Posted by: Dominic | December 9, 2012

Slaves and Masters

Some months ago I blogged about an amazing letter from an escaped slave to his former master, published on the website Letters of Note. On the same website popped up yet another letter of this kind, this time including both the missive of the master asking for the slave to return, as well as the response from the former servant.

The subject of this exchange is Jarm Logue, who in 1834 escaped from slavery in Tennessee and traveled to Canada before relocating to New York, becoming a pastor and abolitionist as well as opening schools for black children. The wife of his former owner, Sarah Logue, wrote him on the eve of the U.S. Civil War in 1860 to demand that he pay for his freedom, feeling that he had robbed her by escaping from servitude. As she writes:

I understand that you are a preacher. … I would like to know if you read your Bible? If so can you tell what will become of the thief if he does not repent?

She demands of him $1,000, since she was forced to sell Jarm’s brother and sister, as well as some land, after losing Jarm. She adds, with some vaguely threatening language,

If you do not comply with my request, I will sell you to some one else, and you may rest assured that the time is not far distant when things will be changed with you. … You had better comply with my request.

His response speaks for itself, and there is little I can do to introduce it or amplify its emotional or historical value. According to Wikipedia, it was published in the Boston-based abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator, but I have found no confirmation of this statement.

[Y]ou have the unutterable meanness to ask me to return and be your miserable chattel, or in lieu thereof send you $1000 to enable you to redeem the land, but not to redeem my poor brother and sister!

You say you have offers to buy me, and that you shall sell me if I do not send you $1000, and in the same breath and almost in the same sentence, you say, “you know we raised you as we did our own children.” Woman, did you raise your own children for the market? Did you raise them for the whipping-post? Did you raise them to be driven off in a coffle in chains? Where are my poor bleeding brothers and sisters? Can you tell? Who was it that sent them off into sugar and cotton fields, to be kicked, and cuffed, and whipped, and to groan and die; and where no kin can hear their groans, or attend and sympathize at their dying bed, or follow in their funeral? Wretched woman!

Jarm changed his name to Jermain Wesley Loguen after escaping slavery. He eventually became a bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. He also ran an Underground Railroad station in Syracuse, N.Y. and published his autobiography in 1859, which can be found in electronic format at the University of Michigan Digital Library. Loguen died in 1872. More information is available on the New York History Net.


Egypt has once again proved a fertile ground for comparing the ancient and modern worlds. At the beginning of this year, the ruling military council of that country issued new rules for the upcoming presidential elections. These rules, amongst other things, require that candidates must have been born in Egypt, to parents who are both Egyptian citizens, and not married to foreign nationals, as the BBC has reported. These rules, particularly the requirement of two citizen-parents and the proscription against foreign spouses, are very similar to a few developments in Athenian democracy from the 5th and 4th centuries BCE.

The first stipulation, that the candidates must have two citizen-parents, is almost an exact replica of the Periklean citizenship law of 451/0 BCE. Perikles introduced this law, which defined citizenship rather narrowly than previous to this law, such that only the children of two Athenian citizens become citizens themselves. The Egyptian election rule differs only in that it applies to presidential candidates and not to citizens as a whole. Aristotle, in his (or maybe his students’) study of the Athenian political system, writes about Perikles’ law.

ἐπὶ Ἀντιδότου διὰ τὸ πλῆθος τῶν πολιτῶν Περικλέους εἰπόντος ἔγνωσαν μὴ μετέχειν τῆς πόλεως, ὃς ἂν μὴ ἐξ ἀμφοῖν ἀστοῖν ᾖ γεγονώς.

In the year Antidotos was archon [451/0], because of the great number of citizens the Athenians passed a motion, sponsored by Perikles, that none should hold citizenship unless he is the child of citizens on both sides (Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians 26.4).

In both the Athenian law and the Egyptian election rules, it is important that both parents be citizens.

Previously, citizenship was inherited from one’s father. In fact, the supposed founder of democracy, Kleisthenes, was the son of a foreign woman, a Sikyonian. The mothers of Themistokles and Kimon, two of the most prominent politicians of the 5th century, were from Thrace–a land widely thought to be the opposite of everything the civilization of Athens stood for, with its wild, red-haired inhabitants, and crude, barbaric language.

In the wake of the transition to democracy in 509, Kleisthenes had apparently enrolled foreigners, known as metics (μέτοικοι) and even slaves as citizens (Aristotle, Politics 1275b35ff.). More typically, citizenship was handed down from father to son. At age three or four, the son would be enrolled in the father’s phratry, a pre-democracy organization of real or imagined kin-groups. Then, at age 18, the son is enrolled in his father’s deme, the municipal unit which was invented by Kleisthenes during his reforms (Aristotle, Constitution of the Athenians 42.1).

