So after breakfast (fruits, honey, Soya milk and a very strong espresso) and after getting dressed (I usually dress very well when I need to pull myself together) I went into my library and searched for an old worn-out book, The Conquest of Happiness, London, George Allen & Unwin, 1930.
I read aloud the very well known passage I was looking for:
“One of the symptoms of approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one’s work is terribly important, and that to take a holiday would bring all kinds of disaster”.
[Bertrand Russell, 1930]
Well, I won’t take a holiday because I’m having too much fun, but I’ll slow down a bit and start yoga.
We have talked about a concept, classicism, that can embrace for example the works of Horace, Raphael, Racine, Mozart, Goethe, Jane Austen and elements of British and American Georgian culture.
Mozart’s works – according to Ferruccio Busoni (an Italian-German pianist, composer & writer) – faced a curious indifference in 1917. He wrote in that year:
To the Wagnerian generation Don Giovanni’s text and music seem like simpleton stuff. “The baroque splendour – he continued – has made the world insensitive to the pure lines of the ancients.”
Here’s a choice of Busoni’s earlier aphorisms on Mozart published in 1906 in Berlin’s Lokal Anzeiger. A good conclusion in our opinion to our series on ‘what is classical’.
“So denke Ich über Mozart”
So denke ich über Mozart:
Thus I think of Mozart:
Seine nie getrübte Schönheit irritiert.
His never-clouded beauty irritates.
Sein Formensinn ist fast außermenschlich.
His sense of form is nearly supernatural.
Einem Bildhauer-Meisterwerke gleich, ist seine Kunst – von jeder Seite gesehen – ein fertiges Bild.
Similar to a sculptor’s masterpiece, his art – seen from every side – is a finished picture.
Er hat den Instinkt des Tieres, sich seine Aufgabe – bis zur möglichsten Grenze, aber nicht darüber hinaus – seine Kräften entsprechend zu stellen.
He has the instinct of an animal, setting himself his tasks up to the utmost of his limits, but no further.
Er wagt nichts Tollkühnes.
He dares nothing venturous.
Er findet, ohne zu suchen, und sucht nicht, was unauffindbar wäre – vielleicht ihm unauffindbar wäre.
He finds without seeking and does not seek what would be unfindable–perhaps what would be unfindable to him.
Er besitzt außergewöhnlich reiche Mittel, aber er verausgabt sich nie.
He possess extraordinarily rich resources, but never uses them all.
Er kann sehr vieles sagen, aber er sagt nie zu viel.
He can say very much, but he never says too much.
Er ist leidenschaftlich, wahrt aber die ritterlichen Formen.
He is passionate, but preserves the chivalrous forms.
Seine Maße sind erstaunlich richtig, aber sie lassen sich messen und nachrechnen.
His measurements are surprisingly accurate, but they allow to be measured and calculated.
Er verfügt über Licht und Schatten; aber sein Licht schmerzt nicht, und seine Dunkelheit zeigt noch klare Umrisse.
He has light and darkness, but his light does not hurt, and his darkness still shows clear contours.
Er hat in der tragischen Situation noch einen Witz bereit – er vermag in der heitersten eine gelehrte Falte zu ziehen.
In a tragic situation he doesn’t lose his sense of humour – in the most cheerful he can insert an erudite word.
Er ist universell durch seine Behendigkeit.
He is universal through his spryness.
Er kann aus jeden Glase noch schöpfen, weil er eins nie bis zum Grunde ausgetrunken.
He can still drink something from every cup, since he never drank any to the bottom.
Sein Palast ist unermeßlich groß, aber er tritt niemals aus seinen Mauern. Durch dessen Fenster sieht er die Natur; der Fensterrahmen ist auch ihr Rahmen.
His palace is huge, but he never leaves its walls. Through its windows he sees nature; the windows frame is also nature’s frame.
Heiterkeit ist sein hervorstechender Zug: er überblümt selbst das Unangenehmste durch ein Lächeln.
Gaiety is his most distinct trait: even the most unpleasant he adorns with a smile.
Sein Lächeln ist nicht das eines Diplomaten oder Schauspielers, sondern das eines reinen Gemüts – und doch weltmännisch.
His smile is not that of a diplomat, or of an actor, but that of a pure heart – and yet worldly.
Sein Gemüt ist nicht rein aus Unkenntnis.
His soul is not pure out of ignorance.
Er ist nicht simpel geblieben und nicht raffiniert geworden.
He has not remained simple and has not become raffiné.
Er ist ein Freund der Ordnung: Wunder und Teufeleien wahren ihre 16 und 32 Takten.
He is a friend of order: miracles and devilries keep their 16 and 32 bars.
Er ist religiös, soweit Religion identisch ist mit Harmonie.
He is religious as long as religion is identical to harmony.
Das Architektonische ist seiner Kunst nächstverwandt.
Architecture is the art closest to his.
After aperitivo at the bar the conversation continues to unwind at our home while we consume a simple dinner made of spaghettoni al ragù, cheese with a side dish of boiled vegetables, all washed down with Chianti and some Grappa as digestivo.
Classicus and King Servius Tullius
Extropian: “In my Calonghi Latin dictionary classis means both ‘fleet’ and ‘social class’; classicus is both a ‘sailor’ and ‘a member of the first Servian class of citizens’, out of the five tax classes set up by the Roman King Servius Tullius.
Giorgio: “It implies some timeless worth, it is known. Less known perhaps the origin of the notion. In the 2nd century CE Aulus Gellius, a Roman grammarian, [see image below] in his Noctes Atticae (Attic nights) – I just found out – was the first to mean by classicus ‘a writer of the first Servian class’ (classicus scriptor). He was the first to connect via a metaphor 1) literary and 2) social excellence. Classicus to him was a first-class & exemplary writer.
Extropian: “Well, it somewhat reflected the elitism of antiquity.”
Flavia: “Yes, but I’d say excellence is excellence. Horace and Virgil were of humble background (Horace – read a reply to Sledpress on him – was even the son of a freed slave,) but were revered as excellent (and timeless) as soon as their works came out.”
Giorgio: “Horace himself refers to his Odes as timeless. But people didn’t call them classici. The new meaning didn’t immediately spread. In the 5th and 6th centuries CE authors such as Martianus Capella, Fulgentius and Boethius began to reconsider earlier pagan authors as models of style and thought, although again no use was made of the term classicus in the sense Gellius did.”
Extropian: “I see.”
Classicus to Renaissance People
Giorgio: “And throughout the Middle Ages too we have the concept but not the word for it. Until we get to the Renaissance men, in 1400s-1500s CE.
In their Latin classicus refers again to something seen as timeless and as a standard of excellence: to the people of the Renaissance [see a Palladian villa above] the Greek and Roman past was THE classicus exemplary model in all fields.”
Mario: “In fact we still say ‘Classical Antiquity’. Of course the Renaissance is neoclassical ante litteram since it found inspiration in Antiquity and looked down upon the Middle Ages.
By the way, wasn’t the second half of the 18th century labelled as neoclassical?”
At the end of the War of the Austrian Succession (1748) a long period of peace ensued in Europe. Winckelmann arrived in Rome in 1755. He there conceived his master-work History of Ancient Art(1764) which influenced the entire neoclassical attitude from that year onwards and basically blew the minds (to mention the Germans only) of people like Hölderlin, Goethe, Lessing, Herder, Heine, Nietzsche etc. The marriage and the tyranny of Greece over Germany started with him.”
