Tuesday, 30 September 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: roman holiday or once in a life time

The Roman work week was not defined by the weekend or a Sabbath but by the late Empire, it was rarity for any professional, labourer or even slave to have to endure any significant stretch of time without a break, with, by then, there being almost parity between days worked and days off due to holy days—and these observations, supplemented by Imperial mandate were not something that one would quietly forgo. More than just pious libations spilt for the departed and one’s particular theophany of household gods, holidays were also public celebrations, featuring games, parades and other spectacles. Festivities were also augmented by spontaneous victory celebrations and by anniversaries and jubilees of much longer intervals.  Keeping the tradition of one Sabine man’s absolutions alive, the Romans celebrated what became known as the Secular Games—there being of course nothing secular about them, as we understand the domains of Church and State, but the word rather is the adjectival form of saecularis—something temporal and belonging to an age—whereas God and heavenly matters were considered to be outside of time, at least by medieval theologians.

Though it is not at a transparent matter why the oracles prescribed a darkly ritual to the god and goddess who ruled the Underworld in order to cure the illness of his children, nor why this particular man’s hardships are remembered—but the figure strikes me a little like the biblical Job though we have to take a lot of license with this biography and mystery cult, once his children recovered, also under the advisement of the oracles, the man pledged that this rite would be performed in perpetuity, once a secular age had passed. This once in a life time iteration was not merely a generational matter, as no one living, from the youngest infant to the oldest crone could, have been around to have witnessed the last performance—and this span of time was reckoned, even during ancient times when we think life-expectancy was not very long, as one hundred to one hundred-ten years—and in the Romance languages, the word century did derive from saecularis, defined as a round hundred. Octavian held the first Secular Games and the indeed the party was epic and unforgettable, later emperors were a bit envious—being bereft of a chance to win the peoples’ hearts and minds with spectacle. Though a good public festival requires no justification and libations do not need to be sourced, there is little in the way of explanation as to how a private ritual was performed by the person of the emperor, no less, and evolved to be attended with lavish and riotous merriment. Fairly soon there was holiday creep, with one emperor announcing the games of the century decades prematurely, and the older generation who still vividly recalled the previous revelries found the proclamation of the bash of a life time more than a bit incredulous. Rather embarrassed by this faux pas, the offending emperor quickly rebranded the celebration of the anniversary of Rome’s semi-legendary founding, allowing the parallel festivities to continue—on at least a twice-in-a-lifetime basis. The divergent schedules were brought together again under the reign of Phillip the Arab on the occasion of Rome’s Millennial celebration with a party whose legend still echoes through the ages. This turned out to be the last Secular Games, as Rome was Christianised by the time the next allotted saecularis came around and Rome, though still the Eternal City, was no longer the imperial capital.

ausreise oder hiobsbotschaft

As Germany and Europe prepare for a series of summits to address the current refugee crisis, this day, twenty-five years ago, saw the resolution of another asylum-campaign, which seems to have a vastly different character from contemporary migration but there may be more similarities than first meet the eye. The Embassy of West German in Prague (das Prager Botschaft), housed in the Baroque Palace Lobkowicz, was the refuge of thousands of East Germans in flight from the oppressive regime—who managed to travel to Czechoslovakia and scale the walls to camp in the compound’s garden.
Overcrowding was becoming problematic as embassy staff tried to care for hundreds seeking sanctuary and climbing the barriers on a daily basis, and the West German government covertly (so as not to appear as a bad host) negotiated with the governments of East Germany and the Soviet Union to work out a deal that eventually granted the refugees safe passage to West Germany, announced by BDR Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher from the balcony of the palace on the evening of 30 September to the encampment below. This first chink in the Iron Curtain was followed and overshadowed by other momentous events in the later in the Autumn, but this stand against the DDR regime is commemorated with a metal sculpture of an East German Trabant by local artist David Černý on the embassy grounds.

Monday, 29 September 2014

leipziger freiheit oder wir sind das volk

Other urban centres—perhaps most famously Munich, have neighbourhoods, avenues called Freiheit—what with the Münchener Freiheit though that was something I always understood as Freitzeit, a boulevard to stroll for one’s own leisurely pursuits. The Leipziger Freitheit does not seem to be a particular locale but rather a perennial celebration of the seminal and decisive night of 9 October 1989 (DE/EN), the fortieth anniversary of the establishment of the Deutsche Demokratic Republik, the DDR.
Scant weeks after the first Montagsdemo, held under the auspices and protection of the Nikolaikirche pastors, keeping the assembly peaceful no matter what the authorities tried was presented as something sacrosanct. Security forces were girded for anything, except the prayers for peace and candle-lit vigil of some seventy-thousand souls marching en masse. There was no violent opposition—and it seems that protesters and the police became united in this pact. Numbers grew in the following weeks and the movement spread to other cities, encouraged by their own success and extensive coverage by the Western press.
A month later, the Wall came down and ushered the fall of the regime and German reunification, brought about by the convictions and contagious bravery of the people. Leipzig has been honouring this day—and not just for that quarter of a century that has passed, and includes many stations for reflection with vistas over a city illuminated for the occasion.
 The hopeful occasion of the Mauerfall is not remembered, however, on the exact date because of the coincidence of the Schicksalstag, the ninth of November already time-stamped with the abdication of the monarchy near the conclusion of World War I, the coup of Hitler and Kristallnacht and seeming hardly an auspicious day for unity.

