Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Dying Gaul on view at The National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. Beginning Dec 12!

An ancient history resource article by  © 2013

As part of the "Year of Italian Culture in the United States" project, the Capitoline Museum has graciously loaned the moving sculpture known as "The Dying Gaul" to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. where it will be on display from December 12, 2013 to March 16, 2014.  The sculpture  is a 1st - 2nd century CE Roman marble copy of a lost Hellenistic bronze that is thought to have been commissioned between 230 BCE and 220 BCE by Attalus I of Pergamon to celebrate his victory over the Galatians in Anatolia. The  identity of the sculptor of the original is unknown, but it has been suggested that Epigonus, the court sculptor of the Attalid dynasty of Pergamon, may have been its creator.

The Dying Gaul photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy by
 © 2005.
This breathtaking masterpiece I have had the good fortune to view at The Capitoline Museum on both of my visits there, is thought to have been discovered during excavations of the Villa Ludovisi, built upon the remains of the Gardens of Sallust, in the early 17th century.  It first appeared on an inventory of the powerful Italian family's collections in 1623 CE. In 1633, Pope Clement XII acquired it for the Capitoline collections. In the late 18th century, Napoleon acquired the sculpture under the terms of the Treaty of Tolentino.  It was subsequently exhibited in The Louvre until 1816 when it was returned to Rome.

Originally, it was thought to have depicted a defeated gladiator and was dubbed "The Dying Gladiator" or "The Dying Murmillo".  But subsequent scholarship identified it as a Celtic warrior by the 19th century.

This wonderful closeup by Professor Steven Zucker clearly shows the neck
torc (torque) worn by Celtic warriors.  Torcs are found in the Scythian, Illyrian,
Thracian, Celtic, and other cultures of the European Iron Age from around the
8th century BCE to the 3rd century CE. Often made of precious metals, torcs
were a symbol of rank and were often awarded to warriors for their bravery by
their chieftains.  They were also valued as plunder if a Celtic army was defeated.
The Roman Titus Manlius in 361 BCE challenged a Gaul to single combat, killed him,
and then took his torc. Because he always wore it, he received the nickname
Torquatus (the one who wears a torc). Pliny the Elder records that after a battle in
386 BCE the Romans recovered 183 torcs from the Celtic dead. Quintilian says
that Gauls presented the Emperor Augustus with a symbolic gold torc weighing
100 Roman pounds (nearly 33 kilos).
 Photo © 2010 by
Although heroic nudes are frequently depicted in ancient art, this particular portrayal of a nude warrior is historically accurate based on ancient descriptions of some Celtic fighting groups.

Diodorus Siculus reported that "Some use iron breast-plates in battle, while others fight naked, trusting only in the protection which nature gives." Polybius wrote an evocative account of Galatian tactics against a Roman army at the Battle of Telamon of 225 BCE:

"The Insubres and the Boii wore trousers and light cloaks, but the Gaesatae, in their love of glory and defiant spirit, had thrown off their garments and taken up their position in front of the whole army naked and wearing nothing but their arms... The appearance of these naked warriors was a terrifying spectacle, for they were all men of splendid physique and in the prime of life." - Polybius, Histories II.28
The Roman historian Livy recorded that the Celts of Asia Minor fought naked and "their wounds were plain to see on the whiteness of their bodies".

The statue has been so admired over the centuries that it was considered a "must see" for aristocrats taking the "Grand Tour" of the classical world.    The famed poet Byron even commemorated his visit to see the statue with a short but poignant poem, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:

I see before me the gladiator lie
He leans upon his hand—his manly brow
Consents to death, but conquers agony,
And his drooped head sinks gradually low—
And through his side the last drops, ebbing slow
From the red gash, fall heavy, one by one...

If you have the wonderful opportunity to visit Rome, don't miss the Palazzo Altemps on your list of must-see museums, either.  There, you will find another outstanding statue commemorating the valor of the Celts known as the Ludovisi Gaul.  It depicts a formidable muscled warrior in the act of plunging a sword into his chest rather than be captured by the enemy.  He grips the arm of his dying wife whom he has slain in a final act of love.

The Ludovisi Gaul photographed at the  Palazzo Altemps,
Museo Nazionale 
Romano in Rome, Italy by   ©2009.
 The Celtic warrior's heroic nudity is in contrast to his modestly-dressed wife whose attire would have been familiar on the streets of ancient Rome. This dramatic sculpture is thought to have been commissioned by Julius Caesar in the 1st century BCE after his defeat of the Gauls at the famous battle of Alesia in modern day France.  It, too, is thought to be a copy of a Hellenistic original bronze by Epigonus from a grouping at Pergamon.