Giorgio: Those were the days of the Grand Tour. People flocked to Italy and especially to Rome to study classical culture. Rome with all her statues etc. also became a huge workshop of copies purchased worldwide. Bartolomeo Cavaceppi was the best sculptor to make casts, copies and fakes.
Cavaceppi’s studio was in via del Babbuino, close to Caffè Greco (opened in 1760, see above,) to via del Corso (where Goethe lived at num 18 between 1786 & 1788,) to Piazza di Spagna: all popular places among the expatriates of the time. Cavaceppi’s shop was a must-see. Goethe was there and Canova himself was greatly impressed by Cavaceppi’s atelier. Goethe bought a cast of the Juno Ludovisi [see the last big picture below] but I forgot from whom though.
Anton Raphael Mengs, Jacques-Louis David, the Scottish architect Robert Adam, Canova, Piranesi with his efforts to build a map of Ancient Rome: surely a great period for our city.”
[The exhibition catalog is now on the living room table. Grappa is unfortunately served. Art and Bacchus are a perfect match since Homer, what did you think …]
Giorgio: “Last (but least) Italians played the guitar quite a lot during the 18th c. before the Spanish took over. I am studying Mauro Giuliani and Ferdinando Carulli who composed delightful classical pieces for this instrument, mixing sober taste (Giuliani) or brilliant grace (Carulli) with rationality.”
Extropian (reading the catalog): “New archaeological discoveries fuelled the Roman and Greek frenzy. A great number of statues and mosaics were unearthed and reproduced. Décor and clothes were created in the neoclassical style in Europe and in the New World. Also Nero’s Domus Aurea wall paintings – at that time thought to belong to Titus’ thermae – were reproduced on mansions, on decorative furniture etc.
[Hope you can reach this great 3d reconstruction of Roman Emperor Nero’s Domus Aurea (see another movie below too:) you’ll think you are in a 18th century rich palace!]
The spirit of the Ancients and of the Enlightenment (Age of reason) splendidly matched. Classical triumphed and influenced the French and American Revolutions.”
Classicism as a Concept. Mere Chance?
Extropian: “Classic, more generic for valuable, is related to classical … Wait a minute. Such fundamental concept going back to this Aulus Gellius, an almost unknown, second-rate Roman writer? Something is wrong here.”
What would modern aesthetics have done for a single general concept that could embrace Raphael, Racine, Mozart, and Goethe, if Gellius never lived?
Extropian: “Or if Servius Tullius didn’t divide Rome into 5 classes! I wonder whether we know the exact connection Gellius-Renaissance, but certainly goddess Fortune plays her tricks when making ideas successful or not, as Curtius also suggests.”
Grappa is making all blurred at this point.
That is, we have traced some origins but couldn’t define that general concept that can embrace Horace, Mozart, Mauro Giuliani, Haydn, Raphael, Schubert, Pindar, Canova, Racine, Goethe, Jane Austen and many elements of British and American Georgian culture.
Late evening in a cozy bar of our rione where we wash down Spanish tapas with Cartizze Prosecco.
Our before-dinner aperitivo, once in a while.
Mario: “You recently wondered how come far eastern little girls, hence culturally ‘alien’ in some way, can perfectly play European ‘classical music’ (in the narrow sense.) You also added that such music (from 1750 to 1830 roughly) originated in that crossroads between Germania and Italia, once the ancient frontier or limes of the Roman Empire which separated the Roman from the non Roman.”
Flavia: “Your associations are bizarre.”
Giorgio: “Allow me to be bizarre at least in my blog amore.”
Extropian: “I remember you saying at the end of a post on music that Mozart who came from that area perfectly combined Italian taste with German knowledge.”
Giorgio: “Yes, a perfect fruit of that cross-way region, although Schubert shouldn’t be ignored either.”
Rome, 62 AD, December. Emperor Nero is ruling. The philosopher Seneca is writing a letter (num 18) to his friend Lucilius:
December est mensis
(It is the month of December) cum maxime civitas sudat.
(when the city is in great sweat and hectic.) Ius luxuriae publice datum est;
(The right to looseness has been officially given;) ingenti apparatu sonant omnia […]
(everything resounds with mightily preparations […])
The festival most loved by the peoples of the empire, the Saturnalia, has officially started. Excitement is growing everywhere.
The philosopher calmly sitting in his elegant tablinum is reflecting on what he and his friend should do, whether participate or not in the joy of the banquets.
Si te hic haberetur,
(If I had you here with me) libenter tecum conferrem […]
(I should be glad to consult you […]) utrum nihil ex cotidiana consuetudine movendum,
(whether nothing in our daily routine should be changed,) an, ne dissidere videremur cum publicis moribus, (or, in order not to be out of sympathy with the ways of the public,) et hilarius cenandum et exuendam togam (in merrier fashion should we also dine and doff the toga)
What Is the Ritual like?
The official sacrifice held in the temple of Saturn at the Forum has probably ended. It is about to be followed by a banquet in that same place where participants will shout the auspicious salute: Io Saturnalia! (which reminds of our New Year toasts) and where things will soon turn into a heated, unruly feast.
Apollonius’ aim is that of performing the ceremony in real life.
Mario: “Performing it today? Are these people nuts??”
Extropian: “Possibly, but trying to re-establish forms of paganism with bits of historical accuracy is far more intriguing than any Wiccan mish-mash. Not my cup of tea in any case.”
Banquets in Homes with Gifts
Euphoria is pervading the city. Banquets in private houses will be unruly too, as it happens every year. These private feasts need a last-minute touch to the elaborate dishes, cookies, gifts, arranging of candles (cerei) symbolising the rebirth of the sun, little puppets of paste (sigillaria), music & dance preparations there including a choice of poetic (and often scurrilous) songs.
Little texts, like our gift-tags, accompany the presents. The poet Martial who wrote a few of them in his Epigrams throws light on what is about to be exchanged:
“Writing tablets, dice, knuckle bones, money-boxes, combs, toothpicks, a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, a pig, a sausage, a parrot, tables, cups, spoons, items of clothing, statues, masks, books, and pets.” (list compiled by Wikipedia).
Slaves’ Licence, Dresses & Wishes
Slaves will be allowed (almost) any kind of licence. A Lord of Misrule impersonating jolly Saturn will be chosen in homes by lot and will direct the fun.
In ancient Rome slaves were “permitted to treat their masters as if they were their social equals. Frequently indeed masters and slaves changed places and the latter were waited on by the former […] A ‘king’ was chosen by lot, who would bid one of his ‘subjects’ dance, another sing, another carry a flute-girl on his back and so forth. In this play-king the Romans ridiculed royalty.”
“During my week [Kronos is speaking] the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside […] this festive season, when ’tis lawful to be drunken, and slaves have licence to revile their lords.”
As in our New Year’s eve it’s time to make wishes for the year to come. Kronos asks his priest about his:
Kronus: “Make up your own mind what to pray for […] Then, I will do my best not to disappoint you.”
Priest: “No originality about it; the usual thing, please: wealth, plenty of gold, landed proprietorship, a train of slaves, gay soft raiment, silver, ivory, in fact everything that is worth anything. Best of Cronuses, give me some of these!”
How will people be dressed? In a way to stress social equality.
