Sunday, February 28, 2021

The Elephant Quadriga of Portus

The Vatican Museum has a Roman sarcophagus carved with this interesting relief.

A port seems to be depicted, although as we will see there is some dispute over which port.

And what is that in the upper right-hand corner? Could that be a chariot pulled by four elephants, standing atop a triumphal arch?

And another relief, this one in the Torlonia Collection.

Thus we enter a marvelous little rabbit hole, the Tale of the Elephant Quadriga. This is a gold coin from the reign of Nero, c. 55 AD, showing Claudius and Augustus riding in an elephant quadriga. 

There are quite a few such depictions. So the obvious interpretation is that the Julio-Claudian emperors, those masters of self-promotion and scandalous expense, sometimes rode in chariots drawn by four elephants. However, this is, shall we say, uncertain. There are dozens of coins and other artistic sources, but very few texts, and none that seem really trustworthy.

The clearest textual evidence for such behavior comes from Plutarch's Life of Pompey. Plutarch tells us that in 89 BC the young Pompey 
tried to ride into the city on a chariot drawn by four elephants; for he had brought many from Africa which he had captured from its kings. But the gate of the city was too narrow, and he therefore gave up the attempt and changed over to his horses.
I have to say that this does not strike me as an especially reliable source. Pompey was at that point too young to legally celebrate a Triumph, and had been neither a Praetor nor of Consul, so his demand for this honor no doubt struck many older Romans as presumptuous. They would have been looking for reasons to mock him. Note that since he never actually appeared in an elephant-drawn chariot, nobody saw this, so the source would have to have been someone very close to Pompey. Plus, the morality tale is too perfect. In SPQR, Mary Beard is very coy, and never says if she believes this or not.

So far as I can tell, neither Tacitus nor Suetonius ever mentioned emperors being drawn by elephants, and that strikes me as the sort of thing they would have very much enjoyed. If Nero or Caligula had ever ridden in a chariot drawn by elephants, surely some one would have told us?

I should emphasize that I am not saying this is impossible; after all elephants certainly can be trained to pull carts. The Romans had plenty of elephants, especially during the late Republic. There are several coins from the Hellenistic kingdoms (above, Seleukos I) that show kings this way, and they really did use elephants on a large scale, so who knows what they got up to. But the formula of the Roman Triumph was very firmly set by tradition, and it specified horses, so I think anyone who wants to argue that some particular Roman actually was pulled by elephants has to prove the case.

The only other clear textual statement I know about an elephant quadriga comes from much later. Several sources tell us that the Golden Gate into Constantinople was surmounted by a statue depicting Emperor Theodosius in an elephant Quadriga. Byzantine Historian George Kedrenos tells us that this is an accurate depiction of Theodosius entering the city. However, he was writing around 1050 AD and is not considered very reliable about events that far in the past. Also a very weak source, I would say.

Venus, a fresco at Pompeii

On the other had, we do have a story about Dionysus entering India in a chariot drawn by elephants, and several depictions of other gods and goddesses in this wise. 

So there is a clue. Another is that most, at least, of the coins depicting emperors in this way were minted after their deaths. Here are three coins showing Trajan in this wise, from the time of his successor Hadrian. So we are seeing, not the emperor in his physical person, but the Divine Emperor, his immortal spirit. So sadly we should probably imagine, not actual emperors riding around in chariots pulled by elephants, but elephants as a characteristics of emperors after they had ascended to godhead. While living they had to make do with horses.

Famous coin showing Diva Faustina, the wife of Antoninus Pius, after her death.

This coin of Domitian probably depicts the Arch of Titus in Rome; Titus was Domitian's brother and Domitian set up the arch c. AD 81 to celebrate his brother's achievements. You can see that in this depiction the arch has an elephant quadriga on top. But there is also a very fine sculptural relief on the arch showing Titus' Triumph, and there he is clearly shown being drawn by horses. I think this pretty clearly marks the distinction between the living man and his divinity.

But let's get back to that triumphal arch we started from. You can see by now that more than one such arch probably existed, and for all we know there could have been dozens. But most commentators agree that the construction in those reliefs was in Portus, the new port built by the emperors at the mouth of the Tiber River. This depiction, on a molded ceramic vessel found in southern France, clearly shows the Quadriga against Trajan's hexagonal harbor at Portus.

Compare the depiction of the harbor on this seal.

Map of Portus.

And this image, from another French potsherd, helpfully labels the spot as Portus. The question of who was depicted on the arch inspires more debate. Some think Trajan, since he built that harbor. But it seems the harbor was completed in his lifetime, and Trajan was not the sort of man to violate old taboos against excessive self-aggrandizement. So the most common guess is Augustus. It is possible, though, that the arch was added to the harbor after Trajan's death, and does show him. Many things are possible.

