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Pseudoscience, quackery, “magic”, and deceptive supernatural practices meant to defraud people (often including the practitioner…for our need to believe in things is deep and desperate indeed) are as old as humankind, but I doubt that many schools of augury are quite as outwardly preposterous as myomancy, divination by means of rats and mice.

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The Romans were into augury of every sort, but they seem to have had a particular fondness for myomancy, and Pliny the Elder refers to it directly several times in his histories (although, in the end, all that study of rat augury doesn’t seem to have kept him safe from unexpected volcanic eruptions).  Myomancy could be “practiced” by freeing rats or mice and seeing which way they fled, by watching the rodents navigate mazes/pictograms, or by simply observing their lives in the wild.

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This last “wild” myomancy was perhaps the most highly regarded, yet it was also the most rare and spontaneous.  Mice and rats were sometimes thought to scream out before a disaster…or to just run away before a calamity.   If rats suddenly fled a house or community, it was thought to be bad luck of the most astonishing sort. Likewise. if a huge number of rats or mice simply appeared, it betokened a coming war or illness.  If rodents were spotted gnawing clothing (or, worse, armor or military equipment) it was regarded as a sign of incipient defeat.

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Now, animals perhaps don’t have occult connections to the forces of fate and divinity, but they have extreme sensory acuity (or sometimes they have entire senses we lack!).  Modern scientists have noticed that animals, particularly rats and mice, can predict earthquakes or extreme weather events.  Rats and mice are sensitive to air changes which betoken fire, pollution, or anoxygenic conditions.  Additionally, if a bunch of rats suddenly appear seemingly out of nowhere it is a pretty dire sign that something has gone very wrong with some fundamental link in an ecosystem.  Famine or pestilence may indeed be on the way.  The link between rats and bubonic plague is direct and (now) well known.  If rats start stumbling out of the woodwork and dying, collect all of your strongest antibiotics and RUN.

So I started this post by belittling myomancy, which certainly sounds less august than reading the stars or speaking to the dead or what have you.  However, on closer examination, it seems like myomancy might provide some real and useful information, which other schools of augury lack entirely.  This is not because myomancy is magical, but instead because rats and mice are clever and sensitive and must stay hyper-alert to survive in a world of poisons, predators, giants, and catastrophes.  Pliny the Elder was one of the forefathers of the natural sciences–perhaps we can still learn some things from him (see more next week), so keep an eye out for mysterious rodent happenings.  You never know what they will tell you! If Pliny hadn’t gotten distracted by the giant mushroom cloud above Vesuvius, he probably would have noticed rats running the other way as fast as they could.

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As our republic shakes apart from corruption, incompetence, cowardice, and naked lust for power, I keep thinking about Gaius Sallustius Crispus AKA Sallust, a Roman politician who lived through the fall of the Republic.  Although classicists rhapsodize about Sallust’s political (and stylistic) foe, Cicero, I am no Latin grammar expert. I studied history!  So Sallust, the moralizing historian, interests me more than Cicero, the supremely self-satisfied orator.  Although not famed for his annoying aphorisms, Sallust could certainly turn a phrase himself.  My favorite zinger from him is this jewel: “Those most moved to tears by every word of a preacher are generally weak and a rascal when the feelings evaporate.”

At any rate Sallust was a populare…which is to say that, although he was born in an aristocratic family, he sought the support (and broadly advocated for the welfare) of the plebiscite.  As a youth, Sallust was a famous sybarite known for excesses of sensual depravity, but he became infamously moral and censorious later in life.  This strikes me as humorous on many levels, but particularly because the high point of his political career was his term as governor of Africa Nova (what is today the coastal portion of Algeria and parts of Morocco and Tunisia).  To quote Wikipedia “As governor he committed such oppression and extortion that only Caesar’s influence enabled him to escape condemnation.”  Hahahaha…so much for all of that talk of ascetic virtue and the excesses of aristocracy.

