Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

Sacred Islam Prayer rug. Fair use

The French historian Fernand Braudel writes:

“Civilizations are not mortal. They survive transformations and catastrophes and when necessary rise up again from their ashes (…). Islam probably sprang from desert Arabia, crossed by caravans and with a long past behind, but it is above all a territory acquired by the conquest of Arabic horsemen and camel-drivers even too easily: Syria, Egypt, Iran, northern Africa. Islam is primarily a heir of the Near East, a whole series of cultures, economies and ancient sciences. Its heart lies in the narrow space that goes from Mecca to Cairo, Damask and Baghdad. (…)”

Islam Prayer. Fair use

“A civilization is in fact not only a religion – however a religion may be at the centre of any cultural system. It is an art of living as well, i.e. the reproduction of thousands of behaviours. In ‘The Arabian Nights’ saluting a king means ‘kissing before him the earth amid his hands’. Well, it is a gesture already customary at the court of the Parthian king Khosrau (531-579 AD) – Braudel continues – and it is the same gesture that in 1500 and 1600 (and later) European ambassadors in Istanbul, in Ispahan or in Delhi tried to elude finding it extremely humiliating for themselves and for the princes they represented. [The ancient Greek Historian] Herodotus, [490-425 BC] was upset by some [Ancient] Egyptian manners: ‘In the middle of the road, as a salutation, they prostrate the one in front of the other, lowering their hands down to their knees.’ “

Islamic Clothes. Fair use

“Think about the traditional costumes of the Moslems whose evolution will be very slow [see picture above]. It is already recognizable – Braudel argues – in the dress of the ancient Babylonians, described by the same Herodotus [more than] twenty-five centuries ago: ‘The Babylonians first of all wear a flax tunic down to their feet (which we would today call gandura, notes E. F. Gautier), and on top of it another wool tunic (which we would call djellaba); then they wear a short white mantle (we would say: a short white burnus); and they cover their heads with a mitre (a fez, today, or tarbush).’ And we could continue talking of the houses (pre-Islamic), and of food and superstitions: the hand of Fatima, … it already adorned the Carthaginian funeral steles (see figure below).”

Hand of Fatima used as a pendant. GNU Free Documentation License

“Islam is evidently tied to the compact historical ground of the Near East.” (…) In short – Braudel concludes – any study of our present ways of thinking necessarily has to look at the endless past of the civilizations.”

(La Mediterranée, by Fernard Braudel, Flammarion 1985. Translation by Man of Roma. Square bracket text is by MoR)

(The end )

Italian version

Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1

Downtown Beirut. Public domain

A few days ago, when listening to Diana Haddad, an Arabic Lebanese pop singer, something echoed in my mind.

Before the war (started in 1974) Lebanon was called the Switzerland of the Middle-East. In the 50s Beirut was one of the financial capitals of the planet and the intellectual capital of the Arab world. It offered, among the rest, highest financial skills to the Saudi Arabians and a very convenient interface for Western firms towards the Arabs, rich in oil.

It also offered an Arabian Nights highly refined dolce vita attracting all kinds of VIPs, Hollywood and international actors, tycoons plus the most splendid ladies of the epoch. Beirut was a synonym of luxury, of all pleasures combined and of intelligent cosmopolitism. Three languages were (and are) there spoken: Arab, French and English.

Some dear Italian friends of mine studied in Beirut in their youth and are in fact fluent in these 3 languages. When we were children we heard all these magic tales from our parents and looked amazed at pictures in gossip magazines.

To the history-addicted all this flourishing is not surprising. Lebanon IS the land of the Phoenicians, highly refined merchants since Antiquity and ancestors of mighty Carthage.

Now that Beirut’s glamour is gone – the city has been partially rebuilt but its premier role seems to have moved to London, Dubai, Cyprus etc. – this place is still highly civilised though, since civilisations are not mortal I believe, and, just as an example, Lebanese pop music (and culture) is probably the most successful among today’s Arabic youth, being seen as ‘modern’ but of course a bit frowned upon by the traditionalists.

Here a song by the delighful Diana Haddad for you to listen.

