Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Roman Funerary Sculpture Featured in New Exhibit

"A new exhibit at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo features Roman funerary sculpture gleaned from the collection of the Vatican Museum. The tradition of funerary portraiture grew out of elite practices during the years predating Augustus' epochal Pax Romana, the era of (relative) peace brought about by Roman domination of the Mediterranean region. In those early years -- the literary heyday of Rome (the first century B.C. produced Virgil, Horace, Ovid and Livy) -- wax portraits known as imagines would be paraded in the funeral processions of the upper classes. These would then be displayed, perhaps alongside portraits or busts in bronze, marble or terracotta, in the lararium (household shrine), not unlike the way photographs of ancestors are displayed to this day on the butsudan (family altar) in many Japanese homes.

Roman funerary monuments from the third century and fourth century A.D. show declining levels of artistic skill.

One of the most powerful pieces here is the head of a terracotta votive statue dating from the first quarter of the first century A.D.; the face is aquiline and patrician, seeming to anticipate the so-called hieratic style of later centuries. Or, rather, hieratic representation, which evolved in the third century, was a conscious effort to recapture the stylistic purity of such early Roman sculpture, after two centuries of cheerfully expressive but unrefined representation -- as exemplified by those tradesmen's funerary friezes. "

Tuesday, March 30, 2004

The Mithraic Mysteries

"Closed for six years, the planetarium at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum has reopened with a show on the skies of 2020 B.C., the cusp of a celestial shift that spawned one of the major competitors of early Christianity.

The star show "The Mithraic Mysteries'' explores a secretive ancient religion that has been a particular enigma for archaeologists and historians. It takes viewers through the steps that led a San Francisco scholar of ancient religions to theorize that changes in the night sky formed the basis for Mithraism, practiced throughout the Roman Empire in the first centuries A.D.

The reinauguration of the planetarium at the popular San Jose tourist attraction -- with its Egyptian revival buildings and gardens and mummy- and artifact-filled museum -- is the first of many renovations this year at the 77-year-old Rosicrucian Park complex. Planned renovations include an authentic 18th-dynasty Egyptian Peace Park that will have a small temple, viewing dais, sycamore fig, grape arbor and dhoum palms surrounding a reflecting pond."

Monday, March 22, 2004

Byzantium: Faith and Power Exhibit Opens at the Met

"A landmark exhibition featuring three centuries of Byzantine culture opens tomorrow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Seven years of research, negotiations, and collaboration have brought together 377 artifacts from 27 countries -- among them Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro, Romania, Macedonia, Egypt, Greece, and Turkey. Many of the masterpieces are borrowed from churches and monasteries, and have never been exhibited before.

'Byzantium: Faith and Power' exhibit covers the period when Constantinople resumed its role as a cultural and political center of the Eastern Roman Empire until 1557. "

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

Winged sandals

"If multi-media mythology sounds appealing, simply strap on a pair of Winged Sandals. As those who still remember their Greek mythology will know, the site's title refers to the unique footwear of Hermes, messenger of the gods (and more recently, upscale clothing and accessories retailer). The artist's interpretation of the immortal emissary, and the messenger's 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' voice make it clear at the outset that this is a site primarily designed to introduce children to its subject matter. (The target age is 6-12 years old.) But while the information is appropriately rudimentary, interested adults can still get a quick refresher course, and won't be bored while supervising their children's visits. (The Australian Broadcasting Corporation production won best e-learning site and best in show at the annual Australian Interactive Media Association awards in February.)

Of the site's various sections, Storytime is the most engaging, as it recounts legends that include Perseus' battle with the Medusa, and Orpheus' journey into the underworld to rescue his beloved Eurydice. Each story includes a 'cast list,' which links to specific biographies on each character, including a few lines of text, keyword list (mortal/immortal, female/male, etc.), a family tree, and -perhaps one of the most useful features at the site- the ability to hear the proper pronunciation of each character's name. (Someone who has never been properly introduced to Eurydice or Antigone might make reasonable but wildly incorrect assumptions about inflections -yuri-dice? anti gone?- and find themselves banned from Mount Olympus' better parties.)"

