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2016-09-04
Building for the future
One of the problems with living on a mountainside is that while there's a great view, a certain degree of effort has to go into preventing one's home and its contents from sliding down into the undoubtedly scenic valley below.

At present that effort is being done by the roadworks people, who are rebuilding the embankment in front of the house. This is admirable, and a great use of my tax dollars even if it is hard to work when an orange-painted steel monster is chewing through concrete and tarmac a few feet from the window.

I observed to an engineer that the current embankment seems to be a much bigger project than its predecessor. He told me that previously such embankments were designed to last fifty years. The current thinking is that the job gets done once and permanently. Certainly with the amount of concrete they are pouring, this one looks set to outlast the pyramids.

That got me thinking about the Romans,who certainly shared the engineer's point of view. Indeed, many Roman bridges, water pipes and buildings are still in use in modern Italy and functioning as well as they did sixteen hundred years ago.

However, the academic in me warns that there's a certain fallacy here. We think the Romans were great builders, because we judge them by the buildings that survive. On the other hand, the Romans had their share of lousy builders too, but their works did not survive to condemn them. However, ancient writers were well aware of the many collapsible fire-traps in which they lived and worked.

Likewise, future generations may well examine the monumental embankment being erected in front of the house and form an entirely misguided opinion about our Ministry of Roads.
 
2016-08-04
Apples and oranges
There's a lot of comparisons between the ancient and modern world going around at the moment. Just this week I read one impassioned rant that 'immigrants are destroying the USA, just like they did ancient Rome' (they didn't) and that 'Donald Trump is America's Julius Caesar' (he isn't).

Even academics are not immune. Recently while studying unequal relationships in Roman society, I came across two 'comparison studies'. One looked at slavery in the American south and the other at marriage in the Georgian era in Britain. The aim was to see what these better documented times could tell us about marriage and slavery in Rome. The problem with such studies is that, in my humble opinion, they do not work either.

Roman slavery and Roman marriage were as different from their modern equivalents as, well, Donald Trump is from Julius Caesar. (Can you really imagine The Donald leading legions of American soldiers across the Rubicon/Potomac to take on the US senate? No, me neither.)

American slavery was profoundly coloured by racism in a way that did not exist in Rome. Horace, poet and friend of the Emperor Augustus, was the son of a slave. I can't imagine the president of the Confederacy sharing drinks and girls - with Horace's American counterpart. For the Romans, slavery was a (potentially temporary) affliction that could happen to anyone crushed by misfortune. For the southern Americans, it was inherent in a particular race. As a result of this difference alone (there are many others) we are looking at two very different institutions which have the same name.

Likewise, marriage in Georgian England was seen as a merging of two people into one legal entity, religiously sanctioned, and for life. Roman women kept their names, and their finances were separate from their husbands. Their dowries were given back when they got divorced. And they got divorced often. Consequently the mindset and expectations of people going into a Georgian and Roman marriage were so different as to make them, again, two different institutions.

I could go on, but I'll finish with the story of a drunk who was scrabbling around under a lamp post looking for his keys. He had lost them in the alley, but the light was not as good back there.
 
2016-07-04
Tempora Mutantur
The other day I heard a presenter on TV listing all the ways that the makers of the show could be contacted, including 'old-fashioned email'. Sorry was that 'old fashioned'? Actually, on reflection, for a younger generation this is indeed the case. I got my first email address in 1990 probably around the time the presenter of the TV show was born. Though we never see it happening from day-to-day, we are living in an era of whirlwind technological change. That's something that makes us very different from the Romans.

Let us take a Roman from the era of Augustus almost exactly two thousand years ago. Show him the technology of five hundred years previously and there was very little that he would not consider an everyday item in his own home. Pots were pots, and the Roman's pots were probably slightly inferior to those the Athenians were producing half a millennium previously. The Roman's clothing was cloth woven no differently to the cloth woven for Romulus when he founded the city. Communications which have changed out of all recognition in the twentieth century still consisted of the Roman writing on a wax tablet and sending the message off with a messenger.

Now move that Roman forward five hundred years to the end of the empire. Apart from noticing how much standards had deteriorated, that Roman would have had no trouble fitting in with the technology of that day. Things really had not changed that much.

