Tag Archives: Romans

Walking, talking and showing off – a history of Roman gardens



Model of Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy showing the poikilé, the large four-sided portico enclosing a garden with central pool.
Carole Raddato/Wikimedia, CC BY-SA

Annalisa Marzano, University of Reading

In ancient Rome, you could tell a lot about a person from the look of their garden. Ancient gardens were spaces used for many activities, such as dining, intellectual practice, and religious rituals. They also offered the opportunity to flaunt horticultural skills as well as travels. As such, gardens were taken rather seriously by Romans. Walking had an important role here, as there is no better way to show off your garden than to take people on walks through it.

The role of horticulture in the construction of elite identity in ancient Rome is one of the topics I am investigating, while the excavation of an ancient Pompeian garden I co-direct is revealing tangible information on settings for horticultural displays.

For wealthy Romans, gardens were a place to exercise the mind, for instance by strolling while conversing about philosophy or literature. The orator and philosopher Cicero famously wrote that if you have a garden and a library you have everything you need.

The leaves of the plane tree.
Ellywa/Wikipedia, CC BY-SA

The type of plants chosen could reveal much about how cultured the owner was. From the writings of Roman authors, we can see that plane trees (which nowadays commonly line streets and walkways in parks) were a good choice. They offered shade in summer and were a way to show that one was versed in Greek philosophy: Aristotle and Plato’s famed philosophical schools were held in garden’s shaded by plane trees, as Plato referred to in his Phaedrus.

Fruit of the empire

Rome empire-building military expeditions abroad also resulted in new plants, or new cultivars (a plant variety produced by selective breeding) of known plants being introduced into Italy. Roman generals or provincial governors often came back to Italy with specimens that they planted in their gardens. For example, Lucius Vitellius the Elder, the father of Emperor Vitellius, planted several figs varieties in his rural villa estate near Rome that he had encountered while governor of Syria. In this way, gardens could also become a sort of microcosm of Rome’s empire, with plants from different territories.

Excavating the House of Queen Caroline (VIII.3.14) in Pompeii.
Author provided

Horticultural display of grafted fruit trees and other plants reproduced by layering might have characterised the large garden of the House of Queen Caroline – named in the 19th century after the queen of Naples and sister of Napoleon Bonaparte, Caroline, who visited during its initial excavation. I am currently excavating the site in Pompeii in collaboration with colleagues from Cornell University. Here wide walkways seem to have separated the regularly spaced plantings, an indication that it was not a commercial orchard but a garden in which horticultural productivity was an important part of the pleasure the garden was meant to offer.

Committed to exercise

Walking in their gardens was a serious exercise for many wealthy Romans. Medical works such as the de Medicina by the encyclopedist Aulus Cornelius Celsus, written in the first century AD, give specific indications about the daily exercise physicians recommended: one Roman mile, or 1,000 paces.

Some gardens even came with exercise advice inscribed in them detailing how many laps a person needed to cover. One such inscription from Rome once stood in an ancient orchard. It advised that to cover one mile one needed to go along the path back and forth five times.

In Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy, a similar inscription was found in the Poikilé, the large four-sided portico enclosing a garden with a central pool. The north side of the Poikilé was a double portico, with circular spaces at both ends to allow one to do laps: this was where the emperor could walk sheltered from the elements. Thus, Hadrian could either take exercise in the open air, in the central garden, or under the roof of the double portico.

Excavation of a planting pit, a Roman plant pot is starting to appear. Such pots are usually found partially or completely buried in gardens and planters.
Author provided

All this may suggest that the stereotype associating ancient Romans with excessive drinking and eating is undeserved. But, for wealthy individuals, moving about in a chariot or being carried around in a litter (a “vehicle” without wheels) by slaves in hippodrome-gardens (they were shaped like an elongated U and imitated the shape of the chariot-racing stadium) also counted as “exercising”. Indeed, there are two words in Latin texts for the daily walk: ambulatio, “walking about”, and gestatio, “being carried about”.

