17 September 2010

Oh my gods, Rome is burning (again)

In heaven's name, what happened? The Colosseum was struck by thunderbolts ...and such a blaze followed that its entire upper circuit and everything in the arena was consumed, and the rest of the structure was ravaged by the flames and reduced to ruins. Neither human aid could avail against the conflagration, though practically every aqueduct was emptied, nor could the downpour from the sky, which was most heavy and violent, accomplish anything....

You can't say it wasn't foretold.  

As Roman newspapers were quick to report, a  mule gave birth to a mule and a sow to a piglet with four ears, two tongues and eight feet.  While, on the other side of the Palatine, bees formed honeycombs in the heart of the cattle-market.  It was all too much.  Gladiatorial games are postponed indefinitely.

Oh sorry, that was in 217 C.E.  And the intrepid reporter was Cassius Dio (79.25).

But after dark tonight, the Colosseum will go up in flames again.

A huge virtual inferno is set to blaze inside the building, while flames flickering through the Colosseum's arches will be visible down to the far end of the Roman Forum.

Who's Fiddling Now?

On the nights of 17, 18, and 19 September  you can take in an extraordinary video installation conceived by the artists Thyra Hilden (Denmark) and Pio Diaz (Argentina): video screens placed in the arches of the Colosseum will make it appear as if the amphitheatre is on fire. 

Hilden and Diaz achieve this fantastic illusion by displaying a pre-recorded video of real fire on a scale of 1:1 using a series of powerful projectors.  By digitally manipulating the footage, they create the effect of wind blowing through the monument in a wave of flames.

The 'Colosseum on Fire,' is part of a wider project, City on Fire, to which the artists have devoted themselves to for some years, creating virtual fires in important institutions, monuments, museums, and churches throughout Europe. 

This is how the young artists explain their pyromaniacal urges:
This world is on fire. Modern life and technological development wipe away our cultural roots and heritage. Throughout history, we have torn down to build up. Cultural evolution involves destruction. Damage and destruction can be fertile, like the Italian Futurists preached before they experienced the terror of World Wars. Fire is an obvious symbol for this ambiguous process. Fire is an irrational, uncontrollable destroying force or a warm embracing source. Fire is also a symbol of spiritual transcendence and personal transformation - or terrifying acts by man destroying life and civilization.
Over the last four years, the Danish-Argentine artist couple has been working with the city of Rome to realise the ultimate site for this project, and following intense negotiations, the pieces have finally fallen into place.  Tonight, the Colosseum will burn!

"This multimedia installation will create an amazingly realistic impression of the Colosseum in flames," said the installation's curator, Gianni Mercurio. "The artists' aim is to show just how fragile and transitory mankind's creations are, even great buildings that are considered symbols of eternal culture."

But beware Gianni, beware Rome! 

As the Venerable (even if pseudo) Bede prophesied in the 8th century:
As long as the Colosseum stands, so shall Rome; when the Colosseum falls, Rome shall fall; when Rome falls, so falls the world.
Meanwhile, enjoy the spectacle.

My thanks to the EternallyCool website for the heads-up on this imminent project.


Top left: EternallyCool

Lower left: from the artists' webpage, City On Fire 

12 September 2010

Myrtis and the End of the Golden Age

The Long War
By any reckoning, the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BCE) was a great war -- a war to be compared with World War I -- not only a world-shattering conflict in itself but in its bitter consequences.  As a struggle between imperial democratic Athens and its autocratic enemies (Sparta & allies), it opposed two irreconcilable ways of life.  It lasted off and on for 27 years and caused terrible suffering to the innocent and guilty alike.  With vast swathes of countryside devastated and whole cities destroyed, the war marked a dramatic end to the golden age of Greece.


The unintended consequences of war were as devilish then as they are  now. 
Pericles, the renowned Athenian general, saw the fight between Athens and Sparta as an inevitable clash of imperial ambitions. Convinced that his city was militarily stronger, he incited the populace with a sort of arrogance and a love of strife. Later writers, rightly or wrongly, blamed him for being the sole instigator of the disaster (Plutarch, Pericles xxix.5-xxx).  

