Echoes of the Roman Empire

The more you read about the history and politics of Rome, the more you realize that America follows the Roman example far more closely than just architecture and Latin terminology; even the word “senate” roughly translates from Latin to “council of elders” — an apt description of the generation gap between those with political power and everyone else (though to both the Greeks and the Romans, this was not a bad thing; age signified experience after all).

Read some of the descriptions of Rome’s political system by historians like Adrian Goldsworthy and Richard Miles with today’s America in mind.

The Romans valued military service above all else. It was seen as both a noble obligation of citizenship and as a way to drum up glory and thus political support. Over time, Roman politicians began to stress their personal military service — or at least their support of the military — to get elected. Political factions increasingly supported military conquests as a way to get popular approval, distract the masses with the glory of triumph, or to prove they’ve got the chops to govern.

Ironically, this deification of the military — for which the U.S. is unique among established democracies — would contribute to Rome’s downfall, as one general or soldier after another would seize power against venal politicians by capitalizing on their popularity following a victory or distinguished war record (only to of course become venal politicians themselves).

Roman high office was notoriously and openly cliquish. Only the same handful of wealthy, intermarried families had a shot at power. The Romans believed that merit and achievement passed on from generation to generation, prompting politicians to emphasize the accomplishment or one past or distant relative or another (which was easy to do since they all intermarried and could thus point to -someone- to do the trick). This had the obvious effect of creating political dynasties that made it very hard for so called “new men” to enter into politics, or at least the highest offices. Eventually, when the republic and later the empire crumbled under the weight of incompetent and corrupt politicians, these new men — now emphasizing their nonpolitical nature and success in business or the military — capitalized on the public’s disgust with established politicians, only to become part of the problem in the end.

Politics in Rome was highly personal, given the aforementioned dominance of families. Politicians openly curried favor with certain families for support, and both sides expected something in return. For this reason, Rome did not have political parties per se; there was little in the way of established policy or consistently ideology, as politicians just went with whatever would advance their interests or those of their allies or clients. Alliances shifted constantly; everyone invoked public service and the need to serve the public, but it was an open secret that politics was just a means to an end of power, wealth, and glory. Again, none of this was unusual; the Romans openly tried to work within this system to their own ends.

During emergencies, most commonly war, the Romans suspended politics as usual and appointed a “temporary” solution in the form of the “dictatorship”, a Latin term the describes a single individual’s ability to take control — i.e. “dictate” — policy for the good of the republic. Though the office typically lasted just six months, the famous case of Julius Cesar, who was alleged to have sought permanent dictator status, shows the age-old problem of balancing liberty and security.

Even Roman culture mirrored our own: The Romans stressed the material wealth, prosperity, and relative freedom that came with becoming a Roman citizen. They advertised to citizens and foreigners alike the sophisticated baths, restaurants (possibly a Roman invention), and other amenities unique to Roman life. They even developed a sophisticated credit system, not unlike today’s credit cards, to allow average people to ostensibly benefit.

Comparing America to the Roman Republic and Empire is a cliche among political scientists — but clearly for good reason I think.

The Arab Queen Who Took on the Roman Empire

I’ve recently become fascinated with the ancient historical figure of Zenobia, a third century Arab queen who is the only woman to almost rule the Roman Empire.

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An idealized portrayal titled Queen Zenobia’s Last Look upon Palmyra, by Herbert Gustave Schmalz (1888)

Zenobia came to power as regent to her ten year old son, who inherited the throne of Palmyra, an ancient Mesopotamian city that was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in the ancient world. (You may recall it was targeted by ISIS for destruction, which led to literally millennia of history being lost.)

