Realism in pottery
Recently I wrote a review of Josho Brouwer’s ‘Henchmen of Ares’. (Which was a very good book, by the way). Although I like doing book reviews, these are somewhat time-consuming as I not only read the work from cover to cover, as any decent reviewer should do, but I also end up doing a lot of research to check some of the author’s conclusions. So every book I review results in my learning a lot of new material. In this case, my research was directed at pre-classical Greek pottery, and the accuracy of the figures depicted. Early Greek pottery shows a huge variety of themes, especially military, so the question is – do the warriors on the pots look anything like the actual warriors who were around at the time?
Two examples will show that this need not necessarily be so. The first is from later Greek pottery. These pots often show naked cavalrymen in poses which, if realistic, would result in the horses’ spines causing both acute discomfort and probably the end of each particular cavalryman’s family tree. The second example is Medieval and Renaissance paintings depicting scenes from ancient Rome. While some of these paintings are doubtless great works of art, they are next to useless for giving factual information about ancient Rome, since dress, weapons and architecture are wildly out of date or from the wrong era altogether.
So a line of warriors on a 3000-year pot might be an accurate depiction of the warriors in that time and place. Or the picture might be the artist’s wild concept of what Heracles and friends looked like a half-millennium before that, and the ‘warriors’ were as fantastical to the artist’s contemporaries as they seem to us today. I am assured by those who have made a detailed study of the matter (including Dr Brouwers himself) that there are stylistic techniques which can be used to sort fact from fiction on pottery. Nevertheless, even these assurances can’t clear up my uneasy suspicion that if a historian could get a time machine and travel back to ancient Greece or Rome, neither place would very much resemble the idea we have of them today.
Winter is coming
It's going to be a busy month. There's two books coming to the final stages, a course and two magazine articles to write. I'll also be lecturing in New York next week, and immediately on my return checking into hospital for hip surgery.
Also it's well into autumn now, and that means preparing for winter. When you are one kilometre up a mountainside, this involves more than simply buying an extra set of woolies and turning up the thermostat. In fact we're doing what, before the modern era, peoples across the northern hemisphere have been doing for millennia. That is, stacking a tonne or two of firewood – which provides cooking, light and heat when the gas and 'leccy go down - and laying in potatoes and apples in the cellar. (At this time of year the local supermarket sells them in 50kg bags, so we are saved picking and digging for ourselves.)
The garden will soon be under several feet of snow for six months, so all vegetation needs to be cut back, and exterior walls checked for cracks and drafts. Winter coats and boots are being dragged out of storage, waxed and checked for any spiders - especially black widows - which might have taken up residence. Vulnerable plants such as our home-reared lemon trees are being dragged indoors, and others such as the walnut tree in the back yard are carefully denuded of edibles before the bears take an interest.
All the bother and bustle I find actually rather enjoyable. There's something about having distinct seasons and having to adapt one's life to match with each. It connects one more with the natural world around, which commuting to work through different shades of grey doesn't do. In the 'Game of Thrones' the stark pronouncement (excuse me) that 'winter is coming' is not merely an announcement of doom. In pre-modern Europe it was a call to action, a warning that the world was about to change, and its people must change with it.
There is a modern misconception that a low-technology society is an unsophisticated society, and societies with advanced technology are more 'advanced'. In reality possession of advanced technology does not equate with being advanced, or even with being civilized, as is being proven today by those self-propelled guns driving around Iraq and the Ukraine. On the flip side, we only need look at ancient Rome to see that that low-tech and sophistication - even engineering sophistication - can go hand-in-hand.
By modern standards the Romans were certainly a low-tech civilization, and they almost seem to have preferred it that way. For example, they knew of the steam engine and advanced cranes for building but chose not to use them. (The emperor Vespasian said to the inventor of the cranes 'You must allow me to give jobs to the poor.') When they did use technology, the Romans did it remarkably well. By definition, no modern urban infrastructure has lasted two thousand years, but many Italians routinely use water supply systems built by the Romans. In fact while I was last in Milan, a part of the city centre lost its water supply because builders broke an unrecorded underground ceramic pipe that had – without maintenance – been quietly supplying water for centuries. Rome's Pantheon (in use for two thousand years and counting) encloses a near-perfect 142ft diameter sphere that would exactly touch the ground if extended that far, and the dome is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.
