Today it is the “Ides of March” or Idus Martii, a date famous for the assassination of Julius Caesar and an ancient festivity as well dedicated to the god Mars or Ares, the Greco-Roman deity of war.
Well, not only of war since (to the Romans only) such god was also an agricultural guardian.
March (Italian Marzo, Latin Martius) is the month named after Mars. Festivities in honour of Mars began in fact in such a year period in Ancient Rome and inaugurated the military (and agricultural) season.
They were then held again in October which ended the military campaigns and the farming activities – well, more or less since olive oil (called by Homer “liquid gold”) had still to be made because olives matured through the winter.
This is not though a post about war, farming or about Caesar.
Except for war we care about the said things. But a lot more we care about Paul Costopoulos, our Canadian sage.
Of both Greek and French descent (a potent mix) everybody likes Paul. He is endowed with wisdom, concrete knowledge of life and that emotional intelligence – as Dafna put it – that has made discussions wherever he goes interesting, humorous (and warm.)
MoR:“Douglas, you are a friend and you raise here a big philosophical question: whether man can reach truth. I’m not qualified, my wife is the epistemologist of the family (she has a degree on philosophy of science) and all I understood (from our quarrels) is that ‘scientific’ research is all about trying to go beyond doxa, ie biased opinion, so you hit the nail on the head I believe.
By ‘research is progressing’ I meant: ok, we will possibly never ‘know’ these folks (Saxons invading Britain, Macedonians at the times of Alexander etc.) but the various ‘pictures’ we have of them are enriched day by day, researchers communicating more (such ‘pictures’ are interrelated), and, our sources being not only ancient literary texts (which reflect the view of the writer) but of course also the (less biased?) ‘data’ from archaeology, biology, from studies on agricultural techniques, fossil seeds etc.
As an example (also of various doxas coexisting), the ‘picture(s)’ of Rome’s fall – the period 300-600 CE, ‘late antiquity’ ie between antiquity and middle ages – have changed dramatically in the minds of many specialists, I believe, although the public still thinks in terms of a Gibbon’s progressively decadent, imploding empire (Gibbons mentioned Rome’s ‘immoderate greatness’ so that “the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight” plus he blamed Christianity for Rome’s weakening) which received the last blow by totally ‘rough’ Germanic barbarians.
Who is right? I don’t know, these younger historians though surely profiting from a lot more of multi-disciplinary data I think.
the ‘late’ Roman empire was a total success story.
Germanic, non Roman, Europe was a two-speed reality (no new thing lol,) one portion being much more civilised than we had thought, surely influenced by Rome but absolutely non Roman (so this doesn’t include Bavaria or Austria, that were romanized, and, not by chance, when ‘Nordic’ Luther arrived, they said: no thanks).
So what the hell happened? Why healthy Rome fell?
Possibly because, blinded by her sense of superiority, Rome made fatal mistakes, and was murdered by the German Goths. Within though a period of ‘collaboration’ with the Germans.
[No easy topic the fall of Rome. Here’s a big list of theories on it.]
[I believe Christianity helped a bit (love your enemy blah blah, Gibbon in this was right imo), but I still have to figure out to which extent.]
J. Caesar Admired German Valour
MoR:PS. Excuse my logorrhea, such ‘collaboration’ between Germans and Romans was started by Julius Caesar the Myth. One reason he conquered Gaul [today’s France, Luxembourg and Belgium] was that the Germans, much stronger than the Gauls or Celts, were crossing the Rhenus (Rhine) in flocks and invading Gaul (so Caesar by conquering Gaul postponed an invasion that occurred much later with the German Franks, thence the name of France.)
Therefore Caesar, after defeating the Germans of Ariovistus, said to the toughest prisoners: “I admire your valour, so I give you a choice: either to be sold in the slave markets or to become my personal guard”. I think the Germans preferred the latter also because it was in their culture to follow the leader that proved most valorous.
Caesar took a risk, but not that much I believe. He belonged to the impoverished nobility and was a son of the slums of Rome (Subura) where he probably had lived in contact with Germans and Gauls long enough to understand their mentality. And surely, in the conquest of Gaul that ensued, the Germans proved much more faithful to Caesar than the Celts allied to the Romans. From that day many Roman emperors had German gorillas protecting them – not to mention foot soldiers and Cavalry, also used by Caesar.
Douglas: MoR, thus began the Praetorian Guard (under Augustus, successor to Julius) which became the controllers of the fates of emperors for 300 years until Constantine disbanded them. Perhaps that had something to do with the fall of Rome? Hitler seemed to have read his history well and created his own guard but tried to control them utterly and was quite successful in maintaining their total loyalty. Did il Duce? Certainly, he had his personal guard but they failed to protect him in the end from the citizens.
I think (to get back to history and understanding the common citizen of any culture or state) that with the expansion of literacy came more understanding. One source of great insight into American history is the correspondence between its citizens. These are the thoughts of the average citizen, not merely the hopes and dreams of the elite. Ancient Rome (and Athens, Egypt, and so forth) are known by what its rulers (for the most part) decided was important (and, often, flattering). To learn about the average citizen, we must make guesses and extrapolations based on myths and legends and on relics found. Do we taint these guesses and extrapolations with our own biases? Probably so.
But my bias is that history was, for centuries, the tales of kings and it was told as they wanted it told.
my bias is that history was, for centuries, the tales of kings and it was told as they wanted it told.
It certainly was Douglas.
MoR:[talking to both Douglas and Phil] “That you mentally associate the emperors of Rome with Hitler & Mussolini, is interesting. There’s not much linking to be made imo, apart from the masquerade etc. I explain it with the great tradition of democracy in your country, which, we Latin people, do envy.
As for the Praetorian guard, I just now read in the Wikipedia that their role – according to who wrote the article – was of stability to the Empire on the whole. I don’t think though the Praetorian guard (a substantial army) were Germans (I only believe a few gorillas around many emperors were). And maybe some of the Praetorians were, I don’t know. I’m sure instead the legions who fought against the enemies of Rome had a progressively increasing number of Germans, which in the end became a problem possibly.
Rome is an Idea
Rome was more an idea, she was pretty international. The emperors themselves (Spanish, Arab etc.) could come from any land of the empire (like the Popes.)
It is little known that Caesar’s legions who conquered Gaul came mostly from Gallia Cisalpina, today’s northern Italy (80% sure). Big difference was there between these Italian Gauls and, so to say, the French ones. The former were Celts too (though with doses of Roman & Latin blood) but wore the toga (Gallia Togata is another name for it), eg were deeply romanized (Virgil, Pompey the Great etc. came from there), hence immensely more faithful to Rome than any other external people.
They only lacked regular Roman citizenship, which was given them as a prize by Caesar at the end of his Celtic wars. So Caesar – no Hitler or Mussolini indeed – had also the merit to create the unity of Italians, re-attained only 150 years ago!
Do We Know the ‘Average’ Roman?
One source of great insight into American history is the correspondence between its citizens. These are the thoughts of the average citizen, not merely the hopes and dreams of the elite.
True, but pls, allow me, we know something (I’d say a lot) about the average Roman too (who btw exchanged letters – the middle class – but we have lost most of them). Comedies were for the common people as well, or they would have been unsuccessful – there were no cinema or TV, thence theatre was terribly important – plus we have thousands of graffiti – whole sentences, poems etc. – written by the upper middle and lower classes: you probably under estimate the complexity of ancient society, no less structured than ours. Yes, the lower classes could be literate too, although, ok, the rate of illiteracy was higher, but, since religion touched the middle and the lower milieus especially, and we knowing A LOT about it (by Roman religion I mean ALL the cults present in Rome, Christianity included) I can infer that:
We know a lot about the poor people as well. The whole (monumentally documented) history of the progressive success of Christianity tells tons of things about the lower classes of the whole empire from the times of early Christians onwards. Just think of the letters by Paul of Tarsus: he had to persuade the non Pagan populace of the Empire – slaves included: see image below – but most of all he had to inspire & guide the faith of the already Christian elements – his message hence being directed to ALL social classes, it goes without saying.
