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On a humid day in early October, I walked from the Ponte Sisto to the Ponte Mazzini. The river was flowing on my right and the progress of Western European culture, from a Roman point of view, was turning into illustrations on my left. I had been in Rome for three weeks and had briefly seen the illustrations, a range of military and cultural imagery, including generals, a recurring angel, victims and perpetrators of violence, mythological agents, and occasionally the general populace. But now I was set to walk the half-kilometer extent of William Kentridge’s monumental set of drawings and parse as best as I could what these 80 figures spelled out. The title, Triumphs and Laments, gave a broad context, and for an admirer of Kentridge’s work, this was a veritable feast. Along with such admiration, there were bound to be questions of technique, archival recovery, historical meanings, and artistic daring. More… “The Gravity of Graffiti”

Charles Molesworth has published a number of books on modern literature. His most recent book is The Capitalist and the Critic: J.P. Morgan, Roger Fry and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (U. of Texas).
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Left: cover of SPQR. Right: Mary Beard
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Mary Beard is a classics professor at University of Cambridge. Her books have covered everything from ancient art to Roman laughter. Her honors include a National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a public intellectual in the old-school sense of narrating BBC specials, as well as adding a contemporary twist with an active Twitter account and a blog. Her most recent book SPQR: A history of Ancient Rome was published earlier this year. The Smart Set editor Richard Abowitz reached Beard for this interview by phone in her hotel room in Philadelphia, where she was scheduled to make an appearance at the Free Library of Philadelphia later in the evening. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

TSS: Let me start by asking about one of the many Roman oddities: for people that were so concerned with their genealogy — so obsessed, as you point out, that they would put great effort to fabricate it back to the founders of Rome and mythic kings — they seemed remarkably willing to accept outsiders as Romans and as emperors and as consuls.
More… “When In Rome”

Get in touch with The Smart Set at editor@thesmartset.com.
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The crumbling knowledge of the classics.
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“Thou has conquered, O pale Galilean; the world has grown grey from thy breath; We have drunken of things Lethean, and fed on the fullness of death.”

Algernon Charles Swinburne wrote those lines in 1866 in “Hymn to Proserpine.” If he returned from the Elysian Fields today, he would see no reason to alter his conclusion. Flipping through the channels of cable television, Swinburne would find the TV series “A.D.” (about early Christianity), “Killing Jesus” (based on the Bill O’Reilly book) and dozens of cheaply-produced shows about the supposed historical or scientific basis of this or that tale in the Bible. The Weather Channel has run a program entitled “Top 10: Bible Weather,” described thus: “Weather stories from the Bible are compared to modern-day weather catastrophes.”
More… “Who the @#$% is Proserpine?”

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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In one of the most famous political cartoons of the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson stands in the pose of a triumphant Roman emperor below the soaring Roman columns of his mansion, the Hermitage. He unfurls a decree, indicating his order to withdraw U.S. Treasury funds from the Bank of the United States (B.U.S.), the nation’s central bank. Jupiter’s thunderbolts emanating from the scroll zap the Greek Doric columns of the Bank, knocking it and the Bank’s president Nicholas Biddle, a noted Grecophile, to the ground.

The politician Charles Ingersoll likened Biddle’s fate at the hands of Jackson to Acteon, an unwitting victim of Greek mythology, ripped apart by “dogs” who, in better days for the Bank, “licked his hands and fawned on his footsteps.” In other cartoons during the period of the Bank War, as the fight over the political and economic role of the central bank came to… More…

Well, at least she had a sense of humor.

