This week on Two Friends Talk History, I interview returning guest, Alex Slucky. Alex is an archaeologist with Atkins and archaeobotanist, whose work has taken her to Italy, Australia and most recently in Uzbekistan. Alex discusses her work in the ancient city of Bukhara which was a prominent stop on the so-called Silk Road trade route that linked East and West. We discuss vessels as material culture, and embodied archaeological processes of alcohol consumption.
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Thank you for reading. See you soon with new friends on Two Friends!
This week on Two Friends Talk History, Zofia interviews Dr Elke Close about Polybius, an Achaean statesman, teacher, and historian from the Hellenistic period. Polybius was active in Megalopolis at the tail end of the period of Greek independence following the wars of the Hellenistic kings and the rise of the Roman empire. His surviving text, Histories, has provided scholars with unparalleled evidence for the social and political changes that led to the changing balance of power in the Mediterranean in the second century BCE.
From the introduction of Polybius’ Histories, we are told of the weight and significance of his treatise for readers to understand the rise to power of Rome, while synthesising the events more broadly around the Mediterranean.
But all historians, one may say without exception, and in no half-hearted manner, but making this the beginning and end of their labour, have impressed on us that the soundest education and training for political actions is the study of History.
His aims are outlined, and through his unique position as Achaean statesman and hostage in Rome, Polybius had intimate access as a teacher and client to one of the most powerful Roman families, the Cornelii Scipiones. Due to his proximity to power and usefulness, Polybius rode shotgun on several watershed moments of the Republic.
In this week’s podcast on exploring plagues in the late Medieval period with Dr Alex Lee, “The Bianchi Plague Processions of 1399”, she offered an exciting perspective on religious expressions in response to plague. Alex provided details about the historical context and the religious symbolism to help explain the reasons why Italian communities dealing with the huge impacts of the plague of 1399-1400, gathered together in groups and processed from city to city across Tuscany and how their local governments work out the logistics to facilitate these religious expressions and maintain order.
Thinking about plagues from the ancient world and their impacts is something I’ve considered a lot since starting a podcast. After choosing a variety of topics and individuals to discuss, it has surprised me how frequently I’ve seen connections back to the Antonine Plague. There were many types of cures and prayers used in antiquity to deal with plague, which Liam and I discussed in our first episode, “Plagues and Pandemics“, looking at the Antonine Plague of the 2nd century CE and the cult of Glycon from Abōnóteichos (later Ionopolis), in Asia Minor. This mystery-healing cult gained prominence due to its ritual healing prescriptions and the charismatic leadership of Alexander Abōnóteichos.
Alexander mixed various traditions into his cult: he said a snake would be born of an egg in the foundations of the temple of Asclepius in Abōnóteichos, and then when it spoke, the voice and prophecy would be directly from the god. He would interpret the Harry Potter-style parcel-tongue utterances and give out cures for healing, political advice, oracles and more. For many centuries before, snake cults were intimately associated with the healing gods from Apollo, Asclepius and Hygiea, to Isis and Serapis! This new popular religious cult gave its founder influence within the ranks of the elite of Roman provincial administrators, his daughter even married the governor of the Roman province of Asia.
As the outbreak of plague swept the Roman Empire around 160 CE , desperate people sought all types of cures and protective charms; those included visits to Glycon, whose interpreters issued a little prayer: “shorn Phoebus, keep away the cloud of plague” which people have been found in the archaeological record carrying on their person (in burial) and inscribed on doorways. Christian writers in the period were incredibly sceptical and condemned Alexander and his cult as charlatans. One unexpected outcome of the religious prescriptions to the plague was that it made those who had the magic words on their person, or above their house door, more confident and less likely to stay away from crowds or those with illness, since they believed they were under the protection of Apollo through Glycon. Thus, according to Christian writers, his adherent’s were the most likely to die and also prove their case that their god was the right one.
The foundation story of the Bianchi movement has a few sources, but one is the the ‘tre pani’ story, discussed in greater depth here on Dr Lee’s website, taken from the account of Luca Dominici, a chronicler from Pisotia. In the story, a labourer is working minding his own business when an elite looking fellow (Jesus) shows up and asks for food which the labourer does not have. Miraculously, Jesus has him open his jacket to find- lo! bread! Jesus then asks the labourer (witness) to moisten the bread with water, which again, is not available but with some cajoling, the man go out looking for a fountain which was previously not there, to find a white-robed woman (the Virgin Mary) trying to convince him to not dip the bread. The labourer is ping-ponged between the two for a bit then ultimately does dip the bread, which spreads the pestilence. It seems like entrapment since the poor man didn’t know who they were and was just following hospitality norms but hey ho. The plague is released, but why? Effectively, the pestilences that humanity faced in this period were because Jesus was angry about the high levels of sinning, so decided to destroy mankind. Seems fair.
