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At the British Museum

James Davidson: Persia’s ‘Forgotten Empire’, 22 September 2005

... At the entrance to the British Museum’s Persian exhibition, Forgotten Empire (on until 8 January), the King of Many Peoples looms high on a rectangular relief. He dwarfs the attendant who reaches up from behind to shade his big imperial head, ready with a towel to dab away the imperial sweat. His Highness (probably Xerxes) sits rod-spined on a high-backed throne, sceptre in one hand, lotus in the other, a footstool protecting his feet from the ignominy of contact with the ground ...

At the Ashmolean

James Davidson: Antinouses, 7 February 2019

... In December​ 362 ce, Julian the Apostate wrote a short satire on the occasion of the Bacchanalia. It took the form of a commentary whispered to Bacchus by the old satyr Silenus as each former Caesar arrived at a banquet of the gods. After Augustus, Tiberius, Nero and Caesar himself, Hadrian appeared, ‘an austere-looking man with a long beard, an adept in all the arts … always gazing at the heavens and prying into hidden things ...

At the British Museum

James Davidson: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’, 23 January 2020

... The​ problem presented by Troy: Myth and Reality at the British Museum is not so much the myth as the reality (until 8 March). Troy was a tiny city in what is now the northwestern corner of Turkey. In the course of the first millennium bc, its sparse population fell under the successive control of Lesbos, Athens, Persia, Alexander, Alexander’s successors and then Rome ...

At the Royal Academy

James Davidson: ‘Bronze’, 11 October 2012

... I’ve done it,’ Horace shouts at the end of his third book of Odes. ‘I’ve made a monument more lasting than bronze … Something that neither biting rain, nor an immeasurable succession of years could cause to crumble.’ Bronze has long been a byword for enduring monumentality, and some of the items on display in the Royal Academy’s exhibition Bronze (until 9 December) are 5700 years old, apparently ...


James Davidson, 23 January 1997

Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism and Power in the Greek World, AD 50-250 
by Simon Swain.
Oxford, 499 pp., £50, April 1996, 0 19 814772 4
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... Summer 165 AD. I dreamed of Athena with her aegis, in the form of the statue in Athens made by Phidias, and just as massive and beautiful. The aegis, moreover, was giving off a perfume, as sweet as could be, a perfume like wax ... It immediately occurred to me to have an enema of Attic honey. 20 January 166 AD. I dreamed that after my food had not digested properly I consulted Zosimus, my adopted father, about bathing and asked if it were necessary to bathe more ...

Plato Made It Up

James Davidson: Atlantis at Last!, 19 June 2008

The Atlantis Story: A Short History of Plato’s Myth 
by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, translated by Janet Lloyd.
Exeter, 192 pp., £35, November 2007, 978 0 85989 805 8
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... Of all​ the many disappointments of 1977, the ITV series Man from Atlantis has to be one of the greatest. The title suggested a programme that would have something to do with the lost underwater kingdom described in great detail by Plato in the Timaeus and Critias. But the reality was Patrick Duffy with webbed hands and fluorescent green contact lenses, painfully painted on ...

To the crows!

James Davidson, 27 January 1994

The Oldest Dead White European Males, and Other Reflections on the Classics 
by Bernard Knox.
Norton, 144 pp., £12.95, September 1993, 0 393 03492 5
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... A student of Classical literature who first learnt his principal parts and ablatives absolute in the classrooms of an undistinguished grammar school in London in the late Twenties finds himself over sixty years later an American citizen, described by Robert Fagles as ‘arguably the finest Classicist of our day’, by Peter Green as one his nation ‘ought to bronze’, and by Jasper Griffin as a man ‘one would like to have as a friend ...


James Davidson, 8 February 1996

The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe 
by John Boswell.
Fontana, 412 pp., £8.99, January 1996, 0 00 686326 4
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... The ancients were fond of their tropes of impossibility – of rivers flowing backwards and cattle grazing at sea, fish feeding on dry land, gay men getting married: Shades of our ancestors! Is it a moral reformer we need, or an augur Of evil omens? Would you be more horrified, or think it A more ghastly portent, if women calved, or cows Gave birth to lambs? as Juvenal put it (with thanks to Peter Green ...