By the time it came under Roman control in the first century, Palmyra was already a prosperous and cosmopolitan city, mostly Arab but with large minorities of Greeks, Armeans, and other ethnic groups. Multiple languages were spoken, a variety of faiths were tolerated, and there was even a Greco-Roman style senate that ran various civil affairs. Its incredible wealth and beauty—including cutting edge urban planning and numerous monuments and public works—earned it the moniker “pearl of the desert”. Situated at the crossroads between the Roman Mediterranean and the Western Asia, its caravans went across Europe, Africa, and even the Silk Road, making it a huge asset to Rome—and allowing its rulers uniquely significant autonomy under Roman imperial rule.

In fact, by the time Zenobia became the de facto queen of Palmyra in 267, the desert city-state had essentially become an allied power rather than a province; not only did it bring commercial goods and revenue, but it offered protection against unruly Arab tribes and eastern rivals, most of all the old nemesis, the Persians. Hence when the Roman Empire began to unravel during its “Crisis of the Third Century”, Zenobia apparently saw an opportunity for her people to attain well deserved greatness.

The Palmyrene Empire she founded spanned most of the Roman east, from central Turkey into western Iraq and down to Egypt (then one of the richest provinces of Rome). While she declared both herself and her son as emperors of all of Rome, she was never able to extend her rule past these territories, though her conquest of Egypt and managing to keep the Persian at bay (who had detected Roman weakness) had been impressive enough. Zenobia was definitely a product of her city: She spoke four languages, received a comprehensive education, and was steeped in the latest philosophy and science. Her reign was characterized by a policy of religious tolerance and intellectualism. While she worshipped a pantheon of Semitic gods, she was familiar with other faiths and cultures, and accommodated all religious groups, from the small but controversial cult known as Christianity, to the Jews who had long been in conflict with Rome. She invited scientists, philosophers, and other thinkers from all over the known world to her royal court, seeking to turn Palmyra into the next Athens.

While her empire barely lasted three years before it was subdued by Rome—her ultimate fate remaining unknown—Zenobia left a lasting legacy.

The Augustan History, a fourth-century Roman collection of biographies of emperors and usurpers lamented that “all shame is exhausted, for in the weakened state of the [Roman] commonwealth. . . a foreigner, Zenobia by name . . . proceeded to cast about her shoulders the imperial mantle [and ruled] longer than could be endured from one of the female sex.” She is also a point of pride to the people of Syria (where the Palmyrene kingdom was located) and remains a role model to women across the Arab world and beyond. Even Edward Gibbon, the famous seminal historian of the Roman world, remarked that few women in history were as influential as her.

COVID-19 and the Impartial Judgments of Nations

With the world responding to the pandemic in a variety of ways—and many countries learning from each other or from the U.N. World Health Organisation (itself made up of experts all over the world)—I am reminded of the largely forgotten words of James Madison, the architect of the U.S. Constitution.

This darling of patriots and conservatives—the Federalist Society uses his silhouette as its logo—once said that “no nation was so enlightened that it could ignore the impartial judgments of other nations and still expect to govern itself wisely and effectively.”

In the Federalist Papers, which were published to promote ratification of the Constitution, he emphasized the importance of respecting global public opinion:

An attention to the judgment of other nations is important to every government for two reasons: the one is, that, independently of the merits of any particular plan or measure, it is desirable, on various accounts, that it should appear to other nations as the offspring of a wise and honorable policy; the second is, that in doubtful cases, particularly where the national councils may be warped by some strong passion or momentary interest, the presumed or known opinion of the impartial world may be the best guide that can be followed. What has not America lost by her want of character with foreign nations? And how many errors and follies would she not have avoided, if the justice and propriety of her measures had in every instance been previously tried by the light in which they would probably appear to the unbiased part of mankind?

This was at a time when the U.S. was virtually the only republic in the world. Even the most patriotic and liberty-loving Founders recognized that whatever the political or cultural differences between the nations of the world, mere pragmatism should permit us to take whatever ideas or resources we can.

Consider that unlike other nations, we declined to use the W.H.O.’s test kits. Back in January, over a month before the first COVID-19 case, the Chinese published information on this new mysterious virus. Within a week, German scientists had produced the first diagnostic test. By the end of February, the U.N. shipped out tests to 60 countries.