Then came Perikles’ law in 451/0 and citizenship became harder to obtain. Various motivations for the law have been proposed. Some scholars have attempted to prove Aristotle’s thesis that this law was passed because there were too many citizens (above, διὰ τὸ πλῆθος τῶν πολιτῶν); one such scholar suggests there were 60,000 adult males in Athens in 450 (M.H. Hansen, The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes p. 53). Another suggestion is that Perikles intended the law to help build a base of supporters amongst certain citizens and further his own political career (W. Will, New Pauly).  A.W. Gomme and H.J. Wolff argued that this law was designed to disenfranchise bastards of Athenian males (Gomme, “The Law of Citizenship at Athens,” in Essays in Greek History and Literature p. 80; Wolff, “Marriage Law and Family Organization in Ancient Athens,” Traditio 2: 43-95). D.M. MacDowell and A.R.W. Harrison pushed back against this notion, noting that none of the texts relating to this law mention bastardy. P.J. Rhodes tried to revive Gomme and Wolff’s argument, and the argument over bastardy continues even today, as an article by E. Carawan tries to demonstrate that the law underwent an amendment ca. 430 that allowed fathers to adopt their own bastards and make them citizens if their legitimate sons died (The Classical Journal 103: 383-406).

Perikles, son of Xanthippos, often mocked as “Squill-Head” by contemporary comedians.

Citizenship and lineage continued to be a source of anxiety for Athenians. In 445, on the occasion of a gift of grain from Egypt for the citizens of Athens, an inspection of the citizenship registers was carried out and 4760 were stripped of their rights (Philochorus, fr. 119). Enforcement of the law was lax during the Peloponnesian War, and this seems to feed into Hansen’s thesis that the Periklean citizenship law was primarily motivated by demographics. Thus, in a period such as the Peloponnesian War when citizens were dying at a higher rate, the citizenship law was overlooked. Citizenship was also given as an honorary title (though recipients could claim the actual benefits of citizenship) and was part of Athenian diplomacy during the war: block grants were given to the Plataians (427) and Samians (405). When the war ended, Perikles’ law, then almost a half-century old, was reintroduced by the restored democracy in 403/2.

Around 400 BCE, the logographer Lysias, himself a metic in Athens, wrote a speech for the defense of Euphiletos. Euphiletos had killed a certain Eratosthenes when he caught Eratosthenes trying to commit adultery with his wife. Lysias’ rhetoric plays on the fear that a seducer may pollute the legitimacy of off-spring and render a child a non-citizen. In the 340s, the politician Apollodoros brought a case against his rival Stephanos, using as a pretext Stephanos’ mistress Neaira, a Corinthian hetaira, claiming that Stephanos fraudulently registered his children as citizens. Demosthenes wrote the speech and in it quotes a law that makes it illegal for a foreigner to live as a citizen’s spouse.

ὡς δ᾽ ἐστὶ ξένη Νέαιρα καὶ παρὰ τοὺς νόμους συνοικεῖ Στεφάνῳ, τοῦτο ὑμῖν βούλομαι σαφῶς ἐπιδεῖξαι. πρῶτον μὲν οὖν τὸν νόμον ὑμῖν ἀναγνώσεται, καθ᾽ ὃν τήν τε γραφὴν ταυτηνὶ Θεόμνηστος ἐγράψατο καὶ ὁ ἀγὼν οὗτος εἰσέρχεται εἰς ὑμᾶς.

“ἐὰν δὲ ξένος ἀστῇ συνοικῇ τέχνῃ ἢ μηχανῇ ᾑτινιοῦν, γραφέσθω πρὸς τοὺς θεσμοθέτας Ἀθηναίων ὁ βουλόμενος οἷς ἔξεστιν. ἐὰν δὲ ἁλῷ, πεπράσθω καὶ αὐτὸς καὶ ἡ οὐσία αὐτοῦ, καὶ τὸ τρίτον μέρος ἔστω τοῦ ἑλόντος. ἔστω δὲ καὶ ἐὰν ἡ ξένη τῷ ἀστῷ συνοικῇ κατὰ ταὐτά, καὶ ὁ συνοικῶν τῇ ξένῃ τῇ ἁλούσῃ ὀφειλέτω χιλίας δραχμάς.”

And that Neaera is an alien woman and is living as his wife with Stephanus contrary to the laws, I wish to make clear to you. First, the clerk shall read you the law under which Theomnestus preferred this indictment and this case comes before you.

“If an alien shall live as husband with an Athenian woman in any way or manner whatsoever, he may be indicted before the Thesmothetae by anyone who chooses to do so from among the Athenians having the right to bring charges. And if he be convicted, he shall be sold, himself and his property, and the third part shall belong to the one securing his conviction. The same principle shall hold also if an alien woman shall live as wife with an Athenian, and the Athenian who lives as husband with the alien woman so convicted shall be fined one thousand drachmae.” (Against Neaira 16; trans., N.W. DeWitt, 1949).

Proscription against a foreign spouse seems to go beyond the Periklean citizenship law, and brings us to the second point of comparison with Egypt’s election rules: candidates cannot be married to foreigners. These similarities are really quite striking, and one wonders whether there is any comparable social & political conditions between ancient Athens and 21st century Egypt that could have given rise to such similar laws. On the other hand, perhaps these two societies have similar laws but different motivations behind the laws. Or is this phenomenon simply related to a seemingly universal human impulse to exclude and to discriminate on the basis of perceived boundaries of ethnic, religious, or political groups?

