Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Ben Hur Live spectacle comes to US in Fall 2010

The stylized naval battle in Ben Hur Live.  Image courtesy of
Art Concerts.
Somehow, I missed all the hoopla about Ben Hur Live when it made its debut in September 2009 in London's 02 arena.  So I was surprised by the announcement today that Russell Crowe has agreed to narrate the spectacle when it is presented in Sydney, Australia.  I immediately Googled the show and retrieved quite a few, unfortunately acerbic, critical reviews of the production when it was presented in London.  I must admit, though, that the images of the chariot race, naval battle and formations of staunch legionaries looked intriguing.

It took quite a few searches before I finally found a reference to the show's tour calendar indicating there would be presentations in the U.S. starting in the fall of 2010.  This sprawling spectacle includes a cast of over 400 along with over 40 horses.  Some critics complained that it didn't leave enough to the imagination or was just too "over the top", but the Times reviewer, Benedict Nightingale, was a little more charitable:


Here’s a show in the Victorian tradition of plays that brought onstage shipwrecks, volcanos, earthquakes, forest fires, collapsing bridges, floods and, in The Ruling Passion at Drury Lane, a balloon that rose from the Crystal Palace and dropped into the Channel, where its occupants, including the heroine and an escaped lunatic, were rescued by lifeboat.

The visual successes include a Jerusalem so crammed with people, from jugglers to beggars, grandees to belly dancers, that it might have been painted by Brueghel, and a battle in which skeletal ships packed with vermicular oarsmen are somewhat anachronistically attacked by what look like Somali pirates on beach-buggies. The Roman legionnaires, too, are genuinely scary as they menacingly parade in their phalanxes, even more so than gladiators who use swords, rope, and what look like long tuning forks in a well-orchestrated display of violence.

This isn’t a show that will displace the film in the memory, or make the DVD redundant, but it’s not silly, not naff, not a waste of your time and the O2’s space. I rather enjoyed it. - Benedict Nightingale, Times Online

I looked through the Times article's slideshow of images and I think I would rather enjoy it myself!  I must admit I'm not too keen on the dialog being delivered in Latin and Aramaic but I'm rather used to watching foreign films and getting the gist of what is going on even without reading the subtitles and, of course, I've watched the film version of Ben Hur so many times I know the story by heart anyway.

When I was in Rome last year, my friend and I went to the cinema one night and watched Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino dubbed in Italian with no subtitles.  Later after I returned home I ordered it from Netflix and watched the original English version and wasn't mistaken about any assumptions I had made watching it in Rome.  So I think I can enjoy Ben Hur Live, even if I can't understand the dialog.  I'm sure the production company will get someone suitable here to narrate.  It would be fantastic if Russell Crowe would do the narration for the US tour but that's probably more than I can hope for.

Like most topics, I was able to find quite a few short clips of the show when it appeared in London on You Tube.  Here is one of the better ones:



This interview with Steve Copeland about his work on the show's music has a lot of nice still images as well:




I didn't find a list of US venues although from the looks of the show it obviously requires quite a large arena space. I do hope at least one west coast performance is planned. I would happily fly to San Francisco or L.A. to see it.  After all, a person needs to see at least one Roman spectacle in their lifetime, right?

Ben-Hur (Four-Disc Collector's Edition)   Ben Hur (Animated)   Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ    

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Could New MIT program use Pyrgi Tablets to Decipher Etruscan?

The Pyrgi tablets contain a treatise inscribed in both
Etruscan and Phoenician script.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia user Pufacz.

Being a technology professional I couldn't help my excitement when I read that a new computer program developed at MIT had been used to decipher Ugarit, an ancient language used in Syria over three thousand years ago. Even more amazing is that the program was able to do so after only a few hours. Linguists have spent years trying to decipher it!


The program is designed to compare an unknown language with a language known to be related to it. In this case scientists set the known related language to Hebrew.


"The system looks for commonly used symbols in the two languages and gradually refines its mapping of the alphabet until it can go no further. The Ugaritic alphabet has 30 letters, and the system correctly mapped 29 of them to their Hebrew counterparts."

"Of the words that the two languages shared the program was able to correctly identify 60 per cent of them." - Read more


Critics point out that some as-yet undeciphered scripts have no known related languages so the program would not be of much use for them.  But leading researcher Regina Barzilay thinks that by scanning multiple languages at once the program could draw logical conclusions from contextual references.

Etruscan Architectural Antefix depicting a
Maenad and a Satyr 500-475 BCE. Photographed
at the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch.

Perhaps if they used epigraphic examples from similar types of excavation sites that would increase the likelihood that the inscriptions would be discussing similar topics. For example, if they used inscriptions from tablets all found near granaries or inscriptions all found on funerary objects in tombs it may help to increase the contextual similarities. If they further limited inscriptions to those found in similar sites from roughly equivalent time periods that would narrow the comparisons even further. This may also mean that comparisons could be made with languages existing at the same time period but not necessarily from a related language group.

