Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Scottish Colossus of Roads


Alex Salmond’s best line in the Independence campaign was to remind those who questioned the Scots’ competence to run an economy that Adam Smith, 'Father of Modern Economics' and author of The Wealth of Nations (1776), was born in Fife. Other influential Scots could be produced as evidence of that nation’s historic contribution in any field of endeavour.

Take the Colossus of Roads. This was the unofficial title bestowed on John Loudon McAdam, who dominated the world of road technology in the late 18th and 19th centuries and is here caricatured in a famous print by Henry Heath. Heath drew both on his viewers’ stereotypes of Scots and on their knowledge of the lost colossal statue of the Sun which the Sun-worshipping Rhodians of the third century BC erected in their harbour to celebrate the defence of their island from Macedonian strongmen.

'Colossus of Rhodes' by Maerten van Heemskerck (1570)
The reason why the road you walk/drive/cycle/sit in a bus on is neither a Pleistocene mud-bath in winter nor a dust-bowl in summer, as in the two roads leading to the left and right of the cartoon, is McAdam. His innovation was to use several layers of very small stones, bound with a cementing agent, to form a crust; provided the road was built above the water table, it did not need to be raised above the pre-existing path nor be given a steep camber.

Road Obsessive
McAdam was born 258 years ago today in an Ayrshire castle. He was incredibly famous and his name became synonymous with inventions of any kind. He was also a monomaniacal obsessive, who spent his entire life and his personal fortune developing his revolutionary technology.  In 1827 his efforts and expenditure paid off: he was appointed General Surveyor of Roads and given a government pay-out of £10,000. The 1827 cartoon here, through the word ‘mock’ and the money-bags he clutches, implies that the expenses he claimed were not entirely legitimate.

Worked literally to death
The cartoon's pictured windmill, ‘Breakstone Mill’, is comically threatening to raise his kilt. Beneath him sit two poor labourers, for the small size of the stones McAdam roads used (they had to be small enough to fit in the worker's mouth) had exponentially increased the work required. Road-making swiftly became associated with the legal sentence of Hard Labour. Henry Wallis’ tragic Stonebreaker (1857)in Birmingham City Art Gallery, was sometimes entitled ‘Helotage’, thus comparing the tragic road-labourer to a helot, an abused slave in ancient Sparta. McAdam used his brain and fortune well, but that did not prevent technological progress in the industrial revolution from coming at a terrible human price. 

Saturday, 13 September 2014


"Who am I? Why am I here?"

 This week has brought a flood of enquiries about caryatids resulting from the photos from the tomb near Amphipolis. What are caryatids and why should the relatives of a rich dead Macedonian choose caryatids to hold up a lintel on the tomb?

Persian Bull
Figures of animals and humans had been used earlier by Egyptian and Persian architects to support imperial roofs. I personally would rather have a bull on my tomb, please, like this one from Darius' building project at Susa, than a caryatid. When Persian art used human figures to do load-bearing work, they were people who had been subjected to the Persian empire. 

Down-at-heel Caryatids at home in Karyes 
Caryatids take their name from the town of Karyai (now Karyes), in the central Peloponnese, which featured a sanctuary and famous statue of Artemis. Karyai means Nuts, or sometimes specifically walnuts or hazelnuts. A Karyatis (plural Karyatides) means 'maiden dancing the nut-tree dance' or a 'nut-tree priestess'.  They did a special dance for Artemis with baskets of nuts on their heads, which may have given an architect the idea to put roofs on their heads instead. But you can dance with a basket on your head. A temple roof is a different matter.

The Roman architect Vitruvius said the origin of the caryatids was much more tragic. The people of Karyai had treacherously sided with the Persians when they invaded. So after the war the other Greeks punished them by executing the men and enslaving the women. The Women of Karyai are not dancing maidens but matrons, he says, doomed to perpetual labour and unfreedom.