Aristotle, it so happens, had an overarching theory on the behavior of democracies in regards to citizenship policies. In his Politics, he wrote that at their beginning, democracies will implement liberal citizenship policies in order to gain quickly a body of citizens. This might include letting in foreigners and slaves.

πρὸς δὲ τὸ καθιστάναι ταύτην τὴν δημοκρατίαν καὶ τὸν δῆμον ποιεῖν ἰσχυρὸν εἰώθασιν οἱ προεστῶτες προσλαμβάνειν ὡς πλείστους καὶ ποιεῖν πολίτας μὴ μόνον τοὺς γνησίους ἀλλὰ καὶ τοὺς νόθους καὶ τοὺς ἐξ ὁποτερουοῦν πολίτου, λέγω δὲ οἷον πατρὸς ἢ μητρός: ἅπαν γὰρ οἰκεῖον τοῦτο τῷ τοιούτῳ δήμῳ μᾶλλον. εἰώθασι μὲν οὖν οἱ δημαγωγοὶ κατασκευάζειν οὕτω, δεῖ μέντοι προσλαμβάνειν μέχρι ἂν ὑπερτείνῃ τὸ πλῆθος τῶν γνωρίμων καὶ τῶν μέσων, καὶ τούτου μὴ πέρα προβαίνειν: ὑπερβάλλοντες γὰρ ἀτακτοτέραν τε ποιοῦσι τὴν πολιτείαν, καὶ τοὺς γνωρίμους πρὸς τὸ χαλεπῶς ὑπομένειν τὴν δημοκρατίαν παροξύνουσι μᾶλλον, ὅπερ συνέβη τῆς στάσεως αἴτιον γενέσθαι περὶ Κυρήνην.

With a view to setting up this kind of democracy and making the people powerful their leaders usually acquire as many supporters as possible and admit to citizenship not only the legitimate children of citizens but also the base-born and those of citizen-birth on one side, I mean those whose father or mother is a citizen; for all this element is specially congenial to a to democracy of this sort. Popular leaders therefore regularly introduce such institutions; they ought however only to go on adding citizens up to the point where the multitude outnumbers the notables and the middle class and not to go beyond that point; for if they exceed it they make the government more disorderly, and also provoke the notables further in the direction of being reluctant to endure the democracy, which actually took place and caused the revolution at Cyrene (Politics 1319b6-18; trans., H. Rackham 1944).

Then, once a democracy has filled its ranks by making slaves and foreigners into citizens, the government will gradually make more restrictions until only those born of two citizen-parents may themselves become citizens.

εὐποροῦντες δὴ ὄχλου κατὰ μικρὸν παραιροῦνται τοὺς ἐκ δούλου πρῶτον ἢ δούλης, εἶτα τοὺς ἀπὸ γυναικῶν, τέλος δὲ μόνον τοὺς ἐξ ἀμφοῖν ἀστῶν πολίτας ποιοῦσιν.

When a state becomes well off for numbers it gradually divests itself first of the sons of a slave father or mother, then of those whose mothers only were citizens, and finally only allows citizenship to the children of citizens on both sides (Politics 1279a30-34).

Does this theory bear out for modern Egypt, or even for classical Athens? Obviously, I am not qualified to speak intelligently on the topic of modern Egypt. But it is interesting that theoretical political science was being conducted even in antiquity.

When talking about citizenship and democracy in ancient Athens, it is easy to get starry-eyed and idealistic about the origins of democracy, which most of us consider the best political system in the world. It should be remembered that participation in civic affairs was limited to only military-aged men, leaving behind women, children, and, for the most part, foreigners and slaves. At any given time in antiquity–and, for that matter, in modern nations such as the U.S. and U.K.–citizenship and inclusion in society has been afforded only to a select few.

Posted by: Dominic | February 14, 2012

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

Here is a lovely interview with the author and scholar Stephen Greenblatt about his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.

The book is a popular history, part adventure story and part intellectual history, and it centers on the poem De Rerum Natura – “On the Nature of Things” – by the 1st century BCE Roman Lucretius. The adventure part traces the life of Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, a 15th century Papal bureaucrat and bibliophile, and his discovery of the Lucretius manuscript in a German monastery. Greenblatt’s intellectual history traces the influence of this text, made available to the wider Western world because of Bracciolini, on the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and even modern thought.

The poem contains surprisingly modern ideas. Most notably, Lucretius propagated the theory that all matter was made up of indivisible, invisible particles called atoms. This concept had first been formulated four centuries prior to the writing of De Rerum Natura by Greek natural philosophers now called the Pre-Socratics. Lucretius’ contribution to his Hellenic predecessors is “the swerve” (clinamen in Latin) – the idea that these atoms move around in space and collide with one another and this random movement affects and determines what happens. This is where the book takes it title.

Because of Bracciolini’s effort to publicize De Rerum Natura, Lucretius would eventually find admirers in Galileo Galilei, Michel de Montaigne, Thomas Jefferson, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Albert Einstein.

