Lindsay Powell's Blog

September 12, 2016

The ultimate homicide case of ancient Rome?

Mark Twain is supposed to have said: “History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” I was intrigued by one of those apparent rhymes between ancient and modern times when writing my biography of Germanicus Caesar, who was Rome's most popular general, but died under mysterious circumstances. You can read my observations in this piece I wrote for the Ancient Warfare magazine blog here:
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Published on September 12, 2016 13:19 Tags: ancient-rome, caesar, germanicus, jfk, kennedy

January 11, 2016

A Passion for Living: Celebration of A Life

The death of a friend is an opportunity to reflect on what matters in life. On 9 December 2015 one of the most important and influential people I have been lucky to have as a friend passed away. I gave a eulogy at the celebration of her life in Austin, Texas on 8 January 2016 to a group of family members and friends. This is an edited version of my speech with the official obituary appended at the end.

'In Soniam': A Eulogy for Sonia St James (1942-2015)

On a Sunday a few weeks ago I was sitting with Sonia St James at her apartment in north west Austin. We had been meeting on Sunday afternoons for years. On that occasion, sitting on her settee she turned to me and asked if I would be willing to give a speech at her memorial. "Of course," I said, “I’m a biographer. I should be able to do that”. “Yes," she said, “you write about dead people all the time!”

A biographer needs good material to work with. A week after Sonia died, her daughter Chris Datzko asked me if I’d review Sonia’s obituary. I agreed to that too. It turned out I didn’t have much to do. No big surprise there: Sonia had written one for herself! In 2013!

Few people have either the chance or the time to consider what their lives have meant until it’s too late to do anything about it and make a course correction. In the movies it’s that moment when the hero, expiring his last breathe, asks ‘was I a good man?’ or ‘how did I do?’

An obituary tells a story, but it reads a bit like a resumé – a list of schools, jobs, survivors – and hers is very impressive indeed. You can read my ever so slightly edited version here… Tonight, however, is about celebration. How to account for the life and achievements of Sonia St James - mother, grandmother, aunt, friend? What should we remember her for?

Well. Guess what? (Or as she would say, 'are you ready for this, guys?') Sonia had her own ideas about that too. If you use Twitter - the social media tool for the hip and trendy, and being a trendy woman of the Twenty-first century she did – her profile's tagline at @stjaustin reads:

Entrepreneur, Muse to Creative Minds, Author, Artist.

So let’s take each in turn.

First, Sonia the entrepreneur. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines an entrepreneur as ‘one who organizes, manages, and assumes the risks of a business’. That was Sonia to a T. The extraordinary fact was that for someone in her senior years – she was 61 when I first met her – she had as many ideas and as much energy as a Harvard Business School graduate a third of her age.

One of the great appeals to her of entrepreneurship was the opportunity to travel. Born in Flint, Michigan she was the quintessential American, but she was one of the most outward looking people I have ever met. As she writes in her obituary “she pursued her international interests by traveling, listening and learning in 40 countries”.

One of those initiatives was TBN, a network for businesses in Austin. It is how I got to meet her in 2003. She had organized a business breakfast at an upscale café in north east Austin, off MoPac Expressway. I’d hardly registered to pick up my badge when she strode up, introduced herself to me and, noting my British accent, suggested I could help her on a project. That first encounter lead me to become an advisor to Technopolis Xchange. The journey which began with that experience revealed to me her mastery of the skills needed to get a business off the ground: networking; personal confidence; hard work, and frugality.

She was her business’ greatest ambassador. In building that concept she traveled far and wide – to Europe, Africa and all over the USA. But she didn’t stop there. After Technopolis came Training for Real Estate, eBooks Classes (on which we worked on together) and TORKA Sports Towels.

