Friday, December 23, 2005

Renaissance Conflict!

In Florence, during that time period which we call the "Renaissance", lived the famous speaker Savonarola (born 1452). He gained his fame as a Christian critic of the popular arts and entertainment, and began a movement to reform society. Savonarola wanted to reduce the problems of alcohol abuse, the sexual exploitation of women, and a general attitude of people wanting to simply be entertained, instead of being productive and constructive and seeking intellectual challenges.

But Savonarola's good intentions went bad. At some point, he slipped away from his original Christian viewpoint, and instead merely claimed to be a Christian, while in fact actually seeking to control the lives of those around them, by trying to make them conform to his arbitrary standards. Instead of inspiring people with a hopeful message, he began to simply place a series of legalistic demands upon them.

What did the good, enlightened Renaissance people of Florence do to Savonarola? They simultaneously burnt and hanged him!

So, nobody really ends up looking very good in the this situation: Savonarola abandoned his attempt to help people and sought instead merely to control them. In return, the so-called "Renaissance" people, known for their "intellectual curiousity", decided to burn him at the stake. So much for the Renaissance!

Thursday, December 22, 2005

An Emperor By Any Other Name

You've heard of "Charlemagne", and you've heard him mentioned as "Charles the Great" and even "Carolus Magnus" in Latin. These names are, obviously, all equivalent, but he would have answered to none of them. He was a Frank, and spoke Frankish until the day of his death. (His biographer and close friend, Einhard, says that Charlemagne investigated learning Latin, but decided not to do it.) He hired diplomats to speak in Latin for him.

His name, in the only language he ever knew, was simply "Karl". The Frankish language is a dialect of German, and a modern version of it is still spoken in the homeland of the Franks. This region, Frankenland (or "Franconia" in English), constitutes the northern half of the modern province of Bavaria. As his reputation grew, he became known as "Karl der Grosse" (properly "Karl der Große"), meaning "Karl the Great".

His people, the Franks, left their name on city of Frankfurt, which means literally "the ford of the Franks", because that is where the Franks crossed the river during the era which we call the "migration of peoples" (historians call this the "Völkerwanderung"). There are actually three towns named "Frankfurt", separated by several hundred miles. By these town names, one can re-trace the route of the Franks during the Völkerwanderung. Even Michigan has its Frankenmuth. The nation of France also bears the name of this Germanic tribe - a bit of irony!

Could it be that he became known as "Charlemagne" or "Charles the Great" because French-speaking and English-speaking historians didn't want to admit that the first and most powerful central European empire was formed and ruled by a German?

Wednesday, December 21, 2005


So why do they call him Constantine "the Great"? Well, he did manage to unify a Roman Empire that was threatening to politically disintegrate; he moved the capitol from Rome to Constantinople (a/k/a Byzantium); he triggered an artistic creative spree of buildings and sculptures and mosiacs; and, perhaps most significantly, he legalized Christianity - taking this belief system from an illegal activity punishable by death or imprisonment to an accepted, and even admired, status within the empire.

Interestingly, Constantine did not illegalize the other belief systems in the empire - those versions of polytheistic paganism which had been responsible for executing hundreds of thousands of Christians. Rather, he showed them a type of tolerance which they had never shown to the Christians. Constantine thereby demonstrated what the Romans could expect from their first Christian emperor. Given a chance to exact blood revenge from his former persecutors, he chose not to do so. It is this voluntary surrender of power, the decision not to oppress, which would characterize a new era. Perhaps this is what makes him great.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Julius Caesar - Hero or Jerk?

The guy who almost was the first Roman emperor was amazingly popular - yeah, that's right, Julius Caesar never actually was emperor, but he almost was, and he was really quite well-liked by the average Roman citizen, at least for most of his career. Toward the end of his life, his popularity went down a little, because some folks suspected that his loyalties might be split between Rome and Egypt - or, more accurately, between Rome and Cleopatra, who ruled Egypt. But, anyway, he was well-liked by most of the people most of the time.

He worked to keep his popular status by handing out citizenships to some of the residents of the territories which had been added to the empire - they didn't resent being conquered so much, if they could get some benefit out of it. And he made sure that the average Roman citizen had access to the minutes of the meetings of the Senate.