Not every critic has been pleased with this book. The New York Times criticized its bland but adequate style, while the Washington Post took a more serious dig, complaining that Greenblatt’s work is largely synthesis with little original thought. Other critics believe that Greenblatt implicitly and inappropriately plays up the religious-Medieval/secular-Modern dichotomy, though the interview does not give that impression to my ears.

The Swerve won the 2011 National Book Award. Stephen Greenblatt is a Professor of English at Harvard University and a co-editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature.

From the “thanks, but no thanks” file: a letter of understated wit from a former slave to his former master.

A certain Jourdan Anderson wrote this letter to his former master, Col. P.H. Anderson of Big Spring, Tennessee, who had apparently requested that his former servant return to him. I found this intriguing voice from the past on the amazing blog “Letters of Note”; the letter originally appeared in the August 22nd, 1865 edition of the New York Daily Tribune, to whom Jourdan, presumably illiterate, dictated the letter. It was also published in The Freedman’s Book by L. Maria Child (p. 265), available on Project Gutenberg.

Jourdan dismisses Col. Anderson’s pretense to magnanimity in offering freedom, since Jourdan already has it, and the former slave counters with a good-hearted wish for Anderson: “Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living.” In fact, Jourdan was happily earning $25 per month in Ohio and was sending his children to school. He requests as a condition of his return not only that his former master give him better wages, but also demands all back pay from his 32 years of slavery – at $25 per month and $2 per week for his wife, a total of $11,680!

Behind its wit, the letter is also a testament to the cruelty and inhumanity of the institution of slavery. Jourdan mentions the Colonel traveling to a neighbor in order to kill a POW Union soldier, as well as his master shooting him (in a post-script, Jourdan thanks a certain George Carter for knocking the gun out of the Colonel’s hands), and in the last paragraph he makes an oblique reference to the sexual violence that masters often forced upon female slaves.

To My Old Master, Colonel P.H. Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee

Sir: I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin’s to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy,—the folks call her Mrs. Anderson,—and the children—Milly, Jane, and Grundy—go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying, “Them colored people were slaves” down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve—and die, if it come to that—than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson

P.S.—Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

Posted by: Dominic | February 1, 2012

History That Didn’t Happen

Gen. Eisenhower's speech in the event of failure at Normandy (image from

The Atlantic website carries this great article by Swarthmore College professor of political science Dominic Tierney, who discusses what would have happened if the D-Day invasions of Normandy or the 1969 moon landing had failed.

Well, I guess he doesn’t discuss what would have happened, but rather what would have been said.

One day before the invasion, Gen. Dwight Eisenhower drafted this message to deliver if D-Day did not become the victory we now celebrate it as. He mistakenly wrote “July 5” on the paper instead of “June.”

Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air, and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.

Eisenhower originally wrote “the troops have been withdrawn.” He crossed it out and scribbled over it, “I have withdrawn the troops.” He does not seem to be merely following every elementary school teacher’s advice to avoid the passive voice at all costs. As with the last sentence – “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone” – Eisenhower emphasizes that he bears the ultimate responsibility for the operation and in this scenario he had failed. The troops, by contrast, had fulfilled their duties.

The style of the note is terse and straightforward. On a day that in victory brought many casualties, a failure would have wreaked upon the Allies catastrophic death of even more horrific proportions. The magnitude of such a failure, as Tierney writes, “did not need interpretation.”

By contrast, the speech of Richard Nixon, prepared in the event that the lunar landings of July, 1969 failed and any of the astronauts of Apollo 11 were left stranded in space and died, was more lyrical, relying heavily on imagery. It reads in part:

In ancient days, men looked at stars and saw their heroes in the constellations. In modern times, we do much the same, but our heroes are epic men of flesh and blood. …

For every human being who looks up at the moon in the nights to come will know that there is some corner of another world that is forever mankind.

As Tierney comments, these documents are an important lesson that events which seem to be amongst the most important and seminal of 20th century, and American, history were far from foregone conclusions.

The thought that things could have turned out much different gives us a window to think about this idea of inevitability. Often times one will hear armchair historians claim that if x, y, or z didn’t happen, then this or that event, and very usually our present-day lives, would be completely different. A standard essay question for American high school students is to discuss the inevitability of the Civil War. Does this help us understand history better? I’m not so certain; history is the study of what actually happened in the past, as well as what we think about the past. Alternate history might be an interesting exercise, but it rarely if ever brings us closer to this past. It is perhaps only once events are placed in a narrative that they appear inevitable, and this, maybe, is instructive about the nature and limitations of how we write about history. As it is said, any event, once it has occurred, can be made to appear inevitable by a competent historian.

Posted by: Dominic | August 25, 2011

And the earth lose its chief characteristic, stability

On Tuesday (23 August) at about 2:00 pm, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake hit the east coast of the United States. The trembling was over before I even realized what it was that had happened, and everyone was more than a little confused, then slightly scared for a few seconds, which was compounded by faulty phone lines. Eventually indignation at interrupted cell phone service replaced fear of death and destruction. A few Californians in our midst sneered extravagantly at us easterners’ sensitivity. By the time we all got home from work and to our dinner tables, we were pleasantly amused with the day’s distraction once it was revealed that no one suffered any bodily harm. Facebook and twitter were deluged with our best witticisms about the event.