Seneca mentioned the doffing off of the solemn toga. People in banquets will wear the synthesis, a simple dinner dress, and the pileus, the conical cap of the freedmen, a felt close-fitting beret similar to the phrygian cap which not for nothing will in later ages be adopted as a freedom icon during the French revolution (le bonnet rouge: see image above) and in the Americas.
In front of all this frenzy the stoic Seneca is inclined to choose a middle between extremes (and he incidentally mentions the caps too):
Si te bene novi,
(If I know you well,) nec per omnia nos similes esse pilleatae turbae voluisses
(you would have wished that we should be neither like the liberty-capped throng in all ways,) nec per omnia dissimiles;
(not in all ways dissimilar;) licet enim sine luxuria agere festum diem
(one may in fact enjoy holiday without excess.)
It is understandable. The man in the street will generally behave differently from the intellectuals, often (but not always) annoyed and a little blasé about all the fuss.
During the December revels occurring at his mansion “the younger Pliny– writes Mary Beard – loftily takes himself off to the attic to get on with his work (he doesn’t want to put a dampener on the slaves’ fun – but, more to the point, he doesn’t want to be disturbed by their rowdiness.)”
The poet Catullus loves Saturnalia instead (“the best of days”) and so does the poet Statius who at the end of the first century AD will exclaim:
“For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue”
And in fact Saturnalia and some of its spirit will somewhat survive as we have seen and will perhaps later further see.
“Inspired by Richard’s musing about Christmas – she said – I just discovered the term: ‘Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time ….’ Sounds like fun.”
So here we are Dafna, although my mind is blurred by all this saturnalian revels, starting in Italy on Dec. 24 and ending with the Epiphany, Gen. 6.
Quite a long time isn’t it.
Ma poi ecco l’Epifania che tutte le feste si porta via.
Saturn & the Golden Age
Saturn, the Roman god of seed and sowing, very ancient according to sources, had his temple built at the foot of the Capitoline hill. It housed a wooden (later ivory) statue of the god filled with oil, holding a scythe and whose feet bound with woollen threads were released only in the days of the Saturnalia – Dec. 17 onward.
The temple was rebuilt three times and today’s eight-column remnants (see the image below) represent what is left of its last remaking.
It is no coincidence, I believe, that the temple also housed what was most precious in Rome (coins, ingots etc.,) ie the city treasury or aerarium. Why?
Because to the Roman mind Saturn – who defeated by his son Jupiter had found refuge in Latium, on the Capitol – had brought to the Romans and Latins the mythical Golden Age (Aurea Aetas,) an era of bliss when men were equal, laws not necessary, spring eternal, earth spontaneously offering its blonde corn and rivers of milk and nectar marvellously flowing.
Words from the Past
Mario: “Wow, the Golden Age. Were men of solid gold too?” MoR: “Possibly. Yes, if I well interpreted Lucian’s Saturnalia.”
Let us then listen to the arcane words of Ovid just to catch glimpses of it all (Metamorphoses, I, 89 & ff.)
aurea prima est aetas (the Golden Age is first) sponte sua sine lege fidem rectumque colebat (which spontaneously, without laws, the true and the good nurtured) nec supplex turba timebat iudicis ora suis, sed erant sine vindice tuti (no crowd of suppliants fearing their judge’s face: they lived safely without protection) mollia peragebant otia gentes (in soft peace people spent their lives ) ver erat aeternum (Spring was eternal) per se dabat omnia tellus … fruges inarata ferebat (by itself earth gave all … wheat, unmanured, bore) flumina iam lactis, iam flumina nectaris ibant (sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar)
Re-enacting a Lawless Age
Now it is clear that the Saturnalia was a sort of re-enactment of such primordial, lawless age when men lived in equality and abundance of all.
During Saturnalia the rich gifts of the earth were celebrated with feasts and banquets where celebrators, heated with wine, were allowed to trans-gress unto higher (sometimes lower) states of mind which could include wild games, spirituality, esoteric acts, gambling, sexual promiscuity, exchange of gifts, and where slaves were given the broadest license which reminded the ancient rule of equality amongst men. Many similar ancient collective ceremonies (like the rites of Dionysus known in Rome as the Bacchanalia) were often referred to by the Greek term ὄργια or the Roman term orgia.
[Note that the old terms are only partially connected with the modern term ‘orgy’, if only for the fact that they had a religious character]
Unlike the cult of Saturn almost unknown outside Latium, Saturnalia became the most popular festival in every province of the empirerelished by the people of any social condition until the triumph of Christianity.
The Christians couldn’t entirely abolish Saturnalia so they absorbed it into Christmas and this pagan festival survived also in other disguised forms as we shall see (in Italy, England, Germany, France etc.)
Let us try to better understand. A few aspects of Saturnalia may in fact sound weird to us modern people.
Cycles and Rites of Passage
Saturnalia belonged to those rituals typical of the most ancient agricultural cultures all the over world.
Such cultures had a cyclic more than a linear view of time.
Universe, history repeated themselves in an eternal return to mythical ages in a way that the end of a cycle (light, sun, year, moon or season cycles) coincided with a new beginning; that dissolution coincided with regeneration; that chaos, lawlessness and transgression transmuted themselves into a new order where people felt renewed and ready to get back to norm.
These passages were celebrated in festivals where “such dissolution – Chiara O. Tommasi Moreschini argues – we notice in the overturning of social hierarchy and in sexual promiscuity, a way to achieve fertility; we notice it in Sacaea, a festival in Babylon or in Pontus in honour of the goddess Ishtar or Anaitis which included, among the rest, a king disguised as servant; in the Zagmuk celebrated in Mesopotamia at the beginning of the year and comprising both sexual license and a symbolic dethroning of the king; in the Kronia [in Athens and Attica, MoR] and in the Roman Saturnalia [Roman Saturn and Greek Kronos sort of merged] but also in women-only festivals like the Greek Thesmophoria [in honour of Demeter] or like the Bona Dea rituals in Rome [of which a description is in our Sex and the city (of Rome) 2] where women were offered a chance to indulge in some excess in their own way.”
Traces in Modern Minds
Now I believe this whole spiritual past (plus the evelasting effects of nature changes) left deep traces in today’s minds. We still feel this deeply emotional (and sometimes distressing) end-beginning of something during the Christmas / New Year festivities, like a seismic shift that takes hold of us a bit. And at the same time we feel the family sweetness and Christian religious vibrations.
Which brings us to Christ’s birth.
Saturnalia, the Sun God & Christ’s Birth
Given the popularity of Saturnalia the founders of Christianity desiring to win the pagans to the new faith absorbed the Saturnalia into the celebrations of the birth of Christ.
Now, when was Christ born? No one knew exactly – although some biblical evidence suggests Spring.
It was Pope Julius I who in 350 CE chose Dec. 25 (winter solstice according to Caesar’s calendar.) Which proved a wise decision not only because of Saturnalia end date but also because in that same 12/25 the birth of Mithra / Sol Invictus, the sun god, had long been celebrated – the winter solstice being in fact the death-rebirth of the sun.
And, it must be said, the sun god in all his forms was very popular. Before it was gradually replaced by Christianity Sol Invictus was actually the official cult of the late Roman empire.
