Twitterffiti….Gratweeti?

After bearing witness to the latest tiny tornado in the Richard Armitage Twitterverse, I’ve been reflecting a bit on Twitter.  (If you are not aware of the storm in question, don’t fret – given the lay of the land – another one will no doubt emerge.)  I’ve long wondered exactly what the point of Twitter is, what role it plays.  It’s difficult enough to have any kind of civil exchange on social media (98% of the reason why I’ve taken a hiatus from my personal Facebook feed.)  The 140 character limit of Twitter seriously impedes any kind of real discussion, and potentially encourages incendiary exchanges with the extensive use of cryptic emojis and abbreviations.   Clearly, it’s not terribly conducive to conversation beyond quips.  As I was watching the opening credits of HBO’s ROME in class the other night, an apt comparison hit me…

Here a series of Roman artworks and collected pieces of graffiti are animated and run across the walls as the credits roll.  Behind them the viewer also sees all kinds of static writing on the walls of the city.  Graffiti writing seems to have been a very common part of Roman life, and it is tremendously interesting to archaeologists and historians because it provides a view into a segment of life that is not well represented by the usual suspects of ancient writers.  With the graffiti, we can see what the man on the street was up to – literally!  Unfortunately, due to the nature of the evidence – much of it scratched or painted on exterior plaster wall surfaces – almost none of it survives in normal contexts.  However,  thanks (once again) to the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, a compelling body of Roman epigraphy has been preserved.

Ancient graffiti Source

Ancient graffiti
Source

The graffiti of Pompeii and Herculaneum provide a fascinating, somewhat shocking, window into daily life among the Romans.  Ranging from semi official political campaign ads to “status updates” to the ancient equivalent of bathroom stall endorsements, Roman graffiti really does seem to function in way very similar to a contemporary social media platform like Twitter.  Here are just examples:

Checking in…

checking in

Lovers and Lovelorn

lovers and lovelorn

at the BIG brothel (that is, there were many)

at the brothel

Waiting at the courthouse…

courthouse

Political endorsements

endorsements

Political endorsements?

dubious endorsements

NSFW –    FAR TOO MANY TO LIST!!  

These are just a few of the thousands that have been and continue to be recorded, and while I am sure that a particularly vivid or large graffito would have drawn wide notice (as was the intent)

"Romans go home" scene from Monty Python's Life of Brian

“Romans go home” scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian

I have never read about a serious fracas that was caused by something as transient as a wall scribble. Since walls were often re-plastered or re-painted, here today, gone tomorrow was the rule of the day for graffiti – strikingly similar to a certain Twitter stream right?  When push comes to shove,  it seems that in a practical sense, Twitter serves basically the same function as graffiti – without the threat of a fine for vandalism!   🙂

PS…

I think my favorite piece of Roman graffiti by far,  is a sentiment which shows up at several locations around Pompeii and Herculaneum and reads something like:

I wonder, O, wall, that you have not fallen in ruins from supporting the inanities of so many scribblers.

It would be remarkably easy to adapt this to a great deal of what goes on on Twitter on any given day.

Virtutes Romanes: Richard Armitage and Firmitas

Yesterday, I had every intention of writing a Roman virtues post on CLEMENTIA (mildness or gentleness), a quality that has been on display in Richard Armitage’s public appearances lately…contrasting nicely with the intensity of his performance as John Proctor in The Crucible.  I had definitely planned to do it…and then I took my son, his new learner’s permit in hand, out for a driving lesson.  After an hour of trying to mildly instruct him to “stop…Stop….STOP!” or helplessly but gently navigate him through the space between the asphalt truck and the asphalt roller or around a ginormous oncoming combine…

Him: "We won't fit!"   Me:  "It's OK honey...we will.  Just move over a little to the right...no, no, not that much that's the ditch!"

Him: “We won’t fit!”
Me: “It’s OK honey…we will. Just move over a little to the right…no, no, not that much that’s the ditch!”

…any trace of CLEMENTIA in me had been eradicated.

Consequently, we’ll leave gentle and mild for the moment and move on to another virtue…FIRMITAS.  Probably the most ubiquitous modern association with firmitas lies in Vitruvius who wrote *the* book on Roman architecture.  Vitruvius combined FIRMITAS, (firmness, durability or strength) with UTILITAS (usefulness) and VENUSTAS (beauty) into what has come to be called the Vitruvian Virtues of Architecture.

As evidenced by the recent images shot by Francesco Guidicini for the Sunday Times/News Syndication, there is very little about Richard Armitage that is not FIRMITAS by literal definition.  However, while the ancient Romans certainly valued a strong physical form, the Roman virtue of firmitas was connected to its alternate meaning of tenacity or steadfastness.

