Monthly Archives: February 2016

Creating A Public Space: Open Access, Book Theft, and the Epigraphy of Ancient Libraries

During the reign of the emperor Trajan (ca. 100 CE) an inscription was placed on a marble block for those visiting the public Library of Pantaenus to read. The library was itself built by the son of a diadochos  (the name for the head of a philosophical school) called Titus Flavius Pantaenus, and stood south of the Stoa of Attalus in Athens’ Agora. Ever the concern of public libraries, the inscription warned patrons not to steal scrolls and informed them of the hours of operation for the facility:

βυβλίον οὐκ ἐξε-
νεχθήσεται, ἐπεὶ
ὠμόσαμεν· ἀνυγή-
σεται ἀπὸ ὥρας πρώ-
της μέχρι ἕκτης.

“No book shall be taken out, since we have sworn it. It will be open from the first hour until the sixth [i.e., dawn to midday]”

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Inscribed rules of the library of Pantaenus. Image via the’s Agora Excavations database. Archive Inv. Agora 2008.20.0059. =SEG 21.500.

In antiquity, a library was called by Greeks a βιβλιοθήκη (Latin bibliotheca). Even then, book thieves were a real problem often addressed with proper signage. As George Houston, the leading historian of ancient libraries (and an emeritus professor who used to help out this wayward classicist in UNC’s epigraphy room) has noted: An inscription from the library at Rhodes also stopped patrons from taking books out: “It shall not be permitted to anyone to take the books out” (tr. Houston 2014: 250). It seems that ancient librarians may have taken an oath not to steal the books, and patrons were likely not allowed to check materials out. As Erik Kwakkel has already talked about, medieval libraries used curses, but also  book chains in order to stop book thieves. Library materials were often expensive, rare, and labor intensive to produce, so it makes sense that libraries wished to protect them.


Picture of the chained books at the 16th c. Zutphen Library. Images via Erik Kwakkel’s Tumblr. Please see them all HERE. More pictures can be found at his Flickr Page.

Library patrons also interacted with other inscriptions as they entered, exited, or stood within the library. Outside of the Library of Pantaenus was the patron’s monumental dedicatory inscription, noting his giving of the library structure, its books, the outer porticoes, and the peristyle to Athena Polias (patron deity of Athens), the emperor Trajan, and the city of Athens. The inscription served to remind people of Titus’ piety and his service to the city, but was also a part of the inscribed environment of the library as a whole.


Lintel dedicatory inscription in Pentelic marble of the Library of Pantaenus. Image via the’s Agora Excavations Database. Inv.I. 848.



Nowadays, I spend a lot of time at the Main Library at the University of Iowa, particularly in the Digital Scholarship & Publishing Studio. Like the Library of Pantaenus, library patrons at the UI tend to think more about the books inside of libraries than the inscribed surfaces that help to compartmentalize and organize the space itself. However, the various signs, posted maps, and plaques within these repositories help to shape our experience. Moreover the use of locks, doors, and inscribed warnings can communicate something about the institution itself. I have worked for both public and private institutions with adjoining libraries, and I must say that entering a public library is an altogether different spatial experience from entering a private one–which can often feel like entering a prison.


Plaque in the Special Collections Department at the University of Iowa Main Library. Photo dated to April of 1966. Image via the Iowa Digital Library.

Much like the metadata categories we use for searching a database (e.g. author, title, publication date), librarians today think a lot about how to situate writing both physically and digitally, in order to facilitate effective searches for documents, maps, photos, and books within a library’s archives. In antiquity, there were book tags called sillyba and scrolls that transmitted book catalogues for patrons to consult for the library’s holdings. There was a science to organizing information even then.

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A mosaic depiction of a book cabinet containing the four canonical gospels. c. 425 CE. Mausoleum of Gallia Placidia in Ravenna. Romans used book tags called sillyba to record authors of works.

One reason I know about Pantaenus’ library inscriptions at all is due to the archaeological cataloguers and digital librarians at work today. The record keeping, organization, and subsequent digitization of the thousands of dig records housed at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens has made it possible for those interested in the Greek world to reconstruct the Library of Pantaenus for themselves.

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A modified map of the Athenian Agora ca. 150 CE with the library of Pantaenus highlighted. The unmodified map was originally drawn by John Camp in 1976, but is available at the and in Hesperia.

In the past few years, the rather ancient philosophy behind the public library has been furthered by the ASCSA’s movement towards an Open-Access policy for their records and for their journal, HesperiaThe initiative was originally spearheaded by punk archaeologist Andrew Reinhard. In 2012, as then- Director of Publications at the ASCSA, he wrote: “We’re providing information on the history and archaeology of the Greek world to as wide an audience as possible. Our content is more readily available to anyone who wants to use it.” In many ways, the movement towards Open-Access (OA for short) in academia is but a digital continuation of a classical tradition.