carrot and stick or being there

Maria Popva of Brain Pickings presents a delightful and an importantly provocative abstract on a 2007 anthology from British philosopher Alan Watts on timing, savouring presence and the modern aversion towards reflection as it comes usually at the expense of expediency—and more importantly what our gimmick-based market is premised on.

Watts dares to ask the strictly taboo question, what is this quality of life that we are striving for—through exercise, electronic crutches and healthy diets, no matter how artisanal. And while some things are done for their own sake and many find the meaning in all they see and do, the nature of this aim for good, “were it seriously investigated,” observes Watts, “the whole economy and social order would fall apart and have to be re-organised…it would be like the donkey finding out that the carrot dangled before him, to make him run, is hitched to his own collar.” Regardless of our gait—galloping or resigned—steady but not dedicated since that spectre of a goal is just out of our reach and does not much tax the imagination to come up with our own ideal, it is as if we have forgotten what to do with that prize, if we were able to finally catch it. The essay highlights Watts’ hopeful and inspiring sense of syncopation and draws in the complementary thoughts of other thinkers.

Friday, 26 September 2014


Coinciding with the Council of Europe’s Day of Languages, established and observed annually to promote linguistic diversity and encourage the learning of an additional language, as well as treasuring those endangered or overly-influenced by the various lingua francas, Neat-o-rama presents a preview of a beautifully illustrated book that collects some of the untranslatable yet gloriously and rendingly descriptive words from languages around the world.
I especially like the term Mångata, a Swedish word for the rippling, elongated reflection of the Moon in the water, and another delightful Swedish word Tretår that means something like a three-fill—tår alone referring to a cup of coffee, påtår is the refreshing of the original cup, and tretår is one’s third iteration. Also I can really relate to the Hawaiian word Άkihi, describing one’s instant and almost as if on cue forgetting of directions after just being told. Lacuna is from the Latin for little ditch and in the sense here refers to a lexical gap, which means there is no word-for-word correspondence from one language to another, so interpreters must get creative and/or lobby for the inclusion of such foriegn borrowings.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

rheinufer oder see something, spray something

After work the other day, I took a stroll along the Rhein, near the grounds of the Fortress Reduit where the capital city of Mainz finds itself stared down by its former holding of Mainz-Kastell, now a part of Wiesbaden.
I spied the long corridor of an underpass that gradually raised the main traffic artery spanning the river, which had been completely transformed into an epic gallery for graffiti artists with many huge murals.
I followed the path to its conclusion, enjoying the vignettes along the way, and realised that the exhibition was the sanctioned and respected installation that went by the moniker “Meeting of Styles,” having heard about the project and demonstration sessions that took place earlier in the summer.
There are to be discovered quite some expressive and aesthetic uses of urban space here and I am happy that some canvases are tolerated and even encouraged.  Do you have a fantastic mural near you?  Please do share.

it happened on the way to the forum: semper fideles or republican guard

Just as they say, Rome was not built in a day, neither was its downfall something sudden and decisive: a long, steady decline that lasted centuries characterised the collapse of the Western Empire after a turbulent succession of emperors. No single factor precipitated this erosion become avalanche, though there were certainly pivotal moments, but before indulging, to the point of obsessing over the next episode’s surprises, the History of Rome series from Mike Duncan, I had not considered military-coup as a cause.

