Thursday, June 24, 2004

King Arthur -- Artorius or Ambrosius

The new “King Arthur” movie coming out on July 7 looks more and more exciting – if somewhat creative with historical accuracy. I watched the History Channel’s presentation “The Quest for King Arthur” last week and it does sort of raise some questions. The movie site refers to Artorius but according to the History Channel presentation, Artorius’ men manned Hadrian’s Wall in the second century C.E. not the fifth century C.E. The program pointed to another “last of the Romans”, Ambrosius Aurelianus consistent with this excellent article by Sheila Brynjulfson on the Vortigen Studies website.

"... civil strife erupted as competition for power among rival warlords began:

Kings were anointed not by God, but who should stand out more cruel than the rest, and after a little were murdered by the anointers . .

One, in later accounts called Vortigern, emerged supreme.

Britain's "old enemies," the Picts and the Scots, who had been checked for a time, suddenly launched another fierce attack. Then came the plague. The manpower shortage which gave priority to fighting the Picts left the dead unburied. The invasion threatened to overwhelm them; Vortigern was forced to hire assistance. Gildas told how "the proud tyrant" enlisted the Saxon mercenary forces of two Saxon brothers against the northern raiders:

A council was convened, to decide upon the best and soundest means of withstanding the frequent brutal invasions and raids of the aforesaid peoples. All the members of the council, and the proud tyrant, were struck blind . . .. To hold back the northern peoples, they introduced into the island the vile unspeakable Saxons, hated of God and man alike.

In return for their services, Vortigern gave the Saxons the island of Thanet and goods to support their settlements. Later, reinforcements were imported. The alliance held until the Saxons increased their demand for supplies. When Vortigern would not pay, the Saxons mutinied. They stormed the island, burning towns and cities. Many Britons died; others fled across the Channel to Brittany or were enslaved. Another group retreated to the mountains and dense forests; among these survivors was Ambrosius Aurelianus.

A descendant of a Roman family, Ambrosius organized a coalition of former supporters of the Empire to resist the Saxons."

Maybe the filmmakers wanted the audience to have a hero with a name more similar to Arthur so they chose to use the name of the earlier commander rather than the later one.

See also: King Arthur the Movie

The Quest for King Arthur

Men and Gods in the Rome of the Caesars

"Glory belongs to Greece, while mightiness belongs to Rome -- the ancient saying reflects the overwhelming position of power that ancient Rome once held in the Western world.

Now, that ancient period comes alive again in Men and Gods in the Rome of the Caesars, an exhibition featuring close to 390 cultural relics, ranging from sculptures, goldware to coins, all on loan from six major museums and archeological institutes in Tuscany, Italy.

"The exhibit is one of the museum's biggest shows this year,'' says museum director Chen Xiejun. "Looking at the masterpieces created by the ancient Romans, you can almost hear the noises from the battlefields, the hurly-burly from the markets, whispers from rural households and ritual music from the royal palace.''

Stepping into the exhibition hall, visitors will immediately be drawn by a series of large marble statues. Young or old, man or woman, citizen or noble, all the statues were carved with an extraordinary expertise, creating vivid representations. Portraits were the most unique feature of Roman fine arts, and were used to celebrate the eminent figures of Roman society or as funerary memorials."

The exhibit will move on to the Seoul Museum of History in September.


Friday, June 18, 2004

Transmitting our historical legacy

Shakespeare's play "Julius Caesar" is presently being performed in Kansas City and their theater critic, Robert Trussell, made some interesting observations about the importance of Shakespeare’s play in transmitting knowledge of the Roman Empire to successive generations:

"Funny thing about Americans. We may not know jack about history, but we've all heard of Julius Caesar.

He has impressed himself on us in movies, plays, comic books, children's literature and endless number of biographies. Photographs of his marble bust have been published around the world.

He has been played by famous actors on stage, in movies and on television. The self-mythologizing would-be ruler of Rome is as famous a name as Nero and Caligula, younger relatives who ruled Rome after Julius slept soundly with the fishes.

But this might not have been the case had a handful of ancient writings, particularly Plutarch's parallel lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans, failed to survive. Or if Sir Thomas North had not translated Plutarch into English. Or if somehow Willie Shakespeare had not gotten around to reading North's translation. Because, friends, whether we're talking about big fat movies or long tedious miniseries or scholarly novels or simplified histories or comic strips, most of what we think we know about the Roman Republic comes from Plutarch through Shakespeare."

