Wednesday, February 17, 2016

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Mary Beard's SPQR ( is a fascinating history of Ancient Rome that is packed with insights and surprises.  Beard is a Cambridge trained classicist who is unafraid of staking out controversial and, sometimes, unpopular opinions.  After the 9/11 attacks she suggested infamously that "the United States had it coming."
The Senate and People of Rome
SPQR stands for "Senatus Populus Que Romanus" or the "Senate and People of Rome".  A visitor to Rome will find SPQR plastered all over the city's public works from manhole covers to garbage cans.  An Italian parody of it is "Sonno Pazzi Questi Romani" or "These Romans are mad."  One might also loosely translate "SPQR" as the Roman equivalent of "You're Welcome".

We Americans owe an enormous debt to the Roman empire.  Without Rome we would have had no Senate and no Republic.  George Washington consciously styled himself a new Cincinnatus.  The American eagle is direct lineal descendent of the Roman Imperial eagle that topped the banners of the Roman legions.
She-Wolf or Prostitute?
The birth of Rome was, according to the myth / history that Romans told themselves, undeniably strange and violent.  The orphaned twin brothers Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf.  Beard points out that "the Latin word for wolf 'Lupa' was also used as the colloquial term for 'prostitute'."  She asks, "Could it be that a local whore rather than a wild beast had found and tended the twins?"   According to the legend Romulus slew his brother Remus or otherwise we might be saying that "All roads lead to Rema".

After Romulus became Rome's first King he sought to people his dominion.  His solution was the rape of the neighboring Sabine women who were abducted and married by Roman men.  This would create raw material for legions of future artists eager to paint about sex, power and marriage.

Roman politics evolved from Kingdom to Republic to Empire until the collapse of the Western Empire in the mid fifth century.  Beard focuses on the Catiline Conspiracy and demonstrates its relevance to contemporary politics.  Cicero's question, "How long, Catiline, will you go on abusing out patience?" has echoed through political rhetoric to the present.

Caligula (Gaius)
Beard often challenges conventional wisdom about Rome.  According to her, the notorious Emperor Caligula (Gaius) may not really have been such a bad guy after all.  She writes, "Gaius may have been assassinated because he was a monster, but it is equally possible that he was made a monster because he was assassinated."  In assessing Roman history Beard reminds us that we are dependent upon the written sources which were invariably written to settle a score and justify a particular regime (the successors of Gaius) rather than an attempt at objective history (See...
73 mile long Customs barrier?
Beard even challenges the notion that Hadrian's Wall was a defensive structure built to keep barbarians out.  She posits that it may have been a customs barrier.

Beard is more convincing when she reminds us of the astonishing pluralism of Roman society.  The Romans were polytheists who adopted new Gods as their empire expanded. Christian monotheism was a challenge to the Roman order and they tried to crush it.  Beard comments, "The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world."

Beard also suggests that Romans were far from unanimous about the meaning and value of their own Roman empire.  It was Tacitus, a Roman historian, who put into the mouth of a barbarian prince the most anti-imperial line ever written -- "They create desolation and call it peace."

Beard's lifelong engagement with the Roman world has produced an amazing work that challenges us to delve more deeply into our past.

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Monday, February 8, 2016

Did Columbus Introduce Slavery to the New World?

Christopher Columbus
Pioneer Park, SF, CA

Many have asserted that Christopher Columbus introduced slavery into the New World.  Here is one example of the charge leveled at the Genoese explorer...  Here is another account that accuses Columbus of enslaving the indigenous people  (

But are these claims really true?  Did Columbus introduce slavery to the New World?

