Bread Basket

Egypt

Egypt was the most valuable province of Rome for two reasons.  The first is obvious, in a time when any food surplus was highly valued Egypt was the bread basket of the Mediterranean world, churning out a regular, highly dependable surplus of wheat.

Secondly it operated out of step with the Northern summer season.  The monsoons hit Ethiopia in the Summer causing the Nile flood, so the Egyptians were planting when the Italians and Greeks were harvesting.  This allowed the Empire to stagger the deployment of transport.  Ships that transported grain from Sicily and Africa in Autumn could switch to the Egyptian trade in Spring.

When Rome lost Italy, Sicily, North Africa, Sardinia and ruled from Constantinople Egypt gained in importance.

As a result the 6th of July was a black day for the Romans when, in 640 AD a small force of Arabs under the brilliant general Amr ibn al-As al-Sahmi routed the Byzantines at the battle of Heliopolis on the outskirts of Cairo.

The Romans had, after a lifetime of war by Emperor Heraclius, defeated their arch nemesis, the Sassanid Empire, in 622.  As the two punch-drunk empires reeled away from each other the newly unified Arabs exploded out of the Arabian Peninsula and overran the Sassanid lands; the ancient Persian Empire.

The Romans believed themselves safe for at least a generation as the Arabs assimilated the feuding elements of the Persian empire.  They met the Arabs properly for the first time at the battle of Yarmouk in Syria in a battle that lasted for six days.  Rome lost Syria, but that was not a complete disaster.  Rome could survive without troublesome Syria.

But Egypt was another matter.  The loss of Egypt was a near deathblow to the Roman Empire.  Ultimately the Byzantine Empire could only survive by re-organisation of the entire economy.  The grain dole that marked out the highs of Roman Civilization had to cease when Egypt was lost.  Roman dominance of Mare Nostrum, the Mediterranean Sea ended as the Arabs gained a coastline with well defended harbours.

The Arabs by contrast, were unleashed.  Their cavalry thundered across the North African Deserts to Morocco and Spain.  Where horses and camels galloped the ships followed.  The failings of the Byzantines at Heliopolis were felt by Christians across the entire Western World.

 

Good or not good?

Richard Harris

These days he is best known in popular culture as portrayed by Richard Harris in the film “Gladiator”.  Marcus Aurelius was born on this day in 121 AD during the reign of Hadrian.  He lived his life under the Pax Romana in the glory days of second century Rome.

He became Roman Emperor in 161 AD and ruled until 180 AD.

Marcus Aurelius is traditionally seen as the fifth of the five “good emperors”; Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius.  But there is a view at large that he should not be in that club.  What marked out the good emperors was their replacement of dynastic rule with a meritocracy.

Dynasties often begin on merit with a great emperor, like Augustus who was first Emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty, and Vespesian who was first of the Flavians.  They tend to end badly with an idiod.  The last Julio-Claudian was Nero who was replaced by Vespasian.  The last Flavian was Domitian who was replaced by Nerva.

There is another trend in family dynasties that leads to the rise of a terrible emperor or ruler.  Disaster generally follows the appointment of a headstrong teenager to the top job.  Sometimes they can survive their teenage years if they listen to their mothers, but most are doomed to ignomy.

The “good emperors” built a meritocracy quite by accident.  There was a procession of childless emperors.  Each handed the baton to a successor who was already well proven.  Until we get to Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius had 13 children with his wife Faustina of which one son and four daughters survived.  The Emperor appointed his son Commodus as co-emperor in 177 AD when the boy was 16 years old.  If Marcus Aurelius had lived longer perhaps Commodus would have been a better emperor, but the father died when the boy was still only 19 years old.

He liked to fight in the arena as a gladiator and styled himself a demi-God in the likeness of Hercules.  When a fire devastated Rome he had the city “re-founded” seeing himself as the new Romulus and renamed Rome after himself.  He also renamed the months of the year after all his own names.  He replaced the head of the colossus of Nero with his own head.

Commodus was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard and his death led to the era of the barracks emperors and the crisis of the 3rd Century.  All legitimacy disappeared from the imperial office.  The Roman Empire entered a period of decline which might have been its death knell if not for the arrival of Diocletian.

With this in mind can Marcus Aurelius count as a “good emperor”?  Do we blame the father for the sins of the son?

A hateful son

apocalypse

Now that the Covid-19 media apocalypse is upon us here in Ireland I am taking a moment to think about the boy who gave us the name for next month.

