October 9, 2015

Serbia Is Invaded Once Again – The Entente Lands in Greece I THE GREAT WAR Week 63

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 8 Oct 2015

The Central Powers want to open a direct supply connection between Berlin and Constantinople. So, they start a new offensive on Serbia to defeat them once and for all. It’s an open secret that Serbia’s neighbour Bulgaria will soon join the war so the Serbians are in dire need of help. With no other option, the Entente lands troops in Salonika, Greece. The whole situation on the Balkans is spiraling out of control once more. Meanwhile the new offensives on the Western Front continue while the Eastern Front cools down.

October 8, 2015

QotD: The religious life of the early Roman Empire

Filed under: History, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The policy of the emperors and the senate, as far as it concerned religion, was happily seconded by the reflections of the enlightened, and by the habits of the superstitious, part of their subjects. The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.

The superstition of the people was not imbittered by any mixture of theological rancor; nor was it confined by the chains of any speculative system. The devout polytheist, though fondly attached to his national rites, admitted with implicit faith the different religions of the earth. Fear, gratitude, and curiosity, a dream or an omen, a singular disorder, or a distant journey, perpetually disposed him to multiply the articles of his belief, and to enlarge the list of his protectors. The thin texture of the Pagan mythology was interwoven with various but not discordant materials. As soon as it was allowed that sages and heroes, who had lived or who had died for the benefit of their country, were exalted to a state of power and immortality, it was universally confessed, that they deserved, if not the adoration, at least the reverence, of all mankind. The deities of a thousand groves and a thousand streams possessed, in peace, their local and respective influence; nor could the Romans who deprecated the wrath of the Tiber, deride the Egyptian who presented his offering to the beneficent genius of the Nile. The visible powers of nature, the planets, and the elements were the same throughout the universe. The invisible governors of the moral world were inevitably cast in a similar mould of fiction and allegory. Every virtue, and even vice, acquired its divine representative; every art and profession its patron, whose attributes, in the most distant ages and countries, were uniformly derived from the character of their peculiar votaries. A republic of gods of such opposite tempers and interests required, in every system, the moderating hand of a supreme magistrate, who, by the progress of knowledge and flattery, was gradually invested with the sublime perfections of an Eternal Parent, and an Omnipotent Monarch. Such was the mild spirit of antiquity, that the nations were less attentive to the difference, than to the resemblance, of their religious worship. The Greek, the Roman, and the Barbarian, as they met before their respective altars, easily persuaded themselves, that under various names, and with various ceremonies, they adored the same deities. The elegant mythology of Homer gave a beautiful, and almost a regular form, to the polytheism of the ancient world.

The philosophers of Greece deduced their morals from the nature of man, rather than from that of God. They meditated, however, on the Divine Nature, as a very curious and important speculation; and in the profound inquiry, they displayed the strength and weakness of the human understanding. Of the four most celebrated schools, the Stoics and the Platonists endeavored to reconcile the jarring interests of reason and piety. They have left us the most sublime proofs of the existence and perfections of the first cause; but, as it was impossible for them to conceive the creation of matter, the workman in the Stoic philosophy was not sufficiently distinguished from the work; whilst, on the contrary, the spiritual God of Plato and his disciples resembled an idea, rather than a substance. The opinions of the Academics and Epicureans were of a less religious cast; but whilst the modest science of the former induced them to doubt, the positive ignorance of the latter urged them to deny, the providence of a Supreme Ruler. The spirit of inquiry, prompted by emulation, and supported by freedom, had divided the public teachers of philosophy into a variety of contending sects; but the ingenious youth, who, from every part, resorted to Athens, and the other seats of learning in the Roman empire, were alike instructed in every school to reject and to despise the religion of the multitude. How, indeed, was it possible that a philosopher should accept, as divine truths, the idle tales of the poets, and the incoherent traditions of antiquity; or that he should adore, as gods, those imperfect beings whom he must have despised, as men? Against such unworthy adversaries, Cicero condescended to employ the arms of reason and eloquence; but the satire of Lucian was a much more adequate, as well as more efficacious, weapon. We may be well assured, that a writer, conversant with the world, would never have ventured to expose the gods of his country to public ridicule, had they not already been the objects of secret contempt among the polished and enlightened orders of society.

