Although EcBlogue has been fairly dormant recently, since the middle of last month I’ve been contributing classics-related blog posts to Blog Divided, the blog of the House Divided Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College.  The blog is intended as a resource for those teaching and studying the period 1840-1880.  My posts are on the classics in American culture and education during that period.  I invite you to check out House Divided, and my blog posts in general.  

So far, I’ve posted on Generals O.O. Howard and Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and classical education, Robert Montgomery Bird’s antebellum drama The Gladiator, the classical courtship of Lucretia and James Garfield, and the Civil War career of classicist Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve.  My next post will focus on William Sanders Scarborough.

This spring I’m teaching a course for the Cannon Valley Elder Collegium (CVEC) called “America and the Classics.”  The eight-week course will focus primarily on the influence of the classics on the Founders, with some illustrated lectures on Greek Revival architecture and other American uses of classical iconography.  Our textbook will be Carl J. Richard’s Greeks and Romans Bearing Gifts: How the Ancients Inspired the Founding Fathers (Rowman and Littlefield 2009), with supplemental primary readings. 

Week I Primary Readings

I was just putting a couple of thoughts on facebook regarding HBO’s Rome, noting that I like the first season for the most part, albeit with reservations, such as its allowance for heterosexual desire to blossom into something redemptive, while same-sex desire figures exclusively in predatory relationships, the sexism informing the series’ opportunistic representations of sex, women, etc. I imagine that the idea of a Roman-themed drama appealed especially to the series creators as an opportunity to unshackle themselves from many of the ethical constraints with which they would otherwise have to work. For example, a story thread I ‘liked’: Pullo desires a slave of Vorenus and (if I remember correctly) wants to buy her freedom. The slave, unaware of Pullo’s motives, informs a fellow slave with whom she already has a relationship — something Pullo does not know. A gentle-seeming sort, her lover goes to thank Pullo in humble fashion for his kindness. Enraged that the object of his desire already loves and is loved by another, Pullo promptly beats him to death. Vorenus is extremely upset — not that this gentle member of his house was brutally murdered, but at the disrespect Pullo showed to his house by ransacking its property in such fashion. Eventually, of course, the two main characters made up, Pullo wins over the slave whom he desires, and the story continues. As reprehensible as the conduct was, I thought the episode confronted audiences with an important perspective on how power relations shape perceptions of morality and humanity — a perspective other Roman dramas tend to avoid (Gladiator, etc.). I imagine the Roman scenario offered the series creators not so much the opportunity to educate as a way to explore and exploit the charismatically immoral regions of the modern male adventuring protagonist in ways otherwise unavailable. For example, one episode of the Sopranos features the murder of a 20 year old stripper by Joe Pantaliano’s character. Soprano henchman Paulie classifies it (if I recall) as ‘totally out of line’ — primarily because the act was disrespectful to the syndicate owned strip club, in the parking lot of which the murder occurred. The Roman scenario enables the writers to depict such responses as culturally normative, rather than criminally deviant, and thereby to retain story elements they might otherwise need to forfeit, such as the characters’ capacity to enjoy positively depicted emotional relationships, etc. And now there is Spartacus: Blood and Sand. At times I have the uncomfortable feeling that, in the cause of finding what’s worthwhile about a film/show/etc., I have very nearly extirpated any capacity my senses of aesthetic and moral dislike might have otherwise retained to direct my viewing. Accordingly, I have thus far watched every episode of this show, but I have to say that finding anything redeeming about it has not been easy for me. It seems to have clearly taken Rome (or Capua in this case) in its traditional role as a site for sex and violence spectacle to a new level in which story functions as a gossamer-thin tissue wafting almost invisibly around the horror-porn core of the show. A meaningful advancement of the plot or a new dimension to a character — in this show these seem like the true instances of spectacle flashing up suddenly and unexpectedly against a background drone of sex and slaughter. Then again, maybe I’m missing something?

Novelist Philip Roth recently predicted that within twenty-five years, reading novels will be a “cultic” activity, reserved for an enthusiastic minority who retain the attention span for novel reading and are able to resist the allure of the big and small screens.  Roth said:

I think it’s going to be cultic. I think always people will be reading them but it will be a small group of people. Maybe more people than now read Latin poetry, but somewhere in that range.

You can read the rest of the story here.

Things have been rather quiet here lately.  The term is limping along.  At Carleton, we’re in week 7 of our nine-and-a-half week term.  This fall, the flu is taking full advantage of the stressed and sleep-deprived student body.  As of this morning, 30% of my Latin 101 class is out with a reported case of the flu.

To pass the time until the crisis has passed and some original content becomes available, here’s a an article I published in New England Classical Journal about Latin in the Progressive Era, focusing specifically on an episode in Jean Webster’s novel for girls, Just Patty (1911).  The article is a downloadable PDF file.

Girls Reading Vergil: Stories of Latin and Progressive Education.” Originally published in New England Classical Journal 32.2 (May 2006).  Copyright © 2006 by Rob Hardy.

