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2020-03-05
The Plague Year


So another of the horsemen of the apocalypse is loose and galloping around the world. War and Famine have never gone away, but oftentimes they seemed far away from those of us fortunate enough to have comfortable homes in peaceful countries.

Plague is another story. With CORVID-19 plague has found away to get to us, and our friendly neighbourhoods and well-stocked supermarkets are no defence. It's a chilling glimpse into how terrifying plagues must have been in the ancient world, when people were faced with a devastating enemy that no army could repel or city walls keep out. And yet we have only a glimpse, because for all the panic and numerous tragedies it has caused, CORVID-19 is something of a pussycat compared to some of the plagues which racked ancient societies.

The most horrifying account of an ancient plague was written by a man who lived through it – the Athenian historian Thucydides. In his usual dispassionate manner Thucydides describes the symptoms of the illness, the effects on the victim, and the equally devastating effects on Athenian society.

"Men started to live from day to day, never knowing if they would see another … Anything that gratified a passing whim or brought pleasure was considered worth doing, or even honourable. No-one cared about the laws of gods or men, for they saw that those who worshipped the gods died in equal numbers to those who did not, and no man worried about the consequences of committing crimes because he expected to be dead long before the courts could pass judgement."
(Thuc. 2.53)

The causes of the Thucydides plague are uncertain, though some variant of typhoid seems the best bet. What is certain that it killed more than the 1-4% which seems the maximum casualty rate of the present about-to-be pandemic, and even the modern figures are bad enough.

We are often reminded of the fragility of modern civilization, but perhaps we can draw a certain strength from the fact that our forebears have been through a great deal worse - and survived. In fact, even with plague tearing the city apart, the Athenians did not even take time off in their long war against Sparta.


 
2020-02-04
Life at the (mountain)top
Clearing out the wardrobe the other day, I found a T-shirt I haven't worn for years. At it turned out, I still can't wear it, because it no longer fits. The stomach bit was understandable, as I have become more rotund over the years, but it was rather surprising that the garment was also way too tight on the chest and shoulders.

Thinking about it more, it occurred to me that living in the mountains is something of a full-body workout. Consider this morning for example, which started with shovelling snow. Pick up around 10kg of snow on the end of a specially designed shovel (more of a scoop) bend the knees, straighten the back and hurl the snow off the shovel. The hurl needs considerable force, as it's February, and all the convenient places to hurl snow have long since filled up, so the snow now needs to land on top of a 2-metre high pile of previously hurled snow. Repeat forty or fifty times. Then consider that it snowed for all but five days last month.

Then this evening I'll tee up a round of birch weighing 20kg or so (a 'round' is a cross section of tree trunk around 40 cm high), and I'll swing a 12kg wood splitting maul over my head and bring it down with considerable force, repeating the exercise until the birch has split into the night's firewood. Repeat almost every night from October to May. Tomorrow, by way of relaxation I'll walk up Mt Lepsoe on snowshoes, a climb of almost half a kilometre, using ski poles to take the strain off my leg muscles.

Summer, is different – no shovelling or splitting firewood - but there's gathering those trees from the forest, mountain hikes and swims and other ways of keeping active. The first time I went kayaking, I was surprised that paddling was not as hard as I had expected. On reflection, perhaps that's not so surprising.

(As an addendum, just as I was finishing this piece, my wife asked me to fetch up a 20kg sack of flour from the basement. Seriously, if you live hereabouts, who needs a gym?)
 
