Man of Roma

Traduzione in italiano

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 (*).

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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.)

ψ

If not profundity of knowledge, he might though have an advantage (still to be proved) over many foreign commentators even born in one of the  ex-provinces of the ancient Roman Empire.

The plus of being a witness from right here.

The advantage of being a Man of Roma.

 

Roman Saturnalia. Frenzy, Banquets, Slaves and Gifts (2)

Temple of Saturn in Rome. Click for attribution and to enlarge

Saturnalian Days in Nero’s Time

Rome, 62 AD, December. Emperor Nero is ruling. The philosopher Seneca is writing a letter (num 18) to his friend Lucilius:

December est mensis
(It is the month of December)
cum maxime civitas sudat.
(when the city is in great sweat and hectic.)
Ius luxuriae publice datum est;
(The right to looseness has been officially given;)
ingenti apparatu sonant omnia […]
(everything resounds with mightily preparations  […])

The festival most loved by the peoples of the empire, the Saturnalia, has officially started. Excitement is growing everywhere.

The philosopher calmly sitting in his elegant tablinum is reflecting on what he and his friend should do, whether participate or not in the joy of the banquets.

Si te hic haberetur,
(If I had you here with me)
libenter tecum conferrem […]
(I should be glad to consult you […])
utrum nihil ex cotidiana consuetudine movendum,
(whether nothing in our daily routine should be changed,)
an, ne dissidere videremur cum publicis moribus,
(or, in order not to be out of sympathy with the ways of the public,)
et hilarius cenandum et exuendam togam
(in merrier fashion should we also dine and doff the toga)

What Is the Ritual like?

The official sacrifice held in the temple of Saturn at the Forum has probably ended. It is about to be followed by a banquet in that same place where participants will shout the auspicious salute: Io Saturnalia! (which reminds of our New Year toasts) and where things will soon turn into a heated, unruly feast.

Have a (faint?) idea of the ceremony in a ritual text written by a neo-pagan reconstructionist, Apollonius Sophistes.

Apollonius’ aim is that of performing the ceremony in real life.

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Mario: “Performing it today? Are these people nuts??”

Extropian: “Possibly, but trying to re-establish forms of paganism with bits of historical accuracy is far more intriguing than any Wiccan mish-mash. Not my cup of tea in any case.”

Detail from ‘The Roses of Heliogabalus’ by the Victorian Lawrence Alma Tadema (1836-1912). Click to zoom in and enter Tadema’s vision of Roman Antiquity

Banquets in Homes with Gifts

Euphoria is pervading the city. Banquets in private houses will be unruly too, as it happens every year. These private feasts need a last-minute touch to the elaborate dishes, cookies, gifts, arranging of candles (cerei) symbolising the rebirth of the sun, little puppets of paste (sigillaria), music & dance preparations there including a choice of poetic (and often scurrilous) songs.

Little texts, like our gift-tags, accompany the presents. The poet Martial who wrote a few of them in his Epigrams throws light on what is about to be exchanged:

“Writing tablets, dice, knuckle bones, money-boxes, combs, toothpicks, a hat, a hunting knife, an axe, various lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, a pig, a sausage, a parrot, tables, cups, spoons, items of clothing, statues, masks, books, and pets.” (list compiled by Wikipedia).

Slaves’ Licence, Dresses & Wishes

Slaves will be allowed (almost) any kind of licence. A Lord of Misrule impersonating jolly Saturn will be chosen in homes by lot and will direct the fun.

By the way, isn’t jolly Saturn a bit like Santa?

[The Lord of Misrule is a common figure in Medieval Britain with a similar role, and so is le Pape des Fous or des Sots in Medieval France]

The American historian Gordon J. Laing observes:

In ancient Rome slaves were “permitted to treat their masters as if they were their social equals. Frequently indeed masters and slaves changed places and the latter were waited on by the former […] A ‘king’ was chosen by lot, who would bid one of his ‘subjects’ dance, another sing, another carry a flute-girl on his back and so forth. In this play-king the Romans ridiculed royalty.”

The Assyrian Lucian of Samosata writes in his Saturnalia (a 2nd cent. AD satirical dialogue between Kronos-Saturn and his priest:)

“During my week [Kronos is speaking] the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside […] this festive season, when ’tis lawful to be drunken, and slaves have licence to revile their lords.”

As in our New Year’s eve it’s time to make wishes for the year to come. Kronos asks his priest about his:

Kronus: “Make up your own mind what to pray for […] Then, I will do my best not to disappoint you.”

Priest:
“No originality about it; the usual thing, please: wealth, plenty of gold, landed proprietorship, a train of slaves, gay soft raiment, silver, ivory, in fact everything that is worth anything. Best of Cronuses, give me some of these!”

Sansculottes, icon figure of the French revolution, wearing the liberty berets typical of ex slaves and worn during the Saturnalia to stress social equality

How will people be dressed? In a way to stress social equality.

Seneca mentioned the doffing off of the solemn toga. People in banquets will wear the synthesis, a simple dinner dress, and the pileus, the conical cap of the freedmen, a felt close-fitting beret similar to the phrygian cap which not for nothing will in later ages be adopted as a freedom icon during the French revolution (le bonnet rouge: see image above) and in the Americas.

[Further information on Saturnalia at Lacus Curtius’; in a sparkling article by Mary Beard; and in Wikipedia’s Saturnalia entry]

Mixed Feelings of the Intellectuals

In front of all this frenzy the stoic Seneca is inclined to choose a middle between extremes (and he incidentally mentions the caps too):

Si te bene novi,
(If I know you well,)
nec per omnia nos similes esse pilleatae turbae voluisses
(you would have wished that we should be neither like the liberty-capped throng in all ways,)
nec per omnia dissimiles;
(not in all ways dissimilar;)
licet enim sine luxuria agere festum diem
(one may in fact enjoy holiday without excess.)

It is understandable. The man in the street will generally behave differently from the intellectuals, often (but not always) annoyed and a little blasé about all the fuss.

During the December revels occurring at his mansion “the younger Pliny– writes Mary Beard – loftily takes himself off to the attic to get on with his work (he doesn’t want to put a dampener on the slaves’ fun – but, more to the point, he doesn’t want to be disturbed by their rowdiness.)”

Catullus at Lesbia’s by Laurence Alma Tadema (1836-1912). Click to enlarge

The poet Catullus loves Saturnalia instead (“the best of days”) and so does the poet Statius who at the end of the first century AD will exclaim:

“For how many years shall this festival abide! Never shall age destroy so holy a day! While the hills of Latium remain and father Tiber, while thy Rome stands and the Capitol thou hast restored to the world, it shall continue”

[Silvae, I.6.98ff]

And in fact Saturnalia and some of its spirit will somewhat survive as we have seen and will perhaps later further see.

ψ

See part 1 on Saturnalia:

Survivals of Roman Saturnalia in Christmas, New Year and Carnival? (1)

Survivals of Roman Saturnalia in Christmas, New Year and Carnival? (1)

Dafna asked me to write about the Roman Saturnalia, a festival in honour of Saturn.

“Inspired by Richard’s musing about Christmas – she said – I just discovered the term: ‘Beginning in the week leading up to the winter solstice and continuing for a full month, Saturnalia was a hedonistic time ….’ Sounds like fun.”

So here we are Dafna, although my mind is blurred by all this saturnalian revels, starting in Italy on Dec. 24 and ending with the Epiphany, Gen. 6.

Quite a long time isn’t it.

Ma poi ecco l’Epifania
che tutte le feste si porta via.

Saturn & the Golden Age

Saturn, the Roman god of seed and sowing, very ancient according to sources, had his temple built at the foot of the Capitoline hill. It housed a wooden (later ivory) statue of the god filled with oil, holding a scythe and whose feet bound with woollen threads were released only in the days of the Saturnalia – Dec. 17 onward.

The temple was rebuilt three times and today’s eight-column remnants (see the image below) represent what is left of its last remaking.

It is no coincidence, I believe, that the temple also housed what was most precious in Rome (coins, ingots etc.,) ie the city treasury or aerarium. Why?

