Most recent update:7/1/2004; 5:35:56 AM

 Tuesday, June 01, 2004
NUNTII: Searching for Byblos' Port

A bit out of our timeframe and purview, but possibly of interest is a report in the Daily Star on plans to search for remains of Byblos' ancient port. Here's the incipit:

If archaeologist Ibrahim Noureddine is right, sunbathers at Byblos' beaches may one day find themselves next to a Phoenician port.

The underwater archaeologist is currently working on his doctorate about ancient ports, trying to figure out whether people in the Bronze Age built their harbors or used the natural foundation. It is not an easy task, as Noureddine does not even know for sure yet where to dig for the old harbors.

He presented his findings in a lecture on Wednesday at the French Cultural Center (FCC), which was part of a cycle of archaeological lectures presenting new research in Lebanon.

The current Byblos port could never have harbored Phoenician ships, Noureddine said. "It is too small."

He is almost certain of this because ancient Egyptian rulers kept track of what they bought, such as cedar wood from Lebanon. The most famous of such records is the Palermo Stone, which lists events during the first five dynasties (2925-2325 BC). On it, the Egyptians noted that Pharao Snefru ordered 40 ships filled with cedar wood from Byblos, each ship being 100 cubits, or about 50 meters long.

"How could you have fit them into this tiny fishing harbor?" Noureddine asked. The current harbor is only 2.8 meters deep and couldn't have been deeper 4,500 years ago, because the ground is solid stone. [more]

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CHATTER: Commenting on the Commentary on Troy

Some guy at KTOK uses his time to comment on what scholars have been saying about Troy (the movie), inter alia:

The thing I find of supreme interest in movies, both old and recent Hollywood product, as well as the many other contributions to popular culture is the window they provide into the prevailing tastes and values predominant at the time of their release. A quick example can be made of the recent movie, TROY, which I wrote about a couple weeks back and made some comparison to the original source material from which the film was, in part, lifted. TROY has, in fact, inspired something of a cottage industry on the internet of historical scholars pointing out the inaccuracies of the movie. One site I scanned even took issue with the wooden horse as not being the correct version as portrayed in The Iliad. Point of fact, the tale by Homer ends with the burial of Hector and does not tell of the fall and sacking of Troy.

But I stray from my topic.

I mentioned previously that, upon reading a new translation of The Iliad some years back, I was amazed at the implied status of women in the story. Women were seen as property to be used as men wished, of value something on the level of a horse. In strict value exchange, a horse might be said to be more valuable than a woman. Such comparison is not spelled out in The Iliad as the original audience for the epic would have shared the same perception and would have no need for detailed examination. Similar as an audience for a detective mystery of today would have no need for the author to explain in detail the mechanical workings of the automobile should the hero decide to get in his car and drive downtown. Audiences today understand about automobiles and accept that they are used for routine transportation. In the same manner, the listeners to The Iliad understood the position of a woman in society as well as they accepted the power of the gods. Reading The Iliad gives us a window into that ancient society and allows us to appreciate how far we have come.

Another cultural point was raised by a critic in the motivation that inspired Achilles to return to battle after Hector had slain Patroclus. The original source portrayed Achilles and Patroclus as more than friends and relatives, they were lovers. My memory had told me such was the case, but it has been several years since I read the verse and I was not sure memory had served me well. The movie folks correctly perceived this relationship as not pushing the right buttons with the ticket buying public. Indeed, when I pointed out this revelation to some of my friends, they responded with revulsion. I expect gay people might have a different response, but they probably do not buy enough tickets to make up for the loss of those turned off by Brad Pitt making love to another man.

The point being, the original source of the story gives us a look into the popular culture of the time of Homer, while TROY gives us a snapshot of our own time. Both are interesting for the comparisons we can make.

Interesting ... I wonder if he had the same feelings about all the commentary about the Passion -- I'm not disagreeing with him in the least, by the way, but I don't think I'd label scholarly commentary as a 'cottage industry' (sorry ... I'm grumpy today ... eighteen days of school left and the students know it).