To remedy this pestilence, the Virgin suggests a white-robed procession for nine days between cities, walking barefoot, not sleeping within walled towns, singing laude, and fasting from meats and nice things 6 days a week and only water and bread on Sunday. Though as Dr Lee investigated, there were many food rules for each community and could be some significant variance as to what was not allowed and what was freely given to those on procession.
The communities of Tuscany had survived successive periods of plague, and those wishing to organise Bianchi processions could rely on existing infrastructure and guidance from civic officials and religious leaders to facilitate these processions. What was striking about discussing this medieval plague is the way the community came together and supported one another throughout this societal crisis to really inclusive worship. As we discuss, it had elevated performative aspects which were quite proscriptive and, as Dr Lee argues, likely no small degree of peer pressure to participate.
Do check out the episode for many more exciting details, and to find out more, I strongly encourage interested readers/listeners to read Dr Alex Lee’s forthcoming book, “The Bianchi of 1399 in Central Italy: Making Devotion Local“, and visit her website Bianchi 1399.wordpress.com! You can also get in touch via Twitter @AlexRALee.
To celebrate International Women’s Day, I’d like to talk about five powerful, clever and resilient female leaders in antiquity: Apama, Cleopatra II, Fulvia, Regilla and Zenobia.
When looking at women in the ancient world, it’s important to recognise they had significant hurdles to exercising power in public spaces. It was generally oriented from the perspective, as Sarah Pomeroy writes, that “the private preceded the public: when public roles existed, they developed from family relationships.” So strategic marriages, powerful parents and acting as regent for future rulers offered elite women many opportunities to exercise more authority than any other women in society at many points throughout history. By acknowledging that their pathways to power lay through their bonds to family relationships is not to say they lacked agency or diminish their accomplishments, but simply to contextualise the perspective through which power flowed. The five fierce females I’ve picked took power for themselves by hook or crook and were forces to be reckoned with, facing the triumphs and tragedies they were dealt.
1. Apama, the first Queen of the Seleucid Empire (4th century BCE)
Though there is not much written about Apama, I include her first on my list because she came into power from a politically disadvantageous position and ended up having three cities named after her and was key to the founding of the Seleucid dynasty of Asia Minor!
Apama was born into a high-ranking family in the Sogdian region of the Achaemenid Empire in the 4th century BCE. Apama’s father, Spitamenes, was a powerful military leader who successfully led armed resistance against Alexander the Great. Spitamenes was murdered in Bactria by local clans wishing to sue for peace with the Macedonian army. It is unknown what transpired following this – with the elite women of Spitamenes’ family or other Sogdian elites – but four years later, Apama was married to Alexander’s top-tier Companion, Seleucus, at the Great Wedding of Susa. This was a mass marriage between Iranian noblewomen and the higher status Macedonian military, orchestrated by Alexander.
It is impossible to know what the women thought of this, since their voices are entirely absent from the record, and they were effectively high-status captives being married to an enemy army to cement their new political reality. Perhaps the elite women of Sogdiana were kept in relative protection like the captive women of Persian King Darius’ household (Diod. 17.37.5-38, Curt. 3.12.15-26). Given the brutal circumstances of her father’s death, it’s unlikely this was a comfortable period of her life, however, she would climb to the highest position possible in the new empire that Alexander was carving into Asia Minor.
Apama was the only wife we know of from these unions who was not abandoned after Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE. It is very likely that she was a formidable person. Surviving and navigating the wars between the Macedonians in the Achaemenid territories, the wars of the Successors (Alexander’s Companions) and carving out an empire with her husband across the largest and most ethnically diverse of all the territories was surely no easy feat. Seleucus took control of the conquered eastern empire and managed to hold it through the twists and turns of alliances, marriages and wars in the 20 years that followed Alexander’s death in 323 BCE.
Her familial and cultural connections were likely assets to Seleucus holding this territory in the immediate aftermath of Alexander’s death. Apama spoke the languages and understood all the court customs. Over nearly 30 years Apama and Seleucus raised three children, who were part of dynastic marriages themselves, and continued the dynasty they founded. Apama disappeared from the record around the time Seleucus took another wife, Stratonice, a princess of the Antigonid dynasty of Macedonia. Romantics suggest that it was only after Apama’s death that Seleucus remarried again, and only for political gain. This is suggested since Seleucus allowed his son and heir to marry Stratonice when it became evident that they had a romance of their own.
