I am a man of Rome, Italy. Some of my ancestors, many centuries ago, were already citizens of Rome. So I guess I am a real Roman, or sort of, since some barbaric blood must unquestionably flow in my veins, Germanic probably and Gallic from the Alpine region.
My mother tongue is Italian, not very different from the Latin spoken by the common people at the times of the late Roman Empire.
The reason I am attempting to communicate in this Northern language – which I do not master entirely and which, though a bit chilly to my heart, I find not entirely deprived of charm – is that variety excites me like a drug and I am tired of talking mostly to my countrymen, this lingua franca, English, allowing me hopefully a wider exchange of ideas.
Why this blog
One reason, I have said, is wider communication.
But what can a Roman of today say to the world? Such a big statement (if there weren’t the Web to make it not entirely such.)
I think it is a great privilege to be born and to be raised here, such a special place, to the extent that something must have penetrated, something distinctive and worthy of being transmitted – in order to be able, in our turn, to receive.
I hope for comments from Western and non-Western people, since Rome and the Romans have a mediation nature that comes from the Mediterranean.
Rome in some way is more Mediterranean than European.
However, as she was already universal during the ancient Roman days, she has continued to be universal as a religious centre, like Mecca or Jerusalem, which makes Rome something way beyond Europe (*).
Religion will not be a central topic here (there excepting ancient religions, of course) since, greatly respecting all faiths I personally have none, being an agnostic.
I like to think that I am similar to those Romans of the past who counted mostly on knowledge and reason (the followers of Epicure, Ἐπίκουρος – one among many possible ancient examples.)
Three Reasons for Uniqueness
Ages have passed since this great city was the capital of the known world, this role now being played by New York, London or Shanghai, perhaps.
Rome is though unique in the first place because “among all the greatest cities of the ancient world – Nineveh, Babylon, Alexandria, Tyre, Athens, Carthage, Antiochia – she is the only one that has continued to exist without any interruption, never reduced to a semi-abandoned village but rather finding herself often in the middle of world events and, equally often, paying for that a price (**).”
Secondly, and more importantly, Rome is the city of the soul (as Byron, Goethe and Victor Hugo put it,) of our authentic Western soul, since Europe and the West were shaped here and these roots are sacred – to me surely, and I think and hope to most of us.
These roots we have to rediscover in order to better open up to others in a new spirit of humanitas and conciliation (two chief components of the everlasting Roman mind.)
We all here in the West must encourage a totally new attitude which may enable us to better face both our present crisis of values and the radical changes looming ahead which might cause our swift decline.
Lastly, Rome, the eternal city, is unique because she is also one of the most beautiful cities in the world, if not the most beautiful.
Beyond her imperial testimonies, her stupendous urban spaces and squares, even small piazzas and alleys radiate that “sacred aura” which comes from the millennia and to which ever increasing multitudes from every land come to pay their tribute.
The capital of our beloved and civilised French cousins, Lutetia Parisiorum (it’s how the Romans called Paris, after the Parisii, a tribe of the Gallic Senones,) was not but a village until the year 1000 AD. “1700 years younger than Rome! It shows, one can feel it (***).”
Fragments Sent in a Bottle
Scattered fragments of this special identity inserted in a bottle and sent across the Web: this shall be the activity of this blog.
The conveyor of the message is not so important in relation to the greatness of the source and to one ingredient this conveyor might, willingly or unwillingly, possess: he perhaps being like a fossil from a distant past which is dead though, astoundingly enough, alive yet in so many Italians.
Let us admit it. In some central and especially southern areas of this country, minds and habits survive that may puzzle foreigners, historical remnants whose disadvantages towards modernity appear evident. Are they only disadvantages?
All Things Considered
This and other topics will be discussed here by a 60-year-old Roman (2014: 66) whose knowledge can be located at a medium level, with interfaces towards the upper and the lower layers of knowledge.
He will try his best to transmit something useful to others (and to himself) having been an ancient-history & literature educator for 16 years, then converted to Systems Engineering & Training for the last 14 years.
He hopes this blog will allow him to brush up humanities back, which is daunting at his age (not to mention the crazy idea of blogging in English, Italian and bits of other languages.)
As you know I have been musing on Pythagoras of Samos recently (Ὁ Πυθαγόρας ὁ Σάμιος). I wrote about him in my blog and in other blogs.
P was a great mathematician. Now it turns almost all bloggers MoR has been discussing with (also on P) have some math capabilities. MoR has instead very little. So he asked his friend Extropian for help.
Extropian is laconic and doesn’t like blogs. So he first sent this movie and just said: “This stuff is Pythagorean.”
He also sent me this paper on Pythagoras & Eugene Wigner that requires a degree in physics to figure out what the hell it means.
Finally he linked to another movie and declared:
“You (more or less) are a pianist but you’ll always be longing for the strings of a guitar, of a violin or of a lute. Pythagoras started a new world-view with the strings of a lyre. You may like this.”
I hope this will not be the music of the future (only because it sounds too robotic). But the 3d animation intuitively shows better than any book on acoustics the relation between the string lengths and the sounds: ie by pressing the strings the robotic fingers change their lengths which produces a change in pitch.
And my friend is right. From the age of 12 I was a decent guitarist then I turned into a pianist at 18, a big mistake, one out of many.
A Crazy Night of Revel
In the spring of 1995 – I’m only apparently digressing – my wife and I came back home from a party. Oh we had had such fun! She though went straight to bed being tired from a hard day at her office. I remained alone in the living room, feeling weird and restless.
There I saw my electronic keyboard, a Korg 01 WFD – now prehistoric – connected to a Mac and two Protei (Proteus 1 and 2.) Before laying my hands on the glowing keys I knew what I needed that night: fat strings sounds more than just piano sounds.
The result was a dozen improvisations that lead to nowhere (l’improvvisazione non porta a nulla, in italiano) and sound now so badly because of analogical worn out tapes and especially when compared to the pro stuff you’ve heard above. They though retain a personal value to me and they ex-press (in the literal meaning of ‘squeeze out’) one of the most authentic musical revelry I ever experienced in my life.
I mean, if Dionysus-Bacchus ever exists I’m pretty sure I met him that night. Another mysterious Dionysian experience is described here. And, Pythagoras and the Dionysian cult are connected, so no digression as I said (in fact Pythagoras was a reformer of Orphism via science. Orpheus was a reformer via music of the religion of Dionysos, the god of wine and unrestrained madness).
3-4 pieces out of 12 I still like a bit. I’m waiting for my digital DAT recorder to be repaired so I can have better sources for my musical ramblings.
It is weeks I wanted to write something about the Arab spring revolutions. It all started in Tunisia, separated from Italy by only 44 miles (Pantelleria) and by 68 miles (Sicily.)
This being not totally fortuitous in my opinion – we will see in any case.
This is a thoughtful Roman blog, not a newspaper, so we’ll talk over such political (and military) crises in our own Roman way 🙂
Talk over literally, since I recently discovered how convenient a microphone can be.
Waves of Revolution.
“Who the Hell Cares”
Disturbance; want of values in new generations; so-close-to-Italy Muslim countries exploding like bombs; the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India & China) about to make our Western asses black & blue.
France, the UK, Germany, the US etc. not being on better grounds than we are; our ineffable PM Berlusconi glued to his chair not giving a damn about his country’s future and claiming ‘communist’ magistrates are the only ones to blame for his HUGE legal problems (read the Guardian, among the rest, any political colour saying the same worldwide) and btw only half-heartedly admitting his friend Muammar Gaddafi is a cruel dictator butchering dissenters with fighters missiles.
By the way, did the two Big Men have fun ensemble with chicks? No evidence that I posses but it’s a given that when Gaddafi arrived to Rome (June 2009?) hundreds of Italian babes flocked to his tent placed in a Roman public (and luscious) garden and, well, rumours say quite a few converted to Islam for 80 Euros (100 USD)!
When asked by journalists (see picture below) – who were staring at their stunning faces boobs (and legs) – why on earth had they converted, they replied:
“Well, ya know, it is so interesting, exploring different religions, really so interesting, isn’t it interesting? Ah ah ah ah ..”
[I am using my words but I heard those chicks’ words on TV; they were no different, at times even worse]
Let me tell you this whole thing is allarmante, alarming.