It is not that the brilliant arc of story, with over a hundred installments, was in defense of some thesis to lay blame on the Roman soldier—quite otherwise though there is a coherent element of foreshadowing, through the lens of retrospection and to a degree allegory, but I suppose I believed that Rome imploded under the weight of bad leadership, religious uprisings, popular revolts, invasion or by some sort of divine disfavour, and had not considered that first surfeiting and then placating greed was among the chief the constituents. The turmoil began to well with the political and practical disdain that Domitian held for senatorial authority—rather, protocol already at this point, replaced and redoubled by the fawning and appeasement of the military—a calculus that all this emperor’s, no matter how long or short their tenure, successors would follow. First, the elite Prætorian Guard, the body-guards of the imperial family, sort of like the US secret-service, realised that they could demand a high price for their loyalty and protection, which rapidly spread to the ordinary ranks of Legionnaires, both on the frontiers and closer to home. There are several instances of regicide by the Prætorians, whose membership and influence grew after overturning the safeguards that were instituted by Tiberius, realising the potential dangers of maintaining a standing-army in times of peace and involved regular rotation in place of duty that separated the troops in order to deter the fomenting of separate allegiances. The first shoe fell during what is known infamously as the Year of the Three Emperors—to be bested later—not for poor governance but by the army openly prostituting its fidelity: in the end, the Guard auctioned off imperator to the highest bidder (Didius Julianus, who reigned for all of nine weeks) who could pay them the largest donative, a pledge of personal wealth that was not always delivered, in exchange for their support. During this time, the relevance of the Senate occasionally returned with some measure of deference but the army remained the object of pandering, with their wages being increased exponentially, and there was no abating this expectation once precedence had been established. Of course, this custom put the economy in quite a pinch—especially with a paucity of new conquests and plunder. Seeking a solution, after citizens of the city of Rome were subject to taxation after centuries of being exempt and relying on outside revenue, Emperor Caracalla decided to naturalise every person (though not the female- or the slave-types) of the provinces, in order to increase tax-revenue. The tax-man was also deployed in full force—supplementing the personal collection that the emperors undertook with purging potential subversives and confiscating their estates so as to pay for this support-bubble. Once coveted by all, Roman citizenship was looking more and more like a liability. Caracalla was an absolutely horrid person and leader but did not live long enough to place him within the pantheon of truly vile emperors.
Caracalla took his legacy in another direction by commissioning monumental baths to be built to the south of Rome, luxurious even by spa-crazed Roman estimations, which stand as one the eternal city’s last great construction projects, as later emperors even abandoned Rome for Naples and Milan as unsullied capitals before ultimately transporting it eastward. What do you think? It isn’t as if the politicians and polity at the time caught wind of these events and right away recognised social upheaval beyond. There are contemporary analogues, of course, but do you think the that the Romans were aware of poisoning their own wells or understood the consequences of the way their Empire was defended?

oasis or möbius-farm

Via the brilliant Nag-on-the-Lake, a company by the name of OAXIS is pitching the concept of a long train of modular green-house cars to help alleviate the monetary and environmental costs of exporting produce to arid countries. Relying on solar power to both grow the food and to transport it—the system running on a continuous loop, a conveyer belt—sort of like those sushi diners where entrees are constantly being replenished—the green-house units are slowly rolled out into the desert for cultivation within a closed-system to better capture water and nutrients for reuse and then returned to the city for harvest and local distribution. The idea is certainly visually stunning and presents an elegant solution, opposed to the fields of plastic sheeting or water-intensive putting greens of more traditional methods.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

rotary-club oder speedy-delivery

The Local (Germany’s English language daily digest) reports that a public-private shipping-consortium will be using automated drones to make deliveries to a relatively isolated island in the North Sea to help keep the community pharmacy stocked with supplies. This prototype and trial fights will help lead to logistical-support missions further afield and perhaps to more remote and dire locations.  I wonder how quickly such services, swarms first envisioned by inventor and futurist Nicola Tesla, will catch on—though it’s yet a far-cry, a little disappointingly so (pretty keen but no substitute) from teleporters and being able to beam someone or something somewhere.

crystal habit and structure or read this next

H shared with me an interesting vignette on the German cache for using cash, which is bucking the trend of much of the rest of the world as coin and paper money is exchanged for virtual currency. The article delved into historical and psychological reasons that cash is still king—including bouts of hyperinflation, abrupt transitions to new monetary vehicles, etc., and proved a fascinating primer for the comparative and insightful round-up topical items that Quartz features in really lucid language. You ought to check it out for yourself.

Monday, 22 September 2014

windrose or indian summer

There is nothing quite like the liminal sensation of having stumbled through and ruined the handiwork of an industrious and overly ambitious spider—both for the way it must make one look to others and for the temporary touch of these threads. Over the weekend, H and I were having a drink at an outdoor café.

A old woman sat at a table directly behind me, and she did not linger as long as we did in the sunny and breezy afternoon, and shortly before her departing, I started to feel the fleeting glance of impossibly thin filaments. In the moment, I became convinced that when my back was turned, this witch had slyly cast a webby spell on me.  I felt a bit unnerved that the feeling was not going away, and H told me, on the contrary, that this sort of weather—a burst of an Indian Summer as we would say in English, was called Altweibersommer in German. This name, however, did not refer to the age of woman and any cobwebs that she most assuredly was not dusting off, but rather to the errant filaments of spider-silk, which can appear like long grey hairs and are born in the wind at this time of year. The stray threads are the parachutes—hopefully the discarded lifelines—of the recently hatched young of the tiny bowl-and-doily spiders that carry the broods to all corners. I like the poetic Altweibersommer much better than the other term, which seems a bit morose and disappointed, alarmist and not with a hint of rebirth.