The painting above is the Benjamin West 1795 “Death on a pale horse” which depicts the Biblical four horsemen of the apocalypse, Pestilence, War, Famine and Death, riding successively horses coloured white, red, black and pale.

In the ancient world disease killed more armies than battle, and was a constant companion of any assembled army.  Famine followed in the wake of every army as they stripped the land bare of food, like a plague of locusts.  Death of course is the bride of war.

So it is interesting to look at the parallels between the apocalyptic horsemen and the earlier Greco-Roman depictions of the Roman Mars (for whom we name March) and his Greek origination as the God Ares.

Homer, in the Illiad, quotes Zeus as calling Ares the god most hateful to him.  Such a thing to say to your own son!

The Greeks, for all their warlike tendencies, had a suspicion of unbridled passion.  They saw Eros (uncontrolled love) as a form of madness.  In Ares they saw the passion needed to succeed in battle, but they also saw the brutality.  Untamed aggression was achieved by letting slip the reins of mental discipline.

Like the later four horsemen Ares travelled in a gang of four.  Himself, the God of war, accompanied in his chariot by his two sons Phobos (Fear) and Deimos (Terror) and his daughter/lover Enyo (Discord).  Indeed it was Enyo who started the Trojan war.  But that’s a different story.

Ares had four sure-footed, gold bridled, immortal horses who pulled his chariot; Aithon, Phlogios, Konabos and Phobos (same name as his son).

The Greeks saw Ares as a destabilising force, and saw war as a necessary evil, both to be avoided if possible.  Ares is often ridiculed or embarrased in Greek mythology.

Rome took a different line.  Rome placed Mars in the top 3 of their Gods.  The Romans viewed War as the means to Peace and they treated their god of war with reverence and dignity.  Instead of being incestuously linked to Discord like Ares the Roman Mars is married to Nerio, the Goddess of Valor.

So we can see that the four horsemen of the bible have more in common with the Greek god of war than they do with the Roman Mars.

And now back to the painting.  In a twist of fate it carries its own apocalyptic tale.  When the first American Academy of art burned down a volunteer fireman cut the painting from its frame and saved it from the conflagration.

Happy Birthday Hadrian

Busts of Hadrianus in Venice cropped.jpg

Roman Emperor Hadrian is probably best known for his walls and his beard.  He sits right in the middle of the good times as the 3rd of the five “good” emperors: Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antonius Pius and Marcus Aurelius.

One of the reasons the emperors were considered good is because they chose good successors, not family.  On this measure Aurelius failed and the lot is reduced to four.

Hadrian was the second Spanish emperor after Trajan, he was born 24th January, 76 AD   in Italica, which is just outside modern day Seville in Spain.  I visted in the summer of 1978.  It was hot.  There was no shade and I am no daywalker.  Bring water – wear sunscreen and a hat!

After the expanision of the empire to its greatest extent by Trajan there was a period of consolidation by Hadrian – hence the walls.  The most famous of which spans northern England.  Less famous but equally impressive are the walls erected in Africa.

Hadrian is responsible for naming Palestine.  His reputation amongst the Jews is not very nice and his name in Jewish texts is often followed by “may his bones be crushed”.  This is because Hadrian put down the final Jewish uprising in the Province of Judea – the Bar Kokhba revolt.

If you look at it from Hadrian’s point of view it is clear that the Jews were a major problem and the empire had been fighting revolt after revolt since 66AD and the reign of Nero.

After the Bar Kokhba revolt was put down the Romans pulled down the fortifications from 50 Jewish cities, leaving their populations exposed to danger.  The Roman provinces of Judaea, Galilee and Samaria were reformed and renamed as “Syria Palestina”.  This is seen as a calculated insult, to rename Jewish lands for their ancient enemies; the Philistines.

The Jews date the Diaspora from the end of the war with Hadrian, and it was the spread of the Jewish people accross the Roman Empire that led indirectly to the flowering of Christianity in the Empire.

Hadrian was also openly gay in the modern sense.  He loved all things Greek, earning him the nickname “The Greekling”.  This love extended to his boyfriend Antinous, a Bythinian Greek Youth who was deified by Hadrian when he drowned in the Nile on an Egyptian holiday (not joking).

The poem below is said to have been inspired by a poem of Emperor Hadrian: Animula, vagula, blandula.

