March 31, 2015
March 29, 2015
Published on 12 May 2012
A project between Khan Academy and Rome Reborn – with Dr. Bernard Frischer
March 14, 2015
Above all, Byzantine history is a record of survival and even prosperity in the face of terrible odds. Between about 540 and 720, the Byzantines were hit by wave after wave of catastrophe. First, there was the Great Plague of the 540s, that killed around a third of the population. Then, in the first decades of the seventh century, they were attacked on every frontier by the Persians and the Barbarians. They saw off these challenges, but had no time to recover before the first eruption of Islam from the deserts. In almost a single bite, the Arabs swallowed up the remains of the Persian Empire. They conquered vast areas of the East, and, within less than a century, pushing into Southern France. But, if they took Syria and Egypt and North Africa, they never conquered the core territories of the Byzantine Empire.
The reason for this is that the Byzantine State was ruled by creative pragmatists. The Roman Empire was a ghastly place for most of the people who lived in it. The Emperors at the top were often vicious incompetents. They ruled through an immense and parasitic bureaucracy. They were supreme governors of an army too large to be controlled. They protected a landed aristocracy that was a repository of culture, but that was ruthless in its exaction of rent. Most ordinary people were disarmed tax-slaves, where not chattel slaves or serfs.
During the seventh century, the Byzantines scrapped almost the entirety of the Roman heritage. Much of the bureaucracy was shut down. Taxes were cut. The silver coinage was stabilised. Above all, the landed estates were broken up and given to those who worked on them, in return for service in local militias. Though never abolished, chattel slavery became far less pervasive. The civil law was simplified, and the criminal law humanised – after the seventh century, the death penalty was rarely used.
The Byzantine Empire survived because of a revolutionary transformation in which ordinary people became armed stakeholders. The inhabitants of Roman Gaul and Italy and Spain barely looked up from their ploughs as the Barbarians swirled round them. The citizens of Byzantium fought like tigers in defence of their country. Now, this was a transformation pushed through in a century and a half of recurrent crises during which Constantinople itself was repeatedly under siege. Alone among the ancient empires in its path, Byzantium faced down the Arabs, and kept Islam at bay for nearly five centuries.
Don’t tell me this isn’t an inspiring story. I could have written yet another series of novels around the Persian War or the murder of Julius Caesar. But, if you can take the trouble to master your sources – and never let them master you – I really can’t think of a finer background than the early flowering of the one of the most remarkable, and effectively democratic, civilisations that ever existed.
Richard Blake, interviewed by Jennifer Falkner, 2014-06-23.
February 11, 2015
…but Jerry Toner says that modern employers can learn from the management techniques of Romans. Roman slave-owners, that is:
Most Romans, like Augustus, thought cruelty to slaves was shocking. They understood that slaves could not simply be terrified into being good at their job. Instead, the Romans used various techniques to encourage their slaves to work productively and willingly, from bonuses and long-term inducements, to acts designed to boost morale and generate team spirit. All of these say more than we might imagine about how employers manage people successfully in the modern world.
Above all, the story shows how comfortable the Romans were with leadership and command. They believed that there is a world of difference between having the organisational skills to run a unit and actually being able to lead it. By contrast modern managers are often uncomfortable with being promoted above their staff. I worked in a large corporation for a decade and I had numerous bosses who tried to be my friend. Raising yourself over others sits uneasily with democratic ideals of equality. Today’s managers have to pretend to be one of the team.
The Romans would have scoffed at such weakness. Did Julius Caesar take his legions off-site to get them to buy-in to his invasion of Gaul? Successful leaders had to stand out from the crowd and use their superior skills to inspire, cajole and sometimes force people to do what was necessary. Perhaps we would do well to learn from their blunt honesty.
February 3, 2015
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 5, 2015
The latest issue of Libertarian Enterprise included this selection from Ludwig von Mises’ Human Action on how government restrictions on prices and trade contributed to the downfall of the western empire:
Knowledge of the effects of government interference with market prices makes us comprehend the economic causes of a momentous historical event, the decline of ancient civilization.
