Change and Continuity in History. 2

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Click for credits
The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Click for credits

(This is the conclusion of a conversation with Paul started in an earlier post)

MoR
Yes, you have continuity too in North America, Paul, your roots and languages are from here, your monuments are European inspired. But European people who crossed the ocean were mostly fleeing injustice. They needed change more than continuity, and they found new societies where history and ties were not so burdensome. This of course liberated many energies but it could also be a reason why whenever I say that the past continues in the present, you guys shake your head and say: ‘No, it’s not so relevant’.

I mean, it’s not only a shorter history, it’s this ‘New’ thing:  the ‘New’ World was erected in the name of change, I believe. When a building gets old you tear it down, while here we keep almost everything, even crap. A metaphor in some way.

History is longer and heavier here and this implies pros and cons. Some parts of this country, Italy, are probably beyond redemption for this reason (inability to modernity, corruption etc.) but allow us to be thrilled that we are walking on the same roads tread upon by Julius Caesar or Marcus Aurelius, or to be happy that our ancient Roman sewerages (like Cloaca Maxima) are still working fine.

My family has this tradition of using the Fatebenefratelli Hospital on the Tiber Island. My father had surgery there twice and my wife there delivered our two daughters. Now it turns that this was a healing place since 293 BC, when a temple to Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing, was built. When, 600 years later, Christianity arrived the healing place was preserved intermittently and a Basilica di San Bartolomeo later built a few yards away (this saint being thence associated to healing it explains by the way the name of the famous St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.)

The Subura district, the slums of ancient Rome, was full of ‘disreputable locals and brothels’ (Wikipedia.) Today parts of it correspond to the Monti rione. Well, since antiquity until today such ‘disreputable’ locals still exist in the area (in via Dei Capocci for example) and the police mostly turns a blind eye because of its being like a tradition of the city. Of course during Fascism, when prostitution was legal, the area thrived.

Inside Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Click for credits
Inside Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Click for credits

The Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome (Saint Mary Above Minerva, see image above) and the area of the great Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (in today’s Turkey, see image at the head of the page) are interesting examples as well since they both follow a similar continuity-change pattern.

Continuity. In both places we have a succession of three deities with something in common (female gender, fertility, virginity etc.)
Change.
These deities belong to different periods and religions.

The Egyptian Isis, goddess of fertility, was followed in Rome – in that place – by the Roman Minerva (or vice versa; or they shared the area.) Minerva, a virgin goddess, was later replaced by Mary, a virgin divinity too, in the said church subsequently dedicated to her, Saint Mary Above Minerva.

Similarly, but on a much larger scale, the sanctuary in Ephesus dedicated to the Anatolian goddess Kybele, the Earth Mother, was later converted into the temple of Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunt, child birth, virginity and fertility. The place was very famous, one of the greatest sanctuaries of Antiquity – see a 3d reconstruction at the top of the page – and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. People flocked to venerate the goddess.

Well, it is amazing how not far from that place it was later believed that there existed the last home of Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus. For this reason – the marvellous temple was destroyed by a Christian mob in 401 AD – a series of pilgrimages again began with pilgrims venerating the Virgin Mary and even recently the place has been visited by three popes, who followed a pilgrimage path thousands of years old.

Kybele, Artemis, Mary. A very impressive example of continuity through change, it seems to me.

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Summarizing, what I mean is that, with no break, connections run in history from antiquity to the present which are striking and, here more than in the New World, we feel that they are all around us, that they are part of our most profound identity. Which also crushes us in some way, without a doubt.

There must be reasons why we are called the ‘Old’ World: aren’t we all mummies a bit?

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

Related posts:

Change and Continuity in History. 1
On Roman, Italian and Latin Roots. Italy and the New World

Change and Continuity in History. 1

Cathédrale Marie-Reine du Monde. Montreal. Click for credits
Cathédrale Marie-Reine du Monde. Montreal. Click for credits

This conversation between Paul Costopoulos, a Canadian of French and Greek descent, and Man of Roma, started from the noble death of the Stoicists and landed on many themes such as religion, the Old and the New World and change and continuity in history.

Paul
As for Antiquity as much respect as I may have for that era and it’s people I pretend that the mores then current are not relevant today.

MoR
Well, I don’t know Paul. Here in Europe religion is waning, people are trying to understand what their values are and sometimes do embrace weird beliefs (have you ever heard of the Temples of Damanhur in northern Italy?)

Personally, I prefer to get back to our Greco-Roman roots, which is not a barren exercise, ancient thought being totally incorporated in modern thought. As for Stoicism, human equality and brotherhood or natural law are elements of its legacy. And I wish I had a better knowledge to tell you how much of the American constitution is ‘ancient’.

