“Thousands of people, mainly from Tunisia, but also from Libya and Egypt, have arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in recent weeks” (BBC).
“Since January Italy is facing an exceptional flux of immigrants, with over 22,000 landings mainly from Tunisia… from Eritrea and Somalia via Libya on the island of Lampedusa.” (Le Monde)
The situation in Libya is more critical. According to Le Monde anti-Gaddafi rebels have no military experience, despite arms and support arriving from Egypt and Nato intervention. The port city of Misrata in north-western Libya (130 mi to the east of Tripoli, see image below) seems now to be the hub of the crisis.
Gaddafi is ready to conquer it and there are rumours of tortures suffered by the unfortunate who in Misrata fell into the hands of pro-Gaddafi forces. BBC mentions use of “human shields in the war-torn town.”
According to one of Gaddafi’s 5 beautiful Ukrainan nurses, El Rais’s health is that of an iron-man 🙄
France who first led to the intervention now fears that “we are likely to get bogged down in Misrata” (as French foreign Minister Alain Juppé’s put it). France also fears too many immigrants are coming from Italy. Italy protests France is against the Schengen agreement and says Europe should help to contain the human flood.
More British war planes seem ready to begin ground attacks (instead of just no-fly-zone checks.)
Gaddafi has sent a message to Obama yesterday. Today H. Clinton dismissed it saying he must resign and go into exile. Anti-Gaddafi rebels complain that bureaucracy is causing “Nato to take too long to respond to calls for air strikes” (BBC ) [not to mention the fact that Nato has killed quite a few anti-Gaddafi protesters by mistake!]
Berlusconi and Sarkozi will meet in Rome on April 26th. By the way Italy has finally recognised Libya’s rebel National Council.
Berlusconi was hesitant given his personal ties with Gaddafi. Now that all is more or less in the hands of Nato he looks happier.
Moscow, Berlin and Turkish Ankara seek a role as mediators. Ankara has sent Ambassador Omur Soledin to Libya.
These the recent facts. Allow me some (Roman) rambling now.
Lost in their Opiate Dream
Aren’t the French and the British lost in an opiate dream that they can still play a world role ‘of their own’? I am for a EU tighter unification, it is clear, and any prima donna or Trojan horse trying to dismantle such process from within really rails me.
The Britons are famous in their efforts to obstruct any real unification of ‘the continent’ – from Napoleon’s (was it good?) and Hitler’s (it was good) until today.
And the French? Are they pro EU only when they can play a grandeur role in it?
[Gosh, when at times they pronounce this word (France) I cannot but think of De Gaulle (my father imitated le Général not without fidelity and humour) who used to say he had ‘une certaine idée de la Fraaaance‘.]
Of course I can understand their opiate dream, their greatness belonging to only 4-6 generations ago, a short span of time. But aren’t their imperial souvenirs damaging this region, Europe, the richest of the planet (not for long) but the weakest politically? With the huge challenges ahead of us (ie Bric) is it intelligent? Is it forward-thinking?
[See a presumptuous post of mine on EU Trojan Horses]
Italy, the eternal loose woman, is reclining herself on the middle of the Mediterranean.
“L’Italie, avec la Sicile et la Tunisie coupent la Mediterranée en deux … Est et Ouest. La liaison Sicile Afrique est fondamentale”.
This centrality favoured the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean.
Carthage (today’s Tunis) had the same central position in the Med though reversed (from South northwards). Rome though won (but … read here)
Among the European nations Italy is perhaps the most popular in North Africa and the whole Med area (some grudge left in Libya, of course.)
We eat the same food, they sing our songs (and us theirs but we’re not aware of it,) they watch since the 1950s our now horrible TV, they get consoled and excited by our III-World South which they can understand.
Tunisia in the last 100 years always looked at Sicily (and Italy) as a beloved guiding light and its greatest inspiring model (“les Italiens pour nous sont comme des dieux”, “Italians are like gods to us”, a Tunisian manager once told me. You may like this post.
This role of Italy – its Mediterranean centrality over the millennia and our today’s persisting cultural and economical influence – is responsible in my view for a certain succession of events:
Berlusconi –> Ben Ali –> Mubarak …. then the rest of the Arab Spring.
A theory of mine perhaps. So let’s now test it.
Arab 2011 Revolution.
Are all MED BIG MEN resonating?
1) Berlusconi began to wobble …
… and while the entire world was cheerfully chatting about it (lots of fun stuff) the Tunisians were watching closely...
[Some mysterious harmony vibrating in the Mediterranean …]
They couldn’t but notice this North MED(iterranean) BIG MAN about to fall, and they know he being not terribly different from many other modern-day MED BIG MEN all over coastal Mediterranean.
