Monday, December 7, 2009

No, I Don't Like Cicero, And I'm Glad You Asked

On this day in 43 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero was killed by his political opponents in the civil war which had been sparked the year before when Julius Caesar was assassinated and which pretty much came to an end a dozen years later when Caesar's appointed heir, Octavian, defeated Mark Anthony and Cleopatra on his way to becoming Augustus Caesar.

If only Cicero's killers had finished the job and managed to lose his voluminous writings as well.

Cicero has probably been hands-down the most popular of all the ancient Latin authors for most or all of the time between his time and ours. He was one of the most powerful politicians of his day, and a lawyer, and volumes and volumes of his speeches, political and legal, have been preserved, and volumes of his rhetorical and philosophical works, and still more volumes of his letters, and almost everybody thinks he's soooo brilliant, and it makes me sick! I prefer Ovid and Sallust and Horace and Livy and Caesar and practically any other ancient Latin. I am so over Cicero. I'd rather read Curtius Rufus! Not Nepos, though. I'm not insane. What a boring pedestrian ordinary mind Cicero had. Unfortunately, many thousands of pages of his writings survive today, while from the writings of many of his brilliant contemporaries only a volume or two has survived, or just a few sentences, or nothing at all.

A few other people -- not many -- have expressed the same opinion, or at least objected to an overemphasis upon Cicero as the pinnacle of Latin prose, to be meticulously studied and emulated. A large part of the literary part of what is now known as the Rennaissance consisted -- unfortunately -- of striving to write Latin the way Cicero did.

Nietzsche, as far as I can recall, did not mention Cicero in his writings at all, neither in his philosophical works nor in his letters nor in the philological works which proceeded his philosophical works. That's a very notable -- no, it's a downright strange omission for a 19th-century professor of philology. Nietzsche wasn't shy about denouncing literary figures generally regarded as heroes. In Götzen- Dämmerung,for example, he described Dante as "the hyena who composes poetry in graves," dismissed Zola's celebration of the working class as "the joy of stinking," called Carlyle's work "pessimism in the form of lunch coming back up" and dismissed a dozen others from the pantheon of Western Civ, from the ancient Roman Seneca down to his own time -- all in one paragraph!

So it wasn't shyness which kept Nietzsche from ripping Cicero a new one. I suspect it was simple boredom. Nietzsche does write, however, about how when he was a schoolboy how astonished his Latin teacher had been when he, the poorest student in the class, suddenly became the best, as soon as he came into contact with Sallust,and how his first contact with Horacewas equally inspiring.

For a man in Nietzsche's position, not mentioning Cicero at all actually says a lot. It says: enough already with this chump. There are better things to talk about.

PS, 20. October 2015: WRONG!! Nietzsche mentions Cicero positively in Jenseitz von Gut und Boese 247, citing him alongside Demosthenes as an ancient master of the period, a thing which Nietzsche says is unknown to his German audience: a passage meant to be read aloud, swelling twice to a crescendo and then fading again twice, all in one breath. So, once again, I am a Bozo. Sorry bout that. (I still don't like Cicero.)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Adventures in Google Books, Pt 1

Last night I was looking at a lot of different public-domain editions of Velleius Paterculuson Google Books. (Yeah, that's right, I'm a wild man, tearin' it up on Saturday night.) (Velleius Paterculus was an ancient Roman who wrote a history of Rome.) And it was really fascinating. Mostly 19th-century editions, many 18th- and 17th-, the oldest one I've seen so far is from 1590. The 18th-centiry editions tend to have very fanciful etchings on or near the title pages. I wish I could link a couple of them here but I haven't figured out how to link Google Book pages.

And I take back what I said about extremely-long critical apparatus and prefaces and on and on being a recent sign of doom. Some currently-published editions of Latin classics may have a lot of non-text in them compared to your typical one from the early 20th or late 19th century -- that'd been my main point of comparison up until now -- but they've got nothing on some 18th-century editions, in which prefaces follow each other like clowns getting out of a tiny car, more and more of them while you wonder When o when merciful Lord will it stop? followed by the main text which is one-fifth main text on an average page and four-fifths footnotes, followed by huge appendices and incredibly useless commentaries which just. Don't. End.

I was having big fun looking at all these different editions when suddenly Google Books ended my fun: every time I tried to take a look at another book I got an automated message informing me that Google suspected that my computer was sending automated requests.

It seems Google just can't imagine that an actual human being would do anything like that for fun.

And you still can't search for pages, or books, written in Latin on Google. There are over 1,000 hits for a Google Book search for public domain books written by Velleius Paterculus, a relatively obscure author, most of them in Latin, untranslated. You can do a search in Icelandic or freakin Esperanto -- Esperanto?! You know what? I hope not -- but not in Latin.

Anyway, for the moment Google is back to not suspecting me of -- doing what, exactly? Last night it began refusing my requests to search in public-domain material -- so I'm back to looking at different editions of Velleius Paterculus.

Friday, November 27, 2009

"Deus lo volt!"

On this day 914 years ago, 27 November 1095, at the Council of Clermont, Pope Urban II called for a holy war against the Muslims, who had been in control of Jesrusalem and much of area considered the Holy Land by Christians, Moslins and Jews alike, since the seventh century, and had recently been at war with the Byzantine Empire in Asia Minor. More specifically, it was the Seldjuk Turks who were warring with the Byzantines in Asia Minor. Although the Christians of western Europe tended to view the Islamic world as one entity, in fact different states struggled with one another and rose and fell much as they did in the Christian West. The immediate impulse for Urban's call for holy war had been a request for military aid from emissaries of the Byzantine Emperor Alexius who spoke at an earlier Council, at Piacenza in March 1095. The war was going well for the Byzantines, there was little reason to doubt that the declining Seldjuk power would soon be beaten back from the environs of the Byzantine capitol at Constantinople, but Alexius felt it would go better still with more troops. Much of the Byzantine army army already consisted of foreign mercenaries. Besides the Seldjuks in Turkey, the Byzantine army had to check the advances of tribal people across the Danube, and of the Empire's always-restive Bulgarian subjects.

However, the Byzantines felt that their appeal for military aid might carry more weight if, instead of describing the Byzantine military situation in great detail, they couched it more in terms of a struggle of all Christendom, Catholic West and Byzantine, Orthodox East, against their common Muslim foe. The Emperor's emissaries were well-received in Piacenza, and Pope Urban took their message and expanded upon it in his famous address at Clermont, held outdoors because the crowds which came were too big for the town's cathedral to hold. Urban described the infidels' control of the Holy Lands as an outrage, mentioned -- and very probably greatly exaggerated -- the hardships of Christian pilgrims at the hands of Moslims and the desecrations of holy Christian sites.

Alexius definitely got more than he had asked for, and Urban, too, soon saw the movement he had called to life grow beyond his control. It is reported that as he spoke, a cry of "Deus lo volt!" ("God wills it!) spread through the huge crowd. Before the main army of the First Crusade, made up of nobles and their followers, got underway, a more spontaneous crowd of tens of thousands, few of them skilled soldiers, mostly peasants, including many women and children, led by charismatic monks, set off from France, pausing in some cities in Germany to rob and kill Jews over the protests of bishops and other authorities. At Constantinople, perhaps at their insistence, perhaps because he was alarmed at the sight of this hungry, angry, riotous mob, numbering perhaps tens of thousands, Alexius had them promptly ferried across the Bosporus and into the path of the Seldjuk army, who promptly massacred most of them. Of those who were not killed in battle many starved or were enslaved; few ever returned to their homes in Europe.

While this fiasco reached its conclusion, the main force of the First Crusade was setting out in a rather more orderly fashion. They were hardly less alarming to the Byzantines, however, than had been the earlier mob of peasants. Alexius had asked for a few mercenaries to fill out the ranks of his army, and instead whole armies arrived, independent units whose leaders clearly had no inclination to subordinate themselves to the normal Byzantine chain of command. Indeed, to many of the western Crusaders the Byzantines seemed scarcely less foreign than any non-Christian infidels. Alexius did his best to extract oaths of fealty from the leaders of these huge armies of knights, Bohemond of Taranto, his nephew Tancred, Godfrey of Bouilion, Raymond of Toulouse and others; but there was great distrust on all sides, and later, as these western armies, like the peasants' army, were sent by Alexius as quickly as possible out of his capitol and into the fighting against the Turks and other Moslims, there were accusations on all sides of treachery and broken promises.

In the first flush of their exuberant rush toward Jerusalem the Crusaders quickly won many victories, and set up principalities for themselves, one with its capitol in Antoch, another based in Edessa, and in July 1099 they took the city of Jerusalem, and in the aftermath of their victory, in a frenzy they massacred many inhabitants of the city, Moslims, Jews and Eastern Christians, men, woman and children. It's very hard to know the number of victims of this massacre -- people tended to be much less exact with numbers in the Middle Ages -- but some Western Christian historians of the time were horrified, along with the others of the time who wrote of it; they, too, wrote of blood running deep in the streets, of thousands of helpless victims.