Artemis is often associated with death rites and mysteries, which might illuminate her priestesses' presence in funerary art. The most famous caryatids are those in the porch of the Athenian Erectheion, the shrine housing the dead hero-king Erechtheus (five are in Athens; one stands in lonely isolation from her sisters far away in the British Museum). They have inspired countless imitations and adaptations the world over from ancient times, often rather uncomfortably expressing pride in imperialist ventures.

Hans Walther's sad Caryatids, Oppressed by Capital, in Erfurt
My own favourite are the saddest of all.  Their hunched bodies support the entire weight of the capital accumulated in the Savings Bank in Erfurt, central Germany. They are the work of the sculptor Hans Walther, in the idiom of the ‘New Objectivity’ or ‘New Resignation’ (Neue Sachlichkeit) which had been developed in the Weimar Republic: Erfurt is only a few kilometres from Weimar itself. One well-fed capitalist on the left feeds himself from his well-loaded plate, while the other worker–women and men, young and old, are dejected, worn down, and hungry.

So are the new Amphipolis caryatids joyous maidens performing a dance in celebration of the nut harvest, enslaved traitors of their nation, symbols of Macedonian imperialism, ostentation and greed, or simply conventional stone guardians of the dead available for commission in any ancient funeral parlour?  This is what makes antiquity fun: it's up to each one of us to decide.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Woman-Hating Ranters Ancient & Modern

On the London train to run a conference on an ancient poet called Palladas, whose witty epigrams include several bitching about women, I chose an empty seating area for ten. I needed to finish my paper. At the next station I was joined by six raucous men returning from a stag night. 

They kept up a stream of misogynist ranting for an hour. In ancient Greece there was a genre of invective listing alleged female vices, a genre which I mistakenly believed had become obsolete. The most famous example, by Semonides, compares women with animals. It begins with the pig-woman, “a hairy sow, whose house is like a rolling heap of filth; she lies around, unwashed, on the shit-pile, growing fat.” Semonides advocates violence against the talkative dog-woman and the dense ass-woman who enjoys food.

My Fellow Passengers 
My fellow passengers had revived this ancient genre. They went through the Sun, Metro, and other journals, criticising every pictured woman, from teenagers opening exam results to the Home Secretary. Each was labelled a slag, a dog, a bushpig [this one was new on me], a hottie, gagging for it, or a ballbreaker. A vote was taken on whether each woman deserved the honour of “a good seeing to.”  

Semonides of Amorgos
I am not easily shocked. I ignored them and continued to write my comments on Palladas’ 1600-year-old epigram, “A woman is only good on two occasions: dead or in bed”.  But it became apparent that George, the most hungover stag, was Greek. He earned derision from the stags for saying he had to go home and take turns looking after his three-year old daughter before rejoining the testosteronefest in a Fulham pub. Who, they asked scoffingly, "wore the trousers" in George’s house?

I asked George, in Greek, if he would like either his mother or his daughter to hear him in conversation with his friends. He blushed deeply and told them to cool it. They did not stop, but George did, and looked embarrassed for the rest of the journey.

So what had happened here? Perhaps I am a humourless party-pooper. Perhaps some men just assume it is acceptable to talk like that in public or in front of females. Or is that since I am too old to be in the category of meriting “a good seeing-to”, I am effectively invisible? Or were the stags actually trying to provoke me into a reaction? If so, did they want to be told off by a middle-aged lady—perhaps spanked?—or get into a wrangle?  

Being outnumbered one/six may have played a part in the chemistry of the situation. Certainly, once I established an individual relationship with one of them in a language the others couldn’t understand, so they couldn’t collectively combat me, he instantly reverted from Palaeolithic Man to a reasonable modern human.

A Symposium: arena for misogynist ranting
Long ago, when I briefly worked in Cardiff docks managing thirty-six tug-boat crewmen, I persuaded them to take down the topless “page 3” pictures festooning the office by putting photos of naked men on another wall. They said it was disgusting. Women could, I suppose, fight back by forming vigilante groups who roam public transport cackling noisily about all the men in the newspapers. When I retire, I may form a granny-gang to do so. If anyone would like to join me, get in touch in about 2026.