[A darn tradition of ours. Let us mention: a majority of tyrants in Greek city states, Alexander and the Hellenistic monarchs; the Roman well balanced republic later superseded by Julius Caesar, Augustus & other emperors; Louis XIV le Roi Soleil; Napoleon; Napoleon III; Mussolini il duce; Hitler son of romanized Austria-Germany; Engelbert Dollfuss in Austria; Francisco Franco, the Caudillo; Salazar his neighbour; De Gaulle le général; Italian Umberto Bossi il celodurista (I got it hard!) and Silvio Berlusconi il Cavaliere]
Of course our PM is not Bel Ali, Gaddafi or Mubarak. Italy is democratic.
But Italy (unique in the West) has this patriarchal-paternal figure (Papi his girls called him) whose de facto powers go beyond democracy. Berlusconi can influence voters being the richest tycoon and media owner in our country –as if President Clinton and Murdoch were the same person!
Now our PM has though less constitutional power than Clinton and our usually sage President of Republic counts too in our charter. Magistrates are independent and tough, and people are not stupid. Which all is saving our ass from media fascism I hope.
So Berlusconi is something Tunisians could understand. Ben Ali controlled almost all Tunisian media via his family (I worked for a Tunisian Internet company owned by Ben Ali’s daughter or wife, I forgot.)
2) … so Tunisia blew up. Also plagued by unemployment etc. Tunisia rebels against Ben Ali’s well-organized fascism. I am witness to black-clad secret police guys’ total ubiquity. Mediterranean resonating empathy I’ll repeat.
A small country Tunisia, one might say. Ok, but Tunisia’s rebellion infected Egypt.
Now THIS changed things entirely.
The Land of Pharaohs Wakes Up
2) Egypt gets infected. The Arab world and beyond is following.
Well, given its ancientness & importance when Egypt sneezes a whole piece of the planet may catch pneumonia. Egypt is the most respected Arab state of all, beyond a doubt.
Digression. According to the Indian-British Indologist A. L. Basham – A Cultural History of India, Oxford 1975 p. XXI- “there are four main cradles of civilizations [on this planet]: 1.China. 2. The Indian subcontinent [probably the most influential in the very long run imo, MoR]. 3. The ‘Fertile Crescent‘ [ie Egypt, Eastern Canaan-Syria-Phoenicia, Mesopotamia ie Iraq, MoR]. 4. The Mediterranean, especially Greece and Italy.”
[I’m starting – some scholars are starting – to suspect a North-Europe Hyperborean cradle too. Read here if you dare 🙂 …]
Egypt is at the head of num 3 region (even though Iraq invented writing.) The Greeks totally recognized Egyptian and other Eastern influences.
[But some scholars in-between 1800s-1900s – mainly German but not only – wanted ALL colonizing West’s knowledge to be derived from an abstract ‘pure’ Greece in order to justify the exploitation of the lower-races. Winckelmann (1717 – 1768) earlier and Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) bear a foundational responsibility among the rest for this gloomy error]
Pythagoras (Πυθαγόρας) who spread a scientific-religious cult all over South Italy – which will affect Plato, ALL West science & the core of Christianity – travelled long years in Egypt, in the Middle East and Mesopotamia perhaps too: he was permeated by African and Eastern wisdom! Herodotus (Ἡρόδοτος) surely spent years in Egypt. Just 2 examples, the former being the greatest of them as for the future of Western culture.
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.]
I hesitated before continuing this series on ‘Roman’ sex. Two recent facts though have convinced me I’d better go on with it, the latter probably more important.
1) Some interest grown around the way I connect Italian sexual (& non sexual) behaviour with ancient Roman culture, not only from weirdoes but from qualified people: journalists, an international Tv Channel, a few university scholars (& college students who apparently found here inspiration for their theses,) a couple of Web companies.
2) Such incipient interest (ephemeral I’m sure) had though the prodigious side effect of making the three Sybils who subtly govern my life suppose that perhaps I’m not just entirely fooling around when typing like mad on my keyboard.
Well, THIS simplifies things, readers, by providing me with (family) peace of mind so that I’d have a few of stories too tell … 😉
Here other stories, of a totally different kind.
Sex and the city (of Rome) II
In the preceding post I was saying that, not having had brothers but sisters and needing to play male games etc., I was fortunate enough to meet at 3 a boy of 4 who became like my eldest brother.
Paul: “I have been a fratello maggiore [ie an eldest bro vs younger bros]. Believe me, it is no picnic.”
MoR: “It is no picnic with sisters either. Brothers and sisters – one doesn’t choose. My ‘eldest brother’ (the one in the poem), I chose myself. And he chose me being an only child.”
