Quotulatiousness

October 11, 2017

Reading Gibbon’s History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

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

In the latest Libertarian Enterprise, Richard Blake introduces one of the greatest English historians and explains why his work is still well worth reading:

Edward Gibbon (1737-94) was born into an old and moderately wealthy family that had its origins in Kent. Sickly as a child, he was educated at home, and sent while still a boy to Oxford. There, an illegal conversion to Roman Catholicism ruined his prospects of a career in the professions or the City. His father sent him off to Lausanne to be reconverted to the Protestant Faith. He came back an atheist and with the beginnings of what would become a stock of immense erudition. He served part of the Seven Years War in the Hampshire Militia. He sat in the House of Commons through much of the American War. He made no speeches, and invariably supported the Government. He moved for a while in polite society – though his increasing obesity, and the rupture that caused his scrotum to swell to the size of a football, made him an object of mild ridicule. Eventually, he withdrew again to Switzerland, where obesity and his hydrocele were joined by heavy drinking. Scared by the French Revolution, he came back to England in 1794, where he died of blood-poisoning after an operation to drain his scrotum.

When not eating and drinking, and putting on fine clothes, and talking about himself, he found time to become the greatest historian of his age, the greatest historian who ever wrote in English, one of the greatest of all English writers, and perhaps the only modern historian to rank with Herodotus and Thucydides and Tacitus. The first volume of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire astonished everyone who knew him. The whole was received as an undisputed classic. The work has never been out of print during the past quarter-millennium. It remains, despite the increase in the number of our sources and our better understanding of them, the best – indeed, the essential – introduction to the history of the Roman Empire between about the death of Marcus Aurelius and the death of Justinian.

I’ve read a few abridged versions of Gibbon’s great work, and I intend to start on the unexpurgated version once I’ve finished the New Cambridge Modern History (I have all in hand except Volume XII, the Companion Volume). This is why Blake considers Gibbon to be such an important and still-relevant writer:

1. Greatness as a Writer and a Liberal

I cannot understand the belief, generally shared these past two centuries, that the golden age of English literature lay in the century before the Civil War. I accept the Prayer Book and the English Bible as works of genius that will be appreciated so long as our language survives. I admire the Essays of Francis Bacon and one or two lyrics. But I do not at all regard Shakespeare as a great writer. His plays are ill-organised, his style barbarous and tiresome. I fail to understand how pieces like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, with their long, ranting monologues, can be thought equal to the greatest products of the Athenian theatre. I grant that Julius Caesar is a fine play – but only because Shakespeare stayed close to his ancient sources for the plot, and wrote in an uncharacteristically plain style. Perhaps I am undeveloped in some critical faculty; and I know that people whose judgements I trust have thought better of him. But I cannot see Shakespeare as a great writer or his age as the greatest in our literature. […]

2. His Scholarship

As said, this was not my first meeting with Gibbon. I was twelve when I found him in the abridgement by D.M. Low. As an undergraduate, I made use of him in the J.B. Bury edition up till the reign of Heraclius and the Arab conquests. In my middle twenties, I went through him again in a desultory manner, skipping chapters that did not interest me. But it was only as I approached thirty that I read him in the full and proper order, from the military resources of the Antonines to the revival of Rome under the Renaissance Popes. It is only by reading him in the whole, and by paying equal attention to text and footnotes, that he can be appreciated as a supreme historian. […]

3. His Fairness as an Historian

Even where he can be criticised for letting his prejudices cloud his judgement, Gibbon remains ultimately fair. He dislikes Christianity, and is convinced that it contributed to the decline of the Empire. His fifteenth and sixteenth chapters are one long sneer at the rise and progress of the Christian Faith. They excited a long and bitter controversy. There was talk for a while of a prosecution for blasphemy. But this was only talk. A man of Gibbon’s place in the social order was not to be taken into court like some hack writer with no connections.

October 8, 2017

QotD: Excess officers

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Military, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Excess? The German Army of WW II somehow managed to fight off for six years – that, or beat the ever loving crap out of – nearly the whole world with under three percent commissioned officers. Roman legions, perhaps the most formidable fighting machines of human history, got by with six to eight. Six to eight percent? Not on your life; six to eight, period, six military tribunes, a legate, and – arguably – the praefectus castrorum, who was more in the line of a late entry officer, as per the British system. Think about that one, one officer per every eight hundred men. And it was plenty.