Animula; by T.S. Eliot

‘Issues from the hand of God, the simple soul’
To a flat world of changing lights and noise,
to light, dark, dry or damp, chilly or warm;
moving between the legs of tables and of chairs,
rising or falling, grasping at kisses and toys,
advancing boldly, sudden to take alarm,
retreating to the corner of arm and knee,
eager to be reassured, taking pleasure
in the fragrant brilliance of the Christmas tree,
pleasure in the wind, the sunlight and the sea;
studies the sunlit pattern on the floor
and running stags around a silver tray;
confounds the actual and the fanciful,
content with playing-cards and kings and queens,
what the fairies do and what the servants say.
The heavy burden of the growing soul
perplexes and offends more, day by day;
week by week, offends and perplexes more
with the imperatives of ‘is and seems’
and may and may not, desire and control.
The pain of living and the drug of dreams
curl up the small soul in the window seat
behind the Encyclopædia Britannica.
Issues from the hand of time the simple soul
irresolute and selfish, misshapen, lame,
unable to fare forward or retreat,
fearing the warm reality, the offered good,
denying the importunity of the blood,
shadow of its own shadows, spectre in its own gloom,
leaving disordered papers in a dusty room;
living first in the silence after the viaticum.

Pray for Guiterriez, avid of speed and power,
for Boudin, blown to pieces,
for this one who made a great fortune,
and that one who went his own way.
Pray for Floret, by the boarhound slain between the yew trees,
pray for us now and at the hour of our birth.

 

 

A pair of cows

Image result for io and europa

On January 7th, 1610 Gallileo Galilei made his fateful observation of the moons of Jupiter, giving them the names Ganymede, Callisto, Io and Europa; collectively known as the Galilean Moons.  Previously observed by Copernicus, who did not flag the implications, it was Gallileo who pointed out that not everything was in orbit around the Earth.  The Roman Inquisition forced him to recant publicly but that’s a funny thing about science:  You may say it’s not true but…. it just is.

So who are the cows?

Io was a mortal lover who beguiled Zeus (the Greek equivalent of Jupiter) with her beauty.  The consort of Zeus, Hera, transformed Io into a pretty white heifer.  This did not disuade Zeus from his trysts with her.  But then Zeus loved animals… in all the wrong ways.  So Hera set a gadfly to sting Io and drive her out of Greece.  She crossed the bosphorus into Asia and made her way down to Egypt.  She had many children of Zeus and was an ancestor of Heracles.

Europa was a Phonecian princess who was whisked away by Zeus when he turned himself into a white bull and asked her to take a ride on his back.  He hopped over to Crete where they founded the Minoan dynasty, where Bull Worship was a central myth of the civilization.  In Greek Mythology Europa is a descendent of Io, and therefore of Zeus himself.

Callisto was also raped by Zeus and Hera transformed her into a bear.  Ganymede was a Trojan prince abducted by Zeus to be his cupbearer; so I’m guessing there was rape there too.  How many ancient civilizations were founded by stealing Cattle and Women?

 

Lawyer, Liar!

Image result for marcus tullius cicero

Crassus was the Millionaire, Pompey Magnus was the Soldier, Caesar was the Politician and it can be said that Cicero in his day was, as an Orator, the equal to those big three.  He was offered a seat at the big table and turned it down.

I grew up in a world that pronounced his name Sissero, but now Kickero is more widely deemed correct.

Born on this day in 106 BC to a family with no prior political standing he was immensely proud of his record of rising up the Greasy Pole of Roman Politics; the cursus honorum, achieving each step “in his year”.  That is to say that he attained each step on the ladder of promotion at the earliest possible juncture.

A self admitted coward he shunned military life.  His fight was in the courtrooms and the senate.  His influence on latin was immense and it was he, not Caesar, who was the model for written and spoken latin.

He was a great lawyer and a great liar.  He maintained that no argument was so weak that oratory could not make it believable.  If he had no argument he attacked the defendant, or he made one up.  “I criticize by creation; not by finding fault”.

His greatest lie was his defence of the Roman Republic.  He sided with the Senate.  He defended the “republican” rights of ordinary Romans while at every step he opposed the reforms proposed by the Caesar camp to provide land and voting rights to the commons.  In public he defended the rights of a class of poor people that in private he despised.  In this he serves as the posterboy for that class of politician who adopts populism to mask an extreme capitalist agenda.  The kind of politician who tries to sell trickle down economics as an excuse to tax the poor and exempt the rich.