As I’ve said ad naseum, global cooperation is not merely idealistic or Utopian: It’s the sober reality of living in a globalized society where we face problems that affect all humans, regardless of where they happen to be born. Even in the 18th century, our political founders and leaders understood this. We ignore it at our peril.

International Mother Language Day

In honor of International Mother Language Day—created to promote linguistic diversity and preservation—check out this beautiful and very detailed chart of the world’s languages. A lot of the data might surprise you!

It’s too big too fit here, but below is a little snapshot to give you an idea.

Here are some fun and colorful language infographics that do fit here!

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As the name suggests, the massive Indo-European family includes every language from northern India through Iran and nearly all of Europe between Portugal and Russia (with Hungarian, Estonian, and Finnish being notable exceptions).

The language with the most speakers is, probably not surprisingly, English; about 15 percent of humanity can speak!

However, the vast majority of people who speak English learn it as a second language (as you might have noticed with the top infographic). Here are the languages with the most native speakers compared to second language (2L) speakers:

Here’s an interesting breakdown from the source:

Nearly 43% of the world’s population is bilingual, with the ability to switch between two languages with ease.

From the data, second language (L2) speakers can be calculated by looking at the difference between native and total speakers, as a proportion of the total. For example, 66% of English speakers learned it as a second language.

Swahili surprisingly has the highest ratio of L2 speakers to total speakers—although it only has 16 million native speakers, this shoots up to 98 million total speakers. Overall, 82% of Swahili speakers know it as a second language.

Swahili is listed as a national or official language in several African countries: Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. It’s likely that the movement of people from rural areas into big cities in search of better economic opportunities, is what’s boosting the adoption of Swahili as a second language.

Indonesian is another similar example. With a 78% proportion of L2 speakers compared to total speakers, this variation on the Malay language has been used as the lingua franca across the islands for a long time. In contrast, only 17% of Mandarin speakers know it as a second language, perhaps because it is one of the most challenging languages to learn

Tragically, the U.N. has good reason to dedicate a day for the preservation of languages: The 100th most common language is “Sanaani Spoken Arabic”, spoken primarily in Yemen by around 11 million people. Yet there are a total of 7,111 languages still spoken today, meaning the vast majority of them—all but 100—have less than 11 million speakers.

In fact, approximately 3,000 all languages (40 percent) are at risk of being lost, or are already in the process of dying out today. (By one estimate, a language dies every two weeks.) Fortunately, growing awareness and advanced technology are helping to document and preserve these unique aspects of human existence, and all the unique ideas, stories, and concepts they each contain.

When Cities are as Powerful as Nations

Before the emergence of the political units we now call countries, humans organized themselves in a variety of other ways, ranging from bands and tribes, to chiefdoms, kingdoms, and empires. Most of these entities were not proper countries as we think of them today, lacking a cohesive political or national identity, a firm boundary, or much in the way of an organized government.

The ancient societies of Egypt, Greece, China, Mesoamerica, the Indus River Valley, and Mesopotamia were among the exceptions, which is why they are recognized as “cradles of civilization”, places where the first features of what we consider modern society emerged: agriculture, urban development, social stratification, complex communication systems, infrastructure, and so on.

The urban character of civilization is what I find most interesting, because cities were where power, both political and economic, was concentrated. Urban centers were the places from which rulers asserted their authorities. Cities are where democracy and republicanism took root, and where civic engagement survived through the Middle Ages in places like Florence, Venice, Krakow,and Hamburg.

This dynamic has changed little in the 21st century; in fact, it is arguably stronger and more pronounced than ever, as globalization, population growth, and advanced technology come together to create metropolises as populous, wealthy, and powerful as entire countries.

The following map, courtesy of CityLab, draws on data from 2015 to prove the incredible growth and prestige of modern cities (the data for cities comes from the Brookings Institution’s Redefining Global Cities report, while the data for nations is from the World Bank’s World Development Indicators; the map was compiled by Taylor Blake of the Martin Prosperity Institute).

