Lion-Slaying Women in the Roman Arena

Performing in the Roman arena, whether as a gladiator, a beast-hunter, or some other kind of violent entertainer was mostly a man’s job, but that doesn’t mean women never took part. The poet Martial celebrated a woman (or women, Martial is vague on the details) who slew a lion as part of the games put on the emperor Domitian.

Warlike Mars, unconquered in arms, serves you, Caesar,
but this is not enough: Venus herself serves you, too.

Martial, On the Spectacles 7

Fame used to sing the tale of how great Hercules
laid low the lion in Nemea’s wide valley.
Enough of that old legend: now after your games, Caesar,
we have seen such things done by women’s hands.

Martial, On the Spectacles 8

(My own translations)

Some scholars think these are two separate poems, others that they were originally one poem and the first two lines got accidentally split off at some point when manuscripts were being copied out. In any case, it seems pretty clear that women also took up arms to perform for the crowds in Rome.

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They’re Good Dogs, Xenophon

The ancient Greek author Xenophon is best known for writing about the life of the philosopher Socrates and his own experiences in a company of mercenaries in the Persian Empire, but he also wrote a handbook on hunting, full of practical advice for youngsters taking up the sport. He devotes a fair amount of time to the proper care and handling of hunting dogs. Here’s his advice on keeping your dogs in good shape:

It is a good idea to take [dogs] into the mountains frequently, but not so much into farmed fields, for in the mountains they can hunt and track game unimpeded, but fields are not good for these exercises because of the paths. It’s good to take your dogs into rough ground even if they don’t find a hare, for this sort of terrain helps develop their feet and bodies. In summer, let them run out until noon, in winter throughout the day, any time apart from midday during the autumn, and in the evening in the spring, since this is when the temperatures are moderate.

Xenophon, On Hunting, 4.9-11

(My own translation)

Having grown up with a dog and having a number of friends who keep dogs, even if we never used them for hunting, I can’t argue with this advice.

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Quotes: I Wouldn’t Want to Suddenly Make a Fool of Myself

How nice that you feel so sure of my affections.

I wouldn’t want to suddenly make a fool of myself

Go ahead, chase that cheap, wool-spinning

whore rather than Servius’ daughter Sulpicia.

I have people who care about me, and their greatest worry

is that I might fall into bed with some worthless nobody.

– Sulpicia, Poems 4

(My own translation)

Sulpicia is among the few female writers whose work has come down to us from antiquity. She was a Roman poet writing in the late first century BCE. Her surviving poems chart a tempestuous love affair with one Cerinthus. Like the lovers described in poetry by her male contemporaries, we cannot be sure whether Cerinthus was a real person or just a literary invention.

Sulpicia’s poetry relates in interesting ways to the major philosophical movement among Romans of her time: Stoicism. Stoicism was an originally Greek school of thought that emphasized emotional steadiness through the ups and downs of life. This idea appealed to Romans, who traditionally valued discipline and dispassionate self-control. Many Romans among the elite espoused versions of Stoic philosophy as a guiding principle.

Controlling one’s emotions first requires observing and understanding them. This is where Sulpicia’s poetry fits in. Her poems are like little gems of precisely observed emotion. This one captures the cold, controlled anger that comes of holding in a rage that is about to explode. Another poem expresses the exasperation of a young person at well-meaning but clueless relatives.

While other Romans were exploring Stoicism as a philosophical idea, Sulpicia was turning it into art.

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Quotes: Time Belonged to a Higher Realm

There’s a lot (a lot!) I liked about Karen Lord’s scifi novel The Best of All Possible Worlds. This snippet, for instance, puts words to a childhood wonder I remember from elementary school when learning math:

Karen Lord The Best of All Possible Worlds

“Standard Time was invented by Sadiri pilots. Most Sadiri procedures and quantification followed straight lines and linear progressions, created for the convenience of the ten-fingered. But Time… Time belonged to a higher realm. It could not be carried in human hands, not while it constantly carried human minds. It was all circles, wheels within wheels, a Standard year of three hundred sixty Standard days coiled up in twelve months, which in turn were composed of the small whirlings of twelve hours day and twelve hours night, tiny spinning minutes and seconds, ever-cycling breaths and blinks and beats.

“To be described as having a pilot’s mind was both curse and compliment; it could mean being unable to tell the difference between prophecy, memory, and mere déjà vu.”

