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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 ...

An Easy Lay

James Davidson: Greek tragedy, 30 September 1999

Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy 
edited by Simon Goldhill and Robin Osborne.
Cambridge, 417 pp., £45, June 1997, 0 521 64247 7
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The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy 
edited by P.E. Easterling.
Cambridge, 410 pp., £14.95, October 1997, 0 521 42351 1
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Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning 
by David Wiles.
Cambridge, 130 pp., £13.95, August 1999, 0 521 66615 5
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... A great deal is lost in the translation of any play from the theatre to the page, but to restore what is missing from the mere words of Euripides’ Medea, to rise from the soft paperbacked volume you might buy in any good bookshop and finish in an hour to the experience of an Athenian watching the play’s first performance in Athens in the Theatre of Dionysus in late March 2430 years ago, demands an imaginative effort much greater than would be required if you had plumped for a Pinter or an Ibsen or a David Hare ...

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 ...

Chaotic to the Core

James Davidson, 6 June 1996

Satyrica 
by Petronius, translated by Bracht Branham and Daniel Kinney.
Dent, 185 pp., £18.95, March 1996, 0 460 87766 6
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The Satyricon 
by Petronius and P.G. Walsh.
Oxford, 212 pp., £30, March 1996, 0 19 815012 1
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... In all of ancient literature there’s nothing quite like the Satyricon, a fragmentary autobiography of one Encolpius, who appears and disappears according to the hazards of textual survival. On our first sighting he’s making a speech about the decadence of modern education, then he’s somewhere else and a cloak has been stolen; more interference, another error, a randy priestess intent on revenge: ‘Both of us swore by all the religion in us that so dreadful a secret would die with us ...

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 ...

Flat-Nose, Stocky and Beautugly

James Davidson: Greek Names, 23 September 2010

A Lexicon of Greek Personal Names. Vol. V.A Coastal Asia Minor: Pontos to Ionia 
edited by T. Corsten.
Oxford, 496 pp., £125, March 2010, 978 0 19 956743 0
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... christened John and the vast majority of the other men and boys around at the time were Joseph, James, Thomas or William. Around 1850, however, the repertoire of names in regular use began to increase rapidly. As Gothic-looking steeples rose around the country, so medieval-sounding names crowded around the font: Arthur, Walter, Harold and ...

Like a Meteorite

James Davidson, 31 July 1997

Homer in English 
edited by George Steiner.
Penguin, 355 pp., £9.99, April 1996, 0 14 044621 4
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Homer’s ‘Iliad’ 
translated by Stanley Lombardo.
Hackett, 584 pp., £6.95, May 1997, 0 87220 352 2
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Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ 
translated by Robert Fagles.
Viking, 541 pp., £25, April 1997, 0 670 82162 4
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... to the classical Greeks, we have our own archaic Chapman. To get a taste of his originality, try James Joyce, or Derek Walcott. For drama and pathos try Christopher Logue, and for sheer poetic artistry try Fitzgerald or Alexander Pope. And if, after this, you feel in need of some orality, have some friends round for dinner, put on some music and read it ...

Bonkers about Boys

James Davidson: Alexander the Great, 1 November 2001

Alexander the Great in Fact and Fiction 
edited by A.B. Bosworth and E.J. Baynham.
Oxford, 370 pp., £35, September 2000, 0 19 815287 6
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... relationship to the monarch is remarkably similar to the relationship between his courtiers and James I, recently analysed by Alan Bray and Michel Rey in an article on ‘The Body of the Friend’, except that in the case of Macedonia the ‘gift of the body’ did not preclude the gift of sex. Holding a near monopoly on intimate relations with the royal ...

New Man from Nowhere

James Davidson: Cicero, 4 February 2016

Dictator 
by Robert Harris.
Hutchinson, 299 pp., £20, October 2015, 978 0 09 175210 1
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... interconnections and the complex machinery of Roman elections. It reminds me most of all of James Cameron’s docu-fictional Titanic, which seemed far more concerned to get the ship’s interiors right than the interior life of the characters, and yet managed to carry audiences along with its passion for brass fixtures and fittings. And like Titanic the ...

