Memories be damned: On the modern hunt for the perfect image of humanity

Scenes of protestors tearing down statues of figures from history around the world this week have prompted conversations here in Australia about what to do with our monuments to people with stories, that from our perspective here in the future have become problematised. If the conversations aren’t happening already around the names of some of our universities — James Cook, Deakin, and Macquarie — then you can be sure they will be soon. When the moral code of the present is applied to towering figures of the past — especially those memorialised as statues in public places; held up as examples to us all, cultural and architectural reminders of our story — it becomes clear those figures have feet of clay. A new story for our cultural moment means a hunt for new icons from past and present.

History is an important teacher, and while erasing these figures from our national, or international, stories might help us forget some sordid aspects of our racist past here in the west, their removal will not necessarily guarantee a better future. It will also remove, with the clay feet, those good deeds that these figures performed; as Russian author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn puts it, the line between good and evil cuts through every human heart. One photo of a plaque to Winston Churchill, defaced with the word “racist,” that I saw this week on Twitter was framed with the statement “wait till they hear about the other guy.”

In the Roman world statues were a popular form of propaganda; those looking to gain favour with the empire would commission and build statues of the imperial household, and these statues would become icons that dictated fashion, even hairstyles, throughout the Roman world. The Greco-Roman world were no stranger to a good old fashioned statue toppling either; an orator named Favorinus had so pleased the people of Corinth that they erected a statue to him, putting him on a pedestal in the city’s library, as an example of the sort of oratorical skill and thoughtfulness they hoped their city might aspire to. In a speech Favorinus gave to the Corinthians about this honour he said they placed his image “where you felt it would most effectively stimulate the youth to persevere in the same pursuits as myself.” This quote comes in a speech Favorinus gives to the Corinthians having returned to the city to discover his statue — a monument to him as an icon — is no longer standing; he accuses the Corinthians of a personal attack.

There was a common practice in the ancient world of ‘damnatio memoriae,’ a latinism with a meaning not so difficult to decipher in English; the eradication of a person from memory via the destruction of their icon; a collective refusal to view a person as an icon or image from whom a culture seeks inspiration or example. This, of course, was an expensive practice when statues were carved of marble, by artisans, so such damnation could include the defacing of an inscription, or the reuse of marble slabs in promenades; a toppled statue could literally be trodden into the ground. Another Roman practice tied to this sort of cultural iconography, and perhaps to save on costs, was the practice of producing statue bodies with removable heads; people could check in on who was trending (and what fashion to adopt), knowing the statues and their iconography would keep pace with the political and cultural times.

Recent iconoclastic rallies are, rightly, asking questions about whose images should be used to inspire today’s youth (and the not so young). What human from history (or the present) is fit to serve as an inspiration for ‘the good’? Selecting someone to semi-immortalise in a more concrete form than the flesh is difficult in the present, and made almost impossible with the benefit of hindsight and progress. Sporting figures being celebrated for their sporting prowess seem safe, after all, King Wally is still the king of Lang Park; and yet, while ‘image rights’ are an increasingly valuable commodity in the sporting world, if there’s one thing media coverage of the off field exploits of many of today’s athletes tells us, it’s that athletic prowess should not qualify someone as an icon or example. It’s better for companies to celebrate athletes in pixel and print, than in stone or bronze.

Part of the question about making a statue (or tearing one down) is a question of who should represent us; who should present an image to us of the ideal person, who should we aspire to be? But another function of images is that they serve as objects in a cultural architecture, or what Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor calls ‘a social imaginary,’ they help frame our beliefs, values, and understanding of virtue. It seems right to be careful about whose visage or name we memorialise, and right to be prepared to damn some icons or even tred them into the ground; but another question we might ask ourselves is what this realisation that even our heroes in history had feet of clay, is perhaps we should be asking ourselves about the danger of iconography to begin with. The anger we feel when an icon; or an ideal; disappoints; that anger might be because these icons have become idols. In the ancient world the line between icon and idol was a fairly blurry one; the same images on street corners of the imperial family could also be found in imperial temples dedicated to the worship of the Caesars, alongside the Roman pantheon. Perhaps these objects are actually occupying a ‘sacred’ space in a modern civic religion; one where we’ve pushed out the old gods, or God, and turned to people to fill a place previously occupied by something transcendent. Perhaps what we’re seeing in the toppling of these statues is an act of desecration; a deliberate renunciation of previous forms of worship, or religion, or visions of the good life, so that we might replace the religious symbols of the past, and their representation with a previous story, with images that we, in the present, wish to create.

