Monday, December 22, 2008

But manly strength has force to tame the storm*

photograph by 88rabbit (retrieved from Flickr.com 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 Flickr.com 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!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Friday, August 15, 2008

"Maybe Julius Caesar or other things."

There are bad ideas, and then there's this.

It's fortunate that Augustus can't spin in his grave, else there'd be an 80-meter hole forming in the Campus Martius...

Monday, August 11, 2008

"Just a few hoof-beats ahead..."

Jeff Sypeck's put up a great post placing the Russia-Georgia conflict over South Ossetia in a much wider historical context. In a very roundabout way, is it all the fault of the Huns? Perhaps not, but Jeff shows how the threads in the great tapestry can, as they so often do, lead to unexpected places.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Book review: Julius Caesar

In May, Jeff gave me a neat gift for my graduation: an autographed copy of Philip Freeman's new biography of Julius Caesar. For someone like me, whose knowledge of Caesar was mostly derived from textbooks, fictionalized portrayals and an incomplete reading of the Penguin edition of his Gallic War, Freeman's book was a wonderful way to fill many of the gaps.

Indeed, a desire to introduce Caesar to readers who might know little more than his name was the motivation for Freeman, chair of Classical Studies at Luther College in Iowa. In a preface that will disarm those critics who might wonder why the world needs another biography of Caesar, Freeman describes how asking his bored Latin class who Caesar was prompted an animated discussion and led him to wonder how many people really knew "the true story of Caesar." In writing this book, Freeman aimed "simply to tell the story of Caesar's life and times" without joining the legions of commentators who have sought to place Caesar among history's "greatest heroes" or "most pernicious villains."

I suspect there is little that's new here for aficionados of Caesar and his period, but most other readers will enjoy Freeman's conservative-but-colorful interpretation of the sources, to which he hews closely throughout. This is especially visible during the part of the book which recounts Caesar's campaigns in Gaul, when Caesar himself is often the only source. I found it entertaining to keep the Gallic War at the ready so I could monitor Freeman's adaptations of Caesar's narrative, such as his deflations of Caesar's sometimes excessive self-congratulation. Freeman's own observations are well-placed. He consistently reminds the reader that Caesar's actions in the field were not taking place in a vacuum dedicated to the accumulation of military glory, as some of Caesar's contemporary readers might have allowed themselves to believe. He clearly explains how nearly every military action Caesar took also had carefully considered ramifications for his economic and political position back in Rome.

When I press myself to come up with something critical, the best I can do is to complain about the brief epilogue, "Caesar and Cato at Valley Forge," which finds reflections of Caesar's civil war in the American Revolution and briefly reviews Caesar's legacy. It feels like a pro forma afterthought.

Caesar, who espoused simplicity in writing, would have approved of Freeman's unpretentious and direct prose. I'm a slow, deliberate reader, but I found myself breezing through the chapters in spite of that. Though Julius Caesar is a trade book, students will find a full bibliography, index, and 19 pages of endnotes. I can readily forgive the lack of inline citations for what I imagine it is: an invitation to general readers who might be put off by something that too-closely resembles an scholarly tome. For readers looking for a more rigorously academic treatment, Freeman himself recommends Adrian Goldsworthy's Caesar: Life of a Colossus, but lay history buffs would do well to add Freeman's book to their libraries.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Now Featured: Elagabalus

Elagabalus bust at the Capitoline Museum, Rome.  Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto.
Elagabalus isn't a household name like Caligula, Nero, or even Honorius. Probably more than his better-known peers, however, Elagabalus fits the stereotype of the ineffectual, do-nothing emperor who was far more interested in art, music, fashion, or just about anything else than he was in the business of governing.

He is the subject of today's "Featured Article" on Wikipedia, so perhaps he'll make up a tiny bit of ground on the name recognition front.

Judith Weingarten wrote a fantastic series of entries last year on some of the women who pulled the levers behind the curtain of the Severan dynasty. After you read the Wikipedia article, have a look at her take on Elagabalus through the nervous eyes of his grandmother, Julia Maesa.

[Photo credit: Giovanni Dall'Orto]

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

American tombaroli

When considering the problem of modern archaeological plunder, I'm probably not alone in reflexively picturing stubbly-faced Bulgarian men with metal detectors, spades and flashlights, rummaging through the Italian countryside at night in search of illegal antiquities.

I don't know how accurate that image is, but I've spent so much time trying to learn about the cradles of Western civilization that I often overlook the fact that my country, too, has an archaeological record, and that it can also fall prey to looters.

What I find interesting about that case is that the grave robber, since deceased, was apparently an enthusiastic amateur historian and was regarded as a local authority on the subject. It's not tough to imagine him believing, misguidedly, that he was somehow acting as a preservationist for a Civil War cemetery that otherwise might have been forgotten in a dusty archive. Though I don't doubt the good intentions of the real preservationists who've since tackled the site, the end result--exhumation and scattered reinterment of all the remains--somehow doesn't seem like an enormous improvement on the previous situation.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A last (?) look at the Akhdam

After the last post, I poked around the library a bit to see if I could find more substantive information on Yemen's Akhdam and their traditional association with the region's 6th C. Aksumite conquerors. I found "Akhdam tribe in servitude," a 1976 Geographical article by James Horgen. His version of the "commonly held myth about their ancestry...heard from both illiterate tribesmen and learned scholars" goes something like this:

After 570, Sayf ibn dhi-Yaz'an, the Jewish Himyarite aristocrat who'd successfully entreatied Sassanid Persia to deliver his people from Aksumite Christian dominion, was installed as Persia's vassal. He killed the surviving Aksumite fighters, save for a few who were kept as a ceremonial guard for his processions.

