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2021-01-07
The rumour mill
This morning someone commiserated with me that as a Canadian I have to wear a red face mask until I have been vaccinated, and must suffer a considerable loss of civil liberties until that happy event. This is according to a Facebook post, complete with a painstakingly faked picture of a 'government' announcement.

It was easy enough to demonstrate that this report was total crap (Canadians actually wear home-made masks in a huge variety of colours and patterns). However, without a handy Canadian to refer to, or the various Provincial Health websites to check, one can imagine how scurrilous mischief like this can spread, literally unchecked.

This is why I take stories of the scandalous misbehaviour of the early Julio-Claudian emperors with a hearty bucketload of salt. Take the dirty deeds of the emperor Tiberius - a strait-laced old killjoy if ever there was. He probably left Rome because he could not stand the city or the Romans within it. Yet rather than face that somewhat insulting fact, the Romans preferred to believe that Tiberius wanted a place where he could be debauched in private. (This despite the fact that these debaucheries - real or imaginary - were broadcast so immediately that Tiberius might as well have stayed in Rome.)

Fake news is not a modern phenomenon, and it does not help that the Roman political tradition included spreading whatever ghastly stories one could dream up about an opponent in the hope that some mud would stick. (Cicero calls one man a 'parricide', even though we know his father was alive.)

Modern rumours about mask-based segregation in Canada are easy enough to disprove, But with rumours from Rome two thousand years ago, that's often all we historians have to go on.
 
2020-12-03
Roman Roots

'We felt he was an ideal candidate and after his inaugural speech, we felt vindicated.'

It may seem odd that the above sentence shows how deeply Roman culture has embedded itself in modern life, but that's why it is a good example of how we're still Romans without realizing it. Let us examine the sentence more closely.

Why a 'candidate'? Because when an ancient Roman politician stood for election, he indicated the fact by wearing a toga carefully whitened with chalk dust. (We wear black for mourning because the Romans wore black togas on such occasions). A white toga was called a 'toga candida' - so someone wearing such a toga, or later having the potential for selection in any field, became a 'candidate'.

Now on to Roman temples. A Roman temple was not any religious building, but one specifically used for divining the will of the gods by the taking of the auspices. Until this had been done by a priest with the job of taking the auspices - such a priest was called an augur - the building was not a temple because it had not been 'inaugurated'.

Finally we come to a Roman slave who laid accusations of treason against his masters. Those masters claimed that the slave was making false accusations out of spite, but eventually their nefarious plotting was uncovered and the slave - whose name was Vindicus - was-; well you can guess the rest.

It's not just language that has absorbed so much Roman culture - from the bride carried over the threshold to flowers laid on a grave, we are doing as the Romans once did.
 
2020-11-03
The united colours of Rome
There's two reasons for gathering nuts in October - one is because they're lying free on the ground, and we always get through a lot of nuts at Christmas. The other reason is because the nuts are lying free on the ground, and if we don't eat them the bears will, and then they'll come back for more and bring the family. And if the nuts are on the ground in your back yard means that essential winterizing of the yard doesn't get done while you wait for the coast to clear.

So earlier this week we were hulling walnuts by the hundred. Those of you who don't live in civilization (i.e. city-dwellers) might not have seen a walnut fresh off the tree. It looks something between a plum and a prune, and this fleshy outer layer must be peeled away to expose the large nut inside. Doing this reveals why walnuts (nux gallica) were the go-to brown dye in antiquity - and in fact the juice is still used as a wood stain today. The Romans went further and not only used the dye on wood, but also for clothing and hair. I can testify from personal experience that it also works great on hands, kitchen counters and anything else one might be careless enough to let it touch.

I'm assured that black walnut makes a splendid black dye also, but black walnut trees are American, and so were not available to the Greeks and Romans. Instead the Romans used a mix of oak gall and iron when they needed to stain clothing black. In fact if you are not to worried about your clothing being colour-fast mother nature provides almost every colour of dye under the sun and generally for the cost of a walk into the local forest. You are particularly lucky if your forest provides saffron, which it probably doesn't unless you live in the eastern Mediterranean, because a tiny amount of saffron colours huge amounts of cloth.
 
2020-10-04
Getting away
Things are always pretty frantic at this time of year. For a start the new academic year is starting with students and colleagues back in the saddle and new projects kicking off. Then there's the Frankfurt book fair, and editors desperately pushing for captions and final tweaks to texts they hope to sell to foreign publishers. There's always a book with a December deadline that I need to get cracking on, and often articles and online lectures besides.

Add to that autumnal activities at home, where we are frantically bottling and canning any of the season's bounty we can't turn into jam. (I must have made a gallon of plum jam this last fortnight.) The garden needs winterizing, and the fences and roof need shoring up in places, because you can't do the job when they're under ten feet of snow. And of course, there's seven months of firewood to cut and store.

It was in pursuit of the latter objective that Friday found me in a stand of dead larch that we were logging somewhere around fifty miles from town - a town which is itself a speck of civilization in a vast boreal wilderness. It was somehow comforting to look at those miles and miles of human-free forest and mountains that, when Julius Caesar was a boy, probably looked just the same as they do now. Amid the general craziness of 2020 there are places on the planet where even the most urgent issues of today simply don't matter. I pray we can keep it like that.
 
2020-09-04
Caius Julius Trump
As we roll into (yet another) US presidential election, I've had the first of what I expect to be several journalists asking me 'Is Donald Trump a modern Julius Caesar?' These journalists always seem somewhat disappointed when I assure them that he is not, but should Trump lead the Second Airborne Regiment over the Potomac to seize control of Washington I'll be prepared to reconsider - after he has written a book in brilliantly lucid prose explaining exactly how and why he did it.

Actually Trump has something more in common with a politician called Gaius Flaminius who rose to power in 232 BC while putting the noses of the political establishment severely out of joint by a series of popular policies which thereafter led to calls for his impeachment and the threat of legal action against his associates - including his father. Unlike Caesar, Flaminius was not a good soldier and he was handily defeated and killed by Hannibal.

However, it's worth asking whether Trump, like Caesar, rose to power because of a belief that the existing political system was/is not working for ordinary people. In that sense both Caesar and Trump are symptoms rather than the cause of a deeper malaise. Rather than trying to remove obnoxious politicians from power, perhaps any nation's power-brokers need to seriously consider what got such men elected in the first place.
 

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