Summer Vacation: Archaeologist-style

by Eric Cline

Each summer in June, the annual migration of archaeologists begins. Summertime is when most university excavations take place, because the academics that run them are on summer vacation, as are the post-grads and graduate students who make up the staff. The undergraduate students and the volunteers from all walks of life, most of them checking off an item on their bucket list, are similarly free, or are at least able to take their vacation days to participate for a few days or even a week or two.

In a few days, I’ll be heading for our dig at Tel Kabri, located in northern Israel, where we are excavating a Canaanite palace dating back almost four thousand years, with the oldest and largest wine cellar yet found in the ancient Near East. We’ll have about a dozen staff members and almost seventy volunteers (or team members, as we call them) working over the course of six weeks, and we’re on the small side—some digs have closer to two hundred team members who participate over the course of a single season.

Each team member covers the costs of their room and board, as well as their round trip airfare, for the opportunity to participate in what will be, for most of them, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Some will enjoy it so much that they return the next season; others will be glad to return home after realizing that it involves much more dirt, sweat, and labor that is both much more intensive (think picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows) and painstaking (think dental tools and small brushes) than they ever expected.

The day will begin at 4:45 am, when the team members board the bus that will take them from the field school where we live to the site, which is located about ten minutes away. Retrieving our tools from the storage unit—which is essentially an old railway car minus the wheels—we are digging by 5:00 am, while it is still chilly enough to wish for a sweatshirt or fleece jacket, but those are soon shed as the temperature climbs and perspiration creates damp patches on t-shirts and tank tops.

The first potsherds appear almost as soon as the first pickaxes dig into the soil and are tossed into a plastic bucket; much later, in the afternoon, they will be washed and laid out to dry, so that the experts in the staff can examine and date them, based on a variety of characteristics including color, tempering, decoration, and so on. Our sherds indicate that we are digging in levels from the Middle Bronze Age, dating to the 18th through 16th centuries BC.

Soon a patch of plaster appears in one trench and trowels and patishes—small hand picks—replace the larger pickaxes, as more delicate work is now necessary. The potsherds continue to appear—for each ancient vessel shatters into dozens of pieces when it breaks, all of which remain to be found, for they are non-biodegradable once fired in a kiln. The pottery buckets fill up at an astonishing pace, to the eventual chagrin of the team members, who know they will have to wash each piece separately and by hand that afternoon.

Eventually, after what seems an eternity, a half-hour break is called at 8:00 am, so that staff and team members alike can fill their growling stomachs with eggs, cheese, tuna, tomatoes, and/or chocolate spread on large rolls. The largest line is for coffee, with team members working in different areas of the site good-naturedly exchanging details of their morning’s activities and discoveries with each other.

Soon enough the breakfast break is over and the team members will return to their areas, working until 1:00 pm before climbing back on board the bus and returning to the field school for a hot lunch and a few hours of free time. Most will nap in their air conditioned rooms, though some will venture to the swimming pool and sunbathe, as if they hadn’t already gotten enough sun during the morning.

Late afternoon sees the pottery washing, as well as data entry on the laptop computers, and various other assorted tasks. Dinner is at 7:00 pm, followed by a lecture, for many of the students are doing this for college credit, and the older team members are simply interested in learning about the history and archaeology of the area, or the nuances of how the various specialists do their work and analyses. Lights are out by 10:30 pm, for a much-needed six hours of sleep before the whole routine begins again for another day.

To some this will seem abject misery; for me it is heaven. I’ve been doing this almost every summer for more than thirty years and it never gets old, even though I have. There is nothing else like the thrill of excavation and discovery—not knowing what you will find in the next minute, hour, day, or week. At Kabri we’ve found fragments of wall paintings, large jars that once held wine, bits and pieces of ivory, gold, and other materials, and are slowly beginning to reconstruct the life of people who once lived in this palace nearly four thousand years ago.

What will this summer bring? I have no idea, and that’s the best part about it. I’ll let you know in August what we found. What I do know is that what we are doing is fun, exciting, AND important. We, and the other teams of archaeologists who will be in the field this summer, are excavating and rescuing the remains of past civilizations—the details of our story, the human story.

 

ClineEric H. Cline is professor of classics and anthropology and director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University. An active archaeologist, he has excavated and surveyed in Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the United States. His many books include 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed and Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology.

