Best of Culture 2022: Day 31 - Highs & Lows of the Year: How ancient immersion got me through 2022

Best of Culture 2022: Day 31 - Highs & Lows of the Year: How ancient immersion got me through 2022

Our daily Cultural Advent Calendar comes to an end, with our final entry in the Highs & Lows of 2022. Today: How the ancient world captured my imagination this year.

When former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was mooted for a return to the Premiership following the resignation of Liz Truss, I gleefully retweeted his departure speech in which he likened himself to Cincinnatus.

The Roman statesman is said to have left Rome to “return to his plough” for a bucolic existence but was later called upon to return to Rome and lead as a dictator.

Could Boris...?

Liz Truss also went Roman when she quoted philosopher Lucius Annaeus Seneca as she handed over to Rishi Sunak.

“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare. It is because we do not dare that they are difficult,” she said.

There was much amusement when she mispronounced his name:

Anyway, this was not a surging interest in British politics on my part, but rather in ancient history. Perhaps it was a form of escapism from the post-Covid, politically tumultuous world facing environmental crisis and war.

But perhaps this world isn't so different from the ancient one.

I'm not sure how it started. Maybe during lockdown when I rewatched the 2005 HBO series Rome starring Ciarán Hinds as Julius Ceaser.

When I first watched the show it changed period dramas for me forever: bloody, violent sexy and cinematic. And it hadn't dated the second time around.

The same can be said of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and Gods of the Arena starring John Hannah as Batiatus, a memorable villain that you love to hate.

I then dipped into Roman Empire on Netflix a mix of documentary and drama chronicling the reigns of Commodus, Julius Caesar and Caligula, followed by Domina on Sky Atlantic. The series portrays the life of Livia Drusilla, wife of Augustus the first Emperor of Rome and offers a fresh take on the scheming, double-crossing 'I-Claudius' version of her character.

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German series Barbarians also caught my eye. It tells the story of the Roman Empire's occupation of Germania, and the resulting rebellion of the Germanic tribes led by Arminius - best known for the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD where three Roman legions were destroyed.

Michael Sohn/AP
The 45 meters high Hermannsdenkmal (Hermann's Monument) of Arminius the Cheruscan who defeated the Romans in 9 AD, stands on the 'Grotenburg' mountain in Detmold, Germany - Michael Sohn/AP

Not as good as Vikings or The Last Kingdom, but the Roman characters do speak Latin!

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I suppose the real point about all this TV binging is that it stimulated me to actually read about the real stories behind the shows.

I devoured books and audiobooks such as classicist and TV presenter Mary Beard's 'SPQRGreg Woolf's Rome: An Empire's Story', to further back in time with Eric H. Cline's '177 B.C.: The Year Civilization Collapsed.' Not to mention British historian and TV presenter, Dan Jones' book, 'Power and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages', which opens with an account of the sack of Rome in 410 AD.

And of course, there has been a boom in novels retelling greek myths from the women's perspective. Madeline Miller's 'Circe', Pat Barker's 'The Women of Troy', and ' A Thousand Ships' by Natalie Haynes are among a few.

Right up my street having studied a lot of feminist fiction at university and good to see some of these ancient heroes with their toxic masculinity put in their place.

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This brings me to Ancient Greece and I even found a use for TikTok when I discovered Ancient Greek historian Dr Ellie Mackin Roberts posting videos on the site.

All this inspired me to take several excursions to the British Museum to discover their Roman and Ancient Greek collections, and to the British Library's current exhibition, 'Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth' which explores the forms his legend took during his life and after it.

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Not to forget here in Lyon, France, the ancient theatre and museum Lugdunum and in nearby Vienne the Musee Gallo Romain.

But it's not just me that's got excited about the ancient world in 2022.

It is also the anniversary of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922, and the bicentenary of the first publication announcing the decipherment of Hieroglyphs in 1822.

With this in mind, I headed to the British Museum’s current exhibition Hieroglyphs: Unlocking ancient Egypt,  which covers everything from how Hieroglyphs were deciphered and how they work to Egyptian Identity.

Here I gawped at the Rosetta Stone (196 B.C.) with its trilingual inscription, in Hieroglyphs, Demotic, and Greek, which provided the key to understanding the ancient Egyptian language and its scripts.

Discovered in 1799 during construction work at Rosetta/Rashid fort and ceded to the British following the defeat of Napoleon’s forces, calls were being renewed this year for its return to Egypt.

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It was perhaps sheer coincidence at around the same time that my friend in Oz told me he'd written a book about how he had deciphered the ancient Minoan language known as “Linear A”.

In 'Rewriting History', Mark Cook argues that Linear A is a form of Egyptian shorthand and therefore 'proves' that the island of Crete was once part of the Egyptian empire.

But now we really are going down a rabbit hole...