United States Geological Survey Shake Map for the 23 August 2011 earthquake

This, of course, I took as an opportunity to look at earthquakes in the ancient world!

The Mediterranean Sea and the ancient Near East are hotbeds of tectonic activity, so it’s no surprise that earthquakes figure into the history and imagination of ancient peoples. One of the earliest records of an historical earthquake appears in a 13th century BC Assyrian inscription. The Hebrew prophets Amos (1.1) and Zechariah (14.5) both mention an historical earthquake during the reign of Uzziah, an 8th century BC ruler of the Kingdom of Judah. But earthquakes were also thought to be evidence of divine activity. The earth shakes in the presence of Yahweh (Exod. 19.18; Ps. 18.17, 68.8). The judgment of God is accompanied by an earthquake in Isaiah (29.6). Conversely, and contrary to Elijah’s expectations of God’s frightful and awesome majesty, the Lord is not in the earthquake but passes by in a meek voice (1 Kgs. 19.11-12).

Earthquakes have also figured prominently in Greek history. In 465/4 BC, an earthquake struck the Peloponnese, the southern part of Greece, near the city of Sparta. Supposedly all but five houses in Sparta were destroyed, and a gymnasium fell and killed a group of young boys (Plutarch, Life of Cimon 16.4-5). The earthquake was accompanied by a revolt of Sparta’s slave class, the Helots (Thucydides 1.101-103; Pausanias 1.29.8).

A powerful earthquake in 373 BC quickly became infamous for submerging the entire city of Helice in Achaea, the northern coast of the Peloponnese (Strabo 8.7.2). Helice did not come to light again until excavations in the 1990s.

Earthquakes were long considered the domain of Poseidon, god of the sea. His Homeric epithet is Ἐννοσίγαιος, “the Earth-Shaker” (e.g., Iliad 13.43). There was a temple to Poseidon in Sparta, called Poseidon ἀσφάλειος, the Securer (Paus. 3.11.9; Inscriptiones Graecae V 1.559). Worship of Poseidon as the shaker and securer of earth was not limited to Sparta but is also found in Delphi (Fouilles de Delphes III 3.343), Epidaurus (IG IV(2)1.411), and Arcadia (IG V 2.454).

His cult is also well-documented for Athens and Attica – it is mentioned by authors from 5th century BC comic poet Aristophanes to AD 2nd century biographer Plutarch (Ar., Acharnanians 682; Plut., Life of Theseus 36.4). The Athenians even offer sacrifice to Poseidon the Securer in preparation for the evacuation of Attica during the Persian invasion of 480 BC in advance of the Battle of Salamis, where the Athenian fleet decisively defeated the Persians and chased their fleet out of Greek waters (Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 22.274).

Destruction during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake

While many made earthquakes the subject of worship, others attempted to explain them as a natural phenomenon. These efforts began as early as the 6th century BC with the pre-Socratic natural philosophers of Ionia and Greece. Their theories sought an explanation within the paradigm of the four classical elements: earth, air, water, and fire. Thales of Miletus believed that the earth floated on an underlying ocean and therefore was liable to tremors and paroxysms. Anaximenes of Miletus hypothesized that variations in moisture and dryness caused the earth to crack. Still others believed that fire exploded within the earth. Pliny the Elder and Seneca the Younger, both AD 1st century Roman writers, believed that air filled up the cavernous regions below the earth’s surface, and that was the source of shaking and rumbling (Sen., Naturales Quaestiones 6; Pliny, Naturalis Historia 2.79-84); though they were certainly not the first ones to put forth this theory. Both seem to be motivated to write on the matter by a strong earthquake that shook the region around Pompeii in AD 62. As Pliny explains:

I suppose that without all doubt the winds are the cause thereof. For never beginneth the earth to quake, but when the sea is still; and the weather so calme withall, that the birds in their flying cannot hover and hang in the aire … ne yet at any time, but after the winds are laid, namely, when the blast is pent and hidden within the veines and hollow caves of the earth. Neither is this shaking in the earth any other thing …[but] … when the spirit enclosed within, struggleth and stirreth to goe forth at libertie. (Trans. Philemon Holland, 1601).

Seneca points out the source of our overwhelming fear of earthquakes.

For what can any one believe quite safe if the world itself is shaken, and its most solid parts totter to their fall? Where, indeed, can our fears have limit if the one thing immovably fixed, which upholds all other things in dependence on it, begins to rock, and the earth lose its chief characteristic, stability? … [T]his calamity of earthquake extends beyond all bounds, inevitable, insatiable, the destruction of a whole State.

But he is also quick to use the earthquake as yet another reason not to fear death but to steel one’s self with Stoic philosophy.

