Saturday, 9 September 2017

Slanting the Facts: infographics misrepresenting the past and the present

Infographics. They appear quite often in our social media news feeds. Sometimes they seek to be informative. Sometimes they seek to be humorous. Sometimes they seek to obfuscate. Sometimes they seek to do all three. Yesterday, I created one which does just that.
As an historian I find the moral judgement of the past by modern standards infuriating when done in earnest, but when it is done as a joke, I find it hilarious, and my newly designed infographic was designed thus. Years ago, quite possibly even a decade ago, my younger brother and I started joking about how members of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, you know, the ones who often get naked) would react if they travelled back in time to the Graeco-Roman period. As often happens when we start such discussions, we followed through to the most absurd outcome, in this case to what degree they would despise Heracles. I joked that I'd buy a shirt which featured that joke.
This private joke has continued between us since then, and having recently concluded a major research project I decided to devote some time to art, and decided the time had come to bring this old joke to fruition. While I was obviously always going to include the Nemean Lion, Lernian Hydra, and Stymphalian Birds, I knew I had to decide not just what to include, but what to exclude. I knew I couldn't include all twelve labours, as not all of them led to the maltreatment of animals, and this was meant to be something that could work as a t-shirt. 
I had always wanted to include Cerberus because I was amused by Robin Bond's depiction of the French Maid character attacking Dionysus dressed as Heracles for being so mean to "that poor puppy" in Aristophanes' Frogs. This posed a problem. If molesting animals (which I'm sure PETA would include) was to be included, I would have too many examples to include. I needed to reconsider the Twelve Labours more critically. As this wasn't an academic paper, I checked out Perseus Project's Hercules, Greece's greatest hero online exhibition
I had forgotten completely about the Hind of Ceryneia, and decided to include her because she was Artemis' pet, and Heracles did shoot her. When I reacquainted myself with the Cattle of Geryon, I came across a character I had never noted before, Orthros, Cerberus' two-headed brother, whom Heracles killed to take the cattle. I made the tough decision to abandon Cerberus for his ill-fated, less famous brother. None of the other animals in the labours were killed (I am a Harry Potter fan and know what happens to those who consider centaurs animals), so I decided to add the snakes Hera sent to kill Heracles as a baby. So I ended up with six examples; a good size to fit on a t-shirt or infographic.
When I drew the Nemean Lion, I had unintentionally made him look happy, so I made the decision to try make these creatures look as harmless as possible. My hydra looks quite cartoonish, with one head looking particularly quizzical. I drew the Stymphalian Birds in flight deliberately to reflect the practice of duck hunting where the birds are shot while in flight. I based the hind on a sitting red deer doe to suggest even more timidity, and the open-mouthed head of Orthros was based on my own dog, Pompey. Given my deliberate attempts to downplay the potentially monstrous natures of these animals, I based Hera's snakes on corn snakes, the least scary snake I could think of as an Australian. 
Once my drawings were completed, I needed to figure out my text. While I still like the idea of mocking PETA, I decided to make my infographic more general for two reasons: they get enough attention already, and they would consider the majority of the labours as animal abuse. While I think the attribution of anachronistic moral approaches to history would fit especially with PETA, similar anachronistic approaches to the past occur all the time online, so it still fits the joke to give a more generic description. I also decided to use the name Hercules, instead of Heracles, as it is more widely known thanks to Disney. I then decided to consider each of Hercules' actions in chronological order outside of their proper context with the intention to make him look as bad as possible: 
  1. Killing small creatures at a young age has become a stereotypical indication of a potential psychopath, so I described him as a "natural born killer".
  2. Wearing fur was PETA's excuse for naked photo shoots, so I highlighted this element of the Nemean Lion story.
  3. If you consider the Lernian Hydra as an animal instead of a monster, you realise that it is the only one of its kind, and thus its destruction can be described as an "extinction event" by modern standards, and is something rightly decried against by myriad environmental advocacy groups worldwide.
  4. Any pet owner would find hunting a pet abhorrent, and thus hunting the Ceryneian Hind which was Artemis' pet seems a horrible act.
  5. Bird shooting continues to be protested annually in Australia each duck season.
  6. Dog lovers hate the idea of dogs being killed. Consider the negative attention police forces worldwide have been receiving for shooting people's dogs when executing warrants, or even chasing fugitives.
So I finished designing this infographic and potential t-shirt design yesterday.

