Monthly Archives: October 2015

Mapping the Underworld: Space, Text, and Imaginary Landscapes in Antiquity

The Lesche of the Cnidians (c. 450 BCE) was a rectangular building; in the Sanctuary of Apollo, to the north edge of the sanctuary. (Photo via Perseus Project).

The Lesche of the Cnidians (c. 450 BCE) was a rectangular building; in the Sanctuary of Apollo, to the north edge of the sanctuary. (Photo via Perseus Project).

One of the foremost painters of the mid 5th century BCE, Polygnotus, was allegedly commissioned by the Cnidian people to paint a clubhouse at Delphi. One of the themes was Odysseus’ ascension into the underworld, described in Book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey (the so called  νέκυια). However, Pausanias (10.28-31) reports that the painter took many liberties and mixed together a number of myths about the persons and places within the realm of Hades. The painting was his most famous work and garnered many gawkers. One wonders if whether part of the popular draw of Polygnotus’ work was its vivid depiction of the unknown, providing–as it did–a map of things to come after one passed from the world of the living to the world of the dead.

An 1892 reconstruction of the Nekyia at Delphi reported by Pausanias (Image via Wikimedia).

An 1892 reconstruction of the Nekyia at Delphi reported by Pausanias (Image via Wikimedia).

The topography of the underworld is something that has fascinated both authors and audiences for centuries. In Book 6 (l.264-678) of Virgil’s Aeneid, Aeneas travels to the underworld, past monsters and miserable humans, and arrives at the river Styx. Both Aeneas and the reader are then transported by Charon along the river, before encountering various distinct regions: Tartarus (a place for guilty shades), Elysium (a place for blessed shades), and a kind of limbo space for shades that have fallen into a gray area.

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the underworld (c. 1625), National Museum in Gdańsk (Image via Wikimedia).

Aeneas and the Sibyl in the underworld (c. 1625), National Museum in Gdańsk (Image via Wikimedia).

What is noticeable about both Homer and Virgil’s depictions of the underworld, is that they had to use words (oral or written ones) in order to produce a visual space for their listeners to traverse. It was later up to the discretion of Polygnotus to draw the words of Homer (and add some of his own), just as many students must simply imagine the path of the river Styx in their minds as they translate the Aeneid in class. These personalized mental maps can often wildly differ from person to person. A great example comes from my colleague Rob Ketterer, who had a student in his Virgil class draw the Underworld as he read it:

Drawing done by Sam Connet for Rob Ketterer's Virgil Class c.2005.

Drawing done by Sam Connet for Rob Ketterer’s Virgil Class c.2005.

In fact, reading aloud to my students and having them draw a map as I speak is one of my favorite activities for demonstrating to them that we all experience space differently. For example, on the first day of my Caesar class, I read the first few famous paragraphs to my students and asked them to draw a map of what they heard.

“All Gaul is divided into three parts, one of which the Belgae inhabit, the Aquitani another, those who in their own language are called Celts, in our Gauls, the third… The river Garonne separates the Gauls from the Aquitani; the Marne and the Seine separate them from the Belgae…One part of these, which it has been said that the Gauls occupy, takes its beginning at the river Rhone; it is bounded by the river Garonne, the ocean, and the territories of the Belgae; it borders, too, on the side of the Sequani and the Helvetii, upon the river Rhine, and stretches toward the north…” (trans. McDevitte & Bohn)

Drawing of Caesar's Bellum Gallicum 1.1 by Jacob Flatness, Classics Major at University of Iowa (With his permission).

Drawing of Caesar’s Bellum Gallicum 1.1 by Jacob Flatness, Classics Major at University of Iowa (With his permission).

As my students (and even I) remarked: This is a hard! Accordingly, what must the listeners in Rome have envisioned as they listened to these yearly reports from Caesar on the strange land to their North in the mid first century BCE? Assumedly, many inhabitants of Rome had previously put something akin to “there be dragons” across the Alps on their mental map. This impresses upon us a central reason that we tend to use portable or stationary maps to conjure models of the world around us: they are better than words alone at recreating a uniform, representative space. However, these two media work best in tandem: text and image together. Just think back to the last time someone gave you verbal directions and you didn’t have an iPhone map handy. Everyone verbalizes and writes about space differently, but maps can provide a communal touchstone.