And it’s all the more when we realise we are so few to be alarmed – as a Milan’s blogger wittingly put it.
While strolling about Rome I actually notice that in cafés shops and bars no one really gives a damn, with Milan teaming up with us (the two major Italian cities – not to mention the provinces, that probably care even less.)
Instead, Libya and the Rest ‘Do Affect’ Us
Libya and the Arab spring upheavals do affect us instead. We all have Greco-Roman and Mediterranean roots, so South and East shores mattered (and matter) to us.
In 1911 the Italian PM Giovanni Giolitti launched the progressive conquest of Libya, later continued by Benito Mussolini until 1931.
Libya became ‘ours’ because our newly-founded Nation desired to invent her own empire at a time when the real thing, ie the British and the French empires, were soon to fall apart (as Lucio Caracciolo, director of Limes, yesterday observed in the Roman daily La Repubblica.)
Libya 1911-1931, we were saying. A bloody phase of battles and unrelenting anti-Italian guerilla at the end of which our technologically superior country (morally too?) made use of chemical weapons and poisoned the farmers’ wells to the extent it wiped out 1/10 of the Libyan population (100,000 casualties) – according to the Italian Wikipedia.
Κυρήνη or Cyrene.
(and Forgetful) Conqueror
One of the toughest & unyielding Libyan regions was Cyrenaica, Eastern Libya (see map above.)
It was so named since 2641 years earlier the Greek colony of Cyrene (Κυρήνη) was there founded and there later flourished. Cyrene soon became a glowing centre of Greek culture. Suffice it to mention:
Aristippus (Ἀρίστιππος), Socrates’ disciple, who there preached how to enjoy life pleasures “from all circumstances and how to control adversity and prosperity alike;”
Callimachus (Καλλίμαχος) who there had his birth and without whom the greatest Roman poets of the Latin golden age would never have existed (Catullus, Virgil, Tibullus and Propertius;)
Eratosthene (Έρατοσθένης), also from Cyrene, the first scientist ever capable of exactly measuring the size and circumference of our planet.
Libya’s National Hero:
Omar Mukhtar, a Pious Man
In 1862 CE Omar al-Mukhtar had his birth in Cyrenaica as well (see picture above.)
Omar al-Mukhtar is Libya’s great national hero, a religious and pious man.
For 20 years he led an unrelenting anti-Italian resistance and when captured in 1931 (see picture below) his deep personality “had an impact on his Italian jailers, who later remarked upon his steadfastness” (English Wiki.)
A sort of Nelson Mandela, one could say, with the difference that deep sage Omar didn’t make it.
It seems the Italians arrested Mukhtar’s court appointed defence lawyer, capitano Roberto Lontano, who took ‘too honestly’ his defence job, which suggests unfairness in Mukhtar’s trial.
“On September 16, 1931, Mukhtar, at the age of 73 years, was hanged before his followers” who were ALL prisoners in the concentration camp of Solluqon. The Italians hopes were that Libyan resistance would end with him.
PS. I don’t mean here that Italians were worse than any colonizer. I believe instead that every country follows the principles of Realpolitik which “focuses on considerations of power, not ideals, morals, or principles.”
Machiavelli laid the first rules of Realpolitik. It is high time I dedicate a post to this Renaissance Florentine btw, since too many people say: Realpolitik, ok, but Machiavelli, THAT is amoral stuff.
Which needs some clarifying I guess.
Benito Mussolini thought Mukhtar, the Desert Lion, was an obstacle to his colonial conquest. So he got rid of him.
I am not criticizing this [like I’m not criticizing Americans who stopped, no matter how, communism in Greece, Italy or Chile.]
As we said in our previous installment this exchange of favours is important to establish a network based on reciprocal dependence.
Now in the last 3 decades scholars have focused their attention on ancient gift societies and on client-patron relations in ancient Rome and Greece. Based on the mutual exchange of benefits such relations were at the core of the social fabric in Greece and Rome, although we will here speak of Rome only.
Brazil and Livy
As I said to Paul I got excited that some scholars of ancient Rome seek to better interpret passages by Livy, Plautus or Cicero via the analysis of the social networks of Latin America or of Mediterranean villages.
Brazil is interesting because the native cultures were not much developed hence some archaic Portuguese traits were preserved.
Surveys of clientage in 19th century Brazil are thought to shed light on Livy’s use of clientes. Also amigos (friends) in Brazilian, and amici in Latin, seem to be used in exactly the same way, different from our modern way but still present in Malta and southern Italy.
[see R. Graham, Patronage and Politics in 19th Century Brazil, Stanford, Ca., 1990]
Clientes Preferred to be Called Amici
Almost everyone was a client in ancient Rome. A person could be client and patron at the same time. Entire provinces and nations could be clients.
But clients didn’t like to be called clientes. They preferred to be called amici (friends) since cliens implied subordination.
Now the term amicus is ambiguous. It could mean a disinterested relation (see Cicero’s ideal friendship in Laelius de amicitia) but also a relation of ‘mutual serviceability’ where benefits of any kind, called beneficia, were exchanged. Seneca analyses beneficia with all its implications in his De Beneficiis.
Through amicitiae (friendships) anything could be attained in the Roman society: land, safety, magistracies, jobs, money etc. Personalised relationships ruled and merit counted little.
[For example the nobility clique hated and ousted talented non-nobles. A super general but newcomer like Gaius Marius had chance to be elected consul on very special occasions only, for example when inept noble generals had made Rome vulnerable to the Cimbri and Teutons]
No Contacts, no Future
The common person with no contacts in Rome (or in Athens) basically starved. On another social level, if the politician didn’t build a solid network by ‘treating’ his voters with banquets favours gifts money etc., ie if he didn’t ‘corrupt them’ (practised but frowned upon today; part of an ‘ethical’ system in ancient times instead: grasping such cultural differences is crucial) he had no political future.
It’d be interesting to well analyse how Julius Caesar reached power.
Most of Cicero’s letters relate to favour exchanges. They also reveal how Caesar’s attitude towards Cicero was mafioso in the sense that he tried to entice him into a mutual exchange of favours in order to manipulate him.
Originally we had a number of strictly closed unities – the household under the control of a master and the clan originated out of the breaking-up of such households. To these unities there further belonged the dependents or “listeners” (-clientes-, from -cluere-), not guests or slaves but those individuals who lived in one of such unity in a condition of protected, dependant freedom: refugees, freedmen, poor people. These were the clients.
To most scholars the clients made up the ‘plebeians’, while the original clans or gentes (the Aemilii, Valerii, Claudii, Fabii, Cornelii, Manlii etc. ) corresponded to the ‘patricians’ (both patronus and patricius come from pater, father.)
The relation between the two orders was a client-patron relationship and it was originally sacred.
The Case of the Fabii’s Private Army
The gentes were important especially during the Republic. The Fabii for example were so powerful as to conduct a personal, family war with Veii (velut familiare bellum, notes Livy in II, 48-49.) Trapped though by the Etruscans they were all cut down to a man in 479 BCE.
How many were the Fabii?
According to Livy “sex et trecenti milites [306 soldiers,] omnes patricii [all patricians,] omnes unius gentis [all from the same gens]…sequebantur turba propria alia cognatorum sodaliumque [followed by a crowd made up partly of their own relatives and friends]…. alia publica sollicitudine excitata, favore et admiratione stupens [… partly of those who shared the public anxiety, and could not find words to express their affection and admiration].”
Not very clear but I guess ‘friends’ (sodales is close to amici) were clientes and the rest sympathisers ie clientes too possibly. An army, it has been calculated, of 4000-5000 people wholly, with the clients clearly outnumbering the patricians.
Were Caesar and Pompey Godfathers?
Clans will undergo big changes in the course of time and it seems very likely to me that late-Republic big patrons such as Caesar and Pompey, apart from the great number of clients, were also capable of controlling a certain amount of organized thugs by indirectly controlling numerous collegia (criminal and non criminal organizations) in Rome. Caesar, through Clodius perhaps, controlled many collegia probably. Incidentally, Clodius was killed on the via Appia by Milo‘s mob.
Which doesn’t mean Caesar or Pompey were like the modern godfathers, but only that there are similarities in the respective cultural backgrounds.
