The Fresco of Terentius Neo

Wikimedia Commons

At the Naples National Archaeological Museum in Italy is a Roman fresco of Terentius Neo and a woman presumed to be his wife, discovered in their home in Pompeii. Considered one of the finest pieces of art from the area of Vesuvius, it is also amazing for several reasons beyond its technical quality.

The portrait is unusual in depicting husband and wife as equals, members of a confident and fashionable middle class that was rising across Rome through sheer grit. Neo was a successful baker, as the house had been modified to include a bakery, and he wears a toga, indicating he was a Roman citizen (a highly coveted status that conferred several legal rights). He holds a rotulus, a kind of scroll that suggests involvement in local politics or public affairs; there is even an inscription on the outside of the house that endorses a local politician, not unlike the yard signs of today (though a lot more permanent)

Though we do not know her name, Neo’s wife is far from secondary: She is in the foreground and at the same height as her husband. She holds a stylus and wax tablet, further emphasizing her equal status, as well as the fact that she was educated and literate (a rare thing for men and women alike at the time). It is very likely she helped manage her husband’s business and political affairs and was far from the servient homemaker.

Finally, the portrait shows realistic imperfections or peculiarities in the faces—rather than the chiseled and God-like features we’re most familiar with—which is rare in similar frescoes and brings these folks to life. One could easily imagine well-to-do couples like them in today’s society. 

How a Girl from Small-Town Maine Struck a Rapport with an Ex-KGB Soviet Leader

This past July 6th marked an unusual anniversary in international relations: On that day in 1983, Samantha Smith, an 11-year-old from small-town Maine, visited the Soviet Union at the personal invitation of its leader, Yuri Andropov, after the two exchanged letters.

When Andropov took power in November 1982, he was subject to numerous front-page photographs and articles—most of them overwhelmingly negative and skeptical. Widely seen as a hardliner who would threaten Western stability, Andropov had been the Soviet Ambassador to Hungary during the brutally suppressed 1956 Hungarian Revolution and led the KGB for 15 years, during which dissidents were harassed and jailed. Unsurprisingly, he began his tenure as Soviet leader by strengthening the KGB and reigning in internal dissent.

U.S.-Soviet relations was at its lowest point in decades, with the two superpowers intensifying their Cold War rivalry and building up their nuclear arsenals both numerically and technologically. The national mood was of fear and apprehension.

As Smith recalled in her book, Journey to the Soviet Union:

“I asked my mother who would start a war and why.  She showed me a news magazine with a story about America and Russia, one that had a picture of the new Russian leader, Yuri Andropov, on the cover.  We read it together.  It seemed that the people in both Russia and America were worried that the other country would start a nuclear war.  It all seemed so dumb to me.  I had learned about the awful things that had happened during World War II, so I thought that nobody would ever want to have another war.  I told Mom that she should write to Mr. Andropov to find out who was causing all the trouble.  She said, ‘Why don’t you write to him?’ So I did.”

Addressing the envelope, “Mr. Yuri Andropov, the Kremlin, Moscow, USSR,” she mailed the following:

Dear Mr. Andropov,

My name is Samantha Smith. I am 10 years old. Congratulations on your new job. I have been worrying about Russia and the United States getting into a nuclear war. Are you going to vote to have a war or not? If you aren’t please tell me how you are going to help to not have a war. This question you do not have to answer, but I would like it if you would. Why do you want to conquer the world or at least our country? God made the world for us to share and take care of. Not to fight over or have one group of people own it all. Please lets do what he wanted and have everybody be happy too.

Samantha Smith

Her letter was published in the Soviet newspaper Pravda, perhaps because Soviet officials found it so unusual and amusing.  Smith was happy to discover that her letter had been published but dissatisfied that she did not get a response. So, she sent a letter to the Soviet ambassador to the U.S. asking if Andropov would respond—which he did just months later:

Dear Samantha,

I received your letter, which is like many others that have reached me recently from your country and from other countries around the world.

It seems to me – I can tell by your letter – that you are a courageous and honest girl, resembling Becky, the friend of Tom Sawyer in the famous book of your compatriot Mark Twain. This book is well known and loved in our country by all boys and girls.

