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The latest film adaptation of the story of fictional Jewish noble Judah Ben-Hur is premiering in theaters today. You’ve probably seen the 1959 film version starring Charlton Heston, but do you know about the story’s rich history and impact over the last 136 years?
Some four decades ago the late Sir Moses Finley, then Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge University, published a powerful series of lectures entitled Democracy Ancient and Modern (1973, republished in an augmented second edition, 1985). He himself had personally suffered the atrocious deficit of democracy that afflicted his native United States in the 1950s, forcing him into permanent exile, but my chief reason for citing his book here, apart from out of continuing intellectual respect, is that its title could equally well have been Democracy Ancient Versus Modern.
Today, we're looking at the less fashionable side of this partnership and focussing our attention on the creatures that mortals feared and heroes vanquished. Does your gaze turn others to stone? Do you prefer ignorance or vengeance? Have any wings? Take this short quiz to find out which mythological creature or being you would have been in the ancient world.
Reports over recent months from South Korea’s Yonhap news agency have suggested that two prominent North Korean politicians have been executed this year on the orders of Kim Jong-un. These reports evoke some interesting parallels from the darker side of the history of ancient Rome, or at least from the more colourful stories told about it by Roman historians.
The so-called “Getty Hexameters” represent an unusual set of early Greek ‘magical’ incantations (epoidai) found engraved on a small, fragmentary tablet of folded lead. The rare verses provide an exciting new window into the early practice and use of written magic and incantatory spells in the Greek polis of the 5th century BCE.
In 2003 Paul Bahn led the team that discovered the first Ice Age cave art at Creswell Crags in Britain. In recent years, many more discoveries have been made including the expanding phenomenon of 'open-air Ice Age art'. In the slideshow below, you can see some of the earliest examples of art on the planet, and take a tour of prehistoric art throughout the world.
CAESAR Who is it in the press that calls on me? I hear a tongue, shriller than all the music, Cry 'Caesar!' Speak; Caesar is turn'd to hear.
SOOTHSAYER Beware the ides of March.
Some might say that the death of Caesar on this day in 44 BCE was the beginning of the end. After expanding the domains of the Roman Republic and consolidating power into a dictatorship, Caesar was stabbed by a group of senators, as famously chronicled in William Shakespeare’s play, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar. Rome would go on to become an empire, lasting for another four centuries; even in death, Caesar remained “dictator in perpetuity.”
Caesar’s most infamous lover, Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, was in Rome at the time of his assassination. Caesar had backed her claim to the Egyptian throne after she was exiled by her brother and co-ruler, Ptolemy XIII and his court. Awaiting confirmation of the sustainability of her own ruling power in the aftermath of the death of her most powerful supporter, the much younger Egyptian ruler soon allied herself with Mark Antony and Octavian, Caesar’s grandnephew and recognized heir, even though she had once hoped her own son Caesarion, allegedly fathered by Caesar, would one day assume power in Rome. She later fled back to Egypt to face the military trials of the Roman Civil War caused by Caesar’s death.
Following the smashing success of his biography, Caesar: Life of a Colossus, historian Adrian Goldsworthy has written another masterful study of classical figures, Antony and Cleopatra. Noting that Cleopatra is the only woman to appear on the A-list of Greco-Roman greats, Goldsworthy writes “For all their fame, Antony and Cleopatra receive little attention in formal study of the first century BC…. The fame of Cleopatra may attract students to the subject, but courses are, quite reasonably and largely unconsciously, structured to stress more ‘serious’ topics, and shy away from personalities.”
Goldsworthy sets out to disprove the legitimacy of this stigma, carefully debunking the myths surrounding Antony and Cleopatra’s legacies to reveal the strength of the political characters’ power and ambition. From their own eponymous Shakespearean play, we might commonly remember the drama and failures of their romance, but Goldsworthy warns that “many want to tell the story [of Cleopatra] differently, turning the sinister seductress into a strong and independent woman struggling as best she could to protect her country.” Of course, by no means does he mean that Cleopatra was not strong and independent—she unanimously was—but rather, romance and the fictional glamour surrounding her has too often turned into debilitating sympathy for her decline. Consequently, we overlook and ignore the profoundly forceful constitution of a woman ruler in a definitive age of men.
Carolyn Meyer is one of our most prolific contemporary authors of historical fiction for young people, and has tackled novelizations of the lives of many famous women from history including Marie Antoinette, Elizabeth I, Mary Tudor, and Anne Boleyn. In her newest young adult novel, she turns her pen (or computer?) to one of the most celebrated women in history, Cleopatra.
