Saturday, 12 December 2009

Romans in Scotland

Eagle of the NinthThings are hotting up for the keenly-awaited cinematic version of Eagle of the Ninth.

Production company Focus Features have announced that the movie will open during the third quarter of 2010. A UK release can be expected thereafter.

According to their publicity, "In 140 AD, twenty years after the unexplained disappearance of the entire Ninth Legion in the mountains of Scotland, young centurion Marcus Aquila (played by Channing Tatum) arrives from Rome to solve the mystery and restore the reputation of his father, the commander of the Ninth. Accompanied only by his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell), Marcus sets out across Hadrian’s Wall into the uncharted highlands of Caledonia – to confront its savage tribes, make peace with his father’s memory, and retrieve the lost legion’s golden emblem, the Eagle of the Ninth. The movie also stars Donald Sutherland, Mark Strong, and Tahar Rahim." Accompanied only by his British slave Esca? So no Wolf?

Also this week, a Fife newspaper, The Dunfermline Press, has revealed that local boys Combat International portrayed Rosemary Sutcliff's Seal tribesmen, right down to the shaved heads. During filming, they were treated to one of the wettest summers in Scottish history. Since AD 140?

Previous posts: Lost Legion | Lost Legion Myth Lives On | Long Awaited Legion

Monday, 23 November 2009

Rome and China

(c) Daily TelegraphScholars are sometimes tempted to step outside their area of expertise. This is almost always ill-advised.

I recently attended a public lecture by a figure of international standing. The scholar in question (let's call him Professor X to avoid undue embarrassment) was asked a question about Sino-Roman relations.

This is a perennial chestnut that ranks alongside the Disappearance of the Ninth Legion as a source of public misinformation. Scholars are advised to tread warily.

Nevertheless, rather than admit professional ignorance, Professor X treated us to his antediluvian view of Chinese history, misleading his audience (an unforgivable crime) and exposing his incompetence to any who, like this emperor, happen to know a little about the subject.

Two elements of Professor X's reply stuck in my mind. First, he recommended that his interlocutor purchase a copy of Sir Mortimer Wheeler's Rome Beyond the Imperial Frontiers, a book which is over 50 years old and was already out-of-date when the first reviews appeared. This was a poor suggestion.

Second, he sagely advised his interlocutor, in tones designed to instill professional confidence, that an embassy from Han China had indeed arrived in Rome during the reign of Antoninus Pius, your very own blogger. This, likewise, was a poor suggestion.

Did China know that Rome existed?

The evidence is tricky enough for Sinologists, so what chance does our Romano-British Professor X stand? The best approach would simply have been to present the different threads of evidence and allow common sense to prevail.

It is often stated that ancient Chinese texts refer to the Roman empire. Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. The texts in question refer to Da-Qin (or Ta-Ch'in), literally "Greater China". Where is this Greater China?

The same ancient texts relate that Da-Qin was also known as Li-jian (or Li-kan, or Lixuan). But Sinologists agree that Li-jian was the Chinese word for Hyrcania (a northern province of the Parthian empire corresponding roughly to present-day Turkmenistan). Not Rome.

This simply serves to illustrate that Chinese writers had only a very vague notion of the west. Their limited repertoire included T'iao-chih (or Tiaozhi), a placename reckoned to represent Seleucia, which lay to the west of Anxi, thought (on no clear authority) to represent Parthia, both of which lay on the great sea (maybe the Persian Gulf, maybe the Indian Ocean, maybe neither).

Did Rome know that China existed?

The eminent Cambridge Sinologist Michael Loewe wisely warns that "identification of Ta-Ch'in and Rome should properly been seen as an abstraction". No Indian, far less Chinese, visitors had ever set foot in the eternal city. So why did Professor X assure us, quite confidently, that the emperor Antoninus Pius had received Chinese visitors?

It would have been a great enough stretch for Chinese authorities to obtain knowledge of India. (See the map, above, borrowed from The Daily Telegraph, which demonstrates the enormous distances involved. And mis-spells Parthia.) In fact, Chinese memories of a "Greater China" in the west may preserve echoes of Alexander's empire rather than the Roman empire. A second century BC king of the Punjab, on meeting a Buddhist philosopher, is said to have remarked that he hailed from "Greater China", and specifically from Alisan, thought by Sinologists to represent the Egyptian city of Alexandria.