Extropian: “According to Tom Harpur (The Pagan Christ) “few Christians today realize that in the 5th century CE [so 4 centuries after the birth of Christ!] pope Leo the Great had to tell Church members to stop worshipping the sun.” ”
Mario: “I read something in a forum: this “rumour that the Saturnalia generally degenerated into a big party with orgy and drinking … it’s ironic in that Christians use this day to celebrate the birth of their Saviour who came to save them from such sins.”
MoR: “Well, as I have said, we all feel – a Westerly universal feeling – like a strange conflict during these holidays: between holiness and fun, excess and good-will, religious /family feelings and pagan consumerism.”
MoR: “A conflict generated perhaps by that old compromise – eg the adaptation of Pagan rites to Christian rites – and absent probably at the times of the Saturnalia, when trans-gression and religion (trans-gression in the original sense of ‘going beyond’, from Latin trans + gradior) were not always separated as they are today. On the contrary, they at times coincided. τὰ ὄργια or orgiae, characteristic of mystery cults, were a supremely mystical & ethical experience, which is incomprehensible today, after almost two thousand years of Christianity.”
My Latin and Greek classes are starting but I need some inspiration. Bits of the said languages will appear from now on over a gradual and mild crescendo. I might be didactic now since my mind is drained a bit.
The inscription on the Constatine’s Arch above (315 AD) I made it shorter. It is symbolic of the entire story I am about to narrate [see a big image of it]
And do not to worry if you don’t understand all the words, just carry on! I have learned languages with the natural learning method – see this post – ie through non formal practice. It’s the way babies learn. It proved effective at any age, with me and many other people.
Tomes and Sibyllae
I can hear readers crunching popcorn (one at least) which is good for a mind journey although I don’t know the direction we will take. I have so much confusion in my head for a task bigger than myself, for stress I have accumulated and for something terrible (but auspicious) that happened a few days ago:
I have finally retrieved my grandfather’s tomes, my Di Penates or Patron Gods, I could say [Di = Gods, Deus = God.]
It’s not the commercial worth of tomes that range in any case from the Renaissance until the 1940s. It’s theirvalore psicologico especially, plus their content, archaeology and humanities mostly.
I had been looking for them since years. 2-3 weeks ago I chanced to say afew words to one of my two senseless sisters I seldom see but plan to fix that, one day or another:
“Hey donna [domna, domina ] it’s AGES I don’t see them, grandpa’s books. Does anyoneknow where the hell have they gone for Chrissake??”
Sometimes my voice gets pretty peremptory, I’ll admit. With such powerful sibylsso hard to handle – Sibyllae: the Romans had few since Σίβυλλες were Greek mostly – male verbal force is a weapon I use once every 15-20 months possibly 🙂
My new family – Fatum decreed – is again a sibyllinafamilia composed of a wonderful wife, 2 gem daughters, an ol’ Philippine woman, a sancta about to defeat gravity I’m sure – and Lilla dulcis in fundo, our female Bolognese dog, greatest Sibyl of them all I have little doubts.
In any case as if by miracle days later while I was opening the condominium attic door I much to my horror saw the tomes all scattered in messy piles and ALL SOAKED with WATER!!
My rage starting to surge in waves – I cannot believe it, leaking water was a known problem in that room! – I began barking so loud my wife, the Philippine and two workers happened there by chance ran worried (for my health) to the place and helped me carry the tomes down to my study-room, to THAT moment a tidy, quiet place for writing and reflection.
Well, look at my refugium NOW!
A protector deity in our home
My paternal grandfather’s tomes, I said. He is the genius of our family, in both the modern and the ancient sense (the latter at least to me, my sisters having my father instead as their genius: see a Roman genius below.)
My father’s side means the North-West Italian alpine region of Piedmont – ie part of Gallia Cisalpina and Gallia Narbonensis – a totally different universe I’m ignorant of except for what was transmitted to us by dad himself – no small thing in any case.
I never met grandpa. He died of leukemia 2 years before I was born. I’ll say we are somewhat black sheep (oves nigrae?) compared to him – my dad and I.
He lost the fortune he had created from scratch because he firmly believed in his country, in Mussolini (since he had saved Italy from communism), but most of all he had (together with my father) a sort of feudal adoration for the Piedmontese King Vittorio Emanuele III d’Italia, which is understandable although a bit blind since this king was no big deal plus he basically betrayed us all also by cowardly fleeing from Rome when the Nazis arrived, which resulted in extra havoc – one reason, among many, why theSavoia lost their throne and we now are a Republic.
Fulvia[an outspoken Romana Venus with South titbits, one reason possibly she abhors anything North of Rome, even just Tuscany:]
Oh how interesting! I thought we were going to have language classes, pupus.
Extropian: Fulvia, MoR means his grandfather is like an inspiring guide to him.
MoR:My nature is shallow compared to his. I mostly like he mastered maybe 8 languages – both modern and ancient – and despite being a pioneer in aeronautics plus an hydroelectric engineer entrepreneur, the day he sold his company and retired (all his money in treasury bonds fallen to dust, pulvis, because of the war) – he dedicated his last years to the study, or studium, of the Etruscan language.
Mario: Lingua Etrusca hodie exstincta?Per Hercules, why not Roman or, better, Greek stuff? C’mon pupus meus!
MoR: Stop with this pupus you moron.According to my father who seldom spoke about grandpa he adored mysteries and, well, the Etruscansare a mystery.
Flavia:Sempre co’ sti napoletani eddagli a Mario! (always with these Neapolitans etc.)
[Naples comes from Νεάπολη id est Νέα Πόλις id est Nea Polis id est ‘New City’]
Weren’t these Tusci a great non Indo-European folk coming from some unknown place of the valde arcanus Oriens? I love all esoterica!
MoR: Not much esoterica here Flavia, basically a big enigma, or αίνιγμα. The Romans, it has been said, called them Etrusci or Tusci (thence Tuscany.) The Italian Greeks Τυρρήνιοι, Tyrrhenioi (thence the Tyrrhenian Sea.) But they called themselves Rasenna, or the shorter Rasna.
Their language not yet well deciphered, their civilization not yet well understood, one additional reason is Rome possibly embodied them into herself.
Pausa nunc. Non Chia vina aut Lesbia but some simple tuscum de Caerevinum (see Caisra in the map above, Cerveteri hodies), a light red Fontana Morella, good for a small snack with bits of cheese, or caseus. Lots of laughing, moronities. Pausae finis.
Why now Calabrian Κρότων (Crotone)?
MoR:Rome and all Westerners are a bit Tusci – also the British or the Swedish with their aurora borealis eh Fulvia? 😉
Fulvia:Mwaaahh! Those pale ghosts from the North pole sleeping with polar bears? Oh Oh OOHH Giorgio – she bellowed – you’re totally nuts!
[*much appropriately, she – vacca nostra – adjusted her bust, id est her gorgeous mammae she unfortunately knows how to impress men with … well, only the silly men easily to get impressed, of course*].
[To Italian readers.Vacca – Latin for ‘cow’ – if possibly evocative, it’s not derogatory]
MoR: Fulvia, ehm, you forgot the Latin alphabet the Swedish (or the Brits) took from Rome owes a lot to the Rasna alphabet. As simple as that.
Embodied … one might say Calabrian Crotone, Κρότων, disappeared in much the same way. Such a great city, Κρότων from Magna Graecia, which is coastal Southern Italy. And Crotone surely a key place in our whole story. Oh you’ll be VALDE suprised, VERY obstupefacti, I am sure.
