Review of ‘Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World’ by Barry Hobson

Latrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman WorldLatrinae et Foricae: Toilets in the Roman World by Barry Hobson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the words of a popular children’s book, Everyone Poops. This means that historians should be asking themselves, to quote the title of another children’s book, Where’s the Poop?. This is the question that Barry Hobson has asked about the Roman world. And a worthy question, when we consider that Romans are justly famous as engineers in the ancient world, and that many of us have been taught that élite Romans had ‘flush toilets’ in their homes. Furthermore, toilets are an important aspect of society, and investigating them archaeologically as well as socially gives insight into the mindset and world of poopers — in this case, Roman poopers.

This is also the sort of topic that people like me get curious about but have no clue where to start — very often, the books by experts are abstruse or boring and unhelpful to the uninitiated. I admit to being an ancient historian, but I am neither an archaeologist nor an expert in toilets. Latrinae et Foricae was a great help in introducing me to this subject — it presents the information in a clear, systematic manner, and is profusely illustrated with bibliography and glossary — but it’s not too long.

Hobson begins by introducing us to a variety of toilets from around the Roman world, giving us a feel for the subject, where these items might be found, and what they look like. Chapter 2, as any general anglophone book dealing with Roman archaeology does, teaches us about Roman Britain, not only the walls, but the cities as well. The third chapter is about Pompeii, one of our best sources of knowledge about Roman toilets, and a city that Hobson himself has helped excavate.

The subject having now been presented more broadly, we are given specific questions concerning Roman toilets. Chapter 4 deals with the chronology of toilets — how do Roman toilets change over time.

Chapters 5-9 address specific issues beginning with what we know about Roman culture more widely and then moving in to the specific details about latrines. These chapters give a wide variety of literary and epigraphic detail alongside the archaeology. The fifth deals with the phenomenon of upstairs toilets (I didn’t even know they existed!). Chapter 6 addresses the question of privacy and ancient attitudes concerning privacy. Chapter 7 is about rubbish and its disposal; 8 treats dirt, smell, and culture, while number 9 is about water supply, usage and disposal. Fact: What we tend to call ‘sewers’ in the Roman water (cloacae) are, in fact, usually storm drains. Toilets did not feed into these but into cesspits, sometimes beneath the sidewalks of Pompeii.

In Chapter 10, we are concerned with who used the toilets. Did you know that some private latrines were two-seaters? Many public ones were for men only. Very often, latrines were located in the work area of the house. Often, wealthy people used chamber pots — but they also had latrines. Chapter 11 looks at what we can learn from the poop — motions, maladies and medicine. Chapter 12 discusses the history of studying latrines, lamenting their neglect over the years. And chapter 13 approaches future research.

I learned a lot from this book and saw a lot of toilets. A few facts, then: latrinae are private toilets, and foricae are public. Very few toilets actually had water tanks, although people keep saying that — if water was used to wash any waste away (which sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t), it was hauled in with a bucket. They had upstairs toilets that had big downpipes into cesspits. And toilets did not drain into the sewers.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in Roman history, poop, toilets, and the social history of privacy.

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“It’s not a person, damn it, it’s a Borg!” (Hypostasising Hugh)


The quotation in the title of this post is a line from Capt Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) to Guinan (Whoopi Goldberg) in Star Trek: The Next Generation, Season 5, Episode 23, ‘I, Borg.’ The Enterprise has on board a Borg drone rescued from a crash site on a planet. Dr Crusher is determined to treat the Borg well and not use him for (allegedly) ‘genocidal’ purposes.* Geordie La Forge is helping install some new hardware in the Borg, and possibly some new software as well — a virus to potentially disable the entire Borg Collective.

In one scene, Picard and Guinan are fencing and have a fraught conversation about why the Borg is even on the ship in the first place. Both Picard and Guinan have very personal, very bad histories with the Borg Collective. Guinan’s home planet and civilisation were assimilated/destroyed by the Borg. Her people now roam the galaxy as people without a home. The Borg showed no mercy. Why, Guinan asks, should Picard?