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Front side of Agora Card I. 848 recording the library dedication. Image via’s Agora Excavations Database. Check it out HERE.

Although book thieves still exist today, what does and does not constitute a “theft” has changed greatly in the past 25 years, just as the digital age has revised the very idea of what a library is. Oxford’s Bodleian Library now allows you to “check out” a 550 year old copy of the Gutenberg Bible along with a number of other ancient bibles, and the Walters Art Museum allows fair use of thousands of objects in its collection. As University of Iowa professor Rachel Williams put it, “If we are committed to making new knowledge and advancing the act of discovery, we must all commit ourselves to open access and to the possibilities it offers to everyone who has the technological ability to surf the web.” In other words, the days of book chains, oaths, and curses is increasingly drawing to a close for most texts… except for those horrible few who like to highlight directly in the library’s copy of Augustine’s Confessions. They definitely still deserve a proper book curse, along with a free copy of Augustine’s works on PDF.

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An early 4th c. CE sarcophagus of a Greek physician getting his read on. Image via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an Open-Access Institution. 



Amo, Amas, Amat: Greco-Roman School Exercises

The first line of Euripides’ Bacchae reads:

ἥκω Διὸς παῖς τήνδε Θηβαίων χθόνα
I, the child of Zeus, have come to the land of the Thebans

Although it was written by the playwright at the end of the 5th c. BCE, while in Macedonia, the words of Euripides continued to echo in schoolrooms throughout the Mediterranean. (Kind of like how everyone in the U.S. seems to read The Great Gatsby in 9th grade.) In fact, a papyrus from 2nd c. BCE Tebtunis in Egypt indicates that the lines were used as a school exercise to practice writing Greek. The pupil copied out the line four times alone on the fragment that survives [Image Here]. Well into the period of Late Antiquity, certain ancient writers such as Euripides, Virgil and Homer were written over and over by students of Greek, Latin, and Coptic. But what can these exercises tell us about the daily life, pedagogical approaches, and objectives of education in antiquity?


A late antique ostracon (ca. 580 CE) from Epiphanius with the first lines of Homer’s Iliad copied four times (Photo via the Metropolitan Museum of Art).

All over the ancient Mediterranean, boys and girls received schooling in various disciplines. The writer Oribasius said that children should be sent to school around age 6 or 7, though there was no steadfast rule on this. Many went until about the age of 14, depending on social and economic abilities. Writing exercises and curricula tended to be rather uniform during the period of the Roman empire. These exercises often focused on grammar, syllabaries, lists of words, and formulaic literary passages (Capponi 2011: 48). We also have a good number of mathematics exercises, like the ostracon here from a Roman dump at Berenike, dated to around 50 CE.  It reads:

πθ πγ ξη  89 83 68
ξε πζ πη: 65 87 88.

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1st c. CE ostracon with a math exercise on it. (Image via O. Ber. II.222).

Students who got things wrong often received corporal punishment–a technique common in Greco-Roman antiquity and within the monasteries of the late antique world. Horace tells us that schoolchildren at that time paid around 8 asses each month (Sat. 1.6.75). His grammarian was a man from Beneventum named Lucius Orbilius Pupillus,who Horace nicknames plagosus (‘flogger’) (Ep.2.1.70-71). At Pompeii, a fresco from the Villa of Julia Felix shows a young schoolboy being corporally punished.


Fresco of the punishment of a schoolboy, from the Villa of Julia Felix, now in the Naples Archaeological Museum. (Image via Wikispaces).

First, I should note that no one has done more to examine and analyze these school exercises than Rafaella Cribiore, whose study of them in Writing, Teachers, and Students in Graeco-Roman Egypt (1996) asserted the significance of papyri, ostraca, and other materials that transmit such practicums. Second, it should be noted that it is often times hard to say with 100% certainty that these were, in fact, used in schools. Irregular spaces, repetition, spelling mistakes, non-sequitur letters and prose, and multiple hands often tip off epigraphers and papyrologists, but I have more than a few drafts of articles that fit this checklist. Third, the materials we have today survive in disproportionate numbers. Horace notes walking to school with wax tablets, but precious few of these wood and wax tablets survive today.