As a muse Sonia saw potential in others - that often we did not see in ourselves - and helped us fulfill it. Just watching how she created businesses from nothing inspired me to take a chance – for me in property investment and writing/publishing. The ancient Greeks imagined there were nine muses who covered the arts, poetry, dance and music in all its varieties. I hope they’ve set aside a seat for the tenth – Sonia. Suitably the name Sonia is of Greek or Russian origin, meaning ‘wisdom’.

At a particular moment in my career, she sat me down and we worked through her patented Acceler process. It was intense, but with her usual discipline and focus at the end of it, as was her goal, you had a path forward. When the future looks uncertain to have someone show you that you have within yourself what you need to face it, and offer encouragement and support, is a priceless gift. Her wisdom was to see change as a chance to renew.

Third, Sonia the author. According to her own record Sonia wrote “over 40 guides and manuals.” They include Don’t Diet – The Handbook on Kicking the Aging Habit and Wall Street to Main Street, a book about self-directed IRAs. (You can still order them on Amazon.)

One of the new books she was researching, but sadly did not complete, was about preparing for, and surviving, a hip replacement operation - she having survived two of them herself. As in so many ways she turned a challenge – in this case a serious personal medical matter – into something others could benefit from. My own first book, All Things Under the Sun, was born of her suggestion of compiling my collection of blog posts into a single volume when it appeared my first officially commissioned book might be late for the book signings I set up – and for that reason I dedicated it to her.

A Muse to others, Sonia was herself a creator of art. Her own style of painting was modern – abstract, primitive, dramatic, and always surprising. She found painting therapeutic, another outlet for her fertile mind, and enjoyed the work of the great masters. When we went to London it wasn’t the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum that we went to see but Roy Lichtenstein at the Tate Modern!

My own regret is that we never arranged a viewing of her work at a gallery: I think that would have been such a special event. When I thought of it she had become sick and I let it get in the way of me acting upon my impulse. Imperfection is part of life. To quote her favourite artist/singer and songwriter, Leonard Cohen, and her favourite song 'Anthem':

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

To this list of talents I am going to add two more.

Number five is the personal shopper. She lived well and had great personal style, appreciating quality and the finer things. Yet frugality was a hallmark of Sonia’s lifestyle. She would make the most of special offers and coupons! She’d always know the best deal on at Walgreens and whether the cat litter on sale at Target came with a $5 cash card! And she’d be sure to remind the guy at the checkout too… just in case he forgot.

She had an interesting approach to shopping. She'd pick different items, enthusing over their selling points. The ones she liked went in the cart. Then at the end of the shopping session, she’d do an audit: yes to this, no to that – but mostly no. She’d leave most articles behind. And even if she did buy the item, more often than not it would go back for a refund next day. That self denial takes a special kind of discipline, but on the positive side it offered her all the rush of finding the best buy without the expense! There’s a book in that somewhere.

Lastly there was Sonia the Pet Minder. Sonia was kind to animals. At her apartment off MoPac Expressway she semi-adopted a gorgeous, long-haired ginger cat. Like Sonia it was an independent thinker, a free agent, not one to constrained by rules. It liked to live outdoors as well as in. One day it brought back with it poison ivy on its fur coat. Sonia’s skin reacted badly and caused her no little discomfort. In fact it was a very nasty allergic reaction. That episode and the punitive fees apartment complexes impose on pet owners meant she did not own a pet of her own.

Lucky for me my indoor cats benefitted from her affection for moggies. While I was away in Britain she would take care of them. My oldest cat, a tabby called Tidus, became sick in 2015. I knew he had not long to live. She offered to care for him while I was away in California. A couple of days into my trip while at dinner she called me and tactfully broke the news of Tidus’ passing. She had found him on the floor by the window. He had died peacefully. She took care of the body too. Upon my return to Austin she presented me with a carefully wrapped, sealed package. She had kept his body in the freezer so that I could give him a proper burial in my own backyard. Sonia was always the practical mother!

So how did she do? In my books about ‘dead people’ I don’t have a chapter entitled ‘Conclusion’ as some biographers do. It seems very presumptuous of a writer to make a final judgement about someone – and opinions and mores change over time. I prefer the word ‘Assessment’. This then is my personal assessment of the late, great Sonia St James.

