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I have been trying not to write about flags too much…ever since an impassioned plea for blogging feedback revealed surprising anti-flag sentiments among our general readership.  Yet, Brazil’s flag features outer space AND a golden rhombus.  How could I not write about such a thing?

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The basis of the modern Brazilian flag is the flag of the Brazilian empire.  That flag had all sorts of classical medieval trappings of empire: a laurel wreath, a world-girding cross, a green shield, and big fat green & gold crown, however the backdrop—a bright yellow rhombus on a Kelly green field–was meant to be seen from a distance, and so it had a robust minimalist appearance.

When the First Brazilian Republic supplanted the empire in 1889, the flag changed by getting rid of all the regal trappings and replacing them with vault of the heavens.  The particular stars represent the night sky over Rio De Janeiro on the night of November 15, 1889, when the First Brazilian Republic was born.  The motto “Ordem e Progresso” means “order and progress” (that’s exactly what I would have guessed…hey, do I secretly know Portuguese?).

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There were however other options on the table and some of them are pretty fascinating.  Look at the weird dark mirror of the American flag which was proposed…or that strange black and white monstrosity which looks like it was printed at Kinkos to be handed out by street people.

On the whole though, the Brazilian flag is quite splendid!  Its bold color scheme stands out among all of the hundreds of flags of the world and perfectly represents the glowing dynamism of the Amazon and of the young nation!  Hooray for Brazil!

Brazil-People

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I’m sorry I haven’t yet said anything about the horrible Friday 13th mass slayings in Paris.  I love France and I love the French so I was too angry to write anything sensible.  My heart goes out to the victims and their families.  Vive la France! I would wish that the terrorist perpetrators from the so-called Islamic State were in hell–but based on what I see in the news–they are actively trying to build hell here on earth.  It is what the IS aspires to. It is hard to know how to properly curse such people: they already eagerly bear a more terrible malediction than any I could invoke.

Insigne de La Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre

Insigne de La Brigade des Forces Spéciales Terre

Anyway, they have messed with the wrong folk.  The French are not just superb philosophers, bon vivants, aesthetes, and scientists, they are also extremely gifted warriors with one of the world’s finest armies.  Not only do they have similar high-precision weaponry to ours, they also have fearsome (albeit shadowy) special force squadrons who are battle hardened with field experience in Francophone North Africa.  The French are less keen on media-based warfare than we are.  A lot of times, their enemies just disappear without lots of splashy headlines.

But we will see how this unfolds in the real world in years to come.  In the meantime, to show solidarity with the French people, Ferrebeekeeper is going to spend this week writing about French subjects (which is something we should do every year anyway—perhaps around Bastille Day).

The Great Seal of France

The Great Seal of France

Let’s start with the Great Seal of France, the official seal of the French Republic.  Seals are an ancient cultural tradition in France dating back to the first Frankish kings, and before that to the ancient Romans. This particular seal was first adopted by the short-lived Second Republic of France (1848-1851) to replace both the royal seals of the Ancien Régime and the attainted seals of the First Revolution.  The great engraver Jean-Jacques Barre created the design which features the goddess liberty (or possibly Juno dressed as liberty) holding a fasces and leaning on a ship’s tiler with a Gallic cock upon it.  The goddess is wearing a seven arched crown with rays emanating from it—the same headdress which Bartholdi chose for the Statue of Liberty forty years later.

Around the goddess are symbols of knowledge, art, and power.  To quote Wikipedia:

At her feet is a vase with the letters “SU” (“Suffrage Universel“, “Universal suffrage”). At her right, in the background, are symbols of the arts (painter’s tools), architecture (Ionic order), education (burning lamp), agriculture (a sheaf of wheat) and industry (a cog wheel). The scene is surrounded by the legend “RÉPUBLIQUE FRANÇAISE, DÉMOCRATIQUE, UNE ET INDIVISIBLE” (“French Republic, democratic, one and undividable”) and “24 FEV.1848” (24 February 1848) at the bottom.

The reverse bears the words “AU NOM DU PEUPLE FRANÇAIS” (“in the name of the French people”) surrounded by a crown of oak (symbol of perennity) and laurel (symbol of glory) leaves tied together with wheat and grapes (agriculture and wealth), with the circular national motto “LIBERTÉ, ÉGALITÉ, FRATERNITÉ“.

The Great Seal is kept by the Minister of Justice, who is also the Keeper of the Seals.  It is used only for sealing the Constitution and Constitutional amendments—which are sealed with yellow or green wax on tricolour ribbons.