Example of a Roman wax tablet [think of a low-fi iPad]  (Image via Flickr, girlinblack)

It appears that another common school exercise in the Roman empire after the reign of Augustus was the poet Virgil. One of my favorite pieces of evidence for this comes from a tablet found at Vindolanda.  Along with other remnants of the poet at the fort, this tablet demonstrates the popularity of the poet throughout the Roman empire not long after his death, and also indicates that the Roman provinces were not as “backwoods” as we might at first think. When I tell people I started taking Latin in 9th grade, they are often shocked to hear that I went to a public high school in the Appalachian mountains of Roanoke, Virginia. Yes, my amici! We have Latin in the South, not just Nascar and moonshine.


Tablet (Inv. 85.137) from the Roman fort of Vindolanda on Hadrian’s Wall with a line from Virgil’s Aeneid (9.473). (Image via the Vindolanda Tablets Online).

Although Homer and Virgil continued to be popular even among late antique monks (e.g., the Homer ostracon above, which was found in a trash heap at a monastery in Epiphanius), a number of writing exercises written by non-clerical early Christians indicate that scripture also played a part in the lives of those learning to write outside the Church. Psalms were a popular writing exercise, in addition to Matthew, John, and Acts–all of which we have writing exercises for. A probable writing exercise where a 6th century Christian student practiced the Lord’s prayer twice even survives today (P.Vindob. L 91).


A 6th c. writing exercise using the Lord’s Prayer (P.Vindob. L 91) [Image via the Austrian National Library]. 

An early 4th century papyrus transmitting a school exercise with lines from Romans is also quite telling about the lives of some of these new writers (P. Oxy. II.209). As Annemarie Luijendijk has pointed out, we have known about this papyrus for a long time, but it must now be considered within the social context of a guild member and flax merchant living in the Egyptian city of Oxyrynchus in the 4th c. CE.  Too often, we consider objects–papyri, inscriptions, sculpture–in a vacuum. As she notes, “The papyrus is an artifact that allows us to catch glimpses into the circles in which it was produced and the people who owned it” (2010: 577).

Although literary and documentary papyri are often separated and studied in two different spheres by scholars today, this is a modern partition, not an ancient one. This papyrus belonged to a documentary archive called the ‘archive of Leonides’, which is mostly constituted by flax leases (flax was used to make linen), and is proof that literature and bureaucracy do co-exist in the same epigraphic areas. Hell, I have my W-2 forms sitting right beside my Tacitus edition right now.


P. Oxy. II. 209 is an early 4th c. CE papyrus from Bahnasa that transmits Rom 1:1-7. (Image via Wikimedia, but the papyrus is at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.)

Just as there is no firm partition between documentary and literary papyri, there is not a firm partition between classical literature and late antique writing. As papyri and ostraca indicate, early Christians enjoyed classical authors like Menander at the same time that they wrote out their scripture. Late antique teachers continued to teach in open air and ad hoc classrooms into the later empire, and monks began to practice writing in monasteries, first using scraps of ceramics and papyrus before moving to vellum and parchment. Monks learning cursive and other scripts had to practice just like we used to practice our cursive! Below we see a Coptic monk that used a pottery sherd to practice the alphabet.

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Ostracon from Deir el-Gizaz showing a Coptic monk practicing the alphabet to write in ‘Bible Majuscule’ style script. (P. L. Bat. 25.11. Image via the Papyrological Institute at Leiden University).

Even in the 1086 treatise on Latin syllables and accents, Ars lectoria, the French writer Aimeric grades the classical Latin authors according to gold, silver, and tin standards. Gold metals went to Terence, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Sallust, Lucan, Statius, Juvenal and Persius (Copeland 2016: 24). There were canonical grammar templates then, just as there are today. The survival of these writing exercises provides a window into the process of learning to read, write, and to learn in antiquity. Even if they were found in a trash heap (and many of them were), they are a modern treasure for those of us reconstructing the daily habits of those writing in antiquity.

Libellus Behavior: Papyri, Valentines, and 3D Printing


In 249  CE, the emperor Decius disseminated an edict that required inhabitants of the Roman empire to perform a sacrifice. As UNC professor James Rives has argued, this was the first Christian persecution to be instituted on an empire-wide scale. Those who completed the supplicatio (order to perform a sacrifice) needed to be certified by an imperially designated individual. We are told this story by the fourth century ecclesiastical historian Eusebius of Caesarea (HE 6.41), and a precious few papyri also record the performance of these sacrifices.

For many years, I had only viewed these papyri digitally, via the papyrological database, located at Duke University. As this one from Theadelphia in Roman Egypt reveals, these libelli generally resemble a Roman religious mad-lib or bureaucratic form that cites 1. the person(s) performing the sacrifice, 2. where they are from, 3. the performance of the sacrifice (which could be as little as a bit of honey or wine), 4. names of those that watched the individuals sacrifice, and 5. the date.

