Uniformly at Random

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Jane Austen in togas

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Another noteworthy quotation from Heather:

The lifestyle of Symmachus and his friends provides a blueprint for that of the European gentry and nobility over much of the next sixteen hundred years.  Leisured, cultured and landed:  some extremely rich, some with just enough to get by in the expected manner, and everyone perfectly aware of who was who.  And all engaged in an intricate, elegant dance around the hope and expectation of the great wealth that marriage settlement and inheritance would bring.  Symmachus and his friends may have enjoyed editing Latin texts rather than painting watercolours and learning Italian, and their notions of such things as childhood and gender may have been rather different, but there is certainly a touch of Jane Austen in togas about the late Roman upper crust.

Frakking awesome.


Written by uncudh

February 26, 2010 at 6:13 pm

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Linguistic conservatism in Latin

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Peter Heather makes some interesting remarks on the education of Roman aristocrats and the resulting effect on the Latin language:

The bedrock of the system was the intense study of a small number of literary texts under the guidance of an expert in language and literary interpretation, the grammarian.  This occupied the individual for seven or more years from about the age of eight, and concentrated on just four authors: Vergil, Cicero, Sallust and Terence.  […]  Essentially, these texts were held to contain within them a canon of ‘correct’ language, and children were to learn that language—both the particular vocabulary and a complex grammar within which to employ it.  One thing this did was to  hold educated Latin in a kind of cultural [vise] preventing or at least significantly slowing down the normal processes of linguistic change.  It also had the effect of allowing instant identification.  As soon as a member of the Roman elite opened his mouth, it was obvious that he had learned ‘correct’ Latin.  It is as though a modern education system concentrated on the works of Shakespeare with the object of distinguishing the educated by their ability to speak Shakespearean English to one another (The Fall of the Roman Empire: A New History).

Written by uncudh

February 21, 2010 at 12:26 pm

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There is no such thing as the Byzantine Empire

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The preface of J. B. Bury’s A History of the Later Roman Empire from Arcadius to Irene begins as follows:

There is no period of history which has been so much obscured by incorrect and misleading titles as the period of the later Roman Empire. It is, I believe, more due to improper names than one might at first be disposed to admit, that the import of that period is so constantly misunderstood and its character so often misrepresented. For the first step towards grasping the history of those centuries through which the ancient evolved into the modern world is the comprehension of the fact that the old Roman Empire did not cease to exist until the year 1453. The line of Roman Emperors continued in unbroken succession from Octavius Augustus to Constantine Palaeologus.

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February 21, 2010 at 12:09 pm

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Concerning the machines of Archimedes

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Below is an excerpt from Plutarch’s Life of Marcellus (the famous Dryden translation) concerning the mechanical work of Archimedes in devising war machines for the defense of Syracuse.  What is notable to me is the mention of Plato’s indignation at the application of mathematics to practical ends.

These machines he had designed and contrived, not as matters of any importance, but as mere amusements in geometry; in compliance with King Hiero’s desire and request, some little time before, that he should reduce to practice some part of his admirable speculation in science, and by accommodating the theoretic truth to sensation and ordinary use, bring it more within the appreciation of the people in general. Eudoxus and Archytas had been the first originators of this far-famed and highly-prized art of mechanics, which they employed as an elegant illustration of geometrical truths, and as means of sustaining experimentally, to the satisfaction of the senses, conclusions too intricate for proof by words and diagrams. As, for example, to solve the problem, so often required in constructing geometrical figures, given the two extremes, to find the two mean lines of a proportion, both these mathematicians had recourse to the aid of instruments, adapting to their purpose certain curves and sections of lines. But what with Plato’s indignation at it, and his invectives against it as the mere corruption and annihilation of the one good of geometry, which was thus shamefully turning its back upon the unembodied objects of pure intelligence to recur to sensation, and to ask help (not to be obtained without base supervisions and depravation) from matter; so it was that mechanics came to be separated from geometry, and, repudiated and neglected by philosophers, took its place as a military art. Archimedes, however, in writing to King Hiero, whose friend and near relation he was, had stated that given the force, any given weight might be moved, and even boasted, we are told, relying on the strength of demonstration, that if there were another earth, by going into it he could remove this. Hiero being struck with amazement at this, and entreating him to make good this problem by actual experiment, and show some great weight moved by a small engine, he fixed accordingly upon a ship of burden out of the king’s arsenal, which could not be drawn out of the dock without great labour and many men; and, loading her with many passengers and a full freight, sitting himself the while far off, with no great endeavour, but only holding the head of the pulley in his hand and drawing the cords by degrees, he drew the ship in a straight line, as smoothly and evenly as if she had been in the sea. The king, astonished at this, and convinced of the power of the art, prevailed upon Archimedes to make him engines accommodated to all the purposes, offensive and defensive, of a siege. These the king himself never made use of, because he spent almost all his life in a profound quiet and the highest affluence. But the apparatus was, in most opportune time, ready at hand for the Syracusans, and with it also the engineer himself.