So that was the First Crusade, and Moslims have tended to remember the massacre which was its climax much better than it has been remembered by Christians, and so when a Western politician uses the word "Crusade" they tend to think of things like that massacre, and of a few others perpetrated since by Westerners who have called themselves Crusaders. Warriors of the Cross, killing ruthlessly, because "God wills it."

Monday, November 9, 2009

My Theory About Why the (Western Part of the) Roman Empire Came to an End in the 5th Century AD

I think it was the Huns, pure and simple. They were the worst, most frightening thing the Germanic peoples had ever seen. The Germanic tribes ran away, as fast and as far as they could, and the only place to run to was over western Europe, all the way to northern Africa. In this view of things, the short-lived empire started by Attila is the main story; the fall of the city of Rome and the western Empire is one of the side effects. The phrase "wrath of God" was originally coined to describe the Huns. The famous line of Conan's, when someone asks him what is best in life -- "To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women." -- was originally attributed to Attila.

For a long time, historians have been pondering the question of why (the western provinces of) Rome fell. Perhaps ever since they fell. Malaria has been mentioned as the culprit. Lead poisoning. Christianity, because it made the Romans stupid and weak. (A theory I like very much for sentimental reasons, strongly advanced by Edward Gibbon,who is still in many respects the last word in the historiography of the Roman empire, and whom you should read now, NOW! if you haven't already, and to which I used to subscribe, but it doesn't seem to hold water.) All of these and other theories posit that the fall happened because of some weakness or decay within Rome. My theory, on the contrary, asserts that Rome was as strong as it ever had been, that the decisive change occurred among the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks, Lombards and other tribes along the empire's border, or rather, on the other side of those tribes from Rome. I don't deny that the Dark Ages were dark in western Europe, chaotic and impoverished and miserable -- some historians do deny all of that, but that's a notion so thoroughly stupid that I've already wasted too many words on it -- but I don't see it as the culmination of a long and steady decline of the western empire, but rather as the result of a sudden cataclysm: wrath of God spreading out from central Asia, killing and burning all in its path, Germanic tribes running away in sheer terror, coincidentally overrunning the western Roman provinces, flowing over borders which had been more or less stable for centuries. According to this view, the earlier barbarian incursions, the weakening effect on the empire of increasing numbers of soldiers from barbarian backgrounds in the imperial military, corruption, impoverishment of all but a very few super-rich Romans and other symptoms of decadence would all have been greatly exaggerated in retrospect, in the constant effort to explain a weakening of the western empire which, say it with me everybody, didn't actually occur.

I could be wrong. It's just a theory. I want to be very clear about that. I don't think anyone knows for sure. I'm not at all sure why (the western part of) Rome fell. What I'm trying to do here is offer food for thought. Encouragement to examine some assumptions. And I'm certainly not the first person who's said: It was the Huns! It's very hard to know what happened in large part because a large part of the darkness of the Dark Ages consists of the very small amount of writing, historical and otherwise, which has survived, the illiteracy of the new ruling classes and the sudden obscurity of the literate classes.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

New Sensations

(Below, "MS" stands for "manuscript." Not "Microsoft." And "MSS" means "manuscripts.")

Recently for the very first time I read a MS written before the age of printing: a 12th-century MS of Sallust's Cataline Conspiracy and Jugurthian War. Not just looking at a reproduction -- there are many photographs of old MSS on the Internet, and more than a few in the books I've read. Mostly in newer edition of the texts -- and not just looking at a very old book or scroll in a glass case. No, I was allowed to touch this very old book -- very carefully, of course, and every one who examines old MSS such as this is required to wash his or her hands first -- and turn all the pages. The pages were no more than 9 by 6 inches, a large octavio or small quatro, a bit of a surprise. I guess I was used to seeing huge folio volumes in the aforementioned glass cases and in dramatic reenactments of medieval scholarship. I thought perhaps this copy of Sallust might be contained in one of those old backbreakers along with many other texts. But no, the whole book was Sallust. I had also expected the vellum to be much thicker. (It was the first time I had ever touched vellum or parchment.) These pages did not feel thicker than paper. There were 70-some leafs in the volume, and the stack of them was not much thicker than an inch, if that. I don't think the cover was the original one, but that should in no way be confused with an expert opinion. If it's the original cover it's remarkably intact. It's somewhat uneven and lumpy and fashioned from an indeterminate light-colored substance, and along its spine the volume's title is written in a hand resembling that inside.

The handwriting was small, apart from a very ornate and colorful capital o, about an inch in circumference, blue and green and much gold that looked as if it had to be actual gold, beginning Sallust's text. In the margins were many notes in various hands, much too small for me to have been able to read them had I not had a large magnifying glass. Turning the pages, I was reminded that neither the word "bookworm" nor "wormhole" had begun as a figure of speech, that their original meanings were quite literal.

I asked the librarian on duty whether anyone was there who knew a lot about these sorts of MSS. Very soon after starting to examine it I had many questions: Would the condition of this MS be considered good or poor or average compared to that of 12th-century manuscripts generally? Was the amount of marginal notes unusually large? Had this particular MS been used in the making of any editions? The librarian said no, no one expert in that particular field was there at the moment. A little later, however, she very kindly brought to my table a folder of materials, mostly letters, relating to the manuscript; she said I might find some of these items interesting. Oh yes, I did. There was a letter from the 1920's written by the man who owned the MS then, saying that he had received an offer of over $4000 dollars for it, but would rather see it end up in a public collection than in private hands, and was therefore prepared to accept a lower offer from the library. I don't remember the lower figure he suggested, but it was still several thousand dollars. There was a letter from L D Reynolds in Oxford from the 1980's, when he was preparing his edition of Sallust,asking whether the library could send him a microfilm copy of this MS, and a reply from a librarian who didn't flatly refuse the request, but expressed concern that microfilming might damage the MS. I don't know whether anything was eventually worked out so that Reynolds could see the MS or an image of it, but I have a copy of his edition, published in 1991 by Oxford Classical Texts, and I don't recall any mention of it in his preface or notes.

There was one document from the early 20th or late 19th century, describing the MS as 11th-century, and then another disputing this opinion and advancing very strongly the view that it was written in the 12th-century. I know very little about dating MSS. For now I'm accepting more or less on blind faith that scholars know what they're talking about when they assign dates to MSS. However, I have noticed that many of them, from late antiquity to the High Middle Ages -- between the 3rd and 14th centuries, roughly -- are now dated a century or so later than they were a century ago. This MS is typical of those many in that regard. Look at the siglia in editions of ancient Latin texts made before 1920, and then at editions of the same texts made after 1960, I doubt that you'll have to examine many volumes before you see a manuscript dated a century later after 1960 than it was before 1920. I can't recall a single instance of an old manuscript's generally-accepted date being revised as older. [PS, 15 July 2015: Since writing this post I have seen so many examples of manuscripts' dates being revised as older that I can't say any longer that it seems less common to me than dates being revised as more recent. Nota bene, I am still not be confused with an expert.]

Let us assume that this MS of Sallust really was written in the 12th century, and most of the marginal notes very soon after the body of text, as the catalog and the documents in the folder assert. That is what I was assuming as I was examining it. And very quickly I became quite overwhelmed at the thought. The 12th century, I said to myself. When Baldwin I through Baldwin IV and others were the Kings of Jerusalem. When William of Tyre, tutor of the leprous Baldwin IV, wrote his history of the Crusades.When Saladin eventually retook Jerusalem for Islam. I neglected to note where the MS had been written. Probably by a monk. Perhaps in Germany or France, or northern Italy. Surely the deeds accomplished beyond the sea, the great battles of Christian against Moslem in the Holy Land, must have been among the great news and excitement of the day. The monk who copied out Sallust's histories of Cataline's conspiracy and of Rome's war against Jugurtha, who began each sentence with a red letter and who painted that lovely ornate capital o at the beginning of Sallust's reports, with blue and green and gold twisting to look like coils of rope inside the o's circle -- was this monk swept up by the excitement about the Crusades? Or was he skeptical, and disturbed by all the bloodshed and fanaticism? (Or was it not a monk who wrote this? Or not a he? Very likely it was either a monk or a nun, it was what a lot of them did and few others at the time did anything of the sort.) If someone felt inwardly distanced from all this Christian fervor -- outwardly expressed distance would have been very reckless -- what could he do but study old grumpy "pagans" such as Sallust? Or perhaps he, or possibly she, was a fervent supporter of the wars in the east, and saw parallels between them and ancient Rome's struggles against the wicked troublemaker Cataline and against the African king Jugurtha?