Flavia: *puzzled look in her deep black eyes*[a mixture of Minerva & Juno, extremely brilliant at school; Fulvia? Well, Fulvia was and is a shameless Venus]
I don’t know where you’re aiming at. Magna Graecia – Big Greece or Μεγάλη Ἑλλάς – didn’t possibly correspond to Southern Italy only. The Greeks perhaps meant by Μεγάλη all the Greeks scattered over the coastal Mediterranean.
Besides, Crotone and the Etruscans, which connection …
MoR: Little in fact, but I mean, Crotone, so great and influential, what was left of her today? Same fatum as with Rasna, ie few remnants. And I might agree with Magna Graecia.
Κρότων continued to live in the centuries and seamlessly became today’s Crotone. Same happened to the Rasna folk. On a much larger scale same thing happened to Graeci-Romani Gentiles, id est Pagani. They were embodied – Paul Costopoulos pointed it out well – so we don’t see them. But … postea, later.
Extropian: Actually they are haunting us, one can feel their animae even in the new frontiers of physics! I so hope you’re taking us where I suspect you’re taking us. Ego expectans atque VALDE sperans, pupus de Roma meus 😉
Mario:Maro’, I knew we’d get back to the Greco-Romans, un bravo pupo sei. But just one thing, the gladiators: I’ve heard they came from the Etruscans.
Extropian: The Etruscans had many mores (Latin) they transmitted to Romanis, not that I am that big expert or valde expertus.
And the women or mulìeres Giorgio? Being expertus in just math and physics, can you give us onereason why Fulvia is impudens, or evenimpudentissima? 😉
MoR: Ah ah ah! Well, as far as I know the Roman mulìeres were freer than their Greek counterparts since the days they mixed with the Etruscans, but I should check that better.
Flavia: Oh, I’m more experta! I once read a wonderful fabula about this girl from Rome when Rome was so ancient she was zero compared to the Etruscans. She chanced to marry to this Rasna boy and went to live in Arrētium, Tuscia (see the Etruscan map above and ceramics below.) Many things happened to her but what hit me were her rasna sister-in-laws, the way they were mocking her: to their eyes she was …provincial, stupidly decorous and restrained.
MoR: Arezzo was more powerful, ancient & refined than Roma. Titus Liviuswrote Arretium was one of the 12 capitals, or Capitae Etruriae, said also Dodecapolis (δώδεκα, 12, + πόλeις, cities).
Fulvia:*giving Extropian her old mischievouslook * Impudentissima?? Ah adulescentulus meus, you just wait and see!
*To MoR* THAT is in fact much less fastidiosus, less boring.
MoR.Back to our points amici mei!
*Looking at Fulvia casually* My NORDIC grandmother used to kid his husband: “Tusci are just a bad copy of the Greeks also in the arts.” Nothing but a jest, though when grandpa died in 1946 she – nicknamed carrarmato di piume (tank disguised with feathers) – exerted her ‘feathers’over my poor dad who hadTOTA his father’s vast materials and studies collected and revised by experti.
Among them, an advanced Etruscan grammar, according to grandma. In the end tota were given Piedmont-like to Fatherland, ie handed over to Massimo Pallottino, the scholar about to become number one in world Etruscology.
Whether my grandfather’s materials were of any help I cannot say. I never heard my grandfather mentioned anywhere in any scholarly paper about the Rasna …
Mario:*Looking at my grandfather’s photograph* You have his same face, MoR, and your eldest daughter too. Amazing.
Fulvia: Let me see .. you talked earlier of India, reincarnation: had he reincarnated in you, he must have been very unethical in his life despite his achievements .. 😉
MoR: You are certainly right, and believe me, you’re damn lucky I am not in the mood of explaining what your next reincarnation will be!!
Flavia’s ancient Roman laughter is heard in the room. It is loud, slightly crass but luminous, as it should be and as I hope it will ever ever be in the future, somewhat like a sympathetic, warm BIG HUG to the world.
Everybody left, except Flavia. We went to the kitchen and had a drink.
“Listen G – she said softly – we know each other since high school. I’ve heard you don’t see many friends after your retirement and that this research is what you care for more than anything else. Is it true?”
“No Flavia – I replied – I care infinitely more for my family. Yet, true, it’s taking me away from the present and reality and, while having me plunge deeper and deeper into Orphism & the ancient religions, it’s making me lunatic a bit and progressively isolated, sort of getting dangerous for my inner balance. But please don’t worry, I have spine, but most of all, I have the love of my wife and daughters and, of some dear old friend, I hope.”
“You surely have” she said, her eyes shining a bit. After another drink in silence she left.
While I am preparing a couple of posts I want to gain time and show readers something of my life (house, places where I live etc.).
Above you can see one of my usual promenades along the ‘via della Domus Aurea’ in the Colle Oppio (Mons Oppius.) Oppius is part of the Esquiline Hill, the highest of the Roman Seven Hills (Septimontium) and a fashionable district at the end of the Republic and at the times of the Empire (Cicero for example had a house there.)
Going uphill to my right (another promenade of mine) we in fact get to the top of the Esquilinus, a no man’s land outside the city’s walls in Republican times, full of witches, assassins and a place for slaves’ executions (see a post of mine on this) until emperor Augustus totally redeemed the area and made it residential.
The lower Mons Oppius – where we are now – was part of the Augustan Regio III. Later emperor Nero had there built his Domus Aurea with its vast gardens (after the great fire of Rome in 64 AD). In his extravagant villa the flat area you can see above at the base of the Amphitheatrum Flavium was occupied by an artificial lake.
By the way, Regio III was also called Isis et Serapis. The reason is two important nearby sanctuaries dedicated to the two oriental deities – very much to the point as for the mystery religion stuff I am about to narrate.
Should we in fact pull back from the Colosseum and walk 50-70 yards we’d cross the perpendicular ‘Via Serapide’ (see image above.) Continuing in the same direction for a further half km we’d also reach ‘via Iside’.
I almost every day walk downhill along the ‘via della Domus Aurea’. I border Subura on my right (the red-light district where penniless Caesar spent his youth) and the amphitheatrum on my left. Then I finally reach the forums area along the ‘via dei Fori Imperiali’ built by Benito Mussolini.
Right in the centre of Imperial Rome I admire the elegant remnants of a majestic past.
I have a terrace in my apartment in the close-by (1 km) Caelian Hill (or Mons Caelius, another of the Seven Hills.) On the terrace opposite ends there’s a shameless Venus on the left corner and a caste Minerva on the right one. Pretty symbolic, isn’t it. The house was built in the 1920s and these are statues typical of that period.
Now Minerva’s time below, she being covered with snow. Our lemons are covered with snow as well and our terrace, well, it falls apart a bit. We have invested our money in a touristic facility and we are waiting to restructure our home as soon as we can.
Look once more at the poor lemons. They cannot bear cold climate. Will we ever make limoncello this year? Below is the dining room with the piano.
The same room is now seen below looking towards another window. The piano is behind on my left. I love the Lebanon cedars or cedri Libani in front of our windows. Such important plants for the life of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean!
Well, my readers are adult and vaccinated and have supported this rogue of Rome. With only 139 posts to date (a book of 400 pages?) we’ve been engaged in conversations totalling more than 2,300 comments, many of which extremelylong (a book of 1500 pages just the comments? More? Less?)