I then narrated two stories somewhat regarding the ehm éducation sentimentale we two lived together (see below).
At this point Jenny popped in (I guess she had already read the stories I now paste below) :
Jenny: “What a sweet photograph of you! I must tell you, in the small town where I grew up: three Catholic churches and nothing but boys with surnames like Petruso, Petrillo, Gianti, Limano, D’amico…the list goes on and on…”
MoR: “Jenny, yes, Italians are scattered all over the world. One blunt question allow the silly man such as I am: did you feel desire for these Petruso, Petrillo, Gianti, D’amico and so forth?
Jenny: “There he is: the charming and disarming Man of Roma. Not the place here for relating episodes from my ehm éducation sentimentale. We will just say, generally, that as Italians are scattered all over the world, girls (all over the world) like them.”
MoR: “What?? Even old (and odd) Italian blokes like me? Next time don’t forget your telephone number” (my usual flirtatious tone, what a moron I am 😦 )
They Were Ready to Eat us Alive
Ok. Time to get back to Paul and to my ‘sex souvenirs’. I’ll remind you I was telling Paul:
MoR: “My ‘eldest brother’ (the one in the poem), I chose myself. And he chose me. Nothing sexual between us tho LOL, quite the contrary.
In fact as soon as we got the foggiest interest in the other sex our hunt began and became scientific. We had hunted lizards, mice, birds (you name it) – it was time for bigger preys we thought.
We were 12-13 (in the image below I am 7, but via the link above you can see him at 13).
Our first move was therefore a girls orphanage 15 minutes on foot from our houses, the Istituto Thevenin. The girls, from 8 to 16, were more than ready to eat us alive. They could not. The darn nuns were ALWAYS watching for virtues that didn’t give a damn to remain virtuous, or so it appeared to our boys’ minds.”
Story one ended, I then addressed readers and said:
“One anecdote that may be funny or annoying, according to who is reading. It regards ehm our (mine and my ‘eldest brother’s) éducation sentimentale.”
Lovely Butt (With a Bottle but)
A couple of summers we both went for a maybe 15 days to Marina di Massa, on the Tuscan sea-side coast, although the rest of the summer we continued to spend it in Arezzo’s country as usual.
We now were 13-14 maybe.
One day while we were driving a tandem bicycle along an isolated road we saw a woman walking alone on that same road who had a great ass – we thought. I frankly still today believe she actually had.
In any case she was carrying a bottle of wine in her left hand and we being behind her but not that close we pedalled up to her and BAM! I slapped her ass with my left hand (I was a leftie and was freer since sitting in the back seat).
She yelled a bit at us but not much, and laughed also, she perhaps being 30 or something.
Terribly excited about our success (she had laughed!) we made a big U turn through side roads and there again behind her we were, pedalling this time up to her with all possible softness in order for her not to be aware of us.
BAAM I went again. She much surprised turned around, probably not thinking we would dare again, and this time she yelled a tad more angrily, but not that terribly angry – or so it seemed to us.
Made therefore even more daring and like drunk so as to try our luck a third time, there we drove on that road once more but before we could get close enough to slap her round bottom again she turned around abruptly and furiously holding her bottle towards us she really YELLED this time something like:
“Se un la smettete di fare i bischeri vi spacco questa bottiglia su quella testaccia!!! COGLIONI chevvoisiete!!!”
(“If you don’t stop play the jackasses I’ll smash your heads with this bottle, ASSHOLES!!!”)
Taken aback by such fierce reaction we lost control of our tandem that hit the side-walk curb – which caused the front tyre to burst – and headlong we fell over the side-walk asphalt.
Gosh now of course we felt more humiliated than excited and didn’t know what to do in such an embarrassing situation. She was looking still furious at us but after a while her eyes softened a bit (possibly seeing how young we were and how embarrassed we were? Or for some other, unhoped-for, reason?)
In the end she smiled at us and laughed. We laughed back and felt some joy coming back.
But I guess we learned that, when gambling with Fortune (and maybe at that age, I don’t remember, when playing with people) one has to know when it is time to stop.
I am posting these writings on the Mafia and the Italian mind – see 1, 2 and 3 – also because I believe that any fight against organized crime, wherever it exists around the world, must be engaged first of allat a cultural level.
As regards Italy I am convinced that the Mafia, the Camorra and the Ndrangheta stem from our most ancient roots, as I will try to demonstrate in my next writing.
This being a blog on our heritage we must nonetheless reject those elements of it that are against improvement in our lives in the present situation.
I had recently shown a picture of a mural painted by Sicilian students. It bore the words:
“La lotta alla mafia deve essere innanzitutto un movimento culturale.”
[“The fight against the Mafia must first of all be a cultural movement.”]