What would he think of me writing about his MS on this computor, on this website? Was he scientifically inclined, would he be delighted to see such things, quick to grasp how they function, or would he feel nothing but shock and terror, convinced that we were all demons and witches? Will anyone read Steven Runciman 850 years from now? How much will books and means of writing change between now and then? Will Latin finally really be dead? I certainly hope not. No, certainly not. Recently I had an idea for a dystopian movie screenplay, depicting a near future where the study of history will have virtually died out, and no one will be able to read anything written more than a couple of centuries in the past. And where a Quixotic hero puts himself at some risk by inquiring into such things. Perhaps the study of Latin and Greek would actually be banned by the authorities.

It might be fun to write something like that as a satire of certain stupid present tendencies. I don't think we're headed toward such a dystopia. Not all of us, anyway. But then again, I live near the campus of one of the greatest universities in the world, which may make me overly optimistic.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Steven Runciman

James Cochran Stevenson Runciman, that is. 1903-2000, A Cambridge-educated historian who wrote mostly of medieval things, especially topics relating more or less closely to Byzantium, and best-known for his three-volume History of the Crusades,published in the 1950's and still pretty universally accepted as the standard work on the subject. I first came upon the name Runciman in William Gaddis' novel Carpenter's Gothic.If the protagonist McCandles had not so emphatically recommended Runciman to another character, I don't know when or if I ever would've read him. Now Runciman is one of my favorite authors and it's hard to imagine not having read him, not to mention not having read many of the authors Runciman mentions in his bibliographies. I first started reading medieval Latin because of Runciman's praise of Orderic Vitalisand William of Tyre

The most common criticism of Runciman is that he has a pro-Byzantine bias. The more I look into the matter, the more I think that what seems like a pro-Byzantine bias to a Western reader has above all to do with the distance between Runciman's version of events and the huge anti-Byzantine bias which has generally prevailed in the West for about as long as there has been a West -- somewhere between a thousand and fifteen hundred years, I'd say. For about that long it has been repeated like a mantra that Byzantine society was dreary and rigid -- but somehow, at the same time, decadent and luxurious. Which of course is a ridiculous contradiction in terms, it's like Americans calling Mexicans lazy and at the same time accusing them of stealing all their jobs. The simple fact is that the West is very ignorant of what went on the Greek world in the period which Westerners have called Byzantine. Few people in the West have read Greek, and most of those few have read only ancient Greek, and of the very few who read Byzantine Greek, by far the most prominent and influential has been Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,whom Runciman calls "our greatest historian," but who shared the prevailing anti-Greek bias, most of the time.

As I was saying, I don't generally agree with the accusation that Runciman was biased in favor of the Greeks, and against the West. Generally. Occasionally he gets carried away, as when he calls the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 the greatest crime in the history of humanity. It was bad, but it was not as bad as what the Europeans have done to the indigenous populations of the western hemisphere, what the Turks did to the Armenians during World War I or what the Germans did to the Jews before and during World War II. In fact, to judge from Runciman's own writings I'm hard-pressed to see how it was substantially worse than what happened when the knights of the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem. It seems clear that Runciman has a special fondness for the culture which was centered in Constantinople between the time when Constantine established the Roman capital there in the fourth century, and when it fell to the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth, and so lets his emotion overrule his judgment when describing how the city was sacked and defiled in 1204. And there's no denying that the Fourth Crusade was a thoroughly despicable and savage affair.

Aside from that, I believe that Runciman -- following directly in the footsteps of his mentor, Professor John Bagnell Bury,1861-1927, who by the way strenuously objected to the term "Byzantine" and always referred to "the later Roman Empire" -- does a great job of correcting some deep errors in the conventional view of history which prevailed in the West before him, and which still prevail, although to a lesser degree, today. Such as the whole notion of the Rennaissance. The "rebirth." The name implies that Classical culture had died, and then waited about a thousand years for Western civilisation to re-discover and give it life again. Well, bullshit. They never stopped reading Plato and Aristotle and Homer et al in the Greek world -- or in the Arab world, either. And the barbarians who had conquered the former Western Roman Empire, and then claimed to have reconstituted it again starting with Charlemagne, had with very few exceptions never learned any Greek, and there was very little conception of the overall dimensions and profundity of the Classical world until the Westerners learned about it through contact with Byzantines and with Moslims, and then claimed that it had been "reborn" through their own efforts. Nothing against Charlemagne personally, he was truly extraordinary, but he was an extraordinary barbarian chieftan, which is not the same as a Roman Emperor. Charlemagne was semi-literate. Most Western rulers for centuries before and after Charlemagne were completely illiterate, as were most of their subjects, in stark contrast to the Roman Emperors, some of whom were also great authors, and the widespread literacy in all social classes which had existed in the part of the Empire which the barbarians conquered and the equally widespread literacy which persisted in the Eastern Empire.

The fall of the Roman Empire didn't occur in 410 when Rome was sacked by Goths, it didn't happen in 476 when the Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus surrendered, the last Western Emperor until the Pope crowned Charlemagne in Rome on Christmas Day in 800. The Empire fell in 1453 in Constantinople, long after the Western "Rennaissance" was under way. The Empire had lived continually up until then and had continually preserved and developed upon Classical culture.

Rennaissance my ass. Just because YOU personally didn't know about something doesn't mean that it had died.

Runciman called the Crusades "the last of the barbarian invasions." Now that's a bold statement, and one which has offended many people who cling to the Romantic image of the Crusaders as dashing good-guy knights on white horses. But Runciman backs up his sweeping statements with copius reference to sources, not only in Latin and Greek, but also in Arabic and Hebrew and Syriac and Armenian and many other languages. Dozens of other languages. I wonder if he himself kept track of the number of languages he could read. (PS, 8. June 2013: I've long wondered whether Runciman was the inspiration for the character Sir Stephen Dodson-Truck in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow,who "speaks 33 languages including English with a strong Oxonian blither to it," although Runciman was a Cambridge man.) I know of no other scholar who has been in a position to examine the various factions of the Crusades in such detail by reading their accounts in their own untranslated words. I don't personally know of another scholar, in any field, who was such a polyglot. My impression is that he really does always try to be scrupulously fair to all sides, to all cultures and peoples and sects and individuals. He seems to me to have a slight pro-Greek bias. I'm not the only one who has said so. But how would I know, I can barely read any Greek. And I can't read any Arabic or Syriac or Armenian or Hebrew or soandandsoforth, so I can't check up on Runciman's accounts of Byzantium's dealings with the other peoples of the Middle East, or of how the Crusaders seemed to others in the Middle East. But as far as I know, no specialist has come forward and claimed that Runciman's expertise in this or that language was not in fact so great, no one has come forward and said: Clearly, thisandthat shows that Runciman misread the text of soandso and strongly suggests that he was not at all fluent in the language.

In spite of what seems to me and to others to have been a pro-Greek bias, the one historical figure for whom Runciman seems to have the most admiration and respect, at least within the confines of his three-volume History of the Crusades, is Saladin, the Moslim leader who in 1187 took Jerusalem from the Crusaders.

I should probably say something about the word "barbarian." When I use that word I mean no more or less than the tribal peoples, mostly Germanic, who conquered and ruled Western Europe after the Romans. I do not mean the word to imply anything, one way or another, about the degree of civilization of these people, or their manners, their cruelty or lack of it or anything else. If the term is not PC, well, good!

The word "barbarian" comes from the ancient Greek, and it originally referred to anyone who spoke a language other than Greek, because, to some ancient Greek person, the foreign language sounded like "ba-ba-ba," which strongly suggests to me that the Greek was not listening to it very closely. The ancient Greeks were sometimes a bit on the xenophobic side, in strong contrast to the Romans and the later, Byzantine Greeks.

So by all means, if you haven't already, I would urge you to read something by Runciman. I'd recommend starting either with the first volume of the history of the Crusades (first published in 1951), or with The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (1965).Either of those serves as a good introduction to Runciman's other works, which tend to be more specialized.

In his first book, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and his Reign: A Study of Tenth-Century Byzantium,although it's an excellent book and well worth reading, Runciman, in his mid-20's, hasn't yet reached his fully mature writing style. (I haven't yet been able to find some other of Runciamn's earlier books, but by 1947 at the latest, when Runciman published The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy,that outstanding writing style is there in all its glory.)

Runciman's history of the Crusades comes in three volumes, entitled A History of the Crusades, Vol. I: The First Crusade and the Foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Vol. II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East, 1100-1187, and Vol III: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades. The first volume has also appeared in an abridgement by the author, entitled simply The First Crusade.This abridgement, aimed "at a wider audience," as they say, has no footnotes or bibliography, and ends with the Crusaders taking Jerusalem in 1099, leaving out the two final chapters of the unabridged version. The material in the remaining chapters has also been condensed slightly.