2. Cleopatra II, Queen of Egypt (2nd century BCE)
It is always tricky talking about the Ptolemies. They all shared similar names and were constantly fighting and making alliances with one another. Also, check out the episode ‘Dysfunctional Families‘ on Two Friends Talk History in series 1, if you’re curious to hear more. Of the Cleopatra’s in this dynasty, I think the famous though lesser-known Cleopatra II was a powerful queen who was dealt a difficult hand but gave as good as she got.
Cleopatra II was born (pre-145 BCE) into a period of war and instability, with two brothers who were frequently at odds with one another. This triad was a pretty dysfunctional, which I talked about in my podcast on their A+ level sibling rivalries. Early in the reign of Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic kingdom was involved in a series of ongoing wars with the Seleucid Empire, which at this point numbered six (170-168 BCE).
Cleopatra II was married first to her brother, the Ptolemy VI Philometor (mother-loving) in 175 BCE. They ruled well together and had several children, though they were essentially always at war with their younger brother, Ptolemy VIII Physcon (fatty). After the death of Philometor, Physcon to wrestle the throne from her which led to a civil war. While she had the stewardship of the kingdom, Cleopatra had been popular with the people, but their warring left her in a dangerous position. To protect her children from her first marriage she agreed to a political union and peace. They were married after 145 BCE and it was pretty rocky, with Game of Thrones levels of twists and turns.
Typically, writers characterise the breakdown of their marriage as some type of jealousy between mother and daughter. I would strongly disagree. After the birth of their son, and Ptolemy VIII’s legitimate heir, he began a relationship with his teenage daughter-in-law, Cleopatra III. Things spiralled into another civil war once Ptolemy also married his wife’s daughter in secret. Cleopatra II raised and army and tried to have her husband killed; Ptolemy VIII fled with his new bride and the children of his sister-wife. Like something out of a True Crime podcast, to punish his sister-wife he had his nephew and next in line for the throne murdered and sent to his estranged wife on her birthday. Obviously, Cleopatra II wasn’t going to take this lying down, and continued to rule from Egypt alone while her exiled husband and daughter ruled from Cyprus from 132 – 124 BCE. This tore the country apart and weakened the empire. Eventually, the three monarchs were forced into a reconciliation, and they reigned together until his death. All. Three. Together.
Cleopatra II had a pretty nightmarish existence by modern standards, but what is fascinating is that through her leadership and strength she gained enough support from the Egyptian people to have them side with her time and again against her brother and managed to rule alone for over a decade. It was very unusual for a queen to manoeuvre a king out of power and hold on to it.
3. Fulvia, The First Lady of Republican Populists (1st century BCE)
This Roman matriarch was a total boss. Criticised for her ambition, publicity and cleverness, Fulvia loyally supported – some suggest manipulated – the statecraft of the Roman Republic. The sign of an interesting woman, Fulvia was maligned by Roman historians and writers as “having nothing womanly about her except her body” (Vell.Pat. 2.74.2). Fulvia was a wealthy and well-connected noblewoman and though constrained by the norms of her day, she was active in politics, commanded the loyalties of street gangs and armies in the Late Republic. Through her three marriages to several of the most powerful and popular Roman political leaders of the first century BCE, Fulvia even went to war against the future Augustus – her son in law! Fulvia is definitely one of my all-time favourites.
Fulvia’s rise to fame was established through her first two marriages to Publius Clodius Pulcher and Gaius Scribonius Curio. Both marriages were cut short by their violent deaths, Clodius by political murder and Curio through military action in Africa. It was her marriage to Clodius that cemented her in the A-list of elite Roman women; Clodius was a massively influential populist leader of the Populares faction (leader of the Plebians). He mobilised gangs and incited violence to suit his causes, seriously aggravating the conservative elite (Optimates) faction, which led to his murder. Fulvia, politically savvy from the start, used her position as the mourning wife of a famous man to show how devoted she was and how his name lived on through her. Every future connection she made drew on the persona she cultivated in the wake of Clodius’ death – that of the dutiful and noble wife. By the time of her third marriage, to Marcus Antonius, she was stratospherically powerful. According to Cassius Dio, Fulvia controlled the politics of Rome through her financial and personal influence on senators and the public.
