Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Translations Matter! As Do Sources!

In what is a first I am writing two blog posts in two days.
I have spent a considerable amount of time over the last couple of days trying to point out errors in a news story about gladiator diets in Ephesus.
An Austrian university wrote a media release about the research conducted by their anthropologists about the evidence for gladiator diets. They wrote it in their native language, German.
"In einer Studie des Departments für Gerichtsmedizin der MedUni Wien in Kooperation mit der Abteilung für Anthropologie des Instituts für Rechtsmedizin der Uni Bern wurden Knochen eines im Jahr 1993 gefundenen Gladiatoren friedhofs aus dem 2./3. Jahrhundert nach Christus im damals römischen Ephesos (heutige Türkei) untersucht. Ephesos war damals die Hauptstadt der römischen Provinz Asia und hatte über 200.000 Einwohner."
Yes, that is German, but I don't expect you to be able to read all of it! Just focus on the bold text! For the betterment of your understanding in case you don't know in German "vor Christus" or "v. Chr" means "BC" or "BCE", while "nach Christus" or "n. Chr" means "AD" or "CE". My German is rather shoddy, but it helps to know how to figure out dates.
The English translation of the media release has a vital error:
"In a study by the Department of Forensic Medicine at the MedUni Vienna in cooperation with the Department of Anthropology at the Institute of Forensic Medicine at the University of Bern, bones were examined from a gladiator cemetery uncovered in 1993 which dates back to the 2nd or 3rd century BC in the then Roman city of Ephesos (now in modern-day Turkey). At the time, Ephesos was the capital of the Roman province of Asia and had over 200,000 inhabitants."
They state BC instead of AD. At the bottom of the page they include the link to the article which
correctly sites the date:
Full bibliographic information
Service: PLOS ONE
Stable Isotope and trace element studies on gladiators and contemporary Romans from Ephesus
(Turkey, 2nd and 3rd ct. AD) - Implications for differences in diet
Sandra Lösch, Negahnaz Moghaddam, Karl Grossschmidt, Daniele U. Risser and Fabian Kanz
This article can be found here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi
%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0110489
Unfortunately, two different online archaeological news providers have written their articles from
the erroneous English media release:
  • Heritage Daily who cite the English media release at the bottom; and 
  • Phys.org who continue the BC error yet cite the PLOS ONE article.
In addition to this error being repeated by Phys.org and Heritage Daily, these online articles are being shared by people (including academics with considerable online followings) which in turn makes many people think that there were gladiators fighting for the fun of the crowd in Ephesus centuries earlier than they were.

The moral of the story is think critically! If something appears online that looks credible but doesn't fit with your current understanding, question it. Sure the original media release was German, but acquiring the ability to recognise dates in foreign languages can be a huge step.
And remember, just because everyone is reporting the same thing does not make them correct; they might just be reading from the same media release. The same thing can be said for ancient sources: they might just be using the same source.


Monday, 20 October 2014

Gough Whitlam: the man who dreamed of becoming a classics professor andwound up the Prime Minister

Overnight a legend of Australian politics passed away, former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. While Australians are currently considering the impact this man had on Australian society, I would like to point out a bit about his background.
When Gough Whitlam started his tertiary education at the University of Sydney in 1935, he did so having won the Canberra Scholarship 'to read for a Classics Degree at the University of Sydney.' This was a scholarship he had won in 1932 upon obtaining his "Leaving Certificate" (the equivalent to finishing grade 12) at the age of 16. His father thought that this was far too young an age to consider university, so he spent the next two years repeating his studies at Canberra Grammar. While he had studied Latin before, his great-uncle advised his parents that he ought to study Classical Greek as well.
As a result, in addition to repeating his English, Latin, French, and history (modern and ancient), he took Greek. He also spent Saturday mornings with other local senior school students on the veranda of Canberra University College Professor Leslie Holdsworth Allen who provided free tuition in Latin and Greek.
When he left school in 1934, he was third in the entire state of New South Wales in Latin, and finally took up his scholarship and dreamed of becoming a classics professor.
As an 18 year old first year Arts student, he studied Latin, Greek, English and Psychology, with declared majors in Greek and Latin. Unfortunately, according to his biographer, Jenny Hocking, he found most of his lecturers 'uninspiring', and this was reflected in his results. The exception appears to have been in the final year of his classics studies in 1937 when the new Greek professor arrived, a 25 year old Enoch Powell, who would later become a conservative politician in the United Kingdom parliament. Whitlam described his new teacher as a 'textual maniac' in describing his tightly structured Greek translations. That year Whitlam completed his Arts degree with with second class honours, and his dream of becoming a classics professor was over. According to Hocking, Whitlam had lost his passion for classics by this time and 'his classical studies which had begun with such high expectations' had 'ground to a grudging completion...'
While Whitlam went on to study law, he never lost his love for the classics.
Whitlam spent more than fifty years of his life collecting various translations of classical works, old and new. Various volumes of such texts can be seen in the shelves which formed a background to interviews when he was seeking to lead Labor to victory rather than the black leather bound books which often feature in the photographs and films of politicians who have law degrees. Those kinds of photographs came later. Unfortunately I was unable to find such a picture to include here, but I think it can be seen in the ABC's Whitlam: the Power and the Passion. Indeed, Whitlam particularly loved Ovid and said of the poet: 'Ovid is as influential a poet as there has been in literature' and 'all the great stories are in Ovid.'
Indeed, people still refer to the influence of Whitlam's classical education on his political career.  In the first of the occasional papers of "The Whitlam Legacy" ( Vol. I, October 2011 p. 7), Mark Hutchinson wrote 'Whitlam's classical education and "unswerving belief in the power of the intellect in general and his intellect in particular" led to "a diligent pursuit of good policy based on careful research and sound values."'
So please remember that while people today discuss this man and the influence that he has had on modern Australia, all of us who share a love for the classics had this in common with him. And that even if we do not become classics professors, there is much good we can do for society if we hold on to the classical elements of our education, careful research and sound values.
Dis Manibus Gough Whitlam, 1916-2014.