 

Eric Cline departed on his travels on June 14. Check this space for updates from the field.

A peek inside The Atlas of Ancient Rome

The highly anticipated English-language edition of The Atlas of Ancient Rome is now available. Eager for a sneak peek inside? Check out the trailer below, and be sure to visit the new website for an interview with the editor, Andrea Carandini, as well as additional information on this definitive illustrated reference book of Rome from its origins to the sixth century AD.

 

The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Biography and Portraits of the City, Edited by Andrea Carandini from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Amazons in all Shapes, Sizes, and Colors: What the Wonder Woman Movie Got Right

by Adrienne Mayor

Were Amazons—and their real-life counterparts in antiquity—really as diverse as they appear in Wonder Woman?

Wonder Woman opens with a breathtaking  panorama of Themiscyra, the fantasy island populated by powerful women, a paradise magically isolated in time and space from the modern world of men and their ruthless wars. This is where the little wonder girl Diana raised by a triumvirate of formidable females: Queen Hippolyta, General Antiope, and her aunt Melanippe.

In the film, Themiscyra is a self-contained, women-only society of indomitable warriors, devoted to using their deadly expertise to fight on the side of all that is fair and good. We see how idealistic young Diana is rigorously trained for hand-to-hand combat, learning rugged martial arts alongside the toughest, most courageous warrior women the world has ever known: Amazons of ancient Greek myth.

The beginning scenes show us daily life in Themiscyra, with the entire citizenry of warlike women engaged in military exercises. As far as the eye can see, vast fields are filled with female soldiers displaying their prowess in an amazing array of skills. Frame after frame, there are women wrestling, boxing, sword fighting; women performing gymnastic feats on galloping horses; women thrusting daggers and twirling battle-axes; keen-eyed archers on foot and on horseback; acrobatic ninjas and javelin throwers with deadly aim. And in the following scenes of the battle on the beach—pitting the Amazons against boatloads of nasty German soldiers—the dizzying kaleidoscope intensifies, drawing us into a maelstrom of whirling, grappling, leaping, kicking, punching, stabbing, spearing, soaring, kickass female fighters. A crucial element in the  scene’s powerful impact is the perfectly natural diversity of super-fit body types and skin colors.

The magnificence of the Amazons of Themiscyra would have been impossible to pull off with typical Hollywood actresses pretending to be fierce warrior women. It was the brilliant decision of director Patty Jenkins to cast real-life athletes and sports champions as Wonder Woman’s companions.

And that choice ensured that women of Themiscyra display a variety of skills, body sizes, shapes, ages, and skin colors. The diversity is stunning: the Amazons are tall and short, robust and lithe, young and mature, lean and muscle-bound, stolid and mercurial; pale and dark—and everything in between.

In ancient Greek myth, Amazons were warrior women who gloried in battle who dwelled in exotic lands around the Black Sea. Now, thanks to evidence from history, art, and archaeology, we now know that the Amazons were modeled on real nomadic peoples of ancient Scythia, a vast territory that stretched from the real Themiscyran plain on the Black Sea to Mongolia. These myriad tribes had their own languages and were ethnically diverse, but they shared a lifestyle centered on fast horses, bows and arrows, and constant warfare. Their egalitarian lifestyle meant that girls and boys learned to ride, shoot arrows, and fight and the women rode to war with the men.

The Scythians left no writings, but modern archaeology, ancient art, and historical descriptions by their neighbors, the Greeks and Chinese, tell us what they were like. Human remains from Scythian graves show both European and Asian traits, characteristics evident in steppe nomads’ descendants today. Females buried with weapons ranged in age from 10 to 45. Some 2,000 years ago, Greek and Roman historians reported that some Scythians had dark eyes and hair, while others were blond or red-headed with blue eyes. Notably, ancient Chinese chronicles confirm this ethnic diversity, describing some Scythians of Inner Asia as red-haired with green eyes.

Beginning in the sixth century BC, Greek artists painted thousands of images of Amazons on vases. The pictures took on more and more realistic details of actual Scythian nomads as they became more familiar with steppe peoples. Vase paintings show tall and petite Amazons, husky and slender Amazons, often together in the same scene. Most have dark hair but there are some blonde and red-haired Amazons. There were ancient Greek tales of Amazons of Africa and Ethiopians were allies of the Amazons in the legendary Trojan War. Vase paintings show African archers dressed like Amazons.

