Sunday, July 21, 2019

Review: Army of the Roman Emperors: Archaeology and History by Thomas Fischer

History resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2019

Casemate Academic Publishing recently sent me a reference text to examine entitled "Army of the Roman Emperors: Archaeology and History" by Thomas Fischer.  This comprehensive  work is divided into six parts.

Part I, written by Dietrich Boschung,  examines "Iconographic sources for the Roman military" from the Republican period through Late Antiquity.  I found its in-depth descriptions of some famous Roman imagery very revealing.  Furthermore, some of the astonishing pieces I had not seen before either.  One such piece was the Gemma Augusta, a low-relief cameo cut from Arabian onyx attributed to Dioscurides or one of his disciples created in the second or third decade of the 1st century CE. It is currently housed in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria.  The text explains the significance of each major figure on the piece, something you rarely get with a museum identification card, and speculates on the purpose for which the piece was created.

1st century CE Roman cameo depicting Tiberius and Augustus with various deities and prisoners
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons contributor Carole Raddato
 It peaked my interest so much that I researched the cameo further and discovered there are also alternative explanations for some of the figures, particularly those in the lower register where captives are shown awaiting the erection of a tropaion.  It was interesting to read how various art historians use slight clues from hairstyles and attire in combination with a knowledge of political and military history of the period to determine who is actually represented and for what purpose.

Part II explores the changes that occurred over time in the armament and equipment of the Roman army, a result of the development of more advanced weapons and fluctuations in the procurement of raw materials.  It also discusses archaeological finds made in different contexts such as battlefield and siege finds, objects recovered from camps, forts and other military sites, those found in civilian settlements, and artifacts recovered from water deposits, hoards, and grave sites.

Part III examines all of the costumes, weapons, and equipment from original archaeological finds. This was my favorite section since I am a visually-oriented person and it was full of photographs, drawings, and reconstructions of objects actually recovered from the field.  I was particularly impressed with the condition of some of the artifacts, especially ornate pugio scabbards and cavalry helmets, many of them, I noticed, in private collections.  I was also surprised by the variety of different helmet designs and the degree of ornamentation on some accessories like a privately-owned collection of cheek pieces. I really appreciated the drawings showing the placement of some items of a legionary's kit and those used with horses, too.

Part IV explored the details of Roman army constructions and architecture from marching camps to vexillation fortresses and how defensive structures changed through the centuries.  There is even a discussion of the various military structures in Rome itself from the Castra Praetoria to the accommodation for the vigiles.

Part V wraps up the army portion with a chronological look at military conflicts and the armament and equipment used in each historical period beginning with the Republic.

Then Part VI discusses the development of the Roman navy from the arming and equipping of the marines to locations of naval installations including those along major rivers and tributaries.  A wealth of illustrations, informed by not only iconographic sources but the recovery of actual vessels, depict various ships and smaller craft as well as harbor installations.

I think this book would be an invaluable reference work for not only Roman history enthusiasts and re-enactors but aspiring novelists as well.  Its extensive bibliography serves as a stepping stone to more research sources and it offers a thorough index as well.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Caesar's Ancient World Alexa Skill Now Illustrated!

I received word from Amazon that the newest version of my FREE educational Alexa skill, "Caesar's Ancient World" has been certified. This latest version of the skill includes 280 images of ancient art from almost 100 institutions worldwide for those of you with Alexa-enabled devices with displays like the Echo Show, Echo Spot and FireTV. Of course the voice-only version remains available for those with regular Echos or Echo Dots. 

I have redesigned the interface so you can now just ask Caesar what you would like to talk about and he will reply with narrative including sound effects. You can say things like "I want to know more about chariot racing" or "Tell me more about your greatest victory" or "I'm interested in gladiators". If you can't think of anything just say "I don't know" or "I can't think of anything" and he'll suggest a topic! 

Caesar is now capable of discussing fifty different topics including:

adoption (Roman)
Alesia (battle)
ancestor worship
chariot racing
childhood (Roman)
Dyrrhachium (battle)
entertainment (Roman)
famous battles
flamen dialis
Gergovia (battle)
Great Library of Alexandria
horseback riding
marriage (Roman)
military punishment
military service
Pharsalus (battle)
political rivals
pontifex maximus
private life (Roman)
public life (Roman) 
punishing the wealthy
senate (Roman)
slavery (Roman)
sword training
woman Caesar knew

His discussion of the introduction of naumachia as a new entertainment type for Roman audiences is the newest subject I have introduced. 

I think this skill is suitable for Middle School students and above. I have selected appropriate images with those students in mind. 

Saturday, October 13, 2018

New "Ancient Wisdom" Alexa skill available now!

