Tuesday, May 26, 2009


I was going to make you all wait but considering the intense anxiety such a burning question will raise (and because I don't want the whole school at the next talk) I thought I would give you the short version now.

Triumphal Arches

The consul, or imperator, at the head of a successful army could be awarded an ovation or a triumph by the senate (or he could get nothing). An ovation was a triumph without the spoils or the troops following the Triumphator. But the triumph was the big deal. The biggest of big was when the Triumphator could claim the spolia optima or when he had killed the leader of the enemy forces himself. This only happened three times. Anyway, the Triumphal procession followed a specific route through the city and there are lots of funny stories about generals having to postpone their Triumph because they had attached their chariot to captured elephants who were too big for the streets and stuff like that. Really it was an excuse to parade the power of Roman arms before the Roman people.

The parade was led by the Triumphator in a quadriga (chariot pulled by four horses). His face was painted red because he was the incarnation of Jupiter for a day. The prisoners and all the booty (spolia) would follow the Triumphator and then all the troops would parade past. The celebration could last for days (depending on how much booty the army had won) and resulted in large sections of the city burning to the ground on more than one occasion (troops often got a special bonus in cash from the Triumphator and they sometimes spent it on liquor).

At first I thought the arch was removed from the wall as a concession to the religious requirements of the pomerium but I couldn't think of any specific violation. The general could not enter the city before the triumph and his troops couldn't enter the city at all except in a triumph and then only without weapons. So the dictates imposed by the pomerium were already met.

Then I thought it might have something to do with Janus (the two-faced deity). He is the most Roman of all gods - for reasons I hope the thesis as a whole will make clear. And he did have his own arch but it was paid for by merchants who used the Tiber for shipping. And he has nothing to do with triumphs.

The ancient world was governed by two opposite principles - the ius belli and the ius hosti, the law of belligerents and the law of hosts. Either someone was an enemy and you had no obligations toward them at all or they were kin and you treated them as such. That's how the answer involves old Hostis Hostilius - his name means Friend Foe. The distinction between the two seems cut and dried but it isn't. At least, not in Rome. The frequent elision of the two is part of the logic of empire. And this is why you need to think of the arch in space in order to understand it.

The entire Triumphal route would be thronged with people. The Triumphator would often use manubial funds (money gained by conquest) to pay for temporary seating to allow more people to see the parade. Imagine the streets turned into a tremendous linear stadium, a processional passing through Rome and back again. The riotous citizens are all kin, cheering themselves mad for the glory of the army. The Arch doesn't represent a section of the Roman wall, it is a symbolic gate of the conquered cities. The army doesn't fight its way through, it just marches through to the cheers of adoring fans. The Triumph turns the two ancient laws into the same principle during the procession - it is conquest by force and by absorption. Rome conquers enemies and consumes friends. The arch is the moment and location when these antithetical principles are united to form empire.

See? I told you it was interesting!

What is with Triumphal Arches?

That's the tentative title of my next quasi-guerrilla lecture. I loved the idea of guerrilla lectures but it was pointed out to me that by booking space I help the school argue for a larger building when it comes time to expand. And more is not less when you need a desk.

Anyway, these things come from great sources. You would think reading three books a week for twelve months would fill me up with great ideas for lectures and essays - not so. At a certain point more reading generates confusion, not wisdom. Or so says Sallust. Both of the two completed essays and the prospective one have got their (mind-blowing) conclusions from very clever people asking very clever questions. The reading made it possible for me to answer the questions.

So the Triumphal Arch... why am I the first person to ask "wtf?"
People say "they are forms abstracted and removed from the city walls". No one asks the incredibly obvious follow up; instead they document the decoration and classify them by type.

I try to imagine being the Redemptor told to build the first one - someone tells you to build an abstraction of a city gate in the middle of the forum and your question is? Why would anyone do that? I agree.

There has been an incredible amount of scholarly study on the sculptural relief on Triumphal Arches, the inscriptions, decorations, locations, etc. But no one has asked the most basic question possible (from an architect's point of view) "Why an arch?"

I assumed the answer was probably pretty simple and that's why no one bothered but the answer is kind of complex and interesting and so that will be the next lecture.

