Roman numerals

It’s taken a millennium for Arabic numbers—actually Indo-Arabic numbers—to replace Roman numerals, which cling to use in the Anglo-American world, but just barely. Roman numerals we still call them, because numbers were numerals a century ago. But numerals became numbers since then, while Roman numerals remained numerals, stuck a century ago, when they still retained some of their long dead glory and were used everywhere, on buildings, in footnotes, on clock faces, in the years movies were released. They get harder for us to read each year, too, harder for us to convert them to Arabic numbers in our head. Thus do the vestiges of ancient civilizations disappear.

It was just the opposite when Arabic numbers began to seep into the west in the late Medieval. They confused people, those who could read and write anyway. (You didn’t need to be literate at all to use the rather extraordinary fingering computation method used in the Middle Ages, though it’s certainly beyond me.) They couldn’t quite get the hang of what seems so perfectly natural to us now. There were bastard forms, like MCCCC92, or M4C92, or 14XC92. Worse yet was the creepily mysterious zero, which made no sense at all to most Medieval Europeans—how can something represent nothing?—thus rendering 1390 as, say, X3C1C. Unlike the introduction of the alphabet, which rendered entire literatures written in cuneiform and hieroglyphics unreadable within a couple generations, the switch to Arabic numbers took many centuries. Incredibly it was well into the 19th century that you could find Roman numerals still in daily use throughout the Anglo-American world, which is why, I suppose you can still see them affixed to old buildings or in chapter headings or the fine print of movie credits from the first half of the twentieth century. People refusing to budge from the style guides they learned in college fifty years before. You can just imagine them outraged at kids using Arabic numbers instead of the Roman numerals that had been good enough for Cicero.

But those people retired and died, and Roman numerals began to disappear from just about everything by our time (including time itself, or clock faces anyway.) Just about. The NFL, if not quite reviving the the two thousand and some year old numbers system (with origins in Etruscan numbers several hundred years earlier), has over the last half century managed to put Roman numerals into the consciousness of a couple hundred million viewers every year. Indeed, were it not for the Super Bowl—the Super Bowl, ferchrissakes, that bastion of classicism—the god damned things might have been gone and forgotten by now, except in musty academic circles or on the occasional monument. But everyone can read Roman numerals now, at least up to two Arabic number figures, which I believe would be at maximum six Roman numbers, XXXIII. This year was what, Super Bowl LV? Or as a confused Medieval football fan might have written it, X5V. Go figure.

Converting Roman into Arabic numbers in 1582.


My king, something has been created that no one has created before.” So wrote Enheduanna, an Akkadian priestess of the 23rd century BC, in her collection of Sumerian hymns, Exaltation of Inana. Much of it has survived, in fragments, and there are several English translations, yet in each her poetry comes through. Enheduanna was a gifted writer, a great writer, in a written language not yet designed for florid prose. Nor was cuneiform just something one could dash off quick thoughts with. But she managed both, in beauty and verbosity, and her works were held in esteem long past her lifetime for a thousand or more years. She was the first, it seems, who showed the civilizations of the Fertile Crescent just what a truly beautiful thing the written word could be:

On the wide and silent plain, darkening the bright daylight, she turns midday into darkness. People look upon each other in anger, they look for combat. Their shouting disturbs the plain, it weighs on the pasture and the waste land. Her howling is like Iškur’s and makes the flesh of all the lands tremble. No one can oppose her murderous battle — who rivals her? No one can look at her fierce fighting, the speeding carnage. Engulfing water, raging, sweeping over the earth, she leaves nothing behind.

At her loud cries, the gods of the Land become scared. Her roaring makes the lesser gods tremble like reeds. At her rumbling, they hide all together. Without Inana the god An makes no decisions, the god Enlil determines no destinies. Who defies the mistress who is supreme over land between the mountains? Cities reduced to ruin mounds and haunted places, shrines become wasteland. 

A deluge. An earthquake. A windstorm. A total eclipse. Four thousand years later you can still sense the awe and terror. Enheduanna looked upon the ruins of ancient cities, already dead two thousand years, and pictured a goddess’s wrath. Even in her time the plains of Mesopotamia were littered with vanished civilizations. Without history, each would have been evidence of some unforgiven sacrilege. Hubris, perhaps, or worshipping the wrong gods. The result is always the same. Ruin mounds and haunted places, she writes, and shrines become wasteland. That, as they say, is some writing.