I mean, we even know – due to the translations of the Bible – the Greek & Latin language actually spoken by the populace: for the reasons you mention the language of the poor and of the rich differed in sophistication.
As for simple-to-the-masses Latin the first translations of the Bible – Jerome’s not by chance is called ‘vulgata’, from vulgus, populace – appeared in the 4th century CE if I’m not wrong. They were written in non literary, ‘vulgar’ Latin, – eg that everyone could understand – to the extent that today’s Italians with a high-school diploma can more or less read them, vulgar Latin and Italian being closely related (whatever you Phil may think about it lol 🙂 ).
I have to stop this, Douglas. Thanks for obliging this lazy old man to work.
That you mentally associate the emperors of Rome with Hitler & Mussolini, is interesting. There’s not much linking to be made imo, apart from the masquerade etc. I explain it with the great tradition of democracy in your country, which, we Latin people on the whole, do envy.
Actually, it is both of those men who made the association. Not unusual for more modern despots to see themselves in the same light as men whom history has portrayed as great.
(Gen. Patton saw himself as a reincarnation of soldiers of the past and, I suspect, great generals and military leaders)
Julius took control of the political structure of Rome and turned it away from being a true republic of the times. He had himself declared dictator. He took total control of both the political and military structures. And was assassinated for it. But he laid the groundwork for Augustus to become Emperor. In some ways, he created the Roman Empire. First, by expanding the territory under its control and, second, by changing its political structure and laying the groundwork for dictatorial rule.
As I understand it, the literacy rate of Rome was ~15%. This would be the elite ruling class and the “middle class”. The “middle class” would be better described as the merchant class. This would be where the graffiti came from, as well as the letters.
When I spoke of the correspondence of American citizens, it began with the literate classes. But later it expanded into the general public as education expanded. We were fortunate that we began as a country after the invention of the printing press and at the beginning of the expansion of literacy. It is more the good fortune of our time period than anything else.
Try to understand, I am not denigrating Rome’s history. I am trying to explain my scepticism of history in general before the advent of the spread of literacy.
UPDATE: Just a few hours ago Berlusconi was hit in the face with a model of Milan’s cathedral and knocked to the ground.
He had just finished a speech during a political rally in the centre of the Italian Northern city. According to ANSA the alleged attacker had received many years of treatment for mental disease. Berlusconi is now being taken care of in a Milan hospital and his condition doesn’t seem serious.
A signal of how harsh the political climate is getting in our country, and a horrible gesture to be firmly condemned whatever opinion we may have of Berlusconi and his policy.
“Who’s more Roman than the Roman Jews? Some of us date back from the times of Emperor Titus [39-81 AD]” – Davide Limentani told me in the early 80s.
Limentani was (and perhaps still is) at the head of a big wholesale and retail glass and silver company in Rome. I had phoned him three days earlier for an interview that had to be published on the Roman daily La Repubblica.
I remember a lovely spring day in the old alleys of the Roman Ghetto, with swallows crying over a glorious blue sky. He was sitting at his desk in the aisle of an impressively ramified, catacomb-like store in via Portico d’Ottavia 47 (look at its stripped-down sign above,) crammed with an immense variety of crystal, pottery, silver, china, pewter, anything one can think of – his swift and bright eyes looking in every direction.
The firm had / has among its clients popes, cardinals, celebrities and governments, including the White House. Davide is descendant of Leone, who in 1820 started the most ancient wholesale glassware store in Rome which still bears his name: Leone Limentani – 1820 Roma.
“Leone er cocciaro” [coccio = fragment]: that’s how they called him” Davide said smiling. “He had in fact started with glass junk and had accumulated a big credit with the S. Paolo Glass-works, whose effigy was on every glass – the old Roman bibitari [sellers of drinks] remember it well. The S. Paolo Glass-works were having difficulties because of some faulty articles, and, since a 1514 papal edict allowed the Jews to trade only in commodities “of secondary importance” Leone exclaimed: “The edict doesn’t forbid me!” so he bought out the second rate articles from the S. Paolo thus laying the foundation of his new activity.”
“The Roman Jews are almost 20,000” Davide continued “and only at the Portico of Octavia they live in a community. A love-hate relationship with the ghetto, they have” he confessed handing some pictures of his family to me. When the Piedmontese [who unified Italy 150 years ago] opened the Ghetto’s doors in 1870 many Jews left with the desire of forgetting all they had suffered here. But they soon came back because the rione Sant’Angelo represents all their roots. In the summer evenings the elderly sit in the open air and speak a vernacular almost dantesco, dantesque, in its character: ‘Guarda che vituperio!’ [ = ‘watch all this vituperation!’.]”
They Never Passed Under the Arch of Titus
Titus Flavius Vespasianus, Emperor of Rome. Traditionally the Roman Jews never passed under the arch of Titus. There’s a reason. This ‘delight of the human kind’, as the historian Suetonius called him, didn’t turn such a delight to the Jews, who saw Jerusalem sacked and its temple destroyed by Titus’ armies in 70 AD. Domitian, Titus’ younger brother, built the arch to commemorate the victory and on one side panel of it [see the image above,] carved in Pentelic marble, we see the spoils of the temple during the triumphal procession in Rome.
From that war we know that a group of Jews ended their lives as gladiators in the circus at Caesarea, the Roman stronghold in Palestine. Others died in the Sardinian or Spanish mines. A large number though were brought to Rome.
Now it turns the Romans needed labour to build the Colosseum. So the stones of the most famous Roman monument were wetted by the sweat of many slaves among which were the Jews captured by Titus. This group had been though greeted by an already flourishing Jewish community – merchants, freedmen and slaves – who had come to Rome 130 years earlier together with Pompey the Great at the end of his wars in the East.
Today’s Roman Jews seem to be the descendants of these two Jewish settlements in Rome – and of others arriving I don’t know when and where from.
Therefore what Davide Limentani said is probably true: the Roman Jews arethe most ancient Romans surviving. The origin of their roman-ness appears to be prior to the Flavian era. Actually “Jews have lived in Rome for over 2,000 years, longer than any other European city” (!) [Jewish Encyclopedia.]
Not the place here to discuss the reasons of the clash between the Romans and the Jews, which gave birth to many wars and ended up with the Jews leaving Palestine. As for the Roman Jews, we know that they had been treated benevolently by Julius Caesar who had also exonerated them from any tax during their sabbatical year. From Suetonius we know that at Caesar’s death the Jews in Rome flocked to his funeral with big lamentations, and it is even possible that some of them identified Caesar with the Messiah” (read livius.org on this, note 6.)
During the Middle Ages the life of the Roman Hebrews had its ups and downs but basically was not too bad. When though in 1517 Luther nailed the 95 theses that will split Western Christianity into Protestants and Catholics, a dark epoch of religious wars and fanaticism began.
On the 14th of July 1555 Pope Paul IV promulgated a Bull where all the rights of the Jewish community were cancelled and the Jewish Ghetto was walled and provided with gates.
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.
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.”
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)
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.
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.
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.
“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.