Every plutocrat and oligarch should study the works of Marcus Tullius Cicero.

Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus

Roman Empire Gold Aureus Emperor Nero (54-68 AD) XF NGC ...

Born on this day, December 15th, 37 AD, the great, great grandson of Emperor Augustus, known popularly as Nero, he was the last emperor of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty.

Nero was a populist.  He instigated broad improvement and reform programmes in his reign, and entertained the people with games, plays and music.  All of which was funded by taxing the rich.  As a result the wealthy Romans and Provincial magnates hated him and made numerous attempts to assassinate him.

The greatest damage to his name in posterity was his supposed persecution of Christians.  The great fire of Rome in 64 AD destroyed a quarter of the city.  Accounts of what happened vary, but the version handed down by the Medieval Christian Church is the one that stuck.  Nero fiddled while Rome burned (violins had not been invented).  He burned down the city himself to create space for his personal mansion.  He blamed the Christians and had them fed to the lions in the Colosseum (which had not yet been built).

When Rome was rebuilt after the fire the insulae were well spaced on broad boulevards and constructed of brick, greatly reducing the risk of future conflagrations.  At the heart of the rebuilding was the Domus Aurea, the Golden House of Nero, the palace that drew the wrath of the wealthy taxpayers.

In the vestibule of the Domus Nero erected a 100 foot bronze statue of himself, called the Colossus of Nero.  For reference it was about the same size as the Statue of Liberty in New York.  A generation later when the Flavians were building their amphitheatre they they modified the statue to convert it from Nero to a representation of Sol, the Roman Sun God.

In 128 AD Emperor Hadrian had the Colossus moved, a feat requiring the aid of 24 elephants and had it erected outside the Flavian amphitheatre.  The Romans nicknamed the Flavian the “Colosseum” because of the statue, and the name stuck.

Quandiu stabit coliseus, stabit et Roma;
quando cadit coliseus, cadet et Roma;
quando cadet Roma, cadet et mundus.

While the Colossus stands, Rome stands;
when the Colossus falls, Rome falls;
when Rome falls, the world falls.

Attributed to the Venerable Bede, the 8th Century monk, Father of English History.

 

 

Goths of Rome

Goths

Two Goths pose with a smiling girl dressed in black.

These days if you find Goths in Rome they are likely to be nihilistic teenagers with pale skin, dressed head to toe in black.  If they seem over emotional they may be emos rather than goths.  Tribes of teenagers sacking the city of Rome may seem absurd but in ancient days the Gothic armies were probably heavily manned by teenage warriors.

The first and most famous invasion was the “Sack of Rome” by the Visigoths under Alaric.  When people speak of “Barbarians at the Gates” it is a direct reference to the Sack in 410 AD.  Not the first sack of Rome, but the first since the attack by the Gauls under Brennus some 800 years earlier.

Once breached Rome fell prey to many new opportunists.  The Vandals carried off any portable wealth that the Visigoths left when, led by Genseric, they sacked the city 455 AD.

The Goths rounded off the “4 Sacks of Ancient Rome” in 546 AD when the Ostrogoths under Totila sacked the city.

The Ostrogoths also tried in 537 AD when Belisarius occupied the City in his reconquest of Italy for Emperor Justinian.  Belisarius was Justinian’s favourite general, victor over the Persians at the battle of Dara, victor of the Vandals, the man who saved Constantinople from the Nike riots, when the people of new Rome rioted because of the shortage of good running shoes. OK, maybe that’s a lie.  The Greek for victory is Nika, from the Goddess of victory, Nike.  The password for the rioters was the word they shouted at the chariot races, so they were the Nika riots (victory riots).  When Phil Knight decided to make running shoes he decided to call them after the Greek Goddess of Victory, and as a point of information the final e in Nike is pronounced as it is in all Greek female names such as Phoebe, Penelope, Ariadne and Chloe.

It was on this day in 537 that the Siege of Rome by the Ostrogoths began.  There was no Ostrogothic sack of Rome in 537, which kind of gives a hint to how the siege will end.  Strangely enough I am currently reading Robert Graves “Count Belisarius” and by coincidence I reached the Siege of Rome on exactly the anniversary of the Siege of Rome.

As a novel Count Belisarius is not a patch on I Claudius which is a masterpiece.  The account of Belisarius reads far more like a history book than a novel.  Unlike with Claudius the author fails to bring the characters to life as living breathing people.  It is an interesting and very accurate account of events, but it struggles as a novel.