While in Russia I had a few dinners with two Frenchmen from Northern France who lived and worked in Moscow.
Claude, whose job contract was about to end, told us: “I’ve been offered a job in Toulouse. Alain, do you picture me in Toulouse, with all that mafioso mentality?”
Toulouse is in the deep French South. We passed to other topics in our conversation and dinner flowed pleasantly. Alain had brought a few bottles of Bordeaux from France. Good wine is awfully expensive in Russia. Of course Claude didn’t refer to ‘mafioso’ in the sense of ‘belonging to the mob’.
‘Mafia’ is in fact used both in a broad and a narrow sense.
According to the Dizionario Treccani ‘mafioso’ is:
1) either a criminal belonging to a mafia-like organization;
2) or one who “to the rule of law [including the laws of market, I guess] tends to replace the power of his/her own interests or of a small group and indefinitely defends his/her friends to the detriment of others.”
Now I am well aware that cliques & personal networks exist everywhere. In Russia and China they have respectively blat and guanxi relations and obligations. In Russia I heard of professionals like doctors or dentists that preferred to build a network of ‘useful contacts’ instead of being paid by each of their clients.
Cliques are terribly pervasive in the Mediterranean. In every Western country good contacts count to get things done, to find jobs etc. But here especially they represent a serious obstacle to modernization, by systematically promoting mediocrity over merit, by polluting the political arena – votes exchanged for favours, collaboration among politicians even from opposite sides by the exchange of favours etc.
Some areas of the Italian South are permeated by a mafioso mentality which often connects economical political and criminal activities into a choking whole and which from those areas radiates to the rest of the country.
Giuseppe Mazzini‘s prophecy [Mazzini is one of Italy’s founding patriots,] that “Italy will be that which the Mezzogiorno will be”, proved true, at least in some respects.
I wonder how many researchers have connected ancient Roman behaviours with the mafiosi behaviours (of any kind) that we find in Mediterranean coastal areas and in Italy. In the Mezzogiorno I see something reminiscent of the ancient Roman system of social relations [our next post tries to throw some light on this matter.]
But let’s first review how a mafia network in the narrow sense is built.
One common mistake – we had written – is that of considering the mafiosi as simple gunmen to defeat. Don Vito Cascio Ferro had no guns. He was one of the first godfathers who operated both in Sicily and in the United States. His force lay in his cynicism and intelligence and in the network he was able to create thanks to well ingrained traditions. He distributed favori, favours, to everybody, but something was asked in return.
“Don Vito Corleone was a man to whom everybody came for help, and never were they disappointed. He made no empty promise (…) Only one thing was required. That you, you yourself, proclaim your friendship. And then, no matter how poor or powerless the supplicant, Don Corleone would take that man’s troubles to his heart (…) His reward? Friendship, the respectful title of “Don” (…), some humble gift – a gallon of homemade wine etc.
It was understood, it was mere good manners, to proclaim that you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service.”
So this exchange of favours seems an important element of the culture underlying the mafia. Ingrained in traditions that are centuries old it creates a network based on reciprocal dependence.
We’ll tentatively see how all this can somehow be connected to ancient Rome.
Last May Cheri, a charming blogger from California, went to Greece for a seminar on Alcibiades. I hence posted on her blog a few hasty notes on this key figure of Greek history, in case they were of any help.
Here is the text (edited a bit.)
Tragedy of Unreason
“Alcibiades to me is the golden dude of classical Greece, loved (and hated) by the Athenians immensely, a figure that shows both the splendour and the weaknesses of Athens in her golden time, the 5th century BCE. The Athenians, who were teaching the world to use reason efficiently, also knew they were capable of the utmost unreason, and were laughing at that while watching the comedies of Aristophanes.
This whole thing, the fall of Athens, smells in fact of tragedy, of irrationality. The facts are known if you have read Thucydides. It pains me that one of the most brilliant pupils of Socrates, like the most perfumed flower in the most beautiful garden, proved poisonous. Alcibiades’ mentor had always tried to bring to measure and to purity of reason a totally unprincipled, self-centred and often ‘going off the rails’ pupil.
In this the Greeks remind me of the Germans a bit. Both incredibly deep and terribly rational and irrational at the same time. And in fact Nietzsche figured Greek irrationality out not by chance, and, again not by chance in the years of the fall of Athens the Bacchae by Euripides were on stage.
Alcibiades was beautiful and gifted in everything – even as an athlete in Olympia – but, when he once met a teacher on the street and asked him if he had any works by Homer, and having the teacher said “No, I haven’t”, he punched him on the nose and knocked him down. This was Alcibiades. Charming and crazy.
There are many characters in this tragedy, the annihilation of classical Greece, where the extreme quarrelsomeness and disunity of the Greeks stands out, within and without their cities, even in moments of extreme danger. Among such characters are Sparta, Athens, Socrates, Nicias, Syracuse, Alcibiades, Sophocles, Euripides etc.
According to Thucydides and Plutarch, Alcibiades had conceived an unimaginable plan for defeating Sparta. By conquering Syracuse first, in Sicily, and Carthage, Libya and Greek South Italy afterwards, he intended to get back to Greece with the immense resources thus accumulated and crush the Spartans.
Syracuse was as powerful as Athens and possibly bigger, the biggest Greek city of the Mediterranean.
Ancient Greeks’ New World
It is to be noted that Greek South Italy – I’m certainly not saying this because I am Italian – was considered by mainland Greece as America has always been considered by Europeans: a myth, a land of promise, of unlimited resources. Greece was smaller and much less fertile. Therefore many Athenians, young and old, were day dreaming together with their golden boy, they were day dreaming about a marvellous and more prosperous future. A bit like Alexander who, one century later, will dream (and will set out) eastwards, instead of westwards, in order to conquer new lands.
Before the departure for Sicily, The Trojan Women by Euripides was first performed in 415 BCE. In this work the prophetess Cassandra (see Karen Tiegren above as Cassandra) condemns the Greeks for going to war against Troy. We perceive Euripides’ disgust vis-à-vis the Athenian hubris of the moment. Also Thucydides considers the Sicilian expedition as an act of arrogance and as an example of a folk, the Athenians, misguided by their emotions.
We have to consider that the sublime Parthenon that you people are now admiring was considered by many Athenians as an act of arrogance or hubris. Many much preferred the old temple of Athena at the Acropolis – see below –, a simpler and more sober shrine. Of course the Parthenon is fantastic but the mixed emotions of the Athenians during their greatest century are interesting.
We know of the plague that hit Athens during the war. Thucydides considered it as a metaphor of the ruin that will destroy the wonderful culture created by Pericles and those around him.
This terrible Peloponnesian war and the changes it provoked are well expressed by the Oedipus the King by Sophocles, first performed in 429. A great king, optimist, intoxicated by his success and capable of solving riddles ends up a blind, desperate wretch who has too late understood the nature of the horrible forces he cannot control.
Nicias, one of Alcibiades’s rivals, was a general and owner of a big portion of the silver mines around Attica’s Mt. Laurium, a sort of lager and one of the chief sources of revenue for Athens.
Sparta Won but Left Nothing
Sparta disliked all that Athens represented. Sparta was the winner and Athens the loser. The Spartans were very admired in antiquity but have not left anything of value in my view (but we must recognize that they voted against the total erasure of Athens). Athens left us a wonderful culture and a model for future democracies; Sparta was instead a model for all future regimes based on racism and eugenics (such as the Nazi).
The Spartans were a minority of war lords brutally ruling a totally enslaved majority of Helots.
But they were rational and prudent. And had charm too. It is known they combed their long hair for quite a time before engaging in battle. When their enemies saw the Spartans combing, it was time for quaking.”
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.
Now our vague-logic conversation, but let me say I’ve got another great tool for brain re-juicing outside blog dialectic: my Haman, or thermae, or simply my ‘thermal’ bath(room.)
No big deal, just a small place of comfort to test the effects of cold and hot water (& steam showers plus gymnastics,) and where many of the things I ponder get unexpected solutions (see Relax & Creativity.)
The Ancients, Do We Idealize Them?
Andreas:“Cheri speaks as though from my own heart in lamenting the Greeks. How, oh how, to reconcile their ancient grandeur with their Euro-busting, book-cooking financial profligacy of today?”