Friday, 29 August 2014

Giving Scottish Independence a Hearing

 The Scottish Independence question is now not about nationalism but economic fairness.  I had no view until I was alerted by the viciousness of rich English people's attacks on Alex Salmond. Such abuse has always been a sure indication that the wealthy sense that they may soon be required to give large dollops of money away.

Vilified in Establishment Press

More of Scotland now belongs to non-Scots than to people born and raised there. Such immigrants are wealthy and worried that Salmond’s egalitarian policies will stop Scotland offering them the quality-of-life nirvana that they currently enjoy. 

Glen Avon’s 40,000 acres are owned by a Kuala Lumpur-based conglomerate. Kjeld Kirk-Christiansen (head of LEGO Interrnational) owns a massive estate. Fashion guru Anders Holch Povlsen’s Scottish property portfolio has swelled to £65m. The Laird of Eigg is Marlin Eckhard Maruma from Stuttgart. Paul van Vlissingen, a Dutch tycoon, owns an 80,000-acre estate in Wester Ross. "His Excellency” Mahdi Mohammed Al Tajir, from the United Arab Emirates, now produces HIghland Spring mineral water on the Blackford Estate.

My Future Neighbour?
When the fabulously wealthy English immigrant to Scotland, J.K. Rowling, gave £1K to the “[Rich People] Better Together” campaign, otherwise funded by magnates (HSCB etc) who don't even live in Scotland, I felt ill. It is not just that the campaign had just hired the Saatchi company to promote them. I admittedly have a personal reason. She was the only Classicist to whom I wrote in 2011 asking for an endorsement of the campaign to keep Classics open at Royal Holloway University of London whose p.a. sent a rude rejection email. But I do wonder just how much tax she fears Alex Salmond’s welfare state would expect her to dish out to actual Scots from her castle.

Nicola Sturgeon
If the Independence adventure goes ahead, we're moving to near a Scottish airport forthwith. I’ll commute to London by air. It can’t take any longer than the cynically marketed Cotswold “Cathedrals Express” locomotive, which averages 2 m.p.h. Unlike rich people with an investment in the result of the Scottish referendum, I'll pay whatever tax it takes to keep healthcare and university education a right and not a privilege. Rock on, Alex and Nicola, with your fishy surnames. We don’t all believe the Establishment obloquy.
Alex Salmon(d)

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Estuary Greek Philosophers and an Offer

Two years ago I decided to make some money from my pen so I could offer our children help with university fees. One has threatened not to do university at all because she doesn’t want to start adult life encumbered by vast debts. So I wrote Introducing the Ancient Greeks: from Bronze Age Seafarers to Navigators of the Western Mind.

Sian Thomas: my Audible avatar 
The US edition, published by Norton, recently hit the shops for under $20 or £20. Beautifully read by Sian Thomas, my absolutely favourite classical actress, it has also now come out on (not available on for UK download until next spring). I have one free hard copy and five codes for free downloads to give away to the first five people to write to me on my King’s College London email, findable through the Classics Department webpage. But if you write, please answer the three questions at the end of this blog! Go on, indulge me! [Sorry you're too late--ed. 24/9/14].

and  Amelia Bones in Harry Potter
The reviews have all been warmly glowing (e.g. in The Independent), except for James Romm’s in the Wall Street Journal. Romm has a reputation for being a dour reviewer, and people who read WSJ are unlikely to share my worldview anyway. He is also the only person alive who would complain that I don’t write enough in it about the ancient theatre—most people think I've  published too much on that already! He also says I never use the word *polis* (city-state), which I do on pp. 51, 104,120, 196, so one does have to ask whether he actually read it. [NB just heard on 23/09/14 that he has apologised and will try to get a correction published].