Even in my curious for-fun exploration of science I recently discovered this connection between Pythagoras and the modern theories of the universe. We can ‘make sense’ of the universe, stated both Pythagoras and Einstein. Is there an affinity between our rationality (math etc.) and the universe? Fascinating theme.

I mean, WE are the ancients Paul …

The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104). Click for credits
The Majestic Sombrero Galaxy (M104). Click for credits

Paul
I was steeped in classicism and Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. A potent mix. However over the years I have taken leave of organized religions but not of the values I got from that environment. As many seem to have done, I have not thrown the baby with the bath water. This being said I have not reversed to Paganism.

As for the Stoicists, I respect their opinions like I respect other point of views but suicide is not my cup of tea to solve any problems whether of honor or health or a way to escape execution…let the tyrant kill me, I will not give him the pleasure of doing it for him.

As for being “Ancient” that notion is intriguing. I guess some of the values I still adhere to may make me Ancient, but I also feel modern and with my time. I’m sure you do too, otherwise what would we be doing here.

MoR
I feel modern too and I also feel that we basically agree. Although I think there are at least 2 differences between us:

1) I am agnostic, I don’t much imagine somebody superior up there (although how can I know) and I think that if this Being exists there’s no evidence that He really cares for us;

2) belonging to the 2 opposite sides of the pond we might have a different perception of what is change & continuity in history.

As for point 1) I confess I feel some void since I used to sincerely pray Jesus and my guardian angel before going to sleep until I was 12. Then I stopped. I attribute to this imprinting – not to Jesus’ power – the fact that when I go to bed I often need to read valuable books, and I found that classics, poetry etc. work fine for me, they give me peace and help me counter today’s superficiality.

Am I a neo-pagan? No Paul, I am not. Art and thought suffice. I am well aware I’m not such a great intellectual, but my approach suits me. I’m content with it.

[As for point 2 see the next post]

Paul
We are not so different. Yes, I believe in a God … but I cannot be sure there is one, this is called faith.
As for continuity well on this side of the pond, as you say, we keep on speaking European languages, we learn European history since our roots are out there. Even our monuments are, very often European inspired, for instance the Catholic cathedral in Montreal, Marie-Reine-du Monde, is St-Peter Basilica redux even to Bernini’s torsados over the Altar [see the image at the top of the page, MoR.]
We may look at diversity and development with less apprehension than Europeans though and we question the past maybe more easily, it is less heavy on us, what is 600 years compared to Rome’s over 3000? We cannot say as Serbia’s foreign minister during the most recent Balkan’s war: “My country has too much History!”

(The conversation continues within this post and its comments section.)

Asking the Japanese and Limoncello for Some Help

Home-made limoncello. Click for credits

These are confusing days in my life for no apparent reason. A project started a few years ago, possibly one of the most important in my life, is now finally reaching its conclusion. I should feel happy, I should feel like one with a stronger grip on reality, but I feel vague instead, with things to do escaping my control and piling up in messy ways while quake aftershocks accompany our days and nights.

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A few days ago, in Destination Infinity‘s stimulating blog, I read about 5 Japanese concepts (the 5 Jap Ss) useful for managing anything, from our storeroom to our daily work. I’ll quote DI and highlight the words I found more beneficial to my present state of mind:

“Seiri – Put things in order. Arrange, sort. Keep only the essential itemsDiscard the unessential ones.

Seiton – Proper arrangement. Set in order. There should be a place for everything and everything should be in their place. They should be reached easily when needed.

SeisoClean. Keep things clean and polished so that you would love to work with them. This cleaning should be a part of daily work – not after things get messed up!

Seiketsu – Purity and Standardization. Operate in consistent fashion to yield consistent results.

ShitsukeSustaining the discipline. Maintaining and reviewing standards. Once the previous 4 Ss have been established, they become a new way to operate. But if there is a suggested improvement or a new tool, then a review of the 4 Ss is appropriate.”

Lemons

This weird period of stress is probably the reason why almost every evening, on our small terrace overlooking the roofs of Rome, I have one or two shots of limoncello. As Lola put it, “it is Italy’s most famous after dinner liqueur. I like mine tart, zesty, not too sugary, ice cold and dreamy – she says, and adds:

“The homemade booze is always a million times better than the bottled, so here’s the secret to lavish limoncello.”

I’ll let you read her recipe and post on limoncello. Learn the art of Italian cooking from a creative woman whose roots are both from Italy and the US.

Italian Earthquake. We Are All Abruzzesi

Italy's Earthquake in Abruzzo. Click for image source

L’Aquila, located in central Italy, the capital of the Abruzzo region, has been devastated a few days ago by an earthquake, together with some villages of the hit Abruzzo area (the picture refers to some houses in Onna.) The quake has killed almost 300 people and left more than 50,000 people homeless. It is time for concrete solidarity.