Such walking was the pastime of those who owned impressive townhouses or luxurious villas in the country or by the sea. But shrewd politicians such as the Emperor Augustus, who ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD, included gardens among the public building projects they financed. They understood that improving living standards by providing ordinary people with a green oasis to escape Rome’s crowded streets and cramped accommodation was a great way to gain popularity. Augustus opened to the public the groves and walks which surrounded the magnificent Mausoleum he had built, and before him, Caesar had willed to the people of Rome his large pleasure park (Horti).

Following the Roman dichotomy between amoenitas (delightfulness) and utilitas (usefulness), scholars traditionally class gardens as either utilitarian or pleasure gardens, but this binary choice does not fully capture the essence of Roman garden culture. Roman gardens were complex physical and ideological spaces. They represented wealth and contributed to wealth and they showed off horticultural skills through aesthetics as well as their ability to produce food.The Conversation

Annalisa Marzano, Professor of Ancient History, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


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Mythbusting Ancient Rome: did Christians ban the ancient Olympics?



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A Greek amphora showing athletes, 4th century B.C.
©Trustees of the British Museum. (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

Caillan Davenport, Macquarie University and Shushma Malik, University of Roehampton

Every two years, when the Winter or Summer Olympics comes around, we hear about how the games staged at Olympia in Greece since 776 B.C. came to a sudden end in the late fourth century A.D. The finger is pointed at the Christian Roman emperor Theodosius I (A.D. 379-395), who is said to have banned the Olympics in the 390s as part of a wider political program directed against pagan religion, its rituals, and its festivals.

The idea that the athletic contests – held in honour of the Greek god Zeus for over a thousand years – were shut down by a puritanical Christian emperor makes for a good story. But is it actually true?

Imperial intervention?

Theodosius I did issue a series of edicts against pagan sacrifice in the years A.D. 391-392. These have been preserved in a collection of laws known as the Theodosian Code, which was compiled in the fifth century A.D. by the emperor’s grandson. An excerpt from one of these edicts states:

No person at all … shall sacrifice an innocent victim to senseless images in any place at all or in any city. He shall not, by more secret wickedness, venerate his lar with fire, his genius with wine, his penates with fragrant odours; he shall not burn lights to them, place incense before them, or suspend wreaths for them.

Marble fragment depicting animal sacrifice, Rome, 2nd century AD. Now in the Louvre.
Wikimedia Commons.

Neither this passage, nor any of the other edicts in the Theodosian Code, actually mentions the abolition of the Olympic Games, as the historian Ingomar Weiler has pointed out. Sacrifices and libations to the gods had long been a part of the ancient Olympics, as with other Greek festivals. But the evidence suggests that sacrifices had largely ceased to take place at these events by the mid-fourth century as a result of changes in religious practices.

The games at Olympia remained popular throughout the Roman period, with athletes competing both for their personal fame and for glory for their home city. A recently discovered inscription listing victorious athletes demonstrates that the games were still going strong through to Theodosius I’s reign. The court poet Claudian then refers to the Olympics in A.D. 399, after the emperor’s death.

The most conclusive evidence of the games’ survival after Theodosius I issued his ban on sacrifice can be found in the work of an anonymous literary commentator. He states that the Olympics ceased to be held in the fifth century A.D., during the reign of Theodosius I’s grandson, Theodosius II (A.D. 408-450):

Since the Temple of Olympian Zeus had caught fire, both the Elean festival and the Olympic Games came to an end.

Olympic festivals (named after the original games at Olympia) continued to take place elsewhere in the Roman empire as well. The Olympics at Ephesus are attested until A.D. 420, and they continued at Antioch in Syria until the early sixth century A.D. Even though public entertainments were often criticised by Christian clerics, a prominent Christian senator, Leontios, intended to stage his own Olympics in Chalcedon in the mid-fifth century A.D. He would not have dared to do this if the imperial administration had banned such festivals.

