domus aurea1

A house lost from view for centuries, Nero’s golden palace, Domus Aurea, is an example of the elaborate and masterful architecture that flourished in the Roman ages.

Nero’s legacy is perhaps more infamous than most; his role in the legend of the fire of Rome that raged for several days from the 18th of July, 64 AD did not paint him in a good light, despite the fact that he did not, as suggested, play the fiddle whilst he watched Rome burn, and was actually in his Antium villa some 30 miles away. It did, however, give him the perfect opportunity to rebuild a mighty city on a scale and scope usually reserved for city founders.

He could annex a huge part of the city and set about building a replacement for his previous palace, Domus Transitoria (that burnt in the blaze), which he named Domus Aurea, meaning Golden House. It was never finished, but the plan was for it’s grounds to cover anything up to 120 hectares (300 acres), with lakes, gardens and woods – an isolated environment that would cover nearly a third of Rome. The palace itself, with extravagant domes and vaults, was a revolution to Roman architecture and were thanks to the architects Severus and Celer, who, with unlimited funds, could explore a new variety of design ideas, often incorporating complex geometry to attain plays of light. Despite the complex being short lived and unfinished, much was built and created in the four years before Nero’s fall, including the 100ft high statue of the emperor by Zenodotus, a huge park centred on an artificial lake that later was built upon and became the Flavian Amphitheatre (and then again, the “Colosseum”, after the colossal statue of Nero) and the octagonal room, which may be the incredible dining room described by Suetonius that “constantly revolved, day and night, like the heavens”.

In spite of all this opulence and finery, with baths that flowed with sea water and panels in the ceilings that could sprinkle guests with flowers or perfume, it is said that Nero’s only remark was that now he could finally live like a human being. It was this attitude, and the fact that his new palace took up so much prime property in the heart of their city for his own private desires, that turned people against him even more, particularly as the rumours that he had started the fire deliberately were being stirred up. (His deflection of blame to the Christians, did, in fact, cause the first major persecution of the religious group.) He was not endeared to the layman or the powerful ruling class, and in 68 AD the Roman Senate declared him a public enemy, causing him to flee and eventually commit suicide before capture.

His golden house died with him. Precious materials were stripped from the inside, the parkland was levelled in preparation for much needed buildings for the people, the lake was drained so the Flavian Amphitheatre could be built and two large public bath houses were built on the site, one by Titus, and the other by Trajan. The statue was remodelled as the sun god Sol and eventually moved away. By 128 AD there was little sign of the house above ground, but the vaults below were preserved for hundred of years, until the 15th century where they were rediscovered, to re-inspire Renaissance artists such as Michelangelo and Raphael, and to ensure that Nero’s legacy, however infamous, did live on.

atlas1

In Greek mythology, Atlas was a son of the Titan, Iapetus, and the Oceanid, Clymene, who were also parents to Menoetius, Prometheus and Epimethus. He had seven daughters by his wife, Pleione, who were called by the common name, Pleides; and seven more by his wife, Aethra, called the Hyades (both the Pleides and Hyades are celestial constellations) – although Pleione and Aethra are often considered one and the same – whilst Hesperius is supposed to have also been the mother of Atlas’ Hesperides.

Atlas, along with Menoetius, was involved in the revolt against the Olympians, and when the Titans were defeated his punishment was to hold up the sky (or the Heavens) to separate it from the Earth. He became commonplace on the front of world map books, thus the name ‘Atlas’ became the title of these books, however this resulted in a misconception that Atlas holds up the globe, when in actuality, he supports the celestial sphere.

He was further punished for his inhospitality to Perseus, who, according to Ovid, used Medusa’s head to turn him into stone and make him into the mountain range in North Africa that bears his name. (This doesn’t correlate with the tales of his encounter with Heracles but in mythology anything’s possible.)

Atlas the baleful; he knows the depths of all the seas, and he, no other, guards (or holds) the tall pillars that keep the sky and earth apart.