Northern Mediterranean youth cannot but feel how similar these people are to us, and yet portions of this music and other details we feel are diverse. One can say that this diversity is provided by Islam. Yes but, I am asking myself, is Islam really so alien?

Well, yes and no. One moment we feel it is the Mediterranean (hence not so different from Southern Europe,) another moment it is Persia, Arabia, Baghdad, Pakistan, Northern India, Indonesia, West and East Asia in short, both very different from Europe.

This diversity is though exciting. Why should it scare us?

As we promised in an earlier post and its notes, this writing is the first of a series dedicated to Islam, seen as exotic and yet somewhat close to our Roman heart. We are not here to judge but to learn (and possibly communicate.)

Once more we’ll ask French historian Fernand Braudel for inspiration and guidance. See you at our next post then.

Italian version


For the same theme though in a wider picture:

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1
The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean

Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

Utopian Medieval Town

Why musical improvisation is utopian? Because it is a place of the spirit that does not lead to any place. Utopia is a Greek word made of ‘ou’(= no) and ‘τόπος’ (= place), so its meaning is actually ‘in no place’. This is the reason why we say that musical improvisation is utopian. This idea in fact belonging to my generation – that improvisation was the big thing that could produce new insights & musical discoveries – led to nowhere.

In the 1970s musical improvisation as a theory and practice greatly influenced musicians. It was based on concepts like intuition, immediate action and reaction, and on the idea of mysterious mental faculties not far from Zen which were thought to favour the discovery of new patterns and unexpected solutions. Maybe it is not by chance that J. D. Salinger was attracted to Zen (see our post on digression in speech and writing; there is a subtle link between that post and the present one).

As far as we know (and our taste goes) improvisation has rarely created anything really interesting, with its tendency towards superficial results we can observe for example in some (or many) jazz pieces. Great composers and pianists like Chopin and Liszt used to be oustanding improvisers as well but their piano impromptus were seldom published and in any case were regarded by their creators as works inferior in quality (listen below to the Fantasie-impromptu in C-sharp minor by Chopin played by Valentina Igoshina; it is a work Chopin was not very proud of … well, maybe it is not too profound, but Chopin is Chopin … 😉 ).

In 1975 the American pianist Keith Jarret carried out a tremendously successful jazz improvisation at the Cologne Opera House in Germany. It was the famous Köln Concert that created a new fashion of piano solo music based on improvisation and which in my view is a beautiful piece of music but here too we note flaws like excessive repetitions and passages confused and predictable (you can listen to the beginning of this work thanks to YouTube).

Note. This Köln Concert – not to mention the splendid Impromptu by Chopin – is great stuff, I do not want to diminish it, being an explosive mixture of jazz with a scent of classical, blues, gospel and rock, all so inspired and “flowing with human warmth” (quote from Jazz: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd, London, 1995.) Just try to follow my point though and compare for example this Chopin’s Impromptu with other compositions by the same Polish-French musician.

An interesting aspect of improvisation is the high level of concentration required by the artist to produce anything decent, which some critics say it can favour a strong empathic relationship with the public. This is true but one can equally say that the same thing occurs during an inspired execution of composed music, namely music which did not spring out extemporaneously and was instead previously well constructed and thought over.

A great interpreter is in fact able to relive with renewed freshness a work composed even centuries earlier, which equally allows him to involve the public in ways empathic and with the added value of a work which is deeper and better constructed.

In short (and as far as we understand) the process of musical construction (composition) produces better results compared to this more or less spontaneous way of creating music called improvisation. What we are saying of course applies to other arts as well, such as theatre, dance, literature or rhetoric (i.e. public speaking, or writing, with the goal of persuading the audience): Romans like Marcus Tullius Cicero and Julius Caesar carefully prepared their speeches, even though, when necessary, they were able to improvise.

This doesn’t mean that improvisation isn’t a valid creative tool. We can play our instruments and express ourselves freely, or we can speak on the microphone of a computer in search of ideas for our writings. The resulting matter though should go through a post-production phase. It should, in other words, be purified and wisely inserted into the compositional process.