In the wake of Caesar’s death and Octavian’s ascension into Roman politics, he and Marcus Antoinus and Lepidus formed a second Triumvirate. This alliance was cemented through his marriage to Fulvia’s daughter (Marcus Antonius’ stepdaughter), Claudia. This went south relatively soon after which relations between Octavian and Antonius soured by 41 BCE. Fulvia spoke to senators on behalf of her husband and then raised an army to defend her family’s interests while Marcus was abroad. She worked with Marcus’ brother Lucius to raise eight legions against Octavian to protect her husband’s interests where she felt he was being side-lined. This brought Fulvia and Octavian to war in 41 BCE, called the Perusine War.
Fulvia and Lucius Antonious’ army occupied Rome briefly, though eventually they were forced to take refuge in Perusia. Marcus appeared to be unaware of the conflict, accused in poetry, of all places, of being too busy with affairs in Cappadocia (with Glaphyra) to resolve his wife’s jealousy. The poem is racy but worth having a look (Martial 11.20). Things did not go Fulvia’s way and she had to flee to Greece, where, apparently, Marcus rebuked and abandoned her. Fulvia died soon after in exile in Greece, and the newly reconciled Octavian and Marcus blamed the whole thing on Fulvia. Her legacy lived on in the children she bore in each marriage, and in infamy, as she became the counterpoint to what a “good Roman wife” should be. Appian blames her weakness and jealousy as the cause of the war (B.Civ 5.3.19). From antiquity onwards, Fulvia has drawn the short straw when compared to Octavia (Octavian’s sister and Marcus’ next wife), however I think there is a lot to learn from Fulvia’s reach and impact on the politics of the time. Even though she was not technically allowed to participate, she left her mark and remains one of the few powerful women of the past we know a great deal about.
4. Regilla, Patroness in Greece 2nd century CE
Appia Annia Regilla was born in 125 CE into a wealthy family with significant influence as relatives of the Roman Empress Faustina the Elder, wife of Antoninus Pius. Regilla was 14 years old when she was married to the richest man in Greece, Herodes Atticus, who was 40 years her senior. This was a fairly typical age differential among the elite, whereas the lower classes typically married much closer in age. Herodes served under Hadrian as a prefect of the Province of Asia, then tutored Antoninus Pius’ adoptive sons, the future Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Verus.
When the couple resettled in Greece, Regilla was part of the upper echelon of Greek elites and welcomed into service as a priestess to Tyche and Demeter Chamyne (in Olympia). This priestess position allowed Regilla the unique honour of being the only woman present at the Olympic Games in 153 CE. From her own funds Regilla dedicated a monumental fountain (nymphaeum) in Olympia with a bull statue in her own name and decorated the fountain with statues of the Antonines and her own family. Herodes commissioned an aqueduct to channel water into this fountain.
Regilla commissioned many architectural works that highlighted her family (she had four children with Herodes) and their links to the ruling imperial family in Rome. It was not commonly the case that women would dedicate benefactions in their own names; more frequently these dedications would be in the names of their family or alongside a male relative. Regilla seemed to have her own interests in doing things for herself, acutely acting by her own agency to leave her mark. It’s fortunate she did. In 160 CE, while heavily pregnant, she was murdered by her husband or a member of his household. Her family brought suit against Herodes, as there was no doubt it was not an accident. Marcus Aurelius stepped in and prevented his former teacher’s prosecution and that was the end of it. The following year Herodes dedicated the spectacular Odeon of Athens in memory of his wife, in 161 CE, which still stands today at the foot of the Acropolis. Herodes spent the rest of his life building monuments, giving expensive gifts to religious organisations and inscribing surfaces with professions of his never-ending grief for the loss of his wife. To see photos of the buildings and decorations Herodes and Regilla sponsored, you can check out my post here on Herodes Atticus!
5. Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra
Zenobia was the next in a line of scary eastern queens that shook the Romans in their sandals. Zenobia led a revolt against the Romans from Palmyra which spread into Egypt and Asia Minor and led to war.
Zenobia was married to the Palmyrene chieftain Septimius Odenathus, a client king of the Romans, who was subsequently murdered in 267 CE. Odenathus had kept the eastern Roman provinces together against the threat of the Sassanians, once he died, Zenobia continued this policy and remained loyal to Rome. This change in relationship status allowed her to be the sole ruler while acting as regent for her young son. Once in control of her own court and interests, Zenobia seems to have been a patroness of the arts and literature, creating a court of intellectuals and beacon of culture. Fluent in several languages, Zenobia learned Greek and was given a History of Alexandria by Callinicus. It is not hard to imagine that she was visualising herself as a new Cleopatra VII, since the Romans were certainly projecting that on to her at the time.
