Monday, October 31, 2011

A Trip to the Circus, Gallo-Roman style

The largest civic buildings of antiquity were not actually the amphitheaters-and I will get around to them presently-but the hippodrome or circus.  These were large oval tracks for chariot racing.  They do not differ in form too much from modern day race tracks.

Not all cities were big enough for a Circus, and they have a very poor track record with respect to surviving to the modern era.  When the Empire fell on hard times the complex organizational skills that could produce teams of highly trained charioteers just vanished.  And without races to watch, and to bet on, there was little point in having a Circus.  Poorly adaptable to other uses, and often near the edge of town where you could rob out stones with little official notice, they just vanished.

Here is an artists reconstruction of what the biggest of them all, the Circus Maximus in Rome, once looked like:
And in a somewhat stylized mosaic from the Gallo-Roman museum in Lyon, is a contemporary view, probably representing a yet undiscovered Circus in that city:





The circus at Arles followed the basic pattern.  It had an oval track wide enough for 12 chariots to race at once.  It had a central "spine" or spina on which one would find lap counters and an obelisk that marked the finish line.  And seating, perhaps for as many as 20,000 spectators.  Today there is not much remaining to view, just this sad little bit of foundation outside the Musee de l' Arles Antique:
Sidonius mentions being there circa 461.  And he was certainly well acquainted with the racing life, here is his description of a race he witnessed in the Circus of Ravenna:

"There behind the barriers chafe those beasts, pressing against the fastenings, while a vapoury blast comes forth between the wooden bars and even before the race the field they have not yet entered is filled with their panting breath...never are their feet still, but restlessly they lash the hardened timber....The others are busy with hand and voice, and everywhere the sweat of drivers and flying steeds falls in drops on to the field. The hoarse roar from applauding partisans stirs the heart, and the contestants, both horse and men, are warmed by the race and chilled by fear....You sped straight past your swerving rival...."
Sidonius Apollinaris, To Consentius (XXIII)
One rather remarkable feature of the Arles Circus is that it was built on swampy ground.  It speaks of the confidence of Rome in its prime that this was not considered a problem.  28,000 wooden piles were driven in to support the Circus, doing such a good job of it that it remained in service for over 300 years.  I found a fascinating description of this process in a rather unlikely source:  Pile Driver: The Official Publication of The Pile Driving Contractors Association  It is a rather sizable download with all too many advertisements for heavy equipment, but interesting in a technical sense.  The wooden piles for instance allow precise dating of the project, analysis of growth rings indicates the logs for the pilings were cut in the winter of AD 148/149.

The Circus eventually fell into disrepair, the stones removed for shoring up the city walls in troubled times.  But the Obelisk stayed, finally being found on its side, broken into two parts in the 17th Century.  In 1675 it was hauled with difficulty to a central square and put on a new pedestal.

Recent studies suggest that it is not Egyptian in origin, but rather hails from Asia Minor.  It appears to have been quarried solely as an ornamental item, and to have been placed in the Arles Circus rather late, during the reign of Constantine II (337-340).  We tend to think of the later Empire as being in a state of near collapse, but things obviously were organized enough for some rather specialized commerce!

Tips for a visit.  The obelisk is hard to miss.  It sits smack in the middle of the Place de la Republique.  The site of the Circus is a bit out of the way....you would probably not go there unless also planning a visit to the Arles Museum of Antiquity.  The remains of one end of the Circus are right outside of it.

The rest of the Circus lies under modern structures including a freeway bridge over the Rhone river.  On our trip we got mixed up and drove back and forth over it several times, unconsciously imitating the repeated circling of an ancient chariot driver!

More on circuses throughout the Empire

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Mysteries of France-But is it Art?

I won't bore you with standard graffiti, its much the same the world over.  But in a couple of places, Arles in particular, there were some things that looked like art student projects.  Maybe?
There is some kind of social commentary going on here.  Does the Pret a Porter (ready to wear) phrase relate to the image or not?
A contented Meercat in Avignon.

Not sure what language is represented here.  I'm not even going to try a translation.


Since spouse blogs under the pen name Next Door Laura this one had me worried a bit.  The red sticker up at the top looked like something official, so I think this is an art project of some sort......

Friday, October 28, 2011

Dogs of France

My natural affinity for dogs is increased when I travel, especially to places where I am not fluent in the language.  Like the local canines, I am able to understand most of what is going on around me, but can't comment.  And I have to endure shopping.
I feel your pain, mon frer...


