[LMB] OT: Romans

Parish, James jparish at siue.edu
Wed Aug 28 00:34:57 BST 2019


Beatrice Otter wrote (much snipped):
> 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.

It might be worth mentioning that, by Petrarch's time, several 
innovations were already accelerating the pace of progress, some of 
which made Petrarch's work possible: the invention of eyeglasses around 
1200 (the impact of this on the lifetime output of artisans and 
craftsmen can't be overstated), the construction of the first European 
paper factories in Italy at about the same time (books suddenly became 
much cheaper), and (mentioned previously) the adoption of Hindu-Arabic 
numerals.

On that last point: Roman numerals were not, generally, used for 
computation; various calculating tools- the abacus, the dustboard, and 
others - were the real competition to H-A. There had been several 
attempts to introduce H-A to Europe before then, in one case championed 
by a Pope (Sylvester II), but the big advantage of H-A over the abacus 
and such had to do with error-checking, which required preservation of 
intermediate computations. Until the arrival of paper, this advantage 
had little weight; it was too expensive to keep scratch work on parchment.

(I love this stuff.)

Jim Parish



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