How we can help.

The National American Italian Foundation: Abruzzo relief fund. Italian Red Cross Abruzzo page. Global Giving Italian earthquake page.

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We’ve also received this Charities-Trust-Fund-for-L’Aquila info from our fellow blogger Joanne, a Canadian of Abruzzese descent:

O.S.J. Charities Trust Fund for L’Aquila
Abruzzo Italy – Earthquake
Account Number: 09012 69-21310
At: CIBC 7765 Yonge Street, Thornhill, Ontario L3T 2C4

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We also receive this link from scerir (see the comment section) to the Italian earthquake page of the INGV, the Italian ‘National Institute for Geophysics and Volcanology’.

Scerir, Italian of Abruzzese descent as well, also provides a link to a movie on the damages to S. Maria di Collemaggio, a large and celebrated medieval church just outside L’Aquila where lies the tomb of Pope Celestine V, stigmatized by Dante Alighieri as he “Who made by his cowardice the grand refusal” (Inferno, III, 59) (“Colui che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto.”)

Both the tomb and the church have been heavily damaged by the quake (together with other major masterpieces of the whole area.)

Julius Caesar’s Trapped Legion

Part of a display seen at Old Sarum in Wiltshire, 1998. Click for credits

54 BC, November. A typical grey rainy day in eastern Belgium. One of Julius Caesar’s legions plus 5 additional cohortes are wintering in the land of the Eburones, a German tribe. The other Roman legions are scattered far away in Gaul in their fortified camps, as was Caesar’s habit during winter. Caesar is heading towards Italia in order to take care of political matters.

The Eburones, commanded by their two kings, Ambiorix and Cativolcus, wipe out with a sudden attack a small group of Roman soldiers foraging for wood not far from their camp.

A parley thus began. Ambiorix (see below a statue dedicated to him in Tongeren, Belgium) told the Romans that a revolt was occurring in Gaul and that many Germans were about to pass the Rhine ready to join the Gauls against the Romans. He offered a safe passage towards other Roman camps fifty miles away.

The two Roman commanders, Quintus Titurius Sabinus and Lucius Aurunculeius Cotta, began a heated discussion within the council. Cotta was for staying: they had enough food and the legion was well entrenched. Sabinus was instead for leaving. Caesar would never arrive in time, he said, and their only opportunity was following Ambiorix’s advice. Around midnight Cotta had to give up since Sabinus’ opinion had prevailed in the council and even the soldiers were for leaving the camp.

These soldiers were the least experienced among Caesar’s legions, enrolled just a few months earlier and used only as baggage guards in important battles.

At break of day the Roman force, more than seven thousand men, quit the camp marching not in battle order but in a very extended line and with a very large amount of baggage. This showed that Sabinus’ idea, that the Germans must be trusted, had prevailed among the Roman commanders except Cotta. The Eburones were concealed in a thick wood waiting for the Romans. When the Romans entered the wood they let them pass through and descend to a deep valley where they abruptly showed up on either side of it. The Romans realised they were encircled and trapped.

Statue of Ambiorix, on the Great Market of Tongeren in Belgium. Click for credits
Statue of Ambiorix, on the Great Market of Tongeren, Belgium. Click for credits

The Eburones, fearing to attack the Romans directly went high above them on both sides and started pouring down missiles and rocks on the heads of the Romans. Sabinus lost his head, since he knew he had led the Romans into a mortal ambush. But Cotta kept his cool and quickly had the column pulled into a square. The Roman force held on for an extraordinary 8 hours though the casualties augmented.

At this point Sabinus tried to parley with Ambiorix, but was slaughtered by the king himself during talk. The Eburones then charged down en masse and many other Romans died, including Cotta.

Some still kept formation and succeeded to get back to the camp fighting.

“There the survivors kept the Eburones out until nightfall, and then, to a man, committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of the enemy.”

“If the baggage guard would fight all day with no hope of success and commit mass suicide rather than surrender, Rome’s enemies were going to be in serious trouble.”

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

Note. Freely inspired by the The Fall of the Roman Empire – A new history, by Peter Heather, Macmillan 2005, where the last two paragraphs are taken from; the episode is narrated by Julius Caesar in chapt. V of his De Bello Gallico. Here the English Gutenberg text)

Eluana, or Man’s Ultimate Freedom. Ending One’s Life. 2

Lucretia stabs herself after rape. Joos van Cleve, Flemish artist, 1485 - 1540. Click for credits

Rape and death of Roman Lucretia

To her husband’s question, “Is all well?,” Lucretia replied:

“Far from it; for what can be well with a woman when she has lost her honour?
The print of a strange man is in your bed. Yet my body only has been violated;
my heart is guiltless, as death shall be my witness.” …

Taking a knife which she had concealed beneath her dress, she plunged it into her heart,
and sinking forward upon the wound, died as she fell.