A Chinese text known as the Hou-Hanshou records that, in AD 97, Gan Ying "looked upon the Western Sea". If this was the Persian Gulf, he was far-travelled indeed. The mariners on the coast evidently dissuaded the Chinese traveller from proceeding any further on account of the distances and dangers involved. They clearly had only the vaguest notion of the west.

That would have been the end of the matter, except that an embassy sent by "King Andun of Greater China" to the Han court in AD 166 has been explained as a reference to the emperor Marcus Aurelius, on the grounds that Andun sounds like Antoninus!

We really shouldn't dabble in areas beyond our competence!

* See also: No Romans in China

Friday, 13 November 2009

Antonine Wall muddle

Management PlanA week or so ago, the BBC News web site carried a report entitled "No new money for Antonine Wall".

Scottish Culture Minister Mike Russell is quoted as saying, "There has been no additional funding allocated to date and each of the organisations is contributing expertise or funding to the planning."

Additional funding? Why do we need additional funding? Is this over and above the funding already pledged in the Antonine Wall Management Plan? Action 26 (on p. 66 of the Plan) promises that Historic Scotland and the RCAHMS "will maintain their enhanced level of financial support for the projects relating to the Antonine Wall". Of course, maybe this financial support applies only to selected projects. (Or to none.) Have we been duped by rhetoric?

But Action 26 also reassures us that "Scottish Ministers recognise that ... the Scottish Executive, through Historic Scotland, will need to continue its commitment to making a dedicated investment in the Antonine Wall". But then, I suppose there is a technical difference between recognising that there's a need for financial support, and actually coughing up that financial support.

Raising the Profile

So what exactly does Mr Russell's statement actually mean? He is quoted as continuing, "However, once the action plan is agreed, the projects to deliver a rolling programme of improvement will seek funding and this is likely to come from a variety of sources, not just the public purse."

Once the action plan is agreed? The official Antonine Wall Management Plan makes no mention of an additional action plan. Isn't the Management Plan enough? Do we need another plan to be agreed? (And agreed by whom?)

Falkirk East Labour MP Cathy Peattie, through whose constituency the Wall runs, is quoted as responding: "It's good to hear that there's an action plan but I would like to see some additional funding being allocated to promote and enhance the awareness of the Antonine Wall." She isn't the only one. Action 28 (on p. 66-67 of the Plan) states quite categorically that "Awareness and understanding of the archaeological, historical and other values of the Antonine Wall and of the significance of its potential value as a World Heritage Site will be improved."

But there's another get-out clause. "This can be undertaken", the Plan continues, "through publications of all types, the media, museums, on site interpretation and so on." So really, as long as one of these is implemented (say, a new guide book), the Scottish Government's pledge will have been fulfilled.

I hope that Ms Peattie is not holding her breath waiting for the raised profile that the Antonine Wall deserves. It may be a long time coming.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Back To The Wall

Kinneil Fortlet (c) The SkinnyAfter winning recognition as a World Heritage Site over a year ago, the Antonine Wall seemed to slip back into obscurity. So it was nice to see a story about the wall this week in The Skinny, a Scottish culture and listings web site.

In the article, Keir Roper-Caldbeck cycles along "Scotland's most engimatic (sic!) World Heritage Site", painting a wonderfully evocative picture of the countryside across the Central Belt, the author's "back yard".

Armed with a guidebook (unnamed) and map (similarly unnamed), he travels from Old Kilpatrick in the west, through Duntocher and Bearsden, to the picturesque site of Bar Hill. Continuing east, he passes through Croy and Bonnybridge, "munching a desultory [so hot that it leapt about?!] sausage roll", and pays a visit to the "surprisingly small" fort of Rough Castle, before rushing past Watling Lodge and concluding his tour at Carriden.

He has been misled into thinking that the wall was manned by legionaries. Not a serious fault. But what a pity he didn't visit Kinneil (pictured above), the site of a fortlet laid out with timber posts to aid the visitor's imagination. And if the sections exposed in New Kilpatrick cemetery were the author's "first trace of the wall", he must have skimped on his visit to Duntocher, where a smaller section of the stone base can still be seen. Perhaps his (unnamed) guidebook let him down.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

On this date ...

(c) Heritage HistoryThis year is the anniversary of the Varian disaster. You can scarcely turn around without bumping into an exhibition, commemorative magazine or popular book on the subject. This major event, 2000 years ago, saw the destruction of three Roman legions with their allied contingents, probably amounting to some 20,000 men, at the hands of the German tribes.

