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
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.