Economic stringencies

Coin of Theodosius I.
Wikimedia

What did cause the games at Olympia to end in the fifth century A.D.? Archaeological evidence shows that the site and the infrastructure for the contests (such as the buildings used to house athletes) fell into disuse. The statue of Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the world, was removed from the temple and taken to Constantinople. The workshop of Phidias, who built the statue, was converted into a church. This evidence suggests a gradual decline and re-appropriation of the space at Olympia.

The historian Sofie Remijsen has argued that the end of the games was not the result of an imperial edict against paganism, but a change in economic circumstances. Long-term developments in the administration of the empire during the fourth century A.D. meant that rich elites increasingly had to sponsor contests out of their own pockets, and the civic funds set up to support the games were used for other purposes. The contests at Olympia ended because no one could afford it. Such a fate may eventually befall the modern games, as spiralling costs make hosting the Olympics an unattractive proposition.

Let the games continue

Statue at Le Parc Olympique, Lausanne of the founder of the Modern Olympic Games, Baron de Coubertin.
Wikimedia Commons

The notion that Theodosius I banned the Olympics has quite a history. Back in the 11th century, the Byzantine author Georgius Cedrenus cited the now familiar story of the ban, but it came back into the popular imagination with the advent of the modern Olympic Games under the auspices of Pierre de Coubertin in the late 19th century.

De Coubertin, a French aristocrat, had an inherent belief in the “character-building” capacity of sport. Alongside English educator William Penny Brookes, he formed a committee with a mission to restore the Olympic Games to their former glory, minus tripods, incense, and sacrifices. Athens was the place and 1896 was the year. Following the games, de Coubertin reflected upon his achievement in Century Illustrated Magazine:

It was a thrilling moment. Fifteen hundred and two years before, the Emperor Theodosius had suppressed the Olympic games, thinking, no doubt, that in abolishing this hated survival of paganism he was furthering the cause of progress; and here [opening the games] was a Christian monarch, amid the applause of an assemblage composed almost exclusively of Christians, announcing the formal annulment of the imperial decree; while a few feet away stood the archbishop of Athens, and Père Didon, the celebrated Dominican preacher, who, in his Easter sermon in the Catholic cathedral the day before, had paid an eloquent tribute to pagan Greece.

De Coubertin highlights a problem: for centuries newspapers, periodicals, and literature had propagated the belief that pagan practices, including the Olympics, had rightly been stamped out by the rise and spread of Christianity. Yet the modern Olympic founder was taking pleasure not only in the fact that the games had been revived but also that a Dominican preacher (who was, incidentally, also the inventor of the Olympic motto) had paid tribute to pagan Greece.

Cover of the official report of 1896 Athens Summer Olympics.
Wikimedia Commons

The answer to this apparent contradiction lies in de Coubertin’s wider modern Olympic message, which itself was based on an idealised version of Classical Greece. However critically Greek and Roman paganism were viewed, the status of Classical Greece as the home of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle had always confirmed its place at the centre of European education. For physical educationalists such as de Coubertin, nothing topped the pinnacle of the Olympic Games, Greece’s oldest and most popular sporting event.

The key was to adapt the games to “the needs and taste of the age”. This meant no more trappings of religious cult. Thus, when Père Didon praised “pagan Greece”, it was as the home of “beauty, grace, and strength all in one” (de Coubertin’s words); the perfect, philosophical place to educate the energetic youth of any era.

Ending with a whimper not a bang

Ultimately, the blame for ending the Olympic Games was laid at the feet of Theodosius I because it was difficult for people to believe that the festival – a defining cultural symbol of antiquity – simply fizzled out after more than a thousand years. The conflict between paganism and Christianity in the later Roman empire became an easy way of explaining the end of this great athletic contest.

The ConversationBy the time de Coubertin came to revive the Olympics in the 19th century, this story was set in stone. In restaging the games in a modern world, he drew inspiration from the athleticism of the Classical Greeks, but left the pagan rituals of the ancient world far behind.