The unabridged 3-volume history of the Crusades has appeared in many different editions. If you live in a large city and don't object to buying used books -- I know at least one person who refuses to buy used books or touch library books -- then if you shop around you might find a variety of editions available, available either as 3-volume sets or as separate volumes.

In addition to the paperback edition of the abridged account of the first Crusade, there is also at least one hardcover edition of the same text, but with many many brilliant illustrations, many in color.I have a copy of this one, just because of the pictures.

I personally can't really understand how anyone could prefer a book, any book, which has been abridged, and the thought of removing a book's footnotes and bibliography almost hurts me physically, but Runciman was really smart, and he abridged his account of the first Crusade personally, so what do I know? I have a feeling that perhaps my rants on especially arcane subjects should be abridged, and I hope, assuming you've read all the way to the end of this post, that I've given you some helpful information and not just made you sleepy.

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Cambridge Medieval History (1st. ed.)

I've started to read the Cambridge Medieval History, the first edition, 8 volumes published between 1911 and 1936, and it's really good stuff, no doubt, but still, the pro-Christian bias in the first chapter, and what appears to be a similar bias I've seen in other parts of the work as I browse around, hunt and peck, pick through the indexes, has surprised me. The supervisor of the project, until his death in 1927, was J B Bury, who was a major force in moving western European historical attitudes generally in a more multicultural direction, in removing western Europe's head from its butt so that it was able to see the rest of the world more clearly.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about, from vol 1, chapter 1, pp. 21-2, by H M Gwatkin, MA, Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Cambridge, as he (She? Those British scholars with their so very frequent abbreviation of their first and middle names. A quick and dirty Internet search seems to indicate that, unfortunately, there were no female professors at Cambridge until well after 1911. There are some Misses and Mrs. among the authors of these 8 volumes, however.) sums up the character and achievements of Constantine the Great, who did not quite, as is sometimes asserted, make Rome an officially Christian empire -- Theodosius I did that in AD 380 -- but who probably did more than any other one individual to push the Empire in that direction:

No doubt his Christianity is of itself an offence to Zosimus and Julian, so that we may discount their charges of sloth and luxury: but upon the whole, the judgment of Eutropius would seem impartial, that Constantine was a match for the best emperors in the early part of his reign, and at its end no more than average.

Or in other words: "When pagans disagree with me they're biased slanderers, when they agree with me they're good chaps with sound impartial judgment."

And generally speaking, Gwatkin repeats several times the Christian mantra that the political crisis inherited by Constantine was reflective of a great moral crisis, which was of course solved by the Christianisation of the Empire. Somehow, the people who advance this thesis seem to have no trouble reconciling it with the fact that a more and more completely Christian western Empire disintegrated into pretty complete chaos in the 5th century, and that by the time the western Empire was pretty completely gone, so was any religion other than Christianity which dared to raise its head in public, other than Judaism, which was not better off under the reign of the Prince of Peace than it had been before. (Not to mention the open skepticism of any and all religion, which was also tolerated by Rome before the Christian crackdown.)

But then, it seems to me, sincere Christianity has never been able to exist without pronounced cognitive dissonance. And the study of medieval history in the West in the early 20th century seems to have often been to some synonymous with the propagation of Christian theology: and several of the authors of this History are indeed Reverends. And while this or that pastor or priest of 21st-century England or 18th-century France or 15th-century Italy may be entirely free of any noticeably Christian traits, early-20th-century Cambridge seems to have been much different.

Still, I'm excited about reading the 8-volume history, and impressed by Prof Gwatkin's first chapter despite my reservations -- nobody's perfect, in my opinion -- and I may report here again as I read further. I read Gwatkin's chapter from beginning to end, and it's possible, who knows, that I may eventually read all 8 volumes that way. (I tend not always to read historical works straight through from beginning to end, especially if they happen to be somewhat encyclopaediadic as in this case, but to do a look of looking up and following threads and hunting around and discovering new topics as I investigate the topics I was originally investigating; in short, I have my own way of doing things. I don't claim it's the best way. But I yam what I yam. I spend a lot of time looking over bibliographies, and the bibliographies here, one for each volume and again for each chapter, are long and splendid. For example, I noticed here, not for the first time in a bibliography, a mention of the Rerum Italicarum Scriptores, a collection of source material from medieval Italy, begun in the early 18th century by one L A Muratori, and just a couple of days ago while wondering around in the local university library I happened upon the volumes themselves for the first time anywhere, big folios, mostly very old volumes with crumbling orange covers, magnificent stuff. If the mention of such things does not excite you, you may not be an historian in my sense of the term, or I may not be one in yours.)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Some Statistics Concerning the Presidents of the United States.

Presidential religions: 43 Protestants, 1 Catholic, no Jews, Moslims, Wiccas, Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, adherents of other religions or (forthright) atheists.

Gender designations: all 44 so far have claimed to be male, and that's fine if that's how they've wanted to be seen, although in the case of the smooth-faced, wide-hipped, bosomy and childless father of our country, George Washington, I really have to wonder whether the gender could not have been regarded as somewhat ambiguous.

First names: 6 Jameses, 4 Johns, 4 Williams, 3 Georges, 2 Andrews, 2 Franklins, and 1 each for Thomas, Martin, Zachary, Millard, Abraham, Ulysses, Rutherford, Chester, Grover, Benjamin, Theodore, Woodrow, Warren, Calvin, Herbert, Harry, Dwight, Lyndon, Richard, Gerald, Ronald and Barack.

I'm not entirely certain, but I believe that the surnames of 29 of the Presidents have been English. Van Buren and the Roosevelts had Dutch surnames; Harding and Eisenhower are German names, and I think that Polk, Taft, and Hoover may be too, or maybe Dutch or Scandanavian; Buchanan is Scotch, McKinley is either Scotch or Irish, Lincoln and Kennedy are Irish names and I believe Ford may be too; and I don't know whether Obama comes from Arabic, or Swahili, or from some other language.

There are no Spanish surnames among this group. No Italian, or French, or Portugese, possibly no Scandanavian surnames, no Slavic surnames, no Chinese or Japanese or Korean surnames, no Indian surnames, neither of the Native American nor of the subcontinental kind.

Overall, that's a pretty WASPy boys' club, not at all reflective of the cultural diversity of the US. If that was the membership list of a country club the club would be wide open to litigation for breaking anti-discrimination laws, notwithstanding the great breakthrough of the most recent membership.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Happy Birthday, Ermentrude of Orléans!

Born this day in 823, she would become the wife of Charles the Bald, who was Holy Roman Emperor as well as king of an area either referred to as West Francia or France, and the mother of nine children including Louis the Stammerer, another king of either West Francia or France, depending on who's telling the story. (Why did 9th and 10th century Europe produce so many rulers with names which sound like insults: Charles the Bald, Louis the Stammerer, Charles the Fat and so forth? And were these rulers actually ever so called to their faces or within their hearing? I would think they were only so called beginning some time after their deaths, but I don't know. And as if the whole thing weren't already perplexing enough, it has been suggested by some historians that Charles the Bald may in fact have been unusually hairy, and his nickname applied ironically.)

"Ermentrude of Orléans," that's a very interesting name to me: "of Orléans" sounds very French, but "Ermentrude" sounds very German. Not that it's at all unusual, down to the present day, for thoroughly French people to have German names, but I wonder how thoroughly French Ermentrude was. She and her husband Charles were distant cousins, both descended from Charles Martel, the grandfather of Charlemagne. Charlemagne had created the largest empire in western Europe between the decline of western portion of the ancient Roman Empire, and the short-lived empire of Napoleon. Charlemagne's territories extended from the Pyrenees in the west to Croatia in the east, from the southern edge of Denmark in the north to Italy south of Rome. But Charlemagne saw to it that the area he had unified would be divided again upon his death, dividing it among several sons who quickly fell to fighting each other.

Charlemagne's native language was German. In fact, the origin of the German language as distinguished from other Germanic languages is often, and I think quite sensibly, dated from the reign of Charlemagne, because the first known written German was produced in his reign and with his very powerful official blessing. For whatever reason, however, Charlemagne's Germanic tribe, the Franks, ended up giving its name, not to the central, German section of his empire, but to the western part we now know as France. This territory had already long been a distinct country, with its own language developing from a mix of Latin and other elements, but it had been called Gaul since several hundred years before Christ.