Today I was reading about the Lycurgus Cup. This ancient drinking vessel was made around AD 250. Not only is it of superbly cut glass, but it is colloidal. That is, gold and silver nano-particles in the glass refract light differently. So the cup is green when light shines on it, but red when light shines through it. (Those in London can see the cup for themselves in the British museum.) The Lycurgus in question is portrayed on the cup being punished for trying to harm a follower of Bacchus, the god of wine – an agreeable theme for a drinking vessel.
Many aspects of Roman life appall us today. Yet while they would be amazed by our technology the Romans in their turn would probably not have a high opinion of our civilization. Barbarism is in the eye of the beholder.
Summer is always productive for me. This is the time when editors and publishers are away sunning themselves on the Rivera - or, as they will indignantly assure me, in their back gardens in Putney. Students are off backpacking around Europe or working at their summer jobs. So in July and August my daily emails drop to about a tenth of their non-holiday levels. (Though I received a memorable one today featuring a picture of a bottle of Caesar Augustus Ale, brewed by Williams Bros. of Scotland.)
Now I am not averse to a bit of estivial relaxation myself, as testified by the fact that there is currently a small oval sunburned onto my belly; this being the part that was above water level when I spent an hour floating on my back in the lake last Wednesday. Nevertheless, July and August are the engine-room of my writing year. By July the research on my current projects is largely done. Therefore, in the absence of other distractions, this is the time when I get my head down and translate that research into writing. In a good week that means over 10,000 words of clean copy. Usually the summer months start with my being somewhat behind on my writing projects. By September not only are things up to date, they can get so far ahead of themselves that I end up having a first draft ready by October.
It's my intention that this will happen this year as well, because the back end of the year is looking crowded with various family and other commitments. Also next year is shaping up as a bumper year for writing projects, so I want to go into 2015 with a clean slate. Fortunately the novel is shaping up nicely, and Heracles has just finished conquering Troy. (You didn't know that he did? Look out for next year's blockbuster book 'Hercules: The first super-hero'. It's one in the a series of 'unauthorized biographies' that are going to keep me busy for some time to come.) Meanwhile for relaxation there's a series of Roman recipes I'm cooking my way through. Eating the end result outdoors with a good bottle of Barolo to keep it company makes a perfect end to the day's labours.
The all-you-can-read buffet
The other day I was introduced by someone who described me as 'writing for a living'. At the time this sounded straightforward enough, but on reflection, that's not really so. If a job is what one actually does while working then it's more accurate to say that I read for a living. And the really great thing about my job is that the supply of reading material will never dry up.
You'd think that with ancient history all the really significant stuff was written a long time ago, and once you've read that then you are up to speed for good. After all, Cicero is not going to write any more letters, and there's no more Roman history happening for Tacitus to describe. So when you've read Cicero's letters and Tacitus' histories that's those two done for good, right?
Wrong. Here's an example. While a post-doctoral student I read Silius Italicus' 'Punica', and was very proud of myself for doing so. Because I'm currently reviewing a book that is essentially a commentary on the 'Punica', I've taken the chance to read the original again. So during commercial breaks on TV, on a hammock by the lake, or in the doctor's waiting room I fish out my e-reader and take in a few hundred more lines. It's fascinating to realize how much sailed over my head the first time round. For example when Hannibal is compared with Tirynses I'd assumed that this was some obscure Greek hero. Now I know it's obviously Hercules, who was born in Tiryns. That's because ancient writers sometimes call people after their place of origin. (Which is why Spartacus is named after a Thracian town.) And so on.
While Cicero and Tacitus do not change, we as readers do. So we keep coming back to their texts with new perspectives while looking for different things. You need to know quite a lot about ancient farming to appreciate Columella, and I've learned a lot about farming since I last read him. This means that Columella is one of hundreds of ancient texts that I'm looking forward to re-visiting. And that's just one aspect of it. There are also modern magazines, scholarly articles, and 'must-read' books that keep coming. Even with a 48 hour day, I'd fall behind with my reading, and that's still without doing any writing.