As in the other books in her Young Royals series, Meyer concentrates on Cleopatra's teen years, as the queen reminisces about her life in a diary-like format with very brief chapters. As the book opens, Cleopatra is 10 years old, and clearly the favorite daughter of King Ptolemy XII. Young Cleopatra is surrounded by intrigue at court, particularly from her two ambitious and jealous older sisters, yet secretly dreams of one day becoming a great ruler of Egypt.
Meyer portrays Cleopatra as a highly intelligent young woman, with a gift and passion for learning, especially for languages, and compassion for her future subjects. Despite her wealth and privilege, she enjoys going out in disguise among the common people, "not only to escape the dull routine of my life in the palace but also to savor the exciting sights and sounds of the city." Cleopatra is eager to learn everything she can about politics; her beloved father has just come back from Rome, and speaks candidly to Cleopatra about his meetings with the powerful Roman triumverate, including the ambitious Julius Caesar. Soon the royal entourage embarks on a journey down the fabled Nile river, traveling in great luxury, as Cleopatra observes, amidst the great poverty of their subjects. The river is filled with treacherous crocodiles, and the boats with equally treacherous courtiers. As she visits temples and the famed pyramids of Giza with her father, Cleopatra is careful to hide her lofty ambitions from her sisters, who she realizes would stop at nothing to get rid of her if they felt she was a threat.
The voyage down the Nile serves as a clever way to incorporate the many sights and sounds of Egypt into the narrative, as we experience along with Cleopatra the glories of her realm. Meyer weaves in many details about Egyptian society at the time, including the royals' love of beautiful clothes and jewelry, their games, pets (monkeys and baboons) meals and customs (such as wearing a fake beard at ceremonial appearances). On the voyage, Cleopatra befriends a young dancer in the royal harem, Charmion, who teaches Cleopatra how to dance. Perhaps this dancing skill is incorporated to establish part of Cleopatra's seductive charm later in her life.
When political turmoil forces Cleopatra's father to go into exile, he promises her that they will one day rule Egypt together. With his departure, who can Cleopatra trust? Now eleven years old, she is not old enough to rule. Her duty, she realizes, is just to survive, with treachery all around her.
When her father returns several years later, he names Cleopatra as queen, but at her father's death, she must marry her brother, according to Egyptian custom. Since her brother was only 10 years old, Meyer takes pains to point out that Ptolemy XIII "will be my husband in name only." Now 18 years old, Cleopatra and her brother travel down the Nile to Memphis and then to Thebes for elaborate coronation ceremonies. Although young, Cleopatra is confident in her abilities but dreams of having a man by her
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Ancient Egypt continues to hold great appeal for young and old, and even makes the best-seller lists (see Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, for example). Award-winning author Donna Jo Napoli's newest book, suitable for elementary school readers, is set during that fascinating period, and tells the story of Kepi, a young girl living around 2530 BCE. Kepi's father, a laborer, has been wounded during the construction of a pyramid for Pharaoh Khufu. Kepi's life changes dramatically when she, along with her pet baby baboon, Babu, is kidnapped and hidden in a large basket on a boat. Where is she being taken and what will become of them? Babu, we soon discover, is destined to be sold to priests at one of the great city temples. When she is separated from her beloved pet, Kepi decides she must go see the powerful Pharaoh to tell him about men who are getting injured building his pyramid. Surely he will help these men and their families! Kepi will need to draw on all her courage to try to reach the all-powerful Pharaoh.
Napoli makes the reader feel that she, too, is travelling down the Nile, with her vivid descriptions of the wildlife--oryx, pelicans, and the dangerous hippos, crocodiles, and other animals--temples, gods, and people of the region. This is a quick-moving adventure story well-suited for middle-grade readers. Here in California, ancient Egypt part of the sixth grade curriculum, and this would be an excellent book to recommend for children developing an interest in that period. Many of the novels about this period for young people seem to involve Cleopatra; this new book makes a welcome addition to novels about the period, offering a story about an ordinary girl who takes an extraordinary journey.
One note: the publisher's copy for this novel indicates that the story "revisits the fabled origin of fairies." The end of the book does contain a fairy element (I won't go into the details here) but I would say that the fairy story is secondary in this novel to the historical fiction side. I would not want to pitch this to children as a story about fairies, since fairies do not even come into the narrative into the very end. A child expecting "Disney Fairies goes to ancient Egypt" will be very disappointed!
