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The Main Room of the Morgan Library in Manhattan

The Main Room of the Morgan Library in Manhattan

Today I visited the Morgan Library which was created to house the extensive collection of the finance titan J.P. Morgan. The building was extraordinary (it was originally created to house the one-of-a-kind J.P. Morgan) and the collection even more so. There were Mozart scores written by the hand of the master, a Gutenberg bible, and original copies (or manuscripts) of the most important books of the ages. Among these treasures of human thought the library also had a small collection of jewelry and valuables from the world of classical antiquity. I noticed these cicada brooches among the collection and thought to share them with you.

Four Cicada Brooches from the Eastern Germanic Goths (ca. 380 AD to 600 AD) silver, copper, and iron

Four Cicada Brooches from the Eastern Germanic Goths (ca. 380 AD to 600 AD) silver, copper, and iron

The brooches were made by Germanic Goths living along the Danube and on the shores of the Black Sea during the fifth and sixth centuries AD. The cicada shape may have been an allusion to the rebirth of the soul (for the Goths were early converts to Christianity—albeit Arian Christianity). The Goths of this time were pushed from their original homelands by the great hordes of Attila and they were everywhere on the borders of the Roman world. The Goths themselves seem to have even thought of themselves as Romans themselves, although the authorities in Constantinople sometimes saw it differently and periodically embarked on programs or reconquest.


Thanks MS Paint!

To celebrate the spooky season, we have been recounting the various fates of the brood of monsters descended from Echidna. While doing so, one aspect of the story has become glaringly apparent:  more than half of the family of monsters was defeated by Hercules. Cerberus, Ladon, Orthrus, the Nemean Lion, the Hydra, the great Caucasian Eagle…the demigod bested them all as he bludgeoned and ripped his shining path through the world.  (I haven’t told the tale of Orthrus, the two headed dog who was best friend to the three-headed monster Geryon:  suffice to say, during his tenth labor, Hercules killed the poor pooch.)  One would expect a devoted mother to be enraged and thirst for vengeance.  However there is a story about Hercules and Echidna meeting, and it seems the mother of monsters desired something very different from revenge.  I’ll turn the storytelling over to Herodotus.  It is worth remembering that while people call Herodotus “the father of history”, historians call him “the father of lies”.  He tells a great many thrilling stories but he probably made them up while he was binge drinking in his library…. Anyway, here is the passage from Book IV of the Histories of Herodotus (translated by George Rawlinson):

Hercules came from thence into the region now called Scythia, and, being overtaken by storm and frost, drew his lion’s skin about him, and fell fast asleep. While he slept, his mares, which he had loosed from his chariot to graze, by some wonderful chance disappeared. On waking, he went in quest of them, and, after wandering over the whole country, came at last to the district called “the Woodland,” where he found in a cave a strange being, between a maiden and a serpent, whose form from the waist upwards was like that of a woman, while all below was like a snake. He looked at her wonderingly; but nevertheless inquired, whether she had chanced to see his strayed mares anywhere. She answered him, “Yes, and they were now in her keeping; but never would she consent to give them back, unless he took her for his mistress.” So Hercules, to get his mares back, agreed; but afterwards she put him off and delayed restoring the mares, since she wished to keep him with her as long as possible. He, on the other hand, was only anxious to secure them and to get away. At last, when she gave them up, she said to him, “When thy mares strayed hither, it was I who saved them for thee: now thou hast paid their salvage; for lo! I bear in my womb three sons of thine. Tell me therefore when thy sons grow up, what must I do with them? Wouldst thou wish that I should settle them here in this land, whereof I am mistress, or shall I send them to thee?” Thus questioned, they say, Hercules answered, “When the lads have grown to manhood, do thus, and assuredly thou wilt not err. Watch them, and when thou seest one of them bend this bow as I now bend it, and gird himself with this girdle thus, choose him to remain in the land. Those who fail in the trial, send away. Thus wilt thou at once please thyself and obey me.”

Two of Echidna’s human children by Hercules proved to be disappointments and were sent away, but Skythes, the youngest son was indeed capable of wielding Hercules’ bow.  Skythes stayed in the land, became its king, and fathered the race of the Scythians, a (real) tribe of people whom the ancient Greeks regarded as being descended from union of the the greatest Greek hero and a primordial monster!  People who are familiar with the Scythians will be yelling and punching the air right now (because Scythians are just completely awesome), however, to quickly summarize; the fearsome Scythians were nomads of the Pontic-Caspian steppe.  They were renowned for their formidable prowess at mounted warfare and for being general badasses. Roman historians described the Goths as Scythians.  The Scottish even called themselves Scythians!  in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, an open letter to the pope, the elite aristocrats of Scotland claim Scythia as their former homeland.  It goes without saying they were binge-drinking in a library when they wrote that puppy.

Scythian Warriors on the steppes (Painting by Angus McBride)

Speaking of puppies, tomorrow, we wrap up this series with everyone’s favorite child of Echidna…

Today is the 1600th anniversary of the sack of Rome by Visigoths under the command of King Alaric (August 24th, 410 AD).  For all of its historical import, the sack actually does not seem to have been particularly violent in comparison with other similar events.  Alaric had laid siege to Rome twice before and he had been paid off both times with gold, silver, and pepper. When a rival barbarian faction attacked his tribe, he returned to Rome for a third siege to garner funds for an exodus across the Mediterranean.  Unexpectedly, a group of slaves threw open the gate to the Via Salaria, an ancient road which connected Rome to the Adriatic.  Visigoths poured into the city, but they were, after all, Arian Christians who thought of themselves as Romans. There was minimal rape, murder, and bloodshed.  They stripped some of the public buildings of their lavish trappings and ransacked wealthy households and headed off to repopulate Western Africa (at which task they failed–the Visigoths ended up in Spain).

Artist's Conception of the Visigoths Sacking Rome

Although hardly a genocide, the event was a watershed moment for classical society. Rome, the center of thought, government, and civilization—the city that had not fallen to an outside enemy for 800 years—was unable to mount a defense against a ragged group of barbarians and vagabonds.  St. Jerome, the man of letters who held such influence over Western thought during the dark ages, wrote:” It is the end of the world, I cannot write for the tears.”  The Western portion of the Roman Empire, already reeling from centuries of civil war and widespread agricultural crisis, staggered on for a few decades before being cut apart into sundry vassalages (which constituted the seeds of modern European kingdom states).

Le Sac de Rome par les Barbares en 410 (Joseph-Noël Sylvestre, 1890)

Frequent readers of this blog will know my interest in the concept of “gothic”.  Although the Goths certainly have their own history prior to the sack of Rome, that event enshrined “gothic” as a broader social concept.  There have been plenty of barbarian tribes, but when Alaric looted the eternal city, he ensured that the name of his people would remain infamous. A millennium later, Renaissance writers, enthralled with the glories of classical society, used the word “gothic” to describe aspects of the intervening period which seemed old-fashioned, barbaric, cruel, and unenlightened.  Vasari used the word to pejoratively describe art and architecture from before Giotto (or from outside Italy). Once “gothic” had become synonymous with “Medieval”, it then came to be associated with gloom, mystery and the grotesque.  Victorian writers, scholars, artists, and architects found reason to celebrate these qualities with spooky novels, pre-Raphaelite painting, and creepy mansions.  In the contemporary era, “gothic” can mean any of these things or it can be applied to the contemporary goth counterculture movement.  But whatever the word means, it always seems to indicate something in opposition to the Greco-Roman, whig-liberal Western norm.


Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

March 2023