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Valentine’s day – a day for young lovers, elderly romantics and empowered singletons. For several centuries it has been the designated date for organised displays of love and intimacy. But whence does it come and who’s this fella by the name of Valentine we celebrate?

Conventional belief is that February 14th marks the death of St. Valentine; the Christian patron for love. Although St. Valentine (or Valentines) are documented to have lived and died on February 14th, the profile of a love-crazy saint lacks historical backing. Sources such as the ‘Acta Sanctorum’ list Valentines that do not correspond with the idea of an enchanting swain.

In fact, the plausible histories we do have lack any seductive thread of romance. In antiquity, during the reign of Roman Emperor Claudius Gothicus (269-270 A.D.), we have documented a Valentinus who helped bring salvation to many pagans of ancient Rome. A pagan named Asterius came to Valentinus and wished for his blind foster daughter to recover her sight. Calling upon the healing powers of Jesus Christ, Valentinus was able to give Asterius’s daughter sight and the family duly converted to Christianity. When Emperor Claudius found out, Valentinus, Asterius and his family were all executed.

So if St. Valentinus doesn’t get us anywhere with understanding why February 14th is all about love, maybe the origins of the festival will reveal more?

Similar to Christmas and Easter, it has been argued that Valentine’s day is a replacement for an earlier pagan festival which went by the name of Lupercalia. Lupercalia was a carnival that took place in the streets of ancient Rome where young men would run through the city dressed in a thong made out of newly killed goats. Lupercalia was believed to bring healthy babies to expecting mothers.

But this still doesn’t get us much closer – we need to look at medieval England – specifically at Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of ‘The Canterbury Tales’. Chaucer made the association between February as bird mating system, with sending loved ones romantic letters and poetry. It caught on and soon all of European nobility started doing it. From there, Shakespeare got involved and St. Valentine’s day as we know it became established.

Happy Valentine’s day!

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is considered by many to have only gained due recognition in recent times, with new research showing that it has increased within the British army amongst veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  But suggestions of the condition can be seen throughout the history of human warfare and its aftermath.  Jonathan Shay’s Achilles in Vietnam has turned the mythological war hero into an ancient example of PTSD and this has led to further readings of other figures in antiquity. 

Epizelus was an Athenian solider who fought in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BC.  In Herodotus’ Histories he is recorded as having what we would now diagnose as hysterical blindness or a conversion disorder.  Herodotus refers to the events of battle as leading to his blindness and evidence that supports our contemporary reading, of these symptoms as those of PTSD, can be seen later in the European Middle Ages. 

The soldiers of William the Conqueror are recorded as nearly rebelling against their leader because they felt he had gone too far in the Harrying of the North, a brutal conquest that followed the Battle of Hastings.  Later, 15th-century French soldiers were in fact celebrated for going ‘berserk’ due to the traumas of war whilst non-combatants were mocked. 

But this viewing of historical trauma amongst soldiers through the filter of PTSD must not neglect the cultural norms of their societies and the attitudes towards combat.  Killing rivals was culturally just and was certainly not observed with the pacifist sentiments of today.  The rise of PTSD in our society can be in part be attributed to soldiers not receiving the validation and unquestioned approval of the majority of society. 

Applicants for Classics and History can consider the way in which we interpret sources within our modern ideological psyche.  Psychology applicants can try to apply this historical evidential support to other modern psychological developments.   

The ongoing construction of a new route on Rome’s metro has uncovered a plethora of archaeological riches from the city’s antiquity. The city’s metro is notoriously difficult to construct, as any dig is likely to hit upon evidence of Rome’s multilayered past, some of which may be of great value. Among the artefacts uncovered were Roman pottery, mosaics and even entire building plans.  The C line has 22 stations currently open and the newest station, San Giovanni, features a mini museum of its ancient treasures; passengers can view a selection of the 40,000 objects discovered during construction, delving into the history of the neighbourhood from the Ice Age to the 5th century AD as they wait for their train. The station museum has been described as a time-machine, taking you further and further back as you walk.

The next station scheduled to open is Amba Aradam, situated in an area that has proven archeologically very fruitful. Researches digging at around 9 metres below street level unearthed a huge building complex of 39 rooms, which is thought to have been military barracks during the rule of Emperor Hadrian. Subsequently, the house of the military commander was also discovered close by, containing 14 rooms and a central courtyard- the typical layout of a house for those that could afford it. Some reports suggest that the home also includes a bath house. City officials are planning to preserve these buildings as part of an “archaeological station”, with the barracks and house integrated into the station itself. Francesco Prosperetti, head of Rome’s archaeological department, is confident that Amba Aradam is set to become “the most beautiful metro station in the world.” It is not certain when this museum-cum-station will be open to the public, as it is possible that yet more ruins will be brought to light as the digging continues.

Applicants for Archaeology and Anthropology, HSPS, or Classics may be interested in the discoveries being made, what they reveal about past civilisations and how the city is responding to them. Students may also wish to think about the relationship of a city, people, or nation to its past. What cultural links shape and maintain this relationship?