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NUNTII: Latin Resurgence to be In UK

From the Beeb:

Latin is being made available to thousands of pupils across the UK, even if there is no specialist teacher in their school.
And gone are the days of wading through Julius Caesar's accounts of his Gallic wars.

Pupils now get to read about the exploits of "wheeler-dealer" Caecilius who manages to offends his wife by buying the prettiest girl available at a slave market and Grumio the cook who is in and out of affairs.

The Cambridge Online Latin Project, which has been tested by 2,000 pupils aged 12 and upwards over the past four years, is being rolled out nationally in September.

It is hoped the e-learning course will go some way to reverse the downturn in the number of pupils learning about the ancient world.

We're looking to make Latin available to everyone who wants to study it

"We're looking to make Latin available to everyone who wants to study it," said Will Griffiths, director of the Cambridge School Classics Project which produces the courses in partnership with Cambridge University Press and Granada Learning.

"It shouldn't be for certain types of pupils in certain types of schools. We would like other children to have access to this education that private schools have long recognised is very important."  [more]

Meanwhile, in Ontario it appears there is 'no demand' (at least that's what they keep telling me). It doesn't help that the Ontario Classics Association apparently only checks their email once every 45 days ... kind of difficult to get information out of those folks.

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NUNTII: Etruscan Road Excavated

A brief item in la Repubblica mentions the discovery and excavation of a sizeable chunk of Etruscan roadway dating from the Fifth Century B.C./A.D.. It's apparently the "most important" such road ever found in Italy. A few more details can be found in Nove da Firenze about what appears to be a rather extensive Etruscan 'highway' system.
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kalendas junias

  • rites in honour of Carna, a nymph who was somehow associated with the health of bodily organs
  • Saecular Games (day 1) -- celebrating Rome's thousand-year anniversary
  • 388 B.C. -- dedication of the Temple of Mars (and associated rites thereafter)
  • 344 B.C. -- dedication of the Temple of Juno Moneta (and associated rites thereafter)
  • 259 B.C. -- dedication of a Temple of the Tempests near the porta Capena (and associated rites thereafter?)
  • 37 A.D. -- the emperor Gaius (Caligula) gives the people a congiarium
  • 165 A.D. -- death of Justin Martyr
  • 193 A.D. -- emperor-for-a-little-while Didius Julianus is deposed; Septimius Severus is recognized as emperor at Rome
  • 1927 -- death of J.B. Bury (History or the Later Roman Empire, among others)

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NUNTII: The Fate of Zeugma

The Ara Modus Operandi blog (note to PW: I tried to email you, but your provider blocked me) points us to an interesting article about Zeugma in al-Jazeera ... I'm reproducing the whole thing because I'm not sure of the shelf life of items at al-Jazeera and this seems to be a very important (ongoing) issue:

Disputes surround dozens of Roman masterpieces unearthed from the ancient city of Zeugma in southern Turkey.

Archaeologist Richard Hodges has told of a tragic excavation.

"At every stage of our work here, we have been met with the most torturous obstacles."

Bitter disputes over what to do with the mosaics – and who is responsible for their current condition – have led to the collapse of archaeological work on the site.

Meanwhile, the public has been unable to view these fantastic objects, as officials have argued over their fate.

Back in 2000, French and Turkish archaeological teams working at Zeugma – which lies on the banks of the River Euphrates, just north of the town of Birecik – uncovered a set of spectacular 3rd century mosaics.

This was just days before the site was due to be flooded by a new dam.

Responding to this crisis, the US-based David Packard Trust hired Richard Hodges’ UK-based Oxford Archaeology Unit to undertake emergency excavation.

"At Zeugma we have the chance to excavate and restore mosaics of the quality and size of Antioch but using the very best modern methods"

Working on the site during 2000, the Unit uncovered many more mosaics and artefacts and worked using satellite imaging to uncover more of the ancient city’s ground plan.

They also hired Italian restoration expert Roberto Nardi to work on the mosaics and frescoes that had already been uncovered by the Turkish and French teams. These had been deposited at the local archaeology museum in Gaziantep.

"The mosaics were in a deplorable state in May 2000," Hodges says. "For the record, you could say in a catastrophic state."