What have we got? As of 2013 we had over eleven percent commissioned in the Marine Corps, seventeen percent in the Navy, almost nineteen percent in the Army, and nearly twenty percent of strength being commissioned officers in the Air Force.

The problems with having this many officers are multifold. I can only cover some of the more important ones.

This high a percentage of officers almost certainly means that there are people running around with bars and leaves and even eagles and perhaps stars who probably should have been non-coms. They may have the education and intelligence to be officers, but as a matter of attitude, outlooks, values, and approaches to things, they’d have been happier if they’d been wearing multiple stripes. I used to see a lot of this among lieutenants who decided to go Special Forces. In almost every case I have seen, these were guys who really wanted to be squad leaders which, in SF, they could be. The effect of commissioning so high a percentage of people has tended to be having an NCO corps weaker than it should have been and weaker than it needs to be. This tends to exacerbate another problem, officers will tend to micromanage if they’re allowed to. They will be allowed to, if there is a common perception that the NCO corps needs to be micromanaged, which, because some numbers actually do need to be micromanaged, casts them all in a questionable light in some circles. There’s another reason, one having little or nothing whatsoever to do with NCOs, for that kind of micro-management.

Tom Kratman, “There Are No Bad Regiments…”, Everyjoe.com, 2015-10-12.

September 18, 2017

QotD: …of (some of) the people, by (some of) the people…

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

… it IS possible to have a Res Publica – by the people – government, but only as long as it is by the ‘deserving’ few. The worst excesses of these proto-democracies can be undercut by an extreme limiting of the franchise – preferably to an effective oligarchy of voters narrow enough to be more self-interested in keeping control against the uneducated and undisciplined rule of the genuine majority, but this is hard to achieve. The Serene Republic of Venice achieved it for almost a thousand years by limiting the franchise to the great and the good families, and the early United States managed to hold it together for about 90 years by limiting it by racial profiling as well as property franchise… but note that both were, like all the Greek and Roman republics, slave based societies: so their claims to be genuine democracies are hopelessly confused to anyone with a consistent or comprehensible ideological viewpoint. In their case ‘the people’ simply meant, the deserving few that we will allow to vote.

This limiting of the franchise to the deserving actually continues in very successful – one could even say the ONLY successful – republics of the modern world. The ancient Greek and Roman franchises were honestly based on ‘those who contribute get a say’. Contribution a that time being buying the expensive armour yourself, putting in the training time, and taking the risk in the front lines of battle: to prove you put the good of the state and your fellow citizens above your own interests. (Though it is notable that their Republics almost instantly graduated to imperialistic and aggressive expansion, which pretty quickly made republican government unworkable, and inevitably led to such champions of democracy as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.)

The only long term successful modern Republic – Switzerland – still has compulsory military service; as does Israel, the only successful democracy ever established in the Middle East.

The other ways to limit the franchise – Like the first (1770’s), second (1860’s) and third (1880’s) American attempts of a franchise limited by race/property; or the first (1790’s), second (1820’s) or third (1860’s) French attempts at a property based franchise (which often saw as few as 20% of people with a vote): were actually much less successful than the equivalent slow Westminster style expansions of the franchise under a developing constitutional monarchy. (No Western Westminster system state has ever had a coup, let alone a civil war.) France has had 5 republics, 3 monarchies and 2 emperors in less than 200 years; and the United States has similarly run through several major reformations of their race/property franchise system since their – 600,000 dead – little debate about their system.

(The American comparison with France is amusing. The first American republic was smashed by the Confederate Defection; the second was an anti-democratic imposition on the South – with no voting rights for Confederate ‘activists’ – after the Confederacy War of Independence was crushed; the third ‘republic’ was when the white southerners were re-enfranchised and promptly disenfranchised the blacks who had been the only voters in the south for the previous 20 years – and whose elected black representatives had not been allowed in the front door or the dining rooms of Congress; the fourth republic… well you get the idea. The US system, with all its defections, jumps and retreats, simply can’t be called a continuously expanding development the way Westminster systems are.)

Nigel Davies, “The ‘Arab Spring’, 1848, and the 30 Years War/s”, Rethinking History, 2015-09-19.

