Tag Archives: caesar

The History Of Torches, Intimidation & Symbols of Violence

You may have noticed that I have been blogging less on my personal site. This certainly is a product of a busy summer with much travel and other publications to address, but I am afraid that–in part–I must admit that it was a reaction to receiving messages and tweets suggesting that certain white supremacist groups and individuals who objected to the statues pieces were “keeping an eye” on me here in Iowa and online.

However, the events in Charlottesville this past weekend pushed me to say something. Apathy is a choice and it is also an ideological position that can speak volumes. The University of Virginia is my alma mater and for many years, Charlottesville was my home. It is a place I still hold dear. Well beyond that, I wanted to make a statement condemning the actions of the white nationalist groups that gathered in Charlottesville. My Forbes column this week thus explored the history of using torches as symbols of intimidation and racial superiority. I hear duplicate it in full:

“In Charlottesville, Virginia this week, a number of white nationalist action groups came together at a “Unite The Right” rally to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. Marching on the campus of the University of Virginia on the night before the planned rally, protesters carried tiki-torches and chanted “You will not replace us.”

The carrying of torches to suggest power and project intimidation has a long and sordid history.

Fire was a constant hazard in the ancient world. Property owners, apartment dwellers, city magistrates, and emperors lived in fear of the potential damage caused by unchecked fires in urban areas in particular. Torches could be used to light weddings (as they frequently were), but could also be used by soldiers as weapons particularly during siege warfare. They were also carried by rioters wishing to brandish a dangerous weapon which, in Latin, was called a ‘fax .’

Following the assassination of Caesar in 44 BCE, the citizens in Rome who gathered in the Forum to hear Antony’s eulogy grabbed pieces of wood and furniture in the area in order to make an ad hoc pyre upon which to burn the dictator’s body. Many present at the cremation then grabbed pieces of flaming wood as torches from the pyre. As the historian Plutarch noted, “people rushed up from all sides, snatched up half-burnt brands, and ran round to the houses of Caesar’s slayers to set them on fire.”

Fire provided light in a world without electricity, but torches were never devoid of the potential to cause harm. They also signaled at least the potential for violence to break out. In the gospels, we see the threatening use of the torch as well. When Judas finds Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane in the book of John (18:3), it notes: “So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns, and weapons.” Romans regularly used small ceramic oil lamps to light their way in houses and while walking at night, but here the aggressive detachment sent to arrest Jesus is emphatically described by John as brandishing “torches, lanterns, and weapons” (‘φανῶν καὶ λαμπάδων καὶ ὅπλων’).”


A 3rd c. CE relief depicting a Mithraic scene where a bull is being slaughtered shows a torch bearer providing light during the ritual. The relief with polychromy is now at the Baths of Diocletian in Rome.

If we look to modern history to understand how torches became a symbol of not only intimidation but specifically racial intimidation, we must look both to America in the aftermath of the Civil War and to Nazi Germany of the 1930s and 40s. In response to the rights given to African-Americans following the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan formed in Pulaski, Tennessee in the late 1860s. The group took their nomenclature from the Greek word κύκλος, which means “circle”; a word often used in antiquity to refer to how hunters encircled their game. Torches became a consistently described part of the Klan’s early parades and use of visual intimidation. They would continue to be a terrifying feature of the organization when it reemerged in the early 20th century.


The torchlight procession in honor of the new Reichskanzler Adolf Hitler moves through the Wilhelmstraße in Berlin on the evening of 30 January 1933.

Torches used as statements of power and racial superiority were even more prominent in Nazi Germany in the 1930s. On August 1, 1936, a new tradition was introduced to the modern Olympic Games: the use of a torch relay wherein individual runners brought the Olympic flame from Greece to Berlin–connecting the ancient world to Germany. The ancient Greeks had indeed used torches in athletics, but the Nazis appropriated the torch as a symbol of both athletic and racial supremacy.

For more insight on the use of the torch in Nazi Germany, I spoke with Professor Waitman Beorn, a Holocaust historian who currently teaches in the Corcoran Department of History at the University of Virginia and serves as a consultant to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: “For the Nazis, the torches were meant to evoke avolkisch (racial) connection between a pseudo-historical German race and modern Germans. In addition, it enhanced the pageantry and spectacle of Nazi events, made famous at the Nuremberg rallies and in Leni Riefenstahl’s powerful film, Triumph of the Will.” Beorn notes Hitler’s attachment to the torch as a symbol: “In Mein Kampf, Hitler refers to another Nazi symbol, the swastika, as having ‘an effect like that of a flaming torch.’ He also described racial purity as ‘the fuel for the torch of human culture.'”

Beorn was there this weekend as white supremacists and Nazis descended on the town of Charlottesville. Many of them had gone to the local Wal-Mart the night before in order to buy tiki-torches, as they had for another rally there earlier in the summer. Beorn’s reaction to this weekend’s outbreak of violence perpetrated by white supremacist groups that came together to “Unite the Right” in this southern college town underscores the potency of their adopting such symbols: “For the white supremacists and neo-Nazis who descended on my town this weekend, the torch likely is an imitation of the Nazi rallies just as American racists imitate much [Nazi] regalia. However, in the context of modern white supremacy, the torch also likely echoes the burning crosses and torches of the Klan.” The use of cheap tiki-torches put up at pool parties and stored in suburban garages may at first seem laughable, but the visual message of hate and intimidation advertised by these torch-wielding individuals has a long and terrible history of violence.”

A special thanks in particular to Professor Waitman Beorn, a history colleague from UNC-Chapel Hill who is also a native Virginian that now teaches at the University of Virginia. To read more from him on this issue, please see his work on the Nazi chants recited in Lee Park in Charlottesvile back in May. 


January 10, 49 BCE: Revising The Tale Of Caesar’s Crossing of the Rubicon

It was a great trip to the combined annual meeting for the Society for Classical Studies and Archaeological Institute of America (SCS-AIA) in Toronto, but it definitely put me behind on my blogging schedule. No matter! Welcome to a new year, pious readers, and with it comes a reflection on immutable actions over at Forbes. For the 2,066th anniversary of Julius Caesar crossing the Rubicon river (and thus essentially declaring civil war with Rome), I spoke to Robert Morstein-Marx, an ancient historian and Caesar expert at the University of California-Santa Barbara. Prof. Morstein-Marx is hard at work on a book about Caesar that revises many of the narratives surrounding the dictator.

This includes the mythical depiction of the general pausing on his horse at the ford of the Rubicon river in northern Italy in order to soak in the gravitas of the moment. In reality? Caesar’s troops had already crossed the rather small river and Caesar himself later crossed in a wagon rather than on horseback. However, eyewitnesses such as Asinius Pollio and then the poet Lucan used the geography of the moment for dramatic effect. This post is about the timeline that led up to the “alea iacta est” (the die [=dice not dye] is tossed) moment and the revising of a myth, for sure, but it is also about how historians employ geography to show other boundaries: legal, emotional, and ethical ones.

…Just think of all the inaccuracies later attached to Washington’s crossing of the Delaware in 1776!


Approximate location of the Rubicon river in northern Italy. Map provided by the Pelagios Project’s Peripleo under a CC-BY-SA.

A note about the primary sources: A timeline and the primary readings for most of these events can be found at the Attalus website for the year 49 BCE.

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.

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.).