Archive for the ‘Culture’ Category


A ramble on Latin scholarship

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Roman Fathers

We have certain ideas about Roman fathers, but those ideas are undoubtedly wrong, based on misunderstood bits of legendary history and legal codes.

Photo by Mary Harrsch (via flickr)

Photo by Mary Harrsch (via flickr)

We all know about the patria potestas, and the right of life and death over one’s children. We know about the degraded role of women in society. And while Roman society had its flaws, we tend to ignore that Romans were as human as we are and capable of the same affections.

Terence has a few words that speak directly to fathers as we conceive of them. Were they tyrants?

hoc patriumst, potius consuefacere filium
sua sponte recte facere quam alieno metu:
hoc pater ac dominus interest. …

(P. Terentius Afer, Adelphoe, I. 1. 74–6)

“This is fatherly, accustoming a son to do right of his own accord rather than from fear of another: in this respect do a father and a master differ.”

Fathers, in the ideal at least, should be gentle, honest men, somewhat indulgent, and not at all like the popular misconception.

If you want more and better examples and a very nice argument for our misunderstanding of Roman fathers, I recommend Christopher Francese’s Ancient Rome in So Many Words, which you can get for free (at the moment at least) in the Kindle edition. (You don’t need a Kindle—you can get the Kindle App for your PC, Mac, smartphone, or whatever.)


The Roman filibuster

While exploring the teachers’ site for Ecce Romani I came across a brief presentation comparing the Roman and American senates, which included a very dubious claim:

The use of italics suggests that 'filibuster' is a Latin word.

Senators often stalled a vote using a tactic called the filibuster, in which senators made lengthy speeches to delay legislative action. The filibuster is still used by members of the United States Senate.

Now, it isn’t the notion that Roman senators did such a thing, but the suggestion that they did something called a ‘filibuster.’ I knew, of course, that the Romans had no such word (and you can easily find the etymology of this relatively modern term if you’re interested), but the use of italics (not to mention the wording) suggests that filibuster is a Latin word. Wikipedia and other sources talk in similar terms and leave the same impression, even if no explicit claim is made.

There was no single word for such an act, but there were phrases which Cicero has left to us in several places throughout his speeches and letters:

diem consumere
‘to waste the day’
diem dicendo eximere
‘to take away the day through speaking’
noctem postulare
‘to ask for a night’

The first two are synonymous and correspond to the filibuster, but the third is considered a polite alternative. Imagine a respected senator informing the house that, in his opinion, ‘we should sleep on this.’ If his influence were great enough, the issue might not be raised again.


Bertrand Russell: ‘On Astrologers’

Here is a bit on nonsense through the ages, applicable to education, world politics, and the spread of irrationalism in such movements as homeopathy, anti-vaccination hysteria, and–still today–astrology.

There is always something pathetic about a great and ancient tradition which has fallen on evil days. The astrologer, as one pictures him in the past, is an aged sage with a long white beard, speaking in a slow and trance-like manner, and felt by his auditors and himself to be possessed of mystical lore. In his most glorious days, he controlled the destiny of nations: among the Chaldeans, he stood to the King in the same relation as the Governor of the Bank of England now stands to the Prime Minister. In ancient Rome he was reverenced, except by a few rationalistic Emperors, who banished from the City all ‘‘mathematicians’’, as they were called. The Arabs consulted them on all important occasions; the wisest men of the Renaissance believed in them, and Kepler, the great astronomer, had to become an astrologer in order to win respect and a livelihood.

Astrologers still exist; it has been my good fortune to know several. But how different they are from the magnificent beings of former times! They are, so far as I have come across them, hard-working and highly meritorious business men or women, with an aged mother or an invalid husband to support. They follow by rule of thumb the ancient formulae about the House of Life and planets in the ascendant and the rest of it, but their language is sadly modernised, and their horoscopes, instead of being inscribed cabalistically upon parchment, are neatly typed upon the best quarto typing paper. In this, they commit an error of judgement which makes it difficult to have faith in their power of deciphering the future in the stars.

Do they believe themselves in the sciences that they profess? This is a difficult question. Everything marvellous is believed by some people, and it is not improbable that professional astrologers are of this type. And even if they are aware that their own performances are largely guesswork and inferences from information obtained otherwise, they probably think that there are superior practitioners who never resort to these inferior methods. There was once a worthy man who made a vast fortune by professing to have discovered how to make gold out of sea water. He decamped to South America before it was too late and prepared to live happily ever after. Unfortunately another man professed to have made the same discovery; our friend believed in him, invested all his money in the new process, and lost every penny. This incident shows that people are often less dishonest than they might be thought to be, and probably professional astrologers are in the main honourably convinced of the truth of their doctrines.