So dear readers, you surely have accompanied me on a mind journey mixing past and present and starting from the viewpoint of a homo medius de Roma. And mind: the journey has just begun.
Brushing Up Ancient Greek And Latin
Since its beginning my research assumed a brushing up of the Ancient Greek and Latin languages, among the rest. Of them I had knowledge albeit rusty and forgotten mostly, after 16 years of Information Technology.
Latin and Greek are important to understand the Greco-Romans.
Not that those who can’t read these 2 languages are not capable of understanding antiquity. I’m not saying that. As for my experience I understood enough of the Russians just by reading their great novels in Italian.
However, it is undeniable, the feel of a folk a language can provide is not only part of the fun of any journey, whether in space or time. Such feel also transmits deep experiences that, in a world increasingly shallow, are precious currency beyond any doubt – or so it seems to me.
Big Poems. Two, Actually
Mario [*exasperated*]: “You wanna defeat Latin and Greek at your age and MAKE US ALL CRAZY??? You wanna do that??? Tell us WTH is your dirty little secret for miracles then.”
MoR: Oh, my dirty little secret. I have a couple. So do me the favour to listen to me:
I propose the construction of two long gradual poems, one in Latin and one in Greek.
How? Via the assemblage of wisely picked passages from the two respective literatures.
With bits of motivation (and dogged spirit) Latin and Greek will be leisurely, leniently, delicately (and deeply) SHOT into our blood, electrifying it wholly.
Extropian: “WOW! Electricity into BLOOD! How stupid of me not having thought of that.”
“Wow – I said – this woman knows how to reverberate esoteric emotions through words. I adore her and want to write poems too.”
Not that easy, I can’t. And not just in this hyperborean language, but in my own native bastard Latin neither.
Collage game.So I invented the ‘collage game’. I did a little experiment with Walt Whitman, one of my favourite poets.
Every game has its rules. Here were mine:
1) Collection of emotional verbal materials (CEVM). One randomly leafs through Walt Whitman’s (or any other poet’s) pages and when something strikes an emotional note one jots it down and continues until ‘emotional materials’ collected are enough to make her/him happy.
2) Assemblage of collected (emotional) materials (ACEM). After collecting it’s due time for assembling. Lines get broken down to attain rhythms following our whims plus we add editing. That all should suit our mood & taste is crucial since, if we comply to CEVM and ACEM, the final outcome will magicallyreflect our feelings and result in sincere poetry expressed with gorgeous words.
COOL isn’t it? Poetry made easy through plagiarism.
Extropian: “You will be caught.”
Mario (the Neapolitan): “Caught? Everybody is stealin’ from everybody man. Go ahead!”
MoR: “Whitman is long buried and won’t protest but don’t want to wrong him. It was only an experiment, 80% Whitman, 20% me. Emotions? Fifty-fifty possibly. I had pig flu so I was down. Itinfluenced the tone making it all compliant with CEVM and ACEM btw.
BUT, the whole point is THE experiment, not the result (bad).”
Extropian: “Actually I don’t see the point of the experiment.”
MoR: “Me neither, would I be Man on Roma if I did? Now shut that helluva mouth up and listen to my canzone.”
I raise a voice to sing today
With foreign words
I would like to sing the amplest of poems
And to say of the moon that descends on the Capitol.
But I am no man, my strength is dried up.
“Lift up your head man.”
Oh my strength is dried up
And I am confounded,
My body in deep pain.
“Lift up your heart you man.”
Oh but I am a worm, no man, and
Who are you by the way
to talk to me like that?
[MoR gets upset a bit, but the voice fades away, never to be heard]
Whoever you are I will say:
He’s no man
Whose life was consumed
with chimeras and dreams
and with etc. etc. etc.
Two Gradual Ancient Poems Going Backwards
Leaving Whitman behind, our 2 poems will be assembled so as to be gradual in their difficulty, from the easiest to the hardest. We’ll go backwards in time, starting from late debased Latin & Greek [the Greek Septuagint and the Jerome’s Vulgate translations of the Bible] that are much closer to modern languages, hence a lot easier (baby’s talk often, compared to Plato or Cicero.) We’ll then gradually proceed towards the most pure and classical.
Mario: “A dantesque ascent from impurity to purity?”
MoR: “No, no, only in language, not content. How can the Bible be impure? Although from a strict linguistic viewpoint the progression from impurity to purity is undeniable.
Mario: “You wanna disrupt phrases and words as you did with Whitman?”
MoR: “No. Whitman was just an experiment. The 2 poems will be respectful of the originals. The collage will only imply a choice sequence of appropriate passages – we’ll see along the way.
Readers as well – it is important – will be asked to contribute with passages chosen by them.
We’ll build 2 long poems. It will be fun!”
Extropian: “And the grammar? Nobody learns a language by hurling headlong on texts without any formal preparation.“
When I started this blog I partly drew on some ideas from a diary I had kept for no specific purpose. I had been writing leisurely on it while listening to lovely music and had cherished every moment I was able to get back to it, editing sentences and musing on my pages.
Those mysterious yellow characters on a black background! And the music! What a delightful experience, my imagination flying without any obligation and only for the sake of it!
After starting the Man of Roma blog, most of this diary ideas having been used up after a few months, I began writing and thinking directly for my web log. I though gradually realised that the two experiences – my totally purposeless diary and this blog, a man-of-the-street research on all that is Roman – were very different.
My blogging activity in fact implied compulsion and purpose, readers had started to appear with their feedback, I felt I had to be up to their expectations (real or imaginary,) up to my expectations, and so on.
On the contrary my diary had been the realm of playful freedom.
I wish I could get back to that state of mind, but I don’t know if I can.
It could be I am at my best in totally purposeless activities – something my family is in the mood to remind me, now and then (and probably the reason I couldn’t make a steady profession out of my writing or musical inclinations.)
Let me play with giants a bit. Cicero [see image above,] even in his letters to his family, wrote in order to acquire fame. Montaigne instead wrote just for the hell of it. An interesting comparison – fame, or any other purpose, such as money; and mere pleasure, art for art’s sake – which can correspond to two categories of writers, bloggers etc. Although one cannot say Montaigne had absolutely no purpose.
Magister would certainly exclaim: “Playful freedom? Yours is the typical attitude of the spineless bohemian. Discipline is all, and any creative activity is a careful, painful, purposeful construction.”
I remember once Maryann (together with the Commentator, recently) pushed me in this way:
“Back to work Man of Roma!
Cloppete cloppete cloppete …”
This conversation between Paul Costopoulos, a Canadian of French and Greek descent, and Man of Roma, started from the noble death of the Stoicists and landed on many themes such as religion, the Old and the New World and change and continuity in history.
As for Antiquity as much respect as I may have for that era and it’s people I pretend that the mores then current are not relevant today.
Well, I don’t know Paul. Here in Europe religion is waning, people are trying to understand what their values are and sometimes do embrace weird beliefs (have you ever heard of the Temples of Damanhur in northern Italy?)
Personally, I prefer to get back to our Greco-Roman roots, which is not a barren exercise, ancient thought being totally incorporated in modern thought. As for Stoicism, human equality and brotherhood or natural law are elements of its legacy. And I wish I had a better knowledge to tell you how much of the American constitution is ‘ancient’.