Caillan Davenport, Senior Lecturer in Roman History, Macquarie University and Shushma Malik, Lecturer in Classics, University of Roehampton

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Friday essay: the erotic art of Ancient Greece and Rome



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A fragment of a wall painting showing two lovers in bed from the House of L Caecilius Jucundus in Pompeii, now at Naples National Archaeological Museum.
Wikimedia Commons

Craig Barker, University of Sydney

In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.

Rarely does L.P. Hartley’s dictum that “the past is a foreign country” hold more firmly than in the area of sexuality in classical art. Erotic images and depictions of genitalia, the phallus in particular, were incredibly popular motifs across a wide range of media in ancient Greece and Rome.

Simply put, sex is everywhere in Greek and Roman art. Explicit sexual representations were common on Athenian black-figure and red-figure vases of the sixth and fifth centuries BC. They are often eye-openingly confronting in nature.

Bronze tintinnabula in the shape of flying phalluses, Pompeii, first century AD.
Gabinetto Segreto del Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

Wikimedia

The Romans too were surrounded by sex. The phallus, sculpted in bronze as tintinnabula (wind chimes), were commonly found in the gardens of the houses of Pompeii, and sculpted in relief on wall panels, such as the famous one from a Roman bakery telling us hic habitat felicitas (“here dwells happiness”).

However these classical images of erotic acts and genitalia reflect more than a sex obsessed culture. The depictions of sexuality and sexual activities in classical art seem to have had a wide variety of uses. And our interpretations of these images – often censorious in modern times – reveal much about our own attitudes to sex.

Modern responses

When the collection of antiquities first began in earnest in the 17th and 18th centuries, the openness of ancient eroticism puzzled and troubled Enlightenment audiences. This bewilderment only intensified after excavations began at the rediscovered Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

The Gabinetto Segreto (the so-called “Secret Cabinet”) of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli best typifies the modern response to classical sexuality in art – repression and suppression.

The secret cabinet was founded in 1819, when Francis I, King of Naples, visited the museum with his wife and young daughter. Shocked by the explicit imagery, he ordered all items of a sexual nature be removed from view and locked in the cabinet. Access would be restricted to scholars, of “mature age and respected morals”. That was, male scholars only.

Erotic terracotta sculptures in a showcase in the Gabinetto Segreto at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. Found in a Samnite sanctuary in the old town of Cales (Calvi Risorta).
Wikimedia

In Pompeii itself, where explicit material such as the wallpaintings of the brothel was retained in situ, metal shutters were installed. These shutters restricted access to only male tourists willing to pay additional fees, until as recently as the 1960s.

Of course, the secrecy of the collection in the cabinet only increased its fame, even if access was at times difficult. John Murray’s Handbook to South Italy and Naples (1853) sanctimoniously states that permission was exceedingly difficult to obtain:

Very few therefore have seen the collection; and those who have, are said to have no desire to repeat their visit.

The cabinet was not opened to the general public until 2000 (despite protests by the Catholic Church). Since 2005, the collection has been displayed in a separate room; the objects have still not been reunited with contemporary non-sexual artefacts as they were in antiquity.

Literature also felt the wrath of the censors, with works such as Aristophanes’ plays mistranslated to obscure their “offensive” sexual and scatalogical references. Lest we try to claim any moral and liberal superiority in the 21st century, the infamous marble sculptural depiction of Pan copulating with a goat from the collection still shocks modern audiences.

Marble statue of Pan copulating with goat, found the Villa of the Papyri, Herculaneum. first century AD.
Wikimedia

The censorship of ancient sexuality is perhaps best typified by the long tradition of removing genitals from classical sculpture.

The Vatican Museum in particular (but not exclusively) was famed for altering classical art for the sake of contemporary morals and sensibilities. The application of carved and cast fig leaves to cover the genitalia was common, if incongruous.

