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Posts Tagged ‘Roman Empire

“The Roman era’s declension was a time in which bizarreness masqueraded as creativity”*…


The Roman Empire “shrank” from being ruled from several different cities in the fifth century, among them Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome itself, to just Constantinople. Daisy Dunn reviews Paul Stephenson‘s new history of that period, The New Rome— a comprehensive explanation of the Eastern Empire’s transformation into Byzantium.

Drawing on scientific data, Stephenson demonstrates that the challenges faced by the last Roman emperors weren’t simply martial, economic, and theological; they also faced natural disasters, the degradation of the human environment, and pathogens previously unknown to the empire’s densely populated, unsanitary cities. In the end, despite the Plague of Justinian, regular “barbarian” invasions, a war with Persia, and the rise of Islam, the empire endured as a political entity (albeit “post-Roman”). But Greco-Roman civilization, a world of interconnected cities that had shared a common material culture for a millennium, did not…

Attempts to answer the time-old question of why Rome fell have been characterised in recent years by a new awareness of the role that factors including pollution and climate change played. Anyone who has shrugged at the suggestion that the weather had anything to do with the demise of such a mighty empire will, I think, come away from this book persuaded that climate change and natural disasters provide an important part of the answer. Far from being moralistic and attempting to apply the examples of the past as a warning, Stephenson lays down the evidence unemotionally, and lets it speak for itself.

The causes of change were not purely driven by human behaviour, though smelting and, even more so, heavy warfare in the era of invading Huns and Vandals, had a significant environmental impact. Pollen records reveal a dramatic decline in the growing of cereals in Greece by about 600AD and, from the seventh century, pollination was happening predominantly through nature rather than agriculture.

The root cause of this was the destruction of arable land following invasions and the decline in human settlements. Add to this diminishing sunlight — measurements of “deposited radionuclides” indicate a significant reduction of light between the midfourth and late seventh centuries — and we are looking at a radically different landscape in this period from that of the High Empire…

A new history of Byzantium reveals the inner workings of a late antique empire: “Wonders and warnings from the ancient world,” from @DaisyfDunn in @TheCriticMag.

* Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire


As we ponder precedent, we might recall that Rome’s prior history had not been without its perturbations. Indeed, it was on this date in 37 CE, following the death of Tiberius, that the Roman Senate annulled Tiberius’ will and confirmed Caligula, his grandnephew, the third Roman emperor.  (Tiberius had willed that the reign should be shared by his nephew [and adopted son] Germanicus and Germanicus’ son, Caligula.)

While he has been remembered as the poster boy for profligacy, Caligula (“Little Boots”) is generally agreed to have been a temperate ruler through the first six months of his reign.  His excesses after that– cruelty, extravagance, sexual perversity– are “known” to us via sources increasingly called into question.

Still, historians agree that Caligula did work hard to increase the unconstrained personal power of the emperor at the expense of the countervailing Principate; and he oversaw the construction of notoriously luxurious dwellings for himself.  In 41 CE, members of the Roman Senate and of Caligula’s household attempted a coup to restore the Republic.  They enlisted the Praetorian Guard, who killed Caligula– the first Roman Emperor to be assassinated (Julius Caesar was assassinated, but was Dictator, not Emperor).  In the event, the Praetorians thwarted the Republican dream by appointing (and supporting) Caligula’s uncle Claudius the next Emperor.


“In a world of diminishing mystery, the unknown persists”*…

But what is it for?…

In the first episode of Buck Rogers, the 1980s television series about an astronaut from the present marooned in the 25th century, our hero visits a museum of the future. A staff member brandishes a mid-20th-century hair dryer. “Early hand laser,” he opines. As an observation of how common knowledge gets lost over time, it’s both funny and poignant. Because our museums also stock items from the past that completely baffle the experts.

Few are as intriguing as the hundred or so Roman dodecahedrons that we have found… In 1739, a strange, twelve-sided hollow object from Roman times was discovered in England. Since then, more than a hundred dodecahedrons have been unearthed.. We know next to nothing about these mysterious objects — so little, in fact, that the various theories about their meaning and function are themselves a source of entertainment.

So, what do we know?

Roman dodecahedrons — or more properly called Gallo-Roman dodecahedrons — are twelve-sided hollow objects, each side pentagonal in shape and almost always contain a hole. The outer edges generally feature rounded protrusions.

Most of the objects are made from bronze, but some are in stone and don’t have holes or knobs. The dodecahedrons are often fist-sized yet can vary in height from 4 to 11 cm (about 1.5 to 4.5 in). The size of the holes also varies, from 6 to 40 mm (0.2 to 1.5 in). Two opposing holes typically are of differing sizes.