September 10, 2017

In search of silphium, the lost herb of the Roman empire

Filed under: Africa, Environment, History, Middle East — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Zaria Gorvett recounts the story of a Roman-era herb that was at one point literally worth its weight in gold:

Long ago, in the ancient city of Cyrene, there was a herb called silphium. It didn’t look like much – with stout roots, stumpy leaves and bunches of small yellow flowers – but it oozed with an odiferous sap that was so delicious and useful, the plant was eventually worth its weight in gold.

To list its uses would be an endless task. Its crunchable stalks were roasted, sauteed or boiled and eaten as a vegetable. Its roots were eaten fresh, dipped in vinegar. It was an excellent preservative for lentils and when it was fed to sheep, their flesh became delectably tender.

Perfume was coaxed from its delicate blooms, while its sap was dried and grated liberally over dishes from brains to braised flamingo. Known as “laser”, the condiment was as fundamental to Roman haute cuisine as eating your food horizontally in a toga.

[…]

A coin of Cyrene depicting the stalk of a Silphium plant. (Source: 1889 edition of Principal Coins of the Ancients, plate 35, via Wikimedia)

Indeed, the Romans loved it so much, they referenced their darling herb in poems and songs, and wrote it into great works of literature. For centuries, local kings held a monopoly on the plant, which made the city of Cyrene, at modern Shahhat, Libya, the richest in Africa. Before they gave it away to the Romans, the Greek inhabitants even put it on their money. Julius Caesar went so far as to store a cache (1,500lbs or 680kg) in the official treasury.

But today, silphium has vanished – possibly just from the region, possibly from our planet altogether. Pliny wrote that within his lifetime, only a single stalk was discovered. It was plucked and sent to the emperor Nero as a curiosity sometime around 54-68AD.
With just a handful of stylised images and the accounts of ancient naturalists to go on, the true identity of the Romans’ favourite herb is a mystery. Some think it was driven to extinction, others that it’s still hiding in plain sight as a Mediterranean weed. How did this happen? And could we bring it back?

September 7, 2017

Roman Roads of Britain

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

Last month, Colin Marshall shared this post on Open Culture:

[Click to embiggen]

Though some of Britain’s Roman Roads have become modern motorways, most no longer exist in any form but those bits and pieces history buffs like to spot. This makes it difficult to get a sense of how they all ran and where — or at least it did until Sasha Trubetskoy made a Roman Roads of Britain Network Map in the graphic-design style of the subway maps you’ll find in London or any other major city today. Trubetskoy, an undergraduate statistics major at the University of Chicago, first found cartographical fame a few months ago with his “subway map” of roads across the entire Roman Empire circa 125 AD.

“Popular request,” he writes, demanded a Britain-specific follow up, a project he describes as “far more complicated than I had initially anticipated.” The challenges included not just the sheer number of Roman Roads in Britain but a lack of clarity about their exact location and extents. As in his previous map, Trubetskoy admits, “I had to do some simplifying and make some tough choices on which cities to include.” While this closer-up view demanded a more geographical faithfulness, he nevertheless “had to get rather creative with the historical evidence” in places, to the point of using such “not exactly Latin-sounding” names as “Watling Street” and “Ermin Way.”

August 15, 2017

QotD: Platonism versus Epicureanism

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

It is all this that made Epicurus and his philosophy so scandalous in the ancient world and beyond. Plato never did get to create his perfect society. But his followers did manage to establish variants of Platonism as the dominant philosophy of later antiquity. And all the other main schools of philosophy were agreed that the world should be ruled by intellectuals. These should tell the civil authorities how to govern. They should provide the moral and spiritual justification for the rule of absolute and unaccountable systems of government — systems of which the Roman imperial system was only the most developed. They should have positions of honour within these systems.

Epicureanism was a standing challenge to these pretensions. We have no precise evidence for the spread of Epicureanism in the ancient world. But it does seem to have spread very widely. Why else should Cicero, Plutarch and many of the Christian Fathers have given so much effort to sustained attacks on it? Why else, in spite of his emphatic remarks on the nature of happiness, was Epicurus, even in his own lifetime, subjected to the most outrageous accusations?

We have one statement from Cicero, that Epicureanism in his own day was one of the dominant schools of philosophy in Italy. So far, he says, Greek philosophy had been available only in the original language. But writers such as Amafinius had translated several Epicurean works — on the publishing of whose writings the people were moved, and enlisted themselves chiefly under this sect, either because the doctrine was more easily understood, or because they were invited thereto by the pleasing thoughts of amusement, or that, because there was nothing better, they laid hold of what was offered them.