Sometime there is nothing better than following an image on an old coin or relief down a historical rabbit hole, and seeing where the tunnel takes us.

David Hume on Slavery

David Hume lived at a time (the mid 1700s) when many intellectuals greatly admired the ancient world. Indeed they were always dreaming up new ways in which the ancients were superior; Hume tells us that one unnamed writer insisted that there were 50 times more people in the Roman Empire than in the Europe of 1750.

But Hume, one of history's most famous skeptics, wasn't having it. He dismissed that demographic argument as absurd and blasted the ancient world for the violence of its civil wars, and for the prevalence of slavery:

The chief difference between the domestic œconomy of the ancients and that of the moderns consists in the practice of slavery, which prevailed among the former, and which has been abolished for some centuries throughout the greater part of Europe. Some passionate admirers of the ancients, and zealous partizans of civil liberty, (for these sentiments, as they are, both of them, in the main, extremely just, are found to be almost inseparable) cannot forbear regretting the loss of this institution; and whilst they brand all submission to the government of a single person with the harsh denomination of slavery, they would gladly reduce the greater part of mankind to real slavery and subjection. But to one who considers coolly on the subject it will appear, that human nature, in general, really enjoys more liberty at present, in the most arbitrary government of Europe, than it ever did during the most flourishing period of ancient times. As much as submission to a petty prince, whose dominions extend not beyond a single city, is more grievous than obedience to a great monarch; so much is domestic slavery more cruel and oppressive than any civil subjection whatsoever. The more the master is removed from us in place and rank, the greater liberty we enjoy; the less are our actions inspected and controlled; and the fainter that cruel comparison becomes between our own subjection, and the freedom, and even dominion of another. The remains which are found of domestic slavery, in the American colonies, and among some European nations, would never surely create a desire of rendering it more universal. The little humanity, commonly observed in persons, accustomed, from their infancy, to exercise so great authority over their fellow-creatures, and to trample upon human nature, were sufficient alone to disgust us with that unbounded dominion. Nor can a more probable reason be assigned for the severe, I might say, barbarous manners of ancient times, than the practice of domestic slavery; by which every man of rank was rendered a petty tyrant, and educated amidst the flattery, submission, and low debasement of his slaves. 

This is worth noting for a couple of reasons. While hypocrisy was everywhere in the Revolutionary era, as in all eras, there were enlightenment figures who actually supported rights for all humans. People like Hume, Benjamin Franklin, Tom Paine, and the Marquis de Condorcet really meant it when they said human rights. They spoke out strongly against slavery and racism. They may not have understood what equality for women would mean or how it would be achieved, but they certainly did not dismiss the notion and most of them supported education for girls. Second, the habit of undermining old heroes by pointing out that they did not live up to modern standards of morality is old, and has been part of many political debates.

US Foreign Policy

One of my sons asked me yesterday, "Who was the last US president who didn't bomb the Middle East?"

Bonus question: who was the last US president who didn't bomb (or shell) anywhere?

Friday, February 26, 2021

Razib Khan Bemoans the Forgetting of History

Razib Khan:

I recently witnessed a scholar informing his audience that Xi Jinping’s genocidal inclination towards the Uygurs distinguishes his regime from its Imperial Chinese forerunners who displayed no such maniacal tendencies, despite their cruelties. I objected that on the contrary Imperial China had been the author of multiple genocides of subject peoples over the millennia. He ignored me. . . .

Many would argue that we’re already deep into a post-fact era and the battle to actually remember anything but the blandest contours of our few millennia of human history has long since been ceded to a postmodern elite obsessed with facile disputes over race, victimology and their own most immediately accessible personal feelings. They’re probably right. But I find it hard to care. I’m too disagreeable and I owe too many of my intellectual debts and loyalties to humans whose time on earth never overlapped mine anyway. I can’t bend myself to the vapid ethos of this ahistorical age I happen to live in. I remember and remember and remember. It’s probably no use, but it’s what I do.

You’re here reading me, so odds are, you do, too. Many among the 1.4 billion humans behind the Great Chinese firewall defied censors to mourn an early Covid coverup whistleblower’s death, gathered for hours clamoring for any insight about their government’s pogroms against the Uygurs when a tiny door briefly opened on Clubhouse, and struggle futilely to know anything surrounding the 1989 events of Tiananmen Square or a thousand other moments unflattering to the Chinese regime’s self image. But us? We do it to ourselves. No one’s surveilling us to keep us from reading or remembering. We do it to ourselves. 

