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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 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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Diary

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 ...

Brother-Making

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 ...

Stomach-Churning

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

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 ...

Big in Ephesus

James Davidson: The Olympians, 4 December 2014

TheGods 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 ...

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 ...

Stage Emperor

James Davidson, 28 April 1994

Reflections of Nero: Culture, History and Representation 
edited by Jás Elsner and Jamie Masters.
Duckworth, 239 pp., £35, January 1994, 0 7156 2479 2
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... When Vespasian had put an end at last to the eighteen months of confusion and war that followed the death of Nero, he immediately set about undoing the reign of his predecessor, in an effort to wipe out its traces. The Senate had already voted a damnatio memoriae, demanding the erasure of all mention of Nero’s name from inscriptions throughout the Empire ...

Too Young

James Davidson: Lord Alfred Douglas, 21 September 2000

Bosie: A Biography of Lord Alfred Douglas 
by Douglas Murray.
Hodder, 374 pp., £20, June 2000, 0 340 76770 7
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... What is interesting about Bosie is that he was such a thoroughly bad character. It only adds to the fascination that this bundle of malice, treachery, deceit, hypocrisy and vanity was wrapped up in such attractive features. Wilde compared him to a pet lion-cub wreaking havoc on reaching actual size, but he was less impressive and more sinister than that, a King Charles spaniel of vicious temperament, a cute Walt Disney rattlesnake, or a beautiful child vampire ...

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