His strategy was to wear out Sparta by evacuating the Attic countryside before the Spartans invaded.  The displaced inhabitants would then retreat behind the city's unassailable walls while the superior Athenian navy harassed Spartan troop transports and cut off enemy supply lines.  They would thus be able to 'Starve the beast'.  The Athenians took his advice and brought in from the country their wives and children and all their household goods, including slaves.  They sent their sheep and cattle across to the islands off the coast.

What Pericles didn't foresee were the consequences of adding so many people from the countryside to an already well-populated city. 

The Spartan offensive

During the second year of the war, in the early days of summer, the Spartans and their allies invaded Attica and put Athens under siege.  Almost immediately, in the heat and the dirt of the overcrowded city, an epidemic broke out,
a pestilence of such extent and mortality as was nowhere remembered.  The plague wiped out tens of thousands of Athenians.  

The Greek historian Thucydides,* writing from personal experience, tells us about its horrors:
Words fail one when one tries to give a general picture of this disease; and as for the sufferings of the individuals, they seemed almost beyond the capacity of human nature to endure....  Nor was any human art or science of any help at all. Equally useless were prayers made in the temples, consultation of oracles, and so forth; indeed, in the end people were so overcome by their sufferings that they paid no further attention to such things.
Even the vultures abandoned the city.
Here in particular is a point where this plague showed itself to be something quite different from ordinary diseases: though there were many dead bodies lying about unburied, the birds and animals that eat human flesh either did not come near them or, if they did taste the flesh, died of it afterwards.  Evidence for this may be found in the fact that there was a complete disappearance of all birds of prey: they were not to be seen either round the bodies or anywhere else.
People died like flies.

The bodies of the dying were heaped one on top of the other, and half-dead creatures could be seen staggering about in the streets or flocking around the fountains in their desire for water.  The temples in which they took up their quarters were full of the dead bodies of people who had died inside them....  All the funeral ceremonies which used to be observed were now disorganized, and they buried the dead as best they could.

Fast forward 2,500 years 

In 1994, while excavating for the new Metro (underground/subway), workmen uncovered the skeletons of about 150 men, women and children, all hastily buried in a 'plague grave' (above, left) at Kerameikos, the ancient  cemetery of the city.

According to its excavator, E. Baziotopoulou-Valavani, the mass grave did not have the slightest monumental character.  The offerings were of common, even cheap, burial vessels; black-finished ones, some small red-figured, as well as white lekythoi (oil flasks) .... The bodies were [randomly] placed in the pit within a day or two ... with no layers of soil between them. 

Among the bones was an almost intact cranium of a young girl, her sex defined by the anatomy of the skull, complete with her jaw and a mixture of 28 milk and adult teeth preserved.  She was about 11 years old when she died.  The Greek archaeologists gave her the name of 'Myrtis'.

Although she was buried in the Kerameikos cemetery, it is not known if she was an Athenian, a resident immigrant (that is, a Metic) or a slave.  My guess is that she was not from a citizen family.  Despite the death rate, Thucydides shows that people did try to maintain proper funeral rites, which at this time meant cremation and burial of ashes, not interring of bodies.  Even those who could barely cope burnt the corpses somehow:

Because so many deaths had already occurred in their households, [many people] adopted the most shameless methods.  They would arrive first at a funeral pyre that had been made by others, put their own dead upon it and set it alight; or, finding another pyre burning, they would throw the corpse that they were carrying on top of the other one and go away.
Of course, Thucydides was not interested in the disposal of dead Metics or slaves, so I think it likely that such lower-class victims would be dumped, uncremated, into mass graves.   

What killed Myrtis?

Historians have long tried to identify the disease behind the Athenian plague -- an infectious disease virulent enough to carry off one-third of the population (and a quarter of the army) in just four years.  Was it bubonic plague, smallpox, typhus, measles, ebola fever, or some deadly disease that no longer exists? 

We now have the answer.

