23 September 2012


The 89th Carnival of Ancient and Medieval History Blogging.

Despite Zenobia's devotion to the women of the ancient world, I'm going to kick off this 89th Carnival by celebrating two male figures: two ancient Greeks to be exact, one quite luscious, the other just a wee bit odd. 

Oh to be in London now that the Motya Charioteer is there. 

This gorgeous marble sculpture (above) -- found on the tiny island of Motya off the west coast of Sicily -- was on loan to London for the length of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

Undoubtedly carved in Greece (Athens?) ca. 460 BCE, the young man is identified as a charioteer because he wears what is taken to be a 'regulation' charioteer's sleeveless chiton ... but -- dearie me -- I don't think his outfit looks designed for driving a 4-horse chariot at breakneck speed around eight miles of oval dirt track: not a chiton so see-through skin-tight, clinging to his bulges in so many homoerotic ripples (left). 

Having been muttering about this since I had the pleasure of viewing the guy and his gear up-close some years ago, I finally found someone who agrees with me.

David Lee writing at The Jackdaw: If this fellow is a charioteer, he can only be at the post-race press conference having slipped into something a little more comfortable, and flashy. 

Read his spot-on analysis (and pointed remarks on the chap’s superb buttocks) and drool over the in-your-face photos. 

Not done yet with drooling?  Reverse circumcision should calm you down.

Ancient History Boy's blog, He has a wife, you know, starts off a post on Greek medical practices with a survey of anaesthetics (largely opium), moves to saw-bones stuff and some astonishingly advanced prothetics (check out that sophisticated fake leg), before settling in for a good long natter about circumcision..

Now, Greeks (and Romans) weren’t fans of circumcision.  More to the point the Greeks weren’t keen on seeing the glans at the end of the male member -- that's the bulbous bit at the tip -- that can be covered by the foreskin on an uncircumcised penis.  To keep the glans concealed, athletes or simply those exercising naked in the public gym would use kynodesme (dog ties) -- small leather strips used to tie a knot at the end of the foreskin so it wouldn’t retract.

But what if you were a Syrian or Jew who had just arrived in Rome and wanted to conduct business in the baths, stripped to the buff as usual?  The way was open to reverse circumcision.  There were two options. Ancient History Boy tells you what they were... 

... and one might well need a dose of opium after that Full Monty.

High and mighty Amazons 

Speaking of regulated substances, how did saddle-sore Amazons relax and tend to their bodies after a hard day's galloping over the hot and dusty Scythian plains? 

According to Herodotus (whom you may or may not believe), Scythians didn't bathe very often: only in the spring, and only before getting toned up for a nice funeral.  But, then, they made up for lost time with mind-blowing steam-baths that made them "shout for joy".  Adrienne Mayor spills the beans on the blog Wonders & Marvels.  

Back on the straight and narrow, now for a dose of Biblical blogging.

Israeli scholars claim to have uncovered archaeological evidence of Samson.

Umm, no they didn't: and to their credit, they didn't claim any such thing -- but that didn't stop the media from headlining SAMSON AND THE LION.

Then went Samson down ... to the vineyards of Timnath and, behold, a young lion roared against him.  And the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and he rent him as he would have rent a kid....(Judges 14, 5-6)

With his bare hands, needless to say! 

What the archaeologists actually found was a small stone seal (left; measuring 1.5 cm [0.6"] across) at Tel Beit Shemesh, which depicts a large animal next to a small human figure. The seal has been dated to the 11th century BCE, i.e. the period of the legendary biblical judges - including Samson.  In Judges, Samson fights a lion. So, abracadabra, the seal 'proves' the biblical story.

The blogs PaleoJudaica and God And The Machine bring the media hype down to earth and it's worth looking at Samson chapter-and-verse through their expert eyes.  As for the seal, even if that crude quadruped is a lion (it has a curled tail), I wouldn't put money on that little man coming out on top. 

So, sad to say, there may never have been a Samson but, scarcely pausing for breath, the media circus moved on to the sensation of Jesus' wife.

"Jesus said to them, my wife...." 

A provocative scrap of papyrus from the 4th century makes a direct reference to Jesus having a wife, says Professor Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.

This tiny fragment, measuring 4 x 8 cm (1.5" x 3") may thus  cast new light on the history of early Christianity.  The text, written in Coptic (probably translated from a 2nd-century Greek text), contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to "my wife," whom he identifies as Mary, and a woman who "will be able to be my disciple".

Naturally, what everyone wants to know is: was Dan Brown's thriller, the Da Vinci Code -- making Jesus and Mary Magdalene husband-and-wife -- true to life after all?  Not so fast!

Find out what the fragment does and does not say at some super learned blogs: 

(1) "A Coptic gospel that mentions Jesus' wife?" at PaleoJudaica -- and note that question mark! Is the fragment too good to be true?  Colour him sceptical. 