Screenshot Map of Caesar's Gallic War (See interactive one here) made by Sarah Bond, but using as a base the KML file created by the DCC commentary. Check it out here.

Screenshot Map of Caesar’s Gallic War (See interactive one here) made by Sarah Bond, but using as a base the KML file created by the DCC commentary. Check it out here.

It is tough enough when the lands depicted have actually been traversed and surveyed, but what about fictional lands? How are authors supposed to communicate their fictive worlds to their audience?

David Lynch created a number of paintings for the In The Trees art exhibition in LA. (Image via Welcome To Twin Peaks).

David Lynch created a number of paintings for the In The Trees art exhibition in LA. This map of Twin Peaks is one of them (Image via Welcome To Twin Peaks).

The answer is of course that maps help to immerse the reader or listener. In his book Pictorial Maps (1991: 14) Nigel Holmes reported that David Lynch drew a map to help with his pitch: “Before showing the pilot script of his revolutionary show Twin Peaks to executives at ABC television, director David Lynch drew a map to give them an idea of where the action would unfold.” And just last week, an annotated map of Tolkien’s drawing of Middle Earth was found. The author famously planned every minute detail of his books. This included highly detailed timelines and maps of a world that did not exist, but which he brought to life for his readers through a mixture of illuminating prose and cartographic drawings. The ability of maps to make fictive spaces real is perhaps why I love playing with the interactive Middle Earth project so much.

Top left corner of the Tolkien map. (Photo from Blackwell’s Rare Books, Via CityLab).

Top left corner of the Tolkien map. (Photo from Blackwell’s Rare Books, Via CityLab).

As per usual, I have digressed. Let us return back to our stated subject: mapping the underworld. The most recognized instance of “infernal cartography” coming into vogue occurred after the publication of Dante’s Inferno, finished by the Florentine author in the early 14th century. Between 1450 (notably the beginning of the printing press) and 1600, drawings of hell became all the rage, particularly among Renaissance architects, cartographers, and artists. Architects Filippo Brunelleschi and Antonio Manetti in particular set out to try and figure out the actual dimensions of the underworld. The Renaissance was a time of innovation and attempts to understand one’s place within the cosmos, but it was also a time of print making. Suddenly, maps and texts could circulate faster than ever before. Moreover, the unknown did not just lay to the West in the form of the “New World”, it lay below, in the lands of the underworld that were oft written about, but for which there were few (if any) living witnesses to. Illustrations such as this one, by Botticelli, brought the terrifying words of Dante to life for the masses.

Sandro Botticelli's famous drawing (c.1480) of Dante's Inferno. (Image via Wikimedia).

Sandro Botticelli’s famous drawing (c.1480) of Dante’s Inferno. (Image via Wikimedia).

There are many more historical examples of how text and image worked to conjure infernal topographies for readers, but I would like to suggest that the phenomenon goes beyond demonstrating humanity’s desire to bring order to the haunting lands that may or may not exist in the afterlife. These maps can also help us to understand what we in the field of Digital Humanities call the “spatial turn.” Simply put, they show us that there is nothing new about our desire to understand both the fictional and the non-fictional spatially. Just like the printing press of 1450, the internet has provided us new technological tools and modes of representation with which we can now represent our cosmos. While the maps may differ from person to person and decade to decade, humanity’s use of both text and maps to chart what we fear the most is something that is here to stay. And at least now I know what to expect at the end of the river Styx…

Drawing of John Milton's Cosmology by Walter Clyde Curry, a student of Milton (Image via Cari Gibson et al.).

Drawing of John Milton’s Cosmology by Walter Clyde Curry, a student of Milton (Image via Cari Gibson et al.).

The Fall of the Roman Umpire: A Short History of Ancient Referees

Former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox holds the record for most ejections from a baseball game: 158 (+3 in postseason). Here he does his thing (Photo via Photobucket).

Former Atlanta Braves manager Bobby Cox holds the record for most ejections from a baseball game: 158 (+3 in postseason). Here he does his thing (Photo via Photobucket).