Because to the Roman mind Saturn – who defeated by his son Jupiter had found refuge in Latium, on the Capitol – had brought to the Romans and Latins the mythical Golden Age (Aurea Aetas,) an era of bliss when men were equal, laws not necessary, spring eternal, earth spontaneously offering its blonde corn and rivers of milk and nectar marvellously flowing.

The temple of Saturn in the west end of the Roman Forum. Only the front portico with its 8 columns is now left standing. Click for attribution and to zoom in.

Words from the Past

Mario: “Wow, the Golden Age. Were men of solid gold too?”
MoR: “Possibly. Yes, if I well interpreted Lucian’s Saturnalia.”

Let us then listen to the arcane words of Ovid just to catch glimpses of it all (Metamorphoses, I, 89 & ff.)

aurea prima est aetas
(the Golden Age is first)
sponte sua sine lege fidem rectumque colebat
(which spontaneously, without laws, the true and the good nurtured)
nec supplex turba timebat iudicis ora suis, sed erant sine vindice tuti
(no crowd of suppliants fearing their judge’s face: they lived safely without protection)
mollia peragebant otia gentes
(in soft peace people spent their lives )
ver erat aeternum
(Spring was eternal)
per se dabat omnia tellus … fruges inarata ferebat
(by itself earth gave all … wheat, unmanured, bore)
flumina iam lactis, iam flumina nectaris ibant
(sometimes rivers of milk flowed, sometimes streams of nectar)


Re-enacting a Lawless Age

Now it is clear that the Saturnalia was a sort of re-enactment of such primordial, lawless age when men lived in equality and abundance of all.

During Saturnalia the rich gifts of the earth were celebrated with feasts and banquets where celebrators, heated with wine, were allowed to trans-gress unto higher (sometimes lower) states of mind which could include wild games, spirituality, esoteric acts, gambling, sexual promiscuity, exchange of gifts, and where slaves were given the broadest license which reminded the ancient rule of equality amongst men. Many similar ancient collective ceremonies (like the rites of Dionysus known in Rome as the Bacchanalia) were often referred to by the Greek term ὄργια or the Roman term orgia.

[Note that the old terms are only partially connected with the modern term ‘orgy’, if only for the fact that they had a religious character]

Unlike the cult of Saturn almost unknown outside Latium, Saturnalia became the most popular festival in every province of the empire relished by the people of any social condition until the triumph of Christianity.

The Christians couldn’t entirely abolish Saturnalia so they absorbed it into Christmas and this pagan festival survived also in other disguised forms as we shall see (in Italy, England, Germany, France etc.)

Let us try to better understand. A few aspects of Saturnalia may in fact sound weird to us modern people.

maschera_carnevale_venezia

Cycles and Rites of Passage

Saturnalia belonged to those rituals typical of the most ancient agricultural cultures all the over world.

Such cultures had a cyclic more than a linear view of time.

Universe, history repeated themselves in an eternal return to mythical ages in a way that the end of a cycle (light, sun, year, moon or season cycles) coincided with a new beginning; that dissolution coincided with regeneration; that chaos, lawlessness and transgression transmuted themselves into a new order where people felt renewed and ready to get back to norm.

These passages were celebrated in festivals where “such dissolution – Chiara O. Tommasi Moreschini argues – we notice in the overturning of social hierarchy and in sexual promiscuity, a way to achieve fertility; we notice it in Sacaea, a festival in Babylon or in Pontus in honour of the goddess Ishtar or Anaitis which included, among the rest, a king disguised as servant; in the Zagmuk celebrated in Mesopotamia at the beginning of the year and comprising both sexual license and a symbolic dethroning of the king; in the Kronia [in Athens and Attica, MoR] and in the Roman Saturnalia [Roman Saturn and Greek Kronos sort of merged] but also in women-only festivals like the Greek Thesmophoria [in honour of Demeter] or like the Bona Dea rituals in Rome [of which a description is in our Sex and the city (of Rome) 2] where women were offered a chance to indulge in some excess in their own way.”

Traces in Modern Minds

Now I believe this whole spiritual past (plus the evelasting effects of nature changes) left deep traces in today’s minds. We still feel this deeply emotional (and sometimes distressing) end-beginning of something during the Christmas / New Year festivities, like a seismic shift that takes hold of us a bit. And at the same time we feel the family sweetness and Christian religious vibrations.

Which brings us to Christ’s birth.

Leaf disc dedicated to Sol Invictus (Unconquerable Sun.) Silver, Roman artwork, 3rd century AD. From Pessinus, Asia Minor. British Museum. Click for attribution

Saturnalia, the Sun God & Christ’s Birth

Given the popularity of Saturnalia the founders of Christianity desiring to win the pagans to the new faith absorbed the Saturnalia into the celebrations of the birth of Christ.

Saturnalia started Dec. 17 and ended Dec. 25, day of the winter solstice according to the old Julian (Julius Caesar’s) calendar (12/21 according to ours, the Gregorian.)

Now, when was Christ born? No one knew exactly – although some biblical evidence suggests Spring.

It was Pope Julius I who in 350 CE chose Dec. 25 (winter solstice according to Caesar’s calendar.) Which proved a wise decision not only because of Saturnalia end date but also because in that same 12/25 the birth of Mithra / Sol Invictus, the sun god, had long been celebrated – the winter solstice being in fact the death-rebirth of the sun.

And, it must be said, the sun god in all his forms was very popular. Before it was gradually replaced by Christianity Sol Invictus was actually the official cult of the late Roman empire.


Extropian:
“According to Tom Harpur (The Pagan Christ) “few Christians today realize that in the 5th century CE [so 4 centuries after the birth of Christ!] pope Leo the Great had to tell Church members to stop worshipping the sun.” ”

Mario: “I read something in a forum: this “rumour that the Saturnalia generally degenerated into a big party with orgy and drinking … it’s ironic in that Christians use this day to celebrate the birth of their Saviour who came to save them from such sins.”

MoR: “Well, as I have said, we all feel – a Westerly universal feeling – like a strange conflict during these holidays: between holiness and fun, excess and good-will, religious /family feelings and pagan consumerism.”

MoR: “A conflict generated perhaps by that old compromise – eg the adaptation of Pagan rites to Christian rites – and absent probably at the times of the Saturnalia, when trans-gression and religion (trans-gression in the original sense of ‘going beyond’, from Latin trans + gradior) were not always separated as they are today. On the contrary, they at times coincided. τὰ ὄργια or orgiae, characteristic of mystery cults, were a supremely mystical & ethical experience, which is incomprehensible today, after almost two thousand years of Christianity.”

ψ

Read part 2:

Roman Saturnalia. Frenzy, Banquets, Slaves and Gifts (2)

How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly?

Japanese little girl. Click for attribution and to zoom in

In the previous post we have shown two little Japanese girls capable of perfectly playing some music of the classical period.

Which surprised me in many respects and made me reflect.

Germany, Vienna and Italy

First of all by ‘classical style’ we mean the music created from the mid 1700’s until the first decades of 1800 thanks to contributions from Germany (Southern Germany – Mannheim etc. –  but not only), Vienna and Italy, which changed the spirit & the technique of music into something inspired by the ideals of ancient classical art.

In other posts we’d mused about this magical region where many centuries earlier Roma and Germania met (and clashed,) ie the Roman provinces (Germania Superior, Raetia, Noricum and Pannonia) along the axis of what was once the limes germanicus or frontier of the ancient Roman Empire (look at this map!) that separated the world of Rome from the un-romanized Germanic (and non Germanic) tribes (read more: 1, 2, 3.)

It may be a simplification (and an obsession,) but that ‘classical music’ in its narrow sense (in the broad sense it refers to all Western art music since its beginnings) was much later to be born in such cultural crossroads – well, it didn’t happen in our opinion by mere chance.

[Roman & non Roman. Where are hence the traces of this duality in today’s societies? – we had asked ourselves]

Haydn. Portrait by Thomas Hardy. Wikipedia image

Now this ‘classical music’, that followed Baroque and developed before the spread of Romanticism, is characterized by formal balance, a certain restraint and a terse simplicity attained with extreme economy of means together with a very refined taste: which makes the performance of such art daunting despite its apparent easiness. Its model is in fact that of Hellenic art, although adapted to modern times (and to modern music, since we know so little of ancient music.)