¡refrescante! or double-blind trial

While the usual battle-fields for the Cola Wars are found in public institutions, school cafeterias and workplace cantinas, the competition can involve sometimes much more than just syrup and air-canisters with a whole franchised realm, a vertical monopoly of loyal patrons behind the brand who would never dare sell the competing product.

There, however, is precious little more serious than one’s immortal soul—which are the stakes for tribe in Mexico, who’ve incorporated either one or the other big cola brands into their religious traditions. Convinced that belching helps to release evil spirits, members of the community are willing to pay 50¢ for a bottle of soda—which does not sound bad until one realises that that’s a day’s wage, to augment their purification rituals. Aside from the faithful forgoing food to support the marketing and distribution rivalry between billion-dollar multi-national corporations, there are also the matters of health, fair-labour and responsible water-usage at stake. Realising that they are the momentary playthings of globalism, some communities in Chiapas have boycotted the soft-drinks altogether—though both companies are pretty ruthless about re-establishing market-control.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

it happened on the way to forum: syllabus

I sincerely hope I do not offend the historians and presenters from whom I have taken the torch in a glancing way by relating what I have heard in a poor and humble fashion but I am unapologetically eager to share whatever has piqued my curiosity to learn more and do hope that it is advancingly contagious for at least one person, like learning about the state of Roman public education. Of course, it was not universal basic education as we understand it but rather the stiflingly standardised curriculum that pervaded the Empire, echoed under the covered porches from Rome to Britannia, as tours in the provinces were always accompanied ones, and probably managed to instill a marked aversion to learning rather than producing a productive and literate populace.

Pedagogy was a mind-numbing affair of rote- memor- isation and recall, which systematically and unvaryingly divorced numbers, letters and even the limited canon of belle-lettres, the Iliad, the Odyssey, from their meaning—children instructed as copyists and sophists for the court. Even though the overwhelming majority could not afford such a luxury and the home-schooling paterfamilias mimicked the same uninspired method, the government deemed that—in the main—only imported Greek slaves, who interestingly made up the bulk of the educator-corps, could be entrusted as studious bureaucrats, with only a sliver of the citizenry in the Senate and the extended imperial family otherwise fit for governance. Aside from the mimicry of writing and reading only for the sake of grammar and sophistry, what was left out of standard education seems a gleaming omission—with no philosophy, arts, science, history or physical fitness (that was reserved to the ranks of soldiering) to speak of. Left with this model that was no better than what was available to their social betters, and with most being born into the caste of either farmer or fighter but endowed with the safety-net of a public dole of grain and wine, ensuring only a modicum of hardship and envy, the superstitions of that old-time religion endured for many.
 As the Roman pantheon became deluded with empty votive-offerings to a growing cult of Emperors and dependents and attendants, some began to turn to emergent prophets and charlatans for comfort and fulfillment, overseeing the rise of the membership of other groups, not necessarily aligned with Roman civic interests. The Roman educational system and it's inability to create the polity that it demanded probably affected on balance the departure of the old panoply and adoption of new religion, but I think that that was not the only factor for splinter factions. What do you think? Given how the same methods have been handed down through the eons and that there is still not much to capture the imagination of pupils, already recognising their caste, should not such inquiring and dissatisfaction be expected?


H and I had the chance to revisit a preserved border control installation in between Thuringian Meiningen and Bavarian Mellrichstadt that we had last stopped at on one icy day almost seven years ago.
It was interesting to inspect the quiet grounds and reflect on how a highly militarised boundary had separated East and West Germany for forty-five years until just twenty-five years ago, and we are throttling towards that anniversary without an abundance of circumspection.
It seems so radically different but not in the escaping and forgotten past, either. Just beyond the patrol bunkers and the vehicle battering-ram and the layers of obstacles and hindrances, in the open plain there was a sculpture park dedicated to a message of unity and sacrifice and the insistent promise to never allow such a wedge to divide the country again.
The entire display, with aggrieved cast iron giants and stained-glass gates and figures amid a field of steel flags and banners was quite moving and powerful under the dramatic skies of a passing afternoon storm, which provided a vibrant backdrop. I am glad that we took the time to come back and explore this memorial that is really just around the corner and yet something distant.