Picard, on the other hand, was assimilated in the Season 3 finale and then led the Borg in an assault against the Federation with Earth as the target in the Season 4 premiere (‘The Best of Both Worlds, Parts 1 & 2′). He was designated Locutus of Borg and was used by the Borg as a liaison between the Collective and the United Federation of Planets. Because of Picard’s knowledge of Starfleet, when the Borg engaged the fleet at the Battle of Wolf 359. 39 out of 40 Federation starships were destroyed by the Borg with 11,000 casualties.

Locutus of Borg

And Picard could do nothing. His individuality was swallowed up in the Borg Collective. The hive mind ruled his actions. He guided the Borg Cube against Starfleet and had no way of stopping the carnage that ensued. The person Jean-Luc Picard was gone. Or at least took a back seat. In the second episode of Season 4, ‘Family’, he weeps over this fact after a really awkward mud-wrestling scene with his brother Robert at the family vineyard in France.**

‘I, Borg’ is Picard’s first encounter with the Borg after his assimilation, after his unwilful destruction of 39 Federation starships at Wolf 359, after the loss of his personhood and absorption into the monolithic entity of the Borg.

Naturally, he is testy. Here we see Picard raw (not quite as raw as when he opens fire on assimilated Starfleet officers in First Contact — but raw). When Geordie expresses misgivings concerning their course of action to use the Borg drone as a destructive force in the Borg Collective, Picard compares Hugh to a lab animal and tells Geordie to cut any emotional tie he may have developed with the Borg. Continually he refers to this drone as ‘it’.

But Geordie has witnessed something that Picard, who avoids this Borg — designated 3rd of 9 — has not. Geordie has seen the drone move from ‘it’ to ‘him’. He begins as standoffish to the drone as anyone could expect. But through conversation with 3rd of 9, an individual personality begins to creep through — indeed, the Borg drone takes on a name. No longer 3rd of 9, he is Hugh.

Guinan forces herself to meet Hugh after a confrontation with Geordie, and she realises that Hugh is no longer simply a Borg drone. He is an actual person. He has come to see Geordie as a friend. And he is capable of learning — of learning that resistance, despite the Borg mantra, is not futile. Guinan is living proof.

Hugh proves himself a hypostatic (or personal; hypostasis is Greek for person) entity distinct from the Collective when Picard tricks him into thinking that Locutus is under cover, and commands Hugh to help assimilate the human race.

Hugh: I will not help. … Geordie must not be assimilated.

Picard: But you are Borg.

Hugh: No. I am Hugh.

In this scene, Hugh uses the first-person singular pronoun I for the first time, hitherto having referred even to himself alone and lonely as we. Hugh is a person. He ultimately chooses to return to the Borg Collective because his continued presence would mean danger to the Enterprise, including Geordie in particular. And Hugh, like Spock, believes that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.

The Enterprise crew like to use the term individual for Hugh’s hypostatic flowering. And it is certainly the most common one in our current culture. Geordie describes his life in purely individual terms, in terms of his own individual freedom and such. The willingness and ability to be alone. This is certainly the most potent aspect of personhood that differentiates humanoids from Borg.

But the Borg are not persons, and persons are not merely individuals. The Borg cannot choose for themselves because, while they are wired into the Collective, they have no selves. The Borg is just a gigantic cybernetic-organic collective hive mind operating in monotone and monochrome. Hugh demonstrates that the isolated individual alone is not what truly makes a person. If individualism were truly the supreme mark of personhood, then Hugh’s hypostasisation (that is, becoming a person) would have ended with him seeking asylum on board the USS Enterprise with his friend Geordie.

But persons, for all our hypostatic uniqueness, are also inescapably linked to one another. We are in many ways independent. But in many others, we are interdependent. And we demonstrate ourselves as persons most fully when we sacrifice ourselves for each other, surrendering our own selves and selfish desires for the good of other persons. We thrive on each other, and we therefore choose others above ourselves.