Edward Gibbon, “Chapter II: The Internal Prosperity In The Age Of The Antonines — Part I”, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1782.

October 6, 2015

Bulgaria in World War 1 – The New Central Power I THE GREAT WAR – Special

Filed under: Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 5 Oct 2015

Thank you Plamen Ganev for helping with the research for this episode!

Bulgaria joined the ranks of the Central Powers in World War 1 in October 1915 and shortly after invaded neighbouring Serbia to support the German-Austro offensive on Belgrade. A lot of promises about territory were made towards Ferdinand I and especially the chance of getting back territories lost in the Balkan Wars was music to Bulgarian ears. Find out all about Bulgaria joining World War 1 in our special episode.

September 30, 2015

QotD: Self-government and the scale problem

Filed under: Europe, Government, History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The pioneering political thinkers of the West — Greeks, mostly Athenian, including the sublime Aristotle — devoted much thought to this question of scale. Their consensus was that a state of more than about five thousand people (plus slaves, of course) was essentially unmanageable, at least by its citizens. Large empires or alliances of states might attempt to guarantee the freedom and independence of these small states (or might not), but the hard fact was that above around five thousand souls, the participation of the citizen in his own government ceases to be reality, and becomes rather a pious (or impious) myth.

Skip forward to 1789, the year of the French Revolution. As I have written elsewhere, perhaps the most permanent effect of that Revolution was the transformation of local government across France. Overnight, the seemingly timeless boundaries of 60,000 French parishes, each governed in its own unique way — were erased and replaced with 36,000 “communes,” governed identically and now under central direction from Paris.

This model was copied, across most of Europe, for even those national politicians who did not share in the ideals of the Revolution were attracted by the prospect of central power. France has mostly preserved her revolutionary communes, of a piece in land area, though now a city such as Paris is a single commune with more than two million people. In other countries, these small districts were merged and merged again, into ever larger territorial units, ever more bureaucratic and ever more subject to central direction.


According to me — and I have mulled this at length, with my own feeble mental powers — the Greeks were right. Five thousand is near the top end of a population that can attempt genuine self-government, deciding for themselves what they will and will not put up with, inside their own little domains. In huge conurbations, I would say that is about the maximum size for a self-governing urban borough or ward, necessarily small in area. Outside, rural districts would be rather larger, and there the question of maximum acreage comes into view, balanced against the minimum population to make any formal government necessary.

Boundaries are important. Above the parish or ward, the county seems to be the next higher natural level of government, for the resolution of issues that cross parish boundaries. But at all levels, attention should be given to geography. The boundaries of the jurisdiction should correspond as closely as possible to natural landmarks, and elevations of land, such that e.g. riparian responsibilities can be assigned to the visibly appropriate jurisdiction.

What has all this got to do with the environmental management of the planet? Everything. Where people can see the cause and effect of their actions, problems such as pollution will be tackled, and beauties such as birdsong will not be sacrificed. If the problems aren’t tackled, and the blight spills into another jurisdiction, penalties may be imposed from a higher level, but first give people the chance and the power to solve their own problems at source. Give them ownership, and stable rule by law — not by central planning which rewrites laws for its own convenience.

David Warren, “Five thousand max”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-06-19.

September 21, 2015

Greek businesses discover the receipt

Filed under: Business, Economics, Europe, Government — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Megan McArdle is in Athens, where she’s finding that Greek businesses have started handing out receipts for transactions that once would have been undocumented (the better to hide revenue from the taxman):

I was last in Greece in 2006, during the twilight years of the boom that peaked during the Athens Olympics. Back then, Greece was notable to Americans for its lack of receipts. This is convenient for the shoppers, who don’t have to hunt around for somewhere to toss yet another piece of unwanted paper. But it was also convenient for vendors who wanted to underpay the tax authorities.