When I showed it to my brother he burst out laughing.
Yes, I made it as a gag. Yes, I'd wear it on a t-shirt. No, I don't know if anyone else finds it amusing.
But the humour belies a potential problem in today's online world of infographics and listicles: 
While I have deliberately misread the past for comedic effect, I understand how this is a flagrant act of misrepresentation. Without that comprehension viewers will see that Hercules was all these things without any consideration to his proper cultural background. That approach to history is something I get into arguments about online. 
It isn't something which has a huge societal impact, but just remember the next time you see a similar infographic, it is very easy to slant the facts to generate a bias in its audience.


Monday, 28 August 2017

Coopting the Classics at Charlottesville

A couple of weeks ago I read an interesting article posted on The Public Medievalist site which discussed how white supremacists have appropriated the concept of the medieval past for themselves. The piece entitled 'Leaving "Medieval" Charlottesville' focussed on the use of medieval emblems on flags and shields carried by the white supremacists while going on to discuss the presence of such people within the medieval reenactment community.
While I am an ancient historian, I am also an artist who adores the aesthetics of symbols and heraldry, especially those of the medieval period. I am not reenactor so I don't often wear things which feature these designs, but I always keep my eye open for beautifully designed emblems relevant to the classical world.
So imagine my shock and horror today when I spotted this photograph illustrating a Wired article about Charlottesville.
Screenshot of Wired articleAs I said, I keep an eye out for classical emblems. In case you can't see it, take a closer look:  

Close up screenshot showing patch featuring helmet and swords





A patch featuring a Greek helmet (I'm not sure if it's Spartan or Corinthian) and crossed swords (maybe gladii)



I am not naive. I have watched Sarah Bond receive death threats for pointing out the nature of polychromy in the classical world and how the stereotype of white marble statues became a later aesthetic movement with attached racial issues. I've also seen the abuse she received for pointing out racial diversity in the extant art of the past on Twitter. I don't think there is an ancient historian or classicist with a social media account in the world who did not witness how right-wing trolls completely lost their minds when the BBC produced a children's cartoon which illustrated non-white members of Roman society in Roman Britain.
The modern perception of the racial past is very much on topic at the moment.
The Public Medievalist's Race, Racism and the Middle Ages series has done a great job in introducing to a wide audience some of the historiography surrounding this issue; approaches which can in some cases be adapted for use in earlier history. I especially found Matthew Chalmer's article 'Anti-Semitism Before Semites' particularly illuminating in this manner. 
Yet the sight of this photograph today shook me. This beautifully designed emblem is the sort of insignia I would normally love to have on a badge, or shirt, or a tote to illustrate my love for the ancient world. I could have unwittingly purchased such a patch online and proudly carried it, believing that it identified me as a lover of the classical world. For all I know, this white nationalist might describe himself similarly. But for me, he has perverted his love for the past. 
In his article on Charlottesville, Paul B. Sturtevant wrote as a member of a medieval reenactment group, the Society for Creative Anachronism, but I am writing as an ancient historian and a consumer. This perversion of classical imagery has made me fearful of buying items which represent my passion because I do not want to accidentally imply that I think I am better than anyone else because of the colour of my skin. When the past is manipulated in such a way, is it little wonder that there a Facebook groups devoted to multiculturalism, race, and ethnicity in classics which devotes most of its efforts to discussing how to make people from diverse backgrounds interested in classics?
So to anyone who deludes themselves into thinking that the classical world was strictly white, guess what? You are wrong!
Multiculturalism existed in the ancient world of the Mediterranean. Sure, it wasn't as apparent as it is today, but people of colour could be found in the great cities and they were definitely represented in art (check this out from The Met, for example).
Your use of classical imagery to illustrate your bigotry also serves to illustrate your ignorance - given that these are hardly mutually exclusive, this is not really a shock. 
But that said, this consumer now feels she needs to double check every possible meaning attributed to such designs (I haven't actually been able to see if this is officially used as the insignia for a specific hate group), because the only thing that sickens me more than a white supremacist is the fear that I might be mistaken for one.

