Friday, 27 April 2012

Mary Beard on the Romans

When some new author or television presenter boasts that he or she will show us Antiquity as never before, usually there are two possibilities: one, that they're a crackpot; two, that they're about to present information that classicists have known for yonks but which the general public might still find surprising.  Mary Beard's new series on the Romans comes the closest I've ever seen to delivering on the initial promise. I'd seen a lot of the stuff she was presenting the other night, but some of it was delightfully new.

I've walked past that building next to the white marble wedding cake of the Victor Emanuel monument; I knew from the bricks it was ancient, but I hadn't realized it was an insula--a Roman apartment block.  I knew that the ground floor of an insula was the best place to live, and that the higher up you went the more uncomfortable it got--Juvenal had told me that--but I hadn't realized how small the upper rooms were.  Dr. Beard lay down on the dusty floor to show how little space the tenants must have had, and then suggested that whole families might have shared it--that perhaps a Roman woman had given birth there. With that image she brought a whole world to life.

Wonderful woman. Some of the commentators on the series have remarked on how great it is to see a middle-aged woman who isn't glamourous and who evidently cares much more about her subject than about her looks and her clothing, presenting a prime-time television series.  Yes.  It is is.  It's also great to see a proper classicist on the screen--particularly one from Newnham, my old college (Yay!) Dr Beard is heavily reliant on  epigraphy, which is one of the least glamourous--or at least, least televisual--of disciplines. In any museum the inscriptions are usually stacked up along the walls or in the basement, while the glamourous objects--statues, jewellery, weapons--take pride of place in the glass cases in the middle of the room.  Deciphering the things takes time and effort.  Usually they're fragmentary; always they're written without breaks between the words and often with unfamiliar letter forms or abbreviations.  They are not exciting things to look at.  I like them, but usually I skim them, picking up whatever I can get easily and abandoning the rest.

Of course, inscriptions tell you all sorts of things that objects can't: people's names, their occupations, what they cared about, how they died.  Scholars have been using them for years and years, but even to other scholars Inscriptiones Graecae Selectae is mostly dry as dust. It is to Mary Beard's credit that she can sift through this information and find just the bit that will connect to a wide audience and make the people come alive.  Oh, she exaggerates and sometimes over-eggs the pudding, but better eggy pudding than dust!  It's to the BBC's credit, too, that they've trusted her to make the stones speak, even if they do resort to gimmicks occasionally.

I don't want television much.  Actually, I suppose this is the only series I've watched this year.  Pity there aren't more like it!

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Bad Guys

At the moment I'm doing quite a lot of childminding of my four year old grandson.  Like most small boys, he loves to set up bad guys which are resoundingly vanquished by good guys. At the moment, both the good guys and the bad ones are robots.  The bad robots look the part, but there isn't really much in their behaviour to distinguish them from the good ones: both sides are loyal to their own and ferocious toward their opponents. There is some token pretence of 'evil plans' (usually for world domination) on one side, but that's just an excuse for a lot of blam blam blam!

I hope that as my grandson grows up he'll find this Manichaean dichotomy a bit limiting.  I find fiction a lot more interesting when the good guys have to work at being good--that is, struggle to make moral choices in a difficult world--and I like my bad guys to be intelligibly bad.  A certain amount of moral ambiguity is almost required for literary fiction, but  I like it even in the stuff I read purely for fun. I don't mean that I want to root for the bad guy, a la American Psycho, but I want the bad guys' motives to be understandable. In too many novels and films they're like my grandson's bad robots: they're bad because the good guys need somebody to fight.  Blam blam blam!

Modern authors have come up with various ways to denote a character as bad.  At the moment the most popular is to make him an Islamic terrorist. (Fifty years ago he would have been a Communist spy.) Then there are serial killers. Real serial killers do exist, of course, but I'm sure fictional ones outnumber them ten to one.  Terrorists and serial killers have two advantages: they are automatically evil, and they automatically make your hero, however grubby, look good--because anybody looks good next to a terrorist or a serial killer.  OK, I can enjoy a book where the evil terrorist plot is thwarted or the killer caught--but there's always a certain uneasiness mingled with the pleasure.  I have been invited to disengage the sense of moral discrimination and sympathy which governs my ordinary life; real problems and real sufferings are being used to generate excitement without any attempt to understand their causes.  This may or may not be immoral--but it's certainly unrealistic, and, on the author's part, lazy.

Some authors--I'm thinking of Patricia Cornwall and her ilk, here--not only rely on serial killers, but use another substitute for motive: sexism.  Sexism and racism are certainly real and abominable, but in the real world they're normally negative: the victim doesn't get the job, the promotion, the contract; in a crisis they don't get the trust and support a white man would expect.  It's rare for somebody to actively work to ruin an innocent purely on the grounds of sex or race when that innocent isn't threatening any of their own interests: for one thing it takes effort; for another, it's illegal. I know it happens, when the perpetrator is crazy enough--but it isn't common.  Cornwall seems to have at least one sexism-motivated plot against the heroine per book.  Again, unrealistic and lazy--and boring. I stopped reading her because of it.

George Bernard Shaw once said that he tried to give the best speech in every play to the villain.  He wanted to make that villain's opposition intelligible, to deepen the moral dilemma and make the hero's choices more fraught and more dramatic.  If the bad guys are just robots, then the good guys are, too.