… Among nature’s righteous decrees this is the chief, that when we reach the end of life we are all on a level. It makes no difference, therefore, to me whether one stone wound me to death or I am crushed beneath a whole mountain; whether the weight of one house come down on me, and I expire beneath the dust of its humble mound, or whether the whole world descend upon my head; whether I yield up this breath in the open light of day or in the vast abyss of the yawning earth; whether I am borne down to those depths all alone or along with a great throng of perishing nations. To me it can make no difference how great is the turmoil that accompanies my death; the thing is everywhere just the same. Wherefore, let us raise high our courage against that disaster, which can neither be shunned nor yet foreseen.

Seneca the Younger from Antikensammlung Berlin

Sources: P.A. Cartledge and J.R. Sallares, “Earthquake,” Oxford Classical Dictionary, Third Edition; S. Maul and F. Krafft, “Earthquake,” Brill’s New Pauly; J.E. Lunceford, “Earthquake,” Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible.

Nota Bene: I don’t think it is recommended to stand outside of buildings during a quake, as many photos in the news show. If you are already outside, get away from buildings and into an open area. Parts of buildings may collapse and fall onto the sidewalks and streets. According to FEMA, drop to the floor, get under under a piece of furniture or into the corner of a room, and hold on (

Posted by: Dominic | May 30, 2011

Fall of Constantinople

Image from Jean Chartier, Siège de Constantinople (15th century). Bibliothèque nationale de France Manuscript Français 2691 folio CCXLVI v

Yesterday was the anniversary of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II in 1453. Many consider this the true end of the Roman Empire. The battle brought prominence to the Ottomans and thereafter they became an important element in western European history until their own demise in the aftermath of the First World War.

Below is Edward Gibbon’s account of the siege from his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789), as the Emperor Constantine XI Palaeologus prepares the city for battle. On the day of the fall, the emperor rushed into the attacking Ottoman army. He was never seen again and his body was never recovered.

A sense of honor, and the fear of universal reproach, forbade Palaeologus to resign the city into the hands of the Ottomans; and he determined to abide the last extremities of war. Several days were employed by the sultan in the preparations of the assault; and a respite was granted by his favorite science of astrology, which had fixed on the twenty-ninth of May, as the fortunate and fatal hour. On the evening of the twenty-seventh, he issued his final orders; assembled in his presence the military chiefs, and dispersed his heralds through the camp to proclaim the duty, and the motives, of the perilous enterprise. Fear is the first principle of a despotic government; and his menaces were expressed in the Oriental style, that the fugitives and deserters, had they the wings of a bird, should not escape from his inexorable justice. The greatest part of his bashaws and Janizaries were the offspring of Christian parents: but the glories of the Turkish name were perpetuated by successive adoption; and in the gradual change of individuals, the spirit of a legion, a regiment, or an oda, is kept alive by imitation and discipline. In this holy warfare, the Moslems were exhorted to purify their minds with prayer, their bodies with seven ablutions; and to abstain from food till the close of the ensuing day. A crowd of dervishes visited the tents, to instil the desire of martyrdom, and the assurance of spending an immortal youth amidst the rivers and gardens of paradise, and in the embraces of the black-eyed virgins. Yet Mahomet principally trusted to the efficacy of temporal and visible rewards. A double pay was promised to the victorious troops: “The city and the buildings,” said Mahomet, “are mine; but I resign to your valor the captives and the spoil, the treasures of gold and beauty; be rich and be happy. Many are the provinces of my empire: the intrepid soldier who first ascends the walls of Constantinople shall be rewarded with the government of the fairest and most wealthy; and my gratitude shall accumulate his honors and fortunes above the measure of his own hopes.” Such various and potent motives diffused among the Turks a general ardor, regardless of life and impatient for action: the camp reechoed with the Moslem shouts of “God is God: there is but one God, and Mahomet is the apostle of God;” and the sea and land, from Galata to the seven towers, were illuminated by the blaze of their nocturnal fires.

Far different was the state of the Christians; who, with loud and impotent complaints, deplored the guilt, or the punishment, of their sins. The celestial image of the Virgin had been exposed in solemn procession; but their divine patroness was deaf to their entreaties: they accused the obstinacy of the emperor for refusing a timely surrender; anticipated the horrors of their fate; and sighed for the repose and security of Turkish servitude. The noblest of the Greeks, and the bravest of the allies, were summoned to the palace, to prepare them, on the evening of the twenty-eighth, for the duties and dangers of the general assault. The last speech of Palaeologus was the funeral oration of the Roman empire: he promised, he conjured, and he vainly attempted to infuse the hope which was extinguished in his own mind. In this world all was comfortless and gloomy; and neither the gospel nor the church have proposed any conspicuous recompense to the heroes who fall in the service of their country. … The emperor, and some faithful companions, entered the dome of St. Sophia, which in a few hours was to be converted into a mosque; and devoutly received, with tears and prayers, the sacrament of the holy communion. He reposed some moments in the palace, which resounded with cries and lamentations; solicited the pardon of all whom he might have injured; and mounted on horseback to visit the guards, and explore the motions of the enemy. The distress and fall of the last Constantine are more glorious than the long prosperity of the Byzantine Caesars. …