This may be a reason why playing Mozart, Haydn or Boccherini and Clementi ‘well’, that is, with the necessary purity, is often more difficult than rendering subsequent and technically harder pieces of the Romantic and contemporary repertoire. I saw pianists who could easily play Brahms and Scriabin but sweated their way through the end of a Mozart adagio.

The Japanese and the Russians

Now, that these Japanese children, coming from a different planet, are able to do this extremely well – isn’t it amazing?

Classical balance and taste is nothing one can improvise. One needs to have breathed such air.

Take the Russians, such formidable musicians. Not completely European ok but closer to us than the Japanese for sure, they have traditionally always hesitated before the classical repertoire (and when they didn’t … the result was often not among the best.)

So, the Russians fail where the Japanese don’t – there must be something in those Eastern cultures I am not aware of.

Some readers have got any ideas?

ψ

In the meanwhile, as an Italian, I know the Japanese – a few I’ve met who study bel canto in Rome – love Italian opera quite a lot whose style always resisted the complexity of the romantic and late-romantic German harmonies and voicing (Verdi Bellini and Donizetti etc. on one hand, Wagner or Richard Strauss on the other hand: two different universes altogether! Roman & non Roman?)

Once more. What these oriental people may find in the Western ‘classical’ style of music?

Mario: “By the way, I heard that classical music makes hogs as fat as whales.”

MoR: “What?? Are you kidding me?”

Mario: “It is true! This Vietnamese pig farmer, Nguyen Chi Cong, found a new way to make his 3,000 hogs eat more quickly and happily by having them listen daily to the music of Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. It seems the soothing effect is also working for other domestic animals!”

MoR: *Rolling eyes*

ψ

Related posts:

Music, Politics and History

Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

See also the series dedicated to the notions of ‘classic’ & ‘classical’ (1, 2 and 3)

Tunis, the Port of La Goulette and a White-Bearded Old Taxi Driver

La Goulette, port of Tunis. Wikipedia image

We were here talking on how globalization also had the opposite effect, of reaction and rediscovery of cultural identities. Let me expand on this a bit with a few memories.

[This post has been originally written in Italian]

The White-Bearded Bon Père

I was working in Tunisia at the time the campaign for the second re-election of George W. Bush was about to start. I often wandered around Tunis with a taxi driver, this beautiful white-bearded old man I conversed with on many things, politics, culture etc. He greatly helped me to explore the city since he knew every alley, every aspect of it.

I almost always ate at La Goulette, the main port of Tunis (see an overview above) where many Italians emigrated between 1700-1800 before they even ever thought to leave for America.

An area of the port bears in fact the name of la Petite Sicile. There I enjoyed fresh fish that fishing boats carried almost to the waterfront restaurants.

Ah quel vie, quelle poésie, la francophonie sur la mer de Carthage, la cuisine locale, les vins, le délicieux poisson!

(My table-companions were Tunisian and Italian and we always spoke French. Unforgettable memories)

One of the roads leading to La Goulette. Tunis. Click for credits and to enlarge

One day, while the old man was driving me as usual to the port’s restaurants, I said to him:

“What if Bush had already captured Osama Bin Laden and pulled him like a rabbit out of his hat at the last minute so that his victory in the forthcoming elections would be devastating?”

“They are too intelligent to fall into traps like that,” the old man replied with shiny eyes.

Minaret of the Great Mosque in Tunis seen from an alley of the Medina. Click for credits and to enlarge

Such an answer, given like that, with dreamy eyes, from this dear and good old man whom everyone called le père for his wisdom and who strongly condemned terrorism, puzzled me. I dropped the subject (and perhaps I shouldn’t have.)

Well, I thought later, if this touches the heart of such a wise old man, it is not difficult to imagine what 9/11 may have meant for thousands of young people: a fire, a burst of renewed Muslim pride which swept them and drove them to follow the example (still partly does unfortunately) of the “heroes” of the Twin Towers who sacrificed themselves – for the sake of Allah, his prophet and the civilization they represent – in such an insane, ruthless but also immensely spectacular (to them) way.

Pride Refound and Terrorism

Until September 11 the Muslims had always been badly beaten – the war lost in only six days by their venerable Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, the West always trying to control their oil resources, Israel’s creation as guardian of the Middle-East and champion of the West etc.

At the time of the London bombings (7 July 2005) many had wondered how it was possible that almost adolescent, honest-faced youths had blown themselves up as suicide bombers thus killing dozens of helpless bystanders. Weren’t terrorists wicked, bloodthirsty killers?

Questions such as this show in my opinin a certain lack of understanding – of the human soul, of (fundamentalist) faith and of what the Islamic revolution meant to Muslims and especially to the Muslim youth, from the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini onward.

ψ

A strong but also humiliated culture, Islam, which resists globalization, but unfortunately when reacting with terrorism does the wrong thing totally, giving rise to distrust, hatred (and isolation) all around it.

Tunisians however (not only them) are good and moderate, friends of Italy and of the West. And a great number of them display self-critical attitudes:

Ouvrir les yeux sur soi et sur l’Occident suppose que le monde musulman cesse de se poser en perpétuelle victime. “C’est toujours la faute de l’autre, note Mohamed Charfi: le colonisateur, l’impérialisme, le système financier international, le FMI, la Banque mondiale. Quand amorcera-t-on l’autocritique qui permettra un diagnostic lucide de nos échecs ?”

ψ

Related posts:

Pain in the Heart

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 2

The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean

Is America Too Young to Maintain its Cultural Hegemony in the Long Run?

Sarah Palin. Click for credits and to enlarge

This is the end of a series on Antonio Gramsci. I am beginning here where I left in my previous post.

The title and the post are meant to provoke a bit, and I know I risk being considered a snobbish, or a chauvinist, European.

The United States – I was saying – exert today a cultural hegemony over the planet at a high and a popular level of culture [for the high level, suffice it the sheer excellence of their universities in the scientific, technological and humanities fields, not to mention the number of Nobel prizes attained by Americans]

One can speak of a new American Renaissance, with fantastic contributions offered to the world – the Internet, a great revolution, being just one of them.

Which affects both the American culture and those cultures exposed to American influence – basically ALL of them, at diverse degrees.

[By culture I mean both:

1) the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual and emotional features of a group (the Unesco definition);

2) the general knowledge, values etc. an individual can attain through education (linked to the Ancient concepts of Humanitas & Paideia.)

Also culture quality has to be considered. If I enjoy Shakespeare better than soap operas, I am not a snob, I am simply better educated and my mind is more powerful]

Gramsci, reflecting on the US soon after the 1929 depression, considered America culturally hegemonic already at his time (the 1930s) although to him such world-wide hegemony presented a few cracks for being, the US, too virgin and too young as a nation, with a melting pot of too many ‘cultures’ (see above the meaning 1 of the term.)

Now, following Gramsci’s reasoning – and considering his notions of ‘intellectuals’, ‘cultural hegemony’ and ‘national-popular’ culture (see our posts on Gramsci 1, 2 and 3)– we can ask ourselves:

In our rapidly changing world, with powerful civilisations about to re-surface, is America seductive enough at a world-wide scale [ie ‘culturally hegemonic’ world-wide]?

I’ll say my opinion right away: the cracks Gramsci was mentioning seem today particularly evident (at least to many Europeans) at a pop culture level [update: whatever the reasons for this.] A civilization doesn’t export its high culture only. It exports the sentiments of its whole people with its books (quality works and blockbusters), films, TV serials etc. and when its tourists, business people, soldiers & the men of the street wander about the planet.

[A Gramscian national-popular notion of culture is where the intellectuals – artists, writers etc. – express at a higher level the elementary sentiments of the common people who thus emotionally and intellectually participate. The examples he indicates of ‘national-popular’ may clarify this Gramscian crucial concept: the Elisabethan theatre, the Greek tragedy or the Italian opera.]

I mean, when Rome conquered Gaul, Romanization occurred deeply without any organized effort by the Romans. That is, the Roman ‘culture’ was felt as superior and seduced the Gauls who became the French – not only the culture of the ‘intellectuals’ (big politicians, generals, writers etc.) was seducing, but that of the merchants, of the soldiers, of the simple citizens as well.

