Saturday, April 23, 2016

Why do we have a Facebook and not a Voicebook?

I just realized something. Over the centuries the human cultures have always preserved visual depictions such as paintings and portraits quite well. Even better we have 3D visual representations of humans such as sculptures, busts and statues. We have lifelike representations of Greek and Roman men and women in painting and sculpture, although several other civilizations (Persia, China, India) can claim similar achievements. Below and on the left I show a mosaic of a Mycenaean woman, a roman copy of an ancient Greek original now called the Borghese Ares, and another roman copy of the Aphrodite by the Greek sculptor Praxiteles. In all of these representations the movement and expression are so bursting with life that we feel the sculptures are about to walk and touch us. And yet such perfect images always have a certain sadness, since we know they are unable to speak. All statues therefore look like beautiful figures of mutes, perfect in their looks and yet forever trapped in their inability to speak, to scream what they feel.
But the truth is that humanity was unable to preserve voice and sounds for most of its history. We know the written language of Homer, Sappho and Pindar, and the meaning of their poems, but no one knows how their language sounded. Some scholars speculate their language had no accent on the syllables and that it may have sounded like a flowing rhythm as some French poets speak in modern days. Only in the late 19th century did Edison invent the sound recording. However, in the late 20th century it is quite easy for us to make sound recordings or even video recordings of ourselves, therefore mixing both sound and image as memories.

But how many of us do indeed preserve sound as a memory? For decades most families collect photo albums as a sort of memory book. High schools and college graduates would keep books with photographs of their classmates, either as individuals or together in a group photo. But how many of us preserved sound recordings of our family? Or of our classmates?

Even more troubling. Why do we now have on Facebook photo memories of all our friends' special moments, their family, beach vacations, travels and even dinner events? Why don't we have sound memories or recordings kept on a sort of Voicebook? Humans are the only animal that can speak and sing. Many birds, cats and dogs look beautiful, yet none of them speak. Words and emotions of grief, passion and empathy, are what makes us special and unique.

Is it because we have plenty of interest in looking at each other as eye-candy and yet we have nothing to say? Maybe that explains why we all feel misunderstood and unheard. Not even a thousand of photos of us at the gym, beach or touristic spots, will ever make a single word heard! Maybe we should go beyond just looks and listen more. We have dreams, hopes and pains to speak. I finish my thoughts with one of my favorite poems by Cavafy. It really makes my heart beat, because the poet has forgotten how his loved one looked like, yet the impression of his voice, his words still fills him with memories, meaning and sound.

"December, 1903" (Translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard)
And if I cannot speak about my love—
if I do not talk about your hair, your lips, your eyes,
still your face that I keep within my heart,
the sound of your voice that I keep within my mind,
the days of September that rise in my dreams,
give shape and color to my words, my sentences,
whatever theme I touch, whatever thought I utter.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

A peaceful emperor haphazardly started the first Jewish genocide and their European diaspora

Hadrian is the Roman emperor associated with the longest period of peace. Although the definition of peace is somewhat difficult to define in an empire with such large borders, Hadrian made serious attempts to make peace in the East with the Parthian empire and strengthened the defensive borders along Scotland, the Rhine and the Danube. In general Hadrian’s reign was marked by an absence of major conflicts and the Roman army was so peaceful that Hadrian decided to create fake alarms and drills to keep the soldiers disciplined and to signal that the army was always alert to possible invaders. Imperial policy was also benevolent towards business, including trade relations with the Arabs and the Parthians.

However, while Hadrian (see his bust on the left) is often labelled as one of the “five good emperors”, it is nevertheless true that his reign witnessed a brutal war between Romans and Jews, which resulted in over half a million victims (according to Dio Cassio, although some modern historians believe this number to be exaggerated) and the general depopulation of Judea. There were large numbers of victims caused by both sides, including internecine fights among opposing parties of Jews. After the 2nd century Hadrian became the prototype of the antisemitic Evil King in every Jewish tale and in the teachings of rabbis, which often mention “Hadrian, may his bones be crushed”. However, most modern historians believe that the idea of an antisemitic Hadrian is an anachronistic image written well after the events and that the war started due to bad planning and communication of the Roman authorities. Using a bit of an anachronistic example I would suggest Hadrian’s mistake was trying to impose a pagan Hellenistic culture (which was tolerant of naked sports, homosexual love, and all sorts of religious rituals with drugs and animals such as serpents) upon a conservative, traditional and monotheistic population. Just imagine how people would react nowadays if a powerful politician would announce the building of an arena for drugs, sex, and rock n’roll, right in front of a major church and a sanctuary of holy ground. Such was the mistake of Hadrian almost 2000 years ago. I make this remark as a metaphor and do not intend it to be either a criticism of modern culture or a precise description of the Roman-Jewish conflict.

