Most recent update:5/1/2004; 5:36:36 AM

 Saturday, April 10, 2004

CHATTER: CanCon and ClassCon

Big journalistic blow-up in the Great White North today ... the newspapers and radio stations are all agog with a report on a recent publication by the National Geographic Society which has a list of the fifty "most important" political leaders of all time. On the Classics side of things, we have Hannibal, Nero, Pericles, Romulus, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Cleopatra (what ... no Augustus?). Alongside them are the usual gang ... folks like Napoleon, Winston Churchill, John F. Kennedy and John A. Macdonald. Then we get the ClassCon: Kim Campbell! For folks who don't know, Kim Campbell was the first female prime ministrix of Canada and ruled for six months or so, during which she pretty much presided over the destruction of the Conservative Party of Canada. While there are a few other females on the list (semi-obvious ones like Benazir Bhutto and Margaret Thatcher), plenty of others aren't (e.g. Golda Meir). So how did KC make the list?

10:29:01 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

LUDI: Googlewhacking

Apparently there are a pile of folks who engage in a recreational activity known as Googlewhacking. Googlewhacking involves putting a couple of unique search terms into Google (without quotation marks) in the hopes of finding that only one site comes up. In the midst of my network travails (now fixed! Euge!!!), I was informed that my Explortor newsletter is home of a Googlewhack (it is customary, apparently, to notify the website owner as well)! If you type sinkhole apollonia into Google, you'll be taken to issue 3.23-24 of Explorator ... interesting way to commit tempicide. Might be a good exercise to teach students how to use a search engine.

10:19:47 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

CHATTER: Siwa Oasis

Al-Ahram has a lengthy feature on the Siwa Oasis and, as might be hoped, has a lengthy bit on the oracle therein inter alia:

It was not until the Assyrian rulers of the XXVIth Dynasty came to Egypt that Siwa was drawn on the map. From then until the end of the Roman period the oasis was known as the Oasis of Amun (Ammon), although Fakhry believes that it had already been a centre for the worship of Amun for centuries. Its name -- and its call to fame -- derived from the great Oracle of Amun, which in its day was venerated as much as the Oracle at Delphi and which lured pilgrims from all over the classical world. The Pharaoh Amasis of the XXVIth Dynasty (reigned 570-536 BC) built the Temple of the Oracle at Aghurmi -- probably, according to Fakhry, on the foundations of an earlier temple. In the XXXth Dynasty the Pharaoh Nectanebo II added to this with his temple a short distance away at Umm Ubaydah. The two temples were linked by a ceremonial causeway, and both were dedicated to Amun. About the same time a great necropolis was established on the hill of Al- Mawta and continued to be used for centuries.

The historian and geographer Herodotus (c 484-425 BC) left a detailed description of the Oasis of Amun, mentioning that it was ruled by a local king named Etearchus. This king probably regarded the Pharaoh as his overlord. Herodotus also related that, in the reign of Amasis, King Croesus of Lydia tested the oracle while planning to wage war against Cyrus, king of Persia.

Herodotus also recorded the famous story of the lost army of the Persian King Cambyses. In 525 BC an army led by Cambyses, son of King Cyrus, invaded Egypt and brought the XXVIth Dynasty to an end. Possibly Cambyses wanted to silence the oracle and the priests at Siwa, who had only predicted bad news for him and his forebears; whatever his reason, the year after his arrival he sent what, if not exaggerated, seems like an unnecessarily large army of 50,000 men to destroy it. They set out from Luxor and crossed the desert to Kharga Oasis, and from there, accompanied by guides, they carried on to the Oasis of Amun. They never arrived. Several decades later Herodotus wrote that the Ammonians -- the people of the oasis -- told him the army had been enveloped in a sandstorm midway between the two oases. Perhaps the great god Amun was protecting his oracle, or perhaps the guides deliberately misled the army and they became lost. National Geographic has recently joined the number of explorers aspiring to find the remains of the army, but we shall probably never know exactly where and how they met their fate.