Wonder Woman‘s vision of all kinds of Amazon warriors making themselves physically strong—and then proving their valor in violent combat and emerging victorious—is unprecedented in cinematic history. The grandeur of the fighting scenes—the sheer physicality and diversity of the Amazons—arouses surging emotions of exhilaration in viewers, empowering for women and girls, a revelation for men and boys.

The fact that the multidimensional aspect of Wonder Woman‘s Amazon paradise is grounded in historical reality adds to the glorious authenticity of the film.

So breathtaking is the tribute to strong, real women in the first third of Wonder Woman that I’m joining the chorus of viewers requesting a prequel—we want more Amazons!

MayorAdrienne Mayor is a research scholar in classics and history of science at Stanford University, and the author of The Poison King: The Life and Legend of Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, a finalist for the National Book Award, and The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World.

 

 

 

 

Image: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

See inside The Atlas of Ancient Rome

CarandiniThe Atlas of Ancient Rome, edited by Andrea Carandini, is a gorgeous, authoritative archeological survey of Rome from prehistory to the early medieval period. Transport yourself to antiquity with full-color maps, drawings, photos, and 3D reconstructions of the Eternal City, featuring descriptions of the fourteen regions of Rome and the urban history of each in unprecedented detail. Included are profiles and reconstructions of more than 500 major monuments and works of art, such as the Sanctuary of Vesta, the domus Augusti, and the Mausoleum of Augustus. This two-volume, slipcased edition examines the city’s topography and political-administrative divisions, trade and economic production, and social landscape and infrastructure using the most current archaeological findings and the latest mapping technologies. Take a look at a sampling of some of the detailed images from the book.

An interview with Andrea Carandini, editor of The Atlas of Ancient Rome

We’re thrilled to announce that The Atlas of Ancient Rome is will be available for purchase next week. Take a moment to watch this interview with the volume editor, Andrea Carandini, in which he discusses why Rome merits its own Atlas, the appeal of the book as an object, and what makes this project unique. And be sure to check out the microsite for more information on this gorgeous tour through centuries of Roman history.

 

Three Stones Make a Wall: Preventing looting from ancient sites

ClineSoon after discovering King Tut’s tomb in 1922, Howard Carter discovered that the tomb had been opened and resealed at least twice since its royal occupant had been laid to rest there. When Carter called his benefactor, the earl of Carnarvon, to tell him about the discovery, what he didn’t tell him was that he feared there would be nothing left for them to find. Many Egyptian tombs had been robbed in early antiquity, but a few had not yet been discovered, including King Tut’s. We now know, of course, that there were plenty of fabulous objects for Carter and Carnarvon to find, but he later estimated that about 60% of the jewelry alone had been taken.

In Eric Cline’s new book, Three Stones Make a Wall, he tells the story of archaeology. Included in that story is the struggle between those concerned with preserving our cultural heritage and those who would seek to profit from it. The looting of ancient sites is older than the practice of archaeology itself. In fact, the first archaeological excavations to take place anywhere in the world were at Herculaneum in 1709, but it wasn’t so much archaeology as it was looting. Credit for the discovery usually goes to Emmanuel Maurice de Lorraine, Duke of Elbeuf; many of the pieces were sent to decorate his estate in Naples. Others were delivered to museums, but without records. It wasn’t until later that a man by the name of Johann Joachim Winckelmann became the first scholar to study the artifacts from Herculaneum and nearby Pompeii.

Today, we are seeing the greatest prevalence of looting from ancient sites ever documented, almost certainly fueled by demand from private collectors. “Perhaps the most compelling reason to write this book now, however, is that the world has been witnessing an assault on archaeological sites and museums during the past several years at a level and pace previously unseen” (Pg. xvi), Cline writes in Three Stones Make a Wall. The deliberate looting and destruction of ancient sites across the Middle East is tied to the recent wars and unrest there. In 2015, UNESCO warned of, “industrial scale looting in Syria,” in which looters use small bulldozers to scrape away the top layer of earth across large swaths of land, then use metal detectors to find anything valuable. In Syria, ISIS has reportedly sponsored and actively participated in the antiquities trade. Antiquities from Egypt, Iraq, and Syria have shown up in auction houses in London and New York.