Friday, 25 August 2017

Social media changing my perspective on the Vesuvian eruption of 79 CE

For some reason this year the accepted anniversary of the 79 CE eruption of Vesuvius (24th of August) left me with a feeling of deep sadness. I became fully aware that this was a humanitarian disaster, not just by modern standards, but also Roman standards. 
As an ancient historian I've always tried to not judge ancient societies by the social standards of today, and I've tried to keep top of mind that human life was not valued as highly in the Roman world as it is in my own, and I think being overly aware of this might have coloured my perspective of what happened 1938 years ago.
So what has led me to this new perception of the past? I think it was the cumulative effect of my Facebook newsfeed.
Anyone who is a member of the CAHS - Classics and Ancient History Society at UQ group on Facebook can attest, my Facebook newsfeed is devoted to an awful lot of archaeology and history focussed pages and publications, which allows me to post quite a lot of material to the group. In addition to disseminating this material, it keeps me abreast of news relating to recent discoveries and different views of the past. One of these pages is the official Pompeii page Pompeii - Parco Archelogico. This page had primed me for this shift in focus on the 8th of August with a photograph I hadn't seen before; that of a collection of amphorae left upside-down to dry found outside a warehouse at Oplontis.Accompanying this was a vivid description of how fruit harvests were collected and prepared so they were preserved for the winter, and how old wine amphorae were washed with sea water and left to dry before they were again tarred and reused. They gave no source for this description (much to my annoyance), but the overall effect with this photo was to leave me with a visceral sense of life interrupted. 
Upside-down wine amphorae drying at OplontisA few days prior to this, on the 5th of August, Kristina Killgrove posted a photograph from the work she has now completed at the same site, Oplontis. It was of a woven mat which featured the impression left by a fig which was found under a pedestal of dirt under a human skeleton inside a warehouse. I do not know if this is the same warehouse, but they are near to each other. Dr Killgrove also described the room in which these victims had sought shelter as containing a large number of pomegranates laid out on woven mats.
Woven mat featuring the impression of a fig found under a pedestal of dirt which had been supporting skeletal remains inside a ware house at Oplontis.
These two posts brought home to me the realisation of the time of year at which the eruption occurred: late summer, early autumn.
I had never given that any thought before. To my mind the eruption was 79 CE, and I'd always framed it in two ways: politically, as the year Vespasian died, and in light of the death of Pliny the Elder. Pliny's Natural History is my favourite all time ancient text, so Pliny holds a special place in my heart.
I had always focussed more on Pliny's death rather than his actions immediately preceding it. I was aware of his role in commanding the Roman fleet based in the Bay of Naples to evacuate people trying to flee the eruption, but I hadn't juxtaposed this with the "cheapness of life" trope, and seen how they didn't precisely align. The attempts to evacuate using apparatus of the Roman state, the navy, more closely aligns with a response to a humanitarian disaster rather than the "death comes to us all, and lives are something which can be purchased" idea. I only did this for the first time yesterday.
We know that people were evacuated, and we know that people died close to the shore, hoping that the ships would find them (consider the 55 individuals whose remains were found in boathouses at Herculaneum who were waiting for rescue), but the idea of this being a humanitarian disaster by Roman standards just did not fully occur to me.
Then, in addition to these two posts, the Sententiae Antiquae blog posted Martial's epigram on the eruption to remembrance of the anniversary. I love Martial's work for its playfulness. He was a poet who poked fun at those he thought deserved it with a sharp wit, a sharper stylus, and a sense of "society's ideas of what is right and proper be damned". But when describing this event, my playful, happy poet was gone. Instead he wrote:
This is Vesuvius, but lately green with shade of vines. Here the noble grape loaded the vats to overflowing. These slopes were more dear to Bacchus than Nysa's hills, on this mountain not long ago Satyrs held their dances. This was Venus' dwelling, more pleasing to her than Lacedaemon, this spot the name of Hercules made famous. All lies sunk in flames and drear ashes. The High Ones themselves would rather this had not been in their power.
Shackleton Bailey 1993 Loeb translation of Martial 4.44.
The combination of Martial's solemnity, brought to my attention by social media, and a few social media posts has made me look at the eruption in a new way. I had always been aware of the human loss of life (the plaster cast of the swaddled baby at the Naples Museum when I visited in 2003 got to me, but the chained up dog upset me even more), but today I am viewing the catastrophe differently as a direct result of social media posts. These posts made me acknowledge the not just the destruction wrought by the eruption, but by looking at the materials frozen a sense of the immediacy of it has been highlighted in my psyche. They made me acknowledge the time of year, late summer/early autumn, which would have been exceptionally busy on account of the harvests taking place, and how these yearly preparations were frozen not just in time but in catastrophe. And the posting of Martial's poem, which I hadn't properly read prior to this, made me realise that at the very least, the rest of Italy watched (figuratively) on in horror as this disaster occurred, and made me fully consider the greater implications of Pliny's actions in coordinating evacuations. The eruption was of 79'CE was an ancient humanitarian disaster, and complete societies were destroyed at one of the most important times of the year, and social media posts made me fully realise this.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Gladiators: more than war prisoners and criminals, and definitely sporting heroes