“To the officials in charge of the sacrifices, from Aurelius Sakis of the village of Theoxenis, with his children Aion and Heras, temporarily residents in the village Theadelphia. We have always been constant in sacrificing to the gods, and now too, in your presence, in accordance with the regulations, we have sacrificed and poured libations and tasted the offerings, and we ask you to certify this for us below. May you continue to prosper.;(2nd hand) We, Aurelius Serenus and Aurelius Hermas, saw you sacrificing.;(1st hand) The 1st year of the Emperor Caesar Gaius Messius Quintus Traianus Decius Pius Felix Augustus, Pauni 23.” (trans. APIS)

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An antoninianus of Trajan Decius (249 CE) (Image via, 1944.100.18458). On the obverse is a profile of the emperor himself, on the reverse Decius is on a prancing horse celebrating his adventus as Augustus.

I had the opportunity to go to Luther College in Decorah, IA this past week to give a talk and then to see a newly discovered Decian libellus. Only a few years ago, this rare papyrus was discovered in a folder at the College during a library cataloguing project. Orlando W. Qualley, a former professor of classics and dean of the college at Luther, had bought 9 papyri while on an archaeological dig in Karanis, in order to teach with them, and the libellus was among those bought. Immediately, I had wanted to make the trip to see it. It did not matter to me that not long thereafter, Luther College had called upon the papyrological team at the University of Michigan to analyze the papyri and help to digitize them, before putting them online. I still wanted to see that papyrus in person.

Although open-access databases like and Trismegistos allow me and countless others to interact with ancient objects through my computer (and in my pajamas, no less), I still wanted to see this little relic of the Decian persecutionLibellus_Bond_P.Luther 4. This connection between Christian martyrdom and physical objects goes back to the world of Late Antiquity, but in many ways, it is a human desire to interact with the tactile. It is the craving for the visceral experience with an object that continues to drive museum attendance and visits to archaeological sites, even in the midst of an information age focused on 3D printing and digital resources. In many ways, the digital revolution has democratized access to museum collections, but also created a personal connection between object and internet-goer that might even motivate a pilgrimage to interact with the object one-on-one.

Since it is February 14, I will turn to Saint Valentine for some further examples of how interaction with physical objects drove pilgrimage and the trade in early Christian relics in antiquity. This late antique phenomenon is often referred to by Princeton scholar Peter Brown and others as ‘The Cult of the Saints.’ Early Christians travelled long distances to see and often to touch the various body parts and clothing of martyred saints such as Valentine, often with a belief that these objects held healing powers. As Brown notes,”The carefully maintained tension between distance and proximity ensure one thing: praesentia, the physical presence of the holy, whether in the midst of a particular community or in the possession of particular individuals, was the greatest blessing that a late-antique Christian could enjoy” (1981 [rev.2015]: 88). As documents such as the 4th c. Bordeaux Itinerary indicate, Pilgrims travelled for miles to see and to touch relics. They often took home small souvenirs (often with oil run through the reliquary) called ampullae. In other words, the exit through the museum gift shop has always been a thing.


Digital mapping site Pelagios’ visualization of the Bordeaux Itinerary, an early Christian pilgrimage itinerary from 333 CE. Read and interact with it more HERE.

In terms of the martyrdom of the 3rd century CE Saint Valentine, we really should refer to him in the plural. There are actually over a dozen Saint Valentines referenced in the hagiographical material. This is not so unexpected, since the names of Valens, Valentinus, and Valentinianus were common enough among Roman men; there was , for instance, a Roman emperor named Valens and another named Valentinian.

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The ‘Colossus of Barletta‘ may be a bronze depiction of emperor Valentinian (r.364-375 CE)

The two majors saints associated with the Feast of Saint Valentine are a priest named Valentine of Rome and a bishop named Valentine of Terni, who were both supposed to have been killed along the Via Flaminia at varying mile markers. In his study of the cult of Saint Valentine in Chaucer, Henry Kelly notes that in the 1960s, a Franciscan named Agostino Amore (I kid you not, that is really his name) proposed that while the Roman Valentine was originally a Christian patron who donated land for a basilica, the Umbrian saint was the likely martyr (1986: 48). Legend had it that Saint Valentine was martyred in 269 CE, during the reign of Claudius Gothicus, although even this is disputed depending on which Saint Valentine you are referring to.

What can be stated is that physical interaction with the remains of Saint Valentine have been in place in the city of Rome perhaps since the 4th century, when Pope Julius I allegedly built a basilica for the saint near the site of his burial. East of the Via Flaminia in Rome today, the church of San Valentino and its catacomb are opened annually only on February 14 for a mass celebrating the saint and his original burial there. Yet it is on the north side of the Basilica of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome, where the faithful and the curious can now flock to see the alleged reliquary containing the head of Saint Valentine. The relics of Saint Valentine were translated there from the basilica dedicated to the saint in the 13th century.