These Sicilian students have well understood that the fight is not only a question of law and order but also one of changing the mentality of the people.
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.
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.
“Who’s more Roman than the Roman Jews? Some of us date back from the times of Emperor Titus [39-81 AD]” – Davide Limentani told me in the early 80s.
Limentani was (and perhaps still is) at the head of a big wholesale and retail glass and silver company in Rome. I had phoned him three days earlier for an interview that had to be published on the Roman daily La Repubblica.
I remember a lovely spring day in the old alleys of the Roman Ghetto, with swallows crying over a glorious blue sky. He was sitting at his desk in the aisle of an impressively ramified, catacomb-like store in via Portico d’Ottavia 47 (look at its stripped-down sign above,) crammed with an immense variety of crystal, pottery, silver, china, pewter, anything one can think of – his swift and bright eyes looking in every direction.
The firm had / has among its clients popes, cardinals, celebrities and governments, including the White House. Davide is descendant of Leone, who in 1820 started the most ancient wholesale glassware store in Rome which still bears his name: Leone Limentani – 1820 Roma.
“Leone er cocciaro” [coccio = fragment]: that’s how they called him” Davide said smiling. “He had in fact started with glass junk and had accumulated a big credit with the S. Paolo Glass-works, whose effigy was on every glass – the old Roman bibitari [sellers of drinks] remember it well. The S. Paolo Glass-works were having difficulties because of some faulty articles, and, since a 1514 papal edict allowed the Jews to trade only in commodities “of secondary importance” Leone exclaimed: “The edict doesn’t forbid me!” so he bought out the second rate articles from the S. Paolo thus laying the foundation of his new activity.”
“The Roman Jews are almost 20,000” Davide continued “and only at the Portico of Octavia they live in a community. A love-hate relationship with the ghetto, they have” he confessed handing some pictures of his family to me. When the Piedmontese [who unified Italy 150 years ago] opened the Ghetto’s doors in 1870 many Jews left with the desire of forgetting all they had suffered here. But they soon came back because the rione Sant’Angelo represents all their roots. In the summer evenings the elderly sit in the open air and speak a vernacular almost dantesco, dantesque, in its character: ‘Guarda che vituperio!’ [ = ‘watch all this vituperation!’.]”
They Never Passed Under the Arch of Titus
Titus Flavius Vespasianus, Emperor of Rome. Traditionally the Roman Jews never passed under the arch of Titus. There’s a reason. This ‘delight of the human kind’, as the historian Suetonius called him, didn’t turn such a delight to the Jews, who saw Jerusalem sacked and its temple destroyed by Titus’ armies in 70 AD. Domitian, Titus’ younger brother, built the arch to commemorate the victory and on one side panel of it [see the image above,] carved in Pentelic marble, we see the spoils of the temple during the triumphal procession in Rome.
From that war we know that a group of Jews ended their lives as gladiators in the circus at Caesarea, the Roman stronghold in Palestine. Others died in the Sardinian or Spanish mines. A large number though were brought to Rome.
Now it turns the Romans needed labour to build the Colosseum. So the stones of the most famous Roman monument were wetted by the sweat of many slaves among which were the Jews captured by Titus. This group had been though greeted by an already flourishing Jewish community – merchants, freedmen and slaves – who had come to Rome 130 years earlier together with Pompey the Great at the end of his wars in the East.
Today’s Roman Jews seem to be the descendants of these two Jewish settlements in Rome – and of others arriving I don’t know when and where from.
Therefore what Davide Limentani said is probably true: the Roman Jews arethe most ancient Romans surviving. The origin of their roman-ness appears to be prior to the Flavian era. Actually “Jews have lived in Rome for over 2,000 years, longer than any other European city” (!) [Jewish Encyclopedia.]
Not the place here to discuss the reasons of the clash between the Romans and the Jews, which gave birth to many wars and ended up with the Jews leaving Palestine. As for the Roman Jews, we know that they had been treated benevolently by Julius Caesar who had also exonerated them from any tax during their sabbatical year. From Suetonius we know that at Caesar’s death the Jews in Rome flocked to his funeral with big lamentations, and it is even possible that some of them identified Caesar with the Messiah” (read livius.org on this, note 6.)
During the Middle Ages the life of the Roman Hebrews had its ups and downs but basically was not too bad. When though in 1517 Luther nailed the 95 theses that will split Western Christianity into Protestants and Catholics, a dark epoch of religious wars and fanaticism began.
On the 14th of July 1555 Pope Paul IV promulgated a Bull where all the rights of the Jewish community were cancelled and the Jewish Ghetto was walled and provided with gates.
In the preceding post we have noticed how contemporary Italian literature and cinema seldom offer wide-fresco works – they perceive the single tree more than the entire forest (read a conversation on this topic.)