Having recently visited the Queensland Museum’s exhibition “Gladiators: Heroes of the Colosseum”, I felt compelled to write a response to Alastair Blanshard’s piece for The Conversation where he outlined some concerns regarding the intellectual framework used by the curators.

While I agree with my colleague’s description that the exhibition is not “plagued by doubts or uncertainties” in how it presents its splendid material, I do think that his review of the background of gladiators was also not as nuanced as it could have been for the same reason that the exhibition’s is not: both are trying to convey information to a general audience in an easily understood manner, each using a different approach.

Blanshard correctly points out that gladiators existed “within a very particular set of religious, social, legal, political and economic circumstances”, but it should also be understood that these very circumstances were often in direct conflict with each other. In Roman society those involved in public entertainment, not only gladiators but also actors, were legally the lowest class members of society: they were frequently slaves, but when they were not, they had fewer rights than other citizens or former slaves. In addition to this, as Blanshard correctly points out, the majority of gladiators were slaves as a result of being prisoners of war or condemned criminals. Yet despite this, there are constant references in both literary and legal literature to members of Rome’s most privileged classes, the senatorial and equestrian ranks, fighting as gladiators from the second half of the first century BCE.

Upper class gladiators

In 45 BCE Julius Caesar passed the Julian Law of Municipalities which stated that no one who had been hired out as a gladiator or who trained gladiators could fill a role in public office. Given that social mobility was extremely limited in this period, no member of Rome’s lowest classes (slaves and former slaves were already exempt) could hope to raise the money to win such public offices in an election, so this legislation was not targeting those who were traditionally gladiators, but was introduced to prevent members of Italy’s higher social classes from fighting as gladiators. Indeed, we know that Caesar had been responsible for exhibiting two members of the senatorial class at games he had provided most likely the year before (Suetonius, Julius Caesar 39.1; Cassius Dio 43.23.5).

This legislation does not appear to have been very successful as histories continued to refer to such upper class gladiators and legislation continued to be enacted to prevent them from fighting. Again in 38 BCE, according to the third century CE historian Cassius Dio (48.43.3), a senator desired to fight as a gladiator and legislation was passed to prevent him from doing so, but the same writer also described how a senator fought as a gladiator in 29 BCE (51.22.5). Again in 11 CE, the same historian described how a number of equestrian class members fought as gladiators, watched by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. This was the same year in which legislation was introduced to prevent any free-born individual below a certain age (25 years old from men and 20 years old for women) from being contracted to perform as any kind of entertainer, including as a gladiator, except when permission had been given by Augustus or his adopted son and successor, Tiberius.

