Solinus review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review published my review of Kai Brodersen’s edited collection, Solinus: New Studies. The editor and a few others have been in touch with kind remarks.


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Dead Armadillo

It was easier to see in the morning than it had been last night, when I swerved a little to avoid hitting it, the face-up dead armadillo on the street. The dogs and I walked by early today, and it took all my strength to keep them from the intimate investigation they so badly wanted to do. Car after car drove by, as they do on Saturday mornings in the fall, rushing to get kids to the soccer fields, but each slowed down to go around the dead armadillo. Certainly he is evidence of the armadillo invasion of East Tennessee I’ve read about, and sure, I’m unnecessarily worried about leprosy like everybody else is. But soon the authorities will take his corpse away, and the cars will speed up again, and the dogs will calm down.


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Introduction for Wilfred McClay

I have known Wilfred McClay for some time, and for a decade and a half or so, I have had the good fortune to call him my friend. It’s always an awkward thing, to introduce a friend, especially one who is as big a deal as Bill is. Certainly, some of you already might know him as a graduate of Saint John’s College—the famous Great Books school,—with a doctorate from Johns Hopkins, who formerly taught at Tulane and the University of Dallas, and used to hold the Royden B. Davis Chair in Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown, the Sun Trust Bank Chair of Excellence in the Humanities at UT Chattanooga, and now holds the G.T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma. Still others will recall his name as an essayist, with pieces that regularly appear in First Things, The New Atlantis, Wilson Quarterly, Christian Post, Commentary, The Wall Street Journal, and a dozen or two other venues. Tonight he comes to speak to us on the topic of topos, the subject of place, of which his work is now required reading among academics and amateurs alike.

With credentials as impressive and as varied as these, you might ask yourself, Well, what place is it that Bill himself occupies? On the one hand, he sounds like a high-powered academic—and sometimes, Bill, I wonder whether universities are engaged in a sort of arms race to see who can give you the longest title for a named chair—but on the other hand, he sounds a lot like a journalist. Where should we locate him? The answer, I think, is to be found in his book, The Masterless, a masterful study of the self and society in modern America. As Bill notes in his introduction, he is writing in [quote] “the division between professional culture and popular culture … [between] highbrows and lowbrows. … The middle ground far from being the ground of compromise or sellout, may be the most intellectueal fertile, because it must take seriously the genuinely public obligations of the disciplined intellect. If mind is to have a place of authority in the unfolding drama of our lives and our institutions, it must speak in a resoundingly public voice.” [endquote] And it is with his inimitable and resoundingly public voice that he will speak to us tonight on the topic of Why Place Matters.

FYP Program talk, Guerry Auditorium, Sewanee, September 16, 2015


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Panel on the Destruction of the Ancient City of Palmyra

This past Tuesday, my friend Jeff Thompson in the Art History department put together a panel entitled “Sewanee Responds: A Panel Discussion on the Destruction of the Ancient City of Palmyra.” Panelists included Sara Nimis (Mellon Globalization Fund), Nick Roberts (History), Jacqueline DiBiasie Sammons (Classical Archaeology) and yours truly. I learned a lot from my colleagues about the situation in Palmyra–the sale of antiquities by ISIS, their ideological commitments, the lack of good options for the West, etc.–and was especially impressed by questions from students and others.

In my own remarks, I make reference to three articles:

  • Heather Pringle, “ISIS Cashing in on Looted Antiquities to Fuel Iraq Insurgency,” National Geographic, June 27, 2014, who notes: “Listed among ISIS’s key financial transactions were records of illicit antiquity trafficking. In one region of Syria alone, the group reportedly netted up to $36 million from activities that included the smuggling of plundered artifacts.”
  • Gary Vikan, “The Case For Buying Antiquities To Save ThemWall Street Journal, August 19, 2015, who says: “In times of extraordinary risk, we should be open to dealing with bad guys to create a safe harbor for works of art. This is an act of rescue and stewardship—and should be done with the explicit understanding that eventually, when the time is right, the objects will be repatriated to the country of their origin.”
  • Leon Wieseltier, “The Rubble of Palmyra,” The Atlantic, September 4, 2015, who writes: “But there are different reasons for admiring ruins. We need not dwell on them only to vindicate ourselves. We can dwell on them also to vindicate a notion of humanity. We preserve them to illustrate not divine purposes but human purposes. They are proof of the astonishing multiplicity of answers to life’s questions that have been created by our tirelessly self-interpreting kind. We restore them and we display them as a cosmopolitan way of regarding particularities, as an expression of our humane respect for the resourcefulness of the spirit over time. We imbue them with meanings that their makers could not have grasped, except perhaps in places such as Palmyra. Where others saw truth, we see beauty—but the beauty is not merely formal. What a spiritual accomplishment it is, to cherish—and in the case of Khaled al-Assad, to die for—the vestiges of a faith in which one does not believe.”

Postscript, September 27. The Sewanee Purple has a write-up and an editorial on the panel.