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At any rate, what really interests me about Sallust is what he did with the stolen wealth of North Africa…which he used to build a timelessly famous garden in northeast Rome between the Pincian and Quirinal hills.  The Horti Sallustiani “Gardens of Sallust” contained a temple to Venus, a vast portico, and an array of beautiful and famous sculptures–some of which have survived or been unearthed and are among the finest examples of Roman art.  Here is a little gallery of the most famous pieces.  As you can immediately see, they have had an enormous impact on western sculpture.

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“The Dying Gaul”(A Roman copy of the lost Greek original)

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“The Borghese Vase” excavated from the site of the gardens of Sallust in 1566. Napoleon bought it from his brother-in-law Camillo Borghese in 1808

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The Ludovisi Throne, an enormous chair of contested origin which was discovered at the site of the Gardens of Sallust in 1887

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An aulos player on the wing of the Ludovisi Throne

The Gardens of Sallust passed to the author’s grand nephew and then became the property of the Roman emperors who kept them opened as a public amenity and added many features across a span of four centuries!  Even today, some of the original buildings and features are still extant.

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After four centuries, the gardens enter history one more time–or history entered them.  When the Goths sacked Rome it was still walled and heavily defended.  Alaric’s men laid siege to the eternal city three times.  The first two times, they were rebuffed by walls, defenders, and shrewd political guile, but the third time they gained access to the city through the Salarian Gate…which opened into the Horti Sallustiani.  Imagine the barbarians among the mausoleums, sarcophagi, and funereal urns outside the city, and then, by treachery or by Germanic ingenuity somehow, after 800 years they were within Rome itself among the pleasure pavilions and flowers and ornamental trees of the Gardens of Sallust.

e4eeb04fefb451c33e4d67c16b322022.jpg Romulus and Remus, the mythological demigod twins who founded Rome were sons of the war god Mars. After being left to die, the infants were suckled by a she-wolf in a sacred cave and later raised in pastoral beauty by the shepherd Faustulus.  The twins experienced other exciting Tintin-style adventures with sundry bandits, rebels, exiled kings, grandfathers, and what-not.  Yet the part of their mythological story which is arguably of greatest interest is when the brothers decided to found the city of Rome.  Immediately the twins (who had been inseparable allies through battles, love affairs, tribal intrigues, and wolf-childhood) fell out over…urban planning.  Romulus wished to build on the Palatine Hill, (above the cave where they were reared); Remus, however, preferred the Aventine Hill.  They argued fiercely and finally decided to let the gods decide.

Messages from the gods can be also be divisive and the oracular battle between the brothers did not end their dispute.  Remus saw six birds flying above his hill and proclaimed that the gods favored the Aventine.  Romulus saw a full dozen birds over the Palantine and proclaimed that the deities wished for this hill to be the heart of their city.  The argument over the direction their society would take and what the gods were really trying to say about how the nation should be built and administered caused the brothers to fall out forever.  Soon Remus was dead (perhaps by one of Romulus’ supporters but maybe at the hands of Romulus himself) and the Palantine became the center of Rome.  Yet the dispute left its shadow and Rome was always torn between battling rulers (both hills became great, but the Palantine was always foremost).  The story is a myth, of course, but it is the Romans’ own myth about how their society came into existence.

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Here’s some exciting news from Rome: the catacombs of Domitilla (a noble family of classical antiquity which commissioned the original construction) have been painstakingly restored using state of the art scanning technology and careful craftsmanship. The catacombs stretch for over 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) and descend through multiple levels near the ancient Appian Way. Constructed between the second and the fifth centuries AD, the underground necropolis has over 25,000 known graves.
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The catacombs also show how pagan art and culture and early Christian imagery and religion mixed freely. Grapes and cupids give way to saints and crucifixes almost imperceptibly (with an uncertain period in the middle featuring lots of folks standing around in robes). I am presenting some of the highlights in a little gallery here so we can all take a virtual tour of the ancient graves (a good virtual tour of amazing, beautiful catacombs—unlike some experiences I could mention). My favorite image is here below: a cubicle with doves and robed figures. I cannot tell if this is Christian or Pagan, the imagery could go either way, but I find the ancient painted pigeons exceedingly compelling. Even in the funereal darkness of a tomb excavated beneath the eternal city, this cubical looks more pleasant than mine.
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Statue of Decebalus (completed 2004, carved stone)