Now I can only speak for myself. She was my friend, and a very dear one to me. We were separated by a generation in age but her youthfulness and zest for life made that immaterial. Her impact was great and I still feel it. Whenever I write an email on Hotmail her email address always pops up first. I already miss her professional business and marketing advice, her texts about Downton Abbey on PBS' Masterpiece Theatre, her personal shopper skills, and in so many other ways. Knowing her changed me – for instance, I am now more entrepreneurial and willing to take a chance on something new.

Restless in life in facing her own death she showed remarkable calm, assurance, clear sightedness and dignity. To me she was the face of courage. Sonia was a scientist at heart and had strong views on religion. Quantum theory informs us that things are interconnected. She would joke with me that anyone who annoyed her while she was alive would get a visit from her from the other side.

So here is my spooky story. She died on 9 December. On 17th I was working on my new book in my home office, playing the Leonard Cohen song ‘Anthem’ on my Mac. I left the room for a moment to get a coffee. To get to my kitchen I have to go through my great room, which has a fireplace. I tend to keep the greetings cards on my mantelpiece in my great room long after the anniversary has passed because I like the artwork. When I came back I found two cards laying on the floor. They were both inscribed ‘Much Love, Sonia /S’.

Sonia liked taglines: her favourite quote from a poem by Leonard Cohen, was 'time does not age us, it merely unfolds us'. Personally I think that is too passive to use as an epitaph for our Sonia. She was an active person, filling her life with interactions with people. With that in mind a more suitable line would be,

She lived her life with passion and inspired the rest of us to do the same.

Please join me in a toast to Sonia.

Official Obituary Posted in Austin American-Statesman 5-6 January 2016:

Sonia St. James passed away on 9 December 2015 after courageously living with cancer for two-and-a-half years.
She was born in 1942 in Flint, Michigan. Her father, James St. James, was a French immigrant and engineer; her mother, Ulra Hall, was a seamstress and an artist. Sonia lived in Midland, Michigan with her children until 1980 when she moved to Texas to pursue a career in technology.
Sonia earned a B.A.A.S. degree from Texas State University, and a Systems Engineer Certificate from IBM. Over a lifetime of contribution she proved her abundant talents as a business leader, entrepreneur, author and artist.
She worked in executive management positions at Bergen Brunswig, Armada International, Warner-Amex Cable Communications, National Computer Systems, and Titan Corporation. Following her successful corporate career she used her natural talents for enterprise by building organisations of her own. Her Technical Business Network, Technopolis XChange, and other technology-related initiatives assisted communities in Texas to leverage opportunities in fast growing sectors of the economy. Her activities were reported by USA Today, CNNfn, CNET, Science & Society, MediaWire, as well as regional and international media.
As a self-styled 'Muse to creative minds' she helped others to realise their potential and share it with the wider community through her patented AccelerProcess© and the Acceler Model©. Her business ventures included the IRATraining seminars that teach individuals how to become self-directed retirement investors, and, in collaboration with Lindsay Powell, the eBookClasses seminars teaching authors how to be successful in digital publishing. Her last was Torka Sports Towels, which continues to thrive under the management of her son, Scott St James.
She served on the Governor of Texas Technology Commission, City of Austin Texas Mayor’s international Cabinet as a board member of the International Center of Austin (ICA), and the Advisory Board for the University of Texas Science, Technology and Society think tank. She was made an Honorary Citizen of Lubbock Texas in recognition of her leadership in the formation of the Lubbock Regional BioScience Initiative for West Texas, and for her ongoing service to the community. She hosted The Austin Players, a prestigious awards event celebrating technology companies and leaders. In 1999 she was named trade advisor to the JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization). In 2001 High Tech Austin named her a 'Mover and Shaker.'
Her impact reached far beyond Texas. Among her international engagements she was invited to speak at the European Union Partnership Conference in The Netherlands, the Warsaw Biotechnology Conference on Partnering in Poland, and the Bioscience Partnering Conference in Canada.
As an author she wrote Don’t Diet-The Handbook, Kicking The Aging Habit, the From Wall Street to Main Street Book series, over forty guides and manuals for, and several other books for clients.
Her favorite quotation was 'time does not age us, it merely unfold us', coined by poet and musician, Leonard Cohen.
She is survived by her four children; Shelly Wolfe and husband Chris, Scott Leins, Jack Leins and fiancé Katy, Chris Datzko and husband Pete, and grandchildren Amber, Nick, JJ, Murphy, Taylor, and Quinn. She is preceded in death by her beloved grandson Dominic. Close to her children, she described them as 'entrepreneurial in spirit and independent in nature.'
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Published on January 11, 2016 18:34 Tags: austin, friend, friendship, sonia-st-james, texas