What western Turkey looked like then
But even he likes my bit on early Greek thought's connection with the silting up of the Maeander Estuary, which I believe is original and which most reviewers have appreciated. It is this:

Miletus today: landlocked
The Milesian thinkers who began discussing the world's unseen causes were watching that world change every day. In about 1,000 BC, their harbour began to silt up. The winding (‘meandering’) River Maeander disgorged itself into the sea, and the particles of rock and soil, ‘alluvium,’ sank to the bottom of the estuary. Every year, the alluvium extended the shore towards Miletus. By the Christian era, Miletus itself was landlocked. The process must have been about half completed when the first philosophers were alive. The men watching fresh water and stones meet salt water and sand, producing new land on a daily basis,  became the first people in recorded history to inquire into the origins of the world exclusively in terms of natural causes. 

Thales: Estuary Thinker
The earliest, Thales, thought that the first cosmic principle or element—the one being pushed back by new land—was water. The argument he used to support this view is that inanimate things lose water and dry out. His student Anaximander drew a map of all the physical world the Milesians knew, and suggested that everything they could perceive—both land and sea, which visibly limited each other—must be surrounded by something else that was limitless and immeasurable--apeiron. The third Milesian thinker, Anaximenes, watched land expand and sea shrink, and argued that all the constituents of the world man could see--fire, wind, cloud, water, earth, stones--are created out of air by processes of condensation or sublimation: the differences between them result from their relative density. In Ephesus, another city not far from Miletus which also became steadily cut off from the sea, Heraclitus asserted the principle that the physical universe was constantly changing: panta rhei, he said, ‘everything is in flux’. Quite.
So, if you want an code allowing you to listen free to Sian Thomas’ delicious voice purring through my version of Greek history, from Linear B to 391 AD, then email me the answers to these three questions:
1] What is the name of the Turkish village nearest to the (now inland) ruins of Miletus?
2] Which ancient Greek philosopher jumped into a volcano?
3] What was the name of Prometheus' Mother?

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Where did Medea Bury her Children?

Be afraid, Jason.
Helen McCrory sizzles at the National Theatre in Euripides’ Medea. This tiny actress grabs the text, the stage and the audience by the jugular and doesn’t let go until they are emotionally exhausted. When she drags the bags containing her small sons’ cadavers from the stage, the forest quivers and there is a suggestion of an earthquake. Hair-raising.*

Not at the National
All the reviewers have commented on the absence of Medea’s flying chariot of the Sun. But none has asked the far more important question: where is she taking them? What does a Bronze Age divorcee from Georgia want to be the last resting place of her beloved children? 

Medea's flight path in white box
I can answer this question, having read the Greek text, and just yesterday visited the site of their graves. It is the temple of Hera near Perachora just across the Gulf of Corinth. This is 90 minutes’ drive from Medea’s house in the Corinthian suburbs, but probably only ten minutes in a flying machine of which the sole previous owner was divine. For an aviator it is en route to Athens—Medea’s final destination.

The land route just takes too long..
Hera, Queen of Heaven
The temple of Hera had two elaborate storeys, a stunning marble floor, and was crammed with votive objects dedicated by both men and women who wanted healthy children. It is located in one of the most beautiful bays in the Mediterranean, lapped by turquoise waters and fringed with pine and cedar trees. The ancient Greeks had no problems in praying to the very children who had been murdered by their mother for the health of their own progeny: UNITY OF OPPOSITES.

If you can’t get to London for this remarkable production, directed by Carrie Cracknell, you can go to your local Cineworld and enjoy it being relayed live on 4th September 2014. Popcorn may not seem appropriate to an infanticide story, but these days you can get gin and tonic--also enjoyed by McCrory's Medea--at the movies too.
*I'm pleased to be discussing whether Medea was Mad or just Bad at the National on Tuesday 19th with Professor Femi Oyebodi