It may be left undecided whether or not it is correct to call the economic organization of the Roman Empire capitalism. At any rate it is certain that the Roman Empire in the second century, the age of the Antonines, the “good” emperors, had reached a high stage of the social division of labor and of interregional commerce. Several metropolitan centers, a considerable number of middle-sized towns, and many small towns were the seats of a refined civilization. The inhabitants of these urban agglomerations were supplied with food and raw materials not only from the neighboring rural districts, but also from distant provinces. A part of these provisions flowed into the cities as revenue of their wealthy residents who owned landed property. But a considerable part was bought in exchange for the rural population’s purchases of the products of the city-dwellers’ processing activities. There was an extensive trade between the various regions of the vast empire. Not only in the processing industries, but also in agriculture there was a tendency toward further specialization. The various parts of the empire were no longer economically self-sufficient. They were interdependent.
What brought about the decline of the empire and the decay of its civilization was the disintegration of this economic interconnectedness, not the barbarian invasions. The alien aggressors merely took advantage of an opportunity which the internal weakness of the empire offered to them. From a military point of view the tribes which invaded the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries were not more formidable than the armies which the legions had easily defeated in earlier times. But the empire had changed. Its economic and social structure was already medieval.
The freedom that Rome granted to commerce and trade had always been restricted. With regard to the marketing of cereals and other vital necessities it was even more restricted than with regard to other commodities. It was deemed unfair and immoral to ask for grain, oil, and wine, the staples of these ages, more than the customary prices, and the municipal authorities were quick to check what they considered profiteering. Thus the evolution of an efficient wholesale trade in these commodities was prevented. The policy of the annona, which was tantamount to a nationalization or municipalization of the grain trade, aimed at filling the gaps. But its effects were rather unsatisfactory. Grain was scarce in the urban agglomerations, and the agriculturists complained about the unremunerativeness of grain growing. The interference of the authorities upset the adjustment of supply to the rising demand. The showdown came when in the political troubles of the third and fourth centuries the emperors resorted to currency debasement. With the system of maximum prices the practice of debasement completely paralyzed both the production and the marketing of the vital foodstuffs and disintegrated society’s economic organization. The more eagerness the authorities displayed in enforcing the maximum prices, the more desperate became the conditions of the urban masses dependent on the purchase of food. Commerce in grain and other necessities vanished altogether. To avoid starving, people deserted the cities, settled on the countryside, and tried to grow grain, oil, wine, and other necessities for themselves. On the other hand, the owners of the big estates restricted their excess production of cereals and began to produce in their farmhouses — the villae — the products of handicraft which they needed. For their big-scale farming, which was already seriously jeopardized because of the inefficiency of slave labor, lost its rationality completely when the opportunity to sell at remunerative prices disappeared. As the owner of the estate could no longer sell in the cities, he could no longer patronize the urban artisans either. He was forced to look for a substitute to meet his needs by employing handicraftsmen on his own account in his villa. He discontinued big-scale farming and became a landlord receiving rents from tenants or sharecroppers. These coloni were either freed slaves or urban proletarians who settled in the villages and turned to tilling the soil. A tendency toward the establishment of autarky of each landlord’s estate emerged. The economic function of the cities, of commerce, trade, and urban handicrafts, shrank. Italy and the provinces of the empire returned to a less advanced state of the social division of labor. The highly developed economic structure of ancient civilization retrograded to what is now known as the manorial organization of the Middle Ages.
The emperors were alarmed with that outcome which undermined the financial and military power of their government. But their counteraction was futile as it did not affect the root of the evil. The compulsion and coercion to which they resorted could not reverse the trend toward social disintegration which, on the contrary, was caused precisely by too much compulsion and coercion. No Roman was aware of the fact that the process was induced by the government’s interference with prices and by currency debasement. It was vain for the emperors to promulgate laws against the city-dweller who relicta civitate rus habitare maluerit [deserted the cities, preferring to live in the country]. The system of the leiturgia, the public services to be rendered by the wealthy citizens, only accelerated the retrogression of the division of labor. The laws concerning the special obligations of the shipowners, the navicularii, were no more successful in checking the decline of navigation than the laws concerning grain dealing in checking the shrinkage in the cities’ supply of agricultural products.