How diverse was Roman Britain? For a long time, the mainstream perception was of a homogeneously European population of ethnic Brits and Romans; but we now know that Roman Britain was a multicultural society which included citizens from Africa and the Middle East. These findings have been welcomed and scorned in equal measure, with many still mistakenly believing that it is anachronistic and historically inaccurate to portray non-European people in art and media about the past.

Some of the most important work in this area has come from the field of bioarchaeology, a type of archaeology which combines a scientific analysis of human remains with the contextual study of the individual’s historical situation in order to learn about their life. Modern techniques allow us to study things such as diet, health, background, and physical appearance, all by analysing their remains. Using data from skeletons in this manner gives us a more accurate picture of the social landscape than would be gained by relying on things such as writings and inscriptions, which may skew our perceptions towards certain demographics such as men or the wealthy.

 Bioarchaeology has also helped to challenge some of the assumptions of traditional archaeology. For example when the grave of a 14-year-old girl buried in Southwark was uncovered and was found to contain rare items connected to Africa such as an ivory knife shaped like a leopard, it was suggested that she came from Carthage. However, forensic study showed that she was actually of European ancestry and had grown up in the southern Mediterranean. Hence, these studies have supplemented our knowledge of the past in crucial ways and have helped offset our overreliance on artefacts. In cases where remains are found without a name or possessions, bioarchaeology is the only way to find out about their life and therefore to get an accurate picture of the population. Such methods have enabled us to prove that people of black African descent did indeed live in London throughout the Roman period.

Applicants for History, Archaeology, Anthropology, or Classics might like to consider the impact of these new scientific techniques on our knowledge  past civilizations. They should think about how our perceptions of the past might be influenced by the data available to us. How can we be more objective in our study? 

Few pieces of literature have had the same impact on the world as Homer’s epics, and the recent BBC/Netflix venture Troy: Fall of a City is just the latest in a long line of modern and ancient adaptations and reinventions sprawling from the Iliad and the Odyssey. The epics themselves began as stories, passed down from generation to generation by ancient bards before the alphabet existed – by the time the epics were written down they described events some 500 years in the past!

For the ancient Greek audience that heard the epics performed, they would have been as familiar with the characters, places and narrative beats as we are with the legendary exploits of King Arthur – probably more so. It might surprise modern readers of the Iliad then that it covers only a few weeks in the ninth year of the ten year war – (spoilers) it doesn’t even include the Trojan horse! The timeline is deliberately blurred: why would it take nine years before Paris duels Menelaus? Surely that would happen in the first week! The 2004 film Troy ‘solved’ this by reducing 10 years to a week, and Troy: Fall of a City avoided the issue simply by referring to years as having past with confusing vagueness.

But perhaps this is unavoidable: when we consider that most of the intended audience would only hear sections of these epics at any one time, and the language of the texts is deliberately old fashioned even for the ancients (it’s as if a modern author wrote in the style of Shakespeare), the timelessness may well be an intended part of these epics to increase their mythic status. This timelessness in the Iliad means that even if it technically spans just a few weeks, the events are representative of the whole war.

Unfortunately for the film industry, the epics are truly timeless classics.

For the first time in 950 years, the Bayeux Tapestry will be leaving its home in France.  President Emmanuel Macron has agreed to loan the artefact to Britain, a decision announced at an Anglo-French summit last week.  The tapestry, depicting the Norman conquest of English in 1066 will be relocated from Normandy to the UK. 

Using this to her advantage, UK Prime Minister Theresa May emphasised the strength of the relationship between these two nations post Brexit, as the decision involved lengthy discussions between each country’s respective departments of culture. 

Although agreed in principle, the relocation will not take place for a few years due to work needed on the tapestry.  The Bayeux Museum has estimated five years before the move will occur, to ensure no damage will take place.  It is yet to be decided where the tapestry will be displayed once in the UK.

Extremely symbolic for both countries, the Bayeux Tapestry is believed to have been made shortly after the Battle of Hastings in the latter part of the 11th century, commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother Odo.  Measuring 70m long and 50cm high, some claim it was produced in Kent, England.  The series of vibrant scenes depicts the Norman conquest of England, complete with Latin inscriptions, detailing how William crossed the English Channel to take the English crown.  The tapestry vividly shows the death of King Harold, who was shot through the eye with an arrow.

It is a prime example of how history was recorded by the victors, with the two sides differentiated by their polarised aesthetics – the English feature shoulder length hair coupled with moustaches, whilst the Normans are clean-shaven with short hair. 

This successful outcome marks the third in a string of failed attempts to negotiate a loan of the tapestry to the UK – it has only been moved twice within France.  It will no doubt have had a positive impacts on the subjects discussed between May and Macron at Sandhurst military academy last week, namely the migration crisis at Calais and prospective military aid from Britain for the French campaign against Islamist extremists in North Africa.

Those interested in History, Classics or Modern & Medieval Languages might want to consider how culture and important historical events are recorded and preserved.  Those considering Politics should think about the impact that important artefacts and art can have on international relations.  The agreement to move the Tapestry to England is particularly noteworthy due to the fact that this is the first time a successful outcome has been reached in almost a millennium.

