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Posts Tagged ‘Cicero

“Let us now praise famous men [and women], and our fathers [and mothers] that begat us”*…



The classical scholar and tutor Miriam Griffin, who has died aged 82, played a crucial role in getting readers to appreciate the philosophical writing of the ancient Romans in their historical context, in particular that of Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and tutor to the emperor Nero.

Seneca’s works had generally been viewed either as the self-exculpation of a hypocrite, parading his aspirations to virtue while pocketing Nero’s largesse, or as an unreliable compilation of ideas from earlier (otherwise lost) Greek Stoics. Miriam’s intellectual biography, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics (1992), made a case for thinking about Seneca’s writing in its specifically Roman social, intellectual and political context, illuminating the particular dilemmas with which Stoic ideas enabled him to grapple…

The scholar who rescued the philosophical reputation of Seneca (and Cicero), as she illuminated the often torrid world of Roman imperial politics: Miriam Griffin.

* from the Wisdom of Sirach (44:1), famously appropriated by james Agee as the title for his celebrated collaboration with photographer Walker Evans


As we note that too often what’s past is present again, we might think of Seneca’s challenge as we recall that it was on this date in 1859 that Charles Blondin crossed Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Twice.

On the morning of June 30, 1859, about 25,000 thrill-seekers arrived by train and steamer and dispersed on the American or Canadian side of the falls, the latter said to have the better view. Both banks grew “fairly black” with swarms of spectators, among them statesmen, judges, clerics, generals, members of Congress, capitalists, artists, newspaper editors, professors, debutantes, salesmen and hucksters. Vendors hawked everything from lemonade to whiskey, and Colcord gave tours to the press, explaining the logistics of what the Great Blondin was about to attempt.

A light rope, not even an inch thick, had been attached to one end of his hempen cable so it could be conveyed across the Niagara River. On the American side the cable was wound around the trunk of an oak tree in White’s Pleasure Grounds, but securing it on the Canadian side presented a problem. Blondin’s assistants feared that the light rope wouldn’t bear the weight of the cable as it was drawn up the gorge for anchorage in Canada, but the rope dancer, to the delight of his audience, executed a daring solution.

After tying another rope around his waist, he rappelled 200 feet on the small rope, attached the second rope to the end of the cable, and then blithely climbed back to Canadian ground and secured the cable to a rock. To prevent swaying, guy ropes ran from the cable at 20-foot intervals to posts on both banks, creating the effect of a massive spider web. Blondin could do nothing, however, about the inevitable sag in its center, approximately 50 feet of cable to which it was impossible to fasten guy ropes. At that spot, in the middle of his crossing, he would be only 190 feet above the gorge. “There were hundreds of people examining the rope,” reported one witness, “and, with scarcely an exception, they all declared the inability of M. Blondin to perform the feat, the incapacity of the rope to sustain him, and that he deserved to be dashed to atoms for his desperate fool-hardiness.”

Shortly before 5 p.m., Blondin took his position on the American side, dressed in pink tights bedecked with spangles. The lowering sun made him appear as if clothed in light. He wore fine leather shoes with soft soles and brandished a balancing pole made of ash, 26 feet long and weighing nearly 50 pounds. Slowly, calmly, he started to walk. “His gait,” one man noted, “was very like the walk of some barnyard cock.” Children clung to their mothers’ legs; women peeked from behind their parasols. Several onlookers fainted. About a third of the way across, Blondin shocked the crowd by sitting down on his cable and calling for the Maid of the Mist, the famed tourist vessel, to anchor momentarily beneath him. He cast down a line and hauled up a bottle of wine. He drank and started off again, breaking into a run after he passed the sagging center. While the band played “Home, Sweet Home,” Blondin reached Canada. One man helped pull him ashore and exclaimed, “I wouldn’t look at anything like that again for a million dollars.”

