign was a prosperous one. Perhaps more important than the act, is understanding the reasons behind these actions. Erasures were not only a condemnation of one leader, but also an act of solidarity for a new regime.  Similar observations can be made about erasures of the names of Roman emperors from public buildings and monuments. This action did not ‘erase’ history, it changed the message. The bifold nature of these actions is crucial to understanding how the ‘destruction’ works: it does not undo the good that a person achieved, hence the phrase: ‘What’s worse than Nero, What’s better than his Baths?’ Destruction is part of a monument’s life-cycle, it presents an opportunity not only to condemn but also to rescript a message.

Destruction and disrespect

The Roman government issued “abolitio nominis“, “removal of a name” as a formal decree.  Statues were recarved or removed and monuments were left with conspicuous gashes. By passing a public decree, the Senate created a “proper” channel to reinscribe history. In the case of Domitian, the decree was passed after his face was hammered from a statue by senators (Suet. Domitian): an event that captures the emotive, spontaneous, and often chaotic nature of the destruction. No one said “wait, let’s pass the law first!”. The Romans knew that monuments of an oppressive regime would come under attack; the decree was a clever way to jump on the bandwagon. This show of support also allowed the government retain some control over the action. Erasures on monuments, past and present, often reflect key moments of social change and engagement. These unsightly gaps (they are seldom polished over) are fascinating scars of the face of monumentality, which are generally seen as informative, rather than disrespectful. Erasures often do not completely remove and titles, making it easy to figure out who the condemned emperor was, even 2000 years later.  History is not lost.

Dedication to Domitian at Ephesos, probably from the Imperial Cult temple. The names “Domitian” & “Germanicus” have been erased but other titles remain.

Public reactions were not always universal: the army mourned Domitian and a number of surviving statues have survived, which were probably kept in private contexts. Cities such as Ephesos, which benefitted greatly from Domitian’s patronage, may not have been pleased with his subsequent disgrace. Within a few years, however, their pockmarked monuments came to be viewed as support for successive rulers: Trajan embraced the city with a rival scheme of benefaction. We are constantly changing the way we perceive monuments.  While changes may seem disrespectful to the original message, they are also a way to assure by monument’s survival, by engaging productively with the public mood. Destruction has a longstanding legacy, and one from which we can learn.

Monumental Destruction: Recent events

The emotive protests spurred by brutality of George Floyd’s death, represent a fundamental turning point in America and across the globe in acknowledging and addressing racism in modern society.  A key impetus has been a lack governmental and/or institutional action or support on these issues. The continued existence of a number of monuments honouring fascists, white supremacists and slave traders have come to symbolise this deficit.

Many of the targeted monuments in these protests have been subjects of continued debate.  When a statue of Edward Colston, a philanthropist who made his money from slavery, was torn down and tossed in a river last week in Bristol (UK), it was the culmination of decades of debate in local circles.  There was a consensus that the monument was (at best) an inappropriate glorification of a man whose wealth had such a brutal origin, but the debate had shifted away from removal of the statue and had become bogged down in the wording of a plaque recording Colston’s involvement in slavery.  One observer noted that those advocating removal of the statue had got nowhere through ‘proper channels’, and had instead found another channel – the Bristol Channel. An art installation at this monument in 2018, which recreated the hull of a slave ship with 100 human figures, illustrated of the deep controversy surrounding this monument; yet the statue stood unchanged 18 months later. Monuments mark the fulfilment of a vow, the reification of a word or promise. Inaction also has a message, which lies at the heart of recent protests. Dan Hicks (Professor of Contemporary Archaeology at Oxford), who has written about the event, observes: “Yes, silence is complicity; but so is dialogue masking inaction.”


Contextualising actions is important. The alleged “thuggery” of tossing a public statue into a river is not unusual. This action was conveyed in Rome with the phrase, “into the Tiber with Tiberius”; one such event is recreated in the Cambridge Latin course. An interesting historical parallel exists with a head of Claudius or Nero at the British Museum. It appears to have been ripped off a statue and tossed in the Alde river, probably as part of Boudicca’s rebellion (61 CE).  The contexts are not identical, but it is interesting that government ministers who hailed Boudicca as a national heroine against foreign oppression during Brexit debates, cannot see a similar causation between the two historic events, or how perspective shapes perception. Romans no doubt considered Boudicca a “thug” of the first order. There are at least two sides to any story, and the most compelling accounts acknowledge both.

Tearing down a public monument without permission is illegal.  While breaking the laws should be discouraged, questioning them should not. Monuments have to be contextualised and continually re-evaluated; not only as a means of respecting public values but also as a means of protecting them. Part of showing ‘respect’ is assuring that the messages conveyed by monuments are not offensive and/or a misleading record of history.

Recent protests have achieved more decisive action from governing institutions than decades of requests through ‘proper channels’; this suggests that whatever system we have for responding to concerns about public monuments, it has room for improvement.  We need to think carefully about what messages we put on a pedestal, and not conflate an object that towers over its audience with an object that is infallible or beyond reproach. We need to listen to the concerns of a public audience who have daily engagements with these objects.  We should not make the mistake of thinking that monuments are immutable; this is not true, and never has been.  History has not been erased and the most important task remains: how will we rewrite it?

Lockdown lessons: Tempus Fugit. What can we learn from Augustus’ ‘Horologium’?

Statue of Chronos (Time) by Santo Saccomanno 1876. Grave of Erasmo di Giuseppe Piaggio @Cimitero monumentale di Staglieno, Genova.

Have we ever had control of time? For many (myself included) lockdown can feel like a ‘clockdown’ in which one loses all sense of time. The very concept of time gives us an illusion of control that is challenged when nature interrupts our lives: occupations, family and social routines. This entry explores Augustus’ attempt to exert control over time as part of his monumental scheme in the Campus Martius in Rome and asks: what can we learn from history?  I’m missing Rome and the Epigraphy course that I would usually lead at the British School at Rome this summer (scheduled now for 2021), so I’ve also made virtual tour of our journey through the streets of the eternal city and the hidden jewels of the past.

Controlling Time? Augustus’ Monumental scheme.

It’s easy to get a bit lost in time when looking at Augustus’ monumental scheme in the northern section of the Campus Martius.  A red granite obelisk originally set up and inscribed in Heliopolis (Egypt) by Psammeticus II (598-85 BCE) was one of two obelisks that traversed the globe at the end of the first century BCE, to be rededicated as a spoil of war by a triumphant Augustus.  Both obelisks, originally monuments to the Egyptian sun god Ra were re-employed as cogs in a broader monumental scheme:  the first as a gnomon (an object used to cast a shadow) in Augustus monumental project in the North Campus Martius, and as a spina  (a track marker) in the Circus Maximus. Both objects, dedicated in 10 BCE on the 20th anniversary of Augustus’ victory at Actium (over Antony & Cleopatra) clearly commemorate Augustus’ role in bringing Egypt back to the Roman people (CIL VI 702).

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Photo and translation by A. Graham (the author)

Rededicating these monuments to the sun, but with a new function, in a new context, is a deliberate act of control and cultural re-appropriation: these monuments, like the people and culture who created them, were now part of a broader empire in which Rome was the centre. The use of the obelisk as a gnomon (a sort of pointer), according to Pliny the Elder (Natural History 36. 71-72) was arranged by a famous Mathematician: Novius Facundus: ingenio Facundi Novi mathematici.  The pointer was fitted with a bronze orb “to cast shadows” depending on the seasons (decreasing from winter solstice, and increasing from the summer): is apici auratam pilam addidit, cuius vertice umbra colligeretur in se ipsa.

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Map of Ancient Rome with the Mausoleum of Augustus & the Altar of Peace at the top and the obelisk towards the bottom of the circled area

The obelisk, ca. 22 metres in height and weighing ca. 203,000 kilograms, is said to have had foundations as deep as it its height (Pliny NH 36.73: quamquam ad altitudinem inpositi oneris in terram quoque dicuntur acta fundamenta), which were necessary, but not sufficient in the swamp-like conditions of the Campus Martius.  Surrounded by bronze markers and inscriptions in Greek, the area around the obelisk also included Augustus’ Altar of Peace (Ara Pacis commissioned by the senate a year later) and the Mausoleum of Augustus. The overall monumental scheme was a testament to Rome’s greatness: a supremacy that extended over Nature herself (time & space).  It was without doubt an ambitious undertaking, but can anyone actually control time and space?

