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Posts Tagged ‘Rome

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

 

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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

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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]

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

Written by LW

June 30, 2018 at 1:01 am

“There is always danger for those who are afraid”*…

 

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Civil War hero Buffalo Bill Cody changed the face of entertainment when his Wild West show began touring the country in 1883. Buffalo Bill’s operation, which included mock bison hunts and Indian war reenactments, bronco riding and roping, and marksmanship competitions, went on to engender a number of other imitators, including Pawnee Bill’s Wild West Show, the Miller Brothers’ 101 Ranch Wild West Show, and California Frank Hafley’s Wild West Attractions, which traveled the United States from 1905 to 1940.

While displays of masculinity were prominent in these shows, just as important was their showcasing of the skills necessary for “surviving” in the “Wild West,” abilities that women like Annie Oakley and Calamity Jane had in spades. Hafley’s show heavily featured women in rodeo events like the sharpshooting comedy routine in which Lillian Smith, a former competitor of Annie Oakley’s and Hafley’s first wife, shot targets from the mouth or head of Mamie Francis, Hafley’s second wife.

Among the most popular performances at Wild West Attractions was a new sport with a dubious connection to the West: horse diving, an event in which a horse and its female rider jumped from a 50-foot tower into a small pool of water. It took more courage than all the other events combined, and only Mamie Francis had the gumption to do it. Between 1908 and 1914, Francis and her Arabian horse Babe completed 628 dives from five stories up a rickety wooden scaffolding…

Thrills and chills at “These women were the toughest performers in the Wild West.”

 * George Bernard Shaw

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As we prepare to plummet, we might spare a thought for Titus Flavius Caesar Vespasianus Augustus (better known as Vespasian); he died on this date in 79 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).

Vespasian is also remembered for a series of large construction projects that he undertook during his reign– the largest of which was “The Flavian Amphitheater”… or as we now know it, the Roman Colosseum.

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

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Written by LW

June 23, 2018 at 1:01 am

“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”*…

 

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* 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.

 source

Written by LW

April 26, 2016 at 1:01 am

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