[Cheri, another great blogger and about to go to Athens, had expressed preoccupation for the riots etc. See the picture at the top, MoR]
Thomas Stazyk: “One of the Greek protesters was interviewed on BBC and said: “They [gov’t officials] stole all the money. Then they borrowed more money and stole that!”
MoR: “Allow me to disagree a bit here. I won’t discuss here the Greek failure – linked to Greek sins surely, but also to problems created elsewhere.
As I said over at Cheri’s, the beauty of going to Greece, to parts of Southern Italy (even to Rome), Turkey, Northern Africa etc. is the time machine thing. We don’t go there to see things working – if we want just that we should keep going to Sweden, North Germany or the US. When we go to the Med – or even more to India etc. – we go to see places and especially people – not only monuments – caught in the past, living remnants of an ancient world we are not always satisfied to admire from a library. This is the beauty of such trips. Of course there is a price to be paid. My daughter, 26, is now working in Mumbai for a month. She has started to love Mumbai immensely, but she is also paying a price for it.
This for today’s survivals of the past. As for the ancients themselves, Cheri suspects she is idealizing them a bit. I do it often too. But if we read attentively the ancient Greek texts (the Roman ones are no different) we don’t have only Pericles or Aristotle, but horrible poverty, thousands of slaves abused or, even worse, dying slowly in the Athenian silver mines, child prostitution widespread in ways not easily imaginable, the Macedonians (Alexander and his father included) ending up their dinners in wild and drunken orgies most of the time.
In the oration against Neaira, [pseudo] Demosthenes reconstructs with horrifying details 50 years of the life of a prostitute. It is a depiction of what could have been the life of an outcast in 4th century BCE Greece.”
Douglas: “MoR, it is always the elites we are told of in the histories. Those who ruled, who were influential, who owned property, who were the ‘movers and shakers’ of whatever society (or culture) we delve into. The life of the common citizen is seldom mentioned.”
MoR: “Douglas, there’s not only the histories (and often even the histories are non conventional, like Herodotus and Suetonius, or even Plutarch) but all sorts of comedies, and novels, Greek and Roman, that depict everyday life (upper and lower classes and slaves too), plus, as I said, the speeches of the lawyers full of realistic details, & satires mocking follies (Juvenal etc.) or epigrams like Martial’s, so colourful but also shocking for their details on brutality in Rome. I mean, there’s plenty of records of the ancients’ everyday life, which may sounds often disgusting to us (they had different ethical codes) and totally non puritanical. I am not that expert in any case, I am just a dilettante having fun connecting the modern and ancient – a very ‘edgy’ place antiquity. My problem is this language. I write in English with all sort of dictionaries. Fascinating, but painful.”
Douglas: “Please do not misunderstand me but who wrote those histories? All writing, all observations, reflects the perspective of the writer. In that, they are written as they are seen, not as they perhaps are.
Take any given incident, collect the witnesses, ask them what happened. Only by a collection of perspectives can one gain a knowledge of what actually occurred. Even in that there is an element of bias on the part of the one piecing it together.
So, yes, I am sure the life of an average Roman was not all orgies, high living, and wine-soaked afternoons at the Colosseum. Life was cruel for those who had no family connections, money, or position of power. It does not take a genius to figure this out.
But histories do not reflect the average person’s life. They reflect the life of those in power, those with influence, and those who achieved.
Or, put another way, you do not learn how the scribe lived but how his patron did.
I could ask you, what is the life of the average Roman today? You would answer from your perspective. You might not understand how life is for the people who deliver the goods to the market or keep the phones working or whose family must all work in order to pay the bills.
In the end, it comes down to what is the ‘average person’ and how that status is determined.”
“But histories do not reflect the average person’s life.
Of course they don’t, although I don’t get what you mean by histories. Surely life of the ancients was not all orgies or wine soaked days spent at the Colosseum, but it seems likely it did not know the sexual repression of Christianity [see above Augustine, too an ‘open-minded’ Pagan first, too a strict Christian later], at least at certain periods, conditions, places. And, frankly, I don’t see what’s the big deal about it.
I could ask you, what is the life of the average Roman today? You would answer from your perspective.
The ancients we will probably never know who they really were but what is certain is, they were VERY different. Take a god like Dionysus Bacchus, worshipped by the poor and the rich alike, almost all around ritual madness, ecstasy and, basically, eroticism: it is painted sculpted carved EVERYWHERE in both Rome and Greece.
The term ’the ancients’ is of course too vague. There are plenty of scholars’ books depicting everyday life – for different classes – in 5th century Athens or Augustus’ Rome or Alexandria at the times of this or that monarch. They are just guesses based on the sources we have which is not much but it is growing because research is progressing (for example we see the reasons of the Fall of Rome quite differently now from what we thought, say, 50 years ago, but I am shifting).
We will never know what was the real life of a Roman at Caesar’s time, for example, like, even for today, you are right, my testimony of contemporary Rome is certainly subjective and partial, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real.”
Douglas:“Let me put it another way, my friend… What do you suppose the literacy rate was in, say, ancient Rome?
Of current times and high (comparatively to ancient times) literacy rates, what percentage of people visit our vast array of museums, operas, ballets, and such?I say we can only know what we are told and what we are told is dictated by the mindsets, biases, and consciences of those that can pass the knowledge on. We cannot know what is true.”
As for the human mind, I’ve often thought about the metaphor of the museum.
Our mind, one of the functions of our brain ‘and other parts of our body’ (Sledpress’ objection I found interesting,) contains and allows that we manifest the infinite traces of our past (past conceptions, language, behaviours) from Stone Age or earlier onwards. Evolution enters the equation, but we will leave it alone for now.
Whatever world region we are from, we should be concerned about probing such repository I believe, that is our roots or cultural ID.
Language is an important portion of this ID. What a great digging tool for example etymology is, ie history of words (shown a bit in our previous post, see a good on-line tool) although lots of things are there well beyond words (see points I and IV below.)
A few examples, to better understand.
(Italian-mind related, but they could hopefully work as a method example to different minds as well)
“Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage 1960 Lancia Flavia (see image below.) Mario is from Naples, a South Italian city founded by the Greeks in the 8th cent. BCE.
On the way back I exclaimed merrily: ‘Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil!’
Mario snapped with a worried look: “Hush! hush! Don’t you say that!”
I well knew what he meant:
“Oh please you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down or anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mereutterance of happiness would attract ill luck or the envy from someone … Well, the envy from whom?
The ancient classical Greeks (V cent. BCE) believed their gods lived an eternal blissful life and envied men tooprosperous that dared to get close to their happiness. They then humbled and punished them. That ‘too prosperous’ means it was excess and arrogance (ὕβρις) that was basically abhorred by the Olympian gods, which made people afraid of showing their happiness, or of being arrogant. It was like a socio-religious regulation valve, plus a factor without a doubt of the mostly upper-class (tho not exclusively) marvellous ‘5th cent. BC’ Greek perfect equilibrium.
Now, 2400 years later (!) people in Southern Italy and Greece are still afraid of expressing satisfaction when things are going WELL, lest ‘something’ might spot them and whack them.
Such a great item in their museum mind allow me to say!!
A personification of Goddess Fortuna (“they invoked their fortune”) seen as something capricious (“the tricks of fortune”) is deeply impressed in modern Western minds and language;
The wheel of fortune also used in many popular TV shows is a survival of the goddess, often represented with a wheel at her side (read more)
III.When we say ‘deep in my heart‘ or ‘she / he broke my heart’ we refer to a scientific superseded idea that the heart, and not the brain, is the seat of emotions. The Stoics saw in the heart the seat of the soul, Aristotle the seat of reason and emotion, the Roman physician Galenus the seat of emotions etc.
Another great mind item this laughter – I must record it some day – that belongs to the modern Roman mind, certainly not to the Greek one, modern or non modern.
Update. Here is a sample of such laughter. Click on these words to listen to it: Marina’s (and MoR’s) laughter.
In short, before more details if you will
There’s like a hugemessyarchive in our head so stuffed with things that just beg to be organized a bit and come to light.
Let’s get it all out dear readers. With meditation, concentration and fertile idea-exchanging let us make that inventory my good old Mentor used to mention us when we were so young.
As for my own cultural ID, I am trying to dig a bit with the present blog.
