What the Romans can still do for us

At an international conference in Cardiff Rhys David discovered we can learn a lot from studying the ancient world

The ancients were out in force in Cardiff the other day. Not, it should be noted, a convention of pensioners but the biggest ever gathering  – 415 delegates – of the Classical Association, the leading international society for the study of Greek and Latin language and literature, history and ideas.

As opportunities for the study of Greek and Latin in schools have diminished and in some cases disappeared altogether, so it would seem a wider interest in the classics has grown. There are now more theses being written on classical society and more books being published than at any previous time. The number of imprints is growing, too, and there is even a specialist press in Swansea, the Welsh Classical Press, publishing books on the Greek and Roman world and its authors.

Delegates to the conference at Cardiff University came from across Europe and North America and also included an academic from Changchun in China whose expertise was in China and the Greek Myths. His department produces an English language academic journal on ancient civilizations and has had Ph.D. students specializing in agriculture in the Roman Republic and Social Issues and Politics in the Comedies of Aristophanes among other topics.

The conference has met on three previous occasions in Cardiff dating back to 1929. Greek and Latin were among the university’s founding departments, each with its own chair. Sadly, after 1989 the classics department, which included among previous holders of the Greek chair, Prof L.A. Moritz, father of the celebrated US-based investor, Michael Moritz, was disbanded and merged with a new school of history and archaeology. Classics in Cardiff now operates as an ancient history department, specializing in warfare, gender and sexuality, Greek epigraphy and society and religion in late antiquity. Students do not require prior Greek and Latin and applications are said to be vibrant. In a recent survey the department earned the highest student satisfaction rating in the university.

Topics covered in the four day conference ranged from the linguistic – the decline and fall of the Latin synthetic passive – to the inevitable academo-populist – Stoicism in Gallifreyan society, and Petrification and the Classical Past in Doctor Who and the Sarah Jane Adventures. In between there was plenty of other material ranging from the impact of heat and sun on Roman and Greek soldiers wearing body armour weighing as much as  three stone, the importance of the service sector in Rome where a good living could even be earned as a flatterer, to what census data from Roman Egypt tells us about marriage and family formation, and what drugs were available to physicians and what they cost. Among other nuggets to emerge were:

•    Evidence from Aristotle that the Greeks knew of a technique recently rediscovered for trying to reverse stillbirths.
•    Apart from being able to put up four storey buildings, for example in Herculaneum, the Romans also understood the concept of depreciation of assets.
•    Ancient cities knew the value of iconic images such as statues for drawing in tourists.

What is now Wales had and still has strong connections with the ancient world. Caerleon, the headquarters of the 5,500 strong Second Augustan Legion from about AD75 was the most westerly fortress in the Roman Empire and contains remains of baths, amphitheatre and barracks. Caerwent was a substantial Roman town on the Severn Estuary, Venta Silurum, and forts big and small are scattered across Wales as far north as Holyhead.

Of course, Wales figures prominently in Tacitus’s Agricola. According to one contributor at the conference, passages in Strategemata by Frontinus advising on how to deal with guerilla warfare were written to help generals deal with the difficult Silures of south east Wales.

Classical connections with Wales can also be more tangential. A plenary lecture was given by Chris Pelling, who holds the high prestige Regius Professorship in Greek at Oxford University. He learned Greek (and Latin) as a schoolboy in Cardiff High School. Still the best known text on Greek Science was written by Benjamin Farrington, a professor at University College, Swansea. Much of older art in the National Museum reflects classical themes, most notably the museum’s only Rubens, in which  the artist portrays Aeneas entering the underworld.

New discoveries continue to be made which promise to throw further light on the Romans’ 300 year stay in Wales. The majority of the Roman site at Caerleon has yet to be excavated and fortunately lies mainly under farmers’ fields rather than modern buildings. Magnetometer surveys carried out by Cardiff University have revealed the foundations of two large courtyard buildings where metalworking on an industrial scale could have taken place. There is also possible evidence of a harbour fronting on the Usk which could be bigger than the substantial harbour at Fishbourne, near Chichester, where Roman dignitaries visiting Britain were received.

If this proves to be case – and much work still has to be done – it could be  a very important new addition to Wales’s heritage and a further fascinating insight into our connection with the Mediterranean two millennia ago.

Rhys David is a writer and editor on economic and business issues. He is a trustee of the IWA and a former senior editor at the Financial Times.

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