When the Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus died in 270 CE, Zenobia took the opportunity to revolt against the Empire. Emperor Aurelian fought the armies of Zenobia at Antioch and Emesa, then put down her supporters’ rebellions in Egypt.
Aurelian defeated the queen and took her hostage back to Rome. Achieving one symbolic victory over a foreign eastern queen that was denied the Romans when, instead of capturing Cleopatra VII she took her own life in Alexandria, Aurelian paraded the captured queen in a triumph in 274 CE. If we are to believe the Historia Augusta, a problematic source document but cited none the less, the text also suggests that the queen was retired to an estate on the Tibur. Aurelian is said to have praised her intelligence, military acumen and beauty, praising her as a worthy adversary.
What About Other Women?
The daily lives of women in the Roman world are often characterised as within the home. For women of elite social status, that was in a large part accurate, though not the entire story. From wealthy households, low-income families or the enslaved, women in the Roman Empire were skilled in a broad array of professions which might surprise you.
As now, not everyone could be a homeowner or afford staff, fine objects or even decorations of any kind. Those who could afford a home (domus) would use it as part of how they communicated their status to the outside world. A well-off family might display portraits of ancestors (women and men) in the central hall of their domus, in the atrium. How a matriarch ran an elite home involved many staff and servants, and she might have had to do so alone for many years while her husband was away on campaigns, or in advantageous political posts. The matriarch would have been in charge of assets, correspondences, keeping clients connected to their patron and so on. The nuance of ‘a wife’s work’ in this context really extended into areas like accountant, personal administrator, event planner and social networker. The house staff might include cooks, laundresses, gardeners, pastry chefs, spinners and weavers, hairdressers, butchers, cleaners, waiting staff, artists and artisans – if they were having mosaics installed said atrium or maybe a fresco painted on the wall- and the list could go on. Many of these jobs could be performed by women, and this is only a small fraction of the types of employment if you were a freeperson. Enslaved women might do many of these jobs as well.
In antiquity as ever, having educated or skilled daughters was a means to greater financial stability for the family and into their own adulthood or marriage later on. If a woman came from a family in the trades, it stands to reason she would participate in some way within that trade, and thus her knowledge and expertise would increase her desirability as a partner. Pliny the Elder mentions female painters in The Natural History, who were paid and perceived favourably to their male counterparts. He lists several women whose fathers trained them in the arts: Timarete, daughter of Micon was renowned for her panel painting; Irene daughter of Cratinus (a painter), painted mythical characters and daily life scenes; Aristarete, daughter of Nearchus, painted the god Aesculapius. He notes Iaia of Cyzicus remained single but was a prolific painter of women’s portraits, whose talent and expedition were unmatched; Pliny says she was even paid more than well-known male painters whose works filled galleries (HN 35.40.83-87).
With these professional pathways for women in the ancient world in mind, I have created a series of colouring sheets with an activity related to the characters from Vita Romana! If you’d like to explore the different roles of women in the Roman period.
Milnor, K. (2011). ‘Women in Roman Society’. In The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World. The Oxford Handbook of Social Relations in the Roman World, 2011-02-01, Vol.1. Oxford University Press.
Pomeroy, S. (2009). The Murder of Regilla : A Case of Domestic Violence in Antiquity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Rowlandson, J. (1998). Women and society in Greek and Roman Egypt : A sourcebook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Whitehorne, J. (1994). Cleopatras /, London; New York: Routledge.
In this NSFW blogpost, I discuss sex in ancient history.
This week, I am launching series 2 of Two Friends Talk History with its new format! My guest is Dr Briana King, a good friend and frequent travel companion with whom I discuss sex in the ancient world. Our conversation took many tantalising turns, one of which was the way that erotic objects were presented in the ancient world. You can find the episode here:
Effectively, any surface could be decorated with erotic art and the meanings behind it were not limited to arousal. The idea of hanging a phallic wind chime outside your front door, decorating store-fronts with priapic imagery or giving a child the gift of a protective phallus necklace might seem strange now, but the phallocentric worlds experienced in the past were comfortable with nudity to a greater degree and had imbued it with many layers of meaning. Several types of domestic and dedicatory objects that represent the manifest desire for good luck and abundance in the ancient world, have the power to make modern audiences squirm.