He also mentions his first exposure to Shakespeare’s play was in the form of a parody by comedian Brother Dave Gardner:

"On his RCA album Rejoice, Dear Hearts, he delivered his own warped impression of Joseph L. Mankiewicz's 1953 film version of Shakespeare's play with John Gielgud, Marlon Brando and James Mason.

"This is the true story of Julius Caesar if it were presented by the Down Home Players," Brother Dave enunciated in his unique Southern patois. "Now the mighty Caesar have returned from a quail-huntin' trip down in South Carolina and on his arm is Mark Antony...and Mark Antony speaks to the might' Caesar in his fluent Roman Italian voice and he say, 'Hey, Julius.' "

In 15 minutes of verbal gags and trippy digressions Brother Dave offered a fairly accurate summary of the first part of the play, paraphrasing Shakespeare at will.

"Let me have me them fat sleek-headed cats that sleeps all the time and eats all the time and don't never think about nothin'," Brother Dave's Caesar tells Antony, later expressing his distrust of Cassius: "He nibbles them No-Doze and drinkin' that Air Wick and sits in that little house away from the house and meditates. Oh, he thinks too much. He 'bout half-smart."

I guess if a work is skewed this much and still instigates an interest in the real history, we shouldn’t be too critical of Hollywood’s recent efforts!

- Libitina

Wealth and the afterlife in the Classical World

I was reading yet another discussion on the latest Troy film where archaeologists point out that coins were not placed on the eyes of the dead at that time because coins were not invented for another 500 years. I, too, had read that many academicians credit King Ardys of Lydia with minting the first coins in the 7th century B.C.E. and King Croesus with standardizing government-issued coinage However, I found this website about the history of coinage that states the first metallic coins, made of bronze and shaped like cattle, date back to approximately 2000-1800 B.C.E.

"The first metallic money dates back to approximately 2000-1800 BC and was made of bronze. These bronze pieces which traded based on weight, were often formed into the shape of cattle, which again were used prior to the general acceptance of metals as a valuable commodity. The primary reason behind the origins of coinage is a matter open for debate. One school of thought is that the first coins were struck for religious reasons.
Another suggests that they were made solely in order to help facilitate trade. Still another theory promotes the idea that man began making coins strictly for accounting and administrative reasons."

Original criticism also got me to thinking about changes in Greek religion from the time of the Trojan War to the classical period. At what point was the payment of the ferryman across the River Styx introduced? Was this introduction into Greek religion an effort by the wealthy to ensure that they did not have to mingle with the abject poor in the afterlife?

Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Turning Pages and the power of illustration

Turning the Pages: Peter Williams, a fellow blogger who, as a member of the Association of Roman Archaeology, also produces a web log on the topic, recently mentioned a fascinating new project by the British Library called Turning Pages.

"Turning the Pages is the award-winning interactive program that allows museums and libraries to give members of the public access to precious books while keeping the originals safely under glass. Initially developed by and for the British Library, it is now available as a service for institutions and private collectors around the world.

Turning the Pages allows visitors to virtually 'turn' the pages of manuscripts in a realistic way, using touch-screen technology and interactive animation. They can zoom in on the high- quality digitised images and read or listen to notes explaining the beauty and significance of each page. There are other features specific to the individual manuscripts. In a Leonardo da Vinci notebook, for example, a button turns the text round so visitors can read his famous 'mirror' handwriting."

I particularly enjoyed the detailed depictions of medieval life in the LUTTRELL PSALTER and the beautifully illustrated 14th century Hebrew manuscript, GOLDEN HAGGADAH.

The other day a friend and I were discussing the distressing trend of sparse illustration, especially in academic texts, and pondered whether this a result of simple economics or a growing cultural concern with "appropriate" images and various censorship movements.

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Waters of the City of Rome

Waters of the City of Rome: "During the Age of the Kings (ca. 625 - 509BC), the landscape was dramatically transformed by the construction of a large drain called the Cloaca Maxima. This drain collected the waters from the living stream, refered to as the Forum Brook, which flowed into the valley between the Palatine, Quirinal, and Capitoline Hills, thus drying out the seasonally marshy area that was later occupied by the Forum Romanum. 'Living water', that is the water flowing from a natural spring, was considered sacred and was not included within the newly constructed protective walls that surrounded the plateau of the Palatine hill. Another drain, the Cloaca Circus Maximus, was constructed during the 'Age of the Kings' in order to drain the area to the south of the Palatine where games were held. The first bridge across the Tiber River, the Pons Sublicius, was constructed during this period."