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On not finding Hercules

It’s not especially hard to get to Lago di Vico, if you don’t mind getting lost a few times on the state roads leading up the mountain in far northern Lazio. The sun was beginning to set as I arrived and though I still wasn’t sure exactly where the B&B was, I got out to take a few photos.

From Classical Journal 98 (2002)

From Classical Journal 98 (2002)

Why have I come here? It’s a lovely local vacation spot, but my interest is scholarly–a few years ago, I had written an article about the mythical origins of Lago di Vico, supposedly created by Hercules himself.  I argued that the Etruscan mirror to the left was an illustration of the lacus Ciminius, the ancient name of the lake. I spent a lot of time a decade and a half ago thinking about this lake and its legends–I figured it was about time I went to go see it for myself.

The nearby town is called Ronciglione, but the town on the water is called Punta del Lago. After a few wrong turns, I arrived to my B&B around 8 pm–the sunset was moving from orange to purple by this point, and under this beautiful sky the painful truth was crashing in that I could not get into Nostra Senora del Lago.  Ring the bell, bang the door, yell  all I might, nobody was there. Some neighbors walking by could speak English, and let me know that the owner was at the tennis club down the street. We talked in broken French to each other, and eventually I settled in– it was hard to stay mad, I have to say, in a hotel as charming as this one.

I walked over to a restaurant on the lake, down the Via della Selva Ciminia– the road of the Ciminian Forest, a dire omen. The Romans hated this forest: Silua erat Ciminia magis tum inuia atque horrenda quam nuper fuere Germanici saltus … Eam intrare haud fere quisquam praeter ducem ipsum audebat, “The Ciminian forest was more fearsome and pathless than recently were the German groves. … To enter it was a thing nobody but the gneral dared to do,” writes Livy (9.36). With dauntless courage I sally forth to the touristy fish restaurant just beyond.

Kids are running around, parents and grandparents are enjoying glasses of the excellent local white wine.  Alas, the food is not so excellent. My server is a young man for whom this is summer job–let’s just say that waitering doesn’t seem to be in his blood. In America his name would be Chip, I think to myself. His English is not so bad, better by far than my Italian, but neither of us can translate the names of the fish on the menu into English. There’s no wifi reception here, so I can’t access an online dictionary.  “Well, what do you like on the menu?” I ask.  “Nothing,” he replies. “I don’t like fish.”

10378159_539451502831506_4237772195019662659_nAt tables all along the lakefront, there are large groups of men celebrating. Chip explains that today was the Palio delle Barche, a race across the lake. “That group way over there is singing because they won,” he tells me. “The ones down this way are singing because they lost.” My meals, some fried fish (what kind? who can say?) comes out. It’s terrible, as is the singing, but the wine is very good and very cheap. I do believe I’ll have another.

Do you know any myths about the lake, I ask Chip. “It is an old volcano,” he tells me.  Yes, yes, but myths?  Any old gods or heroes? He points to Monte Venere across the lake, noting its connection with the goddess of love. Yes, yes, but what about male heroes? Perhaps Hercules?  “Who is that?” he asks.  Never mind.  Ah well.  The wine is fine here, I think, and the restaurant has a pretty view, and the singing has grown louder as both groups try to outdo one another. Tomorrow, I may drive over to Caprarola to see the frescos of Hercules at the Palazzo Farnese before heading to Tivoli. But perhaps I will sleep in instead. 

Postscript. The next day, in fact, I went into Ronciglione instead of Caprarola–I just couldn’t bear another palazzo. It’s a small city picturesquely poised along a ravine. A toothless old man I ask tells me that there is a museum in town, but it isn’t very interesting. Am I an American? he wants to know, and then recalls for me the Allied bombing in the Second World War. He points out the areas that were most devastated.  Later I see signs for the Via Francigena, on which Ronciglione is a waystation. It would be nice to pass through here again someday, I think, though I doubt I ever will.

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Behold the (Other) Man! Looking for Pilate 2: Naples, Palazzo Pitti

Naples’ Palazzo Pitti is the other enormous, masterpiece-stuffed museum in Florence, or rather, set of museums jammed into a Renaissance palace that, in addition to having many stone staircases inside to climb, is on top of a hill.

To the weary tourist, it is truly a place without pity. But I went to visit, in search of Pontius Pilate. Later in the day I would make my way in and out of the (boring) royal apartments over into the Palatine Gallery and wander awestruck through room after room of fifteenth, sixteenth, seventeenth century paintings by the likes of Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Raphael, etc., etc. The floors are hard on the feet, and the neck hurts from straining to look at even the exquisitely painted ceilings.


The sheer volume of artwork here is overwhelming, and one grows numb to it. Even the Raphael of Count Tomasso Inghirami one sees in the background below could move me, though I was a little agitated by the placard saying this version is the real one, not the one in the Gardner Museum in Boston! Still, by the end of it all, I felt like the kid below did, splayed out on a bench like the Deposition of Christ behind him.

One such ceiling painting. At the top it reads, “The bitter root of Virtue [produces] sweet fruit”; At the bottom, “Pallas plucks Youth from Venus.” The youth looks very unhappy.