The inability of the Greek government to collect the taxes it is owed is one of the recurring themes of coverage of the financial crisis. This problem is sometimes exaggerated, but everyone agrees that it’s very real. And since the burden of structural adjustment is falling on fiscal reforms — rather than, say, firing unproductive members of the vast government workforce — that’s a big problem.

Widespread evasion narrows the tax base, forcing the government to set higher rates. If the evasion were spread evenly across all sectors of the economy, then these two things would roughly cancel out. Unfortunately, it’s not. Some sorts of taxes are easier to evade than others. Employment taxes are hard to evade, while self-employed professionals like doctors and lawyers have found it relatively easy to shelter most of their incomes. As a result, the cost of employing a new staff worker is quite high (especially since those workers are incredibly difficult to fire). The value-added tax here is now 23 percent, close to the EU maximum rate. (Thank God for that maximum, joked one journalist I met; otherwise, who knows how high they’d have raised it.) That’s making up for taxes that aren’t collected elsewhere.

The good news is that Greece has at least made progress on collecting sales tax. They’re hardly at the level that our Internal Revenue Service would accept, but most of the places I’ve gone have automatically given me a receipt, printed out by a cash register. The taxi drivers mostly offer printed receipts. One did ask me how much he should make it out for. (Note to boss: I told him to make it out for the amount of the fare.) I’m told that on the islands, collection is less sure. But here in Athens, they are slowly but surely improving their collection apparatus.

Greece is attempting to do in the space of a few years what other economies did over the course of decades. Most people think of a cash register primarily as a way to add up the value of the sale, but in fact, that is the least of its functions. Its most attractive feature to the merchants who adopted them back in the late 19th century was that they made it harder for clerks to steal. (That’s why old registers made a noise every time the cash drawer opened; that prevented employees from stealthily recording sales and then pocketing the money, or alternatively, giving goods to their friends without being paid.) Over time, of course, revenue authorities realized that cash register tickers were also a good way to ensure that employers gave the state its due.

August 19, 2015

Canada looks very good on an international ranking you won’t hear about from our media

Filed under: Cancon, Economics — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Our traditional media are quick to pump up the volume for “studies” that find that we rank highly on various rankings of cities or what-have-you, but here’s someone pointing out that Canada’s ranking is quite good, but it’s not the kind of measurement our media want to encourage or publicize:

First, we must identify a nation’s currently employed population. Next, all public sector employees are removed to obtain an adjusted productive workforce. It may be objectionable that certain professions, like teaching, nurses in single payer systems and fire fighters, are classified as an unproductive workforce, but as our system is currently designed, the salaries of these individuals are not covered by the immediate beneficiaries like any other business but are paid through dispersed taxation methods.

Finally, this productive population is divided into the nation’s total population to identify the total number of individuals a worker is expected to support in his country. To remove bias toward non-working spouses and children, the average household size is subtracted from this result to get the final number of individuals that an individual must support that are not part of their own voluntary household. In other words, how many total strangers is this individual providing for?

The Implied Public Reliance metric does a far better job of predicting economic performance:

Canada - implied public reliance

Greece, the nation with the debt problem, is currently expecting each employed person to support 6.1 other people above and beyond their own families. This explains much of the pressure to work long hours and also explains the unstable debt loads. Since a single Greek worker can’t possibly hope to support what amounts to a complete baseball team on a single salary, the difference is covered by Greek public debt, debt that the underlying social system cannot hope to repay as the incentives are to maintain the current system of subsidies. To demonstrate how difficult it is to change these systems within a democratic society, we just have to look at the percentage of the population that is reliant on public subsidy.

Canada - reliant on public funding

Oh, and by the way … Greece is doomed:

The numbers imply that 67 percent of the population of Greece is wholly reliant on the Greek government to provide their incomes. With such a commanding supermajority, changing this system with the democratic process is impossible as the 67 percent have strong incentives to continue to vote for the other 33 percent — and also foreign entities — to cover their living expenses.