There is no doubt that it influenced the classical literature of Rome. Of course, there is the great poem by Lucretius. But there is also Catullus and Horace and even Virgil. Without citing them, their works are imbued with an Epicurean outlook on life, either directly from Epicurus or indirectly from Lucretius.

Another indication of popularity is that once converted to Epicureanism, people hardly ever switched to another philosophy. The philosopher Arcesilaus testifies to this fact even as he tries to explain it:

    You can turn a man into a eunuch, but you can’t turn a eunuch into a man.

Then there is the curious testimony of the Jews. During the three centuries around the birth of Christ, the main everyday language of many Jewish communities was Greek. The Gospels and Letters of Saint Paul were all directed at mainly Jewish audiences and are in Greek. One of the most important philosophers of the age, Philo of Alexandria, was a Jew. Many Jews took on Greek ways. Many, no doubt, stopped being Jews and made themselves into Greeks. The condemnation of these Hellenised Jews is Apikorsim, which may easily be taken as a Semitic version of Epicurean. The term survives in Jewish theological writing. According to one Internet source, Apikorsim are what Chasidim refer to as Jewish Goyim, or secular Jews. They seem to be the worst opposition for Hasidic Jewry.

A term of abuse so loaded with contempt is unlikely to have been taken from the doctrines of an insignificant philosophical tradition among ordinary people of the age. It is reasonable to suppose that many lapsed Jews became Epicureans. If so, Epicureanism must already have had large numbers of adherents among at least the semi-educated classes.

Sean Gabb, “Epicurus: Father of the Enlightenment”, speaking to the 6/20 Club in London, 2007-09-06.

July 29, 2017

Latin Declensions Made Easy

Filed under: Education, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Published on 27 Jul 2017

An explanation of what the Latin Declensions are and how they work. This video is aimed at English-speaking students with no prior knowledge of English grammar. It is deliberately slow and repetitive, and it avoids any graphics or other adornments that may distract attention from the subject matter.

If you like this video, please check out my teaching website: http://www.classicstuition.co.uk/

July 25, 2017

QotD: The republican form of government

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

… it IS possible to have a Res Publica – by the people – government, but only as long as it is by the ‘deserving’ few. The worst excesses of these proto-democracies can be undercut by an extreme limiting of the franchise – preferably to an effective oligarchy of voters narrow enough to be more self-interested in keeping control against the uneducated and undisciplined rule of the genuine majority, but this is hard to achieve. The Serene Republic of Venice achieved it for almost a thousand years by limiting the franchise to the great and the good families, and the early United States managed to hold it together for about 90 years by limiting it by racial profiling as well as property franchise… but note that both were, like all the Greek and Roman republics, slave based societies: so their claims to be genuine democracies are hopelessly confused to anyone with a consistent or comprehensible ideological viewpoint. In their case ‘the people’ simply meant, the deserving few that we will allow to vote.

This limiting of the franchise to the deserving actually continues in very successful – one could even say the ONLY successful – republics of the modern world. The ancient Greek and Roman franchises were honestly based on ‘those who contribute get a say’. Contribution at that time being buying the expensive armour yourself, putting in the training time, and taking the risk in the front lines of battle: to prove you put the good of the state and your fellow citizens above your own interests. (Though it is notable that their Republics almost instantly graduated to imperialistic and aggressive expansion, which pretty quickly made republican government unworkable, and inevitably led to such champions of democracy as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.)

The only long term successful modern Republic – Switzerland – still has compulsory military service; as does Israel, the only successful democracy ever established in the Middle East.

The other ways to limit the franchise – Like the first (1770’s), second (1860’s) and third (1880’s) American attempts of a franchise limited by race/property; or the first (1790’s), second (1820’s) or third (1860’s) French attempts at a property-based franchise (which often saw as few as 20% of people with a vote): were actually much less successful than the equivalent slow Westminster-style expansions of the franchise under a developing constitutional monarchy. (No Western Westminster system state has ever had a coup, let alone a civil war.) France has had 5 republics, 3 monarchies and 2 emperors in less than 200 years; and the United States has similarly run through several major reformations of their race/property franchise system since their – 600,000 dead – little debate about their system.