After 20 minutes of rest Blondin began the journey to the other side, this time with a Daguerreotype camera strapped to his back. He advanced 200 feet, affixed his balancing pole to the cable, untied his load, adjusted it in front of him and snapped a likeness of the crowd along the American side. Then he hoisted the camera back into place and continued on his way. The entire walk from bank to bank to bank took 23 minutes, and Blondin immediately announced an encore performance to take place on the Fourth of July…  [source]


Blondin and his camera, as rendered in “Blondin: His Life and Performances.” [source]

Written by LW

June 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”*…


In July, Harvard scientists used a gene-editing technology first developed in 2013 to programme bacteria to do something astounding: play back an animation of a galloping horse.

The GIF animation was generated from an iconic image series created in 1878 by the motion-picture pioneer Eadweard Muybridge.

The breakthrough involved the scientists translating image pixels into genetic code, which they fed to the cells one frame at a time. The bacteria incorporated and reproduced the sequence in their DNA, demonstrating the possibility of using living cells as information recording and storage devices.

The tech world was, predictably, agog. But beyond the hype, scientists’ goal of applying the technique to human cells has deep philosophical implications.

A future in which our bodies are used as hard drives could, in effect, change the entire way we conceive of human history and perceive life.

Today, it is impossible to imagine a world without history: from the vast array of chronicles housed in the world’s libraries to the countless traces of the past accumulating in the data farms that support the digital cloud, history surrounds us.

But it wasn’t always this way. Starting around 4000 BCE, the rise and spread of city-states, from Mesopotamia to Ancient Greece, radically changed the relationship between humans and our physical world…

How history is– and may in the future be– “made,” and what that might mean: “Will whoever controls gene editing control historical memory?

* Winston Churchill


As we think in time, we might recall that it was on this date in 44 BCE that Cicero delivered the first of his oratorical attacks, Philippicae,  on Mark Antony. He went on to make 14 of them over the next several months. Modeled on Demosthenes‘ Philippic (Ad Atticus, 2.1.3, leveled by the Greek orator against Philip of Macedon), the Philippicae attacked Antony both for his leadership in Julius Caesar’s assassination and for other offenses against the realm.  While Cicero had been sympathetic with the conspirators who acted on the Ides of March, he favored Julius’ adopted son and heir, Octavian as the next leader.

While Octavian ultimately prevailed, Cicero’s effort to force out Antony failed.  Octavian, Antony, and Lepidus formed a Triumvirate to rule; and Cicero was “proscribed”– made an enemy of the state.  He fled, but was captured and ultimately beheaded. Antony requested that the hands that wrote the Philippics also be removed; his head and hands were publicly displayed in the Roman Forum to discourage any who would oppose the new Triumvirate.




Written by LW

September 2, 2017 at 8:28 am

“The soul never thinks without a mental picture”*…


While popularised by Guillaume Apollinaire’s wonderful Calligrammes from 1918, the art of making images through the novel arrangement of words upon the page can be traced back many centuries. Some of the earliest examples of these “calligrams” are to be found in a marvellous 9th-century manuscript known as the Aratea.

Each page of the Aratea has a poem on the bottom half — written by the 3rd-century BC Greek poet Aratus and translated into Latin by a young Cicero — describing an astronomical constellation. This constellation is then beautifully drawn above the poetry; the drawings however are themselves made up of words taken from HyginusAstronomica. The passages used to form the images describe the constellation which they create on the page, and in this way they become tied to one another: neither the words or images would make full sense without the other there to complete the scene. Also, note the red dots on each picture: these show where the stars appear in the sky.

This remarkable object brings together nearly 2000 years of cultural history. Making use of two Roman texts on astronomy written in the 1st century BC, the manuscript was created in Northern France in about 820. It then found its way into the library of the Harley family in England, before being sold to the nation in 1752 under the same Act of Parliament which created the British Museum.

More– and larger– examples of this extraordinary art at “Aratea: Making Pictures with Words in the 9th Century.”

* Aristotle


As we “just doodle it,” we might send speculative birthday greetings to Roger Joseph Zelazny; he was born on this date in 1937.  While (justly) remembered as an important science fiction author— he won the Hugo Award six times; the Nebula, three– he was also an accomplished poet.



