Friday, September 26, 2014

The House of the Tragic Poet: What's love got to do with it?


A history resource article by  © 2014

Recently, I watched a fascinating lecture by Professor Steven Tuck of Miami University on the interpretation of imagery found in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii in his course "Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City", recorded for The Great Courses.   He describes the scenes of mythical and literary events as sharing an overall theme of love with the exception of a panel depicting the sacrifice of Iphigenia in a vestibule of the peristyle adjacent to the triclinium.  He also explained that this jumble of images was possibly the target of Petronius, Nero's official "arbiter of taste". In his "Satyricon" written during this period, Petronius derided such, as he perceived it, tasteless displays proffered up by the nouveau riche.

When Dr. Tuck described the images I found myself searching for more meaning in their inclusion in a family home, too, other than just ostentation. So I searched the web and stumbled across an article by Bettina Bergmann entitled "The Roman House As Memory Theater".  Bergmann expresses her opinion that, what on the surface may appear to some to be unrelated lavish literary and mythical depictions, may have actually been carefully chosen scenes to enable visitors to the house, as well as its residents, to relate contemporary events to the ancient epic past as a means to both appreciate and understand the culture they all shared.  I hope I understood her correctly.

Remains of frescoes depicting mythological scenes in the triclinium
(dining room) in the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.  Image courtesy
of Wikimedia Commons.
She thinks the choice of decor served as memory tools, called the method of loci, or the "Roman Room" technique, to facilitate intelligent discourse as described by Cicero in his thesis on oratory, "De Oratore".  The method of loci, also known as the memory palace or mind palace technique, is a mnemonic device adopted by ancient Greek and Roman rhetoricians that relies on memorized spatial relationships to establish, order and recollect memorized content.

Portrait bust of the famous Roman orator Cicero.
Photographed at the Capitoline Museum by
 © 2005

"In this technique the subject memorizes the layout of some building, or the arrangement of shops on a street, or any geographical entity which is composed of a number of discrete loci. When desiring to remember a set of items the subject literally 'walks' through these loci and commits an item to each one by forming an image between the item and any distinguishing feature of that locus. Retrieval of items is achieved by 'walking' through the loci, allowing the latter to activate the desired items. The efficacy of this technique has been well established (Ross and Lawrence 1968, Crovitz 1969, 1971, Briggs, Hawkins and Crovitz 1970, Lea 1975), as is the minimal interference seen with its use." - John O'Keefe and Lynn Nadel, The Hippocampus as a Cognitive Map

Although I agree that the House of the Tragic Poet could have served wonderfully well as a "memory theater", I think each room's decor would not only provide a distinctive loci, but remind the visitor of an important aspect of human relationship either within the family or the society as a whole.  Dr. Tuck focused on an underlying theme of love and it is certainly an underlying thread in many of the images.   But depictions of power of those in authority over socially subordinate individuals and the consequences of defying authority is also present and in the strictly ordered society of late Republican and early Imperial Rome, this message to visiting clients would not be overlooked.

As a client enters the atrium, to the right he would see a panel depicting Zeus and Hera on Mount Ida.

Fresco depicting the wedding of Zeus and Hera in the atrium
of the House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
"Zeus persuades his modest bride to lift her veil and reveal her face, which she turns suggestively to the viewer.  This canonical scheme, seen in a metope from Hera's 5th century BCE Temple at Selinus, celebrates that liminal passage in a woman's life from invisibility to exposure, virginity to marriage." - Bettina Bergmann, The Roman House as Memory Theater

Bergmann refers to various interpretations of the Iliad for this example.  From a client's perspective, though, the marriage could represent a metaphorical one between the client and the patron.  Furthermore the lifting of the veil could represent the need for complete disclosure between the client and patron as a necessary foundation for trust.

Next, the client would see a painting of Achilles sitting before his tent after he reluctantly releases his concubine, Briseis, to Patroclus, who leads her away to the tent of Agamemnon.  Briseis, too, turns her glance back toward the viewer as she holds up her veil to dry a tear.  To a client, this could remind him that sacrifices may have to be made but the patron has the right to expect this.

