September 1, 2015

1. Michael J. Lewis on Modern Art

There’s a superb essay on modern art by Michael J. Lewis in Commentary magazine. It can teach one much about the contemporary art scene, especially if you’re not an art specialist. More importantly, it places modern art in the context of modern philosophy, in the context of the spiritual condition of modern man.

Michael J. Lewis is a professor at Williams College, and the author of American Art and Architecture. He should not be confused with Michael M. Lewis, author of bestsellers like Moneyball and The Big Short.

The title of the essay is “How Art Became Irrelevant.” Lewis argues that, while high prices are being paid for art works, and huge crowds are flocking to art museums, contemporary art is no longer taken seriously.

A basic familiarity with the ideas of the leading artists and architects is no longer part of the essential cultural equipment of an informed citizen. Fifty years ago, educated people could be expected to identify the likes of Saul Bellow, Buckminster Fuller, and Jackson Pollock.... The fine arts and the performing arts have indeed ceased to matter in Western culture, other than in honorific or pecuniary terms, and they no longer shape in meaningful ways our image of ourselves or define our collective values. This collapse in the prestige and consequence of art is the central cultural phenomenon of our day.

Perhaps it isn’t just art that’s not taken seriously, perhaps nothing is taken seriously. Beginning in the 1960s, everything was viewed with “irreverence and ironic detachment.” Lewis writes,

Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on ‘Camp’” is the first attempt to define the rapid change in attitude that was taking place in the early 1960s toward art, society, tradition, everything. It was not so much a change in style or philosophy as in sensibility. This new sensibility, Sontag wrote, “sees everything in quotation marks” and “converts the serious into the frivolous.” Although the condition of the world seemed ever more serious — the Cuban Missile Crisis had just taken place — a younger generation in the Western democracies had determined that the proper response was to be even less serious, to throw up one’s hands and confront the world with irony. Even as Sontag wrote, that new sensibility was being reflected in painting (Andy Warhol), sculpture (Claes Oldenburg), and architecture (Robert Venturi), each of whose works exist, in some sense, in quotation marks. Common to all was a shared posture of irreverence and ironic detachment.

But modern art isn’t always ironic, sometimes it has a penchant for violence that reminds one of terrorism. “In 1971 the performance artist Chris Burden stood against the wall of a California art gallery and ordered a friend to shoot him through the arm.” Violence for the sake of publicity — isn’t this a definition of terrorism? Lewis speaks of,

Ron Athey’s now notorious Four Scenes from a Harsh Life, for which he incised patterns into the back of a collaborator with a scalpel, dabbing up the blood with paper towels that were affixed to a clothesline and swung out over the wincing audience.

Isn’t modern art as fond of publicity as modern terrorism?1 It’s surprising that Lewis doesn’t mention terrorism in his essay, and doesn’t point out the similarities between modern art and terrorism. Both modern art and terrorism believe that civilization is bankrupt, that life has no meaning, value, significance. As Kafka said, “Dada is — a crime... The spine of the soul has been broken. Faith has collapsed.”1B

Lewis says that violent art, such as the art of Chris Burden and Ron Athey,

offered no coordinates from which society could navigate to find a higher purpose. Rather, it fulfilled the definition of what the late Philip Rieff called a “deathwork,” a work of art that poses “an all-out assault upon something vital to the established culture.”

Again, one is reminded of terrorism, and one is surprised that Lewis isn’t reminded of terrorism.

Perhaps we can coin a new term by reversing Rieff’s term, perhaps we can speak of a “lifework” instead of a “deathwork.” Perhaps we can define a lifework as a cultural work that restores cultural traditions, that enriches life.

In the contemporary world, art itself has become suspect, and the very word “art” is avoided. Culture is often scorned as a tool for repressing a race or gender, hence attacking traditional culture is seen as a prerequisite to racial equality and gender equality. Lewis speaks of,

those French 20th-century intellectuals Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida who said that art and literature were best understood as expressions of a structure of power. Better to eliminate altogether the word art, which evokes unhappy images of dominant cultures expressing their hegemony, in favor of the aesthetically neutral term visual culture.

The West no longer believes in itself, no longer believes in Western Civilization.

The word civilization is endangered, as shown by Google’s Ngram, which tracks the frequency of word usage in print. After 1961, civilization began to be used less and less; by the mid-1980s, its usage had dropped by half. At that very moment, the ironic usage of the word “civilization” started to rise sharply. As Sontag predicted, everything could be put into quotation marks.