– Homer, The Odyessy. (Translated by Walter Shewring)

…and turned his face away and on his left held out the loathsome head, Medusa’s head. Atlas, so huge, became a mountain; beard and hair were changed to forests, shoulders were cliffs, hands ridges; where his head had lately been, the soaring summit rose; his bones were turned to stone. Then each part grew beyond all measure (so the gods ordained) and on his shoulders rested the whole vault of heaven with all the innumerable stars.

– Ovid, Metamorphoses. (Translated by A. D. Melville)

Pericles-9437722-1-402

Born to Xanthippus and Agariste, an Athenian of noble family, Pericles is known for holding sway over the Golden Age of Athens from the 450’s BC to 429BC and was responsible for rebuilding the city after it was attacked by the Persians, and also for the commission of the Parthenon.

He had naturally great mental powers that were greatly improved by attending the lectures of Zeno and other philosophers, and possessed great oratory skills, which was very important in a time when many of the electorate were not literate. He became a commander, a statesman and an orator, gaining the esteem of the people by both his address and liberality – the prosperity and happiness of the Athenian people was his primary concern and he did everything he could to ensure this happened; the people held him in high regard because of this.

He gained power after using ostracism to remove his only formidable political opponent, Cimon, by accusing him of acting as a friend of Sparta and betraying his city. After this the was a lack of any real opposition, and so he became the unchallengeable leader of Athens until his death in 429BC.

He intended to enforce reforms to Athenian democracy to take it to a new plane, such as the introduction of state pay to members of juries, so not only the rich could afford to sit on them – this both removed unjustified privilege and promoted equality of opportunity.

Pericles made war against the Lacedaemonians, and restored the temple of Delhi to the care of the Phocians, who had been improperly deprived of that honourable trust. He was also the father of the Peloponnesian War, fomented by his ambitious views, which he led for two years but it continued for twenty-five years after his death. His great Funeral Oration, given at a state funeral for the war dead, is well known as a celebration of Athens and her victories, veering from normal eulogy format and stirring the spirits of a state still at war, and was one of the last examples of his impressive talents as an orator.

At length he lost popularity but this was only temporary and all honours were restored to him. He died after a fatal pestilence that prevailed in that year, aged sixty-nine.

Basically, Pericles is known for being a determined, successful and altogether heroic leader; a citizen and soldier, an image presented as ‘fair of face and sound of heart’ (kalos kai agathos) – and by all accounts he really, really was.

(apologies for not posting for awhile, exams have been crowding my head, but I promised a post about Pericles and I intended to deliver)

Image

The Parthenon is widely regarded as one of the most important buildings in Ancient Greece, and certainly one of the most iconic. A temple dedicated to the goddess Athena in her own city-state, and the principal state of Classical Greece, Athens, it was the most important building there, a crowning achievement of Athenian political, social and economic prowess. Built between 447BC and 432BC, it still stands as a building that shows both Greek excellence in craftsmanship and intellect in design.

Influenced by the temple of Artemis at Ephesos (Ephesus), much like many Persian buildings in Persepolis, and likely to have also been inspired by architecture in Persepolis itself, this irony does not go unnoticed. Persian and Athens had a long standing hostility towards each other, and whilst the Parthenon frieze shows scenes of the people of Athens bringing offerings to Olympian gods, it also depicts scenes of mythological battle in it’s metopes (panels) which likely refer to the struggles between Persia and Greece. (They show scenes of Greeks fighting centaurs, Trojans and Amazons, and giants fighting gods – a lot more interesting for people to look at. What’s more, they aren’t winning in every scene; a nice bit of modesty and humility from the Greeks, when technically they could have sculpted a victory in every one.)

In 480BC, King Xerxes of Persia attacked the Acropolis where the temple was to be built. They destroyed the unfinished temple but the Parthenon was erected from it’s foundations and built partly from it’s salvaged remains. Pericles was responsible for rebuilding Athens after this attack and notably for commissioning the Parthenon (Pericles is great – I definitely have a post to write about him) and despite being relatively small compared to some other important buildings at the time, it was and is a highly sophisticated piece of architecture that uses architectural optical illusion to make up for visual perception and perspective, to make it look even more impressive.