What is the role of fiction in history? That is a real question posed by a History Oxford don at interview to a prospective student.

The idea of a sharp line between ‘reality’ and ‘illusion’ has deep roots in Western thought, most likely rooted to a Judeo-Christian heritage. Many religions, after all, rely on the premise of accessing a ‘higher truth’. We can see it in Morpheus presenting Neo with the choice between the red and blue pill, and in his own reference, Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole.

Yet, the line between fiction and fact, history and myth, is a question relevant to many academic disciplines, and one crossed over by writers seeking to whittle different paths to ‘truth’.

For [near]fiction-writer Hilary Mantel, history is something tied to the fictions we are attached to, and much of what should be included in the historical record – fears, fantasies, sensuality, desires – is sinfully absent.

In this fascinating article (link below), Michael Durrant, lecturer at Bangor University, questions the line between history and fiction, proposing that perhaps the condition of ‘blur’, which literature captures so well, is necessary to ‘smooth over the complexities’ of history, especially distant history. As Shakespeare’s influential ‘history plays’ have shown us, the fictional can slip in to factual and vice versa.

This piece is relevant for all English and History applicants, but equally so for all applicants for law and social and political science subjects. From a political perspective, for example, we are reminded how the shrapnel of ‘fake news’, and invented truths bouncing through the kaleidoscope of social media, can – despite their fabrication – have dramatic affective power. But fiction can also illuminate; as Ralph Waldo Emerson succinctly surmised, ‘Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures’.

What do Lavatories, sex and religion all have in common? According to philosopher Dr Rebecca Roache, they are the three topics that all our swear words are drawn from.

She says that the way in which we communicate our anger and frustration is to use these words as a cathartic replacement of the emotions we are feeling at the time. It’s certainly understandable that the way a swear word feels is often used as a vent for another feeling- there have even been studies to show that those who swear find their pain alleviated at the time of doing so. Language students may wish to look into the link between culture and swear words, those who speak more than one language tend to find that swearing in their first language is more satisfying.

History students may wish to notice how language develops over time depending on circumstance. Exclamations such as “Jesus Christ” have arguably lost their impact over time as cultivated by an increased turn to secularism in the UK; Theology students may want to connect how they understand blasphemy to be increasingly irrelevant in twenty first century British culture.

English applicants can also look at how words are communicated in modern media. There are some outlets that choose different ways of expressing the words which we deem to be offensive. Many are of the opinion that it makes no difference to being offended based on the use of asterisks, but big broadsheets like the Times still choose that option. Swearing is almost entirely defined by the culture in which it is used; HSPS and Anthropology applicants can think about how swearing can impact a society.

Revenge is natural and it is good for you, says David Chester of Virginia Commonwealth University, a researcher who has been studying human aggression.

Revenge, and the desire to inflict retribution is a hard-wired evolutionary response, interestingly built in to provide emotional recovery. When an individual is slighted or wronged, a sharp emotional pain is created, and the brain tries to provide homeostasis through revenge, which triggers the brain’s reward circuit, the nucleus accumbens. Further studies showed that not only does the actual act of vengeance create a neural stimulation, but the anticipation of revenge creates a craving, which goes some way to explaining the erratic behaviour sometimes seen in individuals.

Students going for Classics should think about revenge forms the basis of some of the prolific works that they might read eg. Achilles’ revenge on Hector for the death of Patrocles; Hera’s multiple revenges on Zeus. Biology students should think about evolutionary traits and how they are passed on, and how they can be tested to a scientific level.

That isn’t quite what Ovid said, but it certainly captures how alcohol, and in particular wine, was viewed in the ancient world. In Rome, wine was the most prevalent alcoholic beverage by a considerable margin, and the reasons of this were twofold: socially and culturally, wine was an integral part of daily life, as it was consumed with meals, a compulsory daily addition to a Roman soldier’s diet, viewed as a form of medicine, and actually was safer to drink than water (the acid would kill much of the bacteria present in water). Secondly, purely as a consequence of the climate and lack of refrigeration, grape juice would ferment and become strong, sweet wine in a matter of days.

Wine was notoriously concentrated in the ancient world, and this is reflected in the sheer volume of drunken and debauched scenes on Roman vases. As a people, the Romans were far more conservative and controlled in terms of their conduct and attitudes towards sex and promiscuity than their Greek counterparts, and so it is perhaps surprising that they diluted wine to a similar concentration (3 parts water to 1 part wine versus 5 parts water to 2 parts wine).

Whilst in today’s world, we are often warned about the perils of drinking, the ancients were somewhat more lax, with tombstones including remarks such as “Mix wine, place garlands around your head, and drink deep. Furthermore, don’t deny pretty girls the sweets of love.”, and graffiti on overly diluted wine, “May cheating like this trip you up as a bartender!”. Applicants to study Classics may want to ask themselves what the consumption of wine can tell us about the ancient Greek and Roman world. History applicants could think about the role of alcohol in ideas of public health and well-being.

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