Monday, 19 April 2010

Lost Legion Lunacy

I have often heard people say: "I don't know anything about Art, but I know what I like." Such people enjoy art. But they would never dream of pontificating on the relative artistic merits of the Breughel family, for example. Nor would they presume to hold authoritative views on, say, the influences on Giacometti. For there is an unspoken acknowledgement that Fine Art is an academic discipline, in which scholars have worked for years to develop an individual expertise. Not so, archaeology.

Centurion movie still

The imminent release of Neil Marshall's Centurion movie is about to pour more fuel on one of this old emperor's favourite chestnuts: The Disappearance of the Ninth Legion.

This particular topic (on which I've written before, here and here) is a stark example of what I might call the Fine Art vs. Archaeology dichotomy. For, while most Fine Art enthusiasts draw the line at art appreciation, Archaeology enthusiasts feel quite at liberty to dream up their own theories, particularly when these fly in the face of accepted wisdom.

The Disappearance of the Ninth legion is one of these theories.

Ninth Legion Nonsense

This peculiar "have-a-go" attitude to Archaeology is (for this old emperor) typified by the Roman Scotland web site. There, the author (one Euan Lindsay) has the cheek to "make no guarantees as to the currency, accuracy, or quality of information stored here". And yet he is quite happy to trumpet the fact that "he takes a pride in getting the facts right" (why the disclaimer, then?) "and is passionate about real Scottish history, not fashionable myth or fable." Sadly, it seems that one man's "real Scottish history" is, in fact, archaeological myth and fable.

Mr Lindsay's irritating brand of historical fiction relies on half-truths and innuendo in order to disprove that "the legion was lost out-with of Scotland" (sic). His readers will come away imagining, erroneously, that scholars have located the disappearance of the Ninth Legion elsewhere, "as there is no evidence of the Ninth Legion being lost in Scotland". This is not the reason for locating the event elsewhere.

Nor is the scholarly argument "an anomaly attributable to the persuasive power of constant repetition by a vocal minority". (What vocal minority? The research is firmly based on a small corpus of academic articles, available for anyone to peruse, and conveniently listed here.)

Quite simply, Mr Lindsay's chosen career as a tour guide in Perthshire requires him to locate the disappearance of the Ninth legion in his back yard, so that he can entertain parties of paying tourists. Now, why doesn't he just admit that, instead of twisting the Archaeology to suit his own purposes? "I don't know much about Archaeology", he could say, "but I know that I'd really like the Ninth Legion to have been lost in Scotland."

Friday, 2 April 2010

Pontius McPilate

Pontius Pilate inscriptionIt is Easter again, so (following the tradition set in previous years) it is time for an Easter post, and what better subject for a Roman emperor to select than the infamous governor of Judaea himself, Pontius Pilate.

Prefect of Judaea

The only inscription to name Pilate (pictured on left) was discovered during Italian excavations at Caesarea-on-Sea in 1961.* It was of immediate interest, not only for its rarity, but also because it confirmed Pilate's title as Praefectus Judaeae, "Prefect of Judaea". (Owing to ancient damage, only ECTVS IVDAE can be read on line 3.) This was exciting news, because the later historians Tacitus and Josephus had named him "Procurator of Judaea", a title that only came in with Claudius, whereas Pilate was governor under Tiberius. (Wisely, the New Testament writers simply called him "governor".)

The Scottish Connection

Long before 1961, Scottish antiquarians had laid claim to Pontius Pilate. The story is an amusing one, originating in a nineteenth century book entitled Historic Scenes in Perthshire. Its author, William Marshall, writes:

Fortingall was the birthplace of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea in the days of our Saviour! It is said that, a short time before our Saviour's birth, Caesar Augustus sent an embassy to Scotland, as he did to other countries ...; that his ambassadors found Metellanus, the Scottish king, in this Grampian region; that one of those ambassadors was the father of Pontius Pilate, whose famous son was born as he and his associates sojourned there fulfilling their mission; and that it was at Fortingall that the son first saw the light.

The prehistoric homestead of Dun Geal was even suggested as Pilate's retirement home!

The obviously fictitious story was further reinforced by the reported discovery, during the construction of the church in 1900, of a slab incised with the letters P P. Besides the famous yew tree, thought to be 2,000 years old, the area is known for its prehistoric cup-marked stones and Christian cross slabs. But there is currently no sign of the P P stone.

Pontius McPilate

His surname, often a descriptive knickname adopted by a Roman family, perhaps means "thick-haired", which is ironic given the predilection for crew-cut individuals (e.g. James Nesbitt in The Passion) to play the part in movies.

In reality, Pilate probably hailed from Italy, specifically from Campania where several other individuals named Pontius are known. But wherever he was born, it certainly wasn't Scotland.

* A. Frova, "L'inscrizione di Ponzio Pilato a Cesarea", Rendiconti 95 (1961), 419-434 (whence AE 1963,104).