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2021-03-04
Different times, different styles
Over more decades than I care to remember I must have written several million words, from my first schoolboy essays through terse screeds as a journalist and on to my current profession as a writer of ancient history. During all this time I never thought of my style as evolving, but it definitely has. Recently I had occasion to look up something in my old doctoral thesis, and found myself instinctively reaching for a pen to bring the style of the prose in line with my current preferences.

Young Me had a somewhat telegraphic style, a preference for saying thing as succinctly as possible, never using two words where one would do, and with a fatal fondness for ellipsis. Young Me was also punctilious about grammar and stylistic convention, never ending sentences with a preposition, and taking care not to split infinitives. The result was certainly clean, spare writing – the trouble is that it was also hard work for the reader, because I wrote at my own pace rather than the reader's.

These days I am more laid-back in my approach to grammar - if an infinitive needs to be vigorously split, then split it is. Finishing sentences with a preposition is something I am now comfortable with. The focus now is on the reader. How easy is it to grasp the meaning of the sentence? How clearly does the sentence convey the emotion I want the reader to feel? Can I, as a writer, vanish into the page so that the reader interacts directly with the ideas behind the text and hardly notices how those ideas are being transmitted?

Lately a lot of my books have been converted into audio format, and to the extent that these have worked well, it is because these days I read my text aloud once it has been finalized. Now and then I stumble while reading, or a have to look back in a paragraph to locate the noun referred to by a pronoun. Older Me regards such occasions as errors. Young Me would have paused, checked that the grammar was good, and moved on.

Tempora mutantur, et in illis mutamo sum.
 
2021-02-04
Winter woes
'A perfectly ordinary winter, except the fun parts have been surgically extracted.' That was a friend's description of the past few months. For her, the 'fun parts' include skiing, ice-skating, dinners with friends and meetings in coffee shops. All of which hit Covid like the Titanic hit the iceberg.

For myself I am more than grateful that the same pandemic that has killed so many and wrecked the lives of millions more has left me largely untouched. Definitely I would like to get out to the mountains and sit in a hut enjoying coffee at 6000 feet while the snow swirls outside but not doing so is something I can live with (literally).

Most of the time I'm at the computer (currently researching syncretic themes in sky gods) reading Diogenes Laertius or in the kitchen where I've recently discovered using shortcrust pastry in baking Polish recipes. None of these are disease-affected, and now that hockey has returned to TV the 'fun parts' of my winter mostly remain in place.

It occurred to me that most of my friend's fun has been sabotaged because it involves other people - it's not just her skiing and skating, but doing it with friends. Since I've never actually met some of my friends in the flesh, and Diogenes Laertius is unlikely to infect me with anything other than a passion for stoic philosophy, I have almost the same amount of company as before. This includes cats.

It also occurs to me that the unfun parts of winter remain firmly in place. Shovelling snow off the roof and garden path and scraping ice off the car windscreen remain daily - and solitary - occupations.


 
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.
 

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