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Posts Tagged ‘Roman Empire

“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

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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

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Written by LW

August 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

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

 

Roman-calendar

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

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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.

220px-Romuliana_Galerius_head

Porphyry bust of Galerius [source]

 

“We can endure neither our vices nor the remedies needed to cure them”*…

 

Pundits who blame 21st-century-style moral rot for the decline of Rome miss the big picture, a new book by Kyle Harper argues. Against plague and drought, the empire never stood a chance…

At the empire’s peak, the human actors — the political, cultural, economic, and military leaders who set up its institutions — were more than equal to the task. Under Marcus Aurelius, emperor from A.D. 161 to 180, about a quarter of humanity lived under Roman rules and influence. The Roman population swelled, wages rose, cities flowered (at its peak, the city of Rome had perhaps a million inhabitants), and vast trade networks threaded across Africa and into Asia.

But at the time, it was easy for Rome to make successful moves: Nature dealt it an especially good hand. During much of the Roman Climate Optimum (about 250 B.C. to A.D. 150), the empire was blessed with stable weather, abundant rain, and warm temperatures. Romans grew and shipped prodigious quantities of grain, especially in North Africa, and their leaders sometimes went to great lengths to hold wheat prices down, offer subsidies, and make sure citizens could feed themselves.

Then, from the middle of the second century onward, nature began dealing out some rotten hands — in the form of natural disasters and vicious germs — and the empire couldn’t hold its winning streak.

The germs were the most violent and obvious destabilizing forces. For all of the society’s technological sophistication, Roman doctors had no notion of germ theory, and Roman cities hosted a robust resident population of waterborne and airborne diseases —especially malaria, typhoid, and various intestinal ills.

On top of this, the empire’s densely urbanized populations — connected by intricate trade routes — were excellent targets for major pandemics. Harper demonstrates that the Roman Empire was hit by at least three great plagues, each a powerful blow to both its population and civic institutions. During one wave of the second-century Antonine plague, which was likely a form of smallpox, as many as 2,000 people died every day. A century later, a disease that sounds, from accounts written during that era, a lot like hemorrhagic fever (the gruesome Ebola family of diseases) migrated from Ethiopia across the rest of the empire and took a similar toll.

Meanwhile, the climate grew more and more erratic. “In winter there is not such an abundance of rains to nourish the seeds,” wrote Cyprian, an early Christian writer of Carthage. “The summer sun burns less bright over the fields of grain. The temperance of spring is no longer for rejoicing, and the ripening fruit does not hang from autumn trees.”

Drought struck the empire’s breadbasket of North Africa. The combination sent the society reeling, but it was able to recover until the climate swung again. In the fourth century, when the Eurasian steppe also fell under drought, nomadic peoples like the Visigoths and Huns (whom Harper describes as “armed climate refugees on horseback”) began to antagonize and terrorize Roman territories in Europe. Famously, the Visigoth leader Alaric sacked Rome in 410, effectively sounding the death knell of the Western part of the Roman Empire, which eventually fragmented into small, feudal territories…

More of this cautionary tale at “When Rome Fell, the Chief Culprits Were Climate and Disease. Sound Familiar?

And further to Mark Twain’s remark that, while history never repeats itself, it often rhymes, see also  1177 BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed,  the story of the fall of the Bronze Age and the civilizations that had defined it– similarly driven by climate change (and the migration that it spawned).

* Livy, The Early History of Rome

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As we ruminate on all of the meanings of “recycle,” we might recall that it was on this date in 1775 that a seminal event in the formation of the leader of the world’s current “imperial” regime took place, the “Midnight Ride”: Paul Revere and William Dawes rode out of Boston about 10 p.m. to warn patriots at Lexington and Concord of the approaching British.

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Written by LW

April 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It’s a small world, but I wouldn’t want to have to paint it”*…

 

xkcd

* Steven Wright (again)

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As we rethink relationships, we might recall that it was on this date in 362 that the Roman Emperor Julian issued an edict to guaranteeing  freedom of religion– proclaiming that all the religions were equal in the Law.  An attempt to buffer the Roman Empire from growing pressure from Christians to become the state religion, his order was an attempt to restore Rome’s original religious eclecticism, according to which the State did not impose any religion on its provinces.  During his life he was known as “Julian the Philosopher”; subsequent Christian historians refer to him as Julian the Apostate.

In 380 CE, Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the Empire’s sole authorized religion. Still, there was schism, as the Eastern Orthodox Church, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Catholic Church each claimed to be the authentic form of Christianity.