it happened on the way to the forum: rebel alliance

Of course, there was no broad historical force opposing Rome but it make a pretty cool assembly of action figures of underdogs. Most saw their resistance ultimately crushed after being provoked into battle but a few did define the furthest reaches of the Empire and remained unconquered. One could collect the heroines—like Cleopatra who was the first Ptolemy to show more than passing regard for the Egyptians and tried to preserve the Republic in her own way, and Boudica, the warrior queen of the Britons, whose only transgression was in believing that the treaty with the Romans would remain in effect after her husband the king died and she assumed the throne—however, as the chauvinistic Romans did not recognise female inheritance, they merely annexed her kingdom. One could collect the Germans, like Arminius of Cherusci tribe (Hermann der Cherusker), who was held as a hostage during his youth and even received a Roman military education, and graduating with hounors never succumbed to the Stockholm Syndrome and returned to led his people against their occupiers and after orchestrating several demorialising defeat, the Romans never tried to advance beyond the Rhein again.

Decebalus, the last king of independent Dacia led three campaigns against the Romans as they tried to stabilise their borderlands to the north of Greece and on towards the banks of the Danube, no longer content to let some non-assimilated client kingdom to guard the frontier. There were those pesky Christians, led by the missionary Paul, Apostle to the Roman. Mithridates IV was a fearsome prince and general of Armenia and Anatolia who very nearly succeeded in keeping Rome out of Asia Minor altogether.
There is of course the old nemesis Hannibal, the Carthaginian military commander that seemed virtually unbeatable, and who in defeat cursed Rome with its visions of manifest destiny. And there is, among my favourites but certainly not an exhaustive list of personalities or portrayals, since the majority of source material—even for patriotic artists, come from victorious Roman accounts—the Welsh king Togodumnus who refused to pay tribute to Rome and had successfully driven them out until ambushed by his own men. Who else ought to be included? It could be a whole universe of players.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: post meridiem

Though it is still several weeks until Europe turns it clocks back to standard time, the days are already growing shorter and darkness comes earlier and earlier.
The time adjustment always just seems to exacerbate an already dwindling amount of daylight but it is far less complicated, I think, than the method the Ancient Romans. The day consisted of twenty-four hours (horæ), divided into two twelve hour periods each for night and day, but as the Romans were mostly unconcerned with the o'clock and really only observed the important transitions of dawn, noon and dusk (aurora, meridies—the sun being directly overhead and a bit different than the ninth hour of nona hora—and crepusculum), they managed the change of the seasons in a different fashion, adjusting the length of the hour, until achieving a maximum of a seventy-five minute long one on the Summer Solstice and the gradually drawing it down to the other tropic with a forty-five minute hour on the Winter Solstice, from the perspective of Rome.

This sort of timekeeping seems very complex and would not due for international timetables and coordination, but our modern ways, too focused on an artificial punctuality and being ruled by all these bells and chimes, would probably seem hopelessly vain to the Romans. As strange as the idea of longer and shorter hours might seem, this way of telling the time is preserved in many medieval clocktowers, including famously the Orloj, the Astronomical Clock of Prague, whose outer dial of Roman numerals shows the time in the conventional way but the golden lines radiating inward each represent one-twelfth of the day and these unequal hours wax or wane with the help of the cog of the second face to reflect the changes that come with the seasons.

signal drift

The ever-excellent BLDGBLOG has brilliant featured called Celestial Chiaroscuro about the precision and the slippage of Global Positioning triangulation. There is a poetic installation of street lamps programmed to dip in brightness whenever their true position drifts away from their reported satellite telemetry, but this effect can also be demonstrated with one's personal gadgets by leaving a stride-counter exercise application running overnight one's nightstand. It will report a crazy somnambulist's path that shows the gadget trying to find itself again after the signal drifted, as if it had some sort of out-of-body experience or was scooted around the bedroom by a poltergeist. This is a strange parallel world of mapping and plotting whose overlays need continual recalibration.

Friday, 19 September 2014

defrag oder kleinstaaterei

Scotland’s choice to remain part of the United Kingdom certainly does not summarily conclude the secessionists’ movements among the countries of Europe, nor even for the UK itself. The rampant territorial fragmentation that characterised Europe, and Germany especially, during the Holy Roman Empire will not be returning, I think, but the drive for independence based on cultural heritage could prove to be an affront to the coherency that the EU is trying to project—especially should freedom efforts gain momentum for the County of Flanders, the location of Brussels, the EU capital. There are other curious plans for shifting alliances and redrawing borders, including Scotland leapfrogging independence toward a personal-union with Norway and the suggestion of Italian Sardinia that the Mediterranean island be sold to the Swiss, touting the proposal as a win-win situation.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: honey-badger or non-plus-ultra