October 5, 2015

How a Royal Navy Base Came to Be Named After Marcus Agrippa, BFF of Caesar Augustus

One of the joys of being an author is to receive letters from readers who have enjoyed one's work. Sometimes they share information that can be included in a revised edition, and occasionally they tell a story that deserves a wider audience. This is one of those fascinating stories (presented unedited with permission):

Dear Mr Powell
I have just finished reading your excellent book 'Marcus Agrippa' in which you made the point that, despite his many achievements, Agrippa has never been much championed nor brought into the general public knowledge. I thought you might be interested in an incidence when he did gain some minor notice.
In 1996 I was serving as a captain in the COMNAVSOUTH NATO base on Nisida Island near Naples along with a large contingent of Royal Naval personnel for whom I held some administrative and disciplinary responsibilty. Since the pay accounts for this contingent were held at the RN pay and administration establishment in Gosport, HMS Centurion, our junior ratings' cap tallies bore the unglamorous title 'HMS Centurion'. I noticed however that newly drafted ratings were not wearing HMS Centurion cap tallies and, when I challenged them, they claimed they were no longer available from naval stores. I made enquiries and discovered that the Navy had outsourced the provision of pay and HMS Centurion had been de-commissioned so there was no longer a need for a cap tally. I asked around other outposts of naval contingents and discovered that most of them had opted for the very prosaic "NP 2016'' - NP standing for 'Naval Party' and the number being arbitrarily allocated. I thought this unacceptably unglamorous and not conducive to the instillation of team spirit or a sense of identity that sailors like to have, particularly when serving overseas.
The only alternative was to establish a new naval establishment with a name of its own based at the NATO HQ near Naples with the officer in my appointment as the commanding officer. There was little official enthusiasm for the creation of a new establishment in a shrinking navy but after some, understandable, administrative opposition, the plan was agreed – largely because there was no real alternative and the consequences of de-commissioning HMS Centurion had not been fully thought through. I was told to consult the Naval Historical Section of the M.O.D. over a name, which I did but their suggestions were all related to Admiral Lord Nelson's time in the Mediterranean and in Naples in particular. As it happens Nelson made himself thoroughly unpopular in Naples by supporting the Bourbon king and in the process having hanged a popular local aristocrat, Caracciolo, an event still remembered and resented in the city and I knew that anything Nelson-related would not do.
I knew very little about Agrippa but I had read about the creation of Portius Iulius and how he had trained the Roman fleet, built tunnels in the large sheltered area behind Cabo Misena which my wife and I used to enjoy exploring in the tender to our small cruising boat. I also knew he had played a major part in the battle of Actium and that was enough, it seemed to me, to make HMS Agrippa a suitable name for the new Royal Naval establishment. This was eventually agreed by those in the M.O.D who approve such matters and we held a commissioning ceremony on the roof terrace of the COMNAVSOUTH headquarters. I felt the decision on the name was vindicated when the Italian Commander in Chief, a four star admiral called Mario Angeli, wrote to me congratulating me on my choice!
Anyway, now I have read your book, I know so much more about this terrific chap and I'm glad to have played a tiny part in preserving his name. I do find it sad and extraordinary that he has never caught the eye of the Royal Navy's Ship's Naming Committee in the past. We have had Caesar, Cleopatra, loads of Greek heros in the Leander class but no ship bearing the name of a man who exemplified so many of the qualities that the Royal Navy prides itself in instilling in its people: tragic!
Thank you for doing such a comprehensive job of bringing the man to the public's attention in your scholarly but highly readable biography.
With very best wishes,
Commodore D J M Mowlam
Royal Navy