A votive disc of Edheduanna, carved in her lifetime. She is at center.A votive disc of Edheduanna, carved in her lifetime. She is at center.

Originally posted on in 2016.

Her Majesty’s dictator legibus scribundis et rei publicae constituendae

I haven’t seen this pointed out yet, but the reason that prime minister Boris Johnson was able to suspend Parliament legally is because Great Britain is a monarchy. It’s a parliamentary monarchy, sure, but it is first and foremost a monarchy and if the monarch says sure, suspend parliament, then that is the law. The vaunted unwritten constitution of Great Britain essentially delineates what powers the democratically elected legislature has and what vestiges of absolute power are still retained by the monarchy. You just saw one. The right to suspend democratic rule.

Were Britain a constitutional republic the queen would be a tourist attraction and nothing more. But she has far more powers than the subjects—that is what they are, legally—either own up to or are aware of. And now her subjects in Great Britain are painfully aware of the scale of those powers. Why Great Britain and the Dominions of Canada, Australia and New Zealand persist in remaining officially subjects of the monarchy defies my understanding. Tradition, apparently.

And while I’m not sure how much of a bearing this had on the origins of the parliamentary rule in Britain, there’s always been distant echoes of the Roman Republic in British politics, structural echoes, as if the institutions were shaped with Roman history in mind. Certainly the scholars and aristocrats of Renaissance and Enlightenment England were steeped in Roman history, and in the original Latin. And is it a coincidence that the Roman constitution, also unwritten, allowed for the Roman legislature to be suspended in times of emergency and a dictator appointed? Results of such dictatorships were mixed for the Romans, and such appointed dictators helped hurry along the end of the Republic and the establishment of the Roman Empire. Within a few generations any pretense to democracy was shed and Romans lived under totalitarian rule. And when fascism was born in Italy after the cataclysm of the World War One it saw itself as the rebirth of Roman dictatorship and absolute rule. Mussolini fancied himself the new Caesar. He wasn’t. But ancient Rome is like a template for Europe. Or templates. There’s a Roman era for everything. But I digress.

Is Britain now finding itself in a political situation which has its roots in using parts of the Roman constitution as a model for Britain’s own? I don’t know, I just wonder, but when I heard the news that the Queen had agreed to allow the suspension of Parliament, I immediately thought of two things: the Queen nullifying an election in Australia in 1975 because she didn’t like the result, making a travesty of the democratic process, and I thought of Sulla, appointed dictator legible faciendis et reipublicae constituendae causa, that is Dictator for the making of laws and the settling of the constitution. That was in 82 BC. He retired after a year of furious change and reorganization. He fixed what was broken. Yet he set a precedent for Julius Caesar, and The Roman Republic lasted only another 37 years, when it replaced by an emperor to vast popular acclaim. Democracy died then, stone cold dead, not to revive for a thousand years.

We certainly have our own problems here is the US, but the worst of them—our president—can be taken care of by a regularly scheduled election. President Trump, were he capable of understanding the analogy, would see himself as the American Sulla, as would his followers, were they capable of understanding the analogy themselves. But unlike Sulla he flounders, a wannabe strongman but hopelessly incompetent. A buffoon. There’s no place in the American political system for a Sulla, and quite deliberately so. The men who drew up the constitution were as aware of Sulla as is Boris Johnson, who studied the classics at Oxford and can doubtless quote Roman histories in the original Latin. It’s hard to see how he doesn’t see Sulla as a role model here. The comparisons are too close. The vaunted British unwritten constitution has the influences of Roman constitutional law laced deeply within it, and that right now doesn’t seem like a good thing. It’s made this moment possible. It makes this new English Sulla possible. That can’t happen here without the US constitution being chucked out completely. But in Great Britain, as in the Roman Republic, it is laid out in the constitution itself. It is perfectly constitutional.

Has this been a profound moment in English history? Has something fundamental been shaken loose? Will there be other Sullas, ones who won’t step down after a year? Who can say. That’s a Rubicon to be crossed anon, if ever.

Every two thousand three hundred and seventy three years.

Oh wow. Mercury, Venus and Saturn above the pyramids of Giza. Gorgeous photo. Heavy Egyptian vibes fill the room.