Regarded as one of the Five Good Emperors for his civic-planning and long reign of peace and prosperity—only with the hallmark bookends that of violence and paranoia that attend most transitions of power, it is a regrettable commentary on the history books that Hadrian is nearly exclusively remembered only for his eponymous wall that separated the province of Britannia from the untamable wilds of Scotland.
The travelling emperor and Grecophile visited nearly every part of his realms, and on his grand-tour, left many public institutions improved and was a real bread-and-circuses kind of leader.  Other borderlands were fortified as well, and inasmuch has the Limes afforded a measure of protection from the barbarians, they also served an important propaganda purpose, white-washed and gleaming when new, the walls and towers were visible from great distances as a hearty deterrent and reminder that Rome ruled these lands. Though currying favour again with a Senate that was formerly reduced in esteem through the refusal of recent regimes to submit to protocols (despite their emptiness and the fact that the Senate’s role was almost purely ceremonial), Hadrian managed to chafe their elite sensibilities by being an unrepentant individual. 

Against the style at the time, Hadrian wore a beard, was an open homosexual, when most had the decency to stay in the closet, valued Greek culture and mannerisms over copy-cat Roman ones—which were usual poor and prudish imitators, was a big-game hunter (the Romans thought safaris were unseemly for nobility, though they had few qualms with being spectators for brutal gladiatorial bouts)—and to top it all off, he was a provincial hailing from Hispania, the first non-native emperor Rome had seen, and probably would have been its last had  not Hadrian’s tenure not been on-balance a successful one and the broader pool of talented and skilled leadership from beyond Italy would have been hence excluded from the highest echelons.  While those walls did much to help quell insurrections in much of the Empire, Judea with these radically un-Roman Christians still posed a problem, and Hadrian, towards the final years of his reign took a more tyrannical turn on the province—merging it with another entity, outlawing monotheistic worship—the Romans not yet really recognising the distinction between Christian and Jew yet, and reflagging the combined provinces as Syria-Palaestina, hoping to incorporate the Middle East into Hadrian’s envisioned Pan-Hellenic state.
The naming-convention endured through modern times and was a serious matter as the colony was renamed for an adversarial tribe. The peaceful years were surely ones hard fought for and Hadrian was no pacifist, with revolutions being staunched in many lands; the emperor’s detractors merely said that his lashing out—Rome did not care about the suffering and suppression in Jerusalem but the attendant crimes of political purges in the forum were—and that Hadrian was showing his true colours and held the Senate in contempt all along and his efforts at maintaining stability within the Empire were derided.  Though Hadrian had always demonstrated a nature that was pre-emptive rather than reactive, his change in character could have been attributed to the sudden and mysterious death of his long-time companion and lover, a Greek youth from Asia Minor called Antinous.  Antinous was accompanying the Emperor on a cruise down the Nile when his lifeless body was discovered in the water.  Theories about, including that Hadrian was growing weary with the boy—or that Antinous was off bears or even that emperor’s astrologer advised Hadrian that he would be rejuvenated and attain an advanced age—which he did—by sacrificing a youth.   I don’t know whether it was foul-play or not but I am sure that the two really did love one another. Hadrian never recovered from this tragedy, it seems, and dedicated many honours to the memory of Antinous. Somewhat outside imperial purview (the Senate conferred Godhead and although usually granted, they would have like to have been consulted first), he had his lover deified as a god and included among the Caesar family pantheon. A city in Egypt near the site where his body was recovered was demolished and rebuilt in Hellenistic style and named after Antinous, as was a constellation of stars. And as in life, Hadrian commissioned hundreds of statues of Antinous had them distributed to all corners of the Empire. Their story may not be familiar but you, gentle reader, have most likely seen his likeness already, the youth's image being the most reproduced one of the first century and the most widespread.
For a time the cult of Antinous (being conflated with Osiris who embodied similar graces) was bigger than Jesus, with more adherents than this new Christianity. The reign of Hadrian continued for several more years, and ever the architect and civil-engineering, the travelling emperor returned home and his ashes were enshrined in the mausoleum he designed, now known as Castel Sant'Angelo (the one-time home of the papacy and their jail, acquired after the Arch-Angel Michael appeared atop this tallest building in Rome and delivered the city from a medieval plague outbreak), across the Tiber from Vatican City.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