After the Bar-Kokhba Revolt, which lasted from 132 to 136 AD, the majority of the Jewish population of Judea was killed, exiled, or sold into slavery, and Jewish religious and political authority was suppressed. Archaeological remains show that the depopulation impact of Hadrian’s Jewish War was much worse than the First Roman-Jewish War fought by Vespasian and Titus. Jerusalem was rebuilt as a purely Roman city. Hadrian forbid the Jews and Christians from entering Jerusalem, and his persecutions started the Jewish diaspora towards other Roman provinces. In order to erase any relationship between Jews and the land, Hadrian changed the name of Judea to Syria-Palestina. Several historians view the Roman actions as so brutal that these should be classified as genocide. Jews disappeared from history as a political nation until the 20th century and remained only as a religious-ethnic community.

Unfortunately, there are few reliable historical documents about how and why both sides started the war. The scanty Greco-Roman texts are either too brief (as in the case of Dio Cassius’ book) or tainted by the stain of untrustworthiness (as in the case of Historia Augusta). Cassius Dio, 69, 12, 1, relates: “At Jerusalem Hadrian founded a city in place of the one which had been razed to the ground, naming it Aelia Capitolina, and on the site of the temple of the god he raised a new temple to Jupiter. This brought on a war of no slight importance nor of brief duration, for the Jews deemed it intolerable that foreign races should be settled in their city and foreign religious rites planted there”. There are also several ancient Jewish and Christian documents mentioning Hadrian’s hatred of Jews, but such texts were written one century or more after the events.

There is archaeological evidence that Hadrian visited Israel in 130 AD, just 2 years before the war, therefore it is quite possible that the rebellion erupted after some measures he proposed then. However, some modern historians believe this particular passage of Cassius Dio was modified by the late Byzantine author Xiphilinus. Building a pagan temple on top of the Holy Temple of Jerusalem would have been an obvious catalyst for war, since the traditional Jews would have rebelled against it. This plan is therefore judged to be highly unlikely to be part of Hadrian and the Romans’ intentions. Hadrian had at his disposal plenty of examples of the Jewish sensitivity to the presence of idolatrous cults or simply images on the Temple site. Also, Hadrian’s was more inclined to peace rather than provoking wars.

Some modern historians speculate that Hadrian's real plan may have been to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman colony. Perhaps Hadrian expected that a new Roman colony would have been well received by the Jewish population, since these colonies had honorific and tax privileges. Several wealthy Jews and business men may have seen benefits in a better Roman administration. However, the local Jewish population in these Roman colonies could be recruited as soldiers and even be used to fight against their countrymen. Epigraphic texts show that Jewish citizens from Caesarea Maritima (see images above) fought in favor of the Roman army during the Roman-Jewish wars of 66 and 132. Another aspect of a Roman colony in Jerusalem which could have offended the traditional Israelites is the introduction of pagan and imperial cults in the future city, even if standard Roman policy exempted Jews from participating in Roman religious rituals.

Also, perhaps some of the younger generations and the more liberal minded may actually have enjoyed the Roman and Hellenistic culture, with its temples and baths where men would exercise mostly naked. Archeological and numismatic evidence shows that Hadrian’s policy gained some approval because of its privileges and benefits, which is particularly clear in the ruins of cities such as Tiberias (see image on the left) and Sepphoris (see images below) in Galilee where a majority of the population was Jewish. In these cities elegies were dedicated to the cult of the emperor Hadrian. This evidence demonstrates the rationality of Hadrian’s project which was not a mere provocative act against Israel, but could have met some approval.

