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Speed Read: A Veneris die nuntium

Every week The Friday Speed Read plays tight-head prop in a scrum of summary and pushes with every sweaty sinew against an opponent comprised of the biggest stories of the past five days. Its cauliflower ears and 136 previous editions are testament to its modest success in this regard. 

In the autumn of AD79, near what’s now the modern city of Naples, Mount Vesuvius erupted, sending 1.5 million tonnes per second of gas, molten rock and ash 33 kilometres into the air and obliterating the nearby Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Nearly 2000 years later, archaeologists began exploring the layer of hardened ash and slowly chipped, chiselled and brushed away to reveal one of the most extraordinary sites in human history. Here were the remains of two 1st Century Roman towns preserved at the exact moment of their destruction: bodies lay where they’d fallen, many with arms and hands linked in poses that spoke of final moments of tenderness in the face of certain death; streets, houses, pubs, brothels (lots of brothels) all were rendered from the ash-layer to stand as an imprint, a three-dimensional ghost of a world both utterly different and remarkably similar to our own. 2000 years is an incredibly long time ago but it’s also no time at all. In the remains of Herculaneum, archaeologists found an extraordinary collection of 1800 rolled scrolls in the villa believed to have belonged to the father-in-law of Julius Caesar; this is the largest collection of ancient manuscripts ever found and might, if the scrolls could somehow be read without destroying them, contain texts that we’ve never known about, stories and ideas that haven’t been spoken or heard for nearly two hundred centuries.

Remarkably, scientists announced this week that they’re close to perfecting a technique using x-rays, machine learning and magic (or it may as well be for the amount we understand the science involved) to actually read the contents of the scrolls without having to touch their none-more-fragile pages. In fact (and you can likely guess where all this is heading), because we’re the nation’s foremost weekly digest of both the news agenda and classical studies, The Friday Speed Read has been given extraordinarily privileged access to the results of the first x-ray tests on one of the Herculaneum scrolls and well, it makes for quite the read. So here we go . . . .


A VENERIS DIE NUNTIUM (tr. News on a Friday)


Welcome to this week’s A VENERIS DIE NUNTIUM a review of the biggest stories making the papyrus in the time since last Dies Solis.

I know you’re all sick to the toga of talking about Britanniexit but it’s still rumbling on (more about rumbling later on!). Barus Johnsonus has gathered his tribe in Mamucium to make a rhetorical address about how he’s going to solve the Hibernia backstop problem; his tribe exalted him and his many wives and slaves sacrificed 45 bulls, 10 pigs and 21 former Tory MPs in his honour.

“Take it or leave it” shouted Johnsonus, in a comment written down by many of his friends who write the daily papyruses and pass them around people that agree with them in the markets and baths.

Sadly for Johnsonus, Rome’s chief Britanniexit negotiator, Michelus Barnium was quoted as saying the plan had as much chance of succeeding as “a small man who is inherently rubbish at fighting with his legs bound together facing down five gladiators all armed with nets and tridents”. Bloody love Barnium; he hates those silly Britons so much.

Also in Mamcium, Pritatus Patelum smiled with joy as she announced all the horrible, horrible things that she’s going to do to criminals in the next few lunar cycles. Not only will felons be thrown to the lions, made to wrestle angry bears and then skewered on the end of a razor sharp spatha (for a first offence) but all will also have to pledge loyalty to the goddess Nemesis, of whom recent statues are beginning, some say, to resemble Patelum herself.

Glory to Hestia! Eating thin slices of fried Porci in bread rolls with lashings of garum sauce the morning after a heavy night on the sweet wine has been PROVEN not to be bad for you after all. For years now we’ve been told that feasting on porci will mean an early trip down the River Styx, BUT wise Greggus the Baker has said that we can eat as much of the stuff as we like and as it happens his shop on the Decumanus Maximus has got a special deal running until next Dies Mercuri so get yourself down there!

It’s been an exciting week in the amphitheatre, as many days of excellent athletic competition took place (despite disappointing crowds). Laurels were awarded to great champions including Dinarus-Asher-Smithus for running 218.8 yards very quickly and also Katarinus Johnsium-Thompsium for triumphing in seven separate tasks. Five more and she’ll have Hercules worried!

Finally, there’s been a lot of worried chatter in the brothels about the loud rumblings coming from the direction of the mountains; well, let me reassure you. This year the fig trees at my villa have been particularly bounteous (Saturn be praised!) and I’ve eaten far far more than is good for me and the effects have been explosive!!!! Ha! Ha! Ha . . . .  bloody hell, it’s gone very dark and I’d better . . .


And at that point the scrolls ends and you have to wonder what more we’d have discovered had the author not had to run for his life away from an ash cloud advancing at over 30 miles an hour. Thankfully, at that point in history, America was populated by only its indigenous people but there is something Classical about a powerful emperor gleefully admitting that he’d asked leaders of other tribes to launch investigations into his political rivals. Mind you, compared to someone like Caligula, Trump’s about as sinister as Mother Theresa. Although both Caligula and Trump had donkeys as their senior advisors. (Historical note: Emperor Caligula planned to make his horse Incitatus a senior counsel, not a donkey – but sometimes you’ve got to chase the cheap gag).

You may be thinking that all of the nonsense above is just an attempt to escape the weekly slog of writing the words “Brexit”, “Johnson” and “oh the horror the horror” over and over again. And if you thought that then you’d be right. But here at TFSR we live by the maxim: never explain (despite that previous explanation) and never apologise (we’re sorry).

Have a great weekend despite the wind and the rain; gather yourselves, stock your cupboards and hold on tight. October is here and who knows where we’ll be by the end of it.

To play out, click on Caligula’s face to hear the most Roman song we could think of at this late stage of the week.

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