Of course, it’s too good to be true. The photo is a fake. It wasn’t even originally said to be 2017. It was 2012. Or 2007. Whatever. It’s the internet. But the various planets do align themselves in various combinations with a ragged regularity. But let’s pretend it was shot just a few weeks ago, in 2017, and it really does occur every 2373 years. Which would mean, ironically, that this event could have never actually been witnessed by the Ancient Egyptians, as the pyramids were constructed two or three centuries after the occurrence in 2729 B.C. And then by the next occurrence, in 356 B.C., Egypt had long been part of the Persian Empire and the Persians, rigidly monotheist Zoroastrians, would not have made the cosmic connection. Only what remained of the local priesthood would have been moved, though whether they still saw the pyramids–by then as beat up as they are now, their copper covering and vivid colors long gone–as engines of pharaonic immortality seems doubtful. After all, they were as far removed from the civilization that constructed the pyramids as we are from Alexander the Great. Alexander the Great himself, though, who loved everything Egyptian, would have been fascinated and perhaps even terrified by the sight of Mercury, Venus and Saturn (each a Hellenic god) perfectly placed above the pyramids. Alas, Alexander wasn’t even born yet, not till later that summer in 356 B.C., and he didn’t conquer Egypt until 332 B.C. Another wasted Kodak moment.

Then if last January 20 it really had happened again, and the night was this clear, and a photographer had gotten this amazing photo. Let’s just pretend it was so and we’re filled with awe–even us cynics–and awash in the spooky sensations of Ancient Egypt. We do, at last, make the cosmic connection with the ancients, though the Egyptians themselves, in the days of Khufu, were probably unaware that specific celestial alignment would ever happen at all. Still, if they had seen it, in its weird perfection and logic, they would have been impressed. The eternal movement of the heavens and of earth would have come together in perfect symmetry. Doubtless when Ra rose again in the east with the dawn, the morning would have been something extra special.

2,373 years from now it will happen again. The planets will still be making their steady revolutions, and the solid granite blocks of the pyramids will ensure they still stand virtually unchanged in their massiveness. Who knows what people will see this again, maybe us, maybe somebody else. Maybe no one at all. We could annihilate all life in nuclear cataclysm and in A.D. 4390 the three planets will still hover above the three pyramids, the lone and level sands stretching far away.



Great article on Babylonian scientists and why they weren’t exactly scientists. They were astrologists. The results were impressive but not science. Science–as in figuring out how things work for the sake of figuring out how things work–was still a few centuries off there. But it’s amazing just how much of our perception on the world is guided by Babylonian thinking now. We’ve never escaped the influence of the Babylonians. In case you wonder why we buy a dozen eggs and not ten or twenty….it’s leftover Babylonian math. Echoes of the dawn of civilization. Just as the letters in these words are echoes of ancient Egypt.

Decline and Fall

This is end times, someone wrote. Yeah, a friend wrote back, it’s like the fall of the Roman Empire. You hear that a lot, how we are declining like Rome. As if Roman history as Edward Gibbon described it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were a template that all afterward must follow. But the United States has existed only 250 years. 250 years seems like a long time, a quarter of a millennium, ten generations, four lifetimes. Someone born, say, in 1766–old enough to remember the Declaration of Independence, the twenty gun salutes, the parades and the war–could die at 1826. His grandkids born in 1816–old enough to remember grandpa, could live till, say 1876. His ten year old great grandson, born in 1866 (and imagine how dramatically different the county was, and suddenly, in 1866) could live easily till 1926. 1936 even. His great-great grandson, born in 1926, could have had a son born in 1957 (making him the great-great-great grandson) and a grandson (the great-great-great-great grandson) born in 1986. That’s a lot of great-greats. But not so many that you can’t imagine the continuum of relationships between them. It’s not that far back to your great grandfather and then to his great grandfather, the one who witnessed the American Revolution. The extent of American history can be expressed in a just a few relatives, a brief string of grandfathers.