Another sign of local Roman support is that the Jewish rebel leader, Simon Bar Kokhba, punished severely any Jew and Christian who refused to join his ranks, applying mutilation of fingers and hands to the disobedient. The images below are of the Cave of Letters which was found in the Judean desert in 1960. In this cave they found a tied bundle letters from Bar-Kokhba, next to a woman's belongings: wool, cosmetic tools, beads, a perfume flask and a mirror. Most of the Bar-Kokhba letters are orders to punish and steal the crops of wealthy Jewish landowners who refused to cooperate with him. Therefore not all Jews were against Rome.

Some historians also speculate that Hadrian may have been driven by a religious syncretism policy in an attempt to unify the imperial religions as a support for his autocracy. Roman-Greco culture rejected circumcision as a violence exercised on a perfect human body and also because circumcision was seen as a political symbol of hostility towards the Roman-Hellenic world. Hadrian may have therefore implemented harsher measures against circumcision in an attempt to impulse Israelite assimilation. Historian Giovanni Bazzana compares Hadrian’s policies to Saint Paul’s suggestion of abandoning circumcision in order for Christianity to be accepted in the wider world. Saint Paul's ideals were successful because they were only about social and religious precepts and not about a new political order.

Hadrian had already tried to unite the traditional Greek cults by creating a coherent belief system that could be spread across the whole empire, a project that had already been devised earlier by Hellenized Jewish intellectuals such as Philo. In Judaea there was already a Hellenized Jewish population, the Samaritans, which integrated their religious rites with Hellenistic ones such as the worship of Zeus. Although nowadays the Samaritans are only a few thousands of people, there were around one million Samaritans in Roman times, which can be easily confirmed by the large number of times a Samaritan appears in the New Testament or in the ancient Jewish literature. This attempt at conciliation between Judaism and Hellenism foundered when faced with strict Jewish traditions and monotheism, which caused the uprising against Rome.

Perhaps the biggest historical surprise is that Christianity became the Roman Empire’s dominant religion less than 200 years after Hadrian’s visit to Israel. Undoubtedly, Hadrian saw Jews and Christians as backward fanatics, which were destined to disappear in the middle of an enlightened Hellenistic-Roman era. My bet is that almost all Romans and pagan scholars shared Hadrian’s opinion that Jewish-Christianity was a backward and dwindling faith. Who would have guessed then that almost two thousand years later both Christianity and the Jewish religion represent the most vibrant communities of the western world? Even more surprising is that such different and opposing sources merged so well that our entire law systems are now jointly supported by these three pillars: Jewish-Christian faith and love, Hellenistic philosophy and knowledge, and Roman legislation. And as Saint Paul would say in his Epistle to the Corinthians, from all of these pillars the greatest and most important one is Love.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Inflation and Unpaid Wages destroyed the Roman Empire

Historians still debate the decline and end of the Roman Empire, a subject which inspired Edward Gibbon’s masterpiece, perhaps the most widely read history books ever. This blog will just add my personal views on a topic that has been covered many times by other authors. Many hypothesis have been proposed for the Roman decline. Some point to Christianity as a source of imperial Rome's weakness. However, the Eastern Empire was also Christian and remained a strong power until the 12th century at least. Others point out that too much lead in the water supplies was slowly poisoning the Roman population. However, it feels to me that the barbarians that penetrated the Roman empire, such as the Vandals and Visigoths, were also getting water from the same sources as the Romans, therefore I feel this to be a weak explanation.

The Roman Empire started a slow decline after the Antonine plague, which some estimate killed five million people or more than 10% of the empire’s population. The plague ended the period of greatest economic prosperity of the Roman Empire. It happened just at the climax of the greatest political and military influence of the Empire, since their major rivals, the Parthians, had been repeatedly defeated by the Romans. However, a plague does not always imply the decline of a civilization. In the late middle ages the Black Plague killed a substantial part of the European population and some economic historians say that this disease increased the wages of workers (since now there were fewer people than land) and this increase in wages may have given impulse to new industries and the long term development of Europe.