At the Australian Open in 2008, tennis player Andy Roddick famously unleashed a tirade against court umpire Emmanuel Joseph, telling the crowd at one point: “Stay in school kids or you’ll end up being an umpire!” During the MLB playoffs this week, there were similarly slanderous remarks against the umpires uttered either directly to them, or muttered under the breath of many players. This got me wondering about the history of umpires in sports and the levels of deference they were paid.

An Attic panathenaic prize amphora (c. 500 BCE) depicting an umpire watching the pankration, which was a combo of wrestling, boxing, and kicking (Picture via Wikimedia, but vase is at the Met NYC).

An Attic panathenaic prize amphora (c. 500 BCE) depicting an umpire watching the pankration, which was a combo of wrestling, boxing, and kicking (Picture via Wikimedia, but vase is at the Met NYC).

Every sport needs a neutral party to officiate. This moderator (ideally) has no allegiance except to the rules of the game. In Homer’s Odyssey (8.258), umpires are referred to as an αἰσυμνήτης, though an umpire was generally called a διαιτητής in archaic Greece. Within certain panathenaic festivals, such as the Olympic games (started in 776 BCE), there were by the 6th c. BCE specially appointed umpires called Ἑλλανοδίκαι (‘judges of the Greeks’). Pausanias tells us that there was originally just one of these, but that the number increased greatly into the fifth century BCE. Around 471/0, three of them supervised the equestrian events, three oversaw the pentathlon, and 3 judged the rest of the events (Paus. 5.9.5). These umpires insured fairness, but it is clear that the position improved one’s status as well. The Olympic umpires lived in a special stoa at Elis where they were trained for 10 months, and received an elevated seat and the right to wear purple at the games. They were also allowed to inflict fines for certain offenses and dole out corporal punishments for fouls: flogging with sticks.

An inscribed lead tablet found in 1958 and published by Jordan & Spawforth (1982: 65 in an open-access ASCSA publication).

An inscribed lead tablet from the Isthmian games but dated to the Roman imperial period. It mentions the umpire Marius Tyrannus and was found in 1958. It was published by Jordan & Spawforth (1982: 65 in an open-access ASCSA publication).

It is rare that we get to hear the voices of umpires. Even today, the crowd relies largely on hand gestures rather than sound. In this sense, we can see that umpires have been rather depersonalized. I mean, can you name your favorite umpire? We are not supposed to know their names. In many ways, we are supposed to see them as objective beings rather humans. The invention of the microphone has perhaps changed this to some extent in the NFL, but for baseball and most other sports, the sound of the umpire is limited largely to punctuated grunts and reactionary gesticulations. The mask of the baseball umpire today separates him even further from the people by obfuscating his or her facial features. This was not so in antiquity. Mosaics and ceramics show well-dressed umpires standing prominently. One mosaic from Cyprus (pictured below) labels an umpire, Dareios, as he stands couched between two gladiators. There is also a Roman imperial era lead tablet from the Isthmian games that transmits a written decision of an umpire named Marius Tyrannos disqualifying an athlete.

Mosaic depicting a gladiatorial fight. (Pic from the House of the Gladiators, Kourion, Cyprus).

Mosaic depicting a gladiatorial fight. (Pic from the House of the Gladiators, Kourion, Cyprus).

The term “umpire” is a modern one. It comes from the Old English noumpere, itself from the Old French nonper–essentially meaning “not on par” or “not equal.” In other words, umpires were not on par with the other players, they were above them. These individuals were the moderators and the voice of the ludic law. It is they who had the power to rule decisively and finally, often with a very real stick in hand (as many mosaics reveal).

A gladiatorial referee stands between a murmillo and hoplomachus in the Zliten mosaic (2nd c. CE, Leptis Magna) [Image via Wikimedia]

A gladiatorial referee stands between a murmillo and hoplomachus in the Zliten mosaic (2nd c. CE, Leptis Magna) [Image via Wikimedia]

In Roman gladiatorial arenas, the referees appear to have been highly visible figures. They worked in pairs, the first was the summa rudis and the assistant the secunda rudis  (Junkelmann 2000: 67). Back in 2011, a gravestone for an imperial Roman gladiator named Diodorus (inscribed in Greek) was found. It kicked up some arena sand among ancient historians because it called out an ancient referee directly:

“After breaking my opponent Demetrius I did not kill him immediately, Fate and the cunning treachery of the summa rudis killed me.” (trans. Michael Carter)

Epitpaph for Diodorus, a gladiator, who blamed a referee. Credit: © Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels. (Photo and article via LiveScience).

