Follow by Email

Saturday, March 10, 2018

The Romance of the Romans

The Roman Empire in 117 A.D.

The Romance of the Romans

The Roman Empire took its time to disintegrate and we can argue about exactly when and exactly how, but let’s leave that for another day and place our vote for 476 A.D. , when Romulus, the last Roman Emperor, was overthrown by a Germanic leader, Odoacer.   After some 1500 years, the Roman Empire was no more, but of course that includes the time the Empire was split into east and west.  If you want to only consider the time it was what we think of as the united Roman Empire, then it lasted just over 500 years..

So, Rome is not worth thinking about, right?  Surprise, surprise!!  There are still vestiges of Roman life and Roman culture all around us.

Take the Romance languages for example that all emanated from Latin:  French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian and Catalan. The widespread of Romance Languages means through the centuries, at least linguistically, Roman influence has stretched, not only around the Mediterranean region, but North and South and Central America, along with parts of Africa!  Wait, I forgot to mention the Philippines.   Yep, don’t forget Spain owned the Philippines for decades.  I met a Filipina/American in Japan and asked her if she spoke Tagalog or Filipino and she said, no. “On our island we spoke only Spanish.”

“Oh yeah?” you say, what about English?  Glad you mentioned that. Linguists say that English, although called a Germanic language, takes 65% of its words from French!  Just one example:  all the words ending in …ion are written the same in French and English, but pronounced differently.  As the French Prime Minister George Clemenceau  (1841-1929) famously said, “English is just badly pronounced French.”

But is there nothing more than language?  Nothing more???? Are you kidding?

We still use the Roman Gods.  Really?  Yep.  In the days of the week.

The Romans copied the Babylonians in naming some of the days of the week after heavenly bodies, which we still use today. 

Monday – Moon Day  (Luna)  

Sunday – Sun Day (Sol invictus)

And the Roman threw in one of their own for Saturday.  Saturn. 

As you know from the phrase, all roads lead to Rome, the Romans built a lot of roads all over the Empire.  Hundreds, if not thousands of them still exist and often are in use today, although you may not realize it.  Some have been paved over.  In all the Romans built over 250,000 miles of roads, with over 50,000 miles of them paved.

Roman Roads in only one small part of Germany

And not just the roads, but so much more.  Go to Segovia and see the huge aqueduct that was in service and still moving water to the city until the early 1970s. Take a look at Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain.

Aqueduct in Segovia, Spain

How about place names?  Rome, of course is still Rome, and Londinium we know as London, and look at the very name of Britain, from the Latin, Britannia.!

Parisiorm is now Paris.  In Spain, Segovia is still Segovia.  The list goes on and on.

Let’s not forget the foods and animals the Romans introduced wherever they went.  If you missed it on a previous blog, read through the Romans in Britain and you’ll spot fruits and vegetables galore.

Did you know our own sense of the rule of law is based heavily on Roman law?

The rights of personal property.

The validity of contracts.

The right to vote.

The right to pay taxes.

The right to appeal and the legal status of corporations.

An accused person had the right to a defense and was innocent until proven guilty.

Here’s something dear to your hearts:  Wine!  Look along the Rhine and Mosel valleys in Germany, the notable vineyards in France (Bordeaux) and Italy and even Spain (Rioja).  I haven’t begun to name them all.  Romans believed wine was essential to life and everyone drank it, even the poor Romans and the slaves.

“There with the wine before you, you will tell of many things.”  Ovid, Roman Poet, 43 B.C. – 17 A.D.  Husbands and wives should remember this!

“The great evil of wine is that it first seizes the feet.  It is a crafty wrestler.” Titus Maccius, Roman playwright (254 -184 B.C.)

Something you might not know about Rome:

The Colosseum was not called the Colosseum when it was built (between 72-80 A.D.), but Amphitheatrium Flavium after the two emperors who build it.  Around 1000 A.D. the word Colosseum came into use, but even then it didn’t mean the building itself, but an enormous statue of possibly Emperor Nero.  The statue has since disappeared.

The city has grown taller.  If you visit some of Rome’s major sights of antiquity, you’ll notice you have to walk down. The Forum and the Pantheon are good examples.

Look around and you’ll soon find, the Roman Empire may have fallen, but many of the buildings, the language, and the Roman ideas live on.
Now I think it’s time to drink a little wine and think about that.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Munich by Robert Harris

Munich by Robert Harris

I admit I’m a longtime fan of Robert Harris’ novels.  Why is that?  He carves his characters out of stone, whether he’s writing of ancient Rome or Germany in the Second World War.  He constructs plots that keep you turning pages and along the way he weaves a vibrant tapestry of mystery and intrigue.

In Munich, Robert Harris takes us back to 1938. Neville Chamberlain’s flying to Munich, along with the leaders of France and Italy, to meet with der Führer of Germany and seal the fate of Czechoslovakia.

We know what happened, don’t we?  So how can this be a thriller, a fast read, a book that keeps you on the edge?  Harris grabs you with sub-plots, the personalities of the leaders, and throws you into the middle of a fray.  Suddenly, your faith in what you thought you knew is shaken.  You’re no longer certain of what happened or even what’s about to happen.