That seems a long time. But Rome lasted ten times as long. The kingdom of Rome lasted a couple hundred years, and then the Roman Republic lasted from about 500 BC to 27 BC, and the Western Empire till 476, and the Eastern empire till 1453, you’re talking twenty two, maybe twenty three centuries of continuous existence. That is grandfathers out to the nth degree. And it’s there, for me, that the decline of the Roman Empire template doesn’t work for the U.S. We have not been here long enough to have any sort of decline on a Roman scale. Comparisons between the U.S. and the Rome are just trite exposition devices, clichés. Very few states and/or civilizations have had the sort of longevity that Rome had. Egypt was one, ending as an independent kingdom after maybe three thousand years, lasting as a distinct civilization another thousand years, and as a culture since. China remains another, endless cycles of concentrated imperial power and chaos and a civilization that remains distinctly Chinese for four thousand years. As does Iran–something few people outside Iran realize is that Persian civilization has stood in a continuous arc now for 2700 years (though if you include the Elamites it goes back twice that). To Iranians we Americans are just the latest in an endless line of enemies, all of whom they have thus far outlasted. They feel sure they will outlive us too. From our perspective now it seems utterly absurd to think that they will long survive us. But if the historical record is any guide, they probably will. They will be here, and so will China. Then again, we might be here too. Just because we got such a late start doesn’t mean we may not be here two or three thousand years hence. It’s just that very few civilizations have managed to last intact that long. Something generally happens and they fade away or dissolve or vanish completely in a bloody instant. Half-lifes remain, echoes, in a language, religion, mythology, even cuisine. And sometimes nothing remains at all but ruins. I wonder if anything at all remains of the ways of the people who lived in many of those ruins in Mesopotamia, memes we don’t even recognize as memes. If so, memes must litter the Fertile Crescent like shards of glass. People doing things because people did those things five thousand years ago, in long dead languages. A half dozen of this, a dozen of that we think, babylonically.

Gleaning my well thumbed copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall again to see into our own future is a futile exercise, of course, turning history into science fiction. I’ve done the same with Thucydides. I get no answers, just vague suppositions. Who knows what the fate of American civilization will eventually be. Maybe something entirely new. Perhaps we’ll be hacked into non-existence, control-alt-delete and zap.

An earlier border wall.

An earlier border wall.



(Another essay I found in the drafts folder.)

Just saw another of those blog essays making the social media rounds that asserts that Christianity grew into a world religion because it killed its way to the top. It describes inquisitions and crusades and other bloody events. There’s no denying those. But the problem is that the author has the timeline wrong. Christianity spread without many inquisitions at all. Those came later when western civilization came close to being an afterthought in the medieval era (hammered as it was then by Islam, the Mongols, the Black Plague, poverty, endless warfare, backwardness, and low population growth). One of the reasons that Christianity spread like it did in Roman times was because the Middle East and Mediterranean world had already been leaning towards monotheism or ditheism anyway.  (Ditheism here means good vs. evil, basically, a god of good and a god of evil, and Christianity with its God vs. Satan shows just how closely related “monotheistic” and “ditheistic’ religions actually are.) The Good vs. Evil god (or two gods) was pretty much a Persian invention, and when Persia ruled the western world for several centuries their one god idea took root (including influencing early Judaism).  All the later western monotheisms came from it. Alexander the Great diffused it even more so by mixing Greek and Persian civilizations, giving Persian religious ideas access to areas throughout the Mediterranean world (and even into India) where they were unknown before. And then when Rome took over most of the Mediterranean, western Europe and Middle East, its own pre-Constantine religious tolerance protected monotheistic (and ditheistic) as well as polytheistic religions. In fact, monotheism/ditheism was particularly popular within the Roman military, and where there were legions, there was variations of both, especially the Persian form known as Mithraism (related to Zoroastrianism).  Christianity’s primary competition in ancient Rome was Mithraism…which was Persian religion. Other competitors included Manichaeism, Gnostic religions like Bogomilism and Mandeism (which still exists), even Judaism. To this day there are tiny remnants of other ancient religions in Iran and Iraq (including Zoroastrianism, the original Persian imperial religion, and Yazidism, a syncretic blend of pre-Zoroastrian Iranian monotheism with ancient Mesopotamian polytheist traditions and Sufism and currently under threat by ISIS), all of them monotheistic or ditheistic but neither Christian nor Moslem. Each is a fragment of the incredibly rich patchwork of religions in the ancient Middle East, any of which could have been big as Christianity or Islam had history run a different course. Christianity just won out by luck. The inevitability we see in its rise to dominance now is merely the innate tendency to see the course of history as inevitable. But it never is.