It’s impossible to create art, Lewis argues, unless one believes in civilization, unless one has some sort of belief-system:

Without a sincere concept of the meaning of civilization, one cannot explain why a masterpiece of Egyptian New Kingdom art counts for more than a creation of 1960s industrial design (other than in dollar value). If one cannot do even that, it is hard to see how one might set out to make serious and lasting art. To make such art — art that refracts the world back to people in some meaningful way, and that illuminates human nature with sympathy and insight — it is not necessary to be a religious believer. Michelangelo certainly was; Leonardo da Vinci certainly was not. But it is necessary to have some sort of larger system of belief, a larger structure of continuity that permits works of art to speak across time. Without such a belief system, all that one can hope for is short-term gain, in the coin of celebrity or notoriety, if not actual coins.

Lewis doesn’t understand what subscribers to this e-zine understand — namely, that philosophy is at a turning-point, that philosophy is entering a healthy phase. What I call the Philosophy of Today has

  1. respect for Zen, and for Eastern philosophy in general
  2. a keen interest in the psychology of the unconscious (Jung, etc.)
  3. a receptive attitude toward the occult

All three of these traits bode well for visual art, especially the first two. What could be more conducive to an appreciation for nature than Zen? And what could be more conducive to visual art than an appreciation for nature? The psychology of the unconscious offers abundant material for visual art, and the Jungian quest for wholeness and balance gives a sense of purpose/direction/meaning to this material. As for the occult, it may lend itself to literary expression more than visual expression. But the idea that the whole universe is alive and inter-connected surely has some application to visual art.

The important thing for visual art is to regain faith in the world, faith in life, faith in civilization. Only philosophy can enable it to do this. The absence of this faith is probably what prompted the Muslim world to go back to the Koran, and to declare “holy war.” The Muslim world couldn’t believe in Western culture because the West didn’t believe in itself, so the Muslim world chose the anti-Western way.

2. H. W. Brands

I discovered an American historian named H. W. Brands. Brands grew up in Oregon, attended Stanford, and then began teaching at universities in Texas. He wanted to write a 6-volume history of the U.S., but publishers were cool to the idea. So he’s written a history of the U.S. in a series of biographies. For example, his biography of Benjamin Franklin is also a history of Franklin’s times, and his biographies of Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, and Franklin Roosevelt are also histories of their times.

Brands tries to make history appealing; he uses stories to engage the reader. He co-authored a textbook called American Stories: A History of The United States. His output is prodigious; one wonders if he can produce such a large quantity of writing without sacrificing quality. Two of his books (his biographies of Benjamin Franklin and Franklin Roosevelt) were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize, and his books are often on the bestseller list.

Brands has written several books about modern history, usually with an emphasis on foreign affairs; for example, he wrote Into the Labyrinth: The United States and the Middle East, 1945-1993. His most recent book is a biography of Reagan. He has written business history as well as general history; for example, he wrote Masters of Enterprise: Giants of American Business from John Jacob Astor and J. P. Morgan to Bill Gates and Oprah Winfrey. Brands’ politics seem to be left of center; he says that the Supreme Court shouldn’t try to follow the “original intent” of the Framers. Click here for Brands’ Booknotes interview, here for his InDepth interview.

3. Ancient Rome

A. The Jewish Rebellion

After Augustus, none of the Julio-Claudian emperors embarked on wars of conquest, except for Claudius, who conquered Britain. So most fighting was defensive; “the Roman army began its transformation from a field force into a border garrison.”2

In 61 AD, during the reign of Nero, Roman troops went up the Nile about 1,300 miles — through Egypt, into what’s now Sudan, and finally turned back when they were south of Khartoum.3 Europeans didn’t reach this area again until 1840. Many achievements of the Romans weren’t matched again until modern times. During the Middle Ages, people were so impressed by Roman buildings that they thought the buildings must have been constructed by devils — mere humans couldn’t do such things.

In the eastern Mediterranean, the most restless area was Palestine. The Jewish upper class, and the high priests, cooperated with the Romans, but the common people longed to expel the Romans. They remembered the revolt of the Maccabees against the Seleucids/Greeks around 160 BC. They dreamed of a Messiah who would liberate them from foreign rule.