Though the unrest in the Middle East makes it a prime target for looters, this is actually a worldwide problem. In order to control the prevalence of looting, items discovered at an archaeological site are subject to the rules and regulations of the antiquities department in the country of origin; they usually find their way to universities and museums. Much progress has been made in preventing theft from archaeological sites since the early days of archaeology. In 1970, UNESCO approved the convention on the means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. In the United States, one of the earliest laws aimed at preventing theft from ancient sites was passed during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, trying to control the huge trade in looted painted pots and other antiquities illegally dug from graves on Ancestral Pueblo sites in the U.S. Southwest. Most recently, President Barack Obama signed into law the Protect and Preserve International Cultural Property Act on May 9, 2016, which makes it illegal to sell artifacts that have been looted from Syria in the U.S. It is important to stop the theft of antiquities because they are part of our shared cultural heritage.

The study of ancient sites enriches our understanding of our past, present and future. In Three Stones Make a Wall, Eric Cline makes a compelling case for protecting that which has been left behind by our ancestors.

An interview with Andrea Carandini, editor of The Atlas of Ancient Rome

We’re thrilled to announce that The Atlas of Ancient Rome is now available for purchase. Take a moment to watch this interview with the volume editor, Andrea Carandini, in which he discusses why Rome merits its own Atlas, the appeal of the book as an object, and what makes this project unique. And be sure to check out the microsite for more information on this gorgeous tour through centuries of Roman history.

An Interview of Andrea Carandini Author of Atlas of Ancient Rome from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

A peek inside The Atlas of Ancient Rome

The highly anticipated English-language edition of The Atlas of Ancient Rome is now available. Eager for a sneak peek inside? Check out the trailer below, and be sure to visit the new website for an interview with the editor, Andrea Carandini, as well as additional information on this definitive illustrated reference book of Rome from its origins to the sixth century AD.

The Atlas of Ancient Rome: Biography and Portraits of the City, Edited by Andrea Carandini from Princeton University Press on Vimeo.

Eric H. Cline on the story of archaeology

Eric H. Cline taking measurements at Tel Kabri (Credit: Kabri Excavations)

In 1922, Howard Carter peered into Tutankhamun’s tomb for the first time, famously exclaiming, “I see wonderful things.” In a lively and essential introduction to the story of archaeology, Three Stones Make a Wall by well-known archaeologist Eric H. Cline, takes us from the pioneering digs of the eighteenth century, to Carter’s legendary discovery, to the exciting new discoveries being made today. Recently, Cline took the time to answer a few questions about his book, his most interesting discoveries, and provide insights into how excavations are actually done.

When did you become interested in archaeology? What inspired you to become an archaeologist?

EC: As I say at the beginning of this book, when I was seven years old my mother gave me a biography written for children called The Walls of Windy Troy. It was about Heinrich Schliemann, the man who discovered ancient Troy. After reading it, I announced that I was going to become an archaeologist. When I graduated from college with a degree in Classical Archaeology, my mother gave me the same book again.

How many digs have you been on and where?

EC: I’ve been going on digs since I was a sophomore in college. So far I’ve participated in more than thirty seasons of archaeological excavations and surveys, mostly in Greece and the Middle East, including Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Most of them were at places that nobody but archaeologists have ever heard of, like Ayios Dhimitrios in Cyprus and Palaiokastro in Crete, which are both Bronze Age sites dating back to the second millennium BCE, but ten of those seasons were spent digging at Megiddo in Israel, which people have heard of because it is biblical Armageddon. I’ve also dug a bit in the United States, in both California and Vermont. There was a time, back when I was in college and my early years in graduate school, that I would pick a country which I hadn’t visited before and find an interesting dig there to work on; then I would go over early and come back late, so I had time to travel in the country for a few weeks both before and after the dig. That’s what I did in both Jordan and Egypt, for example. But now I’ve been working at sites in Israel for pretty much the last 20 years, since about 1994.

What’s the best thing that you’ve ever found on a dig?