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Pliny’s account, written three quarters of a century after Augustus’ dedication, records both the glory of the monumental undertaking and subsequent inaccuracy of the gnomon (pointer) about 50 years after it had been set up.  In many respects, this may not have been a great failure: one would have to know the correct time to notice that the shadow was off, and this was an era where there were relatively few means of telling the time accurately.  The monument as a whole remained an impressive feat of science as are the numerous reasons Pliny offers (NH 36.73) for the malfunction, such as the sun shifting its course, the earth moving from its centre (there is scientific basis for the earth ‘wobbling’on its axis) , the possibility of an earthquake and/or the flooding of the Tiber had undermined the foundation (the latter seems likely and effected the Ara Pacis): sive solis ipsius dissono cursu et caeli aliqua ratione mutato sive universa tellure a centro suo aliquid emota (ut deprehendi et aliis in locis accipio) sive urbis tremoribus ibi tantum gnomone intorto sive inundationibus Tiberis sedimento molis facto.

Recent scholarship (Heslin 2007) has shown significant repaving and reworking by emperor Domitian, and also questions whether or not the monument was really intended to tell time. Perhaps it is more of a meridian, a representation of the world that places Rome at the centre. Whether or not the monument had a practical function is certainly worth questioning, as is Augustus’ assertion that time could be controlled, but the overall grandeur of the monument remains. The monument was a focal point in the urban landscape, throughout the Julio-Claudian period, as Augustus’ descendants continued to be monumentalised in his Mausoleum during the first century AD.  The Antonine dynasty (2nd c. CE) recalled Augustus’ image and his success in monumental columns nearby,  one of which depicts the obelisk as a symbol of power over the cosmos.

Base of the Column of Antoninus Pius (now at the Vatican Museums). Image from Wikimedia commons.

Lost in Time?

 The obelisk collapsed sometime during the Middle Ages (9th-11th centuries CE) after which it was forgotten, and seems to have been built upon as Medieval Rome ate itself.  Part of the obelisk and the flooring, however, were uncovered in the early 16th century by a barber who was digging out his basement for a latrine (?). Segments of the obelisk were excavated behind the Palazzo di Montecitorio and commemorated with an inscription outside the building in Piazza del Parlamento just off Via di Campo Marzio by Pope Benedict the XIV in 1748.  Pope Pius VI, who reconstructed the monument at its current site in 1789 (not the original site) at the south end of Piazza di Montecitorio (in front of Palazzo di Montecitorio).

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Drawing from by Giuseppe Vasi of excavations from Wikimedia commons. Photo of inscription by A. Graham (author).

Back to the future: Viewing Augustus’ Horologium today

In its current location (i.e. not its original location), the obelisk no longer casts meaningful shadows. As a monument, however, it is still connected with “throwing shade”: it serves as a marker for protesters of the government, who often gather and rally near its base (tip: this area is often fenced-off because of rallies during the day, so if you want to visit this monument, it is best to do so on the weekends, the early morning or late evening). A bronze sphere has been restored at its head.  With a proper permit and a certain amount of euros, one can visit the remains of the flooring for the original monument. In a small building off the Via di Campo Marzio, if one climbs through a dilapidated medieval building and descends to the basement, where, a bit of the smooth floor is inscribed with notches and bronze lettering that reads (in Greek) Etêsiai pauontai “the summer wind stops”.

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Photo by A. Graham (author). Map from Google Maps.

The floor shines now because it is below the current waterline, a reminder of the soggy swamp on which Augustus endeavoured to build his monumental scheme. At the time, Greek was a sign of education, and the paving of floor in polished travertine and bronze was a statement of wealth, culture, and a global empire, as well as symbol that Rome was at the centre of the empire, the locus from which time and space were measured.

Can we control time?  

If there is anything that a study of civilisation should teach us it is that, fundamentally, nature cannot be controlled.  Our attempts to manipulate the cosmos, however admirable and educational, are, like a monument that reaches for the sun (e.g. an obelisk), bound to fall short. This does not mean that we should stop blazing forward in studies of science and art, but that we should approach them with humility, as those who wish to learn, rather than to conquer.  The control we may feel over time, over nature, through our superior modern technology, is still an illusion.  There is nothing like a global pandemic to bring this point home. The sun, the weather, the passage of time, and nature herself, will thwart our every attempt at control, moving in unexpected ways. So perhaps, like the Romans, we ought to make the best whatever situation we are in, at any given time or place, and hold fast to the hope for a better future.



Pliny, Natural History 36. 71-73

Claridge, A. Rome: Oxford Archaeological Guide, 190-193. Oxford.

Heslin, P.  2007  ‘Augustus, Domitian and the so called Horologium Augusti’, Journal of Roman Studies 97: 1-20.

Rehak, P.  2006. Imperium and Cosmos: Augustus and the Northern Campus Martius

Earlier studies are mostly German: Buchner, R. 1982, Die Sonnenuhr des Augustus (1982), critiqued by M. Schütz,1990 “Zur Sonnenuhr des Augustus auf dem Marsfeld”, Gymnasium 97: 432-457.

Click here For a summary of ancient sources and links to translations.





Ode to Joyce Reynolds: The value of invisible labour in academia

Photo of Joyce Reynolds at home in Cambridge by Adrian Pope. Published April 2018:

The study of Classics is defined by individuals who are not only great scholars, but passionate, enthusiastic and inspiring teachers at every level. On International Woman’s Day, I would like to honour one of the most remarkable women in this field or any other: Joyce Reynolds, in particular, her contribution to teaching.

Joyce Reynolds (born 1918) is one of Britain’s most distinguished Classics scholars and epigraphers. Her Wikipedia page is a testament to her superlative accomplishments & honours.  She was recently subject of a book by Tessa Dunlop “The Century Girls” celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s right to vote. The list of her achievements reflects of the metrics by which academics are defined:  primarily scholarship. While her publications justify her fame, there is so much more to this incredible woman, in particular, the reason why she has been such a powerful inspiration to so many: she is an incredibly kind, patient, humble and generous human being, who always made time to mentor a new generation of scholars.

Joyce Invicta: The indomitable spirit of  a teacher.  

I met Joyce Reynolds for the first time in August of 2002, when I was starting my D.Phil on  monumental inscriptions in Asia Minor at Oxford. Martin (now my husband) and I had arrived at the site of Aphrodisias about midday, caked in dust (our Jeep had holes in the floor, presumably for air conditioning) which was now starting to drip down our faces in the heat of day (ca. 40 C). In the bunker for the excavation team, Joyce was examining a part of Diocletian’s Price Edict, she appeared, in contrast to us, utterly cool and composed. When I announced that I was planning to explore the broader area, her stunning blue eyes turned to me and lit up with excitement: “Would you mind taking me to Plarasa?” she asked, and I leapt (literally and figuratively) at the prospect of visiting such a place alongside her.

We all got into the Jeep, Martin cursing in prime Glaswegian as we lurched over pothole after pothole, and Joyce just kept smiling, as though this were yet another great adventure. We finally reached a small village. Cane at the ready, Joyce began climbing a crumbling hillside, speaking to children in Turkish, asking for inscriptions. Her enthusiasm was contagious and when she found a new inscription, a stone being used as a ramp to a henhouse, her excitement was palpable.  Watching her examine and interpret the text felt like watching a master at work, she had so many questions and she posed one to me, as though I was one of her colleagues.  Throughout my time on the site, I noticed how Joyce engaged with people: she spoke and listened with interest to everyone from undergraduates to the director of the excavation. The careful consideration and discipline with which she worked and the way treated her colleagues was truly inspirational, and it was just the beginning.

Although I was not her student, Joyce kept in regular contact with me through letters, where she painstaking copied out texts and translations (unpublished) to help with my research. She invited me to visit her at Newnham College (Cambridge) and spent many hours sharing her work, her ideas and opinions. Her generosity of mind and spirit knew no bounds. On the rare occasion that I was able to persuade her of a new interpretation, it felt like one the greatest of accomplishments. I would never have produced my D. Phil without her help or her guidance on analysing epigraphic materials. My first academic paper was given at one of her “Epigraphic Saturday” conferences in Cambridge. She was not just a teacher but a creator of opportunities, communities and networks. She was an inspiration on every possible level.