(Livy Book I. 57-60)

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A discussion about the acceptable reasons for ending one’s life (see our previous post) can profit from the opinion of our forefathers, the Ancients, and from that of the Renaissance men, who channelled ancient thought into modernity.

This post is not a paean to suicide. I am sure Eluana Englaro and Terry Schiavo loved life: was theirs an acceptable life though?

Most of the quotes are taken from the French Renaissance writer Montaigne (II:3), whose Gutenberg English text is available in the translation of Charles Cotton (1630 – 1687). See also the original French text.

Note to readers

To many, old writings are a terrible bore.
They are wrong in my view.
Ancient writings, actual time machines connecting the past to the present, are mind expanding and one of the pleasures of life.

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

“The wise man lives as long as he should, not as long as he can” said Seneca, who nobly committed suicide when accused of an attempt on emperor Nero’s life. And Cicero said that while “life depended upon the will of others, death depended upon our own.”

Greco-Roman writers like Plutarch expressed great appreciation for anyone who showed this kind of ultimate dignity.

Tacitus admires Boiocalus, a German chief, “who said to the Romans that he and his tribe might lack enough land to live upon, but land sufficient to die upon could never be wanting.”

Plutarch tells us of this Spartan boy “sold as a slave and by his master commanded to some abject employment, who said: ‘You shall see whom you have bought; it would be a shame for me to serve, when freedom is at reach,’ and having so said, threw himself from the top of the house.”

Ancient thought didn’t always condone suicide. Plato didn’t accept it and the Roman poet Virgil (Aeneid, IV, 434-437) destined those who committed suicide to a region of the afterlife where they were overwhelmed by sadness (tenent maesti loca).

But the prevalent Roman ideal was that of the stoic sage who counted on reason and self-control and who was not afraid of pain or misfortune (see our post ‘On solitude‘). Should life become unbearable, or should one face great dishonour, the Romans of both sexes were not hesitant to commit suicide.

Death was considered an act of ultimate freedom and this was deeply ingrained in the Roman tradition. “Nature has ordained only one entrance to life – said Cicero – but a hundred thousand exits.”

Death was less important than the way of death, which had to be decent, full of dignity, rational (and sometimes theatrical,) while to the Christian mind, self-killing being a sin, suicide is often a desperate, irrational action fruit of depression.

Among famous examples of suicide are Lucretia, Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar, Mark Anthony (and Cleopatra,) Cato the younger (see picture below), Seneca, Lucan, Petronius Arbiter etc. plus a good number of emperors, Nero, Maximian, Otho, Quintillus etc.

Common people as well considered dignity more important than life in many cases.

Cato of Utica reading the Phedo before comitting suicide. Jean-Baptiste Romand & François Rude (1832). Photo by M. Romero SchmidkteRoman stoicism deeply influenced the West despite the victory of Christianity. “For much of modern Western history, Stoic ideas of moral virtue have been second to none in influence” (Ecole Initiative, Early Church On-Line Encyclopedia.)

We see examples of noble death in Shakespeare, who, like all his contemporaries from Renaissance, felt the influence of ancient thought. The imagination of the Victorian British was captured by Cato’s death (see image on the right), «clawing out his own entrails to avoid Caesar’s despotism — as a courageous and noble death.”

Montaigne, imbued with Roman stoicism, refers how “Alexander laying siege to a city in India, those within, finding themselves very hardly set, put on a vigorous resolution to deprive him of the pleasure of his victory, and accordingly burned themselves together with their city, despite his humanity.” He seems to praise that the Indians preferred a death with honour rather than a life without it.

Montaigne adds a moving example:

“Nothing can be added to the beauty of the death of the wife of Fulvius, a good friend of Augustus. Augustus having discovered that his friend had vented an important secret he had entrusted him withal, one morning that he came to make his court, received him very coldly and looked frowningly upon him. Fulvius returned home full of despair, where he sorrowfully told his wife that, having fallen into this misfortune, he was resolved to kill himself.
To whom she frankly replied, ‘Tis right, seeing that having so often experienced the indiscipline of my tongue, you could not take warning: but let me kill myself first,’ and without more ado she ran herself through the body with a sword.”

Montaigne, quoting Pliny the elder, observes that the mythical Hyperboreans, “when weary and satiated with living, had the custom, at a very old age, after having made good cheer, to precipitate themselves into the sea from the top of a certain rock, assigned for that service” (see our series on the Hyperboreans.)

“Unbearable pain and the fear of a worse death seem to me the most excusable incitements for suicide” is Montaigne’s conclusion.

He was a sincere Christian. But he found inspiration and solace in the teachings of antiquity.