Hollywood's portrayals of archaeologists, such as the classic Indiana Jones, are about as close to the truth as Mickey Mouse is to a real mouse. Yet Hollywood may have gotten something right in their swashbuckling adventures. Sometimes the fantastical details of a legend really do stir adventurers into action.
Thus begins this interesting look at the legend of Troy, the people who tried to find it, what they discovered, and how archaeological practice has changed over time.
Heinrich Schliemann wanted to be remembered, and what better way to ensure your play in history than by discovering Troy and proving Homer a historian as well as poet? Unfortunately, his way of doing archaeology destroyed a lot. But, in 1870, he started digging up Troy. The site is a layer of cities, built up at different times, and Schliemann bulldozed his way down to where he thought Homer's Troy lay. Ever since then, scholars have followed in his footsteps, sifting through the mess he made, finding the different layers, and arguing over which layer was Homer's Troy and how much of The Iliad is true, how much metaphor, how much legend and flight of fancy.
Rubalcaba and Cline do a great job of explaining changing practices, findings, and conclusions as they trace the history of Troy and of scholarship done on Troy, starting with Schliemann. I especially appreciated how they made each scholar's case for why a different layer of Troy was Homer's. There's excellent use of Grecian urn art as illustrations in the sections explaining Homer's story, and photographs and maps illustrating the sections on archaeology and modern findings.
There's not much here to interest fans of Greek myth or the ancient world, but there is a lot here for fans of archaeology and discovery.
With the launch of the Starz cable series, Spartacus, in 2010, and the HBO series Rome a few years back, ancient Rome is "hot" again, and it's not surprising to see a new treatment of the celebrated story of Spartacus in novel form. For those not familiar with the earlier Howard Fast novel or the 1960 Kirk Douglas film of the same name (based on the Fast novel), Spartacus is the true story of a former gladiator and slave who leads a slave revolt against the mighty Roman empire.
Ben Kane, a British author who has written extensively about ancient Rome and is particularly enamored of military history, returns to the original sources to reimagine Spartacus' life and leadership. But as Kane admits in an afterword, there's little written by the Roman historians about Spartacus and his revolt, which held off Roman troops for an astonishing two years, perhaps because Roman historians did not take kindly to eulogizing their enemies, particularly a lowly slave who bested them in battle after battle. Of course this lack of concrete facts gives the novelist plenty of room to imagine Spartacus and the other characters in the book.
The book opens with Spartacus returning to his native Thracian village after serving in the Roman army for many years. But it's not the happy homecoming he'd hoped for; after trying to overthrow the tribal king, he is betrayed and sent in captivity to be trained as a gladiator, to fight to the death for the amusement of the Roman crowds in the Colosseum. Accompanying him is Ariadne, a priestess of Dionysus, who will later become Spartacus' wife. But Spartacus won't accept his fate, and soon is planning an escape from the gladiator school, turning into a charismatic leader who soon is leading a revolt of a rag-tag group of slaves against the might of the Roman army, the greatest in the world. Will he be able to succeed in keeping the Romans at bay or will they eventually quash his revolt against their tyranny? We won't find out in this volume, since a sequel is in the works. Readers will have to wait to see how Kane completes this compelling tale.
While published for an adult audience, this David vs. Goliath story is an engrossing read for teens as well, although parents should know that there is substantial violence, cursing, and sexual situations depicted. With the action-filled scenes at the gladiator school, and the battles against the Romans, it's likely to particularly appeal to teenage boys who enjoy war stories. I particularly appreciated how the author explores Spartacus' leadership ability; for example, in order to escape from the gladiator school, he must unite gladiators from different countries with different allegiances, not an easy task in the best of conditions. While there is plenty of violence, it's not gratuitous, since the violence is integral to the storyline.
To sample this book, you can check out the first chapter of this novel is available at the author's website.
For over 2,000 years the civilizations of ancient Greece and Rome have captivated our collective imagination and provided inspiration for many aspects of our lives, from culture, literature, drama, cinema, and television to society, education, and politics. With over 700 entries on everything and anything related to the classical world in the Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization, we created an A-Z list of facts you should know about the time period.
Alexander the Great: He believed himself the descendent of Heracles, Perseus, and Zeus. By 331 he had begun to represent himself as the direct son of Zeus, with dual paternity comparable to that of Heracles.
