Sunday, November 15, 2015

Upcoming presentations: Ice cores and dendochronology correlate climate change to human conflict in the ancient world

A history resource article by  © 2015

I received an announcement of two upcoming presentations from researchers at the Yale Climate and Energy Institute (YCEI) that sound really fascinating.  On Monday, November 16, 2015 Francis Ludlow will present information he has gleaned from the study of tree-ring growth in Ireland and ice core samples then compared to Irish chroniclers' records of severe frosts, droughts, dried rivers and discolored sunsets that shows how short term climate change appears to be a driver of historical conflict and violence using medieval Ireland as an example.

Eric Ellman of the YCEI, explains:

Bloody battles, slave and cattle raids, burning of crops and settlements, and the killings of secular and ecclesiastical elites feature prominently in Ludlow’s review of 1200 years of Irish chroniclers’ accounting of yearly events.  When mapped against tree ring and ice core records he has begun to see a recurring link to between periods of climatic stress and extreme weather, and an increased reporting of violence and conflict [see Figure 1 for one example]. The pathways connecting climate to violence are undoubtedly complex, with cultural and political factors playing a large role and mediating any influence of weather and climate. But the Irish chronicles make abundantly clear how conflict and violence can be triggered by the consequences of extreme weather, with the Annalsof Connacht reporting in 1465 CE howExceeding great frost and snow and stormy weather [occurred] this year, so that no herb grew in the ground and no leaf budded on a tree until the feast of St. Brendan [16th May], but a man, if he were the stronger, would forcibly carry away the food from the priest in church…”. As Ludlow remarks, “it is time to take climatic pressures seriously as a recurring factor in human history.”


Figure 1. Deaths recorded in conflict in the medieval Irish Annals of Ulster, for the years 728 to 748 CE. A notable jump in the death in conflict of members of Irish societal elites coincides with severely depressed Irish oak tree-ring growth in 738 CE, signifying severe drought conditions. 738 CE was also the year of the historically pivotal battle of Áth Senaig (Co. Kildare) that helped re-write the Irish political landscape for centuries to come. (F. Ludlow).


On Tuesday, November 17, 2015 Joseph Manning will present his studies of volcanic eruptions that indicate they triggered revolt and suppressed interstate conflict in Hellenistic Egypt.  

"Manning always suspected that shocks lay behind the problems that the Ptolemaic kings faced in the 3rd century BCE," Ellman observes.  

'We always knew that the Nile deeply effects Egyptian civilization in every way.  But in terms of social dynamics,' Manning says, 'it wasn’t so easy to see.'

Ellman continues, "Until Manning met Ludlow through the YCEI and Whitney Humanities-funded Climate History Initiative.  Ludlow showed him how sulfate levels in ice cores recorded some of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history.  'To my astonishment,' Manning says, 'dozens of them aligned with Egypt’s years of greatest hardship.' 

"The observation complemented historical references to failures of Nile flooding that Manning had collected in a shoebox over his career. Further investigation with atmospheric scientists Bill Boos and Trude Storelvmo suggest a linkage between high-latitude eruptions and Nile flow."

"New precision regarding dates of climate disturbance -- along with other technological advances including the ability to now read charred papyrus records – reveals untold chapters of Egypt’s history.  The 'Revolt of the Shepherds,' the only revolt in Roman Egypt, appears linked to an eruption in AD 168, subsequent cooling and a devastating plague."

"'The new chronology of volcanism,' says Manning, 'opens our eyes to a past we’ve been pretty blind to.' Combined with written archives from the Greco-Roman period, he says, fresh understanding of climate’s history helps to explain food crises, social unrest, political bargaining, and major wars through a new lens."

I wished I lived closer to Yale so I could hear these presentations.  Hopefully, I can obtain a transcript of each of them and share it with you in a future post.




Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Review: Vespasian: Rome's Executioner by Robert Fabbri

A history resource article by  © 2015

I didn't realize it but I guess I started this series about one of Rome's "good" emperors with book 2 of the series.  However, the story, woven around the downfall of the infamous Praetorian Prefect Sejanus, stood on its own quite nicely.

There is no indication in history that Vespasian and his brother Sabinus conspired with the Lady Antonia, Tiberius' sister-in-law, to overthrow Sejanus to protect the reign of Tiberius.  However, a successful conspiracy is one in which the participants remain anonymous so Fabbri takes advantage of the lack of documentation to creatively spin this tale.

Sejanus was born into the equestrian class in 20 BCE at Volsinii in Etruria.  Sejanus' grandfather had improved the family's social standing by marrying a sister of the wife of Gaius Maecenas, one of the Emperor Augustus' closest political allies.  Sejanus' father, Lucius Seius Strabo, also married well and his uncle Quintus Junius Blaesus distinguished himself as a military commander and became proconsul of Africa in 21 CE.  Junius subsequently earned triumphal honors by crushing the rebellion of Tacfarinas, a Numidian deserter from the Roman Army who led a coalition of rebels against the forces of Rome in north Africa for 10 years.

It is thought Strabo eventually came to the notice of Augustus through his connection to Maecenas. Anyway, sometime after 2 BCE, Strabo, Sejanus' father, was appointed prefect of the Praetorian Guard.

We know little of Sejanus' early career until, according to Tacitus, Sejanus accompanies Gaius Caesar, adopted grandson of Augustus, to Armenia in 1 BCE.  Gaius Caesar dies from wounds supposedly received in a campaign in Artagira, Armenia in 4 CE.  Tacitus suggests there may have been foul play involved in the death of Gaius, orchestrated by Augustus' wife Livia to facilitate the accession of her own son Tiberius to the throne of the Roman principate.  However, Tacitus does not point an accusing finger at Sejanus.  But when Tiberius is crowned emperor in 14 CE, Sejanus is immediately appointed prefect of the Praetorian Guard as a colleague of his father.

