Most recent update:3/1/2004; 6:10:01 AM

 Monday, February 09, 2004

CHATTER: Valentinian Musings

Well, the News-Miner appears to be first off the mark in the e-world with the usual piece on the origins of Valentine's Day hailing back to Lupercalia. Unfortunately, they have at least one glaring error. Here's the first three paragraphs:

In olden times Spring began seven weeks after Winter Solstice, which happens to be Feb. 14, Valentine's Day. It was well-known in medieval times that birds began mating on Valentine's Day, and that's why Geoffrey Chaucer wrote "For this was on St. Valentine's day, when every fowl cometh there to choose his mate."

Many celebrations spring from ancient, pagan roots, and Valentine's is far older than the saint martyred by Roman Emperor Claudius II on Feb. 14, 270 A.D. The Roman holiday, which they called "Lupercalia," was a fertility celebration, like Chaucer's, but the Romans adopted their festival from the Etruscan's, which explains the goatskin thongs. 

These thongs, called "februa" by the Romans, were used by Etruscan celebrants who roamed the streets every Feb. 14 flogging passersby, especially women, whose fertility this supposedly enhanced. Over time purification replaced fertility as the excuse for breaking out februas once a year in the middle of that oddly-spelled month, February. This is according to a reputable Web site called "Calendars Through the Ages."

Lupercalia was held on February 15th ... maybe it's time to write an article on all this.

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GOSSIP: Another Movie

The ancient-themed movies keep piling up. This time, it's the Broken Lizard comedy troupe (no, I'd never heard of them either) taking on Plato and Aristotle and the like. An exclusive interview at Cinema Confidential (which I was steered to by includes this excerpt:

TOM: Can you tell us a little bit what it’s about?

PAUL: It takes place in ancient Greece and it involves Plato and Socrates, but as college students. Plato is a freshman wrestling recruit who’s actually a dummy and is failing “basic thought.” If he doesn’t pass basic thought, then he doesn’t get to go to Athens to wrestle in the Olympics. So the university hires Socrates, the philosopher, to tutor him. These kids try to pass and go on the road to the Olympics and in the middle, they attract the attention of three Greek gods: Hades, Poseidon, and Zeus, who start watching their struggles and start taking bets on what’s going to happen with them. Through their whole story in trying to get to the Olympics, the gods can’t help but come down and f**k with them in order to affect their bets.

TOM: And what role are you going to play?

PAUL: I’m going to be one of the Greek gods. Kevin and Steve are going to be Plato and Socrates, and Jay and Eric and I are going to be the three gods. It’s going to be a big, broad comedy and we had a lot of fun playing with Greek mythology and philosophy but it’s also very big and very ridiculous. It will be very Python-esque in its scope and context.

It might work ...

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Arnold Beichman at the National Review makes a somewhat strange analogy:

World history is full of intelligence failures, going back to the CIA of antiquity, which assured the Trojan warlords that the wooden horse outside their walls was nothing to worry about. In the case of Troy, bad intelligence led to defeat.

Wouldn't Cassandra and/or Laocoon have comprised Troy's 'intelligence community'? They were right, of course, but weren't listened to for assorted divine reasons ... it's kind of hard to blame Troy on "bad intelligence".

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CHATTER: Another Caligulation

Of course, after I've figured out a pattern to the Caligula references, ESPN Soccer Commentator Phil Ball makes a really nice use of a Caligula reference in regards to former Barca club president Joan Gaspart:

All the president's men were beginning to desert him as he stood like Caligula, alone and despised.

Sevilla had just beaten Barça 3-0 at the Camp Nou, a result which extended the club's run to five without a win, and although it took Gaspart another two months to finally realise that his hubris was taking him nowhere, the famous pañolada was the beginning of the end, a low point from which there was no realistic return.

Wow ... Caligula and hubris in the same sports article ... I can't find whether Ball has a Classics background or not ...

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ante diem v idus februarias

  • c. 249 A.D. -- martyrdom of Apollonia at Alexandria

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REVIEW: From Scholia

Hanneke Wilson, Wine and Words in Classical  Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

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CHATTER: Horrible Puns

The Washington Post had a contest of some sort to present historical events as Rocky-and-Bullwinkle-style dyad groaner puns. While one with Classical content didn't win, there were some -- all submitted by Chris Doyle --which will make you spew coffee over your monitor:

Trojan War: The Last Time I Saw Paris, or Beware of Gifts Bearing Greeks

Peloponnesian Wars: A Tale of Thucydides, or Hellas-a-Poppin'

Octavian at the Battle of Actium: Surrender Unto Caesar, or Let's Win One for Agrippa!

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NUNTII: Culture and Consciousness

I initially shuddered when a brief passed through my mailbox hinting at a piece in the Toronto Star which quoted a York University professor as claiming:

"If we were thrown back to the era of the ancient Greeks, about 3,000 years ago, we'd be with people who thought exactly like us," says David Martel Johnson. "But earlier, even in ancient Egyptian times, that really wouldn't be true."