Baths: Public baths, often located near the forum (civic centre), were a normal part of Roman towns in Italy by the 1st century BC, and seem to have existed at Rome even earlier. Bathing occupied a central position in the social life of the day.
Christianity: By the end of the 4th century, Christianity had largely triumphed over its religious competition, although a pagan Hellenic tradition would continue to flourish in the Greek world and rural and local cults also persisted.
Democracy: Political rights were restricted to adult male Athenians. Women, foreigners, and slaves were excluded. An Athenian came of age at 18 when he became a member of his father’s deme and was enrolled in the deme’s roster, but as epheboi, most young Athenians were liable for military service for two years, before at the age of 20, they could be enrolled in the roster of citizen who had access to the assembly. Full political rights were obtained at 30 when a citizen was allowed to present himself as candidate at the annual sortation of magistrate and jurors.
Education, Greek: Greek ideas of education, whether theoretical or practical, encompassed upbringing and cultural training in the widest sense, not merely school and formal education. The poets were regarded as the educators of their society.
Food and drink: The Ancient diet was based on cereals, legumes, oil, and wine. Meat was a luxury for most people.
Gems: Precious stones were valued in antiquity as possessing magical and medicinal virtues, as ornaments, and as seals when engraved with a device.
Hephaestus was the Greek god of fire, of blacksmiths, and of artisans.
Ivory plaques at all classical periods decorated furniture and were used for the flesh parts of cult statues and for temple doors.
Juno was an old and important Italian goddess and one of the chief deities of Rome. Her name derives from the same root as iuventas (youth), but her original nature remains obscure.
Kinship in antiquity constituted a network of social relationship constructed through marriage and legitimate filiation, and usually included non-kin — especially slaves.
Libraries: The Great Roman libraries provided reading-rooms, one for Greek and one for Latin with books in niches around the walls. Books would generally be stored in cupboards which might be numbered for reference.
Marriage in the ancient world was a matter of personal law, and therefore a full Roman marriage could exist only if both parties were Roman citizen or had the right to contract marriage, either by grant to a group or individually.
Narrative: An interest in the theory of narrative is already apparent in Aristotle, whose Poetics may be considered the first treatise of narratology.
Ostracism in Athenian society the 5th century BC was a method of banishing a citizen for ten years. It is often hard to tell why a particular man was ostracized. Sometimes the Athenians seem to have ostracized a man to express their rejection of a policy for which he stood for.
Plato of Athens descended from wealthy and influential Athenian families on both sides. He rejected marriage and the family duty of producing citizen sons; he founded a philosophical school, the Academy; and he published written philosophical works.
Quintilian, a Roman rhetorician, advised that children start learning Greek before Latin. The Roman Empire was bilingual at the official, and multilingual at the individual and non-official, level.
Ritual: The central rite of Greek and Roman religion is animal sacrifice. It was understood as a gift to the gods.
Samaritans, the inhabitants of Samaria saw themselves as the direct descendants of the northern Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, left behind by the Assyrians in 722 BC.
Toga: The toga was the principal garment of the free-born Roman male. As a result of Roman conquest the toga spread to some extent into the Roman western provinces, but in the east it never replaced the Greek rectangular mantle.
Urbanization: During the 5th, 4th, and 3rd centuries, urban forms spread to mainland northern Greece, both to the seaboard under the direct influence of southern cities, and inland in Macedonia, Thessaly, and even Epirus, in association with the greater political unification of those territories.
Venus: From the 3rd century BC, Venus was the patron of all persuasive seductions, between gods and mortals, and between men and women.
Wine was the everyday drink of all classes in Greece and Rome. It was also a key component of one of the central social institutions of the élite, the dinner and drinking party. On such occasions large quantities of wine were drunk, but it was invariably heavily diluted with water. It was considered a mark of uncivilized peoples, untouched by Classical culture, that they drank wine neat with supposed disastrous effects on their mental and physical health.
Xanthus was called the largest city in Lycia (southern Asia Minor). The city was known to Homer, and Herodotus described its capitulation to Persia in the famous siege of 545 BC.
Zeus, the Indo-European god of the bright sky, is transformed in Greece into Zeus the weather god, whose paramount and specific place of worship is a mountain top.
Featured image: Colosseum in Rome, Italy — April 2007 by Diliff. CC-BY-SA-2.5 via Wikimedia Commons.