But this popular guy also had his dark side. In the course of conquering Gaul, he boasted that he killed a million people, and sold another million into slavery. Now, these numbers might not be exact - it could be a little more, or a little less. But the bottom line is this: to kill anywhere near that many people, we're not talking about soldiers falling in battle. We're talking about genocide. We're talking about killing children, women, cripples, and old folks. We're talking about burning entire villages to the ground.

So maybe Julius Caesar wasn't such a nice guy, after all.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Cuturally Schizophrenic

Between 50 A.D. and 800 A.D., the Christian faith spread through Europe. The continent had previously been dominated by various systems of polytheistic paganism. The new faith did not immediately erase all traces of the earlier belief system. On the contrary, we can see "split personality" in European culture.

Consider Beowulf: this story reflects much of the blood-thirstiness and lack of regard for human lift which was the culture of Norse mythology - yet, at the same time, traces of the Christian virtues of humility and helping other humans are found. So the characters evince simultaneously desires for blood-revenge and a selfless altruism: a truly mixed lot!

Likewise, the ideology of "courtly love" (which may be only a literary idea, and never carried out in real life) contains both traces of Christian pacifistic concepts, and traces of the pagan "warrior-cult" mentality.

The German folktale known as the "Nibelungenlied" was re-written in the 1200's to include references to Christian concepts of self-sacrifice to aid others, yet its main plot is one of pagan revenge and power-seeking.

When reading European literature, it is necessary to unravel the tangled strands of paganism and Christianity which mingled to yield characters who act in seemingly inconsistent ways: these individuals seem, at one moment, to be vicious polytheists - at the next moment, they appear to have the Christian ideal of respect for human life.

The Punic Wars

Rome experienced three wars with Carthage between 264 B.C. and 146 B.C.; they are called the "Punic" Wars because the early founders of Carthage were from Phoenicia. These wars would essentially determine whether Rome or Carthage would be the dominate geo-political power in the Mediterranean area.

In the first Punic War, Rome, led in part by a military hero named Regulus, won Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica.

In the second Punic war, Hamilcar, a Carthiginian leader, consolidated Spain under Carthage's rule. His son, Hannibal, attacked a Roman outpost in Spain, and then marched with elephants over both the Pyrenees and the Alps, and came close to the city of Rome itself. In panic, the citizens of Rome conducted human sacrifices to convince their idols to defend them. Hannibal did not take the city, due in part to a tactically disastrous hesitation on his part, and in part to the fact that the supply lines which were to bring him more troops and equipment were cut by the Romans. The Roman officer Scipio Africanus the Elder captured Spain, and then began to invade northern Africa. Hannibal abandoned his campaign in Italy and went south to defend the Carthage itself. By the end of this war, Carthage was stripped of its various territories, and reduced to a small area around the city of Carthage itself. It was forced to pay tribute to Rome.

The Roman politician Cato the Elder incited Scipio Africanus the Younger to attack Carthage in the third Punic War. Carthage was completely destroyed by the dominating Roman military.

These wars left Rome as the clear master of the Mediterranean region; world history would be very different had Carthage won these wars: your computer would have a font called "Times New Carthaginian", and you would use "Carthaginian numerals".

Monday, December 05, 2005

Is Marcus Aurelius Important?

Marcus Aurelius wrote a book which remains a best-seller over a thousand years later; in 2003 and 2004, several thousand copies were sold. So is this guy important?

Well, that depends. In the context of Roman history, he is remembered as one of the "good" emperors; he held the empire together when various social and political forces - not to mentioned the enemy's armies - were trying to pull it apart. He did not engage in the extreme vices of the "bad" emperors: he did not enjoy human torture as a form of entertainment, organize sadistic orgies, etc. But his career is also located in the era of the final and gradual decline of empire. Rome was past its prime, and Aurelius was simply doing the best job he could to manage the empire. His son would prove to be hopelessly wicked and corrupt, causing further imperial decline. In the big picture of 500 years of imperial history, Aurelius was probably no more, and no less, important that dozens of other emperors whose names we find only in small print in seldom-read books. Historically, we might be tempted to say that he is not that important.

Philosophically, on the other hand, his little book seems to have interested thousands of readers over the years - readers who may have little or no interest in the history of the Roman Empire. Philosophically, Aurelius has sparked thoughts in countless minds, and may be responsible for the fact that Stoicism is still viewed as an important philsophical system.

So is Marcus Aurelius important? Well, the answer may be that he is historically unimportant, but philsophically important.