As I said earlier, Judaea and Samaria became an imperial province, governed by a procurator, in 6 AD. The Jews resisted Roman rule, and attacked Roman officials; bands of “knife-men” or sicarii used guerrilla tactics against the Romans, as the Maccabees had used guerrilla tactics against the Greeks. Resistance intensified in 40 AD when Caligula ordered the Jews to place his statue in the Temple at Jerusalem. The anti-Roman party was called the Zealots. Things calmed down somewhat when Caligula died in 41 AD.

According to Cary and Scullard, the chief cause of Jewish discontent was the heavy-handed behavior of the procurators/prefects who ruled Palestine. For example, Pontius Pilate “committed a series of blunders which culminated in the unnecessary massacre of some Samaritans.”4 Roman procurators used “indiscriminate ferocity” to suppress disorders.

In 66 AD, Gentiles in Caesarea attacked Jews and the procurator, Gessius Florus, stood by and didn’t intervene. In retaliation, the Zealots in Jerusalem first besieged and then massacred the Roman garrison. Gessius Florus couldn’t establish control, so a Roman army of 30,000, commanded by Cestius Gallus, marched to Jerusalem from Syria, and besieged the citadel. At the approach of winter, however, Cestius Gallus lost his nerve, and made a “disastrous retreat” back to Syria.

Then the whole countryside rose up in rebellion, and moderates joined Zealots to organize and train a Jewish army. In each town in Palestine, there was bloodshed: where Jews were in a majority, Gentiles were massacred, and where Gentiles were in a majority, Jews were massacred.

Nero sent 50,000 men to quell the uprising, under the command of Titus Flavius Vespasianus. Vespasian first gained control of Galilee and Transjordan, leaving only Judaea in rebel hands. Meanwhile, the Jews quarreled among themselves, and there was violence between Zealots and moderates.

One of the moderate Jews was Josephus, who later wrote a history of the Jewish War. Moderates like Josephus wanted to make peace with the Romans. By 68 AD, Palestine was largely Roman-controlled, only Jerusalem remained in rebel hands. Josephus became a Roman citizen, and took a Roman name (Titus Flavius Josephus); he worked as an interpreter for the Roman generals Vespasian and Titus.

When we discuss the Flavian emperors (Vespasian and his sons, Titus and Domitian), we’ll conclude the story of the Jewish War.

There was friction between Greeks and Jews in Alexandria. The Greeks were jealous of the Jews because the Jews enjoyed certain citizen rights, plus a measure of control over their own political and religious affairs. The Greeks were nationalistic, anti-Roman, and anti-Semitic.

In 38 AD, the Greeks told the Romans that the Jews weren’t worshipping Caligula, as he had demanded. Greek mobs attacked the Jews, and the Roman prefect sided with the Greeks. Both Jews and Greeks sent embassies to Caligula; the Jewish embassy was led by the philosopher Philo, the Greek embassy by Isodorus. Philo has left us a “vivid account” of the affair, Legatio ad Gaium (Embassy to Gaius).5

When the Greeks and Jews appeared before Caligula, the Greeks began by describing Jewish misconduct. When Philo rose to respond, Caligula flew into a rage, and ordered the Jewish embassy to leave. As Philo left, he told his compatriots that Caligula had turned God against himself.

As I study Roman history, I’m struck by the significant role of the Jews — their large population, their military/political significance, their importance in religious matters, etc. And I’m equally struck by the insignificant role of the Arabs; the Arabs scarcely appear in history until the time of Muhammad.

B. Armenia and Parthia

The early emperors didn’t want to invest in costly campaigns in Armenia and Parthia, but they also didn’t want to entirely withdraw from these areas. In 54 AD, Nero sent an officer named Corbulo to negotiate with the Parthians. Corbulo said that the Romans would recognize the king (Tiridates) whom the Parthians had installed in Armenia, if Tiridates received his crown from the Romans.

Tiridates refused, so Corbulo invaded Armenia, and forced Tiridates out of the country. Corbulo installed a new king in Armenia, Tigranes. Tigranes quarreled with the Parthians. Corbulo couldn’t help Tigranes, because Corbulo had been re-assigned to Syria. So Corbulo removed Tigranes from Armenia, and offered to re-install Tiridates on the Armenian throne, if he acknowledged “Roman suzerainty.”6

Tiridates accepted these terms, but Nero didn’t, so war broke out between Romans and Parthians. The Roman forces were commanded by L. Caesennius Paetus. Paetus was surprised by a Parthian army at Rhandeia, and forced to surrender. Cary and Scullard compare this defeat to Crassus’ defeat at Carrhae in 53 BC. Paetus was obliged by the terms of the surrender to withdraw from Armenia, while Tiridates became king once again.