Someone affirms that the secret of the forest is instead hidden in Palermo.
Tomasi di Lampedusa narrates how, soon after Italy’s unification, the honest Piedmont’s official Chevalley [Piedmont, at that time an advanced region, unified Italy in 1861] was sent to implore the Sicilian Prince of Lampedusa [the author’s great-grandfather and protagonist of the novel,] to represent Sicily in the new Italian Senate, “in order to remedy the state of material poverty, of blind and moral misery in which the Sicilian people find themselves, your own people!”
The Prince, smiling and inviting Chevalley to sit down with him on the sofa for a while, answered with the same words he had uttered with some English who, before Giuseppe Garibaldi conquered Palermo, were asking what all these Northern Italians, these Garibaldini, were doing in the South of Italy.
“They are coming to teach us good manners – replied the Prince in English – but they won’t succeed, because we are gods.”
Then in the end (with poor, decent Chevalley in total dismay because of the Prince’s denial) the aristocrat added that things in Sicily had not changed and will never change for that ‘sense of superiority that glitters in the eye of every Sicilian, that we ourselves call pride (fierezza,) but which is actually only blindness.’
An enlightening, though gloomy, reflection.
Note. This ‘pride which is actually blindness’ can be said of all great civilizations on earth that were (the ancient Romans, the Egyptians, Greece, Hellenic etc.Sicily …)
If we are worth for what we were, we are much much worthier for what we are.
Past greatness is a richness, and a consolation, but is not enough.
Question. On the other hand, are these cultures / civilizations really dead? I mean, didn’t they adapt themselves still retaining some greatness?
“… sicilianized, enigmatic, elusive Italy, difficult to be synthesized into something consistent. Differently from other great countries (France, England, Spain) Italy doesn’t possess a real national unity nor is helped in this by a wide-fresco Italian literature [that could provide an overall picture of what we are, MoR].”
Not so sure though someone says there’s something sensual (and annoying?) in them and in our Latin cousins, something felt as sinful and almost amoral but, for this same reason, irresistible.
[Did a star like Madonna build her career partially upon this and other ambiguities? I’ll think about it]
In other posts (see a list at the bottom) we had supposed connections between Latin folks’ behaviours and pre-Christian sexual mores.
In our last post we have imagined a connection between Italian cynicism and possible survivals of Paganism in our country.
It is time today to fathom a bit the phenomenon of Don Juanism.
Some Italian behaviours are irritating, without a doubt.
When the young males from here go to Oktoberfest in Munich, Bavaria, as soon as everybody is drunk they think they are entitled to seduce ALL the German women around, and of course they are very much frowned upon.
When I was a silly teenager, I confess we used to hunt for female tourists all over the historical centre of Rome. We did this rationally, exactly like hunters do, and of course the majority of the women weren’t so happy about it (well, the minority was our shameless, or shameful, reward.)
This behaviour was sort of common to all Italians (more or less) but now it only gets marked the closer one gets to the South of the peninsula, where good or bad traditions are preserved.
The men from the Italian South tend to be sexually free, while the women are kept under control (or kinda.)
A patriarchal behaviour that is still alive in many Islamic societies (see Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad, a Naguib Mahfouz’s character) and whose roots are prior to the Greco-Romans.
South Italian men try to seduce women, no matter what, when, how: they think they are all Casanovas.
And the Italian women? They are very provocative too in their own way although here we will concentrate on the men.
There is something we have to understand. Searching far back in the past might shed light on present behaviours. Let us consider one of the most admired (and loved) Romans of all times, Julius Caesar (see above flowers from tourists at the feet of his majestic bronze statue.)
He had greatness in all he did, such a supreme soul, more rational than Alexander, abstemious, with intense intellect, courage, utmost strength and daring even in old age.
He had a great vision and many historians think today that without Caesar the Greco-Roman world could have perished many centuries earlier with massive consequences, which makes him even more a giant compared to the average man.
[below an updated Feb-2014-related-posts list]
And yet there is another side of Julius Caesar we might like less.
He was totally addicted to sexual pleasure (only ambition in him was greater, argues Montaigne) and he endangered his career a few times because of this.
Caesar was very good-looking and narcissistic. He tried to hide his thinning hair (like our prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.) He plucked the hairs of his body and made use of the most exquisite perfumes. He liked his skin to be as perfect as that of a woman.
He changed wife four times. He probably had an affair with the King of Bithynia Nicomedes IV (was Caesar bisexual? read here,) with Cleopatra queen of Egypt, with Eunoe queen of Mauritania. He perhaps slept with many of his soldiers.
