Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Order and tranquillity

"If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus. The vast extent of the Roman empire was governed by absolute power, under the guidance of virtue and wisdom. "

So wrote Edward Gibbon in Book 1, Chapter 3, of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. A correspondent recently asked about the two sons of Antoninus Pius, quoting Gibbon's comment (from the same chapter), that "without the help of medals and inscriptions, we should be ignorant of this fact".

Family tree of Antoninus Pius

Gibbon knew (from the Historia Augusta's Vita Antonini Pii) that Antoninus had two sons. But he seems to have overlooked the remark made by Cassius Dio (69.21), that when Antoninus became emperor he had no male offspring. Gibbon implies that, for noble reasons, Antoninus passed over both sons in favour of adopting the future emperor Marcus Aurelius. However, it seems preferable to imagine that both sons had died prior to AD 138.

How do we know of their existence? The same correspondent helpfully directs us to the WildWinds Roman Imperial Coinage web site, where a selection of coins (Gibbon's "medals") can be viewed commemorating the young Marcus Galerius Aurelius Antoninus. The coins were struck later than AD 140, because they principally commemorate the deified wife of Antoninus, who died in that year. Perhaps the provinces had kept the memory of young Galerius alive.

As for his brother, by good fortune, a pair of inscriptions from the Mausoleum Hadriani (later converted into the Castel Sant'Angelo) mention both M Galerius Aurelius Antoninus filius Imp Caesaris Titi Aelii Hadriani Antonini Aug Pii p p ("Marcus Galerius Aurelius Antoninus, son of the emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of his country": ILS 351) and his brother M Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus filius Imp Caesaris T Aelii Hadriani Antonini Aug Pii p p ("Marcus Aurelius Fulvus Antoninus, son of the emperor Titus Aelius Hadrianus Antoninus Augustus Pius, father of his country": ILS 350). These are surely the inscriptions to which Gibbon refers.

Monday, 14 April 2008

To the Mother Goddesses

Roman altar from ManchesterA new Roman inscription turned up in Manchester (England) this month. Before you get too excited, there were no traces of paint on the inscription (as far as I know): the red lettering is mine, to make it easier to read.

The inscription is a Roman altar, set up by a man called Aelius Victor (whose name occupies lines 5 and 6). Altars were part and parcel of the Roman religious mindset. They were designed as small, free-standing, squared-off columns, some three, four or five feet tall (1.0-1.5 m), with a shallow depression on top. Here the dedicator would offer his or her offering.

I vow to thee ...

The altar itself represents a personal contract between the dedicator (in this case, Aelius Victor) and the deity or deities whom he had invoked. Usually, the dedicator requested some favour of the gods -- safe passage, perhaps, or a successful crop -- and promised to set up an altar in gratitude for a favourable outcome.

The abbreviation on the last line -- V.S.L.L.M. -- is commonly found on altars, and indicates that the dedicator votum solvit laetus libens merito ("fulfilled his vow gladly, willingly and deservedly"). Aelius Victor was thanking the gods for whatever favour he had requested, and was keeping his end of the bargain by setting up the promised altar.

In fact, he was thanking goddesses, for the altar was erected Deabus Matribus Hananeftis et Ollototis ("To the Mother Goddesses Hananeftae and Ollototae"). The Ollototae are previously known from Roman Britain. They are thought to be Germanic goddesses whose name means "of all folk", and their function was presumably a protective one. But exactly why Aelius Victor might have sought their aid remains a mystery.

(I confess that I have never heard of the Hananeftae. Please leave a comment if you can shed any light on them.)

Friday, 11 April 2008

Decline and Fall

Gibbon's Decline & Fall. Title page of volume 1Today, I spent a pleasant hour enjoying the sonorous prose of Gibbon's Decline and Fall.

My own principate is described thus:
"The restless activity of Hadrian was not less remarkable when compared with the gentle repose of Antoninus Pius. The life of the former was almost a perpetual journey; ... But the tranquil life of Antoninus Pius was spent in the bosom of Italy; and, during the twenty-three years that he directed the public administration, the longest journeys of that amiable prince extended no farther than from his palace in Rome to the retirement of his Lanuvian villa."

Quite so.

(Incidentally, while seeking a suitable picture for this post, I discovered a useful resource in the Dusty Shelf web site's archive of antiquarian texts. Sadly, the site appears to have been abandoned before Rice Holmes was uploaded. The Questia web site seems to charge a subscription for access to this public domain text!)

Friday, 4 April 2008

Detrimental Classics

I can only assume that it was an April Fool.

This week, the Telegraph newspaper's web site carried a report, filed late on 31 March (11;35pm), entitled "Classics harm language learning"! According to the article, "A secret document sent to Government officials by the Dearing Languages Review, an influential inquiry into language teaching, reveals that Latin and Greek were excluded from the list of languages that schools will be encouraged to study because they are 'dead languages' that contribute nothing to 'intercultural understanding'." Furthermore, they were deemed to "actually undermine our attempts to build up national capacity in languages".

Bizarre. Or as Boris Johnson, the shadow higher education minister, was quoted as saying: "the most stupid thing I have ever heard". Quite.