But, as I said, I’d come to find Pilate, and I did find him, in one of the rooms of the Gallery of Modern Art. Only in Florence, of course, could eighteenth and nineteenth century artwork be considered modern!  It’s a lovely museum, though too crammed as well, to be sure.

I spent the better part of an hour looking at many minor masterpieces in this gallery before I came upon it, in the corner of a well-appointed room, Antonio Ciseri’s Ecce Homo, from 1871.

It’s a much reproduced work, as you can imagine. The dramatic point of view, “backstage” if you will, at the presentation of Christ to the jeering crowd, features in many a work about the Passion and Pilate’s particular place in it. I wanted to have a closer look at it, and I’m glad I did. Only later would it occur to me, in Rome at the Scala Sancta, that Pilate stands at the top of the Praetorium steps, those stairs that probably are not in Rome but certainly have been revered as being so.

 At the center of the painting, one sees Pilate’s gesturing hand. The placement demands that we consider it, this hand, pointing away from himself toward Christ who, though largely in shadow, is represented with the crown of thorns. Pilate will wash that hand a little while later, but he will never efface the moment. As Macbeth says in a context perhaps connected to Pilate’s own, Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood / Clean from my hand? No, this my hand will rather / The multitudinous seas in incarnadine, / Making the green one red.”

Beneath the hand and behind the railing of the praetorium, one sees the faces of the crowd. Over and above them are symbols of Empire, most notably Trajan’s Column, out of place geographically and temporally–its jarring placement seems to indicate that there is little the worldly power of Rome can do for the procurator at this moment. The crowd cries for blood, and Pilate will supply it, whether he wants to or not. Like George Orwell in Shooting an Elephant, Pilate must do their will. “A sahib has got to act like a sahib; he has got to appear resolute, to know his own mind and do definite things. To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing – no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”

  The only essay  I know about Ecce Homo is from Henry E. Jackson’s Great Pictures as Moral Teachers, from 1910. Of this painting, he writes,

“What shall I then do with Him?”
This question once asked always has its answer. Even the attempt to ignore it, is an answer as real as any
other. For to do nothing with Jesus, or to do without
Him, has its result. Its result is despair. The life of
such a man as Carlyle is the result. To know the sin and
not to know the sin Bearer, to know the burden and not
to know the burden Bearer, to load one’s heart with the
burdens of men, is to live a life which may be sublime, but
must be full of anguish. Carlyle confessed that to carry
on one’s conscience the sins of his age and his own imper
fect life, makes life seared and stern. Pilate’s question is
in truth unavoidable, and Ciseri’s picture is a vivid pre
sentation of that fact. The picture centers attention on
the chief point of Pilate’s part in the tragedy, and makes
his attempt to avoid his his own question appear, what it in
fact was, most pathetic

It’s a dated approach, but perhaps the right starting point to a deeper consideration of Ciseri’s magnum opus.



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Protestants and Pyramid

The pyramid of Cestius, built in the first century, is the first thing you see when you get off the bus at Porta San Paolo in Testaccio. Crossing the cobblestone street, you go down the road to the right to the entrance of Rome’s famous Protestant Cemetery, the final resting place since the early 19th century for much of the well-to-do Anglo-American ex-pat community

Entering the Campo Cestio is like stepping back in time, though not in the usual way you feel like you’ve stepped back in time in Rome. While it is true that there’s an ancient pyramid lurking to the left throughout your visit to the graveyard, the atmosphere is far more Romantic than Classical. Such a graveyard would not be out of place in England or older parts of the American East Coast–Mt. Auburn in Cambridge, perhaps, or Highgate in London. The sentimentality is thick on the ground here among the maudlin marbles.


The most famous statue here is  Angel of Grief, which the sculptor William Wetmore Story made in 1894 for himself and his wife. It has been much copied in cemeteries since. 

Nearby is the very moving memorial for Rosa Bathurst, who died tragically at the age of 16. She is depicted being received by an angel on one side of the tomb; on the other side, another angel holds an inverted torch and a drooping poppy from which emerges a butterfly, classical images of death and resurrection. 

Close to this is the elaborate monument of Thomas Jefferson Page, a Virginian who was, according to his stone, “Captain, U.S.N. and C.S.N., Explorer, Christian Gentleman.” after the Civil War, Page emigrated to Argentina and then to Rome. The sons of Confederate Veterans restored his monument recently, and I sighed a little unhappily at the battle flag they just had to stick there.

Behind these, alongside the ancient Autelian Wall that Mark’s the Cemetery’s border, is the tomb of Shelley.

In another part of the graveyard Keats is buried–easy to pick out for all the tourists around it snapping selfies. On the way over, you pass by the famous cat sanctuary, I Gatti Della Piramide, whose website gives a good overview of the shelter’s activities. There’s something pleasing about seeing all these cats, little living images of Bast and Sekhmet roaming at will at the foot of the Pyramid and occasionally leaping up to lounge on the poets’ lugubrious gravestones. Hail to thee, blithe spirits.


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