[see in-depth details from our posts. Skip the first section – similar to the above writing – and start reading from Socrates’ T-shirt big face onwards – like the one above]
The whole thing is in fact tough and I’m a bit breathless.
Not because of the poems – they are ready (and will be in progress in any case.) It is the cultural context around them that has exhausted – and troubled me – a bit.
I’ll try to explain.
Andreas Kluth’s Hannibal blog – a place extraordinaire I stumbled upon months ago – had once presented a fascinating metaphor possibly created by a certain Professor Phillip Cary.
“You can think – Andreas wrote – of “Western culture” as a human body:
[nums by MoR instead of stars].
1. The left leg is ancient Athens and Rome, Socrates and Aristotle;
2. the right leg is Jerusalem and the Bible, Moses and Jesus;
3. the crotch is the end of the Roman empire when the two “legs” met ;
4. the torso is the Middle Ages, when the two traditions became one [Dante, MoR];
[etc etc up to the rest of the body that can be pondered over at the Hannibal blog, *here* and *there*;MoR]
Ok. The left leg (1) – the Classical – has been THE main topic of this blog so far.
The research around my Greek and Latin classes though caused the other leg (2) – the Judeo-Christian – to more or less pound on my head.
Ouch what a blow my dear readers! – and later I might tell you why.
Mario: A blow? Why TH do you care? Just go ahead with the left leg, you always were a leftist ah ah ah!
MoR: You moron, MY problem is the ancient languages classes Mario! Now it turns that, while the classical texts are hard (leg 1), the Judeo-Christian ones (leg 2) are often that easy – Old and New Testament alike – that even ababy can read them, for reasons fascinating not the place here to discuss.
[I know there are comics, that there are web sites plus the Latin and Greek Wikipedia- which I adore. But I always prefer the best literature for language learning: ie starting with what is matchless]
Extropian: MoR is right. Wanna get into mountain climbing? Forget the Everest and start with simple (tho captivating) hills.
MoR: Ok ok Extropian, but you 2 didn’t get the MAIN point.
I’m not only facing here the daunting task of presenting the context of the greatest spiritual revolution the West ever had – the switch from Paganism to Christianity. And btw I’m a guy who, revering the Classical as much as I do, is not exactly excited to see the DEATH of it …
Extropian: “Num 3, the crotch?
MoR: The crotch, yes. Problem being: there’s a lot more, and a lot earlier.
Extropian: Urghhh! A LOT earlier??
MoR: Yyyeees! While trying to figure out the spiritual context of the poems, much to my horror (and fascination) did I realise that the (Judeo)-Christian leg was part of bigger – much more ancient – streams originating from Egypt and from the East (both Middle and Far East.)
To be more precise – and in a reversed order: from Egypt, Thrace, Anatolia, Palestine (the Jews, naturally, crucial,) Mesopotamia, Persia AND India.
MoR: I’ll repeat it! The Greco-Romans had already encountered A LOT EARLIER that much wideroriental humus – of which the Judeo-Christian leg was just a part – much earlier I mean than when we finally get to the darn crotch – ie the switching to Christianity and soon after that cataclysm, ie thehorribleend of the Roman empire.
Extropian:[*lost in reflection, eyes gleaming*] Mmmm, how MUCH earlier …
MoR: 800-850 years earlier, more or less. I’ll check better but I’d bet on it.
Long pause. Pauses are important. The sun begins to shine through the clouds folds over the eternal city … We drink strong coffee.
MoR: Which led me to reconsider the Judeo-Christian tradition as being NOT TOTALLY EXTRANEOUS to the Classical World (!) as I first had thought.
A kind of a BLOW, plus a troublingone because I got fascinated by it.
I told Lichanos over at his blog – his posts inspired me as for the Jewish heritage: “I feel the need of coming to terms with both traditions or legs – I said – AND, should I get back to Christianity, I will SUE you …” 🙂
The silence in my study-room is now disturbed only by Mario chesmadonna piano piano … My friends love me and they are worried. I am just excited.
This was happening yesterday in an apartment in Rome.
On another area of the planet 70 million Hindus plus 40,000 Indian politicians were /are about to gather near the banks of the Ganges. The water is cold. It is flowing to the plains directly from the Himalayas. The water is also dirty.
Not that the Indians will care – about the cold or the dirtiness. All they care about – the poor and the low caste, the rich and the high caste – is this sacred water purifying them from their sins and helping them with better reincarnations.
The Kumbh Mela hindu festival might though be special this year. The convergence of the 12-yearly Kumbh Mela with the longest solar eclipse of the millennium – it is believed –could guarantee an end to the reincarnation cycle.
Note. Sin. Purified by sacredwater. ‘Souls’ and ‘bodies’ separated butincessantly reuniting in a reincarnation cycle of life anddeath.
Ah what a marvellous introduction to what we are about to narrate!
Days ago I was revising my blog’s categories. I realized how lazy I had been.
‘Culture’ for example indicated both:
the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a society or group (it’s the Unesco definition) and
the general knowledge and refinement a person can attain through education.
The former, anthropological, relates to groups, while the latter, humanistic, relates to individuals. So my category ‘culture’ has been split in two: culture and knowledge & refinement.
I’ll tell you, my impression is that ‘culture’ in English has progressively lost meaning num 2, which was instead well alive in the past if we have to believe J. C. Shairp, a Scottish man of letters, who wrote in the 19th century:
“What the Greeks expressed by their paideia, the Romans by their humanitas, we less happily try to express by the more artificial word culture.”
Well, if paideia and humanitas were better, culture is better than nothing in any case.
Of course European cultures (anthropological) are very much interrelated. In countries such as France Italy and Germany, for example, people continue to refer to culture also as personal, individual refinement: we have ‘cultura’ in Italian, ‘culture’ in French and ‘Kultur’ in German, which the German Duden dictionary explains with Bildung and verfeinerte Lebensart (refined way of life.)
I’m wondering why the English-speaking countries have retained only the anthropological use of culture. Don’t they like gli uomini di cultura generale any more?
According to my friend jurist cultura was a high culture ideal that mirrored social elitism, so the English-speaking countries, basically more pluralistic, bit by bit moved on. Very good point, but I’m not entirely convinced, there must be something else too.
This thing being more complicated than it seems, I am now asking my readers for insight.
In the meanwhile, I’ll soon post a nice discussion occurred a few days ago where some kind of replies have surfaced: a dialogue among a civil engineer from NYC, an Indian Canadian from Quebec – about to start a career in the film industry – and MoR.
I’d love to know
How things got to be
How they are.
Here is a first selection of themes from Man of Roma. Each link leads to pages with excerpts from our posts that illustrate the chosen themes. I couldn’t get much into the conversations kicked off by the posts for lack of time. You can have a look yourself since lots of additional materials are in the comments area of the linked posts.
This page is meant for those interested in finding their bearings in the ideas of this blog. You will notice leitmotivs that circulate and I have also chosen themes related to one another.
Another theme selection – to be published not immediately, I don’t want to lose all my readers – will regard the relationships between South and North Europe, Europe and North America, East and West, Great Britain and the Continent and much more.
The Human Mind is Like a Museum
The human mind is like a museum since it contains almost infinite traces of past conceptions, from Stone Age onwards. Words, language are an important portion of this museum, but lots of things are there that go way beyond words. In short, a huge disorganized archive we have in our heads and that we should inventory. It’s the activity of this blog, a little bit.
The Legacy of Rome
Rome is the city of the soul (as Byron and Victor Hugo put it,) of our authentic Western soul, since Europe and the West were shaped here, and Rome’s legacy is greater than we think.
Folks of the Mediterranean Sea
The Italian and Roman soul is intimately tied to the folks of the Mediterranean. We are all related. Food, plants and plenty of traditions are similar. On a long-period perspective we belong to the same historical stream, to the same area from which some of the great civilizations have germinated on this side of the planet. Of course there are differences among us, but we are not so dissimilar as someone might (or likes to) think. Many behaviours, defined for example as Islamic, actually belong to the ancient past of Mare Nostrum, the context and stage of all that made us the way we are.
Influences of the Classical World
The Greco-Roman classical civilization has moulded the world we live in today. Influences and survivals can be seen in behaviours, arts etc.