So, Ermentrude was descended from Germanic nobility, but lived all of her life in Gaul, and became Queen of Gaul. Or France. Or western Francia. I have no idea what the country was called in Ermentrude's day. I strongly suspect that it was called all sort of different things by different groups. How did Ermentrude refer to her country? And did she speak French, or German? Again, it's very hard to say. Women of the early middle ages are mentioned very sparingly in the historical accounts of the time, and when they're mentioned usually not much more is said than that they were married to so and so and that these were their children. Perhaps both Charles and Ermentrude spoke German in a land where most people spoke something else, as continued to be the case for centuries to come with German rulers in territories to the east of Germany proper, where slavic languages and Hungarian and Romanian were spoken, as late Franz Joseph, still emperor of Austria-Hungary at the beginning of World War I. Perhaps Charles and Ermentrude spoke the native French of the land they ruled. Perhaps their primary language was neither French not German, but Latin. Latin certainly was the primary written language all over western Europe, and kings and queens would have to be able to speak it at least a little, and comprehend spoken Latin. Almost all of the written records of Ermentrude's world are in Latin, and while Old French, or the ancestors of French, again depending upon who's telling the story, may have been spreading quite widely already, very little of it has survived, and the Latin chroniclers don't seem to have appreciated how much the occasional mention of developments in the written vernacular would've meant to historians today.

Nobody seems to know very much about Ermentrude, other than her ancestry and who she married and what children she bore, and that she seemed to have liked to make embroidery and to support churches and abbeys. A lot of aristocratic women of her age seem to have liked to sew and support religious institutions, which is hardly surprising when you consider that they were allowed to do very little else between pregnancies. Perhaps the religious activity allowed her to become more literate than were most men of her class, aside from the younger sons who became monks, priests and bishops. (Literacy was monopolized by the Catholic Church. If you read something which was written in the early middle ages in western Europe, it was almost certainly written by a monk or priest, or very occasionally by a nun.) Perhaps she had a very adventurous spirit, and widened her reading from prayer-books and psalters to the classics of Latin, or even Greek antiquity. Maybe she would have had to do such reading on the sly, queen or not, and wouldn't dare to leave written evidence of it.

Who knows. All we can do is guess. Perhaps someday, somehow, we'll be able to learn a little bit more about Ermentrude of Orléans. Again, happy birthday!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

"South Park" -- Closet Religious Guys?

All in all, I have an enormous amount of respect for Trey Parker and Matt Stone and "South Park." Timmy and Butters and Tweek are three of my favorite fictional characters ever. I find the episode where Timmy has a pet turkey named Gobbles to be profoundly moving. If I'm not mistaken, this was the one and only time Timmy ever said anything other than "Timmy!" He said: "Gobbles." And, two words: "CRIPPLE FIGHT!!!" That's just magnificent TV.

I know, they make a lot of fun of religion. On "South Park," for example, God looks like this:

Their reaming of Scientology is justly famous, and it cost them their longtime cast member Isaac Hayes, a Scientologist.

But I think I have to call them out for being soft on religion. What first concerned me was the ending of the episode where the Marshes have Mormon friends. Sure, Mormonism was made fun of, but the kid who was briefly Stan's friend had the last word. He tore Stan a new one for pointing out that Mormonism was "Dumb dumb dumb dumb dumb." I believe his little speech wrapped up with something like, "You've got a lot of growing up to do, Stan. Suck my balls."

And then last night I saw the episode with the Jonas Brothers, and Mickey Mouse is their abusive manager, and they want to stop peddling sex to little girls, but it looks like Mickey really has them in a jam, until he's exposed when the kids get him on audio when he's going on backstage about the master plan, winding up with how stupid Christians are. That statement is put into the mouth of an arch-fiend, Mickey Mouse.

And I also vaguely remember Stan wrapping up some episode with a wishy-washy feelgood monologue about tolerating religious people and how hardcore atheists are just as much huge douchebags as religious nuts.

And, of course, Jesus is a recurring character, and although He's pretty ineffectual, He's also presented as being a pretty nice guy.

Maybe He was. (If he existed.) And Parker and Stone are right that a lot of Mormons are just awfully nice. And perhaps Parker and Stone is also right about Disney enriching itself by cruelly manipulating guileless Christians.

So what exactly am I so upset about? That's a tough question. This is the point where I usually become inarticulate from anger. Not just in discussions about "South Park"'s treatment of religion, but in discussions about religion generally. I suppose I'm angry because I'm accused of intolerance. I haven't tortured or executed anyone because their beliefs converge from mine. I'm not interfering with scientific, historical, philosophical, or theological inquiry, or teaching anyone that certain sexual orientations are evil. I am not preventing anyone from attending religious services or handing over their money to religious organizations. I'm not withdrawing my friendship from people because they have religious beliefs. I'm not insincerely playing on people's religious beliefs in order to get their money.

Why exactly did Parker and Stone have that Mormon kid tell Stan off? What exactly did Stan do that they themselves don't do on a regular basis?

The inarticulateness is here again, unfortunately. Anger is welling up inside of me, making me feel congested in my chest and clouded in my thoughts. I think I'm angry because I feel an inconsistency here: apparently it's all well and good to mock religion as it's done on "South Park," but only in an agnostic way. If you cross some line from agnosticism into atheism, or from criticizing dogma to criticizing believers of dogma, you're a douche, apparently. Sorry, this post may be a jumbled mess, but it was that or just be silent. This is the best I could do at the moment.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

2,518 Years Ago Today -- More or Less --

September 13, 509 BC is the traditional date of the dedication of the Temple of Jupiter in Rome. 509 BC, according to tradition, is also the year in which the last king, known as Tarquinius Superbus, "Tarquinius the Haughty," was exiled from the city and the Roman Republic was established. To us it would have looked much more like a very exclusive oligarchy than a real republic, but it had some advantages over the monarchy, and over the Empire which would come centuries later. Leaders were elected, albeit by a small group of aristocrats, and they served short terms. Typically two co-rulers, consuls, were elected yearly. if they were unsuitable -- to this small group of aristocrats -- then it was only a short wait until their terms expired, they didn't have to be assassinated. "Regnatum Romae ab condita urbe ad liberatam annos ducentos quadraginta quattuor." writes Livy at the end of Book 1 of his history of Rome. "The rule of Romans by kings (lasted) two hundred and forty-four years from the founding of the city until their liberation."

244 years, from another traditional date, that of the founding of Rome in 753 BC, to 509. The story the ancient Romans told of the founding of their city sounds very much like a legend: Romulus and Remus, the twin brothers and founders of the city, were raised by a she-wolf. While the boundaries of the city were being laid out, Remus jumped playfully back and forth over the boundary-line, and for this lack of respect for the awesome solemnness of the occasion, Romulus killed him. None of it sounds very true to life. By the time we get to Tarquinius the Haughty and the beginning of the republic, the traditional story has started to sound much less legendary and much more life-like, but it's hard to know what parts may be true. After Rome was sacked by Gauls led by Brennius in -- or around -- 390 BC, the chronology seems much more solid, there seems to be now something which we can call a reliable historical record, with the consuls listed for each year and so forth. Maybe there were similar records before the attack by Brennius, in the form of inscriptions, monuments and written records, which the Gauls either destroyed or carried off. Or perhaps the Romans only started keeping meticulous records after this invasion -- perhaps in part as a psychological defense mechanism against the trauma of the destruction of their city. Keeping exact dates for historical events, whether these dates are reliable or not, can help citizens to feel that their state is solid and secure.

If Americans feel inclined to chuckle at the Romans for so carefully preserving, even in the sophisticated age of Cicero and Caesar, Augustus and Livy, an early history which may have been mostly myth, with Romulus and Remus, and insisting that they knew the exact day when an important temple was dedicated, I would urge them to ponder things like George Washington shopping down a cherry tree and and throwing a silver dollar across the Potomac. We're not so different from them.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

The Thawing of a Misanthrope

"I'd rather see this on TV. Tones it down." -- I had thought that William S. Burroughs wrote that. He said it during a Laurie Anderson performance. Maybe Laurie wrote it for him.

Whoever the Hell wrote it, I have concurred heartily with the sentiment many times. In fact, when it has come to a lot of things -- everyday things which many people seem to take for granted and find perfectly acceptable, if not downright nice -- I didn't even want to see them on TV, and experiencing them in 3-D for realsies was just not pleasant at all. And it by no means is restricted to things I see. Things I hear give me the heebie-jeebies on a regular basis. Holden Caulfield said something in The Catcher in the Ryeabout how you can sometimes hear someone laughing in the middle of the night in New York City about something that probably isn't funny, and how it can make you feel terribly lonely. I could always relate to that, but lately I'm questioning that attitude -- on my part, and on yours, too, JD, not fer nothin. I hope you're okay. I'd like to emulate you in some things -- for instance, Wiki sez The Catcher in the Rye still sells ca 250,000 copies a year. Sweet -- but in the reclusiveness and hyperirritability and automatically assuming that some stranger you hear laughing is an asshole, maybe not so much. It's getting better -- on my part, that is.

