Thursday, September 17, 2009

A still-wandering warlord

My slow journey to the completion of a MA in history is leading me, this semester, through the Protestant Reformation and its attendant upheavals. As someone who has taken every opportunity offered by his program requirements to focus on the third through seventh centuries, with occasional forays into earlier times, I approached this seminar with a certain amount of trepidation. Here was the far side of the bridge spanning the great, fermenting river that is medieval history. I have spent the bulk of my studies pawing through the silt of that river's near side, marveling over found gewgaws and sometimes pausing to wonder how, or whether, eddies near the shore affected the greater flow of the river. The task of crossing to the opposite bank and appreciating its landscape promised to take me well outside my comfort zone.

You might imagine my surprise when, in the midst of Luther's screeds and classic studies of the period, I encountered a man whose mark on the historical record took place more than 15 centuries earlier...and 2,000 years ago this month. Germany's soil had long since reclaimed the bleached bones of Publius Quinctilius Varus by the time Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, ruled over it. Nonetheless, there, standing alongside Hannibal, Alexander the Great, Scipio Africanus, and pleading his case before Minos, judge of the dead in Hades, was Hermann the German:

[Tacitus] calls me "the deliverer of Germany," and not wrongly, for it was I who tore the German land from the grip of Roman armies, restoring freedom to my countrymen who had grown accustomed to their slavish yoke...inasmuch as everyone admits that no greater might than Rome's ever existed on the earth, and seeing that I succeeded in vanquishing this might at the moment of its apogee, I believe to be entitled fairly to the name of greatest general of all times.

The author of this spectral dialogue was Ulrich von Hutten, who found Hermann--or, as the Romans called him, Arminius--a convenient standard bearer in his propaganda war against the Roman church. More than a thousand years after the Rhine and Danube frontiers had lost their ancient significance, Rome still regarded its German co-religionists as a horde of barely civilized barbarians who'd only found Christian salvation with Rome's missionary assistance...and who were quite ungrateful for the favor.

Hutten's Romans had a predictably dimmer view of Arminius:

SCIPIO: Among the Romans, Arminius stands accused of breach of faith and is charged with having abused his victory over Varus by excessive cruelty.
ARMINIUS: If that accusation were to stand, Scipio, all tyrannicides and liberators would be judged faithless, most notably your own patriots who drove out the Tarquins and assassinated Julius Caesar. And yet these heroes enjoy fame and glory among you. I, for my part, call those men faithless who trim their sails to the winds of good fortune, who offer their loyalty for sale to the highest bidder. I myself was driven by the sacred merit of my nation's enemies' jealousy is responsible for the invention of this malicious calumny...I am not the first to be slandered, nor will I be the last.

Expurgating the record of anti-German slander has been a popular pastime in the centuries since Hutten wrote, and Arminius has often reprised his role as mascot. The dark side of German nationalism has made many wary of his appearances, which is why Germany's acknowledgement of the anniversary has been carefully moderated. On my side of the ocean, however, German ethnic pride has more or less successfully rid itself of its more distasteful associations, which permits Arminius to serve as an emblem of freedom in the American iconic tradition.

That's the case in the little town of New Ulm, Minnesota, where a monumental statue of Arminius was first dedicated in 1897. He's since been refurbished, and today, he presides over a weekend-long celebration of "the great achievements of Germanic-Americans." There will be re-enactors, a German car show (!), and an academic symposium held, appropriately enough, at Martin Luther College.

For my money, though, the can't-miss attraction is Saturday morning's Cherusci Breakfast. Get there early to enjoy "Battle Biscuits," "Thusnelda's Scrambled Eggs," and "Hermann Ham" with "Black Forest Fruit Salad." Your meal will be served by costumed waitstaff. What are you waiting for?

Of course, before you go, you should do some background reading to help you get in the proper spirit of things. The blogosphere's undisputed expert on Arminius is Adrian Murdoch, who has also written a book on his victory over Varus.