The immediate loss of Constantinople may be ascribed to the bullet, or arrow, which pierced the gauntlet of John Justiniani. The sight of his blood, and the exquisite pain, appalled the courage of the chief, whose arms and counsels were the firmest rampart of the city. As he withdrew from his station in quest of a surgeon, his flight was perceived and stopped by the indefatigable emperor. “Your wound,” exclaimed Palaeologus, “is slight; the danger is pressing: your presence is necessary; and whither will you retire?” – “I will retire,” said the trembling Genoese, “by the same road which God has opened to the Turks;” and at these words he hastily passed through one of the breaches of the inner wall. By this pusillanimous act he stained the honors of a military life; and the few days which he survived in Galata, or the Isle of Chios, were embittered by his own and the public reproach. His example was imitated by the greatest part of the Latin auxiliaries, and the defence began to slacken when the attack was pressed with redoubled vigor. The number of the Ottomans was fifty, perhaps a hundred, times superior to that of the Christians; the double walls were reduced by the cannon to a heap of ruins: in a circuit of several miles, some places must be found more easy of access, or more feebly guarded; and if the besiegers could penetrate in a single point, the whole city was irrecoverably lost. …

Amidst these multitudes, the emperor, who accomplished all the duties of a general and a soldier, was long seen and finally lost. The nobles, who fought round his person, sustained, till their last breath, the honorable names of Palaeologus and Cantacuzene: his mournful exclamation was heard, “Cannot there be found a Christian to cut off my head?” and his last fear was that of falling alive into the hands of the infidels. The prudent despair of Constantine cast away the purple: amidst the tumult he fell by an unknown hand, and his body was buried under a mountain of the slain. After his death, resistance and order were no more: the Greeks fled towards the city; and many were pressed and stifled in the narrow pass of the gate of St. Romanus. The victorious Turks rushed through the breaches of the inner wall; and as they advanced into the streets, they were soon joined by their brethren, who had forced the gate Phenar on the side of the harbor. In the first heat of the pursuit, about two thousand Christians were put to the sword; but avarice soon prevailed over cruelty; and the victors acknowledged, that they should immediately have given quarter if the valor of the emperor and his chosen bands had not prepared them for a similar opposition in every part of the capital. It was thus, after a siege of fifty-three days, that Constantinople, which had defied the power of Chosroes, the Chagan, and the caliphs, was irretrievably subdued by the arms of Mahomet the Second. Her empire only had been subverted by the Latins: her religion was trampled in the dust by the Moslem conquerors.

Edward Gibbon by Henry Walton

Posted by: Dominic | May 16, 2011

Damnatio Redux

Sarah E. Bond, a history lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, recaps some of the historical parallels for Egypt’s decision to erase former president Mubarak’s name from public places. To my surprise, this behavior extends back to ancient Egypt, including efforts to strike the female pharoah Hatsheptsut from inscriptions and statuary, and into Christian Rome and Byzantium and beyond – even to Renaissance Italy. Good stuff!

Pharoah Hatshepsut, ca. 1473–1458 BCE (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City).

Posted by: Dominic | April 22, 2011

Damnatio Memoriae

Al-Jazeera today reports that in the wake of revolution in Egypt and the ouster of its long-time president Hosni Mubarak, an Egyptian court has ordered the names of Mubarak and his wife removed from public view. Mubarak and his wife, Suzanne, have their names emblazoned on everything from street signs and squares to schools, libraries, and sporting venues.

Hosni Mubarak, former president of Egypt

NPR quoted Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments – “Let the name of Moses be stricken from every book and tablet. Stricken from every pylon and obelisk of Egypt. Let the name of Moses be unheard and unspoken, erased from the memory of man, for all time” – noting that the ruling comes at the beginning of Jewish Passover, celebrating the freedom of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt.

But there is a much more historical precedent for banning a disgraced leader’s name: the damnatio memoriae (“erasure of memory”) of ancient Rome. The first reference I could find to it is in the 1st century BCE historian Livy, who relates the story of Marcus Manlius Capitolinus, a consul who was charged with treason in 384 BCE (6.20.14). While the state sentenced him to death, his family decreed that none of the Manlius clan would ever bear the name Marcus again.

Damnatio memoriae comprised several different behaviors that ranged from a ban on a name, as with Macrus Manlius, to the removal of images, to the removal of a name from all public records. The emperor Commodus, famously portrayed in Gladiator and assassinated in 192 CE, was subject to a damnatio according to this passage from the Historia Augusta.

Cincius Severus dixit: “Iniuste sepultus est. qua pontifex dico, hoc collegium pontificum dicit. quoniam laeta percensui, nunc convertar ad necessaria: censeo quas is, qui nonnisi ad perniciem civium et ad dedecus suum vixit, ob honorem suum decerni coegit, abolendas statuas, quae undique sunt abolendae, nomenque ex omnibus privatis publicisque monumentis eradendum…”

Cincius Severus said: “Wrongfully has he been buried. And I speak as pontifex, so speaks the college of the pontifices. And now, having recounted what is joyful, I shall proceed to what is needful: I give it as my opinion that the statues should be overthrown which this man, who lived but for the destruction of his fellow-citizens and for his own shame, forced us to decree in his honour; wherever they are, they should be cast down. His name, moreover, should be erased from all public and private records…” (trans. D. Magie)

The Emperor Commodus as Hercules. Capitoline Museum in Rome.