The prevalence of erotic imagery in the ancient world was common among the Greeks and Romans, though explored differently. Greek art depicting sexual activity and erotic scenes did feature selectively on painted pottery, with evidence suggesting they were only around for a relatively short period of time. Hermae were large sculptural rectangular plinths with a large phallus on the front, topped with a bust of a god or man, and considered protective. To destroy one was a sacrilege and a real existential threat to the city-state. As Thucydides recounted, just prior to the departure of the Athenian navy to Sicily in 415 BCE, many heads of the hermae were vandalised, and since they were viewed as divine protection from evil (like the evil eye) and placed liberally throughout cities at crossroads, this was viewed as an attack on the wellbeing of the city. Alcibiades was accused by his political rivals and had to flee the city for his life (Thuc.6.27). Cities throughout the Greek world used these phallic symbols of protection which were eventually adopted by the Romans.
Perhaps even more liberally, stimulating visual symbols populated Roman public spaces, private homes and every type of material culture. Roman good luck symbols include delightful examples of erotic imagery. A whole collection of objects in the Secret Cabinet (Gabinetto Segreto) room in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples purposefully exhibits many of the erotic materials found within Pompeii and Herculaneum together in what was once a forbidden collection, only accessible by the wealthy and connected of the 18th century. The room was opened to the public as a permanent exhibition space in 2000. The collection inside has some truly outstanding examples of frescoes, metal work and sculpture grouped into thematic sections.
A large array of painted sexual acts were found in a brothel and bath complex in Pompeii and are now displayed in this exhibition space. The contexts of these images make understanding their viewership important. One can assume that erotic decoration in a brothel could serve as advertisements of services the sexworkers offered, material to get clients in the mood and so on. Whereas, the erotic paintings in the Suburban bath complex were used as decorations for clothing cubbies. Each place to store belongings had a different sex-act which ranged from partnerships of homosexual and heterosexual pairings to multiple partners and positions. It should be noted that the frescoes had been painted over at some point before the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE, but it is unlikely that they had been covered for that long. The erotic bath complex art would have been for a broader viewership than the similar themed and sized frescoes in the brothel. Both men and women from all social classes used the public baths, though probably at different times of the day in most cases. Visitors to the baths could purchase gratification from sexworkers there as well, but it cannot be assumed that this was the primary purpose of those images. Humour, aid-memoires and many other culturally relevant possibilities could account for decorating a public bath changing room with graphic sexual images (Vout 2013, pp.13-14).
Out of doors, urban dwellers used erotic objects to decorate and protect their homes and businesses. A display in the Secret Cabinet of erotic tintinnabula. A tintinnabulum was a wind chime or group of bells, in this case, shaped like an ithyphallic (erect) figure or fascinum meant to represent the divine phallus. The magic phallic image embodies protective powers and curative magic, often worn as a necklace charm, or other portable object. The these wind chimes could take some pretty outrageous forms, more than a simple ithyphallic or priapic (an over-size engorged phallus) theme. I include a photo I took in the museum below, and my super family-friendly illustration.
While visiting this room, I have enjoyed the opportunity to sketch these objects on several occasions, partially because there are so many examples but also to listen to the chat going by while I would draw. My favourite visitors to the room were women in their 70s. They probably had the best jokes and canning themselves with laughter.
The complex and nuanced religious landscape of the ancient world included local, borrowed and transformed gods which influenced daily life and social behaviours (including erotic tastes!). The universally popular goddess, Aphrodite/Venus, was prolific all throughout the Graeco-Roman world with sanctuaries and cult sites in essentially every city. We are familiar with her and the associated attributes of her powers, and included with ‘civilised’ types of eroticism. Whereas, a popular but minor deity, Priapus, was another more rustic erotic god with a uniquely large phallus. In the cannon of Graeco-Roman art, ithyphallic images were associated with uncivilised erotic displays and wildness. Priapus (the son of Hermes, like Pan) was responsible for agricultural fertility, gardens and male genitalia and were some of the only examples of deities who were represented being sexually aroused.