Christianity also spread the way Mormonism is doing so now–it provided a welfare state within a state that Rome did not supply. It took care of its own. It also developed a solid literary tradition, more so than most of its competitors (though Manichaeism matched it in output there.) And maybe most importantly, it patterned it structure on the Roman political system itself (a Catholic mass is like a Roman imperial time capsule) so that as Roman power weakened the Church was able to take its place in an almost identical form. Clever. Indeed, one of the reasons the pagan Roman government began to crack down on Christianity was because of its alternative power structure…a state within a state is always a threat. When Rome turned officially Christian, the state church began appropriating pagan sites, facilities and rites. It was easy to do because Christianity in Roman times was already a Roman political structure. As the pagan power structure disappeared the Christian power structure replaced it seamlessly…very little change in daily life happened. Taxes were collected the same, rituals performed in the same places, attire was even the same. Christians didn’t take over by force but by assimilation. The Roman empire (a republic ruling an empire at the time) that fought Hannibal in the third century BC was the same country that fell when the Turks finally took Constantinople in 1453. The Byzantine Empire certainly saw itself as Roman, up till the very end. That’s because the split between pagans and Christians that we see now as a great dividing line was not so visible to the Romans themselves. To them it was the same place with a new religion…but still, the same place.

As for the crusades…remember that those were very bloody (and mostly very unsuccessful) attempts to reclaim lands and peoples lost to Christianity. The Moslem conquest took most of the Christian world away. All that remained were the underpopulated areas of Europe–and even some of that was lost. People don’t realize that Christianity was, until the 8th century, overwhelmingly an Asian religion. Europe represented perhaps a third of it. Then Islam spread like wildfire, in large part because it was spread by conquest and the conquered were generally given the choice of convert or die. Or at least convert or pay a nasty infidel tax. So people converted, and Christianity virtually disappeared east and south of the Mediterranean. Not entirely, and there remained large and influential minorities (such as the Copts in Egypt and Greeks in Asian Minor), and Armenia and Georgia remained Christian (as did Ethiopia) but what Islam gained in its first couple centuries at Christianity’s expense they still mostly hold today. Only Iberia, southern France, southern Italy, and Sicily were lost again to Islam. (A later expansion of Islam into the Balkan peninsula, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, under the Ottoman Turks, was almost completely reversed. Apparently the conversions didn’t have the same vigor as those made when Islam was new. Still, the Bosnian massacres in the 1990’s were a glimpse of how competing monotheisms had once routinely spread the Word.)

You will be hard pressed to find a major religion that has not been murderous, even genocidal, in its history. That even includes Buddhism, believe it or not. (Tibet in particular was a land of Buddhist warriors who raided Chinese domains mercilessly for centuries). And though I’m an atheist, always have been, it’s important to remember that atheism killed more people in sheer numbers than any religion ever did. The numbers of people killed by communist regimes in the 20th century is astonishing. Atheist revolutions–going back to Revolutionary France, have nearly always involved large scale state-ordered massacres, killings, genocide, repression, state controlled famine and murder. It’s a ghastly record. It’s hard to find anything in history more murderous than the fanatically atheist Khmer Rouge. But then communist regimes have an advantage of technology that earlier conquerors would have given their eternal souls for. It became vastly easier to kill enormous numbers of people in the twentieth century. Give medieval crusaders or Mohammed’s legions automatic weapons and they would have piled up the dead just as impressively as anything Mao or Stalin ever did. Indeed, you can think of Himmler’s demented SS quasi-pagan religion (we’ll never know what that would have developed into) as something right out of Roman times armed with state of the art 20th century weaponry and logistics. There was nothing new about the Holocaust–there had been ethnic cleansing for thousands of years–except that it was carried out with all the organizational skill that modern civilization offered. The Albigensian Crusade of the 13th century, where the French crown and the Church annihilated the dualist Cathars in a particularly brutal genocide could have been done in a fraction of the time by the Nazis.

The problem isn’t Christianity, or religion, or lack of religion, the problem is Homo sapiens. We find it very easy to kill when situations become unstable. Chimpanzees (but not bonobos) are the same. It’s not god or no god. It’s just that some of the great apes are prone to extreme violence. And Homo sapiens are one of those great apes. But we are killing each other at a much slower rate anymore–homicide is far less frequent than it was in Roman times, and is far less frequent than it was in the early 20th century, when people slaughtered each other at an astonishing rate. But it’s hard to tell if we are becoming less homicidal, or if our impulses are just in a lull, waiting.