Nardi moved into a purpose built laboratory behind the museum and began work. Yet the troubles for the excavation were only just beginning.

"The water has now reached its final level," says Mehmet Onal from Gaziantep museum and one of the original excavators of Zeugma.

"While a quarter of the mosaics are underwater, most were rescued. We’ve rescued more than 1000 square metres of mosaics and 150 square metres of frescoes."

Yet, as the floodwaters rose over the ancient city – eventually leaving 20% of this Roman frontier town under water – controversy also rose up around the rescued artefacts.
Two bitter arguments have broken out over what to do with this remarkable collection.

"The Turkish government asked David Packard if the mosaics could be exhibited in Istanbul when the NATO summit is on next month," explains Hodges.

"He reluctantly said fine. We wanted them to be on exhibit in Istanbul in a cheap, good quality way in which they could be seen by the maximum number of Turkish people."

But the Turkish government’s plans to move them away from Gaziantep have been met with anger, hostility and legal action by locals.

"The mosaics are, according to the law, immovable culture heritage," lawyer Dilek Topalkara of the citizens’ group Zeugma Platform told

"According to expert reports, both during the packaging and moving operations they will be damaged … even during the packaging many pieces have been damaged. If they were moved, they would be damaged both because of shaking during the journey and because of the climate change."

The Platform has tried to prevent the mosaics from being taken via a series of court rulings.

However, the Gaziantep high court ruled Monday to overturn previous decisions and decided instead that the Platform had no right to prevent the mosaics from being taken to Istanbul.

Meanwhile, there have also been allegations against Roberto Nardi over his restoration work.  However, the local court ruled that he did not have a case to answer earlier this week.

"We hired him because, if you ask anyone in archaeology who is the best person for restoring mosaics, they will all say Roberto Nardi," Hodges says.
Meanwhile, until late May, Gaziantep museum – which is run by the government’s culture ministry - had itself been closed, with none of the mosaics on view to the public.

"This shows that there is something going on here that is about more than just exhibiting the mosaics," says Topalkara.

Locals fear that the museum’s closure is part of a campaign to pressure them into releasing the mosaics elsewhere – and that once they have left town, they will never return.

Museum authorities refused to comment on the case to, with museum director Hamza Gulluce saying "the subject is far too hot at the moment".

"For reasons best known to themselves," says Hodges, "the local authorities have been making everything about this so difficult."

Finally, at the end of May, the court in Gaziantep ordered the museum to reopen and the mosaics to be displayed. Now, experts are examining the mosaics to determine just how feasible that is.

Everyone agrees, however, on the great value of the finds at Zeugma.

"There are basically two great collections of mosaics in the world," says Hodges.

"One is at the Bardo museum in Tunis and the other is in Antakya – ancient Antioch – in Turkey. The latter wasn’t excavated very well, but here at Zeugma we have the chance to excavate and restore mosaics of the quality and size of Antioch but using the very best modern methods.

"At every stage of our work here, we have been met with the most torturous obstacles"
"These have lain under the ground without being touched or damaged since the day in 253 AD when the city was destroyed by the army of Shapur I of Persia."

Now, the hope is that at least some of these great artefacts will go on exhibit in Gaziantep, even if nowhere else.

"We want a mosaic museum to be built and the pieces to be exhibited here," says Topalkara, "and archaeological research to be carried on at Zeugma."

But although Onal and his team continue to work on one of the city’s villas, there seems little chance of any more major archaeological digging.

"We have no plans to continue our work there," says Hodges, "because it’s so difficult. It’s a real shame, as the site is full of promise. Three quarters of it remains above the water line to be investigated. I just hope that soon what has been uncovered can be displayed for the benefit of the Turkish people."

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CHATTER: Another Classical Precedent

A column in the New York Daily News on the lunacy of building sports stadiums so close together begins thusly:

It probably started with the Emperor Vespasian, who insisted on building the Colosseum around A.D. 70, within walking distance of the Circus Maximus. You had 250,000 Romans pouring out of the chariot races up the hill, and suddenly there were another 50,000 yahoos coming out of the gladiator battles, flush with bloodlust.

