Epigraphy Skills Workshop: Corbridge, June 2014

British Epigraphy Society

Practical Epigraphy Workshop


24-26 June 2014

The British Epigraphy Society will hold its sixth Practical Epigraphy Workshop this summer from 24 to 26 June at Corbridge, Northumberland. The workshop is aimed primarily at graduates wishing to develop hands-on skills in working with epigraphic material, though we also welcome applications from those at any stage in their career who would like to acquire a greater sensitivity to the gathering of epigraphic evidence. With expert tuition, participants will gain direct experience of the practical elements of how to record and study inscriptions. The programme will include the making of squeezes, photographing and measuring inscribed stones, and the production of transcriptions, translations and commentaries. Participants may choose to work on Latin or Greek texts, and the workshop will be open to those either with or without epigraphic training. The course fee will be £90 for this three-day event.

Please direct enquiries about the workshop to Peter Haarer: peter.haarer@classics.ox.ac.uk

Application Forms can be obtained from Maggy Sasanow: margaret.sasanow@classics.ox.ac.uk.


The Roman Gifts You Shouldn’t Give

As the holiday season dies down, we’re left with fond memories, aching stomachs, fading hangovers, and of course the debris of gifts given and received. But amid the toys, clothes, books and edibles, there are usually a few gifts we’d rather not have received – things not to our taste, novelty items, or tat churned out by gift shops the world over. Perhaps a relative thought we’d like it. Perhaps a cheeky friend knew we wouldn’t.

The tackiest gift? Queen bobble heads, in Niagara Fall's Souvenir City

The tackiest gift? Queen bobble heads, in Niagara Fall’s Souvenir City

The Romans also had a mid-winter celebration, Saturnalia, many of the habits of which are echoed in our Christmas festivities (unsurprisingly, since the Christian holiday arguably “took over” from Saturnalia when the Roman Empire gradually Christianized in the 4th and 5th C). Gift-giving in particular was a key part of the festival. Like us, the Romans gave clothes, toys, books and foodstuffs (fish sauce, anyone?), often sourcing luxury imported goods at great expense (the womb of a virgin pig?). But is there any evidence that the Romans, like us, got gifts they’d rather not have?

Gladiator helmet glass dropper-flask (3rd C AD, Cologne), in the British Museum.

The archaeological record certainly preserves objects that seem temptingly close to novelty items. This perfume bottle is designed in the shape of a gladiator’s helmet. In a world where gladiators were both celebrities and sex symbols, it’s hard not to see it as the Roman equivalent of a One Direction duvet cover. The famously tacky character Trimalchio in Petronius’ Satyricon remarks at his dinner party that “I’ve got the fights of Hermeros and Petraites on a series of cups all of massive metal (Satyricon 52).” The Roman world did kitschy just as well as us.

Moreover, a shipment of crates which arrived in Pompeii on the eve of the infamous 79AD eruption hints at mass-produced gifts. It contained 76 pottery bowls from Southern Gaul (modern France) and 37 lamps from Northern Italy. There’s no shop connected to the find site, so the shipment doesn’t seem to have been for resale. Scholars have suggested instead that this is a box of gifts, to be split up and distributed. It arrived in late August/early September, near the end of the shipping season. We might complain about shops preparing for Christmas in November, but spare a thought for the Romans, who had to do their Christmas shopping even earlier. 

It’s harder for us to know whether these gifts would have been welcomed. But there are hints in Roman writings that gifts were sometimes neither appropriate or appreciated. The poet Martial (second half of the 1st C AD) dedicated a whole book of epigrams to messages for gift tags. And as we’d expect from a tongue as ascerbic as Martial’s, these sentiments sometimes have a sting attached. When giving a leek, write, “Whenever you have eaten strong-smelling shreds of the Tarentine leek, give kisses with your mouth shut (Epigram 18).” Similarly, the Roman biographer-cum-historian Suetonius notes of the first emperor, Augustus, that:

“On the Saturnalia, and at any other time when he took it into his head, he would give gifts of clothing or gold and silver; again coins of every device, including old pieces of the kings and foreign money; another time nothing but hair cloth, sponges, pokers and tongs, and other such things under misleading names of double meaning.”

If the culture of Roman gift-giving was as fraught as our own, with pressure to buy imported gifts and a culture of double-edged presents, perhaps we can find new meaning in Virgil’s famous words, “I fear the Greeks, especially when they come bearing gifts.

Celebrity, Sexting, and Pliny the Younger

The media has been filled with stories recently about the unintentional consequences of people’s writing. A driver was convicted for knocking over  a cyclist only because her tweet about it brought her to the attention of the police. Careers services tell job hunters to assess their “online profiles”, worried that a compromising photo or an unwisely expressed opinion could be the difference between dream job and dreaming of a job. And Snapchat’s seeming reassurance of “private” sexting has got parents lying awake in fear. All this comes in a world where people are desperate to be famous. We live in a world where people want to be known and remembered, but cannot necessarily control for what.