Winged Sandals can be found at

Thursday, March 11, 2004

Appius Claudius Caecus and the letter Z

"The Latin alphabet derived from the Etruscan, which was adopted from the Greek of colonists who had settled at Cumae in Campania. An indication of this borrowing is that the sound of k was conveyed by three different letters: gamma (G) before e and i, kappa (K) before a, and koppa (Q) before u. (Indeed, that is their names: ce, ka, qu). In Latin, kappa soon became redundant, except in the archaic spelling of such words as Kalendae (the first day of the Roman month), and was dropped from the alphabet. And Q was restricted to cases in which it preceded u. Principally, it was gamma, the third letter in the Greek alphabet and represented by the letter C in Latin, that conveyed the sound of k.

But C also had the sound of g and, since gamma already represented k, a new letter was added to distinguish between these two values. Plutarch (Quaestiones Romanae, 54, 59) attributes its introduction (in the third century BC) to Spurius Carvilius Ruga, a freedman whose grammar school was the first to charge a fee (he also was the first Roman to divorce his wife). The letter continued to represent the sound of k but, by adding a stroke to C, Carvilius created the letter G to denote that sound. Its older value survived, however, in the abbreviations for Gaius (C.) and Gnaeus (Cn.). The seventh letter in the Latin alphabet, G took the position originally held by Z (zeta), which had no equivalent value in Latin and was discarded.

The introduction of the new letter also has been attributed to Appius Claudius Caecus, Roman censor in 312 BC. According to Martianus Capella (De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, III.261), 'Z was abhorrent to Appius Claudius, because it resembles in its expression the teeth of a corpse,' that is, in sounding the letter the lips pulled over the teeth looked much as they would in the rigor of death. More prosaically, the loss of Z may have been due to rhotacism, in which the s sound it represented was transferred to r (for example, Fusius becoming Furius), a replacement that consequently made the letter unnecessary."

Augustus' Program of Cultural Renewal

By Paul Zanker

"At the same time as his 'restoration of the Republic' and the creation of his new political style, Augustus also set in motion a program to 'heal' Roman society. The principal themes were renewal of religion and custom, virtus, and the honor of the Roman people. Never before had a new ruler implemented such a far-reaching cultural program, so effectively embodied in visual imagery; and it has seldom happened since. A completely new pictorial vocabulary was created in the course of the next twenty years. This meant a change not only in political imagery in the narrow sense, but in the whole outward appearance of the city of Rome, in interior decoration and furniture, even in clothing. It is astonishing how every kind of visual communication came to reflect the new order, how every theme and slogan became interwoven. Again, however, there was no master plan outlining some sort of a propaganda campaign for the revival of Rome. As in the development of imagery after Actium, much happened as if of its own accord, once the princeps had shown the way and taken the first steps.

Augustus did not need to formulate a new program himself; it had already been done for him. For generations the ills of state and society had been proclaimed, described, and lamented as incurable evils. The surprising thing, for many people virtually a miracle, was that the new ruler actually took the lament seriously and decided to do something about it. He was utterly irrepressible as he set about addressing, in terms of concrete policies, all the problems that he had himself decried back in the 30s B.C., immediately creating the foundation on which he would build his programs. In the next sections we shall observe the remarkable confidence--one might almost say naivete--with which he went about building on that framework, step by step, going through the whole catalog of ills left over from the Late Republic, until in 17 B.C. he could sail the rebuilt ship of state into a safe harbor called the Golden Age.

It started with the program of religious revival in 29 B.C. There followed efforts toward publica magnificentia and the restoration of Roman virtus in the Parthian campaign of 20 B.C. Two years later, in 18, with the Romans’ confidence in their ability to rule an empire now bolstered, a legally imposed moral renewal was required. This completed the internal overhaul of Rome, and nothing now stood in the way of the new Golden Age. Nothing could be simpler!

At first, of course, each of these points in the Augustan program amounted to little more than one of the old slogans. They were statements of intention, which then had to be realized in action and in architecture and the visual arts. The princeps would need the help and cooperation of many. Since no written source gives us a picture of how the complex machinery of this cultural program actually worked, we must try to infer from the results themselves an idea of the collaboration and the mutual influence on one another of princeps, political cronies, creative poets, architects, and artistic ateliers."