Adrian's blog, however, does not include breakfast. Get on that, Adrian.

Friday, September 11, 2009

"There are profane persons here, who obstruct the rites." *

Just stopped by Wikipedia and noticed that the Diocletianic Persecution is subject of today's featured article.

* Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors (De Mortibus Persecutorum) 10

Monday, September 07, 2009


One day in June of 594, Gregory the Great had to excuse himself from his daunting daily responsibilities to field a letter from Constantina, Empress of the Romans and still, in theory, Gregory's temporal superior. The Empress was erecting a glorious church for St. Paul in the middle of the palace environs in Constantinople, and she'd made an extraordinary request of the Bishop of Rome: the Apostle's head.

Gregory must have found the Empress's letter exasperating. It was only a year earlier that he'd negotiated a fragile truce with the barbarian Lombards (with virtually no help, it must be said, from the imperial administration). Protected from their pillaging, the shrunken, tattered city had finally begun to stabilize under Gregory's tireless ministrations. Now, though, the wife of the distant Augustus, who had never set foot in Rome, sought to relieve the former capital of one of its most precious assets.

Gregory's response was carefully worded:
Being desirous of receiving commands from you, by exhibiting the most ready obedience to which I might the more provoke your favor towards me, I am all the more distressed that I neither can nor dare do what you enjoin.

The Apostles, Gregory explained, did not take kindly to having their relics carved up into lots and sent hither and thither. Most people who'd attempted to do so, or who'd even looked as though they might be considering it, had been struck down for their presumption. These were real, Roman, saintly relics, you see; not cheap Eastern knockoffs:
For certain Greek monks who came here more than two years ago dug up in the silence of night near the church of Saint Paul, bodies of dead men lying in the open field, and laid up their bones to be kept in their own possession until their departure. When the monks were arrested and questioned about this act, they confessed that they were going to carry the bones to Greece to pass for the relics of saints.

He offered the Empress the consolation prize of some iron filings from the chains that St. Peter had worn on the way to his crucifixion. Even these, though, could not be guaranteed:
For, while many come frequently to seek a blessing from these same chains, in the hope of receiving a little part of the filings, a priest attends with a file, and in the case of some seekers a portion comes off so quickly from these chains that there is no delay: but in the case of other seekers the file is drawn for long over the chains, and yet nothing can be got from them.

I suspect the Empress's reply may have included a tart instruction for the priest to please apply the file for as long as necessary, thank you very much.

Gregory thus managed to preserve the integrity of Paul's remains, and with them, the uncompromised sanctity of one of Rome's most celebrated shrines. That sanctity was highly valuable, not only as an attraction for pilgrims and their money, but as a religious buttress to the growing temporal authority of the Pope.

It's not surprising, then, that as Christianity's roots deepened across Europe, the pressures of supply and demand eroded Gregorian inhibitions against the packaging and distribution of saint parts. Some of these transfers were made with the approval of prevailing authorities. Many others, including incidents of so-called furta sacra (holy theft) were not, giving rise to a black market in real and bogus relics that defied the laws (CT 9.17.7) of the Emperor Theodosius and persists to this day.

Regardless of their provenance, relics were not borne casually. They had to be carefully labeled and wrapped in fine silk in keeping with the requirements of reverentia. This practice, too, has survived, and has itself been translated over to the reverence of modern, secular martyrs, as we learn today from the New York Times:

As the anniversary of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, approaches on Friday, pieces of the World Trade Center rubble from that day have never been more accessible. A new campaign is under way to speed up the process and increase the volume of giving away pieces of steel big and small from the debris.
The requests are deferential. “All we need is a 1-foot-by-1-foot-by-4-feet tall piece of steel,” read a letter from the mayor and the president of a memorial in Glens Falls, N.Y. “It’s a small piece of steel to fill our big hearts.”
On Friday, Jack Sommer, the president of Prospect Hill Cemetery in York, Pa., came to Hangar 17 to collect a piece, watching as a cemetery employee strapped a chunk of steel, concrete and gnarled rebar to a trailer. In an added flourish, the men had spread an American flag under the steel. A Port Authority police car escorted them out.

