Pompeii, Prostitutes and Priapus…all in a day’s work (for Obscura, not Richard Armitage)

I’m teaching an upper division course on Pompeii and Herculaneum right now.  One of the things I require of students at this level is an oral presentation of the results of their research on a chosen topic.  (two presentations actually – I’m trying to cultivate a reputation as a hard ass).  **Before you go further, *WARNING* ancient nudity ahead…

The catastrophic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE destroyed a number of cities and private villas in the Bay of Naples region of Italy.  There is nothing archaeologists like more than a good cataclysmic disaster that seals context at a moment in time.  A city like Rome has a rich archaeological history, but it has been continuously occupied since antiquity, which means that much of the archaeological material has been destroyed by subsequent occupation.  Not so at Pompeii  – the 79CE eruption of Mt. Vesuvius encased the city and it’s contents under a thick blanket of volcanic debris for centuries.   As such, the remains of these sites provide a unique window to look at the lives Romans led.


That’s a CGI reconstruction folks…the Romans were advanced, but not that advanced 😉

I offer my students a variety of research topics to choose from, and someone ALWAYS chooses to research brothels, prostitution and Roman sexuality…ALWAYS.  They are also almost always shocked at what they find.  For most of their long cultural history, the Romans were a thoroughly pagan people for whom sexuality was a normal part of life…a biological imperative like eating or drinking.  They had sexual mores that were enforced, but these were very different from what is commonly viewed as appropriate or normal or whatever, in contemporary western culture, which has been heavily influenced by certain Christian attitudes toward the “sinful” nature of sexuality.  The pre-Vesuvius Romans were burdened by none of this, so sexuality and nudity were openly a part of everyday life.

As I sit listening to these presentations, I have to suppress a smile when the presenter struggles with some of these concepts – especially when it comes to discussing the visual record of Roman sexuality – it is present at Pompeii, in full, living color.  Admittedly, I am pretty passé about these subjects, having studied this material for years – I have literally seen just about everything…except some of the stuff in the “secret” room in the Naples Museum.  No one was allowed in the last time I was in Naples, but most of it has since been published.  The Romans, like the Greeks before them, also considered certain parts of the human anatomy to be symbols of good luck.  Hence the proliferation of “erotic” objects from lamps to wind chimes…

pompeii erotica

Students usually do OK with these.  I mean really, who doesn’t love the winged phallus complete with legs, a tail and it’s own phallus with wind chimes attached?!   It’s when they inevitably get to the next bit that things always go south…I know it’s coming…wait for it, wait for it…

Fresco of Priapus from the House of the Vettii at Pompeii

Fresco of Priapus from the House of the Vettii at Pompeii

Yep, there he is…Priapus was a god of fertility and fecundity for the Romans…symbolized by a supersized (ithyphallic) phallus.  (Now everyone knows what is meant by Priapism on the Viagra warnings – you’re welcome.).  By this point a room full of adult students is looking everywhere but the screen while their instructor elaborates on the role of such images in Roman culture.  This painting was found in a very public part of the house, so clearly it was considered fit for public viewing.  It was essentially the Roman equivalent of a horse shoe or a four leaf clover.

What does this have to do with Richard Armitage?  Absolutely nothing – even I am not advocating that role!

inter alia: “…be willingly good, extra good…” – Richard Armitage

I was searching around for this quote today – I knew it was from one of the letters Richard Armitage has written to fans over the years, but I couldn’t remember where they were located until a little birdie (Hi birdie!) reminded me that they are at archived at RichardArmitageOnline.com. This quote comes from the closing remarks of the message dated December 24, 2011, and it has always spoken to me about the generous nature that seems an integral part of Richard Armitage.  This time of year, it becomes particularly meaningful.

I’ve really wanted to be able to post more lately, but as any slave to the academic calendar will tell you, November is crunch time.  The semester is winding to a close, work to be graded is piling up, and students can taste the end on the tips of their tongues.  Professional duties are looming, but more importantly for me,  November is also the kick off to my mission work season.  For the past several years, I’ve coordinated a pizza sale with K-6th grade youth at my church.

