Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Annals - Tacitus

Tacitus is an interesting historian.  He apparently decided that he would simply record things on a year by year basis.  Most years divide into two large elements, what wars are happening on the frontiers and what the political situation was back in Rome.  At the end of each year, he goes through the notable deaths.  Well, the deaths that occurred outside of the wars or (more frequently) the politics.
It was easier for me to follow the wars in Gaul, Germany and against the Parthians than it was to follow the news of Rome.  A few years back I spent considerable time playing a game called Total War Rome.  The game is mostly simulations of battles between Roman forces and various others of the period.  Suffice it to say, the Roman soldiers completely outclassed the various tribes of northern Europe.
There was more drama in Rome but from this viewpoint it was much harder to follow.  The Annals start off with the reign of Tiberius in 14 AD.  He followed up Julius and Augustus Caesar, two of the most famous men in history.  There was considerable trouble in Rome figuring out which faction would provide the next emperor and it caused near constant conflict.  This means lots of 'so and so killed so and so' and it was hard to figure out without some kind of family tree.
At first this confusion bothered me, but I relaxed and simply let some of it wash over me.  After a while, the names took on some meaning and I could follow along.  Well, follow to some extent.  Just as you'd get to know someone, they'd be knocked off.  It was an unbelievably nasty era of politics.
Coming off a few months of reading Greek history, the difference was striking.  I don't recall any assassination in Herodotus or Thucydides.  There, the conflict was between empires and city states.  Here, the biggest conflicts were internal.  It's a testament to the other structures of Rome that the constant fighting at the capitol didn't destabilize the empire.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Paul Lawrence Dunbar - Poetry

Another new poet (to me) and a poem that I've never read before.  The blurb in the books says that Dunbar was the descendant of slaves.  This poem was written in 1896, to give you some context for the racial atmosphere that he was working against.

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes-
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be overwise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured soul arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask.

Very powerful.  I'm reminded of the Ellison book, 'The Invisible Man', in which the protagonist is unseen by the white people around him.  Or only seen as a category, the black man, instead of as a real, individual person.
But that isn't quite on point.  The idea here is that the former slaves and their children must keep a mask on to hide what is really going on in their lives.  They don't want to share the misery that is their lot, doubtlessly to avoid even more misery.
In some ways, this is a broad, human condition.  I don't want to devalue the terrible conditions of Jim Crow and racism of the past, but virtually everyone can appreciate the thoughts of the last stanza.  We smile, even though our soul is crying.  We sing, even through the vile and exhausting times.  And we all wear that mask at times, not letting others see the pain.
A very powerful poem.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Biography of Tacitus

Not much is known about the early life of Tacitus.  Even his first name and father are disputed.  It is thought that he was from what is now southern France (Narbonensis).  His father may have been an official that served in the region of Belgium and Germany, but that isn't clear.  We do know that he was friends with Pliny the Younger.  The two exchanged letters but it isn't clear if Tacitus had the same circle of friends or not.
But we do know some things.  He started in politics in 81 or 82 and in time moved up the ladder of Roman offices.  He served in the provinces from roughly 89 to 93 and may have commanded a legion.  This was a rough period, politically but he made it through without losing his life or his wealth. 
In 100 he worked with Pliny the Younger to prosecute a proconsul of Africa.  The proconsul was accused of corruption and he was found guilty.  Young Pliny spoke very highly of his speaking skills. 
It's believed that he then took some time off to write the Annals and the Histories.  Around 112 or 113 he became governor of the province of Asia.  It's believed that he died somewhere between 117 and 130. 

Tacitus is generally regarded as the leading Roman historian.  He often worked with primary sources, including existing texts of speeches from various Emperors.  We're lucky to have the Annals at all.  Most of what we have comes from two single copies, one that covered the first six books and the second which covered books 11-16.  Even so, there are parts missing.  Hopefully, the rest will be discovered in some monastery someday. 
It's a shame to think of what immortality of writing has been robbed, not by the judgment of people but by the fault of poor materials. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

Edwin Arlington Robinson - Poetry

(Sorry I missed posting this last night.  I traveled over the weekend and my brain is fuzzy.)

The next poem up in this book of poetic delights is one that I know by name, but I'm not familiar with the poem itself.  I have some recollection that Simon and Garfunkel sang about Richard Cory, but I'd have to look that up.  Anyway, here is the poem:

Whenever Richard Cory wend down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich - yes, richer than a king -
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Well.  That's a pretty strong clash there.  Richard Cory is a god among men.  Everyone would want to change places with him.  He's attractive, intelligent, rich.  The envy of all.  But he was unhappy enough about something to take his own life.  Ironic.
We never really do know what it's like in someone else's head, do we?  What we think would make us happy, can be someone else's hell.  Actually, I wonder how true that is.  Especially when it comes to position and wealth.  But the point is well taken.  And rich people certainly do suicide.  Some quickly with guns, some slowly with drugs.  Examples are too numerous to point out.
A fine, if disturbing, poem.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Roots of Freedom

Here is an excellent article on the traditions that we rely on for our freedoms. 
The English-speaking peoples didn’t invent democracy. The Athenians were casting pebbles into voting urns when the remote fathers of the English were grubbing about alongside their swine in the cold soil of northern Germany. Nor did they invent the concept of the law: the Egyptians, Sumerians and Babylonians had chambers full of legal scrolls even before Moses climbed down from the summit of Sinai. The Anglosphere miracle lies in something more specific and more transformative: the invention of constitutional freedom. Parliamentary government, in the common law tradition, is a guarantor of the rights of the individual, not a licence for the majority to override the minority. Power is divided, dispersed, delineated.

After spending the past few months reading Greek and Roman history, this is pretty clear.  Neither people had anything like the protections that we take for granted.  If a US citizen displeases the President, their life and liberty isn't at risk.  Well, for the sake of this observation, let's set aside the current question of the IRS targeting the President's opponents.  Or at least, let's say that if the worst is proved true and there was political power behind it, there would be outrage from both sides of the aisles.
This wasn't true in ancient Greece or Rome.  And to be honest, it wasn't always true in England either.  But it became more and more true there.  Over time they developed a theory of natural rights that were inviolate by those in power.  These were (partially) codified during the American revolution in the founding documents. 
We can look to Greece for the overall idea of democracy but for our freedoms, we need to look in a different spot.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Author Timeline

We now move to the AD.

Aeschylus  525-456
Herodotus  484-425
Thucydides  460-395
Plato  428-348
Aristotle  384-322
Euclid  Unknown (300 BC?)
Tacitus  56-117
St Thomas Aquinas  1225-1274
Chaucer  1343-1400
Shakespeare  1564-1616
Milton  1608-1674
Locke  1632-1704
Kant  1724-1804
Mill  1806-1873
Lavoisier  1743-1794
Dostoevsky  1821-1881
Freud  1856-1939

Tuesday, April 1, 2014