Photo credit: dweekly

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

When on Google Earth 28

Welcome, WOGErs, to my lonely, neglected history blog. Thanks to Andrea, the winner of WOGE 26, for presenting me with low-hanging fruit. Below: Something a bit more obscure. First, though, the boilerplate:

Q: What is When on Google Earth?
A: It’s a game for archaeologists, or anybody else willing to have a go!

Q: How do you play it?
A: Simple, you try to identify the site in the picture.

Q: Who wins?
A: The first person to correctly identify the site, including its major period of occupation, wins the game.

Q: What does the winner get?
A: The winner gets bragging rights and the chance to host the next When on Google Earth on his/her own blog!

Two very general hints, for starters:

1. This site is pre-modern.
2. This site is open and easily accessible to the public.

Thursday, January 01, 2009


A happy new year to all from greater Philadelphia, where private benefactors have ensured that the local manifestation of a very old pageant will be taken to a characteristically American extreme later today.

Our Mummers have long since traded divination rituals for accordion and banjo skills, which is too bad, because most conventional predictions for the year at hand inspire more anxiety than can be assuaged by even the liveliest pavement polka.

As usual, history provides some perspective. By about AD 440, it was clear to everyone in southern France that the era of the Roman good life had drawn to a close. Salvian of Marseilles, a Christian bishop, was writing On the Government of God, which laid the blame for the miseries of the Roman people squarely at their own feet. His main theme was their failure to practice the Christian principles they professed, but he made room for some criticism of economic policy:
Who can find words to describe the enormity of our present situation? Now when the Roman commonwealth, already extinct or at least drawing its last breath in that one corner where it still seems to retain some life, is dying, strangled by the cords of taxation as if by the hands of brigands, still a great number of wealthy men are found the burden of whose taxes is borne by the poor; that is, very many rich men are found whose taxes are murdering the poor. Very many, I said: I am afraid I might more truly say all; for so few, if any, are free from this evil, that we may find practically all the rich in the category to which I have just assigned many of them.
Salvian didn't think much of taxpayer-funded bailouts.
Think a minute: the remedies recently given to some cities. What have they done but make all the rich immune and heap up the taxes of the wretched? To free the rich from their old dues they have added new burdens to those of the poor; they have enriched the wealthy by taking away their slightest obligations and afflicted the poor by multiplying their very heavy payments. The rich have thus become wealthier by the decrease of the burdens that they bore easily, while the poor are dying of the increase in taxes that they already found too great for endurance. So the vaunted remedy most unjustly exalted the one group and most unjustly killed the other; to one class it was a most accursed reward and to the other a most accursed poison. Hence I say that nothing can be more wicked than the rich who are murdering the poor by their so-called remedies, and nothing more unlucky than the poor, to whom even the general panacea brings death.
No matter how questionable the upcoming fiscal stimulus plans might be, however, they're likely to be more politically defensible than those prescribed by the leaders of Salvian's day:
What followed these calamities? Who can assay such utter folly? The few men of rank who had survived destruction demanded of the emperors circuses as the sovereign remedy for a ruined city. O that I might here and now be gifted with eloquence adequate to cope with this shocking event, that there might be at least as much virtue in my complaint as there is sorrow at its cause! Who can even decide what chiefly merits accusation in the tale, irreverence or stupidity, extravagance or insanity? ... I confess I thought you most miserable when you were suffering destruction, but I see that you are now more miserable when you demand public shows. At first I thought you had lost only your material property in the capture of your city; I did not know that you had lost also your intelligence and control of your senses. Do you then ask for theaters, and demand a circus from our emperors?
Hmm. Insanity, Salvian, or just an attempt to reassure a frightened populace that everything was returning to normal?