The reason why the Roman Empire may have declined and eventually disintegrated is therefore probably not due to a plague nor due to military defeats. Urban populations after a plague can employ new workers at higher wages and find new arts and industries in order to recover their wealth and splendor. Also, the Roman Empire had suffered defeats far worse than the famous disaster of Adrianopole in the late 4th century. In particular, it is easy to argue that the military defeats against Hannibal during the Punic wars, the disasters against the Teutons around 105 BC, or the rebellion of the Italian provinces during the Social War of 88 BC, were far bigger than the battle of Adrianopole. The long lasting nature of the Romans was not that their armies were always invincible, but their ability to persuade their citizens to form a new army even after suffering major defeats. Presumably, persuading your citizens to join the military effort was easier in an oligarchy or autocracy that had some respect for citizen rights. However, after the 2nd century the Romans became a military regime in which only the generals and their troops counted for something, a bit like the Soviet Union which had the largest army in the world and yet was unable to produce decent products such as toilet paper or bread. In such a military regime probably the citizens were afraid of their Roman oppressors as much as of their barbarian invaders. After a military defeat in the 4th or 5th century few Romans would cooperate with their generals and authorities, because Roman generals feared that their fellow citizens could be rivals in the competition for power and therefore even if the new generals were successful these could be murdered afterward when they were no longer convenient. This meant that the late Roman authorities would find few allies and would lose power easily after military defeats.

In my view perhaps a decisive moment in Roman history were the budget and monetary policies adopted by a very successful emperor Septimius Severus. Severus is one of the few generals in history who won large battles in three continents: Europe, Asia and Africa. Some historians believe that the battle of Lugdunum in which Severus confirmed his power was the bloodiest battle in all of roman history. Severus then enlarged the army in order to make further wars in Asia, Africa and Britain. He also increased the wage of each soldier by 30% in order to guarantee their loyalty. Above I show a picture of me and my twin brother – I am the one with longer hair – on top of the Roman wall in the city of York, England, which was where Severus died in sickness while planning to conquer Scotland. Below I show a picture of the roman theater in the African home town of Severus, Leptis Magna.

In order to pay for this large army expenses, Severus debased the coins and started an inflationary period from which Rome never recovered. As economists know, debasing the currency and creating rampant inflation is the worst possible way for a government to make revenues. It is much better to raise taxes, since the more inflation you make to pay something then you need even more inflation in the future to pay for the same things. The inflation process can go out of control and the government is unable to use money anymore. Also, ordinary business men and people stop using money and lose their confidence in the government. Inflation was already understood as a bad decision even in ancient times. Severus only adopted this bad measure because he came to power as a military dictator and only valued his soldiers. In fact Severus famous last words to his sons in York were: "Be harmonious, enrich the soldiers, and scorn all other men". Being unable to persuade the Senate to cooperate, Severus was limited to the worst policy option to finance his wars, which was inflation.

During the  3rd and 4th centuries it was clear that inflation was damaging the roman economy and their government system. Laws were passed authorizing generals to directly seize products and valuables for use of the army, therefore ordinary taxes paid in money fell out of use. Also, since workers and business men did not want to work in industries that were more easily “taxable” or “seized”, the Roman authorities ended up passing laws obliging people to stay in the area where they had been born and to work in the same occupation as their parents. Feudalism had started. The free and vibrant economy had been replaced by a planned and rigid system.

The Roman army was never actually defeated by the barbarian invaders. Even after losses such as Adrianopole the Roman leaders were able to persuade the “winners” to become cheap mercenaries for them. Therefore the barbarians could be described as a form of cheap labor in the official Roman army. Some historians, such as Peter Heather, even argue that these cheap Barbarian soldiers were actually what kept the Roman Empire running well and efficiently during the 5th century. However, the Western Roman Empire was dependent on revenues from the large olive oil fields and other agricultural farms in modern day Tunisia. When a corrupt province governor and a group of barbarians, the Vandals, managed to occupy Tunisia, then Roman emperors lost a major source of revenue. After a few decades and an exhaustive war with the Huns, the Western Roman Empire was out of revenue and the Barbarian soldiers employed by the Emperor decided to rebel and simply run Italy as a kingdom for themselves. Therefore one could say that mismanagement in the form of inflation to pay for a military dictatorship and a lack of money to pay the wages of soldiers was the end of the Roman Empire. The Eastern Roman Empire was much more urbanized, had a stronger economy, and was therefore able to resist invasions from the Balkans, the Middle East and from Central Asia for several centuries more.