Let me set the stage for you:

In 1938, the slaughter called the War to End All Wars was barely twenty years ago.  The allies lost almost five million men. Britain alone lost three quarters of a million.  France lost well over a million.  The Central Powers lost over three million, with Germany’s losses almost two million.  The smell of blood was still fresh, families still had photos of their lost loved ones on their mantels.  The people of Britain, France and others wanted nothing to do with another roar of cannon and chilling letters of bereavement. The horror of tears and loss still hung like a black curtain.

Although its loss was also great, Germany’s outlook was far different. Germany had been brought to its knees, humbled, kicked and punished.  But, it wasn’t war debts and indemnities that pushed the Germans to the status of beggar nation. Unemployment raged.  Social spending increased again and again.  Politicians lost control of the budget.  Inflation lent its torch to the economic bond fire. You had to take your money in a wheelbarrow to buy a loaf of bread.  Still, reparation payments called for in the peace treaty that ended the war could have been paid, but for protective tariffs levied by the great powers on German goods.

In 1933 a man arose out of Germany’s defeat who could turn the country around.  The time was ripe and Adolph Hitler was ready. His unlikely rise is a fascinating story in itself and also one of the most tragic in the history of the world.

By 1938, Hitler’s star had climbed to the German heavens. He was Chancellor.  With little to no bloodshed he had taken back the Rhineland from France in 1936 and annexed Austria in March 1938.  Added to that, both Britain and France had agreed to Germany’s rearmament in 1935.

France had a larger Army, but did nothing.  Britain also did nothing.  The peoples of both countries would do anything to avoid another war.  In Britain, Chamberlain was a hero.  Yes, he gave concessions to Germany, but he kept Britain at peace.

To the German public, Hitler was reuniting Germany and making it powerful again.  But, now his sights were on the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia, which included a large German-speaking population.  Hitler wanted that piece of real estate, too.  Britain and France agreed to that, with the details to be worked out and signed in Munich.  After all, Hitler had promised that the Sudetenland was the last piece of the puzzle.  There would be no war.

L to R, Chamberlain, Daladier, Hitler, Mussolini, Ciano

So, while the former allies wanted peace at any price, Germany wanted to resume it’s rightful place as a nation of prominence.  The Czechs were an impedance to all parties involved and their part in the peaceful breaking up of their country was nothing but an afterthought.

Robert Harris’s novel, Munich, goes into the back corridors to bring the scenes to life, examining not only the major players, but their subordinates whose friendships on both sides went all the way back to university days at Oxford.  Harris’ plot takes us back not only to what did happen, but what didn’t and steers us into the heart of a web that lasted well into the Second World War.  Plots.  Intrigues. Love affairs. Indelible characters.  All of them with the special Robert Harris touch that keeps you on edge, flipping pages, knowing the macro, but feeling every bit of the micro.  Historic fiction is Harris’ milieu and one of the best writers to ever bring history to life and all the while bringing the reader the good and bad, as we know it…and even the parts we never knew.

Want history as it should be written, as well as a thrilling plot with indelible characters and a driving purpose?  Munich is the book.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

A Bit of British History, Part II: The Romans

Roman campaigns in Britain

Roman Empire 54 A.D.

A Bit of British History, Part II:  The Romans

Rome was constantly expanding.  How many times in history class did you hear “The Far Flung Roman Empire?  Yes, they did a lot of flinging.

As I told you in Part I, written British history began in 43 B.C. with the invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar, but Britain took its time in being conquered. Not only that, but good old Julius  tried to conquer Britain a few time earlier, in 50 and 54 B.C.

Julius Caesar

As I also told you, for more than a hundred years the Romans didn’t hold the ground.   Lots of attempts, but it wasn’t until 77 A.D. that the last of the northern tribes were defeated and all of Britain became Roman.  Roman rule lasted until 410 A.D.

Let me again make it clear, this very succinct thumbnail is only enough to let you conquer the conversation at a cocktail party.  Believe me, this short bit will do the job unless you get stuck at a cocktail party with history professors, then keep your mouth shut and nod your head in agreement.  Most of your inebriated friends, on the other hand?  No contest!

I’m not going to pretend to acquaint you with every Roman emperor, every general, and every battle.  Want that much thoroughness and a treatment for insomnia?  Grab the six volume History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, or more recent books on Roman civilization.  As for me, I’m a whimp and a thumbnail is all the time I can afford between now and happy hour.

A thumbnail:  Counting Julius Caesar’s first foray into Britain, the Roman influence lasted about 450 years, from 43 B.C. to 410 A.D., but there were upheavals along the way.

Here are some highlights:

43 B.C. –Julius Caesar invades for the third time.  This time it sticks
77A.D. – the Northern tribes of Britain are conquered and Romans establish a permanent presence.
383 A.D. – Magnus Maximus, the Roman ruler of Britain takes his army to Gaul (France) and the Emperor of Rome makes Maximus the Emperor of Britannia and Gaul.  By depleting his army, he effectively gave up control of western and northern Britain.  In 388 A.D. he got too big for his armored skirt and tried to become Emperor of all of Rome.  Died in the attempt and that was the final decline of comprehensive Roman rule over Britain, although it took awhile longer to see the end of all Roman troops.