EC: The first great thing that I found on a dig was a petrified monkey’s paw. I tell the story at the beginning of the book, but it was on that first dig, when I was a sophomore in college. It was a Greek and Roman site in the north of Israel, called Tel Anafa. The University of Michigan was running the dig. So, one morning, I uncovered an object that was buried in the dirt. But, I didn’t uncover it so much as hit it accidentally and at such an angle that it flew up in the air. When it was in the air, almost in slow motion, I looked at it and thought, “oh, a petrified monkey’s paw!” But, by the time it landed, I knew that was ridiculous, because there hadn’t been any monkeys back in Greco-Roman Israel. It turned out to be a little bronze figure of the Greek god Pan (the guy with horns who plays a double flute and traipses through the forest), which would have originally been attached as an ornament to a wooden chair. The chair is long gone, but the little bronze figure was lying there, just waiting for me to find it more than 2,000 years later. It’s now in a museum in Israel. But, the second great thing, which is probably actually the best thing that I’ve ever found, is the wine cellar of a palace that is almost 4,000 years old. We’re actually still digging it and will be there this coming summer of 2017. It’s a Canaanite palace at Tel Kabri, in northern Israel, where we have found the oldest and largest wine cellar from the ancient Near East. So far we have found more than a hundred storage jars, each about three feet tall, which held the equivalent of thousands of bottles of wine in today’s terms. We have done Organic Residue Analysis on the pottery sherds that make up the jars and know that it was mostly red wine, with additives like honey, juniper berries, and mint in it. I talk about it in the book as well, including our hope to recreate the wine some day.

What is the most misunderstood thing about archaeologists?

EC: We don’t dig up dinosaurs; those are paleontologists. We dig up the remains left by humans, as well as the remains of humans themselves.

Aren’t there other introductory books on archaeology out there? What do you do differently?

EC: This is a pretty fast read and is designed so that the reader can skip around in it very easily and read it in any order that they want. In addition to discussing many of the world’s most famous sites and archaeologists, there are several chapters on how archaeologists actually find sites, dig them up, and date the artifacts that they find. I have also included anecdotes and stories from my own experiences, which livens things up a bit, such as the time that I thought I found a petrified monkey’s paw.

Who do you expect will enjoy reading this book – that is, who is your intended audience?

EC: I hope that everyone – from age seven to seventy – will enjoy reading this book. It is intended for anyone and everyone, from complete novices to those who already know a lot but want to know even more. I also hope that it inspires someone, somewhere, to become an archaeologist.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

EC: Apart from introducing people to archaeology in general, I have also included parts that will hopefully allow people to be a little more discerning when watching some of the shows on TV and reading about some of the claims that are occasionally made in the media. In addition, I discuss some of the problems that we currently have with the looting of archaeological sites in various parts of the world. This is a situation that should be of concern to all of us, since these sites are our shared heritage and are a limited resource; once they are gone, they disappear forever.

What is the one thing that you hope people will remember after reading your book?

EC: There is no need to ever invoke aliens in order to explain anything that archaeologists find.

ClineEric H. Cline is professor of classics and anthropology and director of the Capitol Archaeological Institute at George Washington University. An active archaeologist, he has excavated and surveyed in Greece, Crete, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the United States. His many books include 1177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed and Three Stones Make a Wall: The Story of Archaeology.

Coming soon: The Atlas of Ancient Rome

CarandiniThe Atlas of Ancient Rome, edited by Andrea Carandini, is a gorgeous, authoritative archeological survey of Rome from prehistory to the early medieval period. Transport yourself to antiquity with full-color maps, drawings, photos, and 3D reconstructions of the Eternal City, featuring descriptions of the fourteen regions of Rome and the urban history of each in unprecedented detail. Included are profiles and reconstructions of more than 500 major monuments and works of art, such as the Sanctuary of Vesta, the domus Augusti, and the Mausoleum of Augustus. This two-volume, slipcased edition examines the city’s topography and political-administrative divisions, trade and economic production, and social landscape and infrastructure using the most current archaeological findings and the latest mapping technologies. Take a look at a sampling of some of the detailed images from the book here, and be sure to mark your calendar for when this book becomes available in February 2017.

Browse Our Ancient World 2017 Catalog

Be among the first to browse our Ancient World 2017 Catalog.

PUP will be at the joint annual meeting of the Archaeological Institute of America and the Society for Classical Studies in Toronto, Canada from January 5 to January 8. Visit us at booth #107 & #108! Also, follow #aiascs and @PrincetonUnivPress on Twitter for updates and information on our new and forthcoming titles throughout the meeting.