The marvelous civilization of antiquity perished because it did not adjust its moral code and its legal system to the requirements of the market economy. A social order is doomed if the actions which its normal functioning requires are rejected by the standards of morality, are declared illegal by the laws of the country, and are prosecuted as criminal by the courts and the police. The Roman Empire crumbled to dust because it lacked the spirit of liberalism and free enterprise. The policy of interventionism and its political corollary, the Führer principle, decomposed the mighty empire as they will by necessity always disintegrate and destroy any social entity.
From: Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, vol. 3 (LF ed.) , Chapter 30. Online at http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/1895#lf3843-03_head_036, the Online Library of Liberty, A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets.
December 11, 2014
“What about Apollo?” interrupted Vinicianus. “I never heard that Apollo was married. That seems to me a very lame argument.” The Consul called Vinicianus to order. It was clear that the word “lame” was intended offensively. But I was accustomed to insults and answered quietly: “I have always understood that the god Apollo remains a bachelor either because he is unable to choose between the Nine Muses, or because he cannot afford to offend eight of them by choosing the other as his bride. And he is immortally young, and so are they, and it is quite safe for him to postpone his choice indefinitely; for they are all in love with him, as the poet What’s-his-name says. But perhaps Augustus will naturally persuade him to do his duty by Olympus, by taking one of the Nine in honourable wedlock, and raising a large family — ‘as quick as boiled asparagus’.”
Vinicianus was silenced in the burst of laughter that followed, ‘quick as boiled asparagus’ was one of Augustus’s favourite expressions. He had several others: ‘As easily as a dog squats’ and ‘There are more ways than one of killing a cat’ and ‘You mind your own business, I’ll mind mine’ and ‘I’ll see that it gets done on the Greek Kalends’ (which, of course, means never) and ‘The knee is nearer than the shin’ (which means that one’s first concern is with matters that affect one personally). And if anyone tried to contradict him on a point of literary scholarship, he used to say: ‘A radish may know no Greek, but I do’. And whenever he was encouraging anyone to bear an unpleasant condition patiently he always used to say: ‘Let us content ourselves with this Cato’. From what I have told you about Cato, that virtuous man, you will easily understand what he meant. I now found myself often using these phrases of Augustus’s: I suppose that this was because I had consented to adopt his name and position. The handiest was the one he used when he was making a speech and had lost his way in a sentence — a thing that constantly happens to me, because I am inclined, when I make an extempore speech, and in historical writing too when I am not watching myself, to get involved in long, ambitious sentences — and now I am doing it again, you notice. However, the point is that Augustus, whenever he got into a tangle, used to cut the Gordian knot, like Alexander, saying ‘Words fail me, my Lords. Nothing that I might utter could possibly match the depth of my feelings in this matter.”
Robert Graves, Claudius the God, 1935.
December 4, 2014
Before I forget it, I must record two valuable health hints that I learned from Xenophon. He used to say: “The man is a fool who puts good manners before health. If you are troubled with wind, never hold it in. It does great injury to the stomach. I knew a man who once nearly killed himself by holding in his wind. If for some reason or other you cannot conveniently leave the room — say, you are sacrificing or addressing the Senate — don’t be afraid to belch or break wind downwards where you stand. Better that the company should suffer some slight inconvenience than that you should permanently injure yourself. And again, when you suffer from a cold, don’t constantly blow your nose. That only increases the flow of rheum and inflames the delicate membranes of your nose. Let it run. Wipe, don’t blow.” I have always taken Xenophon’s advice, at least about nose-blowing: my colds don’t last nearly so long now as they did. Of course, caricaturists and satirists soon made fun of me as having a permanently dripping nose, but what did I care for that? Messalina told me that she thought I was extremely sensible to take such care of myself: if I were suddenly to die or fall seriously ill, what would become of the City and Empire, not to mention herself and our little boy?
Robert Graves, Claudius the God, 1935.