Portrait of Emperor Julian on a bronze coin from Antioch minted 360–363

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Written by LW

February 4, 2017 at 1:01 am

(Not) all roads lead to Rome…

 

click here for larger, interactive version

In about 300 CE, Imperial cartographers created a road map of the Roman Empire; hundreds of years later, medieval artisans copied it, creating the Tabula Peutingeriana

Now, René Voorburg and a team of like-minded enthusiasts have re-copied the Tabula.  Using a set of techniques described here, they have mashed it up with Google Maps to create Omnes Viae: Tabula Peutingeriana— replete with Iter Vestrum (“Your Trip”), a handy route-planning tool…

As readers will see, while during the time of the Roman Republic, all roads did lead to Rome, imperial expansion– which began with the Empire in 44 BCE– rendered that kind of “hub and spoke” transit architecture impractical.  The Tabula dates from relatively early in the Empire.  Soon after, Constantine became Caesar and created Constantinople as an Eastern capital; in another 50 years, the Empire was divided…  and the roads became even more decentralized.   The Western Empire collapsed in 473, and the roads pictured in the section of the Tabula pictured above became past of a larger network of European roads.  The Eastern Empire lasted until 1453, when it fell to the Ottoman Turks; and its roads became part of that burgeoning empire’s network.

 

As we feel an inexplicable craving for polenta, we might wish a mysterious Happy Birthday to Agatha Christie; she was born on this date in 1890.  Dame Agatha published 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections  (featuring creations like Hercule Poirot and Miss Jane Marple), along with a number of  successful plays.  According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Christie is the best-selling novelist of all time– her novels have sold over four billion copies– and, with William Shakespeare, the best-selling author of any type. And according to Index Translationum, she is the most translated individual author (at least 103 languages), with only the collective corporate works of Walt Disney Productions surpassing her.  Her play The Mousetrap opened at the Ambassadors Theatre in London on November 25, 1952 and is still running– at more than 24,000 performances, the longest-ever initial run of a stage play.

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Being dense…

The nifty site PerSquareMile.com points out that, if the entire world’s population lived in a single city with the density of New York, it would fit into the state of Texas.  But if that “city” had the density of Houston, it would cover the entire Mid West (and then some)…

to enlarge, click the image above– or here— and again

[TotH to Flowing Data]

As we reconcile ourselves to looking even harder for parking, we might recall that it was on this date in 30 BCE that Mark Antony won a small victory over the invading forces of Octavian (AKA, Octavius– the future Augustus) in the Battle of Alexandria during the Final War of the Roman Republic.  But Antony suffered significant desertion from his ranks; when Octavian attacked again the following day, Antony’s navy demurred.  Antony committed suicide (followed several days later by his consort, Cleopatra)… and with Antony, the Republic died a final death: with his Triumverate partner dead, Octavian ( known as Augustus after 27 BC ) became uncontested ruler of Rome, accumulating all of Rome’s administrative, political, and military authority. When Augustus died in 14 AD, his political powers passed to his adopted son Tiberius; the Roman Principate had begun.

His legs bestrid the ocean: his rear’d arm
Crested the world: his voice was propertied
As all the tuned spheres, and that to friends;
But when he meant to quail and shake the orb,
He was as rattling thunder. For his bounty,
There was no winter in’t; an autumn ’twas
That grew the more by reaping: his delights
Were dolphin-like; they show’d his back above
The element they lived in: in his livery
Walk’d crowns and crownets; realms and islands were
As plates dropp’d from his pocket.

Cleopatra
Antony and Cleopatra, Act 5, Scene 2; William Shakespeare

Mark Antony (source)

The Department of Things Coming in Threes: Iceland, BP…

Captured by high-resolution cameras aboard a robotic submersible, mineral-rich water spews from hydrothermal vents in this June 30 picture of Kawio Barat, a massive undersea volcano  off Indonesia.

During the past few weeks, the submerged volcano– one of the world’s largest– was mapped and explored in detail for the first time by a joint Indonesian-U.S. expedition north of the island of Sulawesi (map).

Read the whole story, and see fascinating video, at National Geographic.

As we batten down the hatches, we might recall that it was on this date in 64 CE that the Great Fire of Rome began, ultimately destroying much of the Imperial City. The fire began in the slums of a district south of the Palatine Hill. The area’s homes burned very quickly and the fire spread north, fueled by high winds; it raged out of control for three days.  Three of Rome’s 14 districts were completely razed; only four were untouched by the conflagration.  Hundreds of people died in the fire and many thousands were left homeless.

Legend has it that the Emperor Nero fiddled while the city burned.  Aside from the facts that the fiddle did not even exist at the time (Nero was an adept of the lyre) and that he was actually 35 miles away in Antium when the fire broke out, there could be something to it.

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