It also indicated a modern willingness to associate nudity with sexuality, which would have puzzled an ancient audience, for whom the body’s physical form was in itself regarded as perfection. So have we been misreading ancient sexuality all this time? Well, yes.

Marble statue of Mercury in the Vatican collection. The fig leaf is a later addition.
Wikimedia

Ancient porn?

It is difficult to tell to what extent ancient audiences used explicit erotic imagery for arousal. Certainly, the erotic scenes that were popular on vessels would have given the Athenian parties a titillating atmosphere as wine was consumed.

Athenian red-figure kylix, attributed to Dokimasia Painter, c. 480 BC. British Museum.
The Trustees of the British Museum

These types of scenes are especially popular on the kylix, or wine-cup, particularly within the tondo (central panel of the cup). Hetairai (courtesans) and pornai (prostitutes) may well have attended the same symposia, so the scenes may have been used as a stimuli.

Painted erotica was replaced by moulded depictions in the later Greek and Roman eras, but the use must have been similar, and the association of sex with drinking is strong in this series.

The application of sexual scenes to oil lamps by the Romans is perhaps the most likely scenario where the object was actually used within the setting of love-making. Erotica is common on mould-made lamps.

The phallus and fertility

Although female nudity was not uncommon (particularly in association with the goddess Aphrodite), phallic symbolism was at the centre of much classical art.

The phallus would often be depicted on Hermes, Pan, Priapus or similar deities across various art forms. Rather than being seen as erotic, its symbolism here was often associated with protection, fertility and even healing. We have already seen the phallus used in a range of domestic and commercial contexts in Pompeii, a clear reflection of its protective properties.

Marble Herm, from Siphnos, Greece. c. 520 BC. National Archaeological Museum, Athens.
Wikimedia

A herm was a stone sculpture with a head (usually of Hermes) above a rectangular pillar, upon which male genitals were carved. These blocks were positioned at borders and boundaries for protection, and were so highly valued that in 415 BC when the hermai of Athens were vandalised prior to the departure of the Athenian fleet many believed this would threaten the success of the naval mission.

A famous fresco from the House of the Vetti in Pompeii shows Priapus, a minor deity and guardian of livestock, plants and gardens. He has a massive penis, holds a bag of coins, and has a bowl of fruit at his feet. As researcher Claudia Moser writes, the image represents three kinds of prosperity: growth (the large member), fertility (the fruit), and affluence (the bag of money).

It is worth noting that even a casual glance at classical sculptures in a museum will reveal that the penis on marble depictions of nude gods and heroes is often quite small. Classical cultural ideals valued a smaller penis over a larger, often to the surprise of modern audiences.

All representations of large penises in classical art are associated with lustfulness and foolishness. Priapus was so despised by the other gods he was thrown off Mt Olympus. Bigger was not better for the Greeks and Romans.

Myths and sex

Classical mythology is based upon sex: myths abound with stories of incest, intermarriage, polygamy and adultery, so artistic depictions of mythology were bound to depict these sometimes explicit tales. Zeus’s cavalier attitude towards female consent within these myths (among many examples, he raped Leda in the guise of a swan and Danae while disguised as the rain) reinforced misogynistic ideas of male domination and female subservience.

A mosaic depicting Leda and the swan, circa third century AD, from the Sanctuary of Aphrodite, Palea Paphos; now in the Cyprus Museum, Nicosia.
Wikimedia

The phallus was also highlighted in depictions of Dionysiac revelry. Dionysos, the Greek god of wine, theatre and transformation was highly sexualised, as were his followers – the male satyrs and female maenads, and their depiction on wine vessels is not surprising.

Satyrs were half-men, half-goats. Somewhat comic, yet also tragic to a degree, they were inveterate masturbators and party animals with an appetite for dancing, wine and women. Indeed the word satyriasis has survived today, classified in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD) as a form of male hypersexuality, alongside the female form, nymphomania.