Fresco depicting The Greek hero Achilles surrounding his captive
prize Briseis to Patroclus who prepares to take her to King Agamemnon.
Image from the House of the Tragic Poet courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
The third panel depicts Helen, also unveiled, boarding a ship that will take her from her homeland to Troy where strife and heartache await.  Again a client is reminded of the degree of sacrifice and obedience to which a patron is entitled.

Fresco depicting Helen boarding a ship
for Troy in the atrium of the House of
the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.  Image
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Once the client is called into the tablinum they find a scene of Alcestis hearing the news that her husband Admetus may be spared death if another dies in his place.  In the myth, the wife offers herself instead.  Obviously, a client-patron relationship in this period of Rome is to be taken very seriously and a client may need to be willing to throw himself under the chariot, so to speak, to save his patron.

Fresco of Alcestis hearing the news that her husband Admetus
will be spared if someone (her) dies in his place from the
House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.  Image courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons.
The famous mosaic of  actors preparing to present a tragic satyr play stares up at the client from the floor.  The elderly choragos could again represent the patron who is instructing a flute player and two actors dressed in goatskin loincloths, representatives of the clients who are presenting themselves for their daily assignment.  I also think of this mosaic as reminding clients that they all have their parts to play (Even though Shakespeare was born many centuries later!)

Mosaic depicting the choregos and tragic actors from the tablinum in the
House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Of course all of my speculation is based on the viewpoint of a client visiting the patron which occurred every morning during the salutatio. But the underlying messages of respect for authority, obedience and sacrifice would apply even to the patron's visiting friends and peers since all would be considered in service to Rome. In her treatise, Bergmann offers all kinds of alternate suggestions based on image groupings from different angles that you may find interesting as well.

One image that gave Dr. Tuck pause to explain its connections to all the others from a viewpoint of love as the predominant theme is the image depicting the sacrifice of Iphigenia that adorns a small space of the peristyle diagonally across from the lararium.  I think it is actually the ultimate expression of love in the entire house, though.  In a Roman world of patron and client relationships and the exercising the role of pater familias, who has the power of life and death even over family members, I think this image served to remind the patron each morning after he sacrificed to his ancestors and household gods and turned to enter the tablinum, not to allow the heady intoxication of power and ambition lead him to sacrifice the most important people in his life or there would be dire consequences (like there was for Agamemnon!) - serving the purpose very much like the slave who rides with the triumphator in the triumphal chariot whispering, "remember, thou art mortal".

The sacrifice of Iphigenia found in a vestibule of the peristyle adjacent to
the triclinium.  I think this image would have reminded the patron of the
dire consequences of placing ambition above love for his familias.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


I highly recommend that you read Bettina Bergmann's paper as it is not only interesting but has beautiful illustrations of the various reconstructed spaces within the House of the Tragic Poet.  I also recommend Dr. Steven Tuck's lecture series "Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City" available through The Great Courses.

The famous Cave Canem Mosaic at the entrance to the House of the Tragic
Poet.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 
The House of the Tragic Poet wasn't the only one with a
"Cave Canem" mosaic in the entryway.  Here's another
one I found in Pompeii in 2005.  Photograph by
 © 2005
One last note:  Dr. Tuck said Petronius made particular fun of the fact that the nouveau riche house in the Satyricon had a "Beware of Dog" mosaic at its entrance just like the House of the Tragic Poet. Petronius pointed out that it was totally ridiculous because all Roman houses have their door opened to the public during the day with, theoretically, all comers welcome.  I think the mosaic served as a subtle and very practical reminder to those who might be contemplating entering the home to do harm that, although the door is open, the house is guarded, whether literally or metaphorically - sort of the modern equivalent of posting a "Beware of Dog" sign even when you don't own one.  It makes perfect sense to me but, of course, I have never been designated as someone's arbiter of taste!

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Review: Hannibal: Enemy of Rome by Ben Kane

A history resource article by  © 2014


It's been a busy summer but I finally finished the first book in bestselling author Ben Kane's series about the Hannibalic Wars entitled "Hannibal: Enemy of Rome".  As in his popular "The Forgotten Legion", Kane has used young men on the cusp of manhood as his primary characters.

