La morte è la vita. Il perfetto è l’imperfetto. Devinez (ἀληθινὴ ὃρασις)

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“Una bellezza perfetta è più imperfetta”
“E una bellezza imperfetta?”

ψ

“La morte è la vita”
“E la vita?”

ψ

“καὶ ἡ κάμμυσιϛ τῶν ὁφθαλμῶν?”
[e il chiudere gli occhi?]

ψ

Devinez.

Over at the Hannibal’s. Can We Really ‘Know’ the Greco-Romans? (2)

The Ancient Roman ‘Temple of all gods’ (Pantheon,) Rome. Click to zoom in

[continued from part 1]

Opinion and Knowledge (of the Ancients)

MoR: “Douglas, you are a friend and you raise here a big philosophical question: whether man can reach truth. I’m not qualified, my wife is the epistemologist of the family (she has a degree on philosophy of science) and all I understood (from our quarrels) is that ‘scientific’ research is all about trying to go beyond doxa, ie biased opinion, so you hit the nail on the head I believe.

By ‘research is progressing’ I meant: ok, we will possibly never ‘know’ these folks (Saxons invading Britain, Macedonians at the times of Alexander etc.) but the various ‘pictures’ we have of them are enriched day by day, researchers communicating more (such ‘pictures’ are interrelated), and, our sources being not only ancient literary texts (which reflect the view of the writer) but of course also the (less biased?) ‘data’ from archaeology, biology, from studies on agricultural techniques, fossil seeds etc.

As an example (also of various doxas coexisting), the ‘picture(s)’ of Rome’s fall – the period 300-600 CE, ‘late antiquity’ ie between antiquity and middle ages – have changed dramatically in the minds of many specialists, I believe, although the public still thinks in terms of a Gibbon’s progressively decadent, imploding empire (Gibbons mentioned Rome’s ‘immoderate greatness’ so that “the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight” plus he blamed Christianity for Rome’s weakening) which received the last blow by totally ‘rough’ Germanic barbarians.

Who is right? I don’t know, these younger historians though surely profiting from a lot more of multi-disciplinary data I think.

The Barbarian Kingdoms, ca. 526 CE. By the 6th century the Western Roman Empire had been replaced by smaller kingdoms. Click for credits and to zoom in

Feeling Too Superior, Was Rome ‘Murdered’?

It seems the news is ‘electric’ (as Peter Heather put it in his The Fall of the Roman Empire) for both the descendants of the Romans and of the Germans – I belonging to both a bit, as I said in my mystical (and emphatic) *first post*.

Basically:

  1. the ‘late’ Roman empire was a total success story.
  2. Germanic, non Roman, Europe was a two-speed reality (no new thing lol,) one portion being much more civilised than we had thought, surely influenced by Rome but absolutely non Roman (so this doesn’t include Bavaria or Austria, that were romanized, and, not by chance, when ‘Nordic’ Luther arrived, they said: no thanks).

So what the hell happened? Why healthy Rome fell?

Possibly because, blinded by her sense of superiority, Rome made fatal mistakes, and was murdered by the German Goths. Within though a period of ‘collaboration’ with the Germans.

[No easy topic the fall of Rome. Here's a big list of theories on it.]

[I believe Christianity helped a bit (love your enemy blah blah, Gibbon in this was right imo), but I still have to figure out to which extent.]

Even the German Women were terrific fighters

J. Caesar Admired German Valour

MoR: PS. Excuse my logorrhea, such ‘collaboration’ between Germans and Romans was started by Julius Caesar the Myth. One reason he conquered Gaul [today's France, Luxembourg and Belgium] was that the Germans, much stronger than the Gauls or Celts, were crossing the Rhenus (Rhine) in flocks and invading Gaul (so Caesar by conquering Gaul postponed an invasion that occurred much later with the German Franks, thence the name of France.)

Therefore Caesar, after defeating the Germans of Ariovistus, said to the toughest prisoners: “I admire your valour, so I give you a choice: either to be sold in the slave markets or to become my personal guard”. I think the Germans preferred the latter also because it was in their culture to follow the leader that proved most valorous.