Even in my curious for-fun exploration of science I recently discovered this connection between Pythagoras and the modern theories of the universe. We can ‘make sense’ of the universe, stated both Pythagoras and Einstein. Is there an affinity between our rationality (math etc.) and the universe? Fascinating theme.
I mean, WE are the ancients Paul …
I was steeped in classicism and Catholicism and Greek Orthodoxy. A potent mix. However over the years I have taken leave of organized religions but not of the values I got from that environment. As many seem to have done, I have not thrown the baby with the bath water. This being said I have not reversed to Paganism.
As for the Stoicists, I respect their opinions like I respect other point of views but suicide is not my cup of tea to solve any problems whether of honor or health or a way to escape execution…let the tyrant kill me, I will not give him the pleasure of doing it for him.
As for being “Ancient” that notion is intriguing. I guess some of the values I still adhere to may make me Ancient, but I also feel modern and with my time. I’m sure you do too, otherwise what would we be doing here.
I feel modern too and I also feel that we basically agree. Although I think there are at least 2 differences between us:
1) I am agnostic, I don’t much imagine somebody superior up there (although how can I know) and I think that if this Being exists there’s no evidence that He really cares for us;
2) belonging to the 2 opposite sides of the pond we might have a different perception of what is change & continuity in history.
As for point 1) I confess I feel some void since I used to sincerely pray Jesus and my guardian angel before going to sleep until I was 12. Then I stopped. I attribute to this imprinting – not to Jesus’ power – the fact that when I go to bed I often need to read valuable books, and I found that classics, poetry etc. work fine for me, they give me peace and help me counter today’s superficiality.
Am I a neo-pagan? No Paul, I am not. Art and thought suffice. I am well aware I’m not such a great intellectual, but my approach suits me. I’m content with it.
We are not so different. Yes, I believe in a God … but I cannot be sure there is one, this is called faith.
As for continuity well on this side of the pond, as you say, we keep on speaking European languages, we learn European history since our roots are out there. Even our monuments are, very often European inspired, for instance the Catholic cathedral in Montreal, Marie-Reine-du Monde, is St-Peter Basilica redux even to Bernini’s torsados over the Altar [see the image at the top of the page, MoR.]
We may look at diversity and development with less apprehension than Europeans though and we question the past maybe more easily, it is less heavy on us, what is 600 years compared to Rome’s over 3000? We cannot say as Serbia’s foreign minister during the most recent Balkan’s war: “My country has too much History!”
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.
Rome, April 19, 1485. The corpse of a very young woman is found in a sarcophagus along the Appian Way [see image above,] face and body beautiful, teeth white and perfect, hair blonde and arranged on top of her head in the ancient way. The body seems as fresh as that of a girl of fifteen buried a few moments – and not 15 centuries – earlier.
From Antonio di Vaseli’s diary:
“Today the news came into Rome … The said body is intact. The hair is long and thick; the eyelashes, eyes, nose, and ears are spotless, as well as the nails. … her head is covered with a light cap of woven gold thread, very beautiful … the flesh and the tongue retain their natural colour.”
Messer Daniele da San Sebastiano, in a letter dated 1485:
“In the course of excavations which were made on the Appian Way … three marble tombs have been discovered … One of them contained a young girl, intact in all her members, covered from head to foot with a coating of aromatic paste, one inch thick. On the removal of this coating which we believe to be composed of myrrh, frankincense, aloe, and other priceless drugs, a face appeared, so lovely, so pleasing, so attractive, that, although the girl had certainly been dead fifteen hundred years, she appeared to have been laid to rest that very day. The thick masses of hair … seemed to have been combed then and there … the whole of Rome, men and women, to the number of twenty thousand, visited the marvel ..that day.”
Rodolfo Lanciani (1845 – 1929) – the Italian archaeologist from whose work I took the above quotes – collects other testimonies:
“The hair was blonde, and bound by a fillet (infula) woven of gold. The colour of the flesh was absolutely lifelike. The eyes and mouth were partly open … The coffin seems to have been placed near the cistern of the Conservatori palace [on the Capitoline hill, see image below], so as to allow the crowd of visitors to move around and behold the wonder with more ease.”
“Among the crowd were many who came to paint her. The touching point in the story is not the fact itself, but the firm belief that an ancient body, which was now thought to be at last really before men’s eyes, must of necessity be far more beautiful than anything of modern date.”
Yes, touching, and revealing.
She was more beautiful than anything modern because she came directly from ancient Rome.
Sweeping Europe With Greece And Rome
Why classical antiquity, the past, had become so attractive?
A new fervour of rediscovery coming from Italy had begun to sweep Europe: manners, architecture, eloquence, military techniques and the overall thought of Greece and Rome.
Antiquity had exerted occasional influence on Medieval Europe – argues Burckhardt – even beyond Italy. Here and there some elements had been imitated, northern monastic scholarship had absorbed extensive subject matter from the Roman writers.
“But in Italy the revival of antiquity – Burckhardt observes – took a different form from that of the North. The wave of barbarism had scarcely subsided before the people, in whom the antique heritage was not completely effaced, and who showed a consciousness of its past and a wish to reproduce it. …
In Italy the sympathies both of the learned and of the people were naturally on the side of antiquity as a whole, which stood to them as a symbol of past greatness. The Latin language too was easy to an Italian …”
A new ideal coming from the past was about to boost Europe forward.
Classicism Towards The Future
I was hit a few weeks ago by this passage from the on-line Britannica:
“For Renaissance humanists, there was nothing dated or outworn about the writings of Plato, Cicero, or Livy. Compared with the typical productions of medieval Christianity, these pagan works had a fresh, radical, almost avant-garde tonality.
Indeed, recovering the classics was to humanism tantamount to recovering reality….In a manner that might seem paradoxical to more modern minds, humanists associated classicism with the future.“
The point is classical thought was not constrained by preconceived ideas. A new spirit of doubt and inquiry was arising. A new world was dawning.
Getting back to that beautiful girl, her golden hair and cap made shiny by the sun, we now better understand the impact, the feelings, the deep inspiration she exerted on the people who flocked to see her.
She was seen as a miracle. She was like a fairy appeared by magic from the great times of ancient Rome.
Rodolfo Lanciani, Pagan and Christian Rome, Houghton, Mifflin and Company, Boston and New York, 1892.
Accessible on-line in Bill Thayer’s Web Site LacusCurtius, a marvellous resource on Roman Antiquity. Quotes from here.
Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy, translated by S. G. C. Middlemore, 1878.
Available as Gutenberg text. Quote from here.
Encyclopædia Britannica. 2009. “Humanism.” Encyclopædia Britannica Online. 18 Mar. 2009
Note on a Calabrian Greek
There is some evidence that the Italian Renaissance was not only imitation of antiquity, but its partial resurrection. We’ll just say here that Italy had a direct, ethnic and linguistic, connection not only with the Romans but also with the Greeks. Greek dialects were spoken in Southern Italy until a few years ago. They almost disappeared during Fascism who discouraged linguistic minorities.
Interesting for our writing is Barlaam the Calabrian (ca. 1290 – 1348), an Italian Greek “by ethnic descent and language.” Great scholar “he was the instructor of both Petrarch and Giovanni Boccaccio [the first humanists], and their writings owe much to him.” (Wikipedia)
He helped Boccaccio to translate Homer into Latin thus preparing the groundwork for Renaissance.
Days ago I was talking with a friend about this blog.