(2) "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife", reminding us of the Gnostic Gospel of Philip 59, which speaks about Jesus' relationship with his mother, his sister and his companion, all of whom were called Mary, over at NT Blog.

(3) a sharp analysis and slightly variant translation at The Forbidden Gospels.

(4) when a 'wife' is just a 'woman': what the Coptic word means by Craig Evans at Near Emmaus.

(5) and, wait for it ... Is it Real?: is the fragment genuine or (gasp!) a forgery? Follow the discussion in French and English on the Nag Hammadi Seminar Facebook page.

Stop Press: for the very latest take on the papyrus:  The Gospel of Jesus' Wife: The Story is Moving Fast!

And the Carnival is moving fast too, but, before leaving Roman times behind, I can't resist Raising the roof (and not the dead) at Herculaneum.

The extravagant decorations of the House of the Telephus Relief made it one of Herculaneum's most prestigious houses and a superb beach-side property (with cold and hot tub amenities and all mod cons) --  and spectacular views across the Bay of Naples. The roof went flying off in 79 CE, carried away by the force of the eruption of Vesuvius, and it settled on the beach below in 250 or so pieces.  Now, the multicoloured and gilded wooden ceiling has been reassembled and restored to something like its former glory.  Have a look at the grandiose results at World Archaeology.

Giant Roman Milk Pot

This pot would not even have got storage room in the elegant House of the Telephus Relief but, dirt common though it was, its Romano-British owner thought it well worth repairing when the darn thing broke.  They stapled the cracks together with horizontal lead strips laid outside and inside the pot.  And went on using it, perhaps for centuries: pre-break, it tested for containing milk, post-break probably for grain.  The History Blog has all the news of this seriously big great British pot 24" tall and 18" wide (61 x 46 cm).

A little pot of Gladiator Sweat instead? 

In the steamy hot room of the Roman baths, a slave scrapes the sweat, oil and dirt from a muscular gladiator's skin. The slave uses a strigil, a curved metal tool that performs the same task as the modern loofah.

But the strigil (left) is designed to collect the gladiator's gluey mixture of sweat and oil called gloios (γλοίος) in Greek and strigmentum in Latin. Why? Because ‘gladiator sweat’ was worth a lot of money.

Caroline Lawrence explains why it was worth its weight in gold in 'Love Potion Number IX' at  Wonders & Marvels.

Save this date: 19 August 14 CE

Science currently holds that time travel is impossible so I'm afraid you may have to miss that date.  Make do, instead, with its bimillennium celebration in 2014 -- 2000 years to the day after Augustus, first emperor of Rome, kicked the bucket.

We do love to celebrate round dates even though the  roundness of 60, 100, 200 years, whatever, is completely arbitrary.  Somehow, the apparent similarity between two dates separated by a perfect round number -- like 2000 -- has a strong psychological effect. 

Prepare to be psyched.

The way in which such an anniversary is commemorated speaks volumes about the interests, priorities, social structures and political relations in the society which celebrates it.  Mussolini went hog-wild with the bimillennium of Augustus’ birth on 23rd September 1938.  What a great chance for Il duce to signal the perfect parallels between himself and Augustus!  The event was celebrated on a grand scale, including a monster 'Mostra' (that is, exhibition: whence the poster, left) and the reconstruction of the Ara Pacis in Rome. 

Penelope Goodman tells us all about Mussolini's big-time party on her blog, Weavings and Unpickings, and now of her plans for a conference around the bimillennium of his death. A modern obituary, in fact.  I wonder what that will tell about ourselves, and our contemporary society.

Speaking of contemporary concerns and the alarms of our age, how about a a little murder and mayhem? 

Hostage-taking, anyone?

When we think of hostages we tend to think of men with pistols using some innocent as a human shield.  In a grislier mood, we might picture terrorists slitting a hostage's throat from ear to ear when they don't get what they want.  But in the ancient and medieval world hostage-taking was formalised and certainly not criminal. Conquered territories would give up their under-age princes who would be conveyed to an enemy capital or castle, there to be brought up in the winner's ways. A son of a Persian Emperor or a British tribal chief might, for example, find himself in Rome being educated among senator’s sons.  The idea was that, when he went home, he'd be a subservient bridge between top dog and underdog.

It didn't always work like that, especially not in the Middle Ages.  Sometimes, an errant dad got his son's head back instead.  Beachcombing tells us about the ups and downs of Hostage Taking in Ancient and Medieval Times

Now that we've entered the Dark Ages, we search for little beacons of light, such as Chris Cevasco (Author)'s blog which flashes red on 'Lady Godiva - the Naked Truth'.

Mention Lady Godiva and, Chris tells us, the first thing most people think of is the line of chocolates bearing her name. 

Tchah!  Surely, Chris, readers of Zenobia recall higher things than confectionary -- something, for example, about her riding naked on the back of a horse.  Exactly as sprang to the mind, too, of the Pre-Raphaelite artist, John Collier (left). 

