History

Sic transit gloria mundi

“When the booty had been gathered together, a tenth of the whole was set apart for the Delphian god, and, from this, was made the golden tripod which stands on the three-headed bronze serpent nearest the altar.” Herodotus

It’s early afternoon and the square is crowded. An insatiable horde of tourists takes possession of Istanbul. After Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, five minutes are now dutifully allocated to immortalize the instant when they walk over the Hippodrome of Constantinople. The impossibly old Egyptian obelisks are the undisputed stars of the relentless ritual but today, the heretic in me prefers the solitude and the shade.

I make a tactical retreat but before leaving the square, I notice the broken column. Avoided by the cloud of tourists and under siege by a sea of cigarette butts and plastic bottles, it casts a simple but dignified silhouette. My curiosity takes over and I read the inscription that identifies it as the Serpent Column (Greek Τρικάρηνος Όφις (trans. Trikarenos Ophis), part of an ancient Greek sacrificial tripod built to commemorate the victory over the Persian Empire at the Battle of Plataea (479 BC). Continue reading

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Fallen Angels

Johnny_Mad_Dog

Some films grab you by the throat and don’t let go…films that cross the boundaries of fiction and shatter your cosy world. “Johnny Mad Dog” is one of those films.  Released in 2008 and directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, it is based on the novel “Johnny Chien Méchant” (2002) by Emmanuel Dongala.

It follows a group of child soldiers fighting during the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. In their march towards the capital Monrovia, they travel through towns and small villages, where they terrify, rape and kill civilians on a rampage fuelled by drugs and fanatical brainwash.

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Fictional Friends

I have made very good friends over the years. They have enriched my life in countless ways and helped me overcome painful situations. Yet, I have never met some of those friends in person. They belong to the world of fiction and an impenetrable barrier sits between us. Well, that is not entirely true…every time I have sought their help they have generously shared valuable lessons and inspiration. They have never asked for anything in return but I feel I owe them and perhaps this humble entry will go some way to repay my debt.

The first one is a Greek king, who went to war in order to “rescue” another man’s wife and experienced the most eventful journey home ever written. Over two thousand years, he has enjoyed an awful reputation as a womanizer, hedonistic and impious scoundrel but in my opinion, his story is one of the best metaphors of human existence ever composed.

Odysseus

Odysseus was extremely resourceful and had in his extraordinary intelligence the key to fool even the wrath of the gods and defeat his enemies. He taught me to pursue one’s goals relentlessly and endure setbacks and pain when they are required to achieve a worthy goal. He was no angel, his hands were covered in blood and left most of his ideals shattered by his journey through life.  Yet, he was not afraid of the truth and always loyal to his friends. Odysseus is the only king I would greet with a bow and inspired me with an everlasting fascination for Greek history and myth. I cannot stop wishing that, perhaps one day, I will encounter the old rogue and get to ask him about Troy, Circe and Polyphemus and hear his own account of the tale. More importantly, I would try to convince him to tell me about those other stories that the blind poet forgot to sing about.

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Unpleasant Facts

Since the time of Herodotus, some historians have followed that rule usually attributed to journalists: ”Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story”. The danger behind that principle is that tends to cover up reality and is likely to lead us astray.

The history of political institutions provides a perfect example of such a tendency. The story of how the idea of the state emerged first in Europe and then spread to the rest of the world is still told. Yet, if, following Max Weber, we understand a state as a “centralized, uniform system of bureaucratic administration that governs a large population and territory”; the historical evidence indicates that we should look for its origins somewhere else. That other place is China and the time was the period between the eighth and the third century B.C.

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Voices set in stone

Among the many treasures that the waves of history have washed up on our shores, few are as tantalizing as the grave steles that tell us about lives from previous centuries. Sometimes they capture a quotation from the deceased that they saw fit to define the essence of a lifetime. Others record how the owner of the tombstone was regarded by family or friends. The messages they convey are certainly humbling and moving.
Consider the grave stele of Mentor, the gladiator, from II c. A.D. that stoically states: “I, Mentor, have defeated everybody in famous stadiums and died according to fate. Powerful Moria has dragged me to Hades and now, I lie in this grave. My life has ended in the bloody hands of Amarantos.” It is worth noticing that “Mentor” was probably just a pseudonym adopted to evoke a connection with the mythological hero. It is also possible that the grave stele was paid by the same gladiator that killed him.

