Classical world

Lord Byron (1788-1824), Romantic poet; a man fatally attractive to women; a friend of many literary figures of his day, including the atheist poet, Shelley; a fighter for Greek independence from the Ottoman Empire; and an intrepid traveller, was a man who tended to leave scandals in his wake. In 1809, when he was twenty-one, he left England for the continent on what he called a ‘pilgrimage’. In effect, it was a Grand Tour, taking in Portugal, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Malta, Albania and Greece, and it seems to have involved a lot of drinking, stupendous scenery, and sex.

Ancient Apollonia, the Agonothetes Monument; a reminder that Albania was once part of Greece  

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I recently visited the excellently-presented exhibition: Roman Dead: death and burial in Roman London at the Museum of London Docklands. I knew that Romans were taught to face death unflinchingly and expected to be stoical, but, wandering round the exhibition I began to question this. I came to the conclusion that, in spite of their general bloodthirstiness as far as death in the arena or wholesale slaughter on the battlefield went, the Romans had a surprisingly uneasy attitude towards death on a personal level. Death was seen as polluting, and the house where a person had died became a polluted space. Until the proper burial and cleansing rites had taken place, the dead person’s soul could not rest in peace. And an unquiet soul who was vengeful or upset could seriously affect the living.

Teenage boy buried with a baby and a 4-year-old child, probably his siblings. Research shows that he was brought up in a Mediterranean country. Unusually, there are a few grave goods like the pottery jar.

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On a cold winter’s morning, in the 3rd century A.D., a centurion called Parnesius of the Ulpia Victrix stood on Hadrian’s wall and gazed at the bleak, heather-covered hillside to the barbarian north. This was not a posting he’d wanted, and he missed the olives and wine of his native Tuscany, but he had a job to do and he must make the best of things.

Mithras slaying the sacred bull, Ostia museum

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Visiting Crete in October, just as the tourist season is coming to a close, has many advantages. There are fewer tourists, the weather is still excellent, and the places you want to see – in my case, archaeological sites – have not yet closed for the winter months. However, this post is not specifically about the archaeology, fascinating though that is, instead it is a whistle stop tour of what’s Crete has to offer in October. We started off in beautiful Chania.

Chania: looking towards the Venetian lighthouse across the harbour

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The ancient history of Crete has been shaped by forces outside its control. A tsunami resulting from the volcanic eruption on Santorini (ancient Thera) in 1500 B.C. destroyed the Minoan palace of Knossos, and there have been other geological disasters. A massive earthquake in the 9th century A.D. was caused by the collision of two tectonic plates beneath the Aegean Sea, and the resulting tidal wave, suddenly raised the sea level of the ancient port of Lissos on Crete’s south-west coast by ten metres. The city never recovered.

Ancient olive tree amid the ruins of Lissos

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A.D. 71, and Marcus Didius Falco, Lindsey Davis’s intrepid sleuth in The Iron Hand of Mars, is in Germania Inferior on a mission from the Emperor Vespasian. Reluctantly, he goes to Vetera, once a huge double fort on the River Rhine, now bearing all the hallmarks of a savage attack, with broken siege engines, toppled platforms and clear evidence of destruction by fireA few years before, it had been almost totally destroyed by the Batavian uprising, headed by rebel chief, Civilis, once Rome’s ally. It is only just recovering.

The impressive Gate House certainly makes a statement

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Boppard is an attractive German town on the Rhine with an interesting Roman history. In the 1st – 3rd centuries A.D., it was a small riverine trading settlement called Bodobrica. These were settled times, and the Roman Germania Superior frontier, the limes, fortified by stone watchtowers and a wall of sharpened oak stakes, was a long way to the east.

A stretch of wall with one of the semi-circular towers

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Tuscany, Italy, last year. The first thing our guide to the Etruscans said was, ‘Everyone calls the Etruscans “mysterious” and it’s simply not true.’ By the end of the week, I thought: You’re wrong. Yes, thanks to archaeology, we can see inside their tombs; admire their grave goods, the amazing terracotta sculptures, and their famous black bucchero ware; and we know what the Romans thought of them. But, for me, the Etruscans themselves still remain fascinatingly elusive. This is why.

 Apollo, from the temple at Veii

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One thing I love about travelling is suddenly seeing that unexpected something which sends shivers down your spine and makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up: the beautiful gardens of Ninfa in Italy; local fishermen dancing in an old waterfront warehouse in Crete; or a small ruined temple set amidst olive groves full of spring flowers in Turkey. And at Agrigento in Sicily, I saw the telamon.

Agrigento museum telemon

The telamon in Agrigento Museum.; c0mpare his height with that of the women standing by his feet.

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