A group of Greek scientists (led by Dr M. Papagrigorakis of Athens University’s School of Dentistry) examined the dental pulp of teeth recovered in remains from the grave.  They discovered microbial DNA sequences very similar to Salmonella enterica serovar Typhi, that is, typhoid fever.  Typhoid's clinical characteristics, too, are in close accord with the agonizing symptoms described by Thucydides -- who himself fell ill with the plague and was among the lucky few to recover. Overcrowding and poor standards of hygiene in the besieged city would have allowed the disease to appear and then develop into a deadly epidemic.

Now Meet Myrtis

Scientists have been able to reconstruct her face almost down to the last detail (top of the post, left, and below).  This kind of facial reconstruction requires the expertise of a physical or forensic anthropologist and extensive experience of the anatomy of the face as well as good artistic abilities.

Oscar Nilsson, a Swedish sculptor and model-maker, carried out the recreation.
By combining knowledge of the tissue-depth of the human face with the technique of building up the face muscle-by-muscle, an individual appearance is achieved.  The shape and size of eyes and nose are calculated from the size of the ocular and nasal cavities.  Myrtis evidently had a straight nose and slightly protruding teeth.  On the assumption that she was Greek, she was given reddish-brown hair and brown eyes (although if a resident alien or slave, her ancestry is unknown; further DNA studies will be needed to confirm hair and eye colour). 
Myrtis: Face to Face With the Past

Tomorrow, 13 September, Myrtis will move to the National Archaeological Museum of Athens for temporary display (until 30 November).  It is an ideal setting for her to be placed among so many Classical burial sculptures and funerary reliefs.  

Through the face of little Myrtis, sepulchral monuments and memorials of the 5th century BC come back to life and talk with us.  They remind us of the common human fate, death, but also of its defeat by means of memory.  It is no coincidence that Myrtis was declared “Friend of the Goals of the Millennium” by the United Nations.

Her picture has been posted on a website supporting the UN Millennium Goals
on disease prevention and the campaign, "We Can End Poverty". And, needless to say, the 21st-century Myrtis has her own website The 11-year from Athens has posted a letter to the leaders of the world:

My death was inevitable. In the 5th century BC we had neither the knowledge nor the means to fight deadly illnesses. However, you, the people of the 21st century, have no excuse. You possess all the necessary means and resources to save the lives of millions of ... children like me who are dying of preventable and curable diseases.
Even today, typhoid fever is a major health problem in the developing world where overpopulation, inadequate water supplies and hygiene, as well as poor access to health services, allow epidemics to spread. Every year there are about 20 million new cases that lead to 600,000 deaths.  With only five years left until the Millennium deadline, the achievement of the goal of prevention looks doubtful. 

Well, reborn Myrtis is doing her bit.

But, why in the world was she called Myrtis?    

I assume that the archaeologists named her after the ancient woman poet.**  This 5th-century Myrtis, remembered as 'Sweet-voiced', was said to have been the teacher of two of the best Greek lyric poets, Corinna (another woman) and Pindar.  It is a pity that all of her verse is lost; not a single word survives.  So I borrow a fragment from Corinna, appropriately composed, I think, for public performance by a choir of young girls:

Enjoying the gifts of the Muses
I tell my story in song...
If you are in Athens this autumn, do visit Myrtis at the National Archaeological Museum. She may not sing but she's otherwise brought to life rather well.  

*Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 2.47-55, translated by Rex Warner, Penguin, 1954.

 ** I assumed this, really, because I have named one of my Siamese cats 'Myrtis' and, yes, I had the Boeotian poet in mind.  The truth is sadly more mundane.  Prof. Papagrigorakis asked the archaeologists to come up with a list of girl's names from the classical era.  He chose a two-syllable sonorous name that is still in use today (Myrto in modern Greek).My thanks to Prad Patel on Heritage Key (1 September) for alerting me to the temporary exhibition of Myrtis in Athens.


Above left: from the press release of the National Archaeological Museum

Middle left: Mass grave containing the remains of 150 plague victims.  Photograph Ta Nea Online 10/04/10 (via Archaeology News Network 

Insert left: Image of Myrtis' skull.  Photograph Ta Nea Online 10/04/10 (via Archaeology News Network)

Lower left: Close-up of Myrtis (via dimos-nestoros.gr

Lowest left:  Myrtis (via the WHBC-gr website)

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