Tag Archives: Ancient Rome

Obama, Cicero, and Sallust VS. Manning, Snowden, and Catiline

While taking in all of the news recently about the NSA and the people exposing government secrets I am, of course, looking constantly for links to the Classical World. Government corruption and secrets were pretty common in the ancient world and I think that might be too obvious a connection to point out for the purpose of this blog. What I do find interesting though is the comparisons that can be made between the language used by politicians to describe whistleblowers like Snowden and Manning and the language used to describe the conspirator Catiline. Whether you find these whistleblowers to be heroes or traitors may make you question this comparison, but remember that it is just the language used, I am not comparing the situations rather the way that politicians describe these men. My use of the word whistleblower is not to give a leaning either way, it is the easiest noun to use for them. It is also important to keep in mind that we do not have the common man’s opinion of Catiline. We only have the politicians’ and historians’ views on him. Imagine the shape of today’s debate if we took out the common person’s voice and only had record of what politicians say about these men.

First a brief rundown of Catiline and his conspiracy in case you are not familiar with this part of Roman history. The wiki is pretty good on this and while I don’t endorse wiki as a scholarly source, it is a great way to get a general understanding of most things. I will link to that at the bottom. In a short version, Catiline was a Roman Senator so someone in a position of relative power and with access to information. He didn’t like the way things were going and in the year 63BCE was to execute a plot to overthrow the republic until Cicero called attention to his plan and effectively squashed it. Catiline may not have been simply a rogue senator the way he is painted to be by historians and politicians. He had people on his side who were senators, generals, and even a former consul. He had people of power who agreed with him, just not the most important people or the ones that would end up writing it down. Remember, the victors write history. I’m not defending the actions of Catiline or claiming to know which side of that political debate I would have even been on, but it is important for me to make clear that he was not alone, he had followers and powerful ones at that who agreed with him for one reason or another.

As stated, the situation is not as important as the way he is described. Both Cicero and Sallust give accounts of Catiline’s Conspiracy and describe in detail Catiline himself and the nature of his conspiracy.  In America we have similar sides reacting to Snowden and Manning, politicians and historians (I will include some mainstream media in this category, begrudgingly), but we also have other outlets like not so mainstream media, blogs, tweets, the general public, etc. When looking at the comments of politicians and some major media the descriptions line up with the ancient ones.

Snowden has been consistently called a traitor and his acts called treasonous by politicians including President Obama, Boehner, and Feinstein. Cicero in his first oration against Catiline says, “And shall we, who are the consuls, tolerate Catiline, openly desirous to destroy the whole world with fire and slaughter?”  If we are going by position, Cicero is probably the equivalent to Catiline of Obama and Boehner to Snowden and Manning. Sallust and Cicero also attack Catiline at a personal level. Sallust points out that prior to Catiline’s political career he had done unspeakable things with a Vestal Virgin. The best is the way he calls him a madman though, “His pallid complexion, his bloodshot eyes; his gait now fast, now slow; in his face and his every glance showed him a madman” (15.5). Toobin, writer for the New Yorker, said about Snowden that he is a, “grandiose narcissist.”

Manning, who was sentenced to 35 years in prison for his leaks, is seaking pardon from Obama which I find incredibly interesting given the reaction to Snowden. Obama said prior to any trial that Manning was guilty. Obama, whose speeches already sound Ciceronian, sounds very much like Cicero in the aftermath of these two leaks. He even does the self aggrandizing thing Cicero was so known for by always making it sound like he is doing everything personally and on his own to stop all of these traitors. Specifically though the video floating around (below) in which he says Manning broke the law sounds much like Cicero reacting to Catiline.

I suggest reading Cicero and Sallust as well as the wiki on the conspiracy. While it is not a perfect comparison it is an interesting one in terms of the language politicians use towards “traitors” and the way politicians view security.

VIDEO:

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/04/22/bradley-manning-obama-video_n_852553.html

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Matt Damon’s Elysium, Plato’s Republic, and Utopias!

I’ve been too far away from pop culture recently, but I am coming back to it. Having seen a trailer for Matt Damon’s new movie Elysium, I couldn’t help but write a post. Of course, the movie’s title comes straight from one classical concept of the afterlife known as the Elysian Fields. This is very much referenced in the movie Gladiator. There is a lot to discuss when talking about Elysium because it is quite controversial. I want to focus more on this movie’s concept and relation to ancient sources than the arguments surrounding the Elysian Fields. I will say one thing about the Elysian Fields, however, and that is that they are not the equivalent to the modern beliefs many religions hold about Heaven. They were originally reserved for heroes (god-related mortals) and, arguably, later considered open to those who were chosen or initiated into the mysteries. It was also not separate from the underworld, but rather a part of it and therefore the Heaven and Hell dichotomy was not in existence.

