Thursday, July 5, 2012

Don't Anger an Ancient Roman!

Sunday, 7/18/10

Amphitheater at Capua
 Our trip to Rome would have been pleasant except that there were problems with the air conditioning on our bus. It was so hot, it was close to unbearable. We actually got blasts of cold air on the rare occasions when the bus was heading uphill. I was also uncomfortable because I could not find enough space to stretch out my leg. By 3 pm my knee was hurting me, but after pain medication and a lot of wiggling around, I found a position that was comfortable enough.

 On the way we stopped in Capua: not modern Capua, but the ancient one, which has been under a new name, Santa Maria Capua Vetere, since the 9th Century A.D... something to do with Saracens destroying the town and residents relocating to the Capua that now shows up on Italian maps. Ancient Capua is the home of the second-largest Roman amphitheater. It was connected to Rome by the Via Appia and was the second most important city after Rome. 

Over the centuries, Capua made some poor political mistakes. They sided with Hannibal during the Punic War, for which Rome punished the town harshly. It also sided with Pompey against Julius Caesar in one of Rome's civil wars, and, of course, Pompey lost. Julius Caesar settled 20,000 of his veterans in Capua and renamed the colony “Iulia Felix.” Somewhere in the course of these wars, Rome demoted the town's citizenry to non-citizen status, declared the town's lands ager publicus, and executed the town's leadership when the war was over, but I am a little confused about the exact chronology. The overall point is that the town made political mistakes and suffered for it.

 The amphitheater is beautiful, and the nearby gladiator-museum was cute and interesting. I posted pictures on Flickr. There's another museum that we could not get into. Within walking distance is a Mithraeum, a sacred space for devotees of Mithras. It was an ancient mystery-cult popular with soldiers and merchants in the 2nd-3rd centuries A.D. It rivalled Christianity for membership and, like other mystery-cults, promised its followers eternal life and union with Mithras after death. Only men could be members, which might be one of the reasons Christianity won out over time, according to Alan Pagan's lecture. Another reason might have been a less hierarchical structure and thus greater variation in belief than Christianity had. 

Mithras, according to what we know of the myth, killed a sacred bull that represents chaos, thus bringing order to the world. He did this in a cave, so a Mithraeum is often underground and cave-like. Mithras is associated with light, the sun and other celestial bodies, and the stars. He wears a Phrygian cap because he came from the East, although Alan says it is uncertain whether the religion came from the East or whether it developed in Western Europe and borrowed ideas and imagery from the East. It also has Platonic influence with the idea of the allegory of the cave. Certain attributes besides the bull, such as a raven, a snake, a torch, etc., help one identify Mithras in art. 

I would later be reminded of this Mithraeum when I visited the Vatican Museum. I saw a large, dramatic sculpture of Mithras slaying the bull there.

Mithras Slaying the Bull (Vatican Museum Collections)
The  Mithraeum in Capua Vetere had a relief sculpture that looked like Cupid and Psyche, although I have no idea why it would be in a Mithraeum, if so. Psyche, named after the Greek word for Soul, looks suspiciously like Tinkerbelle in “Peter Pan.” I posted pictures on Flickr. This Mithraeum is usually locked up, so if you go during visiting hours, you need to make an appointment so someone can meet you with a key. The same goes for Cicero's tomb (see below).
Psyche, or Tinkerbelle??

 I am beginning to conceive of a project where I could assign teams of students artwork that portrays mythology or some other aspect of Greco-Roman art, and the students have to figure out from there what the art is about, find other examples, and present their findings to the class. A picture of a relief I found at the gladiatorial museum might make a good example. It shows a raven picking at a bound man. I assume it represents the punishment of Prometheus.

 Also on the way to Rome we stopped at Formia, ancient Formiae, for lunch. We saw a pleasant little museum there, and we learned a little about Marcus Tullius Cicero, who was an orator, statesman, lawyer, and a consul in Rome during 63 B.C. He had a much-loved villa in Formiae and there is a monument there that is allegedly his tomb. The group read in English translations three different accounts of his death. The historian Livy praises his courage. That is the version I most like, because I am rather fond of old “Chickpea,” as this name translates. Like Capua, he made a poor political decision, attacking Marc Antony is a series of speeches he called “Philippics,” after invectives that the ancient Athenian, Demosthenes, delivered against Philip of Macedon, Alexander the Great's father. As a member of the Second Triumvirate, Antony had Cicero proscribed. This means his life was forfeit and his property confiscated. The murderer(s) got a piece of his estates for their efforts, and the government took the rest.

Cicero was murdered and his head and hands brought back to Antony: the head that contained the tongue that spoke the diatribes against him, and the hands that wrote them. His head and hands were hung from the speaker's platform, the rostra in the forum at Rome, where Cicero had delivered some of his most important speeches. A sad end for a great orator and writer.

 On a happier note, our group really likes its accommodations at the Casa La Salle in Rome. The rooms are bigger and air-conditioned with better amenities if lacking the Vesuvian Institute's view.We will be here for a week. I posted a video of the accommodations on Youtube.

My thanks to the National Endowment for the Humanities for making this portion of the trip possible.

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