And maybe here there is some wisdom in those ancient words that are, sometimes themselves, erected as stone monuments near civic institutions; the ‘Ten Commandments’ — God’s commands, through Moses, to the people of Israel. Commandment number two is a prohibition against making and worshipping ‘graven images,’ this is part of what was meant to be an Israelite commitment to monotheism; a rejection of the icons and gods of the surrounding nations, based on a wholehearted commitment to worshipping the God who could not be reduced to an image. The God of the Bible is a living, breathing, creating God who gives life to his own living, breathing, images (or icons in the Greek text of the Old Testament). Part of the prohibition of icons and idols is that people — typically ancient rulers — will never properly represent the goodness of God or a truly good pattern of humanity; to worship them, or an image of any other thing, is to commit yourself, to aspire, to becoming like them. You become what you worship. The choice about what to immortalise in bronze or stone is an important one — and in the moral vision of the Bible, we’re better off not making that choice at all; remembering that humans are humans who will disappoint, who will be capable of good and right choices, but who will — in the Bible’s vision — always be ‘dust’ infused with divine breath; with feet of clay, and hearts capable of leading us to both goodness and evil.

In the story of the Bible there is one true image of the good human life; one true icon who should be imitated. Jesus, who the apostle Paul describes as “the image of the Invisible God,” the one good man. As statues and icons are toppled in modern damnatio memoriae, the image of Jesus remains the image of a human who did no wrong, who stood for the oppressed rather than the oppressor, who because all people are made in the image of God, offered his life to secure life for us, who loved and forgave his enemies and taught us to do likewise, even as the powerful rulers of his day, those busy building statues of themselves, created a system that was used to put him to death; crucifixion was a certain sort of damnatiomemoriae in the Roman world, and yet it is Jesus, not Caesar, whose memory stands the test of time, and who stands as one hero from history whose example is worth turning to even now.

Snippet // Dio Chrysostom on unimpressive looking speakers (in Tarsus)

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In a speech Dio Chrysostom gave in Tarsus he cited The Odyssey, describing the way Odysseus once entered a city, amidst the travails of his long journey, he suggests that sometimes the way a speaker is received says more about the receivers than the one arriving…

But if a man, having seen how much there is that is dreadful and hateful in the world, and that everywhere are countless enemies, both public and private, with whom wantonness and deceit hold sway,

Subdues his body with injurious blows,
Casts round his shoulders sorry rags, in guise
A slave, steals into the wide-wayed town of those
Who hold debauch,

meaning no harm to his neighbours — such as Odysseus meant to the suitors when he came in that guise — but on the contrary seeking if perchance he may unobtrusively do them some good — if, I say, such a man comes among you, why do you stir him up, or why do you call upon one who will appear to you to be a churlish and savage person as a speaker? For your ears have not been prepared for the reception of harsh and stubborn words; nay, as the hooves of cattle are tender when they are reared in soft, smooth country, so men’s ears are dainty when reared in the midst of flattery and lying speech.

It’s funny, because I reckon this is exactly how the cities Paul visited as an orator of the Cross would have seen him…

Whatever anyone else dares to boast about—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast about. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods,once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.

Paul, in some ways, writes 2 Corinthians because he wasn’t well received in Corinth. Perhaps the Corinthians who get excited about the super-apostles are like cattle reared in soft smooth country, so that they can’t handle Paul’s jarring presentation of the truth.

New Testament 102: Defending Erastus

I mentioned the Erastus inscription in an earlier post. David Gill has written a useful article on Erastus the Aedile (PDF)  laying out just what it was an Aedile did, and making the case for linking the footpath with the guy in Romans 16.