Written by LW

May 13, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The claim that lies beneath the notion of intellectual property is similar or identical to the one that underpins notions of privacy… You can’t trash privacy and hope to retain a sense of respect for IP”*…


email readers click here for video

From Peter Sunde (co-founder of Pirate Bay and leader of Finland’s Pirate Party), “Kopimashin“:

The Kopimashin creates an endless amount of copies of a specific audio track (gnarls barkley’s crazy). The audio track is copied to /dev/null, a unix data pipe for avoiding permanent storage. The Kopimashins lcd display consists of three rows of information, the serial number of the mashin, amount of copies created and the dollar value it represents in losses for the record labels (Downtown Records / Warner Music), currently represented by USD1,25 per copied piece.

The goal of the kopimashin is to make the audio track the most copied in the world and while doing so bankrupting the record industry.

This project is part of the psk value series.

86mm x 54mm x 19mm. Series of 13.
raspberry pi, lcd display, python code

* Nick Harkaway, The Blind Giant


As we tickle the torrents, we might send exquisitely-phrased birthday greetings to Marcus Tullius Cicero; he was born on this date in 106 BCE.  A  Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist, Cicero was one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists.

He was executed in 43 BCE (his head and hands were amputated) for his Philippics, a series of speeches attacking Mark Antony and calling for a restoration of the Republic.  Sic semper prōtestor.

https://i2.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8478/8243527748_ab6d5f6fa9_o.jpg source

Written by LW

January 3, 2016 at 1:01 am

“In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality”*…

https://i0.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8478/8242458991_b4eebedba0_o.gif “Enough of symbolism and these escapist themes of purity and innocence.”    8½ (1963)

From If We Don’t, Remember Me, “a gallery of living movie stills”…

https://i2.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8487/8243529928_b21532dff4_o.gif “I just hate all these extroverted, obnoxious, pseudo-bohemian losers.”     Ghost World (2001)

* Alfred Stieglitz


As we find our inner stillness, we might recall that it was on this date in 43 BCE that Rome’s greatest orator, Marcus Tullius Cicero was executed (his head and hands were amputated) for his Philippics, a series of speeches attacking Mark Antony and calling for a restoration of the Republic.  Sic semper prōtestor.

https://i2.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8478/8243527748_ab6d5f6fa9_o.jpg source

Written by LW

December 7, 2012 at 1:01 am

Brevity is the soul of wit…


Fifteen years ago, educator and humorist Eric Schulman wrote a “The History of the Universe in 200 Words or Less.”  It first appeared in the January/February 1997 issue of Annals of Improbable Research; since then, it has been translated into more than thirty languages:

Quantum fluctuation. Inflation. Expansion. Strong nuclear interaction. Particle-antiparticle annihilation. Deuterium and helium production. Density perturbations. Recombination. Blackbody radiation. Local contraction. Cluster formation. Reionization? Violent relaxation. Virialization. Biased galaxy formation? Turbulent fragmentation. Contraction. Ionization. Compression. Opaque hydrogen. Massive star formation. Deuterium ignition. Hydrogen fusion. Hydrogen depletion. Core contraction. Envelope expansion. Helium fusion. Carbon, oxygen, and silicon fusion. Iron production. Implosion. Supernova explosion. Metals injection. Star formation. Supernova explosions. Star formation. Condensation. Planetesimal accretion. Planetary differentiation. Crust solidification. Volatile gas expulsion. Water condensation. Water dissociation. Ozone production. Ultraviolet absorption. Photosynthetic unicellular organisms. Oxidation. Mutation. Natural selection and evolution. Respiration. Cell differentiation. Sexual reproduction. Fossilization. Land exploration. Dinosaur extinction. Mammal expansion. Glaciation. Homo sapiens manifestation. Animal domestication. Food surplus production. Civilization! Innovation. Exploration. Religion. Warring nations. Empire creation and destruction. Exploration. Colonization. Taxation without representation. Revolution. Constitution. Election. Expansion. Industrialization. Rebellion. Emancipation Proclamation. Invention. Mass production. Urbanization. Immigration. World conflagration. League of Nations. Suffrage extension. Depression. World conflagration. Fission explosions. United Nations. Space exploration. Assassinations. Lunar excursions. Resignation. Computerization. World Trade Organization. Terrorism. Internet expansion. Reunification. Dissolution. World-Wide Web creation. Composition. Extrapolation?