July 23, 2015

The breakdown state of Greece

Filed under: Economics, Europe, History, Religion — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

David Warren, earlier this month, on the slow-motion financial, economic, and political disaster that is modern-day Greece:

Now seriously, gentle reader, we are being reminded that there is truly no way out — no foreseeable practical and material escape — from the Nanny State web we have woven. Except by catastrophe, and/or miracle. My fascination with Greece is, as I have said, to see what happens as that state breaks down. Greece is unrepresentative in some ways; she never was a truly Western country, and thus even her way of abandoning the Christian faith is different from the Western. Since the West freed her from the Infidel Turk, Greece has had the luxury to pick and choose between spiritual destinies. The West offered three: the Catholic, the Protestant, and the Revolutionary. Greece chose to dress her post-Byzantine, Orthodox self in the robes of Marianne, goddess of fake Liberty. They don’t fit, can’t, and she has experienced one wardrobe malfunction after another. Whereas the French, whom she most likes to emulate, at least know how to carry off satanic modernism in style.

Notwithstanding, the material facts of Nanny State are universal, and Greece can now serve as an illustration of their consequences — for the simple reason that she has made more mistakes, faster, than any other European country.

My fondest hope was that the failure of Greece would provoke a genuine re-assessment of the European Union. My worst fear is that it would instead make Europe’s commissars circle their wagon (the EU flag unintentionally represents this), and advance the continental nannyism in the vain belief that they can somehow save it. This, I observe, is what most likely happens. Or to put this another way, for the third time in a century, Europe has embarked on a mission of self-destruction, and will not turn back.

The correct response, to my humble mind, would have been on two fronts. First, to acknowledge that Greece can’t pay, and therefore write off the debts. Let them start again from scratch, according to their lights, providing whatever humanitarian aid can be afforded, but making clear it is a gift, and therefore delivering it through visibly European (and North American) agencies. Never let anyone think he is receiving gifts by right, and thus confuse gifts with payment. But don’t kick Greece out of anything; they have as much right to use euros while unwinding as the Argentines had to use U.S. dollars through their last bankruptcy. In defiance of post-modern sentimentalism, I would say it is possible to be both charitable, and firm.

Second, to begin a peaceful disassembly of most of the pan-European scheme, including the euro currency, which doesn’t and can’t work. Restore marks, francs, lire, pesetas; but also gradually downsize the Brussels bureaucracy to what it can and did do reasonably well — as a clearing house for trade transactions. This would be sane, now the ambition of a “European nation” is proved to have been foolish in itself. It would be insane, politically, to leave it to the member countries’ respective nationalist lunatics to achieve the same end by jingo, with the violence that follows inevitably from that.

It is in this greater (political, not religious) light that I think another bailout for Greece is a horror. It means Europe’s politicians are accelerating down a blind alley — the political equivalent of “the spirit of Vatican II.”

June 19, 2015

QotD: There is a lot of ruin in a nation … but not an infinite amount

Filed under: Americas, Economics, Europe, Quotations — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Over the years, I’ve had many arguments about economic policy with my statist friends. I put them into three categories.

  • The completely unreasonable statists blindly assert, notwithstanding all the evidence around the world, that bigger government and more intervention are actually good for growth.
  • The somewhat unreasonable statists acknowledge that bigger government and more intervention might have some minor “efficiency” costs, but those costs are acceptable and affordable in the pursuit of more “equity.”
  • The semi-reasonable statists admit that bigger government and more intervention hurt growth, but they argue that “libertarian types” must somehow be wrong because our predictions of economic chaos never materialize.

The folks in the last category have a point. For decades, advocates of limited government and free markets have warned about the economic cost of bad policy, yet where’s the collapse?

Why hasn’t Atlas shrugged, as libertarians have warned? Why have predictions of economic dystopia (examples here and here) been wrong?

I have two responses to these questions.

First, the economic damage caused by an expanding welfare state has been offset by improvements in other types of economic policy.

Second, maybe dour libertarians have been right, but got the timing wrong because it takes a long time and a lot of bad policy to destroy an economy.

And that’s today’s topic, because it certainly looks like both Greece and Venezuela have finally reached the end of the road. Let’s call it the Thatcher Inflection Point.