Italian version


See also:

Digression vs Sticking to the Point
A Novel in the Hands of the Killers

Improvisations by MoR:

Two Piano Improvisations
A Dionysian improvisation

Digression vs Sticking to the Point

The Catcher in the Rye. Book cover. Fair use

Holden Caulfield, wandering without any destination, depressed, expelled from school (also for this reason he had secretly come to New York where he had gone through weird experiences), visits one of the few teachers who appreciated him, Mr. Antolini, an intelligent young man who had married a woman who was rich and much older than him (J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Chapter 24). After the initial greetings, Antolini asks him:

“How’d you do in English? I’ll show you the door in short order if you flunked English, you little ace composition writer.”
“Oh, I passed English all right (…) I flunked Oral Expression, though (…).
“Oh, I don’t know (…) “It’s this course where each boy in class has to get up in class and make a speech. You know. Spontaneous and all. And if the boy digresses at all, you’re supposed to yell ‘Digression!” at him as fast as you can. It just about drove me crazy. I got an F in it.”
“Oh, I don’t know. That digression business got on my nerves. (…) The trouble with me is, I like it when somebody digresses. It’s more interesting and all.”
(…) The boys that got the best marks in Oral Expression were the ones that stuck to the point all the time – I admit it. But there was this one boy, Richard Kinsella. He didn’t stick to the point too much and they were always yelling ‘Digression!’ at him. It was terrible, because in the first place, he was a very nervous guy (…) When his lips sort of quit shaking a little bit, though, I liked his speeches better than anybody else’s. (…) For instance, he made this speech about this farm his father bought in Vermont. They kept yelling ‘Digression!’ at him the whole time he was making it (…) What he did was, Richard Kinsella, he’d start telling you all about that stuff – then all of a sudden he’d start telling you about this letter his mother got from his uncle, and how his uncle got polio and all when he was forty-two years old, and how he wouldn’t let anybody come to see him in the hospital because he didn’t want anybody to see him with a brace on. It didn’t have much to do with the farm – I admit it – but it was nice. It’s nice when somebody tells you about their uncle. Especially when they start out telling you about their father’s farm and then all of a sudden get more interested in their uncle. I mean it’s dirty to keep yelling ‘Digression!’ at him when he’s all nice and excited …. I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.” (…).
“Holden … One short, faintly stuffy, pedagogical question (…). Don’t you think if someone starts out to tell you about his father’s farm, he should stick to his guns, then get around to telling you about his uncle’s brace? Or, if his uncle’s brace is such a provocative subject, shouldn’t he have selected it in the first place as his subject – not the farm?”
“Yes – I don’t know. I guess he should. I mean I guess he should’ve picked his uncle as a subject, instead of the farm, if that interested him most. But what I mean is, lots of time you don’t know what interests you most till you start talking about something that doesn’t interest you most. I mean you can’t help it sometimes. What I think is, you’re supposed to leave somebody alone if he’s at least being interesting and he’s getting all excited about something. I like it when somebody gets excited about something. It’s nice. You just didn’t know this teacher, Mr. Vinson. (…) he’d keep telling you to unify and simplify all the time. Some things you just can’t do that to.”

Holden will then run into a further letdown since, after getting to bed and going to sleep in a room of his teacher’s house, he finds out how Mr. Antolini has an interest in him which goes beyond a teacher-to-pupil relationship

Waking up suddenly in the night he sees Mr. Antolini sitting in the dark very close to him and caressing his head. This cannot but increase his alienation from the world, when even the few good masters he has met (or fathers, each new generation needing fathers in the broad sense) have interest in him for reasons different in any case from the ones he had imagined.

Italian version

Other related posts:

A Novel in the Hands of the Killers
Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

New Year? Pasta and Home-made Coffee

The smallest Bialetti for just one cup of good Italian coffee

Poonam told me in her blog that New Year resolutions must be public since this can help us to track our progress and dedication on completing them. Well, I’ll try to follow her advice and since I am now living alone with absolutely no cooking skills, no house skills and no practical mind altogether, here are my simple (and pathetic) resolutions for 2008:
1) I want to learn how to cook well enough instead of often going to a pizzeria or small restaurant nearby. First of all, being Italian, I need to be able to make good pasta and a very good home-made coffee. It is a national necessity. It is true that I am a zero cook but my taste for food being refined enough I badly need to learn how to produce at least decent basic meals. Good thing both my Neapolitan friends (Rome’s Greek cousins I call them) & my neighbours from Northern Italy are helping me a bit.
2) I will write down all the money I spend each day on a little copy-book or my finances will go havoc.
3) I will work on my physical fitness (bicycle, swimming and walking). There is a wonderful fitness centre not far from my home but at the moment my money is little.
4) I will clean the house and wash all my clothes myself without asking for external help.