That’s enough on the Elysian Fields since they really have nothing to do with this movie other than its title. Clearly the title was chosen because the rich are allowed to live in a paradise (Elysium) while the poor are left stranded on Earth which has been left to ruins. That’s about as much of a synopsis as you will get from me because I have not seen the movie and I am writing purely on the concept with a great excitement to see this film. I also want to see how much I can predict from knowledge of classical works and works of “utopian” literature.

It could be argued that Elysium does not present a utopia because there is still an Earth society which is not at all utopian, but I think it is fair to say that the space station where the rich are living is meant to be a utopia that Matt Damon will somehow alter, destroy, wreak havoc upon, etc. The wiki calls it a utopian space station so I am going with that. It also claims that there are instant cures to all diseases in this space habitat (WOAH COOL!).

So take a step back with me to Ancient Greece and let’s take a look at the first utopian works that we currently have knowledge of.  These works would be Plato’s Republica and Plato’s Laws. The Republic actually attempts to set out standards for a utopian society while Laws sets out a society that is as close to that as possible, but could potentially be governed by real (aka flawed) men. Plato’s ideal society is nothing like what I assume Elysium will be, but that’s assumption based on the fact that Elysium must be driven by wealth. In the Republic there is no such thing as private property, everything is communal including children and food. The children are raised by the community without knowledge of who their parents are. Food is simple, not extravagant. Basically it is that everyone lives a moderate life so that no one is below or above another, everyone is equal.

The most important main goal of the Republic was to be devoid of human weakness. This is the part I find most fascinating both about the Republic itself and its connection to the film Elysium. In the film the focus on removing human weakness comes in the form of physically curing everyone in the habitat of all diseases.  While, I think, Plato would argue that human weakness comes from desires for excess, luxury, satisfaction, etc. it is noteworthy that Elysium considers it purely physical. The nature of Elysium is actually the opposite of the Republic because the idea on the space station is that everyone can afford and has everything they could possibly want.

Of course as with all utopian works we will find out that Elysium is actually dystopian for many reasons, I’m going to bank on it being some sort of human nature flaw. It may come in a form we are not used to like compassion or it may be that the people want more and more and we find there are even limits to luxury. I don’t know, but I’m excited to find out.

That is a wandering, smattering of the origins of utopian works and Plato’s beliefs about utopia. I hope it gave you a nice little base of knowledge. I suggest reading more on these things by reading Plato’s Laws and his Republic. I also suggest Thomas Moore’s Utopia, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Bacon’s The New Atlantis (unfinished, but encourages luxury so may be a good comparison to Elysium).

Leave a comment below arguing with me, telling me your favorite work of utopian literature, or how you think this movie is going to play out. I will hopefully be seeing it shortly and writing a follow up to this.

EDIT: I love District 9 so hopefully this is as good.

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This week I would like to talk a little about legal terms, but more so about The Big Bang Theory. I know that this is not a new episode, but I saw it again recently and thought it perfect to write about. In this episode Sheldon must go to traffic court because he was caught on a traffic cam running a red light while driving Penny to the hospital. His first use of Latin as he approaches the judge is to tell him that he is appearing in pro se, or in representation of himself.  Se is the reflexive pronoun referring back to the invisible subject of this sentence, Sheldon.  Continuing his great use of classical rhetoric and a three legged argument, Sheldon states that he will argue the legal doctrine of quod est necessarium est licitum, “That which is necessary is legal.”  The first thing I must do is applaud the pronunciation as he used the hard “c” in both necessarium and licitum. While this defense has in fact worked in certain cases throughout history, it did not work for Sheldon.  An interesting note about this though is that I cannot find an origin for the Latin phrase in Ancient Rome (if someone finds one please let me know). Instead it seems to be one of those things that has come about and translated into Latin to give it more prestige.  I must say I was very disturbed while trying to find an origin by the overwhelming number of Law websites, journals, and other publications which said quad instead of quod, a word which doesn’t even exist in the Latin paradigm of qui, quae, quod.