Statue of Decebalus (completed 2004, carved stone)

It’s possible that I made a few economic missteps over the years (although, judging by the news, I am not the only one) and, as a consequence, I won’t be spending this August traveling the world. However, even if I am literally trapped in angry sweltering New York, my mind is free to roam the rugged Carpathians and take in the robust forested splendor of Romania. This land was long known as Transylvania (the “crossing forest”) and the modern world has not changed the wooded character of the land. I started to do some research online and in my virtual travels I was stunned to come upon this colossal stone head carved in the living rock of Dacia. This is a carving of Decebalus a king who ruled from 87 AD – 106 AD. Decebalus was a client king of Rome, one of the many annoying and interesting minor sovereigns whom the empire propped up around its borders to act as buffers. Much of Roman history concerns their perennial struggles with these vexatious vassals and the history of Decebalus is no different. Indeed he ended up being the last king of Dacia. His cleverness and pride went too far and Rome crushed him like a bug and absorbed Dacia.

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This statue however is presumably meant to evoke Decebalus’ pride and independence (not his defeat and suicide). The head is 40 meters tall (120 feet)—it may be the largest monumental head in Europe. It was crafted by a team of 12 sculptors over 10 years at the behest of an eccentric Romanian businessman, Constantin Drăgan (1917-2008). The statue was completed in 2004 and stares balefully out over the Danube. I love Decebalus’ stony features—which seem little different from an actual rock. I am also predictably impressed at the way the natural rock looks like a crown. Dragan had some curious nationalistic misconceptions about Dacia’s place in history, and it seems this great head was meant to explain/popularize some of the millionaire’s ideas.  As often happens with art, the actual work is more ambiguous and interesting…hinting at both greatness and ruin.

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Etruscan Ladies Performing a Dance (painting from a tomb ca. 500 BC)

Etruscan Ladies Performing a Dance (painting from a tomb ca. 500 BC)

This week is Etruscan week here at Ferrebeekeeper—a week dedicated to blogging about the ancient people who lived in Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium from 800 BC until the rise of the Romans in 300 BC (indeed, the Romans may have been Etruscan descendants). Happy Etruscan Week! The Etruscans were known for their sophisticated civilization which produced advanced art, architecture, and engineering. In an age of war and empires, they were, by necessity, gifted warriors who fought with the Greeks, Carthaginians, and Gauls. They won wars, captured slaves, and built important fortified cities on top of hills. The Etruscan league burgeoned for a while until Etruria was weakened by a series of setbacks in warfare which occurred from the fifth century BC onward until eventually the entire society was swallowed by Rome.

A Map of Etruscan Culture through time

A Map of Etruscan Culture through time

 

Despite the fact that the Etruscans were the most important pre-Roman civilization of Italy (which left a cultural stamp on almost all Roman institutions) they remain surprisingly enigmatic. Although Greek and Roman authors speculated about the Etruscans, such writings tend to be…fanciful. The Greek historian Herodotus (alternately known as “the father of history” or “the father of lies” wrote that the Etruscans originated from Lydia (which was on the Western coast of Anatolia), but he certainly provides no evidence.  Etruscan government was initially based around tribal units but the Etruscan states eventually evolved into theocratic republics–much like the later Roman Republic. The Etruscans worshipped a large pantheon of strange pantheistic gods. The Etruscans produced extremely magnificent tombs which were used by seceding generations of families.