This is the lesson of true personhood that Hugh teaches us. Not individualism, but sacrifice and its power for good. This is the high cost of becoming a true person.

*Do the Borg count as a race or a species or a genos? They are the assimilation of the biological and technological advances of various civilisations. I would wager that they are not, but are instead a blight on the ‘biodiversity’ of the galaxy, instead.

**Robert, although his name is pronounced in the French manner, also speaks with an English accent.

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How do you want to live (truly live) your life?

'Mort de Seneque'

Not actually Seneca, but usually called so. In the Louvre, my pic.

My friend and fellow ancient historian Katie posted a link to an article on brain pickings called ‘The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather than Living Long.’ Seneca was a very clever guy, and — as often happens when I read Stoics — his words are convicting. A lot of daily life is devoted to toiling at work rather than living in it, and then procrastinating, and then mindless relaxation.

But what is the point of life? And what are you going to do with yours? Are you going to escape your Facebook feed and Netflix to go and live your life, seeking deep and wide living instead of shallow and narrow living?

I fully intend to. So here are my top three goals in living:

  1. Attaining ‘purity of heart’ as discussed by fifth-century spiritual writer John Cassian in his Conferences. This is a goal that requires the study not only of spiritual guides and philosophers but also certain practices in daily life.
  2. Excelling as an academic. This is my ‘day job’.
  3. Becoming a writer.

Each of these requires its own disciplines and attentiveness, but they can all work together. Number 3, interestingly enough, can be worked through 1 & 2 to a degree, and number 1 manifests itself in the totality of one’s life, thus drawing 2 & 3 into its orbit. Because of the subject matter of my interest, 2 feeds into 1, and, when practised well, into 3 as well.

If I wish to write fiction, however, number 3 will require time other than what is spent on 1 & 2. Part becoming a fiction writer is reading fiction, so that part of my training as a writer is well under way. I just need to, well, write fiction!

But what about true leisure? Seneca would say that leisure time should be devoted exclusively to philosophy — that is, in my scheme, number 1. However, I think he is wrong on this point, and his own corpus of writings bears out his inability to live up to such a high, intense Stoic paradigm, given that he wrote tragedies as well as philosophy.

Instead, I follow Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines wherein he argues that we need real time to just relax if we are going to make it in the rest of our lives. Time to play a sport or make music or watch TV or read a novel or whatever — just because you want to. No ulterior motive.

If, in our leisure time, we were to make a balance between striving for high philosophical ideals and simply relaxing without slipping into entertaining ourselves to death or working ourselves to death, we would probably find a happy place in the middle between these two extremes.

So, now, go read the recommended article. Then go and truly live.

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My library — had I the wealth and space

Sometimes I think, ‘If I had the money and the space, what would my personal library look like?’ One of my friends said that he’d rebind all his Star Wars novels in leather given the money and opportunity! I don’t own any Star Wars novels, so here are my thoughts…

First, I would buy facsimiles of the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Book of Kells, the Greek Bible Codex called ‘Vaticanus’, and maybe a facsimile of one of those bilingual Bible manuscripts like Claromontanus. Then I’d be set for Bibles, right? I’d also buy my very own mediaeval Book of Hours. You can order them here.

Having done that, I would acquire a vast professional library of primary (ancient & mediaeval) texts in critical editions and translations. For texts, this is the entire series of: Oxford Classical Texts, Teubners, Loeb Classical Library, Budés, Patrologia Latina and Graeca, Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, all ancient Corpus Christianorum Series Latina (CCSL) and Graeca, select CCSL Continuatio Medievalis, Sources Chrétiennes, Corpus Scriptorum Christianorum Orientalium, Henry Bradshaw Society, The Library of Early Christianity (like Loebs), Oxford Early Christian Texts, and the Latin & Greek volumes of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library (excluding the Vulgate). For translations, this is all the ancient and mediaeval Penguin Classics and Oxford World’s Classics, and all of Translated Texts for Historians, Ancient Christian Writers, The Fathers of the Church, the old Ante-Nicene Fathers & Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Ancient Christian Texts (IVP), Cistercian Studies Series, Popular Patristics Series, and a variety of individual titles from other text or translation series. Also, Aquinas in Latin and in English.