In the Etruscan Museum in Rome housed in the Villa Giulia, there is a treatise inscribed on the Pyrgi tablets in both Etruscan and Phoenician. Although they are not related languages, they are both obviously talking about the same thing. Perhaps their inscriptions could be used as a test with the new software.


Other critics have pointed out that the program really does not have a way to determine the beginning or ending of words either. This can be a serious problem as Etruscan did not use spacing or punctuation until the sixth century BCE and then dots or colons may have also been used to separate syllables as well as words and sentences.

It's too bad all of the emperor Claudius' work on Etruscan have been lost over the centuries.


Only a few educated Romans with antiquarian interests, such as Varro, could read Etruscan. The last person known to have been able to read it was the Roman emperor Claudius (10 BC – AD 54), who — in the context of his work in twenty books about the Etruscans, Tyrrenikà (now lost) — compiled a dictionary (also lost) by interviewing the last few elderly rustics who still spoke the language. Urgulanilla, his first wife, was Etruscan.[3]

Livy and Cicero were both aware that highly specialized Etruscan religious rites were codified in several sets of books written in Etruscan under the generic Latin title Etrusca Disciplina. The Libri Haruspicini dealt with divination from the entrails of the sacrificed animal, the Libri Fulgurales expounded the art of divination by observing lightning. A third set, the Libri Rituales, would have provided us with the key to Etruscan civilization: its wider scope embraced Etruscan standards of social and political life as well as ritual practices. According to the 4th century Latin writer Servius, a fourth set of Etruscan books existed, dealing with animal gods, but it is probably unlikely that any contemporary scholar could have read Etruscan at such a late date. The single surviving Etruscan book, Liber Linteus, being written on linen, survived only by being used as mummy wrappings. - Wikipedia
Now that we have even better technology to analyze mummy wrappings and scrolls that were reused in the Middle Ages as well maybe some of Claudius' work will be found in the future.

The Atlas of Languages: The Origin and Development of Languages Throughout the World (Facts on File Library of Language and Literature Series)   The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language   Etruscan Civilization: A Cultural History   The Etruscan Language: An Introduction, Revised Editon   Claudius

Monday, July 19, 2010

Viewing Frescoes from Agrippa's Villa Farnesina Like The Ancient Romans

I see that the National Museum at the Palazzo Massimo has added a new dynamic lighting system to the display of the frescoes recovered from the Villa Farnesina, thought to have been one of the residences of Augustus' friend, general and admiral, Agrippa.

"A sophisticated and unique lighting system that recreates daylight hours from dusk to dawn in 100-second cycles lets visitors hone in on the details of the frescoes and vault stuccoes, which depict mythological scenes as well as more mundane activities. “It’s akin to seeing through the eyes of ancient Romans,” said Stefano Cacciapaglia, one of the architects who worked on the project." - More: New York Times

I wish I could have examined the frescoes with the new system when I visited the National Museum back in March 2009.   I was particularly impressed with the detail the artist captured in the faces, still discernible after more than 2000 years.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Don't miss my review of Steven Saylor's "Empire"!!

Empire: The Novel of Imperial Rome (Novels of Ancient Rome)I just finished an extensive review of Steven Saylor's new novel "Empire" and posted it to my Books and Novels of the Ancient World blog.    The novel follows the fictional patrician Pinarii family from the late Augustan Age to the reign of Hadrian with particularly fascinating "behind the scenes" exploration of the reigns of Nero and Domitian.  I found the novel so fascinating that I spent hours on supplemental research after I finished reading it to learn more about some of the personalities introduced in the novel that I knew very little about.  I highly recommend it!  Five Stars!!

Thursday, July 8, 2010

One Time Gallic Emperor Defeated by Aurelian depicted on coins in British Hoard

News of the discovery of over 52,000 Roman coins in southwest England near the town of Frome, many depicting Tetricus, really excited me.  There were even a few depicting Marcus Aurelius Carausius a military commander who seized power in the late third century and proclaimed himself emperor of Britain and northern Gaul. I had to do a little research since most of my study has focused on the Roman Republic and the early Empire so I was unfamiliar with Tetricus although Carausius appeared in  "The Silver Branch" one of my favorite novels by Rosemary Sutcliff .

Caius Pius Esuvius Tetricus is one of the so-called thirty tyrants listed in the Historia Augusta of the secessionist Gallic Empire, a breakaway realm founded by Postumus, a one-time governor of Germania, in 260 CE  after repeated barbarian invasions brought instability to the Roman Empire.  At its height the Gallic Empire encompassed the territories of Germania, Gaul, Britannia, and Hispania.

[Coin depicting Tetricus I.  Image from Rasiel's Roman Imperial Type Set courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]  

Although Postumus was assassinated in 268 CE and the empire lost much of its territory, it continued under a succession of emperors including the last, Tetricus, until he was defeated by the  Roman Emperor Aurelian at the Battle of Châlons in 274 CE.