I will only record here my dawning cooking skills, since the other resolutions are self-explanatory in some way. In future posts, if I can, I will tell you more about my progress (granted there will be any) so you can judge yourself. This is then what I have learned so far.

Tomato sauce for basic pasta. In order to make good Italian pasta one needs to prepare a decent tomato sauce to add to pasta once it is boiled (spaghetti, rigatoni, fettuccine, fusilli, farfalle etc. Here you can find a list of the most common varieties of pasta). Now my simple recipe for an Italian tomato sauce. I preheat olive oil in a non-stick pan and add chopped celery, onions and carrots (I think it is called battuto). Once these basic ingredients have become pale golden – one should be careful not to brown them – the result is called soffritto, since it is stuff lightly fried in oil (friggere = to fry). One can buy frozen chopped celery, onions and carrots (I did a lot) but the taste of the resulting soffritto is not the same. While these ingredients are getting golden one can flavour soffritto by adding pancetta, a lightly-seasoned Italian bacon, or peperoncino (chilli) or red wine, herbs (like basil etc.) or vegetables like mushrooms. Once soffritto is ready (golden) put passata of tomatoes into the pan (passata I learned is pre-cooked concentrated tomatoes one can find everywhere, see figure below), cook everything for 20-30 minutes and our Italian tomato sauce is done! The advantage of passata is that a lot of work is already done (no need of peeling good San Marzano tomatoes, cut them in pieces etc. etc. till you get your own passata).

Bottles of Passata, an important ingredient for tomato sauce. Fair use

Home-made coffee. While in America the most common way of brewing coffee is dripping (a technological miracle since it allows to brew a totally tasteless coffee, I really am surprised how they made it lol), in Italy we usually use a moka-style machine. Bialetti is the classical machine almost everybody has and I highly recommend it. Well, people from Naples used to make home coffee with their own Neapolitan pots (caffettiera napoletana) which are different from the Moka pots. These pots can produce even better coffee but now they are difficult to find in shops, although one day I really want to find one and try. So here is some info gathered from my family, my experience and my Neapolitan friends. Moka Express technology first though (image and quote taken from Wiki Books):

Moka Express Coffee Pot Techology. GNU Free Documentation License

“Water is placed in the lower section (A) and the raw coffee grounds in the mid-section (B) with the spout reaching below the water level. After the top section, initially empty, is affixed, the pot is placed on a heat source. As the water reaches boiling point it turns to steam and eventually creates sufficient pressure to force all the water from the lower section up the tube at once, through the grounds — which are held in place by a metal filter above and below — and through a second tube until it hits the lid of the pot and is collected in the upper section (C), producing a strong, concentrated coffee. Gaskets and safety valves to ensure a tightly closed unit allow for pressure to safely build up in the lower section and provide a necessary security release if this pressure gets too high.”

Here are my little secrets. 1) You can buy coffee already ground. I prefer Lavazza oro and Illy packages. The latter is much more expensive though. 2) Amount of water in the (A) section: my mother preferred a tiny bit of water showing in the (B) section grid before adding coffee powder. My Neapolitan friends though prefer water only up to the safety valve inside section (A), which means much less water. I must say they are right since this way coffee is more concentrated thence has more gusto. 3) Coffee grounds must be pressed a bit so boiling water finds its way with more difficulty thus providing you with a stronger aroma. 4) Cup(s) must be put into boiling water before receiving the precious black liquid. This is absolutely mandatory for Neapolitans, who would never drink coffee on a cold cup. Romans are less picky. Again I think Naples is right since coffee is good when sipped really hot. One more thing. The one-cup Moka machine produces the best single-cup coffee you can ever make at home (see the picture at the head of the post page: in my home I put this little wonder on top of two Latin Corpus Iuris Civilis books lol). Larger Mokas are for 3, 5, 6 etc. etc. but the quality of coffee is not as good. 4) My students in the suburbs of Rome taught me this dirty trick called il caffè bomba, the bomb coffee. Add a few spoons of coffee to water in section (A) and the resulting coffee will be a bomb, no kidding. Be very careful though. Coffee is a drug and can be dangerous for the faint of heart.

