(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘Rome

“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

“For the nobles will be dissatisfied because they think themselves worthy of more than an equal share of honors”*…

 

Gaius Gracchus attempted to enact social reform in Ancient Rome but died at the hands of the Roman Senate in 121 B.C.

Long before Julius Caesar declared himself dictator for life in 44 B.C., essentially spelling the beginning of the end to the Roman Republic, trouble was brewing in the halls of power.

The warning signs were there. Politicians such as Tiberius Gracchus and Gaius Gracchus (together known as the Gracchi brothers) were thwarted from instituting a series of populist reforms in the 100s B.C., then murdered by their fellow senators. Old and unwritten codes of conduct, known as the mos maiorum, gave way as senators struggled for power. A general known as Sulla marched his army on Rome in 87 B.C., starting a civil war to prevent his political opponent from remaining in power. Yet none of these events have become as indelibly seared into Western memory as Caesar’s rise to power or sudden downfall, his murder in 44 B.C…

Mike Duncan explores the forces that ate away at the Roman Republic, and cleared the way for the imperial Julius Caesar: “Before the Fall of the Roman Republic, Income Inequality and Xenophobia Threatened Its Foundations.”

[TotH to @averylyford]

* Aristotle, Politics, Book 2, 2.7

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As we recall George Santayana’s warning that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” we might send birthday greetings in hexameter to Aulus Persius Flaccus, better known simply as Persius; he was born on this date in 34 A.D.  A Roman poet, his work satirized both the society of his time and his contemporary poets.  His tendency to stoicism helped him achieve wide popularity in the Middle Ages.

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Written by LW

December 4, 2017 at 1:01 am

“It’s the end of the world as we know it”*…

 

“The probability of global catastrophe is very high,” the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warned in setting the Doomsday Clock 2.5 minutes before midnight earlier this year. On nuclear weapons and climate change, “humanity’s most pressing existential threats,” the Bulletin’s scientists found that “inaction and brinkmanship have continued, endangering every person, everywhere on Earth.”

Every day, it seems, brings with it fresh new horrors. Mass murderCatastrophic climate changeNuclear annihilation.

It’s all enough to make a reasonable person ask: How much longer can things go on this way?

A Princeton University astrophysicist named J. Richard Gott has a surprisingly precise answer to that question…

Gott applies straight-forward logic and the laws of probability to setting our exit date.  “Calculations” haven’t worked out so well for Mayan seers or the likes of Harold Camping; but as you’ll read, Gott has tested his method, and done remarkably well… so: “We have a pretty good idea of when humans will go extinct.”

* REM

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As we plan our parties, we might recall that it was on this date in (what we now call) 46 BCE, that the final year of the pre-Julian Roman calendar, began.  The Romans had added a leap month every few years to keep their lunar calendar in sync with the solar year, but had missed a few with the chaos of the civil wars of the late Republic. Julius Caesar added two extra leap months to recalibrate the calendar in preparation for his calendar reform, which went into effect in (what we now now as) 45 BC.  The year, which had 445 days, was thus known as annus confusionis (“year of confusion”).

Fragmentary fresco of a pre-Julian Roman calendar

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Written by LW

October 13, 2017 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

“A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog, when you are just as hungry as the dog”*…

 

Savior Barbie stands in front of a chalkboard in a run-down classroom somewhere in Africa. “It’s so sad that they don’t have enough trained teachers here. I’m not trained either, but I’m from the West,” the caption on the photo reads. In another, the plastic figurine poses in front shacks made from scrap metal and sticks: “Just taking a slumfie… Feeling so blessed.”

In the satirical Instagram account for Savior Barbie, Barbie is in Africa running an NGO that provides drinking water to locals. “Harnessing broken white hearts to provide water to those in Africa, one tear at a time,” the tagline for her organization reads. The account, started a month ago by two 20-something white women who have worked in East Africa, now has over 18,000 followers…

Savior Barbie also highlights the point that advocates and experts working on the continent have been observing for years—well-intentioned but naive volunteerism—or “voluntourism“—is at best ineffectual and at worst harmful to the developing countries it’s meant to serve. It drives an industry that sees 1.6 million people do volunteer work while on vacation every year, spending as much as $2 billion in the process. Nigerian-American author Teju Cole once dubbed this impulse the White Savior Industrial Complex

More at “Instagram’s White Savior Barbie neatly captures what’s wrong with “voluntourism” in Africa.” Pair with “The Smug Style in American Liberalism“– bracing stuff.

[TotH to EWW]

* Jack London

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As we rethink relief, we might send forbearing birthday wishes to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus Augustus; he was born on this date in 121.  The last of the Five Good Emperors, Marcus Aurelius is also considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers; his Meditations, written on campaign before he became emperor, is still a central text on the philosophy of service and duty.

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Written by LW

April 26, 2016 at 1:01 am

“The map is not the territory”*…

 

As regular readers will know, (Roughly) Daily is extremely enthusiastic about maps.  So your correspondent is especially grateful to Andrew Wiseman for his very helpful “readers’ guide”: “When Maps Lie- Tips from a geographer on how to avoid being fooled.”

* Alfred Korzybski

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As we uninstall Apple Maps, we might recall that it was on this date in 1871 that Victor Emmanuel II set up the capital of the newly-unified Italy in Rome (recently “acquired” from the Papal States).  The first king of a united Italy since the 6th century, he had been king of Sardinia before– the second “Victor Emmanuel” in that role.  On claiming the Italian crown, he decided to keep “II,” a missed PR opportunity, as he could have proclaimed himself “I” (of Italy), signaling a fresh start.

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Written by LW

July 2, 2015 at 1:01 am

“Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted”*…

 

People sometimes say “If I had all the money in the world …” in order to discuss what they would do if they had no financial constraints. I’m curious, though, what would happen if one person had all of the world’s money?

– Daniel Pino

So you’ve somehow found a way to gather all the world’s money. We won’t worry about how you did it—let’s just assume you invented some kind of money-summoning magic spell.

Physical currency—coins and bills—represents just a small percentage of the world’s wealth. In theory, you could edit all the property records on Earth to say that you own all the land and edit all the banking records to say you own all the money. But everyone else would disagree with those records, and they would edit them back or ignore them. Money is an idea, and you can’t make the entire world respect your idea.

Getting all the world’s cash, on the other hand, is much more straightforward. There’s a certain amount of cash in the world—it’s about $4 trillion—and you want it all…

Find out what you’d have to do with all that scratch on Randall Monroe’s What If? at “All the Money.”

* Sociologist William Bruce Cameron (though often attributed to Albert Einstein)

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As we go all Scrooge McDuck, we might send imperial birthday greetings to Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus (better known as Vespasian); he was born on this date in 9 CE.  Vespasian was crowned Emperor of Rome in 69 after a year of civil strife following the death of Nero; he served for six years and founded the Flavian Dynasty that ruled the Empire for another 20 years.  Vespasian was judged (by Suetonius and others) to have been a witty and effective ruler, even as he had to govern through severe financial turmoil.  Indeed, to this day urinals are known in Italian as vespasiano, a vestige of Vespasian’s tax on urine (which was valuable in his day for its ammoniac content).

Roman aureus depicting Vespasian as Emperor; the reverse shows the goddess Fortuna.

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Written by LW

November 17, 2014 at 1:01 am

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