The Ludovisi Gaul is depicted with the iconic "long hair"
 and thick mustache described by the Romans in the ancient sources.

Photographed at the  Palazzo Altemps, Museo Nazionale  Romano,
Rome, Italy
 I noticed that Wikipedia mentioned another important Celtic statue called "The Kneeling Gaul" that is in the collections of The Louvre.  Unfortunately, when I visited Paris in 2008, it was not on display.  I wish I could have seen it!

The Kneeling Gaul at The Louvre in Paris, France courtesy of
As I look at the image of The Kneeling Gaul I am struck by the facial similarities to a sculpture of Medusa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini I photographed at the Capitoline Museum back in 2005.

Medusa by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1630 CE.
Photographed at the Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy by
 © 2005.
I see that Bernini produced his Medusa in 1630, about the same time the Kneeling Gaul was discovered in the former Gardens of Sallust.  I wonder if the Kneeling Gaul provided Bernini's inspiration for his Medusa figure?

If you get a chance to visit Washington D.C. in the next three months, be sure to stop by The National Gallery of Art and experience "The Dying Gaul" for yourself.  After all, this is its first appearance outside of Italy in over 200 years!  I think it will surely inspire you to seek out other magnificent works of art from the ancient world!

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Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Review: "Blood Oath" and "Blood and Fire", Books I and II of the Gladiator School Young Adult Series by Dan Scott

A historical fiction review by © 2013

Book 1:  Blood Oath

Lucius, a 13-year-old son of a Roman senator, has just had his world turned upside down.  The emperor Vespasian has died and his successor, his oldest son, Titus, wants to sweep the Palatine clean of informers who capitalized on his father's preoccupation with treason by denouncing people, many innocent, as enemies of the state.  Unfortunately, one of the enemies of Lucius' father uses this change in administration to frame Quintus Valerius Aquila as the notorious informant "The Spectre".

Aquila must flee Rome before he is arrested, leaving Lucius, his older brother, Quintus, his younger sister Valeria and their mother adrift and alone in the wreckage that was once a comfortable and respected existence.  Aquila's brother Ravilla steps forward to "look after" the bereft family but his motives are soon suspect as he sells off all of his brother's assets and deposits the family in a tiny dank flat in the squalid Sburra district of Rome.

This scenario is actually quite historical.

"He [Titus] worked skilfully and specifically to rebut charges of cruelty, extravagance, self-indulgence, and greed, and he is credited with an improvement in public life.  The state of the sources obscures detail, but Titus' commonplace opening move, renunciation of treason trials as a remedy for slander, was reinforced by punishments." - Vespasian by Barbara Levick
The Roman emperor Titus ruled on two short
years from 79 - 81 AD.
 Photographed at the
Capitoline Museum in Rome, Italy by
 © 2005.

Lucius is certain his father is innocent but his older brother Quintus rails against Aquila for deserting the family and committing such dastardly acts.  Left with barely enough to eat, Quintus decides to take the "blood oath" of a gladiator and join his uncle's gladiator school. There he hopes to earn enough money to restore at least some dignity to the rest of his family.  Concerned for his brother's safety and suspicious of his uncle's motives, Lucius asks for a job at the gladiator school doing whatever errands are assigned by either his uncle or the lanista, Crassus.
Quintus trains as a retiarius or net man fighting with only
 a weighted net, trident and straight-bladed dagger.
His flared galerus (shoulder guard) often depicted
mythological scenes.
 Drawing courtesy of author .

As readers follow Lucius around the gladiator school each day, they learn about the type of weaponry used by the different types of gladiators, the food they eat, the brutal nature of their training and how matches are arranged and even financed.  The author uses footnotes to explain Latin words that are incorporated into the narrative or cultural practices that Lucius encounters.

Quintus is particularly gifted in the martial arts and is soon slated for his first official match.  But Lucius, aided by a young Egyptian slave girl, has discovered some very disturbing information about his uncle's business activities and a new red-haired gladiator seems to be watching Lucius' every move.  Lucius has also received secret messages from his father asking for Lucius' help in finding evidence to clear his father of the false informing charges.  So the tension builds as the story progresses, keeping readers engrossed in the lives of the characters and interested to learn who betrayed Lucius' father and whether Quintus will succeed as a retiarius or meet an early death.