Dan Mitchell, “Atlas Is Shrugging in Greece and Venezuela: Two Case Studies of Statist Failure”, International Liberty, 2015-05-27.

June 4, 2015

QotD: The debt we owe to ancient Greece

Filed under: Books, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

What more to say? Well, I could say that I am jealous of Jack’s choice of period. My choice of early Byzantium is a good one. Contrary to the general view, this was an age of heroism and genius. The fight the Byzantines put up against the barbarians and Persians and Moslems saved Western civilisation. There are few stories more inspiring than the defeat of the Arabs outside the very walls of Constantinople in 678 and 717. At the same time, nothing compares with what the Athenians achieved a thousand years earlier.

Forget the Egyptians and the Jews. Forget what we are told about the ancient Indians and Chinese. Forget even the Romans. Between about 600 and 300 BC, the Greeks of Athens and some of the cities of what is now the Turkish coast were easily the most remarkable people who ever lived. They gave us virtually all our philosophy, and the foundation of all our sciences. Their historians were the finest. Their poetry was second only to that of Homer – and it was they who put together all that we have of Homer. They gave us ideals of beauty, the fading of which has always been a warning sign of decadence; and they gave us the technical means of recording that beauty. They had no examples to imitate. They did everything entirely by themselves. In a world that had always been at the midnight point of barbarism and superstition, they went off like a flashbulb; and everything good in our own world is part of their afterglow. Every renaissance and enlightenment we have had since then has begun with a rediscovery of the ancient Greeks. Modern chauvinists may argue whether England or France or Germany has given more to the world. In truth, none of us is fit to kiss the dust on which the ancient Greeks walked.

Richard Blake, “Review of Jack England, Sword of Marathon“, RichardBlake.me.uk, 2013.

May 27, 2015

QotD: The amazing longevity of the Byzantine Empire

Filed under: History, Middle East, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… I revere Classical Antiquity. But, once your eyes adjust, and you look below the glittering surface, you see that it wasn’t a time any reasonable person would choose to be alive. The Greeks were a collection of ethnocentric tribes who fought and killed each other till they nearly died out. The Roman Empire was held together by a vampire bureaucracy directed more often than in any European state since then by idiots or lunatics. Life was jolly enough for the privileged two or three per cent. But everything they had was got from the enslavement or fiscal exploitation of everyone else.

Now, while the Roman State grew steadily worse until the collapse of its Western half, the Eastern half that remained went into reverse. The more Byzantine the Eastern Roman Empire became, the less awful it was for ordinary people. This is why it lasted another thousand years. The consensus of educated opinion used to be that it survived by accident. Even without looking at the evidence, this doesn’t seem likely. In fact, during the seventh century, the Empire faced three challenges. First, there was the combined assault of the Persians from the east and the Avars and Slavs from the north. Though the Balkans and much of the East were temporarily lost, the Persians were annihilated. Then a few years after the victory celebrations in Jerusalem, Islam burst into the world. Syria and Egypt were overrun at once. North Africa followed. But the Home Provinces — these being roughly the territory of modern Turkey — held firm. The Arabs could sometimes invade, and occasionally devastate. They couldn’t conquer.

One of the few certain lessons that History teaches is that, when it goes on the warpath, you don’t face down Islam by accident. More often than not, you don’t face it down at all. In the 630s, the Arabs took what remained of the Persian Empire in a single campaign. Despite immensely long chains of supply and command, they took Spain within a dozen years. Yet, repeatedly and with their entire force, they beat against the Home Provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Each time, they were thrown back with catastrophic losses. The Byzantines never lost overall control of the sea. Eventually, they hit back, retaking large parts of Syria. More than once, the Caliphs were forced to pay tribute. You don’t manage this by accident.