A century after Herodotus came the oracle's most famous visitor, Alexander the Great. Alexander had defeated the Persians in the Mediterranean and was now the master of Egypt. After laying the foundation stone of his new capital of Alexandria in 331 BC, he hastened to consult the oracle.

Alexander almost came unstuck before he reached Siwa. Legend says he and his entourage ran out of water and were saved by a downpour of rain, only to be hit by a sandstorm. They may also have become confused by the unbearably flat, featureless expanse of desert on the nine- day march from Paraetonium (Marsa Matruh). Lost and weary, they apparently stumbled upon another oasis, thought to be Qara, 150kms or so northeast of Siwa, and from there they found their way, or were led, to the Siwan oracle.

What Alexander heard there caused him to leave Egypt and move his army east. Whether the priest spoke from expediency or whether, as has been suggested, he spoke poor Greek and only accidentally used words to address Alexander as a deity, it is recorded that Alexander inferred he was divine and could thus expect a great destiny. He left at once for Asia Minor to continue his Persian campaign. Sadly, he never returned to Egypt; he died in India in 323 BC.

Much later the historians Diodoros Curtius Rufus and Justin recorded that on his deathbed Alexander asked to be buried at the Ammoneion -- the Greek name for the Temple of the Oracle at Siwa. There are no surviving eyewitness reports of his death and the original source of this assertion is not known, but the Macedonian king was fascinated by the oracle and it is quite probable that he did express a wish to be buried in Egypt.

There are tombs and other remains dating from the Late Dynastic period in Siwa, but the large number of monuments from the Graeco-Roman era, which began with the reign of Alexander, indicates a population boom in the oasis at that time. By the end of the classical period there were at least three temples: the two temples to Amun and, at Al-Maraqi on the western side of the oasis, the so-called Doric temple which has now completely disappeared. There were other temples in the settlements located in fertile patches surrounding Siwa itself.

Once it was endorsed by Alexander's visit, the fame of the oracle increased. Many classical celebrities came to ask its advice, among them Hannibal, who sent representatives to consult it at the end of the third century BC. But eventually oracles everywhere went out of fashion, and in 23 BC the geographer Strabo observed that the institution which had once enjoyed such a high reputation was then almost forgotten.

Nevertheless the Ammonian priests were quick to pay their respects to the Emperor Hadrian when he visited Egypt in 130 AD. The oracle continued to draw believers at least until the second half of the same century, and the priests may have continued to serve Amun for another 400 years.

The rock and cliff faces round Siwa and neighbouring oases such as Qara, Al-Areg, Bahrein and Nawames are studded with shallow orifices like so many woodworm bores. These are tombs carved into the rock; some date from the Late Dynastic and Greek periods and contained mummies, others are from the Roman period -- pagan and Christian -- when true mummification was no longer practised and where the only human remains found are dry bones. All those that are accessible -- that is, not buried under dunes -- have been robbed, with contents and door slabs removed or smashed. Only very few tombs are decorated, and these tend to date from very early periods or much later when Christian hermits took up residence in the tombs. At Sharuuf, an old village, and Zeitoun, a new one but now abandoned, temples have been incorporated into the core structure of the modern village. Other sites show little sign of habitation since the day more than a thousand years ago when sand and shortage of sweet water drove the last residents away.

It is hard nowadays to imagine what it might have been like to live in the Oasis of Amun in its Roman heyday. Despite its poor soil it was said to support some orchards and vineyards, yet compared with many other oases at that time -- when rainfall may have been slightly more abundant than it is today -- life must have been hard. Camels did not thrive -- there are still no camels in Siwa -- and people relied on donkeys for transport. Whatever was planted, all that was certain to grow, as we have seen, was dates and olives. At times in the history of the oasis this is all the residents had to eat, and a paste made of the two is still a local staple. But we can presume that the oracle was a valuable asset; it brought in pilgrims, and this in turn would be a foundation for trade.