– Karen Lord, The Best of All Possible Worlds

I just couldn’t fathom why the decimal system is different from time measurements, and remember that for a time trying to reconcile them was very confusing. But time—heh, heh—helped with that, of course, along with more advanced classes, in addition to a certain amount of shrugging and just getting on with life.

It’s intriguing when a book serendipitously reminds you of thoughts you thought were long buried, isn’t it?

Lord, Karen. The Best of All Possible Worlds. New York: Ballantine Books, 2013, p. 40.

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Ancient Egyptians Knew How to Party

Here’s how the ancient Greek traveler and historian Herodotus describes the festivities surrounding a great festival held every year in honor of the goddess Bast, popular with both native Egyptians and foreign residents like Greek mercenaries and traders:

When they celebrate the festival in Bubastis, they do these things. Men and women sail there together, huge numbers of them in every boat. Some of the women shake rattles and some play flutes the whole way there; the rest sing and clap their hands. Whenever they sail by a city, they put in to shore and do the following: some of the women keep doing what I described, some call out tauntingly at the women in the city, some dance, and some stand up and hoist up their dresses. They do this at every city along the river.

– Herodotus, Histories 2.60

(My own translation)

Now, Herodotus was an outsider describing customs he didn’t entirely understand, and he certainly got some of his facts wrong. Still, many of the details he recounts of daily life in Egypt seem to have come from his own observations, and more than a few hold up on comparison with Egyptian literature and art. In any case it sure sounds like the ancient Egyptians knew how to have a good time!

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Quotes: Infohistory Is a Mess

Elizabeth Bear’s scifi novel Machine has a succinct sum-up of just some of the problems concerning information retrieval:

“Wait,” I said. “How can information decay?”

“They used to call it bit rot. Servers get taken down, data falls through the cracks and doesn’t get backed up. Physical substrates are destroyed or damaged, or degrade over time—especially the primitive ones. A holographic diamond is very durable but can’t be changed once it’s written to, and magnetic media only lasted a decan or so under ideal conditions.

“And even if the data is preserved somewhere, that somewhere might not be networked. If it’s networked, it might not be indexed. Even if it’s indexed, it might be half the galaxy away and take two or three ans for the file request to get there, be fulfilled, turn around, and come back. And then you might find out that you needed different files entirely.” He huffed with great satisfaction. “Infohistory is a mess.”

– from a discussion between Dr. Brookllyn Jens and the medical librarian AI Mercy in Machine by Elizabeth Bear [original emphasis]

Despite this being from a fictional work, it rings very true. My librarian heart was delighted to read an account that acknowledges not just the physical difficulties of dealing with old media—whatever shape that media might take, from cuneiform to CDs—but also the search-related problems. Metadata, or in case of libraries, the information about the items in the collection, doesn’t feature in stories very often. Also, it is why good reasearch librarians and archivists are worth their weight in gold.

Bear, Elizabeth. Machine. London: Saga Press, 2020, p. 203.

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A Roman Boat Trip to Nowhere

Most of us aren’t doing a lot of traveling these days, what with the pandemic restrictions. Some people are missing the travel experience so much they’re paying for flights to nowhere, but it’s good to be reminded that travel can also be a real pain—uncomfortable accommodations, bad food, rude fellow passengers, awkward schedules, and the like.

Travel could be just as difficult in the past, too. Here’s the Roman poet Horace’s description of an unintentional canal boat trip to nowhere to remind you of what you’re (not) missing.

[…] An hour went by in taking fares
and hitching up the mule. The vile marsh midges and frogs
kept sleep at bay; all the while a boatman, sloshed on cheap wine,
competed with a passenger in crooning to absent
girlfriends. At last, worn out, the passenger went to sleep
and the lazy boatman hitched the mule to a rock
to graze, then flopped down and snored.
When morning dawned we realized the old tub
wasn’t moving, not until some hothead jumped up and gave
the mule and boatman both a good thrashing about the head and hindquarters
with a willow switch. […]

– Horace, Satires 1.5.13-23

(My own translation)

Enjoy the pleasures of just staying home!

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Quotes: We Humans Need Cinema, as a Collective Experience

Director Denis Villeneuve (whom I know from Arrival and Blade Runner 2049) talks about the decision made by Warner Brothers to release their new movies concurrently in theaters plus their streaming platform in an interview with Variety:

“I strongly believe the future of cinema will be on the big screen, no matter what any Wall Street dilettante says. Since the dawn of time, humans have deeply needed communal storytelling experiences. Cinema on the big screen is more than a business, it is an art form that brings people together, celebrating humanity, enhancing our empathy for one another — it’s one of the very last artistic, in-person collective experiences we share as human beings.