But I was intrigued to discover that, a century earlier (or, strictly speaking, 113 years earlier, in 105 BC), Rome suffered a worse disaster at the hands of German tribes. This time, it wasn't Rome's treacherous Cheruscan allies who were to blame, but the dreaded Cimbri, migrating from Jutland to find new lands in Gaul.

Introducing the Cimbri and their Teutonic cousins, the Roman historian Velleius Paterculus writes that "these peoples were soon to become famous by reason of the disasters which they inflicted upon us and we upon them."

And what a disaster. We lack the full account of Livy, that great historian of the Roman Republic, but we know that, in his 67th book, he described how, "defeated by these same enemies, consul Gnaeus Manlius and proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio were deprived of both their camps; according to Valerius Antias, 80,000 soldiers and 40,000 servants and camp followers were killed near Arausio".

There must have been great and heroic deeds on the battlefield. One of these is recorded in Plutarch's biography of Sertorius, who allegedly "swam across the Rhone, shield and breastplate and all, against a strongly adverse current,though he had lost his horse and had been wounded in the body, so sturdy was he and so inured to hardships by training".

But why am I commemorating this catastrophe today? Because, allegedly, the battle was fought on October 6, another big day for Rome.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Happy Birthday To Us

Johnson's definition of LexicographerI almost share a birthday with Samuel Johnson.

The great man was born 300 years ago, yesterday, and has been rightly celebrated this week (in the UK media, at any rate) as the lexicographer par excellence, whose wonderful Dictionary of the English Language (extract above) finally appeared, after nine years of drudgery, in 1755.

Commentators have been virtually unanimous in deploring the fact that, for nine years' work, Johnson was paid only 1,500 guineas. How awful! Personally, if I didn't receive an emperor's stipend, I'm not sure that I could manage on £220,000 (today's equivalent of Johnson's fee) across nine years. Why, that's no better than the average UK wage! No wonder Johnson classified himself as "a harmless drudge".

For actual archive footage of Dr Johnson, click here.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Hadrian's Big Day

Hadrian's WallIt is generally agreed that the building of Hadrian's Wall began in AD 122. So far, so good.

Some years ago, I noticed that the Wikipedia entry for that year claims that the building work on Hadrian's Wall began on September 13. I have always wondered where that date came from.

Roman dates

Ancient exploits cannot usually be pinned down so accurately. But we often know the precise dates of important events, like births, deaths and battles. Hadrian's birthday, for example, was 24 January. He came to the throne on 10 August, at the age of 41½, in AD 117. And he died on 10 July, twenty-one years later.

A building project is rather more difficult to date. When does work actually begin? I'm sure that Hadrian did not chip the first stone or snip a stretched-out ribbon. So how would we define the date of commencement anyway?

If such a precise date is unlikely for the building of a 80-mile wall, where did it come from? I suppose a construction project undertaken by the Roman army might well have begun at the end of the campaigning season. For the Romans, summer officially ended in September, so the military headed back to base then. But the vernal equinox, the most obvious sign of that event, fell some ten days after our date of 13 September. On this reasoning, work really ought to have begun on Hadrian's Wall around 24 September.

Beware the Ides

So why September 13? In the worst Wikipedia fashion, no authority is cited, no evidence given, so we cannot say where the Wikipedia article's author got the idea from. Certainly, at Rome, September was a busy month, with the festival of the Ludi Romani, the Roman Games. But these fell throughout the fortnight from September 5 until September 19. So our date of September 13 has no particular significance on that score. But it does have significance as the idus Septembri, the Ides of September. This particular day was notable as the Epulum Jovis, or Feast of Jupiter, commemorating the foundation of the oldest temple in Rome, the great Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus ("best and greatest"). This auspicious date was also the day on which the beloved emperor Titus died in AD 81 (curiously, at the age of 41½), which was perhaps further cause for celebration, as a new god joined the Roman pantheon.

But, if we've established that 13 September was a notable date for the Romans, it is still a complete mystery why the Wikipedia author has chosen it as the foundation date for Hadrian's Wall. (Unless you know differently ...)

Saturday, 15 August 2009

Lost Legion Myth Lives On

There are a handful of perennially favourite themes in Roman history. One of them was the subject of my post on The Lost Legion, which continues to attract comments, although it is now two-and-a-half years old.

The latest ridiculously lengthy comment was posted in four instalments (as if to underline the poster's megalomania complex) and signed with the mysterious code "45 CDO RM". Not being immediately familiar with current British Army abbreviations, I turned to Google, where one of the search results was a Hubpage, a bit like a blog, but hosted by a website called Hubpages. And there, lurking amongst pages about "Thigh High Stockings" and "10 Signs That He's No Good For You", was a page called "The Mystery of Legio IX Hispana" posted by "British Military". I hesitate to point you there, because it's just the usual nonsense (well, alright, you can read it here), but it is interesting that a story, no matter how fantastical, unlikely and completely unsupported by evidence, continues to exert such a hold on some people's imagination.