Friday, 13 April 2012


Herculaneum is the best-preserved of all classical sites--at least, if there is a better-preserved site, I don't know about it.  (If someone out there does, please, tell me!  I'll get there ASAP, camera at the ready!)  Look at that ceiling!  Probably you can't make them out, but the impluvium is ringed witha decoration of little bronze dog-heads.  Look at the remains of the paintwork; look at the wooden partition, charred but intact, which once screened off the back of the courtyard! Where Pompeii was buried in ash and debris, which collapsed the roofs of its buildings, Herculaneum was encased in hot mud-flows, which set like concrete, preserving the city as it was in the moment Vesuvius erupted--even to the price of different sorts of wine.

It is, therefore, a bit odd that Herculaneum tends to be treated as Pompeii's poor relation.  It's true that it isn't as big.  In Pompeii you can wander  for miles; in Herculaneum you're confined to about sixteen city blocks, since that's all that's been excavated.  Sixteen blocks, though, is about as much as any normal tourist can cope with at one go, and there's more to see in a smaller area, so you'd think tour companies would prefer it.  You'd think, too, that the modern town of Ercolano would view it as a gold-mine, and be proud of it.  There is so much continuity.  Looked at from across the ruins, the modern and ancient towns seem to blend together.

Alas, modern Ercolano has little interest in ancient Herculaneum.  Arrive at the city on the Circumvesuviana railroad--the most convenient way of getting there from Naples or the Sorrentine Peninsula--and you will not find a single sign to direct you to the ruins--which are only about a ten minute's walk away down a hill.  When I visited with my mother, she could not find a single shop or kiosk in the town which stocked postcards; she was so annoyed that she went and complained to the tourist office--which didn't have any postcards, either. A local volunteer, who happened to overhear her complaint, lamented the attitude of the town authorities--he said he had regularly complained about boys playing football in the fragile ruins, but nobody had taken any action to protect them.  He, like the guards we met on the site, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but one sensed he was close to despair over the attitude of his fellow-citizens.

My mother was trying to buy her postcards in the town because the shop at the archaeological site was closed.  So was the onsite  museum.  So were many of the best buildings in the town.  The suburban baths, which I visited the last time I was in Herculaneum, were closed as unsafe and propped up with scaffolding--that was where they found the bodies of the ancient dead, a very moving and evocative place.  There were numerous placards about the site entrance referring to the money donated by (mostly American and British) foundations for conserving the site, but there was not, actually, much to show for their efforts, and one did wonder whether the money was being siphoned off.  The problems the Neapolitan region has with corruption are, of course, notorious.

The House of the Gladiators at Pompeii collapsed last year after heavy rains, and many other buildings, there, in Herculaneum, and throughout the rest of Italy are threatened with the same fate.  Sufficient funds for conservation weren't provided by the previous government, and it's unlikely that the present austerity government will be more generous.  My advice to any one who hasn't seen Pompeii or Herculaneum has to be, go now.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Museo Nazionale Romano

Stunning, isn't she?  She's a sea-goddess, 1st C. AD, and she's in the Palazzo Massimo of the Museo Nazionale Romano.  The Museo Nazionale should have been on my A-list for things to see in Rome, but, misled by guidebooks (which are always insufficiently impressed by Roman stuff) I'd put it at the top of the 'B' list instead.  I hasten to add, however, that it's a museum I've long been eager to visit, but haven't been able to before:  it was closed for renovations. (Well, most of it.  I did get to the epigraphy section, which had some really neat stuff--but classical inscriptions are, admittedly, a minority taste.)

The renovations are a success, but the museum as a whole is still a mess.  It's spread out over four or five different sites, some of which are still closed; the building which is prominently labelled 'MUSEO NAZIONALE' is not, in fact, the main one, but there's nothing to tell you this on the entrance, and buying a ticket does not entitle you to a plan showing you where the rest of the museum is.  Even when you find the Palazzo Massimo there's nothing at the entrance to tell you what is where.  Luckily, I knew what I wanted to see, and immediately asked the guards where I could find the frescoes from the domus Liviae.

 They were on the second floor.  Keeping them company were a host of other Roman frescoes and mosaics.

It was not quite the best collection of ancient painting I've ever seen--I'd give that honour to the Archaeological Museum in Naples, which has the pick of Pompeii and Herculaneum--but it was very, very good.  I had it all to myself, too: in the forty minutes or so I spent there I encountered only one other visitor.

The lovely sea-goddess was on the first floor, and similarly ignored. The ground floor, however, was busier. I can only guess that the tourists didn't know there was more to see upstairs.

Museums in Italy (and in Greece and Turkey, for that matter) often do seem rather to frown upon tourists, in a way that to someone from the north of Europe seems downright bizarre.  Enter even a regional museum in England and you'll be confronted with a shop and a cafe; you'll have multi-lingual audio-guides thrust at you; there will be a 'childrens' trail' and a list of events. Italian museums, in contrast, make a point of hiding even the lift: ask for it, and a member of staff will escort you through two closed rooms to a broom cupboard. Frequently the museums are closed altogether, for long periods of time. (The one in Herculaneum, for example.)  I suspect that English museums get to keep the profits from their shops, cafes, and events, to defray their costs, and that Italian ones don't.