The Byzantine historians themselves are disappointingly vague about the seventh and eight centuries. Our only evidence for what happened comes from the description of established facts in the tenth century. As early as the seventh century, though, the Byzantine State pulled off the miracle of reforming itself internally while fighting a war of survival on every frontier. Large parts of the bureaucracy were scrapped. Taxes were cut. The silver coinage was stabilised. Above all, the great senatorial estates of the Later Roman Empire were broken up. Land was given to the peasants in return for military service. In the West, the Goths and Franks and Lombards had moved among populations of disarmed tax-slaves. Not surprisingly, no one raised a hand against them. Time and again, the Arabs smashed against a wall of armed freeholders. A few generations after losing Syria and Egypt, the Byzantine Empire was the richest and most powerful state in the known world.

Richard Blake, “The Joys of Writing Byzantine Historical Fiction”, Libertarian Enterprise, 2014-07-27.

May 22, 2015

Reconstructing history – a population explosion in ancient Greece?

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Anton Howes deserves what he gets for a blog post he titled “Highway to Hellas: avoiding the Malthusian trap in Ancient Greece”:

There’s a fantastic post by Pseudoerasmus examining the supposed ‘efflorescence’ of economic growth in Ancient Greece, and some of the causal hypotheses put forward by Josiah Ober in an upcoming book (which I’m very much looking forward to reading in full). Suffice to say, the data estimates used by Ober raise more questions than they answer.

If the constructed data is correct, then not only did Greek population grow by an extraordinary amount during the Archaic Period roughly 800-500 BC, but Greek consumption per capita grew by 50-100% from 800-300 BC. As Pseudoerasmus points out, this would imply a massive productivity gain of some 450-1000%, or 0.3-0.46% growth per annum.

This seems quite implausible to me. Indeed, the population estimates imply that the Ancient Greek population would have been substantially larger than that of Greece in the 1890s AD, along with higher agricultural productivity! This is all the more puzzling as there appears to have been no major technological change to support so many more mouths to feed, let alone feed them better than before.

But assuming the data are correct, what would have to give? Pseudoerasmus explores a number of different possibilities, such as the gains from integrating trade across the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea; or that the Greeks might have shifted agricultural production to cash crops like wine and oil and imported grain instead. None of these quite seem good enough for such a massive and prolonged escape from the Malthusian pressures of population outstripping the productivity of agriculture (although I hope the so-far unavailable chapters from Ober’s book might shed some more light on this).

A remaining explanation offered by Pseudoerasmus may, however, be the winner: that Greeks weren’t using land more intensively as Ober seems to suggest, but rather expanding the land that they brought under cultivation by colonising new areas.

March 21, 2015

Who was Sappho?

Filed under: Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

In the New Yorker, Daniel Mendelsohn discusses our evolving views of the poet Sappho:

One day not long after New Year’s, 2012, an antiquities collector approached an eminent Oxford scholar for his opinion about some brownish, tattered scraps of writing. The collector’s identity has never been revealed, but the scholar was Dirk Obbink, a MacArthur-winning classicist whose specialty is the study of texts written on papyrus — the material, made of plant fibres, that was the paper of the ancient world. When pieced together, the scraps that the collector showed Obbink formed a fragment about seven inches long and four inches wide: a little larger than a woman’s hand. Densely covered with lines of black Greek characters, they had been extracted from a piece of desiccated cartonnage, a papier-mâché-like plaster that the Egyptians and Greeks used for everything from mummy cases to bookbindings. After acquiring the cartonnage at a Christie’s auction, the collector soaked it in a warm water solution to free up the precious bits of papyrus.

Judging from the style of the handwriting, Obbink estimated that it dated to around 200 A.D. But, as he looked at the curious pattern of the lines — repeated sequences of three long lines followed by a short fourth — he saw that the text, a poem whose beginning had disappeared but of which five stanzas were still intact, had to be older.

Much older: about a thousand years more ancient than the papyrus itself. The dialect, diction, and metre of these Greek verses were all typical of the work of Sappho, the seventh-century-B.C. lyric genius whose sometimes playful, sometimes anguished songs about her susceptibility to the graces of younger women bequeathed us the adjectives “sapphic” and “lesbian” (from the island of Lesbos, where she lived). The four-line stanzas were in fact part of a schema she is said to have invented, called the “sapphic stanza.” To clinch the identification, two names mentioned in the poem were ones that several ancient sources attribute to Sappho’s brothers. The text is now known as the “Brothers Poem.”