Common people as well considered dignity more important than life in many cases.
Roman 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.
Conrad Phillips.Hi Man of Roma, I just came across your blog as I was learning about polyphonic music. I bookmarked your interest in Montaigne and like the Platonic dialogue connection (…) How does Montaigne and narcissism fit into your background? [here the original conversation, MoR]
Man of Roma. Well, narcissism was a sort of a jest in my bio info page, although there is some annoying narcissism in the Mediterranean people, living in the sun, something for example the Britons, from clouds and rough weather, reproach us, not without reason.
But the beauty of classical or Renaissance art cannot be quite understood without considering a certain narcissistic component, in my view. Works of art (like Palladio’s villas or palaces, for example, see the London exhibition) were mainly for great families who sought distinction, éclat. The elegance of a Julius Caesar (here is a post considering this aspect of him), or of most toreros for example, or of the French, who love to correct foreigners who speak their language, can be explained by some vanity as well. It may be a Roman and Greek thing, I don’t want to ennoble it, quite the contrary, but it is in us [see below Narcissus by the painter Caravaggio, 1571 – 1610].
Montaigne is a constant dialogue I have. He mythicizes the ancient world as much as I do, he talks of himself without any self-love, a sort of high level country philosopher, and a spontaneous philosopher.
I often prefer ideas that unfold, like his do, through scattered notes rather than finished books, more sedentary in my view and less thought provoking.
Rome’s legacy is greater than we think – “language, literature, legal codes, government, architecture, engineering, medicine, sports, arts, etc.” – and the Roman Empire has been a powerful myth in the course of the centuries.
Such Empire, Frankish, Germanic (and later Austrian, dissolved in 1806 only) considered itself as the heir of the “First Rome” (the Western Roman Empire,) while the Hellenized Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, was called the “Second Rome” and remained unconquered until 1453 CE.
When also Byzantium (Constantinople) fell, even the Islamic conqueror Ottoman Mehmed II thought he was continuing the power (and idea) of Rome and tried to “re-unite the Empire” although his march towards Italy was stopped in 1480 CE by both the Papal and Neapolitan armies.
After the fall of the Second Rome someone began to refer to Moscow as the “Third Rome“, since the Russian Tsars felt they were the inheritors of the Byzantine Empire’s Orthodox Christian tradition.
[2014 update: allow us to remind that the sovereigns of the two great continental empires dissolved in WWI, the German and the Russian, both bore the name of Kaiser and Tsar, id est Caesar.
So many heirs of Rome! Seems like a futile historical game.
It is not.
Let us see how other nations went on claiming the Roman heritage.
The Victorians, the Italians and the USA
The British Victorians, for example, who felt they were somewhat the spiritual successors of the Romans.
They felt like the heirs of ancient Rome and the creators (again) of a “Third Rome”: after the capital of the Pagan world – they argued – and after the capital of Catholicism, Rome was now to become the capital of a totally New World.
A disproportionate idea, without a doubt.
And the Americans? They also like today to find similarities between their might and the superpower of the ancient times (try to google America, new, Rome: you’ll get an interesting number of results.)
We will though today talk about France (skipping Spain for the sake of brevity.)
Can’t France in fact lay claims as well?
The First French Empire
France inherited many elements from Rome, after the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar: language, food habits, behaviours, genes, technologies and a fundamental aestheticism, among the rest.
We have already mentioned the connection between Charlemagne and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire. Less obvious are similarities like that between the French Foreign legion and the Roman legions as for training, combat habits, management of terrain (construction of roads etc.) and so on.
Much more significant though is the state tradition of Rome which, according to some scholars, has been preserved in the French monarchic centralism and in the state national spirit of the French people.
The person who shaped this centralism (later continued by Napoleon) was probably Louis XIV (1638 – 1715, see image above,) one of the greatest kings ever. He was called the Sun King (le Roi Soleil) and was associated with Apollo Helios, the Greco-Roman god of the Sun. He also encouraged classicism in the arts and Voltaire compared him to the Roman Emperor Augustus.
Other great personages such as Napoleon Bonaparte (or even Charles de Gaulle, why not) bear the traces of the Roman heritage. Napoleon was inspired first by the Roman Republic. Roman-like, he became First Consul of the French Republic.
Then, after receiving the crown from Pope Pius VII (in Paris, this time) on December 2 1804, he became Emperor of the French people and encouraged a classicist Empire stylein architecture, decorative arts, furniture and women’s dresses based on Ancient Hellenic attire (see below,) a style soon popular in most parts of Europe and its colonies.
Napoleon identified himself with Caesar, was continuously studying his works and succeeded in becoming one of the greatest generals ever, like Caesar and Alexander.
The French and the Italians.
Who Envies Who?
Antonio Gramsci, in Notebook IX of his Prison Notebooks, reflects on some words written by Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) in Histoire d’un crime:
“Every man of heart has two fatherlands in this century: the Rome of the past and the Paris of today … This ancient fatherland – Gramsci argues – associated with the modern one supposes that France is the heir of Rome. Something that was said, and is especially said, today, to displease no small number of people.”
Well, something said to displease whom? Our philosopher probably referred mainly to the Britons and to the Italians.
Focusing on the Italians, one can wander and wonder with Gramsci whether a real francophilia ever existed in our country (Notebook XXVIII.)
France was always admired in Italy – Gramsci observes. France meant the French Revolution, the participation of a large share of the population to the political cultural and state life, it meant a decorous parliamentary activity and many other things that the young Italian state could not exhibit. The Italian francophiles have often concealed a strong dislike and a substantial envy.
I would add that some envy is also felt today by our French cousins when they behold our historical richness, the beauties of our towns etc.
This envy surfaces every time we do something better: with soccer, Ferrari, with the world-wide diffusion of our cuisine & fashion – and so forth.
But let us do ourselves a favour. Let us be honest.
Not so sure though someone says there’s something sensual (and annoying?) in them and in our Latin cousins, something felt as sinful and almost amoral but, for this same reason, irresistible.
[Did a star like Madonna build her career partially upon this and other ambiguities? I’ll think about it]
In other posts (see a list at the bottom) we had supposed connections between Latin folks’ behaviours and pre-Christian sexual mores.
In our last post we have imagined a connection between Italian cynicism and possible survivals of Paganism in our country.
It is time today to fathom a bit the phenomenon of Don Juanism.
Some Italian behaviours are irritating, without a doubt.
When the young males from here go to Oktoberfest in Munich, Bavaria, as soon as everybody is drunk they think they are entitled to seduce ALL the German women around, and of course they are very much frowned upon.
When I was a silly teenager, I confess we used to hunt for female tourists all over the historical centre of Rome. We did this rationally, exactly like hunters do, and of course the majority of the women weren’t so happy about it (well, the minority was our shameless, or shameful, reward.)
This behaviour was sort of common to all Italians (more or less) but now it only gets marked the closer one gets to the South of the peninsula, where good or bad traditions are preserved.
The men from the Italian South tend to be sexually free, while the women are kept under control (or kinda.)
A patriarchal behaviour that is still alive in many Islamic societies (see Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad, a Naguib Mahfouz’s character) and whose roots are prior to the Greco-Romans.
South Italian men try to seduce women, no matter what, when, how: they think they are all Casanovas.
And the Italian women? They are very provocative too in their own way although here we will concentrate on the men.
There is something we have to understand. Searching far back in the past might shed light on present behaviours. Let us consider one of the most admired (and loved) Romans of all times, Julius Caesar (see above flowers from tourists at the feet of his majestic bronze statue.)