Emperor Elagabalus.

It was commonplace in Latin poetry that the Golden Age came to a decisive end when humans started to build ships and sail across the sea. In the good old days, men stayed at home and plowed the earth and ate the produce of their own fields. In his tragedy Medea, Seneca (d. 65 CE) writes: “Then every man inactive kept to his own shores and lived to old age on ancestral fields, rich with but little, knowing no wealth save what his home soil had yielded.” The fall from grace came when men cut down trees to fashion ships, transgressing the natural limits that the gods had established. As Horace (d. 8 CE) writes: “In vain did a provident god separate the lands with a disconnecting sea, if ungodly ships still bound across the forbidden depths.”

Ships made possible trade with distant lands, and the Romans no longer had to rely on the produce of their own fields. Corn (wheat) flowed in from the provinces to feed the Roman populace. All boundaries had been dissolved. Seneca writes: “All bounds have been removed, cities have set their walls in new lands, and the world, now passable throughout, has left nothing where it once had place: the Indian drinks of the cold Arazes, the Persians quaff the Elbe and the Rhine. ” Moralists like Horace and Seneca saw that the Romans had abandoned the virtues of the agrarian ancestors for luxury and license.

Food was a clear marker of the fall from ancient Roman virtue. The Stoic philosopher Seneca is obsessed with food. In his Moral Epistles, he writes about the rise in obesity in Rome, comparing his contemporaries with their more abstemious ancestors: “[In those days] men’s bodies were still sound and strong; their food was light and not spoiled by art and luxury, whereas when they began to seek dishes not for the sake of removing, but of rousing, the appetite, and devised countless sauces to whet their gluttony, —then what before was nourishment to a hungry man became a burden to the full stomach.”

In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon pauses to dwell on the decadence of the early third-century emperor Elagabalus. First on the list of his vices was that he liked to “confound the order of seasons and climates.” In other words, he ate foods out of season, and imported from great distances. In a footnote, Gibbon writes: “He would never eat sea-fish except at a great distance from the sea…”

The Historia Augusta, Gibbon’s source, records a long list of outlandish foods consumed by Elagabalus, including peacock tongues and ostrich brains. The late Roman cookbook attributed to Apicius includes this recipe for Roasted Flamingo: “Pluck the flamingo, wash it, truss it, put it in a pot; add water, salt, dill, and a bit of vinegar. When it is half cooked, tie together a bouquet of leeks and coriander and cook together with the flamingo. When it is almost cooked, add defrutum [reduced wine] for color. In a mortar put pepper, cumin, coriander, silphium root, mint, and rue; grind, moisten with vinegar, add dates, and poor on cooking broth. Empty into the same pot and thicken with starch. Pour the sauce over the flamingo and serve. Do the same for parrot.”*

Even if you manage to procure a flamingo for roasting, you won’t find silphium root. The exotic and expensive herb, imported by the Romans from Syria, went extinct during the reign of Nero. Poor dyspeptic Seneca was part of the last generation to enjoy the taste of silphium root in his food.

*From Ilaria Gozzini Giacosa, A Taste of Ancient Rome (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 120.

Middlemarch is back on the shelf, and my next big read is Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Gibbon’s monumental work originally appeared in six volumes between 1776 and 1788, and is available in various modern editions, including the hefty three-volume Penguin edition elegantly introduced and edited by David Womersley. Pictured above is the 1114-page first volume.

There are some interesting affinities between George Eliot, the philosophic novelist, and Gibbon, the philosophic historian. Both probe into the dark recesses of human motivation; both approach their subjects with an equal measure of irony and sympathy. David Womersley, in his introduction, writes: “[T]he belief in unintended consequences naturally led the philosophic historian to form surprisingly nuanced judgements prompted by unexpectedly broad sympathies… Individuals and institutions, which he could only condemn as in themselves criminal or perverse, at moments contributed positively to human society, while, in obedience to the same principle, those he admired or loved may, despite their best endeavours, have exerted a harmful influence” (xxiii).

Thus Gibbon praises and admires the good emperor Marcus Aurelius, but shows us that, through his indulgence as a father, Marcus bequeathed to Rome the troubled reign of his unstable son Commodus. On the other hand, he dates the beginning of the end of Rome to the reign of the murderous and self-interested Septimius Severus, who temporarily restored a measure of peace and justice to the empire.

Of Marcus Aurelius, Gibbon writes: “The mildness of Marcus, which the rigid discipline of the Stoics was unable to eradicate, formed, at the same time, the most amiable, and the only defective, part of his character” (108). This is typical of Gibbon’s style, contrasting, in the same sentence, a positive and negative assessment of a person’s character or actions. “The most amiable, but only defective, part of his character.” There’s a kind of dizzying, dazzling even-handedness about Gibbon as he performs his stylistic juggling act, making judgments while seeming to keep judgment suspended in the air.

Cross-posted on Rough Draft.


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