Friday 25 March 2004: A fascinating talk by Paul Weaver at the Australian National University’s classics program.
He began by talking about an off-hand reference in the Oxyrhynchus papyrus to a person called Herminos travelling to Rome …”and became a freedman under Caeser so he can get official jobs”. This seems to have caused something of a controversy among Classical scholars. After describing the Roman civil service hierarchy, Weaver described the various means by which a person could join the Roman civil service – primarily through being born into Caeser’s household as a slave or acquired as a slave and subsequently freed.
Essentially, where freedmen claimed to have joined the Roman Imperial civil service, it appears most were simply making fraudulent use of the appropriate titles. Basically there were three routes to the civil service:
* be born to an Imperial slave;
* be a slave acquired through bequest or conquest; or
* be a freedman (Pallas appears to be the only known case of a freedman having transferred into the Imperial civil service)
Herminos appears to have been a Roman Egyptian writing home to say he had made good. But it is likely that his claims to be working in various (unspecified) positions in the civil service in Rome seem to be either wishful thinking or big-noting himself to preserve his pride (eg rather than admit to being a garbage collector). In short, this fellow appears unlikely to have made a successful entree into Caeser’s Imperial Civil Service.
I’ve just watched a fascinating TV program syndicated to Australia by the BBC on the ‘search for El-Dorado’ in the Amazon rainforest. Following Spanish explorer tales, the progam described how the myths of a large civilisation were debunked on the strength of soil fertility – or lack thereof. Rainforests may look fertile, but the amount of rainfall means that nutients are quickly leached from the soil leaving infertile clay substrates. We have a similar problem in Australia – since most of our land mass was once sea bed and hence below a thin layer of sandy top soil we have a layer of salt – which through over-cropping of the soil, quickly rises to the surface, causing ever increasing desertification of our farmlands.
Enter some persistent researchers who allow their curiosity to be drawn to seeming ‘islands’ of rainforest in otherwise barrren land. It turns out that beneath these fertile islands is a huge legacy of pottery shards – of pots that would be far too large for nomadic people scattered thinly across the landscape. The secret? The black soil – which appears to be artificial. Amazonian small-croppers, like those in Malaysia and Indonesia, clear land by slashing and burning. But by burning on the surface, all the nutrients get burnt to ash leaving only a small amount of added fertility value for farming. The difference appears to be that the Amazonian people of the past also felled trees and burnt the vegetation, but they did so by covering it with earth and producing, not ash, but charcoal. Charcoal is highly absorbant and would retain nutrients in the soil. As one researcher has noted, terra preta soil (black soil) enriched with mineral fertiliser gave 880 percent more yield than the same substrate enriched with the fertiliser alone. In other words the fertiliser was not being leached form the soil.
Now, if only we in Australia could apply that kind of process to our own soil – how much more productive could our land be?
I have preferred notebooks with squared paper, ever since I first encountered Clairefontaine notebooks in Brussels in 1990. I found that the paper was good for using a fountain pen and the squares made sketching designs easier. On my return to Australia, however, I found that I could no longer buy these handy notebooks – in fact it seemed an almost impossible quest to locate a pocket-sized notebook with squared paper! Rare visits in intervening years to London and Paris renewed my supply of these notebooks, but they were soon to run out.
Enter the Moleskine! After stumbling into a specialist paper store in Canberra I found the perfect notebook – it even had a handy elastic to keep it closed, and a stitched-in bookmark. Above all, it had squared paper 🙂 It has become my favourite hard-copy medium. It fits in a shirt pocket, takes fountain pen ink well (being left-handed, I find a fountain pen glides over the page, rather than digging in as ballpoints tend to) and has a sufficiently sturdy cover to allow writing while standing, and it opens flat – unlike most bound notebooks.
I carry my trusty moleskine now wherever I go to jot down ideas, thoughts, sketch designs to remind me of interesting ways of constructing things (like joints on a bench) or ideas on using mouldings for bookcases (see below). For me, it is the perfect format! – even though the small format notebook is not cheap at around AUS$25.00 each – they are well made and last for ages as the paper is really fine – so you get more pages for less bulk.
It seems that others are equally taken with these notebooks – such as the delightful Moleskinerie – a blog devoted to tales of this notebook 🙂 It is great to see good design recognised!
Here is an entry from before the Great Fire of Canberra in which I began designing the built-in book cases for what was to become our new home.