Joyce’s annual “Epigraphic Saturday” workshops in Cambridge, brought scholars at all levels together to present new materials in epigraphy.  Her student training sessions in Turkey, where she ventured out, a lady with a van, ferrying students from site to site, has been the inspiration for formal epigraphic training at institutions across Europe. Many of these were initiatives of her former pupils: the British School at Athens (Robert Pitt), the British School at Rome (myself), and the Practical Epigraphy workshop (Charles Crowther and the Centre for Study of Ancient Documents). The ripple effect of a devoted teacher is enduring, not only developing knowledge and skills, but also inspiring teachers of the future.  For example, the new postgraduate journal “New Classicists” funded by King’s College London was inspired by postgraduates (particularly Greg Gilles) during the BSR Epigraphy course in 2018. Joyce’s former students such as Charlotte Roueche, Mary Beard, and Michael Scott are some of the most vocal advocates of the Classics, fostering open access learning resources for a broader audience.  Joyce’s passion, her enthusiasm and dedication to learning lives on in the hearts of all those that she has inspired.

Learning from Joyce: the value of invisible labour

Joyce’s efforts in teaching, mentoring, and engagement are what many would consider to be the backbone of an academic career: the ability to support and develop others, to inspire the next generation (in her case, the next century) of scholars.  For participants in higher education or anyone who has ever been inspired by a teacher, these experiences are a crucial part of education. However, when job contracts are formulated, promotions are made, and achievements are recorded, these efforts are invisible.  “Invisible labours” are a growing issue in academia, especially in fields such as race and gender but also across disciplines in terms of emotional development.  The exclusion of these activities, which seem so integral from the perspective of a student, from codification in job contracts can create confusion: since these efforts  are left implicit they appear to be cast in a lesser supplemental role.  Conflating the visibility of task with its importance could mean that the value of these labours may not be recognised: how do you know when something invisible is lost?

During UCU strike action, Mary Beard (a former student of Joyce’s) tweeted about her 100-hour work week. This was viewed as intimidating by some early career scholars. In an effort to gain more context (another Joyce acquired skill), I scrolled down the twitter comments to find a series of praises from people, schools, institutions: a broader audience whom Mary has inspired.  There is no Res Gestae (list of “things accomplished”) for this aspect of her career, but there can be no doubt, she has made an incredible contribution.  By including all her labours in her estimated hours, Mary provided an honest accounting of what being an academic is, yet again putting herself “out there” in the capricious and often unpredictable realm of social media.  The reaction of early career scholars is understandable:  it reflects the growing discrepancies between what a job contract states and what is expected.  This issue, however, should unite rather than divide academics.

As administrative and research expectations rise, academics are increasingly placed in a position of choosing between prioritising career progression (often through research & administration) over teaching, student development, and public engagement.  This impacts academics at all levels.  Work beyond contracted hours is spiralling out of control,  evidenced both by recent strike action and the hashtag: #exhaustionrebellion.  Even working to contract seems to assume that a contract includes all relevant duties and clear concepts of time allocation. In reality, there are seldom guidelines: how much time should one spend answering student emails, writing job references, writing papers for school talks? The danger for early career scholars, in particular, is that sidelining “invisible” labours at an early stage could result in a career pattern. Scaling back these activities is not only antithetical to why many people enter academia, it can also impact student expectations, who come to view teaching (and by extension themselves) as a secondary to research and administration.  If invisible labours are cast into the shadows, what will motivate the next generation of academics? Excellent pay? A good pension scheme? Ever-growing administrative duties?

Whether it is research or teaching, one cannot do what one loves all the time. However, when something that motivates and inspires is continually marginalised, this can create and mental and emotional dissonance.  Significant declines recorded in in the mental health of academics may reflect not only rising stress and expectations but also the inevitable conflict that occurs when one prioritises administrative tasks over those which offer greater personal fulfilment and purpose.  Teaching for many, is a primary objective of an academic career, a feminist scholar Dr. Amanda Irving (Columbia) has recently observed in her article on feminism and invisible labour:

“I include a line in my syllabus that reads, “You’re not interrupting my real work. You are my real work.” And that’s where the divide between the visible and invisible labour… breaks down. The students are the real work.”

This last sentence exemplifies Joyce Reynolds’ attitude towards her students. It is my greatest hope that her legacy as a remarkable scholar, teacher and human being is a torch that continues to burn bright, carried on by the many whose lives she has transformed. Whether or not the labours are visible, their tangible benefits are imprinted both on every teacher and every student she has inspired. These labours of love are, in many respects, the unseen foundation on which academia has been built; if we lose them, the cradle of the discipline will fall.

Getting published: Advice for Early Career Scholars in Classics and beyond


Mosaic floor depicting Theseus & the Minotaur inside a labyrinth. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

The world of publishing can feel like a labyrinth for the uninitiated with the menacing moans of a Minotaur at every corner. Here are some threads that can help you find your way out of the maze, and crucially, past the Minotaur (who may or may not be an editor).

The phrase “this reads like an early career scholar”, however accurate, can be unhelpful when the reasons behind it are not explained. Based on my experiences reviewing books, articles/chapters and writing, this list is designed to address a number of factors that contribute to difficulties in the peer review process.

  1. Choosing a publisher. Choose carefully, seek out journals and publishers who provide materials on a similar subject and topic. Who is your target audience? What aspect of scholarship will your work convey? How will it add to the ongoing debate? All publishers will ask these questions: the sooner in the process you address them, the better. Look at samples from a journal or a published series: your ideal publisher wants to publish what you are producing, if you are trying to adapt who you are to fit into a series, you may not be playing to your strengths and interests as a scholar (crucially: producing work that reflects your expertise). Another factor in selecting a journal can be how often they produce volumes: some are relatively fast (within a year) most are less so.
  2. Publication guidelines. Every journal/publishing house has their own set of guidelines (e.g. how to reference, footnote, bibliography, cite images). It is important to know what these and to follow them.  Get in touch with an editor and ask for guidelines early in the writing process, if possible.
  3. Structure, Structure, Structure: Many publishers will want an abstract, this is a good time to consider the structure of your work. What are the main points? Once you have an abstract, use the Title, Heading 1, Heading 2 functions in Microsoft word. These can ensure a clear framework throughout the writing process, and help you see the forest through the trees (e.g. when and where you may be digressing).  When the structure of an article is not clear (w/out headings, proper references), it can be more difficult to judge the content.
  4. Images: These can take up the most time in the process of publication. If you have options for images, try to choose those with highest quality & simple/ straightforward image permissions.  Seeking image permissions (sooner rather than later) is also an opportunity to network and raise awareness of your research among scholars.


  1. Writing style: The tone for journals can be different to what one is uses in other contexts (e.g. the tone, colloquialisms and casual style of this blog does not reflect expectations for academic submissions). Some people write as they speak. The issue: the ear processes differently than the eye; breath, tone, and pause give it a break.  The reading eye has fewer cues; sentence length is crucial to clarity & understanding. The more complicated the idea, the longer the sentence, right? Wrong! Clarity is optimally achieved in 3-4 lines or less. Don’t believe me? Find a leading scholar (e.g. Angelos Chaniotis, Mary Beard). Look at his/her sentence length.  How do I make my sentences shorter? A few tips
  • Where possible, remove opening phrases, “in respect to this”
  • Cut unnecessary adverbs and adjectives “actually” “eventually”
  • Avoid repeating words, especially verbs and “therefore” in a single paragraph.
  • Use footnotes for secondary comments (often things in parentheses in the text).
  • Consider ordering sentences with the most important point in the most prominent position. If there are two key points, you may want two sentences, rather than a single 5-6 line sentence. Classical Languages training can be useful here.
  1. Sometimes when we are “in the zone” we tend to assume that our readers have the same level of understanding of the materials (primary & secondary). As a result, one can cite a key author or source without discussing his/her research.
  • Introduce your sources: Give a bit of introduction to your source (ancient or modern). Don’t assume the reader knows what is pertinent.
  • Using evidence: Often an interpretation of a passage seems obvious, so we simply quote the passage and move on.  This can leave the act of analysis to the reader. It can also mean that transitions between points and paragraphs are difficult. Don’t leave evidence hanging.  If you quote a passage/image,  discuss it before moving onto the next point/paragraph. Ideally, the last sentence of one paragraph should lead towards the first sentence of the next.
  • Expression: The problem with “this” and “that”. Use demonstrative and relative pronouns sparingly. Schoolwork  is peppered with “this shows that”. Do a word search: if “this” happens more than once a paragraph or “that” occurs twice in a sentence; it is too often. Avoid starting a new paragraph with these phrases as well.  In some languages, a purpose or relative clause may require a different type of verb, this makes the writer aware of how complex/subordinated a sentence has become.  English affords no such luxury. Don’t underestimate the power of a short sentence; channel Yoda.
  • Regulating content: One simple way of regulating content is in the format. Set out headings from the start and to keep them. If you are suddenly adding materials or paragraphs, it is a good way to gauge if you have gone “off-piste”. If this happens, don’t delete extra material: make a separate document (I call mine; “the back burner”) to store ideas.