Julius Caesar

Caesar took a risk, but not that much I believe. He belonged to the impoverished nobility and was a son of the slums of Rome (Subura) where he probably had lived in contact with Germans and Gauls long enough to understand their mentality. And surely, in the conquest of Gaul that ensued, the Germans proved much more faithful to Caesar than the Celts allied to the Romans. From that day many Roman emperors had German gorillas protecting them – not to mention foot soldiers and Cavalry, also used by Caesar.

Douglas: MoR, thus began the Praetorian Guard (under Augustus, successor to Julius) which became the controllers of the fates of emperors for 300 years until Constantine disbanded them. Perhaps that had something to do with the fall of Rome? Hitler seemed to have read his history well and created his own guard but tried to control them utterly and was quite successful in maintaining their total loyalty. Did il Duce? Certainly, he had his personal guard but they failed to protect him in the end from the citizens.

I think (to get back to history and understanding the common citizen of any culture or state) that with the expansion of literacy came more understanding. One source of great insight into American history is the correspondence between its citizens. These are the thoughts of the average citizen, not merely the hopes and dreams of the elite. Ancient Rome (and Athens, Egypt, and so forth) are known by what its rulers (for the most part) decided was important (and, often, flattering). To learn about the average citizen, we must make guesses and extrapolations based on myths and legends and on relics found. Do we taint these guesses and extrapolations with our own biases? Probably so.

But my bias is that history was, for centuries, the tales of kings and it was told as they wanted it told.

Old Temple of Athena at the Acropolis of Athens. Click for credits and to enlarge

MoR:

my bias is that history was, for centuries, the tales of kings and it was told as they wanted it told.

It certainly was Douglas.

MoR: [talking to both Douglas and Phil] “That you mentally associate the emperors of Rome with Hitler & Mussolini, is interesting. There’s not much linking to be made imo, apart from the masquerade etc. I explain it with the great tradition of democracy in your country, which, we Latin people, do envy.

As for the Praetorian guard, I just now read in the Wikipedia that their role – according to who wrote the article – was of stability to the Empire on the whole. I don’t think though the Praetorian guard (a substantial army) were Germans (I only believe a few gorillas around many emperors were). And maybe some of the Praetorians were, I don’t know. I’m sure instead the legions who fought against the enemies of Rome had a progressively increasing number of Germans, which in the end became a problem possibly.

Rome is an Idea

Rome was more an idea, she was pretty international. The emperors themselves (Spanish, Arab etc.) could come from any land of the empire (like the Popes.)

It is little known that Caesar’s legions who conquered Gaul came mostly from Gallia Cisalpina, today’s northern Italy (80% sure). Big difference was there between these Italian Gauls and, so to say, the French ones. The former were Celts too (though with doses of Roman & Latin blood) but wore the toga (Gallia Togata is another name for it), eg were deeply romanized (Virgil, Pompey the Great etc. came from there), hence immensely more faithful to Rome than any other external people.

They only lacked regular Roman citizenship, which was given them as a prize by Caesar at the end of his Celtic wars. So Caesar – no Hitler or Mussolini indeed – had also the merit to create the unity of Italians, re-attained only 150 years ago!

The Roman legion was a perfect and disciplined war machine. Click to zoom in

Do We Know the ‘Average’ Roman?

One source of great insight into American history is the correspondence between its citizens. These are the thoughts of the average citizen, not merely the hopes and dreams of the elite.

True, but pls, allow me, we know something (I’d say a lot) about the average Roman too (who btw exchanged letters – the middle class – but we have lost most of them). Comedies were for the common people as well, or they would have been unsuccessful – there were no cinema or TV, thence theatre was terribly important – plus we have thousands of graffiti – whole sentences, poems etc. – written by the upper middle and lower classes: you probably under estimate the complexity of ancient society, no less structured than ours. Yes, the lower classes could be literate too, although, ok, the rate of illiteracy was higher, but, since religion touched the middle and the lower milieus especially, and we knowing A LOT about it (by Roman religion I mean ALL the cults present in Rome, Christianity included) I can infer that:

We know a lot about the poor people as well. The whole (monumentally documented) history of the progressive success of Christianity tells tons of things about the lower classes of the whole empire from the times of early Christians onwards. Just think of the letters by Paul of Tarsus: he had to persuade the non Pagan populace of the Empire – slaves included: see image below – but most of all he had to inspire & guide the faith of the already Christian elements – his message hence being directed to ALL social classes, it goes without saying.

