From India to Rome: Pondering comparative histories on the road

Dear readers, this is the first post of what is intended to be a somewhat informal blog about my time in Rome and travels around Europe during the 2018-19 academic year. Perhaps it will continue to have a life after this year, but for now, let it serve as a way of offering glimpses into what I’m thinking and writing about, and what I’ve been up to in the various museums and sites of Italy and beyond.

This first post is more about India than Rome, or rather, Rome via India. I landed in Rome direct from Delhi a few weeks ago, after spending two or so weeks in India, first to attend a close friend’s wedding, and second, to see a bit of the country for the first time. Travelling through India, both north and south, was probably the most eye-opening and educational trip I’ve ever made. It was also a time when I found myself constantly making links between ancient Rome and India (both ancient and contemporary). For one, both societies were (and in the case of India, it still is) predominantly polytheistic (although that definition could be disputed for India). Other religions were also very prominently advertised wherever I went, namely Christianity and Islam. You could immediately discover the faith of your taxi or bus driver simply by looking at their dashboard, or windshield (often plastered with a phrase, like, “Praise the Lord!”). The co-existence of these three major faith systems alongside each other (and the ever-present tensions) also prompted thoughts about living in Rome or Alexandria in late antiquity and whether the two contexts bore any similarities. In particular, I had the privilege to attend a Hindu wedding in a local temple in Chennai and the whole experience left me wondering: Is this what it felt like to visit a Roman temple, the hive of ritual activity buzzing around me, the sensory overload of smells (incense, flowers and more), the ebb and flow of foot traffic according to the auspicious times of the day (for weddings this is key in Hinduisim, I learnt)?

This happened more than a few times (the comparative thoughts, not the wedding!). Similar thoughts ran through my head about the culture of the street or the open air drains in some areas that reminded me of the street life and drains in ancient Pompeii. The gob-smacking polychromatic sculptures of deities which crowd and cling to the surface of temples, especially those at Madurai, had me thinking about the problems in my own field surrounding the once monochromatic understanding of classical sculpture (for an excellent and accessible piece on this, see Sarah Bond’s Why We Need to Start Seeing the Classical World in Color). And I had also thought comparatively when I was in Mexico two years ago, pondering the enormous manpower, economies, social stratification and power structures that saw the construction of temple complexes like those at Teotihuacan or entertainment and ceremonial buildings, such as the Mayan ball courts at Cobá (see below photos).

But during my time in India I would catch myself and think, “Wait? What am I actually doing when I compare?”. False comparisons, colonial value-judgements about “progress” and the risk of imposing narratives of “civilisation”, all sprang to mind as real stumbling blocks, even non-starters, for such an exercise. Comparing a modern state to an ancient one could be read pejoratively—the revival of the colonial project and its nefarious history, including the colonial construction of Indian “religion” (for an interesting take on this, see Pennington’s Was Hinduism Invented?). From a methodological viewpoint, it also masks the many changes that such states underwent over the centuries, and most obviously, their vastly different cultural contexts.

The risks of comparative or cross-historical histories have been on my mind lately, and not just because I’m always asked about whether Roman youth was similar or different to today’s “youth culture” (a question I try to re-phrase if the askers allow me!). I’ve been working on an edited volume about displacement from the ancient to the contemporary worlds with Elena Isayev and we, along with the authors in the volume, wrestle with this problem (see, for example, Susanne Lachenicht’s paper on this), especially since we ask our academic authors to directly respond to “Catalyst” pieces that tackle aspects of contemporary displacement (from Syria and Palestine to Brazil and South Africa). Unfortunately, there’s been a tendency to equate ancient and contemporary understandings of asylum in some popular media (e.g. op-eds), when, really, so much separates them (more on that in a future post!). But what has also emerged for me out of this work—and from reflecting on my travels in tandem—is that thinking comparatively does not necessarily mean making equations. Instead, it can open up new ways of seeing and thinking about ancient worlds, or reaffirm things we already know, conclusions we had already arrived at. It can actually make us better historians because we are forced to think far more explicitly about a distinct historical context, event, person, or institution because it is placed in conversation with, or in contrast to, another such historical context. (And some scholars have been doing this in interesting ways).

To illustrate this with one small example, I was really struck by the various ways that people in India sought to ward off the evil eye from their homes and businesses. In the north, at Jodhpur, I saw a bundle of small lemons and green or red chillies (nimbu-mirchi) tied to the posts above doorways everywhere and learnt that these were all about combating envy. In the south, I saw beautifully intricate chalk designs traced on the ground in front of most homes of the Hindu faith, and even in front of some banyan trees considered sacred (as in the photo below).

 Ragnoli in front of a banyan tree at the Kalakshetra Foundation (a traditional performing arts school in Chennai).