Epitaph for Diodorus, a gladiator, who blamed a referee. Credit: © Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels. (Photo and article via LiveScience).

Even in death, he remained pretty pissed at that ump. Problems with umpires were certainly not a modern phenomenon, and tensions could often escalate, it seems. However, these were persons not to be touched or physically abused. There was a high level of deference for gladiatorial referees, who often stood in a white tunic with purple stripes.

What has interested me most is to see the lack of protective gear given to these individuals–if we can trust the artistic renditions. For a comparative example for instituting protective gear, I called on John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball. As he said, “the mask was introduced for catchers in 1876 and it was not long before umpires saw the wisdom of wearing them. Fans made fun of both catchers and umpires at first for their lack of manliness, but really they were saddened by the reduced violence and bloodshed, which had come to be a comic sidelight, for spectators, at least. Blackened eyes and loosened teeth were regarded, in the 1860s, as badges of courage.” Romans also had a certain affinity for showing off battle scars. The early Christian writer Tertullian took gladiators to task for their pride in them (To the Martyrs, 5); however, we have little evidence for the same attitudes regarding referees. In many ways, we still need referees and umpires to remain superhuman (rather than subhumans) that exist above the fray. They should be sacrosanct, inviolable individuals, even if the new age of video review means their calls are more regularly overturned.

I too screamed at the screen when Chase Utley took out the legs of Ruben Tejada in Game 2 of the NLDS, but the most that you can really do is cuss and throw your hat down (cf. Mariners Manager Lloyd McClendon). Both the relative anonymity of their dress and the obfuscating gear (at least in baseball) that some umpires wear can perhaps make them seem like they really aren’t people at all; however we have entrusted them with the laws of the game. Just be glad they are ruling on foul or fair balls and the like, rather than deciding fatal gladiatorial matches.

Even these Roman gladiatorial umpires eventually had their last day. After 404 CE, gladiatorial matches were abolished in the empire, after an ascetic monk allegedly came between two gladiators and pleaded for there to be no more killing in the name of Christ. The spectators rose up and stoned the monk to death, compelling the emperor Honorius to stop gladiatorial spectacles entirely.

Roman mosaic, found on the Via Appia (4th c. CE) and now in the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Image taken by Ann Raia and posted by Barbara McManus.

Roman mosaic with depictions of the two gladiatorial referees, found on the Via Appia (4th c. CE) and now in the National Archaeological Museum, Madrid. Image taken by Ann Raia and posted by Barbara McManus.

Many thanks to John Thorn for his comments. Visit his exceptional blog, Our Game, and read up on the history of baseball in America. 

Code Switching: Courtesans, Clothing, and Crossdressing in Antiquity

As I begin this post, it is the feast day of Saint Pelagia (October 8). In honor of the famed Antiochene actress and prostitute (known around Antioch as Margarita because she wore expensive pearls and jewelry), I decided to reread her hagiographical vita. A deacon named Jacob or James wrote of her fifth century CE conversion and baptism; abandoning the life of being an actress and prostitute in order to be a “bride of Christ.” There are a number of interesting points about the saint’s life. The first is that the tale includes a deaconess named Romana, who serves as evidence of the existence of women as clerics in many early Christian churches. The second is the fact that the Bishop Nonnus gives Pelagia his hair shirt and a woolen mantle in order to sneak away into the night dressed as a man. She became a well known ascetic and hermit on the Mount of Olives, though people believed her to be a monk named Pelagios. Pelagia is just one of many crossdressing saints from the early Christian hagiographical tradition, and represents the boundaries blurred both by prostitutes and by crossdressing in antiquity.

Français 185 , Fol. 264v Vies de saints, France, Paris, XIVe siècle, Richard de Montbaston et collaborateurs.

Pelagia and her harlots depicted in a 14th century manuscript. Français 185 , Fol. 264v Vies de saints, France, Paris, XIVe siècle, Richard de Montbaston et collaborateurs. (Image via Legenda Aurea). 

