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), as the current president: 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.










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.





Puella Incognita: On Remembrance.

Remembering the past, in ancient and modern contexts, is crucial way in which society passes a legacy of knowledge and values from one generation to the next. Voices from the past continue to speak in monuments, in literature and in symbols, such as the Remembrance Day poppy. Inspired by the poem In Flanders Fields, written by a Canadian physician John McCrae who served in World War I, the poppy commemorates fallen soldiers, whose voices encourage the living to carry on of the fight “To you from falling hands we throw/ The torch; be yours to hold it high”. If this bond is broken, the voices cry, “We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields”.

The poem connects the importance of perseverance with the act of remembrance of the terrible sacrifices of battle; to remember is to carry the torch, the illumination of the past event, into the present and to guide our future.

Memorial Inscription to John McCrae in bronze his hometown in Guelph, Ontario.

Connections between the ancient and the more recent past are difficult and often discouraged by academics for a number of good reasons. There is, however, a danger in regarding the ancient past and its inhabitants as isolated and hallowed objects, to be displayed, labelled and approached as a distinct entity from the present. This way of approaching history can limit the fundamentally human connections and interactions that make history so poignant and illuminating.

Modern Monuments To Ancient History: Puella Incognita – Who’s That Girl? 

One beautiful illustration of our modern reverence for the past is the tomb of the unknown teenage girl, adjacent to the London office building affectionately known as “the Gherkin”. The bones of this young lady, unearthed during excavations in 1995, were kept at the Museum of London until 2007, when the monument was dedicated. She was given a proper burial procession, from a service at nearby St. Botolph’s (Aldgate) Church to the burial site, where a dedication and libations were made, accompanied by music. The event provided a unique opportunity for a modern audience to step into history, connecting with the differences and similarities between ancient and modern burial practices. The grey stone tomb, which stands as a permanent memorial (and a welcome seat along the bustling Bury Street), is almost certainly more grand and prominent than her original burial monument would have been (although none was found).

Girl 1

But what do we know about this puella incognita (unknown girl)?

Carbon dating associated burial pottery suggests that she had been buried there since 350-400 AD, and studies of the bones indicate that she was 13-17 years old when she died. The orientation of the body in the original burial was in a supine position (with the head facing south) with her arms crossed over each other. Apart from her gender, estimated lifetime, and location of burial, we know very little. Was she was a Roman, a native Briton, or from another part of the world? After all another Roman era tombstone found on Tower Hill RIB 9 belonged to a native of Athens.

Puella Incognita’s modern tombstone, inscribed in Latin and English with a characteristic laurel wreath decoration at the top, echoes with language that is recognizable in epitaphs across history. DIS MANIBUS “to the spirits of the dead” records the subject of the dedication (the Manes were deities of the underworld), followed by the name of the deceased PUELLA INCOGNITA LONDINIENSIS “the unknown girl from Londinium”, is a standard formula in ancient and modern funerary monuments. HIC SEPULTA EST “lies buried here”, is a bit more unusual, especially in Roman Britain (there are only 5 examples of this term in Roman Britain, none from London). I would have preferred HIC SITUS EST “here lies”, as there are 260 examples of this term in Roman Britain (a handful from London) and it has remained as a common term in burial monuments throughout history, providing a further point of connection with a modern audience.

Less frequently noted is the inscription painted in red on the top of the tomb, a quote from the neoclassical poet Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Images from the Arcadian Dream Garden, which combines references to ancient and more recent ruins (e.g. Panzer tanks). The text commemorates the connections between and ancient and modern worlds through a common experience of humanity: death and commemoration, monuments and remembrance.

As a whole, this memorial combines past and present voices in a cohesive and quite beautiful way. The dedication was a thoughtful gesture, which illustrates a poignant connection between past and present worlds in the heart of London. It reveals our best possible intentions towards ancient history: a retrospective memorial for an unknown teenage girl. Although we don’t know who she is, whether she was a good or bad person, we know that we should treat other people in a way that mirrors, if not exceeds, our own expectations. What we have created for an unknown girl is a testament not only to her but also to the value of a modern society: the continuity of culture, humanity, and respect for the departed.

Remembrance, and the monuments which embody it, are not universally seen in a positive light. Recent protests have called for the removal of monuments to confederate generals from the American Civil War. These monuments are not burials, but they are memorials; they represent a voice from the past, a moment in time. They commemorate not only the individual depicted but also those who considered that individual worthy of honour. To the protestors, the history which these memorials preserve and evoke is painful; the remembrance of slavery and the society which sought to preserve it.

