(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Roman history

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

Constantinople

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

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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.

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“Democracy is never a final achievement. It is a call to an untiring effort.”*…

 

770px-Diagram_of_the_Federal_Government_and_American_Union_edit

Diagram of U.S. governance, 1862 [source and larger version]

 

The Roman Empire, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the United States of America are human inventions as surely as airplanes, computers, and contraception are. Technology is how we do things, and political institutions are how we collaborate at scale. Government is an immensely powerful innovation through which we take collective action.

Just like any other technology, governments open up new realms of opportunity. These opportunities are morally neutral: humans have leveraged political institutions to provide public eduction and to murder ethnic minorities. Specific features like explicit protections for human rights and civil liberties are designed to help mitigate certain downside risks.

Like any tool, systems of governance require maintenance to keep working. We expect regular software updates, but forget that governance is also in constant flux, and begins to fail when it falls out of sync with the culture. Without preventative maintenance, pressure builds like tectonic forces along a fault line until a new order snaps into place, often violently…

Widespread adoption renders technology invisible, its ubiquity revealed only when it breaks. That’s why science fiction plots so often hinge on systems breaking, and explains Wired Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly’s approach to futurism: “I’m looking for the places where technology is abused, misused, or unsupervised in order to get a glimpse of its natural inherent leanings. Where the edges go, the center follows later.”

If you’re worried about the demise of democracy because you see how the system is being abused, congratulations! You have just discovered a way to make democracy stronger. Ask any programmer: Nothing clarifies software development like a major bug report. Follow that edge. Sharpen, blunt, or redirect it as necessary. The center will follow…

Critically-acclaimed novelist and essayist Eliot Peper (@eliotpeper) argues for regular maintenance and upgrades: “Government is a technology, so fix it like one.”

* John F. Kennedy

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As we undertake an upgrade, we might spare a thought for Marcus Tullius Cicero; he died on this date in 43 BCE.  A  Roman philosopher, politician, lawyer, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist, Cicero was one of Rome’s greatest orators and prose stylists.  His influence on the Latin language was immense: it has been said that subsequent prose was either a reaction against or a return to his style, not only in Latin but also (after Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s work) in European languages up to the 19th century.

A champion of Republican government in Rome, he spoke against the second Catilinarian conspiracy, against  Julius Caesar, then– even more eloquently– against Mark Antony.  He was executed in 43 BCE (his head and hands were amputated and displayed to the public) for his Philippics, a series of speeches attacking Antony and calling (again) for a restoration of the Republic.  Sic semper prōtestor?

https://i0.wp.com/farm9.staticflickr.com/8478/8243527748_ab6d5f6fa9_o.jpg?resize=220%2C293 source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 7, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Any solution is all too likely to become the next problem”*…

 

Miami_traffic_jam2C_I-95_North_rush_hour

 

One of today’s defining paradoxes is the contrast between the massive abundance of everything digital and the relative stasis, or even decline, of so much else. Software hasn’t meaningfully improved the world’s physical infrastructure even as it builds increasingly refined interfaces, networks, and marketplaces on top of that infrastructure. I currently have a thousand lifetimes worth of (effectively free) entertainment at my fingertips, but getting to the airport still takes as long as it would have thirty years ago.

Information seems infinite relative to more tangible resources, but it’s not. Digital scarcity is less visible than the physical kind, but no less real. James Bridle observes in his book New Dark Age that while computation contributes to climate change, on one hand—data centers consume a growing percentage of the world’s energy—computation itself is also constrained by a warming planet: The strength of wireless transmission will actually decline as atmospheric temperatures rise, while much of the internet’s supporting hardware—subterranean fiberoptic tubes and undersea cable landing sites—is vulnerable to damage from rising sea levels. In a way, exponential information growth is threatening its own future.

A century ago, driving felt as boundless as computation does now. As a result, we built the whole world around cars, and have since struggled to unwind that effort now that we know better. It’s possible we’re making a similar mistake today, unable to imagine a less abundant future, with digital traffic jams just around the corner…

Drew Austin, editor of the urban transportation newsletter Kneeling Bus. in a edition of another wonderful newsletter, The Prepared.