The McMasters Trajan Project

"From the earliest days of the city, the hub of Roman business, politics, and ceremony had been the Forum Romanum. Located at the base of the Palatine hill just south of the capital, the Forum Romanum was embellished over the years with temples, places of meeting and business, and various honours to famous citizens. Here, politicians debated, citizens met, talked, and voted, priests made sacrifices, and triumphant generals rode through on their way to the Capitol. On special occasions, gladiators even fought to the death while spectators looked on from temporary wooden stands. By the time of Caesar, however, the old forum was no longer large enough to handle all the business which needed to be transacted. Some of these activities were moved elsewhere: for example, new facilities for voting were constructed on the Campus Martius, removing a major political function of the old Forum. The other approach to this problem of space was to construct supplementary venues nearby. Caesar, Augustus, and Nerva each built new fora to the north east of the old Forum, but still linked to it and to each other by doors and passageways. Domitian is said to have started construction on a fourth imperial forum, but work on this ceased at his death. Thus, it was left to Trajan to fill the need for yet more forum space. Trajan did more, however, than simply provide more space for the public business of Rome; he constructed at the same time a monument to himself and to the glory of the Empire.

The two main elements of the new Forum of Trajan were an open piazza and a basilica, and both were astonishingly large. The entire Forum of Nerva would have fit within the basilica, and the piazza, its open area alone measuring more than 80m in width and 120m in length, was large enough to hold almost the entire Forum of Augustus. This piazza, the heart of the Forum, was paved with imported marbles and surrounded by a colonnade. Atop this colonnade were inscriptions stating that the whole complex had been built using the spoils of war taken by the emperor. One of the functions of this massive open space was to provide a setting for public business and ceremony. For example, the successor of Trajan, Hadrian, performed in it a great ceremony of burning debt records. Later, during a time of dire military need, the emperor Marcus Aurelius used it as a venue for a great auction of the imperial possessions. Another function was to provide a display area in which to exhibit honours to great Romans. Naturally, the greatest honour went to Trajan himself, who was immortalised by a great equestrian statue, cast in bronze, gilded, and placed atop a pedestal in the centre of the piazza. The size of this statue was so great that it defied replication by any later rulers. When the emperor Constantius visited the Forum of Trajan in the 4th century, he declared somewhat rashly that he would order a copy of this horse to be made. One of his companions, a Persian prince named Ormisda, replied wittily that first the emperor should build a new stable, if he could, so that the proposed new steed might roam as freely as the one they saw before them. The base of this statue has recently been discovered in the centre of the Forum piazza, and its measurements give us an idea of the size of the horse which Constantius desired to copy: the horse and rider together (not including the base) may have been as much as 12 metres tall. By comparison, the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, which now stands on the Capitol, is only about one third as large.

Beyond the eastern end of the piazza was a multi-level market, in which spices and other luxuries were sold. The solid brickwork of this structure has proven so enduring that, except for the column, it is today the best preserved element of the forum complex. The north end of the piazza was dominated by the basilica. Its huge interior space (120m by 55m) was covered by a timber and tile roof supported on a forest of massive columns, and was enlarged by the provision of apses at each end. Its decoration was sumptuous. The walls and floor were clad in marble, and the roof was covered with bronze tiles thickly gilded. This sheltered yet extremely imposing space would have provided a suitable setting for public business, especially important trials. The dual apses, unusual for a Roman basilica, may have been added to double the space available for such affairs.

When finally sated with the sights of the grand piazza, exhausted by the bustle of the market, and overwhelmed by the fervent pleading of the advocates in the basilica, a visitor could exit the north side of the basilica and enter a much different environment. Walking out through the last row of imposing columns, our visitor would emerge into a small courtyard on the other side of the basilica. This courtyard was flanked to the west and east by two libraries, one for Latin and one for Greek texts. It is not certain what lay to the north. A temple to the divine Trajan has been suggested, but no remains of such a building have been found in this area. However, a visitora's attention would be immediately drawn to the imposing monument which stood in the centre of the court: the column of Trajan."