My latest correspondent makes a series of blunders, based on apparently commonly held but false beliefs, repeating the same Roman nonsense that I have previously warned against. So ... here goes again!

Proposal 1: "In the territory ( in modern Perthshire ), of a Pict tribe the Romans called the Vacomagi just below ( according to Ptolemy ), the territory of the Calidonii tribe, the IX Legion built a 53 acre 'great fortified camp' at Inchtuthil on the river Tay, called Pinnata Castra ( Fortress on the Wing )."
True or False? First, the Vacomagi weren't Picts, because the Picts didn't exist until the third century. Second, we don't know what the Ninth Legion built here, because they didn't sign any of their work. Third, the 53-acre fortress at Inchtuthil probably wasn't called Pinnata Castra. Fourth, Ptolemy records a "town" called Pterôton Stratopedon (he was writing in Greek), which a German scholar named Müller decided to translate as "Pinnata Castra" and a British scholar named Richmond decided to link with Inchtuthil. Fourth, there is no reason, no evidence, and no justification to link the Ninth Legion with either Inchtuthil or Pterôton Stratopedon.

Proposal 2: "In order to gain a wider control Agricola split his force into three groups. When Agricola split his force into three, the IX [ Ninth ] Legion - who seem to have been especially hated by the Picts perhaps because of some heinous act of brutality - became the Picts main target."
True or False? First, we have now backtracked from the likely date of Inchtuthil, around AD 84/6, to Agricola's sixth campaign, AD 82, so the argument is doomed to confusion from the start. But let's persevere. Second, the Ninth Legion were not especially hated by the Picts, because the Picts didn't exist until the third century. Third, the Ninth Legion hadn't perpetrated a heinous act of brutality on the Picts, because the Picts didn't exist until the third century. Fourth, the Ninth Legion didn't become the Picts' main target, because (you guessed) the Picts didn't exist until the third century.

Proposal 3: "The Caledonians carried out a daring attack in the dead of night on the fortress of the sleeping Ninth Legion. They first set bodies of troops at key positions to intercept any fleeing Legionnaires and then advance units overpowered the guards. It seems the advance attackers managed to open the main gates allowing the waiting united Pict army to pour into the camp in their thousands, there may have been as many as 20,000 or 30,000 of them. Agricola eventually came to the rescue with cavalry units just in time to save the remnants of the IX; if not for his actions the Legion might have become extinct at that point."
True or False? First, we're back in AD 82, prior to the construction of the fortress at Inchtuthil, so the Ninth Legion weren't camping in a fortress. Second, there weren't any "legionnaires", because the French Foreign Legion weren't involved; only Roman legionaries. Third, the advance party of the Caledonians (aha! so not the Picts) didn't have any gates to open, because Roman temporary camps don't have gates. Fourth, it is highly unlikely that there would even have been room for 20,000 or 30,000 warriors to pour through a 10m wide gap in the rampart of a camp, but that's just my opinion. Fifth, the Ninth Legion had had brushes with disaster before, but I concede that a major defeat could have been on the cards.

Proposal 4: "The Romans couldn't simply reinforce the IX from other units, probably because more than half the Ninth Legion had been lost. They had to bring in a replacement Legion, pull the remnants of the IX out of Caledonia, re-form the whole Legion and repopulated it with new recruits and officers."
True or False? This time, we have stumbled deep into fantasy land. I seem to recall something similar on Mr Albawest's web site (noted here). First, more than half the Ninth Legion had been lost? Well, we can imagine it got mauled, but we have no idea how badly, and it's interesting to remember that 25 years earlier, after a similar mauling, it had received 2,000 new recruits. Serious, but not too serious. Second, there is no evidence, zero, nil, nothing to suggest that a replacement legion was brought in. Third, there is no evidence, zip, nada, to suggest that the Ninth Legion was evacuated. So, this is really just fantasy.