Sex and the City (of Rome)
An exploration of Greco-Roman sexuality and of what is left today of such different mores. I have dedicated a series of 5 posts (out of 105) to this theme but the series is always in the ‘top posts’ list on the right column. I wonder why.
I have tried to understand how alien Greco-Roman sex can be vis-à-vi contemporary sexuality, and why things have changed so much since then.
Dialogue Among Civilisations
Some communication has occurred with non Western people, very enriching though not always easy. Great civilizations tend to close-up a bit – noble gases, Ashish, one witty commenter of this blog, called them – they being like complete in themselves. We had good connection with the Indians. Their good English has helped. Rediscovering one’s heritage doesn’t exclude others, quite the contrary. It means having something peculiar to transmit, in order to be able, in our turn, to receive.
“The deeper one goes into one’s own experience – argued Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – […] the more does one’s experience have in common with the experiences of others […]. 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.”
Survivals of Roman Religion
When talking about religion it is important to understand that history and faith, science and theology fly on different planes and shouldn’t be confused. By Roman religion we mean any cult that was followed in ancient Rome, also foreign ones. As an example, the cult of the Anatolian Kybele, the great mother-goddess, was established on the Palatine Hill in 210 BC, according to Livy. To the historian, anthropologist etc. the number of Roman religion survivals is impressive.
Crisis of Values in Affluent Countries
We all here in the West must encourage a totally new different attitude which can enable us to better face both our present crisis of values and the radical changes ahead which might cause our swift decline. In Europe especially religion is waning and people sometimes embrace weird beliefs (see below Neo-pagan underground temples in Northern Italy.) Rich countries should be full of happy people, all the requirements for happiness (or serenity) being present. Nonetheless one has the impression that often void rules and that people don’t know any more which are the right choices in everyday life.
Traces of Paganism in Italians
Sometimes Italians, especially from the South, are considered superstitious. Whatever we mean by this word, these superstitions seem often remnants of the Greco-Roman past. Italians were highly civilized long before Christianity arrived (9-10 centuries earlier,) while many Northern Europeans became civilised together with, and thanks to, Christianity. This couldn’t be without consequences.
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.
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.
I habitually post once a week. Last week I spent all my available time in a short trip and in replying to comments here or in posting comments on other blogs. All I can do now is reporting some of these conversations by splitting them in a sequence of posts, this being the first one.
It’s not a vile expedient. A dialogue or conversation to me is important, my method post being evidence of it.
The people involved in the conversation(s) are Ashish, an Indian young man from Maharastra; Poonam Sharma, an Indian young woman from New Delhi; the Commentator, a Canadian of Italian origin from Quebec; Paul Costopoulos, a Canadian of French and Greek descent, from Quebec as well.
Texts in square brackets are notes by MoR. For the original conversation see the previous post’s comment section.
Saving a Friend From Metal Rock?
Poonam Sharma. Yes, Ashish must indeed be saved from rock music… All songs [proposed in MoR’s previous post] are new for me, so my unaccustomed ear will have a try at them.
MoR. So far the effect on him of my music preaching has been negligible.
A person like Ashish cannot be caged by Black Sabbath forever! Maybe the works by Bach proposed though are too complicated. Bach is severe but being mystical he might appeal to Indian minds like yours and Ashish’s.
Ashish. Thank you! [referring to my last post meant to redeem him] I also just begun on Indian Classical music with Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia’s Call of the Valley. Can’t wait to start on this … yes, Ashish must indeed be saved from rock music. I think it’s too late for that! You don’t know the beauty of listening to Heaven and Hell, then Stargazer and jumping to Ahir Bhairav just yet!!
MoR. It’s not that I don’t like rock, I’m still listening to it now and then. It’s just that a mind needs all types of nourishment. I’m sure you’ll find depths in Indian classical music unknown to Sabbath. Ahir bhairav? I checked, it seems to be a Hindustani classical raga. I wish I had some knowledge of Indian ragas. Why then don’t you flood me with links? Why don’t you become just a bit (or a lot) a Man of India – instead of repeating of yourself: ‘The British left, but left him’ …? 🙂
The Power of Sabbath
(Sabbath. Heaven and Hell – Neon Knights. Live. From this post by Ashish)
Ashish. Alright, this needs some explaining.
You see, I am NOT a music person. All this passion for music started when we started the cyber cafe as background music when I worked. The problem was that the hindi (Indian) songs were too much intrusive and I couldn’t concentrate so I loaded up my playlist with English ones. Slowly I listened to the music, started liking it and when I bought a new MP3 player I started listening a week.
Currently, on my holiday’s I usually go out for long walks early in the morning for I dislike meeting people. So what to do during the day when for the most part of 12 hours there is no electricity? How to relieve myself from the world? Thats where rock saves me. 😉
It’s not like I “hate” Indian music. It just seems more vocal focused. Whoever has the best voice wins. Heck, I even dislike modern rock as you know and prefer the 70’s or 80’s act meself. It’s the music.. so much different, myriad filled with epics, dragons (Ronnie Dio happens to be my favourite vocalist) or drugs!
As for becoming Man of India well there are too many Men of India preaching this and that. I prefer not being tied to a region or place. The world is free I think to live wherever I want, like whatever I want, eat whatever I want. (This is a rant not for you but for everyone who advises in regionalism..)…
Paul. Ashish, try to get «Beatles go baroque», Naxos 8.990050F, original Beatles’s songs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney arranged by Peter Breiner in the styles of Handel, Vivaldi or J.S. Bach. A real treat. It was recorded in 1992, in Bratislava by the Slovak Philarmonic. The beat and the music is there with a special flavor.
Ashish. Paul, thanks for that! Thats seems like some Beatles I can stomach! (I have their greatest hits package but don’t listen to it that much.) Will try to find this! Thanks very much! 🙂
The Commentator. (…) I’m starting to like Ashish. He pulls out the Sabbath. I like to listen to hard stuff every once in a while. Why, just today I was blasting The Ramones. But what a long walk from the beautiful masterpieces of Western classical music to rock.
Let’s see Western musical heritage: classical, ragtime, jazz, blues, country, bluegrass, rock, hard rock, motown, disco, punk, techno, grunge – interesting evolution. I know. An incomplete list and definitions. But you get the picture.
Ashish. LOL thank you Commentator. I’m just getting into the stuff actually. There is so much music and so little time!
MoR. Ashish, you say: “It’s not like I hate Indian music. It just seems more vocal focused.”
Voice, ok. But as far as I know there are lots of instruments as well, complex and exciting. Percussions are very rich, plus we have bow string instruments like Sarinda (see above) and Sarangi, stringed instruments like the Sitar (a great myth of my generation because of the Beatles and Ravi Shankar) and many others I don’t know the names of.
Probably Indian music is monodic, so melody plays a great role, and of course voice can be central, though not only I think. What I like very much is the way the Indians treat the melody (vocal or instrumental), fascinating for its sensual ornaments and especially quarter tones (!!), so exotic to Western ears!
Ashish.Nay, you’re talking Indian Classical music. I was talking about the regular – which is mostly film music and most all of which is vocal focused. But like I said above, the bug of classical music has bitten me now and I’m ready to dive in that ocean.
Bolly Songs and Classical Ragas
MoR. Great. I loved the music you presented in your post: the songs reminded me of my stay in India but the classical Ahir Bhairav type of music you present [which can be listened here] is much more profound, there is a total difference in depth. Depth is to be experienced especially at your age, since it’ll get deeper into your blood. [What I am not at all able to figure out is how, according to these Hindustani ragas, the music is slowly building up in more and more complex variations, I mean in which ways, according to which rules.]
Ashish. That is what I liked about it, depth. You could just lay back and watch as the music danced in front of your eye with varied textures.
Oriental Quarter tones
(We can finish with the Man of Roma talking about things he knows nothing about)
MoR. Oriental and Indian music has quarter tones, I can dare say. In the first notes of the song Hur Hura Asathe you have embedded in your post – I might be wrong – one experiences quarter tones.
On a keyboard, the distance in pitch between for example a C note and a D note (two white keys) is called a whole tone and this tone is cut into two halves (2 semitones) by classical Western music (C-C#; C#-D).
So between a C and a D we have only one possible note in between: C#.
In Oriental music instead a whole tone is cut into 4 different notes, 4 quarter tones.