I replied that I was sure the old Roman admiral would have been chuffed. In his usual self-effacing way, though, he might have proposed calling it HMS Iulia or Augusta, as he did with his other public projects, but as his biographer I am very pleased to know that an establishment of HM Royal Navy bears his name - and so close to a naval base which he himself laboured to create.
Thank you Cdre. Mowlam.
Hip! Hip! Hooray!
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Published on October 05, 2015 18:31 Tags: augustus, friend, friendship, marcus-agrippa, roman, roman-empire

March 10, 2015

Uncovering the Enigma of Marcus Agrippa, Right-Hand Man of Caesar Augustus

This is a piece I wrote for Casemate​'s Athena Blog site about writing my biography of Marcus Agrippa:
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Published on March 10, 2015 09:35 Tags: augustus, friend, friendship, marcus-agrippa, roman, roman-empire

February 8, 2015

Marcus Agrippa, Right-Hand Man of Caesar Augustus

What will a man do for a friend? Marcus Agrippa provides an extra-ordinary example of loyalty and self-less service. Ahead of the release of my new biography of Augustus' best friend, I worked with The History Network to produce a podcast about the life of this unique man. Listen to it here:
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Published on February 08, 2015 20:13 Tags: augustus, friend, friendship, marcus-agrippa, roman, roman-empire

June 16, 2014

Opposing Sides: Going Behind the Lines of Ancient Warfare

Osprey Publishing asked me to write a blog piece about my new COMBAT: Roman Soldier versus Germanic Warrior, specifically 'an anecdote about the creation of the book, some extra information that didn't make it into the book.' This is what I wrote:
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Published on June 16, 2014 07:41 Tags: arminius, germanic, germanicus, germans, hermann, osprey, roman-aarmy, romans, teutoburg, varus

April 17, 2014

How Hollywood Gets History Wrong, and What Independent Film Makers Are Doing About It

2014 has been a busy year for the 'epic', but, for all of the CGI and SFX - or perhaps because of them - some of Hollywood's latest productions have been less than good. I recently wrote a piece for Ancient Warfare magazine which I agreed to have reposted on the website of an independent film maker who is working on an exciting new project. Read it here - and learn how you can help support it:
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Published on April 17, 2014 15:24 Tags: ancient-warfare, epic, history, hollywood, roman

November 24, 2013

The Ultimate Homicide Case of Ancient Rome

Americans have been in a reflective mood for much of November 2013. The events of fifty years ago on 22 November in Dallas, Texas have come echoing down to the present day. I too have been absorbed in the succession of many excellent TV documentaries and newspaper articles about that fateful day. What struck me was that there were parallels, even similarities, with a much older case of a V.I.P's death that has long been thought of as one of the great murder mysteries of the ancient world.

I am referring to Germanicus Julius Caesar (16 BC-AD 19) about whom I have just published a new biography (1). Germanicus was the famous and well educated grandson of Caesar Augustus. When Augustus adopted Germanicus' uncle Tiberius, who in turn adopted his nephew, he was marked out to be the third emperor of Rome.