The objects discussed fit into daily life of the ancients. Essentially, anyone with the financial means, could procure these objects and display them or wear them as they chose. There was nothing taboo about art that depicted nudity and eroticism. For modern viewers of these fleshy, vibrantly coloured frescoes and decorative bronzes, they may seem lusty or crude, whereas viewing statuary – even if it depicts violent erotic imagery – is seen as tasteful. This follows our inheritance of Enlightenment thinking that the statues from the ancient world were striped of their original colours, if any remained, to present a white polished version that never really existed. One needs to consider the nudity of statuary within this context of viewership. They too were fleshy, wearing popular fashions and bright colours. Though understood to be sacred representations, they were still incredibly beautiful and could be erotic as well. The famous story of the rape of the Aphrodite statue, the Knidian Aphrodite by Praxiteles, illustrates the incredible arousal these objects could create, when a visitor to the statue was so overtaken he pleasured himself then ended his own life for the shame of his actions (Plin. NH. 36.21-22; Pseudo-Lucian Amores 9-17).
Images depicting deities could blur the line of object and divine. Did frescoes of sex acts communicate bigger ideas or associations to audiences in the ancient world? Probably. Viewing art is never a passive experience, particularly when it can actively invite erotic responses from viewers!
The illustrations I have created for this episode will be available on my Redbubble shop, and behind the scenes extras including an extended podcast interview and downloadable goodies will be available on Patreon. Thank you for checking out my blog and do have a listen to the podcast episode, Sex in the ancient world! You may never think of the Spartans the same way again!
Tis the season when we celebrate community and the change of the year! How did the Romans celebrate the end of the year?
The Roman celebration of Saturnalia was held for several days in mid-December to celebrate the passing of seasons, with its roots in the worship of the agricultural god Saturn. Saturn was syncretised with the Greek Kronos as the Romans came to control Greece, becoming increasingly invested in their gods. Saturn is often depicted as an older bearded man holding a scythe, an acknowledgement of his agrarian roots. The temple of Saturn in Rome stood prominently in the forum and is evidenced to this day by eight impressive columns and a partial podium.
From the late Republican period (the last 1oo years or so BCE) the midwinter celebration officially grew from three days to five in the Principate (December 17th to December 23rd). These were just official trends as it’s generally believed that unofficially it was a week, a bit like now depending on your employment. For the Romans work, studies and legal actions came to a halt and people were ready to party!
In Lucian’s Saturnalia, he speaks with the voice of Saturn in dialogue with a priest, observing how the revelries in his name should take place among the Romans: gaming, dancing, song and drinking were all part of the celebration of Saturnalia; it also involved things familiar to us today like decorating homes with greenery and wearing bright and colourful clothing (synthesis), like ugly sweater parties! Lucian’s Saturn is a very reasonable god who lays out three “laws” for gifting, celebrating and banqueting, emphasising fairness in all measures and not being compelled to act or gift beyond your means.
The King of Saturnalia
A king of Saturnalia acted as the ‘Lord of Misrule’ (like Carnivale) in these celebrations. Elected as the mock king, the Saturnalicius princeps, this agent of acceptable chaos in the household would walk the line between being a cheeky chap and straight up humorously (presumably) insulting guests and members of the household. Bear in mind that Roman households could be somewhat larger than ours – the nuclear family at the centre could include grandparents, cousins, adopted family members, children from other marriages, guests and the enslaved household labourers. Many of the societal norms were relaxed and played with in the household, where during this period the enslaved could eat at the head of the table with those who owned them taking a lower status position. Women too could mingle with men (in some circumstances) a little more freely and could hang together and gamble.
Gifts for Saturnalia
Gift-giving was an important part of Saturnalia. Gifts of high value were not necessarily what one would expect, generally the humour of lower cost gifts was appreciated- like trolling a friend with a joke gift. Catullus wrote of receiving epically bad poetry for a gift and it is fun to imagine the kind of hilarious insults he possibly wrote for friends for their gifts, like getting ‘read’ by Oscar Wild but smuttier. Saturnalia gifts could include: sausages, dried fruit, wine, piglets, wax candles (cerei), dolls, toys, books, statues, tools, exotic pets and more!
The last day of Saturnalia
As all good things must come to an end, so too did the annual revels of the Romans. On the last day of Saturnalia one would give sigillaria – terracotta or wax figurines, shaped in the likeness of familiar deities, mythical figures or easily caricatured types (grotesques). The day itself was called ‘Sigillaria‘; the gift type and gift-giving influenced the day’s name. Much like Boxing Day which one theory suggests may have started (according to the OED) as the first weekday after Christmas when postmen, delivery workers and servants of various types would receive a Christmas box, in which was some type of gift or tip. Possibly due in part to the ways gods were part of the everyday lives of Romans, and worshipped in the home in small devotional figures – the Lares – as guardians of the home, it is not surprising that a popular gift would include their likenesses in inexpensive small gifts, conferring further good luck and protection. For the wealthy, these gifts could be made from costly materials like gold or silver. Given their popularity, someone who crafted and sold this merchandise was called a sigillarius. Vendors were quite busy at this time of year, setting up stalls like the Christmas markets we are familiar with today.
