Published on 25 Jul 2015
Belisarius has only just taken Neapolis when the king of the Ostrogoths is overthrown. The new king, Vitiges, withdraws from Rome entirely to consolidate his power, allowing Belisarius to take Rome without a fight. But after Vitiges gathers his troops, he marches to retake Rome. He springs a surprise attack on Belisarius at the Salarian Bridge, which the Roman general barely escapes. Now he must survive in a city under siege, invening ship mills to continue producing the grain that feeds the city and training the civilians as soldiers. He holds off the Ostrogoths until reinforcements from Justinian arrive. After an indecisive battle, he agrees to a truce with Vitiges, which gives him time to position his troops. When the Ostrogoths break the truce, Belisarius is ready for them and crushes their force to drive them finally out of Rome.
September 1, 2015
August 25, 2015
Published on 18 Jul 2015
The conquest of Carthage and the North African provinces was just the beginning for Justinian’s ambition. He must have Rome. But like Carthage, he must find a reason to attack the Ostrogoths who now hold it. And like Carthage, this reason is given to him when the Ostrogothic Queen Amalsuntha, his ally, is murdered. But unlike Carthage, Belisarius now has only 7500 men, barely half of what he had for North Africa. He sails out anyway, making his first stop at the island of Sicily. All the cities except Panormus surrender to him, and Panormus he takes quickly by seizing their harbor with his ships. Meanwhile, Justinian has bribed the Franks to invade Italy from the north while another his generals marches from the east. But just when the Ostrogothic king is on the verge of surrender, disaster strikes. The other Byzantine general dies, and Belisarius is forced to return to Carthage to quell a revolt. The conquest loses its momentum and the Ostrogothic king imprisons the Roman ambassador. Justinian will not be stopped, and orders Belisarius to return to Italy once North Africa is secure. Alone, Belisarius marches up the coast of Italy until he meets resistance at Neapolis. With his forces too thinned to mount a siege, he engineers a sneak attack by invading through the pipe of a dried, broken aqueduct. Neapolis falls and the way now lies open to Rome.
June 23, 2015
Wandering a bit off his usual (Byzantine empire) era, Richard Blake looks at how Hollywood has portrayed Rome in film:
My purpose in this article is to describe and compare and judge ten films set in the Roman Empire. I will apply two criteria. The first, and most obvious, is how these films stand as works of art in their own right — narrative structure, acting, general production values and so forth. The second, and for me almost equally important, is how well they show that the Ancients lived in a moral universe fundamentally different from our own.
Now, for the avoidance of doubt, I will say at once that I have no time for any of the neo-Marxist claims about Antiquity. Karl Polanyi and Moses Finlay were wrong in their belief that the laws of supply and demand have only operated since the eighteenth century. Michel Foucault was more than usually wrong when he denied that the Ancients had any notion of the individual. In all times and places, human nature is the same. All people are motivated by some combination of sex, money, status, power and the fear of death. The laws of Economics apply just as well in Ancient Rome as they do in Modern England.
What I do mean, however, is that these basic motivations showed themselves in often radically different ways. The Ancients were not Christians. They were not universalists. They had no concept of human equality. The establishment of chattel slavery among them normalised attitudes and behaviour that would have been thought outrageous in Ancien Régime Europe, and that every religious denomination would have been mobilised to denounce in the ante bellum American South.
The Ancients lacked technologies and scientific and moral concepts that we have taken for granted for five or six or even eight centuries. A modern secularist has more in common with a twelfth century theologian than with a Greek rationalist. He probably has more in common with a sixth century Bishop than with a pagan philosopher.
One of the main, though seldom noticed, differences between virtually everyone in the past and us is that they lived under the continual shadow of death. I have reached the age of fifty five. I might fall dead tomorrow, but the insurance tables tell me I have a long way yet to go before I need to start thinking hard about the inevitable end of things. I put off begetting children until I was in my forties. I only took up a serious study of the piano last year. Catullus was dead at thirty, Horace and Vergil in their fifties. Constantine the Great was an old and dying man when he was younger than I am now. Shorter time horizons must have an effect on almost every approach to life.
Any fictional recreation must show these differences, and show them without vexing readers or viewers with endless asides. I try to show them in my series of thrillers set in seventh century Byzantium. Without more elaboration, let me see how well they are shown in the ten films I have selected.
June 21, 2015
At National Review the editors’ response to the Pope’s encyclical on climate change is not warm:
There is an undeniable majesty to the papacy, one that is politically useful to the Left from time to time. The same Western liberals who abominate the Catholic Church as an atavistic relic of more superstitious times, who regard its teachings on abortion and contraception as inhumane and its teachings on sexuality as a hate crime today are celebrating Pope Francis’s global-warming encyclical, Laudato Si’, as a moral mandate for their cause. So much for that seamless garment.
It may be that the carbon tax, like Paris, is worth a Mass.
The main argument of the encyclical will be no surprise to those familiar with Pope Francis’s characteristic line of thought, which combines an admirable and proper concern for the condition of the world’s poor with a crude and backward understanding of economics and politics both. Any number of straw men go up in flames in this rhetorical auto-da-fé, as the pope frames his concern in tendentious economic terms: “By itself, the market cannot guarantee integral human development and social inclusion.” We are familiar with no free-market thinker, even the most extreme, who believes that “by itself, the market can guarantee integral human development.” There are any number of other players in social life — the family, civil society, the large and durable institution of which the pope is the chief executive — that contribute to human flourishing. The pope is here taking a side in a conflict that, so far as we can tell, does not exist.
May 27, 2015
… 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.
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.