(Apparently dashed off in November, 2014, just after the European Space Agency landed Rosetta on the comet Philae and a scientist wore a naked lady shirt)

Science is complicated and requires quite a bit of knowledge to discuss intelligently. Unfortunately scientific awareness in the social media is about at high school level, often even among super smart people. So thank god that scientist wore that rather “garish bowling shirt“. It allowed a huge news story to be brought down to a level that Facebook could understand. On Twitter even more so. Social media renders all conversation absurd eventually, you have to struggle to keep it from getting there. Every conversation degenerates into good versus evil, no matter what the discussion is about. It’s not the medium itself, though…I suspect in China it’s not like that. But pretty much all of western civilization is built on good vs evil, right vs wrong, light vs dark, it is the template for all debate, all our thinking, really. Blame it on Zoroaster, the Zarathustra who spake thus. About 4000 years ago he reduced the Persian gods down to two forces, one of light, one of dark. Good versus evil. The notion made it way across the ancient middle east–which was a warren of trade and communication, across which news and ideas spread with remarkable speed. Zoroaster’s new doctrine–itself a new thing, a doctrine–was reinforced as law once Persia began creating an empire. It was the first great empire, reaching from the western edge of India to the eastern edge of Libya, from Central Asia to the Balkans. Persian law became world law, Persian religion a world religion. In almost every place the Persians ruled, and beyond, where its influence was felt, Zoroastrianism left a lasting impression, and ancient gods became good and evil, light and dark, right and wrong. It even introduced the promise of a messiah. Christianity and Islam are both descendants, both fit their theologies into Zoroastrian constructs. Indeed, both see each other now in that construct. Good Christianity versus evil Islam, good Islam versus evil Christianity. It’s no accident that a fierce new Islam originated in Iran a few decades ago. Persia has gotten bad press since Alexander the Great destroyed its empire, and we don’t realize just how fundamental the Persian Empire was to western civilization and the western way of thought. But today our popular thinking is more like that of ancient Persians than ancient Greeks. The Greeks were polytheists. Almost anything was possible to a classic Greek. Very little is possible to us today. Something is either right or wrong, good or bad. Light or dark. There is rarely a debate today across the social media that does not boil down to those two points of view. I am wrong, you are right. Even when we agree to disagree, it is merely a truce, leaving me right and you wrong. The pull of right and wrong is so strong that in the social media everything is reduced to polar opposites, even issues that seem to have no possible right vs wrong interpretation will be debated that way. Something will be found–a naked lady shirt, say–that will force a story into the right vs wrong debate. If you look at comments to news stories, you will see an endless series of threads that go off into right versus wrong debates that rarely have anything to do with story and create entire new right versus wrong debates that can go on endlessly, until the webmaster gets bored or appalled and closes comments. It’s all made worse because in person we are able to restrain this right versus wrong tendency because reality isn’t actually so dualist. Spoken language isn’t dualist at all, it’s ancient, pre-moral, and eminently flexible. Written language is not as free as spoken language, It’s riddled with rules–there’s all that right grammar and wrong grammar–and designed for debate. It is much, much easier to take a hard stance in a debate than a measured one. The nuances of spoken communication are lost in the way we learn to write. You can see that in the way people argue on Facebook. Put those same people into a bar and they will talk. Put them on Facebook and they hate each other. Blame it on Zoroaster.


(2002. Reads a tad hypergraphic….my guess is that I missed a dose of epilepsy meds.)

It was only a couple years ago that the media was full of talk about a Pax Americana.  The Cold War was over, Russia a broken wreck, China converting into a capitalist powerhouse and communism reduced to a few broken down totalitarian backwaters like Cuba and North Korea.  America ruled supreme, without a serious contender on the planet.  “Pax Americana” was a takeoff on the “Pax Romana” that the Roman Empire brought to the Mediterranean world after it had subdued all of its competition (namely, Carthage.)  Roman legions and Roman law, it is said, brought order and security throughout the empire, beginning with the Augustus beating all his rivals in the Civil Wars (as seen in all its widescreen glory in Cleopatra); and ending with the death of the quintessential philosopher king, the emperor Marcus Aurelius (played by Alec Guiness in the even tackier Fall of the Roman Empire. Though Sophia Loren was a much hotter slave girl or whatever than Liz Taylor‘s Cleo—who was downright tawdry compared to Claudette Colbert soaking in a tub of milk.) Rome has long been a fixation for Europeans and their former colonies.  Any country with grand hopes seems inevitably to wallow about in a kind of Roman revivalism.  “Caesar” becomes czar or Kaiser.  We have our own Senate.  Look through an almanac and you’ll see scores of republics and republicas and respubliks. This is nothing new, either:  the Holy Roman Empire was a medieval invention.  The Roman Catholic Church has never shaken its Imperial Roman façade (down to the very capes they wear.) Napoleon actually dashed off to Egypt like Caesar.  Mussolini grabbed Albania, site of the Battle of Actium, in which thousands of costumed extras gamely enacted the action for Richard Burton’s Mark Anthony and Roddy McDowell’s kind of scrawny Octavius-Augustus. (Later, Roddy did a variation on the “Friends, Romans, Countrymen” bit in a gorilla suit in Caesar’s soliloquy in Conquest of Planet of the Apes.)

