Why Rome didn’t need the Garrick

What fun to mock the elite in the Garrick! But there were no Garricks in Rome: clubs were for those lower down the scale. They were called collegia and consisted of citizens, freedmen (ex-slaves) and in some cases slaves. All usually had some religious connection and were properly organised with presidents, treasurers and so on. Some were dedicated to maintaining ancient cults; others served the locality; then there were burial clubs, dedicated to appropriate gods, providing (for a regular fee) monthly group dinners and a guaranteed urn for their ashes in their private facilities (for their slaves and freedmen Augustus and his wife Livia provided buildings with 6,000 urns). The

Could I find love at the British Museum?

Mirabile dictu, as we Latin lovers like to say. In other words, wonderful news! Attractive women have fallen for ancient Rome – and for classicists. Well, that’s what the British Museum thought when it cooked up its advertising campaign for its new show, Legion: Life in the Roman Army, about Roman legionaries. The Museum put up a controversial social media post, promoting the exhibition as an opportunity for single women to find single men. I spotted a lissom blonde in green T-shirt and tie-dye trousers. We fell in step as we approached the gift shop The post read: ‘Girlies, if you’re single and looking for a man, this is your sign

Do the gods drive current affairs?

To judge from current events in the Middle East, the god of Israel appears to be battling the god of the Palestinians, even though they both seem to be the same god. But are they guiding events? And if not, why not? The Greek historian Thucydides (d. c. 400 bc) had no truck with the idea. In his account of the long war between the two most powerful Greek city states of their time – democratic Athens and oligarchic Sparta (431-404 bc), each with their respective allies – Thucydides was the first historian we know of to discount divine intervention in human affairs. Naturally he reported on the widespread phenomenon of

What we could learn from the classical courts

This year, in its annual Supreme Court moot trial of a famous ancient figure, the charity Classics for All charged the consul Cicero with illegally ordering the execution of five traitors working with the failed politician Catiline to bring revolution to Rome (63 bc). In his history of that crisis, Sallust composed speeches for Julius Caesar in defence of the conspirators, and for Cato the Younger for their execution, followed by a character assessment. This package may prompt reflections on our times. Caesar argued that men facing difficult questions ‘should clear their minds of hatred, amity, anger and compassion… success is achieved by applying judgment; but your passions will rule

How the Romans would have solved HS2

After the scrapping of the HS2 link to Manchester, private investment may be needed to build the Old Oak Common to Euston section. Romans would have invited private investment and construction, the bill paid on completion. Wealthy Romans formed a legal association called a societas when putting their own money into personal ventures, e.g. slave-trading, maritime ventures, the export of garum (fish sauce). But since Rome had no civil service to speak of, it needed wealthy individuals also to put their money behind state contracts put out for tender, when they were called publicani, ‘public servants’. Over time, as Rome grew wealthier and more powerful, its reliance on publicani increased,

Why the ancients would have baffled by obesity

The government is supplying the obese with a slimming drug Wegovy. But the ancient world was dominated by the emaciated, and the fat were extremely thin on the ground. They were therefore the subject of considerable interest. A degree of corpulence was the sign of a rich, healthy and prosperous man. But obesity turned one into a figure of fun or ignominy: it demonstrated an inability to control one’s appetite for luxuries. The 8th Ptolemy of Egypt was so fat that it was impossible to put one’s arms around his stomach. His son was equally fat and incapable of walking without leaning on people, though loved dancing at drinking parties.

How to holiday like a Roman

For most people in the ancient world, holidays meant local public festivals – in Rome there were 135 a year – when politicians staged extravagant games and theatrical shows. But the elite mostly spent summers in their own or their friends’ villas, well away from the stench, heat and mosquitoes of Rome. We tend to go abroad to ‘get away from it all’, though Seneca would have doubted that would do us any good – because it was ‘a change of character, not of air’ that people needed. He also quoted Socrates asking, ‘How can you wonder your travels do you no good, when you carry yourself around with you

Remembering Dido – and the fate of Carthage

It is a curious fact that between the foundation of Tunis by the Arabs in the 7th century and the foundation of Tel Aviv in the early 20th century no major cities were created on the shores of the Mediterranean. Even those cities were not quite new: Tunis, as Katherine Pangonis points out, was partly constructed out of rubble from Roman Carthage, situated nearby; and Tel Aviv originated as a Jewish suburb of Jaffa. Nor were ancient Mediterranean cities as sizeable as we imagine. Only Rome, Alexandria and Constantinople can be called megalopolises, and Constantinople lies much closer to the Black Sea than the Mediterranean. Pangonis’s lively new book therefore

Exquisite and deranged: two glass exhibitions reviewed

A ‘Ghost Shop’ has appeared between Domino’s Pizza and Shoe Zone on Sunderland High Street. Look through the laminated window glass and you’ll see more glass: glass shop fittings, a glass cheese plant, a glass pedal bin spilling disposable glass cups, glass chocolate wrappers and glass betting slips littering the floor. Ryan Gander likes the fact that there’s no explanation of his see-through betting shop: ‘If you tell everyone it’s a contemporary art project, they’d run away.’ Gander is one of four artists commissioned by Sunderland’s National Glass Centre to make works inspired by the history of the north-east. Two artists, Katie Paterson and Monster Chetwynd, have chosen themes relating to

Latest proof that western civilisation is over: Sky Atlantic’s Domina reviewed

I’ve been looking at the reviews so far of Sky’s new Romans series Domina and none seems to have noticed the most salient point: it’s crap. This is almost more depressing than the fact that the series got made in the first place, for what it suggests is this: our culture is now so debased that even our arbiters of taste can no longer tell the difference between quality and mediocrity. Domina follows the story of Julius Caesar’s great-nephew Octavian, from when he was a member of the triumvirate to his apotheosis as Caesar Augustus. You’d think you couldn’t possibly go wrong with such fascinating historical material, rich with gore,

Netflix’s Barbarians taught me those Romans had it coming

Of all the times and places to have been on the wrong side of history, I can’t imagine many worse than to have been a Roman legionnaire in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in the year 9 AD. It was the Romans’ Isandlwana — a devastating defeat inflicted by native forces on what was theoretically the world’s most sophisticated, best trained, and almost insuperable military power. Over the years since I first learned about arrogant, tricked, doomed Roman commander Varus and his three legions (about 20,000 men, almost none of whom got out alive), I’ve often mused pityingly on how it must have felt: trapped in the gloomy forest,

The Romans showed how quickly hospitals can be built

The speed with which ‘model’ Nightingale hospitals have been designed and erected across the UK reminds one of the experts in this sort of thing: the Romans. Legionary fortresses provide a good example. All were designed on roughly the same pattern, and all had a hospital (valetudinarium). The fortress built at Inchtuthil in Scotland offers a typical illustration. Picture a quadrangle about 100 yards by 65 yards, surrounded on all four sides by a ring of ‘wards’, outside that ring a corridor, and outside that an outer ring of ‘wards’. The central corridor provides free movement round the whole block and access to both the inner and outer ring. There