Tag Archives: Ancient History

Obama, Cicero, and Sallust VS. Manning, Snowden, and Catiline

While taking in all of the news recently about the NSA and the people exposing government secrets I am, of course, looking constantly for links to the Classical World. Government corruption and secrets were pretty common in the ancient world and I think that might be too obvious a connection to point out for the purpose of this blog. What I do find interesting though is the comparisons that can be made between the language used by politicians to describe whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning and the language used to describe the conspirator Catiline. Whether you find these whistleblowers to be heroes or traitors may make you question this comparison, but remember that it is just the language used, I am not comparing the situations rather the way that politicians describe these men. My use of the word whistleblower is not to give a leaning either way, it is the easiest noun to use for them. It is also important to keep in mind that we do not have the common man’s opinion of Catiline. We only have the politicians’ and historians’ views on him. Imagine the shape of today’s debate if we took out the common person’s voice and only had record of what politicians say about these men.

First a brief rundown of Catiline and his conspiracy in case you are not familiar with this part of Roman history. The wiki is pretty good on this and while I don’t endorse wiki as a scholarly source, it is a great way to get a general understanding of most things. I will link to that at the bottom. In a short version, Catiline was a Roman Senator so someone in a position of relative power and with access to information. He didn’t like the way things were going and in the year 63BCE was to execute a plot to overthrow the republic until Cicero called attention to his plan and effectively squashed it. Catiline may not have been simply a rogue senator the way he is painted to be by historians and politicians. He had people on his side who were senators, generals, and even a former consul. He had people of power who agreed with him, just not the most important people or the ones that would end up writing it down. Remember, the victors write history. I’m not defending the actions of Catiline or claiming to know which side of that political debate I would have even been on, but it is important for me to make clear that he was not alone, he had followers and powerful ones at that who agreed with him for one reason or another.

As stated, the situation is not as important as the way he is described. Both Cicero and Sallust give accounts of Catiline’s Conspiracy and describe in detail Catiline himself and the nature of his conspiracy.  In America we have similar sides reacting to Snowden and Manning, politicians and historians (I will include some mainstream media in this category, begrudgingly), but we also have other outlets like not so mainstream media, blogs, tweets, the general public, etc. When looking at the comments of politicians and some major media the descriptions line up with the ancient ones.

Snowden has been consistently called a traitor and his acts called treasonous by politicians including President Obama, Boehner, and Feinstein. Cicero in his first oration against Catiline says, “And shall we, who are the consuls, tolerate Catiline, openly desirous to destroy the whole world with fire and slaughter?”  If we are going by position, Cicero is probably the equivalent to Catiline of Obama and Boehner to Snowden and Manning. Sallust and Cicero also attack Catiline at a personal level. Sallust points out that prior to Catiline’s political career he had done unspeakable things with a Vestal Virgin. The best is the way he calls him a madman though, “His pallid complexion, his bloodshot eyes; his gait now fast, now slow; in his face and his every glance showed him a madman” (15.5). Toobin, writer for the New Yorker, said about Snowden that he is a, “grandiose narcissist.”

Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his leaks, is seaking pardon from Obama which I find incredibly interesting given the reaction to Snowden. Obama said prior to any trial that Manning was guilty. Obama, whose speeches already sound Ciceronian, sounds very much like Cicero in the aftermath of these two leaks. He even does the self aggrandizing thing Cicero was so known for by always making it sound like he is doing everything personally and on his own to stop all of these traitors. Specifically though the video floating around (below) in which he says Manning broke the law sounds much like Cicero reacting to Catiline.

I suggest reading Cicero and Sallust as well as the wiki on the conspiracy. While it is not a perfect comparison it is an interesting one in terms of the language politicians use towards “traitors” and the way politicians view security.



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This Is The End: Old Comedy makes its return!

This is the End is closer to an ancient comedy than a modern one.  When I think about Greek and Roman comedy I think of things playing out just like This is the End.  First, let me say this is a hilarious movie and is incredibly well done. There are so many good jokes as well as situational comedy so it doesn’t rely entirely on the jokes. Go see it, especially if you grew up in the 90s with all of the love for 90s things. If you haven’t seen it there are some slight spoilers in this post, so beware moving on.  Anyway, back to the ancients. I hope in this post to spread a little knowledge about ancient comedy while showing how This is the End is very similar to these plays.