The two sites jockeyed for the entertainment dollar. The occasional elephant shows at Circus Maximus could no longer compete with the lions eating Christians at the Colosseum. The emperors kept expanding Circus Maximus, anyway. They built skyboxes for themselves. Some local residents were sick of the whole, hedonistic pedestrian jam. Pliny the Younger protested in vain what he called "the type of spectacle which has never had the slightest attraction for me.

"When I think how this futile, tedious, monotonous business can keep them sitting endlessly in their seats, I take pleasure in the fact that their pleasure is not mine," Pliny grumped.

But Pliny's taxes went to paying off the debt service on these buildings, same as the rowdy Romans who greatly enjoyed watching Spartacus' heirs stab each other to death. And 2000 years later, the public is still funding neighboring sports arenas and stadiums, often competing against each other, which have no business getting built. [...]

For the record, I don't believe chariot races and gladiatorial exhibitions were ever put on at the same time ...

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CHATTER: Box Office Numbers and Implications

An interesting piece in the Globe and Mail waxes on how much money Troy is making and why Hollywood is jumping on the Classics bandwagon:

As of Thursday, the $170-million epic Troy, which opened May 14, had earned a worldwide cumulative gross of approximately $263-million (that includes $92.7-million at the North American box office), according to Warner Bros. Pictures president of domestic distribution Dan Fellman. "[Troy] is right where we expected it to be," he said on the phone from Burbank, Calif., adding, "I must say Canada has performed extremely well. Canada normally represents 8 per cent of the U.S. box office, and it's running closer to 14."

Yet we are mere foot soldiers. Like several major Hollywood movies in recent years, the real hero in Troy's upbeat (though not exactly record-smashing) box-office story is the overseas market, increasingly the bottom-line saviour of big-budget films with disappointing domestic theatrical admissions. (Last year, overall U.S. box office was down 4 per cent, while international was up 5.)

"Epic action adventure stories have tremendous universal appeal," said Veronika Kwan-Rubinek, Warner Bros. president of international distribution. "And I feel that Troy, as well as being about war, has romance and the drama of relationships that also helps it resound internationally."

In less than two weeks, Troy brought in $22-million at the box office in Germany, more than the entire run of The Last Samurai in that country. So far Troy has been the No. 1 film its opening weekend in all territories, including Turkey (where ancient Troy once stood) and Greece (where, more than two millennia ago, Homer composed The Iliad, one of the sources for Troy screenwriter David Benioff).

"It used to be we'd open a movie internationally six months after its U.S. release," Fellman explains. "But the Internet is such that it's a global world in terms of information about movies. That and piracy issues means we are doing more same-date releases, which has proven successful for us. Our business, from Warners' point of view, is taking a global strategy. That's how we decide on what products we make. The international market is a growing and very vibrant place, so when we make movies, we view it as a global opportunity."

With Hollywood's shift to a world market informing the stories being told, audiences here and abroad can expect to see more tent poles. Literally. The tent, after all, is the accommodation of choice for the "sword-and-sandal" hero on the move. General Maximus (Russell Crowe) had a luxurious tent in Gladiator (2000).

The critical and box-office success of Ridley Scott's film is widely credited as paving the way for the return of the genre, which has had its ups and downs and variations in the history of cinema; sword-and-sandal probably saw its last heyday 40-some-odd years ago with Ben-Hur (1959), Spartacus (1960) and, on a lighter note, all those early 1960s Italian peplum (short tunic) flicks starring Steve Reeves and other lesser-known musclemen playing various characters from biblical or classical antiquity.