The Romans had many festivals throughout the year, and a few days after the wild revels of Saturnalia, they celebrated the sober and solemn Compitalia, another festival in which metaphoric beginnings and endings are associated with the end of the year. Named after compita (crossroads), the recently revelrous enslaved peoples would offer sacrifices on behalf of the households within the neighbourhoods they lived to the Lares of the crossroads. Perhaps it is fitting to have a week of revels which brought families and friends together be followed up with a more sober festival which celebrated the bonds of community. Saying goodbye to the year is always fraught with bittersweet reflections with this year being notable in that regard, as surely in many world-changing years before the communities celebrating these rites would join together to celebrate and pray for better times ahead.
This week my colleagues, Dr Javier Martinez Jimenez and Sofia Greaves and I were thrilled to launch an exhibition we have been collaborating on for quite some time at the Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology: “Illustrating Ancient History: bringing the past to life.” The exhibition is now fully online!
As a way of reconstructing the past in Vita Romana, which I’ve discussed on this blog before, I worked with the specialists on-site whose scientific background in the materials I was representing informed much of the illustration work. Intersecting with the aims of the exhibition, the work done at Roman Aeclanum exemplified the way that collaboration between artists and different archaeological specialists can be translated into artistic work that help the public understand the archaeological site and material culture more contextually. I have recorded a podcast with my co-host, Liam, for Two Friends Talk History which allowed me to discuss the public outreach programme I coordinated and created in Aeclanum.
Sofia’s work brought together ancient spaces with exploration of the layers of building over time through water-colour and mixed media. Sofia and Javier work together on the Impact of the Ancient City project at the University of Cambridge which is a project that has involved a lot of site visits to ancient cities that have inspired her work.
The opening of the exhibition was scaled-down due to Covid safety protocols, with numbers carefully regulated through registration. The exhibition will be in-place until January 30th, and with luck, as many people as possible will be able to explore the museum’s famed collection of plaster statue casts which frame our exhibition images. With these considerations in mind, the museum moved quickly to create a fully online version of the exhibition which you can see here: CHECK IT OUT!
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Two Friends Talk History is a podcast where public historian, Zofia, chats with scholars, archaeologists, researchers and more to explore fascinating histories, look behind the scenes and ask the big question that’s missing in much academic discourse: so what? Why is this relevant today?
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Carrying on from season 1 in which Zofia and Liam explored the ancient world through stories and interviews, season 2 invites new friends to Two Friends. Find me on Instagram at Two Friends Talk History and Patreon at ArchaeoArtist.
In this week’s episode, Zofia is joined by returning guest, archaeologist, and archaeobotanist, Alexandra Slucky, to discuss the archaeology of alcohol! We discuss the archaeological process used to identify historic alcoholic vessels and processes.For a suggested reading list and more information, please check out my blog post on this episode and this interesting article on Neolithic Chinese alcohol production: "The origins of specialized pottery and diverse alcohol fermentation techniques in Early Neolithic China", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2019). Access here.If you would like to get in touch, you can find Alex on Instagram or on Twitter @SluckyAlex. To get in touch and find out more about Two Friends Talk History:Find us on InstagramSupport us through Patreon Buy our merch on RedbubbleExplore more resources and topics about the ancient world on ArchaeoArtistMusic by the wonderfully talented Chris SharplesImage credits: cover illustration by Zofia GuertinIf you'd like to get in touch, email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Two Friends Talk History Art
I have been challenging myself with creating the mash-ups in my own digital drawing style but, where appropriate, using the historical style the original image was made in. These episode images are available as mugs, tees and postcards on our Two Friends Talk History Redbubble Shop!
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To keep my sanity and to take some art breaks during this time, I am making colouring sheets that are free to print, share and enjoy. I will be uploading printable PDFs here, and posting images to my social media pages. Since we are all staying in doors for the good of the realm/humanity, we might as well fill some of that time having some fun and learning about ancient art and archaeology!
Everyone who has grown up on Disney will feel strongly about these characters and how they imagine they can or should be re-imagined. This is a bit of fun and I selected the mash-ups that made the most sense to me.
If you are an educator, practitioner or just curious about these or any of my other work, please feel free to get in touch!