As observed with our unknown girl, the dedication of a monument is not only an honour for an individual, but a statement on behalf of those carrying out the act of commemoration. Good or bad, these monuments are part of our history and, to many Americans, a national legacy. So what do we do with contentious monuments?

Roman Attitudes to Monuments and Commemoration

Rome and her Empire have left an unparalleled legacy of monuments, as well as some illuminating lessons about monumental culture. Romans were masters of re-inscribing history and reusing monuments. Without Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, Romans, like many successive generations, relied on public monuments and imagery to define and shape their recorded history and their collective sense of self.

Roman monuments had their share of socially awkward moments down the years. After the assassination of Julius Caesar in the theatre of Pompey in 44BC, Caesar’s supporters  found themselves in a difficult situation: one could not get rid of the massive monumental building or the statue of Pompey (Caesar’s rival) at whose feet Caesar is claimed to have fallen (Plutarch, Life of Caesar, 66). Instead, the later historian Cassius Dio (who has been known to “sex up a dossier”) claimed that Caesar’s successors (the Truimvirs: Octavian, Antony and Lepidus) turned the Curia room (the site of Caesar’s slaughter) into public latrines; the unhappy memory of that space being defiled by daily ordure (Cassius Dio, History 47.19). The emperor Augustus (formerly called Octavian)  later moved the statue of Pompey to the theatre stage, where it was associated with Pompey’s victory rather than Caesar’s downfall (Suetonius, Augustus, 31.5). While all historical sources have their limitations, many of these accounts appear to corroborate one other, especially Plutarch and Suetonius, who wrote a century after the event in question. Their descriptions of public buildings and monuments, which were still in use at the time of their writing, are likely to contain at least some element of truth.

Augustus, a political mastermind, was careful to be respectful of commemoration. After the defeat and death of Marc Antony, despite a Senate initiative to condemn him and his monuments (Plutarch, Antony, 49, Dio, History 15.19), Augustus demanded that Antony’s name be reinscribed. According to his own account (Res Gestae), Augustus also ordered the restoration of over 80 buildings and monuments in Rome, retaining the name of the original dedicator rather than adding his name; amongst these was the temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus, one of Rome’s most sacred sites. These restorations reflected an outward show of respect for history (for more see S. Walker’s chapter in, Jon Coulston and Dodge Hazel (eds.), Ancient Rome – The Archaeology of the Eternal City (2000), 61-75 and A. Cooley’s chapter in Cooley (ed.) The Afterlife of Inscriptions (2000)).

Destroying a monument violated a number of Roman principles: it was a waste of resources, it drew attention to the individual being dishonoured, and showed a disrespect for fundamental Roman values: pietas (respect for ancestors) and clementia (forgiveness). Antony was not to be forgotten but remembered as a loser to a more glorious opponent (for more on Augustus, Antony, and damnatio memoriae, cf. a recent article by Nick Ackert).

This is not to say that the Romans left all their monuments unharmed. Suetonius (Domitian 23) describes how senators violently beat a statue of the condemned emperor Domitian in the Roman Forum. Suetonius is not an infallible source but, in this case, is corroborated by accounts of violent statue mutilation in Pliny, Panegyricus, 52.4-6.

Domitian’s name was hacked off of bases and building dedications across the Empire, not as a means of removing his memory but as a means of transforming the message of a monument: from “Domitian was a great man” to “Domitian was a bad man”. Recarved statues bear visible traces and their bases carried unsightly gashes where names had been removed (see below). This practice became known as damnatio memoriae – a posthumous condemnation of a person’s reputation by defacing their monuments. Crucially, damnatio memoriae involved the alteration but not the wholesale destruction of a monument. It conveyed a very public censure, a way of remembering (not forgetting) a fall from grace. Roman monumental culture seems to have recognised that destroying a monument also destroyed an opportunity for subsequent generations to learn from the past. Their progression as a society could only be appreciated by comparison with the past, glories and failure alike.

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(Above left) The recarved face of Domitian as his successor Nerva, looks like a gimlet eyed man with a wig (from the Cancelleria Reliefs in Rome).(Above right). Reinscribed base from Ephesos, note the deeply cut gashes in the stone, making recarving very difficult.