That this should be possible is creditable to them but very discreditable to our educational system. In schools and universities information of all sorts is ladled out, but no one is taught to reason, or to consider what is evidence for what. To any person with even the vaguest idea of the nature of scientific evidence, such beliefs as those of astrologers are of course impossible. But so are most of the beliefs upon which governments are based, such as the peculiar merit of persons living in a certain area, or of persons whose income exceeds a certain sum. It would not do to teach people to reason correctly, since the result would be to undermine these beliefs. If these beliefs were to fade, mankind might escape disaster, but politicians could not. At all costs, therefore, we must be kept stupid.

28 September 1932

Elsewhere (in the essay which gave us the famous quote proclaiming that ‘the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt’), Russell, foreseeing the terrors of the ‘Hitlerites’, concludes that skepticism may be a ‘luxury’ to be set aside for intelligence paired with ‘moral fervor.’ He saw the great hope for liberty, therefore, in American democracy. Prescient.

But the real need today may be not for the abandonment of skepticism but for the acknowledgment of skepticism as a valid foundation for morality. Skepticism is not relativism or doubt in the extreme. Rather, it is a bold denunciation of unfounded claims and a rejection of the moral authority of astrologers and other true believers whose modes of thought mirror those of the ‘Hitlerites’ and their ilk.


Law and Justice (Mommsen 1.11)

(Read Mommsen 1.11 online.)

Mommsen gets poetic again, but first informs us that ‘the doings and dealings, the thoughts and imaginings of the individual … have no part in history.’ I suspect he means the individual Roman as a type as opposed to the ‘great men,’ who are the usual subjects of of traditional history. He will treat of daily life (i.e., culture) in these shadowy times ‘only in the most general outlines.’ It will take him 115 pages.

But now for the poetry, of which the first part could have written of much of the first ten chapters:

Tradition, with its confused mass of national names and its dim legends, resembles withered leaves which with difficulty we recognize to have once been green.

While the second part gives an outline of the remainder of the book:

Instead of threading that dreary maze and attempting to classify those shreds of humanity, the Chones and Oenotrians, the Siculi and the Pelasgi, it will be more to the purpose to inquire how the real life of the people in ancient Italy expressed itself in their law, and their ideal life in religion; how they farmed and how they traded; and whence the several nations derived the art of writing and other elements of culture.

From the first the Romans seem modern, and this is best illustrated by a list of things lacking in their culture that seem to have been the common inheritance of their Indo-European ancestors:

I’m not sure what he means by all of this, but the status of women is probably the most interesting item on the list, and while not modern in our time, it was in Mommsen’s.

He places jurisdiction solely in the hands of the king, who could pass responsibilities to his deputies, and tells us that legal proceedings were public when the offense touched on the community or violated the state. Besides parricide and treason, such crimes as rape were considered violations of the community. Private matters were dealt with more in the manner of an arbitration. Penalties ran the gamut, but were based on the crime and one’s ability to repay the offended. Despite his earlier claim that blood vengeance was not found among the Romans, Mommsen tells us that ‘the maimed person could demand eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’

An interesting notion arises in consideration of property, namely that the Romans originally counted property in terms of cattle and slaves (familia pecuniaque), and only late developed the concept of ‘immovable property,’ i.e., land.

He has a few words on the nature of legal contracts and the ways in which the Romans danced around the issue of loans, mortgage, and debt, culminating into the slavery of debtors who could not pay (their slavery effected by banishment).

Women, children, and the mentally ill required guardians to watch over their property, and each had a share in the inheritance of a husband or father. Freed slaves originally had no legal claim to freedom or citizenship, but became clients of their former masters.

Foreigners not attached to a Roman patron had neither rights nor protections. He was like ‘the shell-fish, belonging to nobody, which was picked up by the sea-shore.’ The Romans dealt with Latins as the patricians would with plebeians, but a kind of international private law developed over time, and evidence is found in certain technical terms shared by the Romans and Sicilian Greeks.

These, Mommsen says, are the rough outlines of ‘the law of a far-advanced agricultural and mercantile city, marked alike by its liberalism and consistency.’ He returns to the notion of ‘symbolism’ hinted at earlier, and cites symbolic superstitions that seemed common to other civilizations in various legal contexts, but existed in a stylized religious way (if at all) at Rome. Instead, he argues, Roman law was more concrete and straightforward. He says there was no ‘serious trace of vengeance for bloodshed,’ even if there was a trace. He sees a remarkable level of equality for citizens and non-citizens under the law (though one wonders how he defines equality). He believes that the Roman law on debt (which he says granted what Shakespeare’s Shylock requested in jest) was designed to discourage debt.