But who was Godiva, and why do we remember her at all?  

In truth, very little is known about her.  A mid-11th-century Anglo-Saxon countess, wealthy and pious, whose granddaughter Ealdgyth was Harold Godwineson’s queen when Harold fell at Hastings in 1066.  Godiva lived through the arrival of the Normans, dying less than a year after William the Conqueror took Harold’s throne.

So far, so goodly.

But hardly a reason to baptise any chocolates.  No, it took a cloistered monk to make her famous. The earliest account of her legendary naked ride appeared in Flores Historiarum (Flowers of History; 1326?), written by a monk of St. Albans Abbey.  Read what he had to say, and the later embellishments at Chris' blog

About the time that Godiva was allegedly mounting her horse, anyway in 1042, Edward the Confessor ascended to the throne of England, ending nearly three decades of rule by conquering Danish kings.

1066 and All That

Edward was the last Anglo-Saxon king (genuflect, please, before his image; left).  The great-great-great-great grandson of Alfred the Great, he died childless, leaving England open to conquest from overseas. 

To put it mildly, Edward had a turbulent childhood (well, who wouldn't if your father was Aethelred the Unready, the hapless king besieged by Vikings on all coasts and  Danish kinglets anywhere left undefended?).  When Edward was about ten, his father was deposed and the whole family went into exile under the protection of Edward’s uncle in Normandy. 

The snakes and ladders that followed were worthy of a French farce had the consequences not been so bloody serious.  When, for a brief time, there were more ups than downs, Edward was crowned King of England (April 3, 1042).  That didn't stop invasions, usurpations, and power struggles for a minute.  In 1051, it’s possible that young William, Duke of Normandy visited England and Edward may have promised him the throne at this time....

The whole nine yards at 'Edward the Confessor, King of England' on The Freelance History Writer blog.

Who would have imagined that Edward's promise was to cost Godiva's granddaughter (and her husband) the throne?  Edward didn't become a chocolate but, next best thing, he was canonized as a saint and confessor in 1161.

After the conquest, what did it mean when a writer used French or English?

As time went on, being English was increasingly being defined against being French, but records of government and law long remained multilingual.

The Bavardess blog considers the changes taking place in the 'public sphere' in England in Interpreting Medieval Sources: Orality, Aurality, and Textuality

That may sound daunting but it simply means that texts initially created as written documents also circulated orally whereupon they were read out and listened to in public.  So, it could happen that a French text was proclaimed in English, and then it might go through yet another round of translation and circulation as, for example, being copied into Latin chronicles. 

In those dark days, documents were rarely drawn up in English.  But such  happened in 1405 when some northern nobles agitated for good governance (a 'Northern Spring'?), drafting a set of articles demanding that King Henry IV take steps to reform the system.  The monastic chronicler Thomas Walsingham recorded their complaints, ending with this declaration:
These were the articles that were written in English, whose sense I have translated almost word for word, and have inserted them here as they were expressed, without any bias. [In other words, he has translated them from English into Latin] This seemed necessary to me because of the plainness and inelegance of the language.... 
England was still multilingual at the time although there were a growing number of literary works being written in English (Chaucer, Gower, and, most dangerous of all, Wycliffe's Bible).  Elegant or not, here we came!  

Chaucer was praised as "The first finder of our fair language." And this below may be its terminator:

“Wield the Skillet, Forge the Family Dinner,”

A recent ad campaign for Velveeta stars a manly, quasi-medieval blacksmith, chanting, There’s no more medieval prepared cheese product than Velveeta. That’s the message of Velveeta Shells and Cheesy's Eat Liquid Gold TV ads. When not smiting noodles, perhaps the blacksmith will find time to hammer Velveeta (or its curdler-in-chief, Kraft) who completely misunderstood the metaphor.

Jeff Sypeck at the blog Quid Plura tells what the admen got wrong.
Medieval people associated the consumption of liquid metal with horrific punishments and unbearable pain. In the 12th-century Anglo-Norman Voyage of St. Brendan, the saint discovers Judas on an island, where his unceasing torments include being forced to drink molten lead and copper....
Which doesn't taste nearly as nice as it sounds. Not convinced?  Try this real medieval text:
and one broʒt myche gold and syluer, and þat was molten and casten in hyr þrote, and þat ran out of hyr stomake. And he seide, “Take þe þis for þ[i] cursed and wikked coueitise…”*
Believe me, Velveeta, you won't like it.  And I wouldn't wish it even on a cheese dip.

Here endeth the 89th History Carnivaleque.  My thanks to all who sent me leads: we had a bumper crop of nominations this season.

"One brought much gold and silver, and that was melted and poured down her throat and that ran out of her stomach. And he said, "Take thee this for thy cursed and wicked covetousness."


All images are from the blogs highlighted with the exception of the papyrus fragment (Jesus' Wife) which comes from the Harvard Divinity School webpage.


Blog Archive