Further legislation, preserved on an inscribed bronze tablet found near Larino in Italy, was enacted again in 19 CE during the reign of Tiberius which not only prevented senators and equestrians from hiring themselves out as gladiators, but was worded to ensure that even their descendents and siblings could not do so “contrary to the dignity of the order to which they belonged”. In addition to outlining the new provisions of the law, it also referred to previous legislation which was enacted to prevent members of Rome’s upper classes from fighting as gladiators and how members of Rome’s privileged classes had sought to get around the law. Indeed prior to this, Tiberius’ own son Drusus had sponsored games at which equestrians had fought as gladiators and one was actually killed (Cassius Dio 57.14.3). Similar stories of equestrians fighting as gladiators were recorded as taking place during the reign of Nero (Cassius Dio 61.9.1) and that legislation banning such behaviour by senators and equestrians was again re-enacted in 69 CE (Cassius Dio 64.6.3).

This is not an exhaustive catalogue of members of Rome’s most privileged classes seeking to fight as gladiators, and does not include the examples of Caligula’s behaviour or the accusations made by Cicero for political purposes against Marc Antony. They all predate the construction of the Colosseum, but are contemporary with the amphitheatre at Pompeii, the site of the gladiatorial competitions in which most of the gladiatorial equipment featured in the exhibition was used. Indeed, the concept of the upper class gladiator became so prevalent in Roman society that the later satirist Juvenal (Satire Two lines 142-8) mocked how members of Rome’s most noble families fought as gladiators; while he was likely exaggerating, satire needs some basis in reality to work.

By performing as a gladiator as a member of Rome’s upper class, you risked social stigmata (most often referred to in Latin as infamia), potentially ruining your public career, and death (though this was decreased once Augustus made it illegal for gladiators not be given the chance to ask for quarter), yet it continued to entice members of Rome’s senatorial and equestrian classes. It is this inexplicable phenomenon which makes using the lens of sport attractive to historians and curators alike. By comparing gladiators to sports stars we can convey to a modern audience its appeal, and try to better understand this desire which is difficult to both determine and quantify.

The appeal of being a gladiator and sport

The appeal to Rome’s lowest free class is obvious: food, housing, and payment, but for privileged members of Rome’s society who did not lack wealth, the appeal had to have been something else again, and this seems to have been public adoration.

The poet Martial (5.24) wrote an epigram for the gladiator called Hermes whom he variously described as the “favourite of the age”, “adored by women”, and “the money-maker for those who sold seats”. Juvenal (Satire Six lines 104-110) described how women found gladiators sexually attractive regardless of how wounded or ugly they might have been. They were described as famous by various writers (for examples see Suetonius, Julius Caesar 26.3; Statius 2.5 line 26; Lucilius 4.11.175; Apuleius, Metamorphosis 10.18), and while their low position in society was often used in rhetorical attacks, their bravery was also used as a teaching device (for examples see Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 2.17.41; Aulus Gellius 12.5.13; Quintilian, Institutions of Oratory 2.12.2-3). Gladiators were even the subject of life-sized portraits (Pliny, Natural History 35.33.52), something which the exhibition might have unintentionally reflected in the life-sized depictions of the various gladiator types included on the walls in one of the galleries. All of these descriptions could easily be changed to describe modern athletes in a variety of sports.

In addition to this, the training required to become a gladiator was not particularly different to that of professional sportsmen, either in the past or today: specialist training was provided by experts; specialist medical care was provided; special diets were provided to gladiators, and while more lavish meals were provided prior to fights, those who viewed their role as a gladiator as profession would go without to increase their chances of victory; and depending on their status as slave or free, even payment, the amount varying depending on the time and their individual fame.