And with an American strategic disaster of the first order appearing to be a distinct possibility in Iraq, I began engaging in an intellectual game of trying to match the possible result with a similar event in Roman history. Everyone has heard of Cannae, where the Romans suffered an annihilating defeat at the hands of the Carthaginians. (It was once a metaphor for really, really screwing up, although everyone prefers Waterloo nowadays.) But any modern comparison of the US in Iraq with Cannae is, thankfully, absurdly out of the question, leaving Hannibal’s elephants irrelevant. As is the truly decisive defeat of Emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378, when the Visigoth cavalry rode down and butchered an entire Roman Army and opened up the Western half of the empire to an anticlimactic defeat a century later (and leaving stranded the Romans along the lower Danube whose Latin has now become Romanian). In between those two defeats was the German chieftain Arminius’ destruction of two legions in the Teutoburger Wald in the Year 9. Maybe there’s a useful comparison here….although the scale of destruction there was far, far more than we can expect in even a worse case scenario in Iraq. It actually began as a fight over Roman taxes, and the Romans sent two legions in to make sure the moneys were collected.  As the two Roman legions were filing through a primeval forest they were ambushed by a horde of Germans who slaughtered virtually all of them, and bloodily sacrificed the rest. (Imagine the battle scene in Star Wars between [the cute little forest dwarves vs the evil guys…I don’t know what either are called] but directed by Mel Gibson.)  When news got to Rome, Caesar Augustus was said to wail “Varus! Varus! What have you done with my legions!”, In the meantime, Arminius sent along to another German chieftain the head of the Varus, who in turn forwarded it to Augustus as a keepsake. Oddly enough, though, that disastrous battle did not actually result in a dramatic weakening of the Roman Empire; rather, it prevented its advance into the heart of Germany, stopping Rome at the Rhine, instead of the Elbe.  This actually has more significance than the fact that people drink wine west of the Rhine and beer to its east:  the Battle of Teutoburger Wald also prevented the probable romanization of the Germans, in the manner that Caesar’s defeat of the hairy chief Vercingetorix and his twin Gallic armies at Alesia had romanized the Celts and left us with the French. When you think about it, had the Germans been Romanized we might have avoided a lot of problems in the 20th century (such as two World Wars, the Holocaust, and German irregular verbs); but we’ll avoid stepping on any butterflies just now. Still, as a strategic failure perhaps one can find similarities here with what will be the probable failure of the Bush Doctrine to essentially Americanize the Arab world; although that too is a stretch.