Rome didn’t emerge as a Mediterranean super power overnight.  It started out as a dinky west central Italian city state ruled by a fratricide king and populated mostly by felons and malcontents who’d been kicked out of every other place in the area.  They had to scrap for just about everything…they even had to steal wives from their neighbors the Sabines, but they held fast and fought forward.  The power and extent of Roman influence grew over centuries of tenacious expansion during which they suffered a number of crushing defeats that could well have ended it all.  But as a culture, the Romans seemed to possess this sort of iron spine of perseverance...firmitas… that propelled them onward.  This was true on an individual level as well.  Although access to high political influence was limited to a very few elites, Roman society actually had a great deal of potential for upward economic mobility, which over time…with a healthy dose of firmitas… could lead to social and political mobility as well.  Stick-to-it-ness was a highly prized virtue for the Romans.

Reading through the “annals” of Richard Armitage’s career, one will find that there is a similar concept at work, beginning when he was an adolescent badgering his parents about the school he wanted to attend.  Despite a paucity of roles early on, he stuck it out…waiting tables, laying floors, doing whatever it took to fill in the gaps while he continued to tenaciously work toward an acting career.  More recently, (notably in the Telegraph article by Chris Harvey) we’ve seen him recount his firmitas in the steadfast determination to gain access to desirable stage roles by first building a reputation and a name as a screen actor.  It took years, and there may well have been times when he was ready to chuck it all, but he didn’t…he steadfastly pushed forward and then, there it was…

From the Old Vic Newsletter

From the Old Vic Newsletter

FIRMITAS

 

 

Paludamentally yours…Thorin Oakenshield in Roman Military Wear

Thorin Oakenshield looking very Roman generalish in the DOS trailer. Source:  www.richardarmitagenet.com Source:

Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) looking very Roman generalish in the TDOS trailer.
Source: http://www.richardarmitagenet.com

I have been trying very hard to isolate myself from the impending deluge of promotion preceding the release of The Hobbit:  The Desolation of Smaug in December.  I just can’t afford three solid months of constant distraction.   As such, *braces self for hue and cry* I haven’t watched the trailer yet.  I did, however, catch a glimpse of the image above and was instantly struck by how very Roman Thorin (Richard Armitage) looks.  With a mind toward NOT being sucked into the distraction, I noted it and moved along.  Then Servetus had to post this…dammit, now I have no choice! I will lose my Classical Tradition Club membership if I don’t formally address the Roman military inspiration of this look.

The paludamentum or sagum purpura (purple cloak) was the iconic red cloak worn by a Roman general (Legatus) and his staff officers.  Originally, it’s distinctive red/purple color clearly delineated between these officers and the rest of the army, which sported the sagum gregale (cloak of the flock).  Although the sagum gregale, worn by the rank and file, started out the color of the flock (i.e. undyed wool), it seems likely to have transitioned to a coarser version of the sagum purpura by the imperial period (27BCE – 476CE).  Outfitting the entire army in red garments would have been a mark of the great wealth of Rome – well, that and the fact that the Romans controlled the source of purple dye by then.

  • Brief sideline into the color purple… The Romans did not have an extremely detailed vocabulary for color (they would have been completely dumbfounded by the Crayola color palette!)  and their understanding of purple encompassed a variety of shades ranging from red to maroon to purple.  A deep, rich color like this was quite difficult to achieve with the dyes available in the ancient world.
Shells of Bolinus Brandaris

Shells of Bolinus Brandaris

  • In fact, the Phoenicians made a fortune selling Tyrian Purple, a dye extracted from the Bolinus Brandaris or Spiny dye murex, a mollusk that resides in the waters off the coast of Phoenicia (modern Lebanon).  The potency of this dye made it “worth it’s weight in silver” according to the ancient historian Theopompus, and put it well out of reach of all but the extremely wealthy.

Sorry…I got a little carried away there!  The paludamentum was a cloak that was specifically associated with warfare.  A general donned one for the ceremonial procession leading an army out of the sacred precinct of the city of Rome and was required to remove it before returning to the city…a sign that he was no longer a general, but a common citizen.

paludamentum mixThe paludamentum was usually worn over one shoulder and fastened with a fibula (ancient version of a safety pin).  Arguments abound over what shoulder was exposed, but it seems fairly clear that the garment was fastened loosely enough to move around, (if you look through the Cleopatra caps, you’ll see that the sagum worn by Epiphanes (Richard Armitage) shifts freely when he’s involved in a tussle in defense of Octavian (Rupert Graves)).

fibula cuirass detailIn addition to the details of the cloak and the fibulae (Thorin wears two), it looks to me as if he might also be wearing a leather chest protector (cuirass) that is detailed with an elaborate metal section.  If you look at the image of Ciarin Hinds as Caesar above, you’ll see a similar arrangement, which is well attested historically.  All in all, this is very Roman regalia indeed.