It is one reason why the first notes of the said song (see the movie below) sound vague to a Western ear, which increases their fascination. I don’t think it is by chance by the way that the Italian word vago (= vague) means both vague and beautiful.
This whole inter-cultural thing is of course fascinating.
Her grandmother from Apulia – Maryann wrote – had a deep disregard for fortune tellers “and wouldn’t even tolerate us visiting one for fun at the Italian festas. I wonder where this came from.”
I had replied that her grandmother’s behaviour probably derived from the Catholic Church’s reaction against possible survivals of Paganism.
“Italians – I argued – were highly civilized long before (9-10 centuries earlier) Christianity arrived, while many Northern Europeans entered instead civilizationtogether with Christianity (or nearly.) This couldn’t happen without consequences. It made us a bit more pagan, them a bit more Christian.”
“I never thought – he had observed – of the historical angle of Italians being civilized before Christianity thus making them a bit more pagan. Of course, the Romans were pagans!”
“Let me ask you : where do the Italians derive their realistic and cynical posturing? Did it begin after the fall of Rome? Did Machiavelli instil it? Was it years of foreign conquering?”
I think Roman survivals – I had replied – exist in various regions of Europe (like England, Germany, Poland etc.) but here in our country such remnants are more marked.
Cynicism. If you ask about this within a discussion on Italian pagan survivals you probably suspect there is a connection. I am convinced there is, although it can’t be easily proved.
A long history of glories and defeats, foreign conquering, the influence of intellectuals like Machiavelli – all this must have contributed. Although Machiavelli, to me, is more like the product of a culture. He reinforced elements that were already existing.
Did these ‘elements’ develop after the fall of Rome or did they stem from the previous Greco-Roman culture, or both things? Both, in my view.
What we mean by ‘cynicism’
Let’s first see what we mean by cynicism today:
A. Cynicism is “a disposition to disbelieve in the sincerity or goodness of human motives and actions.” (Oxford and Webster dictionaries).
B.Cynical is “the person who, with acts and words, shows scorn and indifference towards the ideals, or conventions, of the society he lives in.” (Dizionario Italiano Treccani).
[I may be wrong, but there’s a difference between the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ definition (A) and the Italian one (B). To the former, values seem more like a given, while the latter appears more relativist: values are historical, not eternal]
In any case. Isn’t it possible that behaviours seen as indifferent and cynical according to certain values appear only such because partially obeying to diverse (alien) moral codes coming from the Greco-Roman antiquity?
Let us have a look at these alien codes then.
No Conflicts of Conscience
Which is no easy task, the Greco-Roman philosophers were divided into different schools, plus the Ancients behaved differently according to the different ages.
Thus said, I basically agree with what the British historian C. P. Rodocanachi wrote about the Athenians of the V century BC (which on the whole and to a certain extent applies to the Greco-Romans.)
“[Absence of conflicts of conscience: the Greeks were quit] of this inhibiting and agonizing struggle. Their morals were civic and not religious. Their sense of duty was directed exclusively to the city …
They knew nothing of the Christian idea of good faith, of intentions conditioning acts in such a manner that the most law-abiding citizen may feel himself a great criminal at heart…
[They] may be considered as being intrinsically amoral and this very amorality was a powerful constituent of balance of mind which they could never have attained if their conscience had been torn, as ours is, between the conflicting forces of good and evil, virtue and vice, pleasure and sin.
They could enjoy beauty, taste the delights of life without a pang of conscience. So long as they were faithful to the laws and interests of the city they had no damnation to fear, either in this world or the next.”
By intention Rodocanachi meant that just thethought of a sin is almost like committing the sin itself [these two articles – 1 and 2 – may help further.]
Not Torn Between Pleasure and Sin
Ok. So what’s the conclusion of all this?
The conclusion equals the beginning, ie we get back to where we started.
Rodocanachi compares the Greek and the Christian (or Protestant) attitudes. Italians definitely belong to the former, to the ‘Greek’ cultural area.
Almost any Italian would confirm that we are not that torn between virtue and vice, pleasure and sin, that we do not much fear damnation (and almost never speak of hell.)
Even if Italians captained for centuries the switch from the Pagan religion(s) to Christianity, their Christian feelings are superficial, no matter how false (or outrageous) this may sound (see note 3.)
Even among Catholics, when taking the Italians and the Irish for example, we are not that strict compared to a lot of things.
The Lewinsky scandal, President Bill Clinton’s trial and this whole Scarlet Letter atmosphere literally sent Italians rolling on the floor laughing – I hope I won’t offend somebody saying that.
The Epicurean Rome of the Renaissance
“Your religion is not serious, you are cynical, indifferent!” was the comment by many North Europeans that travelled about Italy during the Renaissance. Their feelings were halfway between admiration and condemnation.
The splendid epicurean Rome of the Renaissance (admire above Villa d’Este) appeared often repulsive to them, one reason why the eternal city was brutally sacked by protestant troops in 1527 AD (this comment develops MoR’s peculiar approach to Italian Renaissance.)
Truth is, our mind islike amuseum, which makes us appear cynical, indifferent.
We are inclined to live the joys of life and sometimes do bad deeds without those self-punishment mechanisms that stem from breaking fundamentalist moral codes. Our flexibility (and confusion) springs from ancient mores that contribute to make us the way we are.
In some regions of our mind, it may be liked or disliked, we are still pagan at heart.
The ideas in this and other posts cannot be considered as demonstrated, and need further research.
1) Quote from C. P. Rodocanachi , Athens and the Greek Miracle, Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, London 1948.
2) My answers to Maryann and Exposrip have been further processed since their questions have kept bugging my mind (original texts here.)
3) In Notebook IV of Antonio Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks we read: “There is no doubt that Italian religious feelings are superficial, as there is no doubt that religion here has a character which is mainly political, of international hegemony.” So it seems that also the pre-Christian role of government of peoples still survives: Imperial Rome is resurrected into Catholic Rome. Gramsci wrote this note in a period between 1929 and 1935. He was a Marxist. We are not. His stimulating ideas went though well beyond Marxism and G. is now appreciated by Marxists and non Marxists, by left-wing and right-wing thinkers all the world over.
Of the goddess Fortuna or goddess of Luck remain at least today 1) our recurrent personification of Fortune; 2) something of the oracular function of this deity, linked to future-telling; 3) one of her emblems, the wheel, a symbol of mutability in human life.
1. Personification. When we use phrases like “they invoked their fortune” or “the tricks of fortune” we have here a personification of something capricious which is deeply impressed in our mind and that can be traced back to the ancient Roman goddess Fortuna.
2. Future-telling. Not far from Rome, in Antium and in Praeneste, were two well-known shrines of the goddess Fortuna. The Romans went there to know about their future, among the rest. At the oracle in Praeneste connected to the impressive sanctuary (see remnants on top) of Fortuna Primigenia (the fortune of a firstborn child at the moment of birth), a small boy gave oak rods to temple-goers, called sortes (lots), with words on them that revealed their future.
Similarly, we go today to the ‘fortune teller’ to get predictions about our fortune, namely our future. If these two words, fortune and future, are synonyms in this context it is also because of the ancient oracular (future-telling) role of the Roman goddess Fortune.
3. The Wheel of Fortune. I think very few spectators of the Wheel of Fortune, one of the most popular TV shows ever produced, suspect they are in front of a fossil from the ancient Romans. Fortuna was in fact often represented standing on a ball or close to a wheel indicating that our future is as uncertain as the random spinning of a wheel (or the random rolling of a sphere.) She also bore a cornucopia, which symbolized abundance, and a rudder as controller of man’s destiny (see Hardrian’s tetradrachm above.)
Only the wheel though survived and this was probably due, among the rest, to the influence of a great book, Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, an author descendant of a noble Roman family which issued emperors and consuls.
I know how Fortune is ever most friendly and alluring to those whom she strives to deceive, until she overwhelms them with grief beyond bearing, by deserting them when least expected … she turns her wheel of chance with haughty hand … This is her sport: thus she proves her power; if in the selfsame hour one man is raised to happiness, and cast down in despair,’ tis thus she shews her might.
We’ll conclude by mentioning how in 1803 AD some mostly-in-Latin medieval poems ( 228 ) were found in the Bavarian monastery of Benediktbeuern.