Don't get the impression that I know what's up with JD. I never met the man. This is about me. The fact that I can write about it is a sign that I'm no longer utterly in the grip of a paralysing horror of the world around me in general.

Hells yes I'm trying to change and grow and improve the nature of the interface, to climb the Hell down out of my head and join the human race. You betcha. I've been noticing people much more just lately. I mean in the past couple of weeks. My perceptions have really broadened. I'm used to automatically shutting out all but a very small percentage of the people I see and hear, picking out just a few I find interesting or potentially useful, or with whom I have to interact through no choice of my own, and shutting out the rest. Today I sat in a hallway where crowds of people of all ages, shapes, sizes and life situations streamed past in both directions, and today it wasn't overwhelming or gross, I didn't wish I was experiencing it on TV instead of for real, or not at all. It was just really really interesting -- they were all really, really interesting. And this is new for me. I'm still a long way from what you might call Whitmanesque. I still do recoil a lot, and often, if I can't be with just a select few of you, you general public, I'd rather just be by myself, or with cats. But I'm changing. One thing William S. Burroughs definitely did say, in some interview or other, was that a piece of advice he regularly gave to writers was quite simply for them to keep their eyes open. We tend to walk along with out heads down, lost in thought, and so we miss a lot. I read that interview about 25 years ago, found the advice quite good, and have been struggling to follow it ever since. Lately I've been making a little bit of progress there.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Another Book

This one is one of -- I was about to say that it was part of the best book bargain I ever had, but I've gotten quite a few books for free. The public library in Anchorage discarded a lot of books and periodicals, set them out on tables for anyone who wanted to take them away. Mostly stuff pretty much nobody would want, but a lot of perfectly good stuff, too. Why did they discard all that good stuff? The most striking example of perfectly good stuff I found on the discard table was the first volume, Das Land ohne Tod, of Alfred Doeblin's three-novel trilogy Amazonas.A hardcover copy from the Walter Verlag collected works of Doeblin. So now I had one hardcover volume of Doeblin to go with a couple of paperbacks, and the library had a hardcover collected works of Doeblin with one volume missing in the middle. I went and checked, the collected works on their shelf now seemed to be complete except for the volume I now had. I felt like going to someone who worked at the library and say, Hey, seems like you made a mistake here, there's no way you actually wanted to throw this away, right? But I was angry that they did such a stupid thing, and I already dealt, more then I wanted to, with library employees who didn't know what I was talking about when attempted to borrow items via ILL.

Clearly, I am seriously out of touch with a lot of the world around me. It's evident in libraries and bookstores, and in the prices of various items at library book sales and, to a lesser degree, in used-book stores. I can rant about it, or I can continue to function somewhat like those birds who live off of the crud on rhinoceri, or the small fish who follow big sharks around and clean them off.

This book, the subject of today's essay, Die Geschichte Der Paepste. Die Roemischen Paepste in Den Letzten Vier Jahrhunderten,The History of the Popes. The Popes of Rome in the Last Four Centuries, by Leopold von Ranke, was part of the haul I made the first time I visited a thrift store near Amsterdam and 96th St in Manhattan, which I might never had noticed, had they not had a sign out front saying "Fill a bag of books for a buck." Why, yes, thank you! I believe perhaps I shall!

Turned out you could fill a bag with books for three bucks any time there. The one-buck special happened I believe once a week. This store had a large basement, about one-half of which was overflowing with books. They didn't seem to have a lot of people coming there to buy the books. Besides the Ranke I found two little harbound copies of plays by Gerhart Hauptmann; Ihr werdet Deutschland nicht wiedererkennenby Walter Hasenclever -- not the Expressionist writer Walter Hasenclever who emigrated from Germany to France in 1933 and took his own life in 1940 rather than fall into the hands of the Nazis, but his less-well-known son of the same name whom he had sent to the US; some things in French, some in Italian, some in Hungarian -- it was a haul. I don't remember exactly what all was in that first bagfull, I just remember that it was tremendous. I went back to that store on a few other days before I had, from my point of view, cleaned them out. It didn't matter to me whether on a particular day the bag cost one dollar or three, either way, I was getting treasure for nothing.

I'm supposed to be talking about the book by Ranke, but I seem to be rambling a la Tristram Shandy;or at least I assume I'm being Shandyish: I've had a copy of Sterne's novel on my shelf for some years now, but I haven't yet read it. So much to read, you know, and only one of me. But a writer whom I very much admire once said of some of my writing that there was a Tristram Shandy-ish flavor to it, and he said that he meant it as a high compliment. He was brilliant and angry and always at odds with the drudges who ran the university English department in which he worked as an MA and an Instructer, many times more brilliant than any of those PhD's and Full Professors would ever be... It's a familiar story. Flee, young writers! from the English departments!

My copy of Ranke's Paepste is from the K.G. Kohler Verlag edition of 1953, with an introduction by Friedrich Baethgen. It's got over 1400 pages but it's not a big volume, not thick at all; it's printed on those very thin pages on which Bibles are often printed, for which there may not be a word in English, which the Germans call Duenndruck; the volume has a pleasantly heavy and solid feel. The last several hundred pages contain "Analekten," analects, gleanings from the source material, mostly in Italian and Latin, interspersed with Ranke's comments in German. Ranke (1795-1886), the most widely-admired historian before Mommsen (1817-1903), in Germany at least, and perhaps in parts of the wider world as well, was for a time a mentor to Jacob Burckhardt (1818-1897), who declined to follow Ranke in the extra-special super-dooper-prestigious chair of history at Berlin -- trust me, Germans take such academic positions much more seriously than, for example, Americans. This seriousness has both its good and its bad sides -- and who in his turn was a mentor to Nietzsche (1844-1900) at Basel. Maybe I make too much of these personal relationships, first between Ranke and Burckhardt, then between Burckhardt and Nietzsche. But I enjoy thinking about this intellectual dynasty, this succession, which may exist mostly in my head.

Ranke's history of the Popes appeared in the in two volumes in 1834 and 1836, and was placed on the Catholic Index in 1841 -- why?! Why?! Ranke was a Protestant, and he had his opinions, but his works were and are thoroughly inoffensive, it would seem to me, to anyone, Catholic, Protestant, atheist, Moslem or what have you. It would seem to me that almost anyone would have to admit that Ranke was objective and fair, if anyone ever was. But libraries and the Vatican do not consult me before they act. Nor, I scarceley need add, do they always seem to me to be objective or fair.

No, seriously, Ranke's very good, you ought to check him out.

Monday, August 24, 2009

One Book

It's an old Teubner edition of Luciliusand Accius.C. Lucili saturarum reliquiae. Emendavit et adnotavit L. Mueller. Accedunt Acci et suei carminum reliquiae. Lipsaiae in aedibus B.G. teubneri. a. MDCCCLXXII, it sez on the title page. The remains of the satires of Lucilius, edited and notated by L.Mueller, to which are added the remains of Accius' poems, from the house of B.G. Tuebner in Leipzig in 1872. And on the next leaf is the dedication: Concilio professorum imperatorii Instituti Histororici Philologici hanc Lucili saturarum recensionem D.D.D. Lucianus Mueller. Lucian Mueller dedicates this edition of Lucilius' satires to the council of professors of the Imperial Institute of History and Philology. I'm not entirely sure exactly which Imperial Institute of History and Philology is meant; I would've assumed it was a German institute, very freshly imperial in the brand-new German Empire established in 1871, but the only institute of that name of which I can find mention was a Russian one, in St. Petersburg. You can see a copy much like mine at Google Books.

I got my copy for $11.50 +tax at a used-book store. I have no reason to suspect that this was a steal of the kind one occasionally finds at thrift stores, yard sales and some used-book stores: the owner of this store seems to check very conscientiously before pricing his books, so that they're not going for much less or more than the general going rate. But it feels like I ripped the good man off, like I really got away with one, spending so little for a book in Latin so old and in such good condition. Maybe the general book market doesn't consider the book to be in good condition. The cover is coming loose from the spine. But that doesn't bother me so much. I handle my books very gently, and so the cover is not going to come the rest of the way off. The pages are all unmarked, the paper is of good quality from before the age of acidic paper.

Maybe I'm just much more fond of solidly-made volumes from the late 19th century than the general book market is, and so assume a unrealistically high market value for them. I am passionately interested in books, but utterly disinterested in book collecting, speculating in first editions and autograph copies and all of those things which make all the difference to the general market.

In every scholarly article on Lucilius which I have found, and I've found quite a few, the two-volume edition by F. Marx published in 1904-5 is praised as the best, and this 1872 volume by Lucian Mueller is not. mentioned. at. all. Maybe that's why it doesn't fetch much on the market. Good luck for me, then: the differences between editions which make so very much difference to many scholars make very little difference to me.