Street markets seem particularly hard on dogs.  They would really rather be somewhere else...
But other aspects of canine life in France seem OK.  They are for instance welcomed in cafes.  One place even had specific arrangements for them:
Not sure why this is in English.  Dogs don't read it any better than French.

And the well dressed and coiffed French do not forget their pets:
It is hard to be sure, but the dog seems to have his mouth open.  The notes indicate singing.  And the bubbles?


My archeology instincts never quite go dormant, so I am always scanning the ground in front of me.  This can be a good thing, as there are too few green areas in urban France for canine pit stops.  Step carefully.  Unlike here in the States I never saw anyone carrying a scooper/bag type set up.  Centuries of medieval sanitation leave some sort of cultural mark I guess.  But I did see some minimal evidence that they were trying....
Ayez le bon reflexe!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

At the Forum with Sid and Vinny

Another key componant to any Roman city was the Forum.  This was an open plaza with governmental buildings on its edges.  Sometimes the term was applied more specifically to the building that would be the equivalent of City Hall.

Here is a surviving fragment of the Forum at Arles:
At first glance it is not much to look at, just a surviving fragment of an ancient building built into a newer structure.  But there is more than meets the eye...

Underneath the building is the Cryptoporticum.
This is a rather creepy subterranean space of unclear purpose.  One theory is that it housed slaves.  More on the Arles Cryptoporticum  here

But it is the visible above ground fragment of the Forum that interests me.  I was not the first to look upon it after all.

Sidonius was here circa 461.  It seems that a wicked political satire was circulating annonymously, and some were whispering that Sidonius was the author.  In a letter to a friend he relates:

"The next day I paid my duty to the emperor, and went down to the forum, as I always do. As soon as I appeared, the conspiracy was at once confounded, being of the sort which, as Lucan says,1 dares put nothing to the touch. Some fell cringing at my knees, abasing themselves beyond propriety; others hid behind statues or columns to avoid the necessity of salutation"

The enemies of Sidonius were not able to trick him into admitting the authorship of the screed, and the Emperor (Majorianus) had a good laugh over the whole affair.  Perhaps the surviving columns were among those that Sidonius' enemies tried to hide behind.

When I took the above photo I was standing in front of a nice little sidewalk cafe.  This one in fact:
The Forum fragment is barely visible behind the lamp posts on the right.

And here is the same scene as painted by Vincent Van Gogh in 1888:

Cafe Terrace at Night
And for good measure, the painting and the modern view side by side:






In the left hand photo the Forum fragment is visible.  I think Vinnie left it out on purpose!  As we shall see on a later occasion, Van Gogh went to considerable effort to avoid Roman themes.

Practical information for a visit:  The fragment of the Forum is, logically, at Rue de Forum.  The "Van Gogh Cafe" is across the street.  It is actually not too beset with tourists, they seemed to congregate at another sidewalk cafe up the street so as to see the view exactly as Van Gogh did.  The entry to the cryptoporticum is down the street on Rue Balz, and is not particularly well marked.

The "Cafe Terrace at Night" is at the Kroller-Mueller Museum in Otterlo, Netherlands. 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Two Ancient Libraries

This is the so called Temple of Diana at Nimes:
Partly ruined but still quite attractive it is one of several Gallo-Roman structures in the Jardin de la Fontaine just northwest of the town center.   Its attribution to Diana, or indeed to any ancient religious purpose is doubtful.  In fact based on similarity to other such structures in the Empire it is felt to be a library.  The niches that line the walls are too shallow for the display of statues, but just right for scrolls.  Alas, we have no clue as to what literary treasures once resided there.

But we do have an in depth discussion of a late Gallo-Roman library courtesy of Sidonius Apollinaris, an interesting chap I encountered in my research of the era.  Sidonius lived from about 430 to 489, a time in which he witnessed and chronicled the final days of the Western Empire.  Being at various times a Roman official, a poet, a prisoner and a bishop he leaves us an extensive collection of letters.

In one notable letter of about 461 AD he describes the library at a still sumptuous Gallo-Roman villa:

".....books in abundance ready to your hand; you might have imagined yourself among the shelves of some grammarian, or the tiers of the Athenaeum, or a bookseller's towering cases.2 They were so arranged that the devotional works were near the ladies' seats; where the master sat were those |51 ennobled by the great style of Roman eloquence. The arrangement had this defect, that it separated certain books by certain authors in manner as near to each other as in matter they are far apart. Thus Augustine writes like Varro, and Horace like Prudentius; but you had to consult them on different sides of the room. [5] Turranius Rufinus' interpretation of Adamantius Origen1 was eagerly examined by the readers of theology among us; according to our several points of view, we had different reasons to give for the censure of this Father by certain of the clergy as too trenchant a controversialist and best avoided by the prudent; but the translation is so literal and yet renders the spirit of the work so well, that neither Apuleius' version of Plato's Phaedo, nor Cicero's of the Ctesiphon of Demosthenes is more admirably adapted to the use and rule of our Latin tongue." 