Ceremonial or not, the Aksumites still carried spears. They played along with the pomp for a while, but one day, they turned those spears on Sayf ibn dhi-Yaz'an and assassinated him. This prompted the Sassanids to carry out an ethnic cleansing.
Their armies are said to have returned in anger with orders to "kill every Abyssinian (Aksumite) or child of an Abyssinian and Arab woman and not leave alive a single man with crisp, curly hair."
The survivors of this massacre were enslaved and pointedly used as menial laborers and entertainers, professions which remain the only real options available to the Akhdam today.

Here's where it gets fuzzy. After the coming of Islam, Arab dynasties in the region employed Abyssinian soldier slaves who were thought to be descended from the 6th century invaders. They also crossed into Abyssinia to "recruit" more of them. One 11th C. Yemeni Arab dynasty supposedly fielded 50,000 Abyssinian fighters in its army. Migrants from the African coast opposite Yemen have continued to trickle in ever since, many of them on pilgrimage to Mecca. Some of them stay and intermarry with the Akhdam, inheriting their social status.

Based on that, my hunch is that the servile caste occupied by today's Akhdam may be a sociological continuation of a Yemeni Aksumite slave class that survived the Persian purge. Unfortunately, short of new archaeological discoveries and/or a DNA study with a very creative methodology, it's difficult to see how anyone would be able to demonstrate a direct ancestral link between the modern people and the 6th C. people. Even if we were able to match DNA taken from the Akhdam with a sample conclusively identified with 6th-7th C. Yemeni Aksumites--and I suspect we would find matches, perhaps many matches--the results would only be suggestive. They wouldn't automatically support the conclusion that the matches belonged to unbroken family lines that subsisted in Yemen from the 6th C. onward.

Something else I first learned from Horgen's article was that Aksum's initial invasion of Himyar in 525 was not, as I'd previously inferred, a solo effort.* In a subsequent post, I'll revise my narrative of the Aksumite conquest of Himyar and explain how the Akhdam might owe some thanks for their lot to the Byzantine emperor Justin I...or perhaps even his more famous nephew, Justinian.

* The brief history I related in my original post was derived largely from Christian Julien Robin's entry for Yemen in Late Antiquity: A Guide to the Postclassical World from Harvard U. Press.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Echoes of Aksum in the alleys of Sana'a?

A New York Times travel article inspired me last March to write about the late antique history of Yemen, which saw the Abyssinian Christian empire of Aksum (located in what's now Ethiopia) displace Yemen's Jewish rulers, only to be overcome by Sassanian Persia and, finally, the first Islamic caliphate.

Today, the Times's Robert Worth writes about the plight of the Akhdam, a hereditary Yemeni underclass whose origin dates at least to medieval times. What caught my attention was the popular Yemeni conception of their background:
They are reviled as outsiders in their own country, descendants of an Ethiopian army that is said to have crossed the Red Sea to oppress Yemen before the arrival of Islam.
I think that sort of folk wisdom is too often dismissed out of hand. One has to be careful, of course, because the solutions offered by such sources can be very convenient, and one only has to consider the many competing folk origins of Ireland's Traveler people to see how quickly the historical yarn can become hopelessly tangled.

Sometimes, though, the oral traditions coalesce around a kernel of truth, as Tudor Parfitt demonstrated with the Lemba of South Africa.

Could the Akhdam be descended from the remnants of Yemen's 7th-century Aksumite Christian community? Here are a few things to consider. When the Persians came to oust them, the Aksumites in Yemen had, in living memory, broken away from the kingdom of Aksum under Abraha, a renegade Aksumite general. It's reasonable to speculate that the surviving ruling class regarded the acceptance of second-class citizenship under Sassanian rule as preferable to an awkward or even dangerous homecoming. In any case, there was almost certainly a sizable Christian community when the forces of Islam arrived a few generations later. At that point, they would have become the conquered people of a conquered people, which probably meant very bad things for their standard of living. Lastly, though the article translates "al Akhdam" as "the servants," I can't help but notice the similarity between "Akhdam" and "Aksum."

At least one local sociologist doesn't think much of a potential link:
The popular notion that the Akhdam are descendants of Ethiopian oppressors appears to be a myth, said Hamud al-Awdi, a professor of sociology at Sana University. Most of them have roots in villages in the Red Sea coastal plain of Yemen, and many of them may have African origins, he added. Little else about them is clear, despite a number of academic studies.
Those coastal village origins are presented here as evidence against Aksumite origin, but as it happens, that's the part of Yemen that was most frequently and permanently in Aksum's area of direct control. If one were looking for evidence that an ostracized remnant of Yemen's erstwhile Christian conquerers managed to hang on somewhere, the ancestral land of the Akhdam perhaps wouldn't be a bad place to start.