Places visited by Paul. His letters tell about the life of the common people of the empire

I mean, we even know – due to the translations of the Bible – the Greek & Latin language actually spoken by the populace: for the reasons you mention the language of the poor and of the rich differed in sophistication.

As for simple-to-the-masses Latin the first translations of the Bible – Jerome’s not by chance is called ‘vulgata’, from vulgus, populace – appeared in the 4th century CE if I’m not wrong. They were written in non literary, ‘vulgar’ Latin, – eg that everyone could understand – to the extent that today’s Italians with a high-school diploma can more or less read them, vulgar Latin and Italian being closely related (whatever you Phil may think about it lol :-) ).

I have to stop this, Douglas. Thanks for obliging this lazy old man to work.

Douglas:

That you mentally associate the emperors of Rome with Hitler & Mussolini, is interesting. There’s not much linking to be made imo, apart from the masquerade etc. I explain it with the great tradition of democracy in your country, which, we Latin people on the whole, do envy.

Actually, it is both of those men who made the association. Not unusual for more modern despots to see themselves in the same light as men whom history has portrayed as great.
(Gen. Patton saw himself as a reincarnation of soldiers of the past and, I suspect, great generals and military leaders)

Julius took control of the political structure of Rome and turned it away from being a true republic of the times. He had himself declared dictator. He took total control of both the political and military structures. And was assassinated for it. But he laid the groundwork for Augustus to become Emperor. In some ways, he created the Roman Empire. First, by expanding the territory under its control and, second, by changing its political structure and laying the groundwork for dictatorial rule.

As I understand it, the literacy rate of Rome was ~15%. This would be the elite ruling class and the “middle class”. The “middle class” would be better described as the merchant class. This would be where the graffiti came from, as well as the letters.

When I spoke of the correspondence of American citizens, it began with the literate classes. But later it expanded into the general public as education expanded. We were fortunate that we began as a country after the invention of the printing press and at the beginning of the expansion of literacy. It is more the good fortune of our time period than anything else.

Try to understand, I am not denigrating Rome’s history. I am trying to explain my scepticism of history in general before the advent of the spread of literacy.

ψ

Read part 1 of this conversation

New Subura

Birth of Venus by French Adolphe Bouguereau (1879)

Roman Subura, New and Old

Suburra (Italian name for Latin Subura) refers to the slums district of ancient Rome, full of “disreputable locals and brothels” (sort of a red-light district, if you prefer) and inhabited by low-class Romans together with people, mainly poor immigrants, from all over the Empire (quoted from here where you get infos on location of Subura in modern Rome). Modern rione Monti corresponds to a part of it.

Julius Caesar “grew up in a home in the Subura district (Wikipedia) even though he came of the most aristocratic origins.” I won’t talk of ancient Subura though. I will instead bring up what seems to me the New Subura, namely the area around Piazza Vittorio Emanuele, not far from Termini Railway Station (see picture below from Google Maps).

Piazza Vittorio, at the centre of multi-ethnic Rome. Google Maps, hybrid view. Fair Use

While cutting across the rione almost every morning in order to catch the subway line-A train I feel this intoxicating aura of exoticism pervading the area and reminding me of some corners of Bombay, the city of wonders and my favourite Indian city. Indians, Chinese, Pakistanis, Africans, Eastern-Europeans etc. crowd these orthogonal streets making them tremendously vibrant.

Mafias, prostitution and illegal activities flourish here of course (thence the analogy with ancient Subura) but on the whole the place and Rome are starting to profit from all this, especially now that the big money is arriving.

So Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is right at the centre of new multi-ethnic Rome.

Piazza Vittorio is actually the New Subura.