Sidonius also goes on at length about the fine baths, the elegant banquets and the urbane, hospitable hosts at the country villas of that time.  To really appreciate the "soft landing" of Roman Gaul contrast this idyllic scene with what was then happening in post Roman Britain.  The province had by then been in barbarian hands for half a century, and archaeologists find that the dead were lying unburied in the streets of former Roman towns.

Why things survive:  The "Temple of Diana" was long in use as a church. The writings of Sidonius, while of mediocre literary quality, probably were preserved because he was an early bishop.  He in fact became a saint, with his own Feast Day on August 21st.

Practical tips for a visit.  The Jardin de la Fontaine is off the beaten track for tourists.  If you are in doubt as to its location steer for this:
This is the Tour Magna, or Great Tower that overlooks the site.  It is a pre-historic structure with a Roman superstructure built over it.  The ticket you probably bought at the Amphitheater covers admission.  It has been reinforced with modern materials, as it has suffered not only the passing of time but various more active indignities as people following Nostradamus' predictions of treasure to be found at the site have hacked away at it with abandon in recent centuries.

Temple of Diana photo credit to Daniel Villafruela

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Mysteries of France-The Cartoon Eyes

Although I suppose all the merch is actually made in the same Chinese sweat shops I could not help but notice that the eyes of cartoon characters are different in France.  Really.  Have a look.
This first one is not too bad.  Lego guy looks a bit heroic, and has cheekbone marks and a chin cleft not generally seen on round plastic cylinders, but the eyes are notable only for being a bit beadier than usual.

Same news stand.  A Tom and Jerry comic where the cat has surprisingly villainous eyes.  Oh, and it looks as if you get a plastic hammer as part of the deal.  And are those blue plastic horse shoes?  Yes, some opportunities for cooperative play between these two mortal foes.  I suppose a plastic anvil was too bulky.

comparison T and J

At a street market.  Tinkerbell looks fairly standard but Minnie is sporting some extra long lashes.  And that Barbie clone front and center has eyes that occupy about 50% of the width of her face.  Here in the states Babs has some unrealistic proportions to be sure, but the eyes are usually human.
Yikes!  You know, I have issues with Garfield in his conventional format-that being a bipedal, omniverous sentinent being who can communicate telepathically with his half wit owner.  But here we see him as a hideous lemur-god whose bulging eyes occupy his entire face.  Sheesh, nightmare fuel....

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Squirrels of Vulcan

Certain animals have always caught my eye.  And they are not always the big, flashy ones either.  For instance, I am fascinated by squirrels with tufted ears.  What sort of evolutionary advantage do pointy ears really give you?  There must be something, as the same pattern turns up in various places.  Have a look:
This is Aberts squirrel of the Western United States.

Here is a link to some funky Russian squirrels with similar ears:  Nice Ears, Comrade Squirrel .

And here is our pal the European Red squirrel, whose sad plight we have discussed in the context of Britain.  In France he is, thus far, doing fine.

Eurasian Red Squirrel


I was rather hoping to spot one during my recent trip to southern France.  Alas, none to be seen.  French parks seem to be teeming with aggressive avians, pigeons and ducks, maybe they drive the little guys away.  But I did see some nifty Squirrel related architechture in Lyon:

Seems to have more rabbit like legs, but definite ear tufts. 
And here is some nice grill work above an old doorway:

Smaller ear tufts, but notice that this fellow is about to apply the Vulcan Mind Meld to the cherub.  Probably a fairly effective way to get a few bread crusts tossed your way.

Like so many things in Europe these days there are changes going on.  Thus far France has avoided the invasion of American Grey squirrels that has been so hard on red squirrel populations in Britain.  But per this Barbarians on the March there are concerns that established populatons of greys in Italy will break through in the near future.  Ironically this invasion, from Italy out to the provinces,  is going in the opposite direction to the invaders of old.

Lets hope that in some secluded sylvan glade our Vulcan squirrel friends are secretly building an escape pod.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Trip to the Theater-Arles

The Theater at Arles feels smaller, more intimate than that at Lyon/Lugdunum.  In fact with an original seating capacity of about 10,000 it was about the same size.