... but what it turned out to be was an interesting article on Johnson's contribution to the brain-mind debate that seems to have been going on for quite a while. Here's some more:

"This sounds complex, but it has a simple message," says the tall, silver-haired professor, a former master of York's Vanier College. "The idea that the mind is identical with the brain leaves out something crucially important: the influence of culture."

Johnson's theory takes its place in the relatively new discipline of cognitive science, the study of the mind and how it works.

Launched only 50 years ago, the field is a catch-all for mathematicians, psychologists, linguistics specialists, anthropologists, biologists and artificial intelligence experts as well as philosophers.

Everyone, says Johnson, except the people who study the ancient and not-so-ancient past.

"What philosophers don't recognize and archeologists do, is that modern behaviour came very late to mankind," he says.

In Johnson's view, it took some 100,000 years or more before mankind first formed the kind of abstract thoughts that led to painting on cave walls, fashioning jewellery and designing complicated tools.

"Before that time people thought in very concrete terms, not in symbols," he says. "They hunted prey, mastered survival and buried their dead, just as the Neanderthals did."

It's a theory opposed by strict followers of Charles Darwin, who believe that because of their large brains, the first humans were capable of the same thought processes we know today as soon as they evolved from apes.

Instead, says Johnson, the Upper Paleolithic Revolution, which occurred just 40,000 to 60,000 years ago, laid the foundations of the modern mind, and did it "almost overnight."

The Upper Paleolithic period arrived at the end of the last Ice Age, when major changes in the earth's climate and environment helped humans to flourish. The wide variety of intricately fashioned hunting and domestic equipment, as well as arts and crafts that the era's nomadic people left behind was evidence also of a worldwide transformation in human society.

"It was like a miracle, something that caught fire and spread, unstoppably," Johnson says. "We know it happened, because the stones and bones tell us so. It's history, and we can't ignore it."

What happened to change our species so dramatically?

Some scientists say the end of the Ice Age's big chill released a firestorm of human creativity. Others suggest a genetic mutation was responsible.

But, says Johnson, this startling period was only the first stage in the evolution of human thought.

Thousands more years would go by before the next seismic shift in consciousness, the "Greek Revolution" that took place around 1,000 B.C., and fostered the poetry of Homer, and later the philosophy of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle.

"The crucial factor is objectivity," Johnson says. "The ancient Egyptians, for instance, were very cultured people. But their minds worked differently. In their view of themselves they were always right, and their enemies were always monsters."

However, he says, the Greeks of Homer's time, 800 B.C., saw even their enemies in "evenhanded terms," as humans like themselves, with similar strengths and flaws. The development of writing made it possible to read the thoughts of the great poet and his intellectual descendents, as hieroglyphics and Sumerian cuneiform gave clues to the minds of earlier civilizations.

"The Greeks looked at things as they were, and that is the beginning of what we call the Western Tradition. It's the mind as we now know it, capable of objective thinking," Johnson says.

His theory of history's influence on the modern mind was sparked by Princeton scientist Julian Jaynes, who wrote a much-disputed book titled The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind.

Jaynes argued that the first flicker of human consciousness and introspective thought was born in Greece, symbolized by Socrates' declaration, "the unexamined life isn't worth living."

According to Jaynes, a new kind of thought arose because all the accumulated experience of the past wasn't enough to help people cope with the increasingly sophisticated societies that were taking root at that time. A new kind of thinking was required, one that looked at the world objectively. The Greeks rose to the challenge and developed "conscious thought." [more]


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CHATTER: African Origins

We all know that Africa was called Africa because the Romans called the northern bits that. But where did the Romans get the name? A sort of 'ask a question' column in the Star eventually gets around to the question (after talking about the Roman origins then getting confused over whether Scipio Africanus was named for Africa or vice versa). Here's the salient bits (which remind me of Plutarch's Roman Questions, for some reason):

The Arabs for centuries have used the word "Ifriqiya" for Africa but it seems likely this name is derived from the word "Africa" and not the other way around.

Joseph Ki Zerbo's introduction to the General History of Africa says Africa became an accepted term from Roman times, having replaced the word "Libya" - land of the Lebu or the Lubins in the book of Genesis.

"Africa" referred to the North African coast and, from the end of the first century BC, to the whole continent.

This was directly after the Roman, Scipio Africanus, defeated Hannibal who had earlier relied on a spearhead of 80 war elephants to defeat the Roman army.

Libya (in those days called Carthage) then became part of the Roman Empire.

So, it seems, the victorious Scipio was named after Africa just as happened 2000 years later when Montgomery of Alamein was awarded his title after verily smiting the Germans at El Alamein in 1942.

But from where did the Romans get the name Africa?

It is thought to have come from the name of the Berbers who lived to the south of Carthage - the Afarik people.

Afriga or Africa denoted the land of the Afarik.