Lucilius is generally credited with having originated the genre of satire. The oldest known literary genres in Latin, by writers a little older than Lucilius but young enough that he could have known them when they were old and he was young, were tragody, comedy and epic poetry, very closely copied from Greek models, or were nothing more or less than translations of Greek works, such as Livius Andronicus'translation of Homer's Odyssey. Against this background, Lucilius' achievement in writing in a distinctly Roman way is all the more impressive. Not that he was ignorant of Greek or felt that there was too much Greek influence in Roman culture, as did his contemporary Cato the Elder, one of the most highly-praised men of his time for reasons which entirely escape me and H.G. Wellsor the author Juvenal, who followed Lucilius in the genre of satire but not in Lucilus' broadminded tolerant sophistication. Juvenal thought he was being very witty when he bitterly referred to "Rome, that Greek city;" Lucilius was very familiar with Greek literary genres even though he didn't copy them as his Roman contemporaries did -- at least, as all of his literary contemporaries of whom we know did. As thoroughly natively Roman as they were, Lucilius included some Greek passages in his satires. He wrote about the people around him and the political and commercial and military business of the day. A lot of the people around him spoke and wrote a lot of Greek, either because they were Greeks or because they were upper-class Romans who typically got some education in Greece, and who were, as is obvious by the nature of most of the Roman literature of the time, and by Roman mythology which borrowed so much from Greek mythology, in love with many things Greek. Lucilius was fine with all of that, he was no hater like Cato or Juvenal.

Only a fraction, about 1300 lines, of Lucilius' 30 books of satires have survived. There are about 40 pages of preface in Mueller's 1872 edition, then remains of the 30 books over 132 pages -- but on many of these pages footnotes occupy more space than the main text -- then 26 pages of uncertain material: maybe Lucilius, maybe not -- then about two pages which Mueller calls doubtful, two pages he calls very doubtful, a little over 7 pages he classes as falsely attributed to Lucilius, then 20 pages of material by ancient authors about him. Then over 100 pages of commentary. Then the few pages devoted to Accius which seem to me like such a tacked-on afterthought in this volume. Then again, Accius was a near-contemporary of Lucilius. And perhaps, if these pages by and on Accius were going to appear in book form at all, and not just in some periodical devoted to Classical studies, putting them here made as much sense as anything. But maybe there's more to it, a connection between the witty satirist Lucilius and the somber tragodian Accius which further study may make more plain to me. (I really doubt it.) Altogether there are a little over 400 pages in this small quattro, which measures about 8 inches by 5 and a half inches by an inch.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Chess and Vanity

They cancel each other out: if you're vain about your chess abilities, they'll never advance very far, and if you're playing good chess, it means that, at least when it comes to the moves you've made in the game -- typically each player will move somewhere between 20 and 60 times in a game -- you're not kidding yourself, you're not dreaming, you're paying attention to the 64 squares in front of you and the 32 or fewer pieces on them. There are no grey areas, no room for subjective interpretation when it comes to the result of a game: you either win, lose or draw. This is perhaps even more clearly the case when you're playing chess against a computer program, or playing over the Internet with software which automatically detects game results and disallows moves which are against the rules and so forth.

One of the best chess players I've known personally once remarked that chess is a game of mistakes. (He was probably about a 2000-level player. I say probably because he had stopped playing in rated tournaments.) This seems to be true. What separates high level play from novices is the infrequency and subtlety of mistakes, but at any level, the player who wins, assuming my friend's remark was correct -- his level of chess is so far above mine, 800 or 900 points above, that I have to take his word about the nature of the game up there. I don't grasp it myself, not at all -- is the one who goofs the least often, who notices most often when his opponent goofs and who takes the best advantage of his opponent's mistakes. At my level blunders -- say, for instance, the opportunity to capture a piece without giving up any positional strength, or even the opportunity to checkmate the opponent right away -- sometimes go unnoticed for several moves.

In Internet chess, which is the type of chess I play most of the time these days, there is an additional type of mistake which can be made: the mouse slip. You meant to move a piece to a certain square, but your hand slipped on the mouse and the piece ended up somewhere else. Typically on Internet chess sites there is the possibility to give the opponent the opportunity to take back a move. On the site where I play, I've disabled this option. No takey-backies when you play me. If my hand slips when I'm moving, I live with the result. If you tell me your hand slipped -- well, for one thing, I wonder whether you're lying, and it wasn't your hand but your mind that slipped. And anyway, chances are I won't notice you trying to tell me anything during the game: I expand the chessboard to full-screen so that it covers the entire entire console where messages are exchanged. I didn't come to the website to chat, and I certainly don't want to talk during a game: feeble as my efforts are, they're the result of my attempt to concentrate fully on the game at hand. If I shrink the board so that I can see the console where players send messages, it's because my opponent hasn't moved in quite a while and I've become bored while waiting. If I see a private message to me from my opponent claiming that he had a mouse slip -- they're in bright yellow, they stand out from the steady stream of public messages -- I don't reply. Because I don't know any polite way to say: I don't care. Your mistakes are your responsibility. Mouse slips are an ever-present possibility in Internet chess. You ought to watch out for that.

There are currently over 20,000 rated players on FICS the site where I play. About four-fifths of them are better than I am. The result of every rated game affects both players ratings: if their rating are very close going in, and one player wins, the winner has 8 points added to his rating, and the loser drops 8 points. (On Blitz games, anyway, which include almost all the games I play there. Blitz means that each player has a total of between 3 and 15 minutes to make all of his moves, or he forfeits the game on time. Or there is incremental time-keeping which is reckoned to be equivalent: 2 minutes a side, for example, plus 12 seconds added every time you move. I don't like the incremental timekeeping, I've pretty much stopped playing games timed that way. On the website you can also play lightning games, with less time than blitz games, and standard games, with more time than blitz.) If the game is a draw, each player's rating stays the same. If the players' rating are mismatched, the higher player will win less than 8 points by winning and lose than 8 by losing the game, and in the event of a draw he will lose a couple of points, and the lower-ranked player stands to gain more and lose less. I've played a bunch of games there, and my rating -- that is, my Blitz rating. Most of the games played there are blitz games -- is currently 1130-something. Occasionally I've dropped lower than 1000 and risen higher than 1200. 1300 seems lie a beautiful grail to me. So, I'm not very good at all.

And I make no excuses about it. 16,000 or so players are rated above me in blitz chess on FICS. That means they're playing better chess than I, no more, no less. I make no excuses, and I have no interest in the excuses other players make. Your mouse slipped? Bummer. Your boss busted you and you want to adjourn the game? That sort of thing's gonna hurt your rating, Sparky. You didn't mean to move there? I know the feeling, it sucks.

There are some players, playing in cyberspace and also in 3-D, in the meat world, who give and take takebacks all the time, routinely. It doesn't seem to me that they're really playing chess. Seems to me they're refusing to learn how to play it for realsies. In baseball, or even in the most casual slow-pitch softball game, you don't get do-overs because your hand slipped on the bat or because you missed a fly ball because the sun was in your eyes.

So what's my point, anyway? I'm not sure. I think it may be just that a lot of life is very murky and uncertain and subjective and mysterious, and that chess may be comforting because it can be a complete contrast to all of that, even if it is only a meaningless game played for no stakes other than for its own sake.

PS, 28. August 2012: I've been getting a little better: my current rating is 1263, and my best is 1329, which I reached on 2. April 2012. (And FICS continues to grow and improve, 1329 represents a higher level of play in 2012 than it did in 2009, just as it would in the world of tournaments.) Now 1400 and beyond is the possible-seeming grail.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

History of Ancient Rome, Condensed Version, Part II

Around the middle of the 2nd century BC there began a great struggle of the question of whether the lower classes in Rome, the plebians, were to be given more rights and powers. Two brothers, Tiberius and Gaius Graccus, proposed things like taking some land from the aristocratic families, the patricians, and distributing it more widely among the general population. They were both killed by the patricians and their followers, but their example lived on. Other politicians made careers by proclaiming that they were on the side of the masses. To what extent they really were, and how much it was just talk, was a much-debated question then, as it still is today about populist politicians. Whatever their platforms and whatever their real motivations, the conflicts between leading politicains became more and more synomymous with battles between leading generals and their armies. Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Catullus, Pompey and other contenders for the leadership of Rome came and went, and the conflicts between them came to be more and more full-scale wars. Romans had always been opposed to any monarch ruling them, but occasionally someone was appointed dictator for a short period of time in order to deal decisively with a period of chaos and strife. Julius Caesar, who always presented himself as a champion of the masses, held the dictatorship very briefly in 49 BC, then again for a year from 48 to 47, then in 46 he was appointed dictator for ten years, and then early in 44 he was named "dictator in perpetuity." He was being heaped with other honors and titles and looking more and more like a king, which disturbed a lot of people as it seemed to violate Rome's democratic traditions and principles, and so less than two months after being named dictator in perpetuity, he was assassinated by a group of senators.