Is it ok Poonam? Are my New Year personal resolutions good? 🙂

Italian version

In Absolute Asymmetry I Want to Find Symmetry

The Chandos portrait, believed to depict William Shakespeare. Public Domain

Wittgenstein wrote in his diary in 1950:

“I cannot understand Shakespeare because in absolute asymmetry I want to find symmetry. It seems to me that his plays are huge sketches, not finished paintings, roughed out by one who, so to say, can afford to do anything. I can understand those who admire his art and call it the most sublime, but I don’t like it. I can then understand those who are left speechless in front of his plays, although it looks to me we misunderstand Shakespeare when we admire him in the same way for example Beethoven is admired.”

[Wittgenstein, Vermischte Bemerkungen, 1977 Suhrkamp Verlag Frankfurt am Main. Translation by ManofRoma]

Shakespeare and the Continent

While Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein ( 1889 – 1951 ) laments a lack of symmetry in Shakespeare’s art, it is well known how French Voltaire ( 1694 – 1778 ) commented on Hamlet and his author (the French original text first, then a translation by Man of Roma):

“Je suis bien loin assurément de justifier en tout la tragédie d’ Hamlet: c’est une pièce grossière et barbare, qui ne serait pas supportée par la plus vile populace de la France et de l’Italie. […] On croirait que cet ouvrage est le fruit de l’imagination d’un sauvage ivre. Mais parmi ces irrégularités grossières, qui rendent encore aujourd’hui le théâtre anglais si absurde et barbare, on trouve dans Hamlet, par une bizarrerie encore plus grande, des traites sublimes, dignes des plus grands génies. Il semble que la nature se soit plue à rassembler dans la tête de Shakespeare ce qu’on peut imaginer de plus fort et de plus grand, avec ce que la grossièreté sans esprit peut avoir de plus bas et de plus détestable.” (qtd. from Voltaire, Francois-Marie Arouet. Oeuvres Complètes de Voltaire. Vol. IV. Paris, Garnier Freres, 1877-85. 501-502.)

“I am certainly very far from justifying in all Hamlet’s tragedy: it is an unrefined and barbarous play, that would not be tolerated by the meanest populace of France and Italy. We would believe that this work is the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage. But among all these unrefined irregularities, which to this day make the English theater so absurd and barbarous, we find in Hamlet, by a yet greater oddity, sublime elements worthy of the greatest geniuses. It seems like nature had delight in collecting within Shakespeare’s head all that we can imagine of what is greatest and most powerful, together with what rudeness deprived of wit can contain of what is lowest and most repulsive”.

Hitler and a boy who might be Wittgenstein. Linz RoyalSchool in 1903. Public Domain

I will just add a note, the relationship between ‘the structure of a work of art’ and ‘the structure of the world’ seeming too complex a topic here. First of all I personally adore both Shakespeare and a lot of English poetry (it’s been a drug for me for really many years) although in my view – the view of a passionate dilettante – impeccably polished and musical English verses came out only from Alexander Pope on. What I mean is that this infallible taste for perfectly refined verses, which Latin writers (Italian, French etc.) seem to have almost innate but which originates from hard work as well, was attained by English and British poets only at a later time; or so it seems to me, problem probably being the pronunciation of some words changing over time which makes a few or numerous verses – even of John Milton, for example – poor in rhythm. This observation should be checked.

Italian version

Sex and the City (of Rome). 4

Ancient women wrestling. Or a man and a woman?
Ancient women wrestling. Or a man and a woman?
Italian version

Let us then have a look at a collection of the erotic artefacts found in the ancient Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

We already know that these frescoes, mosaics, statues etc. shocked the Victorians so much (see our first Post on Roman Sex).