We first meet Hanno, a young Carthaginian who hopes to become a soldier like his father, Malchus, once was.  Now, Malchus serves on the council in Carthage and, although Malchus drags Hanno to the council meetings so he may learn statecraft, Hanno finds the meetings a bore and prefers to skip out and go fishing with his best friend, Suniaton, the son of a high priest.

We also briefly meet Hanno's two older brothers, Sapho and Bostar who presently serve as officers in the Carthaginian army.  We discover that Sapho, the eldest, is jealous of Bostar because Bostar has been promoted above him because of Bostar's superior tactical acumen.  Sapho's jealousy also extends to a lesser degree to Hanno, who, as the youngest, has captured his father's heart after the death of Hanno's mother.

A painting of the intricate harbor and ancient city of Carthage.  Image
courtesy of the Carthage Archaeological Museum, Tunis, Tunisia.
Kane provides a vivid description of the capital of Carthage, still majestic even after suffering defeat at the hands of the Romans in the First Punic War.  But all is not well as Carthage and Rome have once more butted heads in Iberia where Carthage has conquered most of the peninsula and the town of Saguntum, fearful of the growing Carthaginian presence in the region, has appealed to Rome for help.

Malchus supports the Barca family and clearly expects Hannibal, the senior Barca commander, to exact "payback" from the Romans for their past offenses to Carthage.

Meanwhile, Hanno and Suniaton hear of a large run of tunny (tuna), and can't resist trying their luck so they can earn a little spending money.  They set off in a small boat that they soon fill with fish.  Suniaton has pilfered a bottle of wine from his father's wine cellar and they decide to celebrate their good luck.  Soon they fall asleep in the warm sun so do not see an approaching storm.  When the violence of the storm finally awakens them they find they have been swept far out to sea and cannot see the outline of Carthage in any direction.  As they were only on an afternoon outing they have no supplies and soon are famished from thirst and hunger.  Finally they see a ship on the horizon and think they are saved.  But the ship is manned by pirates who see the two boys as nothing more than slaves that can be sold for a profit.

To make matters worse, a patrol ship makes the pirate captain decide to avoid Sicily and steer to Italy instead.  When the ship arrives in Italy the two boys are marched off towards Capua where it is hoped they will be sold to a gladiator school.

But Hanno is purchased by a Roman equestrian family that runs a farm near Capua instead.  Then we meet Quintus and Aurelia, the son and daughter of Fabricius, once a Roman cavalry officer and now a landowner who raises grain and livestock.

A Roman villa rustica excavated near the ancient town of Boscoreale
north of Naples, Italy
.  Photo by  © 2007.
Now we find out what Roman life is like for this semi-retired military veteran and his family. I really like the way Kane gives us thorough backgrounds on all of these characters so we have a solid understanding of the similarities and differences that separate the two cultures.

Hanno and Quintus who are almost the same age become friends and as the plot unfolds, each saves the other's life, making their bond even stronger.

In the meantime, since Rome does not send assistance, Saguntum subsequently falls to Hannibal's forces. So talk of war with Carthage soon dominates the conversations at the villa.  Quintus begins cavalry training and Quintus' father, Fabricius is soon ordered to join Roman forces in southern Gaul marching towards Iberia where the Romans plan to confront Hannibal.

With Fabricius gone, the villa overseer, who lost his wife and children to Carthaginians on Sicily and harbors hatred for Hanno, attempts to drag Hanno away to Capua where he plans to sell the youth to the lanista at the gladiator school for an arranged fight to the death with Hanno's friend Suniaton.  But I don't want to give away much more of the plot so you'll have to read it for yourselves to find out what happens.

Remains of the amphitheater at Capua.  Image courtesy of
Flickr user .
Eventually, Hanno and Quintus both end up serving in their respective armies after Hannibal successfully crosses the Alps and the two armies end up camped across the Trebia River from each other.
Having studied the Second Punic War to some extent, I was wondering how Quintus and his father were going to escape the slaughter that I knew was about to befall them.  Kane does such a good job of characterization that at this point in the book I cared about both the Carthaginian family and the Roman family equally.