I'll give you a hint - it involves my favourite Roman name of all time Hostis Hostilius. Actually Memmius Fufemius is my favourite but every time I think of it I start humming banana-fana-fenius fee-fi-fo-femius etc.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Talking To Myself

My thesis will take the form of around ten related essays (or so it appears now). Each essay will be about a theme essential to understanding ancient Rome and a place to demonstrate the spatial repurcussions of the theme.
Number One was called Foundation and was about the Tomb of the Founder and the Tarpeian Rock.
Number Two (and this is the order I am writing in, not the order they will be in the final document) is called Magic and it is about Roman religion and the temporary theaters built by Triumphators. It is the start of a series about representations of the Roman house - first at the size of a theater, then a much larger size for an imaginary crowd, and finally the Imperial fora conceived as houses for the city.
After two attempts to write Magic without speaking it first I gave up and took my recorder to school. I sat outside and talked to myself for half an hour. Then I walked down the street to buy cigarettes while talking to myself. Then I sat in my office talking to myself.
I was able to do it without an audience but I couldn't get the bang at the end - it squirmed out near the middle. And that's no way to write an essay. I was left wondering "shit, is that all I have to say?"
The big revelation in this essay isn't even mine; it's Michel Serres'. What relates a house to a theater is the conception of a house cut in section - atrium becomes a stage and the private rooms become the wings. Pretty clever, eh? I wish I had thought of it.
Now I am wondering if there is anything in the essay I did think of myself.

There is one part - I think I can demonstrate the modern world believes in magic to almost the same extent as the ancient world. At least in the principle of religious contamination; contact with a ritual impurity will put you in grave danger. This is the only way I can account for the panic over the statistically non-existent swine and avian flu strains, or the way people run through the slightest indication of cigarette smoke. It is as if any contact at all will pass the impurity.

If anything really interesting results from writing the thing, I'll let you know.

Guerrilla Lectures

Note - This entry has been revised. Part of the initial purpose of this blog was to help me complete my thesis, and to document that process. Anyone who has written a thesis knows the process will make you crazy (particularly if, like me, you are essentially a disorganized person with disorganized thoughts). Some of the entries in this blog reflect the temporary insanity finishing my degree created (required?). I am revisiting these early entries so I don't spend too much time duplicating material. In the process I will edit, pare, and clarify.

Sometimes writing comes as naturally to me as falling down; other times it isn't quite that easy. I have difficulties when I don't know what the tone is supposed to be.
I began writing my thesis long-hand - I bought an exquisite pen to write with and was off like a shot. Writing long-hand has the tremendous advantage of slowness. While typing I reach the end of the sentence long before I have formulated the next one. Consequently, I end up feeling stupid. Long-hand, however, takes FOREVER. I can compose two of three sentences in my head long before my hand gets close to them. And that makes me feel smart. The problem comes in that I forget what I have already written and, since it is gone as soon as the page is turned, I wind up repeating myself.

My solution was buy a digital recorder and speak my essays as if to someone else. How clever.
And it actually worked.

Then it occurred to me I might as well actually speak them to other people instead of just into my recorder. Thus was born the guerrilla lecture. I wouldn't post a time or place - just tell a few people along with instructions to pass the info along to others they think might be interested.  
The first attempt was terrifying but ultimately successful. I believe formal education works best when it is informal. Students can learn just as much from other students as from professors. But, in the hours before my impromptu performance, I suffered more self-doubt and self-recrimination than in the rest of my education combined. The idea was not motivated by arrogance but seemed tremendously arrogant. I have learned a lot about the topic and enjoy talking about it. If there was an existing tradition of such performances I would have been fine. But there wasn't. I was going to be the first and I felt foolish.
 Anyway. It went well and turned into a nicely paced essay in a tone I am happy with. Buoyed by the success of the first, I attempted a very difficult topic for the second and it didn't turn out as well. The material is okay but it is more than enough for three separate essays. Now I have to separate it and spend the day trying to compose one new one.
It will help if I add my current schedule is a new, complete, thesis-worthy essay every Friday for the next ten weeks.

Friday, May 22, 2009