Crossdressing was nothing new in the ancient Mediterranean–and the act included both men and women. Plutarch’s Life of Alcibiades, the late 5th c. BCE Athenian statesman, emphasized his feminine proclivities. In a story about his childhood, Plutarch (Alc. 2.2) recounts that in a wrestling match, Alcibiades bit his opponent.  The opponent yelled: “You bite, Alcibiades, as women do!” To which he responded: “Not I…but as lions do.” Female lionesses are the ones that hunt, so this was a rather apropos comeback from the witty Alcibiades. Another ancient author remarked that Alcibiades regularly attended symposia disguised as a woman. This idea is also seen in Plutarch, who noted that while with Timandra, his mistress and a courtesan, Alcibiades dreamed he was placed in her clothes and her makeup put on his face (Alc. 39). Not long thereafter, Alcibiades was killed and his corpse wrapped and buried by Timandra in her own clothes. The harlot’s actions would feature heavily in Shakespeare’s Timon, written 2,000 years later.

Timon of Athens, IV, 3, Timon giving gold pieces to Phrynia and Timandra by / J.H. Ramberg, 1829.

Timon of Athens, IV, 3, Timon giving gold pieces to Phrynia and Timandra by J.H. Ramberg, 1829. (Photo via Cornell University Library)

“The Pink Project” Jeeyoo and Her Pink Things, 2007 by JeongMee Yoon (Photo via ReShareable TV).

“The Pink Project” Jeeyoo and Her Pink Things, 2007 by JeongMee Yoon (Photo via ReShareable TV).

Because ancient clothing was often draped, voluminous, and gender-ambiguous, color was an important thing to think about when picking out an outfit. In the same manner that Americans tend to associate pink with female babies and blue with male babies (I am delighted to see this fad go away), Greeks often read yellow as feminine. In antiquity, there was a saffron colored party dress of sorts called a krokotos, which was worn by young girls but could also commonly be worn by educated prostitutes hired by elites called hetairai. Dionysus, the god of wine and the original party boy, was often depicted in a yellow dress that gave him a feminine look. And so when Aristophanes depicts the tragic poet Agathon as wearing a saffron-colored gown, he is really trying to tell us that the poet blurred the gender and propriety lines of the time. In his Thesmophoriazousai (l.136-144)Aristophanes has Mnesilochus rage about  Agathon’s lack of male accessories:

“Whence comes this γύννις (androgyne)? What is his country? his dress? What contradictions his life shows! A lyre and a hair-net! A wrestling school oil flask and a girdle! What could be more contradictory? [140] What relation has a mirror to a sword?To Agathon And you yourself, who are you? Do you pretend to be a man? Where is your tool, pray? Where is the cloak, the footgear that belong to that sex? Are you a woman? Then where are your breasts? Answer me. But you keep silent. Oh!” [tr.O’Neill]

The passage tells us a great deal about ancient gendered clothes, colors, and objects, and the anger sometimes felt by those who could not categorize another. Although largely positive, I think we all can reflect on the fears and anxieties expressed in the negative things written about Caitlyn Jenner for a modern example of this misplaced anger. I am impressed and supportive of our increasing acceptance of transgender persons within our society, but such hate speech existed both in antiquity and today.

Red figured attic cup of a hetaira and man [500-490 BCE] (Image via the British Museum).

Red figured attic cup of a hetaira and man [500-490 BCE] (Image via the British Museum).

The most infamous case of cross dressing came in 62 BCE. The rascally Clodius had fallen in love with Caesar’s wife, Pompeia, and infiltrated the all-female religious rites of the Bona Dea in order to commit adultery with her. Once again, we see a link in the classical literature between crossdressing and sexual deviance that is undeniable. It was always rumored that Clodius hung around with morally degraded people, such as prostitutes (cf. Cic. Mil. 55) and during the Bona Dea, he dresses as a woman in order to cross a number of boundaries: gender, religious, marital, and otherwise.