 

Etruscan "Tomb of the Lioness" (ca.520 BC)

Etruscan “Tomb of the Lioness” (ca.520 BC)

It is through their tombs that we have truly come to know about the real Etruscans. The burial complexes are repositories of art and artifacts which reveal the day-to-day life of the people (well, at least the noble ones who could afford sumptuous tombs). Perhaps, more importantly, the actual Etruscans are also there, albeit in a somewhat deteriorated and passive state. With the advent of advanced genetic knowledge and tests, scientists and anthropologists have been able to conduct mitochondrial DNA studies on Etruscan remains. Such studies suggest that the Etruscans were from…Tuscany, Umbria, and Latium. They were most likely descendents of the Villanovan people—an early Iron Age people of Italy who in turn descended from the Urnfield culture.

 

A sample of the Etruscan Language

A sample of the Etruscan Language

This idea tends to conform with what linguists believe concerning the language of the Etruscans—which turns out to be a non-Indo-European isolate with no close language relations. Etruscan was initially an oral language only and it was only after cultural interchange with the Greeks that it acquired a written form (based around a derivation of the Greek alphabet). A few Roman scholars knew Etruscan (among them the emperor Claudius) but knowledge of the language was lost during the early days of the Empire. Today only a handful of inscriptions, epitaphs, and one untranslated book survive. We are left with a people who had unparalleled influence on Rome, yet are only known through inconclusive Greco-Roman accounts and through a tremendous heritage of art and artifacts. These latter are immensely beautiful and precious and form the basis of our knowledge of these mysterious early Italians.

Etruscan vessel in the shape of a bent leg (ca. 550-500BC)

Etruscan vessel in the shape of a bent leg (ca. 550-500BC)

Happy leap day!  Every time one comes around it makes me cast my mind back to where I was on past leap days—grinding through elementary school; about to graduate high school; about to graduate college; working without meaning at a parasitic bank, and so on.  Four years is a convenient marker in human life and there is something memorable about the end of winter as life takes a breath before flinging itself into spring.  However, if you keep leaping back over the century and millennia, eventually the leap years run out.

Prior to Julius Caesar, the Roman calendar was 355 days long.  Following such a calendar for any length of time caused the months to drift out of alignment with the seasons, so the ancient Romans sporadically included a leap month named Mercedonius, or Intercalaris.  Mercedonius, when it happened, was 27 days long and followed February.

February was named for the Latin word februum, which means “purification.”  Romans did not like even numbers (they regarded odd numbers as lucky).  February was the one month of the Roman year with an even number of days and so the Romans thought of the winter month as a time of purification and cleansing.  The Romans did not care for cold dark February, so they made it shorter than all other months—28 days.  Whenever Mercedonius was declared, February became shorter still—shrinking down to 23 days (at least this is probably what happened—contemporary classicists are still arguing about the precise mechanism of the ancient Roman calendar).

The pontifex maximus, the highest Priest of ancient Rome, was responsible for deciding when to insert Mercedonius into the calendar.  Throughout most of the history of Rome this worked well, however it broke down badly at least two times.  During the second Punic War, Roman society was so badly damaged by Hannibal’s invasion that the Romans lost track of Mercedonius and literally did not know what time it was.  After the battle was won, order was restored with the reforms of the Lex Acilia in 191 BC (the nature of which are unknown—but which seem to have solved everything).

"Excuse me, but do you perhaps know today's date?"

The second breakdown occurred during the years of confusion leading up to Julius Caesar’s ascendancy as dictator for life.  The pontifex maximus was inevitably a powerful citizen who was deeply involved in Roman politics.  He could interfere with the length of time other elected officials served by shortening or lengthening the year.  As civil war enveloped Rome, the calendar became a political tool and Romans again lost track of what day it was.  The confusion was only solved when Caesar took supreme office and proclaimed himself pontifex maximus.  He reformed the addled calendar into the Julian calendar, which abolished Mercedonius, the haphazard leap month, forever.