If you've been enjoying my ancient wisdom posts every day on Facebook and have either an Alexa-enabled device or just the Alexa skill on your smartphone, You can now listen to even more quotes in my FREE educational Alexa skill "Ancient Wisdom" that was just published this morning! I compiled over 100 quotes from ancient Greek and Roman sources that were selected because I thought they provide guidance for issues we face today. I hope to add sources from ancient Egypt, ancient Persia, and ancient China as time permits - after all, I am retired!

Today's example:

Young boy portrayed as Hercules choking Hera's serpent 
Roman second half of 2nd century CE photographed
at the Capitoline Museum in Rome.

For just as children tremble and fear all In the viewless dark, so even we at times, dread in the light, so many things that be, no whit more fearsome, than what children feign, shuddering, will be upon them in the dark. This terror then, this darkness of the mind, not sunrise with its flaring spokes of light, nor glittering arrows of morning can disperse, but only Nature's aspect and her law. Lucretius. The Nature of Things. Book 6.
Although the current Alexa app is designed for voice-only devices, I hope to eventually modify it for the Echo Show and Echo Spot and include the images as well.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Dr. J LED mini-projector provides economical solution to history presentations

This is a cross post from my blog "Technology Times and Trials." A technology resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018

If some of you, like me, are asked to present information periodically that includes images and video and no longer have access to institutional multimedia equipment, you might be interested in this 3 pound Dr. J micro-projector measuring just 7.8 x 2.7 x 6 inches that is capable of producing projected output of 170 inches (diagonally). 

In September, I will be attending my 50-year class reunion and offered to produce some music videos of my classmates working and having fun over the past 50 years as well as a salute to our class veterans.  But the Historical Museum where we will be gathering owned no projection equipment. Since I'm retired, I also no longer have access to a university projector. It was a bit of a dilemma until I saw this unit advertised as an Amazon Lightning deal for only $60. (It is regularly priced at $98.99 - still a bargain!) It was very positively reviewed, although for the price, I quite honestly, wasn't expecting a lot. When the projector arrived, though, I was very pleasantly surprised.

The unit is solidly built and comes with a remote as well as having adjustment controls on the projector itself. I had copied my videos to a flash drive and inserted it into the USB port then turned on the projector and selected USB as my video source using the setup menu. Then I navigated through the flash drive folders to the folder containing my videos and selected the one I wished to play. Pressing the source button again opened the video in full screen mode and played all videos in the selected folder.  I was quite pleased with the color reproduction and thought the sharpness was also quite good as well.

The unit has built-in speakers, a big plus for such a compact unit, and they put out a decent amount of sound.  If you need more volume for a larger room, you can use the included RCA cable to connect external speakers.  Quite honestly, I was totally amazed at the quality of the output for such a small price. When I was an education technologist before I retired ten years ago I had to spend over a thousand dollars to get the results this LED micro-projector produces.

In short, this little gem offers great portability, is easy to set up and adjust, and has very good sharpness and color reproduction for a terrific price!  (No, I don't work for this company or receive any commissions for publicizing it.)  I just might go forth and produce more presentations on the Roman Empire for local groups now that I have a way to share them.  After all, if the SAT advisory board follows through with the proposal to eliminate teaching history before the mid-1400s in U.S. AP courses, someone needs to do it!! The legal and social constructs of the classical world were used to form the foundation on which our republic was built!

Note: The projector shipped with an HDMI cable which is great for those with a newer laptop or other HDMI-compatible devices.  However, if you are using an older laptop as your content source you will need your own VGA cable and audio patch cable to connect your laptop's VGA port and headphone jack to the projector's VGA port and AV jack as they are not provided. Unless your files require software on your laptop or you are demonstrating software, though, I recommend copying your images or videos to a USB flash drive and eliminate the hassle of connecting all the cables for laptop projection. 

This unit is optimized for video output and is not recommended for text-heavy Powerpoint presentations.  However, I could still read projected text with the unit properly focused. Instead, I use a slideshow program called ProShow Gold by Photodex to combine my images with a soundtrack, add transitions, and output a video file in my desired file format.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Review: The Middle Ages in 50 Objects by Gertsman and Rosenwein

A history resource article by Mary Harrsch © 2018

Normally, I review books focused on the ancient world but I received an email from Cambridge University Press asking if I would be interested in receiving a review copy of their new release "The Middle Ages in 50 objects." Even though the Middle Ages is not the period of my personal research, I still enjoy examining art and artifacts from the Middle Ages when I photograph the permanent collections of of the museums I visit, so I agreed to give it my attention.

As promised, the book was lavishly illustrated with full page color photos of the artifacts selected for inclusion.  I was surprised that all of the objects came from a single museum, the Cleveland Museum of Art, though.  Most world-class museums have galleries of medieval art so I was not expecting a single museum not devoted to that historical period, to have the breadth needed to encompass an entire age.