Like John Fitzgerald Kennedy, he was wildly popular during his lifetime. Poised, handsome and descended from one of the nation's great families, Germanicus married the emperor's beautiful but strong-willed granddaughter, Agrippina the Elder. As John and Jackie Kennedy were to the twentieth century, Germanicus and his wife were the glamorous couple of the first. They were feted by crowds wherever they went and he enthralled them with his oratory. He was an effective courtroom advocate in Rome, but it was as a successful general in the forests of Germania where he beat the famous rebel Arminius (a.k.a 'Hermann the German') that he made his name and forged his reputation.

For his victories across the Rhine River, in AD 17 the new Emperor Tiberius sent his adopted son to Syria as governor general to bring order to the eastern provinces. It was a fateful promotion. On 10 October AD 19 ancient Rome suffered its own 'JFK moment'. Germanicus Caesar died mysteriously in Antioch, aged 34. His demise shook the very foundations of the Roman state. Initially people did not believe the reports, but once confirmed, shock gave way to tears, then rage. There were riots in the streets of Rome, which lasted months. The walls of public buildings were daubed with the words REDDE GERMANICUM – “Give us back Germanicus!”

The cause of his death has vexed historians for centuries. Hardly had Germanicus' body gone cold when many already suspected murder. Just as a recent Associated Press-GfK poll (2) found that the majority of Americans still believe several gunmen were involved in the murder of the President of the United States in Dallas, the ancient Romans suspected that the death of their war hero and emperor-to-be was the victim of a political conspiracy and a cover-up. The earliest account we have was written by Josephus, who writes some seventy years after Germanicus' death that the accepted view in his day was that he had been poisoned.

Just as Jackie Kennedy stoically nursed the heartbreak of her husband's public death in 1963 and took his body to the nation's capital, almost 2,000 years ago Agrippina mourned her own tragic loss. Having overseen the funeral rites in the marketplace in Antioch, she carried the urn containing his ashes herself back to Rome for burial. When she reached Italy people lined the docksides at Brindisi and the roadsides all the way to Rome out of respect. The American painter Benjamin West captured the moment of her arrival in his famous painting of 1768, which now hangs at Yale University Art Gallery (3); and J.M.W. Turner created a visual fantasy of the same moment in his painting of 1839, now in The Tate, London (4).

Agrippina insisted that her husband's death was murder. Fingers pointed at the governor of Syria, Calpurnius Piso, and, as a deputy of the emperor, even at Tiberius himself. A year after Germanicus' death Piso was put on trial by his fellow senators on charges of murder and treason. It met behind the closed bronze doors of the Senate House as the ordinary men and women of Rome outside loudly demanded justice. Before the process ended Piso was found dead, which only added to the mystery and suspicion. Piso was found guilty of treason, but the Senate rejected the notion of a conspiracy in Germanicus' death. Its verdict – delivered on 10 December AD 20 – was accepted by most, but rejected by many, much like the Warren Commission Report of 1964. Significantly the Roman Senate itself was not convinced poison was the cause.

It may have been an accidental death, caused by a natural disease, perhaps made fatal by his medication, which in those days could be toxic if poorly prepared or taken in the wrong dosage. Germanicus had just returned from a long trip to Egypt to Syria. In the first century the East was a dangerous place for diplomats visiting from Rome. Particularly striking to me is that it is a matter of historical fact that in the 100 years following Germanicus' death twenty-five high ranking Roman officials met their accidental ends in Syria, which they used as their headquarters for their missions in the eastern part of the empire (5). One of them was Emperor Trajan (AD 98-117), who was succeeded by Hadrian. They could not all have died by a conspirator's hand.

Sometimes the historical truth of a mystery is mundane. People die for all sorts of reasons, most without ever a hint of a crime having taken place. If the brutal assassination of Jack Kennedy is “the ultimate homicide case” of modern times (6), Germanicus' death is the unsolved mystery of the Roman world. Whether it is AD 19 or AD 1963, everyone loves an unsolved murder mystery.

One of the consistent conclusions of the many experts who have spoken of the killing of the thirty-fifth president is that it marked a pivot point in US History. Some have even called it “the day America lost its innocence” (7). For Romans too, the passing of Germanicus was a turning point. His premature death was a real setback. Tiberius' rule became gradually more despotic, aided by his pathalogical deputy Aelius Sejanus, and many innocents died as a result.