Proposal 5: "The Emperor of Rome marshalled a renewed Ninth Legion and after the recall of Agricola back to Rome, he sent them for a few years of training and campaigning to battle harden them. The Emperor then sent them to teach the Caledonians a lesson about the power of Rome. The new IX Hispana Legion proudly marched north - and simply disappeared. Not one trace has ever been found of them or any of their equipment."
True or False? After proposal 4, we are so far into fantasy that facts don't matter any more, but we'll have a go. First, how would we even demonstrate that a legion had been withdrawn, retrained and battle-hardened? This is a non-starter. Second, how would we show that the Ninth Legion had returned after a period of absence? And third, how would we prove that a legion had disappeared in Scotland? Think about it. This is pure fantasy. But fourth, and most importantly, we do have traces of the legion after AD 82. Long after AD 82.

Proposal 6: "Some historians have claimed that the IX was pulled out of Caledonia but the Romans forgot to record that fact. However, the Romans did not loose a Legion in the paperwork; something terrible seems to have happened to the IX, it is as if they just ceased to exist."
True or False? Well, having got lost so deeply in fantasyland, it's going to be difficult to extricate ourselves. First, every serious historian has claimed that the Ninth Legion was pulled out of Caledonia. After all, the entire Roman army was pulled out of Caledonia after around AD 86/7. So that's a given. Second, it's not a matter of the Romans forgetting to record the fact. After all, the historian Tacitus does record that Caledonia was given up. Nobody tried to hide the fact. And third, the Romans did occasionally lose legions, but on the battlefield, not in the paperwork. So, my correspondent is right: "it's as if the Ninth just ceased to exist", but just not yet. Archaeologists have shown that they were happily in garrison in York in AD 108, which is rather a long time after their supposed demise in Caledonia. Their disappearance must have occurred some time later.

Proposal 7: "the Picts annihilated the IX and captured the Legion's Standard and so the disgraced remnants of the Legion were disbanded, and all records of its fate were erased. Roman policy was not to publicly record the fate of legions that had been disgraced or annihilated in battle."
False or Fantastical? First, the Ninth wasn't annihilated by the Picts (oh, dear, we're back with the Picts), because they didn't exist until the third century. Second, nobody (not even the Picts) captured the legion's standard. How would we even know this? Rubbish! And third, it's rather convenient, when there's no evidence for an event, to claim that all records of it were erased! Nonsense! And fourth, it's complete fiction to claim that the fate of a destroyed legion was never recorded. How do we know about Varus' legions in AD 9? But when you're this far into fantasyland, anything goes.

Proposal 8: "Modern claims that the IX have been rediscovered, could in fact be a different Legion with the same number. The disappearance of the Ninth Legion is one of the mysteries of the Roman Empire. Several scholars believe that it would have taken a major catastrophic event to cause the emperor Hadrian to decide to build his famous wall in modern England; they argue that the catastrophe was the annihilation of the IX legion by the Picts."
Fantastical or Really Fantastical? First, what's the point of claiming that the Ninth Legion was destroyed and disgraced, if you then suggest that a new duplicate legion was created, only to disappear again later? Second, no scholar (at least, none that I've ever heard of) has suggested that the building of Hadrian's Wall was in response to a military catastrophe. And definitely not the annihilation of the Ninth Legion, which (as we've established) wasn't annihilated at this time, and certainly not by the Picts. (Did I mention that the Picts didn't exist until the third century?)

And finally: Similarly preposterous claims are found on the Hubpage site that I mentioned before: "Alternatives to massacre are mutiny provoked by bad leadership and flight in the face of the enemy. The punishment for mutiny and cowardice was decimation of the Legion, disbandment, dispersion, removal from the army's list, and withdrawal of the Eagle." It's fun to suggest such counterfactual scenarios, as long as you acknowledge that they are fictional, and didn't actually happen. The fact is that the Ninth Legion was still fully functional in Britain in AD 108, long after the Romans had given up the idea of conquering Caledonia.

We know that the legion later turned up at Nijmegen in the Netherlands. If we acknowledge that fact, and give up all the "Pictish victory" nonsense, it is redundant to then suggest that "those sent to Nijmegen, probably from the Legion's rear party in York, may have defiantly continued to use the tile stamp to emphasise their own innocence in the affair." What affair? Are we still talking about this close call 25 years earlier, in AD 82?! Why not simply admit that, whatever happened to the Ninth Legion, it didn't happen in Britain, and it most definitely wasn't anything to do with the Picts.

(Did I mention that the Picts didn't exist until the third century?)

Saturday, 1 August 2009

The Wall on the Web

The story so far ...