He chose himself extremely beautiful male slaves (same-sex love not being such a misdeed in Rome provided men took the dominant, penetrative, role: read here.)
A few observations on Rome by the Italian sociologist Franco Ferrarotti regarding the period starting from the Italian unification, when Rome became Italy’s capital in 1870, until today.
They appeared in two interviews published in Milan’s Corriere della Sera and Rome’s Messaggero, between 2005 and 2006, at a time when the Paris banlieu had exploded with riots.
1. Ferrarotti (Corriere della Sera, April 2, 2006) observed that Rome always found it difficult to be loved by Italians, for her double role of capital of Italy and of the Vatican state. Italians always felt Rome as too universal, Ferrarotti argues. Rome, in short, gli starebbe larga, was / is too large to them.
According to Ferrarotti, only provincial aesthetes like Fellini and Pasolini really loved Rome. Ferrarotti published 40 years ago Roma da capitale a periferia (Bari, Laterza 1970), a book that depicted a suburban anti-Rome totally different from the celebrated historical centre.
Today, thanks to years of good administration – Ferrarotti observes – Roman suburbs have evolved. Suburbia, together with historical Rome, have merged into a real capital. A celebrity like “Michele Placido is now on stage in Tor Bella Monaca, a very peripheral borgata (eg a working class suburb).”
According to Ferrarotti there are no potentially explosive suburbs in Rome such as those in Paris since immigration is recent here. In 15 years, perhaps, Roman immigrants’ children and grand-children will protest for their rights.
Rome as a capital, Ferrarotti believes, is more Mediterranean than European, due to both her nature and her mediation capabilities. However she is also a religious capital, like Mecca or Jerusalem, which makes Rome something way beyond Europe (observation quoted in our first post, a sort of introduction to this blog).
The problem has always been that of urban planning management, although the old alliance among real estate business, finance and political power seems broken today thanks to increasing democracy. There is a tendency towards polycentrism, which is good since the city is allowed to breathe.
In short, Rome is not matrigna (stepmother) anymore, as Ferrarotti had called her in 1991.
“Today Rome has become alma mater (Latin for nourishing mother) even though she is also at times lupa (she-wolf) with her children.” Places once bleak like Quarticciolo or Alessandrino are now urban areas. “Instead of a progressively rotting suburbia we have had a process of social auto-promotion: unlike other large cities no favelas have developed here.”
2. Now the november 2005 articleappeared in Rome’s daily Il Messaggero. Professor Ferrarotti, do you think Prodi is right? Will Italian suburbs be on fire as it happened in France?
“No, Italian suburbs have nothing in common with the Parisian banlieue.”
What is the difference? “A third generation of immigrants – children and grand-children of the old pieds-noirs – inhabits the Parisian banlieue and feels that they are rightful French citizens. In schools though francocentrism is dominant while Maghrebine culture and roots are ignored, which alienates these youngsters from society. First-generation immigrants had shown gratitude to France that had hosted them. The second and third generation, on the other hand, observe how their fathers are threatened by ostracism, which turns the old gratitude into hate. It is a tragedy and no parallel can be drawn between the French and the Italian situation”.
Italian suburbs are then the best of possible worlds? “I wrote a book in 1970, Roma da Capitale a periferia (“Rome from Capital to Suburbia”). Today I would rather speak of Rome’s transformation from suburbia into a real capital. Slums have disappeared. In Alessandrina, a borgata, 50 percent of the students are non-EU. They don’t have problems. It’s their teachers who have problems, instead.”
Because these non-EU kids’ parents earn more than the Italian teachers themselves, who, despite their being badly paid, must increase their efforts when facing a multiethnic audience. Therefore they lose their motivation. Were I a politician I would rather worry for possible protests by underpaid teachers and young unemployed graduates. These, not the immigrants, are the new poverty-stricken people in Italy, which could give rise to explosive protests”
No imminent immigrants danger, then. “No. Problems could perhaps arise from CPTs (Centres of temporary permanence) created by the Turco Napolitano bill (num. 40, 1998). If CPTs became like concentration camps, yes, there could be some danger. But as of now the situation in Italy doesn’t seem that difficult. Nothing comparable to the suburbs in Paris, Frankfurt or London.”
An excessive alarm, that from Prodi ... Yes, a bit apocalyptic, to me. Nevertheless, his statements imply some insight. Prodi invites us to think about a process of citizenship and integration of non-EU people in our country. I find this right, necessary. If a true immigrants-integration process is set out in our country the mine is deactivated before it can explode.”
The Greco-Roman soul is intimately tied to Egypt and North Africa.
We are all Mediterranean. Food, plants and plenty of traditions are similar. On a long-period perspective we belong to the same historical stream, to the same sea from which some of the first civilizations have germinated on this side of the planet.