 Surprisingly, Aurelian did not execute Tetricus or his son, Tetricus II.after they were forced to march in Aurelian's triumph.  In fact Aurelian gave Tetricus the title of corrector Lucaniae et Bruttiorum, governor of a southern region of Italia.  Aurelian may have rewarded Tetricus because Tetricus fought off Germanic barbarians who had begun ravaging Gaul after the death of Victorinus, and retook Gallia Aquitania and western Gallia Narbonensis, thereby laying the groundwork for a complete restoration of these territories to the Roman Empire.

A slab dedicated to Sol Invictus and to the
Genius of the Emperors Chosen Horse Guards
- Equites Singulares.  Photographed at the
National Museum of Rome galleries in the remains
of the Baths of Diocletian, Rome, Italy by
Mary Harrsch.
Aurelian's act of clemency not only served the Empire but perhaps was an expression of his deeper spiritual beliefs  He also did not execute Queen Zenobia of Palmyra when he defeated her troops in the east following their rebellion.  It's too bad his own troops didn't harbor as much clemency for him as he was murdered by his own staff on his way to Persia.  Especially ironic considering that Aurelian laid the foundation for "one god, one empire",  proclaiming the god Sol Invictus as the central figure in the Roman Pantheon.  Constantine managed to garner all the glory for adopting one god for the Roman Empire but Aurelian was there first.  Religious scholars will argue that Constantine adopted Christianity not a pagan god but there were times when Constantine referred to Sol Invictus in his iconography and scholars still argue if Constantine was truly promoting Christianity or unification of the empire through the worship of a single god as Aurelian had tried to do.

" Statuettes of Sol Invictus, carried by the standard-bearers, appear in three places in reliefs on the Arch of Constantine. Constantine's official coinage continues to bear images of Sol until 325/6. A solidus of Constantine as well as a gold medallion from his reign depict the Emperor's bust in profile twinned ("jugate") with Sol Invictus, with the legend INVICTUS CONSTANTINUS[29]
Constantine decreed (March 7, 321) dies Solis—day of the sun, "Sunday"—as the Roman day of rest [CJ3.12.2]:
On the venerable day of the Sun let the magistrates and people residing in cities rest, and let all workshops be closed. In the country however persons engaged in agriculture may freely and lawfully continue their pursuits because it often happens that another day is not suitable for grain-sowing or vine planting; lest by neglecting the proper moment for such operations the bounty of heaven should be lost.[30]
Constantine's triumphal arch was carefully positioned to align with the colossal statue of Sol by the Colosseum, so that Sol formed the dominant backdrop when seen from the direction of the main approach towards the arch.[31]" - Wikipedia
 Back in October 2009, a couple of researchers argued in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science that large numbers of coin hoards are a good quantitative indicator of population decline. They also pointed out that in periods of social upheaval we are familiar with like the Second Punic War, the Social Wars, and the civil wars, hoarding behavior soared.[See Wired Science]

Although they were studying coin hoards from the second and first century BCE, their theory would indicate that there are a lot more hoards from the third century CE still waiting to be found, as we know from the historical record that the third century was a period of massive social upheaval. Maybe I'd better ship my husband and his metal detector off to England as an investment strategy!

Romano-British Coin Hoards (Shire Archaeology)   Handbook of Ancient Greek and Roman Coins: An Official Whitman Guidebook   Aurelian and the Third Century (Roman Imperial Biographies)   Restorer of the World: The Emperor Aurelian   The Religious Context of Early Christianity: A Guide to Graeco-Roman Religions   Carausius and Allectus: The British Usurpers   The Catastrophic Era:: Rome Versus Persia in the Third Century   Rome's Gothic Wars: From the Third Century to Alaric (Key Conflicts of Classical Antiquity)   The Silver Branch




Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Human skeleton unearthed in newly discovered Gloucestershire Roman villa

Remains of a bath complex at Lullingstone Villa.
Photo by Mary Harrsch
I noticed this news release today so I'm assuming this dig is centered on a newly discovered villa not the well known Chedworth site near Cheltenham.

A 2,000-year-old human skeleton has been discovered alongside Iron Age artefacts near Tewkesbury.  The experts do not know yet whether the skeleton is of a male or female but believe it is at least 2,000 years old.

Stuart Foreman of Oxford Archaeology said thousands of pieces of masonry, nails, tiles, pottery and clothing would be unearthed by the time the project is complete.


He said: "Fragments of stone peg-tiles from the roof and sections of painted wall plaster indicate a building of high quality and status. The footings survive to a height of nearly 1m cut into the hillside." - Sify News
 Actually, a number of villas have been discovered in Gloucestershire over the years.  I found this extensive list published by George Witts in an Archaeological Handbook in 1883.  Unfortunately I have not yet visited any of these sites but I have toured Lullingstone Villa, Veralamium and Fishbourne Roman Palace.  The remains of the bath complex at Lullingstone is probably quite similar to the remains of baths found in several of the Gloucestershire villas.

 Roman Britain: A New History   A History of Roman Britain   Roman Britain and Early England: 55 B.C.-A.D. 871 (Norton Library History of England)   The History of Warfare: The Roman Invasions of Britain   An Imperial Possession: Britain in the Roman Empire, 54 BC - AD 409 (Penguin History of Britain)

Roman Archaeology Timeline