When Nero heard about the terms of the surrender, he rejected the agreement, and sent Corbulo back into the field with an army of 50,000. Tiridates relented, and travelled to Rome to receive his crown from Nero. For the next fifty years, Rome enjoyed good relations with Armenia and Parthia.

C. The Danube Border

Under the early emperors, the Danube border was generally quiet, but there were some disturbances on the lower Danube, around the Danube estuary, where the Danube enters the Black Sea. A nomadic tribe from Central Asia was pushing westward, forcing other tribes toward the lower Danube. This was a foretaste of the migrations that occurred three centuries later, and helped to bring down the Roman Empire. Perhaps we can call these “Domino Migrations” (one tribe pushes another, which pushes another, etc.). To relieve the pressure on the Roman border, the Roman governor allowed about 100,000 Dacians to settle in Roman territory, south of the Danube.

I might mention in passing that the Danube now flows through ten nations, but at one time it was Roman-controlled (at least on its southern bank) from start to finish. One might say that the Romans achieved that European unity that’s now proving to be so elusive.

D. Britain

In 43 AD, Claudius sent a large army across the Channel into southeastern Britain. His army conquered much of eastern and southern Britain, leaving the north and west for later. The Romans established their capital at Colchester. Vespasian, who later fought in Palestine, and later still became emperor, won numerous battles in Britain. Claudius himself briefly participated in the campaign. Cary and Scullard say that the motives for the conquest are unclear — perhaps Claudius wanted to acquire military glory, perhaps rumors of British riches enticed the Romans. The Romans had been repeatedly invited to Britain by native chiefs who were battling other native chiefs.

In 60 AD, during Nero’s reign, a British queen named Boudica led a revolt against the Romans. The revolt was prompted by high-handed Roman behavior — aggressive tax-collection, etc. Boudica rallied some 100,000 Britons to her cause. Her forces destroyed the major Roman cities — Colchester, London, and Verulamium — and massacred their inhabitants, about 75,000 people. Just when it seemed that the Romans might have to abandon Britain, the Roman commander (Suetonius Paulinus) defeated Boudica’s army in a set battle. Suetonius had only about 12,000 troops, but their training and discipline was superior to that of the native troops. Boudica was killed, and the revolt extinguished.

Speaking of the provinces in general, Cary and Scullard say that the revolts in Britain, Palestine, and Gaul (there was a minor revolt in Gaul) indicate that Roman officials sometimes provoked the provincials by rough treatment. In general, though, the early emperors treated the provinces with respect. If a Roman official misbehaved, the provincial council could lodge a complaint with the Senate. Claudius gave Senate seats to several Gallic chiefs. The early emperors seemed to understand that the Roman Empire would be stronger if the provinces were partners, not subjects.

As a student of Livy [Claudius] realized clearly that the partnership of Rome and Italy, which had produced the Roman Empire, must be succeeded by a partnership of Italy and the provinces, if that empire was to be made durable.... Claudius and Nero definitely broke with the principle that the provinces should be kept on a lower plane than Italy.7

These early emperors were quasi-provincials themselves: Caligula had spent his early years on the Rhine frontier, Claudius was born in Gaul. One of Nero’s ministers (Seneca) hailed from Spain, another (Burrus) from Gaul.

It would be a mistake to suppose that the Roman Empire was based on force alone. It was based largely on a partnership, and on the willing participation of the people in the Empire.

Summing up the early emperors, our authors say that they weren’t as bad as their reputations. With the exception of Caligula, all the Julio-Claudian emperors had positive traits. The Senate contributed in a positive way, the imperial bureaucracy contributed, the Empire was generally at peace, and the people were generally content. Before we condemn the early emperors, our authors argue, we should consider the poor training they received, and the strain they were under — surrounded by flatterers, surrounded by plots (or rumors of plots). “The early Caesars were subject to a strain that warped the mind of each in turn.”8

E. Agriculture

War and violence produced a steady stream of slaves. On the other hand, the pax Augusta reduced the supply of slaves. In the time of the early emperors, most slaves were “home-bred.” The mines were supplied with slaves by the judicial system; those convicted of serious crimes were “condemned to the mines” (damnatio ad metalla). A few slaves were brought to market by traders who “bought unwanted children or picked them up after exposure.”