Magnus Maximus

402 A.D. – The Roman emperor, needing more troops to defend Rome against the ‘barbarians’ stripped the Roman forces guarding Hadrian’s Wall (Northern Britain), essentially destroying any hope the Romans had of holding onto control.

410 A.D. – Romans gone from Britain.

What interests me more than names and dates is how the Romans controlled all of Britain and what life was like under the Romans.

How the Romans ruled:

Apparently, the Romans took a very smart and convenient approach to ruling.  Not just in Britain, but in other places, they left much of the governance or at least a consultant part, with the chiefs of the local tribes.  Based on the Roman rule lasting for some 400 years, the system worked pretty well.

By the mid 2nd Century, there were about 16,000 Roman legionnaires in Britain, along with 40,000 auxiliary troops. The auxiliaries were native forces, usually not stationed in their home countries.  Many of the auxiliaries for Britain came from what is now France and Germany. 

At this time, the native population of Britain was about 4 million, with the largest city, London, having a population of about 35,000.

How the people lived:

Not much changed from today’s stratus of haves and have nots, except today all our strata definitely live better.  Rich Romans lived very well, with villas and servants.  Yes, there were slaves.  It was that way a long time, from the Celts before them to the Saxons after them.
A Village Hut

The native Britains (Celts) lived much as they had before.  Huts with thatched roofs, food that they grew or gathered or hunted.  45 years old was an old man.  Half of all children died before they were ten years old.  However, since Roman villas were elaborate, native towns tended to grow up around them, with shops and markets and such, but apparently, they were small, more like neighborhoods than villages.  The central place in a Roman town was the forum.

Typical Roman Villa

The particulars of life under the Romans is fascinating and more than there’s room to go into here.  But here’s more cocktail party fodder:

Baths were essential to the Roman way of life and had three sections, the Frigidarium (cold), the Tepidarium (warm) and Caldarium (hot).  They end their bath time with a dip in a cold war pool.  To clean themselves, Romans oiled their skin and scraped themselves with a tool called a strigil.

A Strigil

You know the symbol for Wales is a leek.  But, did you know leeks were first introduced to Britain by the Romans?  As were a number of fruits and vegetables, such as cultivated apples, shallots, onions, garlic, cabbage, peas, turnips, radishes, and asparagus, grapes, mulberries, and cherries.  You can do a lot in 400 years.

The Welsh symbol of a leek has nothing to do directly with the Romans, however.  Legend has it that the patron saint of Wales, Saint David, asked his soldiers to wear a leek on their helmets to identify themselves in a battle against the Saxons.  The Saxons wore saxophones.  Ok, I made that last part up.

Evidence of the Romans in Britain:

The most famous remnant of the Roman years is Hadrian’s Wall, that cuts across the north part of England and was begun in 122 A.D., however it is not and never has been the Scottish-English border and in one case is about 68 miles from the border, while in another part, the border is only 4 miles away.   More than just a stone wall, it also housed turrets and forts, some of which are still evident.  There is another wall farther north, Antonine’s Wall, but was only used for about twenty years.

Roman fort along Hadrian's Wall

The city of Bath has a wonderful Roman bath that was still in use until circa 1970. It still contains water and visitors can walk around inside what’s left of the building.  Even better is a magnificent museum telling all about the bath itself and Roman construction.

Colchester, which was the second largest city in Roman Britain, has a host of Roman ruins.  Use this link to take a virtual tour:

Revolts against the Roman occupation:

There were many over 400 years, but the most notable and one that came close to succeeding was the one led by Queen Boudica, also spelled Boudiccea and Baudicea of the Iceni tribe.  Her husband was an ally of Rome and when he died, he left a will leaving his kingdom to his daughters and the Roman Emperor.  However, the Romans ignored this, annexing his kingdom and raping his daughters.  Around 60-61 A.D. the Queen led an army of Iceni and other tribes against Colchester and burned the city, then moved toward Londinium (London).  The Romans, fearing they were not strong enough, abandoned the city. Queen Boudica led an army of 100,000 and sacked the city as well as others nearby, killing between 70-80,000 Romans and Britains who opposed her.  This made Emperor Nero consider abandoning Britain altogether.  But, before that could happen, the Roman Governor Suetonious Paulinius reorganized his forces and though greatly outnumbered, decisively defeated Queen Boudica.  The historic chronicles are not clear, but she either killed herself or died of an illness.

A quick question:  Why didn’t the Roman’s Latin last and the native languages of Britain become another romance language?  Ans: Sorry, you’ll have to wait for the next installment of ‘A Bit of British History:  After the Romans, what???

Now for the quiz:

1.    Did Julius Caesar’s friends call him Julie?   Ans: One did, once.
2.    Why was Magnus Maximus called that? Ans: Just a nickname his girlfriend gave him.
3.    Why did Hadrian build his wall?  Ans:  Nobody knows, so it will never appear on a test.