(The American comparison with France is amusing. The first American republic was smashed by the Confederate Defection; the second was an anti-democratic imposition on the South – with no voting rights for Confederate ‘activists’ – after the Confederacy War of Independence was crushed; the third ‘republic’ was when the white southerners were re-enfranchised and promptly disenfranchised the blacks who had been the only voters in the south for the previous 20 years – and whose elected black representatives had not been allowed in the front door or the dining rooms of Congress; the fourth republic… well you get the idea. The US system, with all its defections, jumps and retreats, simply can’t be called a continuously expanding development the way Westminster systems are.)

Nigel Davies, “The ‘Arab Spring’, 1848, and the 30 Years War/s…”, rethinking history, 2015-09-19.

July 3, 2017

Meet the Romans with Mary Beard 3/3 – HD

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

Published on 16 May 2013

1. All Roads Lead to Rome
2. Street life
3. Behind Closed Doors

July 1, 2017

Meet the Romans with Mary Beard 2/3 – HD

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

Published on 16 May 2013

1. All Roads Lead to Rome
2. Street life
3. Behind Closed Doors

June 30, 2017

Meet the Romans with Mary Beard 1/3 – HD

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

Published on 16 May 2013

June 26, 2017

What Latin Sounded Like – and how we know

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

Published on 12 Aug 2016

Classical Latin went extinct, yet we still know how to pronounce it. Proof!

Take a trip with me back to Catholic school, then back even further to old Rome. We’ll see what Latin pronunciation did – and did NOT – sound like in the mouths of the Romans. Thanks to ancient authors and modern Romance languages, we’ll even glimpse a range of evidence for the speech of Caesar and pauper alike!

SERMO VULGARIS ALL DAY LONG, am I right? 😉

June 11, 2017

His Year(s) – Pompey (56 to 52 B.C.E.)

Filed under: Europe, History — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Published on 4 Apr 2017

June 4, 2017

Emperor Claudius

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

Victor Davis Hanson outlines the career of the fourth Roman Emperor and makes an unusual comparison:

The Roman Emperor Claudius, who reigned from 41 to 54 AD, was never supposed to be emperor. He came to office at age 50, an old man in Roman times. Claudius succeeded the charismatic, youthful heartthrob Caligula — son of the beloved Germanicus and the “little boot” who turned out to be a narcissist monster before being assassinated in office.

Claudius was an unusual emperor, the first to be born outside Italy, in Roman Gaul. Under the Augustan Principate, new Caesars — who claimed direct lineage from the “divine” Augustus — were usually rubber-stamped by the toadyish Senate. However, the outsider Claudius (who had no political training and was prevented by his uncle Tiberius from entering the cursus honorum), was brought into power by the Roman Praetorian Guard, who wanted a change from the status quo apparat of the Augustan dynasty.

The Roman aristocracy — most claiming some sort of descent from Julius Caesar and his grandnephew Octavian (Caesar Augustus) — had long written Claudius off as a hopeless dolt. Claudius limped, the result of a childhood disease or genetic impairment. His mother Antonia, ashamed of his habits and appearance, called the youthful Claudius “a monster of man.” He was likely almost deaf and purportedly stuttered.

That lifelong disparagement of his appearance and mannerisms probably saved Claudius’s life in the dynastic struggles during the last years of the Emperor Augustus and the subsequent reigns of the emperors Tiberius and Caligula.

The stereotyped impression of Claudius was that of a simpleton not to be taken seriously — and so no one did. Claudius himself claimed that he feigned acting differently in part so that he would not be targeted by enemies before he assumed power, and to unnerve them afterwards.

Contemporary critics laughed at his apparent lack of eloquence and rhetorical mastery, leading some scholars to conjecture that he may have suffered from Tourette syndrome or a form of autism. The court biographer Suetonius wrote that Claudius “was now careful and shrewd, sometimes hasty and inconsiderate, occasionally silly and like a crazy man.”

Sound familiar?

May 27, 2017

Currently reading

Filed under: Books, History, Personal — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

You could say that I don’t follow a particularly chronological pattern to my reading list.

Pax Romana, Adrian Goldsworthy
AD69: Emperors, Armies & Anarchy, Nic Fields
All Propaganda is Lies: 1941-1942, George Orwell
The New Cambridge Modern History: II The Reformation 1520-1559 (no longer a library book despite the spine markings)

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