Objects of this type were unknown until the first one was found in 1739 in Aston, Hertfordshire. In all, 116 have been dug up from sites as far apart as northern England and Hungary. But most have been found in Gaul, particularly in the Rhine basin, in what is now Switzerland, eastern France, southern Germany, and the Low Countries. Some were found in coin hoards, indicating their owners considered them valuable. Most can be dated to the 2nd and 3rd century AD.

No mention of the dodecahedrons from Roman times has survived. Any theory as to their function is based solely on speculation. Some suggestions:

• A specific type of dice for a game since lost to history. 

• A magical object, possibly from the Celtic religion. A similar small, hollow object with protrusions was recovered from Pompeii in a box with either jewellery or items for magic.

• A toy for children.

• A weight for fishing nets.

• The head of a chieftain’s scepter. 

• A kind of musical instrument. 

• A tool to estimate distances and survey land, especially for military purposes.

• An instrument to estimate the size of and distance to objects on the battlefield for the benefit of the artillery.

• A device for detecting counterfeit coins.

• A calendar for determining the spring and autumn equinoxes and/or the optimal date for sowing wheat.

• A candle holder. (Wax residue was found in one or two of the objects recovered.)

• A connector for metal or wooden poles. 

• A knitting tool specifically for gloves. (That would explain why no dodecahedrons were found in the warmer regions of the Empire.)

• A gauge to calibrate water pipes.

• A base for eagle standards. (Each Roman legion carried a symbolic bird on a staff into battle.) 

• An astrological device used for fortune-telling. (Inscribed on a dodecahedron found in Geneva in 1982 were the Latin names for the 12 signs of the zodiac.) 

The geographic spread of the dodecahedrons we know of is particular: they were all found in territories administered by Rome, inhabited by Celts. That enhances the theory that they were specific to Gallo-Roman culture, which emerged from the contact between the Celtic peoples of Gaul and their Roman conquerors.

Intriguingly, archaeologists in the 1960s have found similar objects along the Maritime Silk Road in Southeast Asia, except smaller and made of gold. They do not appear to predate the Gallo-Roman artefacts and may be evidence of Roman influence on the ancient Indochinese kingdom of Funan…

The first of many was unearthed almost three centuries ago, and we still don’t know what they were for: “Mysterious dodecahedrons of the Roman Empire.”

* Jhumpa Lahiri


As we ponder the puzzle, we might send compressed birthday greetings to Aaron “Bunny” Lapin; he was born on this date in 1914.  In 1948, Lapin invented Reddi-Wip, the pioneering whipped cream dessert topping dispensed from a spray can.   First sold by milkmen in St. Louis, the product rode the post-World War Two convenience craze to national success; in 1998, it was named by Time one of the century’s “100 great consumer items”– along with the pop-top can and Spam.  Lapin became known as the Whipped Cream King; but his legacy is broader:  in 1955, he patented a special valve to control the flow of Reddi-Wip from the can, and formed The Clayton Corporation to manufacture it.  Reddi-Wip is now a Con-Agra brand; but Clayton goes strong, now making industrial valves, closures, caulk, adhesives and foamed plastic products (like insulation and cushioning materials).



“All roads lead to Rome”*…

Spanning one-ninth of the earth’s circumference across three continents, the Roman Empire ruled a quarter of humanity through complex networks of political power, military domination and economic exchange. These extensive connections were sustained by premodern transportation and communication technologies that relied on energy generated by human and animal bodies, winds, and currents.

Conventional maps that represent this world as it appears from space signally fail to capture the severe environmental constraints that governed the flows of people, goods and information. Cost, rather than distance, is the principal determinant of connectivity…

ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World reconstructs the time cost and financial expense associated with a wide range of different types of travel in antiquity. The model is based on a simplified version of the giant network of cities, roads, rivers and sea lanes that framed movement across the Roman Empire. It broadly reflects conditions around 200 CE but also covers a few sites and roads created in late antiquity…

For the first time, ORBIS allows us to express Roman communication costs in terms of both time and expense. By simulating movement along the principal routes of the Roman road network, the main navigable rivers, and hundreds of sea routes in the Mediterranean, Black Sea and coastal Atlantic, this interactive model reconstructs the duration and financial cost of travel in antiquity.

Taking account of seasonal variation and accommodating a wide range of modes and means of transport, ORBIS reveals the true shape of the Roman world and provides a unique resource for our understanding of premodern history.

Ancient transportation and travel: “ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.”

* The proverb “All roads lead to Rome” derives from medieval Latin. It was first recorded in writing in 1175 by Alain de Lille, a French theologian and poet, whose Liber Parabolarum renders it as ‘mille viae ducunt homines per saecula Romam’ (a thousand roads lead men forever to Rome)


As we plot our paths, we might recall that it was on this date in 1937 that Sylvan Goldman introduced the first shopping cart in his Humpty Dumpty grocery store in Oklahoma City.