Having plumbed the depths of the ancient, patristic, and medieval publishing houses, I would set up the reference section of my library: The Cambridge Ancient History, The New Cambridge Medieval History, the New Pauly (why not?), the Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World, Quasten’s Patrology, Lampe’s Patristic Greek Lexicon, 4th ed. Oxford Classical Dictionary, and the 2nd ed. Oxford Latin Dictionary. Already own LSJ. And probably some series about art history, but I don’t really know.

The raw material for crafting history, criticism, and theology would now be at my fingertips. I would proceed to acquire those histories and commentaries and other secondary works of scholarship that are pertinent to my own particular, current research projects, to wit, Leo the Great, the fifth century, and textual criticism.

But why stop there? Why leave it professional?

For fun, I would get the complete works of G K Chesterton, Ray Bradbury, and C S Lewis. I would get all of Asimov’s stories, by hook or by crook. I would get classics of English literature in lovely editions, buying up Dickens and Stevenson and John Donne and George Herbert and Edmund Spenser and Jane Austen at used bookshops one select edition at a time. I would replace some of the cheaper editions to which I am not attached with older or lovelier ones, such as my copies of The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein, and Dracula. I would find Le Morte Darthur with Beardsley’s illustrations. I would get a few of the posthumous Tolkien publications that I don’t yet have, but not all of them. Basically, the usual suspects.

And I would put these in a room with a bay window with cushions. A desk with one of those green lamps would dominate the centre of the room, the seat towards the bay window. A couch with a table to one sit would sit on one wall for when I’m not at the desk. The wood would be all dark, the leather read, the carpet Persian.

If I had the money. If I had the space.

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The Wood Beyond the World by William Morris

The Wood Beyond the WorldThe Wood Beyond the World by William Morris

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

William Morris is one of those craftsmen/artists/thinkers that intrigue and inspire me — one of an old breed of mediaevalist who believed in mediaevalism and the romantic ideals of a pre-industrial world. The same sort of spirit that invigorated his friends the Pre-Raphaelites in their paintings or his own old-fashioned press for beautiful books runs through The Wood Beyond the World, one of our earliest modern(ish) fantasy novels, dating to 1894 and which has a few sequels.

The story is, plotwise, relatively simple and fairytale-like. Our middle-class adventurer is drawn beyond his known world into the sphere of influence of an enchantress of dread and great beauty who seeks to seduce him while he himself has fallen into the natural enchantment of love for the Lady’s maid. Also, there is a creepy dwarf who yells all the time. Adventure ensues.

Golden Walter, however, strikes me as both a bit thick and a bit naive. I don’t think that the first time you come upon a pretty girl in the woods you should trust everything she says. And when someone says, ‘I have a plan,’ you probably shouldn’t start fearing for your life when you know that the plan hasn’t even got rolling yet.

Nonetheless, in other ways Walter embodies the romantic, chivalric ideals of gallantry towards women and bravery in the face of danger — be that danger of human, animal, or magical origin. At one stage in the story (trying to avoid too many more spoilers), Walter demonstrates the ‘noble’ trait of charity towards the poor and mercy towards the imprisoned.

This idealising of the mediaeval noble class is precisely the sort of thing that made Mark Twain blame Sir Walter Scott for the Civil War, since the wealthy in the South decided that they, too, should have homes in baronial style and act like mediaeval nobles. However, when we see the ideal behaviour that Romantic novels such as this are meant to evoke in the reader, the acts of mercy and compassion and the seeking of the betterment of those less fortunate are meant to weigh much more highly in the nobleman’s heart than the building of ridiculous yet beautiful places such as Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany.