Do you also think that American world-wide hegemony’s weak point is a low-level and too pervading pop culture (due to consumerism, to making money being what only matters nowadays etc.) and also the “erasure of any high-pop culture distinction”? [see Lichanos comment on this]

Trekkies at Baycon, 2003. Click for credits

Do you also think that, to quote Andreas Kluth, a ‘high culture’ perceived as snobbish only “is a tragedy” and that – I’d add – the tea parties, the Sarah Palins and US widespread anti-elitism will make America pay a price in the long run in terms, again, of world cultural hegemony?

Finally – be patient, I dislike Star Trek – what do the Indians, the Chinese, the Persians, the rest of the world population – often belonging to ancient civilizations – think of the thousands of Star Trek conventions and clubs that have spread all over the globe? Will it benefit America’s image?

Note. I had discussed ‘West and US Seduction’ with my commentators (among other themes) at the time of Culture, Kultur, Paideia and The Last Days of the Polymath. Those discussions were among the best in this blog in my opinion.

Here just a few ideas from those discussions.

As for culture (in the sense of individual general knowledge & refinement) Lichanos had lamented the erasure of a high-pop culture distinction in the USA. To him more than the ‘youth factor’ a role may be played by America being often “the first to represent trends that are going world-wide”, ie America is just ahead of Europe in mass-culture and consumerism, which explains why a superficial pop culture is so pervasive in the US.

To Andreas Kluth a ‘high culture’ perceived as ‘snobbish only’ is “a tragedy” and due to many factors among which a too widespread anti-elitism (“Sarah Palin and all the rest”).

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Other posts on Gramsci:

American Engineer, German Philosopher & French Politician: Gramsci’s Ideal Blend for the Modern Leonardo da Vinci
Seven Aspects of Antonio Gramsci’s Thought
America, the Greatest Collective Effort Ever existed”. Antonio Gramsci

Related posts:

Democracy, Liberty & the Necessity of a Solid Education of the People
Culture, Kultur, Paideia
The Last Days of the Polymath


The Day Paganism Yielded To Christianity. Has India Anything To Do With It?

I’m preparing 2 posts I hope will help readers to easily learn some ancient Greek and Latin but I need a few more days.

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.

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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]

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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.

Constantine's dream of a sign from the Christian God

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 a baby 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 hadthe 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??

Serapis, an Hellenistic-Egyptian god in Antiquity (since the III century BC)

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.

Mario: India??? Oh oh oh oh ….India AGAIN???

Extropian
[*getting more attentive*]

MoR: I’ll repeat it! The Greco-Romans had already encountered A LOT EARLIER that much wider oriental 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 the horrible end 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.

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Long pause. Pauses are important. The sun begins to shine through the clouds folds over the eternal city  … We drink strong coffee.

Ψ

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 troubling one 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 …”  🙂

Ψ

The silence in my study-room is now disturbed only by Mario che smadonna 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.

Indian crowds over the Ganges to purify themselves. Click for credits and to enlarge

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 sacred water. ‘Souls’ and ‘bodies’ separated but incessantly reuniting in a reincarnation cycle of life and death.

Ah what a marvellous introduction to what we are about to narrate!

Is Berlusconi’s Power About to Decline?

Berlusconi and Patrizia d'Addario. From the Italian daily newspaper La Repubblica

The whole world is chatting about the Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi’s lifestyle. The news are full of details regarding alleged wild parties in his luxurious residences (see below Villa Certosa in Sardinia.) According to these reports all sorts of women attended these festas, including alleged under-age girls and paid escorts (see above Patrizia D’Addario) attracted to a possible career in TV or in politics (see Wikipedia for details.)

Berlusconi, sometimes depicted as a decadent Roman emperor (Mary Beard in the UK Times compared him to Tiberius,) is seen by many as possessing in ways grotesque the flaws usually ascribed to Italians, a lack of sexual restraint and a loose morality, among the rest.

And in fact many Italians voting for him say they like his way of life and admire him for being rich, powerful and for the number of women in his court. This is the way I am – he said replying to journalists asking if he was planning on changing his lifestyle after the scandals – and I cannot change at my age. Italians want me like that and support me.

Berlusconi's pharaonic mansion in Sardinia: Villa Certosa. Click for credits

Other Italians however vote for him because they prefer the right-wing coalition program to a left deprived of ideas and of real leadership. The opinion of a right-wing Italian fellow blogger, Wind Rose hotel, is that being a conservative doesn’t necessarily mean to be a fan of Berlusconi. I’m sure these Italians would prefer a more prudent behaviour by our Prime Minister, although it is to be noted that Berlusconi’s success owes a lot to his frankness which makes him different from the average byzantine Italian politician.

Traditionally Italians care little about a politician’s private life, his private vices being easily forgiven whenever his political action is deemed effective (we have discussed Italian cynicism and some possible historical causes.)

Many Italians are though starting to get embarrassed, to say the least. The line between the private and public sphere seems blurred to them if it is true that women’s sexual favours were /are later rewarded with a political career in the Italian or the European parliament. Someone is talking of Berlusconi’s possible resignation.

“Mr Berlusconi’s court – writes the British Independent – has no soothsayers to warn him of the Ides of March, but the sudden emergence of hostile noises from the Catholic Church is the modern Italian equivalent of that – especially as the Catholic Church continues to hold immense sway over public opinion.”

We are going to see how far Italian cynical indifference will go. Personally I don’t think Berlusconi will resign easily, unless something unprecedented occurs. He is still very powerful, though weakened, and he controls much of the Italian media, plus a lot depends on whether he will succeed in keeping the Italian economy going.

Whether these scandals are doing any real damage to him or not, the uneasiness of the Catholic Church – whose realpolitik is hard put to it – should not be under evaluated, although an additional element has to be considered in my opinion.

Berlusconi and Putin. Click for creditsBerlusconi’s ambition of playing as a separate negotiator with Russia, Iran and the Middle East is irritating both the EU and the USA. An example is Berlusconi’s support of Russia’s South Stream gas pipeline, seen as a rival to the planned Nabucco pipeline backed by the USA and the EU. The South Stream (see image below) is in fact considered dangerous by them since it would extend Russia’s blackmail influence over Europe.

A good example of Berlusconi’s foreign politics. He is so proud of being a personal friend of Putin, although it remains to be seen whether this friendship (or any other independent move) will prove profitable in the long (or even short) run.

South Stream gas pipeline map. GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2. Click for credits
South Stream gas pipeline project map

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If you want to know more:

Sex and the City (of Rome) which regards Italian sexuality and links to posts on this matter.

“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”, on the possible roots of Italian cynicism.

See also:

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Traces of Paganism in Italians

Themes from Man of Roma

The Roman Forum. Click for credits and larger image

I’d love to know
How things got to be
How they are.

[Marilyn Monroe]

Ψ

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.

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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.

Neo-pagan stunning temples secretly carved out below ground in Northern Italy. Click for source file (Daily Mail)

The Greco-Roman Roots of the West
Similar to the ‘Influences of the Classical World’ but seen from a different viewpoint.

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.

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

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

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

Rape and death of Roman Lucretia

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

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

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

(Livy Book I. 57-60)

Ψ

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

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

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

Note to readers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montaigne adds a moving example:

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

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

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

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

The Weird Story of a Beautiful Girl Whose Body Was Found Incorrupt in a Coffin

The Appian Way, the Queen of the Roads. Click for credits and larger picture

Found In The Appian Way

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:

Marbe statue of a young Roman woman. Click for credits and larger size“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.”

Palazzo dei Conservatori with its new façade by Michelangelo

Jacob Burckhardt‘s (1818 – 1897) comment on the whole episode is remarkable:

“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

The School of Athens by Raphael, Rome, the Vatican. Click for credits

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.

Ψ

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.

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

References

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.

[See our two posts on the Grikos (1 & 2), South Italians descending from the Greeks of Magna Graecia and Byzantium]

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.

France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome

The Roman Empire at its peak. Rome, via dei Fori Imperiali

Rome’s legacy is greater than we think – “language, literature, legal codes, government, architecture, engineering, medicine, sports, arts, etc.” – and the Roman Empire has been a powerful myth in the course of the centuries.