There is one thing that stands out as distinctly not Roman however, and that is Thorin’s hair.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Thorin’s mane, but the Romans were sticklers about hair.  In his biography of Caesar, Suetonius recounts that not only did Caesar keep his face shaved and his hair cut short, he also insisted that all of his body hair be regularly removed.  (Here’s to job security for depilatory slaves!)

Thorin’s long, braided hair and beard would have immediately marked him as a barbarian, a German even (no offense my German friends, but your ancestors scared the togas off the Romans!).  By the later stages of the Empire though, there were plenty of Romanized barbarians who had been assimilated into the Roman army.  In this guise, Richard Armitage could be any one of a number of Ostrogothic kings who rose to prominence as Roman power waned in western Europe.  I’m especially partial to Theodoric the Great.  He had grown up as a hostage in the Byzantine court at Constantinople and went on to recover and rule the remnants of the Roman west, promoting religious tolerance in an era of persecution.  I seem to recall Richard Armitage saying in an interview that he’d like to play an historic character, but not someone too famous…I think I might have found the perfect fit.

VALÉ Armitageworld

 

ὅ παῖς καλός – Armitage and Ascroft

I’ve been talking a lot about the Greeks, but the ancient Romans also made enormous contributions to the classical tRAdition.  A new photo of Richard Armitage that emerged over the weekend put me in mind of the Roman tradition of portrait sculpture.  The classical Greeks were skilled and prolific sculptors – arguably far surpassing the later Romans in virtually all areas…except one:  portraits.  It wasn’t that the Greeks couldn’t generate realistic portraits, it was that they just weren’t interested.  I think that it has to do with a vast divide in ideologies between the Greeks and Romans.  To boil it down, the Greeks saw much of life as a quest to achieve ἀρετή (arête or excellence in English).  I’ll have more to say about Richard Armitage and ἀρετή at a later date, but suffice it to say now, that viewed through this lens, realism gave way to idealism for the Greeks in many artistic genres.

The Romans, in contrast, have been defined by many as centering themselves around the concepts of pietas (piety) and gravitas (gravity or severity)  If the Greeks were the great “out of the box” thinkers of the classical world, the Romans were the pragmatic doers. In its original role, portrait sculpture served as a visual means of keeping the pious Romans connected to the spirits of their departed ancestors, an important part of traditional Roman religion.  The earliest Roman portrait busts are thought to have been sculpted from wax “death masks” molded from the recently deceased’s features.  Not surprisingly, the results are realistic down to the wrinkle…a “warts and all” sculptural tradition.

"Veristic" Bust of an Old Man - Vatican Museum

“Veristic” Bust of an Old Man – Vatican Museum

As the Romans expanded out of Italy, into the wider Mediterranean world, amassing a huge territorial empire, the function of portrait sculpture also expanded to include realistic portraits of important public figures like the one of Julius Caesar below.  It is meant to be a realistic portrait, but also to show the power and importance of this individual.  This portrait represents Caesar in the mid 1st century BC (BCE) at about the age of 50…not a young man, but not old either.

caesar bust

Julius Caesar – Vienna, Austria

By the 2nd century AD (CE) we can see a very different style of portrait sculpture emerging.   After several hundred years of exposure to the Greek artistic aesthetic, some of it has clearly rubbed off on the Romans in this “portrait” of Antinous, the favorite of the Roman emperor Hadrian.  To be fair, Hadrian was a massive Hellenophile, Greece’s 2nd century sugar daddy, so the Greek influence is extremely pronounced here.  But Roman portraits from this period forward reflect a blending of the Romans desire for realistic portraiture with the Greek preference for an idealized look.

Antinous_Mondragone_Louvre_Ma1205

“Portrait” of Antinous – Louvre
Photo Credit: Wikimedia

So how does the latest Robert Ascroft portrait of Richard Armitage (below) fit in here?  The Romans would have loved modern photography for its ability to realistically portray the human face down to the last wrinkle, blemish and gray hair.  The Greeks would have loved Photoshop for its ability to make that all disappear and produce an idealized view.

Photo by Robert Ashcroft 2012 - Courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com

Photo by Robert Ascroft 2012 – Courtesy of richardarmitagenet.com

I can’t tell you if this image has been retouched – although I doubt that many professional images are released without some adjustments.  We see a mature man, not an idealized youth here, and for me, at least, the impact is a stunning blend of the realistic and ideal.  ὅ παῖς καλός indeed!