The manner of the death of Archimedes is quite famous, and is described by Plutarch (Marcellus):

But nothing afflicted Marcellus so much as the death of Archimedes, who was then, as fate would have it, intent upon working out some problem by a diagram, and having fixed his mind alike and his eyes upon the subject of his speculation, he never noticed the incursion of the Romans, nor that the city was taken. In this transport of study and contemplation, a soldier, unexpectedly coming up to him, commanded him to follow to Marcellus; which he declining to do before he had worked out his problem to a demonstration, the soldier, enraged, drew his sword and ran him through. Others write that a Roman soldier, running upon him with a drawn sword, offered to kill him; and that Archimedes, looking back, earnestly besought him to hold his hand a little while, that he might not leave what he was then at work upon inconclusive and imperfect; but the soldier, nothing moved by his entreaty, instantly killed him. Others again relate that, as Archimedes was carrying to Marcellus mathematical instruments, dials, spheres, and angles, by which the magnitude of the sun might be measured to the sight, some soldiers seeing him, and thinking that he carried gold in a vessel, slew him. Certain it is that his death was very afflicting to Marcellus; and that Marcellus ever after regarded him that killed him as a murderer; and that he sought for his kindred and honoured them with signal favours.

Written by uncudh

November 8, 2009 at 3:00 pm

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One does not slap General Washington on the back

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An curious anecdote that I recently read in Beeman’s Plain, Honest Men:

In 1784, [Gouverneur] Morris bet Alexander Hamilton that he would have the courage to “take a liberty with General Washington” at a dinner with more than a dozen notables, including the Marquis de Lafayette and the generals Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, Baron Von Steuben, and Anthony Wayne.  In the course of the dinner, after telling an inconsequential story, Morris leaned back in his chair and slapped Washington on the back, exclaiming, “Wasn’t it so, my old boy!”

One did not slap the general on the back.  Washington sat stone-faced, not uttering a word or moving a muscle, after which a “strained silence fell over the company.”  Morris later commented to Hamilton, “I have won the bet, but paid dearly for it, and nothing could induce me to repeat it.”

Written by uncudh

May 13, 2009 at 12:04 am

The effects of slavery on science

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Another interesting notion from Peter Green’s The Hellenistic Age (Ch. 4):

Slaves were thus regarded as at once essential and a permanent threat.  The solution, a simple one, was to keep them fully occupied […].  All power was to be muscle-power.  The effect on Hellenistic science was striking.  It has often been pointed out that ancient inventors were familiar with steam power (indeed, produced a model) and could make effective pistons yet never combined their knowledge to build a steam-engine.  Water-driven mills were known but not used.  The same applied to the compound pulley, which enormously reduced the energy needed to shift a given mass.  The reason should now be clear.  Any device that left the servile labor force with spare energy was seen as a direct stimulus to revolution.

Written by uncudh

May 7, 2009 at 1:51 am

The Seleucid Empire

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Donal O’Shea has recently written an excellent book on The Poincare Conjecture, intended for a popular audience.  On p. 14 he writes, “After Alexander’s death, his empire fell apart.  The largest share fell to his general, Ptolemy Soter I, who chose as his capital Alexandria at the mouth of the Nile.”  This is not entirely true.  By far the largest portion of Alexander’s empire eventually came under the control of Seleucus I Nicator, first ruler of the Seleucid Empire—not Ptolemy I Soter.  The death of Alexander was followed by a lengthy and chaotic series of wars among the several generals seeking control of as much of Alexander’s empire as they could get their hands on.  These conflicts are known as the Wars of the Diadochi (the Successors).  Early on, Ptolemy gained control of Egypt, and thus became the first ruler of the so-called Ptolemaic Kingdom in Egypt.  (This would turn out to be the longest lasting of the Alexandrine successor states.)  However, Seleucus was able to establish himself as ruler of the majority of the Alexander’s Asian possessions.  At its peak, the Seleucid Empire consisted of virtually the entirety of the old Achaemenid Persian empire, with the exception of Egypt and a large portion of Anatolia.  However, the Seleucid Empire very quickly began to disintegrate.  After a war with the great Indian king Chandragupta Maurya, Seleucus I Nicator was compelled to cede large territories in the east to the Mauryan, in exchange for a large number of elephants.  (These elephants eventually proved to be very helpful to Seleucus in his later warfare.)  The next major loss was the secession of Bactria.  The governor of Bactria declared independency, thus forming the so-called Greco-Iranian kingdom of Bactria, which survived for more than a century.  Eventually the Parthians formed an independent state, and would go on to establish themselves as a very powerful and long-lasting empire.  The Seleucid Empire would eventually collapse after a long series of losses to the Romans and Parthians coupled with rebellions within the empire.

Written by uncudh

May 2, 2009 at 8:39 pm