Additionally, an interesting account in French of the best of them (60, with corresponding beautiful lithographs) was written by an unknown author, a certain ‘Colonel Fanin’ (or Famin? A Mistake in the English translation? see later) and published I guess illegally in 1816 in a limited edition by a French antiquarian (Stanislas Marie César Famin: ‘Colonel Fanin’ himself I guess) with the help of the Neapolitans (this French guy and Rome’s Greek cousins were such terrible brats, weren’t they.)

[On the matter, a History today‘s take; a good French blog’s take]

It is revealing (and funny) how 19th Century Europe got so scared of this book. All known original copies were destroyed by the French government though two at least survived. One was hidden in the private case of the British Museum, another ended up in the Library of Congress in Washington. I am pretty sure some billionaire possesses some other copy somewhere in the world.

Roman Sex scene
One of those ‘abominable monuments to human licentiousness’. Click for source at a French blog

In 1871 the book was translated into English and went through many pirate (and forbidden) editions. It can now be viewed in the Internet, the problem of the English copy it comes from being the horrible colour separations of the reproduced lithographs.

We do not need to show you all the lithographs and the corresponding comments since you can browse them yourself. These comments seem to me both highly cultivated and captivating. The author appears torn between aroused curiosity, admiration and condemnation.

Below you can see Plate VI (Invocation to Priapus) reproducing a bas-relief which depicted a married couple performing a home sacrifice to this God of fertility.

Plate VI (Invocation to Priapus)

Here is the comment by the author:

“EVERYTHING in this bas-relief indicates an interior scene, an act of candour and piety, and not a disgusting orgy. The a married pair, clad as decently as the nature of the sacrifice to which they are about to proceed will allow, seem to be asking the god who presides over generation to put an end to a grievous sterility; the expressive gestures of the woman, especially, bear out this explanation. The husband is occupied in stretching out a curtain which is to veil from profane eyes the mysteries of the sacrifice”…

“The god, represented with the figure of a bald-headed and bearded old man, reposes on a little column, before which we observe a kind of altar erected in haste by the married pair, on which they have placed some oak-leaves and the pine-apple which surmounted the thyrsus of the priestesses of Bacchus.”

The Image in Plate XLVIII ( 48 ) reproduces a fresco from Pompeii. It is much more erotic and equally unconventional compared to today’s sexual manners.

Plate XLVIII (48). Spinthria

“A YOUNG and beautiful married couple are amorously toying on a small bed. A lighted lamp shows that the scene takes place at night-time … the young man is carelessly stretched on his back, while his obliging companion, seated astraddle over him, is left to perform the principal part. In the background may be seen the cubicular slave, who is attentively watching the voluptuous pastime, and seems to be even looking on it with a lustful eye–

Masturbabantur phrygii post ostia servi,
Hectoreo quoties sederat uxor equo.”

Well, I won’t translate these two verses by the Roman poet Martial, but the cubicular ( = in bedroom) slave was common and had to serve his/her masters whenever requested.

Scenes like this have been realised in the 2005 HBO/BBC TV series Rome, “a fictionalized account of Caesar’s rise and fall” (Wikipedia.)

People were mainly shocked by these and other sex scenes, also those who praised the TV series (many did, critics included.) I think it was a pretty good experiment aiming at showing some Roman history together with pre-Christian sexual (and non sexual) habits. The latter didn’t save the series since the former was too heavy for contemporary audiences.

I liked the series though – one of the finest reconstructions of Ancient Rome I’ve ever saw- and I highly recommend it.

HBO/BBC television series Rome

“This fresco – we are getting back to our mysterious author – is not without merit as regards its execution. The woman appears strong and well-formed; her fair hair falls over her shoulders in wavy curls. The man is beardless, but his stature is tall, and everything about him denotes a youth full of vigour and fire. The bed, a very inconvenient one for such sports, is … supported by four legs, too slender to resist long if they were not made of iron, a custom which has been perpetuated down to our own day in the south of Italy. It is, nevertheless, possible that this piece of furniture … was composed of a substance more precious than gold, for at the period of the decline, to which this painting belongs, luxury was carried to such a degree among the Romans, that it surpassed even the most marvellous stories of Eastern poets.”