Sorry for the short post this week, but there was not a lot to say about this since it didn’t in fact have an ancient origin I could find, and I didn’t have a lot of time today. I will be back with a bigger post next week.

Big Bang Theory: Quod Est Necassarium Est Licitum

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Worcestershire Sauce and Ancient Roman Garum

I love to cook and this week I was making a great venison recipe which called for Worcestershire Sauce. After about 15 minutes of debating the proper pronunciation (Lea & Perrins website lists multiple pronunciations), I went in search of the sauce and found that I had none.  Stupidly I thought maybe I could find a way to substitute the sauce and realized that I actually had no idea what Worcestershire sauce was made of or honestly tasted like on its own. Upon further research (ie Wikipedia) I learned that it is a fermented sauce. My first thought was of Ancient Rome and garum, which was apparently wiki’s thought too as I scrolled down and found out they started the history of Worcestershire Sauce with the Ancient Greeks. Wiki got something right!

Fermented sauces go back far into history. The most important of them was probably garum. Garum is a fermented fish sauce, some say it is probably similar to Indian fish sauces. It was used by both the Ancient Greeks and the Ancient Romans and was an important part of trade in the Ancient Mediterranean. Amphorae have been tested through some awesome processes and found to contain garum dating back as far as the 5th century BCE. The production and export of garum gave towns around the Roman Empire a certain level of prestige, especially those that produced the best garum; one of these towns was Pompeii.

The reason garum was a such a popular condiment for Roman nobility, besides its tradition of prestige and its Greek roots, was that it retained a high protein content. However there is something intriguing about the literature surrounding garum. Many authors write about how terrible and disgusting garum is.  Pliny the Elder called it, “that secretion of putrefying matter.” Plato called it, “putrid garum.” And Martial praised a man for still loving a woman who had eaten many helpings of garum. Although it was criticized so much in literature it was in fact used heavily and transported all around the Mediterranean. While most of the popular mentions of Worcestershire sauce are to the pronunciation of its name, it is still interesting that this sauce shows up in pop culture like garum did. Take this clip as a great example of the humor http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GQHhdy_gpcw  They are definitely from the same family, although I’ve had garum and I will stick with the evolved Worcester version.

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The Walking Dead, Gladiator Games, and Roman Empire Politics

SPOILER ALERT!  Don’t read further if you have not seen at least to the mid-season break of the current Walking Dead season!

I have been dying to find a link between The Walking Dead and the classical world for some time now and this season the creators of the show decided to just lob in a softball for me. In this season with the addition of The Governor of Woodbury, there have been some awesome twists and a couple of potential references to the Classics, but none more obvious than the arena fighting. Depending on the way things turn out I may come back to this season to discuss some similarities to Roman Empire politics, but that will have to wait. For now let’s jump into The Walking Dead’s version of the Colosseum. First some Colosseum facts, this is not Coliseum the punk rock band (I don’t know of them, but MS Word tells me this is the correct spelling, I say it is the rock spelling not the amphitheater spelling, and Colosseum gets an underline even though I know it’s correct, bizarre).  The COLOSSEUM was built in 72AD under the emperor Vespasian and was finished in 80AD. Some scholars say, and I believe it is commonly accepted now, that it was built by four different “architecture firms” and that is why parts are deteriorating at different rates. It is also known as the Flavian Amphitheater in case the whole Colosseum and Coliseum debate bothers you.

The important part of the Colosseum, for this posts purposes, is that gladiatorial games took place there as well as in many smaller amphitheaters throughout Italy. In the most recent season of The Walking Dead, The Governor decided that similar bloodshed was a great way to entertain the people of Woodbury. In Rome the gladiators were often slaves, criminals, or (as seen in the famous Russel Crowe movie) prisoners of war. The Governor makes a similar decision when he places Daryl and Merle in the ring against each other. I think we can call Daryl a prisoner of war now that a true war has broken out between the prison and Woodbury.

The parallels between Woodbury and Ancient Rome after the fall of the republic are quite striking. The people are living in a time of great fear and panic in both situations. A “great” ruler leads them into a peaceful time and earns the respect of the people he governs. Both hold over his people the power of life and death (we’ve seen this a handful of times with the governor). The governor like some emperors of Rome decided the best way to please the people was to hold these bloodbaths. He does add an interesting component by placing the walkers (zombies) in the arena although since the walkers are often seen as animalistic and not human I would say this compares to putting lions and other animals in the Colosseum.  After the scene of the arena style fighting in The Walking Dead it is revealed that the winner of fights was often predetermined. This was known to occur in Ancient Rome as well.  The arena fighting in this show was clearly meant to evoke the gladiatorial games.