You write that you are anxious about whether there will be a nuclear war between our two countries. And you ask are we doing anything so that war will not break out.

Your question is the most important of those that every thinking man can pose. I will reply to you seriously and honestly.

Yes, Samantha, we in the Soviet Union are trying to do everything so that there will not be war on Earth. This is what every Soviet man wants. This is what the great founder of our state, Vladimir Lenin, taught us.

Soviet people well know what a terrible thing war is. Forty-two years ago, Nazi Germany, which strove for supremacy over the whole world, attacked our country, burned and destroyed many thousands of our towns and villages, killed millions of Soviet men, women and children.

In that war, which ended with our victory, we were in alliance with the United States: together we fought for the liberation of many people from the Nazi invaders. I hope that you know about this from your history lessons in school. And today we want very much to live in peace, to trade and cooperate with all our neighbors on this earth—with those far away and those near by. And certainly with such a great country as the United States of America.

In America and in our country there are nuclear weapons—terrible weapons that can kill millions of people in an instant. But we do not want them to be ever used. That’s precisely why the Soviet Union solemnly declared throughout the entire world that never will it use nuclear weapons first against any country. In general we propose to discontinue further production of them and to proceed to the abolition of all the stockpiles on Earth.

It seems to me that this is a sufficient answer to your second question: ‘Why do you want to wage war against the whole world or at least the United States?’ We want nothing of the kind. No one in our country–neither workers, peasants, writers nor doctors, neither grown-ups nor children, nor members of the government–want either a big or ‘little’ war.

We want peace—there is something that we are occupied with: growing wheat, building and inventing, writing books and flying into space. We want peace for ourselves and for all peoples of the planet. For our children and for you, Samantha.

I invite you, if your parents will let you, to come to our country, the best time being this summer. You will find out about our country, meet with your contemporaries, visit an international children’s camp – Artek – on the sea. And see for yourself: in the Soviet Union, everyone is for peace and friendship among peoples.

Thank you for your letter. I wish you all the best in your young life.

Y. Andropov

As Mikhail Gorbachev recalls: “It was the sincerity of Samantha’s letter that garnered attention. We understood at the time that people on both sides of the ocean were very worried, and they wanted to make sure that their concern was felt by the leaders of USSR and USA. An American girl was able to express that in her letter.” 

Samantha and her family departed for their two-week trip to the USSR, visiting Moscow, Leningrad, and a “pioneer” camp for children on Crimea. Media crews from all over the world filmed her swimming with the Soviet kids at camp and touring Red Square. The cheerful and articulate young girl was unlike the “armed to the teeth Americans” that often appeared in Soviet political cartoons; Soviet citizens were glued to the TV screens following her every move. For many, Samantha and her family put a human face on the U.S., while many Americans got a rare glimpse of the USSR.

When Samantha and her father were killed in a plane crash in 1985, the heads of the two most powerful nations on earth sent condolences to her mother, Jane. She was featured on Soviet commemorative stamps and memorials and had everything from a mountain to an asteroid being named after her.

Source: www.samanthasmith.info

An Ancient Greek Yearbook

You’re looking at an ancient Greek yearbook, which was rediscovered earlier this month after over 130 years in storage at a Scottish museum.

It lists the names of 31 graduates from the ephebate, a year of military and civic training undertaken around age 18 to prepare for life as adults. It ends with “of Caesar”, referring to emperor Claudius, the fourth ruler of the Roman Empire (41-54), indicating they graduated during his reign. (Greece had been under Roman rule for over a century, though its traditions—like the ephebate—remained largely unchanged.)

Among the names clearly visible on the marble are Atlas, Dionysos, Theogas, Elis, Zopyros Tryphon, Antypas, and Apollonios; many have never been seen before, and some are nicknames, such as Theogas for Theogenes and Dionysas for Dionysodoros. Using shortened names was unusual, and likely indicates that the graduates had a sense of camaraderie; the full class was probably about 100 men, and the use of nicknames—along with terms like “co-ephebes”, or “co-cadets”—indicates that this inscription was made by classmates who had become friends and wanted to remember each other.

According to Dr. Peter Liddel, professor of Greek history and epigraphy at the University of Manchester, who managed the discovery, this is also the earliest evidence of noncitizens taking part in the ephebate in this period—suggesting a greater level of social and cultural integration in the empire than previously thought.