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The Gallic Rooster minted in gold as a 20 Franc piece

The Gallic Rooster minted in gold as a 20 Franc piece

What is now France was once a province of the Roman Empire. The Latin name for these lands was Gallia—which was an approximate homophone with “galus” the Latin word for rooster—so, thanks to Latin wordplay, roosters were affiliated with the province in Roman times. France took its modern name from the Franks—warlike Germanic tribesmen who seized Gaul as Roman hegemony waned away in the middle of the Fifth century. During the French Revolution, however Frankish things became unfashionable since the Ancien Régime (and the nobility) had their roots in the Frankish conquest. The rooster thus became an unofficial symbol of the First Republic—and this affiliation remains true today during the Fourth Republic (although after the anti-aristocratic fervor of the revolution, anti-Frankish bias died away and the name was again used for all sorts of things—like money).

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This unsatisfyingly exiguous history of words is actually an introduction to one of history’s more beautiful coins—the 20 Franc piece, which was minted from 1899 to 1914 by the Third Republic. On the head side of the coin is the Roman goddess Ceres, the goddess of grain, agriculture, growing, and fecundity (who was also co-opted from the Romans as a symbol of the French Democracy). She is wearing the Phrygian cap of freedom and a wreath (although sadly, her cornucopia is not pictured). The tail side is, of course, the magnificent vainglorious Gallic Rooster with the soaring motto of the Revolution “liberty, equality, brotherhood.” Admittedly the golden meaning of the words loses some of its idealism when stamped in, you know, actual gold, but it is the most beautiful chicken coin I could find from history—and there were some really good ones!

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Regular readers will have noticed that Ferrebeekeeper’s epic east to west progression across Africa has stalled. We started on the microcontinent of Madagascar, traveled across the straight to Mozambique, moved up the rift valley through Malawi and Tanzania and then cut west onto the lush plains of Zambia. Now we stand at a dramatic crossroads.

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

The Kalahari Desert of Botswana

To the south is the sparsely populated desert nation of Botswana. It is arguably Africa’s most stable democracy and it contains vast arid wildernesses where the San hunt the arid scrub but nature otherwise holds rule. In fact the Chobe National Park has the world’s largest population of elephants although I hesitate to even write it, lest poachers hear. Yet when poachers show up with their helicopters, machine guns, and poisons, Botswana captures them, tries them in a fair court, and locks them up. It is a well-run country with an educated populace (although it is struggling with the terrible scourge of HIV).

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

Virunga National Park, Democratic Republic of Congo, Home of the Endangered Mountain Gorilla

To the north lies an entirely opposite nation—the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a terribly run nation with a history steeped in bloodshed and horror. Whereas Botswana is an empty desert, the Congo is a vast brooding rainforest filled with hundreds of different ethnic groups. The Congo is the second largest nation in Africa by area. It is rich in mineral and natural resources. It has unprecedented amazing biodiversity. Yet it was the sight of the most terrible war of the second half of the twentieth century—a war which left terrible scars in the hearts of the Congolese people (and ushered five million people into an early grave). Even today, shadows of the war lie everywhere on the land, and beneath them are older shadows and scars from the most brutal colonial regime of Africa, and beneath those lie even more ancient hatreds and hurts…but I digress.

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Flag of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

Since we are traveling via thought on the internet, I say we head north into the Congo. In fact let’s spend this whole week there among jungles that have never known the axe and in the company of bonobos, okapi, and pygmies, the Congo’s original human inhabitants. In the spirit of this trip, I will start Congo week by describing the flag of the Democratic Republic of Congo which is a sky blue field with a red diagonal stripe with gold edges. In the upper left corner is a yellow five pointed star. According to Wikipedia “The red symbolized the people’s blood; the yellow symbolized prosperity; the blue symbolized hope; and the star represented unity.” Perhaps a more realistic flag would be totally red with an exploded star and all of the yellow locked away in some hidden Swiss bank account. Yet cognoscenti say that for all of its troubles past and present The Democratic Republic of Congo is one of the most beautiful places of Earth. Its people are creative, diverse, and resilient. Hoist up the blue flag of hope, say a prayer upon the star of unity, and come traveling the Congo River. There are wonders and horrors in the offing as we spend some time in one of the world’s most amazing places.