August 18, 2014
Harvard University Press is putting all 520 volumes of the Loeb Classical Library online beginning in September:
When James Loeb designed his soon-to-be-launched series of Greek and Roman texts at the turn of the twentieth century, he envisioned the production of volumes that could easily fit in readers’ coat pockets. A century later, that compact format is still one of the collection’s hallmarks. Beginning in September, however, the iconic books will be far handier than Loeb had hoped: users of the Loeb Classical Library (LCL) will have the entire collection at their fingertips. After five years of dedicated work on the part of the library’s trustees and Harvard University Press (HUP), which has overseen LCL since its creator’s death in 1933, the more than 520 volumes of literature that make up the series will be accessible online. Besides allowing users to browse the digitized volumes, which retain the unique side-by-side view of the original text and its English translation, the Digital Loeb Classical Library will enable readers to search for words and phrases across the entire corpus, to annotate content, to share notes and reading lists with others, and to create their own libraries using personal workspaces.
LCL managing editor Michael Sullivan, whose position was created earlier this year to supervise the virtual library, said that the digitization project is “a major leap forward in the history of the Loeb.” According to HUP executive editor-at-large Sharmila Sen, the launch of the digital LCL marks “a moment of rebirth” for the historic collection. She explained that in the years preceding the library’s 2011 centenary, the trustees and HUP administrators began to think about how to make the LCL “relevant to the twenty-first century.” Even though online databases of Greek and Latin literature have existed for years, said the library’s general editor, Jeffrey Henderson, a classics professor at Boston University, the digital Loeb will be unprecedented in its accessibility and scope: for the first time, readers without knowledge of Greek and Latin will be able to explore a vast range of the classical literary heritage online through high-quality, modern translations. He added that the project, which cost the LCL foundation more than $1 million, will serve as a model for the digitization of other HUP series, noting, “It’s strange that the oldest literature becomes the model for the digital age.”
Consolidating a vast literary corpus involving two different alphabets into an interconnected, elegant, and easy-to-use website required much behind-the-scenes work, Sen said. Designing the software for the digital library and transferring the data have concluded, she noted, but the project overseers view the current product — which will be available by subscription to institutions and individuals — as only a 1.0 version. The website will be a dynamic workspace, Henderson pointed out, adding that user feedback will help the editors increase its functionality.
H/T to Colby Cosh for the link.
July 31, 2014
Looking at our own family history, we tend to pay more attention to our grandparents than our cousins. Whatever they did, we have a duty to think well of our grandparents. We often forget our cousins. So far as they are rivals, we may come to despise or hate them. So it has been with Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire. The Barbarians who crossed the Rhine and North Sea in the fifth century are our parents. They founded a new civilisation from which ours is, in terms of blood and culture, the development. Their history is our history. The Greeks and Romans are our grandparents. In the strict sense, our parents were interlopers who dispossessed them. But the classical and Christian influence has been so pervasive that we even look at our early history through their eyes. The Jews also we shoehorn into the family tree. For all they still may find it embarrassing, they gave us the Christian Faith. We have no choice but to know about them down to the burning of the Temple in 70AD. The Egyptians have little to do with us. But we study them because their arts impose on our senses, and because they have been safely irrelevant for a very long time.
Byzantium is different. Though part of the family tree, it is outside the direct line of succession. In our civilisation, the average educated person studies the Greeks till they were conquered by the Romans, and the Romans till the last Western Emperor was deposed in 476AD. After that, we switch to the Germanic kingdoms, with increasing emphasis on the particular kingdom that evolved into our own nation. The continuing Empire, ruled from Constantinople, has no place in this scheme. Educated people know it existed. It must be taken into account in histories of the Crusades. But the record of so many dynasties is passed over in a blur. Its cultural and theological concerns have no place in our thought. We may thank it for preserving and handing on virtually the whole body of Classical Greek literature that survives. But its history is not our history. It seems, in itself, to tell us nothing about ourselves.
Indeed, where not overlooked, the Byzantines have been actively disliked. Our ancestors feared the Eastern Empire. They resented its contempt for their barbarism and poverty, and its ruthless meddling in their affairs. They hated it for its heretical and semi-heretical views about the Liturgy or the Nature of Christ. They were pleased enough to rip the Empire apart in 1204, and lifted barely a finger to save it from the Turks in 1453. After a spasm of interest in the seventeenth century, the balance of scholarly opinion in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to despise it for its conservatism and superstition, and for its alleged falling away from the Classical ideals — and for its ultimate failure to survive. If scholarly opinion since then has become less negative, this has not had any wider cultural effect.