But there was no convenient hill to build into, so a larger portion of it was free standing.  And as is so often the case the upper levels have, with a small but interesting exception, not survived.

Here we see the familiar layout, but with less of the central features intact.  Note the passageway exiting the seating area.  This is our first encounter with a vomitorium.  Contrary to the popular misconception this was most certainly not a place where overfed Romans would go to purge themselves between sumptuous courses at a feast.  Rather it is an admirably descriptive word for exit passageways designed to allow large crowds to leave a theater or stadium expeditiously.  Modern stadii are essentially designed identically.

Arles has several surviving features that Lugdunum lacks. 

Roman theaters had a front curtain that could be pulled up and down in front of the stage.  They operated on ropes that came down from an overhang of the stage roof.  This curtain* was called a Aulaeum and was quite heavy.  It required lead counterweights that would run down into a deep trench in the ground, as here:
The straight rail like structure is a track on which modern stage equipment moves
Arles actually has two standing columns behind the stage, the survivors of about a hundred that once made up the Frons Scaenae.
The stage area of Greco-Roman theaters featured wings off to either side, the so called Parascenia.  One assumes the phrase "waiting in the wings" originates here.  At Arles the left hand side Parascenia survives to full height:
This is the Tower of Roland, a portion of the theater incorporated into a late/post Roman defensive wall and colorfully-if implausibly-named after the great French hero of the wars against the Saracens.  The idlers on the park bench look as if they would bear some watching, but I suspect they are not in fact Saracens.

The Theater at Arles is more heavily reconstructed than Lugdunum.  It owes its survival to the above mentioned defensive value, and to its partial incorporation into the garden of a convent.  Indeed, it still has a peaceful, cloistered sense about it.  Spend a few minutes admiring the many structural fragments laid out for your contemplation:



Practical tips for a visit.  There is an admission fee.  Usually you would have paid at the next door amphitheater for a ticket allowing admission to both sites.  I was there late in the day, but it was clear that the attendant was trying to shoo everyone out a half hour or more before closing time.  Like Lyon/Lugdunum the facility is still in use for live performances, and some elements of the stage are often covered by modern structures.

---------------------------
*The term curtain with respect to theatrical productions is fairly recent, and would seem to come from the Curtain Theater, an Elizabethan playhouse in Shoreditch.  It got its name from a nearby plot of land called Curtain Close.  For an interesting look at the archeology of the Curtain and its neighbor The Theater, have  look at   Digging for Shakespeare

Monday, October 17, 2011

A Trip to the Theater-Lugdunum

For Greek, and later Roman civilization the Theater was the defining element of civic life.  If you were a community with any ambitions at all you had to have one.  They are thus rather common in Roman Gaul, with over seventy known examples.

The word theater comes from the Greek "theatron" meaning a place for viewing.  As interpreted through the Roman system theaters have common features.  Before visiting a couple of surviving Gallo-Roman theaters a quick look at some exceedingly well preserved specimens from elsewhere might help tune in the eye.

This is the theater from Leptis Magna.  Located in troubled Libya it was in the news lately with allegations that the crumbling Gadaffi regime was storing weapons there thinking they would be safe from air strikes.  The columns are the remains of the Frons Scanea, a backdrop variously made up of wood and/or stone.  In front of that is the wooden stage, or Pulpitum.  The curved area in front makes up the Orchestra, a central feature of which was always an altar to Apollo.  The best seats in the house surrounded the Orchestra, and were kept separate from the common folk by the curved wall called the Balteus.  Various other features will turn up in later photos.

Here is an example from Syria with intact stone wall as part of the Scanae, and the Apollo altar in place.
On to Gallo-Roman examples:

This is the Theater of Lugdunum (Lyon for you modern types).

With the presumably wooden Scanea gone we are looking from "back stage" to the seating area. 

And here, from the middle status seating you can see the nice marble of the Orchestra with the VIP seats-called Bisellia- the location for the Apollo altar and even a small remnant of the Balteus.




Some surviving columns.  Gallo-Roman museum is built into the hillside behind them

This theater in its prime would have held about 11,000 spectators. The acoustics were good enough to be heard without amplification.  As to the performances, they were a mixture of comedy and tragedy, and were probably more low brow than you might imagine from a scholarly study of classic Greek and Roman playwrights.  In Gaul there seemed to be a particular enjoyment of farces featuring masked stock characters-Bucco the Fool, Pappas the Grand dad, Manducus the Champion Eater with ever moving teeth.  This latter character derives his name from "mandible", the word for jaw bone, and contributes his moniker to "manger" the French word "to eat".