Meanwhile, the Romans were beginning to realize that slaves didn’t pay. During Nero’s time, the leading agriculture expert, Columella, wrote a treatise called De Re Rustica, in which he argued that

nothing but constant watchfulness by a competent bailiff and frequent personal visits by the owner of the estate could keep unfree workers up to a profitable standard of industry and care, and only by paying high prices could trustworthy slaves be procured.9

But free farmers, who paid rent, presented problems, too. If they weren’t born and bred in the country, they usually didn’t succeed as farmers. It was becoming apparent that once the peasantry was undermined (by slavery, war, confiscation, etc.), it was hard to rebuild it.

F. Trade

Under Augustus and his successors, industry and trade expanded. “A merchant might traverse [the Empire] from the Euphrates to the Thames without being called upon to produce a passport.”10 Customs duties were low, and there was a policy of laissez-faire. “The monopolies imposed by the Ptolemies [in Egypt] on all money-making activities, from banking to brewing, were abolished.” Bronze pots and pans from a factory in Capua (near Naples) have been found in the Black Sea region, Wales, and Scotland. There were few technical advances. However, the glass industry developed when craftsmen in Sidon (now in Lebanon) learned how to make glass products by blowing instead of molding.

Trade with the interior of Africa was limited, and the Romans made little effort to explore the interior of Africa. They didn’t sail down the west coast of Africa, as the Carthaginians once did. They didn’t sail around the southern tip of Africa, as the Portuguese did in 1488. And the Romans didn’t try to reach India by sailing west (as Columbus did), though Seneca predicted that this would someday be done.

But there was a brisk trade with India; in a typical year, about 120 ships sailed from the Red Sea to India. It was discovered that you could sail to India with the help of the summer monsoon winds, and sail back with the prevailing winter winds. The Empire’s upper class was eager for India’s luxuries — perfumes, spices, muslin, and jewels. Some Romans were concerned about a trade imbalance, and a loss of gold and silver. Roman goods were carried by land to eastern India, since ships didn’t dare round the southern tip of India, Cape Comorin (now known as Kanyakumari), whose wild winds and currents might be compared to those at Cape Horn (at the tip of South America) and the Cape of Good Hope (at the tip of Africa).

The silver mines of Spain were becoming less productive, but tin was discovered in Spain, and began to replace British tin. Lead was also mined in Spain; lead was used for water pipes. Terracotta pipes were used to heat public baths and private houses, carrying heat from an underfloor furnace (hypocaust).

The growth of industry and trade fostered urban life. Trade with India benefited Alexandria, which had 300,000 inhabitants, making it the second most populous city in the Empire (after Rome). Trade with inner Asia benefited Antioch. Trade with the Danube lands benefited Patavium (Padua). Lugdunum (Lyon) was the hub of western European trade, and London the hub of British trade. Goods from North Africa often went through Carthage, and goods from southern Spain often went through Gades (Cadiz).

As for entertainment, chariot races and gladiatoral combats were all the rage. The chariots were divided into factions or teams — reds, greens, blues, etc. Jockeys and gladiators were revered as victorious generals once were. In between these spectacles, the proletariat relaxed in the city’s porticoes and baths.

G. Culture

Turning to architecture, our authors have high praise for the Maison Carrée (Square House) at Nemausus (Nimes): “Of all surviving Roman temples none shows a greater harmony of structure or delicacy of finish.” The Maison Carrée was built by Agrippa about 15 BC. Agrippa may also be responsible for the nearby Pont du Gard, which was a road on its bottom level, and an aqueduct on its top level.

The Maison Carrée in Nimes, France


The Pont du Gard, also in Nimes

The pax Augusta reduced the threat of violence, so towns were moved from hilltops to plains, and towns felt secure enough to do without walls.

Rome didn’t have public education, and Augustus probably didn’t conceive of public schools. But he did extend the privileges that Caesar had given to teachers and doctors, and he did carry out Caesar’s plan of a public library.

Turning to poetry, our authors say that Horace was “the greatest of Roman satirists,” but his reputation rests on his later works, his Odes. Horace’s Odes often have a serious tone; instead of dealing with “potations and flirtations,” Horace deals with “the grand pageant of Roman history.”11 While many Roman poets were turning for inspiration to Greek poets from Alexandria, Horace drew inspiration from early Greek poets.