Of course there are differences though we are not so dissimilar as someone might (or liked) to think plus our same religions, apparently dividing us, are in reality loving the same God.
Another interesting point is that during the whole Middle Ages north Africans were the most powerful, civilised and wealthy among all Mediterranean (and European) folks.
Wealth has move to the North
Wealth has now moved to the North shore.
The Northern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean tend to exchange their roles.
Tunisia conquered Sicily for 400 years. Today it looks at Sicily (and Italy) as a beloved guiding light and its greatest inspiring model (“les Italiens pour nous sont comme des dieux”, “Italians are like gods to us”, a Tunisian manager once told me). While we, in our narrow-mindedness, do not even notice it.
Italians (especially those who travel little) do not know how much they are loved within the entire Mediterranean area.
Even when we landed on its islands as occupants, together with the Nazis, we were accepted with affection by the local populations because they felt us as close relatives. How many memories, traditions and bonds we do share with them.
Many villages in Southern Italy – or in so many Greek islands, not to mention Spain, who was under Arabic rule for so long – look Arabic or belonging in any case to the deep South Mediterranean: take Ostuni, in Apulia, or Sperlonga, in the south of Latium; then cast a glance at Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia (see picture above:)
They are almost identical, belonging to a very similar culture, whether we like it or not, because during the Middle Ages the winning model came from the South Mediterranean coasts, where civilization (and power) lay.
Needless to say, when a Roman – even more a Neapolitan (not to mention a Sicilian) – hears an Arabic melody he feels hidden strings vibrating in his soul.
Going further back in time let us conjure up the war to the death between Rome and Carthage immortal Tunisia, again) whose legendary origin – narrated by Virgil’s classical (and beautiful) poem Aeneid – sprang from Dido’s desperate love for Aeneas, our Trojan ancestor of Rome.
This Carthage’s queen, forsaken by the Trojan hero, stabbed herself after predicting eternal hate between Rome and Carthage.
So from love sprang hate; from hate tremendous war (thus says the legend): a moment of history – the historical, not legendary war, this time – that decided whether the Mediterranean was to be dominated by its North or its South shores.
The North (and Rome) won – by a hair’s breadth it’d be fair to say.
à La Goulette
I was in Tunisia for work and in La Goulette coffee houses – La Goulette is a picturesque district in Tunis, close to the harbour, where incidentally the beautiful Italian-Tunisian actress Claudia Cardinale was born – people still discuss the battles of Roman Scipio and of Carthaginian Hannibal, and they line up beans on tables thus drawing up troops of both armies in order to celebrate Hannibal’s brilliant victories over the Romans, still trying also to understand where Hannibal went wrong in the last fatal battle of Zama.
One of the guys I met there had worked with several Italian movie directors in the innumerable films the Italians shot in Tunisia.
I clearly felt they were all kind and warm to this Italian who showed interest in them. They were drinking beer so I asked them:
“Isn’t alcohol forbidden by the Koran?”.
One of them replied:
“Eh bien, nous on fait tout, mais en cachette”, “well, we do everything, though in secret”. And my mind went to Sicily, where secrecy, doing things en chachette, is typical and well ingrained.
Getting back to Egypt, let us consider Alexander the Great and his relationship with Egypt and the city of Alexandria, which he founded. And let us consider Cleopatra, descendant of one of Alexander’s generals, as well as her love affair with Julius Caesar, first, and with Mark Anthony, Caesar’s relative, later.
Caesar and Anthony, united by both kinship and their love for Egypt’s splendid civilization. Was Caesar’s love for Egypt sincere, or was it the result of mere political calculations? Hard to fathom, Caesar’s mind, but we are inclined to believe Anthony’s interest for Egypt was not only political.
The conflict between Anthony and Octavian was again a moment in history that decided whether the Mediterranean had to be dominated by its Northern or South-eastern shores, this time. Again Rome (and the North) won but later, after the fall of the Roman empire, the South and Near East took their revenge, with triumphant Islam and the survival of Greek Constantinople.
Mahfouz, as a conclusion
As a conclusion, the eternal Roman and Mediterranean soul vibrates when in contact with relatives to whom it is tied by both common history and traditions.