He had greatness in all he did, such a supreme soul, more rational than Alexander, abstemious, with intense intellect, courage, utmost strength and daring even in old age.
He had a great vision and many historians think today that without Caesar the Greco-Roman world could have perished many centuries earlier with massive consequences, which makes him even more a giant compared to the average man.
[below an updated Feb-2014-related-posts list]
And yet there is another side of Julius Caesar we might like less.
He was totally addicted to sexual pleasure (only ambition in him was greater, argues Montaigne) and he endangered his career a few times because of this.
Caesar was very good-looking and narcissistic. He tried to hide his thinning hair (like our prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.) He plucked the hairs of his body and made use of the most exquisite perfumes. He liked his skin to be as perfect as that of a woman.
He changed wife four times. He probably had an affair with the King of Bithynia Nicomedes IV (was Caesar bisexual? read here,) with Cleopatra queen of Egypt, with Eunoe queen of Mauritania. He perhaps slept with many of his soldiers.
He chose himself extremely beautiful male slaves (same-sex love not being such a misdeed in Rome provided men took the dominant, penetrative, role: read here.)
We said there is a general attraction-repulsion among the people from North and South Europe. Let’s forget the repulsion thing now and let us instead focus on the undoubted attraction we feel for each other – as for our use of the term hyperborean pls read this note.
the North Wind
The ancient Greeks dreamed about a mythical people living in a pagan Eden beyond Boreas, the north wind (hyper-Boreas = ‘beyond the north wind’). The Hyperboreans were imagined as perfect and almost god-like.
Thus Pindar in the V century BC:
Never the Muse is absent
from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry
and everywhere maiden choruses whirling.
Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed
in their sacred blood; far from labour and battle they live.
Such a bliss was though difficult to reach:
Never on land or by sea will you find
the marvellous road to the feast of the Hyperborea.
So Hyperborea was like a feast. Hard to tell which real experiences fed the myth but we perceive like attraction vibes coming from the Mediterranean and addressed towards some mythical folk of the north-east.
At least 5 centuries later, the Roman historian Tacitus, in his book Germania about the Germans (full text here) – a group of tribes also coming from the North-East – noted in AD 98: “In every house the children grow up, thinly and meanly clad, to that bulk of body and limb which we behold with wonder.” Less myth here but concrete admiration for the Germans’ powerful bodies (and pristine virtues.)
Caesar himself had appreciation for the Germans, if utilizing them in battle is any indication. Ancient Rome was filled with northern slaves who, even though seen as savages, were admired for their aspect and many Roman ladies wore expensive wigs made from their blonde or red hair.
Not Angles, but Angels
That the Mediterranean people found these northern folks attractive is confirmed by a legendary event with some historical ground. If true, it occurred more than 500 years after Tacitus’ time.
He then so exclaimed with a pun: “Non Angli, sed Angeli”, “they are not Angles, but Angels” and added: “Well named, for they have angelic faces and ought to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.” Thus, according to Beda, he thought to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and sent Augustine of Canterbury to Britain for this purpose.
Not much has changed since then. As regards contemporary Britons, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Dutch and Germans (among the rest,) today’s Mediterranean people still see them as different in their bodies, skin, eyes, manners, and these differences are often seductive, beyond a doubt. Exactly as to Gregory, their children look such fair-skinned sweet angels to us. The women and the men we see as provided with a diverse beauty we generally find irresistible.
At 17 I was stunned watching the Irish girls dancing in the Dublin discos. The way they moved their bodies to the rhythm of music was so damn different from our girls’: a ‘lesser grace equals more grace’ type of thing, which almost knocked me out.
Churches as Factories for Marriage
A 45 years old American IT expert, italoamericano, confessed that the Italian and the Irish Americans who often gather in Catholic churches all over the States do feel this reciprocal attraction. “Churches are sometimes like factories for marriages. As far as us Italians– he confirmed – we cannot resist those fair and blue-eyed faces”. He had in fact married an Irish woman. Whether he met her in a church I’m not in a position to tell.
An attraction reciprocal. An American woman of German-English descent had lived in a small town close to Chicago. She said she gazed longingly at those Italians in the days when her catholic mother took her to the local church.
Ok, basta. Since from serious this post has become gossipy (and voyeuristic) I will redeem myself in the next and last post dedicated to the Hyperboreans.
Hopefully we won’t just talk about the physical qualities we admire in them.
Note. I couldn’t find an appropriate picture with English or German children (for Gregory’s angels.) The image above refers to Swedish girls during Luciadagen (Saint Lucia’s day) on December 13th. It is moving how these “sun starved people” revere Lucia (or Lucy,) the Saint of light born in sunny Sicily (her name coming from the Latin word lux = light.)
During the darkest days of the year they pray Lucia to bring the sun back to them.
(“Lucy is one of the very few saints celebrated by the Lutheran Swedes, Finland-Swedes, Danes and Norwegians in celebrations that retain many indigenous Germanic pagan pre-Christian midwinter light festivals” – Wikipedia)
I didn’t want to talk about politics too much in this blog, desiring rather to deal with our Western (Mediterranean, Roman) roots, with ancient habits still surviving today, with Rome past and present, philosophy, history, arts etc.
Three recent discussions though brought me into global politics again:
Another discussion took place here in my blog and dealt with a tighter European unification (which I see as a good way of fighting against Europe’s decline): a really LONG discussion among Alex and Andy (two nice Englishmen living in Milan, Italy) and Man of Roma.
Finally, a third discussion among Rob and MoR (in his and in MoR’s blog, 1 & 2) and Indian AshishandFalcon. It dealt with this void here in the West which we perceive as far as morals and values, plus a lot of other stuff.
Ok. What these three discussion had in common? Well, such minutia as the possible decline of the West, also vis-à-vis new emerging countries. I was also being asked by both Theresa and the Commentator to try a comparison between the Roman Empire and the Empire of the United States.
Ok, I’ll try, but:
Allow me to expand it to the entire West (America + Europe) instead of dealing with US decline only and …
allow me to restrict it to the possible effects such Western decline is having on culture, ideas and beliefs of the people involved.
Will this mean I’ll get back to my blog’s track? I do not know, really, but here we are, here is global politics again (though my own way) 😉
The heat is getting so appalling in here that thoughts become weird and erratic. I’m typing with sticky fingers, ants invading my human space in search of cooler air. Wondering if all this can be an extra motive why I accepted this topic again and why I feel like musing on ideas of decline…
Well, actually what we see here in Europe and America are all these people turning towards oriental religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, or doctrines like Scientology, or even Neo-pagan movements growing in Anglo-Saxon countries and probably originating from a disappointment towards Christianity and its different varieties (above, an image of the Neopagan Goddess and the moon).
A woman, a friend of mine, is starting to adore some crazy coloured stones she always brings along wherever she goes. Amazing, no doubt. And what about this person very close to me who turned to Sathya SaiBaba, the Hindu saint, long ago? Or this relative of mine who, once relocated in France, embraced the Muslim religion? (my mother never got over it, I’ll confess).
Many Muslims, vis-à-vis such Western spiritual crisis (and relativism), react in different ways, from a total acceptance of consumer society values up to forms of moral rejection or even active reaction (which unfortunately also lead to terrorism). But that’s another story. Let’s stick to the point.
As the Roman Empire. An Analogy
Referring to Western contemporary societies, numerous commentators and artists have talked of a decline-of-the-Roman-Empire type of situation. It is an interesting analogy, since in those old days the official Roman religion wasn’t so attractive any more and innumerable oriental cults were spreading among the different classes of the Roman society.