Moderns will especially be interested in what he says about torture:

[T]hat a free man could not be tortured was a primitive maxim of Roman law, to obtain which other peoples have had to struggle for thousands of years. But that law was frightful in its inexorable severity, which we cannot suppose to have been very greatly mitigated by humanity in practice, for it was indeed national law—more terrible than roofs of lead and chambers of torture was that series of living entombments which the poor man saw yawning before him in the debtors’ towers of the rich.

Torture or debt? Given the choice, I’ll take debt, and be glad it’s not on Rome’s terms.


Sabellians, Etruscans, and Greeks! O my! (Mommsen 1.8-10)

Chapters 8 through 10 form a unit that covers the other major populations in Italy before and during the establishment of Rome’s hegemony, and one of Mommsen’s chief aims (as before) seems to be to establish the relative independence of the Romans as a strong, unified group less influenced by others than driven by their own purity of logic and sense of nationhood. Despite the 41 pages and reams of data on Greek settlements of various types (Ionian, Achaean, and Dorian), not much needs to be said, so I’ll just have some scattered notes.


(Read Mommsen 1.8 online.)

He becomes sporadically poetic (as he has a few times in the past):

[O]ur information regarding [the migration of the Umbrians] comes to us like the sound of bells from a town that has been sunk in the sea.

Does that mean that it doesn’t come to us at all? At any rate, he reiterates the dubious reasoning he used before, namely that the Sabellians were latecomers because they dwelt in the mountains, yet later, while discussing the Dorians, talks of their reluctance to change their way of life, comfortable in the mountains. It never occurred to Mommsen that the Sabellians may have been mountain people from the beginning.

(I jotted a note about an old Greek professor of mine who made a big point about his countrymen always settling near the sea. He said you rarely find them in the plain states because of the Greek psychology. No matter what they do for a living, they’re still sea people.)

I was fascinated to learn again what Mommsen didn’t know: he discusses inscriptions recently discovered near Falerii that bear a resemblance to Old Latin, and I immediately recognized the language as Faliscan. It makes it clear that especially in these conjectural chapters there’s a lot of new evidence that would change Mommsen’s picture.

Ultimately what we take away from his treatment of the Sabellians is that of the major branches, the Umbrians seem to have been beaten down by conflicts with the Etruscans until they were eventually Latinized, that the Sabines lived securely and uneventfully in the mountains, and that the Samnites were to the east of Italy what the Latins were to the west.

Where they fell short was that they lacked a Rome. And this tells us something more about Mommsen’s view of great nations: part of their downfall was that they were defensive, rather than aggressive, like the Romans. For Mommsen great nations seek power and expansion.

His note on the Tarquins is worth repeating: even allowing for a king of Etruscan lineage, there’s no reason to assume Etruscan hegemony.


(Read Mommsen 1.9 online.)

Especially in light of the note on Faliscan, you can be sure that his information about the Etruscans is out of date. The one constant is that no one knows where they (ultimately) came from or how the language fits (if it does) into any of the world’s language families. For example, while some people consider it controversial, the Etruscans were probably descended from the Villanovan civilization in the same way that the Greeks of the historical period were descended from the Mycenaeans. The so-called Villanovan culture, though, was as recently discovered as Faliscan, so Mommsen may be excused.

I noted a strange statement on the accent of Etruscan that claimed that it was the same as Latin, namely that it was thrust back to the first syllable, but the Latin accent in polysyllabic words falls on the antepenult unless the penult is long.

Greeks, etc.

(Read Mommsen 1.10 online.)

He brings up an important point that I try to remind students of, namely that the dawn of Roman history was the full light of day for other cultures. Too often people have difficulty seeing how ancient civilizations stand in relation to one another. They have no sense of historical perspective, and this sort of image can be helpful.

Beyond that, and the lists of settlements (and discussions of ‘mongrel people’ again, and the ‘indolent’ Achaeans who stand in contrast to the Romans), Mommsen goes to great pains to show how the Greeks had no real part in the history of Italy. Yet in the process a very different story emerges: the conflicts of the Greeks with the Carthaginians and their Etruscan allies, and the relative Roman neutrality secured their position and later emergence.