2020-01-05
MMXX will be different(ish)!
Recently I heard a politician on a radio interview trying to weasel his way out of his broken election promises by explaining that these promises were 'aspirational' rather than actually achievable. This immediately struck me as an approach that can be applied to New Year's resolutions, so herewith are my 'aspirations' for 2020.

a. Be more sociable
In 2019, I had three books to either write or complete and several other projects on the go besides. As a result I tended to work late and was rather distracted when in company. Somehow I'm happier contemplating Polybius' approach to stasis than (for example) little Skylar's transition from diapers to potty.

b. Attempt Thucydides in the original Greek
Thuc. (as he is known to his friends) is a great writer, and this comes across even in translation. I am assured that he is even better in the original. Probably, if not that his participles and rare verb tenses are so convoluted that they have a tendency to vanish up their own πρωκτός. But in 2020 I shall wrap a wet towel around my head and try.

c. Get out more
Now this resolution may seem to be a re-affirmation of a. and a direct contradiction of b. but getting out does not necessarily mean socializing. Just yesterday my wife and I were out – alone - in the middle of a snow-bound forest, many miles from anywhere. Hours tramping along in snowshoes allows plenty of time to consider mimetic description in Thuc. (and much else).

d. Cook less
We have a freezer bulging with rolls, bagels and different types of bread. We have so many cheeses maturing downstairs that we need another fridge. I give fresh pasta to the neighbours. Whenever I feel bored or in need of distraction I head for the kitchen. We'll be eating Xmas sausage rolls, cinnamon buns and Christmas cake until Easter. Self-restraint is needed.
 
2019-12-03
Do Christmas your way!
At this time of year we are often urged to return to the 'true spirit of Christmas'. Generally, my response is that if Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Christ, we should have done this some time in September. If on the other hand,we are celebrating to bring light and joy into the darkest time of winter, we have exactly hit the spot. Now those who want to bring light and joy through religious ceremonies should most definitely do so, and come Christmas day I'll be in church belting out carols with the best of them.

But let's accept that those who want to celebrate Christmas otherwise also have a point. After all, there was a midwinter festival, the Saturnalia, in ancient Rome a quarter of a millennium before Christ. This featured parties, exchange of gifts, and a public holiday. Celebrations reached a high point on December 25th. So it's not as if Christians have exclusive rights here.

Furthermore winters in Bethlehem are pretty brutal. Those shepherds watching their flocks by night on December 25th would be regarding lumps of frozen mutton. Sheep were kept indoors until spring. And brutal and sadistic though the Romans might occasionally be, they would not order Mary and Joseph to register for a census in mid-December because winter conditions would make an accurate count impossible. Nor indeed, is there any suggestion until several centuries after the event that Christ was born on Christmas day. (He was probably also born in 4 B.C. - four years Before Christ, but that's another matter.)

In other words, the holiday season is a time to celebrate the joy of life no matter how bleak things may be otherwise. But given the evidence, I'd politely disagree that we should be dictating to others how to do that celebrating.
 
2019-11-04
The Stone that Speaks
There's a deal I have with quite a few classically-minded friends and acquaintances. They send me pictures from their visits to antique sites around the Mediterranean, and in exchange I answer their questions about what they are looking at. It was while I was keeping up my side of one of these bargains that a visitor to my house asked me why I had been staring at the same picture on my computer screen for the past ten minutes. (Friends are free to visit me in working hours, so long as they accept that I'll largely ignore their presence.)

I replied that I was reading a statue. The thing is that one person's human-shaped lump of stone is someone else's complex socio-political commentary. Consider, for example, the statue's hands. These are not generally included only because arms have to end somewhere -they are almost always telling us something.

My fellow for example, seems to be in the process of making the thumb-and-index finger circle that can mean 'A-okay' in most western countries (and 'please beat me up for insulting you' in Brazil). For a Roman, it means that he was an early Christian, because the relevant part of the gesture is the three remaining fingers, representing the Trinity. Another common gesture is one raised finger, which tells us that the subject is addressing someone. (Indeed Cicero gives us a complete lexicon of hand gestures and their significance in rhetoric.)

Whether the fingers are pointed upward or downward can be relevant, and what the hands are holding has a message of its own – for example, a small bowl suggests either an interest in religion or public service, depending on the type of bowl and other visual clues. And so far we have just looked at the hands. Other things to look for apart from hands include style of carving, posture, clothing, headgear, hair, facial hair, facial expression, jewellery and symbolic animals. A good statue can easily take up to an hour to understand fully.
 

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