That is to say: If romanticised visions of mediaeval life exacerbated existing disparities in the 19th century, the blame lies not entirely in the artists but more in the audience.

My great complaint and lament about this book was something of which Farah Mendelsohn and Edward James warn the reader in A Short History of Fantasy: the stilted, fake, olde Englishe that forsooth doth lie all about this here booke. Nonetheless, the going gets easier after a few chapters.

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Egypt had history while Greece had myth

This is a theme I’ve written on before, but I can’t shake the wonderment I have of the sheer bulk of ancient history — especially ancient Egypt! This bulk was brought home to me again today while perusing the appendices at the end of Mosaics of Time Vol 1: A Historical Introduction to the Chronicle Genre from its Origins to the High Middle Ages by R W Burgess and Michael Kulikowski. In these appendices are excerpts from various chronicles to demonstrate to the reader the basic structure and elements of the genre, including Babylonian chronicles, pre-Christian Greek Chronicles, and Roman consularia and chronicles, including late antique chronicles.

The Parian Marble

One of these appendices is the Parian Marble, an inscribed Greek chronicle written in 263 BC beginning in 1581 BC (pp. 301-309). The earliest entries of this chronicle are all mythological. I give three:

Cecrops became king of Athens and the country was called Cecropia, having previously been called Actica from Actaeus who was a native (of the area) 1318 years ago. (1) (1581-1580 BC)

There was a flood in the time of Deucalion, and Deucalion fled the inundation from Lycoreia to Cranaus in Athens, built the temple of Olympian Zeus, and made thank offerings for his deliverance 1265 years ago, when Cranaus was king of Athens. (4) (1528-1427 BC)

Demeter arrived in Athens and discovered wheat, and the pre-tillage festival (Proerosia) was celebrated for the first time, under the direction of Triptolemus, son of Celeus and Neaera, 1146 years ago, when Erichtheus was king in Athens. (12) (1409-1408 BC)

Cecrops, Deucalian, Demeter — figures well-known from Greek myths. Elsewhere in this chronicle we meet Minos (of the Minotaur), Heracles, Theseus, the Trojan war, Orestes, and so forth. The earliest ‘historical’ event is the birth of Hesiod, put somewhere in the 900s BC — far too early, according to modern reckonings of Greek poetry. For the Classicist, this blurring between ‘myth’ and ‘history’ should serve as a reminder that what we call ‘mythology’ and ‘history’ are not necessarily at a great remove from each other in the Greek mind — after all, what is mythos but a story, and historia but an enquiry?

Now, the Greeks knew that the Egyptian culture was older than theirs (although they would try to find ways to show how, really, it wasn’t), but I don’t know that many of them, or of us, for that matter, spent a lot of time thinking about what it really meant in practical terms. Thankfully, modern archaeological and the decipherment of hieroglyphics can help us see the vast swathe of time separating ancient Egypt and the emergence of ancient Greece from the ‘Dark Age’ in the eighth century BC.

Palermo Stone, a frag of the Egyptian Royal Annals

At some point between 2470 and 2450 BC in the middle of the Fifth Dynasty, the Egyptian Royal Annals were first compiled.* This chronicle provides an annual reckoning of about 550 years of Pharoanic activity in Egypt. One thousand years before the essentially mythological beginnings of the Parian Marble, the Egyptian Royal Annals were inscribing Egyptian history.

And before these Royal Annals were composed, the Great Pyramids at Giza had already been built, back in the 2500s. As in, over 2000 years before the composition of the Parian Marble, and about 1800 years before Homer. Temporally speaking, ancient Greece is small beans compared to ancient Egypt!

I do not write this to minimise the achievements of the classical culture of ancient Greece and the dynamic synthesis it enjoyed with the world of Rome. It is simply a reminder of the bigness of those Egyptians and the might of their power — they were building pyramids while the Indo-European ancestors were nomads on the Eurasian Steppe. Wow.