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

camp for internally displaced residents in the Democratic Republic of Congo

 

The 2012 London Olympics are passing into history.  Congratulations to all of the athletes and planners (and to the British in general).  Now the world is becoming curious about what’s going to happen in the next summer Olympics in Brazil.  Will that nation continue its meteoric rise from underperforming “developing” economy into a major international powerhouse?  Will municipal authorities clean up street crime in Rio de Janeiro?  Will Cariocas continue to disdain all but the skimpiest of garments—even with the eyes of the world upon them? These answers will only be known in four years: it is impossible to see into the future.  But maybe it’s worthwhile to take another look back at the past.  The first modern Olympic games were held in Athens in 1896 thanks to a late nineteenth century obsession with fitness, the hard work of Pierre de Coubertin, and a widespread interest in the classical Olympics (the roots of which are lost in history, but which are mythically believed to have been initiated by Hercules).  Yet there were earlier modern Olympic-style contests which preceded the 1896 Olympics.  The Wenlock Olympic games, an annual local gaming festival which originated in the 1850’s in Shropshire, England, have been much discussed by the English during the run-up to the 2012 Olympics (in fact one of the awful mascots takes his name from the venerable tradition), however an even older modern Olympics festival was celebrated in much stranger circumstances.

On September 11, 1796 (also known as “1er vendémiaire, an IV” under the crazy Republican calendar) the “First Olympiad of the Republic” took place in Paris at the Champ de Mars.  As many as 300,000 spectators watched some part of the contests. The opening ceremony was dedicated to “peace and fertility” and then teams of competitors participated in various sporting events modeled on those of classical antiquity.  The first event, a foot race, was a tie between a student named Jean-Joseph Cosme and a “pomegranate” named Villemereux [I had to break out the French-English dictionary to determine that Villemereux was (probably) a grenadier instead some sort of seedy fruit].  The Olympiad also features horse and chariot racing.  The victors were crowned with laurel and rode in a chariot of victory.  The event ended with fireworks and an all-night drinking holiday.  The event was very popular with the public and the press.

There were two more Olympiads of the Republic, in 1797 and 1798.  The 1797 Olympiad was modeled closely on the 1796 event, however the 1798 Olympiad took additional inspiration from the classical Olympics and from the Enlightenment ideals of science and reason.  Wrestling was added to the contests and the games featured the first ever use of the metric system in sports.  However in 1798, the ominous shadows lengthening over Europe were apparent at the games.  As the athletes marched onto the field, they passed in front of effigies which represented all of the original French provinces, but they also passed before effigies which represented the newly conquered provinces from the Netherlands, Switzerland, and northern Italy.  The armies of the French Republic were surging through Europe.  As the Directory gave way to the Consulate the games were subsumed by more serious martial conflict, and the first consul—soon known as Emperor Napoleon, apparently saw no reason to bring them back.

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The Skeleton Coast of Namibia (photo from grandpoohbah.net)

Try to imagine the Namib Desert, where a stormy foggy shoreline gives way quickly to endless bone-dry dunes of shifting golden sand.  It is one of the starkest contrasts in the world’s geography: the fury of the cold waves is juxtaposed with the opposing starkness of the sun-pounded dunes.

The coastline where the Namib Desert runs up against the Atlantic is known as the skeleton coast both because it is a place where whalers and sealers once discarded the stripped carcasses of the marine mammals they killed in droves and because it is one of the world’s most treacherous coastlines. More than a thousand major modern wrecks dot the coast (where they mingle with countless older shipwrecks). Portuguese sailors trying to get around the horn of Africa to reach the riches of Asia called the area “the gates of hell.”  A human powered craft can make its way through the pounding surf to the desolate coastline but it then becomes impossible to re-launch.  Sailors shipwrecked on the Namib coast thus faced the daunting prospect of walking through a vast expanse of waterless desert. Before the modern era, most ship-wrecked souls did not escape and their skeletons soon became part of the landscape.

The shipwreck of the Eduard Bohlen (photo by Michael Poliza)

The desert is ancient.  For more than 55 million years it has existed as a wasteland with almost no surface water. Since the end of the age of dinosaurs, the warm tropical air of the Hadley cell has intersected a cold oceanic current welling northward from Antarctica. But the region was arid long before that.  West Gondwanaland shifted to its present position along the Tropic of Capricorn nearly 130 million years ago and has remained there since—a wallflower in the great dance of continents.

The Namib Desert photographed from The Space Shuttle Columbia

Namibia was a German colony during the colonial era. Unsurprisingly, the Germans made their Namibian colony the sight of the twentieth century’s first genocide when they tried to extinguish the unruly Herero and Nama peoples in 1904. The nation was seized by South Africa after the end of World War I but after many decades of gradual power shifting Namibia gained complete independence in 1990.

The Republic of Namibia is the second sparsest nation on earth with only 2.1 million people spread across a landscape roughly the size of Germany, Poland, the Czech republic, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands combined (not that those nations should ever be combined!). It is one of the few stable multi-party democracies in Africa (maybe I should say the world).  Namibia makes most of its money from mining uranium, gemstones, lead, tungsten, gold, tin, fluorspar, manganese, marble, copper and zinc.  Natural gas can be found just off the coast (though it may prove challenging to drill there).