Let’s have some more pictures of some of the pediment that’s in the British Museum;

IMAG1576 IMAG1580

(I had the luxury of going there the Saturday just gone – wonderful experience! Also saw the Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibit, absolutely recommended if it’s possible for you to see.)

Over the years the Parthenon has been put to use in many different ways; from the original temple to Athena, to a Byzantine church in AD600, and then later a Catholic cathedral until 1456 when the Ottoman Turks invaded and the Acropolis captured, making it a mosque. Then in 1687 it was besieged by the Venetians, destroying a lot of it and when the Greeks gained independence in 1833, everything but the original ruins was dismantled.

The Parthenon is a wonderful example of an iconic and impressive piece of architecture that, despite the many hardships it has faced over the centuries, still shows the supreme work and skill that went into making this one of the most famous buildings in the world.

So once upon a time, long, long ago, the Persians were proving to be a rather massive threat to the Greeks (enough so that some parts of Greece, including the Aleudae of Thessaly, offered their support to Persia as they realised their power). Their threat was enough to band together the states within Greece to attempt to stop an invasion – and naturally they recognised that the Spartans should lead the defence.

Thermopylae was a pass between the mountains and the sea that lead into Greece from the north. It was here that approximately 7,000 Greek soldiers, lead by 300 Spartans and their King, Leonidas of Sparta, stood and faced a much larger Persian army, lead by Xerxes I. The Persian army was rumoured to have up to 1,000,000 men in ancient sources, though it is much more likely to have been closer to 100,000. Either way, the Greeks were heavily outnumbered (think Romans versus Britons and Boudicca 400 years later, in that 10,000 Romans to 100,000 Britons way. Except worse.). The Greeks, and especially the Spartans, were not to be deterred, however, and when the Persian army approached, simply waited it out.

This was a clever strategy – they needn’t go into decisive battle unnecessarily with such a small army and it made it possible to keep the tactic as a defence at Thermopylae. The Persians, however, had to deal with the issue of supplying for such a large army, meaning they couldn’t stay in one place for very long. The Persians were forced to make the first move. (Furthermore, when Xerxes sent a scout to see what the Spartans were doing to prepare for the imminent battle, he was surprised to hear they were simply exercising, combing their hair and oiling their bodies. Unafraid, practically relaxed. He chose not to misread this information – the Spartan reputation at war was infamous and just because they didn’t appear on edge and tensed for combat, didn’t mean they weren’t.)

Their first move was the order of 5,000 archers to attack and deluge the Greeks in arrows. A famous quote from arguably one of the bravest Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, was from Dioneces (Dienekes, Dieneces), the Spartan General, who, when warned about the sheer number of Persia archers by a native, replied with, “Good. Then we will fight in shade.” (If you can give the Spartans anything, it’s that at least they were full of dry wit.) When this tactic didn’t work, due to shooting from a far distance and the protective Greek shields, the Persians were reduced to assaulting a head on attack, waves upon waves on the Greeks, who stood in front of the narrowest part of the pass in a strategy to use as few men as possible to ward off the oncoming Persians…and it worked. Overlapping their shields, and working on a rota to prevent fatigue, the first wave of men were cut back entirely, with only one or two dead Spartans.

The next line of attack were the Immortals – Xerxes best troops, 10,000 strong. They were cut back too, taking off guard when the Spartans used a tactic of feinting, pretending to retreat and then turning and killing in the confusion. Xerxes men had been unable to overcome a much smaller army.

He was in luck, however, when Ephialtes, one of the native Trachis, in search of a reward, betrayed the Greeks by telling the Persians about a mountain path known only to the natives that lead behind the Greeks. The Persians would be able to attack from both behind and in front, surrounding the Greeks and slaughtering them. (Ephialtes didn’t even get his reward in the end, after the Persians were beaten at the Battle of Salamis, and dishonour was brought upon his name, it coming to mean “nightmare” in the Greek language. Not what he was after, we’ll assume.)