If Hollywood epics have taught us anything about the ancient world, it’s that Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt was drop-dead gorgeous. The original femme fatale has only been played by sultry screen goddesses — Claudette Colbert, Vivian Leigh, Elizabeth Taylor. But just how beautiful was she? According to the ancient biographer Plutarch, men were hypnotized not by Cleopatra’s looks but by her wit and charm: Her beauty was “not of the incomparable kind that would astonish everyone who saw her,” he wrote, “but her conversation was irresistibly fascinating, and her character utterly mesmerizing.”  She certainly knew how to make a memorable entrance: To meet Mark Anthony on the modern-day coast of Turkey, she arrived in a luxurious gondola dressed as Aphrodite and reclining on a gold bed as naked slaves fanned her with feathers. (The ancients did not share our sense of privacy; the minions would have kept fanning while… More…

Inventor of the awkward dinner party.

Dinner parties are often about power. A host can lord over his captive guests, so many have been the setting for cruel practical jokes.

Around 90 A.D., the twisted Emperor Domitian invited a crowd of aristocratic couples to a banquet at his palace on the Palatine Hill. When they arrived at the palace, the guests were ushered into a room that was decorated entirely in black — black marble, black paint, and black velvet drapes, lit only by flickering funeral lamps. Each guest’s place was marked with a gravestone engraved with his or her name, and instead of the customary soft couches, they reclined on rock-hard benches. The terrified guests assumed they were about to be murdered by the emperor — a… More…

The man behind the 6,000-year-old Earth.

Our modern passion for marking anniversaries can be traced back to the ancient Etruscans, whose belief in the cosmic significance of historical cycles was absorbed by the Romans. According to their augurs, every 110 years — then the maximum possible length of a human life — formed a distinct historical epoch called a saeculum, represented by its own metal (the golden age was best, silver second best…) and ruled by its own astrological power. Overall, history went in 10-saeculum cycles from glory to decadence to disaster to renewal and back again, ad infinitum, echoing the eternal movements of the seasons themselves. The turning of each cycle was marked with a festival or religious rite. Naturally, this emphasis on dates and cycles provoked an artificial self-awareness at key transitional moments — the Roman millennium of 248 A.D. being one extreme case, and the New Year’s Eve party of 1999 A.D. being… More…

50,000 seats weren't enough, so crowds lined up the night before.

Everyone loves a party open to all comers, and the emperors of Rome were history’s most magnanimous hosts. But while their citizens were accustomed to lavish freebies, living as they did on grain handouts and endless public entertainments, one particular day — April 21, 248 A.D. — must have stood out as the ultimate bash. That was when the ancient megalopolis hosted the world’s first and most opulent millennial celebrations, marking 1,000 years since the city’s foundation by the shepherd Romulus.

It was the mother of all anniversaries, and everything was laid on.

At the time, the empire had been weathering some hard knocks — the early third century had seen repeated barbarian incursions and civil strife — but Rome was still the undisputed… More…

“Long live the knife, the blessed knife!” screamed ecstatic female fans at opera houses as the craze for Italian castrati reached its peak in the 18th century — a cry that was supposedly echoed in the bedrooms of Europe’s most fashionable women.

The brainwave to create castrati had first occurred two centuries earlier in Rome, where the pope had banned women singing in churches or on the stage. Their voices became revered for the unnatural combination of pitch and power, with the high notes of a pre-pubescent boy wafting from the lungs of an adult; the result, contemporaries said, was magical, ethereal and strangely disembodied. But it was the sudden popularity of Italian opera throughout 1600s Europe that created the international surge in demand. Italian boys with promising voices would be taken to a back-street barber-surgeon, drugged with opium, and placed in a hot bath. The expert would snip the… More…

In the 19th century, visitors to the grand museums of Europe often had their own private agenda. What they really wanted to see were the so-called Secret Cabinets.

The first and most notorious of these was the Gabinetto Segreto in the museum of Naples, where the raunchy images from the ancient Roman era, unearthed from the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, had been kept under lock and key since 1819. That year was when the heir to the Neapolitan throne, the future King Francesco I, had dropped by on a casual visit with his wife and daughter and was affronted by the graphic images of pagan fornication, which had once decorated the houses of even the most noble Romans. There were phallic lampshades and amulets. There was a statue of the satyr Pan, having his way with a she-goat. The lusty god Priapus was depicted pushing his own massive… More…