The rest of the piece described the Qing state and its genocidal war against the Dzungar Mongols in the 18th century. It's on Substack but Khan's is set up to allow you to read a couple of posts for free, should you be curious.

Links 26 February 2021

 Salamander photographed in a burned-over area of California

The Breakthrough Starshot Initiative, which aims to send a micro-probe to Alpha Centauri fast enough to arrive in just 20 years.

Turkish Garbage Collectors Start 6,000-Volume Library with Books Rescued from the Trash.

3D map of all the buildings in the Netherlands, color-coded by age.

The Zanj Rebellion of AD 868-883, a mass uprising of African slaves in southern Iraq.

Restoring the Cultural Museum in Mosul, Iraq.

Review of Mike Konczal's new book, Freedom from the Market, which sounds interesting.

The glaciers wiped out earthworms from northern forests, and as the worms gradually return they are changing the forest ecosystem in ways that might warm the earth. Call it the "Earthworm Dilemma." (News article, original paper)

Nicholas Kristof writes about the ongoing puzzle of declining sperm counts and the possible harm from endocrine disruptors. (NY Times)

In the 2020 election, only 16 out of 435 Congressional districts chose one party for president and a different party for the House of Representatives; nine of those went for Biden and seven for Trump. That's the smallest amount of split-ticket voting in modern history.

Frustrated that it is getting ever harder to build new oil and gas pipelines, industry is pushing state governments to enact draconian laws against protesting on pipeline construction sites.

Total fertility in South Korea has been below 1.0 two years in a row. TNF below 1.0 means the population will fall by more than half each generation.

Long piece in the NY Times about Smith College, where feelings are running very high over race, class, privilege, etc. Everybody involved seems a little bit hysterical to me, which makes the campus a microcosm of America. Seems like college presidents spend a lot of time apologizing these days.

The race optimist: Chloé Valdary hates the "diversity, equity, and inclusion industry" and thinks the solution is to racial tension in the workplace is to teach love, community, and "enchantment." (Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic)

Interesting piece by John Leland about a young black man who delved deep into his family past (New York Times)

Anti-psychotic drugs sometimes work wonders, bringing suffering people back to manageable reality. But they all have side effects and many patients hate them, which creates a problem of people being released from hospitals, then stopping their meds and going crazy again. So Norway has created a program to treat psychotic patients without drugs.

T.S. Eliot's anti-Semitism: "It is generally assumed that anti-Semites hate Jews not for what Jews actually are, but for what they imagine Jews to be. That was true of Ezra Pound, who imagined that Jews were usurers responsible for social crisis and war. Eliot, by contrast, hated the Jews for what they really are: ironic."

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

The Minor Mystery of the Leaking Water Main and the Wet Basement

Back in late January we had our first severe cold snap of the year, along with a snow/ice storm. The next day a slowly spreading puddle appeared in our basement. We feared that our sewer pipe had cracked, since that happened to us not long after we moved in and we had to have the concrete floor broken up and the pipe repaired. But the water appeared to be fresh, and the flow did not change with our water use. So the water appeared to be coming from outside. But we had our basement professionally waterproofed 15 years ago and had not had any trouble with outside water since. Very puzzling.

Then we noticed that even after all the snow had disappeared water was still pouring through the storm sewer, which we could hear through the drain next to our house. No sign of where this water was coming from.

Then a few days after that water began bubbling to the surface of the street three houses away and uphill from us, obviously from a leaking water pipe. So that explained the water pouring down the storm drain. Only a slow trickle of water was emerging from under the street, so most of it was somehow getting into the storm sewer.

And we started to wonder; could water from the leak somehow be getting into our basement? The leak was three houses away, and a whole lot of water seemed to be flowing away through the storm sewer. It didn't make sense to me. Was there enough water to saturate all the ground from the leak to our house? Or was there some sort of underground channel carrying water from the leak to our back wall?

During that late January cold snap pipes seem to have burst all over Baltimore, and since ours looked like a slow leak and did not cut off anyone's water, it got a low priority. So it was not until last week that they showed up to fix it.

Our basement immediately began to dry up, and now it is completely dry.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Ostia Antica

Ostia Antica was once the port of Rome. Its name comes from Os, mouth, since it sat by the mouth of the Tiber River. 

The Romans believed it was their first colony, founded by Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome. That would have been around 600 BC by our count. Archaeologists have so far not found anything that conclusively dates to before 400 BC, but there isn't any reason to doubt the Roman tradition; the founding of colonies was something the ancients kept pretty careful track of. 