This collection, written around 1230 and now known as Carmina Burana, satirized the Church and was created by university students at a time when Latin was the European lingua franca. Some poems are dedicated to Fortuna and her wheel.
In 1937 the German composer Carl Orff put into music some of these texts. The most famous composition is “O Fortuna“, incidentally, which opens and closes the work.
While listening you might want to read the Latin original, with an English translation (source.)
O Fortuna / velut luna (O Fortune like the moon) statu variabilis (you are changeable) semper crescis / aut decrescis; (ever waxing and waning;)
vita detestabilis / nunc obdurat (hateful life first oppresses) et tunc curat / ludo mentis aciem, (and then soothes as the sharp mind takes it;) egestatem, / potestatem (poverty and power) dissolvit ut glaciem. (it melts them like ice.)
Sors immanis / et inanis, (Fate monstrous and empty,) rota tu volubilis, / status malus, (you whirling wheel, you are malevolent,) vana salus / semper dissolubilis, (well-being is vain and always fades to nothing,) obumbrata / et velata (shadowed and veiled) michi quoque niteris; (you plague me too;) nunc per ludum / dorsum nudum (now through the game I bring my bare back) fero tui sceleris. (to your villainy.)
Sors salutis / et virtutis / michi nunc contraria, (Fate is against me in health and virtue,) est affectus / et defectus (driven on and weighted down,) semper in angaria. (always enslaved.) Hac in hora / sine mora (So at this hour without delay) corde pulsum tangite; (pluck the vibrating strings;) quod per sortem / sternit fortem, (since Fate strikes down the strong man,) mecum omnes plangite! (everyone weep with me!)
The Italian pianist Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli (1920–1995) is considered one of the greatest virtuosos of the 20th century. His style is classical in the sense of classicism and in a way that is more than emblematic. Why?
Italy never totally absorbed romanticism with its emphasis on excessive emotions, irrationality, free form etc. A sense of grace, elegant beauty and formal perfection together with a preference for simplicity over complexity have often been among the components of the Italian attitude in Arts.
Michelangeli’s style though (together with Maurizio Pollini’s) personifies all this even too much. He not only provides further evidence of this anti-romanticism present in the Italian culture – due to the Italian classical heritage (not many doubts about it.) Michelangeli’s peculiar (and sacred) approach to music crosses in our view a line by breaking the balance between form and emotion, between the rational and the lyrical side of a work – a balance which is typical of the best classicism. He reaches such a controlled perfection that his performances are prodigious, true, and proverbial, ok, but they are often very chilly as well (not many doubts either.)
In other words, Italian musical classicism is brought by Michelangeli to a limit where passion and musical spontaneity seem to disappear. He never lets himself go and every single note is under his control.
In fact “Michelangeli was known for his note-perfect performances” (Wikipedia). “His fingers can no more hit a wrong note – writes Harold Schonberg, a famous New York Times music critic- or smudge a passage than a bullet can be veered off course once it has been fired.”
Michelangeli’s performances of Romantic authors are therefore generally baffling. His interpretation of Frédéric Chopin‘s Ballade in G minor, one of the great works of Romantic music, can very well bring out this point, we believe:
As Squishym (a Youtube user) well observes “it sounds detached for the most part and the timing has a lot of strange hesitations for no apparent reason (perhaps an attempt to simulate emotion?)” Yes, very well said indeed.
An opinion confirmed by the above said Harold Schonberg, who wrote: “The puzzling part about Michelangeli is that in many pieces of the romantic repertoire he seems unsure of himself emotionally, and his otherwise direct playing is then laden with expressive devices that disturb the musical flow.”
In Domenico Scarlatti‘s sparkling and rationally crystal clear baroque Michelangeli seems instead much more at ease. This beautifully and very fast played sonata shows all his supreme coolness.
Michelangeli was sometimes considered at his best with the impressionistic French repertoire (Debussy and Ravel). Here follows Chopin’s Berceuse, where the flaws shown in the Balladein G minor are in our view not present because of the pre-impressionistic genre of this marvelous piece.
Benedetti Michelangeli’s playing here radiates its exquisite magic.
Finally Ferruccio Busoni’s piano transcription of Bach’s Chaconne in d-moll BWV 1004 for violin solo. The art of Bach, Busoni and Michelangeli combine to bring to life an awesome, unparalled musical experience. As the teacher and commentator David Dubal observed, Michelangeli “was best in the earlier works of Beethoven and seemed insecure in Chopin, but he was demonic in such works as the Bach–BusoniChaconne and the BrahmsPaganini Variations.”
Let us listen to this demonic Michelangeli (the performance here being unfortunately – and horribly – cut into two separate videos):
[May 2014 update : a different, possibly better, performance of Bach-Busoni’s Chaconne by A.B. Michelangeli – all in one piece]
In the previous installment we have spoken of the Egyptian society described by Naguib Mahfouz and of the Tunisians. We have also mentioned Italian Naples and Sicily (see the splendid Monreale cloister above). We wanted to emphasize the mutual influences between the North and the South shores of the Mediterranean and at the same time show how many behaviours – defined as Islamic, such as the patriarchal control of women – belong in reality to the endless past of the civilizations.
The Muslims influenced not only Italy but Spain, Greece and other Mediterranean areas as well. In truth they influenced almost the entire world since between the VIII and the XII centuries AD Islam stretched from the Atlantic in the West (Spain) to large portions of Asia. For the very first time in history more than 3000 years of experiences were accumulated from civilizations the most various – Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Syria, Persia, China and India.
Most importantly, all this was re-transmitted by them to the rest of the world: forgotten Greek texts and medicine, Indian numerals (called Arabic since that time), Chinese papermaking and thousands of other innovations. This whole wisdom and refinement was concentrated by the way (and for a long time) in the city of Baghdad, that same city whose historical treasures were looted and destroyed because of the present foolish Iraqi war.
It is hence fair (and a bit uncomfortable) to remember that Europe – which during the Middle Ages had forgotten a lot – was gradually given back by the Muslims not only large portions of its classical culture but also something that went well beyond the confines of the Greco-Roman civilization. The big leap Europe was about to make at the end of the Middle Ages was possible also because of this contribution.
More than We are Willing to Admit
North Africans and Islamic countries are linked to Europeans more than we are willing to admit. If the Turks want to enter the Euro zone it is also because they feel somewhat part of our world. Southern and Northern Italians (think of Venice), Spaniards, Greeks etc. received many elements from the Oriental cultures.
Hard-to-deny connections. This might though disturb some reader (of this devil’s advocate) 😉
Why? Because Muslims are not well seen today. A post by Nita, an Indian journalist and blogger (and an excellent source of knowledge on India), provides statistics from the Pew Research Global that show how “while more and more Muslims are turning away from the extremists, more and more people are turning away from Muslims.”
In the Wikipedia’s entry on Sicily I was reading yesterday that in a “recent and thorough study the genetic contribution of Greek chromosomes to the Sicilian gene pool was estimated to be about 37% whereas the contribution of North African populations was estimated to be around 6%.”
True or not, I read between the lines – I may be wrong – like a desire to prove that Sicily and Southern Italy have little to do with North Africans. Even if so, hasn’t genetics – as far as I know – little to do with cultural transmission? One can be mostly Greco-Roman genetically though subject to multi-layered cultural influences coming from no matter where.
We will end up this second (and last) part of our journey with two notes.
Veiled women. As far as the veil, to think of it as Islamic is incorrect because it was widely used by the Assyrians, Hittites, Greeks (see the picture on the left), Romans and Persians. In medieval Europe (and in Anglo-Saxon England) women were dressed more or less like Muslim women are dressed today.
In Judaism, Christianity and Islam “the concept of covering the head is or was associated with propriety. All traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, show her veiled.” (Wikipedia).
I remember my mother always wearing a veil in church. It was a common practice in Catholicism (but not only) until the 1960s.
Sexual jealousy. It seems to be present in Islamic societies and in all those patriarchal societies obsessively concerned for true paternity. In today’s Islamic forums there is a lot of discussion (and more or less condemnation) about jealousy.
It is said that Sicilians and Calabrians are usually more possessive than other Italians. Some cultural connection with Islam in this respect may be possible. It is to be noted that honour killings were easily forgiven by law in Italy, France and other Mediterranean countries until recently.