It is now two years since the Antonine Wall was confirmed as the UK's 2008 nomination for World Heritage Status. (I blogged about it here.) Of course, we know that, a year later, the 32nd session of UNESCO's World Heritage Committee sat to consider the nominations for 2008. (I blogged about it here.) And the Antonine Wall went on to achieve inclusion as part of the "Frontiers of the Roman Empire" World Heritage Site. (I blogged about it here and here.)

Back then, I noted that Historic Scotland's management plan had promised "a web site for the frontiers of the Roman empire in Europe", but -- mea culpa! -- I forgot to follow up. So, when I recently looked at the Antonine Wall leaflet (with its link to the official web site), it jogged my memory. And now that I have finally looked at the official web site, I can truthfully report my imperial impressions.

Antonine Wall Web Site Logo

1. Home Page

In the opening blurb, Professor David Breeze ("Antonine Wall Co-ordinator") hopes "that this website will provide the visitor with a useful source of information on the Antonine Wall, and encourage exploration and discovery of the sites and associated museum collections". But is it a useful source of information?

2. Visiting

As far as "exploration and discovery" are concerned, the web site's Visiting page displays an "interactive" map of the frontier, with a clickable red cube representing each fort. The background appears to be the scan of an actual map, so it is peculiar to see Dumbarton mis-spellt as "Dunbarton" (an understandable mistake). For accommodation, the page lists only one hotel, which visitors may find rather limiting.

3. News

Unfortunately, the web site falls into the same trap as many others: a failure to keep it fresh and up-to-date. The News page has a list of hyperlinks, the most recent of which (a call for "Spring cleaning" volunteers) relates to an event that ended on 30 April 2009. It is a pity that, in this first year of World Heritage Status and before the excitement dies out, some publicity events could not have been organised for the summer months, like those which English Heritage regularly organises for Roman properties in England, or those which the CBA include in their annual "Festival of Archaeology".

4. History

The History page presents a rather short and simplified description of the frontier, easily digested by those with a short attention span. But what about those with a longer attention span?

5. Research

Rather more promising is the Research page, which currently gives access to four PDF files. Unfortunately, this page appears to have suffered the same neglect as the News page, but hopefully will eventually be updated, if the intention is to give public access to the latest research.

6. Resources

The Resources page gives access to a selection of five links, some of which are rather odd. The first one, "Educational Resources", seems to have been lifted from the Hunterian Museum web site, and is clearly aimed at primary school age children. So the fact that the gold coin legend has not been explained quite correctly probably doesn't really matter. And children probably won't question why some of the illustrated objects are variously dated to "AD 142-180", "AD 142-163" and "AD 139-161". The second one, "Search online for Roman images", is more promising, with links to the Hunterian Online Photo Library, Historic Scotland's Image Database, and RCAHMS's invaluable Canmore database. The third link, to the "Roman Scotland Archive held at the Hunterian Museum", is another odd one, displaying a motley collection of memorabilia from the excavations at Bar Hill. The fourth link, "Merchandise", is there solely to enable the purchase of the new Ordnance Survey map of the Antonine Wall, through the rather clumsy method of printing out an Excel spreadsheet order form; it is not clear how payment is supposed to be made, except that it "must be made in sterling, payable through a British clearing bank"! And the fifth link, "Guides", gives access to some downloadable PDF guide leaflets (including the back page of an "Old Kilpatrick" leaflet that lists items 16, 17, 18, 19 -- where are items 1-15? -- and a walk around Rough Castle, which appears as "Roughcastle"). Very odd.

7. Preservation

After the rather simplistic documents in the other sections, the Preservation page enables the downloading of some fairly high-brow official documents, such as the text of the "Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act, 1979" (all 84 pages) or "Planning Advice Note (PAN) 42" (only 24 pages). But there should, perhaps, be some warning of the sizes of these documents. The 80-page full colour "Antonine Wall Management Plan" could take a few minutes with a dial-up connection (if anyone still has those).

8. Forum

I leave the Forum page till last, as (I confess) I never managed to make it work. It seems that "the forums here can only be viewed by invitation after registration" ..., so that's helpful. And welcoming.


All in all, I feel that an opportunity has been missed. I'd expect a World Heritage Site to have a rather slicker, more attractive web presence with far more interesting features. The excellent Vindolanda Trust web site is a good example to aspire to.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Last legion? Last gasp!

Last Legion movie posterColin Firth is no Clive Owen. He doesn't really cut it as a hard-bitten Roman veteran general.

I'm talking, of course, about the 2007 movie of The Last Legion, which the empress and I just watched on DVD. It is a rather curious mish-mash, richly deserving the verdict of The Guardian's Peter Bradshaw: an "absurd sword'n'sandal Roman movie ... It's all very silly".