Time is said to be a great healer, but it also allows memories to be become distorted. Jack Kennedy's reputation has only gained with the passing of the years. Yet he ruled for only a thousand days and saw little of his political agenda realised – it would be left to his successor, the Texan Lyndon Baines Johnson, to achieve that. His near canonical status and enduring popularity are, in large part, because he died before he could disappoint. Centuries earlier, Germanicus never came to power himself, but for the same reason his name remained untarnished after his death and people looked back at him fondly – neither of which could said of Tiberius.

The deeper tragedy is that Germanicus would likely have made a truly great emperor. If he had lived the history of Europe and the world would have taken a very different turn. Instead of Germanicus, his youngest son, Caius, later succeeded Tiberius as Rome's third emperor. He is better known as Caligula.


5. Ronald Syme, Governors Dying in Syria, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 41, (1981), pp. 125-144 (on JSTOR at
7. Examples:, and
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Published on November 24, 2013 21:16 Tags: agrippina, ancient-rome, germanicus, jackie-kennedy, jfk, tiberius

October 2, 2013

Meeting the Ancient Romans Face to Face

Pompeii exerts a strange power over devotees of ancient history. I am fortunate to have been to the ancient Campanian city gradually being being exhumed from under a thick 10 metre layer of pumice. You can never quite avoid the crowds of twentieth century tourists. It attracts hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, thousands visit every day. But it is possible to find quiet spots, places where the guided tours have yet to reach or have already departed from. It makes quite an impression to wander down cobbled streets, to peer into shops and private houses and to stand in its forum with the profile of brooding Vesuvius in the distance.

More impressive yet is neighbouring Herculaneum. I have not been, but I was captivated as a teenager by the photos in Joseph Jay Deiss' book[1] – which I still have – and paid 35 shillings out of my pocket money to buy. There buildings still have carbonised doors, and verandahs, ceilings and roofs. Where Pompeii was decidedly working class with pretentions for advancement, Herculaneum was for those who had already made it.

My first face-to-face encounter with some of the cities' treasures was at the Royal Academy's AD 79 exhibition. It entranced a whole nation in the winter of 1976/77 and sparked a mania for things Roman. I went with my parents by train from Cardiff to London and stood in what seemed an endless queue – I still have the show guide for that show too. My adolescent impatience was rewarded. I still recall seeing the bronze gladiator helmets and greaves – from Herculaneum – for the first time. (After all it was watching Spartacus that first sparked my interest in the Roman period.) Having since moved to the US, I was thrilled to go to Chicago on a cold day in the winter of 2006/7 when the Fields Museum put on its sell-out Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption exhibition. That time it was a strongbox from Villa B in Oplontis which impressed me most: its brute size and grotesque decoration of metal studs and resting hounds on top implied much about the character of its affluent owner.

As an enthusiast for the ancient world I continue to be lured by the two cities on the Bay of Naples so when, this year, the British Museum hosted one of its now set-piece spectaculars I just had to go. Not once but twice. Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum brought together several of the the choicest finds from the region.[2] Some I had seen before, but many I had not. Mary Beard recently wrote about her favourites from the show, and this is my selection.[3]