Italian Archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani ( 1846 – 1929 ) for example unearthed the remains of the Temple of Isis in Rome, who was imported by the Romans from Egypt and set on the banks of the Tiber, the sacred river of Rome. We have also mentioned in a previous post how Egyptian rites and culture fascinated the Romans at the times of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony (and in other times).
(Ants are now walking on my keyboard. I HAVE to make a pause and gently push them away….)
Since among all those foreign cults the final winner was the Christian sect, would it be totally absurd to wonder if once again there will be a winner? We mean – and it might be the heat – is it possible that again some faith (new or old) could profit from today’s Western void (which seems to affect Europe much more than America)? Italian Oriana Fallaci feared Islam would be the winning belief about to conquer Europe…. Well, we do hope that no Abrahamic religion (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) will prevail, for a number of reasons, some of which we can mention in the next post …
(ants and heat allowing… I need to buy AC, good also for mosquitoes, no doubt about it)
A fascinating depiction of Western void is offered by the acclaimed movies Le Déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire, 1986) and Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions, 2003) by the outstanding French-Canadian director Denys Arcand, both illustrating in an eloquent way this emptiness affecting at least two generations.
(to be continued tomorrow; we will associate this topic with Buddhism, science and the Dalai Lama. See you tomorrow then.)
This post originates from a debate I had with Falcon,Ashish and especially Rob and regarding: values, the West, the Islamic extremists etc. First Rob replied to a comment of mine saying I raised too many issues so it’d be too arduous to fully accept the challenge. But the same I can say of his post (an even more complex reply to my comment lol), so I’ll just consider some topics mentioned by him (plus Ashish’s and Falcon’s remarks) and will talk freely without too much organization, being a bit tired after a long work trip (and hoping I won’t say too many silly things lol).
Is Decadence Advancing (or Just Old Age)?
Western leaders are talking so much about values. But where is the line between what they really feel and political propaganda? I am referring to the Tony Blair’s speech quoted by Rob but this of course is not only true of Western leaders. This is also true of almost any leader. Although on the whole I see some decadence advancing in our part of the world, which might correspond to the natural cycle of civilizations, more or less like what happened to the civilization of ancient Rome. I mean, Western leaders can try to propose their societies (and their values) as models, but what are the real ideas we are exporting around the world?
Just an example taken from today’s entertainment field. At least two movie industries are now flooding the world with their films: Hollywood and Bollywood, the former selling all over the world, the latter selling all over Asia (Muslim countries included) but now starting to be appreciated outside Asia as well. I may be wrong but Bollywood moviegoers seem to entertain themselves in a much healthier way, while American movies (not to mention US video games) are now so painted with blood, stupidities and disgusting violence (apart from some technological perfection which in any case is not much influential over the quality of content) that the final educational result on the public tends in my view towards new forms of barbarism (see above a view of the Hollywood boulevard: source).
Blind Hatred plus Moral Disgust?
I abhor the Islamic fascists, as you call them, Rob. And I am not neutral. Quite the contrary. These repugnant people have made the world much worse than it was before, in my opinion. But if we do not understand that many of them are also motivated by some sort of moral disgust towards some ways of the West, we miss an important point.
Take Bali, Indonesia. The islamofascists hit Kuta twice in 2002 and 2005 with some bombs and killed hundreds of people, mostly Westerners. I have been to Bali a few times and I believe it is not by chance they hit the Kuta beach area so much.
Bali is the only Hindu island in a country, Indonesia, mostly Muslim. This was symbolic to them, not many doubts about it, but I think a main point was also they hit right a place in Bali (Kuta) where the Westerners most succeeded in totally corrupting the local people who are now selling themselves in various ways for money, while in other parts of this great island the Balinese retain their unbelievable dignity and their incredibly refined cultural values, yes, so refined that even peasants look like princes (look above at the pure beauty of these two Balinese dancers: source).
Although by this I do not mean the West has no values, and the non-West has. And we are not the only ones to use values as ideological weapons, as I said before. Ashish, this young Indian blogger, puts it very synthetically: “Religion [and any idealism, I think he means, MoR] is merely the vehicle, the true goal is world supremacy. Does the west prevail over the east or is it otherwise? … The bosses only care about the profits [oil for the west, power for the clerics], be it the West or the Middle East. Religion is merely a way to get yourself an army, because nobody fights as ruthlessly as a fanatic!” Very well said indeed.
A comment from another Indian blogger also in his twenties, Falcon, who writes: “Let’s face it, a large no. of Islam followers have their rationality almost blinkered by faith. They may be very humble and polite and would gladly discuss religion and point out its greatness and fallacies but try touching Islam and they get defensive.”
Well, it is true, also some Mulsim students of mine behaved like that. But I remember things were a bit different before September 11. What I believe is that, especially the new Muslim generation is living like a generational wave. That terrible, unbelievable terrorist attack (nothing cannot be compared to it) has unfortunately fascinated too many young minds. Sept 11 is not the only factor, but the development of things in Turkey (once the most secularized Muslim Nation) is very instructive in my view. How long will this woeful wave last? Hard to say. It will none the less pass away, I am sure of it (or is it my hope and ideals blinkering me now?).
Left & Right
You quote intellectuals from the left, Rob, thinking it can make some difference to me. It doesn’t. The left is only my origin and I do not belong to any faction any more. It is a complicated topic not to be discussed here, but I try to reason with my mind only, not caring where good (to me) ideas come from and in my view what really counts has very little to do with this dichotomy.
For example, words such as reactionary elements do not mean anything to me. And they do not mean anything to the new generations. Listen again to Falcon commenting this post of mine: “Could somebody explain to me what exactly reaction mean? What was the action we did that we are facing a reaction?”. He then continues, going maybe towards some sort of relativism: “As long as there will be a feeling, that one set of ideals and values are better than the others there is bound to be a struggle for supremacy. Islam can teach us a lot things, just like any other religion. The only question is: are we ready to learn?”
The Greco-Roman soul is intimately tied to Egypt and North Africa.
We are all Mediterranean. Food, plants and plenty of traditions are similar. On a long-period perspective we belong to the same historical stream, to the same sea from which some of the first civilizations have germinated on this side of the planet.
Of course there are differences though we are not so dissimilar as someone might (or liked) to think plus our same religions, apparently dividing us, are in reality loving the same God.
Another interesting point is that during the whole Middle Ages north Africans were the most powerful, civilised and wealthy among all Mediterranean (and European) folks.
Wealth has move to the North
Wealth has now moved to the North shore.
The Northern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean tend to exchange their roles.
Tunisia conquered Sicily for 400 years. Today it looks at Sicily (and Italy) as a beloved guiding light and its greatest inspiring model (“les Italiens pour nous sont comme des dieux”, “Italians are like gods to us”, a Tunisian manager once told me). While we, in our narrow-mindedness, do not even notice it.
Italians (especially those who travel little) do not know how much they are loved within the entire Mediterranean area.
Even when we landed on its islands as occupants, together with the Nazis, we were accepted with affection by the local populations because they felt us as close relatives. How many memories, traditions and bonds we do share with them.
Many villages in Southern Italy – or in so many Greek islands, not to mention Spain, who was under Arabic rule for so long – look Arabic or belonging in any case to the deep South Mediterranean: take Ostuni, in Apulia, or Sperlonga, in the south of Latium; then cast a glance at Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia (see picture above:)
They are almost identical, belonging to a very similar culture, whether we like it or not, because during the Middle Ages the winning model came from the South Mediterranean coasts, where civilization (and power) lay.