Now try doing the same thing by imagining how a Briton from Shakespeare's day might cope with the 21st century. It's not hard to conceive of how much that Briton would struggle when you remember the struggle to teach your grandfather to use Skype. In fact a Roman from Julius Caesar's day would manage much more happily in Shakespeare's Britain 1,500 years later than someone of 150 years ago can cope in ours.

This leads to a mental disconnect. We are accustomed to the future bringing constant technological change, with all its advantages and dangers. The Romans saw time as pretty much static, with the only real changes happening in the political field. For them the world they would leave their grandchildren was the same world that they currently lived in. It gave them a sense of continuity that is simply impossible for the generations living today.
 
2016-06-03
Ferroursus
Yesterday I was in my study reading up on meteorite iron. This is fascinating stuff. Apparently several times every year lumps of iron-nickel alloy drop from space on to the Earth. These visitors from space do not last very long, because the Earth is a naturally damp place. Unless our meteorite happened to land in the middle of a desert, oxidation would turn it into a pile of rust within a decade or so. This is what happened to all the iron on Earth long before humans were around, and that's what makes it so fascinating.

In early antiquity, no-one knew how to extract iron from iron ore. The use of charcoal and bellows to create the necessary temperatures in a smelter had not yet been discovered, so the only usable iron available to humanity came from meteorites. This made iron many times more precious than gold, and much rarer than diamonds. This is why even in historical times, Roman senators used to wear rings made of iron, a reflection of the times when possession of even a tiny amount of the stuff marked the owner as a man of wealth and prestige. Tutankhamun was buried with an iron dagger beside him. (The technology existed for the precious metal to be heated and hammered into shape, since this required lower temperatures than smelting did.)

It would have amazed those prehistoric peoples to know that in later centuries iron would be so abundant that people would for example lay thousands of miles of it in railroad tracks, and casually abandon large rusting hulks of iron in scrapyards. Perhaps in future ages nanobots will re-sculpt carbon into diamond structures that will be more common than brick houses are today.

So preoccupied was I in reading up on all this that I apparently failed to notice that a young black bear was wandering around a few feet away on the deck outside. The bear even went and parked himself under the study window for a while. He then hoisted himself onto his back legs to contemplate the neighbours in their back yard, before going off to rummage through my garden shed for anything edible.

It's this combination of ancient history and mountain living that so enriches life at the moment. I love it.
 
2016-05-04
Feeling smug
This week I went looking for an island. Not to retire to, since I need to sell a lot more books first. Actually, I was looking for this island because it ought to have been there. When I found it, it turned out to be a peninsula, which from my point of view was just as good.

The location was ancient Chalcedon, which is sometimes called 'The City of the Blind' because the city's founders apparently overlooked the much more suitable site just over the Bosporus Strait a site which went on to become the city of Byzantium, Constantinople and modern Istanbul. Let's assume, though, that the people who founded Chalcedon knew their stuff. Why did they pick the apparently less favourable site?

For different reasons I've recently looked at the foundation of two other ancient cities Halicarnassus and Syracuse. Though far apart, these two places had something in common with Chalcedon. They were the first settlements on a foreign coast, far from their homeland. In each case the original settlement happened on an island just off the coast - Zephyria for Halicarnassus, Ortygia for Syracuse. On reflection, the reason was obvious a base just off the coast allowed the settlers to get to know the locals and set up trade and diplomatic links before extending the settlement to the mainland. If things got really nasty with the natives, the island remained a fortress of last resort from which the settlers could be evacuated by sea.

Therefore, I decided, Chalcedon was settled where it was because there was an island just off the coast. So I went looking for an island just off Chalcedon. What I found was Kadikoy a peninsula with a very narrow neck which could easily be walled off from the mainland to make a virtual island. In fact, because Ortygia is now a similar peninsula in Syracuse, I might check if Kadikoy actually was an island in the Archaic era.

Either way, it shows that the people who settled Chalcedon had good reason to act as they did. When Byzantium was settled later, it did not need an island bolt-hole off the coast friendly Chalcedon was a few kilometers away. The Chalcedonian settlers were not 'blind' - they simply got there first.
 

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