On the dawn of the third day of battle, the Greeks discovered they had been betrayed. Leonidas chose for his Spartans to stay and fight to the end, despite inevitable death, because he was determined to fight for his country or  die trying. Cowardice wasn’t in his vocabulary (well, it probably was, but certainly not to be aimed at him and his Spartans. Much more likely to be aimed at Athenians, when they didn’t have a war to fight together.). Around 700 Thespians also stayed, and 400 Thebans, although the rest of the Greeks used the option to withdraw.

(Let me put in a little side note about Leonidas now. It’s been argued he chose to stay because Spartans never retreated – or do they never retreat because he chose to stay? I digress – an Oracle had told him his life would be sacrificed to Sparta, but it seems the most likely reason he and his 300 men stayed was so the rest of the Greeks could get away. Some troops had to hold back the Persians whilst the Greeks left, otherwise they would have been outrun. In true Sparta style, he simultaneously managed to prove how incredibly courageous his Spartans were in the face of death and protect thousands of other troops from being unnecessarily killed. Drinks to you, Leonidas, drinks to you.)

When Xerxes approached this time, the Greeks made forth to a wider part of the pass, as their objective now was to kill as many Persians as possible. They fought with everything they had, spears and swords and even, forsaking that, their fists and teeth, until they died. The Spartans were massacred, some of the Thebans surrendered, but on the whole, the Greeks that remained were all killed. This made a total of around 2,000, throughout the whole battle, far less than the amount of Persians killed – approximately 20,000 according to Herodotus.

And now the Persian army could march forward into Greece. But the news of the bravery of all the men involved, especially the Spartans, raised such morale in the Greek people, on the verge of surrendering, that despite this defeat, went on to defeat the Persians in the Battle of Salamis, Plataea and Mycale, stopping the invasion completely.

So that’s it, Thermopylae, a battle that displayed the strength of mind, body and courageous in not only the Spartans but the whole joint Greek army. Through tactical skills, strategic placements and bravery in the face of death, they stood against an army that should have beaten them in hours but was held back for a week. And although the story of Thermopylae is largely one of military defeat, it is also one of human heroism, and what could be called a glorious defeat.

When you go home, tell them of us and say
For your tomorrow, these gave their today.
Went the day well? We died and never knew,
But, well or ill, freedom, we died for you.

— Simonides of Ceos

20130323-203006.jpg

Let’s talk about one of the most intriguing, wilful women of the Roman Empire, whose story tells of the strength of her ambition – and her downfall.
Born in 30 AD of wealthy origins in Pompeii, she was the child of Titus Ollius and the elder Poppaea Sabina, her father a quaestor in the reign of Tiberius and her mother a well respected, distinguished lady of society, as beautiful as her daughter. Her father died in 31AD and her mother remarried, but committed suicide in 47AD after allegations of adultery by the Empress Valeria Messalina, whose power over Emperor Claudius enabled her to order the exile and execution of many important people. By this time, Poppaea the Younger had already been married to Rufrius Crispinus for three years. During their marriage she bore him a son, a younger Rufrius Crispinus, both of whom were killed later on under Nero’s reign.

Poppaea has been described from very different viewpoints – deeply religious, moralistic and with Jewish sympathies by Josephus but ambitious and ruthless, a schemer, by Tacitus. She used her striking beauty for her own gain, divorcing Rufrius and marrying Otho, a close companion of Nero, on whom it was speculated she had set her sights. They were introduced and he fell in love with her, taking her as his mistress. At the start of his reign, Nero was the hope for a shining new brilliance of Rome, and with his popular, aristocratic and virtuous wife, Claudia Octavia, by his side, Poppaea was determined to be his wife herself; an acknowledged mistress was a great status but it was still precarious. She, like the first woman he had an affair with, Acte, was also concerned by the close relationship he had with his mother, Agrippina, who held an erotic power over him. It is supposed she was involved in both the distancing of him from his mother and his divorce of Octavia, after Poppaea became pregnant with his child. Octavia was immensely popular and her exile caused such an uproar in the Roman people that Nero briefly considered remarrying her but decided instead to order her execution. Her death was met with great sorrow in Rome.