Certainly Columbus was no emancipator.  He was a man of his time and his era took slavery for granted. According to Bartolom√© de Las Casas, Columbus in 1492 described the native people he encountered on what became known as the island of Hispaniola with a mixture of curiousity and compassion...
Columbus and the Taino
"I saw that they were very friendly to us, and perceived that they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force, I presented them with some red caps, and strings of beads to wear upon the neck, and many other trifles of small value, wherewith they were much delighted, and became wonderfully attached to us. Afterwards they came swimming to the boats, bringing parrots, balls of cotton thread, javelins, and many other things which they exchanged for articles we gave them, such as glass beads, and hawk's bells; which trade was carried on with the utmost good will. But they seemed on the whole to me, to be a very poor people. They all go completely naked, even the women, though I saw but one girl. All whom I saw were young, not above thirty years of age, well made, with fine shapes and faces; their hair short, and coarse like that of a horse's tail, combed toward the forehead, except a small portion which they suffer to hang down behind, and never cut. Some paint themselves with black, which makes them appear like those of the Canaries, neither black nor white; others with white, others with red, and others with such colors as they can find. Some paint the face, and some the whole body; others only the eyes, and others the nose. Weapons they have none, nor are acquainted with them, for I showed them swords which they grasped by the blades, and cut themselves through ignorance. They have no iron, their javelins being without it, and nothing more than sticks, though some have fish-bones or other things at the ends. They are all of a good size and stature, and handsomely formed. I saw some with scars of wounds upon their bodies, and demanded by signs the of them; they answered me in the same way, that there came people from the other islands in the neighborhood who endeavored to make prisoners of them, and they defended themselves. I thought then, and still believe, that these were from the continent. It appears to me, that the people are ingenious, and would be good servants (CRK's Italics) and I am of opinion that they would very readily become Christians, as they appear to have no religion. They very quickly learn such words as are spoken to them. If it please our Lord, I intend at my return to carry home six of them to your Highnesses, that they may learn our language."

Columbus did apparently bring six of the Taino people from the isle of Hispaniola back to Barcelona.  Little is know of their fate though all were dead within six months, probably from disease.

So Columbus did think that the natives represented an opportunity for the Catholic church to convert their souls.  He was a devout Catholic whose name, after all, means "bearer of Christ".  He also thought that they were "ingenious" and would make "good servants".  Could those words not have come out of the mouth of Robert Crawley on Downton Abbey?

In Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World we wrote, "In 1492 Christopher Columbus, sailed west from Europe to the New World and changed the world forever. The intrepid navigator was not the first European to reach what would become known as the Americas,
but the impact of this “Italian Invasion” was profound, and its effects are being felt to this day.
Columbus would later be mythologized as the man who dared sail off the edge of the world. Ditties would instruct schoolchildren that “in fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” More recently, Columbus has come under fire by those who point to his lust for gold, his tolerance for slavery, and the sufferings of Native Americans.

Columbus cannot, however, be blamed for all the sins of European colonialism. Slavery was widespread throughout the world in the fifteenth century, and he needed to deliver a return on Ferdinand and Isabella’s investment in his venture. At the end of the day, Columbus was an unbelievably brave visionary who transformed our world."

Aztec Tlacotin

Christopher Columbus was NOT the first to introduce slavery to the New World -- it had been introduced by indigenous people themselves many centuries before Columbus.  The Aztecs had a form of slavery which they called "tlacotin".  Aztec slavery was personal and not hereditary.  Slavery was sometimes used as a criminal punishment.  (

The indigenous peoples of Southern Alaska were a hierarchical society with nobles, commoners and slaves.  A Russian historian wrote, "Institutionalized slavery existed throughout this region in the pre-contact period."  (Source: Russian America, Ilya Vinkovestsky, 2011, p. 20,  The Aleuts had slavery long before the arrival of Europeans as did the Tlingit and Haida tribes.  The Russian Empire, in its pursuit of furs, did little to eliminate slavery in Alaska.  At the beginning of the nineteenth century about a tenth of the Native population were slaves or Kaiury.   Even as late as 1903, after the purchase of Alaska by the USA, there were documented slave sales in the Alaska territory  (

Christopher Columbus had many faults.  He was an Italian invader and he mistook Cuba for a continent.  But it is demonstrably false that he introduced slavery to the New World.

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