Ordinary Roman footwear

Shoe of an ordinary Roman soldier, a legionary, discovered while excavating a Roman fort in Germany. These were just workday shoes, perhaps not worn on campaign but certainly when tooling around the camp in the long months between. Just ordinary Roman footwear. The workmanship and detail look like something you’d pick up at Target today. It’s so easy to underestimate the day to day sophistication of Roman civilization, which makes the plunge into several centuries of the Dark Ages all the more stunning. The Roman Empire in the west, the part ruled from Rome, was swept away in the space of a century (the empire in the east, ruled from Constantinople, hung on another thousand years, till 1453), and with it disappeared so many skills, from running water sewage systems to the cobbling of comfortable shoes, and it took nearly a thousand years to remember how to do it again. Now, two thousand years later, we can make shoes just like this, and out of plastic, and in a riot of colors. And if that ain’t progress, I don’t know what is.

Photo from the Saalburg Museum, posted by the excellent Classical Compendium on Twitter .


From archaeologist Dr. Nina Willburger on Twitter about this two thousand year old unguentarium and also a great excuse to write unguentarium three times, and I’d never even heard of an unguentarium before. “This delicate Roman blue and white marbled glass unguentarium,” the good doctor begins, “a vessel to hold oil/perfume, was made from translucent dark blue glass with trails in opaque white, dating 1st century AD.” Almost telegraphically terse, but she nails it. Let your eyes loll over the picture, it’s such a beautiful thing. Romans were absolutely masters of glassware, and they mass produced the stuff, glass blowers huffing and puffing all day long creating things like this. Theirs was was the world created by Caesar Augustus and his Antonine Dynasty, the very apogee of Rome, the world of I Claudius, the Antonines and the three emperors of the Flavian Dynasty who filled out the rest of that glorious century. Those were the years you probably visualize when you think of the Roman Empire, when delicate things like this could be found from Scotland to Mesopotamia and traded far beyond, and sometimes, somehow, they survived the two thousand years since, and we can gaze upon them, looking as if they were blown from molten glass only yesterday.

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.


(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.]