In addition to this, the description of gladiator audiences as fans is totally appropriate. Pliny the Younger (Panegyric 33.3) described that with the accession of the emperor Trajan, audience members could once more freely “express their enthusiasm and show their preferences without fear! No one risked the old charge of impiety if he disliked a particular gladiator...” referring to how Domitian had the supporters of gladiators which opposed his favourite publicly put to death. In addition to this, Epictetus the philosopher (Discourses 3.15.5-8) described how children sometimes “play athletes, again gladiators, again they blow trumpet, and then act a play about anything they have seen and admired”, and went on to say that this was not just the habit of children. Such behaviour is not so dissimilar to that of children today or the fans of any kind of sport today.  The exhibition rightly describes this as a form of sport and their use of items such as lamps and one terracotta figurine indicates that a market for merchandise associated with gladiatorial competitions existed, just as it does for sports today.

Gladiators and religion

Blanshard’s assessment that the exhibition does not fully address the issue of how gladiatorial exhibitions fit into Rome’s religion is a fair statement, but I think this was likely to result of two issues: a lack of artefacts with which to illustrate its nature, and an ongoing tendency for the vast majority of modern scholarship on Roman games to treat all forms of Roman public entertainment isolated from their religious backgrounds especially when addressing the period from the reign of Augustus onwards.  In only the last decade has scholarship started to address how religion was the original purpose of all forms of public entertainment, and the little work which has been done recently has been done by scholars of Roman religion, not public entertainment specialists. Please note that the friezes which focussed most on this were fourth century BCE, and this focus on religion by the curators closely mirrors the majority of scholarship addressing the religious roots of public entertainment to date. Given this trend in modern scholarship, I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of attention given to religion in the exhibition.  The panels label all the gods which featured on the greaves and helmets, pointing out religious connotations where possible.  The one place where more could have been made of it religious nature is the panel devoted to the procession which preceded the games, as this was a very religious act, but it still makes the point that an altar and images of the gods were carried in.  Perhaps if more religious items which could be securely associated with gladiatorial battle were included in the exhibition, more might have been made of it.  That said, the inclusion of musical instruments, one half of a double flute (tibia) and a signalling horn, are wonderful inclusions.

The confused nature of the place of gladiators in Roman society

As just this cursory examination of how gladiators fit into Roman society indicates, this cannot be easily conveyed, especially via the medium of ancient artefacts.  The confused social position of the gladiator was even acknowledged in antiquity.  The Christian writer Tertullian (died around 240 CE) wrote in his work On Spectacles (22):

“Take even those who give and who administer the spectacles; look at their attitude to charioteers, actors, athletes, gladiators, most loving of men, to whom men surrender their soul and women their bodies as well, for whose sake they commit sins they blame; on one and the same account they glorify them and they degrade and diminish them; yes, further, they openly condemn them to disgrace and civil degradation; they keep them religiously excluded from council chamber, rostrum, senate, equestrian rank, and every other kind of office and a good many distinctions. The perversity of it! They love whom they lower; they despite whom they approve; the art they glorify, the artist they disgrace. What sort of judgement is this—that a man should be blackened for what he shines in? Yes, and what a confession that things are evil, when their authors at the top of their popularity are in disgrace!”



Testing the limits of what they allow
Much of Blanshard’s criticism of this exhibition is the result of what happens when an exhibition created for a general audience is visited by a specialist, but his description of gladiators as criminals and prisoners of war does not fully reflect the reality of who gladiators were, or how they fit into Rome’s complicated culture. As someone who specialises in Roman policies towards public entertainment, I think this exhibition has done a commendable job of conveying an extremely confusing Roman cultural phenomenon to a general audience by using a comparison which a modern audience understands and a number of specialists within this field have used, sport.

Go see this exhibition. The artefacts shown are wonderful, its panels informative (I especially enjoyed seeing the fresco of the riot in the Pompeii’s amphitheatre enlarged enough to see the fighting in the audience), and the chance to try on a replica gladiatorial helmet cannot be missed, but they will only let you pretend to fight with your brother.  I checked.