Approaching Modern Commemoration: What We Can Learn from the Romans

In light of past and present attitudes towards the Romans, consider what we can learn from them, particularly in our approach to contentious monuments. If memorials are destroyed wherever the individual concerned has flaws, or beliefs that are unacceptable by modern standards, then only monuments for puella incognita “unknown girl” or an unknown soldier, are guaranteed to stand the test of time. Whatever the merits of the Confederate cause in the Civil War, and the subsequent decision to erect a monument commemorating a general who fought for it, the removal of such a monument is a step towards erasing a memory, which would in turn preclude learning from it. If we use monuments, as the Romans did, as a barometer or our progress as a culture, how will modern society be able to gauge its development from racial, religious and sexual intolerance? These are lessons worth learning, these are events worth remembering.
Statue of Robert E Lee in Charlottesville, NC. Commissioned in 1917, dedicated in 1924.

Reinscribing history by relocating monuments, adding additional figures, or writing a postscript, are all options that worked for the Romans, and they have been applied in modern culture with success. For example, monumental statues from the Communist regime in Hungary have been moved to a special park outside Budapest, appropriately named “Memento Park”.   Here public artworks and monuments of the past live on, but in a different context outside the main civic spaces of the modern city.


Reinscribing monuments with postscripts is another a successful way to alter the monumental message. In Santa Fe, New Mexico, a monument commemorating those fallen in the US army’s campaign against Native American tribes in 1868 was altered in 1970; offensive terminology (“savage”, “rebel”) was removed from the original marble plaque and postscript was added. This monument illustrates how additions can transform the message of a monument, in a manner that is respectful to the original context whilst demonstrating how society has progressed.

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One final example is a contentious statue, from a similar time (1880’s), on the facade of the Natural History Museum in Vienna. Allegorical figures represent the continents (or perhaps the races) of the world. Europe is represented by two figures carved in the Classical tradition, a male youth and a seated woman bearing a resemblance to the (contemporary) Statue of Liberty. Another statue features figures representing America and Australia; the seated figure of a mostly naked Native American embodies the concept of the “noble savage” whilst a semi-nude aboriginal woman clutching a child sits at his feet, her face contorted in an unhandsome grimace.

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Statues from outside the Natural History Museum in Vienna

This latter statue invokes a visceral response but, rather than get my chisel out, I went inside the museum, and learned about the context in which it was built. The imperial imagery it employs is not so different from the Albert Memorial in Kensington Gardens, London (1872). These contentious figures weave a narrative of Empire, dominance and superiority that is as illuminating as it is uncomfortable for a modern audience. They reveal how differently people viewed the world and globalization in the past.

There are no protesters in Vienna, presumably because these statues are not directly in the faces of the individuals they characterize. But would it be so terrible if they were? An encounter with the attitudes of the past will in many cases be a confrontation, but through this dispute we can develop a deeper understanding of both the attitudes of that time and the fundamental social changes that have taken place since. Should we destroy these statues or should we accept monuments for what they are; crucial records of events and voices in history?

The next generation is not only looking at history, their gaze is fixed keenly on the present: how will the current generation treat its heritage? Rather than trying to remove what is considered a negative historical message, why not embrace it and add a voice to it? Don’t erase history: reinscribe it. Create a positive message. Add to the narrative with a text or statues of the people whose roles and sacrifices should have been recorded. Another solution could be to move contentious statues to different locations, where they could be visited as a collective. As the Romans demonstrated, preserving the past was an essential part of learning from it.

The architect of Memento Park, Ákos Eleőd, observed: “Dictatorships chip away at and plaster over their past in order to get rid of all memories of previous ages. Democracy is the only regime that is prepared to accept that our past with all the dead ends is still ours; we should get to know it, analyse it, and think about it!”

As in John McCrae’s poem, remembrance is holding the torch high and illuminating the past. Whether or not we like what we see, this approach brings the greatest benefit to those who will follow.






Writing on the Wall at Pompeii: Gluttony & Media Sensationalism



Writing on the Wall at Pompeii: Gluttony & Media Sensationalism.

A new message flashes across the screen “Pompeii graffiti changes historical narrative… may rewrite time line of Vesuvius eruption”. How exciting. In ancient and modern worlds alike, isn’t it delicious when people have to admit that they are wrong? This gripping intro is designed to attract attention and the date of the inscription is the same day the story breaks; is that merely a coincidence? The coverage of this event is a good example of how information can be distorted by the media and the sources: this does not make the discovery less valid, but it can detract from the way the information is presented and understood by a broader audience. Perhaps the most important role ancient history can play in a modern world (apart from learning through past mistakes) is the development of a critical thinking process. The difficulty of sorting truth from assumption is a problem endemic in the human experience, and never more so, than in the present day, where we are constantly bombarded with information on social media, rife with claims of “fake news” propaganda, exaggeration, and  blatant political bias. Now may be the most important time in the history of humanity to develop and employ a critical approach to the information that arrives on our screens from so many different sources and places, regardless of what side the political aisle you stand on.