  1. Up, Up and away. Sending off an article can be nerve wracking.  The peer review process can vary dramatically. Responses are often a factor of how quickly a reviewer responds. Sometimes feedback is helpful, sometimes it isn’t. Some reviewers contradict each another. The anonymity of reviewers in journal articles is confounding in the wider world of employment or academia, where reviewers are often disclosed or are face to face with a reviewee. I have seen feedback in peer review that would be considered inappropriate in any other context (e.g. essay feedback or a work review). Anonymity is not a reason to be discourteous, and for early career scholars especially, it can be very demoralising.  Vitriolic reviews fail on a number levels by not providing an accurate review, a credible account, or an example of professional conduct. One day the tables may turn, so whatever happens, use it as a learning experience: treat people the way that you would want to be treated.  Some tipsBefore you send off an article.
  • Have a non-specialist read it. Listen carefully to the questions. Sometimes it is the most basic things that we miss in a complex academic discussion. Externals can also spot polemic tones.
  • Polemic tones: Tread carefully, the scholar you critique is often considered as a peer reviewer. How you critique is crucial: “add” to an interpretation with another idea, approach or perspective. Undermine the evidence or the conclusion, but not an individual. Focus on creating alternative model; good scholarship should focus presenting a different or new perspective, not just deconstructing someone else’s.
  • Consider potential reviewers, perhaps, pre-empt the process by sending your work to them first, and applying their feedback before submitting. This prospect can be daunting but it can also result in a gentling of tone & language. I’ve had some excellent feedback this way (and also avoided embarrassing errors). Even if you do not agree with a scholar, understanding & engaging positively with his/her argument will improve your own. 
  • Present your work at a conference or two. Get feedback from academics. This is a further way to cover your bases, e.g. not miss crucial points or readings.
  • Don’t give up. If you don’t hear from a journal, follow up! I assumed an article had been rejected after 8 months; it had been accepted but they were waiting on final report from a 2nd  reviewer. There are many places to submit work, so don’t let a rejection get you down. The advantage of edited volumes (though they can take longer) is getting feedback from specialists who know you & your research.


  1. The Eternal dilemma: quantity over quality. I believe that fewer high-quality articles/chapters offer more (in the long term) than a smattering of random pieces. Firstly, because the effort required to reach a certain level is itself a skill, and secondly, because being stretched too thin can result in mistakes and rejections. Try to resist the pressure to publish and not be too “trigger happy” with your written work.  While perfectionism can be an issue, more often, it is a half-baked idea or an unformatted article that proves a problem.  Think you are ready to submit?  Put it in a drawer for 10 days. Read it again. If you still think it is ready, then send it. Sometimes, working on something different for 10 days can transform your approach.  It will certainly temper the temptation to hit the “submit” button precipitously.   

Being an early career scholar

Everyone has, at one point, been an early career scholar. The primary difference is that experienced scholars begin with a better idea of what to expect and what they need to provide. They have had to make the same/similar adjustments.  These adjustments are not always clearly set out for new scholars, nor are they necessarily included in graduate supervision.  Reviews must also be contextualised in the world where peer reviewers (academics) are increasingly overloaded with administrative duties and research expectations. These individuals, understandably, find less time for peer reviews, which often provide no payment (and in some cases, no recognition). Doing this job well (being clear, kind and detailed) often takes a day. The calculated annual cost of unpaid peer review is currently £1.9 billion.

We can address many of these issues by communicating more openly about this process in graduate education and by trying to improve it ourselves.  Having been the subject of a lambasting or two myself, I have tried to be a kind and considerate reviewer, giving constructive and detailed feedback.  Yes, it takes time. Yes, one is not paid to do it. Regardless, it matters a great deal.  The future of our discipline will be defined by new scholars, and by what kind of academics we teach them to be.

Dr. Abigail Graham

Follow me on twitter:  @abby_fecit



Vale Regina. Cultural Integration & Royal Departures: Roman Britain meets Megxit.


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Can ancient history provide insights to the broader issues behind Megxit?

Cicero labels history as the teacher of life (“Historia magistra vitae”) because, however society develops, fundamental aspects of human interaction continue unchanged.  This is certainly true of love and/or marriage, which can emerge across cultures and continents.  While the planned departure Prince Harry and Meghan from the British Isles and the public eye, dubbed by the press as “Megxit” ( I prefer “Megxodus”) seems to dominate the news, it is worth considering what history can teach us about cultural integration and global unions.

First a caveat:  I know no more about the Royal family than the average spectator of the Queen, the Crown, and recent events.  As an ex-pat for 20 years studying and lecturing in Roman History (now a British citizen), I have developed a fairly good understanding of the difficulties (both personal and political) in operating between different cultures. I have also been drawn to the subject of cultural integration in my research: looking at how different individuals chose to represent themselves in monuments.  For me, the concept of  an “ex-pat” represents not only a person outside of her “patria” (Latin for “homeland” ) but also, for those who chose to make a home in foreign nation, the term reflects how, like an ex- girlfriend/ boyfriend, we carry baggage from a previous cultural relationship.  This is an important point that is not always immediately apparent to those haven’t lived abroad: being a cultural hybrid means being part of both but a purebred of neither,  like an adaptor that works in two plugs but does not fit properly in either one. To fit into a different culture we have to adapt who we are, but not necessarily become different person. Transitioning between cultures is not a new experience for humanity, but it is one that continues to challenge us.


One of Britain’s oldest global couples: Regina & Barates

Cross continental marriages are attested in Roman Britain from 1st-2nd centuries AD. One of my favourite examples of Roman cross cultural romance is a popular funerary epitaph of Regina (“Queen or Queenie” in Latin), who  features as a character in  Cambridge Latin’s Minimus series.   The inscription RIB 1065  was found in South Shields (Roman Arbeia) on the south side of the River Tyne.  Regina hailed from the Catuvellnauni tribe based in South East England (from Cambridgeshire to Oxfordshire) with a capital in St. Albans (Verulamium). She married a Palmyrene man named Barates in the north of England.  What is fascinating about this monument to Regina are all the eccentricities in it’s use of language, writing and imagery:

D(is) M(anibus) Regina liberta et coniuge
Barates Palmyrenus natione
Catuallauna an(norum) XXX

“To the Spirits of the Departed,  Regina, Freedwoman and wife, of the Catuvellaunian tribe” (lived) 30 years.  Barates of Palmyra (set this up).”

A Palmyrene text (at the bottom) says “Regina, freedwoman of Barates, alas”.

RIB 1065. The Roman Inscriptions of Britain website (RIB), recently updated as part of the “Latin Now” ERC project, is an excellent resource. There is also a cast copy of this text at the British Museum & the Great North museum. Photo from feminaeromanae

While the text is well arranged on the space (not always the case in the inscriptions of Roman Britain), the Palmyrene lettering is more confident than the Latin, which features unusually curved letters  (e.g. the curving “L” (line 3) the low curving “M” (ll.1-2)). The grammar is also odd, “Regina” appears to be in either the nominative or the ablative case, when it should be in the dative case (as the recipient of a dedication).   There are also no verbs (often vixit “she lived” and fecit “he made” were included). A recent interpretation suggests that Regina’s name and tribe were meant to be in the accusative case (with an “m” unsounded at the end), a feature which, together with the omission of a verbs, are all characteristics of Greek-language inscriptions (likely Barates’ second language, as Greek was more commonly used than Latin the Roman Syria).

Barates honours his nationality by using it to define himself (“Palmyrenus”) in Latin and inscribing Palmyrene language on the monument.  The Palmyrene message is slightly different: it does not record Regina’s age (a Roman convention) but conveys only her status (as a freedwoman) and an endearing expression of grief “alas”. In addition to demonstrating his regional  identity, Barates’ monument could have been read by other Syrian or Palmyrene soldiers as well as a broader Roman audience as an illustration of the international character of Rome’s empire  (one did not need to be literate to see the unusual Palmyrene letterforms). The image of “Regina” as a heavily robed figure, set within an elaborate temple facade and seated on a throne with an ornate jewellery box on one side and a basket of wool in the other, had Roman and Palmyrene connotations but not necessarily British ones.  Although her face has been subsequently damaged,  she still exudes a wealthy, queen-like image.