The Navachab Open Pit Gold Mine, Erongo Region, Namibia

Why am I writing about this beautiful harsh anomaly of a nation?  The unique and isolated geography of Namibia have made it a unique ecosystem of creatures capable of surviving the harsh desert environment (to say nothing of the creatures which team in the rich coastal waters).  Desert dwelling creatures have had a long time to adapt to the hostile conditions of the world’s oldest desert. One of the most unique of all placental mammals is found in Namibia. I’ll address this bizarre fossorial hunter in my next post.

Hint: It's not the mighty African Elephant (one of my favorite creatures), but strangely enough african elephants do live in Namibia.

The Romans made use of many crowns during the time of the Republic.  Some proclaimed exceptional soldiers or dominant politicians.  Other crowns were worn by athletes, brides, or festival celebrants.  An entire list of Roman coronae can be found here.  Later on, as the empire began to crumble, Emperors might wear jeweled diadems, but in the republic a very different sort of crown stood above all the rest.

The grass crown was the highest reward a Roman military man could receive during the time of the Roman Republic (and for a brief period at the beginning of the Roman Principate).  A general could only win the grass crown by saving an entire army.  Well, actually, the crown was once given to a mere centurion for saving an army–so it was saving an army that was important.  Usually such a thing could only be accomplished by commanders.  A mere handful of the greatest Roman warriors ever received this singular honor.

The crown was woven out of grass, weeds, and wildflowers taken from the ground where the person receiving the award saved the army.  It was made by soldiers and presented by them to their savior, so it may have lacked the sophistication and loveliness of fancier wreaths and garlands.  Nevertheless the Romans esteemed it above all other headgear. Pliny the Elder described the grass crown in Chapter XXII of his work The Natural History (translated by John Bostock):

Of all the crowns with which, in the days of its majesty, the all-sovereign people, the ruler of the earth, recompensed the valor of its citizens, there was none attended with higher glory than the crown of grass. The crowns bedecked with gems of gold, the vallar, mural, rostrate, civic, and triumphal crowns, were, all of them, inferior to this: great, indeed, was the difference between them, and far in the background were they thrown by it. As to all the rest, a single individual could confer them, a general or commander on his soldiers for instance, or, as on some occasions, on his colleague: the senate, too, exempt from the cares and anxieties of war, and the people in the enjoyment of repose, could award them, together with the honours of a triumph.

But as for the crown of grass, it was never conferred except at a crisis of extreme desperation, never voted except by the acclamation of the whole army, and never to any one but to him who had been its preserver. Other crowns were awarded by the generals to the soldiers, this alone by the soldiers, and to the general. This crown is known also as the “obsidional” crown, from the circumstance of a beleaguered army being delivered, and so preserved from fearful disaster. …

The crown thus presented was made green grass, gathered on the spot where the troops so rescued had been beleaguered. Indeed, in early times, it was the usual token of victory for the vanquished to present to the conqueror a handful of grass; signifying thereby that they surrendered their native soil, the land that had nurtured them, and the very right even there to be interred—a usage which, to my own knowledge, still exists among the nations of Germany.

Pliny went on to list the men who received the grass crown.  It is a short list of Rome’s greatest victors.  Here is that list of peerless Roman commanders with a brief explanation:

  • Lucius Siccius Dentatus (a general during the great civil struggles between the plebians and the patricians)
  • Publius Decius Mus (received two grass crowns—one from his own army, and a second from the legions he had rescued)
  • Fabius Maximus (received the crown for creating and employing “the Fabian strategy” a series of delaying tactics by which Hannibal was ultimately expelled from Italy)
  • Marcus Calpurnius Flamma (a commander who led 300 volunteers on a succesful suicide mission to free the consular army which was caught in a defile during a batule in the First Punic War)
  • Scipio Aemilianus Africanus (adopted grandson of the famous Roman general of the same name: Scipio the younger won his his grass crown in the final Punic war–which saw the utter destruction of Carthage)
  • Gnaeus Petreius Atinas (the previously mentioned centurion, who saved a legion during the Cimbri wars by means of good leadership and heroic battlefield prowess )
  • Lucius Cornelius Sulla (the great dictator won the crown in fishy circumstances during the Social War at Nola  [Pliny is dismissive of the award–and of Sulla])
  • Quintus Sertorius (who defeated several large armies campaigning in Spain–but may not have recived the grass crown[Pliny’s language is unclear])
  • Augustus (the crown was presented to Augustus by the Senate but was it was a political homage to an emperor rather than an army’s reward for its general.)