Shulman expanded the exercise into the short book pictured above, A Briefer History of Time (free download here)…  then contracted it again into a sixty-second video slideshow (on the NSF site, here).

Your correspondent has no doubt that readers would, with the benefit of the decade-and-a-half that has passed, revise the account…  but what a place to start!  And what a powerful demonstration of Cicero’s maxim (cribbed by Polonius/Shakespeare, as in the title of this post): “brevity is a great charm of eloquence”…


As we rally those red pencils, we might recall that it was on this date in 1934 that the first “All-American Soap Box Derby” was run in Dayton, Ohio.  (It moved to Akron the following year…)



A Connecticut Yankee in King Agamemnon’s Court?…

Long-time (pre-blog) readers will remember the “Antikythera mechanism”…  In 1900, divers found the wreck of a Roman vessel off the Greek island of Antikythera.  Among the other treasures remanded to the Greek government was an unassuming corroded lump.  Some time later, the lump fell apart, revealing a damaged machine of unknown purpose, with some large gears and many smaller cogs, plus a few engraved words in Greek.  At last writing, it appeared to be some sort of astronomical time-keeping device…

Recent studies, using advanced imaging techniques have unlocked the story of the device– and what a story it is:  the rough equivalent of finding a fully-functional Ford buried in a medieval ruin.  As io9 reports:

The findings, published in Nature, are probably best described as “mind blowing.” Devices with this level of complexity were not seen again for almost 1,500 years, and the Antikythera mechanism’s compactness actually bests the later designs. Probably built around 150 B.C., the Antikythera mechanism can perform a number of functions just by turning a crank on the side.

Using nothing but an ingenious system of gears, the mechanism could be used to predict the month, day and hour of an eclipse, and even accounted for leap years. It could also predict the positions of the sun and moon against the zodiac, and has a gear train that turns a black and white stone to show the moon’s phase on a given date. It is possible that it could also show the astronomical positions of the planets known to the ancients: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

The Antikythera mechanism wasn’t just a scientific tool – it also had a social purpose. The Greeks held major athletic competitions (such as the Olympics) every two or four years. A small dial within the Metonic dial showed the dates of these important events.

The true genius of the mechanism goes beyond even the complex calculations and craftsmanship of a mechanical calendar. For example, the ancients didn’t know that the moon has an elliptical orbit, so they didn’t know why it sometimes slowed or sped up as it moved through the zodiac. The mechanism’s creator used epicyclic gears, also known as planetary gears, with a “pin-and-slot” mechanism that mimicked this apparent shifting in the moon’s movement. This use of epicyclic gears is far ahead of what anyone suspected ancient technology was capable of. Scientific American has a two-part video about the mechanism and the imaging techniques used in the research.

It’s still unclear who built the extraordinary device.  Cicero’s writings link it to Archimedes, though he was dead by the time that this specimen was built.  Researchers theorize that the Antikythera mechanism may be based on an Archimedian design, and might have been built by a workshop carrying on his technological tradition.

But if the design was “industrialized” in that way, why has there never been another one found like it?  Perhaps it’s the consequence of the turmoil of the period.  Indeed, the upheavals of war and natural disasters over 2,000 years have probably caused us to lose many more works and wonders that we will simply have to keep trying to find.

Though this is April Fool’s Day, the Antikythera mechanism is absolutely for real.  More information here.

As we recalibrate our assumptions about antiquity, we might recall that it was on this date in 1891 that the William Wrigley Jr. Company was founded.  Originally focused and making and selling soap and baking powder, Wrigley included chewing gum with each can of baking powder.  As the gum’s popularity eclipsed that of the powder, the company shifted its focus; today it sells Juicy Fruit, Doublemint, and other sticky treats in over 180 countries (one of which is not Singapore, where the import and sale of any chewing gum that does not have explicit therapeutic purpose has been banned since 2004).


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