So what impressed me this time? Finally meeting L. Caecilius Iucundus was a memorable and – it felt like a – long overdue encounter. I had been introduced to him – as far as you can be with a long dead person – as one of the members of the Roman family in the Cambridge Schools Latin Project when I was at high school. “Caecilius est in atrio” I recall from one of the first pages of the pamphlet wrapped in its bright orange cover. (Hardly surprising to find him there, it turned out, as he was a banker and that's where he would greet his clients.) His realistic warts-and-all bronze bust tops a marble herm – a tall tapering column with a disproportionately small penis attached to the front to ward of evil spirits. Interestingly it was set up by one of his freed slaves, named Felix ('Happy'). He has a face that's deep with character. He was a portly gent, with cropped hair, large protruding ears, and a big nose; but it is the strange growth on his left chin which catches the eye. His lightly furrowed brows suggest he was not one given to excessive worry, just hard work. I could imagine him as a canny, no nonsense operator – 'business is business' – but perhaps spoken with a soft voice and having straight forward manner. That he was a man with compassion is suggested by the fact he freed slaves – that act of manumission would have made Felix live up to his silly name. Iucundus may have looked like many men of commerce on the up in Pompeii. In a nearby display case was a clay statuette, a characature of a fat man in a toga, painted white – perhaps mass produced in a workshop and intended to be given as a gift or 'freebie' with the name of the donor painted at the base.

Then there was the iconic wall painting of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife in a cheerful ancient Roman version of Grant Wood's dour American Gothic. Used on the poster to promote the event all over London, seeing it up close it was remarkable for its small, intimate size. Terentius, sporting a whispy beard, clutches a scroll; but his wife, with her hair pulled back and a fringe of intricate ringlets at the front, has the wax tablets – the iPad of the day – and stylus suggesting she was the real brains keeping the operation working efficiently and customers provided with fresh bread. Their large dark eyes engage you as you look at their portrait. These are people you could trust – at least to supply your daily loaf.

The Romans of Pompeii and Herculaneum revelled in life and living. They certainly appreciated Nature. The room from the so-called House of the Golden Bracelet with a wall painting of a garden – is extraordinary. Its plants and birds are so faithfully reproduced that the species can be identified 2,000 years later. All it needs is a medley of birdsong and a breeze to complete the effect. It is matched in quality by the small mosaic of fish, again so well executed that its myriad types can be named. Without a doubt, the Romans enjoyed food and fine dining. Exquisite, if perhaps gaudy, silver tableware, with surfaces so smoothly polished you could almost see your face in them, never fail to astonish today as they must have guests in AD 79. The items on the Latin menu might not all be to our liking, though. The rough clay jar with perches inside for fattening door mice reminds us that this was a world where fresh food meant rearing and killing it in your own kitchen: there were no supermarkets with chilled cabinets in those days.

Surprising too is to learn that the domestic toilet might be located within spitting distance of the kitchen oven. Examples of cast bronze taps and valves show the Romans were masters of the craft of plumbing and controlling the flow of running water, but not every home was connected to the water mains. In those houses the wafting stench of excrement from the toilet would not be far away from the aromas of prepared food, until the kitchen staff flushed it with water, along with all the other kitchen waste. Indeed, quite extraordinary was the recent find of compacted human pooh in the sewer under a street in Herculaneum and with it shells, broken crockery and even lost jewellery. It reminds us that in this regard first century Rome was more like seventeenth century London.

The last things the visitor saw at the exhibition were plaster casts of actual people – a man sitting squat against a wall, a dog laying curled up with its collar, and parents with their two children in poses suggesting they had been blown away by the shock of a blast.[4] (A recent experiment to use resin instead of plaster proved a difficult and expensive undertaking.) Notwithstanding the superb material artefacts to survive, these figures dramatically and unnervingly reveal the human tragedy that occurred during the days of Vesuvius' eruption in AD 79. Some 1,150 bodies have been found 'preserved' this way. If the city of Pompeii was home to an estimated 20,000 inhabitants, it suggests the majority escaped – or that their bodies remain to be found outside the city, along the roadsides.

The exhibition at the British Museum closed for the last time on 29 September. A show like it may visit a city near you one day. If it does book early and go see the treasures great and small from Pompeii and Herculaneum and meet the Romans. You might even find me there.


1. Deiss, Joseph Jay (1968), Herculaneum: A City Returns to the Sun, The History Book Club.
2. Roberts, Paul (2013), Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, Oxford University Press.
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Published on October 02, 2013 22:08 Tags: british-museum, herculaneum, pompeii, romans