After Augustus, the grass crown exits history.  It lingers only as a memory of the warlike virtues of the Roman Republic.

A marble bust of Sulla

An online conversation today reminded me of Plutarch, whose lively biographies provide so very much of our present knowledge of the statesmen and generals of classical antiquity.  My very favorite passage of Plutarch (and possibly in the whole canon of Roman history) consists of three throw-away paragraphs from the life of Lucius Cornelius Sulla Felix commonly called Sulla (or “Sylla” by 18th century classicists).  The whole biography is worth reading, for Sulla was one of the greatest figures of the Roman Republic, a peerless general who lived during the harrowing struggle between the optimates and populares.  Sulla assumed the long moribund office of dictator by force or arms (conquering Rome in the process).  He used his supreme power to make necessary constitutional reforms, and then, to universal astonishment, he resigned.  The following passage is not really about him though. 

The first paragraph is a sort of Roman joke where Sulla takes a little vacation and expresses amazement upon coming across some survivors from a town he had exterminated.  The second paragraph–my favorite–details how his troop captured a satyr and brought it before Sulla for interrogation (something worth keeping in mind when assessing Plutarch as a source).  The third paragraph details the fair auguries and good omens which Sulla viewed as he prepared for combat—a particularly auspicious liver from a sacrificed animal and a pair of magical ghost goats fighting!  It then offhandedly describes a great miltary victory Sulla won. Plutarch wrote this in 75 AD and the translation is from the pen of no less a poet than John Dryden. I love the passage for its robust color, its fancifulness, and for the window it provides into the long vanished Roman soul:

During Sylla’s stay about Athens, his feet were attacked by a heavy benumbing pain, which Strabo calls the first inarticulate sounds of the gout. Taking, therefore, a voyage to Aedepsus, he made use of the hot waters there, allowing himself at the same time to forget all anxieties, and passing away his time with actors. As he was walking along the seashore, certain fishermen brought him some magnificent fish. Being much delighted with the gift, and understanding, on inquiry, that they were men of Halaeae, “What,” said he, “are there any men of Halaeae surviving?” For after his victory at Orchomenus, in the heat of a pursuit, he had destroyed three cities of Boeotia, Anthedon, Larymna, and Halaeae. The men not knowing what to say for fear, Sylla, with a smile, bade them cheer up and return in peace, as they had brought with them no insignificant intercessors. The Halaeans say that this first gave them courage to re-unite and return to their city.
 
Sylla, having marched through Thessaly and Macedon to the sea coast, prepared, with twelve hundred vessels, to cross over from Dyrrhachium to Brundisium. Not far from hence is Apollonia, and near it the Nymphaeum, a spot of ground where, from among green trees and meadows, there are found at various points springs of fire continually streaming out. Here, they say, a satyr, such as statuaries and painters represent, was caught asleep, and brought before Sylla, where he was asked by several interpreters who he was, and, after much trouble, at last uttered nothing intelligible, but a harsh noise, something between the neighing of a horse and crying of a goat. Sylla, in dismay, and deprecating such an omen, bade it be removed.
 
 At the point of transportation, Sylla being in alarm, lest at their first setting foot upon Italy the soldiers should disband and disperse one by one among the cities, they of their own accord first took an oath to stand firm by him, and not of their good-will to injure Italy; then seeing him in distress for money, they made, so they say, a free-will offering, and contributed each man according to his ability. However, Sylla would not accept of their offering, but praising their good-will, and arousing up their courage, went over (as he himself writes) against fifteen hostile generals in command of four hundred and fifty cohorts; but not without the most unmistakable divine intimations of his approaching happy successes. For when he was sacrificing at his first landing near Tarentum, the victim’s liver showed the figure of a crown of laurel with two fillets hanging from it. And a little while before his arrival in Campania, near the mountain Hephaeus, two stately goats were seen in the daytime, fighting together, and performing all the motions of men in battle. It proved to be an apparition, and rising up gradually from the ground, dispersed in the air, like fancied representations in the clouds, and so vanished out of sight. Not long after, in the self-same place, when Marius the younger and Norbanus the consul attacked him with two great armies, without prescribing the order of battle, or arranging his men according to their divisions, by the sway only of one common alacrity and transport of courage, he overthrew the enemy, and shut up Norbanus into the city of Capua, with the loss of seven thousand of his men. And this was the reason, he says, that the soldiers did not leave him and disperse into the different towns, but held fast to him, and despised the enemy, though infinitely more in number. 
 

A Satyr Mosaic from Roman Ruins in Libya

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