Skull of Saint Valentine of Rome, Basilica di Santa Maria in Cosmedin (Image via Atlas Obscura)

As Candida Moss has written in regard to the saint, “Neither of these men fit the bill for legendary Valentine who was, according to a fifth- or sixth-century story known as the Passion of Marius and Martha, a priest imprisoned and executed by the Emperor Claudius II around 270.” However, that doesn’t really matter to the pilgrims. I have stood next to viewers of the reliquary many times. Many simply stand in wonder, while others get more emotional. As Brown stated, it is the praesentia with the object that moves believers and non-believers alike. It is this pilgrimage traffic that churches, archaeological sites, and museums have benefited from for years. A key question is: Has this new-fangled digital revolution damaged the relationship between pilgrim and object? In a word: No. It has strengthened it.

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A 3D printed version of the bones in the Jamestown reliquary (L) next to the fragments found in the original (R). A 3D model of the reliquary can be found at the Smithsonian site.(Image via Micro Photonics Inc)

The craze over the ability to 3D print objects is similar to the late antique rush to make containers for relics and to sell souvenirs to visitors on site. Whereas pilgrims used to buy a flask or a small box to hold bone fragments, visitors to New York’s Metropolitan Museum or the British Museum can now 3D print objects in the gift shop as they leave. Just as in antiquity, it makes sure that the relationship with an object is maintained long after the individual has left the general vicinity of the artifact.

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Granite head of Amenemhat III
by The British Museum
on Sketchfab

Although there is still great reluctance, particularly among some churches, to open up their collections digitally and to allow 3D modeling of their collections, I would say that giving open access to these objects not only preserves their visage and dimensions for posterity, it  multiplies the number of people who create a kind of dating relationship with an object that may motivate them to make that relationship more serious, by traveling to the institution in person. Just as Kindles did not kill the small bookstore, 3D printing will not kill the museum or pilgrimage.

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Philippi Latrines (PhotoScan)
by ryanfb
on Sketchfab


After I visited the Roman and early Christian site of Philippi last summer, Ryan Baumann (Duke University, made a 3D model of a video I took of the site’s ancient latrines, instantly allowing viewers to be transported to a spot where Saint Paul himself walked. 

As papyri, relics, and many other artifacts demonstrate, the digital can never fully replace the human desire to touch, to interact, and to connect. Chelsea Emelie Kelly, Manager of Digital Learning at the Milwaukee Art Museum, put it best: “If we want our collections to be relevant and meaningful in the 21st century, we must be brave enough to open up our doors—physically and virtually—to support, encourage, and celebrate the profound and magical experiences with art that happen next, whatever they might be.” We are living in a world already moving towards open-access to information and to objects, and it is in the best interests of museums, churches, and the publishing world to embrace the digital realm. The existence of the digital will never make the physical obsolete, it will only serve to produce more pilgrims.

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3D Model of the Reliquary Bust of a Female Saint from the Bode Museum in Berlin (ca. 1300 CE). Images via Wissam Wahbeh at

Hail, Caesar: A Classicist’s Movie Review


George Clooney takes it easy on a lawn chair after being kidnapped in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ (Photo via Indiewire)

It is about 43 minutes since we got out of seeing ‘Hail, Caesar!’, the Coen brothers’ new movie about a Tinseltown film studio during the 1950s. I enjoyed the film immensely, and, well, I have some frayed, butter stained theater napkin notes about the multiple classical allusions in the film.

Before we get to the allusions, let’s talk about the writer-directors Ethan and Joel Coen–and their Classics bona fides. Everyone who has seen ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ (2000) knows that the Coen brothers have a love for classical antiquity. The film was later based off of Homer’s Odyssey, although the directors have previously revealed that the script did not begin as a re-imagination of the poet’s tale. It only later became a mix of Homer and ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ The brothers are the children of academics (an art history professor for a mother and an economics professor for a father) and Ethan was also a philosophy major at Princeton. 

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As ‘Big Dan’, John Goodman gives a nod to the cyclops, Polyphemus in ‘O Brother Where Art Thou’ (2000).

I was in a supermarket in Milwaukee in 2013 when I first heard this Fresh Air interview with the Coen brothers. In it, they mentioned that their future project was based on “sword and sandal” movies popular in the 1950s and 60s. I had visited Rome’s legendary film studio, Cinecittà, just a few months prior, and was excited to see the Coen brothers’ take on this period of film history.


An extra dressed as a Roman soldier at Rome’s Cinecittà in 1959 (Image via Bibliolab).