So let us turn to Mesopotamia, as Iraq was known in ancient times (by the Greeks, anyway.) In 53 BC, when Caesar’s contemporary Crassus led a legion to punish the Parthians (predecessors of today’s Persians, i.e., Iranians). It must have been a hell of a walk from Italy to the banks of the Euphrates; still, Crassus started out strong, until he wandered into the sandy wasteland too far from the river, where his army was surrounded by the Parthian mounted archers. Those archers had these terrific composite bows, too, that could shoot an arrow much further than anything in the Roman quiver. Over a matter of days, clouds of Parthian arrows steadily picked off the legionnaires who, mad from thirst, eventually surrendered. Crassus, if I remember right, was beheaded, and the survivors, only a fraction of the original force, were sold into slavery (apparently some winding up as far away as the Chinese court, where they served as bodyguards to the Emperor). Carrhae, as Rumsfeld might put it, was one heck of a licking, one perhaps forgotten today in the light of Caesar’s more famous and successful campaigns.  Of course, Crassus never lived to write his own memoirs.  Shakespeare mentioned him a couple times, though. But the ramifications? It was certainly not a fatal blow (well, aside from the blow to Crassus’ neck.) Roman pride felt it more keenly than Roman power. Yet the defeat pretty much set the Eastern Mediterranean seaboard as the limits of Roman expansion in the East, and prevented any genuine Romanization of Mesopotamia, and indeed prevented the Romans from reclaiming the empire of Alexander as their own. Not that Rome didn’t keep trying (and indeed at the height of the Empire actually ruled a restive Mesopotamia for a few years under Emperor Trajan, but was lost to the Parthians after his death.) But perhaps most importantly the humiliating Roman defeat at Carrhae proved that the apparently invincible Romans could be beaten, and beaten by Parthians. And the Parthians battled Rome thereafter for centuries where the two empires met there in the Middle East, in Mesopotamia, in Syria, in present day Turkey. Neither side gained much but spent a lot of lives and energy and money warring, and even after Rome fell and the Roman empire shifted to Constantinople as the Byzantine Empire, and after the Parthians fell to the Sassanid Persians (the true predecessors of present day Iran) the wars continued, back and forth. Finally the Persians were done in by the armies of Allah, who invaded their country, killed their leaders, and converted them to Islam. They then headquartered their empire in Mesopotamia with its capital at the new city of Baghdad, leaving Mecca and its sister cities as religious sites rather than centers of power. And then the Arabs continued fighting the Byzantines. They also fought the Western Christians who were on a series of crusades to retake the Holy Land by invading Arab countries and killing their leaders and converting them to Christianity.  All this fighting was ended only by the Mongol invasions which like a wolf on the fold completely destroyed the Caliphate of Baghdad, leveling the city, slaughtering the inhabitants, and wrecking the irrigation system that turned the once fertile land into the arid wastes we see today. (Well, several millennia of farming helped, but it kind of ruins the narrative…). But the Mongols, spent from their orgy of invading countries and killing leaders and converting their people to whatever religion they wanted to be (the Mongols actually believed in religious freedom, believe it or not); and softened with civilization, just kind of disappeared. The piles of skulls they left where Baghdad and Samarkand and Kiev has stood were mute testimony to the power of an idea. Of course, the idea was merely conquest for its own sake, not as romantic as the piles of skulls left by Pol Pot as mute testimony to the idea of Marxism. But a pile of skulls is something one remembers, anyway. And they certainly remember it in Baghdad, to this day.

The nature of the Middle East abhors a vacuum so in the wake of the missing Mongols came the Turks. Like the Mongols, they were nomads of the steppe, and even spoke a related language (in fact, so did Attila’s Huns in an earlier invasion). But the Turks converted to Islam and then, inspired, invaded countries and killed leaders and made the unconverted pay taxes to avoid being converted to Islam (a nice solution, but one that would not fit with Ann Coulter’s anti-tax philosophy.) The Turks were powerful and effective warriors, and they conquered Mesopotamia and, eventually, the Byzantines, snuffing out the final remnant of the Roman Empire in 1453 AD, leaving us only with its shadows in the Romance languages, in the Vatican, in the names of our institutions. They conquered Central Asia and the Balkans and huge swathes of what had been the Caliphate of Baghdad. For a while they were the strongest naval power in the world. They laid siege to Vienna a couple times. They flavored ices which led to ice cream. But eventually like all empires they grew feeble and lazy and decadent and finally the Turks were driven out of Mesopotamia by a British backed Arab revolt at the end of the First World War, and Mesopotamia was reunited in a new state, ruled by Arabs, called Iraq. The classically minded, Greek and Latin spouting English college boys who designed this new state were probably thinking in terms of ancient Mesopotamia (whose ancients alphabets were being deciphered, and ancient cities discovered, about this same time.) Alas, they put it under the rule of Hashemites, Sunnis of Arabian origin, and key participants in the Arab Rebellion against the Turks, of Lawrence of Arabia fame and all that. Thus it became an Arab state, and the Arab view of their rightful place in the Middle East went far beyond the limits of Mesopotamia. The Caliphate of Baghdad had been the center of the Moslem world, extending from Spain to Central Asia to India and beyond to lands all around the Indian Ocean, as far as Mindanao in the Philippines. A Mesopotamia-sized Iraq seems awfully confined compared to that realm. Just ask Saddam.

So George W. Bush finds himself battling with a people whose historical sense sees themselves as far grander than one would suspect just looking at a map of Iraq. Just as the neo-conservatives like to toss around the notion of a Romanesque Pax Americana but on the scale of the British Empire, whose vastness and global scope many neoconservatives feel in their bones that we are the true inheritors of. A clash of memories, two gigantic imperial egos [The essay seems to have ended here.]