“This is a really interesting inscription”, says Dr. Liddel, “partly because it’s new but also because it gives us new names and a bit of insight into the sort of access or accessibility of this institution which is often associated with elite citizens.”

It is unknown where the list was displayed, but it could have been somewhere public, such as a community space or gymnasium where the young men trained.

Dr. Liddel said: “It was made to create a sense of camaraderie and comradeship among this group of people who had been through a rigorous training program together and felt like they were part of a cohort.”

“It’s the ancient equivalent of a graduate school yearbook,” he reveals, “although this is one which is created by a number of individuals who wanted to feel like they had come together as friends.”

“It’s the ancient equivalent of a graduate school yearbook,” he reveals, “although this is one which is created by a number of individuals who wanted to feel like they had come together as friends.”

Another example of ancient peoples being more familiar and relatable than we would think!

Sources: Greek Reporter, NPR

The Hero of the Two Worlds

At last, we come to the namesake of Lafayette Square, the Marquis de Lafayette. His contributions to the American Revolution prompted widespread praise and admiration across both sides of the Atlantic, earning him a public square in front of the White House, honorary U.S. citizenship (shared by only seven others), and the moniker, “Hero of the Two Worlds”.

Born into a wealthy French family, Lafayette came from a long line of distinguished soldiers and military leaders; he followed in their footsteps and became an officer at age 13. Despite his noble birth, he truly believed in the Enlightenment ideals of liberty, human rights, and civic virtue, and was inspired by the American Revolution—enough to purchase a ship and sail across the Atlantic to volunteer for the cause.

Lafayette’s energy and enthusiasm impressed those around him, as did his well-needed military experience; Benjamin Franklin vouched for him, while George Washington bonded with him almost immediately (and the feeling was mutual). The young Frenchman was made a major general at age 19 and made part of Washington’s staff; he followed the American commander everywhere, enduring the same hardships and many of the famous (and often arduous battles). Lafayette was wounded during the Battle of Brandywine—the second-longest one-day battle, at 11 hours—but managed to rally an organized retreat that saved numerous lives; Washington cited him for bravery and asked Congress to give him command of American troops. He went on to serve with distinction in several battles, even beating numerically superior forces.

Lafayette’s biggest contribution came in the middle of the war, when he sailed home to lobby for more French support; his efforts resulted in decisive aid to the revolution, from thousands of troops to most of our ammunition. He returned to America in 1780 and was given senior positions in the Continental Army. In 1781, he delayed British forces so American and French forces could position themselves for the decisive siege of Yorktown—the battle that ended the war.

Lafayette returned to France and sought to bring the same changes and freedoms he helped usher in America. After forming the National Constituent Assembly—roughly equivalent to the U.S. Continental Congress—he helped to write the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen with the help of Thomas Jefferson. Inspired by the Declaration of Independence, it is one of history’s oldest and still-current civil rights documents, establishing basic principles of democracy. Lafayette even advocated an end to slavery, something that was still beyond the pale to most fellow revolutionaries. He spent the rest of his life trying to chart a middle course between the radicals of both sides of the revolution.

In 1824, President James Monroe invited the now-elderly Lafayette to the United States as the nation’s guest; he visited all 24 states at the time and was met with large crowds and applause everywhere he went. His integrity never wavered, and during France’s July Revolution of 1830, he declined an offer to become the French dictator.

The Hungarian Father of U.S. Cavalry

The first thing to greet me at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, D.C., is this very dramatic statue of a horseman waving an American flag.

As it turns out, this colonel Michael Kovats was a Hungarian nobleman who is considered one of the “Founding Fathers of U.S. cavalry”—and who gave his life for the cause of American independence.

Like many of the foreigners who fought in the American Revolution, Kovats was a highly experienced soldier motivated by both adventurism and a genuine belief in the universal cause of liberty. As soon as learned of the war, he ventured to meet the U.S. ambassador in France, Benjamin Franklin, and offered him his sword along with a letter written in Latin:

Most Illustrious Sir:

Golden freedom cannot be purchased with yellow gold.