After Rome’s fall in 476 CE, the Holy Roman Empire, thus called since 962 CE, started to develop in 800 CE when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne in Rome as ‘Emperor and Augustus of the Romans’.

Such Empire, Frankish, Germanic (and later Austrian, dissolved in 1806 only) considered itself as the heir of the “First Rome” (the Western Roman Empire,) while the Hellenized Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, was called the “Second Rome” and remained unconquered until 1453 CE.

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When also Byzantium (Constantinople) fell, even the Islamic conqueror Ottoman Mehmed II thought he was continuing the power (and idea) of Rome and tried to “re-unite the Empire” although his march towards Italy was stopped in 1480 CE by both the Papal and Neapolitan armies.

After the fall of the Second Rome someone began to refer to Moscow as the “Third Rome“, since the Russian Tsars felt they were the inheritors of the Byzantine Empire’s Orthodox Christian tradition.

[2014 update: allow us to remind that the sovereigns of the two great continental empires dissolved in WWI, the German and the Russian, both bore the name of Kaiser and Tsar, id est Caesar.

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So many heirs of Rome! Seems like a futile historical game.

It is not.

Let us see how other nations went on claiming the Roman heritage.

The Victorians, the Italians and the USA

Benito Mussolini. Wikimedia. Public Domain

The British Victorians, for example, who felt they were somewhat the spiritual successors of the Romans.

Or both the Italian patriots, who unified Italy, and later the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

They felt like the heirs of ancient Rome and the creators (again) of a “Third Rome”: after the capital of the Pagan world – they argued – and after the capital of Catholicism, Rome was now to become the capital of a totally New World.

A disproportionate idea, without a doubt.

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And the Americans? They also like today to find similarities between their might and the superpower of the ancient times (try to google America, new, Rome: you’ll get an interesting number of results.)

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We will though today talk about France (skipping Spain for the sake of brevity.)

Can’t France in fact lay claims as well?

The First French Empire

France inherited many elements from Rome, after the conquest of Gaul by Julius Caesar: language, food habits, behaviours, genes, technologies and a fundamental aestheticism, among the rest.

We have already mentioned the connection between Charlemagne and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire. Less obvious are similarities like that between the French Foreign legion and the Roman legions as for training, combat habits, management of terrain (construction of roads etc.) and so on.

Portrait of Louis XIV by Hyacinthe Rigaud. Wikimedia

Much more significant though is the state tradition of Rome which, according to some scholars, has been preserved in the French monarchic centralism and in the state national spirit of the French people.

The person who shaped this centralism (later continued by Napoleon) was probably Louis XIV (1638 –  1715, see image above,) one of the greatest kings ever. He was called the Sun King (le Roi Soleil) and was associated with Apollo Helios, the Greco-Roman god of the Sun. He also encouraged classicism in the arts and Voltaire compared him to the Roman Emperor Augustus.

Other great personages such as Napoleon Bonaparte (or even Charles de Gaulle, why not) bear the traces of the Roman heritage. Napoleon was inspired first by the Roman Republic. Roman-like, he became First Consul of the French Republic.

Then, after receiving the crown from Pope Pius VII (in Paris, this time) on December 2 1804, he became Emperor of the French people and encouraged a classicist Empire style in architecture, decorative arts, furniture and women’s dresses based on Ancient Hellenic attire (see below,) a style soon popular in most parts of Europe and its colonies.

Napoleon identified himself with Caesar, was continuously studying his works and succeeded in becoming one of the greatest generals ever, like Caesar and Alexander.

Empire silhouette Dresses. 1804. Metropolitan M. of Art. Fair use
Two dresses, ca. 1810. Courtesy of http://www.metmuseum.org

The French and the Italians.
Who Envies Who?

Antonio Gramsci, in Notebook IX of his Prison Notebooks, reflects on some words written by Victor Hugo (1802 – 1885) in Histoire d’un crime:

“Every man of heart has two fatherlands in this century: the Rome of the past and the Paris of today … This ancient fatherland – Gramsci argues – associated with the modern one supposes that France is the heir of Rome. Something that was said, and is especially said, today, to displease no small number of people.”

Well, something said to displease whom? Our philosopher probably referred mainly to the Britons and to the Italians.

Focusing on the Italians, one can wander and wonder with Gramsci whether a real francophilia ever existed in our country (Notebook XXVIII.)

France was always admired in Italy – Gramsci observes. France meant the French Revolution, the participation of a large share of the population to the political cultural and state life, it meant a decorous parliamentary activity and many other things that the young Italian state could not exhibit. The Italian francophiles have often concealed a strong dislike and a substantial envy.

I would add that some envy is also felt today by our French cousins when they behold our historical richness, the beauties of our towns etc.

This envy surfaces every time we do something better: with soccer, Ferrari, with the world-wide diffusion of our cuisine & fashion – and so forth.

But let us do ourselves a favour. Let us be honest.

If the French may envy us, we envy them more.

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

Related posts:

Stress and Joy. Conquest and Sorrow
Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When West / North Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)

Examples of Monodic and Polyphonic Music

Manuscript of the Musical Offering. Wikimedia. Public Domain

Ashish, the Geek Wrestler, once asked me for a sort of introduction to Western music. The reason I’m writing this is to save him from metal rock. But the topic is immense and greater than my knowledge, so I guess I can write brief notes on specific aspects, like this one.

One of the characteristics of Western music is polyphony, e.g. music made of melodies that travel independently throughout the composition though harmoniously combined with one another. This whole thing, of combining different melodies together, began in the Middle Ages, possibly by chance, and progressed in the subsequent centuries.

Western music can also be monodic, the opposite of polyphonic, whenever there is either just one melody (monophony) or when a melody prevails over other sounds that serve as mere accompaniment to the main star, the melody itself.

In this nocturne for piano solo by Frédéric Chopin (op. 27 no. 2) we have a cantabile melody, sometimes doubled and with ornaments, accompanied by arpeggios and bass sounds. It is evident here that the melody is the main protagonist, despite the surrounding notes and some voice layering here and there.

Let us first listen to the real thing (we chose Maurizio Pollini for his unromantic interpretation of this romantic work) and we’ll then listen to and view a computer graphical representation of the same work, which favours analysis.

In the computerized version below (by Stephen Malinowski) we notice that the double notes of the melody are not always parallel, which creates like a secondary voice. At the end of the piece there is some slight hint of polyphony. But on the whole this is not a polyphonic piece. Chopin is mainly monodic. Only at the end of his life he inserted some polyphony in his most mature works.

Let us now plunge into the great polyphony of Johann Sebastian Bach (Brandenburg Concerto No.4, iii, Presto.) This music – whose clockwork complexity I hope will not hopelessly bore an unaccustomed ear – is such hard stuff I prefer to propose a computerized version first (also by Stephen Malinowski.)

Different colours and timbers help to mentally separate the different voices. The exercise of following the voices separately is highly educating and can result in great pleasure. No easy thing at first though. I should have chosen a music with less voices (2 or 3 maximum,) but I couldn’t find a Midi music as satisfying as this one, although being able to identify 3 voices (hard already) or  just 2 can be all right at first. The representation is what one usually gets on a Midi sequencer, i.e. a computer software, such as Steinberg Cubase.

Now a version with real players (the performers being unknown to me).

The music of Bach here presented is a fugue (or fugato). In a fugue voices (parts) are not all equal. There is a subject or theme (like a main melody) that is repeated many times at different levels of pitch. It is good exercise as well trying to identify, among the bunch of voices, the subject of a fugue whenever it pops up here and there, which is pretty often.

The study and practice of “the relationship between two or more voices that are independent in contour and rhythm” is called counterpoint. It was highly developed during the Renaissance and was common practice later, during the Baroque period (Wikipedia).
Independent in contour and rhythm. Very important in polyphony. If played or sung separately, voices or melodies still make sense!

One last music by this great German composer: the Brandenburg Concerto No.3 – iii, Allegro, rich with tremendous energy and beauty.