Although we do not know exactly how Barates came to Britain from Syria, a surviving epitaph for a Palmyrene soldier in the Roman Army (RIB 1171) was found relatively nearby in Corbridge (Roman Coria). The text records his journey across the empire as a vexillarius (roughly translated as a “flag or standard bearer”, sometimes (in plural) referring  to a unit of soldiers) and carries a fragmentary name “…rathes”.  This has often been identified as “Barates/Barathes” Regina’s husband, though this connection is not certain: the name is not an unprecedented in cohorts from the Eastern Empire. This second inscription also illustrates how regional names can be misspelt due to phonetic differences: Barates and Barathes are treated interchangeably, and “Palmyrenus” (correctly spelled in RIB 1065) is written “Palmorenus” (RIB 1171) with a backwards “e” being added, like an afterthought, onto the stem of the following letter.

What was their cross cultural relationship like? Epitaphs are notorious for promoting how people want to be seen: ideology rather than reality, not unlike a modern social media account. Neither Barates nor his wife were native Latin speakers and their monument reflects a complicated relationship. Regina, a native Briton who probably spoke some Latin, was in a lower social position (a former slave). Her skills and knowledge of British culture probably made her a useful wife for Barates. Together with a number of expats in Arbeia (including a Moorish soldier RIB 1064 , the couple probably bonded as strangers in a strange land. When I imagine globe-trotting soldiers in Arbeia, I think of a summer excavation in Italy: crowded with international students all of whom are bonded by the site, the work, and the experience. Linguistic traditions aside, people find a way to communicate, it is wonderful testament to resilience of humanity but it is not an easy experience.

Modern Receptions: Global unions & cultural integration

In the ancient world, as in the present, we find ways to facilitate cultural integration through the creation of ceremonies and titles: marriage, citizenship ceremonies, keys to city.  At my citizenship ceremony, British culture was celebrated by playing the Beatles “One” album. The fact that “Get Back (to where you once belonged)” was playing as a recessional was probably just unfortunate timing, and by that point, it was hilarious. While rituals of inclusion are useful, they are a beginning not an end. You still wake up the next morning in a foreign land without the innate cultural knowledge that indigenous inhabitants possess. Living in Britain and marrying a Brit is has been wonderful and, in many ways, a better fit for who I am, but the journey has not been easy. Over 20 years, I have made many efforts to integrate, as Regina and Barates must have done. My social gaffes are fewer and farther in between but I still have not acquired an innate knowledge or instinctive behaviours for all occasions: the sort of thing that is required of a Royal representative. Weeks after a media scandal where a Royal of lifelong training utterly tanked a press interview, I wondered: was the expectation that Meghan should seamlessly squeeze into a Royal mould with an acquired knowledge of protocol fair or realistic?

Mary Beard’s attempts to contextualise “Megxit”, which compare Meghan with “the Livia Phenomenon” (Male historians cast powerful females as Lady Macbeth figures e.g. poisoners) and Harry with the emperor Tiberius’ escape to the island of Capri, are both interesting and informative discussions.   Both, however, cast Harry and Meghan in primary leadership roles as an emperor or empress (Harry is not heir or the spare), whilst overstepping a key aspect of Megxit: the integration of a foreigner into the Royal family. Perhaps a more relevant comparison for Harry may be the departure of a younger Tiberius to Greek island of Rhodes in 6 BC,  after his marriage to Julia deteriorated and he was passed over for succession by Augustus.  Forced to renounce the his beloved wife (Vipsania Agrippa) and marry Augustus’ daughter (Julia), the call of duty had made him miserable.  For someone who (like Harry) was not in the line of immediate succession but still in the public eye at Rome, a retreat from the limelight must have held a certain appeal.

2,000 years ago, Barates, a Palmyrene living in the north of Roman Britain, was expected to integrate within Roman society.  He learned Latin, how to be a Roman soldier or merchant, and married a British woman. He did not have to sacrifice who he was to do it.  As his monument to Regina shows, he found a way to maintain his identity, even his language, thousands of miles from home.  This was simplified, undoubtedly, by the fact that he was not expected to be a quintessential exemplum of Romanitas at all times, and he was likely surrounded by fellow ex-pats in a similar circumstance. Both Regina and Barates had to adapt to the Roman world, and likely grew together in the process.   In contrast, Meghan has been asked to make a similar transition with greater responsibilities and expectations as a public figure with significantly less support. Constant media comparisons with Kate Middleton do not express gradual cultural adjustment but unrealistic expectations of conformity. The media term “Megxit” conveys this point further, placing the blame and impetus for their departure solely on Meghan with no mention of an “Harrival” in America.

To study history is to learn about the past, forge connections with the present, and develop a nuanced understanding of humanity.  Couples like Regina & Barates show how international unions have been a part of prosperous societies in Britain for 2,000 years. Their story of creating a union in adverse and unlikely circumstances is inspiring and heartening. Is it, after all, so different from a modern couple, who considered conventions & expectations, and chose to forge a new path in a different place?

Bad Blood or Mad Love: The Lupercalia and St. Valentine


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Classical Art Memes, slightly modified with text and images

February is month veiled in mysteries.

In a modern context, it is defined by a prognosticating groundhog (Feb 2), a festival of love (Feb 14) and a name that is notoriously difficult to spell.

The Romans can provide an explanation for at least one of these mysteries. The month takes its name from a februa, a string or thong of goat skin, which was used in the late winter festival of the Lupercalia for an act of ritual purification. One mystery is solved, but more abound. Was whipping a painful act or a playful slap? Modern media has acknowledged “shades of grey” between the perception and experience of certain, seemingly violent behaviours. To what extent is this behaviour open to interpretation? Is the Lupercalia connected to Valentine’s Day?

What was the Lupercalia?

The Lupercalia is often described as a festival of purification, probably Etruscan or Sabine in origin, which honored the foundation and fecundity of Rome through the god of fertility (Lupercus). It took place around the ides of February (15th) at the Lupercal (a cave, generally believed to be beneath the Palatine hill) on the site where Romulus and Remus suckled the she-wolf. The origins of the festival are bound up Rome’s foundation and her early history: the legendary kidnapping of the Sabine women. Snatched from their Sabine husbands at the Circus Maximus by Romulus and his predominantly male Latin settlers. The Sabine women, who may have been reproductively challenged after the event, were “ritually cleansed” by an Etruscan priest, who killed a goat and beat the women with the skins (Ovid, Fasti, 425-465).  Was this a case of “Bad Blood”? Thereafter (we are told) the event continued, carried out by Luperci, priests who were divided into two collegia, one for each of the twin brothers (Romulus and Remus). Goats and dogs were sacrificed and two young patrician men (one from each college) were touched with the bloody knife and then cleansed with a milk-sodden wool cloth.

The scripted reaction reveals an underlying tone of the event: the Luperci were meant to laugh or smile. A feast followed and the two men were garbed in the goatskins (or nothing) carrying thongs (februa) made from the skin of the sacrificed goats; this too was bound to bring about some laughs. After their celebrations, these minimally attired lads were unleashed upon the city with their thongs, where they proceeded to whip any passersby, especially young wives, for whom the slap was meant to increase fertility.

The Lupercalia was and remains, one of the most controversial festivals in ancient Rome.   While literary accounts survive, the personal nature of religion makes it subject to variations in both in the practice of rituals and the interpretation of the events. As a result, a number of different representations of the same festival survive from authors at different times with different perspectives. The longevity of the festival, celebrated from the rape of the Sabine women in the 8th/7th centuries BC until end of the 5th century AD, suggests that it had continued significance, though its role was bound to change over time.

Shades of Grey: Whipping: Ritual act or playful slap? Literary Accounts

Modern depictions (above) often choose to emphasise the violent nature of the whipping; with women in tortured poses. Earlier Renaissance paintings, such as that of Andrea Camassei at the Prado Museum (ca. 1635) are more light  and playful, in gesture, colour and composition.

While modern portrayals often present Lupercal whipping in a wild and violent manner, this image is a better reflection of how the Romans were viewed in a modern context (as a devoted audience of violent entertainment and fearsome rituals). The bloodthirsty Roman has not always been a prevailing stereotype in ancient or modern interpretations. To truly understand this festival, and in particular, its continued popularity across Roman History one needs to consider the experience of the festival: how it is portrayed literature and the context in which it took pace.