Mentor, the gladiator

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Atomic Imagination

The year is 1932 and a promising hungarian physicist, Leó Szilárd, has just finished reading the “The World Set Free” by H.G. Wells. First published in 1914, it foretold the invention of atomic weapons decades before the idea of releasing large amounts of energy from atomic reactions was considered even possible. In fact, as late as 1933, the famous physicist Ernest Rutherford was quoted as saying “anyone who looked for a source of power in the transformation of the atoms is talking moonshine”. Continue reading

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The Roman Manifest

A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of the Euro disintegration…. first issued as a physical currency almost thirteen years ago, the Euro quickly became more than anything else, the embodiment of the European Union dream. That same currency, full of symbolic value, is now on the brink of collapse. The financial crisis has washed away the appeal of the notion of closer integration in Europe and old national rivalries and grudges are quickly resurfacing. If the Euro breaks apart, it is hard to see how the European Union will be able to survive.

At this time of crisis, the European politicians would do well to look back into European history and see what they can learn from the past. In particular, the history of Rome provides extremely valuable principles to guide us through the present turmoil. Let us not forget that Rome, first as a republic and then as an empire, lies at the very foundation of Europe and lasted, at least in the west of the continent, for over a thousand years. What made Rome so successful? Continue reading

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A Ghost Library

In 1952 Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. published a series of books with the goal of presenting the so-called “Great Books” in a single package of 54 volumes. This was just one of endless attempts at defining the set or “canon” of books that exemplify the peak of human intellect. Confronted with those attempts, I am always left wondering about the ones that are not even considered because, although we are aware of their existence, they were destroyed by wars or human ignorance or even those for which no indirect references were preserved and have been utterly obliterated by the sands of time…
In many ways, we must realize that we are just cataloguing and ranking the remains of a shipwreck that we happen to encounter on the vast shore of human history.  A few examples can easily remind us of what is regrettably beyond our reach. Continue reading

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The Heavenly Kingdom and the Devils

Since Marco Polo wrote his “Description of the World” in the thirteenth century, millions of readers have been excited by the exotism and sophistication of the Heavenly Kingdom. I have always found fascinating how civilizations develop and interact with others. Few are as rich and complex as the Chinese.
In the case of China, one of the turning points in its history took place during the nineteenth century when a shift in the global balance of power saw it come into conflict with the emerging western empires.
Westerners had always found that while buying tea and silk from China was possible, selling goods to the their Chinese counterparts was far more difficult. There was little demand for western products. What did exist was a virtually limitless demand for silver, and a growing demand for opium. When the British conquered Bengal in the eighteenth century, thing changed dramatically at Canton (the main trading post with China at the time). The East India Company acquired the Bengal opium monopoly and sold the product at action in Calcutta. That change in the supply of opium was to have far reaching consequences. Continue reading

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Libertatem meam mecum porto

A friend asks me about the meaning of the motto ‘Libertatem meam mecum porto’ that I have used as a tag line for this blog so let me say a few words about it. The motto translates roughly as ‘I carry my freedom with me’ and I like it because, contrary to some naive interpretations of what freedom means, it conveys a sense that having freedom entails also carrying a burden, the burden of being responsible for your actions and decisions and being willing to pay the price for them. At least, that is how I interpret it. I first read it on an essay about Miguel Servet, (29 September 1511 – 27 October 1553) a Spanish theologian, physician, cartographer, and humanist. He was the first one (at least in Europe) that correctly described the function of pulmonary circulation. Furthermore, he courageously took part in the heated religious debates of his time and was condemned by both Catholics and Protestants. Sadly, he was eventually arrested in Geneva and burnt at the stake as a heretic by order of the Protestant Geneva governing council.

Miguel Servet

Servet used the motto  ‘Libertatem meam mecum porto’  on some of his works like his edition of the Ptolemy’s Geography and his beautiful 1542 edition of the Sanctes Pagnino’stranslation of the Bible. Certainly a fascinating character that was not afraid of facing the consequences of his actions.

Ptolemy’s Geography

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