But there are two other possible derivations (suggests Zerbo) from Phoenician terms - one means an ear of corn, a fertility symbol; the other, Pharika, means the land of fruit.

It is further suggested that the word might come from the Latin adjective aprica (sunny) or the Greek aprike (free from cold).

In Sanskrit and Hindi the root "apara" or "africa" denotes that which, in geographical terms, comes "after", in other words the west - Africa being the western continent from an Asian perspective.

Leo Africanus maintained that a Yemenite chief named Africus invaded North Africa 4 000 years ago and founded a town called Afrikyah.

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REVIEW: Michael Parenti

We haven't mentioned Michael Parenti and his Assassination of Julius Caesar: A People's History of Rome in quite a while, so here's the incipit of a review from something called Green Left Weekly:

The prevailing view of historians, classical scholars and the entertainment industry, argues Michael Parenti in The Assassination of Julius Caesar, is that the Senator-assassins were defending republican liberty from the dictator, Caesar.

This orthodoxy is evident in sources from Shakespeare, whose play Julius Caesar operates within the paradigm of “Republic good, Caesarism bad”, to Hollywood, whose blood and sword epic Gladiators, although set two centuries after Caesar's death, has a similar take on the Roman Senate. “We are asked to believe that the Senate was populated by public-spirited men devoted to the people's welfare”, comments Parenti.

The view of the people as a mindless, bloodthirsty mob, interested in only “bread and circuses”, is also common to stage, screen and academic treatise. The whole centuries-long treatment, however, of Caesar's assassination and its political context, argues Parenti, is “anti-people's history”.

Caesar ruled at the end of the Late Republic period (133 BCE-40 BCE). This was a century of political struggle between the land and slave-owning aristocracy (patricians) and the urban and rural working “free” masses (plebeians). The Late Republic was a mixture of poverty and its alleviation, of popular democratic protections and elite power. People's tribunes were elected each year by citizens' assemblies to protect popular rights from the most powerful governing body, the Roman Senate, which was dominated by the wealthiest aristocrats. [more]

As I've mentioned before ... I don't believe this has been the prevailing view for at least a generation of scholars, if not more. Heck, Parenti sounds like he's just regurgitating Classics 101 stuff. It might be worth suggesting that folks don't take Shakespeare and/or Hollywood to be indications of current scholarly orthodoxy.

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AWOTV: On TV Today

2.00 p.m. |HISTU| Roman War Machine: First Our Neighbors, Then the World
It began as a group of farmers defending the village of Rome from
warring neighbors, and grew to conquer an empire stretching from
Scotland to Arabia. Joseph Campanella hosts this history of the first
professional army. In Part 1, early Rome throws off the shackles of
Etruscan domination and creates a republic with an army.

3.00 p.m. |DCIVC| The Greatest Journeys: Greece: Journeys to the Gods

3.00 p.m. |HISTU| Roman War Machine: Roman versus Roman
By 55 BC, the Roman army had conquered nearly all of the
Mediterranean region. Rome's greatest general, Julius Caesar, stood
on destiny's brink. After conquering Gaul, he planned to invade a
distant, strange island--Britain. But soon, the Roman army would find
itself embroiled in civil war as Roman faced Roman over the Rubicon.

4.00 p.m. |HISTU| Roman War Machine: Roman Siege Warfare
If any ancient people dared defy Roman demands to surrender town or
city, a large arsenal of technologically advanced siege weaponry may
have been among the last sights they witnessed on earth. For siege
warfare was one of Rome's greatest tools for winning and keeping
control of its empire. Joseph Campanella hosts.

5.00 p.m. |HISTU| Roman War Machine: Barbarians at the Gate
By the 2nd century AD, the empire had expanded as far as it could.
Consolidation was at hand. Instead of plundering new territories, the
Roman army reconstructed them. Because the army was the first Roman
presence in a new land, the soldiers and their architects, surveyors,
and engineers built their own defenses...some lasting 2,000 years.

6.00 p.m. |HISTU| The True Story of Gladiators
They began as slaves, prisoners of war, the damned of ancient Roman
society. Yet a few would become wealthy and famous--the sports stars
of their day, main attractions in spectacular entertainment meant to
satiate the bloodlust of the Roman mob. Their ranks included women,
senators, and even an emperor who took the bloody sport to new depths
of depravity. Join as we examine the sometimes glorious and always
gruesome history of gladiators.

7.00 p.m. |HISTU| The Colosseum
Nothing symbolizes the Roman Empire at its height or Rome in
magnificent ruins more than the Colosseum. Built in 70 AD, it seated
80,000 people, boasted a retractable roof, underground staging
devices, marble seating, and lavish decorations. It still serves as
the prototype for the modern stadium. The complexity of its
construction, the beauty of its architecture, and the functionality
of its design made it the perfect place for massive crowds to
congregate for the bloody spectacles it contained.

8.00 p.m. |DCIVC| Ancient Clues: In Search of Warrior Women

DCIVC = Discovery Civilization (Canada)

HISTU = History Channel (US)

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