This guy is very sharp-minded and he is always looking north and west, ie always relating to Northern Europeans and to the USA while his attitude towards other regions of the world is not very open-minded in my view, to say the least.
I told him I of course liked the West too but my blog having like a will of its own it kind of brought me to the Far East and to an intense dialogue with the Indians and a few Chinese.
“How can you connect to your Roman roots while interacting all the time with the Indians & the Chinese, with folks so different from the Romans, the Italians and the Europeans? It is a contradictory behaviour.”
I tried to explain that if I am able to rediscover my heritage I am also able to bring a contribution to others who are diverse. I also said this process is two-ways, ie the same thing can happen at the other side of the dialogue.
He didn’t sound very convinced.
So I remembered a passage by a big Indian thinker. I wonder if this quote can help me to explain things a little further.
Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, an Indian philosopher and statesman, argued in Living with a Purpose (Orient Paperbacks, New Delhi, 1976, p. 9-10):
“Great classics of literature spring from profound depths in human experience. They come to us who live centuries later in vastly different conditions as the voice of our own experience. They release echoes within ourselves of what we never suspected was there. The deeper one goes into one’s own experience, facing destiny, fighting fate, or enjoying love, the more does one’s experience have in common with the experiences of others in climes and ages.
**The most unique is the most universal.** The dialogues of Buddha or of Plato, the dramas of Sophocles, the plays of Shakespeare are both national and universal. The more profoundly they are rooted in historical traditions, the more uniquely do they know themselves and elicit powerful responses from others.There is a timeless and spaceless quality about great classics.”
“Kalidasa is the great representative of India’s spirit, grace and genius.The Indian national consciousness is the base from which his works grow. Kalidasa has absorbed India’s cultural heritage, made it his own, enriched it, given it universal scope and significance. Its spiritual directions, its political forms and economic arrangements, all find utterance in fresh, vital, shining phrases.
We find in his works at their best, simple dignity of language, precision of phrase, classical taste, cultivated judgement, intense poetic sensibility and fusion of thought and feeling …. his works belong to the literature of the world. Humanity recognizes itself in them though they deal with Indian themes. In India Kalidasa is recognized as the greatest poet and dramatist in Sanskrit literature … Tradition associates Kalidasa with King Vikramaditya of Ujjayini who founded the Vikrama era of 57 B.C.”
[all font emphasis is from MoR, not from the original text]
Note. I am happy I could retrieve this passage. Radhakrishan has been my Indian mentor in some way since my very first trip to India [occurred a long time ago to say the truth.]
A great author and an excellent bridge, it has been said, between Eastern and Western thought. In Wikipedia I read “he wrote books on Indian philosophy according to Western academic standards, and made Indian philosophy worthy of serious consideration in the West”. A western-centric statement possibly but much to the point.
What I mean is that Radhakrishan’s inspired words (he belonging to the great generation that built the Indian nation) can further explain and somewhat be linked to a few ideas expressed in this blog plus elucidate the apparent contradiction my friend told me about.
“I hope on comments from Western and non-Western people, since Rome and the Romans have a mediation nature that comes from the Mediterranean.” […]
“It is a great privilege to be born and be raised here [in Rome]… to the extent that something must have penetrated, something peculiar and worth to be transmitted, in order to be able, in our turn, to receive.” […]
“In this blog fragments of this special [Roman] identity are inserted in a bottle and sent through the WWW…” […]
“When you call yourself an Indian or a Muslim or a Christian or a European, or anything else, you are being violent. Do you see why it is violent? Because you are separating yourself from the rest of mankind … a man who is seeking to understand violence does not belong to any country, to any religion, to any political party or partial system…he is concerned with the total understanding of mankind.”
I commented: “Violence is horrible but to me humanity is too abstract: all of us have roots, how can we forget them? I am writing here not because you are just mankind, but because you are Indian …”. Of course J. Krishnamurti’s passage was focusing on how to tackle violence engendered by diversity.
3) In another post I had underlined the importance of reading good books and of how classics of literature can be our best companions. In Poonam’s blog (a good place where, among the rest, she fights against wrongs in India, like the exploitation of untouchables) I had with horrible prolixity commented on a long list of books she had provided (How Many Books Have You Read? ) and I had made a comparison between Joyce and Dante. This guy (or woman?) told me: “It is unfair on your part to compare two authors of different eras …”.
Poonam’s posts – the said one and others – have a lot of discussion. Ashish’s posts as well (meet such a great commentator of this blog at the discussion area below.)
I wish to both really all the best since they are a good example of how the young are constructing India’s future.
To a Chinese IT student. “I am glad to hear that you like reading. Of course I agree on the great fun and sometimes consolation power of reading. As you have noticed, my house is packed with books. I actually consider serious reading a pretty good substitute for religion and meditation. It is a spiritual activity that can add some depth to our everyday life. I get consolation from reading books that I find special, I get also meditation from books that make me think and/or move my emotions.
Consolation and meditation usually people find in religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity, Islam etc. Especially Far-Eastern religions teach us how to meditate, but I usually do this with books that are important or special to me. These books I sometimes read out very slowly, concentrating on every single word and sentence, or I meditate on what I read in the silence of my mind.
The books that are special can differ according to who is reading them. I find special those books written by people whose minds are somewhat consonant with mine and more powerful than mine, thence capable of helping me in some way. Since I am not a VIP of thought and cannot directly converse with today’s top brains I build up my own Platonic symposium with good books.
Why, you ask, don’t you ever meet important and highly thinking people? Well, sometimes I do, but not so often, it’s not easy to meet them, plus I’m reserved, plus they’re so intelligent they might find me not interesting, or stupid; I know there are intelligent Tv debates and conferences, but I am talking about intimacy and continuous mind communication.
So I like many sorts of books and I read lots of them. Classics are though my favourites and I mentally hold intercourse with them. I adore classics. They are my lymph. They are my religion (literally lol). They resisted time. They are regarded as beneficial and/or fascinating even though decades or centuries (or thousands of years) have passed. Time is a merciless darwinian selector. I really doubt that Dan Brown’s books will be read in the centuries ahead.
Dan Brown & J.D. Salinger
Incidentally, if you like American culture (as much as I do, though it is getting too superficial) “The Catcher in the rye” by J.D. Salinger is a great little classic written by an intelligent, gifted person. I had the luck to read it in the original when I was 18. I was in Dublin at that time attending a summer English school, and this Swedish boy I was sharing the house with was about to leave. He left this book to me he had just read saying “It is full of sex and slang”, which of course made my resolution to read it rocklike. It might not be special to you. Some American people find it boring because they are obliged to study it at school. But you are Chinese.
Dan Brown‘s books are good thrillers in my view though a little bit too entertainment-oriented (in the negative sense: nothing wrong with entertainment), even if they talk about interesting things, history, religion, lots of technology and today’s stuff like NSA – a sort of IT CIA – NASA, the Vatican, which on the whole is fine, but the thing is he’s in my view making money by morally subjugating the reader with his pseudo-theories.
I am not religious but I find it ridiculous (and depressing) that some people have lost their religious faith because of his books. And it is revealing of the fact that void rules.
You told me about the low percentage of Italians who speak English. It is sadly true. We are animals in this field (animals in the negative sense: nothing wrong with being an animal,) concentrated exclusively on our culture and petty politics, though something is changing.