Presumptive notable visitors to the Theater of Lugdunum?  Augustus was in town several times soon after the structure was built in 15 BC.  Tiberius stopped in Lugdunum twice while campaigning.  Germanicus and Claudius were actually born there.  Sidonius, an interesting chap we shall encounter again, grew up in Lugdunum and no doubt ran up and down these steps as a child.

The mad Caligula had a memorable visit in 39-40 AD.  Among other odd behaviour he sponsored a rhetoric contest where the losers were required to erase their written words with their tongues!  It is unclear whether this was held in the Theater or the larger amphitheater, but the former would seem more appropriate.  But then Caligula often saw things in a different light.

Why did the Theater survive?  Partly because when Roman authority finally dissipated the aqueducts quit working.  The Roman community up above withered away, and new settlement sprung up along the riverside.  The upper course of seating was either robbed out or collapsed downward protecting the lower parts.  The lower part of the Theater was pretty durable, being built right into the hill.  Of the upper deck seating only the supporting substructures remain.


Practical tips for a visit:  Like the adjacent Odeon the Theater is still in active use for concerts.  Other times it is free.  The not to be missed Gallo-Roman museum is adjacent, climb to the top of the Theater and turn right.

Next up:  A Trip to the Theater-Arles.


Saturday, October 15, 2011

Halloween Dogs

As a commentator on the rise and fall of cultures I must take note of an unusual reality.....according to my blog stats there is significantly more interest in dogs dressed in silly costumes than there is in pithy commentary on archeology and modern culture!

Oh, all right then.  Just for you, what with Halloween being around the corner and all...

I would love to give attribution, but photos of this sort have been kicking around the internet long enough that they are the digital equivalent of archaeological artifacts of unclear provenance.
Cerberus, Ankle Nipper of the Underworld.  I bet I could motorize the auxiliary heads.....

Pugs are just too easy

I think we can assume that the owner started out with full cans of beer...

This last one is my all time favorite Halloween Dog shot.  The snarl on the Vampire Dog and the passive stance of the Under Dog are either the result of serendipity or of many takes. 

I shall, alas, be laboring in the ER on Halloween night.  So some of the blood and gore I will be seeing may not wash off effortlessly.  But I have instructed our candy distributors to keep camera handy, and to snap a shot of any dressed up dogs that happen by.  Usually we get a few among the more conventional bipedal visitors.

Back to Archeology on Monday

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Gallo-Roman Museum

Museums are often the bane of vacationers.  You might have in tow travelers with minimal to no interest level-yes, I am thinking about you, kids-or you might pony up your odd looking foreign currency with high hopes only to find that the collection is lame tourist bait with dim lighting and unreadable captions.

But once in a while a museum exceeds your expectations by an order of magnitude, and for me the Gallo-Roman museum in Lyon did just that.

This is sort of the central repository for all the Roman artifacts unearthed in southern France.  And as a bonus it is a remarkable bit of architecture.  It is arranged in a spiral with gently sloping ramps.  Starting from the top at the earliest Pre-history and Greco-Gallic stages you wind your way downward through magnificent displays of archaeological goodies.  And if you become sore of foot just set yourself down by one of the huge picture windows overlooking the ruins of the Roman Theater and Odeon right next door.

I would now like my fellow Vindolanda excavators to take a deep cleansing breath, and to keep a fermented beverage close at hand.  Oh, my fellow scrapers of miserly cobbles, remember how excited Andrew and the gang got when they found this:
Yes, the lads were quite "chuffed" to turn up a 110 cm tall bit of stone.  At the Gallo-Roman museum they have things like THIS:




Now, at Vindolanda we come up with any number of broken pottery vessels, but I do not recall finding anything to compare with THIS:
Note the interesting ancient repair work.



Still, all in all I was feeling OK.  I mean, honestly, this was a major national museum at the heart of one of the greatest cities of the Western Empire.  Of course it would be chock a block with marvelous artifacts.  But what really broke my spirits was looking out back of the place.  Oh, sure, all museums have more items than they can conveniently house, but to have what looks like an entire car park of "extra" altars and inscriptions?
And still more....

It makes one want to cheer and weep and curse all at the same time.  But I suppose it could be worse.  I mean, it's not as if they have so many inscribed monumental stones that they were using them for parking curbs outside their garage.....

Practical advice.
Here is their website Gallo-Roman Museum, Lyon
Admission free on Thursdays.  Roman history junkies should allot a half day.  Only one entry, up at the top of the hill.  You wind your way down to the bottom of the museum and take the elevator back up.  They seem OK with photography.