If we return back to the late antique period and our dear Pelagia, we can see a shift in the textual depiction of crossdressing within early Christian literature that is in stark contrast to most classical writing we have reviewed. As Kristi Upson-Saia has remarked, “[Hagiographical authors] absorbed the transgressive dress performance into their narrative not to uphold it as a model for readers to follow but rather to control, domesticate, and harness the dress practice, as well as claims of radical gender transformation, that were troubling them” (2011: 85). Upson-Saia rightfully points out that saints like Pelagia were meant to put on “masculine virtue and spiritual progress” through men’s ascetic clothing, while still retaining their female bodies (2011: 101).

Joan of Arc depicted on horseback in an illustration from a 1505 manuscript (Image via Wikimedia).

Joan of Arc depicted on horseback in an illustration from a 1505 manuscript (Image via Wikimedia).

To early Christians, certain masculine pieces of clothing (e.g. armor, the hair shirt) communicated strength and spiritual potency–but only if the body underneath was first dedicated to Christ. Consequently, allowing female saints to wear such articles was a way to advertise the virtuous characteristics they now embodied. I would venture that this rubric allows us to better understand depictions of Joan of Arc and later female saints as well. The trick here is that chastity had to be vowed along with the male garments in order for the crossdressing to be viewed positively. While I personally do not believe that clothing should be connected to any gender, it is interesting to reflect on its use in antiquity. Depending on the color, the context, and the individual’s sexual nature, crossdressing could announce myriad messages.

Getting Sacked: Animals, Executions, and Roman Law

In my blogging, I have frequently discussed Roman approaches to crime and punishment (e.g., crucifixion and torture). However, as I sat prepping lectures for my Roman law course this week, I got distracted (it happens) and began to watch some clips from old James Bond movies (it happens a lot). After making a mental list of all the sharks and snakes that Roger Moore / 007 had to escape from in Live and Let Die alone, I began to consider the role of animals in Roman law. Specifically, how and why animals were used as instruments in carrying out capital punishments, and in which cases they themselves could be held legally liable for their actions.

(l) A 3rd c. CE mosaic in the Museum of El Djem (Tunisia) of a criminal being killed in the arena (r) James Bond fights while a Komodo dragon lurks nearby in Skyfall.

(l) A 3rd c. CE mosaic in the Museum of El Djem (Tunisia, photo via Wikimedia) of a criminal being killed in the arena (r) James Bond fights while a Komodo dragon lurks nearby in Skyfall.

The use of animals as executioners existed in Rome since at least the middle Republic. Elephants appear to be the first spectacle animals to perform human executions, as when in 167 BCE, Aemilius Paullus used elephants in order to kill non-Roman soldiers who had decided to desert during his campaign against Perseus. Assumedly they trampled the men to death. The viewing of such a horrid death scene apparently discouraged soldiers from turning coat. In 146 BCE, Scipio Africanus Minor also used elephants to crush foreign deserters (Val. Max. 2.7.13-14), this time during the spectacular games of his triumph. When you think about it, the use of horses or elephants as instruments of war is similar, even though there may not be an amphitheater with stadium seating set up for an audience to enjoy the carnage.

Bronze Roman war elephant now at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich (SL 50 1 via Wikimedia).

Bronze Roman war elephant now at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen in Munich (SL 50 1 via Wikimedia).

In such cases, the elephants carried out the will of the Roman state and performed a job normally outsourced to Roman executioners–called carnifices–who were themselves legally degraded. The lowly status was likely due to the pollution these men incurred from the act of killing others. In a sense, the use of elephants against deserters rather than a human hangman also underscored the non-citizen nature of those being punished. It not only made a proxy of the foreign pachyderms, but cast them as a symbol for Rome’s expanding overseas empire. Not a very subtle visualization of Roman power, but then again, no one ever accused Romans of subtlety.

The Roman use of animals to punish those found guilty of parricide is another tale of legend. Modestinus, a jurist and pupil of Ulpian writing in the 3rd c. CE, mentioned the customary penalty in his Pandectae (transmitted in the Digesta of Justinian [48.9.9.pr. tr.Scott]): 

“The penalty of parricide, as prescribed by our ancestors, is that the punishment shall be beaten with rods stained with his blood, and then shall be sewed up in a sack with a dog, a rooster, a viper, and a monkey, and the bag cast into the depth of the sea, that is to say, if the sea is near at hand; otherwise, it shall be thrown to wild beasts, according to the Constitution of the Divine Hadrian.”