Needless to say, when a Roman – even more a Neapolitan (not to mention a Sicilian) – hears an Arabic melody he feels hidden strings vibrating in his soul.
Going further back in time let us conjure up the war to the death between Rome and Carthage immortal Tunisia, again) whose legendary origin – narrated by Virgil’s classical (and beautiful) poem Aeneid – sprang from Dido’s desperate love for Aeneas, our Trojan ancestor of Rome.
This Carthage’s queen, forsaken by the Trojan hero, stabbed herself after predicting eternal hate between Rome and Carthage.
So from love sprang hate; from hate tremendous war (thus says the legend): a moment of history – the historical, not legendary war, this time – that decided whether the Mediterranean was to be dominated by its North or its South shores.
The North (and Rome) won – by a hair’s breadth it’d be fair to say.
à La Goulette
I was in Tunisia for work and in La Goulette coffee houses – La Goulette is a picturesque district in Tunis, close to the harbour, where incidentally the beautiful Italian-Tunisian actress Claudia Cardinale was born – people still discuss the battles of Roman Scipio and of Carthaginian Hannibal, and they line up beans on tables thus drawing up troops of both armies in order to celebrate Hannibal’s brilliant victories over the Romans, still trying also to understand where Hannibal went wrong in the last fatal battle of Zama.
One of the guys I met there had worked with several Italian movie directors in the innumerable films the Italians shot in Tunisia.
I clearly felt they were all kind and warm to this Italian who showed interest in them. They were drinking beer so I asked them:
“Isn’t alcohol forbidden by the Koran?”.
One of them replied:
“Eh bien, nous on fait tout, mais en cachette”, “well, we do everything, though in secret”. And my mind went to Sicily, where secrecy, doing things en chachette, is typical and well ingrained.
Getting back to Egypt, let us consider Alexander the Great and his relationship with Egypt and the city of Alexandria, which he founded. And let us consider Cleopatra, descendant of one of Alexander’s generals, as well as her love affair with Julius Caesar, first, and with Mark Anthony, Caesar’s relative, later.
Caesar and Anthony, united by both kinship and their love for Egypt’s splendid civilization. Was Caesar’s love for Egypt sincere, or was it the result of mere political calculations? Hard to fathom, Caesar’s mind, but we are inclined to believe Anthony’s interest for Egypt was not only political.
The conflict between Anthony and Octavian was again a moment in history that decided whether the Mediterranean had to be dominated by its Northern or South-eastern shores, this time. Again Rome (and the North) won but later, after the fall of the Roman empire, the South and Near East took their revenge, with triumphant Islam and the survival of Greek Constantinople.
Mahfouz, as a conclusion
As a conclusion, the eternal Roman and Mediterranean soul vibrates when in contact with relatives to whom it is tied by both common history and traditions.
Before getting to the killers let us be patient and consider the concept of literary improvisation. I know I am terribly boring but I promise a lot of blood blood blood in this post – plus the relationship between literature and social life being complex we’ll have to wander a bit before we finally dive into base butchery 😉 .
Literary improvisation is not far from musical improvisation, a topic we have talked about in a previous post. We will not define the concept, being it self-explanatory.
(Can James Joyce’s stream of consciousness be in some way related to what we have said above – literary improvisation, not base butchery, in case you don’t get it wrong 😉 ? Hard to say. I don’t believe it to be very far from it. It is to be noted though that writers at times cleverly build what seems spontaneous, and in literature what counts is the final result: things do work or they do not).
Connecting literary improvisation with digression we will mention again that nice passage by J. D. Salinger where Holden, the adolescent protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye, narrates how he had to undergo the oral expression lesson which consisted in letting a student speak of any topic, and each time the student didn’t stick to the point all the boys in class had to yell “Digression!!” at him (you can read this passage in a former post of ours). Holden instead liked speeches full of digressions and the novel itself, if not very similar in its structure to the above said stream of consciousness, is nonetheless so rich with digressions, facts within facts, ideas within ideas, that it creates an overall effect of chaotic freshness memorably depicting an adolescent mind definitely undisciplined and even disturbed (Holden is disturbed in some way) although so vivacious and sparkling.
(Here again everything seems spontaneous and improvised but I am sure Salinger’s text resulted from a good mixture of intuition and clever construction).
Salinger’s novel has been a classic not only of the American literature (and his language is present in most dictionaries of US slang) but it has inspired the beat generation as well as numerous drop-outs who joined the utopian movements of the 1960s up to the present day.
Personally I read it by mere chance when I was 18 (I had it in inheritance from a boy who was leaving an apartment we shared in Ireland) and I was deeply impressed by it. Coming just out of adolescence I probably recognized in there plenty of the insecurities I was living in those days. But young Holden went beyond, to the extent of almost hating all the surrounding world and it was a bit worrying for people (like me), who enjoyed the book so much, to read on newspapers that David Chapman, the person “who assassinated John Lennon, was carrying the book when he was arrested immediately after the murder and referred to it in his statement to police shortly thereafter.” Also “John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate US President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was also reported to have been obsessed with the book.” (From Wikipedia: The Catcher in the Rye).
Well, that doesn’t mean that the novel is murder inspiring though certainly by effectively describing the difficulties of a tormented adolescence it is not illogical that some disturbed individual identified himself with the Holden character, finding comfort and inspiration in it and thus feeding his vision against everything and everybody (and refusing to stick to the point naturally becomes a symbol of anarchic revolt against order and self-discipline).
However, also the non psychopath teenager identified himself/herself with Salinger’s character. So the novel became a classic for an entire generation, whether protesting against order and law or not, since adolescence is a more or less difficult period for everyone.
There is, we repeat, a subtle link between digression and the previously mentioned themes of utopia & musical improvisation. Digression as well, going against rationality, can in fact lead to inconclusiveness, i.e. to nowhere, thus unstructuring the logic of discourse – utopia is a Greek word made of ‘ou’(= no) and ‘τόπος’ (= place), so its meaning is actually ‘in no place’.
Improvisation has been a myth of the counterculture of my generation and of the generations who followed. The idea of improvisation in art (music, literature, theatre etc.) is somewhat connected to social behaviours appeared in the counterculture of the last 50 years. A relationship, in fact, between mental and social anarchy cannot in my view be denied (like I guess it cannot be denied that there is some relationship between the crystalline clarity of Julius Caesar’s writings and his rational conduct and self-control, of which you can read something in this post of ours as well).
It is simple, after all. Facts (and history) are created by people. And people have a mind. Thence there are connections between what we think, read, write and do, whether in our social environment or in art.
[We are not anarchic and we do not belong to the counter-culture – although for a couple of years we sorta did, but that was a long time ago. As evidence of my words, we try in this blog to find inspiration from our ancient philosophies, which exalted wisdom, rationality and self control. Only ….
Things are not in black and white,
the hues of grey (and colours)
being infinite …
Forgive my horrible English poems, it’s one of my manias].
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.”
How can we live a better life (says Country Philosopher)? According to Socrates (depicted above while trying to convince Alcibiadesto leave charming Aspasia‘s house) everything is attainable through exercise – I am quoting CP freely – because exercise creates a habit, any habit.
[Looking habit up in the on-line Webster we read that it is “a behaviour pattern acquired by frequent repetition.”]
So it seems that all we need, in order to live a better life – CP argues – is just practising regularly what makes us live better, while at the same time gradually abandoning what makes us live worse. Very easy to say but very difficult to realize – CP continues. The reason is that very few people know what makes us live better, i.e. what are the things that make us live happily, which are of course the most convenientand advantageous to us.