There are two categories in which ancient comedies are usually classified. Those are Old Comedy and New Comedy; there is also Middle Comedy, but it is a confusing subject and is really just used to talk about some works which bridge Old and New and therefore are hard to define. Old comedy is mostly talked about with Aristophanes.  Old Comedy is mainly seen as political satire. Aristophanes wrote comedies which were social commentaries on Socrates (The Clouds), war (Lysistrata), overuse of the justice system (The Wasps), etc.  This is the End fits into this style as it discusses some political issues like legalizing marijuana as well as being centered on an apocalyptic event which has been in people’s minds recently with the passing of the year 2012, but I would not consider it a political satire. It does, however, have many of the farcical aspects of Old Comedy.

Another characteristic of Aristophanes’ comedy was the use of the phallus. To put it bluntly there were penises everywhere. Actors wore giant penises, some scholars say it was to be sure that the audience did not mistake the gender of the character, however I think it was more of a comedic device than anything. Watch the scene in HBO’s Rome where there is a play going on in a the background to see this; that’s New Comedy, but that’s okay because this is an aspect they share. This is actually what gave me the idea for this post because as soon as the demon is shown we see that he has been given a giant penis. The idea was probably to be equally scary and hilarious; it succeeded. This immediately struck me as ancient comedy, though.  This movie had more penis jokes than, I think, any other movie I have watched. Craig Robinson trying to pick up the giant penis art is probably my favorite. In this way I say that This is the End was very similar to Aristophanes and Old Comedy.

New Comedy is situational comedy at its earliest beginnings. This comedy is considered shallower and doesn’t take many risks as far as political commentary goes. The best known Ancient Greek writer of New Comedy is Menander. This was also the genre of comedy which was adapted in Rome by playwrights Plautus and Terence.   New Comedy is based more on stock characters and depictions of daily life. In this way it is very much like our modern sitcoms such as Friends, How I Met Your Mother, or Modern Family.  The way This is the End fits into New Comedy is that in the beginning we are getting a glimpse of the daily life of these people we see as actors so often.

I see This is the End as very close to Old Comedy. In fact if Aristophanes were alive today it wouldn’t surprise me to see his name scrolling through the credits as a writer. The penis jokes really stand out to me as a reference to antiquity; they probably did this without even realizing it. There are, of course, many things I didn’t touch on in this post like the religious aspects, the fact that these characters are over-exaggerated versions of themselves, and the use of small role female characters (something that is huge in ancient comedy). Please leave a comment and I will be happy to chat about these things in the comments section.

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Worcestershire Sauce and Ancient Roman Garum

I love to cook and this week I was making a great venison recipe which called for Worcestershire Sauce. After about 15 minutes of debating the proper pronunciation (Lea & Perrins website lists multiple pronunciations), I went in search of the sauce and found that I had none.  Stupidly I thought maybe I could find a way to substitute the sauce and realized that I actually had no idea what Worcestershire sauce was made of or honestly tasted like on its own. Upon further research (ie Wikipedia) I learned that it is a fermented sauce. My first thought was of Ancient Rome and garum, which was apparently wiki’s thought too as I scrolled down and found out they started the history of Worcestershire Sauce with the Ancient Greeks. Wiki got something right!

Fermented sauces go back far into history. The most important of them was probably garum. Garum is a fermented fish sauce, some say it is probably similar to Indian fish sauces. It was used by both the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans and was an important part of trade in the Ancient Mediterranean. Amphorae have been tested through some awesome processes and found to contain garum dating back as far as the 5th century BCE. The production and export of garum gave towns around the Roman Empire a certain level of prestige, especially those that produced the best garum; one of these towns was Pompeii.

The reason garum was a such a popular condiment for Roman nobility, besides its tradition of prestige and its Greek roots, was that it retained a high protein content. However there is something intriguing about the literature surrounding garum. Many authors write about how terrible and disgusting garum is.  Pliny the Elder called it, “that secretion of putrefying matter.” Plato called it, “putrid garum.” And Martial praised a man for still loving a woman who had eaten many helpings of garum. Although it was criticized so much in literature it was in fact used heavily and transported all around the Mediterranean. While most of the popular mentions of Worcestershire sauce are to the pronunciation of its name, it is still interesting that this sauce shows up in pop culture like garum did. Take this clip as a great example of the humor http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQHhdy_gpcw  They are definitely from the same family, although I’ve had garum and I will stick with the evolved Worcester version.