The Atlas of Ancient Rome provides a comprehensive archaeological survey of the city of Rome from prehistory to the early medieval period. This is the only atlas of the ancient city to incorporate the most current archaeological findings and use the latest mapping technologies.

Carandini

Written by Eric Cline, an archaeologist with more than thirty seasons of excavation experience, Three Stones Make a Wall traces the history of archaeology from an amateur pursuit to the cutting-edge science it is today by taking the reader on a tour of major archaeological sites and discoveries, from Pompeii to Petra, Troy to the Terracotta Warriors, and Mycenae to Megiddo and Masada.

Cline Jacket

Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.

Scheidel Great Leveler jacket

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Emperor Nero and the “unteachability of mankind”

the emperor nero barrett jacketAncient Rome has long been a source of fascination and enjoys a significant presence in popular culture, though in film and fiction, the life depicted is often highly romanticized. In their new book The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources, Anthony Barrett, Elaine Fantham, and John Yardley use source material to examine the life of one of Rome’s more notorious and extravagant figures: murderer, tyrant, and likely madman Emperor Nero. The book offers a comprehensive history of Nero’s personal life in the context of historical events that happened during his rule, such as the great fire of Rome. The three authors recently answered some questions on the enduring allure of Rome and in Nero.

There seems to be considerable popular interest in ancient Rome at the moment. Can you explain this?

AB & EF & JY: This is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. Interest in antiquity does seem to have waned during the middle ages, but it enjoyed a vigorous revival with the renaissance, beginning on the fifteenth century, and that interest has never died away. That said, we do seem to be particularly fascinated by the ancient world at the moment. It may be that modern life, so utterly dependent on machines and technology, where so many of our daily transactions are conducted through the computer, without human contact, has created a void, and a general attachment to the past, when life seemed so much more interesting and romantic, is one of the things that we use to fill it. Within the general area of antiquity, the Romans have particular appeal, for the West at least, perhaps because their empire represents the first manifestation of a global superpower, governed by people who are in many respects so different from us, yet, in their ambitions and their motivations, are strikingly similar to us. There are in addition two fortuitous factors. One is that the traditional birth of Christ occurred at the time of the birth of the Roman empire. The over-towering place of the Christ story in the thought of the West has by association kept the Roman empire in our consciousness. Also, at a mundane level, Rome just lends itself well to film and television, with its rich use of imagery and symbols to convey the phenomenon of power. As a consequence, some of the most popular cinematic spectacles, from Quo Vadis, to Spartacus, to Ben Hur, to Gladiator have Rome as their setting and inspiration.

There is a general fascination with Roman Emperors, but Nero seems to attract more attention than most. Why do you think that is?

AB & EF & JY: That is a undoubtedly true. Basically, people find villains engrossing. We may admire Mother Teresa or Saint Francis of Assisi, but for most of us the Jack the Rippers and Vlad the Impalers of this world are far more compelling and entertaining characters. Nero has a special reputation for villainy, and a number of factors have come together to foster that reputation. Perhaps first and foremost, he appears in the Christian tradition as the Antichrist, the first emperor to persecute the Christians after their supposed role in the Great Fire. And he is traditionally blamed for the martyrdoms of the two earliest great champions of the Christian cause, Saints Peter and Paul. We also have reasonably detailed accounts of Nero from three ancient authors, Suetonius, Tacitus and Dio, which ensures a rich store of anecdotes. These anecdotes may be of highly dubious validity, but that does not prevent them from being vastly entertaining. Additionally, Nero was not only cruel, other emperors were no less so, but he disgraced himself in Roman eyes by his public performances on the stage and on the racecourse, providing yet another store of irresistible anecdotes. Finally, there is the simple chance fact that a combination of larger-than-life historical events, which have provided themes for generations of writers and artists over the centuries, occurred during his reign: the murder of his mother, the Great Fire of Rome, the rebellion of Boudica, his melodramatic yet tawdry suicide. Caligula, with a similarly villainous reputation, for similar sorts of reasons, comes a close second, but Nero gets the top billing.

There is a popular belief that Nero was mad. Is that your conclusion too?