What an Aedile did/was

They were responsible for the maintenance of public streets and buildings, which included the market places, they managed the revenues derived from such places, and they served as judges. In most colonies the aediles were also responsible for the public games but not at Corinth. The colony took charge of the administration of the internationally important games at Isthmia, which it did through the appointment of an agonothetes or president; judging from the careers of Corinthians this was considered to be one of the most prestigious posts.

In addition to paying for such public monuments—which would have been appropriate for marking the aedileship where responsibilities included public buildings and streets—the aedile was expected to pay a charge for holding the office. Although the costs are not known for Corinth, evidence from North Africa and Italy suggests sums in the region of HS 4,000 to HS 20,000, depending on the size of city. Thus these freedmen were likely to have had substantial means.

What was the equivalent Latin term for the post of oikonomos in a Roman colony such as Corinth? H.J. Mason has argued, using the Erastus inscription and ones from Philadelphia and Izmir, that the Greek term oikonomos was the equivalent of an aedile.  G. Theissen, however, tries to argue that the term oikonomos was the equivalent of the term quaestor.

There’s a convoluted argument from the Greek terms, and Latin terms that ends up suggesting (following a bloke named Kent) that because the Corinthian Aedile wasn’t responsible for managing the games, his responsibilities were more in line with the “oikonomos”…

“In particular he points out that although in most colonies the aediles would have been responsible for the public games, at Corinth, because of the nature of the festival at Isthmia, this aspect of their duties were dealt with by other, more senior, officials, the agonothetai. Therefore the term oikonomos may have been particularly apt for the Corinthian situation, and as Kent reminds us it ‘describes with reasonable accuracy the function of a Corinthian aedile’.

Gill’s conclusion ties in with Bruce’s argument about Paul wanting people to be civic benefactors.

“How are we to interpret this epigraphic evidence? Some (e.g. Roos, Cadbury, Lane Fox) have taken the view that an oikonomos was a slave, which would not allow a link with Erastus the aedile. However, this does not explain why Paul draws attention to this man’s standing in society, something he rarely does. The context of the epistle to the Romans may be of help here. In it Paul commanded: ‘Do the good (deed) and you shall have praise from the (civil) authority’.  Does Paul emphasise the status of Erastus because here is a Christian official who has indeed become a benefactor of his city, possibly in his capacity as aedile?”

And any article that ends with this sort of quote is probably a good idea to be pulling out in an essay at QTC:

I am grateful to A.J.S. Spawforth and B.W. Winter for their comments and advice.

Wrapping up Greece

We’re in Turkey today, and for the rest of this week, and possibly have a more reliable in hotel wifi connection, so we’ll see if blogging improves.

We spent a couple of days in Greece touring first century entertainment precincts to get a feel for the cultural life of the citizens Paul addresses in his letters. Roman culture was entertainment heavy. The entertainment, like everything else, was filled with cultural propaganda and designed to reinforce, in the regions, the supremacy of the emperor.

Sport was a massive deal. In fact, the highest paid sportstar of all time was a second century Roman charioteer.

The very best paid of these—in fact, the best paid athlete of all time—was a Lusitanian Spaniard named Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who had short stints with the Whites and Greens, before settling in for a long career with the Reds. Twenty-four years of winnings brought Diocles—likely an illiterate man whose signature move was the strong final dash—the staggering sum of 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money. The figure is recorded in a monumental inscription erected in Rome by his fellow charioteers and admirers in 146, which hails him fulsomely on his retirement at the age of “42 years, 7 months, and 23 days” as “champion of all charioteers.”

His total take home amounted to five times the earnings of the highest paid provincial governors over a similar period—enough to provide grain for the entire city of Rome for one year, or to pay all the ordinary soldiers of the Roman Army at the height of its imperial reach for a fifth of a year. By today’s standards that last figure, assuming the apt comparison is what it takes to pay the wages of the American armed forces for the same period, would cash out to about $15 billion.