For further information on the legislation preventing members of the upper classes from performing as public entertainers, see B. Levick, 1983 "The Senatus Consultum from Larinum", Journal of Roman Studies, vol. 73, pp. 97-115.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Museum Exhibitions and Changing Perspectives

On Friday the Gladiators, Heroes of the Colosseum exhibition opened at the Queensland Museum, and it has already had an impact upon me despite the fact I haven't yet seen it. My brother is working as a volunteer, and he came home from his first day posing a question he was asked but was unable to  answer: "Did gladiators wear padding inside their helmets?"
The Museum has gotten some helmet reproductions for people (they were thinking about children but adults aren't letting the kids have all the fun) to try on and have their photos taken. Apparently they are very heavy and a little uncomfortable, so the question is literally top of mind.
I didn't know the answer, so I immediately started looking into it. Reenactors were arguing that they did, and some based their theory on what they see as an undergarment on friezes and mosaics. The picture below is of one they suggest supports the theory. I'm not completely won over, but I do concede that padding would be safer and more comfortable, but where's the irrefutable evidence?
Detail of a mosaic depicting gladiators being separated by a referee, late-3rd century AD, House of the Gladiators, Kourion, Cyprus https://www.flickr.com/photos/carolemage/
So I started looking for discussions on helmets, and was shocked to see Juvenal's Sixth Satire (a work I've read multiple time before) appear:
But what were the good looks and youthfulness that enthralled Eppia and set her on fire? What did she see in him to make her put up with being called a gladiator's groupie? After all, her darling Sergius had already started shaving his throats and with his gashed arm had hopes of retirement. Besides, his face was really disfigured: there was a furrow chafed by his helmet, an enormous lump right on his nose, and the nasty condition of a constantly weeping eye. But he was a gladiator. That's what makes them into Hyacinthuses. 
Lines 103-110 Braund translation (Loeb Classical Library)
Never had I paid any attention to the description of what the helmet had done the the fictional Sergius' head. I'd noted his injuries, his medical condition, the idea that he might soon retire, and that it was only through his role as gladiator that he had any physical appeal, but that chafed furrow from his helmet had never caught my imagination, until my brother passed on that question he was asked.
Yes, I'm looking forward to going and seeing the exhibition, and you bet I'm going to have my photo taken in one of those helmets, but I am looking forward to the questions posed by the public that my brother will bring home to me far, far more. Those questions will be posed by people with few (if any) preconceptions about what is known or understood, with the exception of movies, and as a result their questions draw the mind to reconsider what we assume, and that is why exhibitions like this make our research better and stronger.
Exhibitions make for stronger research outcomes.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

Ancient Scientific Research

Yesterday I participated in the Brisbane March for Science (#MarchforScience). As an historian who researches ancient medicine, I didn't feel completely out of place. I turned up with a sign "Even Nero Supported Scientific Research". Most people smirked, but only one person asked me "Really?"
Nero was described by Suetonius as not only using poison, but provided the woman, Lucusta, from whom he'd acquired poison with which he killed Brittanicus with a full pardon, large estates, and sent her students (Life of Nero 33.3). Lucusta was being paid to teach toxicology to students; a job we see in various universities today, though it usually seeks a different outcome.
I chose Nero because everyone knows him. One of the police officers who was helping the march along asked me "who's Nero?" I prepared to go completely crazy when he said "just kidding!" There are better examples of toxicological research. Most famously, Mithridates of Pontus was best known for his toxicological research, trying to find ways to both protect himself from poisons or poison himself (I've written about this elsewhere). Cleopatra was also well known for her toxicological research. Although it is a later source, Plutarch (Life of Antony, 71) even provides descriptions of her use of prisoners sentenced to death to conduct human experiments to determine which poisons worked best.
I went to a lecture a couple of years back in which a Medievalist stated that science experimentations did not occur until the 11th century, yet this does not reflect the language of ancient medical texts. Medical writers would describe treatments as "those which I have tried by experimentation."* Phrases occasionally used include "Some say to do [this], but I have never tried it myself."* Looking at Galen's lists of compound drugs, he often states whose recipe it is, thus providing us with ancient examples of citations in relation to medical research.*
Yes, science experiments were conducted in antiquity. Yes, people were paid to teach a variety of sciences in antiquity. Yes, scholars provided citations to other scientists in antiquity. Even ancient scientific writings formed the basis of many modern sciences. Ancient history has a role in modern science, and this ancient historian attended yesterday. I certainly hope there were more.
*Yes, I should provide proper citations for these, but to quote a sign photographed and posted on Twitter yesterday: "I should be writing" something other than this blog.