An export first favoured by the Greeks was the pure, translucent rocks of salt from the lakes, which they called ammonia. At some point the same name was applied to the gas (and, mixed with water, the liquid) extracted from sal- ammoniac, said to have first been made in the oasis from camel dung. Some sources say the oasis people mined iron, emeralds and lapis lazuli. Residents in the Hellenistic and Roman eras could thus presumably afford to import necessary commodities, and perhaps even luxuries, from Alexandria and the Mediterranean.

Yet the oasis remained relatively isolated. The empire's official religion, Christianity, had little appeal to those who lived such a remote and traditional life. Indeed, many historians believe Siwans did not convert, even though at least one source states that Christian leaders were banished there in the early days. The only object in the oasis which might possibly be Christian is a burnt brick wall at Balad Al-Rum beside Al-Maraqi which may have been part of a church, although it could equally have been a Roman fortress.

The order to ban paganism and close the empire's remaining temples was issued by the Emperor Justinian about the year 527 AD, and it is unlikely that the Oasis of Amun -- which the Romans considered part of Libya -- escaped. At some point in history its temples were dismantled, and it is possible that much of this act of sacrilege was carried out deliberately by iconoclasts putting across a point to a local population who still used their temples as centres of worship to the sun. Nevertheless, despite the closure of the temples the ancient god continued to be worshipped in the oasis, and he was probably venerated until the community converted to Islam in the Middle Ages. [more]

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CHATTER: Tragic Precedent Excels

Check this out, from a book review at the Mac Observer site:

The structure of the classic Greek tragedy is fairly inflexible. The rigidity of this structure might seem antithetical to creative expression and yet it has given rise to some of the most moving verses in the history of human drama.

In the same fashion, Microsoft Excel, with its stark, bare-bones grid of cells provides a fertile medium for the eloquent presentation of data and analyses. Far more than just a number-crunching application, Excel's streamlined, familiar interface casually conceals its considerable capabilities. If you've thought that getting creative with Excel means the underhanded tweaking of numbers, think again. "Excel Hacks" by David and Raina Hawley will take your spreadsheets to a whole new level, squeezing out every ounce of meaning possible. [more]

And, like Greek tragedy, working with Excel will often lead to cartharsis ... usually of hair follicles from their roots untimely ripped. By their owner.

8:38:55 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

CHATTER: Lovin' the Louvre

The Australian has a sort of touristy thing on a visit to the Louvre which is kind of interesting:

An estimated 65,300 pieces are held in the museum, whose perimeter measures 5km. Of course, most people do a Louvre lite - the phrase is from Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code, an international bestseller that revolves around a murder in the museum's Grand Gallery. There is also a lite plus, where you pad around to the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo in about five minutes. You don't really notice anything; but at least you can say you've done them.

One of the tricks with a museum such as the Louvre, however, is crowd aversion. You get the best results by knowing when to look with the crowd and when to look away. Louvre survival is all about spotting small things.

The Winged Victory's right hand, for example, was discovered much later than the torso and is kept in a separate and largely ignored glass case. The hand is so anatomically precise that it seems more like a petrified amputation than an artefact. Did blood flow when it was severed? Did the Nike weep? The woman with the chiton pressed against her body has all the cultural cachet. But her dismembered hand reminds you that the naval victory she so majestically celebrates came at a human cost.

The Venus de Milo offers another such opportunity. The life-size love goddess (Aphrodite to the Greeks, Venus to Romans) stands with her cascading robes at the precarious line of hipsters. Those hips are full and maternal, the slightly upturned breasts youthful, while her facial features are, if anything, androgynous.

Tour groups stand transfixed in the room she occupies in isolation. Digital cameras are held up to the goddess like votive offerings; and in their shimmering screens you catch a glimpse of her stamp-sized image before it's downloaded and wired home.

