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Do Christmas your way!
At this time of year we are often urged to return to the 'true spirit of Christmas'. Generally, my response is that if Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ, we should have done this some time in September. If on the other hand,we are celebrating to bring light and joy into the darkest time of winter, we have exactly hit the spot. Now those who want to bring light and joy through religious ceremonies should most definitely do so, and come Christmas day I'll be in church belting out carols with the best of them.

But let's accept that those who want to celebrate Christmas otherwise also have a point. After all, there was a midwinter festival, the Saturnalia, in ancient Rome a quarter of a millennium before Christ. This featured parties, exchange of gifts, and a public holiday. Celebrations reached a high point on December 25th. So it's not as if Christians have exclusive rights here.

Furthermore winters in Bethlehem are pretty brutal. Those shepherds watching their flocks by night on December 25th would be regarding lumps of frozen mutton. Sheep were kept indoors until spring. And brutal and sadistic though the Romans might occasionally be, they would not order Mary and Joseph to register for a census in mid-December because winter conditions would make an accurate count impossible. Nor indeed, is there any suggestion until several centuries after the event that Christ was born on Christmas day. (He was probably also born in 4 B.C. - four years Before Christ, but that's another matter.)

In other words, the holiday season is a time to celebrate the joy of life no matter how bleak things may be otherwise. But given the evidence, I'd politely disagree that we should be dictating to others how to do that celebrating.
The Stone that Speaks
There's a deal I have with quite a few classically-minded friends and acquaintances. They send me pictures from their visits to antique sites around the Mediterranean, and in exchange I answer their questions about what they are looking at. It was while I was keeping up my side of one of these bargains that a visitor to my house asked me why I had been staring at the same picture on my computer screen for the past ten minutes. (Friends are free to visit me in working hours, so long as they accept that I'll largely ignore their presence.)

I replied that I was reading a statue. The thing is that one person's human-shaped lump of stone is someone else's complex socio-political commentary. Consider, for example, the statue's hands. These are not generally included only because arms have to end somewhere -they are almost always telling us something.

My fellow for example, seems to be in the process of making the thumb-and-index finger circle that can mean 'A-okay' in most western countries (and 'please beat me up for insulting you' in Brazil). For a Roman, it means that he was an early Christian, because the relevant part of the gesture is the three remaining fingers, representing the Trinity. Another common gesture is one raised finger, which tells us that the subject is addressing someone. (Indeed Cicero gives us a complete lexicon of hand gestures and their significance in rhetoric.)

Whether the fingers are pointed upward or downward can be relevant, and what the hands are holding has a message of its own - for example, a small bowl suggests either an interest in religion or public service, depending on the type of bowl and other visual clues. And so far we have just looked at the hands. Other things to look for apart from hands include style of carving, posture, clothing, headgear, hair, facial hair, facial expression, jewellery and symbolic animals. A good statue can easily take up to an hour to understand fully.
Starting anew
When does the new year start? Of course January 1 is the obvious candidate, but they say hereabouts, 'The first day of spring is not the first spring day' and in the same way the first day of the new year is not necessarily when the new year starts. Actually (morning hangover aside) January 1 for me is just another day in a mid-winter break that usually lasts until around January 5. Then work resumes where it left off.

April might be a better candidate for starting a new year. That's when I stop snowshoeing and prepare the garden and my kayak for spring. But overall, for me the new year starts in October. Firstly that's the beginning of the academic year, and as an academic it's useful to have colleagues available rather than trekking the Himalayas or whatever. Secondly, the Frankfurt Book Fair is about to set the tone for the year, and Frankfurt is a very big deal in the publishing world. How that goes will determine how generous publishers will be with advances for book proposals I'll be submitting, because I usually wrap up the previous year's projects in August at the latest. Rather reassuringly, I'm already booked up to 2022, but I like to fit in extra projects where I can - it stops me needing to have a life.

Finally October is the start of my new year, because the old one has just died outside. A week of heavy frosts has killed off most of the vegetation that this week's snowfall didn't bury, so just as my year is gearing up, the world outside is preparing for its winter sleep.
Recently I needed to look at a map of Roman Iberia for the very juvenile reason that an archaeologist friend assured me that there was a settlement called 'Arse' and I didn't believe him until I found it, about 50 km north of Saguntum. Alongside this unfortunately-named town were a host of others that I had never heard of either. By extension the same is true of the thousands of small towns in Gaul, Italy, Anatolia and the Middle East. It then occurred to me that, by and large, ancient history was largely something that happened to relatively few people.

Consider life in a small agricultural community, which is the type of community most people lived in during the classical era. This community is largely self-sufficient - in fact many households are pretty much self-sufficient. The local crops and animals provide food and clothing, people live in the same houses that their great-grandparents did, and water comes from wells or the local river. The town is off the beaten track and visitors are rare, and because visitors are rare, so is news. At the same time, the news is not very interesting. After all, places like Rome and Athens are so distant that they might as well be on another planet, and news that the Archon is involved in a scandal, or that a new consul has been elected in Rome is of considerably less importance than that the neighbour's goats have contracted scrofula and it might be infectious.

Even the sort of events that historians reckon define an era probably meant little to our hypothetical village. Perhaps a tinker or tradesman might drop by with the news. 'By the way, folks, we're now part of the Roman/Persian/whatever empire'. This little community has little of value to a taxman, and that little is hardly worth the trip to collect it, so one can see how history might easily pass such a community by, with little changing over the decades or even the centuries.
Read a thriller this summer
Before bedtime I like to pour myself a shot of whisky and spend half an hour with a good book. At the end of a long day, I'm not looking for intellectual stimulation or perfectly-crafted literature exploring the sensitivities of the inner self. Instead, the perfect reading material is the sort of thing I was reading this week. It's a war story, with a thoroughly unloveable superior officer and a bunch of rather meat-headed but extremely macho heroes, in a remarkably violent tale of revenge and redemption. Oh, and throw in a squabbling aristocratic family who don't care how many people get hurt in their private and ultimately trivial quarrels.

It's good stuff, and well written, though ultimately a translation. The original author has been deceased too long for copyright to be an issue, for he died around 800 BC. The book is called the Iliad, and the version I was reading was rewritten by John Dolan. The author takes the view that the original Homeric epic was based on stories that soldiers told each other around the campfire, and his version of the Iliad takes the same tone as those first stories probably did - it's gutsy (very literally) powerful and engaging.

That's the thing about classical literature. Most stories did not survive because high-minded lecturers at academic institutions were fascinated by the writer's use of iambic pentameter. It survived because they are a darn good read, provided you can either read the original or find a really good translator. People get hung upon the elegant Latin of say, Lucretius, and forget there's also Martial, most of whose smutty epigrams would only be suitable as graffiti on toilet walls - if teenage kids could write like Shakespeare. Even the in Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher emperor occasionally phrases profound thoughts in language so coarse that one is forcibly reminded that Aurelius was also a soldier, and a very good one.

Give it a go. Find yourself a good translation of the juicy whodunnit of Cicero's Pro Cluentio, the surreal world of Homer's Odyssey, or Dolan's blood-and-thunder rendition of the Iliad. Not only do you have a fascinating read, but you're being a classical scholar while you're at it.

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