Here’s a picture of a first century sporting superstar.

Here’s a reenactment.

Roman bathhouses would have been a hotbed of political and social intrigue – and an important part of the daily routine of the elite. Everyone went to the baths, the time of day you arrived (and the heat of the water) was determined by your social status.

We saw some bath houses at Isthmia, as well as the famous Corinthian Isthmus, which gave the nation controlling the city of Corinth control of trade in the region.

We stopped at Cenchria where we may or may not have walked through the fenced off ruins of a house that may or may not have belonged to Phoebe (a patron of the city who looked after Paul). We looked for some of Paul’s hair, because he had a haircut there as he departed.

Epidaurus has an immaculately conserved theatre, where the acoustics are demonstrably impressive. A tour guide from another group dropped coins in the centre of the circle, and tore paper, and we could hear it sitting in the back row.

In Athens we stood atop Mars Hill, an experience that supports Bruce Winter’s contention that the Areopagus Council probably met in a room in the marketplace rather than on the hill, which was also used for execution by fatal drop.

This is the spot Bruce suggests the council, whose job it was to introduce new gods to Greek life, would have met.

The Acropolis was amazing. Athens was doubtless a city dominated by religion. The Parthenon overlooked the metropolitan sprawl and would have been visible from all corners. The hill was dotted with alters and minor temples, including a small Imperial Cult temple next to the Parthenon, the Romans had a separate marketplace which was home to the architecturally significant temple to Roma, and a public latrine.

Here’s the latrine.

Some pictures from the Acropolis…

The Athenian theatre was renovated by Nero to celebrate his victories in some oratory competitions.

The agora is dotted with religious and political propaganda. Here is another temple, still standing, that overlooks the shopping precinct.

We finished our time in Greece with a spot of souvenir shopping in Corinth.

Capturing the fort Spartan style.

We’re going to wear these helmets to the Presbyterian Assembly when we’re all grown up.

And then caught the slow boat to Turkey.

We’re all feeling slightly more angelic as a result of our time treading the footsteps of Paul.

Turkey feels like being back in the first world, Greece, thanks to the Global Financial Crisis, is a country of empty billboards and layabout retirees sitting in cafes. The economy is stagnant. It feels like a first world country slipping into the third world.

My Big Fat Greek Adventure: Post Three

The morning of day two was more time spent on site at the archeological dig in Ancient Corinth. We walked through the museum where there are plenty of statues of emperors both deified and “living.” Plus statues of soldiers and other trinkets uncovered on site.

The museum gestapo wander round the halls enforcing their two photographic rules – no flash, and no posing.

After wandering the museum we wandered the site. Standing on site gives a phenomenal picture of the intersection of religion, law, and commerce in the city, and the way this intertwining would have presented major problems for Christian converts.

Here’s a model of the city from the Orthodox conference centre.

Roman culture was status heavy – life was all about how important you were, and becoming more important. So the radical realignment of identity that comes through being sanctified in Christ and being statusless would have felt like having the marble roads pulled from under your feet.

Statues and buildings were public relations propaganda. Which I’m finding particularly interesting. The placing of buildings, the statues therein, and even the material they were constructed from said something about the people who frequented them and served to build that status.

This inscription, in a footpath, is possibly linked to Erastus, the treasurer of Corinth, mentioned in Romans 16. Bruce says that Paul’s commands to do good in Romans 13 specifically referred to individuals acting in whatever capacity they had to serve the city. He says this looked like making a financial benefaction for a project, or running for office. People who ran for office had to promise benefactions, and this footpath inscription says that it was produced under the Aedileship of Erastus.

At some point in the process we climbed the massive hill that sits behind Ancient Corinth, it’s called the Acrocorinth, which means the Corinth hill. There is an old school castle on top. It was almost cooler than checking out anything to do with Paul. Almost.

More photos are in my Picasa album, photos of the people I’m on the trip with are available on Facebook if you’re my friend.