I, who have the honor to present this letter to your Excellency, am also following the call of the Fathers of the Land, as the pioneers of freedom always did. I am a free man and a Hungarian. As to my military status I was trained in the Royal Prussian Army and raised from the lowest rank to the dignity of a Captain of the Hussars, not so much by luck and the mercy of chance than by most diligent self discipline and the virtue of my arms. The dangers and the bloodshed of a great many campaigns taught me how to mold a soldier, and, when made, how to arm him and let him defend the dearest of the lands with his best ability under any conditions and developments of the war.

I now am here of my own free will, having taken all the horrible hardships and bothers of this journey, and I am willing to sacrifice myself wholly and faithfully as it is expected of an honest soldier facing the hazards and great dangers of the war … I beg your Excellency, to grant me a passport and a letter of recommendation to the most benevolent Congress. I am expecting companions who have not yet reached here …

At last, awaiting your gracious answer, I have no wish greater than to leave forthwith, to be where I am needed most, to serve and die in everlasting obedience to Your Excellency and the Congress.

Most faithful unto death,

Bordeaux, January 13th, 1777. Michael Kovats de Fabricy

P.S.: As yet I am unable to write fluently in French or English and had only the choice of writing either in German or Latin; for this I apologize to your Excellency.

Talk about a class act! (And he sure as hell looked the part too).

Kovats’ commitment was a huge win for the colonists: The hussars he trained and commanded were some of the finest light calvary in Europe, if not the world; calvary were the elite units of the day, capable of great mobility, shock tactics, and even psychological warfare.

Along with Polish general Casimir Pulaski—who is likewise considered the father of the U.S. cavalry—Kovats reformed American horsemen along the lines of the elite hussars. The resulting “Pulaski’s Legion” was one of the few calvary units in the Continental Army.

Unfortunately, both the legion and its two founders would be short-lived: Like most wars at the time, diseases decimated the troops as much as actual warfare. Following a long march to the south, where the British were shifting their focus, the legion was weakened by smallpox; it arrived as the decisive British siege of Charleston, South Carolina was underway.

Given the desperation of the situation, the legion engaged the attackers in an effort to lift the worsening siege but were promptly cut down—this was the era when calvary were starting to become obsolete in face of ever-improving firearms. Kovats and Pulaski were killed leading the charge to inspire their men; one British major described the force as “the best calvary the rebels ever had”.

True to his word, the Hungarian nobleman—who did not have a dog in the fight—nonetheless remained faithful to the American cause until the very end, though he is little remembered today. (Pulaski, at the very least, was made an honorary U.S. citizen, one of only eight with such an honor).

Fittingly, the Citadel Military College in Charleston has part of its campus named after him.

The Spanish Noble Who Became an Honorary U.S. Citizen

Only eight people have ever been granted honorary U.S. citizenship, which is reserved only for those of exceptional merit; this statue in Washington, D.C. that I stumbled upon is dedicated to one of those privileged few: Bernardo de Galvez, a Spanish military leader and colonial governor who provided decisive aid to the American Revolution.

A career soldier since age 16, Gálvez was a veteran of several wars across Europe, the Americas, and North Africa. While governor of Spanish Louisiana—a vast territory spanning much of the Midwest—he supported the Patriots and their French allies by facilitating crucial supply lines and interfering with British operations in the Gulf Coast. Gálvez achieved half-a-dozen victories on the battlefield, most notably retaking West Florida from the British. His efforts eliminated the British naval presence in the Gulf and prevented American rebels in the south from being encircled; subsequently, Galvez had a hand in drafting the Treaty of Paris that ended the war and granted American independence.

Gálvez’s actions aided the American war effort and made him a hero to both Spain and the newly independent United States. Congress immediately planned to hang his portrait in the Capitol, albeit only doing so in 2014; that year, he was conferred honorary citizenship for being a “hero of the Revolutionary War who risked his life for the freedom of the United States people and provided supplies, intelligence, and strong military support to the war effort.”

While largely forgotten in the United States, Gálvez remains in high esteem among many Americans, particularly in southern and western states; several places bear his name, including Galveston, Texas and Galvez, Louisiana, and Galvez Day is a holiday in parts of Pensacola (formerly West Florida).