One of the first accounts of the Lupercalia is attributed to Dionysius of Halicarnassus, a Greek Historian (ca.60 BC- after 7BC). His account in Roman Antiquities (1.32) attributes the festival to a Greek counterpart in the Arcadian tradition and claims that “the rituals had not been altered in any way”. While a number of Greek festivals were revived at this time in the Roman World, the claim that they remained exactly the same is dubious. Dionysius also notes that the “sacred precinct” of the Lupercal had already been incorporated into of the city: so the context of the ritual as well as its audience had fundamentally changed. The closest spatial indicator he provides is the Temple of Victory on the Palatine, accessed from the steps of Cacus.

The most extensive account of the Lupercalia comes from the Roman poet Ovid (ca 43 BC- AD 17/18). His raucous “tongue in cheek” style and randy versions of myths, which may have resulted in his exile, do not, admittedly, reflect an author who prized historical accuracy. His Fasti, is a light hearted and irreverent exploration of Rome’s sacred calendar through a series of delightfully absurd and sexed-up stories. The defining feature in Ovid’s Lupercalia is not the stark nature of the ritual but the stark nudity of the Luperci. He introduces the nudos.. Lupercos “the naked Luperci” (Fasti II. 267) and suggests a Greek origin for the festival (ll. 268- 284) but quickly moves onto the more interesting points: Why do the Luperci run naked? (l. 284). Ovid constructs a lovely line on the Luperci (l.287) Ipse deus nudus nudos iubet ire ministros “The god himself is naked and so orders his servants to go naked” in which the adjectives nudus and nudos come together (with alliteration) linking the nouns they modify (Deus “the god” and ministros “his servants”), which are balanced at the start and end of the line. Divine and human roles are intertwined in their nudity (interesting as it was deities who more often appeared nude in the art of this period).

Next is the tale of seedy cross-dressed delight: Hercules and Omphale (belly button) swap clothes & sleep in a cave, where a randy Faunus jumps into bed with the wrong one (ll. 303-356).  This is more in line with the “Mad Love” sentiment.  It is followed with the tale of mythical twins (Romulus & Remus), who were placed, naked of course (corpora nuda line 366) in a reed basket and rescued by a she- wolf (ll. 364-424). Ovid then addresses young women, whom he entreats to “accept the beating of fertile hands patiently”(ll. 425-428). He ends with a story of the beating of the captured Sabine women (ll. 425-465).

Were these women “purified” or “beat into submission? Regardless of the origins of the whipping, the overriding theme of Ovid’s is not pain or violent but nudity: the word “nudos” occurs 8 times in 100 lines (ll.276-376) as if providing a historic justification of nudity of its participants. In Ovid’s mind, nudity is not only a defining facet of Lupercalia but an honoured tradition of its founding gods and ancestors. While the different stories do not necessarily connect, they reflect an image of the Lupercalia that was based in sexuality, fertility and pushing conventional boundaries (e.g. being naked, cross dressing, suckling an animal). Ritual purification is implied but, like the name of the Etruscan priest who originally employed the whipping, it seems to have fallen into away before more pressing and exciting themes.

The lifting of social norms during the Lupercalia and laying bare one’s motives, also arises in the account of Plutarch, a later Greek historian (ca. AD 46- 120). In this account the Lupercalia provides the backdrop for a controversial event in the Life of Caesar 61, where Marcus Antonius, one of the anointed Luperci, and attempts to crown Caesar during the festival (whilst also whipping ladies with the other hand? Excellent multitasking). Plutarch is more interested in portraying the feel of the ceremony. His account addresses the jovial, if not bawdy, atmosphere of the festival in which wealthy aristocratic women throw themselves at naked youths with whips; there is little about “purification”. The prospect of escaping labour pains is enough to send any pregnant woman onto the streets in hopes of a high five.

At the accorded time of the year, a number of patrician teens and magistrates dash up and down the city, scantily clad for a laughter and a lark, whipping those they encounter with shabby lashes… upper class women seek them out on purpose, like children in classroom, holding a up their palms to be struck, hoping to alleviate the pains of labour or to increase fertility…

The festival clearly drew all sorts of people, from Julius Caesar, who watched from a throne on the rostra, to Mark Antony, a consul, who was one of the Luperci. Arguably, Caesar or Antony took advantage of the blurred lines on this occasion, to test public’s reaction to Caesar’s growing powers: they cheered more loudly when Caesar returned the crown then when he was crowned; so there was the answer. Shakespeare’s interpretation of Plutarch’s falls along similar lines, the aristocrat (and assassination conspirator) Casca describes the event as “mere foolery” (Julius Caesar, I.ii.) The day is about reversals, like the myths Ovid describes: Faunus and Omphale switch clothes, humans (the mythic twins) are looked after by animals, and in practise consuls run naked with whips, Roman matrons bare their backs in public to be whipped. It is more likely that Caesar is associating himself with a mythic past than making a claim at kingship (for a full discussion of Caesar at the Lupercalia, see. J. North’s brilliant article .

If Prince Harry decided to run scantily clad through Pall Mall, high-fiving young ladies, one can imagine that this too would draw a large crowd of participants and spectators. The image of the Lupercalia that emerges is not one that relies on strict adherence to rules and rituals but a fun day out in which conventional social boundaries were lifted. Young wives who would otherwise be knitting booties go out for a gentle slap of the februa: it sounds more like Rome’s answer to Magic Mike than a sacred or purgative ritual. Perhaps the festival began as a form of ritual purification, where skin had to be broken, but this is no mention of “bad blood” here, but this does not appear as a predominant theme in the 1st centuries BC/AD.

Digging in the Wrong Place? Finding the Lupercal Cave: Archaeology & Fake News

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Photo of the discovered cave and a map of the stratigraphy (the ground levels of the hill). Note the blue colours and shell pattern decorations, which are better suited to a Nyphaeum. (Photo from Wikimedia commons)

The problems of connecting the ancient site with the modern landscape, noted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus at the end of the 1st century BC, are even greater for the modern archaeologist. A discovery of a cave beneath the “House of Augustus” in 2007 suggested that a “holy grail” moment for Roman Archaeology, the cave where the she-wolf suckled the twins had been found. The site of the grotto was on the Palatine hill, close to the sacred precinct and though filled with rubble, is at the correct depth (Image), but many have doubts. Two world renowned professors of archaeology at La Sapienza University: Prof. Adriano LaRegina (the formerly Head Supervisor of Archaeology in Rome) and Prof. Fausto Zevi have noted that the decoration of the grotto, a floral and shell motif, is at odds with the thematic elements of Lupercal and more likely represents a Nyphaeum. Spatially, the location of the cave is also suspect. LaRegina convincingly argues that, in accord with the accounts of Dionysius & Ovid, the Lupercal cave was situated on the other side of Augustus’ house: by the Temple of Victory and the Steps of Cacus. If it survived, the Lupercal cave remains hidden.. for now.

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The most notable aspect of this “discovery” is the increasingly common trend in media coverage to sex-up a story into “clickbait”; sacrificing a find that is interesting in its own right to forge a revelation of earth-shattering significance. Archaeology is innately “ground-breaking” in its approach. Its value often lies not in substantiating epic myths (e.g. the Cup of Christ, the Ark of the Covenant) but in providing a nuanced and tangible interaction with aspects of everyday life: the sort of things are that are often absent in literary sources.

New Approaches: Have a crack at it: Reconstructing Rituals

Recently there have been exciting new developments in the study of ritual, which involve recreating the experience of rituals as cognitive experiences. Scholarship such as Angelos Chaniotis’ (Heidelberg) “Murphy’s Law” of ritual performances (what can go wrong will go wrong), Emma Jayne Graham’s (Open University) workshops in sensory experience in archaeology (workshops in sensory experience in archaeology) , Esther Eidinowe (Bristol) and Luther Martin (Vermont)’s new journal Cognitive Approaches in Historiography all explore the sensual the emotional contexts of rituals. What was it like to experience and process rituals as participant and/or viewers? These questions will also be explored  at a Cognitive Approaches Panel at this year’s TRAC conference (April 11-14th in Canterbury).

I like to re-enact the Lupercalia in lectures. There are always people who volunteer to be Luperci, until they realise they have to strip down and whip their classmates with a februa (a vegan option is provided). Experiencing a ritual in lecture not only allows a demonstration of practice, it recreates the social context of young people gathering, having a laugh and cheering, the veil of everyday life and lectures lifts for a moment, hinting at unforeseen mysteries. A ritual is a performance and atmosphere that ensnares the senses and engages its audience: an aspect of the Lupercalia that is easily overlooked when reading a book at a desk.