A young Patrick Stewart as Sejanus in the 1976 production of
"I, Claudius".  Image courtesy of the British Broadcasting Company.
© 1976
Then when Sejanus' father is appointed to the governorship of Egypt in 15 CE, Sejanus assumes sole command of the Praetorians.  He centralizes the guards into a single garrison on the outskirts of Rome, personally appoints the centurions and tribunes and increases the number of cohorts from nine to twelve, resulting in a force of 12,000 soldiers now loyal to him.

Sejanus then conspires with the wife of Drusus, Tiberius' son, to have Drusus poisoned.  But when Sejanus asks permission to marry Drusus' widow, Tiberius ominously warns Sejanus not to overstep his bounds.  So Sejanus sets about sowing unrest between Tiberius and the senate.  Tiberius, already deeply depressed over the loss of his son, finally retreats to Campania in 26 CE then the island of Capri, leaving Sejanus to essentially rule Rome in Tiberius' absence.  Sejanus then sets about eliminating anyone he deems a threat that includes many of the elite.

A bronze statue of the Roman emperor Tiberius (not Augustus)
with head veiled (capite velato) preparing to perform a
religious rite found in Herculaneum 37 CE.  Photographed at
the Getty Villa by Mary Harrsch © 2014.
While matters were going thus with Sejanus, many of the other prominent men perished, among them Gaius Fufius Geminus. This man, having been accused of maiestas against Tiberius, took his will into the senate-chamber and read it, showing that he had left his inheritance in equal portions to his children and to the emperor. Upon being charged with cowardice, he went home before a vote was taken; then, when he learned that the quaestor had arrived to look after his execution, he wounded himself, and showing the wound to the official, exclaimed: “Report to the senate that it is thus one dies who is a man.” Likewise his wife, Mutilia Prisca, against whom some complaint had been lodged, entered the senate chamber and there stabbed herself with a dagger, which she had brought in secretly. - Cassius Dio, History of Rome, 58.4
Sejanus was so great a person by reason both of his excessive haughtiness and of his vast power, that, to put it briefly, he himself seemed to be emperor and Tiberius a kind of island potentate, inasmuch as the latter spent his time on the island of Capreae. - Cassius Dio, History of Rome, 58.5

Sejanus is wielding this immense power when Fabbri's story begins in Thrace where Vespasian is completing his appointment as tribune.  The plot involves Sejanus' funding of a rebellion in Thrace as a strategy to weaken the empire and redirect the attention of the legions from politics in Rome to the provinces. The groundwork for these clandestine activities may have been laid in Book 1 but I had to simply accept them as described as I had not read book 1 and have not found any references to them in the ancient sources.

A portrait bust of the Roman emperor Vespasian.
Photographed near the Forum Romanun
in Rome, Italy by Mary Harrsch © 2005
Fabbri's pacing of the story is good and the characters thoughtfully fleshed out.  The only thing I found a bit distracting was Vespasian's use of colloquial language such as referring to "me mates".  I realize Vespasian was born into a rather undistinguished family of tax farmers and debt collectors in a little village northeast of Rome but I think he would have tried to speak in a more educated manner in the presence of military legates and a Thracian queen.

The constant bickering between Vespasian and his brother Sabinus also grew tiresome, especially since I know the two Flavian brothers were actually quite close and during the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors, Vespasian entrusted the care of his youngest son Domitian to Sabinus during a very dangerous period.  But, soon the action kicked into high gear and there wasn't much time for the siblings to snipe at each other any more.

Vespasian's relationship to Antonia's slave Caenis was also more out in the open than it was portrayed in Lindsey Davis' book, "The Course of Honor".  Their little trysts did provide the opening for the development of another strong female character, however, so I can understand why Fabbri plotted the story in this way.

Vespasian is portrayed as being a childhood friend of Caligula's and, although there is no evidence of this in the ancient sources, the plot device worked well to provide an inside source in Tiberius' household on Capri to enable the band of rescuers access to the emperor.

Fabbri developed Tiberius' character as described by his detractors, Suetonius and Tacitus - a sinister demented pervert.  I personally think Suetonius and Tacitus' accounts of Tiberius' behavior in his last years are full of discrepancies and represent more character assassination than fact (See my article "Sexual innuendo and character assassination in the ancient world".)

But, from a dramatic standpoint, such a character definitely adds a heightened level of suspense to the narrative.

Fabbri appears to have intentionally changed one aspect of history.  Early in his career Vespasian obtained a post as a minor magistrate in the vigintivirate.  In the book, Vespasian becomes a tresviri capitales, one of three magistrates charged with managing prisons and the execution of criminals. This places him in a key position to be informed of the Senate proceedings surrounding the treason of Sejanus (since he is not a senator himself) and to witness both the execution of Sejanus and his eldest son as well as the tragic execution of Sejanus' young children (and provide the title for the book). Scholars, however, think Vespasian served as a quattuorviri viis in urbe purgandis - one of four magistrates charged with road maintenance within the city of Rome.  He was so unsuccessful in this position it is said the emperor Caligula publicly stuffed fistfuls of muck down Vespasian's toga because the streets were so filthy.

All in all, though, the novel followed the history of the fall of Sejanus quite closely including the dramatic climax and the fates of key characters.  I will definitely add the first book of the series and the sequel to this novel to my "to read" stack!

Kindle preview:



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