Sunday, December 31, 2006

A bioctocentennial*

Prosper of Aquitaine was a contemporary, so I'll let him tell it:

""In the year 406, the Vandals and Alans, having crossed the Rhine,
entered Gaul on the day before the kalends of January..."

A few years ago, Michael Kulikowski published a paper which made a good argument that the invasion actually began on 12/31/405, but in recognition of the long acknowledged 406 date (and because I wasn't blogging about stuff like this last year), I'll call today the anniversary. Happy Barbarians Day!

* For want of an approved term

Monday, October 16, 2006

Roman coins

A mixed lot of Roman coins arrived from an eBay seller today. Six of them are in terrible condition, with only the faintest remnants of a profile or text to suggest that they're Roman at all, but I think the other four have enough text to allow for some kind of identification.

VCRC, here I come...

Friday, October 06, 2006

Historical hobnobbing

Last week, I went to the opening lecture of a conference on St. Augustine. My history professor, who suggested that my fellow students and I attend, leans over to me at one point, indicates a guy walking towards his seat, and says, "There's Peter Brown."

If you don't know who Peter Brown is, here's a very, very brief explanation: Up until our generation, give or take, the dominant view of the fall of Rome was that barbarian hordes descended upon the place in the 5th century and wiped out the Western empire, burying our civilization in the "Dark Ages" for the next several hundred years.

In 1971, Peter Brown put out a book that focused on the Eastern empire, which fared much better during that period. He said, in essence, "yes, there were barbarians, but a lot of really cool and really important stuff (especially stuff involving the infusion of Christianity into society) happened during that time and it deserves to be studied." He referred to the period as "Late Antiquity."

His vision of that period resonated very powerfully with people, and the result was the birth of an entire historical sub-field (which has fascinated me since before I knew it was known as "Late Antiquity").

My medieval studies professor in 2004 introduced me to Brown's work, and since then I've read a bunch of stuff by him. And practically every book since about 1990 that deals heavily with either late Rome or the early medieval period references him in some way. He's a giant.

I went up to him, introduced myself as a student, shook his hand, and expressed my admiration for his work. I would have been very pleased with that.

But he engaged me in conversation. He wanted to know what I was studying, who I was studying with, what we were being asked to read, and what I enjoyed the most. I was totally caught off guard. Why should he care?

He walked with me all the way from the auditorium to the reception room, while I recited the titles on my Late Antiquity reading list as best I could while dealing with acute tunnel vision. I probably sounded like a complete idiot.

See, this was like being asked for my opinions on astrophysics by Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking. That's where this guy rates. He has forgotten more about history than I am likely to ever know.

When we got to the reception room, a friend approached him and he excused himself, but not before taking the time to suggest some supplementary reading.

Not that my enthusiasm was flagging, but the encounter infused me with new energy for my history studies. Dr. Brown could easily have treated me like the gibbering sycophant I was. Instead, he chose to speak to me with respect. More than respect, even. His tone and the manner in which he enabled the conversation encouraged me to believe that I could think and speak about this material intelligently (even if I wasn't doing it at that instant). It was pretty powerful stuff.

I imagine that he has already forgotten the conversation, but I doubt I ever will. When I eventually squeeze out the zygotic book that's nestled on the inside of my skull, Peter Brown will get an acknowledgement.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

New name

As I wind down from my Roman summer (more on that later) and prepare for the first semester of my senior year, I felt it was high time to come up with a better name for this blog.

Studendi Miri means, more or less, "These cool things which must be studied." At least, I think it does. Intensive as it was, I only studied Latin for six weeks. If anyone can correct me, please do so.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Caesar slept (and nursed) here

A team of archaeologists in Rome believe they've found the house where Gaius Octavius--later Caesar Augustus, Rome's first emperor--was born in 63 BC.

Flaky story link here; the big news agencies don't seem to have picked it up yet.

ETA 2/23/07: Original story link is dead. Here, instead, is PhDiva's abstract of some Italian press coverage of the find.

Monday, March 20, 2006

More GE linky love with Roman ruins

Open up GE and take a trip to Segedunum. I like writing these little placemark blurbs--they force me to be concise, which is one of my weak points.