But without the Greeks, who’s to say the Carthaginians wouldn’t have taken the south of Italy, hedged in the Romans against Etruria, and changed the course of history?


A better ‘Simon Says’ for Latin Classes

Simon Says

Check out more of Rex May's excellent cartoons at toonpool.

I’ve never used Simon Says in my Latin classes because I’ve never liked the Latin it tends to produce. The teacher says something like ‘Simon dīcit “tollite manūs!”,‘ but it doesn’t work for me grammatically.

You could say ‘Simon iūbet vōs manūs tollere‘ or ‘Simon vōbīs imperat ut manūs tollātis,’ but then you’re far beyond the target audience.

To give the command in a direct quotation you should use inquit, after the commander’s words. And why not make the commander Quintus to effect some kind of alliteration? (While inquit Quīntus may sound harsh we should be driven less by euphony than by the demands of the sounds and structures of the language.)

It might go a little something like this:

tollite manūs, inquit Quīntus!
nunc, salīte omnēs!
ah! nōn Quīntum dixī!

And a translation:

Simon says, “raise your hands!”
Well done!
Now, everybody jump!
Ah! I didn’t say ‘Simon’!


A modern ‘ancient’ Greek dialect discovered?

This has been making the rounds: a remote, Muslim community has been found speaking (and notably not writing) a dialect of Greek apparently quite close to the ancient language.

From the Independent (Jason and the Argot):

An isolated community near the Black Sea coast in a remote part of north-eastern Turkey has been found to speak a Greek dialect that is remarkably close to the extinct language of ancient Greece.

As few as 5,000 people speak the dialect but linguists believe that it is the closest, living language to ancient Greek and could provide an unprecedented insight into the language of Socrates and Plato and how it evolved.

From Katimerini (Rare Greek Dialect Alive in Turkey):

A Greek professor of linguistics at Cambridge University has been credited with identifying an endangered Greek dialect which is spoken in a remote mountainous region in northeastern Turkey and is believed to be a “linguistic gold mine” because of its close similarities to ancient Greek.


Romeyka was discovered in a remote village in the region of Trabzon (Trebizond).

Romeyka is not to be confused with Romaic, a name by which Modern Greek has been known in the past. They say that the grammar of the language itself suggests a pre-Byzantine origin, showing affinities with Koine, which is very surprising (if true).

This may be one to watch.


The Year of Read­ing Rome (a resolution)

If you’re anything like me you make New Year’s resolutions about reading Mommsen and Gibbon, but then you get frustrated as you plan out your reading. How do you fill the gap between the two?

I’m not concerned here with the most up to date, scholarly treatment of the minutiae of Roman history. I want good, classic accounts of Roman history told in a satisfying way without all the pretense to neutrality and disinterestedness, or the overt theoretical baggage that makes so much modern writing unbearable.

So to help matters along I’ll try to fill the gap with Charles Merivale‘s History of the Romans Under the Empire. Since it’s somewhat difficult (and quite expensive) to round up the complete set in print, I’ve done some wrangling at the Internet Archive and present here a list of the seven volumes for easy reference.


I’m about to get medieval on Christmas

The following is a sort of Christmas carol from the Colmar manuscript, dated to the 12th century.

De nativitate domini.

  1. Fregit Adam interdictum
  2. et reliquit hoc delictum
  3. posteris miseris
  4. poenam culpae veteris;
  5. libera conditio
  6. mergitur in vitio,
  7. viget in natura
  8. conjectura.
  9. o quanta miseria!
  10. Fregit homo pactum dei
  11. unde sumus omnes rei
  12. patimur, labimur
  13. aeternumque morimur
  14. donec virgo peperit,
  15. quae naturam praeterit
  16. sola praeter morem
  17. pium redemptorem.
  18. o quanta miseria!
  19. Hic adjutor opportunus
  20. a peccato liber unus
  21. exstitit, restitit
  22. hosti, qui nos perdidit;
  23. qui dum petit humilem,
  24. tentat ut vincibilem,
  25. satan enervatur,
  26. vincit, qui temptatur.
  27. o quanta victoria!

The Latin is weak but the sense is clear. The poem is composed in a triad (a trinity?):

It’s interesting that Satan isn’t mentioned in the beginning, but everyone must be expected to know how Adam broke the law, and that Satan was involved. It’s also odd that the piece should be titled ‘De nativitate domini’ (‘On the Lord’s birth’), since it’s really about sin.

The logic will always escape me, however, that the sins of the father should be visited upon the children (why are we all guilty, ‘sumus omnes rei’?) until god the father redeems the world through his child.

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