New found Pride

One month ago, while I was desperately trying to catch my train to my office, I saw some Chinese youngsters possibly doing their Tai Chi Chuan gymnastics on the grass in Piazza Vittorio Emanuele Gardens, a magnificent park that occupies the greatest part of this huge rectangular porticoed piazza, the biggest in Rome, built after the unification of Italy by architect Gaetano Koch between 1882 and 1887. These Chinese faces looked very self-assured, I couldn’t but notice. They were very focused on their activity, with curious passers-by gathering around them.

Tai Chi Chuan. Fair use

To the history-addicted the place is somewhat ghostly because it used to be the place of witches, assassins and slaves’ executions during ancient Roman Republican times. The piazza is in fact located at the top of the Esquiline Hill, the highest of the Seven Hills, a no man’s land at the edge of Subura until emperor Augustus redeemed it and which revealed its horrors more than 2000 years later during the public works conducted by architect Gaetano Koch who found vast carnage pits dating back to the Republican Roman era.

The park also contains the famous Porta Alchemica or alchemic door (XVII century AD) which, according to some alchemists, could reveal the secret of the philosopher’s stone in its engraved symbols (so, Harry Potter‘s fans, open well your eyes: you might discover the secret of secrets. See the alchemic door picture below – Wikimedia Commons. Same image at a higher resolution here).

Porta alchemica. Gnu free documentation license. Low res

Totally unaware of all this spooky past these young Chinese faces seemed to me a totally new generation. Many Romans in their uncaring attitude have not noticed the difference, useless to say. Chinese people are all over the place in New Subura, attending customers in shops and stores, working energetically in restaurants and at bar tables or having some relax at open-air cafes.

Trendy-clothed teenagers – pretty high-heeled girls with weird-coloured hair and macho-looking T-shirted boys – meet in the evening at the renowned Fassi’s Palace of Ice(cream) close-by (Palazzo del Freddo), one of the most ancient ice-cream shops in Italy, located in 65, Via Principe Eugenio.

How all is changing so fast. Customers at Fassi are now much more mixed up and how terribly hard-working these Far-Eastern people seem compared to us and even to some Honk-Kong Chinese friends who are westernised and really admire the incredible hardiness of the unspoiled mainland Chinese.

They do not seem keen to show their feelings though (both the mainland and the HK Chinese). It is the reason why they look so enigmatic to Romans, or marble-faced (this is how I tease my HK friends, not deprived of some nice UK sense of humour). The simple truth, I think, is that they are just shy.

It is now three-four years that the Roman Chinese and Indians have sort of come out of this psychological ghetto every immigrant initially finds into (Italians know too well, having being, as immigrants, scattered all over the world), their eyes less elusive and their facial expressions franker (and prouder). Indian faces are more expressive, being more similar to us in their non-verbal communication (we have blood in common, after all). Chinese are marble-faced instead lol, whatever HK guys may say :-)

Sikhs from all over Italy gather in Piazza Vittorio. Baisakhi festival (Repubblica) fair use

Is Rome Adapting to the Future?

Caught out by a swiftly growing immigration phenomenon the Romans are starting to overreact every now and then, although on the whole they preserve this good-natured, I-couldn’t-care-less type of behaviour (called menefreghismo bonario) which indeed characterizes them and which is typical of a folk who really saw everything in the course of their history. Is such menefreghismo (or chissenefrega attitude) anachronistic today, not providing a sufficiently powerful barrier against Roman possible mounting decline (and Italian & European)?

I don’t remember who said: “I wish we will not live in an interesting age”.

What has to be understood is that this multicultural / multiracial situation is rather recent here compared to places like London or Paris (not to mention America). Rome, we believe, is nevertheless trying to adapt to the future, her somewhat economic success providing evidence of this reaction capability (local economic figures are growing faster than the Italian annual GDP increase).

To this success residing foreigners are contributing, it is hard to deny.

ψ

Related posts:

Rome. Stepmother or Alma Mater?

Saw Bacchus in Wenzhou

Chinese Meal. Fair use

A few days ago our bunch of friends decided to have a Chinese dinner at our home. Everyone loves Chinese cooking. This food is of course not a novelty any more even here, but since while getting better it keeps being incredibly cheap, we still eat it a lot and like it (a lot.)