Himbo

James Davidson: Apollonios Rhodios, 5 March 1998

Apollonios Rhodios: The Argonautika 
translated by Peter Green.
California, 480 pp., £45, November 1997, 0 520 07686 9
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... The story of Jason sounds like an over-excited pitch to a Hollywood producer, a tale full of sex and violence with a doomed romance at its heart and plenty of opportunity for exotic locations and special FX. A wicked usurper sends his nephew to Colchis on the far side of the Black Sea, a mysterious kingdom in the former Soviet Union famous for its pheasants and autumn crocus ...

Versailles with Panthers

James Davidson: A tribute to the Persians, 10 July 2003

From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire 
by Pierre Briant, translated by Peter Daniels.
Eisenbrauns, 1196 pp., $79.50, January 2002, 1 57506 031 0
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Ancient Persia from 550 BC to 650 AD: reissue 
by Josef Wiesehöfer, translated by Azizeh Azodi.
Tauris, 332 pp., £35, April 2001, 1 85043 999 0
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... Handel’s Xerxes begins with a famous largo, ‘Shade as it never was’ (Ombra mai fu), sung by the self-same King of Kings to his beloved: a plane tree. Aelian, a collector of amazing historical facts, provides the fullest account of this bizarre episode: That Xerxes fellow was a clown … he was slavishly devoted to a plane tree, as if the tree was something to be wondered at ...

Clinging to the Sides of a Black, Precipitous Hole

James Davidson: Writes about The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens by Danielle Allen, 24 August 2000

The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens 
by Danielle Allen.
Princeton, 449 pp., £25, January 2000, 0 691 05869 5
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... A vision of hell awaited visitors to the pavilion built by the Cnidians at Delphi, as terrifying as any Christian apocalypse, albeit less violent and more intellectually stimulating. One part of Polygnotus’ enormous frieze depicting Odysseus’ visit to the Underworld showed Tantalus still hoping that this time he might actually manage to put his lips around the fruit that weighed down the branch above him ...

How many gay men does it take to change an island?

James Davidson: The ancient Greek islands, 10 June 1999

... I am sitting in the front row of a café on the harbour drinking a beer and eating an octopus. It’s late in the afternoon and there’s an air of expectation. Three women in slacks, fifty or sixty years old, are clutching their cameras, sitting next to me. I wonder if these are the friends of the woman who cleans the apartment for us, the ones she said she’d send here ...

Adrift from Locality

James Davidson: Captain Cook’s Mistake, 3 November 2005

Apologies to Thucydides: Understanding History as Culture and Vice Versa 
by Marshall Sahlins.
Chicago, 334 pp., £21, December 2004, 0 226 73400 5
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... For students of the human sciences, the anthropologist Marshall Sahlins is, with Clifford Geertz, one of the few Americans who has achieved the status of a name to conjure with alongside the French maîtres à penser, particularly when the conversation turns to the topics of ‘Big Men’ (power-brokers who aren’t chiefs, masters of the games of speech and generosity), or the socially embedded economy of premodern societies, ‘negative reciprocity’ (exchange characterised by hard bargaining, predation or theft), the cultural apperception of colour, or why Americans don’t eat dogs ...

Zeus Be Nice Now

James Davidson: Ancient Cults, 19 July 2007

Thesaurus Cultus et Rituum Antiquorum 
Getty, 3014 pp., $1,215, March 2007, 978 0 89236 787 0Show More
Polytheism and Society at Athens 
by Robert Parker.
Oxford, 544 pp., £27.50, March 2007, 978 0 19 921611 6
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... In Sparta they sacrificed puppies for Ares. In Colophon the goddess Hecate got a little black dog, while it was inferred that Helios, the sun god, would rather the animals killed in his honour were white. Once a year on Mykonos, a sheep and ten lambs were offered to the river Achelous: the sheep and two of the lambs were sacrificed at the altar, the other eight lambs in the river ...

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