[LMB] OT: Romans

Beatrice Otter beatrice_otter at zoho.com
Wed Aug 28 00:10:48 BST 2019

> On Aug 25, 2019, at 3:52 PM, Pat Mathews <mailto:MATHEWS55 at msn.com> wrote:
> All in all, the 325 years of the Dark Ages saw much more technological progress than the preceding 325 years in the Roman Empire.

---- On Tue, 27 Aug 2019 12:14:52 -0700 WalterStuartBushell <mailto:proto at panix.com> wrote ----

It was call Dark because there was not much written certainly not about technology and the history was written by otiose intellectuals.

Beatrice Otter:
Mmmm, not really.

I mean, there was less written down during the "Dark Ages," and less re-copying of old classics, that is true.  But the difference in how much got written down/preserved from 400-800CE and how much got written down/preserved from 0-400CE is a LOT less than is popularly imagined.  The Romans, by the height of the Roman Empire, were only a little better at writing things down and preserving older writings than their immediate descendants/replacements were.*  400-600 was the nadir, but the slide from 200-400 was fairly gradual, and by 600-800 things were picking up.  The issue wasn't how *much* was getting written down and copied, the issue was what people were choosing to spend the time and money to do.  A lot of stuff that had been classics of the Roman Empire just wasn't all that useful anymore, as fewer and fewer people spoke Latin, and who *cares* about Roman political speeches anyway?  Or ancient Greek drama?  They had new drama and new cultural traditions, thank you very much.  They respected the past, mostly, but so little of it was really relevant to them and they were building new stuff.

Then came Petrarch in the 1300s.  Petrarch saw the Glorious Past of Rome through extremely rose-tinted glasses.  Petrarch looked at the ruins of the glorious buildings, and how big the Empire had been at its height compared to how small the warring Italian principalities were, and wished he'd been born in the height of the Empire.  He was Miniver Cheevy, except he didn't just "shrugged and called it fate/and kept on drinking," he set out to do something about it.  He was going to be a Poet Laureate just like they'd had in Roman days.  (He crowned himself.)  He wrote all this stuff about how glorious Rome had been, and how shitty everything was in his day, so they should all try and be like the ancients.  (Actually, by the 1300s the average standard of living in the Italian peninsula was higher than it had been during the height of Rome; the only people for whom the Roman Empire had been better than the middle ages were the very top elite, the "1%" of their day.)  The rest of the Italian elite hopped on the bandwagon because every little principality was small and in danger of being squashed by France and Spain and other great powers, and saying "hey, you don't want to destroy us, you want to take our culture and history and make it your own, and come here and spend lots of money as tourists!" was one of the few self-protective strategies they had that actually worked even a little bit.

But the thing is, where did almost all of the "lost" works that were "rediscovered" in the Renaissance come from?  Libraries!  That's where Petrarch found all the stuff he "discovered," that's for sure.  It was already being saved and preserved.  It just didn't have pride of place in the center of the curriculum that every family with the wealth for a "good" education used.  Roman stuff was seen as the best, the standard from which everything else was measured, and the Renaissence was about a re-birth of true/good/intellectual culture after the "dark ages" and "middle ages" that had happened after the Light Of Rome Was Extinguished.  Literature in the vernaculars that had developed since the fall of Rome was by its very existence crude and not worth studying/remembering because it was not Roman.  Much literature of the Dark ages and early Medieval era was lost because it was thrown out or simply not copied when the original book deteriorated, which then makes it seem to us like there was less writing going on than there actually was.

And of the stuff that was being remembered and taking pride of place ... some of it was really bad.  Taking Aristotle as the great authority on nature set scientific study back centuries, because pretty much everything he wrote was wrong, and people were mostly doing their own observations by the 1200s and then with the Renaissance belief in Aristotle came roaring back in.  (As a philosopher, he was great.  As a scientist, he SUCKED.)  Roman customs and laws were used as an excuse to take away the rights of women and poor people (both of which had greatly increased in the time between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the start of the Renaissance).  They were used as justification for slavery.  Etc.

*One of the beliefs about Roman history that recent scholarship has ... not exactly disproven, but certainly complicated, is the idea that Roman rule in Europe was replaced by barbarian tribes coming in and conquering, or that had been semi-pacified rising up in rebellion.  There was some of that, it is true; but it turns out that when you look at graves during the century surrounding the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a lot of graves that were assumed to be "barbarian tribes" are actually not.  Roman legions of that period adopted tribal pseudo-identities to make themselves seem warlike, just as US sports teams have (mostly in the past, thank God) used names like "Redskins" and "Braves" and logos with Native American war bonnets on them to make themselves seem/feel fierce.  That doesn't make them actual Native Americans either physically or culturally, and in the same way it doesn't make the Roman soldiers buried with tribal art/weapons/jewelry a member of the tribes whose iconography they appropriated.  Also, during the height of the Empire, the Roman nobility was seldom involved in the military or any combat role.  When they were less likely to be able to call in the might of the legions to quash whatever local bandits and/or slave uprising and/or barbarian invasion might trouble them, they had to raise troops from their own land and do it themselves.  So as the Western Empire collapsed and contracted, local Roman nobility started getting more warlike, and they would be buried with weapons and such.  Until quite recently, such burials were assumed to be invading "barbarian" tribes that had conquered and replaced the Roman elite.  And sometimes it was, but sometimes it was simply a case of the Roman elite morphing from idle rich into warlords.

Beatrice Otter

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