But Professor Elina Gertsman of Case Western Reserve University and her co-author, Professor Barbara Rosenwein of Loyola University Chicago, have certainly selected objects that are representative of their four focus areas, The Holy and the Faithful, The Sinful and the Spectral, Daily Life and Its Fictions, and Death and Its Aftermath.

Most objects are Christian-themed, but several artifacts from Islamic regions are also included.  I was particularly surprised to find a sculpture dated as early as 280-290 CE to be the first object discussed, though. I usually consider the Middle Ages a period from the fifth to fifteenth centuries CE, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire and lasting into the early Renaissance.  But, as a scholar of the ancient period, I was, of course, anxious to read what these distinguished art historians had to say about the piece.

Jonah Cast Up Roman 280-290 CE. Courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

The piece, entitled Jonah Cast Up, was a bit baffling to me. Most of us are quite familiar with the tale of Jonah being swallowed by a a huge fish (New International version, King James version) or dag gadol - great fish (Hebrew). But here, the "fish" has the head and forepaws of a wolf, typically symbolic of the Roman Empire. Furthermore, the male figure has the hair style and beard often seen in Roman art depicting Jupiter.

The authors, too, recognized the resemblance of the Jonah figure to Zeus (Jupiter in the Roman pantheon).

"A strong muscular man with an abundant beard and wild curly hair, Jonah dives out from the jaws of the beast, arms up, the movement of his torso echoing the direction of the sea creature's pricked up ears and scrunched snout. The broad-shouldered Jonah, with his copious curls and robust arms, is reminiscent of images of Zeus, the Greek god of Thunder and the ruler of Olympus."

But they say nothing about the symbolism of the wolf other than to observe that the great fish of the Jonah story has sometimes been interpreted as a sea monster (in later Greek translations of the scriptures).

I thought, perhaps, the archaeological context could provide additional insight.

The authors point to collateral finds as possible evidence of a patron with Christian leanings.
"This sculpture seems to have formed part of an ensemble.  It was supposedly found buried in a very large jar alongside six paired portrait busts, an image of Christ the Good Shepherd, and three other representations of Jonah in prayer, under the shade plant, and being swallowed by the sea monster. The patrons therefore appear to have had Christian leanings."

The dating appears to be tentative and the authors speculate whether it was produced a little later than the date given, perhaps during Diocletian's persecution of Christian believers in 302 CE.

Portrait head of Diocletian photographed at the
Art Institute of Chicago by Mary Harrsch © 2016
"Soldiers were ordered to sacrifice to the Roman gods or face discharge; Christian churches were destroyed; books of scripture were confiscated and burned; and Christians were stripped of their rank if they did not conform, making them liable to torture or execution. Whether carved before the Great Persecution or at some point during it, the marble image of the rebellious Jonah - not only saved from drowning but also finding himself cast safely ashore - must have been exceptionally reassuring."

I would offer a slightly different interpretation as another possibility. I think the sculpture could have been produced a little later still, during the reign of Constantius II.  Although seemingly an image representing the Jonah story, I think it could have been carved to represent the expulsion of paganism from the Roman Empire itself.  That would account for the human figure's resemblance to Zeus (Jupiter) and for the wolf's head on the sea monster's body - still probably reassuring to a Christian-leaning patron who may have suffered during the Great Persecution.

I definitely agree with the author's summary conclusion, however.

"Jonah Cast Up stands as a perfect witness to the cultural and religious complexity of the late third [and early fourth] century."

I also found a gilt-silver arm reliquary of the Apostles, circa 1190 CE, from lower Saxony interesting too. Although I view the veneration of bits of human corpses to be a macabre practice, I have admired beautiful reliquaries, strictly from an artistic perspective, at a number of museums I have visited.  As an ancient scholar, though, the thing I found really intriguing was the authors' observation that often reliquaries do not house the body part they represent, although this one did.  It seems deception has plagued religions for thousands of years as I have read that ancient Egyptian votive mummies depicting various animals rarely contain the animal they represent either.

I found the background information on a 14th century French ivory mirror case depicting a couple playing chess quite eye-opening. In fact, the authors' description of some of the symbolism represented by this particular mirror and chess as a metaphor for courtship made me blush!

"Such mirrors were popular in French and German wealthy households, surviving in large numbers. The subjects carved on their cases were almost always secular, some featuring the God of Love, others the Castle of Love Under attack still other scenes of courtship and narratives from romances.  The game of chess, very popular in medieval literature, was particularly favored for mirrors, which were given as gifts and often formed part of a trousseau."

I'll definitely have to keep my eye out for more of these little marvels in my museum travels!

I found the authors' background information and symbolic interpretation of the selected artifacts in "The Middle Ages in 50 Objects" quite fascinating and highly recommend this text.