To begin (and end with), this film has a ring composition. It starts and concludes with a confessional. As humans, we love symmetry, and so ring composition is a quite satisfying mode of storytelling that dates back to classical antiquity. Actually, it is a very Homeric approach to narration. In this opening scene, we are introduced to Eddie Mannix, played by Josh Brolin, who is the managing executive of Capitol Pictures Studio, a film studio currently filming a number of movies on a large studio lot. Certainly the name of the film studio itself is meant to reference the movie’s theme of capitalism versus communism, but it may also be an allusion to Rome’s Capitoline hill. The collis Capitolinus was arguably the most important of the seven hills, and contained the Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus as well as the Temple of Juno Moneta–where Rome’s mint produced coinage.

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Josh Brolin as Eddie Mannix in ‘Hail, Caesar!’ The Studio lot map behind him looks strongly like a Roman army camp plan.

As the audience gets to know our main character, Eddie Mannix, we are introduced to the fact that he is defined by a (seemingly) devout Catholic faith and is currently mulling over a competing job offer from Lockheed Martin. Both of these things–Mannix’s religious and his financial duties in life–provide both the protagonist’s struggle and the larger themes of the film. In the words of the headhunter hired to lure Mannix from his film studio job, Lockheed is the stable future and movies are the past. After all, soon everyone will have a television! One couldn’t help but think of insanity of the late Republic in the first century BCE as it transitioned to the more stable empire under the emperor Augustus. The metaphoric transition between Republic and Empire seemed obvious to me, though the film is more directly referencing the tension between democracy and communism in the U.S. during the beginning of the Cold War. It seemed to me that the map of the studio in Mannix’s office was actually a plan of a Roman army camp. This would make Mannix an imperator torn between the past and the (apparent) future.

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Plan of a typical Roman army camp. Mannix’s ‘troops’ are his zany actors, directors, and writers.

Early on, we are told that Capitol Pictures is filming a movie about the death of Christ from the perspective of a Roman centurion, played by George Clooney. The film’s name is ‘Hail, Caesar!’, though this is not Julius Caesar. It takes place during the middle of the reign of Tiberius (I calculated it at 26 CE). If we put aside the fact that Clooney says he wants to head to the Baths of Caracalla (which did not yet exist!) and focus instead on the purpose of showing us these film snippets, the intent seems to be to harken back to the period of sword and sandal movies that gave us ‘Ben-Hur’ [1959] and ‘Spartacus’ [1960].


Kirk Douglas as Spartacus in the 1960 film Spartacus. This is the famous “I am Spartacus!” moment later satirized rather crudely by Pepsi.

Both ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘Spartacus’ had ethical and religious overtones that were often quite heavy handed. Spartacus is also widely cited for breaking the Hollywood blacklist by using Dalton Trumbo as its screenwriter. Similarly, ‘Hail, Caesar’ alludes to this conflict by having Clooney be kidnapped by a bunch of communist writers who long for a safe harbor of equality and communism amid the rough seas of Hollywood capitalism. In this context, we can see Capitol Pictures as also referencing Marx’s communist manifesto Das Kapital. A running theme in the movie is certainly whether belief and faith (both in God and in politics) are acted parts: Are these simply affectations or integral to the way one should live?

There are certainly myriad classical names and references to be had–a gossip columnist named Thessaly who has a twin sister named Thora–both of whom reminded me of the fact that rumor and gossip are personified by the Greek goddess Φήμη and the Roman goddess Fama. There are also mentions of the rise of “new men”, which will make any lover of Cicero think of the ascent of the novus homo during the late Republic. However, I was most fascinated by the theme of being caught in between, as it were, in a liminal space. As any historian will tell you, the most interesting parts of history come at its junctures. It is why the transition from the Republic to the Principate draws our students in, but it is also why the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation remain enthralling periods to study.


Tilda Swinton plays both Thora and Thessaly in the film, twin gossip columnists ostensibly based off of notorious 1930s gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, but also very reminiscent of the goddess Pheme and Fama–the original gossip columnists.

I won’t tell you the decision that Mannix ultimately makes about that job offer, but his comments to the priest in the confessional at the end of the movie outline a question that men, women, and whole nations have had to grapple with: Is it better to do a hard job that you feel worthwhile, or should you do the easier job that seems to be more progressive?