Scott does a good job of creating the primary characters and bringing the world of a 1st century gladiator vibrantly to life for young readers without glamorizing it.  The gladiatorial combat scenes are exciting without being overly graphic.  In keeping with a young adult novel, physical relationships between male and female characters are omitted and  the friendship between Lucius and the young female slave, Isadora, is kept strictly platonic.

But there is enough suspense to propel the story nicely and instructive material is woven expertly into the narrative so learning occurs naturally through the main character's observations without extended dull or tedious explanatory passages.

Although Lucius will discover some evidence to point to a primary suspect in his father's disappearance, his father's fate is not resolved in this first book, setting up its sequel(s).

Book II: Blood and Fire:

Lucius and Quintus find themselves ordered to accompany a troup of the school's gladiators  to Pompeii to compete in a spectacle there just a few days before the famous eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  Quintus has survived his first official combat and is now a veteranus so he will face off against a local gladiator from Pompeii. But Lucius is puzzled why he was asked to go with the troupe, especially since he finds little to do upon arriving at the gladiator barracks in Pompeii.

Lucius follows his brother to town and there meets a strange little girl with silvery blue eyes who tells him the city will be destroyed soon by fire and ash.  She is so convincing Lucius is troubled by her prophecy.  When he returns to the barracks, the lanista, Crassus, asks him to deliver a message to the sponsor of the games and see if Lucius can find out what kind of a man this Marcus Nemonius Valens is.  Crassus wonders if Valens will be merciful to the gladiators or if he will be the kind of man who will give in to a blood-thirsty crowd and order their death.

When Lucius arrives at the sponsor's villa, he is ushered inside and Valens appears to take a personal interest in him.  Valens also claims to have known Lucius' father and speaks kindly of him so Lucius thinks he has found a potential ally in his quest to prove his father's innocence.  Valens asks Lucius to come to work for him for a few days if the lanista does not need him and Crassus readily agrees since it will give Lucius a chance to observe the man more closely before the games.

But things are not at all what they seem and, before long, we find both Lucius and Quintus fighting for their lives in  a city rife with blackmail and murder overshadowed by loud rumblings from nearby Vesuvius.

Since much of this second novel takes place in the villa of Valens, young readers will learn about Roman patron-client relationships, elite Roman banqueting and the types of food prepared for it, Roman heating systems and aristocratic living spaces.  Two of Valens' frequent visitors are competing for a public office so readers will also learn of the generally corrupt nature of Roman politics.
The palaestra or athletic training field adjacent to the amphitheater in Pompeii.
Photographed in the archaeological site of Pompeii by  © 2007.

Pompeii itself is accurately described as best as I can remember having been fortunate enough to have visited the archaeological site twice.  It is also portrayed as a rough-and-tumble almost "frontier" town and this too is accurate.  For years I thought Pompeii was more sophisticated than Herculaneum but discovered it was just the opposite after studying books written by Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill who oversees excavations at Herculaneum.

Scott has also obviously carefully researched the stages of the Vesuvian eruption and expertly worked them into the plot line.  Once more suspense propels the narrative and narrow escapes should keep young readers turning the pages eagerly.

The next installment in this series is due to be published shortly and I look forward to reviewing it as well.

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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Leicester group's Orpheus Project releases S.P.Q.R. - Roman inspired music CD

An ancient history resource article by  © 2013

The Orpheus Project, a Leicester based early music group, have released a new CD of ancient Roman-inspired music entitled S.P.Q.R. The album is the result of four years research undertaken by composer MaryAnn Tedstone, who has been a guest lecturer at Padua university and consultant to numerous UK television programs including ‘Time Team’ and ‘Meet the Ancestors’.

"I looked extensively at Mesonmedes Hymn to the Sun as well as the Delphic Paens," Tedstone explains, "A lot of the answers came together when I brought the musicians together and started to play. This is very much a fresh look at ancient Greco Roman music and very much from a players point of view."

Ludovisi Antinous photographed at the
Palazzo Altemps in Rome, Italy by
Mesomedes of Crete was a Roman-era Greek lyric poet and composer of the early 2nd century CE.  A freedman of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, Mesomedes wrote a panegyric called Citharoedic Hymn (Suidas) for Hadrian's favorite Antinous.

