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Posts Tagged ‘Rome

“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

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

 

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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.

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Genseric sacking Rome, by Karl Briullov

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Written by LW

June 2, 2019 at 1:01 am

“The map? I will first make it.”*…

 

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Nautical map of the world by Nicolo di Caverio, 1506

 

From the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, European powers sent voyagers to lands farther and farther away from the continent in an expansionist period we now call the Age of Exploration. These journeys were propelled by religious fervor and fierce colonial sentiment—and an overall desire for new trade routes. They would not have been possible without the rise of modern cartography. While geographically accurate maps had existed before, the Age of Exploration saw the emergence of a sustained tradition of topographic surveying. Maps were being made specifically to guide travelers. Technology progressed quickly through the centuries, helping explorers and traders find their way to new imperial outposts—at least sometimes. On other occasions, hiccups in cartographic reasoning led their users even farther astray…

How cartography made early modern global trade possible: “First you make the maps.”

* Patrick White, Voss

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As we find our way, we might recall that it was on this date in 1578– the same day that King Henry III laid the first stone of the Pont Neuf (“New Bridge”), the oldest remaining bridge in Paris– that the Catacombs of Rome were (re-)discovered.  Underground burial sites in use mostly in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, they were decorated with both iconographic and stylistic paintings and mosaics.  After their rediscovery, it took several decades to explore and map them; indeed, new discoveries have been made as recently as the 1950s.

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Eucharistic fresco in the Catacombs [source]

 

Written by LW

May 31, 2019 at 1:01 am

“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.

 source

 

Written by LW

December 4, 2017 at 1:01 am

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