About the Author
In other words
|Rites of Spring|
|Had the pagan Roman empire survived, instead of Easter we would today currently be celebrating the Megalesia, the festival celebrating the Great Mother, Cybele. The occasion was marked by religious plays, and a solemn procession featuring warriors in Phrygian attire, and the castrated priests of the goddess who were known as Galli. There were also chariot races at the Circus Maximus to which the goddess – or at least her statue – was taken so she could also watch the events. |
For many Romans the main feature of the festival was competitive dining. That is, people would take turns at inviting their friends to dinner and each dinner was meant to out-do the others in sumptuous fare and exotic foods.
I have a definite fondness for the joys of the table (and lockdowns confining me at home have led culinary experiments in the kitchen and a fast-expanding waistline), so the dinner-party aspect of the Megalesia would definitely appeal to me. However, as a ritual of spring one has to admit that the Floralia, which happened at the end of the month, was considerably more lively than the average religious ceremony.
The festival was basically a week-long drunken orgy in which prostitutes danced naked in public and took part in mock gladiator fights. There were also public games, plays and banquets and a general blowing off of steam at the end of winter. Apart from the ladies of rentable virtue, perhaps our governments should consider something similar once this wretched pandemic is over.
|Different times, different styles|
|Over more decades than I care to remember I must have written several million words, from my first schoolboy essays through terse screeds as a journalist and on to my current profession as a writer of ancient history. During all this time I never thought of my style as evolving, but it definitely has. Recently I had occasion to look up something in my old doctoral thesis, and found myself instinctively reaching for a pen to bring the style of the prose in line with my current preferences. |
Young Me had a somewhat telegraphic style, a preference for saying thing as succinctly as possible, never using two words where one would do, and with a fatal fondness for ellipsis. Young Me was also punctilious about grammar and stylistic convention, never ending sentences with a preposition, and taking care not to split infinitives. The result was certainly clean, spare writing – the trouble is that it was also hard work for the reader, because I wrote at my own pace rather than the reader's.
These days I am more laid-back in my approach to grammar – if an infinitive needs to be vigorously split, then split it is. Finishing sentences with a preposition is something I am now comfortable with. The focus now is on the reader. How easy is it to grasp the meaning of the sentence? How clearly does the sentence convey the emotion I want the reader to feel? Can I, as a writer, vanish into the page so that the reader interacts directly with the ideas behind the text and hardly notices how those ideas are being transmitted?
Lately a lot of my books have been converted into audio format, and to the extent that these have worked well, it is because these days I read my text aloud once it has been finalized. Now and then I stumble while reading, or a have to look back in a paragraph to locate the noun referred to by a pronoun. Older Me regards such occasions as errors. Young Me would have paused, checked that the grammar was good, and moved on.
Tempora mutantur, et in illis mutamo sum.
|'A perfectly ordinary winter, except the fun parts have been surgically extracted.' That was a friend's description of the past few months. For her, the 'fun parts' include skiing, ice-skating, dinners with friends and meetings in coffee shops. All of which hit Covid like the Titanic hit the iceberg. |
For myself I am more than grateful that the same pandemic that has killed so many and wrecked the lives of millions more has left me largely untouched. Definitely I would like to get out to the mountains and sit in a hut enjoying coffee at 6000 feet while the snow swirls outside but not doing so is something I can live with (literally).
Most of the time I'm at the computer (currently researching syncretic themes in sky gods) reading Diogenes Laertius or in the kitchen where I've recently discovered using shortcrust pastry in baking Polish recipes. None of these are disease-affected, and now that hockey has returned to TV the 'fun parts' of my winter mostly remain in place.
It occurred to me that most of my friend's fun has been sabotaged because it involves other people – it's not just her skiing and skating, but doing it with friends. Since I've never actually met some of my friends in the flesh, and Diogenes Laertius is unlikely to infect me with anything other than a passion for stoic philosophy, I have almost the same amount of company as before. This includes cats.
It also occurs to me that the unfun parts of winter remain firmly in place. Shovelling snow off the roof and garden path and scraping ice off the car windscreen remain daily – and solitary – occupations.
|The rumour mill|
|This morning someone commiserated with me that as a Canadian I have to wear a red face mask until I have been vaccinated, and must suffer a considerable loss of civil liberties until that happy event. This is according to a Facebook post, complete with a painstakingly faked picture of a 'government' announcement. |
It was easy enough to demonstrate that this report was total crap (Canadians actually wear home-made masks in a huge variety of colours and patterns). However, without a handy Canadian to refer to, or the various Provincial Health websites to check, one can imagine how scurrilous mischief like this can spread, literally unchecked.
This is why I take stories of the scandalous misbehaviour of the early Julio-Claudian emperors with a hearty bucketload of salt. Take the dirty deeds of the emperor Tiberius – a strait-laced old killjoy if ever there was. He probably left Rome because he could not stand the city or the Romans within it. Yet rather than face that somewhat insulting fact, the Romans preferred to believe that Tiberius wanted a place where he could be debauched in private. (This despite the fact that these debaucheries - real or imaginary – were broadcast so immediately that Tiberius might as well have stayed in Rome.)
Fake news is not a modern phenomenon, and it does not help that the Roman political tradition included spreading whatever ghastly stories one could dream up about an opponent in the hope that some mud would stick. (Cicero calls one man a 'parricide', even though we know his father was alive.)
Modern rumours about mask-based segregation in Canada are easy enough to disprove, But with rumours from Rome two thousand years ago, that's often all we historians have to go on.
'We felt he was an ideal candidate and after his inaugural speech, we felt vindicated.'
It may seem odd that the above sentence shows how deeply Roman culture has embedded itself in modern life, but that's why it is a good example of how we're still Romans without realizing it. Let us examine the sentence more closely.
Why a 'candidate'? Because when an ancient Roman politician stood for election, he indicated the fact by wearing a toga carefully whitened with chalk dust. (We wear black for mourning because the Romans wore black togas on such occasions). A white toga was called a 'toga candida' – so someone wearing such a toga, or later having the potential for selection in any field, became a 'candidate'.
Now on to Roman temples. A Roman temple was not any religious building, but one specifically used for divining the will of the gods by the taking of the auspices. Until this had been done by a priest with the job of taking the auspices – such a priest was called an augur – the building was not a temple because it had not been 'inaugurated'.
Finally we come to a Roman slave who laid accusations of treason against his masters. Those masters claimed that the slave was making false accusations out of spite, but eventually their nefarious plotting was uncovered and the slave - whose name was Vindicus – was …well you can guess the rest.
It's not just language that has absorbed so much Roman culture – from the bride carried over the threshold to flowers laid on a grave, we are doing as the Romans once did.
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