The movie makers have tried to tack a sub-Arthurian theme onto a Roman legion story. Imagine King Arthur meets Gladiator, but without the box office draw of either Clive Owen or Russell Crowe, and (more importantly) without the script-writing flair of David Franzoni. (The Butterworth brothers have a long way to go.) And, to make matters worse, not only have they seen fit to rewrite the minimal historical framework of the story. They have resurrected the long-suffering, long since destroyed, long gone Ninth Legion, our old favorite on this blog! (What is it with the movie-going public and the Ninth Legion, anyway?!)

So, what did they get right?

The movie opens in Rome. The year is AD 460. The young Romulus Augustus is sitting on a gigantic statue watching the arrival of Aurelius, commander of the Nova Invicta Legion. (The what now?)

I have not read Valerio Massimo Manfredi's novel, on which the movie is based, so I cannot tell if the mistakes are Manfredi's or the Butterworth brothers', but (1) the year should have been AD 475, (2) the setting should have been Ravenna, the capital of the shrinking western empire, and (3) the new young emperor (for it is he, sitting on the giant statue) was named Romulus Augustulus (as in "little Augustus").

In the movie (and I suppose I should announce a spoiler alert here), the Scots ... er, Goths (with Glaswegian accents) depose the young emperor and exile him to Capri, from where he is rescued by Aurelius and his merry band, and carted off to seek his fortune in Britain, along with his Welsh teacher Ambrosinus. (That should be "his teacher, who is Welsh", rather than "his Welsh teacher" ...)

As far as we know, in reality, the young man was exiled to a life of luxury in the Campanian villa once owned by Lucullus. And he never had a Welsh teacher who turned out to be a magician. But, for all I know, he may well have had a sword, inscribed with the curious phrase ensis caliburnus (sounds like a Harry Potter spell).

Much more entertaining than the movie is Colin Firth's official blog, where his ghost-writer effuses about legionnaires and mysterious Byzantine martial artists (and offers yet another date for the setting of the movie: 476 AD).


Of course, we don't watch movies to become educated. Even bad-tempered old emperors watch movies for entertainment. And, although the writing is very bad, and the plot is very muddled, I did warm to Colin Firth's twinkling charm.

But Clive Owen he isn't.

Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Worth your salt

Picture of saltI have been thinking about salt.

It was Saint Matthew's fault. (I've been reading the Bible again.) "Ye are the salt of the earth", thunders the Authorised Version of 1611, "but if the salt have lost his savour, wherewith shall it be salted?" (Matt. ch. 5, v. 13). I love the stately grandeur of the King James, but for this passage, the New International Version (1984) is more appealing, with its talk of saltiness. (Of course, the original Greek has the salt being "made insipid", so it has definitely lost its savour and its saltiness!)

But I was reminded of the curious etymology of the word salary enshrined in the Oxford English Dictionary: "L. salarium, orig. money allowed to Roman soldiers for the purchase of salt, hence, their pay". No authority is cited. Perhaps it is the ridiculous assertion of Pliny the Elder, that master encyclopedist and perpetuator of myths and half-truths, that salt "was introduced into the rewards of war, from which we get the word salarium" (Nat. Hist. 31.41 [89]). It is well known that the word meant "pay". Pliny himself uses it as such (e.g. Nat. Hist. 34.6 [11], mentioning the salarium of a military tribune). But why?

Surely Roman soldiers didn't ever really get paid in salt.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

The Romans in Fantasyland

Book coverI accidentally picked up a book called Cartimandua, and pretty soon regretted it.

The History Press should be ashamed of themselves. "This is the first major study of Cartimandua", they cry (by which they mean that it's the first book about Cartimandua). Call me old-fashioned, but shouldn't a "major study" set out all the evidence and draw a reasoned conclusion?

Just to set the scene: in reality, Cartimandua briefly appears in the Roman account of the conquest of Britain as the queen of the Brigantes, a tribe occupying the whole of the north of England. She seems to have become embroiled in family troubles which destabilised her realm to such an extent that Rome stepped in and annexed the whole territory. You can find the (very short and confused) story here (Tacitus, Annals 12.40) and here (Tacitus, Histories 3.45).

According to the History Press, "Her story is one of power, intrigue, scandal and accusations of betrayal ..." Err, actually her story is a couple of sentences from the work of a Roman writer called Tacitus (see above), along with whatever archaeologists have managed to discover in Cumbria/Northumberland/Yorkshire/Lancashire. But the author of this first major study prefers to create a kind of soap opera, mostly disregarding Tacitus (the only source to divulge any details of Cartimandua's life whatsoever) and completely disregarding the archaeology.