AB & EF & JY: Defining and identifying madness is a difficult process, and the tag of ‘mad’ is used loosely to cover anything from wacky eccentricity to severe mental illness. Assessing someone’s psychological state is a great challenge; it is striking that experts who testify in court proceedings after lengthy one-on-one interviews and full access to the patient’s clinical history are often met with scepticism, even ridicule. Thus one has to be even more wary about trying to assess the mental state of someone who lived two thousand years ago and whose conduct is known from incomplete records, produced well after the fact by writers who are hostile to their subject and as often as not relish the prospect of telling the lewdest and most outrageous anecdotes they can amass. It would be dangerous to make broad statements about Nero’s mental health. His conduct does seem to be outrageous at times, but we have to remember that he was only sixteen when he was thrust overnight into a position of enormous power, surrounded by fawning toadies willing to applaud his each and every act. It is probably little wonder that he behaved at times like a spoilt teenager.

There is perhaps one troublesome pattern detectable throughout his adult life that does seem to point to something disturbing. Nero seems to have had a tendency to fall under the spell of powerful women, and his ultimate response to their dominance was invariably a violent one, thus he murdered his mother Agrippina and he reputedly kicked to death his wife Poppaea. He also had a supposed proclivity for look-alikes of these powerful women, using courtesans and actresses (essentially powerless females) to impersonate them. The stories might be fabrications, of course, but the fact that they form a repeated pattern gives them an aura of authenticity. Perhaps something of interest there for the psychologists.

Academics who write about ancient history seem to be more interested in the sources than in the actual events. Can you explain this?

AB & EF & JY: No history, of any period, can be a perfectly accurate record of events. The instant we report on the past our reports are contaminated by the social and intellectual baggage that as historians we carry into the discussion. But for the history of much of the world in recent centuries we do have a considerable body of archives and material records that makes possible a fairly reliable reconstruction of past events. As a broad principle the further back we go, the more tenuous the records. This does not always hold true: we have, for instance, fairly detailed accounts of the Rome in the last century BC, but have very sketchy information about the early middle ages from the fifth century AD on. But as a general broad principle, the historian of a period of history separated from our own is going to face enormous difficulties. The records are in most cases lost or fragmentary, and the contemporary accounts make no pretence of the principled search for the truth that we expect of modern historians. Consequently it is often difficult for the students of ancient history to reconstruct even a reliable outline of events, let alone identify broad historical development. It is admittedly the case that for the Julio-Claudian period we are relatively fortunate, and can draw on the accounts of a number of ancient writers. Yet the material that they have preserved is often inconsistent and even contradictory, and at times reaches levels of absurdity that beggar belief. For much of Nero’s reign we would be hard put to say in which city he was present at any given time, in whose company he passed his time, how he spent the large part of his day. As a consequence as historians we have to spend much time and effort in an attempt simply to work out what was happening. The narrative of past events can be a stimulating and exciting one, but first of all we must work out how to put a reliable version of that narrative together.

What is the main thing that Nero can teach us today?

AB & EF & JY: It is always risky to draw close analogies between events that happen in widely separated periods that have different social and political contexts. That said, it is possible to discern some identifiable common themes that seem to run throughout human history. Perhaps the main thing that Nero teaches us, ironically, is what Churchill called the confirmed unteachability of mankind. In AD 37 the Roman world, including its governing classes, embraced with gusto a youthful and almost totally unknown emperor who had no proven talent for government and virtually no experience of it. His qualifications seem to have consisted exclusively of a general affability and good family connections. This youthful emperor was Caligula, and his subsequent reign was a disaster. Less that 20 years later, in AD 54, Rome went through almost the same scenario, when an even younger and even less experienced Nero was enthusiastically greeted as the new emperor, because of those very same personal qualities, family connections and an amiable manner. It is unsurprising that the net result was quite similar, but it does seem surprising, even astonishing, that Romans had not learned at all from their previous experience. But, as Churchill seemed to have perceived, that reason may derive from a basic flaw in our make-up. The concept of ‘never again’ has a brief shelf-life in the store of human experience.

Anthony A. Barrett is professor emeritus of classics at the University of British Columbia. His books include Livia: First Lady of Imperial Rome. Elaine Fantham is the Giger Professor of Latin, emerita, at Princeton University. Her books includeRoman Literary Culture: From Plautus to Macrobius. John C. Yardley is professor emeritus of classics at the University of Ottawa. His books include Alexander the Great: Historical Sources in Translation. All three recently collaborated on The Emperor Nero: A Guide to the Ancient Sources.