According to our nature we all tend towards our well-being and best comfort, both spiritual and material – it cannot be denied, says CP. In other words we should all tend towards what is really convenient for us, the problem oddly enough being that at present we seem to have forgotten what is really convenient for us. Otherwise how can we explain that so many people are unhappy despite the fact that they possess what is necessary to live, and sometimes even more than that?
As we just said we can explain this with the fact that these people (all of us) know little or nothing of what is really convenient or advantageous, even in small trivia and in everyday practical choices. In short, there are so many people around who visibly make the wrong choices, which are disadvantageous choices. These people consequently live worse and worse, while they could live better and better.
(Dario Bernazza, Vivere alla massima espressione, Editrice Partenone – Luciano Bernazza & C – Roma 1989, from page 25 on)
Could this be one of the fundamental problems of our so-called rich countries (I’m asking myself)? They should be full of happy people, all the requirements for happiness (or serenity) being present. But since so many people are evidently unhappy there must be necessarily a problem of ethical confusion: people do not know any more what is convenient or non convenient to do (ethics is a branch of philosophy which encompasses right conduct and good living – a definition taken from Wikipedia).
A Rational Sovereign Spirit
As far as we are concerned, it is very hard to answer to CP’s question (how we can live a better life). We will only consider that the Ancient Romans, who acquired philosophy from the Greeks but who were much more practical and solid than their philosophy mentors, faced life with great success thanks to their iron will, their rationality and self-control. The scions of the well-to-do Roman families flocked to Greece to study the Epicurean and Stoic doctrines, two very significant schools of thought for Rome, which Rome was able to adapt to her needs – like everything Rome learned from others – and which was propagated by Rome in every region of the Empire.
Today we still admire Julius Caesar’s sovereign spirit, calm, always mastering himself even when facing the most dreadful tragedies, his writings & actions being a vivid testimony of his character. Caesar was though but a fruit – one of the greatest, maybe – of a civilization based mainly on reason.
Is a conduct based on this method still valid today? This question arises when reading this Country Philosopher so stubbornly convinced – like the Ancients were – of the thaumathurgic power of human rationality. Is it possible today, while confronting with everyday problems, to draw any benefit from the philosophies of our Ancient World?
We do believe (and we do hope) it is possible.
Right Measure in Pleasure
As an example, we can try to apply Roman rational wisdom to the concept of vice, meaning by this term a moral fault that can harm us. Vices can in fact ruin our life. If we drink or smoke too much, if we become sex (or gambling) maniacs we gradually (or quickly) ruin our life. Actually vices are not those horrible things depicted by priests – CP argues – and at the base of many so-called vices are in reality those pleasant things which make life worth living. Why then don’t we benefit from them? Is it true that all that is pleasurable is harmful and – as some believers say – should be prohibited? What is a Roman-like solution to this problem, since in this blog we are talking about retrieving fragments of our Romans’ ancient wisdom?
Surely abstinence is not Roman-like, it is rather monk-like. The Romans loved terrestrial life much more than ultramundane life (a world of pale ghosts to them). They loved life before death, not after death, and were not inclined to reject its pleasures. The solution for a Roman therefore doesn’t reside in renouncing to life and its pleasures. On the contrary, it resides in the correct measure in which we enjoy life, which implies moderation and non addiction, since any addiction makes us slaves of passions (pleasures), makes us non free.
A beautiful and conclusive sentence by CP: “A right measure prevents the genesis of vice, which incidentally is nothing but a measure not correct – i.e. excessive – which has become a habit.”
PS Note. The Ancients’ reflection on human rationality is of great importance and modern philosophy and science are derived from it. Rationality should though be integrated with the modern concepts of will and imagination. There is some debate today on these topics, I will provide links as soon as I can. The Ancients practiced reason, will and imagination, of course, but didn’t theorize much and didn’t developed techniques that pertain to the last two elements.
As we have said in the first post regarding Sex and the city of Romethe ancient Greco-Romans had a totally different attitude towards sex and enjoyed a sensuality open to possibilities whose variety can confuse contemporary people (in spite of what we Westerners think of our sexual liberation) to the extent that what we are about to narrate could offend people’s feelings. We therefore ask for pardon but we also make known to minors and prudish people to please not read any further.
Open sensuality? Yes, since for example the sacred poet Virgil probably sighed for Alexis, a beautiful boy; Horace celebrated incest, adultery and sex with female slaves; Ovid, Petronius and Catullus went a lot further (we might see later); not to mention the Roman phallic festivals like the Liberalia, held on the 17th of March …
“… where a monstrous phallus was carried in procession in a car… and the most respectable of the matrons ceremoniously crowned the head of the phallus with a garland”, or festivals like the Bacchanalia where similarly a huge phallus was carried and “as in the Liberalia, the festivities being carried on into the night, as the celebrators became heated with wine, they degenerated into the extreme of licentiousness, in which people indulged without a blush in the most infamous vices.”
Before trying to understand what is left today of these distant habits (the post title actually refers to survivals of ancient behaviours in today’s world, we’ll see why), we are going to provide a few detailed illustrations of this freer (or different, in any case) attitude .
So we’ll start by mentioning a Roman goddess, Dea Bona (‘Good Goddess’) and a scandal occurred at the time of great Julius Caesar.
Roman Dea Bona
In Roman religion Dea Bona (Latin for ‘Good Goddess’) was a “deity of fruitfulness, both in the earth and in women … The dedication day of her temple on the Aventine was celebrated May 1. Her temple was cared for and attended by women only, and the same was the case at a second celebration, at the beginning of December, in the house of the Pontifex Maximus [the chief Roman Priest, today’s Pope being still the Pontifex Maximus of Rome], where the Pontifex’s wife and the Vestal Virgins ran the ceremony.” (Bona Dea. 2007. In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved December 9, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.)
I wonder if the online Britannica is exact here, since the December celebration was conducted “by the wife of the senior magistrate present in Rome in his home” (any senior magistrate then: Pontifex, consul etc.). In fact, according to Plutarch (2nd cent. A.D., Life of Cicero 19.3, 20.1-2) when Cicero was consul, the day he made the famous speech which is known as his third Catiline oration, he was escorted in the night “to the house of a friend and neighbour; his own being occupied by women who were celebrating the secret rites of the goddess whom the Romans call Bona.”
The December festival was more interesting than the May one since “it was not held in the goddess’ temple … it was an invitation-only affair and pretty exclusive”. The wife of the magistrate managed the whole thing during the night, all was secret and occurred in a context of classy luxury (quote from here.)
What was happening during these secret-sacred rites from which men were strictly excluded? Surely it was something like a mystery cult, hence little we know about it (maybe you can find something in Macrobius’ Saturnalia). According to the Latin poet Juvenal, who wrote his satires many generations later (but who was also probably a bit of a misogynist), the Bona rites included drunken orgies among women (Juvenalis Sat. vi, l. 314):
“Well known to all are the mysteries
of the Good Goddess,
when the flute stirs the loins
and the Maenads of Priapus sweep along,
frenzied alike by the horn-blowing and the wine,
whirling their locks and howling.
What foul longings burn within their breasts!
What cries they utter as the passion palpitates within!
How drenched their limbs in torrents of old wine!
Saufeia challenges the slave-girls to a contest….”
The scandal broke during the Dea Bona December ceremonies in 62 BC, when Julius Caesar was Pontifex Maximus. This is why the celebration took place in his house. Caesar of course was absent, being a man. The way it all developed seems to confirm Juvenal’s view, as we have said.