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Happy Birthday Douglas Adams: Hitchhiker’s Guide and Greek Tragedy

As Google animated so perfectly, today is Douglas Adams birthday. When I think about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I can only think one thing: DON’T PANIC! I remember my excellent Greek professor using this reference whenever he introduced a new grammar rule. “There are exceptions to the rule, but as The Guide says, ‘Don’t Panic.’” In Ancient Greek if you panic you are screwed. The whole system is based on exceptions. There is only one entirely regular verb and I say that hesitantly. The words “Don’t Panic” kept me going through many late nights with a Greek textbook, but enough of my nostalgia. The reason I am writing about Douglas Adams and this great work is because of the way he composed this work.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Hitchhiker’s Guide from here on) was composed in a way which an Ancient Greek playwright would probably relish. At first Hitchhiker’s Guide was a series of six episodes for the radio. Later a second and third series were released. The work was rewritten many times from many view points and focal points. It was slowly adapted for several different media. This is the part that I find interesting. There are novels, movies, radio series, TV series, LPs. The whole story takes on so many forms and so many different episodes.  This reminds me of Ancient Greek plays. In most Greek plays the audience is given only a small episode in a very large story. The larger story is written episode by episode by different playwrights with different focuses.

Aeschylus was one of the earliest playwrights whose works survive. He wrote an Oedipus play of which very little survives, but Euripides and Sophocles also wrote Oedipus plays, the most famous being that of Sophocles. Euripides’ Oedipus is also a fragmented work, but it is known that there are some major differences like Oedipus being blinded before the truth is revealed that Laius is his father.

Another play covered by all three of these writers is Philoctetes. This compares perfectly to the way Hitchhiker’s Guide was written because Douglas Adams discovered that the central point of his series was the book while writing the first series. The hitchhikers guide comes out of a small plot point made in his original series about an alien looking for a special book. This very minute point was then expanded to become a huge work of its own. The same happened with Philoctetes. Philoctetes was a character mentioned in passing in Homer’s Iliad. Each of these playwrights expanded on the passing mention made by Homer to create a new story, and certainly borrowed from those who had written the plays before them.  It is also important to note that since the plays were performed at a yearly competition they were sometimes rewritten and performed again in order to gain better favor in the contest.

For commentary on the 3 Philoctetes plays see the writings Dio Chrysostom. Aeschylus and Euripides plays are in fragments and most of what is known about them comes from this source.

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The Walking Dead, Gladiator Games, and Roman Empire Politics

SPOILER ALERT!  Don’t read further if you have not seen at least to the mid-season break of the current Walking Dead season!

I have been dying to find a link between The Walking Dead and the classical world for some time now and this season the creators of the show decided to just lob in a softball for me. In this season with the addition of The Governor of Woodbury, there have been some awesome twists and a couple of potential references to the Classics, but none more obvious than the arena fighting. Depending on the way things turn out I may come back to this season to discuss some similarities to Roman Empire politics, but that will have to wait. For now let’s jump into The Walking Dead’s version of the Colosseum. First some Colosseum facts, this is not Coliseum the punk rock band (I don’t know of them, but MS Word tells me this is the correct spelling, I say it is the rock spelling not the amphitheater spelling, and Colosseum gets an underline even though I know it’s correct, bizarre).  The COLOSSEUM was built in 72AD under the emperor Vespasian and was finished in 80AD. Some scholars say, and I believe it is commonly accepted now, that it was built by four different “architecture firms” and that is why parts are deteriorating at different rates. It is also known as the Flavian Amphitheater in case the whole Colosseum and Coliseum debate bothers you.

The important part of the Colosseum, for this posts purposes, is that gladiatorial games took place there as well as in many smaller amphitheaters throughout Italy. In the most recent season of The Walking Dead, The Governor decided that similar bloodshed was a great way to entertain the people of Woodbury. In Rome the gladiators were often slaves, criminals, or (as seen in the famous Russel Crowe movie) prisoners of war. The Governor makes a similar decision when he places Daryl and Merle in the ring against each other. I think we can call Daryl a prisoner of war now that a true war has broken out between the prison and Woodbury.