It’s usually thought that things were very different in the ancient world. There was no instant messaging, no mass media and no printing – if you wanted a friend to read something you had to physically take it to them, or else have someone take it for you. If you wanted a copy of a book, you had to physically copy out its contents (or get a slave to do it for you).

But our concern with audience would have been familiar to many Romans. The late 1st/early 2nd century writer Plinius Secundus (who we now usually refer to as Pliny the Younger) seems as hungry for celebrity as any X-factor contestant. A letter of his to a friend, for example, records his pleasure at being recognised at a dinner party a long way from Rome, and cites it as just reward for his labours (Letter 9.23). In another he envisages the wide audience his writings will have and the praise they will garner (Letter 7.17).

Pliny also seems desperate to be remembered. He had given a lot of speeches as a lawyer, the records of which he hoped would secure his legacy. This Plinian “tweet” (Letter 7.20, to his friend Tacitus, the acclaimed historian of the day) for example seems to make clear his craving for fame.

Pliny carefully collected and edited his private letters into nine books of letters that he intended for publication. But there is a tenth book containing (often fawning) letters between Pliny and his boss, the emperor Trajan, from a period towards the end of his life when Pliny served as governor of the Roman province of Bithynia-Pontus (in Asia Minor). Many scholars in the past thought Pliny didn’t intend the general public to read these letters. They therefore seemed to offer secret glimpses into aspects of Pliny’s personality that he would have preferred to have remained in confidence. But more recently, it has been suggested that perhaps Pliny also intended this tenth book to be published as well. In which case, perhaps we’re better off looking at them as deliberately “leaked” documents. In the ancient world as much as today, historians have to ask why we have access to a document. Who gave us access? And did they mean to?

Buried Romans

A 1st-2nd C Roman tomb discovered near Corinth

A 1st-2nd C Roman tomb discovered near Corinth

Over the last few weeks, there have been a number of exciting discoveries of Roman burial sites. Just the other day, news broke that roadwork in Corinth has unearthed a beautiful 1st-2nd century AD burial chamber. The chamber is so well preserved that the original paint jobs have survived in their striking original colours and designs, including a coffin painted to resemble bed-covers.

ChangingRomans also recently tweeted about the  exciting discovery of the site of a Roman naval battle, the first such find. That site has  extraordinary potential to transform our understanding of how Roman maritime warfare actually worked; already for example the ancient battering rams found suggest that these weapons were designed as much for defence as for attack. But the site of a battle is also of course an impromptu burial ground, where soldiers or sailors died in likely large numbers.

Roman child's coffin, 4th-5th C, Tamworth

Roman child’s coffin, 4th-5th C, Tamworth

At another very recently unearthed site at Tamworth in Warwickshire here in Britain, archaeologists have found a lead tomb believed to contain a Roman child. As they begin their work, the archaeologists are holding an online poll to decide on a name to call the child. But it’s also important to remember that this child already has a name – the name they were given by their loved ones when they were born, and the name those loved ones spoke in choked farewell at their burial.

When we bury our friends and family, we don’t envisage them being exhumed by the archaeologists of the future. We tend not to think of burials as being like copyrights, expiring after seventy years. But it is only this kind of careful archaeological work that allows us to peek behind the standard historical narratives and allow us to glimpse the real lives of ancient Romans. Burials in particular give us precious information about clothing, artefacts, disease, diet and even drug-use. But in gleaning that precious information it is important to remember too that these were people first and burials second.

The British Museum recently finished its first ever exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, on two of the most iconic ancient cities, preserved forever by the rapid eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. Arguably the most impressive thing about the exhibition was that it took material which has been for generations the purview of school textbooks, and which has therefore become “academic” for many, and reminded us that these were real people, living real lives and suffering terrifyingly real deaths. Most moving was the exhibit’s manner of displaying the plaster casts of the victims of Mount Vesuvius’ rapid eruption in 79AD. These casts – made from the cavities in the lava where the victims were encased – preserve their agonising final moments.

Plaster cast of a dog. From the House of Orpheus, Pompeii, AD 79

Plaster cast of a dog. From the House of Orpheus, Pompeii, AD 79

By putting these casts in the positions in which they died – one figure curled up protectively in a corner, hidden and isolated; a family of four huddled together for mutual protection – they provide a vivid reminder that what have become symbols of the extraordinary state of preservation, and thus academic potential – at Pompeii and Herculaneum are in fact the final resting places of real changing Romans.