Detail of an Athenian red-figure psykter (cooler) depicting a satyr balancing a kantharos on his penis, painted by Douris, c. 500-490 BC. British Museum.
Wikimedia

The intention of the ithyphallic (erect) satyrs is clear in their appearance on vases (even if they rarely caught the maenads they were chasing); at the same time their massive erect penises are indicative of the “beastliness” and grotesque ugliness of a large penis as opposed to the classical ideal of male beauty represented by a smaller one.

Actors who performed in satyr plays during dramatic festivals took to the stage and orchestra with fake phallus costumes to indicate that they were not humans, but these mythical beasts of Dionysus.

The ConversationEarly collectors of classical art were shocked to discover that the Greeks and Romans they so admired were earthy humans too with a range of sexual needs and desires. But in emphasising the sexual aspects of this art they underplayed the non-sexual role of phallic symbols.

Craig Barker, Education Manager, Sydney University Museums, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Cool Britannia: TV drama doesn’t capture the story being unearthed of the Roman invasion



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Kelly Reilly as the Briton warrior Kerra in Britannia.
IMDB

Craig Barker, University of Sydney

The new TV series Britannia airing now (produced for Sky Atlantic in the UK, screening on Foxtel’s Showcase in Australia) is undoubtedly influenced by the scale and success of Game of Thrones. Created by acclaimed English playwright Jez Butterworth, the nine-part series is an ambitious exploration of a profoundly important era in British history.

It tells the story of the second Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD, when the Roman fleet under the control of the ruthless general Aulus Plautius (a real historical figure played in the series by David Morrissey) lands on the coast of the near-mythical island. It is the story, too, of Celtic Britain tribalism and the Machiavellian interplay with the new Roman arrivals.

Trailer for season one of Britannia.

Although reviews to date have been mixed, the series is a bold undertaking exploring the clash of cultures. It is the second significant pop cultural exploration of key historical moments in the relationship between Britain and Europe since the Brexit vote. (Christopher Nolan’s film Dunkirk was the first). It also comes at a time when the relationship between historical fact and fiction is being hotly debated, particularly in relation to the Netflix series The Crown.




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Britannia, Druids and the surprisingly modern origins of myths


While the series does suffer from various historical inaccuracies, Butterworth has said he was more interested in exploring the drama around two religions, Roman and druidic, coming together.

Most of what we think we know about the Briton’s religion was proposed by later writers; no contemporary accounts survive. In Britannia, the role of druids, the Celtic priests, within society is presented in an otherworldly, trance-like way. The main druid character Veran (played by MacKenzie Crook) feels like a hallucination.

A druidic ceremony performed in Britannia.
Sky Vision

This renewed popular cultural interest in the establishment of Roman Britain and the Celtic response to the Roman arrival coincides with an exciting and profound period of archaeological discovery and historical reinterpretation of this historical event.

A nod to Caesar

Plautius’s invasion of Britain on orders of Emperor Claudius established Roman rule in much of Britain for nearly 400 years. But it was not the first time Rome came into contact with the tribes of the island.

Julius Caesar’s invasions of Britain in 55 BC and 54 BC are mentioned briefly in an opening title of the TV series, which suggests that fear of the Celts drove the Romans to abandon ideas of permanent occupation of the island. The real reason is far more complex. Caesar’s account provided the Romans with their first description of the island and its inter-tribal fighting.

David Morrissey as Aulus Plautius.
Sky Vision

In 2016 and 2017, excavations by the University of Leicester demonstrated that Caesar’s 54 BC fleet was blown off course and landed on the sandy shores of Pegwell Bay in Kent.

Although Caesar left without leaving a military force on Britain, he established a series of client relationships with British royal families in the south-east. These allegiances may have assisted the later Claudian invasion. At the very least, they mean the arrival of Roman forces wasn’t the surprise it is presented as in Britannia.