Caesar, Great Man (and Don Juan)

Julius Caesar

Don Juanism

Why Casanova was Italian and Don Juan was Spanish? And this craze about Rudolph Valentino and this helluva Latin lover thing? Italians do it better?

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]

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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.

Irritating Behaviours

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.

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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.

[Sept 2013 update: examples of South Italian women’s provocative behaviour are provided by some characters depicted by Andrea Camilleri in inspector Montalbano‘s series of novels and TV series]

Another Side of Julius Caesar

Caesar's bronze statue (modern copy) in Rome, via dei Fori Imperiali

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]

Caesar's daughter Julia, wife to Pompey
Julia, Caesar’s daughter, became Pompey’s wife. Pompey was Caesar’s friend, ally, relative. Caesar nonetheless cuckolded him

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.)

He cuckolded and was made a cuckold. He made love to Tertulla, the wife of Crassus; to Lollia, the wife of Gabinus; to Posthumia, the wife of Servius Sulpicius; even to Murcia, the wife of Pompey, to whom he later gave his beloved daughter Julia as a wife.

He also had a life-long affair with Servilia, the sister of Cato the younger, his great enemy. Servilia was the mother of Marcus Brutus, one of Caesar’s murderers – and possibly Caesar’s son.

ψ

Ok, ok, ok.

(if these were the ways of the best man in Rome …)

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

[Note. All anecdotes regarding Caesar’s sex life are from Suetonius’ Caesar]

Related posts:

Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion
“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna (comments section)

Sex and the city (of Rome) 1
Sex and the city (of Rome) 2

Sex and the city (of Rome) 3
Sex and the city (of Rome) 4

About Caesar and France:

Stress and Joy. Conquest and Sorrow
France, Italy and the Legacy of Rome
Conquest Of Gaul. Debate On Julius Caesar’s Conduct, Motives, Achievements (2)

On Caesar opening a ‘New Frontier’ to the Mediterranean and shaping the future of the ‘West’:

Julius Caesar’s Conquest Of Gaul. When North-West Europe & The Mediterranean ‘Embraced’ (1)

“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”

Bathing Aphrodite and Eros. Hermitage, St Petersburg

The Roots of Cynicism

A comment by Maryann on the Roman Goddess Fortuna post had kicked off an interesting discussion.

Her grandmother from ApuliaMaryann 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 civilization together with Christianity (or nearly.) This couldn’t happen without consequences. It made us a bit more pagan, them a bit more Christian.”

At this point the Commentator (Exposrip) had popped up:

“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?”

ψ

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

Bathing Aphrodite. Hermitage

Which is no easy task, the Greco-Roman philosophers were divided into different schools, plus the Ancients behaved differently according to the different ages.

ψ

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 the thought 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

Vénus de l'Esquilin or Venus Esquilina
Esquiline Venus, in all her voluptuousness, found in 1874 on the Esquiline Hill in Rome (from the Horti Lamiani possibly). Capitoline Museums, Rome. Click for credits (Flickr)

Ok. So what’s the conclusion of all this?

The conclusion equals the beginning, ie we get back to where we started.

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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

Late Renaissance Villa d'Este, Tivoli. Rome

“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.)

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Truth is, our mind is like a museum, 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.

ψ

In some regions of our mind, it may be liked or disliked, we are still pagan at heart.

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

PS
The ideas in this and other posts cannot be considered as demonstrated, and need further research.

ψ

Notes.

Roman Renaissance fountan1) 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.

ψ

Related posts:

Pre-Christian Rome lives (where this movie by Fellini grotesquely unveils aspects of papal Rome’s pagan nature)
Survivals of the Roman Goddess Fortuna

Sex and the city (of Rome). A Conclusion
Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye
Knowing Thyself
Man of Roma
Constitutional Happiness
by Australia Felix
The Mafia and the Italian Mind

Is Homophobia in India an Alien Legacy of the Victorians?

Indian gay activists

[See 2009 and 2013 updates at the foot of this writing]

Why sex, one of the joys of life, – lived with some freedom in the Greco-Roman world or at the time of the Indian Gupta empire (just to name two civilizations considered somewhat classical) – became in later centuries something to be ashamed of? Was it in the West because of the switch from Paganism to Christianity? And in India, was it because of Muslim or British Victorian influence, or of both?

(We make known to minors that one picture following may offend their sentiments)

Since I have been musing on these questions in my series Sex and the city (of Rome) – thanks also to a good discussion with two Indians, Ashish and Falcon – I was struck recently by all the commotion regarding the Victorians & homophobia thing in many ex colonies of the British Empire, and especially in India.

We are also at a time when French President Nicolas Sarkozy has just proposed to the UN to decriminalize homosexual acts all over the world, and all 27 European nations have agreed. The Church of Rome is instead strongly against it. The topic seems hot.

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Same-sex love was accepted, it is well known, in Ancient Greece and it was sometimes a bit frowned upon in Rome but basically widely tolerated (Julius Caesar for example was probably bisexual: a future post on Caesar will also mention that. We also mentioned some possible female homosexuality in the secret rites of the Roman goddess Bona Dea).

As far as the ancient Indian civilizations I guess it was pretty much the same (see the image below at Khajuraho) although I need someone with more knowledge than I have.

Khajuraho Temple scene

Today India gay activists accuse “Britain of exporting homophobia during the 19th century when colonial administrators began enforcing Victorian laws and morals on their Indian subjects [the Independent].” Homophobia, they say, is something alien to the original Indian civilizations.

The organisation Human Rights Watch has recently published a 66-page report describing “how laws in over three dozen countries, from India to Uganda and from Nigeria to Papua New Guinea, derive from a single law on homosexual conduct that British colonial rulers imposed on India in 1860.”

Under accusation is the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” with imprisonment up to life. In short, it punishes same-sex love.

India’s Ministry of Home Affairs defends the Indian code:

“The law does not run separately from society …. Section 377 … responded to the values and mores of the time in the Indian society.”

2013
Indian Gay Rights protester. Courtesy of Aljazeera. Click for source file

“This is sheer amnesia” answers the Report:

“Section 377, at its origin, did not respond to Indian society or its “values or mores” at all. British colonial governors imposed it on India undemocratically. It reflected only “the British Judeo-Christian values of the time.”

A ruling is expected soon by the High Court in Delhi, following a “years-long case seeking to decriminalize homosexual conduct there.”

Nita, Indian blogger and journalist, observes:

“We are squarely to blame if even 61 years after independence we are incapable to seeing which law is reasonable and which one is not. The British have moved on, and have liberal laws on homosexuality today.”

ψ

Sex. Always a complex topic in any society.

I need a higher authority on what is happening in the sub continent and elsewhere. Any Indian (or non Indian) take?

Ψ

Readings. Here some of Nita’s recommendations on the subject:

Calling gays criminals and moral policing by the police
Our reactions to people who are different (Amit)
Transgender issues discussed on Tamil Television
Gay parents and heterosexual parents – any difference?

A post from this blog on the possible causes of sexual repression (Romans, Indians, Victorians):

Sex and the City (of Rome). 1

A very well balanced post by IssuesBeyondBorders:

Legacy of British Constitution in Independent India and Section 377

Emblem of India

2009 UPDATE. With an historic ruling the Indian High Court has decriminalized homosexuality on July 2 2009The Court has found that Section 377 was against the Indian tradition.

2003 UPDATE.  The Supreme Court of India has overturned the 2009 Indian High Court ruling that decriminalized homosexuality. Archaic anti sodomy ruling is back.


Us and the Hyperboreans. 3

We said there is a general attraction-repulsion among the people from North and South Europe. Let’s forget the repulsion thing now and let us instead focus on the undoubted attraction we feel for each other – as for our use of the term hyperborean pls read this note.

Beyond
the North Wind

The ancient Greeks dreamed about a mythical people living in a pagan Eden beyond Boreas, the north wind (hyper-Boreas = ‘beyond the north wind’). The Hyperboreans were imagined as perfect and almost god-like.

Thus Pindar in the V century BC:

Never the Muse is absent
from their ways: lyres clash and flutes cry
and everywhere maiden choruses whirling.
Neither disease nor bitter old age is mixed
in their sacred blood; far from labour and battle they live.