Colonel Fanin tries here in my view to justify such unrestrained manners with the concept of decline but it must be noted that Rome at the times of Pompeii was instead at her apex from every point of view.

He then makes another mistake about the colour of Roman women’s hair (historians having proved that Roman hair was of any colour.)

“The Roman ladies attached great value to fair hair, though Nature had given them such beautiful black hair. It was indeed their habitual custom to have their heads shaved, and to cover them with light hair, which the young girls of Germany or Gaul sold them at fabulously high prices.”

It is true though that the fair and red hair colour was appreciated. Romans were open to a wide world of possibilities, being at the head a vast world.

He here gives us a lively image of Roman unrestrained wealth:

“Every part of the known world at that time contributed to subserve the reckless and mad luxury of the Romans. India sent them fine pearl necklaces, valued at several millions of sistertii; Arabia, her sweetest perfumes; Alexandria, Tyre, and Asia Minor, precious stuffs worked with gold and silk; Sidon, its metal or glass mirrors. Other countries sent to Rome purple, gold, silver, bronze, all the productions both of art and nature, the choicest wines, and the rarest animals. Under the later Scipio, men of high authority at Rome were seen wasting their substance with favourites, others with courtezans, or in concerts and costly feasts, having contracted, during the Persian war, the Greek tastes; and this disorder grew into a madness among the youths.”

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 2

Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion.

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Sex and the City (of Rome). 3

Borghese Hermaphroditus, Louvre. Fair use

Italian version

So far we have wandered about Roman sexuality trying to understand 1) how remote it is from contemporary sexuality and 2) why everything has radically changed in the West since those times.

The first question seems clear. The Romans were very different and fancifully enjoyed pleasures and sex even though they tried not to be dominated by them (see our earlier post on ancient teachings.)

How different they were finds further evidence in statues like the famous Borghese Hermaphroditus shown above and kept at the Louvre Museum in Paris, especially when we think that these statues were very common in the Greco-Roman world. A hermaphroditus is actually a transsexual.

Can you imagine today a VIP’s living room offering the view of a marble transsexual to guests? Well, apart from a few eccentric artistic milieus, I think even open-minded people would be a bit puzzled, wouldn’t they.

The second question is more difficult. I believe that the Christian religion bears some responsibility, although I acknowledge that sexual pleasure & love are tremendous forces to the extent that they can be a social problem to be handled no matter the culture or epoch we live in.

As the Spanish philosopher Fernando Savater put it, we like sex too much, it therefore being potentially dangerous and unproductive, with every society trying to regulate it in a way or another.

Puritanism in its broad meaning, however, (eg loving only what is not pleasurable,) is to be condemned in my view even if it can push us to extremely hard work (puritanism was seen, no need to remind it, as a factor of development in areas of the United States according to Max Weber’s theories – if my memory is not faltering.)


As always it is a matter of right measure. The Romans achieved great things (like the Anglo-Saxons did) and worked hard to attain them but lived pleasantly and were (mostly) not puritanical (in the early Republic they were.)

Therefore it is not by chance the Latin folks originated from them (Italy, France, Portugal, Spain etc.) tend to savour life with taste, refinement and joy, this incidentally also being a reason why the Italian and the French ways of life are getting attractive and represent today a school (not the only one) of savoir vivre in the West.

Thing being Latin folks are more or less taught since they were babies to cultivate beauty and all it implies.

It is so simple,
as simple and beautiful
as a Greek temple.

Their ancestors in fact, our Ancient Romans, didn’t just eat (as many Anglo-Saxons do, though progress is evident): they invented a highly refined culinary art. Equally, they didn’t just reproduce themselves (as many Christian fanatics do): they invented forms of refined eroticism which allowed them to live a fuller life.

Is it wrong? Is it right?

Should beauty in all its forms be a main part of our life?

A full answer is more coomplicated than it seems, but I definitely think it is right.

Yes, I conclusively think it is right, my sweet readers. Oh I really don’t have many doubts about that.


Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 2

Sex and the city (of Rome) 4
Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion.

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)