*Mosaics of Time, p. 63ff for my info about the text.

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What makes a classic?

1957 Ford Thunderbird – a classic!

I once flew from Cyprus to Egypt and was stuck in Larnaca airport during a very long delay with a somewhat paranoid guy who does security for missionary organisations. One of the topics that briefly surfaced in our strange conversation was what I studied for undergrad. When I said Classics, I got a variation of one of the annoying answers. This guy said that if I were Chinese, for me Classics would be the Five Classics (I think — it was something like that; definitely Chinese).*

The subtext, clear from his tone, was that I’m closed-minded, and maybe too western, probably a bit imperialist.

But I’m certainly not Chinese. If I were Chinese, I’d likely have studied the Five Classics. But I’m not Chinese, so why imply that studying my own culture’s origins are a problem? Is it closed-minded for a Chinese person to study the Five Classics? Or is it only closed-minded to study Classical Greece and Rome?

And what makes a classic, anyway?

This is a question that drifts through my mind on occasion — like in Larnaca.

It also came up in relation to ancient Mesopotamia vs Mediterranean about a year or so ago. The New Testament students in Edinburgh sagely decided to bone up on their Classical (Greek and Roman) literature to be better able to see the cultural context for the New Testament and all that. So they organised a Classics Reading Group. Some of the Old Testament students thought a similar group for Mesopotamian literature would also be of use to them, which I’m sure is also true. The Old Testament students included the phrase ‘more classic than the classics’ in their e-mail.

Obviously this is a very different case from the China vs. Rome conversation in the airport. But it still raises the question about what on earth a classic is.

The jokey reference to Mesopotamian literature being ‘more classic than the classics’ possibly has behind it the assumption that a classic is old. So, the older, the classicker. That’s probably part of it. But that’s not all, by far.

Etymologically, a classic is something that has (high) class. Here’s some of the entry from the OED:

The word was used in post-classical Latin from 1512 with reference to highly-regarded authors who wrote in Greek or Latin, both pagan and Christian: Gregory of Nyssa (by Beatus Rhenanus, 1512); Plutarch (by Melanchthon, 1519); Porphyry and Aristotle (by Gerardus Listrius, 1520); Cyril of Alexandria (by Andreas Cratander, 1528); Augustine of Hippo (by Alfonso Fonseca, 1528); and so on.

A classic author, in that early sense, then, is someone who enjoys wide esteem, someone with a reputation for good style or penetrating content — often, both.

These authors tend to also have widespread influence upon later literature and thought. Thus, Virgil is classic because he has good style, penetrating content, and is the most influential poet of the Latin world. Plato is classic because he has good style, penetrating content, and is the most influential philosopher of the Greek world. And so forth.

These Greek and Roman authors were read and taught and imitated and analysed throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages — indeed, were part of standard education right into the twentieth century. The result is that they have a very strong, direct impact upon western culture. They are not only good poets and philosophers and historians, they are foundational to our culture’s ways of thinking and writing and producing art.

When we move out from literature, this pervasion of Graeco-Roman ideas of philosophy, politics, beauty, and so forth runs throughout western culture all over the place — architecture, art, so many ideals with which we deal every day, whether in acceptance or rejection. The impact of the Greeks and Romans upon subsequent European history is well-nigh incalculable. And the impact of Europe, thanks to colonisation, the Industrial Revolution, and globalisation, is now worldwide.

Before this becomes apologetic for the discipline of Classical Studies, let us see how this narrow use of classic has spread out since its inception. As early as 1548, classique was used of mediaeval vernacular authors of high esteem. Indeed, we could easily reckon up several mediaeval authors of very wide appeal, esteem, and impact — Dante Alighieri, Chrétien de Troyes, Thomas Aquinas, Gottfried von Strasbourg, Geoffrey Chaucer, Hildegard von Bingen.

The term spreads out chronologically from there — Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, Donne are classic not just because they’re old but because they were and are widely regarded to have good style as well as broad impact upon subsequent literature.