So whatever happened to the Lupercalia? Valentine’s Day? Image of Valentinus

 The Lupercalia came under attack by Pope Gelasius in AD 495, who issued a Letter against the Lupercalia, denouncing all those who celebrated it. To survive a millennium (including 150 years in Christian Rome), the Lupercalia must have been a flexible and popular festival, which may not have had a profound religious significance. Literary accounts portray it as more of a fun day out. Who wants to get rid of a public holiday with flirtation and fancy dress? A similar observation can be made about modern holidays (Halloween or Valentine’s Day) with a cultural significance which cannot be wholly explained by their supposedly religious origins. Although connections have been made between the Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day, apart from a similar calendar date, little evidence survives. A comparison of the two festivals, however, can inform our understanding of rituals, both ancient and modern.

Not unlike the nebulous figure of an Etruscan augur who initiated the Lupercalia, evidence for St. Valentine is scant. He was removed from the General Roman Calendar in 1969 on the grounds that so little of his life could be substantiated. He supposedly married Roman soldiers illegally and tried to convert the emperor Claudius II. He was martyred ca. AD 270 but his name is not recorded in the early chronicle of saints (The Chronography of AD 354), which was composed for a wealthy Christian patron named: Valentinus. A copy of the manuscript from 1620 (below), based on a 7th-8th century Carolignian manuscript, shows two fat cupids bearing signs that read; Valentine. Could this imagery be the origin for Valentines? St. Valentine is recorded in a later account (ca. AD 470-540), which is contemporary with the abolition of the Lupercalia.

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There is a significant gap (a millennium) between the mythologized events the accounts of the festival: the first accounts of courtly love on Valentine’s day are from the late 14th-15th centuries, including Chaucer, whose Parlement of Foules refers to mating birds on the celebration of St. Valentine (in February?). The earliest known card is in the British Library, from the Duke D’Orleans to his wife in 1415 (after the battle of Agincourt). It crops up again throughout history, even in Shakespeare’s Hamlet (cf.  Dr. Maria Berry’s article on the history of Valentines).

The practice of sending out cards seems to have become entrenched in the 18th century. By 1849 a writer in Graham’s American Monthly claimed “St. Valentines is becoming, nay…it has become a national holyday.” Valentines feature as a source of mischief in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mr. Harrison’s confessions (1851) and Tom Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1874). The origins of Valentines Day read like Ovid’s myths for the Lupercalia: each one as unlikely as the next. Do dubious origins detract from the popularity of the either festival? Not in the least.

How did the Lupercalia festival survive for a millennium? Perhaps a clue can be found in the continued commercial success of Valentine’s Day. Both festivals are days when social veils thin, when people can step across the conventional barriers and where someone invariably does something bold, daring and marvelously entertaining. Love and fertility are social levellers: they offer similar experiences of hopes and fears to everyone, rich and poor, citizens and slaves, young and old. There is little to prove or disprove a connection between the Lupercalia and Valentine’s Day, but the evolution of the festivals in both cultures reveals a common trait of humanity; rituals evolve, outliving their original function and/or meaning, so as long as they provide the X factor: a chance to experience the sublime and/or ridiculous. So whether you are leaving your heart or your midriff bare, the message is the same: Carpe Diem!

Twitter: @abby_fecit


Shut the front door: Brexit, Walls, and the Roman God Janus

Statue of Janus from the Vatican Museum.

T.S. Eliot claimed that April was the cruelest month with its blossoming lilacs.

Cruel for producing hope, I suppose. No such problem exists in the dark, frigid, and bleak midwinter month of January. Even having survived “Blue Monday” and/or dry January, to look at the state of current political affairs is to see a universe in liminal chaos. The lyrics of the Clash’s “Should I stay or should I go” take on a new meaning in the uncertain future of Brexit, an outcome which even the most educated of augurs seems unable to predict. Across the pond, America struggles after a protracted political shutdown as looming issues of wall hang in the air. One is reminded of the menacing silence that pervades Dido’s kingdom as she awaits a lover’s riposte;

And work in the city was abandoned – the harbour, towers that had hardly been begun, the fortifications that were meant to keep them safe against a siege, the young men’s military exercises. The walls stood unfinished, intimidating no one, and the lazy cranes silhouetted against the sky.

Vergil, Aeneid IV, 86-89, translation by G.B. Cobbold 2011, 92.

These moments, standing in the doorway of history, can feel like an endless sentence of waiting for imminent change…. grappling desperately between hopes and fears. To whom do we turn in this desperate hour? As it happens, the Romans had a deity for just this sort of occasion, one after which the month January was named: Janus, the two-headed guardian of liminality; with one head facing towards the future, and the other looking back into the past. He may have some answers.

Who was Janus?

Janus was a distinctly Roman God. He had no parallel in the Greek pantheon. Often considered Rome’s primordial god, “Janus primus” was often the first deity addressed in prayers, although he was by no means the most powerful deity. Janus seems to have held numerous roles concerning transitions in time (season, years, day/sun and night/moon, youth and old age) as well as spaces (such as doorways, bridges) and states of being (war and peace). As in Christianity, where a start and end are laid out in letters of the Greek Alphabet (from alpha to omega), in Rome Janus was primus “first”, while a female counterpart Vesta was extrema “last”.  Understanding his role is complicated by a number of factors. The first is chronology: Janus enters Roman history under Rome’s 2nd King (Numa) in the 8th century BC and remains until the city’s last days under general Belisarius when, during a Gothic attack in AD 536, the doors to his shrine mysteriously opened. A fitting end for the god of liminal events.

In terms of material evidence, Janus survives on some of the earliest coins and a Republican victory temple, both of which date to the mid 3rd century BC. His temple and his image on coins continue throughout the Republic. While the change to an Imperial government results in the removal of his imagery from coins (at least until Hadrian and Commodus), Janus’ shrine in the Forum Romanum was renovated by Augustus and was depicted on the coins of Nero.

The sheer breadth of time and space that this deity occupied reflect both his value in society and the myriad of different portrayals of him that have survived. Making sense of these requires a two-headed approach, which not only considers different sources but also applies chronology to the differing roles that he played across a millennium or more in Roman history. Looking at Janus across such a span of time and space serves as an important reminder: while a single event or moment may feel like an epic transition, there are, in reality, many such moments in history.

What’s in a name? Reconciling Literary sources

Double headed Janus.. what god am I meant to say you are??   Ovid Fasti Book 6 line 85. 

Attempts to understand Janus’ name betray the innate challenges and complexities of reconciling different sources. Some scholars link Janus’ name to the Greek concept of Chaos (from the Greek chaskein ‘to gape”) and the action of opening (hiare “to open”) perhaps a bit like Pandora’s box: letting chaos out. This reveals another contradiction in the sources: does Janus represent peace (being let out) or chaos (being held in by the gates). Others have suggested that Janus is a composite of Jupiter and Diana (Sky & Moon). The difficultly in both these theories is their reliance on later sources (Paul the Deacon (8th c. AD) and Macrobius (5th c. AD), which reflect pervading literary views and a tendency to situate Rome in traditions of Greek mythology. Janus may have connections with Greek deities but a focus on Greek origins is somewhat at odds with his unique qualities as well as the context in which he enters Roman history: a fight between Latins and Sabines. What kind of God was Janus? We probably need to explore beyond literary accounts for an answer.

A more convincing theory comes from more contemporary sources such as Cicero, De Natura Deorum II. 67 and Ovid, Fasti 126-7. These accounts suggest that the name Janus derives from the Latin verb “to go”; reflecting transitional motion and the concept of beginning. Probably derived from this sense of action, “Ianua” is the Latin word for door (and the root of the word “Janitor”). This derivation fits better with the numerous roles that Ianus played: he occupied an unusual place with one face turned towards the future and the other turned towards the past. When we look back from the present, our perspective is shaped not only by our sources but from our stance in the present. Equally, our experience in the past can impact how we view the future, whether the unknown appears dark or bright. It is not only Janus’ name but also the duality with which he views the world that offer insights on the human experience.

War & Peace? Janus in Early Rome.

Sestertius of Nero depicting  closed doors at the Janus Geminus. AD 54-68.

In modern context, Janus would be described as “an influencer”. Named after the first month of the year, apparently during the reign on Numa Popilus (715-674 BC), Ianus emerges as a key figure, who often allied himself with Saturn, another distinctly Roman God (associated with the Saturnalia in December). Associated with the Janiculum hill and the road which led to Etruria, Janus has also been attributed (by later sources quoting Varro) to the Etruscan god of the sky. One example of his divine intervention was preventing the Sabine men from reclaiming their women by setting off a scalding volcanic spring of hot water. While his actions against the Sabines could be seen as polemic, the result was a state of peace between the two warring tribes.