That said, if I'd known my tax dollars were going to pay for amusements, I'd have preferred chariot races to the 19 gazillion airings that this [expletive] commercial has received since the U.S. Congress forked our money over to Chrysler last month:

Bonus eventus to all of us in 2009.

Monday, December 22, 2008

But manly strength has force to tame the storm*

photograph by 88rabbit (retrieved from 22-12-2008)
The current, holiday edition of The Economist has a good read on Fastnet Rock, the southernmost point in Ireland. Little more than a jagged hunk of slate protruding from the Atlantic, the Vikings called it Hvastann-ey ("Sharp-Toothed Island"), while its Irish name is An Charraig Aonair ("The Rock that Stands Alone"). Since 1854, it's been home to two successive lighthouses. The current one has been (sometimes just) standing against the fury of the ocean since 1903.

The chief foreman of its construction, a stonemason named James Kavanagh, was singleminded in his devotion to his duty:
He lived on the rock continuously for ten to 12 months of each year from August 1896 to June 1903, sleeping on a damp bed of rock close to the landing strip in quarters carved out of the rock face, known to this day as “Kavanagh’s hole”.
The project ultimately cost him his life:
Seven years of living in a hole in the rock, progress frustrated by maverick tides and his delayed shipments, suddenly shattered his health. Having set the last stone, he went ashore with his son (also a mason on the rock) at the end of June 1903 complaining of illness, and died of apoplexy a week later.
Kavanagh was following in the footsteps of an ancient Irish tradition. It's easy to imagine that on some wet, cold night in his cave quarters--they were probably all wet and cold--he turned a thought to the one-time residents of a similarly uncomfortable home, fifty miles to his northwest.

photograph by donapatrick (retrieved from 22-12-2008)
The monks of Skellig Michael (Irish Sceilig MhichĂ­l, or "Michael's rock") were seeking a different sort of light than James Kavanagh, but they were every bit as determined, and often paid the same price.

Skellig Michael and its smaller craggy sibling jut sullenly from the ocean about seven miles off the coast of County Kerry.

Even today, getting to it requires a sturdy boat and great cooperation from the weather.  In the 7th century, when men seeking God probably landed there to turn away from the world and its ephemeral distractions, it must have seemed impossibly remote.  It was perfect.

They built beehive-shaped monastic cells that afforded minimal shelter and space for one person to offer glory to God.  There was a place to listen to a brother reading from the Holy Scripture, there was a garden, and there was a place to bury those who'd finished their earthly trials and awaited Christ's return.  What more did they need?  Skellig Michael would remain the westernmost outpost of Christianity for centuries.

Occasionally, particular monks would find the relative bustle of the monastic community too great a distraction to commune effectively with God.  For them, one last option remained.

A trip down from the monastery, across the middle of the island-- known as Christ's Saddle--and another, steeper ascent to the crag's highest point would lead these pilgrims to Skellig Michael's hermitage.  There, alone in an eyrie nearly 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean, they would drink collected rainwater and at last, one hopes, finally find the holy communion they'd sought. Modern visitors seeking a taste of their experience are cautioned by the Oxford Archaeological Guide to Ireland that "access is difficult and is recommended only for the dedicated and fit."

Those of us who are softer in body and spirit than early medieval Irish ascetics might do well to find one of the remaining men who manned Fastnet Rock before it was automated in 1989. A pint of Murphy's tastes better than rainwater, and the last keepers of Fastnet will surely be able to explain why, when the Corporation for Preserving and Improving the Port of Dublin bought Skellig Michael in 1820, the first thing they did was build a pair of lighthouses.

* St. Columban's Boat Song, c. 600

Photo credits:
Fastnet Rock: 88rabbit
Skellig Michael: donapatrick

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Rome Reborn project on Google Earth

It doesn't seem to be working yet, but it would not be an exaggeration to say that this is something I've been anticipating for years.

I'm already wearing out the "Check for Updates" button in Google Earth. Very exciting!