“Civilizations are not mortal. They survive transformations and catastrophes and when necessary rise up again from their ashes (…). Islam probably sprang from desert Arabia, crossed by caravans and with a long past behind, but it is above all a territory acquired by the conquest of Arabic horsemen and camel-drivers even too easily: Syria, Egypt, Iran, northern Africa. Islam is primarily a heir of the Near East, a whole series of cultures, economies and ancient sciences. Its heart lies in the narrow space that goes from Mecca to Cairo, Damask and Baghdad. (…)”
“A civilization is in fact not only a religion – however a religion may be at the centre of any cultural system. It is an art of living as well, i.e. the reproduction of thousands of behaviours. In ‘The Arabian Nights’ saluting a king means ‘kissing before him the earth amid his hands’. Well, it is a gesture already customary at the court of the Parthian king Khosrau (531-579 AD) – Braudel continues – and it is the same gesture that in 1500 and 1600 (and later) European ambassadors in Istanbul, in Ispahan or in Delhi tried to elude finding it extremely humiliating for themselves and for the princes they represented. [The ancient Greek Historian] Herodotus, [490-425 BC] was upset by some [Ancient] Egyptian manners: ‘In the middle of the road, as a salutation, they prostrate the one in front of the other, lowering their hands down to their knees.’ “
“Think about the traditional costumes of the Moslems whose evolution will be very slow [see picture above]. It is already recognizable – Braudel argues – in the dress of the ancient Babylonians, described by the same Herodotus [more than] twenty-five centuries ago: ‘The Babylonians first of all wear a flax tunic down to their feet (which we would today call gandura, notes E. F. Gautier), and on top of it another wool tunic (which we would call djellaba); then they wear a short white mantle (we would say: a short white burnus); and they cover their heads with a mitre (a fez, today, or tarbush).’ And we could continue talking of the houses (pre-Islamic), and of food and superstitions: the hand of Fatima, … it already adorned the Carthaginian funeral steles (see figure below).”
“Islam is evidently tied to the compact historical ground of the Near East.” (…) In short – Braudel concludes – any study of our present ways of thinking necessarily has to look at the endless past of the civilizations.”
(La Mediterranée, by Fernard Braudel, Flammarion 1985. Translation by Man of Roma. Square bracket text is by MoR)
A few days ago, when listening to Diana Haddad, an Arabic Lebanese pop singer, something echoed in my mind.
Before the war (started in 1974) Lebanon was called the Switzerland of the Middle-East. In the 50s Beirut was one of the financial capitals of the planet and the intellectual capital of the Arab world. It offered, among the rest, highest financial skills to the Saudi Arabians and a very convenient interface for Western firms towards the Arabs, rich in oil.
It also offered an Arabian Nights highly refined dolce vita attracting all kinds of VIPs, Hollywood and international actors, tycoons plus the most splendid ladies of the epoch. Beirut was a synonym of luxury, of all pleasures combined and of intelligent cosmopolitism. Three languages were (and are) there spoken: Arab, French and English.
Some dear Italian friends of mine studied in Beirut in their youth and are in fact fluent in these 3 languages. When we were children we heard all these magic tales from our parents and looked amazed at pictures in gossip magazines.
To the history-addicted all this flourishing is not surprising. Lebanon IS the land of the Phoenicians, highly refined merchants since Antiquity and ancestors of mighty Carthage.
Now that Beirut’s glamour is gone – the city has been partially rebuilt but its premier role seems to have moved to London, Dubai, Cyprus etc. – this place is still highly civilised though, since civilisations are not mortal I believe, and, just as an example, Lebanese pop music (and culture) is probably the most successful among today’s Arabic youth, being seen as ‘modern’ but of course a bit frowned upon by the traditionalists.
Here a song by the delighful Diana Haddad for you to listen.
Northern Mediterranean youth cannot but feel how similar these people are to us, and yet portions of this music and other details we feel are diverse. One can say that this diversity is provided by Islam. Yes but, I am asking myself, is Islam really so alien?
Well, yes and no. One moment we feel it is the Mediterranean (hence not so different from Southern Europe,) another moment it is Persia, Arabia, Baghdad, Pakistan, Northern India, Indonesia, West and East Asia in short, both very different from Europe.
This diversity is though exciting. Why should it scare us?
As we promised in an earlier post and its notes, this writing is the first of a series dedicated to Islam, seen as exotic and yet somewhat close to our Roman heart. We are not here to judge but to learn (and possibly communicate.)
The French historian Fernand Braudel argues in “La Mediterranée” (see note below):
“That Rome has deeply marked Europe it is evident, but nevertheless there is room for some amazing continuities. Is it by chance that, when Christianity breaks in two during the XVI century, the separation of the fields occurs exactly along the axis of the Rhine and the Danube, the double frontier of the Roman Empire?
And is it also by chance that the astonishing conquest of Islam was easily accepted by both the Near East and the two areas formerly dominated by Carthage, i.e. Northern Africa and a portion of Spain? [see map below]
We have said it before: the Phoenician world was more inclined, deep inside, to welcome the Islamic civilization than it was to assimilate the Roman law, for the reason that the Islamic civilization didn’t only represent a contribution, it represented a continuity as well.”