The arguments (such as they are) are laughable, with the Celtic nobility dotting back and forth to their foster families at Rome, and Cartimandua herself marrying a Roman with a made-up Celtic name!

My suspicions were further aroused by the fact that the author seems to have done rather a lot of internet research rather than dragging herself off to a real library, and has consequently made a number of silly mistakes: for example, the Twentieth Legion appears as "Legion XX Valeria" (its titles, Valeria Victrix, are only ever found together, or entirely absent, but never individually); the Roman governor Quintus Veranius has become "Veranius Nepos" (a peculiar error found only in internet sources); and, worst of all, the Latin sources are cited only through English translation, so that the author's attempts to tease out nuances of meaning are entirely fatuous.

Okay, so it's not a dry-as-dust scholarly treatise, ... but is it a good read? The answer is a most emphatic no. The emperor's advice? Stand well clear. You have been warned.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Render Unto Caesar

Denarius of TiberiusEaster (as previously in this blog) calls for a biblical theme. As I have been thinking about Roman coins recently, what better theme to choose than the "Render Unto Caesar" story.

The story will be well known to you. It is Passover in Jerusalem, and Jesus is at the Temple. His enemies seek to entrap him with an unanswerable riddle: "Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" They know (as does Jesus) that either a "yes" or a "no" will be fatal, guaranteeing to alienate, on the one hand, the oppressed Jews, on the other, the Roman oppressors. But Jesus takes a third path.

"Bring me a coin and let me look at it", says He. And then: "Whose likeness and inscription is this?"

It is almost certain that the coin He held in his hand was a denarius of the emperor Tiberius (r. AD 14-37), the standard silver coin of the Roman empire (pictured above). The coin legend reads TI CAESAR DIVI AVG F AVGVSTVS, "Tiberius Caesar, son of the deified Augustus, emperor".

Of course, as with many parables and tales, we cannot be sure what precise point Jesus was making. Is Jesus simply separating the emperor's sphere of authority from God's? But remember: the Jews abhorred imperial imagery, so there may have been an implied exhortation to reject the coin with its idolatrous message. Blasphemous, too, with its claim of divinity for the first Roman emperor (Augustus) and, by extension, for his kin (Tiberius). The coin was a reminder of the imperial cult, which conflicted with the precepts of both Judaism and Christianity.

Most simply, Jesus reminds his listeners that the coin should be returned to the man whose face it bears. (And likewise, humans, made in the likeness of God, should be reserved for Him? For, as Tertullian says, what will be God's, if all things are Caesar's?)

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Greeks in Glasgow

Burrell Collection, GlasgowThe Greeks have landed at Glasgow's Burrell Collection, so I made the journey (from Lanuvium, of course) to pay my respects.

First off, this is not the easiest gallery in the world to get to. It was deliberately sited, in the 1980s, in a suburban woodland location to minimise exposure to pollution, so private transport is recommended.

And second, the exhibition is rather disappointing in scale and presentation.

Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes

This is "a major touring exhibition from the British Museum". Now, the British Museum undeniably has an unrivalled ancient Greek collection. But they've been rather parsimonious in parcelling out the artefacts on tour.

Focussing on war, politics, drama and sport, there is a notable emphasis on red figure pottery, and very little else! A bust of Sophokles, a couple of perfume pots, some miniature statuary and relief carvings, a case of weapons (helmet, greaves, arrowheads, and spear point) and an inscription. Frustratingly (for visitors who lack a Roman emperor's facility with the Greek language), the inscription -- a list of war dead from the Peloponnesian War -- is untranslated. Also, the design of the exhibition -- a few glass cases dotted around a fancifully painted centrepiece -- seems a little uninspired.

Hit or miss?

It is certainly nice to see British Museum artefacts doing the rounds. (The exhibition has already been in South Shields, renowned for its Roman connections.) But an exhibition of this type cannot inspire interest in those who do not already possess it.

Saturday, 31 January 2009

Fly me to the moon ...

Photo (c) NASA/JPL/Space Science InstituteA Roman emperor hunting for a topic to begin a new year naturally seizes upon Janus, the god of doorways.

But did you know that the planet Saturn has a moon named Janus?

This photo, property of NASA, was taken by the Cassini spacecraft in 2006, two years into its 4-year mission.

Truly an amazing image to start the new year.