My Big Fat Greek Adventure: Day Two

We hit Ancient Corinth on day two in Greece – our visit to the site was sponsored by the Bishop of Corinth. His minion who wore black, carried worry beads and looked like a gangster watched our trek around the site, before we made our way to a newly minted “St Paul Centre” for an absolutely opulent (and free) lunch put on by the Bishop.

The site itself is amazing. There’s a museum filled with relics that have been uncovered in the dig. The chief archeologist gave us a run down of the landscape. The city of Corinth sits under a pretty impenetrable fort (more on that later) atop the Acrocorinth, it has a steady supply of water, is resource rich, and sits beside the Corinthian isthmus, a vital trade link between two major oceans.

The city was pulled apart by the Romans, who later rebuilt over the top of the Greek foundations in the late BCs. The dig has uncovered much of Roman Corinth, and gone deeper into Greek Corinth. One of the best bits from the head digger was a look at a little secret passage that they found in an underground Greek temple (no longer underground).

On the Roman Corinth front, the city puts the New Testament into real perspective – which I guess is the point of the visit. Standing in the centre of the city square you’re struck by the intersection of commerce, justice and religion. Roman business and Roman Law were inextricably religious. And the construction of the city and placement of idol statues (especially of deified emperors) hammered that home. The temple of Apollos is pretty impressive (some of its pillars still stand) but the imperial temple dominated the landscape, and could be spotted from just about anywhere in the city.


The imperial temple – the pillars have been slightly rebuilt, though much shorter than they would originally have been.


The temple of Apollos

The coolest bit of the trip (Bible wise), was standing in front of the Bema, or justice seat, where Paul appeared before Gallio in Acts 18.

12 But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before (AC)the judgment seat,

13 saying, “This man persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.”

14 But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrong or of vicious crime, O Jews, it would be reasonable for me to put up with you;

15 but if there are questions about words and names and your own law, look after it yourselves; I am unwilling to be a judge of these matters.”

16 And he drove them away from the judgment seat.

This is one of the only geographic points we have for Paul’s visit – so as we stood here and looked around, not only could we imagine the streets alive and an impending riot being quelled by Gallio’s prudent judgment, but we were standing somewhere where Paul himself stood, and where an event of some significance in the New Testament occurred. Gallio’s judgment, and reputation as a juror, meant Christianity was suddenly a legal religion in the empire.

There have been a couple more “aha” moments that will doubtless be the subject of subsequent posts. Stay tuned for our visit to a real castle. It was incredible.

My Big Fat Greek Holiday: Post One

Day One of our “New Testament In Context” trip involved flying. Lots of flying. 24 hours of flying with Singapore Airlines (albeit with a stopover in Singapore). I slept a bit, watched a couple of movies I’d been hoping to see (Robin Hood, Kick-Ass, and the A-Team), and tried to avoid deep vein thrombosis. The service on Singapore Airlines was pretty spectacular.

When we arrived in Athens we went from plane to train to automobile. After a few little travel dramas we made it to our accommodation, checked out a cafe in the heart of Old Corinth (next to the archeological dig), and tried to stay awake for dinner. Dessert was a pretty spectacular piece of baklava.


Greece is pretty cool. Toilet paper isn’t allowed to be flushed so all the toilets have little bins next to them. They smell bad. There are stray dogs wandering the streets at every turn. People ride scooters and motorbikes without helmets. The coffee is interesting. I ordered a cappuccino and received some sort of iced coffee with cream and milk that had been whipped in a milkshake maker.

The men gather in the streets after dark to sit in restaurants together. They all look old and stereotypically Greek.

Bruce, our principal, is a minor local celebrity. The lady who owns the restaurant we’re frequenting remembers his name from four years ago.

The souvenir shops have cool Greek helmets and stuff. I want to buy one to wear to Presbyterian Assembly in a few years.

I’m putting photos in this gallery on Picasa, and I’ll post some stuff about how Corinth fits in with the New Testament in subsequent posts.

We had lunch courtesy of the Orthodox Bishop of Corinth yesterday, it was amazing. The bishop looks a lot like Kutz’s dad, so I took a photo.

Here’s a little piece of Biblical “lost in translation”…