Such a bliss was though difficult to reach:

Never on land or by sea will you find
the marvellous road to the feast of the Hyperborea.

(Pindar, Tenth Pythian Ode, translation by Richmond Lattimore; quotes from Wikipedia)

So Hyperborea was like a feast. Hard to tell which real experiences fed the myth but we perceive like attraction vibes coming from the Mediterranean and addressed towards some mythical folk of the north-east.

At least 5 centuries later, the Roman historian Tacitus, in his book Germania about the Germans (full text here) – a group of tribes also coming from the North-East – noted in AD 98: “In every house the children grow up, thinly and meanly clad, to that bulk of body and limb which we behold with wonder.” Less myth here but concrete admiration for the Germans’ powerful bodies (and pristine virtues.)

Caesar himself had appreciation for the Germans, if utilizing them in battle is any indication. Ancient Rome was filled with northern slaves who, even though seen as savages, were admired for their aspect and many Roman ladies wore expensive wigs made from their blonde or red hair.

Not Angles, but Angels

That the Mediterranean people found these northern folks attractive is confirmed by a legendary event with some historical ground. If true, it occurred more than 500 years after Tacitus’ time.

As Beda Venerabilis wrote in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Gregory I, a great Pope from a noble Roman family, saw one day a group of children in a slave market of the Eternal City. They looked so beautiful to him that, getting curious and inquiring about them, he was told they were Angli (Angles).

He then so exclaimed with a pun: “Non Angli, sed Angeli”, “they are not Angles, but Angels” and added: “Well named, for they have angelic faces and ought to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.” Thus, according to Beda, he thought to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons to Christianity and sent Augustine of Canterbury to Britain for this purpose.

Ψ

Not much has changed since then. As regards contemporary Britons, Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Dutch and Germans (among the rest,) today’s Mediterranean people still see them as different in their bodies, skin, eyes, manners, and these differences are often seductive, beyond a doubt. Exactly as to Gregory, their children look such fair-skinned sweet angels to us. The women and the men we see as provided with a diverse beauty we generally find irresistible.

At 17 I was stunned watching the Irish girls dancing in the Dublin discos. The way they moved their bodies to the rhythm of music was so damn different from our girls’: a ‘lesser grace equals more grace’ type of thing, which almost knocked me out.

Churches as Factories for Marriage

A 45 years old American IT expert, italoamericano, confessed that the Italian and the Irish Americans who often gather in Catholic churches all over the States do feel this reciprocal attraction. “Churches are sometimes like factories for marriages. As far as us Italians– he confirmed – we cannot resist those fair and blue-eyed faces”. He had in fact married an Irish woman. Whether he met her in a church I’m not in a position to tell.

An attraction reciprocal. An American woman of German-English descent had lived in a small town close to Chicago. She said she gazed longingly at those Italians in the days when her catholic mother took her to the local church.

Ψ

Ok, basta. Since from serious this post has become gossipy (and voyeuristic) I will redeem myself in the next and last post dedicated to the Hyperboreans.

Hopefully we won’t just talk about the physical qualities we admire in them.

Note. I couldn’t find an appropriate picture with English or German children (for Gregory’s angels.) The image above refers to Swedish girls during Luciadagen (Saint Lucia’s day) on December 13th. It is moving how these “sun starved people” revere Lucia (or Lucy,) the Saint of light born in sunny Sicily (her name coming from the Latin word lux = light.)

During the darkest days of the year they pray Lucia to bring the sun back to them.

(“Lucy is one of the very few saints celebrated by the Lutheran Swedes, Finland-Swedes, Danes and Norwegians in celebrations that retain many indigenous Germanic pagan pre-Christian midwinter light festivals” – Wikipedia)

Ψ

Other related posts:
Us and the Hyperboreans. 1
Us and the Hyperboreans. 2

Buddhism, Science and the Dalai Lama

We talked in the previous post of a decline of the Roman Empire type of situation here in the West. Omitting economical and political aspects this time, we rather concentrated on some cultural aspects of today’s Western (America + Europe) decline which resemble a bit what was happening in the minds of the inhabitants of the Ancient Roman empire: new sects and religions gaining ground, void, ethical confusion etc. with, at the end, a winning new religion, Christianity, conquering the population’s hearts (with a little help from the Emperors) and soon becoming the official religion of the Empire.

(Needless to say, it is only for the sake of analysis that people usually separate economical, political, social and cultural phenomena. Actually they are tightly interrelated and belong to the same sphere: Man)

Let’s now zoom in on one of the non Western religions that are gaining ground, Buddhism. We will consider some of the reasons why this belief, compared with the Abrahamic religions, could be more endowed to confront with modern science, which might further favour its penetration (at the top of the page, a Buddhist temple at Fréjus, France; above, the current Dalai Lama).

In some books the current 14th Dalai Lama reveals his position on science and on the relationship between scientific rationality and religious irrationality. “If scientific analysis conclusively showed that certain beliefs of Buddhism are false – argues the Dalai Lama – it would be necessary to accept those scientific discoveries and abandon those beliefs.” Wow, what a big difference, we should be honest to admit, vis-à-vis the presumptions of infallibility asserted by our Catholic religion …

Buddhism seems better equipped in its approach to science since, as the Dalai Lama says, “it grants maximum authority to experience, secondly to reason and only lastly to scriptures” while the Religions of the revealed Books (the Abrahamic religions) seem to consider these elements in a reversed order.

Additionally the encounter between Science and Buddhism seems also favoured by a fundamental disposition common to both: they do not believe in God or even in a soul, since Buddhism prefers to concentrate, among other things, on conscience. Buddhism and science “share a fundamental reluctance to postulate a transcendent Being as origin of all things.” Basically it is the denial of any metaphysics.

A Rescue Guide in Times of Crisis

In general I believe this simple thing: science provides a lot of answers but still voids are left (what is the meaning of life? How do we choose between right and wrong? Are there any absolute values? etc.) that might progressively be filled up, although so far they are not, thus leaving those who rely on science only with questions unanswered and inner tranquillity precarious. Humanities are able in fact to make up for further answers (philosophy) and for reconciling our soul through beauty (art).

(The problem is complex and it is discussed in the debate regarding the two cultures – the sciences and the humanities – and regarding the so-called third culture)

As far as we are concerned, in fact, novels, poems, music, paintings, philosophy, all humanistic culture, in conclusion, can somehow fill these voids. And religion? Of course religion can fill these voids too, but, although we have a lot of respect for those who have a faith, we are not religious (agnostic, not atheist), our position being that of the Roman philosopher and poet Lucretius. So we are not disposed to easily believe in revealed things or tales – hope we do not hurt anyone’s feelings – which were satisfying for men living thousands of years ago but, frankly, not as much for today’s man.

Buddhism, being a philosophy and religion without a God seems more modern (even though some aspects of Mahayana Buddhism, for example, consider the Buddha as a God). Buddhism does not force us to believe in dreams in order to find a ubi consistam, namely a guide, a point of reference.

The truth is we are not even Buddhist. We have no parachute. But we like it this way.

References

Official Dalai Lama Web Site.

The Universe in a Single Atom
The Convergence of Science and Spirituality – by H.H. the Dalai Lama, Morgan Road Books, New York, 2005.

Mind Science
– An East – West Dialogue – by H.H. the Dalai Lama with Herbert Benson, Robert A. Thurman, Howard E. Gardner, Daniel Goleman, Wisdom Publications, USA, 1991.

See also www.mindandlife.org for reports on various confrontations between the Dalai Lama and various scientists.

Western Values, Again (2)

Relativism, Yes

The commentator thus commented my first comment to Rob’s post, saying: “Was the above (specifically regarding our values versus terrorists) a defence of moral equivalism?”. Well – apart from endorsing Islamic terrorism, which of course I don’t – if being a relativist means (as I think it means) not believing in absolute truths valid forever and outside any historical and social context, yes, I am a convinced relativist. Also democracy to me is relative (I can see many readers jumping up in their chairs).

Separation of state and religion, ok, I like it a lot, but this is not enough to proclaim our superiority over other civilizations (such as the Islamic) plus why should secularism be an absolute truth? As regards democracy, it doesn’t seem in my view the ideal solution for some people, plus it is not granted, as many analysts now start to recognize, that economical growth automatically will lead to more democracy. The case of Russia and China is often indicated as instructive from this point of view. And I believe it really is.