"Two epigrams by him in the Greek Anthology (Anthol. pal. xiv. 63, xvi. 323) are extant, and a hymn to Nemesis that begins "Nemesis, winged balancer of life, dark-faced goddess, daughter of Justice" . The hymn is one of four which preserve the ancient musical notation written over the text. Two other hymns, one to the muse Calliope and one entitled Hymn to the Sun, formerly assigned to Dionysius of Alexandria, have also been attributed to Mesomedes. A total of 15 poems by Mesomedes are known." - Wikipedia, Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press

Mesomedes continued in the Musaeum in Alexandria even after Hadrian's death in 138 CE.  But, his importance to subsequent imperial courts appeared to wane.  The Historia Augusta reports that during Antoninus Pius' reign (138 - 161 CE), his state salary was reduced, an indication of a loss of imperial prestige.  Later, though, the emperor Caracalla (198 - 211 CE) honored Mesomedes with a cenotaph approximately a hundred years after his death.

Prior to the discovery of the Seikilos epitaph in the late 19th century, the hymns of Mesomedes were the only surviving written music from the ancient world. Three were published by Vincenzo Galilei in his Dialogo della musica antica e della moderna (Florence, 1581), during a period of intense investigation into music of the ancient Greeks.

I actually found a performance of Hymn to the Sun by the Petros Tabouris Ensemble on YouTube:

The same group also has the Second Delphic Hymn to Apollo on YouTube as well:

Tedstone's S.P.Q.R. collection feature reproductions of ancient stringed instruments as well as both male and female singers.  There are also purely instrumental numbers.  My favorites were the tracks  Prayer to Apollo and Tristitas.  The music is not martial in nature but rather songs you would probably hear at a Roman social gathering.

The collection was recorded at Air Edel studios and engineered by Nick Taylor who has worked on numerous film soundtracks including ‘Thor’ ‘Gambit’ and ‘My week with Marilyn’.

The album is available for purchase via iTunes ,on Amazon or as a physical copy direct from Manike Music ( By the way, I also really enjoyed Manike Music's (the Tedstones' production company) showreel featuring soundtracks they have produced for short films and advertising spots!

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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Review: The Caspian Gates by Dr. Harry Sidebottom

Dr. Sidebottom's "warrior of Rome", Marcus Claudius Ballista, has become one of my favorite literary characters as I have worked my way through his series of novels.  So I was thrilled to see that an audio version of "The Caspian Gates" showed up in my recommended list of Audible selections.

I wasn't sure where Dr. Sidebottom would take Ballista this time since the historical Ballista pretty much disappears from the historical record (according to the Historia Augusta) after he beat back the Persians and wound up as emperor himself briefly as portrayed in the last novel I had read "Lion of the Sun".

Of course Ballista voluntarily laid down the honor after the imminent danger was dealt with, knowing full well the empire in the third century CE would never fully embrace an Angle from Germania.  The problem with that, however, lies in facing the existing emperor after such an act.  Emperors were notoriously paranoid and, although the emperor Gallienus was far from the worst of the lot and, in the novel, a former friend of Ballista, the novel opens with Ballista awaiting exile or execution in Ephesus.

A portrait of the Roman emperor Gallienus 
at The Louvre in Paris, France.
Image by Mary Harrsch.
Ballista's first temporary reprieve comes in the form of an attack by Gothic pirates.  As the most battle experienced commander available, Ballista leads first the defense of Ephesus, then beats back the Goths again at the shrine of Apollo in Didyma.  Dr. Sidebottom treats us to a marvelous description of the sanctuary and the ritualistic community there and, of course, the battle scenes are gritty and intense.

Ballista finally receives a mandata from Gallienus and he discovers his old friend has spared him but asks him to undertake a perilous mission to the Caspian Gates where he is to convince the indigenous tribes there to remain loyal to Rome despite the lucrative overtures they have been receiving from Sassanid Persia.

Note: I noticed the Wikipedia article on Gallienus claims he ordered the execution of Ballista in November 261.  This is not considered fact and the historical sources are very unclear about Ballista's ultimate fate.  So, it's a reasonable plot device to have Ballista reassigned in such a way that puts him so far up in the Roman frontier and no longer in command of troops as to pose little threat to the emperor.