Walking some or all of Hadrian's Wall is on my life's to-do list. What made me think about it this week was a cool travel article in the Atlantic Monthly about doing just that. The tourism industry surrounding the wall's remains is pretty robust, but from what I've read it also seems to be low-key and tasteful. Even the big museum and guest center at Segedunum (visible to the right of the ruins in the link above) seems like a cool place to spend a rainy English afternoon.

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Period films and Good Queen Bess

I once had a medieval studies professor who required us to watch particular Hollywood movies as fodder for class discussion. We watched stuff like Ben-Hur and The Name of the Rose. He would open the class by asking us what we thought of the movie and would gradually segue into a lecture on the period in which the movie was set. As a teaching tool, it was genius; most people actually did watch the movies, and the resulting discussions--which the professor deftly managed to focus on the relevant historical topics as opposed to the fictional elements of the plot--were animated and interesting.

Unfortunately, most other history profs I've met have turned their noses up at period movies when I've asked about them. The common complaints seem to be that the screenplays are rife with inaccuracies (certainly true) and that too many laypeople are content to consume them as documentaries (probably true).

Fair enough. For my part, though, I'd rather see Jane or Dick watch King Arthur or Master and Commander and become minimally aware of the real times and places those films reference than have them remain completely ignorant. If we're lucky, they'll take enough of an interest to do some reading and learn a little bit. This might be difficult to see from the top of the ivory tower, but laypeople reading about something they first saw on a movie screen is ultimately good for the field of study.

With that in mind, I'm excited about the new Elizabeth movie that's coming to HBO soon. I shouldn't call it new, exactly, because it aired in the UK last year, but few people over here have seen it. It covers a period 20-30 years after the setting of the 1998 movie starring Cate Blanchett, and with a running time of 240 minutes I'm hoping that the filmmakers have explored a lot of ground. Speaking of the 1998 movie, it was announced last week that a sequel is in the works. You don't usually (if ever, now that I think about it) see sequels to docudramas like Elizabeth. It's a testimony to the endurance of the title character as an icon of a particular ideal of Englishness...but that's a whole other post, and one I'm not really qualified to write yet.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Ghosts of ancient buildings

One of things I like to do with Google Earth is look at places like London or Rome and try to make out the path of the old city walls. Often, with the help of a period map, you can see where a modern street shadows the old perimeter.

Sometimes, though, you can see the "ghost" of an old building by the outline of the street or by the shape of the modern buildings on that spot. One of the better places to see what I'm talking about is the former site of Pompey's Theatre in Rome. Pompey's Theatre was, among other things, the site of Julius Caesar's assassination. Parts of the interior ruins have been excavated and are visible to the public, but most of the ruins are still underground. If you look a few blocks west of the excavated area, though, you'll see a narrow street (or maybe a pedestrian walkway) and modern buildings that follow the path of the theatre's great, round facade.

After you launch GE, take a peek at this photo to get a sense of what this part of Rome used to look like.

In the beginning

I suppose I should explain what I'm doing here. I'll try to do it without writing my autobiography.

About six years ago, I began studying the history of Ireland, from whence my parents came to the United States. It seemed like a culturally responsible undertaking, and there was a self-discovery angle in there, too. I bought and borrowed a lot of books on the subject. Most of them were monographs from academic presses.

I discovered two things early on. The first one seems pretty obvious now. One can't really appreciate the history of Ireland without also studying a lot of the history of the rest of Europe, especially Britain. Properly studying Britain, in turn, requires one to study things like ancient Rome and medieval Europe.

The second thing I discovered is that your typical Barnes & Noble doesn't carry very many popular histories of Ireland, and that the ones they do carry seem unnecessarily dry.

So, a little more than two years ago, I set a long-term goal for myself of writing a popular history of Ireland. I still have an awful lot of reading and research to do before I can begin. But I've got all this stuff bouncing around in my head and I feel like getting some of it into words.

That's where this blog comes in. I intend it to be a sandbox where I can experiment with writing about historical topics. Much of it will be redundant, especially to anyone who's studied history themselves. Don't look for deep insights here.

But if you find one by mistake, please tell me.