The first emperor subject to a damnatio was the hated Domitian, who ruled from 81-96 CE. His condemnation after his murder in 96 is recorded by the 2nd century CE biographer Suetonius.

Contra senatus adeo laetatus est, ut repleta certatim curia non temperaret, quin mortuum contumeliosissimo atque acerbissimo adclamationum genere laceraret, scalas etiam inferri clipeosque et imagines eius coram detrahi et ibidem solo affligi iuberet, novissime eradendos ubique titulos abolendamque omnes memoriam decerneret.

The senators on the contrary were so overjoyed, that they raced to fill the House, where they did not refrain from assailing the dead emperor with the most insulting and stinging kind of outcries. They even had ladders brought and his shields and images torn down before their eyes and dashed upon the ground; finally they passed a decree that his inscriptions should everywhere be erased, and all record of him obliterated. (trans. J.C. Rolfe)

More graphic examples of damnatio include erasures from stone decrees and the destruction of images. The emperor Geta is one of the most famous victims of this complete removal from the public sphere. He shared the throne with his brother Caracalla for not quite a whole year, Caracalla murdered Geta in 211 CE. Geta’s name has been chiseled out of inscriptions, such as the one on the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum. Even though the inscription on that monument was pretty well replaced, it is still obvious that some kind of editing went on. Take a look at the fourth line of the inscription.

The Arch of Septimius Severus in Rome

The fourth line now reads “OPTIMIS FORTISSIMISQVE PRINCIPBVS” – to the best and bravest princes. But it originally read “to the most noble son of Lucius [i.e., Septimius Severus], Caesar Publius Septimius Geta.”

Geta’s image was also erased. The imperial family is shown below in the so-called Severan Tondo, with Geta’s face carved out, leaving Caracalla and their parents.

The Severan Tondo

One of the paradoxes of this practice is that these are very visible forms of destruction and mutilation – rather than fully erasing a memory, they actually call more attention to what used to exist, with an ugly and conspicuous absence.

Inscription with a damnatio memoriae. University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Philadelphia.

Posted by: Dominic | November 30, 2010

Changing Meaning of Histories

One of the most interesting phenomena of history is its ability to change meaning for those in the present. History is not a fixed set of facts but is interpretation – which is always subject to modern-day biases, concerns and politics.

For instance! Take the example of Glenn Beck. In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee in February 2010, he quoted the words of Teddy Roosevelt, a much-admired Republican president. But Beck turned Roosevelt’s progressivism on its head, rejecting what was formerly a treasured part of Republican history.

“‘We grudge no man a fortune in civil life if it’s honorably obtained and well spent. . . so long as the gaining represents benefit to the community.’

Is this what the Republican Party stands for? It’s big government, it’s a socialist utopia and we need to address it as if it is a cancer… this is the cancer that’s eating at America.”

Laugh at this though we might, and for all its crudeness, Beck is proposing a pretty radical interpretation. Teddy Roosevelt is so well ensconced in American history that we blew up a mountain in his image. But Beck rejects all that for reasons well-known: he is feeding and feeding off of the current populist (well, in some places anyway) climate against “big government.”

Thirty years ago, a similar process was happening in Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. One does not normally think of radical, perspective-changing writing in a text-book, but Zinn does it by shifting the focus from the great men of American history to the underclasses – it is a bottom-up history rather than top-down. The first page gives us insight into what lies in store for the reader.

Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat. When Columbus and his sailors came ashore, carrying swords, speaking oddly, the Arawaks ran to greet them, brought them food, water, gifts. He later wrote of this in his log:

“They… brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, and they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. They have no iron. Their spears are made of cane…. They would make fine servants…. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”

These Arawaks of the Bahama Islands were much like Indians on the mainland, who were remarkable (European observers were to say again and again) for their hospitality, their belief in sharing. These traits did not stand out in the Europe of the Renaissance, dominated as it was by the religion of popes, the government of kings, the frenzy for money that marked Western civilization and its first messenger to the Americas, Christopher Columbus.

It’s an interesting story which to lay as the foundation for a history of the United States. Christopher Columbus, of course, is well-known for having “discovered” America. But work on Norse archaeology and sagas reveals that they had been in the “New World” almost 500 years before Columbus. And he really only landed on a few Caribbean islands, and certainly not anything that is the United States today. And the United States did not even exist as a concept in 1492! So how did Columbus become the progenitor of the unjust American society Zinn perceived in his own day?

What is striking is that Zinn’s account, at least on this first page, does not really alter the basic structure of the Columbus narrative in any major way. Columbus is still the representative of Europe, meeting America for the first time. Natives are always good, always victims, always passive in this history. Here they are particularly communistic (in the commune way, not in the Stalin way). The meaning has changed, but the story has retained its significance.

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