Ostia grew and prospered with the Eternal City. Its population reached 50,000 in the 1st century BC, and it may have topped out at round 100,000 around 100 AD.  Its walls surrounded an area of 69 hectares or 173 acres.

But Ostia's harbor was never a big or deep enough harbor to serve the capital well, and it cost as much to get grain from Ostia to Rome as to get it from Egypt to Ostia. So emperors beginning with Claudius constructed a new port on the other side of the river, called by the blindingly original name Portus. After Trajan completed a vast new harbor and canal at Portus, around AD 103, Ostia began to decline.

Some neighborhoods of tenements that had been occupied by port workers were leveled, and seaside villas for Rome's elite were built over them. Here are some surviving tenement blocks, or insulae as the Romans called them.

Some of the new villas contain preserved frescoes that are the second most spectacular remnants of Roman painting; of course that still leaves them a long way behind Pompeii. 

House of the Painted Vaults

Also many wonderful mosaics

Ostia shrank along with Rome, and by AD 700 it was a shadow of its former self. In the 700s it was the target of frequent attacks by Saracen pirates. After the 849 Battle of Ostia between Saracens and Christians the site was abandoned and the residents, led by their bishop, packed up and moved to a safer spot on a hill several miles inland.

And then, somehow, it got buried. No source I can find says how, but given that some of these walls are preserved to a height of more than 20 feet (6 meters), a lot of dirt was involved. I'm going to guess that this was alluvium from the Tiber, but I really have no idea. (Can someone elucidate the taphonomic processes at work here for me?) Did maybe this stretch of the coast subside, like some areas around Naples?

What you see in town now is all this bare brick, which is not how it looked in classical times. Back then the brick would have been covered either by plaster and whitewash or, for the rich and the public buildings, marble. There was so much marble that 17th-century builders set up a quarry here to dig it up and ship it to Rome, where it was used in Baroque churches and palaces.

Among the interesting remains in the city are no less than eighteen Mithraea, or temples of Mithras. The cult of Mithras seems to have been popular with sailors, and in fact one of my favorite offbeat theories says it got started with pirates.

People say it is a wonderful place to visit, much less crowded than Pompeii. So let's imagine we're there, instead of in whatever cold and unevocative places we find ourselves on this February night.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Winchester Cathedral

Winchester in southern England is one of the living cathedrals, evolving organically over the centuries, a 1380-year history of gradual transformation.

Winchester was the ancient seat of the Kings of Wessex and their traditional burial place; the first cathedral here was consecrated in 642. Because the kings of Wessex were rich, pious, and spent a lot of time fighting against pagan Vikings – a struggle in which they thought the favor of God would be very useful – they gave lavishly to Winchester, making it England's richest church. Until the Reformation the Bishop of Winchester actually had more money than his boss, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Construction of the New Minster, as it was called, began in 1079, and it was consecrated in 1093. No sooner was that finished than other bishops began rebuilding it as something more up to date; its transformation to the Gothic was mostly completed in the mid 1300s, but more kept being added down to 1525.

The choir.

The crypt, now flooded. Among the people buried at Winchester are St. Swithun, four Kings of Wessex, going back to 643 AD; four kings of England, including Canute, Ethelred II, and William Rufus; Izaak Walton, author of The Compleat Angler, and Jane Austen. This statue is by Antony Gormley, one of the many 20th-century additions to the complex.

Shrine of St. Swithun. The original was destroyed during the Reformation, and I think this is 19th century.

Speaking of the Reformation, the windows have a fascinating story. As you can see in the left panel, some of the late medieval windows survive. But others were smashed during the Civil War of the 1640s. Some pious people gathered up and saved all the fragments of window glass they could find. After the Restoration, the new bishop considered these fragments, thought it was wonderful that they had been preserved, but on the other hand realized it was impossible to reconstruct the windows as they had been. So the glass was used to fill two large windows in an almost random way.

Tomb of William Wilberforce, usually heard of today because of his opposition to Darwin; he was the one who asked Thomas Huxley if it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he was descended from an ape. But he was better known in his own time as a vehement opponent of slavery.

The amazing choir screen. The late medieval version fell into decay and replaced in 1637-1640 by Inigo Jones, a noted neoclassical architect. This was later felt to be inappropriate in a Gothic church, so in the 1870s it was moved and this one was installed by George Gilbert Scott, a noted neo-gothic architect.

In 1931 the bishop asked Louisa Pesel to embroider some cushions for his residence, and they were such a hit that she was given a much larger commission to create cushions for the worshippers to kneel on. These are now among the most beloved objects in the cathedral.

And the cathedral's patronage continues, with works like this floral display by Angela Turner for a recent Winchester flower show.