It had looked as if Caesar's dictatorship might have ushered in a period of tranquility in Rome. His death at the hands of senators, however, initiated another period of intense and bloody civil conflict, which finally ended when Octavian, Caesar's grand-nephew and chosen heir, defeated his last opponents, Marc Anthony and his partner the Egyptian queen Cleopatra, in 30 BC. In 27 BC the senate voted to give Octavian the name and title Augustus. The beginning of the Roman empire, the end of the republic, is said by many to have begun at that moment. However, Augustus was known as Caesar Augustus, and as all emperors after Augustus were also called Augustus, so also all the title of Caesar was given to all heirs to the imperial throne, making the case for placing the beginning of the empire in the brief reign of Caesar. Whether one marks the end of the republic at 44 BC or 27 BC or sometime in between, the pretense that Rome was not a monarchy, that the emperor ruled with the senate, not over it, and at their pleasure and under their control, persisted for another several centuries.

The good thing about a monarchy is that one person can make decisions about the running of a state much more quickly and simply than a group of people. Groups tend to argue, to squabble, to draw decisions out and bog things down. The bad thing about monarchy, of course, is that the quality of the decisions made on behalf of the state is entirely dependent upon one person, who may or not be competent, wise or sane. This problem is compounded if the monarch is absolute, and not removable by any group more or less representative of some concept of the people, and compounded again if the monarch is not elected, but appointed by the previous monarch, who may very well be blinded by familial affection, or if the monarchy automatically goes to an eldest son or what have you. Augustus seems to have been a very competent monarch indeed, so competent and far-sighted that the system of government he put in place in large part compensated for the incompetence of some members of his family who succeeded him. The period of time beginning with his reign and lasting for over two centuries is known as the pax romana, the Roman peace. Rome kept fighting other states and expending its territory, but within its expanding borders, things in fact were relatively peaceful during this period, and people and goods could move about in relative safety.

During this whole time, as apparently at all times all over the world, some writers had little or nothing to do with politics, some were not politicians themselves, but passionately took sides in political contests, and some were politicians. Caesar wrote twobooksabout his military exploits which have been widely read from his time to ours. (They may not be as widely read today as a century or so ago, when Caesar was often thought of as an ideal role model for boys.) Caesar's occasional partner, sometimes his rival, Cicero, had a combination of political success and high literary reputation equaled by no one else I can think of except Winston Churchill -- although Cicero was a lawyer by trade, not a soldier like Churchill, and although I think that Cicero is overrated as a writer and that Churchill is not. Those who really like Cicero must be delighted that so very very many of his letters, speeches and philosophical works, a whole shelf's worth, have survived intact to our day. Lucretius wrote a wonderful book-length poem, de rerum natura,dealing with belief in God (He was against it.) and science and philosophy (He was for them, especially the Epicurean philosophy which taught that it was wisest to stick to a small group of good friends and let the rest of the world screw itself up.)

During Augustus' reign, two leading poets were Vergil, who wrote the Aeneid, the poem about the mythical beginnings of Rome to which I refer at the start of Part I, and who seems to have been compelled to praise Augustus in a particularly lavish manner -- although who can say how sincere the praise may have been -- and Ovid, a particularly apolitical person who nonetheless fell afoul of Augustus, we don't know how, although the leading theory is that he made a dirty joke about a female member of Augustus' family. For this, Ovid, the quintessential Roman urbanite, was banished to a fort on the Black Sea, on the Wild East frontier of the empire, for the rest of his life. His two greatest poems are the Metamorphoses,dealing with those Greek dieties and myths which had been adopted by the Romans, and the Fasti,a calender of the native Roman religious festivals.

The slavish praise of Vergil (and others) and the banishment of Ovid point to a dark side of the pax romana, a humorless demand that the emperor be not just obeyed, but worshiped, as a god.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

History of Ancient Rome, Condensed Version, Part I

We -- or at least, I -- don't know very much about the history of Rome before about 500 BC. But I will mention a couple of things from the Roman legends of the time before 500 BC, because I think they shed some light on the way things were in Rome. First of all, the Romans believed -- if they believed in their traditional legends. How seriously did they take these legends? Good question! -- that they were descended from a Trojan, Aeneas, the hero of Vergil'sAeneid, who, because of his valiant behavior during the Trojan War, was set free by the conquering Greeks, to wander hither in yon in Vergil's poem, which copied Homer's Odysseyvery closely, until he found a new home among the Latins, the precursors of the Romans, just as in Homer's poem Odysseys must wander long before regaining control of his home of Ithaca.

But Aeneas' settling with the Latins was still a few centuries before the -- legendary -- founding of the city of Rome proper. This occurred on April 21, 753 BC. The city was founded by the twins Romulus and Remus, who had been raised by a she-wolf. But Remus did not live to see the city completed, because as they were laying out the outlines of the city walls, he kept jumping back and forth over the lines in a playful manner, and so Romulus killed him. Because you weren't supposed to play with such important things.

From these legends you can see two important threads in Roman culture: an awed reverence before the achievements of Greece; and a particularly grim seriousness. Of course, you can't sum up any culture so simply: not all Romans were in awe of Greece, and not all were grimly serious. But those were prominent tendencies.

Actual Roman history starts around 500 BC, when the city of Rome threw off the overlordship of the Etruscan empire. The Etruscans, who once competed with the Greeks and the Phoenicians for mastery of the Mediterranean world, faded so thoroughly as Rome rose that their language, although conserved in many inscriptions, wriiten in letters taken from the Greeks and very similar to those of the Romans, is now undecipherable. They gave their name to the Italian region of Tuscany. The Romans, meanwhile, began to expand their power in a truly spectacular way. (From not long after 500 BC, when Rome consisted either only of a small town, or that town and a few square miles around it, dated the Twelve Tables, the earliest preserved version of Roman law. Law & order were always very big in Rome, and to this day, Roman law is still enthusiastically studied by lawyers.) By the mid-fourth century BC they had gone from a small town to the rulers of a third or so of the Italian peninsula; by the mid-third century they ruled almost all of the peninsula and were beginning to butts heads with the Greeks and the Phoenicians. The latter were referred to by this time as the Carthaginians, after their capital city on the northern coast of Africa, although the name by which we refer to Rome's wars with Carthage, the Punic Wars, is related to the word Phoenician. The Phoenician or Carthaginian language spoken around the time of Christ, when it remained a widespread lingua france in the Mideast, is usually referred to as Aramaic. It is still the first language of at least hundreds of thousands of people, maybe millions, I don't know for sure. And it is the liturgical languages of the Syriac Church which has millions of adherents. The language as it is used today is called Syriac, or Aramaic, or Assyrian. Why does the name of these people and their language keep changing? Good question!

In keeping with the general tendency of grim Roman seriousness, there is not much evidence of any well-developed native literature before 200 BC. We have the image of a people concentrated on law, commerce, war and other grimly serious things, with little interest in or even comprehension of literary pursuits. Still, the Romans admired the Greeks, and the Greeks were often anything but grimly serious. The earliest lengthy specimens of Latin literature of which we know are the comic plays of Plautusand Terrence,written in a style of Greek plays well-established in Alexandria. One may find it odd that the earliest known genre to flourish in Rome was comedy, or one may find it a natural reaction to an atmosphere which could be overly grim and stuffy. Not long after Plautus and Terrence, Luciliusestablished the genre of satire, which remained quite popular in Rome throughout the ancient period. (Which makes perfect sense to me: the more stuffy seriousness there is all around one, the more there is to make fun of, and the more readers will appreciate writers who do so.)

To return, sadly, from the joys of the muses to the grim political world: as I said, by the middle of the third century BC, Rome was almost as big as the entire Italian peninsula, big enough to begin to a serious rival to the Greeks and the Phoenicians/Carthagenians/Aramaics. The Carthagenian leader Hannibal put a crimp in the steady advance of Rome for a while, famously crossing into Roman territory from the north, over the Alps, and causing the Romans serious problems. But Rome eventually defeated Hannibal, and he was the greatest exception to a fairly steady progress of Roman expansion. By the middle of the second century BC, Rome was the biggest power in the mediterranean world, and as it continued to expand, the greatest threat to Rome gradually came to be, not any foreign power, but the fighting of Roman generals and politicians against each other. But despite assassinations and civil wars Rome continued to expand, until by 30 BC the entire coastline of the Mediterranean was under Roman control, and by the end of the first century AD Roman rule stretched from present-day northern England in the west to present-day Armenia and Iraq in the east.