In studying History, there is a good reason why academics can be “hedgy” about setting dates or making definitive statements: proposed dates have been proven wrong many times and the more certain a person is about an event, the more likely he/she is to dismiss contradictory theories, no matter how compelling they may be. This approach is captured in the famous quote attributed by Plato to the Greek philosopher Socrates: “All I know is that I know nothing.” I’ve never been happy with this translation because the sentiment it conveys is not a lack of knowledge but a knowledge of what is unknown and/or unproven. Socrates appears to have understood what modern neuroscientists have proven: once the brain accepts something as truth, it tends to dismiss any information that contradicts this truth. Surely it’s better, Socrates is saying, to reject the concept of an incontrovertible truth altogether, than to close our minds to new evidence and arguments.  The aim of this blog to illustrate how materials from the ancient world transform our understanding of ancient and modern culture. Discussions will not provide “answers” but will explore how we approach sources, ancient and modern, in social media.

So back to the exciting new find from Pompeii: the story of the find comes Massimo Osanna and Antonio Varonne associated with the Parco Archeologico in Pompeii in an Instagram post. While they are a verifiable source, they also have an agenda, increased public interaction with the site and its objects provide crucial opportunities for funding and media exposure, both of which the site needs. The pictures show a text, sometimes a translation, but more often, the news covers the date in implications of the debate: October 17th and often a year (79 AD:  although the year is not in the text). The image of Roman handwriting in the photo, which presents challenges to classically trained scholars, promotes the image of writing but prevents a detailed interaction: the text, it seems, is secondary to the date. In a “Socratic” approach (acknowledging what we don’t know), there are significant exclusions: what did the text say? How visible was the writing? Where it was on the wall? How big it was it (letters are generally less than 1cm high)? Where in the house was it? These omissions fundamentally distort both the text and how we approach it. The force of nearly all the articles is not the text but a sensational possibility: the modern consensus date for Vesuvius’ eruption might be wrong.

The contentious date aside, the text is actually quite interesting. My favourite translation is part of    Prof. Peter Kruschwitz’ s blog entry (itself a thoughtful and critical assessment), which offers a number of nuances: not assuming the author of the text is male, and using a word like hunger, which may not refer to food (based on the number of graffiti in Pompeii which refer to a different kind of corporal craving).

XVI (ante) K(alendas) Nov(embres) in[d]ulsit 
pro masumis esurit(ioni).

On the 16th day before the Kalends of November [i. e. on October 17th] s/he gave free rein to her/his hunger to the max.

Crucial to understanding graffiti is the knowing context in which it was written. Not knowing if this room was close to a kitchen or a bedroom, could fundamentally alter how it was read, in both ancient and modern contexts. Someone had a very good time on the 17th of October in room in Pompeii, that he/she thought worth inscribing for posterity; surely this itself is an interesting item of news, but probably not enough to go “viral” in social media. A reading of the text also raises questions about whether this is written by a builder, rather than a person who was living, visiting the house. We don’t know who wrote this, but having the full text can at least help us understand why and in what context, it may have been written.

Coming back to the focal point of the publications, the accuracy of the eruption date, there were numerous responses by different scholars, from intellectual heavyweights like Mary Beard, who initially dismissed the two month differential as insubstantial (to be fair, this is likely to reflect not only a quelling dismissal of the claim, but also of the way the sensational way in which the find had been published) to a compelling piece in Forbes by    Dr. Kristina Kilgrove, a bio archaeologist, on how the chronology impacts the study of archaeological remains. Dr. Kristina Kilgrove

Different people have different perspectives on this evidence, and not one of them is necessarily wrong, but as modern archaeologists and historians come to a crossroads, one witnesses and a key issue in the disciplines of History and Anthropology: the approach to material evidence. Quite often, inscriptions and archaeological evidence, which come directly from antiquity, are interpreted as being more factual than literary accounts, which can be affected by the manuscript tradition. In ancient or modern contexts, are accounts written directly at a time more factual? Based on modern media sources, the response seems to be: not necessarily.