Pizza number 176...

Pizza number 176…

We – when I say “we” I mean me, a handful of parents and about 15 kids ranging from 4-12 years old – get together to form a pizza assembly line.  This year we had a total of 200 pizzas to make.  We did it in a little under two hours and no one ended up with pizza sauce in their hair – a minor miracle considering events of past years.  The profits we make from the pizzas are donated wholly to support a local Adopt-a-Family program for the Christmas holiday.  We are assigned a family via a local agency and receive gift buying guidelines and a list of desired items provided by the family.  Sometimes the lists have been something of a challenge, but I was really struck by the list I received yesterday:
adopt a familyNothing extravagant, nothing exotic.  My own children are asking for WiiU’s and Ninendo 3DS’s for Christmas (the jury is still out on this BTW).  This parent is hoping to have diapers for an infant.  This puts cutting onions and wrangling cheese-throwing kids into perspective for me.  By spending a couple of days peddling pizzas, we can make a real difference in the life of this family.

Sometimes just a little respite from struggling can make an enormous impact.  I know, I’ve been there.  I could be there again.  Anyone could.  This is one of the reasons I continue to be enamored of Richard Armitage.  He’s not just a handsome face, or a talented actor.  He really seems to be the genuine article – a person with a kind and generous soul who seeks to give back to those in need – whether it’s through his JustGiving Charities or efforts to raise relief funds after a natural disaster

Relief efforts after Christchurch

Raising funds

Or exhorting his fans to be “…willingly good, extra good…”  I’m going to continue to work on this – doing good works doesn’t always mean huge monetary donations or grand gestures.  I really believe that sometimes we can make a difference through RAndom acts of kindness that have a potential to ripple forward.

There are opportunities all around us…don’t forget the upcoming Silent Auction at I Want to be a Pin Up, and watch this space after the new year for a chance to pool our efforts in this regard.

And this is why I love this fandom…

Yes, we may disagree from time to time, but like Guylty, I have found this fandom to be a place with a huge capacity for kindness and cameraderie!

Guylty Pleasure

Thorin stampsTuesdays *ooof*days are my favourite days, anyway, but never more so than today. I have just received a letter from overseas, and I nearly died an instant death by smoulder when I picked up my mail in the hall. Thorin on the envelope – I had trouble getting my breathing under control again. Seriously, NZ post – you’ll have some litigation on your hands, as soon as thousands of *unsuspecting* females may come across these stamps and the outbreak of the Ladykiller bug will be spread all over the globe!!!

But jokes aside, it comes as a timely reminder for me that this fandom has exquisite, generous and wonderful people participating. Because the envelope didn’t just send itself alone. It came from fellow RA fan M___ who reacted to my public plea for an NZ resident to pleasepleaseplease send me a postcard with the Thorin stamp on it. M___ and…

View original post 236 more words

Can you make me hate you Richard Armitage?

Well, fancy meeting you here!…I actually have a moderately substantive idea to post.  I apologize for my sporadic silence lately…at the moment, in addition to the normal household mayhem, which is about to explode into pre-holiday mayhem,  I’m teaching five courses with five different course preps, and I’m going a bit bonkers.  To add insult to injury, one of them is an online class which I find to be at least half again as much work as a face to face class.

Last week the online class, an aesthetics survey of art, music, literature, philosophy, theology from ancient times to the Renaissance, in seven weeks – I know right?! – hit the classical world.  My standard literature assignment for this section dovetails into the discussion aspect of the course.  Students read one of my favorite tragedies, Medea by Euripides, and then are asked to discuss the characterization of Medea.