[image above: source]

* your correspondent

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As we rein in our enthusiasms, we might recall that it was on this date in 455 that the Vandals entered Rome, which they plundered for the next two weeks.  It was, as sackings went (this was Rome’s third, of four altogether), relatively “light”:  while the Vandals (who had destroyed all of Rome’s aqueducts on their approach) looted Roman treasure and sold many Romans into slavery, their leader Genseric acceded to Pope Leo’s plea that he refrain from the wholesale slaughter of Rome’s population and destruction of the Eternal City’s historic buildings.

300px-Genseric_sacking_rome_456

Genseric sacking Rome, by Karl Briullov

source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I do believe we have voter fraud in America”*…

 

Voting

 

North Carolina is redoing an election to decide who will represent its 9th Congressional District, after an investigation uncovered evidence of election fraud during the 2018 midterms.

According to a recently completed investigation by the North Carolina Board of Elections, a political operative working on behalf of Republican candidate Mark Harris carried out a “coordinated, unlawful, and substantially resourced absentee ballot scheme” that may have provided Harris with hundreds of fraudulent votes.

The political operative paid friends and family members in cash to collect uncompleted absentee ballots, fill them out and then mail them in to the polls. During the investigation, Harris’ son testified that he had warned his father that the absentee ballot scheme was illegal.

Harris led by 905 votes on election day, but the Board of Elections never certified the result and soon began investigating. Speaking to supporters on Feb. 22, Dan McCready, the Democratic candidate, denounced the alleged fraud as perhaps “the biggest case of election fraud in living memory.”

My research on voter intimidation and election fraud in the late 19th-century United States focuses on contested congressional elections much like this one. One of the most interesting cases I have researched took place in that very same district, the North Carolina 9th, in 1898…

The fascinating story– and what we can learn as history repeats itself: “A brief history of North Carolina’s 9th District contested election – in 1898.”

* Jeff Sessions

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As we stare into the not-so-distant mirror, we might recall that it was on this date in 37, on the death of Tiberius, that his grandnephew Caligula became the third Roman emperor…. and poster-boy for excess. (The succession was formalized two days later, when the Roman Senate annulled Tiberius’ will and confirmed Caligula.)

But 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.

 source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 16, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Can we all just get along?”…

 

Barcelona

Is your subway car packed like sardines? Does your city feel like a shopping mall? Is your community, well, not all it could be? Richard Sennett [see here] has some answers.

Sennett is a designer-scholar, eminent in both the built-design world and academia. Currently the Centennial Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, he’s advised the United Nations on urban issues for decades and worked as planner in New York, Washington, D.C., Delhi, and Beijing. Sennett’s writing often revolves around the interplay of work, strangers, and cooperation, but he always returns to cities: how to plan them, adapt them, and live in them. Doing that well—as either a planner or a resident—means celebrating complexity and accepting diversity: “Experience in a city, as in the bedroom or on the battlefield, is rarely seamless, it is much more often full of contradictions and jagged edges,” he writes in his new book, Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City.

The book offers microhistories of Barcelona and Paris, exegeses of Heidegger and Arendt, and tours of Medellín and Songdo. But through it all, Sennett is asking a pretty simple and pressing question: How do we live together now? How does cosmopolitanism survive in an age of both populism and urbanization—and what can we do in our streets, parks, and cities to help?…

A fascinating interview with Sennett: “Can cosmopolitanism survive in an age of populism and urbanization?

* Rodney King

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As we celebrate complexity and diversity, we might send thoroughly-researched birthday greetings to Edward Gibbon; he was born on this date in 1737.  A historian, writer and Member of Parliament, he is best remembered for his monumental (and instructively cautionary) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1788 and known for the quality and irony of its prose, its use of primary sources, and its open criticism of organized religion.

Portrait of Edward Gibbon by Sir Joshua Reynolds

source

 

Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 8, 2018 at 1:01 am

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