Still catching up on my blogging… *sigh*
On 12 March I went to see the Mel Gibson movie: The Passion of Christ. It is one of those films one should have seen – rather than one to ‘enjoy’ (shallow word anyhow). It is certainly not light entertainment. But while it has been slammed as overly violent, I’d have to say that the violence is appropriate to the context of the story and the time and culture in which it is set. In many ways the violence depicted in the film is not much worse that that shown in footage of tribal fighting in the Pacific islands in which people are hacked to death with grass knives (machetes). (And by making that comparison I am not trying to perpetuate an image of islanders as in any sense backward, rather, I am trying to suggest that in areas where traditional pre-modern lifestyles are lived, life operates by different and sometimes quite brutal rules). Back to the movie. There are subtleties that are shown very well, such as the Roman guard whose ear is bitten off, being healed by Christ – and the moral ambiguity shown in that guard being torn then between duty and recognition of injustice. Similarly the doubts cast by the local Roman administrator in Gallilee are well depicted. And the makeup is very good, making this film difficult to watch in parts.
…so much so that we had to go and see another movie: The Last Samurai. This film was slammed by the critics as shallow – and in my view unjustly so. The film is about a rapidly changing society and the tension between tradition and innovation. While Japan is rushing headlong into industrialisation, there is a generational issue between modern=good/tradition=bad and the struggle to keep what is good about traditions like honour and identity, as Japan seeks to shift its identity from that of a rural agrarian society into a modern western industrial state. In all this there is a struggle between the craft of the warrior and the mechanisation of the military – skill versus technology. It was surely only later that the Samurai were able to reinvent themselves as the new industrialists.
On Thursday (18 March) I went to a Classics seminar at the Australian National University – Robert Barnes was talking on the old Library at Alexandria.
It was a revisit/work-in-progress of a paper he published in a collection to recognise the opening of the new Alexandria Library that opened about 18 months ago.
Barnes described the original, set up by Ptolemy I in terms that seemed a cross between a ‘salon’ and a think-tank devoted to the study of (primarily) Greek literature and writing.
The Library appeared to enjoy royal patronage for an extended period, covering at least the period of the first three Ptolemys. Barnes also spoke of the controversy over the library’s destruction, with varying claims of accidental or deliberate burning by Julius Caeser, by Augustus Caeser, or successive versions of destruction or sacking including by Caliph Omar’s Moslem invaders – the latter largely discounted. What is interesting in all this is two things: firstly that there was more than one campus of the Alexandrine library – with a ‘daughter’ library being located in the temple of Serapis. Moreover, when books were obtained (through copying, theft, gifting or purchase) they were first stored in warehouses by the docks – and so the destruction by fire story in which fire spread from the fleet to the surrounding buildings, may have destroyed the ‘new books section’ of the library. At any rate it seems unlikely that the library was totally destroyed all at once. Good commentarys along the lines of Barnes’ paper can be found at the following links:
* James Hannum
* Preston Chesser
The second thing that is interesting is that the location of the major Library remains unknown to this day, although the ‘daughter’ library at the Serapium has been well excavated.
It is thought to be somewhere near the intersection between Rue El-Horreya and Rue Nebi Daniell. [I would like to acknowledge the source of this map, but after stumbling across it on the web I have been unable to relocate the site – so if you recognise it, could you let me know please and I’ll put in the appropriate acknowledgement and link – Cheers, Jerry]
Why a library of Greek writings? Perhaps it has something to do with the Ptolemys representing a ruling but essentially Greek minority being faced with a well established and longstanding Egyption civilisation. So they would have perhaps held a kind of ‘cultural cringe’ that drove them to be like many expatriates to become more Greek than the Greeks (in the same way that many English in Australia become more English than the English) – so they may have had an interest in building a name or reputation for themselves as sophisticated scholars of Greek culture. Moreover, the Library may have served to attract ‘star’ scholars to Alexandria to help keep up the standard of debate in this outpost on the margins of Greek civilisation. And finally, the library may have been a means to assert the dominance of Greek culture in the face of the well-establised Egyptian civilisation.
One questioner at the end of the seminar seemed concerned that the library may have been somewhat devalued by not necessarily having all the scrolls that make up any given ‘work’ – given that each work required multiple scrolls. But to make such an assertion implies that the same primacy of a whole work was assumed by the users of the Library. But perhaps it may have been the case that if all a great scholar’s work was considered worthwhile then it would be no shame to have even fragments of that scholar’s work – and that such fragments, perhaps single scrolls from a work of seven or more – would have been sufficient for many purposes. Certainly art galleries today typically only have a small selection of any given artist’s work, and that even one work might suffice to study elements of an artist’s style or brushwork. Could it not have been much the same in Ancient Egypt?