Advised by the youngest of us all I therefore went to this Chinese restaurant close by, located at the end of Via Cavour, not far from Via dei Fori Imperiali. I ordered a take-away meal for 8. I had never been there before. Wow was I surprised by the place and by the people!

The restaurant was elegant enough. I admired the professionalism, dynamism and hard working style that reigned in the place, everybody being so serious and dedicated.

A big family clan, I believe, with all ages being present: male teenagers serving tables; middle-aged women organising, calculating, pinning small sheets of purple paper to the wall; young sweet-looking women serving too, clad in traditional silk dresses with fine motifs on them; a man who I think was the husband of one of the older women and apparently the boss; the eldest woman finally, white-haired, the grandmother definitely, who worked hard at the counter despite her age, so incredibly attentive to all that happened and typing the bills on the counter keys with solemn vigour.

I smiled at her and she smiled back. Romans are good-natured but they have some difficulty in understanding such closed-up and reserved people who nonetheless, when they feel one doesn’t perceive them as aliens, quickly respond. I told her I had a few friends from China and asked her what town they came from, what type of Chinese language they spoke, whether their language was Cantonese- or Mandarin-related. She said that their speech was related to none of them, that it was an entirely different language. The way she said it revealed she enjoyed answering to me even though it was not apparent (although I felt it clearly.)

She then said they all came from Wenzhou, which (I later learned) is a town in the south-eastern Zhejiang province residing “on the Ou Jiang delta, with picturesque buildings and surroundings. The port (…) very active in the 19th century (tea export) was later used for fishing only” (La Piccola Treccani). Thence the emigration to foreign countries of large portions of these active people with “a reputation for being an enterprising folk who starts restaurants, retail and wholesale businesses in their adopted countries.”

Wenzhou. Such a difficult word I remember only because the guy got close – the one I thought to be the boss – and was so pleased to write it down for me, and he asked me if I was a real Roman, and I said yes, I am a real Roman, and after a while I realised ALL of them suddenly knew this Roman had an interest in them. They sort of suddenly knew I was sympathetic.

Mifu’s Chinese calligraphy. Public Domain

Someone probably overhearing the said conversation and exchanging quick Chinese whispers they all were immediately aware of everything getting immediately hidden-attentive, hidden-agreeable, while two young men prayed me several times to please sit down while waiting for my package (till I finally accepted) and offered me gratis this unbelievable Chinese H-bomb liquor (of which I drank two shots.)

I felt this quasi imperceptible attention, these good vibes in the air despite their not showing it much. Chinese people are delicate, steel-strong, intelligent and – I must gather – telepathic, while most of the people here consider them a totally indecipherable marble-faced folk – funnier than stone-faced, it is a joke I have with some Hong Kong IT students: I tease them, they tease me back.

Oh such a lovely lovely evening it was! My fantasy was flying high, this nitro-glycerine booze being not totally guiltless.

And then – like a sudden cool breeze coming from nowhere … I looking at the paintings around … looking at the smiling faces around – I clearly felt like the presence of a God as my sight began to blur …

Bacchus-Dionysos. Louvre. Public Domain

At home our Chinese dinner was a success. It went on and on as only Roman dinners can go (for hours,) mixing both Chinese and Italian dishes washed down with an icy Italian white this time though, a tuscan Galestro not at all bad.

I didn’t bring any of the Chinese H-bomb though (meeting Gods too often can be a problem beyond a doubt.) I in fact know I owe that stuff a brief, intense encounter with Bacchus-Dionysus (son of Semele and Jupiter) in that Wenzhou restaurant and in the cool open air outside, a place right at the border of the ancient Roman Subura.

While actually my sight slightly blurred within the restaurant I remember I was gently given my take-away meal.

Bacchus-Dionysus. Louvre. Face. Public Domain

Moments later I was driving back home with my motorbike, winding and winding like a crazy birdie, fresh crisp air on my ecstatic face.

Rome, the eternal loose woman, imperial, magnificent, was smiling all around.

Colosseum. Fair use

Italian version
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