This reminds me when all the world applauded (me included) when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev started to swiftly democratize the Soviet Union. At the same time all the world protested (me included) when the Chinese students asking for more democracy (hence imitating the Russians) were crushed by the military in the Tien An Men Square in 1989 (watch above a famous movie regarding that tragic episode).

But then, what the heck has happened? Who the heck was right? The Russians (who accelerated democracy) or the Chinese (who hindered it because they thought it would tear down a country of 1.5 billion people)? I have lived almost one year in Russia (in the year 2000) and I have witnessed the almost TOTAL collapse of a society and all the terrible consequences that ensued (this country now pulling itself together thanks btw to its new Caesar, or Tzar, Mr. Putin: can this be by mere chance?).

I know Anglo-Saxons are very sensitive about this democracy thing. They use it as a propaganda weapon, not many doubts about it, but there is something deeper. If democracy was invented by the ancient Greeks, only the British and the American people in modern times were capable of creating truly great democracies (plus, isn’t the Indian democracy – the biggest in the world – somewhat derived from Great Britain as well? I hope Falcon won’t be upset 😉 ).

We admire the Anglo-Saxons for what they have achieved, for this great contribution and influence in all this. But if they do not really try hard to understand the rest of the world, especially those very old civilizations so different from theirs (and ours), and if they do not get out of their mental schemes, I am afraid their decline (and ours, unfortunately) will be swifter than expected. They (especially the Americans) cannot expect they can export their political solutions (that took so many centuries to develop, from Magna Charta on) to totally different historical and social environments (like Iraq or Afghanistan) which might embrace these solutions in the long run, who knows, although it is not granted at all, I am sure it is not granted at all, not many doubts about it. In any case, I am for democracy, that’s for sure. I just wanted to add some elements of reflection.

The Ugliest of Tyrannies

I know almost nothing about Professor Norman Geras’ thought but in your quotations, Rob, he condemns the:

“apologists for terrorism, the mumblers and rootcausers, the people seemingly capable of understanding everything except the need for drawing a clear line between those who uphold the politics of democracy and those dedicated to their destruction. The left today …is a loose movement which is able … to mobilize … to oppose conflicts fought by the Western democracies against the ugliest of tyrannies and/or reactionary social and political forces…”.

Well, first of all I do not consider myself belonging to the left any more, hence many things he says here and elsewhere do not regard me much; secondly, I see in his words some hypocrisy, sorry to say that, exactly like in Tony Blair’s words (but I may be wrong and I’ll try to read more of his writings).

The thing is I am not blaming America for being a superpower and for fighting (sometimes badly, I’ll admit) for her interests. I love and admire America. And I believe she is a true democracy. But – as I said – I also believe that empires and powers (such as the Romans, the Turkish Ottomans, the Victorians, the USA etc.), are not ruled mainly by idealism or ethics; they are rather ruled most of all by Realpolitik, namely by practical considerations regarding their interests.

So, according to Norm, as you call him, am I an apologist of terrorism if I say that a democracy like America now says she fights against “the ugliest of tyrannies” (it is still to be proven for which reasons) while, at the times of Henry Kissinger, she fought for “the ugliest of tyrannies” (Greek colonels, ruthless dictators all over South America etc.)?
My opinion is that this passage by Norm is a bit abstract and apologetic, not to mention a few apparent doses of historical amnesia.

All the best,

Man of Roma

Western Values, Again (1)

This post originates from a debate I had with Falcon, Ashish and especially Rob and regarding: values, the West, the Islamic extremists etc. First Rob replied to a comment of mine saying I raised too many issues so it’d be too arduous to fully accept the challenge. But the same I can say of his post (an even more complex reply to my comment lol), so I’ll just consider some topics mentioned by him (plus Ashish’s and Falcon’s remarks) and will talk freely without too much organization, being a bit tired after a long work trip (and hoping I won’t say too many silly things lol).

Is Decadence Advancing (or Just Old Age)?

Western leaders are talking so much about values. But where is the line between what they really feel and political propaganda? I am referring to the Tony Blair’s speech quoted by Rob but this of course is not only true of Western leaders. This is also true of almost any leader. Although on the whole I see some decadence advancing in our part of the world, which might correspond to the natural cycle of civilizations, more or less like what happened to the civilization of ancient Rome. I mean, Western leaders can try to propose their societies (and their values) as models, but what are the real ideas we are exporting around the world?

Just an example taken from today’s entertainment field. At least two movie industries are now flooding the world with their films: Hollywood and Bollywood, the former selling all over the world, the latter selling all over Asia (Muslim countries included) but now starting to be appreciated outside Asia as well. I may be wrong but Bollywood moviegoers seem to entertain themselves in a much healthier way, while American movies (not to mention US video games) are now so painted with blood, stupidities and disgusting violence (apart from some technological perfection which in any case is not much influential over the quality of content) that the final educational result on the public tends in my view towards new forms of barbarism (see above a view of the Hollywood boulevard: source).

Blind Hatred plus Moral Disgust?

I abhor the Islamic fascists, as you call them, Rob. And I am not neutral. Quite the contrary. These repugnant people have made the world much worse than it was before, in my opinion. But if we do not understand that many of them are also motivated by some sort of moral disgust towards some ways of the West, we miss an important point.

Take Bali, Indonesia. The islamofascists hit Kuta twice in 2002 and 2005 with some bombs and killed hundreds of people, mostly Westerners. I have been to Bali a few times and I believe it is not by chance they hit the Kuta beach area so much.

Bali is the only Hindu island in a country, Indonesia, mostly Muslim. This was symbolic to them, not many doubts about it, but I think a main point was also they hit right a place in Bali (Kuta) where the Westerners most succeeded in totally corrupting the local people who are now selling themselves in various ways for money, while in other parts of this great island the Balinese retain their unbelievable dignity and their incredibly refined cultural values, yes, so refined that even peasants look like princes (look above at the pure beauty of these two Balinese dancers: source).

Although by this I do not mean the West has no values, and the non-West has. And we are not the only ones to use values as ideological weapons, as I said before. Ashish, this young Indian blogger, puts it very synthetically: “Religion [and any idealism, I think he means, MoR] is merely the vehicle, the true goal is world supremacy. Does the west prevail over the east or is it otherwise? … The bosses only care about the profits [oil for the west, power for the clerics], be it the West or the Middle East. Religion is merely a way to get yourself an army, because nobody fights as ruthlessly as a fanatic!” Very well said indeed.

A comment from another Indian blogger also in his twenties, Falcon, who writes: “Let’s face it, a large no. of Islam followers have their rationality almost blinkered by faith. They may be very humble and polite and would gladly discuss religion and point out its greatness and fallacies but try touching Islam and they get defensive.”

Well, it is true, also some Mulsim students of mine behaved like that. But I remember things were a bit different before September 11. What I believe is that, especially the new Muslim generation is living like a generational wave. That terrible, unbelievable terrorist attack (nothing cannot be compared to it) has unfortunately fascinated too many young minds. Sept 11 is not the only factor, but the development of things in Turkey (once the most secularized Muslim Nation) is very instructive in my view. How long will this woeful wave last? Hard to say. It will none the less pass away, I am sure of it (or is it my hope and ideals blinkering me now?).

Left & Right

You quote intellectuals from the left, Rob, thinking it can make some difference to me. It doesn’t. The left is only my origin and I do not belong to any faction any more. It is a complicated topic not to be discussed here, but I try to reason with my mind only, not caring where good (to me) ideas come from and in my view what really counts has very little to do with this dichotomy.

For example, words such as reactionary elements do not mean anything to me. And they do not mean anything to the new generations. Listen again to Falcon commenting this post of mine: “Could somebody explain to me what exactly reaction mean? What was the action we did that we are facing a reaction?”. He then continues, going maybe towards some sort of relativism: “As long as there will be a feeling, that one set of ideals and values are better than the others there is bound to be a struggle for supremacy. Islam can teach us a lot things, just like any other religion. The only question is: are we ready to learn?”

Man of Roma

(to be continued)