For those who are not familiar, Medea is one of the most reviled female characters in classical mythology, largely due to Euripides’ version of the her.  Medea was not a Greek, but from Colchis, a kingdom on the Black Sea.  She was described as a devotee of Hekate and was known as one of the great sorceresses of the ancient world.  She came into the Greek sphere when she aided the hero Jason in his quest for the Golden Fleece.  Jason witnessed first hand on several occasions how powerful Medea was as she helped him escape with his prize, and used her witchcraft to his advantage after he brought her back to Greece as his wife.

Euripides’ Medea picks up when Jason has decided to trade Medea in for a newer model, Princess Glauke of Corinth, who will substantially increase his wealth and prestige.  The play develops as Medea argues with Jason about what he owes her and how he is abandoning her in a foreign land.  Jason is unmoved, going forward with his plans to divorce Medea and marry Glauke.  Medea’s rage is palpable as she converses with the chorus, but she tamps it down when she speaks to Glauke’s father Creon and Jason, lulling them into thinking that she has accepted the situation.

Medea escapes the scene... Source: http://iris.haverford.edu/ovid12/2012/02/25/heroides-xii-medea-iasoni/

Medea escapes the scene…

Unlike the modern reader, the Greek audience knew what was coming next, but Euripides masterfully plays out the story as Medea systematically kills everyone important to Jason – including his two sons.  Her sons.

I’ve come to expect that my students, who have only a cursory understanding of things Greek, almost always take the easiest route and revile Medea for her actions.  Evil, What kind of mother, etc. come up often in discussions.  Not a surprise taken in a modern context, which is why I need to jump in and point out that they need to attempt to put this play back into its context.  What was Euripides doing with Medea?  Why does he have her commit this heinous act (most sources agree that this version of the myth begins with Euripides)?  What does this tell us about classical Greece?

Here’s my reading…people are supposed to be horrified by Medea.  She’s horrible.  For the Greeks though, the reasons her actions are so awful are completely different than they are for a modern reader.  The classical Greeks were pre-Christian, with very little inherent notion of the sanctity of life, or an otherworldly bond between mother and child.  This play was first produced in 431 BCE by the society that coined the term misogyny. 

It is a play written by a man in a male dominated society and produced for a predominantly male audience who shared the same values of patriarchy and male dominance.  Medea would have scared the shit out of them.  It’s no accident that Euripides used Medea, a foreigner, to send the message of this play.  No Greek woman, not even Clytemnestra, acted in this horribly.  Medea is an enormously powerful woman who has been let completely off the leash.  In that sense, Euripides is writing a clear cautionary tale about what happens if women are left uncontrolled.

As such, in the Greek view,  it is Jason who is really at fault here.  Jason is the one who brought a foreigner back as a wife (big no-no).  Jason is the one who is unable to control her.  Jason is the one who crossed her, knowing full well what she was capable of – Medea dismembered her brother and threw his bits off the back of their chariot knowing her father would stop to pick them up allowing her to escape with Jason and the Golden Fleece. 

I encourage you to take a look at Euripides’ characterization of Jason – I detest Jason as a character…of all the Greek heroes (admittedly, a narcissistic lot)  I really can’t stand Jason.  He’s whiny, he’s ineffective (he is one of the only of the Greek heroes to need the help of a woman, not a goddess, to complete his task) he’s mercenary, and he’s just plain stupid in some cases.

Richard Armitage looking Jason-ish Source:  www.richardarmitagenet.com

Richard Armitage looking Jason-ish
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

So back to my original question:  For a while now, I’ve been wondering if Richard Armitage were to play Jason, in a production or an adaptation of Medea, would he be able to embody the him in such a way as to preserve my decades long enmity for the character, or would he be able to find something in Jason that might change my mind?  Or am I too besotted to care?

Do you have a “Jason” for Richard Armitage to test?

Richard Armitage and a different classic tradition


Gary Cooper is on the left, but who’s that guy on the right?

Certain images in the Esquire spread definitely had a classic Hollywood vibe for me (others too!).  I posted this on Tumblr last night, so apologies for shamelessly cross platform re blogging myself, but I don’t know how to show it to non-Tumblrs any other way. (Instruction always welcome!)