Richard Blake, “The Joys of Writing Byzantine Historical Fiction”, Libertarian Enterprise, 2014-07-27.
April 10, 2014
ESR linked to an interesting discussion of the spread of chile peppers and other exotic spices from the Roman empire onwards:
Can you imagine a world without salsa? Or Tabasco sauce, harissa, sriracha, paprika or chili powder?
I asked myself that question after I found a 700-year-old recipe for one of my favorite foods, merguez — North Africa’s beloved lamb sausage that is positively crimson with chiles. The medieval version was softly seasoned with such warm spices as black pepper, coriander and cinnamon instead of the brash heat of capsicum chile peppers — the signature flavor of the dish today.
The cuisines of China, Indonesia, India, Bhutan, Korea, Hungary and much of Africa and the Middle East would be radically different from what they are today if chiles hadn’t returned across the ocean with Columbus. Barely 50 years after the discovery of the New World, chiles were warming much of the Old World. How did they spread so far, so fast? The answers may surprise you — they did me!
I learned that Mamluk and Ottoman Muslims were nearly as responsible for the discovery of New World peppers as Columbus — but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The global pepper saga begins in the first millennium bce with the combustible career of another pepper — black pepper (Piper nigrum) and its cousins, Indian long pepper and Javanese cubeb. Although Piper nigrum was first grown on the Malabar Coast in India, the taste for it enflamed the ancient world: No matter what the cost — and it was very high — people were mad for pepper. The Romans, for example, first tasted it in Egypt, and the demand for it drove them to sail to India to buy it. In the first century, Pliny complained about the cost: “There is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces.”
In one sense, the whole global system of trade — the sea and land routes throughout the known world that spread culture and cuisine through commerce — was engaged with the appetite for pepper, in its growth, distribution and consumption.
ESR said in his brief G+ posting:
More about the early and very rapid spread of capsicum peppers in the Old World than I’ve ever seen in one place before.
I also didn’t know they were such a nutritional boon. It appears one reason they became so entrenched is they’re a good source of Vitamin C in peasant cuisines centered around a starch like rice. My thought is that moderns may tend to miss this point because we have so much better access to citrus fruits and other very high-quality C sources.
The bit about paprika having been introduced to Hungary by the Ottomans was also particularly interesting to me. This was less than 30 years after they had reached the Old World.
March 26, 2014
December 17, 2013
In History Today, Matt Salusbury traces the Roman festival of Saturnalia (which was celebrated on December 17th) and its relationship to Christmas in the late empire:
It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn’t Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. But was Christmas, Western Christianity’s most popular festival, derived from the pagan Saturnalia?
The first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as ‘the best of times’: dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged.
Saturnalia originated as a farmer’s festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season in honour of Saturn (satus means sowing). Numerous archaeological sites from the Roman coastal province of Constantine, now in Algeria, demonstrate that the cult of Saturn survived there until the early third century AD.
Saturnalia grew in duration and moved to progressively later dates under the Roman period. During the reign of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), it was a two-day affair starting on December 17th. By the time Lucian described the festivities, it was a seven-day event. Changes to the Roman calendar moved the climax of Saturnalia to December 25th, around the time of the date of the winter solstice.
From as early as 217 BC there were public Saturnalia banquets. The Roman state cancelled executions and refrained from declaring war during the festival. Pagan Roman authorities tried to curtail Saturnalia; Emperor Caligula (AD 12-41) sought to restrict it to five days, with little success.
Emperor Domitian (AD 51-96) may have changed Saturnalia’s date to December 25th in an attempt to assert his authority. He curbed Saturnalia’s subversive tendencies by marking it with public events under his control. The poet Statius (AD 45- 95), in his poem Silvae, describes the lavish banquet and entertainments Domitian presided over, including games which opened with sweets, fruit and nuts showered on the crowd and featuring flights of flamingos released over Rome. Shows with fighting dwarves and female gladiators were illuminated, for the first time, into the night.