colossus oder klaipėda

H and I had the chance years ago to explore the German Baltic coast (Ostsee) and camped in the shadow of the massive former sea-resort of Prora, constructed originally as an affordable and accessible destination for rest-and-recuperation for any German citizen by the Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) programme. Kept off of the maps during the Cold War and being gradually remembered and re-discovered, East Germany employed the colossal structure as an army barracks, never recognising its past as a shell that represented Nazi ideals and coordinated equality with a summer-camp atmosphere, though capable of lodging some twenty-thousand adults with maybe a subtle (or less so) agenda that one can only speculate about.
The character of the installation was transformed during the regime, hosting elite schools of military specialties for paratroopers and a Warsaw-Pact version of the institutes of higher-learning for the armies of partner nations like Cuba, Sierra Leone and Jordan that were established in the Allgau of West Germany, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Oberammergau for NATO pedagogy, and then as housing for contentious-objectors who wanted no part of East German soldiering. As conscription was not something that one could easily test- or opt-out of, unwilling draftees were quartered in Prora and put to work on a neighbouring project that was East Germany's organically largest building projects, the train-ferry—I had no idea that such conveyances existed, that afforded East Germany a direct rail-link with the Soviet Union.
Undoubtedly, the region was strategically significant, with an ensemble that included the rocket facilities at Peenemünde, a naval submarine yard already and this harbour and gigantic boats that could accommodate several trains is an impressive site. The waterway formerly linked Saßnitz, a burrough known as Mukran, and itself a classic resort before becoming a garrison town and working its way back to courting tourism, much like Prora too, hosting a youth hostel, an eclectic museum and is seeing redevelopment as luxury apartments. This port that folded the separating sea away connected the railways with Klaipėda, today in Lithuania, and presently with the havens of the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad.

Monday, 15 September 2014

anni di piombo or cloak and dagger

Prompted by the events and outcome of the Korea War, the US Central Intelligence Agency operating under the aegis of NATO and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) coordinated with Western European intelligence agencies to raise a secret “stay-behind” paramilitary force, whose sleeper cells were to be activated in the event of a Soviet invasion to bolster a resistance movement.
The existence and scope of these units remained unknown until October of 1990, just weeks after the reunification of Germany and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, with the revelation of the prime minister of Italy and admission of a project under the codename Operation Gladio (from the Latin gladius, a short double-edged sword and standard issue for Legionnaires). Although involvement in the political turmoil and terrorism that characterized Italy’s civic landscape from the 1960s through the mid-1980s (called the Years of Lead for the bombings) was quickly downplayed and then ruled-out completely, as the international reach and collusion of the organizations became known—it went by different handles in each country where it was based but the Italian guise, Operation Gladio, became convenient short-hand for similarly vetted groups, and particularly because the social unrest and left-wing violence was especially tumultuous in Italy—attention turned back to the potential for governmental manipulation and intimidation. Other alleged undertakings seemed only for engendering chaos, a pact of panic to justify those security measures, suspicions and misgivings long since become a habit. Never deployed in response to an invasion nor ever the subject of deep political scrutiny even after the disclosure, there was of course the incentive to turn a defensive stance into an offensive posture and keep certain elements, socialist or left-leaning, out of European politics. Such Machiavellian mission drift is a common occurrence, and the US has remained evasive on the clandestine ventures that went on for decades. The fact that the tactics that the operatives reputedly employed comes from a playbook, a field manual, that was a supposed hoax leaked by the Soviets to members of the press willing to bite that outlines the strategic tensors of propaganda and terror is a just a rehashing of previous disinformation campaigns, the US maintains, does not mean that there is not something beneath this recursiveness and divestment. The legacy of Operation Gladio is poorly defined and often forgotten—indeed most referenced as an analogy—but does appear in reporting from time to time.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

it happened on the way to the forum: dynasty or i quote in elegiacs all the crimes of heliogabalus

After Julius Caesar claimed autocracy and posthumously set the precedent of dynastic rule, it was in essence just a generation that separated the empire from the relative beneficence of Caesar's heir, Octavian called Julius Augustus whose long reign, political networks and civil reforms were just revolutionary enough to endure and to weather future crises, from the absolutely corruption yielded by absolute power and inheritance. Octavian groomed his successors with great care in hopes of ensuring a smooth transition of power and keeping Rome's political model, social services and borders in Octavian's image—plus all in the family. His heirs-apparent, however, did not live to see through Octavian's dominion, both his natural sons who had been educated, trained and primed for leadership, and in the end, Octavian was compelled to rewrite his will to name his step-son, Tiberius—ancestor of Nero and daughter of Livia by her first marriage, as his successor. Interestingly, though Octavian himself warned against harbouring creatures of the court that held illegitimate or behind-the-scenes authority, Octavian also adopted his widowed wife Livia as his daughter, so that she might retain some of the unofficial powers that she wielded, becoming known in all circles as simply the Augusta.