Bellisarius

Carpe Diem

Born in the Consulship of Cotta and Torquatus (65BC) the poet we now know as Horace lived through the greatest era of Roman History.  In the year he was born Pompey Magnus was at the very height of his power.  He was fighting Tigranes in Armenia and Mithridates the Great.  Julius Caesar was Consul in Horace’s second year of life, and Cicero was consul in his third year.

He lived through the two Civil wars that defined the boundary between Republican Rome and Imperial Rome.  Too young to participate in the Civil War of Julius Caesar.  He found himself on the wrong side in the Octavian civil war at the Battle of Philippi (42BC) where he was on the losing side with Brutus and Cassius.

Luckily Horace was favoured by Maecenas, Octavians right hand man and an avid patron of the arts.  Horace became an Imperial court poet under Augustus.  He was in the inner circle during the creation of the Roman Empire.  He saw the young Octavian rise to become Princeps and then Augustus.

So, as it is your birthday, Happy Birthday Horace.  Seize the day!

 

Ode I-XI “Carpe Diem”; by Quintus Horatius Flaccus

Ask not Leuconoë for we never know
what fate the gods grant, your fate or mine.
Waste no time on futile Babylonian astrological reckonings.
Better by far to suffer what comes
whether Jupiter grants us more winters or if this, our last
is stripped away like those cliffs by the Tyrrhenian sea.
Be wise, mix the wine, life is short, temper your long term ambitions.
Time is envious of this moment, even as we speak: Seize the day, trust not to tomorrow.

The missing Menorah

Titus.png

On this day in AD 70 the siege of Jerusalem ended with the destruction of the Second Temple by Titus, son of Vespasian, at the head of a Roman army.

According to the historian Josephus the Menorah of the temple was taken as spoils of war and brought back to Rome.  It was carried in the Triumphal Procession of Vespasian and Titus and is recorded on the Arch of Titus.

Using the spoils taken from Jerusalem Vespasian constructed the Templum Pacis, the temple of peace in the Forum of Vespasian.  The Menorah was stored in the temple for hundreds of years until the sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 AD.

The Vandals brought the Menorah back with them to their capital in Carthage, in the Roman African province, modern day Tunisia.

One hundred years later the Vandals had become soft from living on the fat of the land.  Their armies were no longer the terror of the western Mediterranean.  Emperor Justinian of the Eastern Roman Empire sent his favourite general, Belisarius, to retake Africa for Rome.  In 533 AD Belisarius defeated the armies of King Gelimer and his brothers.

According to the historian Procopius the Menorah was found amongst the treasures of the Vandals and was taken to Constantinople.  It was displayed in the Ovation given by Justinian to his victorious general.  Gelimer was prostrated before the Emperor, and was allowed to live out his life on a Roman estate.

According to Procopius Justinian gave the Menorah back to the Jews in Jerusalem.  On the one hand it is hard to believe that such an ardent Christian emperor would have given this treasure to people he regarded as little short of heretics.  On the other hand he may have looked at the fate of the Second Temple, Rome and Carthage and wondered if he really wanted to keep the Menorah in his capital.

Whatever the truth this is the end of the tale for the Menorah.  It is never seen again.  Some say it is hidden in the Vatican City and the Vandals never found it.  Others say it was looted from Jerusalem when the Persians sacked the city in 614 AD.  Some think it was in a ship that sank in the Tibur when the Vandals were leaving Rome and that it lies at the bottom of the sea outside Ostia.  Others think it was still in Jerusalem during the Crusades and was taken by the Knights Templar.  Whatever the truth it is a tempting theme for a “Da Vinci Code” style adventure, or a new quest for Indiana Jones.

Psalm III : by Allen Ginsberg
To God: to illuminate all men. Beginning with Skid Road.
Let Occidental and Washington be transformed into a higher place, the plaza of eternity.
Illuminate the welders in shipyards with the brilliance of their torches.
Let the crane operator lift up his arm for joy.
Let elevators creak and speak, ascending and descending in awe.
Let the mercy of the flower’s direction beckon in the eye.
Let the straight flower bespeak its purpose in straightness — to seek the light.
Let the crooked flower bespeak its purpose in crookedness — to seek the light.
Let the crookedness and straightness bespeak the light.
Let Puget Sound be a blast of light.
I feed on your Name like a cockroach on a crumb — this cockroach is holy.