The Roman historian Tacitus couches the decision to accept imperial rule in much the same way in the beginning of his Annals. To Tacitus, the Res Publica is a hot mess, but it is better than becoming enslaved follower-sycophants to an emperor. The irony here is that while Mannix fights for tradition, those communist writers view themselves as slaves on the plantation of Capitol Studio Pictures. So the Republic ain’t perfect either. It is all about perception, and ‘Hail, Caesar!’ leave the audience without a lot of moralizing ends. As the camera pans out in the final scene, the water tower at Capitol Studio reads, simply: ‘Behold.’ In my head, all I could hear was the shout of ‘Ecce homo!–‘Behold, the man.’ Famously, these are the words said (in the Vulgate) by Pontius Pilate as he presented Jesus to the Jews (John 19: 15). ‘Hail, Caesar!’ places its audience into the middle of a religious, political, and social world at a crossroads in the 1950s, but it is a world not dissimilar to the Republic in 49 BCE or Palestine in ca. 26 CE.

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The ‘Ecce Homo’ moment of the Passion of Christ, as depicted by Andrea Mantegna, 1500.

Using Graphic Language: A Short History of Figure Poems


Jaume Plensa’s Spillover II in Atwater Park in Milwaukee, Wisconsin (Photo by the author).

I miss Milwaukee sometimes. On warmer nights, I used to run along Lake Michigan and wait for the sunset, before jogging home to work on the book. One of the best things about those runs was looking at sculpture against the backdrop of the Wisconsin sunset. What always caught my eye was a piece by Catalan artist Jaume Plensa in Atwater Park. It is a man made entirely of letters. In conceptualizing the 8.5 foot sculpture, the artist remarked: “The letters that form the open framework suggest that language is our primary tool for experiencing the world and each other, and that we are, essentially, both limited and empowered by this abstract means of translating our experiences.” If this doesn’t sum up the work of a classicist, I don’t know what does, but as it turns out, Plensa is not the first to use letters and words as a kind of graphic Lego. Since Greek antiquity, words have influenced the making of objects, but objects also influenced words.

Figure poems–a visual poem that manifests in the form of an object–have been popular since Greek antiquity. In the 6th c. BCE, Simonides of Keos famously claimed that poetry was a speaking picture, while painting was a mute poem (Plut. Mor. 347A). Figure poetry remained a poetic genre into Roman antiquity and the middle ages, when they were often called carmina figurata. Perhaps the best known figure poem today is “The Altar” by the 17th century Welsh poet George Herbert, but before Herbert’s altar, there were altar poems by Dosiados (c. 150 BCE) and Besantinus (c. 117 CE).

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(L) “The Altar” by George Herbert (via Poetry Foundation) and (R) Besantinus’ altar poem.

The Greek antecedents for this form of poetry is perhaps less surprising if we understand how the Greeks conceptualized writing and the many parallels they made between writing and the act of construction. For instance, at the heart of the word “poet” is the Greek word ποιητής (“maker, doer”), coming as it does from the Greek verb for “to do.” Poets are craftsmen or craftswomen of imagination rather than tangible objects, but they are still in the habit of weaving a new fabric using previously fabricated words (unless you are James Joyce; then you can feel free to make up both the story and the words it consists of). As one scholar put it, figure poetry most closely adheres to the Platonic idea of ποίησις (“making”) in the novel sense that Plato used it (Drummond 2013: 69)–that is for what we might call an artist rather than a technician or artisan. One of the most widely known Greek figure poets we know of does not come until around 300 BCE, during the Hellenistic period that followed the death of Alexander the Great. His name was Simias of Rhodes (Greek Anthology XV, 22), and his poetry took on the form of physical objects such as an axe, a wing, and an egg.

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Simias’ egg poem next to a real egg (in case you didn’t know what one looked like).

Simias’ axe poem reads:

Epeius of Phocis has given unto the man-goddess Athena, in requital of her doughty counsel, the axe with which he once overthrew the upstanding height of god-builded walls, in the day when with a fire-breath’d Doom he made ashes of the holy city of the Dardanids and thrust gold-broidered lords from their high seats, for all hew was not numbered of the vanguard of the Achaeans, but drew off an obscure runnel from a clear shining fount. Aye, for all that, he is gone up now upon the road Homer made, thanks be unto thee, Pallas the pure, Pallas the wise. Thrice fortunate he on whom thou hast looked with very favour. This way happiness doth ever blow.
(trans. Edmonds)

.text_pp1.jpgIt is likely that Simias’ poem was a votive offering placed on an actual axe, rather than a poem shaped like an axe and placed on a scroll. This epigraphic habit would not have been uncharacteristic. Other inscribed votive axes are quite similar to Simias’. Below is a religious axe (i.e., for performing sacrifice) from Archaic Greece, around 520 BCE (now at the British Museum). It too has a “speaking” inscription, this one in the Achaean dialectic:

I am the sacred property of Hera-in-the-Plain: Kyniskos the butcher dedicated me, a tithe from his works. (trans. British Museum).


