Tuesday, November 15, 2011


It's been a while since I've posted a picture of whats-his-name.

Jacob Broom, Man of Mystery

Did you know that Jacob Broom of Delaware is the only signer of the Constitution of whom there is no extant picture of? I didn't, until I read Richard Brookhiser's post at The Corner. It is for this reason that only the top of Broom's (alleged) head appears in Howard Chandler Christy's Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States (1940):

Poor Mr. Broom (or a very small part thereof) may be found by consulting the key below.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Diocletian's Great Persecution: A Modern Parable

What separates a good biography from an excellent one, I think, is the author's ability to explicate the problems encountered by the subject. Only in this way is it possible to appreciate the subject's reactions and responses to them.

Stephen Williams is such an author. In his excellent and highly recommended Diocletian and the Roman Recovery he does a superb job of explaining the myriad issues facing the Roman Empire at the time of Diocletian's accession to the throne - military defense and rampant inflation to name just two.

Williams's discussion of Roman religion, the rise of Christianity during the Third Century and the problems it presented to traditionalists such as Diocletian is as fine as any I have read. Although Williams carefully lays out the many challenges that Christianity presented, I was particularly struck by his use of a "modern parable" to illustrate the "remorseless argument" that ultimately led Diocletian to sign off on the Great Persecution of Christians beginning in February 303:
A small state, brave and resourceful, is permanently surrounded by powerful enemies who threaten to destroy it. By great efforts it had success in repelling them again and again. But its government soberly realizes that, in the long run, it can only be sure of surviving if it retains the friendship (and ultimate protection) of a certain Superpower. Should this be forfeit, no amount of bravery can guarantee it against being eventually engulfed. But in this state is a noisy radical minority violently opposed to the Superpower, whose activities threaten the vital relationship. The government tries to persuade them to keep their views to themselves and show at least outward respect for the Superpower, for the sake of their country's safety. But the radicals utterly refuse such a compromise, and their movement is growing in numbers. Finally, the government's supporters urge that it has no option but to suppress this movement before irreparable damage is done.
"In this parable," Williams concludes, "the small state is Rome, the Superpower is Jupiter and the gods, and the radical minority, the Christians. It was this remorseless argument . . . that shifted Diocletian."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Gimme That Wine (Fourth Century Edition)

In the year 301, the Roman emperor Diocletian attempted to curb rampant price inflation by issuing his famous Edict on Prices, which set maximum prices for a long list of goods and services. The Edict proved to be a dead letter almost from the moment of issuance, but it has been a godsend for historians by "providing a mine of economic [and social] information . . . giving a picture of trades and their relative pay and status, the varieties of goods on the market and their places of origin, types of dress, culinary tastes, and techniques of manufacture."

According to Stephen Williams, the Edict suggests that modern days oenophiles would be sorely disappointed were they to travel back in time to the early Fourth Century. There were different kinds of wine, some of which were sold at a premium. But, whether because the art of aging wine was largely lost (there is evidence that Romans in the late Republic and earlier Empire drank and appreciated older vintages), or Fourth Century Romans just didn't care, little if any wine was cellared; anything more than a year old sold at a discount!
Almost the only significant price difference in wine seems to be between the plain (rustici) and the rest. Tiburtine, Falernian, Sabine, Picene and others are all 30 denarii a pint, with reductions for wine a year old, confirming that storage and maturation had not yet been generally mastered.
And for you beer lovers, sorry, no fancy IPAs, stouts, or designer beers for you. Only "[t]hree kinds of beers are mentioned, Celtic, Pannonian and Egyptian, the latter an inferior brew at only two denarii.

Diocletian's Horse

John Malalas, a Sixth Century chronicler from Antioch, is apparently the sole source for the story of how Diocletian's horse saved the residents of Alexandria from mass slaughter.

As you may know, the great Roman emperor Diocletian restored the Roman Empire after the Crisis of the Third Century almost destroyed it the mid-Third Century. He was acclaimed emperor by the eastern army in late 384 and ruled (first alone, then later with other members of the Tetrarchy until his retirement in 305.

Early in the year 297, the Roman province of Egypt exploded in revolt. Although the revolt may have been triggered by fears of anticipated tax increases following the announcement of a new census, there was reason to believe that it was coordinated by or with the Sassanid (Persian) Empire, Rome's dangerous enemy to the east. In 296 a powerful Sassanid army under its expansionist king Narses had invaded into the areas of modern day Turkey and Syria. In early 297 – just about the time of the Egyptian uprising – the Persian army defeated a Roman army led by Diocletian's colleague Galerius near Carrhae (where the Persians had annihilated a Roman army under Crassus 350 years earlier). The revolt appeared to be part of a treasonous conspiracy to aid the Persians by opening a second front requiring the diversion of Roman troops. (The fact that Manicheans were believed to have spearheaded this fifth column may have contributed to the later decision to persecute the similar-looking Christian sect.)

Leaving Galerius and the bulk of the army to deal with the Sassanids, Diocletian rushed with a detachment of troops to Egypt in the spring of 297 to stamp out the rebellion. He ultimately did so, but it was not a walk in the park for the entire province was in revolt. While largely reducing other areas and towns to submission by the end of 297, during the late summer or early fall Diocletian laid siege to Alexandria. With almost one million residents, second in size only to the city of Rome itself, the provincial capital was well prepared. The city stubbornly resisted for eight months, reportedly falling only in the spring of 298.

The ends of sieges in the ancient world were rarely pretty affairs. From Troy on, the rule of thumb was that, if the besieged city did not capitulate early on, when the end came all of the inhabitants were killed or enslaved. Consistent with this tradition, and convinced that the revolt represented a treasonous conspiracy with Rome's mortal enemy to destroy the empire, when Alexandria fell Diocletian issued orders that so much blood should be shed that his horse might go knee-deep in it.

Now, however, the gods intervened to save the Alexandrians. As Diocletian approached the city gate his steed stumbled over a corpse, falling to its knees, which were stained red with the gore. Recognizing the omen, Diocletian ordered that the slaughter be stopped, no doubt to the great disappointment of his men.

In the ensuing celebrations the grateful Alexandrians displayed a sardonic sense of humor. They are said to have erected a bronze statue of Diocletian's horse in the city in honor of their savior.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

St. Cuthbert and the Otters

The Venerable Bede relates this wonderful story in his Life of St. Cuthbert:

Now one night, a brother of the monastery, seeing [Cuthbert] go out alone, followed him privately to see what he should do. When [Cuthbert] left the monastery, he went down to the sea, which flows beneath, and going into it, until the water reached his neck and arms, spent the night in praising God.

When the dawn of day approached, he came out of the water, and, falling on his knees, began to pray again. Whilst he was doing this, two quadrupeds, called otters, came up from the sea, and, lying down before him on the sand, breathed upon his feet, and wiped them with their hair after which, having received his blessing, they returned to their native element. Cuthbert himself returned home in time to join in the accustomed hymns with the other brethren.

The illustration is modern, but too perfect not to use.
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