Catiline & Catiline & Catiline

Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your imagination. You are a Senator in ancient Rome, sitting on the back bench as the Senate convenes on November 8, 63 BC. The great orator, the Consul Cicero, a self made man, has just noticed that his mortal enemy, the Senator Catilina (Catiline or Cataline in English), has entered the chamber and has sat down among his supporters. Catiline is from one of the oldest noble families in Rome, now fallen on hard times.  Only yesterday Catiline’s henchmen had failed to assassinate Cicero in an attempt to unleash chaos and bring down the Roman republic.

As Cicero begins to address Catiline the other Senators around Catiline flee as if being near him would contaminate them with his deeds. At this point no Senator, including an ambivalent supporter named Julius Caesar, dares associate with him. Cicero begins one of history’s greatest speeches, a denunciation of Catiline and all for which he stands.

“O Catiline, how long must you abuse our patience!”  Cicero thunders. This scene, a real incident, is one of the most dramatic and theatrical moments of history, replayed again and again in Continue reading “Catiline & Catiline & Catiline”

David and Brutus

The gifts of a great artist can be used to further political ends. Jacques-Louis David, painter of the French revolutionary era, created several wonderful paintings that were fraught with political and social meaning, but are still notable on a purely artistic level.

One such painting tells a remarkable story. Called Brutus, or Lictors Returning the to Brutus the Bodies of his Sons, it is officially titled more grandly as “J. Brutus, first consul, has returned to his home after having condemned his two sons, who had joined the Tarquins and conspired against Roman liberty; lictors bring back the bodies so that they may be given burial.” David painted this during the first year of the French Revolution. King Louis XVI was beset with turmoil and there was a powerful political current to depose him. It was during this tumultuous time that David decided to illustrate an episode from Roman history.

Tarquin the Proud had been the King of Rome, and according to legend he was an abusive Continue reading “David and Brutus”

The Romans are here: are you ready?

Where would you stay if you were able to visit ancient Rome, say in 200 AD? What would you have for dinner? Where would you go for entertainment? What tips would help you survive on those mean, mean, streets?

Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day by Philip Matyszak purports to be a travel guide for back then, not for use in touring today’s Rome of ruins and broken monuments. Of course, it really does help us understand current Rome’s glorious past and fallen stones by providing context for this era’s readers. Full of travel advice for ancient tourists and loaded with chatty suggestions about local customs, this humorous guide is a fun way to learn about life in the ancient city, and should be an great read for history buffs and for fans of historical mysteries in the Steven Saylor or Lindsey Davis line. Fine illustrations, many in color, show views from that toga-clad world.

Working the same turf but in a much more straightforward and serious way is Rome from the Ground Up by James H. S. McGregor. This guide looks at the many historical versions of Rome that are layered on top of each other and form the basis for the current city. Chronologically examining each era’s city, beginning with the founding of the village by the Tiber and extending to modern times, the guide explains how the structures and landscapes came to be and how they influenced the next development in the same spaces. The well-chosen and frequent illustrations support a clear and understandable writing style, although I often wished for larger format images. Designed in a post-Internet style, the book’s images mimic thumbnail images on a web page, which can frustrate a reader trying to see the details of what is being discussed. An over dependence on white space and the small font cause the book to run long at 344 pages, and printed on heavy paper and weighing in at nearly 2 pounds, this undermines the author’s goal of having the guide used by travelers in the field. Still, this is a book that would be very useful upon a return from Rome, explaining the intriguing and mysterious buildings that are often missed by conventional travel guides.

The Seattle Art Museum is hosting a fabulous Roman exhibit opening February 22nd through May 11. Find out more about SAM’s Roman Art from the Louvre exhibit.

~posted by Carl