In Greco-Roman antiquity, objects did “speak” to their audiences. For instance, an Italo-Corinthian alabastron from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has inscribed on it: mi licinesi mulu hirsunaiesi (“I am the gift of Licinius Hirsunaie”). Roman sepulchral epigrams often spoke to the viewer in verse, and in so doing, made a connection between the dead (now an inanimate object) and the living (an animate object). Even everyday objects, such as utensils and bowls, were inscribed to speak to readers. The so-called “Nestor Cup” of Pithekoussai is one of the oldest Greek alphabetic texts (Haarmann 1996 :145) we have, and it too wants to converse with the imbiber:

I am Nestor’s cup, good to drink from. Whoever drinks this cup empty, straightaway Desire for beautiful-crowned Aphrodite will seize him.

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The “Nestor Cup”  of Pithekoussai dates to around 700 BCE.

As inscribed objects demonstrate, the relationship between objects and inscriptions can be strong. This relationship is in some way maintained in figure poetry. Into the period of Late Antiquity, the shape of a verse or letter remained important to its reception. My favorite figure poet of that time is a 4th century writer and statesman named Publilius Optatianus Porfyrius (just call him Optatian), who adopted the use of letter grids and arithmetic presentation for his panegyric hexameters for Constantine in order to captivate his readers in poems called carmina quadrata (squared poems). He used the spatial presentation of his words in order to underscore beauty, order, and the cosmos to his audience. As Marie Okacova put it, Optatian adopted isometry, “which guarantees that graphically equivalent lines always have the same number of characters.” 

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An 11th c. manuscript transmitting some of Optatian’s carmina quadrata from the BnF (Latin Manuscript 2421. Available online here).


To my mind, Optatian seems inspired by epigraphy as well, though I cannot prove it. The grid-like reading used for the Greek στοιχηδόν style inscriptions is quite similar. These inscriptions often transmitted laws, accounts, and other state documents put on display predominantly in 5th c. BCE at Athens–but also at Delphi, Chios, and in other Greek areas. One wonders if the ordered presentation was meant to graphically communicate the gravitas of the state document itself.


Greek stoichedon style inscription.

During the Carolingian period, such grid and figure wordplay continued. The 9th century poet Hrabanus Maurus was a Frankish benedictine monk who wrote poetry and encyclopdias, and was trained by Alcuin. He had a love for carmina quadrata et figurata. In his De laudibus sanctae crucis, there are 28 figure poems on a range of ecclesiastical topics.


Otto Homburger manuscript of Rabanus Maurus, Figure Poems, “Four evangelists and the Lamb of God” (Cod. 9. Burgerbibliothek. 11th c. See more here.)

Like any good writer, Hrabanus both literally and figuratively inserted himself into his own text.


Hrabanus’ 9th century self portrait (via the Rabanus Project at the University of Toronto)

Clearly the use of words to form pictures or patterns was en vogue during the Carolingian period. The use of words to form animals is another type of illustration that appears popular at this time. As he usually does, medievalist Erik Kwakkel explains these manuscript illustrations best: “They illustrate Cicero’s Aratea, a work of astronomy. Each animal represents a constellation and the written words in them are taken from an explanatory text by Hyginus (his Astronomica). His words are crucial for these images because the drawings would not exist without them. It is not often in medieval books that image and text have such a symbiotic relationship, each depending on the other for its very existence.” Below is the constellation Aquila (“eagle”), which appears in the northern sky along the celestial equator. (NB: The constellation is named after the eagle that brought thunderbolts to Jupiter.) Having the explanations of constellations in the shape of the figure or animal they were named after surely engaged the audience more fully than traditional, linear word presentation would.


Word illustration of an Aquila (“eagle”) in Harley 647, (Via the British Library)

As per usual, this is a short blog post that leaves out a lot of rich history of figure poems; however, I think these examples go a long way towards inspiring us to think more deeply both about the history of textual presentation and about how objects may have influenced their formation. Poetry was certainly inscribed on objects, but objects also left their impression on poetry. The placement of words helps to shape our understanding and even our enjoyment of reading, as does the background (e.g., paper, papyrus, parchment, cup, statue) behind the words. The beauty of letters and words as linguistic Legos means that they will continue to be broken apart, remade, and reformed to create unique poetic fabrics. Certainly it was the letter sculpture set against the backdrop of a Milwaukee sunset over Lake Michigan that always made this reader speechless.


Birds and Dragons surround a cross spelling out “Alleluia” and “Amen” in a 12th c. manuscript copy of the 9th c. monk and poet Hrabanus Maurus (Harley 3045 from the British Library).