Enjoying the debauchery and death of Vitellius with Mary Beard

Is there a better way to enjoy a warm summer evening than listening to the world’s most famous classicist talk about the debauchery and death of a Roman Emperor?  Having convinced my friend Simon that there is absolutely not, we headed out to the annual Goldsmiths’ Lecture to hear Professor Mary Beard explore how images of Vitellius have been used in art from the Renaissance to the present day and how it can change our interpretation of what we see.

Although well-known to past generations for his gluttony, cruelty and unhealthy sexual predilections, Vitellius seems not to have been awful enough for modern audiences to pay him much attention.   Although, to be fair, he was only emperor for 8 months in 69AD (the year of the four emperors), so didn’t really have time to build up a track record of bad behaviour in the way some of his predecessors, such as Nero and Caligula did.

‘Ah, Nero.  Remember that time he tried to drown his mother by rigging the boat she was on to collapse?’ I hear you say.  ‘Ah, Caligula.  Didn’t he commit incest with his sisters and plan to make his horse a consul?’  Good times.

But back to Vitellius, who, although largely overlooked now, was very popular in Renaissance art.  The so-called ‘Grimani Vitellius’ was discovered in the 1520s and, based on the similarity to coinage showing the emperor, was believed (wrongly) to be a representation of Vitellius.

This likeness, Mary argued, was then widely adopted by artists including Titian and Rubens to add different layers of meaning to their paintings.  Although the question of whether the audience is intended to recognise Vitellius in the paintings remains open, Mary’s challenge was how featuring Vitellius (with his reputation for all the worst kind of excesses) might change or enhance any interpretation of the picture.

It is surely no coincidence that Thomas Couture features him in his painting ‘The Romans of the Decadence’ (now in the Musee d’Orsay in Paris), nor that it was painted the year before the French Revolution of 1848.  It is a sweeping picture that chimes with what Mary described as ‘the casual debauchery of the French bourgeoisie.’  (You can spot Vitellius to the left of the main couple.)

Nor can it be coincidence that the Paris Salon (the official art exhibition of the Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris) set the death of Vitellius as its theme the year before King Louis Philippe was deposed by the revolution, leading to these pieces by Gustave Housez and Jules-Eugene Lenepveu respectively.  Depicting the death of a debauched ruler must have felt pretty edgy in those febrile times.

Sadly Professor Beard retires from academia this year, although she will continue to make a difference through a gift she has made to fund two Classics students from under-represented backgrounds to study at Cambridge.  I also hope that she will continue to write, appear on television and lecture in person.  Thanks for a great evening, Professor Beard!         

How I’m winning at parenting – no GCSE maths required

At least once a month I panic that I am failing my children in some new but devastating way.  That they will be condemned to live out their lives in misery and despair because they haven’t had piano lessons.  This month I have been hyper-ventilating that I am insufficiently enriching their spare time with stimulating extra-curricular activities.  Which is why in the last few weeks my children have been surprised to find themselves on a day trip to the Science Museum, dancing to the Bollywood Brass Band, and attending a talk on Homer’s Iliad.

I have written about the Science Museum before and it remains excellent, but Bollywood at Blackheath Halls in south east London was a whole new experience.  Band leader Kay Charlton opened the evening by inviting the audience to dance in the space in front of the stage, which I thought was just an easy way to identify who had been drinking before they arrived.  And for the first couple of songs two confident individuals ploughed a lonely furrow waving their arms and jiggling awkwardly from foot to foot.  But, as the evening went on, more and more people began to join them.

culture chaiiya chaiya

This is Chaiyya Chaiyya – a song and dance number filmed on top of a moving train.  Gotta love Bollywood!

I’m not sure if there are any down-tempo songs in Bollywood, but every single one the Band played was an absolute barn-stormer.  In the background a huge screen projected carefully chosen dance scenes from Bollywood movies, and for every other song, a dancer in traditional dress gyrated mesmerizingly to the music.

By the time we reached the finale, pretty much every member of the audience was on their feet.  My family were all up giving it more welly than a Barbour and Hunter shop in a sale.  We went home as happy as we were sweaty, which must count as a triumph by any objective measure.

Natalie Haynes

Natalie Haynes

Next up on my children’s cultural odyssey was Dulwich Literary Festival and tickets to see classicist and broadcaster Natalie Haynes talk about her new book, A Thousand Ships, a re-telling of the Trojan war from different female perspectives.  I’m going to level with you here, this is not something my children were busting to go to.  This was a little treat for mummy disguised as an educational benefit to my children.

After anxiously bombing round darkest Dulwich on a rainy Friday looking for, but failing to find, the entrance to Dulwich College, the evening went surprisingly well.  Natalie took the audience on a whistle-stop tour of The Iliad with a fierce feminist take on the well-known tale.  As she rightly pointed out, it is just as much about the women caught up in the war as it is about the men.  After all, Helen is the only character so integral to the story that we have added the words ‘of Troy’ to her name.

At the end of the evening we left with a signed copy of the book, two children with a nascent interest in ancient Greek literature, and a very happy mummy, who is now a little bit in love with Natalie Haynes.  I’m chalking that one up as another win.

Mr B reckons that we are reaching the end of my children’s cultural education, as either my enthusiasm or my money will soon run out.  But he hasn’t realised that the Troy exhibition is now on at the British Museum and that tickets are FREE for children under 16.  I feel a little giddy just thinking about it…

Want to expose your children to the same maelstrom of culture as mine have just endured?