The Claudian Invasion

The real general Aulus Plautius was regarded highly in Rome, but like his fictional counterpart he did struggle against soldier rumblings. Roman historian Cassius Dio writes that he “had difficulty in inducing his army to advance beyond Gaul. For the soldiers were indignant at the thought of carrying on a campaign outside the limits of the known world”.




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Guide to the Classics: Suetonius’s The Twelve Caesars explores vice and virtue in ancient Rome


Why did the emperor Claudius choose to invade Britain? It seems most likely that, like a number of modern political leaders, the invasion allowed Claudius to distract public attention from domestic political issues.

No contemporary account survives of the real invasion. It seems most likely that as depicted in the show, Plautius landed 40,000 men on the coast of Kent, and attempted to negotiate truces and restore Roman friendly monarchs. These ultimately failed. The Romans then undertook a campaign of “shock and awe”, even bringing war elephants to the fight, and established their first provincial capital at Camulodunum (today’s Colchester).

A distinctive Roman brick wall excavated at Camulodunum (Colchester)
Wikicommons

A Roman view

Most of what is known about the Britons, including the dubious druids, was written not by them but by the Romans. The main literary source was written in the late first century AD by Tacitus, whose father-in-law, Agricola, served as governor of Roman Britain (after the events of the series).

Drawing of Gaius Cornelius Tacitus by an unknown artist, said to be based on an ancient bust.
Wikicommons

The traditional Tacitian historical narrative is now being questioned, by both archaeological evidence and new historical interpretation. These point out that in creating a biography of Agricola, Tacitus was presenting a heroic figure, freed from the moral corruption of Rome. In this narrative, he needed worthy adversaries in the form of rebels such as the British chief Calgacus.

It was obviously a complex relationship between native and conqueror, politically and culturally. Mary Beard has famously described Britain as “Rome’s Afghanistan”, an endless struggle to wins hearts and minds in the four centuries that followed Plautius’s forces. Hers is a provocative, but valid description.

The brawling Britons

In the first century AD, Britain was politically fragmented, with a series of constant wars between various tribes, (at least according to Roman sources). In the series tribal warfare is represented by the fictitious Cantii (led by King Pellenor, played by Ian McDiarmid) and Regni tribes (led by Queen Antedia, played by Zoë Wanamaker).




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From Elizabeth I to high fashion, the tales behind Game of Thrones’ costumes


This plotline reflects the Roman literary trope of the brawling Britons; but it appears the reality of the internal political structure was far more complex than Roman writers could ever comprehend. Many of the political groups of the south-east of England had already adopted some Mediterranean cultural traits before the invasion through trade and other contacts with the Roman World. New archaeological excavations at Silchester for example, demonstrate urban planning during the Iron Age, prior to Roman occupation.

British society certainly seems to have been more egalitarian than Roman, with both men and women holding political and military power. The character of the warrior Kerra (played by Kelly Reilly) appears to be presented as some sort of precursor to a figure like Boudica, a Celtic queen who would lead a rebellion within decades.

What about Stonehenge?

Trailers for forthcoming episodes suggest Stonehenge will play a significant role in Britannia’s plot . (It has beenfilmed using a scale replica constructed in the Czech Republic). Meanwhile, the real Stonehenge has undergone a series of recent excavations supervised by Mike Parker Pearson, which have revolutionised the way we think about the site, and destroyed many myths as well.

Again, ultimately, very little is known about the use of Stonehenge at the time of the invasion, nor about Roman conceptions of the structure. (Despite this, modern druids have associated themselves with the structure.)

‘Druid’ summer solstice service at Stonehenge 1956.
Getty Images

The ConversationIrrespective of the quality and historical accuracy of Britannia, the series is a dynamic presentation of an important period of British history. But the real story being slowly teased out by the archaeologist’s trowel is just as dynamic and in many ways, more dramatic and exciting than the fictional one.

Craig Barker, Education Manager, Sydney University Museums, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Roman Mythology



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