Unlike Horace, Ovid wrote in a light tone. “[Ovid] achieved his greatest success in recounting the familiar tales of Greek mythology.”12 In 8 AD, Augustus exiled Ovid to a town on the Black Sea, perhaps because Ovid had an affair with Julia, Augustus’ daughter.

Vergil’s first work was his Eclogues, a slender collection of pastoral poems, inspired by the father of pastoral, the Alexandrine poet Theocritus. Cary and Scullard say that, as a pastoral poet, Vergil lacks the “animation” of Theocritus, but has “the same frank delight in the summer scenes of Mediterranean lands.”13 Next Vergil wrote his Georgics, which is a “highly competent” manual on farming, and also a “hymn in praise of country life.” The Georgics express a “dour belief” in hard work. Vergil is best known for his epic poem, the Aeneid, which describes Aeneas’ escape from Troy (after the Trojan War), his journey to Italy, and his struggles in Italy. It was Augustus who urged Vergil to write the Aeneid, a work that wasn’t “altogether congenial to him.” Vergil lacked “the primitive man’s joy of battle... as a slaughterman his Aeneas is wholly unconvincing.”14 But

as a patriotic poem Vergil’s epic completely fulfilled its purpose.... Its dominant note is pride in Rome’s past and a high sense of its future mission.... Wherever Latin was spoken it found eager readers and justified to them the ways of Rome.

About a century after Vergil, Lucan wrote an epic called Pharsalia, which deals with the war between Caesar and Pompey, especially the Battle of Pharsalus, which concluded that war. Lucan was Seneca’s nephew, and like Seneca, Lucan was forced to commit suicide by Nero; Lucan died in 65 AD, at age 25. Cary and Scullard shrewdly remark that Lucan tried to appeal to his audience — a rather coarse audience — instead of trying to satisfy his own literary conscience. Nonetheless, the Pharsalia’s “high spirit is infectious,” and it does a good job of depicting Caesar as “a person possessed with a demon of energy that crashed through every obstacle.”15

The academies of this period were preoccupied with oratory. But there was little application for oratorical skill, since there was little open debate in the Senate (the Senate usually followed the emperor’s lead), and the judicial system was preoccupied with technicalities. In the academies, young orators defended “absurdly far-fetched theses,”16 examples of which can be found in the oratorical writings of the elder Seneca, Suasoriae and Controversiae.

Under the early emperors, the best-known historian was Livy. Livy’s voluminous history of Rome began with the founding of the city, and went all the way to the time of Augustus. Livy’s style was widely admired; Cary and Scullard speak of “the swift but smooth current of his prose, which carries the reader along in the manner of Macaulay’s History.”17 Livy’s history was widely popular, but because of its length, it was often read in abridged versions. Livy championed Roman virtues and Roman achievements, hence he’s sometimes called a prose counterpart of Vergil. Livy lacked a detailed knowledge of legal and military matters, and he lacked a deep grasp of cause and effect. One might say that he was a great storyteller, but not a deep thinker.

Another historian, probably from this period, is Quintus Curtius, who wrote a history of Alexander the Great in Latin. Curtius was writing about 300 years after Alexander, so he wasn’t an eyewitness, and didn’t speak to any eyewitnesses. Curtius was less concerned with the real Alexander than with the legends that were growing up around him. Our authors say that Curtius’ book was “a starting-point of the medieval ‘Alexander legend.’”18

As for philosophy, a resigned Epicureanism was popular during the Second Triumvirate, and was expressed by Horace and Vergil in their early works. On the other hand, a proud Stoicism was more in keeping with the Augustan period, and is found in the later works of Horace and Vergil. The Stoic philosophy is also found in Seneca’s works, which our authors praise for their “sprightly and arresting style.”19

One of the best-known writers of this period was Pliny the Elder, whose Natural History dealt with science, geography, and art history. Pliny fell into some “grotesque errors” because of “the Roman habit of treating natural science in a purely practical and empiric manner.”20 Nonetheless, his work is a valuable source of information about the ancient world. Pliny was killed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Pliny the Elder should not be confused with his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who lived about 100 AD, and is known for his Letters (Epistulae).

Cary and Scullard have high praise for a treatise on geography by Agrippa, a treatise that’s no longer extant. Agrippa realized Caesar’s dream of a complete survey of the Roman Empire. Then Agrippa constructed a large map of the Empire, which was later inscribed on marble. His treatise on geography can be seen as a commentary on his map.

The most important surviving work on geography is by the Greek writer Strabo. Strabo travelled extensively; for example, he sailed 800 miles up the Nile.