Ballista, with his usual companions in tow, finds himself in a converted Roman warship retracing the steps of the mythical Jason and the Argonauts.  Dr. Sidebottom gives us the mythological background of each of Ballista's ports of call.  Then he treats us to an exciting sea battle as Ballista's little convoy is attacked by the pirates that had attacked him earlier at Ephesus and Didyma.  Ballista is a personal target now as his tactics, particularly his deception at Didyma, has engendered a blood feud with these particular Goths.   But Ballista's keen eye for an experienced and courageous captain pays off.

Fresco of a Roman war galley found at Pompeii.  1st century CE.
Photo by Mary Harrsch.
The little troop eventually reaches their destination, but finds the tribe currently in control of the territory around the Caspian Gates suspicious, wary and outright duplicitous.  To add to the tension, two members of the ruling family have been treacherously murdered by their own kinsmen and the three remaining siblings are jostling for ultimate control.  The only female in the struggle takes a fancy to Ballista even though Ballista had killed her husband years before, when her husband fought with the Persians in Syria.

Ballista must eventually seek help from his former enemies headed by the son of the King of Kings himself.  But will the Persians see the advantage to an alliance with the notorious "demon of death" who slaughtered so many of their brethern in past battles?  Viewing Ballista from the Persian perspective was particularly interesting.

Sassanid-era Persian king hunting boar.  Museum of Islamic
Arts, Berlin, Germany. Image courtesy of  Frank Ravik.
All in all, I found "The Caspian Gates" well written and, as always, chock full of historical detail that really brought the story to life for me.  I always enjoy the little extra bits of history that Dr. Sidebottom injects into the narrative that always prompts me to research a particular topic more deeply.  In this book, one of Ballista's household, a Greek pirate turned secretary named Hippothous, was a serious adherent to physiognomy.  Each time a new character is introduced, Hippothous would share his thoughts on the new arrival's worth based on his perceived physiognomy.

Physiognomy is the assessment of a person's character or personality based upon the contours of his outer appearance. Physiognomic theory first appear in 5th century BCE Athens, with the works of Zopyrus , who was said to be an expert in the art. By the 4th century BCE, Aristotle makes frequent reference to physiognomic in his works including his Prior Analytics:

It is possible to infer character from features, if it is granted that the body and the soul are changed together by the natural affections: I say "natural", for though perhaps by learning music a man has made some change in his soul, this is not one of those affections natural to us; rather I refer to passions and desires when I speak of natural emotions. If then this were granted and also that for each change there is a corresponding sign, and we could state the affection and sign proper to each kind of animal, we shall be able to infer character from features.—Prior Analytics 2.27 (Trans. A. J. Jenkinson)

A 14th century CE  aquamanile (water dispenser) 
depicting Aristotle's girlfriend Phyllis riding the
philosopher around the garden after he gave advice
about women to Alexander the Great.  Photographed
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York by
Mary Harrsch. 
The first systematic physiognomic treatise to survive to the present day is a slim volume, Physiognomonica ascribed to Aristotle (but probably of his "school" rather than created by the philosopher himself). The volume is divided into two parts, conjectured to have been originally two separate works. The first section discusses arguments drawn from nature or other races, and concentrates on the concept of human behavior. The second section focuses on animal behavior, dividing the animal kingdom into male and female types. From these are deduced correspondences between human form and character. - Wikipedia

By Ballista's time, physiognomists could also study the writings of Polemo of Laodicea, de Physiognomonia.

Like the science of astrology, though, modern academics have rejected physiognomy as not having much worth.

"Although we may now bracket physiognomy with Mesmerism as discredited or even laughable belief, many eighteenth-century writers referred to it in all seriousness as a useful science with a long history(...) Although many modern historians belittle physiognomy as a pseudoscience, at the end of the eighteenth century it was not merely a popular fad but also the subject of intense academic debate about the promises it held for future progress." - The Cambridge History of Science: Eighteenth-century science.

Anyway, it was funny to read what Hippothous deduced about someone based on how they looked to him.

I did find The Caspian Gates less compelling storywise, however, than Ballista's exploits in earlier novels.  I think this was a result of Ballista no longer being in a command position throughout much of this novel. Previous novels have firmly established Ballista with the innate ability to galvanize men to achieve victory, whatever the endeavor.  But, without a leadership role in this book, Ballista is left to languish seemingly waiting for someone else to make the first move.  I also simply could not imagine this quintessential man of action lounging around the quarters of a nomadic princess for days on end either.

Hopefully, he'll assume a command position again in the next installment "Wolves of the North".

Here's a clip of Dr. Sidebottom discussing "The Caspian Gates" up on YouTube:

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