Tiberius proved less than harmless, and always the reluctant emperor, ceded much of the day-to-day matters of governance to a single adviser, who gladly took on the extra responsibilities and quickly identified and then indulged a native sense of paranoia. Tiberius' angst was not completely unwarrented of course, as his mother, the Augusta, had conspired to make sure her son became emperor, going so far—some believe—as having Tiberius' step-brothers taken out of the picture and even poisoning the old Octavian before he changed his mind about Tiberius, and the city was full of intrigues, including the self-fulling hatred that grew amongst the citizens once the emperor's adviser started the campaign of purges to execute or exile all those suspected of treason against the regime. Eventually Tiberius grew wise to the reality of the plot against him and had the adviser dismissed and tried as an enemy of the state himself, but by then it was far too late. Tiberius had his own son, the general known by his cognomen Germanicus, put to death for not following protocol and representing a threat to his father's authority. Rome had suffered a demoralising loss a decade prior in the Teutoburg Forrest to the commander of the Germanic tribes Hermann (Latinised as Arminius). Germanicus made a few winning forays on to the Eastern banks of the Rhine and was an inspiration to his troops and to the public, including making good on some old promises of pensions and better pay—out of his own personal fortune without bothering with bureaucratic embargoes. Recognising that Germanicus was far more popular than the emperor, presented a risk of a military coup, like forefather Julius Caesar, and had violated one of the terms set forth in Octavian's last will and testament, not to expand the boundaries of the empire. The Rhine remained the furthermost frontier of the empire but the adventures of Germanicus, if left unattended, might have expanded German control. Moreover, Tiberius dispatched Germanicus' family to ensure no further resistance was nascent—sparing only Germanicus' youngest son (and young daughters) since he did not pose any sort of challenge to the paranoid emperor. In fact, after Tiberius left the capital on a permanent basis to rule in absentia from his palace in Capri, he decided to do some estate-planning of his own and adopted his young grandson, whom Tiberius recalled fondly had accompanied Germanius on his expeditions, and was outfitted with a little legionnaire's uniform—including a tiny pair of boots, lending him the pet-name, Caligula. Once, for all intents and purposes, retired from political engagements and away from the city, Tiberius, with young and already traumatised Caligula to watch, was able to engage freely in his favourite pastimes—tossing slaves off the cliffs of his mountain top retreat in the gulf of Naples. Once Tiberius died, Rome believed that this new ruler, Caligula, would restore civil order and herald a new period of peace and prosperity. That delusion was short-lived, however.
The public was made to endure a long succession of madness, precocity and wantonness with only the very briefest of respites and naïve honeymoon periods after new families killed each other off. In the spirit of “the king is deal; long live the king” statues erected erected to certain regimes throughout the empire, on the streets and in temples, were often without thought for the historic record beheaded and replaced with the likeness of the new emperor—which is why archaeologists find a lot of disembodied busts and unofficially treated to purge the career of their predecessors. There was even a legislative mechanism for erasing the past, called damnatio memoriae, but this statue seemed to have been enacted only sparingly—at least as far as we know, since if it did work according to the letter of law, we would never know about it. This striking from the record was imposed on the assassins of Julius Caesar, to include the proscription on the pain of death that no one from his clan ever be called Marc Antony—although later pardoned and rescinded. After the horrors of Tiberius, Caligula (who bankrupted the empire, among other things), Nero (who is reported to have burned down Rome in order to make space for the palace he wanted to construct for himself and burned Christians for candlelit dining), the first emperor whose memory was to be condemned to oblivion was a man from Emesa (Homs) in the province of Syria called Sextus Varius Avitus Bassianus.  Domitian came first but as his condemnation was spearheaded by a Senate bitter for being completely bypassed by someone who refused to recognise the charade of democracy, and this selective memory was even less potent than usual.
He was given the regnal name of Elagabalus—or Heliogabalus to make the Persia name of the sun deity sound a bit more solar to Greco-Roman ears), after his service as a priest to that order in his homeland, who venerated a meteorite which was sent to Earth from the Conquering Sun, and tried to introduce this religion to Rome. For someone who historians tried to toss down the memory-hole, there are surely some other lascivious details about his emperorship aside from his proselytising, including his male-lovers and the grace-and-favour postings they received, his desire to “mate” with the Vestal Virgins to produce “godlike offspring,” and reputedly making a brothel of his palace. Although any and all of the claims cannot be elevated above the suspicion of embellishment, maybe the act that besmirched his reputation the most, aside from being a foreigner and as gender-/role-challenged as Cleopatra, was allowing his grandmother and mother to participate directly in the Roman Senate. After Elagablus' reign was cut short, his religious trappings were sent back to Syria, women were barred from the Senate and his existence erased. Though extant there's only the strain of his name sung in the Major-General's Song in the Pirates of Penzance and a Gilded Age cult following for his decadent parties, damnatio memoriae, de facto or sanctioned, seems to leave a lot of blanks to fill in.