But what about authors and texts who disappear for a while? Can they be counted as classic? Perhaps not immediately. But they can regain that lost status, as has done Gilgamesh or Beowulf. Both of these texts were popular in their own day (well, we can certainly confirm that Gilgamesh — poor Beowulf exists in one manuscript), but then were almost lost to time due to shifts and changes in politics and culture. But modern antiquarians have resurrected them, and they are regarded for all the same reasons as other classics, with a growing influence that is currently making up for their centuries-long disappearance.

Sadly, The Tale of Sinuhe has not had such luck, despite being a classic in ancient Egypt for centuries. Perhaps it’s too different for our culture to assimilate it as with Gilgamesh and Beowulf. Perhaps its press isn’t good enough. I recommend it, though. ;)

With the temporal and geographical widening of classic comes, again, its movement to other media. I am currently listening to classical music — Beethoven, Symphony No 2. I enjoy a piece of classic cinema, such as Vertigo or Forbidden Planet, every once in a while. The Beatles are ‘classic’ rock.

Anyway, here’s what makes a classic, then. It’s not simply age but impact and wide esteem. Something can lose classicness, like poor Sinuhe, or (re)gain it, like Beowulf. That said, if you’re into your own culture, don’t be ashamed to be caught reading Cicero or Dante on the bus while listening to Mozart, Monteverdi, or Beethoven.

*That is: the Classic of Poetry, Classic of History, Classic of Changes (Yijing), Record of Rites, and Chronicles of the Spring and Autumn Period. Ancient books have such riveting titles.

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Movies that would be different with the Three Laws of Robotics

First, so you know what’s going on, Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

These laws were developed in Asimov’s various robot stories and novels as a way of protecting humanity from the Frankenstein complex. The laws are so thoroughly encoded into the positronic brain that an Asimovian robot would cease to function were it to break one of the laws.

The thought came to me while watching Elysium that none of the action of the film would have happened with the Three Laws — the robot cop wouldn’t have been able to use force against Matt Damon’s character, who would thence not be irrated, and thus never invade Elysium. Boom. Done.

What other films would be affected by the Three Laws of Robotics? Obviously robots built by aliens, such as Gort in The Day the Earth Stood Still, don’t count.

Well, straightaway, obviously no Terminator, Matrix, Blade Runner, or Battlestar Galactica or any other film/TV series wherein robots are the antagonists. The Three Laws are meant to prevent precisely those films.

Alien would only be slightly different. Ash would have to be replaced by a human who, for some diabolical reasoning or bent in his psychology, was willing to do what Weyland Industries wanted. Similarly, then, for Michael Fassbender’s robot in Prometheus. It is plausible to use a human being in these two cases.

Star Wars would lack the interrogation droid, but I’m pretty sure people could have given Princess Leia needles instead. And the droid army in Phantom Menace was utterly useless, anyway; the Trade Federation would have done better to hire mercs or something that can’t be taken down by a power failure. However, the fact that their actions in helping run small fighters kill ‘human’ life, programming R2 units and their ilk with the Three Laws would make them unserviceable in the Rebel fleet.

The auto-pilot in Wall-E would not have suppressed the information of Earth’s habitability brought back by EVE and they would have gone straight home.

Do mutants count as human? The Sentinals in X-Men: Days of Future Past are designed precisely to hunt down mutants, although they do turn on human sympathisers and potential parents of mutants. I wonder.

These are all I can think of. Of course, the robot brutality in Elysium is of interest because the robots can only harm or even arrest non-citizens of Elysium. So there is an element of the Three Laws as applied only to the wealthy in that case. So even foolproof programming can lead to problems for the fools…

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All-embracing research – someday

Consular Diptych of Fl. Anatasius Probus

Consular Diptych of Fl. Anatasius Probus, 517, fr. Constantinople in BnF

Sometimes I joke that/feel like I am doing a PhD on everything — I have to know about and/or discuss ecclesiastical and political history in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages, canon law, christology-theology, palaeography, textual criticism, the early printed book, Jansenists (briefly), Latin, and a variety of satellite interests and subsections. But, really, it’s not a PhD on everything; it’s a PhD that touches on a wide range of subjects, is all.