The "Tusculum bust" of Julius Caesar, possibly the only survivng portrait from Caesar's lifetime

Les Saturnales (Antoine-François Callet)

Today is the Feast of Saturn!  In Ancient Rome this holiday was officially celebrated on December 17 (XVI Kal. Jan.) and it initiated the multiple day festival of Saturnalia—the biggest holiday of the Roman Year. The Roman god Saturn was based on the Greek deity Cronus.  Although the Romans recognized that Saturn was a deposed ruler, a murderer, and a cannibal, Saturn was worshiped in Rome as an agricultural deity whose reign had been a golden age of abundance and innocence.  Saturn’s time had been one of gold–an age when people were naked, free, and kind. Jupiter’s age was one of iron when all men struggled greedily against one another–an age of wars, lawyers, oppression, and struggle.

Saturnalia was therefore a time to return to the imagined happiness of the past.  The cult statue of Saturn was freed from the shackles with which he was bound during the rest of the year and filled with olive oil (for the figure was hollow).  Schools and offices were closed so that special sacrifices could be made.  Great feasts were held and small presents were exchanged–particularly earthenware figurines called sigillaria and candles (which were a sort of symbol of the holiday and represented the return of light after the short dark days of the solstice).  There was a special seasonal market, the sigillaria. People decorated their houses and themselves with greenery and garlands.  Best of all, Rome’s famously rigid discipline was set aside during Saturnalia.  To quote the online Encyclopedia Romana:

During the holiday, restrictions were relaxed and the social order inverted. Gambling was allowed in public. Slaves were permitted to use dice and did not have to work. Instead of the toga, less formal dinner clothes (synthesis) were permitted, as was the pileus, a felt cap normally worn by the manumitted slave that symbolized the freedom of the season. Within the family, a Lord of Misrule was chosen. Slaves were treated as equals, allowed to wear their masters’ clothing, and be waited on at meal time in remembrance of an earlier golden age thought to have been ushered in by the god. In the Saturnalia, Lucian relates that “During My week the serious is barred; no business allowed. Drinking, noise and games and dice, appointing of kings and feasting of slaves, singing naked, clapping of frenzied hands, an occasional ducking of corked faces in icy water—such are the functions over which I preside.”

Various cults celebrated their mysteries during this time of year.  People from all walks of life lost themselves in uninhibited drinking, merrymaking, and fertility rituals.  Many Romans were born 9 months after Saturnalia (which would be approximately August 22nd on our calendar).

Roman painting (Unknown Artist, Villa dei Misteri in Pompeii, Italy)

Saturnalia had started in Rome in 217 BCE after Rome had suffered a series of crushing defeats at the hands of the Carthaginians (and the citizens needed a morale booster), but the deep roots of the holiday stretch back to prehistory.  Additionally the various people whom Rome had conquered all had solstice rituals of their own–which became incorporated into Saturnalia.  The year-end ceremonies of the Gauls and Celts focused on evergreen trees particularly the yew.  In Roman Egypt, the ancient deities were still worshiped (indeed, worship of Isis spread through the Roman world).  During the solstice time Egyptians celebrated how their greatest god, Osiris, had returned to life after being murdered by Set. Strangely the Egyptians too focused their resurrection rituals around a tree–albeit the palm tree. Rome’s mightiest neighbor, the Persian Empire, burnt great fires for Mithras, a deathless god born in a cave on December 25th.   The Mithraic mysteries were particularly popular in the Roman military (although many of the details about the cult are unknown to us).  Across the complicated cosmopolitan Roman world, people of all classes and faiths dedicated themselves to pleasure and to getting through the cold darkness to a new year. Catullus called the time of Saturnalia, “optimo dierum” (the best of days) and that was definitely true in an empire which was otherwise beset by political unrest, war, agricultural failure, greed, injustice, and decline.

On an unrelated note, I will be away for a week to celebrate Christmas.  I might post some things here or I might be too busy eating, relaxing, and exchanging small presents with loved ones.  In the mean time I wish the very happiest of holidays to all of my family, friends, readers, and, in fact, everyone.

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