Roman mosaics of a dog (Sousse), a rooster (now at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome), a rock python (Palestrina Nilotic mosaic, Museo Nazionale Palestrina), and a monkey (Volubilis, House of Orpheus) [Images via Wikimedia].

Roman mosaics of a dog (Sousse), a rooster (now at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome), a rock python (Palestrina Nilotic mosaic, Museo Nazionale Palestrina), and a monkey (Volubilis, House of Orpheus) [Images via Wikimedia].

Parricide (parricidium) came to include killing both parents and grandparents, though it may have originally just applied to slaying one’s father. The Augustan historian Livy notes that Publicius Malleolus was the first to receive such a punishment for killing his mother; he was sewn up in a culleum (leather sack) and tossed into the sea in 101 BCE (Per. 68 cf. Rhet. ad Her. 1.13.[23]). Cicero adds that Malleolus was also made to wear wooden clogs, so that he could not escape. Anyone who has ever tried to run in wooden clogs would emphatically agree with this line of reasoning, but legal historian O.F. Robinson has suggested that this was rather an attempt to keep the polluting offender’s feet from transmitting his miasma to the earth (2007: 45). Most of my questions actually involve the logistics of the act: whether the animals were sedated first, the dimensions of this giant leather bag, and where they got all those monkeys from. Also, I would hate to be the man tasked with sewing that dangerous sack up.

A detail of the leather soldier bags from the Column of Trajan casts now at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (Image via Wikimedia).

A detail of the leather soldier bags depicted on the Column of Trajan. This picture comes from casts now at the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (Image via Wikimedia).

Ancient sources indicate that parricide laws evolved into the late Republic. Pompey’s lex Pompeia de parricidiis  of 55 or 52 BCE confirmed an earlier law on parricide issued under Sulla. Although the punishment appears to have fallen out of use during the imperial period, it was later brought back in Late Antiquity. In an edict of 318 (instituted in 319), Constantine reinstated the animal sack as a punishment for parricide (CTh. 9.15.1). I always like to bring this fact up whenever modern academics praise the kindness and goodness of the emperor Constantine. Let’s not forget this is a man who had his own son killed, folks.

Alright, clearly Romans used animals as instruments for exacting capital punishment, but what about the legal perception of animals in Roman law? Animals had very few rights in the Roman legal system, though as property, some could be claimed under the jurisdiction of the lex Aquilia. 

Mosaic with a striped cat capturing a bird from Rome's Palazzo Massimi alle Terme (Image via Wikimedia).

Mosaic with a striped cat capturing a bird from Rome’s Palazzo Massimi alle Terme (Image via Wikimedia).

Under the civil law code, owners were generally held responsible for the actions of their pets or livestock–as when an owner encouraged their dog to defecate on an enemy’s property or a mule trampled someone in the street. Ulpian notes that when four footed, domesticated animals (i.e., not feral animals) acted against their nature, they commited pauperies (Dig. 9.1.1.7). In this case, the owner would either pay damages or hand over the animal itself. Romans did not consider animals capable of rational thought in the human sense, and thus they were not legally liable for their actions.

Roman thought about the agency of animals is much more closely aligned with our thinking today. A notable deviation came in the animal trials that occurred in Western Europe between the 13th and 18th centuries. The conviction of pigs and other livestock at this time provide some insight into how perceptions of moral agency can transform a legal system. I mean, what if we did believe those elephants knew what they were doing to those soldiers? The pivotal work on animal trials was written by Edward Payson Evans in 1906, though many scholars have offered up variant reasons for the trials. Evans himself believed that ideas of witchcraft played a role.

Despite the rare medieval and early modern animal that was held liable for their alleged actions, animals have generally been viewed as instruments and extensions of their owners. Consequently, not only how we treat our pets, but also how we use them reflects back on us. This goes as much for 007 villains as it does for ancient Rome.

Illustration entitled 'Trial of a Sow and Pigs at Lavegny' taken from The Book of Days (1863) edited by Robert Chambers (Image and caption via the Public Domain Review).

Illustration entitled ‘Trial of a Sow and Pigs at Lavegny’ taken from The Book of Days (1863) edited by Robert Chambers (Image and caption via the Public Domain Review).