“History does not repeat itself. The historians repeat one another.”*…


The Course of Empire: Destruction, 1836 (oil on canvas)

Thomas Cole: “The Course of Empire: Destruction” (1836)


Your correspondent is headed to the steamy Southeast for his annual communion with surf, sand, and delicacies of the deep-fried variety.  Regular service will resume on or around August 26.  By way of hopping into hiatus on a high note…

The conviction that Trump is single-handedly tipping the United States into a crisis worthy of the Roman Empire at its most decadent has been a staple of jeremiads ever since his election, but fretting whether it is the fate of the United States in the twenty-first century to ape Rome by subsiding into terminal decay did not begin with his presidency. A year before Trump’s election, the distinguished Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye was already glancing nervously over his shoulder at the vanished empire of the Caesars: “Rome rotted from within when people lost confidence in their culture and institutions, elites battled for control, corruption increased and the economy failed to grow adequately.” Doom-laden prophecies such as these, of decline and fall, are the somber counterpoint to the optimism of the American Dream.

And so they have always been.  At various points in American history, various reasons have been advanced to explain why the United States is bound to join the Roman Empire in oblivion…

Tom Holland compares and contrasts (very engagingly) the late history of the Roman Empire with that of the U.S., and (very amusingly) second-century Emperor Commodus with Donald Trump; he concludes:

History serves as only the blindest and most stumbling guide to the future. America is not Rome. Donald Trump is not Commodus. There is nothing written into the DNA of a superpower that says that it must inevitably decline and fall. This is not an argument for complacency; it is an argument against despair. Americans have been worrying about the future of their republic for centuries now. There is every prospect that they will be worrying about it for centuries more.

Enjoy the essay in full: “America Is Not Rome. It Just Thinks It Is.

* Max Beerbohm


As we recognize that this doesn’t actually mean that we can breathe any easier, we might send fantastically far-sighted birthday greetings to Hugo Gernsback, a Luxemborgian-American inventor, broadcast pioneer, writer, and publisher; he was born on this date in 1884.

Gernsback held 80 patents at the time of his death; he founded radio station WRNY, was involved in the first television broadcasts, and is considered a pioneer in amateur radio.  But it was as a writer and publisher that he probably left his most lasting mark:  In 1926, as owner/publisher of the magazine Modern Electrics, he filled a blank spot in his publication by dashing off the first chapter of a series called “Ralph 124C 41+.” The twelve installments of “Ralph” were filled with inventions unknown in 1926, including “television” (Gernsback is credited with introducing the word), fluorescent lighting, juke boxes, solar energy, television, microfilm, vending machines, and the device we now call radar.

The “Ralph” series was an astounding success with readers; and later that year Gernsback founded the first magazine devoted to science fiction, Amazing Stories.  Believing that the perfect sci-fi story is “75 percent literature interwoven with 25 percent science,” he coined the term “science fiction.”

Gernsback was a “careful” businessman, who was tight with the fees that he paid his writers– so tight that H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith referred to him as “Hugo the Rat.”

Still, his contributions to the genre as publisher were so significant that, along with H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, he is sometimes called “The Father of Science Fiction”; in his honor, the annual Science Fiction Achievement awards are called the “Hugos.”

(Coincidentally, today is also the birthday– in 1906– of Philo T. Farnsworth, the man who actually did invent television… and was thus the inspiration for the name “Philco.”)

Gernsback, wearing one of his inventions, TV Glasses



Written by (Roughly) Daily

August 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“‘For a while’ is a phrase whose length can’t be measured”*…



A reproduction of the fragmentary Fasti Antiates Maiores, an early Roman calendar (c. 60 BC) [source]



What year is it? It’s 2019, obviously. An easy question. Last year was 2018. Next year will be 2020. We are confident that a century ago it was 1919, and in 1,000 years it will be 3019, if there is anyone left to name it. All of us are fluent with these years; we, and most of the world, use them without thinking. They are ubiquitous. As a child I used to line up my pennies by year of minting, and now I carefully note dates of publication in my scholarly articles.

Now, imagine inhabiting a world without such a numbered timeline for ordering current events, memories and future hopes. For from earliest recorded history right up to the years after Alexander the Great’s conquests in the late 4th century BCE, historical time – the public and annual marking of the passage of years – could be measured only in three ways: by unique events, by annual offices, or by royal lifecycles…

Once local and irregular, time-keeping became universal and linear in 311 BCE. History would never be the same again: “A Revolution in Time.”

See also: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”*…

* Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun


As we mark time, we might recall that it was on this date in 293 that Roman Emperors Diocletian and Maximian appoint Galerius as Caesar to Diocletian, beginning the period of four rulers known as the Tetrarchy.  Although he was a staunch opponent of Christianity, Galerius ended the Diocletianic Persecution when he issued an Edict of Toleration in Serdica in 311.


Porphyry bust of Galerius [source]



Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 21, 2019 at 1:01 am

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