The period of the early emperors saw the publication of Vitruvius’ famous book on architecture. Vitruvius had been an engineer in Caesar’s army. He discusses the principles of a steam engine, and he warns against using lead for water-pipes. He discusses acoustics, and how to place echoing devices in theaters. He developed an odometer “consisting of a wheel of known circumference that dropped a pebble into a container on every rotation.”21

This period also saw the publication of the first Latin dictionary (by Verrius Flaccus), commentaries on Latin classics (such as a commentary on Cicero’s speeches), a medical treatise by Celsus, which summarized Greek medical knowledge, and a treatise on medicinal plants by Dioscorides. As for literary criticism, our authors have high praise for a treatise called On an Elevated Style, by “an unknown writer.”22

H. Religion

Under the early emperors, “the virtually atheistic creed of the Epicureans was dying out.” Stoicism was more popular, and it was evolving from pantheism toward a belief in a “supreme personal deity.” Meanwhile, astrology was spreading from the eastern Mediterranean to Italy, and making converts in the upper class, and even among the emperors.

But neither Stoicism nor astrology was a religion, and neither could satisfy the spiritual needs of all the people. Our authors say that three religions were especially popular at this time:

  1. the worship of Isis, an “Egyptian nature-goddess”
  2. Judaism, which was making converts in the eastern provinces and in Rome
  3. Christianity, which began as one of the numerous Jewish sects

John the Baptist preached around 27 AD, and was executed soon after. Then Jesus began preaching. Jesus was charged with blasphemy by a Jewish court, and handed over to the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. Pilate saw no danger in Jesus, and was inclined to release him. But to avoid a riot, he gave in to the Jews’ demand that Jesus be crucified. The crucifixion took place around 30 AD.

Jesus’ disciples believed that he appeared to them after his death, and told them to preach his gospel far and wide. Their numbers grew. The Jewish authorities decided to stamp out this new sect, and drove the Christians from Jerusalem. Some took refuge in Antioch, where they were first called “Christians.”

One of the Jewish persecutors of Christianity was Saul of Tarsus, better known by his Latin name Paul. After Paul converted to Christianity, he persuaded other Christians to accept Gentile converts, even if they didn’t adhere to Jewish customs. In this new form, this liberal form, this Pauline form, Christianity could be spread to all mankind.

Paul traveled through the eastern provinces, spreading the new faith. He spoke a Greek dialect called koine, which was widely understood. He often aroused the opposition of Jews and pagans. He was charged with various crimes, but never found guilty. Finally he was charged with treason and sent to Rome. According to tradition, he died in Nero’s persecution of Christians.

Nero’s persecution was the start of the long struggle between the Roman Empire and Christianity, a struggle that lasted about 250 years. The struggle finally ended in the reign of Constantine, when Christianity was adopted as the state religion. One reason why both Judaism and Christianity aroused opposition is that they were monotheistic, and didn’t accept the gods of polytheists.

© L. James Hammond 2015
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1. Architecture, too, tries to grab people’s attention: “The making of a great building was once akin to making a fine musical instrument; today the task more nearly resembles the making of a successful billboard.” Contemporary architecture “has suffered by losing its sense of historical continuity. As it has done so, it approaches the state of advertising — large, eye-catching, memorable objects created by celebrity designers with a signature style.” back
1B. Conversations With Kafka, by Gustav Janouch, p. 165 back
2. Ch. 33, #1 back
3. This may have been Nero’s idea; he had a penchant for ambitious projects. One of his projects was to extend Roman power in the East all the way to the Caspian Sea; this project was never carried out, and was abandoned when Nero died. back
4. Ch. 33, #2 back
5. Caligula’s real name was Gaius Julius Caesar. back
6. Ch. 33, #3 back
7. Ch. 33, #7 back
8. Ch. 33, #8 back
9. Ch. 34, #1 back
10. Ch. 34, #2 back
11. Ch. 34, #6 back
12. Ch. 34, #6 back
13. Ch. 34, #6 back
14. Ch. 34, #6 back
15. Ch. 34, #6 back
16. Ch. 34, #7 back
17. Ch. 34, #7 back
18. Ch. 34, #7 back
19. Ch. 34, #7 back
20. Ch. 34, #7 back
21. Wikipedia back
22. This treatise may have been written by Demetrius of Phalerum, and it may be the same as the treatise On Style. back