“Once the pandemic is over, theaters will be filled again with film lovers.

“That is my strong belief. Not because the movie industry needs it, but because we humans need cinema, as a collective experience.”

This is a hairy situation. I fully agree with Villeneuve in that the theater experience—both movies and traditional plays, not to mention concerts of all varieties—was created with the physical presence of masses in mind, and, indeed, it benefits enormously from our physicality.

Technology has drastically changed how many things can be achieved digitally instead of physically. However, the fact has not changed that we are physical beings and crave physical experiences. There’s nothing quite like being drawn into a story and hearing the crowd around you reacting to it with you. (Think of sports events if you’re a sports fan.)

At the same time, however, I cannot but applaud the decision from an accessibility point of view. Personally, I literally understand and enjoy movies much, much better when I can access subtitling or captioning (and this is before the reduced hearing that’s in my family’s genes has really affected me; subtitles will only get more important for me in the future). And despite the theaters Erik and I usually visited in the Before Times being physically accessible, I have also visited theaters that aren’t, or theaters that have inaccessible bathrooms, or theaters that have bad seating.

Of course, one doesn’t have to have a disability or chronic conditions to enjoy streaming brand new movies. Coming from a large family I know herding kids in and out of theaters isn’t always easy. And there have been times I might have wanted to see a movie, but it would’ve meant slogging back out after a long day, waiting for a bus to take me downtown (or riding my bike in the wind and the rain) and all of it back again afterwards, so instead I stayed comfortably home.

There are a number of ways in which streaming content immediately on release day will benefit ordinary folks of all kind. At the same time, I do hope, most fervently, that movies made for the big screen do not disappear. For me, like for Villeneuve, they’re one of the major cultural features of 20th and 21st centuries.

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Quotes: The Rigid Rules of My Life Were Stories

This is a thought that’s very easy to pass with a shrug and an “Of course”:

“It was ironic, wasn’t it, Solís? I was not even aware that the rigid rules of my life were stories, passed on from generation to generation because that’s all we knew. Tía Inez believed it, and la cuentista before her did, too. And so, we gave every cuentista of Empalme the same rules, the same restrictions, and we held them down, and we forced them into a life they couldn’t possibly have chosen.”

–Xochital in Mark Oshiro’s Each of Us a Desert [original emphasis]

But it gets very different very fast when you start thinking of everything, absolutely everything, that’s involved in your daily life. Start with how you’re brought up, kindergarten, school, and on. Or travel a bit further away from your home, or are able to talk with a stranger who trusts you with their life story.

For instance, I’m pretty sure that the sweater I’m wearing right now is “supposed” to be a boy’s. I saw it in a second-hand shop, liked the colors and print, liked the size, liked the price even more, and bought it. It’s a sweater; it kept me warm and left money in my pocket as a poor student. It still fits my “supposedly” “wrong” shape well enough after all the years I’ve had it. Who cares who is supposed to wear it?

Twitter CatCafeLiverpool Cat Fits Cat Sits

If it fits, I sits… err, wears. Me wearing this sweater isn’t hurting anything or anyone. But, of course, little things like an article of clothing can symbolically stand for larger issues, and those, as we all know, can really be thorny.

Humans really are storytelling animals.

Oshiro, Mark. Each of Us a Desert. New York: Tor, 2020, p. 374-5.

Images: Each of Us a Desert by Eppu Jensen. Cat in a box via Cat Cafe Liverpool.

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Now It Is Time to Drink!

If you’re feeling celebratory today, here’s a little verse from the Roman poet Horace to put you in the right mood. Horace was celebrating the defeat of Marcus Antonius in the last phase of the Roman republic’s long-running civil wars of the first century BCE (although, for political reasons, focusing most of his scorn on Antonius’ Egyptian ally, Cleopatra). But you can drink and dance for whatever is making you happy today!

 Now it is time to drink! Now with liberated feet
dance upon the earth! Now the sumptuous
feast of the gods
can be spread, my friends!

Before this, the time was not right to bring the good Caecuban wine
up from the ancient cellars, not while the insane queen
schemed to bring death and ruin
to the Capitol and our state

with her foul throng of thugs,
drunk with vain hopes
of sweet
victory.

– Horace, Odes 1.37.1-12

(My own translation)

Enjoy!

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