The parallels between Woodbury and Ancient Rome after the fall of the republic are quite striking. The people are living in a time of great fear and panic in both situations. A “great” ruler leads them into a peaceful time and earns the respect of the people he governs. Both hold over his people the power of life and death (we’ve seen this a handful of times with the governor). The governor like some emperors of Rome decided the best way to please the people was to hold these bloodbaths. He does add an interesting component by placing the walkers (zombies) in the arena although since the walkers are often seen as animalistic and not human I would say this compares to putting lions and other animals in the Colosseum.  After the scene of the arena style fighting in The Walking Dead it is revealed that the winner of fights was often predetermined. This was known to occur in Ancient Rome as well.  The arena fighting in this show was clearly meant to evoke the gladiatorial games.

During the decline of the Roman Empire Juvenal wrote that the Roman people only wanted two things, “Panem et circenses” or “bread and circuses.” He actually says, “The common people-rather than caring about their freedom-are only interested in bread and circuses” (Satire 10.81). This is also true of the people of Woodbury. They will follow their leader as long as he provides them with the comforts of home, food and entertainment. It is incredible that we continue to show the same scenes of what happens in times of great instability, but in most cases people are put in power who take advantage of that situation. We shall see how The Walking Dead turns out, but I think The Governor is just a serial killer, psychopath who had enough charm and guns to make people follow him. Charm and an Army got Julius Caesar pretty far, and even put his (adopted) son in power for years after his assassination.

Juvenal Book IV Satire X ll 78-81:

nam qui dabat olim
imperium fasces legiones omnia, nunc se
continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
panem et circenses

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Criminal Minds quotes Plato, or do they?

Criminal Minds was definitely one of my favorite shows for a while and sadly I only stopped watching new seasons because of time issues; unfortunately I can’t schedule my life around the TV schedule. I still watch the reruns every time I notice one is on, which is about every hour of the day if you use enough channels. I saw a rerun not too long ago and knew I had to write a post about it. It was season 2 episode 6 The Boogeyman. This is the episode after Elle gets shot and she misses her psych evaluation. The team is after someone who is murdering children in Texas.

One of my favorite parts about Criminal Minds is the quotation at the beginning and end of the show. I always try to catch these and I (nerdy, I know) would actually get mad if I turned the TV on just a minute too late. The quotation at the beginning of The Boogeyman episode is, “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.” The narrator, Hotch, attributes it to Plato. This like many other quotations said to be from Plato is a misattribution. While the phrase is all over the internet and can be found on T-shirts, there is not one site that gives evidence of where the quotation came from. No one can state the book and line of Plato’s works from which this quotation was pulled. Don’t get me wrong I love the phrase and I think it has so many great meanings in it, but it is not from Plato. If anyone has or can find it, please let me know, but I have been over all of the works I have (which is most of them) and I have searched a lot of scholarly discourse and I still have not found it. Some sites attribute it to Socrates which would mean it is attributed to Plato since all of Socrates’ words are written by Plato.

Criminal Minds is a great show and the quotations add intelligence and depth to many of the episodes which aren’t exactly lacking in those categories anyway. You just missed the boat on this one, Criminal Minds. Research would have allowed you to step further into the light on this one and learned that it is a statement without a source.

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Battlestar Galactica and Sophocles’ Ajax

In case this blog isn’t nerdy enough, I thought I would up the nerd factor a little bit and write about not only classics, but Battlestar Galactica. I’m not usually a big fan of sci-fi anything, but people kept telling me to watch this show so I finally broke down and started it. Now I’m addicted. I should note here that I have just started the 3rd season and therefore I may be missing things and I will most likely not be spoiling much.  For the sake of this post not being incredibly long and unfocused, I would like to ignore some of the more obvious allusions to Greek mythology like the usage of Greek gods and even the less obvious use of the Pythia oracle. This post will focus on one (possibly accidental) reference to Greek mythology: The relationship between Gaius and Number 6 (also known as Caprica 6, but she shall be called Number 6 here).

Their relationship is definitely a large focal point for the show, but what got me really interested in it is that after only a few episodes I saw a parallel between their relationship and that of Ajax and Athena in Sophocles’ Ajax. In the Greek tragedy Ajax is continually manipulated by Athena who speaks directly to him. Some scholars have interpreted Athena as Ajax’s madness incarnate (well sort of since she’s a goddess).  Some theatrical interpretations and adaptations have shown Athena as only being seen by Ajax and being on stage the entire time to direct the events of the play. The use of deities as mental illnesses or madness in many of Sophocles’ plays has been contemplated by scholars. I enjoy entertaining the notion that Greek playwrights used the gods to portray what we today would consider internal working of the mind as well as mental health issues.