“(9.1) Publius Clodius was a man of noble birth and notable for his wealth and reputation, but not even the most notorious scoundrels came close to him in insolence and audacity. Clodius was in love with Caesar’s wife Pompeia, and she was not unwilling. But a close watch was kept on the women’s apartment, and Caesar’s mother Aurelia followed the young wife around and made it difficult and dangerous for the lovers to meet.”
“(9.3) The Romans have a goddess whom they call Good… It is unlawful for a man to approach or to be in the house when the rites are celebrated. The women, alone by themselves, are said to perform rites that conform to Orphic ritual during the sacred ceremony.”
“(10.1) At the time [when the incident occurred] Pompeia was celebrating this ritual; Clodius did not yet have a beard and for this reason thought that he would escape detection if he were dressed up as [woman] lyre-player, and went into the house looking like a young woman. He found the doors open and was led in without difficulty by a slave-woman who was in on the plot; this woman went to Pompeia and told her, and some time passed, but Clodius could not bear to wait, and as he was wandering around the large house and trying to avoid the lights, one of Aurelia’s [female] attendants got hold of him, and asked him to play with her, as one woman might with another, and when he refused, she dragged him before the others and asked who he was and where he came from.”
“(10.3) Clodius said that he was waiting for Pompeia’s slave Abra (which happened to be the woman’s name), and gave himself away by his voice. The [woman] attendant dashed away from him towards the lights and the crowd, shouting that she had caught a man. The women were terrified, and Aurelia called a halt to the rites of the goddess and hid the sacred objects; she ordered the doors to be shut and went around the house with torches, looking for Clodius. He was found in the room that belonged to the girl where he had gone in an attempt to escape. When he was discovered, he was taken through the doors by the women and thrown out of the house. That night the women went right off and told their husbands about the affair, and during the day the story spread through the city that Clodius had been involved in sacrilege and had committed injustice against not only those he had insulted, but the city and the gods.”
“(10.5) Clodius was indicted for sacrilege by one of the tribunes, and the most influential senators joined forces against him and testified about other dreadful outrages he had committed and his incest with his sister.”
[Her name was Clodia – prob. the slutty Lesbia loved by Catullus – a perpetual scandal like her brother Clodius. We’ll probably talk about her again, it is important in our view of Roman sex. In the painting below you can see Catullus visiting aristocratic Lesbia’s mansion, a nice work by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836 – 1912,) an interesting painter of late nineteenth century Britain]
[Online Britannica: “In December 62, when the winter ceremony of the Bona Dea (from which men were excluded) was celebrated in the house of Julius Caesar, a man believed to be Clodius was discovered disguised as a female harpist among the participants. Charged with incestum he was tried before the Senate…Caesar divorced his wife in suspicion that she had admitted Clodius to the ceremony….Clodius maintained he had been at Interamna, 90 miles (145 km) from Rome, on the day in question, but Cicero, who abused the defendant intemperately, presented evidence to the contrary. Clodius was acquitted, perhaps because the jury had been bribed, but immediately began to devise ways to revenge himself on Cicero.” (Clodius Pulcher, Publius. Encyclopædia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 9 Dec. 2007) ]
Plutarch (10.6): “Caesar immediately divorced Pompeia, but when he was summoned as a witness in the trial said that he knew nothing about the accusations against Clodius. The prosecutor asked him about the apparent contradiction: ‘why then did you divorce your wife?’ He answered, ‘because I thought my wife should be above suspicion’….Clodius was acquitted because most of the jurors handed in their opinions in illegible writing, so that they would not endanger themselves with the common people by voting against him, or disgrace themselves with the nobility by letting him off.”
I think the reason Caesar supported Clodius was because they belonged to the same common people (democratic) party. Clodius was popular and influential therefore deemed useful by Caesar for his own political career.
“He felt alive with the thrill of the fight”: it is a typical discharge of adrenaline and the English expression “thrill of the fight” well depicts this sensation of feeling alive. Stress can in fact be one of the joys of life in that it can make us feel terribly vital.
A similar feeling can be experienced before (and while) facing an audience, something teachers and lecturers (or musicians and actors) know very well.
“Adrenaline (Epinephrine) is a fight or flight hormone which is released from the adrenal glands when danger threatens or in an emergency. When secreted into the bloodstream, it rapidly prepares the body for action in emergency situations…” (Wikipedia).
Talking again of fight (more than flight) I have always fantasised about how Julius Caesar might have felt at nearly 50, while, often at the head of his soldiers, he was attacking the fierce and brave Gallic tribes and actually conquering Gaul, a region a bit larger than modern France, comprising “Belgium, the German lands west of the Rhine, southern Holland, and much of Switzerland”.
I am sure he felt this tremendous thrill who made him like a young man in his twenties, hormones being highly effective drugs (as any teenager well knows.)
Caesar had greatness in all he did (see one of his busts above) no matter what we can think about him.
“is a genuine historical treasure. Rarely are we fortunate enough to have historical accounts written by eyewitnesses. Caesar was not only an eyewitness, but the lead player. It’s as though we had accounts of Alexander’s campaigns written by Alexander himself. Or Charlemagne‘s life in his own words. And, not only is it a first-hand account, but it is brilliantly written. Caesar’s commentaries, whether of the Gallic campaigns or of the Civil War that followed, are considered masterpieces of Latin prose. The writing is concise and straightforward. Caesar’s writings are still used today to teach Latin.”
[quote from the Amazon web site]
Let me just add that Caesar’s words were “clear and ordinate and comprehensible”. I mean, they were as crystal-clear as his rational mind and conduct were, probably the best specimen of Roman rationality ever appeared, different from Greek rationality: the Greeks taught the world to think more efficiently, but strangely enough they were much less rational than one might think.
I will finish this post with the tragic picture of the sad surrender to Caesar of the Gallic hero Vercingetorix, by the French painter Lionel-Noel Royer (1852-1926).
Vercingetorix tried to collect sparse Gallic tribes in a fierce and desperate effort to both unify Gaul and to escape from the yoke of a technologically-superior, more civilized (and disciplined) superpower. To be noted that the Romans, in the painting, look barbarous and stupid, while Vercingetorix appears elegant and civilized, which seems typical of 19th century nationalism.
Vercingetorix though proved to have been an extremely noble knight and soul.
Caesar had reasons for conquering Gaul that cannot be discussed here (see a list of related posts below).
What we can say, this tragedy having brought France into existence, we admit we enthusiastically adore the final result but we cannot forget all the sorrow and the atrocious price paid: 1 million people killed (according to Plutarch) – probably 1 out of 5 Gauls -, another million enslaved, 300 tribes subjugated and 800 cities destroyed (Plutarch;) last but not least, the quasi annihilation of the Gallic culture, to which we here pay our humble tribute.
Note 1. The terms Gaul (Latin: Gallia, thence Gallus) and Celt (Celtus, Κέλτης) stem more or less from the same root. I have always thought – a personal opinion – that Galli is possibly how the Romans mispronounced the Greek term Κέλται, although they also used the terms Celti or Celtae preferred by the Greeks and probably derived from a native Celtic name.
The discussion on these words (and other Celtic stuff) is in truth immense and can provide an idea of how the descendants of the Celti are trying to fathom the mysteries of a culture almost totally wiped out by the Romans and other nations.
Why the Celtic heritage – not only in France – left so scanty traces? French (hence ‘Gallic’) Braudel is blunt: when a culture is erased by another culture, it means it was not so great in (relative) comparison [see some long comments on this topic in French].
Reversely, it is not by chance that the Romans deeply shaped the North West areas of their empire (eg Western Europe) while they less affected the East (and South) regions of it.