Ragnoli in front of a banyan tree at the Kalakshetra Foundation (a traditional performing arts school in Chennai).

Known as ragnoli, these chalk designs also have a role to play in warding off the evil eye, but also in welcoming guests into the house. Between these two prevalent talismanic objects, I actually didn’t immediately think back to the art (mainly mosaics) that is often interpreted as an anti-envy device in the Greco-Roman world. Perhaps that is a valid point of “direct” comparison—but I don’t want to go down that road (as we’ll see). What it made me think about was the way some 19th century and early 20th century scholars used to interpret Roman depictions of pygmies through the cipher of the amulets and figurines they saw in the southern Italy of their own day. Wace, writing in 1904, makes the direct comparison:

It is well known that the belief in the Evil Eye is widespread today in all the Mediterranean lands. It is perhaps not so well known that it was equally widespread in classical and in prehistoric times. … At the present time in Italy little hunchbacks (gobbi, gobbetti) of coral, mother-of-pearl, silver, or some other precious material are worn on watch-chains or on bunches of charms as one of many various protections against the evil eye. (Wace 1904: 109).

This might seem like a reasonable claim to make, and we all might agree that ithyphallic and macrophallic (you can look up those terms!) figures had some apotropaic function to play. That there definitely was some sort of material object designed to ward off the evil eye is at least known to us from Phrynichus (and a few other authors), a 2nd century CE grammarian, who tells us about them when defining the Greek word baskanion:

Baskanion, which the ignorant [call] probaskanion; and it’s something crafted in the shape of a human that craftsmen hang in front of their workshops against the bewitching of their business, having altered slightly its human appearance. (Praeparatio sophistica p.53, 6-10; text: Borries; trans. my own).

Or, for a visual representation, we could point to this 2nd century CE mosaic from the House of the Evil Eye in Antioch (in modern day Turkey) which shows an ithyphallic pygmy alongside animals and implements (sword, trident) which attack an eye, likely symbolising envy (invidia/pthonos):

 Photo: Wikimedia commons. Text: KAI SU (“AND YOU”, i.e. avert your envious gaze or this will happen to you, too).

Photo: Wikimedia commons. Text: KAI SU (“AND YOU”, i.e. avert your envious gaze or this will happen to you, too).

But problems arise when you start applying comparative material from another time and/or place to your interpretation of the function of certain pieces of art, especially narrative scenes depicting pygmies which bear no resemblance to Phrynichus’ description of a stand-alone object (not a wall painting) or other accounts. That’s where Wace’s (and more recently, others’) apotropaic interpretation of pygmy scenes runs aground. What happens when the pygmies aren’t ithyphallic or macrophallic? When they aren’t featured alongside other apotropaic symbols? But “play” the role of gods and goddesses? Are they still apotropaic because they induce laughter? Perhaps so, perhaps not. There’s a lot more that could be said on the topic (a whole article in fact—something I hope to finally finish while I’m here in Rome).

Yet the main point is that we’ve travelled a long way from 19th century Italian gobbetti to call all pygmies apotropaic or label them amulets. Wace’s practice of drawing from what he had seen in his travels to explain what he saw in the pygmies of Pompeii is precisely what worried me when I began making comparisons between Rome and India in my head. Yet, not all comparative exercises are dangerous or futile; sometimes they lead to new (or “staring you in the face”) insights. In the end, what modern day Indian instantiations of anti-envy objects made me realise about ancient Rome was a basic fact that we would all do well to remember: the ephemerality of so much of the material culture from the ancient world. What we don’t have. Like the lemon and chilli bundles, or the chalk ragnoli, I now wonder if Phrynichus’ baskanion was also something similarly perishable. The apotropaion isn’t in these painted narrative pygmy scenes, but perhaps rather in more portable objects, such as terracotta figurines (on what Roman pygmies could actually be communicating to viewers, see this great article by Cailtín Eilís Barrett and stay tuned for more of my own thoughts!). So, in this sense, the exercise of thinking comparatively between two very different cultures and historical contexts not only reaffirmed conclusions I’d already arrived at (and perhaps there’s something erroneously self-fulfilling in that!), but it also gave me new avenues for thinking about a problem I’ve long been pondering.

As a coda to this overly long inaugural post, another connection with pygmies arose a few days into my stay here in Rome, when I attended the short talks given by the incoming fellows at the American Academy in Rome. One of the projects by the artist Michael Ray Charles stood out to me and demonstrated what happens when you go beyond comparison and into ideological appropriation with ancient pygmies: building on his interest in minstrelsy, he is looking at how white media from the 19th and 20th centuries depicted black men or children in scenes with alligators or crocodiles that clearly appropriated Greco-Roman scenes of pygmies doing battle or teasing crocodiles on the Nile and how this contributed to racial stereotypes about black people in the minstrel shows.

I can’t wait to see the fruits of his project.