The (French) Hero of Yorktown

A (poor) selfie with my bro, Rochambeau (sorry).

It might seem odd that the capital of the world’s first modern republic would have a prominent statue to a French nobleman facing the White House. But we probably owe the very existence of the United States to Frenchmen like Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau.

In fact, the statue is located on Lafayette Square, named after another French hero of the American Revolution (whom I’ll get to later)!

To understand Rochambeau’s significance, you need only go down the street to the U.S. Capitol. Among the four paintings prominently displayed in the Rotunda is the Surrender of Lord Cornwallis by John Trumbull (known as the “Painter of the Revolution” for his many iconic depictions of the war and period; you’ll recognize many of them if you look him up).

The painting shows the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781, which marks the decisive end of the American Revolution. Flanked on one side of the defeated general are Americans carrying the Stars and Stripes, while the other side depicts French soldiers beneath the banner of France’s monarchy. These troops were commanded by Washington and Rochambeau, respectively, and are portrayed with equal prominence and dignity.

Trumbull’s decision to depict French and U.S. forces as equal combatants reflected widespread acknowledgement that the U.S. owed its independence to the Kingdom of France. (Ironically, the world’s first modern republic owes its existence to one of history’s oldest and most absolute monarchies—more so than that of Great Britain!)

Having cut his teeth in several battles in Europe, Rochambeau was selected to lead the French Expeditionary Forces sent to aid the Americans in the revolution—the only time an allied military force served on U.S. soil for an extended period of time. Almost as many French troops took part in the final battle as Americans, and one of the two military columns that secured victory was entirely French.

Meanwhile, the French Navy had kept British ships from coming to Cornwallis’ aid, prompting him to surrender—and the British to sue for peace.

Little wonder why you see so many French names in D.C. (more on that later).

The Geneva Convention I.D. Card

There are many subtle and often-unseen ways that international law is integrated in our domestic systems and institutions. Case in point: I have worked on some cases involving U.S. servicemembers, and noticed they are each issued a “Geneva Convention I.D. Card”.

In compliance with the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, the U.S. requires all employees of the Department of Defense, from combat troops to civilian staff, to carry a card such as those pictured below (an older and newer sample); the card must include the bearer’s name, ranks, affiliation, and other biographical details.

The idea is to facilitate the fair and ethical treatment of prisoners of war by allowing whoever has captured them to determine whether they’re part of the regular armed forces subject to protection, are civilians rather troops, etc.; it also helps provide a clear record of who has been killed, imprisoned, or missing.

The idea of treating captured enemies fairly sounds quaint and absurd; but the drafters of the Geneva Conventions, in a display of calculated pragmatism, recognized that ending war was going to be a longer and more difficult goal than trying to restraint its worst impulses.

If nothing else, a Geneva Convention I.D. Card serves a practical purpose, and like most areas of international law we have chosen to abide by, it is the practical benefits that often motivate us; see similar treaties that sent universal standards for mail, shipping, airlines, passports, etc.

A Sense of Survivor’s Guilt

It always feels weird to share my thoughts, news, and even silly memes about life-shattering events happening worldwide. Folks who are alive and real as me or my loved ones are suffering to a degree I literally can’t imagine, simply because I won the birth lottery. I have the luxury of casually discussing and debating the cold hard historical and geopolitical facts behind events that kill, or have killed, millions. It is a weird feeling.

It is easy to feel powerless in the face of these global tragedies, which are so far removed from us both politically and geographically—after all, we could barely stop our own government from its deadly adventurism abroad, much less autocrats around the world like Putin. All I can do is laugh, learn, and spread the word, I suppose.

So, to some extent, I think it’s a coping mechanism: Many times, I find myself being weighed down by the state of the world or my society. All of a sudden, the reality of the human condition will seize me, and I’ll start to feel bad about both the suffering itself and my powerless to do anything about it.

Yet, years of consuming so much history and news has left me with some level cognitive dissonance towards the pain and suffering that are the norm for the vast majority of humans who ever lived. I read about wars, genocides, and brave but doomed rebellions—past and present—with detachment: I know these things happened—and continue to happen—to real people, but it feels more like I am reading a story rather than events that happened to people like me.