The climactic battle sequence was nothing short of breathtaking.  What I liked the most was Kane's description of the scenes and terror each character saw around them and felt as the epic struggle unfolded - Hanno and his father fighting with the Libyan spearmen near the center of the Carthaginian line while Quintus and his father struggled with the Roman cavalry on the flanks.

The Gauls, who had been previously allied with the Romans, joined Hannibal at the Battle of the Trebia River and were placed at the Carthaginian center.  Although fierce, the Gauls could not hold back the disciplined Roman legionaries who fought through the center then retreated back to Placentia (Modern day Piacenza).  Image courtesy of Total War: Rome II by .
I appreciate the fact that Kane does not attempt to "take sides" on the historical controversy over whether Scipio tried to warn Sempronius Longus against the ill-fated attack or not.  Polybius claims he did but many scholars look askance at this report since Polybius and the Scipios were closely allied.  These scholars also point to the reported number of Roman troops involved in the engagement as problematic.  Livy records there were 18,000 Romans and 20,000 Italic allies involved.  Polybius claims there were 16,000 Romans and 20,000 Italic allies.

"The numbers stated to have fought the battle are problematic: a combined Roman army should have had 5 legions of 20,000 men and all 30,000 allies authorized by the Senate and yet if the armies were not combined Sempronius should have had only two legions of 8,000 men. One answer is that Scipio gave up two legions and kept one and 20,000 auxiliaries in his own camp as a reserve. Livy seems to think that Scipio's wound gave the entire authority to Sempronius, but immediately after the battle Scipio commanded an army marching from his camp to Placentia. If Scipio could command after the battle then he was not so incapacitated as to be removed from command before it. Both authors agreed that the two consuls had sharp differences of opinion and that Sempronius acted on his own." 
"It is possible that the authors doubled the number of Roman legions fighting the battle and that Sempronius had only 8,000 or 9,000 Roman infantry. The authors both relate, however, that a mass of 10,000 men broke out of the Carthaginian encirclement and fell back on Placentia. Tiberius apparently did have more than two legions. Scipio argues in the story that Sempronius' men needed the winter to train, suggesting that on the way to north Italy Sempronius may have raised two more legions of recruits, throwing them into battle under difficult physical circumstances against expert advice without training. There is no mention of any such events, however." 
"Yet another hypothesis for reconciling the numbers cited by Livy for combined strength of the two consular armies and the actual number of participants in the battle of the Trebia would be that Sempronius detached part of his allied contingents for garrison duty on Sicily and for naval service with Marcus Aemilius and Sextus Pomponius. Some allowance should also be made for non-combat losses. The strength of this hypothesis lies in the maximum use of ancient evidence." - The Battle of the Trebia, Wikipedia
Since this crucial bit of evidence relies on theory rather than certainty, Kane's decision to sidestep the issue was certainly reasonable.  He does, however, relay to us the impatience expressed by the troops themselves over Scipio's apparent hesitance to act while recuperating from his wounds.

A beautiful 17th century ivory rendering of Scipio fighting Hannibal by  currently on display at the royal castle in Warsaw, Poland. This is probably a depiction of the Battle of Zama where Scipio Africanus defeated Hannibal. Publius Cornelius Scipio (the elder) lost to Hannibal at the battle of the Ticinus River but that was primarily a cavalry engagement and war elephants were not involved.  This work has also been called Alexander's defeat of Porus.  Image courtesy of S.F. Burgerer via Wikimedia Commons.  Digitally enhanced by Mary Harrsch.
I am definitely looking forward to the next book in this exciting trilogy.  The only criticism I would have is that the title makes it sound like the book is about Hannibal himself.  Although the key events in the latter part of the book are the result of Hannibal's orders, Hannibal himself appears only infrequently in the narrative.  It perhaps would have been somewhat more accurate to name the series "The Hannibalic Wars" with the subtitle "Enemy of Rome" (Book One).  But I can certainly understand the choice of title from a marketing perspective since some people may not actually make the connection between "Hannibalic Wars" and Hannibal.