Remarkably enough, this was the second major Sappho find in a decade: another nearly complete poem, about the deprivations of old age, came to light in 2004. The new additions to the extant corpus of antiquity’s greatest female artist were reported in papers around the world, leaving scholars gratified and a bit dazzled. “Papyrological finds,” as one classicist put it, “ordinarily do not make international headlines.”

But then Sappho is no ordinary poet. For the better part of three millennia, she has been the subject of furious controversies — about her work, her family life, and, above all, her sexuality. In antiquity, literary critics praised her “sublime” style, even as comic playwrights ridiculed her allegedly loose morals. Legend has it that the early Church burned her works. (“A sex-crazed whore who sings of her own wantonness,” one theologian wrote, just as a scribe was meticulously copying out the lines that Obbink deciphered.) A millennium passed, and Byzantine grammarians were regretting that so little of her poetry had survived. Seven centuries later, Victorian scholars were doing their best to explain away her erotic predilections, while their literary contemporaries, the Decadents and the Aesthetes, seized on her verses for inspiration. Even today, experts can’t agree on whether the poems were performed in private or in public, by soloists or by choruses, or, indeed, whether they were meant to celebrate or to subvert the conventions of love and marriage. The last is a particularly loaded issue, given that, for many readers and scholars, Sappho has been a feminist heroine or a gay role model, or both. “As far as I knew, there was only me and a woman called Sappho,” the critic Judith Butler once remarked.

February 19, 2015

Al Stewart – Helen and Cassandra

Filed under: Europe, History, Media — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

February 3, 2015

QotD: Sexuality in the late classical world

Filed under: History, Quotations — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

There are two opposed beliefs about sexuality in the ancient world. Both are false, though not equally so. The first is that the ancient world fizzled out in an orgy of bum fun, and that we need to be careful not to let this happen to us. Where do you begin with a belief so completely unfounded on the evidence? I suppose you look to the evidence. Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar both had a taste for all-male sex. So did Mark Antony. So did Hadrian. So had most of the famous Athenians — Euripides being one of its most notable enthusiasts. No signs there of moral or any other weakness. If Mark Antony came to a bad end, it was because he married an ambitious foreign woman.

A growing prejudice against all-male sex becomes visible in the fourth century, when Constantine established Christianity as the official faith. He made the first laws against it. Within a century, the Goths were across the Rhine and had sacked Rome. Oh, and one of Constantine’s own sons had a taste for Gothic boys!

It’s absurd to try correlating national greatness or decline with sexual customs. Ancient civilisation didn’t collapse because its rulers were too worn out from buggering each other to take up swords. The ultimate cause may have been a mild global cooling, which lowered the Malthusian ceiling. There was an undoubted growth of rural impoverishment that left populations open to the pandemic diseases that swept through the Mediterranean world from late in the second century. Population decline was then worsened by various forms of misgovernment, and by the need to hold frontiers that had only made sense in an age of economic and demographic expansion. Rather than bursting through in unstoppable floods, the barbarians seem eventually to have wandered, in small bands, into a demographic vacuum.

The second false belief is that the ancient world was one big al fresco bath house. I once watched a television documentary in which it was seriously maintained that straight sex was out of fashion in Athens during the classical period. I thought of writing in to ask what books the researchers had been reading.

Because it lasted over a thousand years, and flourished on three continents, you should be careful with generalisations about ancient civilisation. But one good generalisation is that free men were expected to marry and beget children. These were societies with high death rates. They needed high birth rates not to die out. They particularly needed large numbers of young men to fight in their endemic wars of conquest or survival. Those men who wouldn’t breed were sometimes punished. Those who couldn’t were expected to adopt the surplus children of their poorer friends and relatives.

There were also strong prejudices against men who took the passive role in oral and anal sex. Take, for example, this epigram somewhere in Martial:

Secti podicis usque ad umbilicum
Nullas reliquias habet Charinus
Et prurit tamen usque ad umbilicum.
O quanta scabie miser laborat:
Culum non habet, est tamen cinaedus.