During the decline of the Roman Empire Juvenal wrote that the Roman people only wanted two things, “Panem et circenses” or “bread and circuses.” He actually says, “The common people-rather than caring about their freedom-are only interested in bread and circuses” (Satire 10.81). This is also true of the people of Woodbury. They will follow their leader as long as he provides them with the comforts of home, food and entertainment. It is incredible that we continue to show the same scenes of what happens in times of great instability, but in most cases people are put in power who take advantage of that situation. We shall see how The Walking Dead turns out, but I think The Governor is just a serial killer, psychopath who had enough charm and guns to make people follow him. Charm and an Army got Julius Caesar pretty far, and even put his (adopted) son in power for years after his assassination.

Juvenal Book IV Satire X ll 78-81:

nam qui dabat olim
imperium fasces legiones omnia, nunc se
continet atque duas tantum res anxius optat,
panem et circenses

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The Ancient Origins of Valentines Day: Lupercalia, where whips excite.

With Valentine’s Day coming up I thought there was no better time to start writing again than on my favorite historical holiday. Let me start by saying I hate Valentine’s Day for a number of reasons, but I love the story of its origins and of course its origins go back to Ancient Rome. The Ancient Roman festival was known as Lupercalia and took place February 13-15. As with many holidays, which are all great stories, Valentine’s Day was originally established around a pagan holiday in order to transition people seamlessly to Christianity. The reason I love the history of this holiday is the drastic change that has occurred through time.

Lupercalia was a fertility festival according to Plutarch who claims that the festival helped pregnant women with their delivery and barren women become pregnant. This is not that much unlike the modern Valentine’s Day; I’m sure some would say it has similar function today (wink wink), although others I’m sure would prefer that it not help with fertility. The interesting part however is the difference in practice. Valentine’s Day is all about love and gentle caring. Its predecessor, Lupercalia, was about naked men running through the streets whipping women.

The festival began with a sacrifice. After the sacrifice, young men cut pieces of the hide off of the animal (usually 2 goats). With these pieces of hide they fashioned whips and ran through the streets naked whipping the people gathered in the crowd. Women, even noble women, would actually purposely get in the way of the men in order to be whipped. This at first seems shocking, but when we remember that the whipping was believed to lead to fertility it is a little less outrageous. The Romans were up for pleasing the gods in anyway necessary. And somehow through history and Christianity this ritual turns into our Valentine’s Day of chocolate, flowers, and romance (maybe for some who read 50 Shades of Grey the whipping will carry on). 

For primary reference on Lupercalia see Horace’s Ode book 3 poem 18 and Plutarch’s Life of Romulus

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TV’s Bones, Steel, and Urine?

I was watching a wonderful Bones marathon on TV (this show is great for its intelligent jokes about art and the ancient world) and noticed this great little tale about steel in Ancient Rome. One of the scientists says that a certain instrument was made in Ancient Rome because it was fashioned in a peculiar way. He claims that the Romans believed if a red-headed boy urinated on heated up iron it would turn to steel. Obvious it is the chemical properties that make this change possible, but it makes for a great story of accidental science. Something interesting about this story is that it is another example of urination as a tool in the ancient world. The Romans had great uses for urine, my favorite being laundry detergent.

                In Ancient Rome urine was used to make togas whiter. The ammonia in urine has great cleaning properties; ammonia is still a common cleaning product today.  The people who did the laundry were called fullones. Outside the workplace of the fullones sat large containers which served like a public urinal. The people passing by would urinate in the containers and the fullones would have free detergent.    These pots could also be found around town and may be collected by fullones who needed more supplies; they even chose different places because better urine was usually found there. This phenomenon can be seen best in Pompeii where these workplaces and pots have been preserved and displayed in a natural setting. There is also a great deal of graffiti all over the town and some is surprisingly about this process.

                So next time you are out of your favorite stain remover maybe pee in the washer and see what happens. Okay, maybe you shouldn’t do that, but know that it has been done and that urine was a very important part of life in Ancient Rome.

For more reading on the specifics of this process see this paper: http://www.classics.uwaterloo.ca/labyrinth_old/issue89/Pee.02.09.pdf

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