I just found a picture of me online.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

Treating Joint Disease in the Roman World

Something strange happened while I was working on writing up research on how Latin sources treated joint complaints:  I realised that I had everything in my house to formulate not just one treatment, but three variations of it. 
Pliny the Elder (24.72.116) wrote:
Bruised holly leaves with added salt are beneficial for afflictions of the joints... 
Possibly two or three centuries later (we can't date the work for sure but it is often dated to the fourth century) an anonymous author whose work is referred to as the Medicina Plinii prescribed (3.1.3) a similar treatment:
Holly ground with added salt and oil is beneficial for the same thing [joint disease].
This use of holly as a treatment was popular with ancient Latin medical authors, because a third medical author who probably dates to the fifth century, Marcellus Empiricus, provides another prescription (34.64):
Holly, rubbed down and applied with frankincense, salt, and oil relieves joints.
The sources made no references to amounts, so I made it up as I went along.  Now I must say, the holly used is most likely the incorrect type as it as grown in Australia and randomly found in my brother's yard (thanks Justin) and brought home by my mother (thanks Mum).  When I first wrote up this research I was curious about the ongoing changes over time and thought the addition of oil would aid its application.  Therefore, this not-at-all-scientific experiment was to compare between the three prescriptions to see what difference the development brought about.

Pliny's mix of holly and salt was very dry and doesn't adhere to the skin very well at all.  I also think it stinks, even though my family didn't think it was that bad.

Holly and Salt. Ground and applied
The Medicina Plinii preparation adhered to the skin better with a small amount of olive oil added.  When I first considered the difference between Pliny and the Medicina Plinii, I thought that oil would make the preparation adhere better, and my presumption was correct.  It still stinks though.

Comparison of the Holly and Salt to the Holly, Salt and Oil.  Application of Holly, Salt, and Oil.
 Marcellus' addition of frankincense renders some notable changes.  The middle picture shows the oiliness of the preparation before I even added the oil.  I added the same amount of oil to both the Medicina Plinii and Marcellus' preparation.  Yes, frankincense is a dried resin, but when pounded in a mortar and pestle, it releases a considerable amount of oil.  The other major difference was the smell.  The smell of this preparation is far, far nicer than that of the holly without the frankincense.  It also adheres to the skin a little better too.  Marcellus often claims to have used what he wrote about, so I wonder if he had a client who complained about the smell.  That said, frankincense was often included in medical preparations, so he might have thought it would provide other advantages instead or as well.

Left: Holly, Salt, and Frankincense before pounding. Middle: Holly, Salt, and Frankincense pounded; Right:  application after oil was added to the preparation.
As I have typed this blog, all of Pliny's preparation has fallen off my thumb, most of the Medicina Plinii preparation has fallen off, but Marcellus' is still adhering very well.

Left:  Salt and Holly; Middle:  Salt, Holly, and Oil; Right: Salt, Holly, Frankincense, and Oil.
While I had thought about how the addition of oil would improve the manner it adhered to the skin proved to be correct, but I hadn't imagined what difference the frankincense would make.  As for the effectiveness of this as a treatment... I am extremely sceptical of all home remedies. 
The joints on my left hand (which are the worst joints I applied this to) did start aching as I typed this blog, but this does not mean that this is an ineffectual treatment, and one person messing around in her kitchen not even measuring ingredients properly make no pretence at being a scientific study.  My arthritis is described as spondyloarthritis and is a genetic form within the rheumatic diseases, and my sources state that this is for joint disease without any further definitions.  For all I know, this could help people with osteoarthritis, and as I stated at the beginning, this is likely the wrong form of holly.
In any case, it has been fun to look at how over a period of perhaps five centuries, the treatment of joint diseases evolved and developed in my own kitchen.