Picture credit: DEA PICTURE LIBRARY / Contributor

They, Claudius

It is folly to project modish contemporary norms backwards

Artillery Row

Regional museums are a haven of what museums are meant to be, and once were. The emphasis is almost always on the display of artefacts, specimens and exhibits — of a direct engagement with solid and tangible objects, rather than the flashy, noisy interactive displays increasingly common elsewhere. Set in wooded gardens where brass bands play in the warm days of summer, overlooked mournfully by the ruins of St Mary’s Abbey, I was excited to finally make my first visit to York’s museum earlier this year.

In God’s own county — a land of frank common sense — I expected informative displays of remarkable objects, and a bare minimum of tacky touchscreens and bleeping electronic lights. For the most part, my hopes were borne out. The museum has several local specialist themes, such as the impressive Jurassic fossils from the marine deposits along the Yorkshire coast. We know that men spend a great deal of time mulling over the Roman Empire, so I was naturally impelled towards the section on life in Roman York — Eboracum.

Do we really think a Roman skeleton cares about its pronouns?

Startlingly well preserved and displayed, the museum’s collection contains a 15-foot floor mosaic which one can walk across (shoes off) just as its Roman occupants must have done. Hoards of coins, grave goods and weapons are all on show — glittering silver and gold alongside the faded, corroded copper coins of the Late Empire, where all that remains of the emperor is a faint shadow of his visage. Something about those rough, decayed coins echoes an uncertain time of upheaval, rebellion, invasion, currency debasement and inflation … the slow fraying of an empire. 

The museum does its best to help you enter the world of a range of the Roman inhabitants of Eboracum, and it seeks to convey something of what it must have been like to live there twenty centuries ago. 

In one large glass case, skulls are combined with grave goods in an attempt to paint a picture of the lives different people led, emphasising the cosmopolitan nature of the empire and its inhabitants. We see soldiers, administrators and local peasants, some from as far away as North Africa. Archaeology is combined with pathology and chemical analysis, to provide the ethnic and environmental background of each of the individuals, and the exhibits speculate about what could have brought them here, to the northern edge of Roman civilisation. 

One skull, accompanied by two ceramic pots decorated with stylised animal designs, was titled A Wandering Soldier. The man died aged thirty-eight, and, amazingly, his name has survived the millennia, preserved in a memorial established by his widow. The exhibit description read:

Aurelius Super was a centurion in the Sixth Legion, which replaced the Ninth Legion in Eboracum on the orders of Emperor Hadrian.

So far, so much like the other skulls. But then another, titled A Visiting Priest, was somewhat jarring. Laid out with the skull were decayed fragments of jewellery and trinkets. The description ran: 

This person was around twenty-five when they died … Through analysis of their bones, archaeologists have identified that this person had male sex attributes. The grave goods discovered alongside them are unusual as these items are typically found with female remains. They include a jet necklace, bracelets and a copper anklet.

Where all the other descriptions began “this man” and referred to the dead person as “he”, it seems that this person’s ambiguous choice of dress led the museum to opt for more neutral terms of address. Bizarre, I thought. But it goes on. The exhibit speculates as to why the man may have been buried this way:

During their life this person may have chosen to be a priest, or gallus, in the cult of the goddess Cybele. Leaders of this ancient cult castrated themselves and wore traditionally female clothing and jewellery in honour of the goddess. We do not know where this person was born, but they may have travelled to Britannia to spread the word of this eastern religion.

The museum’s motivation is clearly well-intentioned, but I think those good intentions have clouded judgement. Do we really think a Roman skeleton cares about its pronouns? In making this decision, the museum seems to be linking this person’s circumstances to modern concerns and controversies over “gender identity”. They are not alone — English Heritage have also described the cult of Cybele as “breaking Roman gender norms”. In my view, this is deeply mistaken. It is both a lapse of academic objectivity, and an unprofessional projection of modern obsessions back onto a past incomparable to our own world — in the attitudes of its people, their beliefs, their outlook, their habits, and their way of conceiving of the world and their place in it. 

Consider, for example, that the Romans certainly viewed slavery as simply part of the natural order of things. Even contemporary Christians, who revered a tortured slave-god, could not envision a future where something as fundamental to the human condition as slavery would not exist. 

We hardly show this much solemnity for our own dead

There is certainly evidence that the priests of Cybele dressed up as women — or rather, as elaborate caricatures of women, with long hair and heavy makeup. The 4th  century Christian apologist Julius Firmicus Maternus wrote, “They fix their cared-for hair like that of a woman, and [dress] in delicate robes … And then when they have made themselves all together different from men, having been inspired with a song from the flutes, they call to their own goddess so that having been filled with a heinous spirit they predict the future, so to speak, to credulous men. What is this monster, or what is this beast? They deny that they are men, and they are not women. They wish that they were believed to be women, but a certain aspect of the body attests otherwise.” In North Africa, St Augustine observed, with horror, galli “going through the streets and places of Carthage with anointed hair, whitened faces, relaxed bodies, and feminine gait, exacting from the people the means of maintaining their ignominious lives”.

Admittedly, Christian onlookers might be expected to offer a less than sympathetic perspective, but the practices of the cult speak for themselves. A key festival was the Dies sanguinis — the “Day of Blood” — held on 24 March when the frenzied priests and acolytes of the goddess would scream and dance, flagellating themselves and scattering their blood on altars and idols. This is likely when many of the cult’s initiates would perform their self-castrations using, according to Pliny, a sharpened piece of pottery. Another important ceremony — the taurobolium — involved the eunuch priests of Cybele lying in a pit in the ground, covered with a metal grate. A bull would be led on top of the grate and ritually slaughtered, drenching the priest below in blood and organs. Afterwards, the bull’s genitals would be removed and thrown into the pit with the priest (no doubt triggering uncomfortable memories). 

If the museum’s deduction is correct, the poor, nameless man in their exhibit mutilated himself as part of this disturbing cult. To imagine that referring to him as “they” is somehow a mark of respect for his lifestyle choice is to take politeness to an absurd extreme. Indeed, it obfuscates a rather dark side of the world of which he was a part. It is, I think, an outright mistake to suggest that in some way this maps insightfully onto modern society.

The tone of sombre empathy in the exhibit is all the more comic since we hardly show this much solemnity for our own dead — jogging through city graveyards or traipsing through the stillness of an old cathedral, chattering and taking pictures. If you’re alive today and express conventional Christian beliefs, expect shock and downright mockery — but don’t fret, in fifteen hundred years some provincial museum will take you seriously. 

We needn’t humour the weird superstitious practices of ancient people to attempt to understand them, no more than we need to decry their approval of slavery. History is not about viewing the past through our own prejudices, but understanding the prejudices, motivations, and actions of others. I fear this particular exhibition of compassion has nothing to do with the sociology of the Roman Empire, and everything to do with declaring ideological allegiance today. 


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