December 12, 2013
In the New York Review of Books, Peter Brown reviews a new book on the evolution of our knowledge about Roman sexuality at the start of the Christian era:
One of the most lasting delights and challenges of the study of the ancient world, and of the Roman Empire in particular, is the tension between familiarity and strangeness that characterizes our many approaches to it. It is like a great building, visible from far away, at the end of a straight road that cuts across what seems to be a level plain. Only when we draw near are we brought up sharp, on the edge of a great canyon, invisible from the road, that cuts its way between us and the monument we seek. We realize that we are looking at this world from across a sheer, silent drop of two thousand years.
Antiquity is always stranger than we think. Nowhere does it prove to be more strange than where we once assumed that it was most familiar to us. We always knew that the Romans had a lot of sex. Indeed, in the opinion of our elders, they probably had a lot more than was quite good for them. We also always knew that the early Christians had an acute sense of sin. We tend to think that they had a lot more sense of sin than they should have had. Otherwise they were very like ourselves. Until recently, studies of sex in Rome and of Christianity in the Roman world were wrapped in a cocoon of false familiarity.
Only in the last generation have we realized the sheer, tingling drop of the canyon that lies between us and a world that we had previously tended to take for granted as directly available to our own categories of understanding. “Revealing Antiquity,” the Harvard University Press series edited by Glen Bowersock, has played its part in instilling in us all a healthy sense of dizziness as we peer over the edge into a fascinating but deeply strange world. Kyle Harper’s book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is a scintillating contribution to this series. Not only does it measure the exact nature of the tension between the familiar and the deeply unfamiliar that lies behind our image of the sexual morality of Greeks and Romans of the Roman Empire of the classical period. It also goes on to evoke the sheer, unexpected strangeness of the very different sexual code elaborated in early Christian circles, and its sudden, largely unforeseen undermining of a very ancient social equilibrium in the two centuries that followed the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312. As Harper makes plain on the first page of his dense and vivid book, “Few periods of premodern history have witnessed such brisk and consequential ideological change. Sex was at the center of it all.”
December 2, 2013
Some interesting points in this guest post by Robert W. Endlich:
Sea level changes over relatively recent geologic and human history demonstrate that alarmist claims do not withstand scrutiny. Sea levels rose significantly after the last ice age, fell during the Little Ice Age, and have been rising again since the LIA ended around 1850. In fact, Roman Empire and Medieval port cities are now miles from the Mediterranean, because sea levels actually fell during the Little Ice Age.
Those rising oceans created new ports for Greek and Roman naval and trade vessels. But today many of those structures and ruins are inland, out in the open, making them popular tourist destinations. How did that happen? The Little Ice Age once again turned substantial ocean water into ice, lowering sea levels, and leaving former ports stranded. Not enough ice has melted since 1850 to make them harbors again.
The ancient city of Ephesus was an important port city and commercial hub from the Bronze Age to the Minoan Warm period, and continuing through the Roman Empire. An historic map shows its location right on the sea. But today, in modern-day Turkey, Ephesus is 5 km from the Mediterranean. Some historians erroneously claim “river silting” caused the change, but the real “culprit” was sea level change.
Ruins of the old Roman port Ostia Antica, are extremely well preserved – with intact frescoes, maps and plans. Maps from the time show the port located at the mouth of the Tiber River, where it emptied into the Tyrrhenian Sea. The Battle of Ostia in 849, depicted in a painting attributed to Raphael, shows sea level high enough for warships to assemble at the mouth of the Tiber. However, today this modern-day tourist destination is two miles up-river from the mouth of the Tiber. Sea level was significantly higher in the Roman Warm Period than today.
An important turning point in British history occurred in 1066, when William the Conqueror defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. Less well-known is that, when William landed, he occupied an old Roman fort now known as Pevensey Castle, which at the time was located on a small island in a harbor on England’s south coast. A draw bridge connected it to the mainland. Pevensey is infamous because unfortunate prisoners were thrown into this “Sea Gate,” so that their bodies would be washed away by the tide. Pevensey Castle is now a mile from the coast – further proof of a much higher sea level fewer than 1000 years ago.