What was very real to the soldiers sent off to die for their leaders’ wars, and for the civilians caught in the middle, is just interesting bedtime reading or a quick and easy social media post. It’s all in some sense unreal, whether it’s acute crises like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine (to name just a few), or banal day-to-day tragedies like thousands of kids dying from a first-world inconvenience like diarrhea.

To some extent this can’t be helped: Psychological phenomena like “psychic numbing” and the “identifiable victim effect” make us more inclined to care about people who look like us, are related to us, or form part of a small community. This makes sense given that we’ve been tens of thousands of years living in small, interrelated clans, on which we depended to survive.

By contrast, feeling an emotional connection and moral obligation to an ever-larger, more diverse set of strangers—from tribe to city to country and now the world—happened gradually over just the last few centuries (and accelerated only two hundred years ago), which is a blip in our 200,000-year history.

The idea that I should feel sad for millions of Americans I know thing about—let alone Yemenis, Afghans, Ukrainians, etc.—would have been alien not that long ago. Who are these people to me? Why should their suffering matter? It’s a mark of progress in our species that more and more people take into account the wellbeing of total strangers they will never meet or know (though we clearly still have a long way to go).

I think feeling disconnected from a world of billions of strangers remains a reasonable survival mechanism: Imagine what it would be like to truly feel the pain and sadness of billions of people as saliently as we do our own or our loved ones. How would we function in the face of nonstop exposure to human suffering and tragedy, which has never been more frequent, tangible, and personal, thanks to social media, smartphones, and widespread Internet access? (And to think the world is actually less violent than at any point in human history—imagine social media in the Middle Ages or World War II?

Over two centuries ago, Adam Smith posed an illustrative example of this phenomenon: If someone in his native Britain learned that a world away, millions of Chinese died from an earthquake, their response would be something like, “Wow, that’s awful” and then go about their day; if that same person learned their pinky was going to be amputated, it would haunt them for the rest of the day and well after.

Smith’s point is more salient than ever. Throughout any given day, I’ll get news notifications about all sorts of horrible things happening around the world, and I’ll recognize it for what it is—tragic and awful—but immediately move on with my life, and even laugh at the funny meme or text message that follows. It speaks to my sheer good luck that I am that small fraction of humanity for which this level of suffering is merely a meme, notification, or interesting historical reading.

I guess all we can do is try and make more and more people be as lucky as we are to not know starvation, war, abject poverty, and oppression. I don’t know how we do that; but expanding our circle of moral concern and compassion is definitely a start.

The Center of Our Galaxy

You’re looking at the first image of the object at the heart of our galaxy, Sagittarius A—pronounced “Sagittarius A-Star”, and abbreviated Sgr A—courtesy of over 300 researchers from more than 80 institutions across the world.

The image was produced by a global research team called the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) Collaboration, using observations from a worldwide network of radio telescopes, some of which are among the most powerful scientific instruments ever built.

The global scale of the project reflects massive ambition: The nature of what laid at the heart of our galaxy was uncertain, though a black hole was widely suspected.

Mustering humanity’s best and brightest astronomers, and its most potent tools, we now know for certain it is a supermassive black hole, the largest type of its class.

To get a sense of its scale—however possible that is—Sgr A* is four million times more massive than the Sun, which is one million times bigger than Earth. The center of the galaxy is 27,000 lightyears away, with just one lightyear stretching close to 6 TRILLION miles.
So yeah, this was a hell of an achievement, and it took hundreds of people using purpose-built tools and supercomputers over the span of five years to confirm it.

Black holes have gravity so immense that not even light can escape—hence why images of them are so hard to capture. (As @voxdotcom put it, trying to get a photo of a quarter in Los Angeles from Washington, D.C.)

Hence, we cannot the black hole itself, but only the glowing gas and other material swirling around its massive gravitation; the stuff that falls into the black hole is unseen and basically erased from the observable universe.

This is a groundbreaking moment in our understanding of these mysterious, dark giants, which are thought to reside at the center of most galaxies. Indeed, the EHT is also responsible for the very first image of a black hole, M87*, at the center of the more distant Messier 87 galaxy over 53 million lightyears away.

Such incredible achievements are only possible with collaboration and curiosity that transcends political and cultural boundaries—something we need now more than ever.