Married to Nero and expecting her second child, Poppaea was at a height in her lifetime. After the birth of their daughter, Claudia, both were given the title Augusta, an honour, though their child only lived to four months old. However, as the years went on Nero began to spiral into madness. Mindful of how she became Empress, Poppaea was concerned about receding looks and someone else taking her place. She fought with her husband fiercely, particularly about him spending time away from her at the races, and the story goes that whilst she was heavily pregnant they had a terrible fight, which resulted in him viciously kicking her in the abdomen until she died. This is disputed by modern accounts, which say she could have had a late miscarriage, but either way, it cannot be argued that the story of Poppaea – murder, plotting, seduction and scheme – is a perfect example of Roman scandal in the upper class. Even after her death she had a great effect on Nero. He spent ten years worth of Arabian incense at her funeral and gave her divine honours. He descended into further madness, castrating and marrying a young freedman called Sporus, who he got to dress up in women’s clothing and often referred to by his dead wife’s name.

And so the story of Poppaea Sabina, ruthless, ambitious, beautiful, ended in tragedy in 65AD; the short life of a woman who almost ruled an empire.

20130323-002041.jpg

Spartan society is often viewed as hard, brutal and fierce. And it was – from birth you lived, breathed and spoke war. It was all about the military excellence and skill and it was because of this that Sparta was revered as a leading state for their military and army. Whole lives were geared towards being prepared to fight, which was why in the Greco-Persian wars, Sparta was recognised as the leader of the combined Greek forces. Looked upon with fear, awe and horror by all, not only for their military state of mind but also their politics, culture and social system, the role of women was no less controversial, attracting attention from all – even Aristotle and Plato.

Women were raised with a similar mindset to the men – be able and prepared for anything. This way of thinking gave rise to a lot more necessary freedoms and more power to citizenry women of the time. Compared to their sisters in the rest of the classical world, the women of Sparta had the most similar lifestyle to the general western world nowadays. They were fed similar amounts to their brothers in childhood and only allowed to be married off in their late teens and early twenties (unlike, for example, Athens, Sparta’s historical rival, where a common age was 12-13), in order to be healthy and for the pregnancies to be more likely to end with both healthy mother and child. They also didn’t have to wear heavy clothing and stay indoors most the time – rather they wore light clothing, or possibly none whilst exercising or doing sport, with slits up the side so they could run – unlike most other women at that time.

Furthermore, and very importantly, they were economically powerful, with control over their own properties, and could partake in festivals and rites. They were some of the most educated women in the classical period, literate and numerate, and often spoke their minds freely (and became fairly notorious for it).

Women who died in childbirth got their names etched upon a stone when they were buried; an honour attributed only to men who died in active battle. This showed just how highly regarded the nobility of women who were contributing by Spartan society were – contributing, of course, by having sons who could become soldiers. Like I said, the society breathed war.

Let’s not forget some of the great Spartan women. We’ve got probably the most famous of all, Helen of Troy, Queen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman ever. Then there’s Queen Gorgo, wife of King Leonidas I, known for her wisdom and political shrewdness. And Cynisca, Greek princess and the first woman ever to win at the ancient Olympic Games as a chariot racer, when women weren’t permitted to compete, who, to this day, is a symbolic sign of the social rise of women.

Basically, Spartan women were trained to be strong and healthy so they could produce strong and healthy Spartan men. But within this, they were powerful, influential, free and independent in their own right, and socially were far ahead of their time. Spartan women were lucky to be Spartan – not something I’d be so sure of if I were a Spartan man.