After the ensuing battle, Numa apparently dedicated a walled roofless shrine to ‘The Janus Geminus” (also known as the Janus Bifrons, Janus Quirinus, or Porta Belli). The twin “geminus” doors refer both to the duality of the motion, open or closed, and to the two heads of Janus, one looking forward and one looking back. Returning to the idea of Janus as an entrapped force of chaos, the open roof and doors, which were seldom shut (save for a few liminal moments of peace), seem to represent an “open door” policy of vigilance. Rome is not closing its door to its neighbors but rather, leaving the portal open with the acceptance that inevitable altercations will likely ensue.

Map of Rome. The Argiletum runs between the Forum of Nerva & the Forum Romanum. Could the 4 squares at the end of Nerva’s forum be a base of the shrine?

Situated at the based of Argiletum (see MAP above) in front of the Senate building (between the Roman forum and later Imperial fora), Janus’ shrine was not a temple in the conventional sense. It was more of a monumental gateway connecting the different areas and people of the city. Although it was clearly valued throughout Roman history (Augustus’ Res Gestae 13, records 3 closures during his reign, followed by closures under Nero and Vespasian, and ending in the late 4th century AD with the Theodosian Code), no traces of the structure have survived nor has its exact location been established. The original structure, restored by Augustus and perhaps again by Domitian, was set in a context of constant change, which altered the meanings and associations of the shrine, as noted by the poet Martial X, 28, 3-6.

       Previously you lived on a passage in a small shack, where Rome and her masses trod  the thoroughfare: now your threshold is surrounded by Caesar’s gifts, and you have as many fora, Janus, as you have faces.

A limitation of the historical sources, as in the literary sources, is the fact the many accounts (e.g. Imperial: Augustus, Livy, Ovid, Plutarch; Late Imperial: Macrobius, Procopius Festus) are from an Imperial period, reflecting propagandist claims and subsequent spin doctoring. These sources were not interested in exploring who Janus was but rather, what Janus could represent for their captive audiences. It is not surprising, therefore, that the roles of Janus seem to change alongside the needs and values of society.

Janus and liminal moments of Victory in the Republic

Duilius’ Temple of Janus in the Forum Holitorium

To understand Janus’ role in Republican Rome, we have to look forward from early Roman history and backwards from the often propagandist accounts of the Roman Empire. Janus is attested through a number of sources from the 3rd century BC. Some of Rome’s earliest coins (ca. 280-276 BC) depict of Janiform (two youthful heads) of the Dioscuri (RRC 14/1). Material sources for Janus increased dramatically after Gaius Duilius, a successful novus homo general from the first Punic War, commemorated Rome’s first naval victory (The Battle of Mylae in 260 BC). Duilius’ honorary rostral column with a surviving dedication (recarved in the early Imperial period) was set up in the Forum, near the site of the Janus Geminius.

Duilius’ temple to Janus, likely set up during his tenure as censor from 258-253 BC, was built along the Via Triumphalis near the Porta Carmentalis, a main ritual gate to the city. This gate was also a double door, one for entrance (e.g. triumphal processions), one for exits (e.g. funerals) with an adjacent altar to Janus. Carmenta was a Nymph, goddess of past and future, and whose festivals fell on January 15. The temple, made from tufa in the Forum Holitorium (vegetable market) was visible from the Tiber and from the adjacent Janiculum hill. The dedication took place during the Portunalia (August 17th), a celebration of Portunus, god of doors, keys and ports. As a “victory temple”, Janus’ temple was not for everyday worship but served as a monument of victory, which provided practical storage space for the stalls in the market. It was probably built with the adjacent temple of Spes (Hope), also vowed in the first Punic War. The temple Juno Sospita (fertility, vegetation) soon followed. The context of the temple is significant: while the transition of seasons (going from one to another) fits these gods and goddess well, it would be an odd place for a God of chaos.

Aes Grave RRC 35/1. Coin from ca. 240 BC with bearded Janus (OBV) and a ship’s prow (REV) with the corvus shown (on top).

In terms of understanding Janus across a broad chronological spectrum, it is a series of primarily bronze/ copper alloy coins that weave an enduring tale of Janus’ role in Roman life. The coins depict a bearded two-headed Janus wearing a laureate crown on the front and an image of a Rome ship with the corvus (a grappling hook that was used to secure the victory over the Carthaginians). His image reflects Duilius’ vow to Janus (generals often prayed to a deity for success), the act of divine invention (again, connected with water) as well as the liminality of the victory: the crucial innovation that turned the tide  in Rome’s favour. These coins, minted after the war’s conclusion in ca. 240 BC, illustrate the duality of war and peace as paths that are intricately connected.

Janus features on dozens of coin types with ship prows for the next century (until the end of the third Punic War in 146 BC). These coins echo his relationship with the city alongside the tremendous booty of Rome’s conquests. His image continues in coins depicting Gallic victories (no longer only naval imagery on the reverse) such as Marcus Furius in 114-113 BC (RRC 281/1). Janus and ship prows were re-employed from the turn of the 2nd century BC through Sulla’s reign ca. 82 BC (RRC 381/). Forty years later, the son’s of Pompey the Great (Sextus & Gnaeus) revived the imagery yet again (RRC 471/1) in a Spanish mint, followed by a bizarre reworking of the coin in Sicily (45 BC): Sextus and Gnaeus portraits replace the heads of Janus.

Coin minted in Sicily ca. 45 BC.  Gnaeus and Sextus Pompey in a Janus-like pose with a ship’s prow and the legend “IMP” on the reverse (RRC 479).

This change reflects a fundamental transition in Roman society: individual portraits have taken the place of deities (RRC 479). In the space where “Roma” was traditionally written on the reverse is a 3 letter abbreviation: IMP(erator),  a reference to a general’s ultimate power and the root of the later term “emperor”.  Whatever checks the Republican constitution was meant to employ upon aspiring generals, this coin marks a liminal moment of transition towards a new era. A final verson of the coin was minted by Marc Antony in Asia Minor around 39 BC (RRC 530/1). The “twin” heads no longer look similar or necessarily both male, perhaps representing his reunion with Octavia at Ephesos (before he ditched her for Cleopatra). The use of this imagery by his rivals may explain why Augustus, who restored Duilius’ monuments after his naval victory at Actium, chose to leave this coin type in the past.

Conclusions: Will the Real God Janus Please Stand Up?

A close examination of different sources from varying periods does not reconcile the images of Janus into a single cohesive role, rather, it illustrates how Janus survived across time and space by adapting/ being adapted for different purposes. He was mutable as night and day, summer and winter, past and future. Marking transitions, Janus was celebrated across the Calendar, from the start of the year, to the ritual expiation in February, the start Army season (March 1) and the end (October 1st). He was also associated with the summer festival of the Carna, celebrated for a Nymph whose virginity he stole and whom he blessed with the power of the door hinge.  Perhaps the reason Janus did not have a regular temple or his own priests was that he was constantly moving from one transition, one season, or one journey to another. Trying to follow him through Rome’s history is an epic journey with a few lessons about liminal events, transitions and doorways.

Janus’ ubiquity belies attempts to lock him in his shrine. In understanding that Janus can’t be trapped by closing a door, another practical truth of “twin” doors emerges: one cannot open a door in one direction, whilst closing it in the other. One cannot win a triumph without death,  find peace without conflict, or embrace the future without accepting the past. Shutting the front door prevents movement in both directions, for those would enter and those who would leave. For some (the emperor Augustus) a closed door represented peace, for others (the poet Ovid) it represented a prison.

As a two headed deity, Janus makes the duality of existence seem natural and straightforward. In reality, it can be very difficult to stand still in a doorway, trying to examine the world with an awareness of bias (past and present). For those who only have one head, it is worth noting that the only time both perspectives can be seen simultaneously is when one is standing in the doorway; the precious moment before a decision is made. In this instant, all are invested with have the divine powers of Janus.

As we approach our own liminal ritual in the modern prophecies of Groundhog day, where Punxsutawney Phil prognosticates about an imminent future, perhaps one ought to make the most of this liminal period. Would anyone participate in dry January or Veganuary if he/she thought it would last a lifetime? Rather than feeling trapped in the doorway, perhaps one could use this moment to look back upon the past and contemplate the future. Embrace the moment in the doorway, while two options, two views points are still visible. If history has one lesson for us, it is that liminal moments are fleeting.