Wednesday, 8 October 2014

2014 Classics and Ancient History vs Medieval and Early Modern Society Inaugural Comedy Debate

Last evening I participated in debate on behalf of The University of Queensland's Classics and Ancient History Society against another society, the Medieval and Early Modern Society. The topic was "Who threw better parties, Roman emperors or Medieval and early modern European rulers?" Unfortunately, my team lost (if it had been judged acclamation instead if judges we might have had them), but all speakers entertained our audience. My talk was accompanied by a written disclaimer:  "If you are sensitive to certain ideas, you might find Yvette's speech offensive. It is meant to be funny.  lighten up!"
So please read this as a comic piece. I am not trying to be offensive. It was written to make people laugh and deride the celebratory efforts of European kings.

Please excuse the mixed font, Blogger is having fun driving me nuts!

While my colleagues here have provided examples of how awesome the parties held by Roman emperors were, I would like to discuss the cause of this. 
And it’s obvious – Religion! 
It isn’t the fault of European kings that their parties sucked – they were working under a handicap – imposed by God. 
Christianity – the biggest creator of wowsers in history. 
When I first thought about this, I was going to blame the Pope – Pontifex Maximus. All these kings who weren’t the head of religion like Roman emperors were. Let’s face it, it is damn difficult to accuse someone who holds the highest priesthood in the empire of throwing a party so debauched that the gods disapproved.  You might say it well after that emperor died, but at that moment, you shut up!  
Christian rulers weren’t in charge of religion until much later.  How can you throw a great party when some usually old party-pooper with red shoes and a gaudy ring and hat is sitting on a throne in Rome or Avignon is judging you, and threatening you with a ban from sitting in a church every Sunday participating in a cannibalistic ritual involving cheap wine and a stale biscuit? 
So I was thinking this line of old farts were responsible until Ithought that European kings can buy decent wine and get fresh biscuits. I was thinking of three kitchens devoted to confectionary in Hampton Court Palace and Henry VIII. 
Yes, he got into a fight over women, and authority, and women, and tithes, and women – did I mention the women? - with the Pope and told him to shove it.  Yet despite his kitchens and his women, he still didn’t have great parties.  
Why? 
Because God is a wowser! 
And the Christian God has spoilt everyone’s parties. The Saxons had great parties. You can tell by Sutton Hoo.  Has anyone here partied so hard at a funeral that at the end you buried a boat? No.  Why?  GOD. 
Sure you see some nice burials in churches, but no one got that drunk. Why? Because it’s a church. You can’t party in a church. Why do you think you don’t hold wedding receptions in churches? 
Consider Saxon funerals and realise all non-Christian parties were awesome. And the only decent Medieval parties were held by a miniscule number of pagans.  
Now let’s look at Roman religion. 
There were no crappy wine, stale biscuits or ick factor.  I don’t know about you, but if I was told I was about to consume a god, I’d expect it to taste better. 
In Rome, when you attended a ritual sacrifice, it’s a BBQ out the front of the temple as often as not.  If you were really lucky it was a mixed grill of beef, lamb and pork, with wine and honey cakes.  And the holidays! While the kings of Europe were enjoying a day on their knees, in prayer, not fun, Rome’s emperors invited the whole city to party at the races.  
Consider Melbourne on Melbourne Cup Day – almost 100 days a year! That’s an awesome party! 
And let’s consider the gods themselves. For example – Liber Pater – Father Freedom.  Sure the Christian god allows a sip a week, Liber Pater says sure – get smashed! 
And Jupiter – while the Christian god managed to knock up one woman, once, Jupiter was tapping whatever he could lay abovine penis or golden shower on. Jupiter isn’t going to judge you for a great party – he wants an invite! Rome’s emperors partied in their homes, in front of temples, in the theatres, the Colosseum, the race track. They partied in the streets and brought out the statues of gods to party with them. They partied in trees and caves, they’d form little religious groups and party in the forest. 
Kings weren’t that lucky. For all of Henry VIII’s defiance, he still couldn’t chow down on BBQ beef on Fridays in front of a church. 
How can you organise a great party “When thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife”? 
It was at a party where Octavian, later first Roman emperor, picked up Livia who was someone else’s wife and pregnant at the time. It was this relation which was the rock on the Julio-Claudian dynasty was built, which was the foundation for the success of the Imperial Roman system, which allowed the best, most debauched, fun, awesome, and most of all GUILTLESS parties.   
You bet Roman Emperors threw better parties – the entire system was founded on them. 
Whereas European kings based their leadership on the power allowed them by a wowser God.