James Davidson: Face to Face with Merce Cunningham, 2 November 2000

... Very occasionally, something like once every other year, a stranger, over-impressed by the way I’m standing, will say something like ‘you’re a dancer aren’t you’ and I will be enormously pleased. Any real chance of being a dancer was probably squashed for ever when I was ten and an audition with a proper ballet school in Manchester was cancelled in mysterious circumstances ...

It’s Only Fashion

James Davidson, 24 November 1994

The Wilde Century: Effeminacy, Oscar Wilde and the Queer Moment 
by Alan Sinfield.
Cassell, 216 pp., £10.99, July 1994, 0 304 32905 3
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Cultural Politics: Queer Reading 
by Alan Sinfield.
Routledge, 105 pp., £25, November 1994, 0 415 10948 5
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Hellenism and Homosexuality in Victorian Oxford 
by Linda Dowling.
Cornell, 173 pp., £21.50, June 1994, 0 8014 2960 9
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... The newspapers covering the trial in 1895 found it difficult to put the hideous words into print. Most hoped that those who needed to know would know enough already. Others assumed that a lacuna would be explicit of indecency: ‘“Oscar Wilde posing as —”’ was how the Marquess’s offending calling-card appeared in the Evening Standard. Lord Queensberry’s ‘Somdomite’ was displaying his characteristic ineffability by causing the tongue to stumble and producing gaps in public discourse ...

Cures for Impotence

James Davidson, 19 October 1995

Foucault’s Virginity: Ancient Erotic Fiction and the History of Sexuality 
by Simon Goldhill.
Cambridge, 194 pp., £30, January 1995, 0 521 47372 1
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... An unusual feature of the topography of ancient Athens was the strange half-statues, which the Athenians called Hermeses and we call herms: a representation of the god of travel, trickery and luck, abbreviated to a pillar, a head and a penis. They were to be seen all over the city, on street-corners, at cross-roads, by doors and gates, and midway on roads from the country into town, providing points of reference in a city with few street-names and little interest in town-planning ...

Big in Ephesus

James Davidson: The Olympians, 4 December 2014

The Gods of Olympus: A History 
by Barbara Graziosi.
Profile, 273 pp., £18.99, November 2013, 978 1 84668 321 3
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... When​ I imagine the Greek gods on Olympus I conjure up a lofty polished marble palace with colonnades and porticos open to the air, its Ionic and Corinthian capitals picked out in gold, rather like the Athenian Acropolis redecorated by Catherine the Great. Its dozen or so denizens pose listlessly in gaps between columns, dressed in fine white robes rather flimsier than the high altitude might warrant, surrounded by banks of fog and talking in an English accent ...


James Davidson: Olives, 16 April 1998

Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit 
by Mort Rosenblum.
Absolute, 320 pp., £14.95, November 1997, 1 899791 36 1
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... At a party once in Highbury I opened a door, stepping into what I thought might be a bathroom and found myself in an olive grove. Two other guests had found it before me. The smoke from their cigarettes hung around the branches, like an emanation from the leaves. I would have liked to spend some time there, but it was clear I had interrupted a private conversation and the roof was small; a minute or two was the most I could manage of casual lingering ...

Feel what it’s like

James Davidson: Pagans, Jews and Christians, 2 March 2000

A World Full of Gods: Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire 
by Keith Hopkins.
Weidenfeld, 402 pp., £25, November 1999, 0 297 81982 8
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... survey the pagan context, for instance, are written as memoirs of two time-travellers, Martha and James, discovered by means of an advert in Time Out and launched by the professor into Pompeii, Tebtunis, Hierapolis and Ephesus, at great personal risk. The chapter on Christian apologia is written as a fictional correspondence about a fictional dinner-party ...

Some Evil Thing

James Davidson, 18 February 1999

No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock 
by Marina Warner.
Chatto, 435 pp., £25, October 1998, 0 7011 6593 6
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... Marina Warner’s No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling and Making Mock is an impossible book. It circles around monsters and the frightening of children, but it also has chapters on the heavenly host, bananas and birdsong. Its material includes nursery tales, Greek myth, Shakespeare and Keats, autobiography, film and pop culture. It draws on the work of entomologists, etymologists, musicologists and historians ...

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