One of the reasons for the statue's fame, it seems to me, is its inscrutability. Her gaze has the frightening vacancy of perfection. There is no known language in that distant expression, nothing to say. To the ancients her gesture would have told a story, but since she is missing both arms the Venus is, to us, mute. This only adds to her appeal - that shapely torso is pure sex: sex without myth, religion, history. But it creates a problem of provenance. We don't really know if she is Venus or an imposter; the best guess is a local nymph of Melos.

From the front she is flawless - a pin-up of timeless enchantments. But the view from the back is disfigured. The marble there is flaked, rutted, bruised. These wounds the statue sustained during a pitched battle on the shore of Melos between the Greek peasants who discovered her and the crew of a French ship, the Estafette, who had come to plunder. The French won and sailed away with the treasure. Their victory that day is a reminder that theft, perhaps even piracy, underlines the nation's cultural grandeur. [more]

The author also notes in passing that the Louvre has a chunk of the Parthenon frieze as well, which reminds me of something I've always wondered -- with all the bits of the Parthenon frieze scattered in assorted musea of Europe, why haven't the Greeks requested returns from places other than the British Museum? Would it not put more pressure on the BM if, say, the Louvre were convinced to return their chunk, and the the various other museums convinced to return theirs?

8:28:53 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

CHATTER: What One Did With A Classics Degree

Once upon a time, I've been told, having a Classics degree was a very common precursor to a Foreign Service career in the U.K. ... here's an example of same, from Sir Martin Le Quesne's obituary in the Telegraph:

Charles Martin Le Quesne was born on June 10 1917, the son of a Jerseyman who practised at the English Bar. From Shrewsbury, he went up to Exeter College, Oxford, where he - and subsequently his two younger brothers - achieved academic distinction.

Martin was a classicist, and might well have followed in his father's footsteps to the Bar, but instead, after serving as an officer in the Royal Artillery during the war, he took the post-war examination for the Foreign Office and entered the Service in 1946.

In his early years he was mainly concerned with questions concerning the Persian Gulf, serving abroad in Baghdad and Bahrain and at home in the Middle East Department. But, after a taste of the "inner circle" in Rome, he embarked on a series of posts involving Africa.

This was in 1960, when one after another African country, whether formerly a British, French or Belgian colony, acquired independence, proceeded to constitute a frequently unsettling influence on the international scene, especially at the United Nations.

The attraction of the work for Le Quesne was that in this sphere, and more than in the traditional European capitals, one could often exercise real influence through one's personality. This was what Le Quesne enjoyed in Mali, and subsequently in Nigeria. [more]


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NUNTII: Roman Amoury Discovered!

From the Scotsman:

ARCHAEOLOGISTS in Germany have described a Roman weapons dump discovered near the city of Göttingen as a "sensational find" that is yielding valuable military artefacts.

Excavations on the site have just started, but more than 250 metal objects, most of them weapons or tools used by Roman legionnaires in 10BC, have been found. They include several rare examples of a soldier’s axe, an all-purpose Swiss army knife of its day.

"We are particularly pleased with these: they are a rare find because they were usually so prized by the legionnaires that they rarely left their sides," said the chief archaeologist, Klaus Grote. "It is a sensational find for research purposes."

The site served as an ordnance depot for Roman troops fighting Germanic tribes farther north.

Also brought up from metres of clay and bog is a rare example of a pilum, the favoured javelin-type spear of the legionnaires, deployed when close combat with their swords was not possible. Other items include catapult balls, lances, axe heads and knives.

Experts believe the depot was one of many the Romans built in Germany, then a wild area inhabited by tribes not keen on bowing to the empire.

It was discovered in a wood near Göttingen in 1985 by metal-detecting hobbyists.

Local authorities sealed it off when its importance was fully realised.

Although looters might have taken some objects the archaeologists are hopeful the depot still has much more to offer up.

The Romans gave up trying to pacify Germania around 70BC.

Mr Grote added: "They headed home and built their walls higher at home."

8:11:39 AM    Click here to send an email to the editor of this weblog.

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