[Of his anus, split right up to the belly button,
Nothing remains to Charinus.
And still he longs for it right up to his belly button.
O behold the poor dear’s itching:
No arse left, yet still he longs to be fucked.]

On the other hand, the ancients didn’t have our concept of gay and straight. Latin has a large and precise sexual vocabulary — though you won’t find meanings in the standard dictionaries. See, for example: Irrumator, one who presents his penis for sucking; Fellator, one who sucks; Pathicus, the passive partner in anal sex, Exoletus, the active partner; Cinaedus, a male prostitute; Catamitus, a boy prostitute or lover; Glabrarius, lover of smooth-skinned boys; Tribas, a woman with a clitoris large enough to serve as a penis — and so it continues. The Greek vocabulary is larger still. There is no word in either language that means “homosexual.” Sodomitus is a late word, brought in by the Christians, and may not have had its present meaning until deep into the middle ages.

So long as legitimate children were somehow begotten, and so long as he didn’t disgrace himself by taking the passive role, what else a free man did was legally and morally indifferent. Elsewhere in his works, Martial boasts of sleeping with boys, and scolds his wife for thinking ill of him. In Athens and some other classical city states, it was a social duty for men in the higher classes to have sexual affairs with adolescent boys. We all know about the Spartans. In Thebes, an army was formed of adult sex partners. If anyone had said that all-male sex was in itself wrong, he’d have been laughed at. The Jews, who did say this, were despised. The Christian Emperors may have made laws against it. They were mostly enforced against political enemies when no other charges were credible or convenient.

Indeed, while there was a prejudice, and sometimes laws, against sexual passivity, it’s obvious that, once in private, men did as they pleased. One of the fundamental rules of the man-boy affairs in Athens was no anal penetration and no fellatio. Sex was supposed to involve mutual masturbation or intercrural friction. You can imagine how that rule was kept in private. There were problems only if the truth got out. Philip of Macedon, for example, kept a boy as his lover. One day, in public, he poked the boy in the stomach and asked why he wasn’t yet pregnant. The boy was so outraged that he murdered the King.

Then we have slavery, and the total power of an owner over his slaves. A slave-owner could demand whatever he liked, and expect the world not to be told about what he liked. So long as they weren’t physically injured, slaves were universally expected to do as they were told and not complain. As for prostitution, Rome and the larger cities were filled with brothels offering every sexual act imaginable. When Bible quotes failed, Christians were warned away from the brothels on the grounds that they might accidentally sleep with their own abandoned and enslaved children.

Richard Blake, “Interview with Richard Blake”, 2014-03-14.

January 11, 2015

6th century Sicilian shipwreck yields 39 ingots of orichalcum

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

I’d only ever encountered mentions of orichalcum as a rare metal in Guild Wars 2, but it was a real thing, and an underwater archaeology team found 39 ingots of orichalcum just off the coast of Sicily near Gela:

Gleaming cast metal called orichalcum, which was said by Ancient Greeks to be found in Atlantis, has been recovered from a ship that sunk 2,600 years ago off the coast of Sicily.

The lumps of metal were arriving to Gela in southern Sicily, possibly coming from Greece or Asia Minor. The ship that was carrying them was likely caught in a storm and sunk just when it was about to enter the port.

“The wreck dates to the first half of the sixth century,” Sebastiano Tusa, Sicily’s superintendent of the Sea Office, told Discovery News. “It was found about 1,000 feet from Gela’s coast at a depth of 10 feet.”

He noted that the 39 ingots found on the sandy sea floor represent a unique finding.

“Nothing similar has ever been found,” Tusa said. “We knew orichalcum from ancient texts and a few ornamental objects.”

Indeed orichalcum has long been considered a mysterious metal, its composition and origin widely debated.

According to the ancient Greeks, it was invented by Cadmus, a Greek-Phoenician mythological character. The fourth century B.C. Greek philosopher Plato made orichalcum a legendary metal when he mentioned it in the Critias dialogue.

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