Greek gods and goddesses have been a part of cultural history since ancient times, but how much do you really know about them? You can learn more about these figures from Greek mythology by reading the lesser known facts below and by visiting the newly launched Oxford Classical Dictionary online.
Imagine how the world appeared to the ancient Greeks and Romans: there were no aerial photographs (or photographs of any sort), maps were limited and inaccurate, and travel was only by foot, beast of burden, or ship. Traveling more than a few miles from home meant entering an unfamiliar and perhaps dangerous world.
Paul Cartledge is A.G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at the University of Cambridge, and has written and edited many books on the Ancient Greek world. He also served as chief historical consultant for the BBC television series The Greeks. His new book, Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities, takes the city as its starting point, revealing just how central the polis (’city-state’ or ‘citizen-state’) was to Hellenic cultural achievements. He tells us more about the book in the video below, made by the nice people at Meet the Author.
After the Romans left the British Isles in the fifth century A. D., there were many centuries of pillaging and plunder by one tribe or clan upon another until it became a unified country. It must have been excruciatingly painful to try to raise crops and families. One legend gave them hope, and indeed continues to give hope to this day. That legend was of Arthur, the king who, with the help of a somewhat magical destiny, created a golden island of peace for a short period of time. The legend said it could be done once, so it could be done again.
Well, Philip Reeve has exposed that legend for what it was–a really good story. But no matter, it is the story that everybody needed anyway. Best not to go by the truth on the ground for historical inspiration–we humans are much better at story than we are at deeds. And Philip Reeve is an excellent writer who tells a really good story about an orphaned slave girl who was there and who may have been the only one with any common sense. So in this book, we get hope renewed by trading the ancient story of a legendary and peace-loving king for the modern story of a sensible and strong-willed girl.
Fans of Reeve’s Mortal Engines series will like this book as will upper middle school and high school readers who enjoy stories of historical fiction with strong girl characters.
Photos! Maps! Original sources! Multiple Subjects! Do history books get better than this?
Bodies From the Ash contains many stories. Pompeii: a Roman city during the early days of the Empire. It's also Pompeii: the volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that buried a city and its people. And Pompeii: the science behind the bodies. And Pompeii: the evolution of archaeology from treasure hunting to science. Finally, Pompeii: the preservation and storage of artifacts.
One of the things that I have always loved about history is the ability to glimpse a different world. Because of the quick destruction of Pompeii, and the way the city was buried, Pompeii provides a unique look into the past. Because Pompeii was covered with dust, ash, gas, and stone, when the bodies of the dead decayed a space was left; when a space is found, plaster is poured in, resulting in detailed plaster casts. We can look on the faces of people who lived more than a thousand years ago. And the buildings were also preserved: we can see their homes, the graffiti on the walls; look at the possessions they chose to take when they tried to flee. Bodies from the Ash is about this history; but it also is about how the first people who realized the ancient city and its treasures were still intact dug holes not to discover the past but to get jewelry and statues. Afterwards came the realization that the plaster process could be done, and that what was below the surface was more valuable than jewels.
All of these stories weave together into one narrative about life and death in Ancient Pompeii. This isn't about history that is dead and buried in the past; it's about history that is alive. It's alive in the unexcavated areas of the ancient city; in the ongoing pursuit to both explore the city and preserve what has been found; and in the still active nearby volcano. And it's photos! I could sit all day just looking at the photos and the maps, planning an imaginary trip to Pompeii to see the excavations for myself.
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Tutankhamun is perhaps one of the most well known out of the many ancient
Egyptian pharaohs – artifacts from his tomb have been displayed throughout the
world. Before the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb, though, archaeologists first
came upon remains from his mummification and funeral.
Funeral includes early 20th
century Egyptologist Herbert E. Winlock’s classic 1941 text, which provides a
thorough analysis of these burial objects and their significance. The book is
balanced by both recent color photographs and historical
images and drawings, with an introduction and appendix by curator Dorothea
Arnold to supplement these findings with more modern discoveries. You can also
read an interview with Dorothea about this exhibit here.
Although most of the attention on King Tut has been
focused on his tomb, the artifacts from his funeral rites and burial process
are just as fascinating and important to his legend. From now until September
6, 2010, The
Metropolitan Museum of Art has a collection of jars, bowls, linen, floral
collars and various other accoutrements associated with the young king’s burial
and mummification on display. An image gallery of some of these works of art is