Ultimately, my PhD is still a text-based piece of research.

Someday, when I’ve finished my thoroughgoing research into Leo (this will be in years, people), I think I’d like to engage in a project that ties together strands from various disciplines within Late Antiquity — and not just different kinds of literary/textual sources but something that ties in traditional, political history, theology/philosophy, art/material culture, and manuscripts.

(Can’t escape manuscripts.)

Somehow learning how, although trained primarily as a reader and interpreter of texts, to analyse the relationship between these different kinds of material from the ancient world and how they play off each other and produce a wider-ranging vision of a culture than any single kind of source can, but without the degrading of certain kinds as some people do.

I think it would be fun.

I think it would be a lot of work.

I think it would be worth it.

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Ausonius vs the Romantics

Ausonius (Vol. 1)Ausonius by Ausonius

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ausonius (d. AD 395) is not necessarily the best regarded of ancient poets — but his contemporaries really liked him. In his introduction to this edition/translation, H G Evelyn White at least gives Ausonius’ poetry that much. Not much more, mind you. But that much. Evelyn White writes:

‘As poetry, in any high or imaginative sense of the word, the great mass of his verse is negligible.’ (vii)

On the fact that Ausonius wrote a poem about the number three: ‘…so trivial a theme is no subject for poetry at all…’ (xvi) — and then Evelyn White praises Ausonius’ versification.

The Vergilian Cento is referred to as ‘literary outrage’ (xvii).

A final example from Evelyn White gives us an idea of why Ausonius and his style of poetry are so lowly regarded today, say that Ausonius was ‘insensible, broadly speaking, to sentiment and unappreciative of the human sympathy which should pervade true poetry’ (xxvii).

Now, I come not to praise Ausonius, nor to bury him. Nevertheless, Ausonius’ lack of respect in the modern age drives principally from the Romantic movement, and not that his subject matter can be quite dull or that a lot of his poems are simply neat tricks in verse that would probably amuse a native Latin-speaker more than they do any of us. This vision of poetry is not that it is a question of setting out in verse form one’s content but that it is the setting forth in verse one’s soul — that the subject of poetry is, in fact, the subject. This sort of criticism, for example, led one critic to refer to the scientific/philosophical passages in Dante as ‘pure prose’.

That is to say, Ausonius is not, by Romantic definitions, a ‘true poet’. He lacks true sentiment in what he does. For Ausonius, verse is a place to play, to delight in the titillation of the ear, to display his knowledge and erudition, to set forth pieces in various metres on various subjects. As to whether any real sentiment lies behind it — well, who cares?

The result is poetry that I think almost all modern readers would suffer through to a great degree. I admire Ausonius. I think some of his poetic experiments, such as the Technopaignion, where he ends each line of verse with a monosyllable, are amusing and would require enormous skill — even the Virgilian Cento, a patchwork of lines from Virgil, is the work of a person steeped in poetic metre. A lot of it, however, is unstimulating to the modern mind and ear. Perhaps if I were a Latin-speaker born, the rhythm and cadence of the verse would grab me more. Nonetheless, I do not say he is no true poet, and I do not think he is a bad poet. I think his is a style unsuited to our age and certainly unsuited to translation into English — you cannot translate hexameters and you cannot translate aural tricks.

I do recommend to today’s reader from the selections here in vol 1: ‘The Daily Round’ (it is what it says), various of the personal poems, the ‘Parentalia’ which recounts his deceased family members, the ‘Mosella’ which is regarded as his best (I say begin with this one, it is magnificent!), and ‘The Order of Famous Cities’. Various others are amusing, but I fear that reading an entire volume of Ausonius would be tedious for most. If you enjoy those I recommend, take a dip into some of the others…

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