As I have not finished the series yet I cannot say what is going on between Gaius and Number 6, but when she is instructing him and manipulating him aboard Galactica while he is the only one who can see her, there is a striking resemblance to Ajax and Athena. I look forward to seeing how this plays out, if he is crazy, a cylon, or there is another explanation. No matter what though, there is no denying the similarities between the two relationships. I wonder if this was influence or accidental, but either way it is awesome.

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The Ancient Origins of Valentines Day: Lupercalia, where whips excite.

With Valentine’s Day coming up I thought there was no better time to start writing again than on my favorite historical holiday. Let me start by saying I hate Valentine’s Day for a number of reasons, but I love the story of its origins and of course its origins go back to Ancient Rome. The Ancient Roman festival was known as Lupercalia and took place February 13-15. As with many holidays, which are all great stories, Valentine’s Day was originally established around a pagan holiday in order to transition people seamlessly to Christianity. The reason I love the history of this holiday is the drastic change that has occurred through time.

Lupercalia was a fertility festival according to Plutarch who claims that the festival helped pregnant women with their delivery and barren women become pregnant. This is not that much unlike the modern Valentine’s Day; I’m sure some would say it has similar function today (wink wink), although others I’m sure would prefer that it not help with fertility. The interesting part however is the difference in practice. Valentine’s Day is all about love and gentle caring. Its predecessor, Lupercalia, was about naked men running through the streets whipping women.

The festival began with a sacrifice. After the sacrifice, young men cut pieces of the hide off of the animal (usually 2 goats). With these pieces of hide they fashioned whips and ran through the streets naked whipping the people gathered in the crowd. Women, even noble women, would actually purposely get in the way of the men in order to be whipped. This at first seems shocking, but when we remember that the whipping was believed to lead to fertility it is a little less outrageous. The Romans were up for pleasing the gods in anyway necessary. And somehow through history and Christianity this ritual turns into our Valentine’s Day of chocolate, flowers, and romance (maybe for some who read 50 Shades of Grey the whipping will carry on). 

For primary reference on Lupercalia see Horace’s Ode book 3 poem 18 and Plutarch’s Life of Romulus

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The Riches: A Modern Petronius?

                I have recently started watching the show The Riches because I am out of great shows to watch. Unfortunately this show was canceled after two seasons and so when I get to the end I am sure it will be incomplete and leave me frustrated, but until then I will continue to watch and get sucked into this family’s story. It doesn’t have to be the best show ever to get me hooked; in fact it takes only a small event or connection in my mind to keep me entertained. For The Riches the hook was that I almost immediately connected it to Petronius’ Satyricon.

                The Riches is a show depicting a family of “travelers” they are essentially cons, who after a series of strange events assume the lives of an upper class family living in a wealthy gated community. It is a dramatic series with some comic relief which often comes in moments when they make mistakes which “honest” upper class families would not make. They don’t understand the school system and the price of tuition, the husband impersonates a lawyer and doesn’t know such ordinary things as eminent domain, and they heat up boxed cookies in the microwave to make them seem homemade. In comparison there is a chapter of Petronius’ Satyricon in which a freedman attempts to act as though he is an aristocrat and throws a dinner party (Cena Trimalchionis: Trimalchio’s Dinner). While he is in fact wealthy, he is not old money and does not understand the customs of the upper class. He makes multiple mistakes which make it very clear to the reader (at the time of release the only readers would be aristocrats themselves) that he is not from a long line of wealthy men. In the entrance to his home there are scenes of himself instead of the norm which would be to have pictures of his ancestors. All of these paintings depict Trimalchio with a different divine spirit helping his assent to wealth, a sign to the reader, and possibly his visitors, of his questionable past.

                The process of providing a social commentary through the lens of a lower class character who finds himself among the upper class is shown through both this ancient work and this show. The Riches modernizes this old commentary showing the seedy underside of the wealthy. Petronius contrasted the meek existence of the illiterate lower class with the ostentatious ways of the upper class. The Riches instead shows that rich people are just poor people with money. There are drug problems and marriage problems among the rich. The high class neighborhood consists mostly of “legal” criminals. In fact the traveler life that this family left is not much different than the life they landed in. Through time the problems seen in the stratification of society change, but there are always problems to be displayed. Whether it be Petronius or Eddie Izzard, it is nice to see that the problems aren’t being ignored. Classicists, I suggest watching this show just to see the connection. For those who are fans of the show, I suggest reading Petronius (at least the Trimalchio chapter).

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