Since Gladiator, there has been considerable industry buzz and Internet fan-site chatter about a handful of projects in the sword-and-sandal sweepstakes. Films started to emerge this year, a serious if varied lot, beginning with Mel Gibson's highly controversial box-office winner The Passion of the Christ, followed by Brad-buoyed Troy (combining story elements from Homer, Virgil and Aeschylus, and thus irking classics teachers everywhere) and Alexander, written and directed by Oliver Stone (whose historical adviser, the Oxford professor and author Robin Lane Fox, leads a cavalry charge in a non-speaking extra role). Shot in London studios and on location in Morocco and Thailand, Stone's biopic of Alexander the Great (356-323 BC), the Macedonian king, conqueror and builder of a vast empire that stretched from Greece east into Asia, stars Irish scallywag Colin Farrell in the title role (bowl-cut blond hair and all), Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto and Anthony Hopkins. [more]


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CHATTER: Faces, Ships, and All That

Okay ... I'm not sure how related these two items are, but it seems they're going poll-mad in the U.K. (no doubt jealous that Canada is in the midst of an election). The first poll is interesting only insofar as it asked who could be considered a 21st-Century Helen of Troy (in the sense of having the face ...). Kate Beckinsale came out on top of that one. Another poll (?) , reported in the Scotsman, asked a panel of "experts" for the top 100 most beautiful women of all time. Beckinsale didn't make that list, but I was kind of excited when my eye landed on Dido at number 62, then realized, of course, we're not talking about the Carthaginian queen. But then, at number 87 we read "Cleopatra". I guess that exhibition a while back did have an effect on her image ...
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CHATTER: Yet Another Alexander Movie

Just as the hype builds for Oliver Stone's version of Alexander, Egypt Today tells of of a rather-smaller-budgeted production which just began in Egypt (which also has a tiny Canadian connection):

A co-production by the local El-Adl Film, owned by actor-producer Samy El-Adl, and America’s Ilya Salkind Company, Young Alexander is British screenwriter Dan Skinner’s debut. It focuses on the coming of age of the legendary ancient Greek conqueror Alexander The Great, who grew up contending with hidden conspiracies and struggling to prove his worth to his ever-demanding father King Phillip.

Jalal Merhi, the Lebanese martial arts actor-turned-director known for his slam-bang action films, is at the helm of this historical vehicle, trying his hand at the genre for the first time. Born in Brazil to a family of jewelers, he frequently visited Beirut in his teens to learn his native language and explore his Middle Eastern roots.

Merhi’s cinema career actually began in a gymnasium in Toronto — his own gym. “The business grew very fast, alhamdullillah, and I got to meet many movie stars and producers,” he recalls.

Eventually he was cast in a supporting role in a film called Honor. That performance landed him a starring role in Tiger Claws in 1992 with Cynthia Rothrock, one of a handful of American female martial arts stars, and Bolo Yeung, Bruce Lee’s student and co-star in his last film Enter the Dragon. The film was well-received by martial arts aficionados, and other films followed, including Talons of the Eagle (1992) and TC 2000 (1993). Merhi also began producing as well as acting alongside his friend, martial arts performer Billy Blanks.

In 1993, he made his directorial debut and starred in Operation Golden Phoenix then Expect to Die (1997) and The Circuit (2002).

Merhi’s brand of low-budget martial arts film, which cost just $500,000 to $2.5 million to make, is popular both in the US and worldwide, especially in the video and DVD market. Merhi made his fortune with distribution deals through Universal Pictures and Warner Bros., which released his independent outings on home video.

Without the trademark ponytail he sported in his early films with Cynthia Rothrock, I hardly recognized Merhi when I met him at El-Adl’s office. Despite his busy schedule, he was cool to spare 30 minutes of his time just two days before they began shooting.

Merhi’s film focuses on Alexander’s early years, the ones that shaped him into the man he was to become.

“For me, the action element in the movie is not much different from what I previously did. And with the historical dimension, I can deliver a good message to youngsters that anyone can become great,” he says. [more]

Some shots from the set are available ... a low budget, martial-arts-inspired version of Alexander.

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AWOTV: On TV Today

5.30 p.m. |DCIVC| Ancient Clues: In Search of Warrior Women

10.00 p.m. |DCIVC| Archaeology IV: A Roman Plague

11.00 p.m. |HINT|Hidden Cities of the Etruscans
A look at the fascinating people who ruled Italy centuries before
the Romans. Explores the contradictions in the character of the
Etruscans, who embraced both art and slavery, technology and

Channel Guide

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Click for Athens, Greece Forecast

Click for Rome, Italy Forecast

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