Fruits of Discord? Carbonised pomegranates from Oplontis

To assess the date for eruption of Vesuvius, which is not a new subject of debate, one needs to look at both types of sources carefully, considering both their strengths and their limitations. For the archaeological evidence, we have a date that has been written in charcoal. What are the practical implications? While it is not a permanent medium, there is not necessarily a reason to assume it could not survive for 10 months on a wall, especially if it were low to the ground and not clearly in view. Modern pencils may fade, but without external weathering elements, they remain visible for years. There is also the possibility that it was written later: dead bodies were found above the eruption layer in the House of Menander at Pompeii, it appears that looters had tunnelled in for treasure when the roof caved in. Bad luck. There have also been questions of authenticity, but this is hardly something that a broader audience can be expected to assess critically.

Other material evidence, such as pomegranates, are more likely to fit a date in October. However, with a harvest season that begins in September, the prospect of a ripe pomegranate a week before (August 24th) is not exactly earth shattering, especially given the climatological events the preceded the eruption, such as the drying up wells and minor earthquakes, all of which could have impacted the harvest date by a week or two. Finally, the question of extra clothing, this may be the most interesting point, as anyone who was ever been to Italy in August would understand, layers are not necessary. However, in the context of a volcanic eruption, when the ash covers the sun and there is falling ash, hot cinders and pumice, layers do not seem so unusual, as they would have offered a level of protection from the elements.


How do we know what it was like during the eruption of Vesuvius? Because Pliny the Younger (ca. AD 61-113) wrote about it, recording the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), who died bravely taking a ship in the Bay of Naples to save his friends. Quite unusually (e.g. Livy writes of the founding of Rome 700 years after it happened), Pliny the Younger’s account of the eruption is a direct report by someone who observed it and interviewed survivors. He wrote about the event 25 years later in a letter to the Historian Tacitus, one of the most respected and exacting historians in the Roman World (the kind of person for whom one would be sure to get the date correct!) Catastrophic events, particularly those where a family member dies, tend to be remembered correctly, especially when they impact an entire nation. So, despite having a rare first hand account of an event, issued to a famous historian in a published letter (which would probably have also been edited and checked for accuracy before publication), should we overlook this source because of a problematic manuscript tradition (sneezing monks and all that)?

While manuscripts do often impose limitations with large chronological gaps, the manuscript for Pliny’s letters (the Pierpont Morgan text) has been dated to the 6th c. AD, which is quite early for an original manuscript (ca. 450 years from the original text) and studies of its framework have lauded its accuracy and possible resemblance to the original manuscript. While scholars can observe a “butterfly effect” of mistakes in manuscripts where a small error is compounded in future editions, the suggestion that a potentially bawdy scrawl on a wall in Pompeii, a pomegranate and some extra layers of clothing are grounds for reversing the Pliny’s literary account, seem equally fluttery. It does not help that many modern news articles on the graffiti simply refer to “Pliny”, not setting out which Pliny (the younger) or the source (his letters).

The new find is certainly a basis for further enquiry and for keeping an open mind about dates for historic events in general. Pondering the evidence on the way to lecture on October 17th, I slipped on a patch of wet leaves. Inspired by Dr. Kilgrove’s account of how biological information can impact a survey, it struck me that there is a fundamental biological difference between August 25th and October 17th: leaves. It may not have been a “eureka” moment where I conceived the idea for the flux capacitor, but it did cause me to pose one question (which may be incredibly facile and naïve). If the eruption took place in the third week of October, would one expect to find clusters of leaves on the ground, with corporal remains or even as impressions?

The question of when Vesuvius erupted cannot be proved conclusively with the evidence we have, and alas, this conclusion is not nearly as exciting a story. However, the process involved in critically assessing and questioning the information we are given, as well as the motivations of its source, are crucial to understanding all news reports, ancient and modern. This is why studying ancient history is as important as studying politics or biology. From agendas of reporters to the interests of bio-archaeologists in this study, one should be able to observe how innately connected these fields are within the human experience.

The promotion of this graffiti find is not “fake news” but in terms of revealing the nature of the object, where it was found, or the complexities of the debate, these reports show more interest in sensationalising evidence than in providing an informed report of the find. Promoting an international debate and news reports are a positive result for the team at Pompeii, whose name and find has gone “viral” overnight. As long as readers are aware of these parameters, particularly, how agenda and approach can impact interpretation of evidence, then we are less likely make assumptions about the information we are given. The key to finding the answer, as Socrates suggests,  lies in admitting both what we know and what we don’t.