A few highlights noted by the article:

  • Tokyo, the world’s largest metro economy with $1.6 trillion in GDP-PPP, is just slightly smaller than all of South Korea. Were it a nation, Tokyo would rank as the 15th largest economy in the world.
  • New York City’s $1.5 trillion GDP places it among the world’s twenty largest economies, just a tick under those of Spain and Canada.
  • Los Angeles’ $928 billion GDP is bit smaller than Australia’s, with $1.1 trillion.
  • Seoul ($903 billion) has a bigger economy than Malaysia ($817 billion).
  • London’s $831 billion GDP makes its economic activity on par with the Netherlands ($840 billion).
  • Paris, with $819 billion in GDP, has a bigger economy than South Africa, $726 billion.
  • The $810 billion economy of Shanghai outranks that of the Philippines, with $744 billion.

To put things in further perspective: if you added up the ten largest metropolitan areas, you’d get an economy of over $9.5 trillion, bigger than the Japanese and German economies combined. Add the next ten largest metros, and you get the second largest economy in the world, at $14.6 trillion, less than four trillion shy of the U.S.

In other words: Cities really are the new power centers of the global economy—the platforms for innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic growth. But when it comes to fiscal and political power, they remain beholden to increasingly anachronistic and backward-looking nation-states, which has become distressingly obvious with the rise of Trumpism in the United States and populism around the world.

The greatest challenge facing us today is how to ensure that global cities have the economic, fiscal, and political power to govern themselves and to continue to be a force for innovation and human progress.


Very relevant question as the balance of power both within and between countries shifts to certain global cities, especially in the developing world.

What are your thoughts?

Ancient Links Between Rome and Sri Lanka

It never ceases to amaze me how well connected and globalized the ancients were. We think of globalization as a thoroughly modern phenomenon, yet the seeds of it were planted centuries or even millennia ago, where global connections would have seemed impossible. 

As Science reports:

Visit Mantai, nestled into a bay in northwestern Sri Lanka, and today you’ll see nothing but a solitary Hindu temple overlooking the sea. But 1500 years ago, Mantai was a bustling port where merchants traded their era’s most valuable commodities. Now, a study of ancient plant remains reveals traders from all corners of the world—including the Roman Empire—may have visited or even lived there.

Mantai was a hub on the ancient trade networks that crisscrossed the Indian Ocean and connected the distant corners of Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. The port town flourished between 200 B.C.E. and 850 C.E. During that time, it would have been a nexus for the spice trade, which ferried Indonesian cloves and Indian peppercorns to Middle Eastern and Roman kitchens.

[…]

The team also found remains that could link the port city to the ancient Mediterranean world—processed wheat grains dated to 100 to 200 C.E. and grape seeds dated to 650 to 800 C.E. Neither crop can grow in Sri Lanka’s wet, tropical climate, so they had to be imported, possibly from as far as Arabia or the Roman world. Kingwell-Banham says her team is studying the chemical isotopes absorbed by the plants to determine where they were grown.

But no matter their precise origin, the coexistence of rice and wheat is evidence of Mantai’s “cosmopolitan cuisine,” in which both local and foreign foods were eaten, she says. The discovery of wheat and grapes in Mantai “is entirely new,” and shifts the focus on goods transported from South Asia to the Roman world, to goods that went in the other direction,” Coningham says.


While there is no evidence that Roman merchants or other travelers lived in what is today Sri Lanka, it is certainly not out of the realm of possibility: just a few years ago, remains were unearthed in London that appear to be of Chinese origin — and date back to between the third and fifth centuries C.E., when it was the Roman city of Londonium. 

The International Space Station

One of Wikipedia’s latest featured photos: the International Space Station (ISS), taken in 2011 by Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli from a departing Russian Soyuz spacecraft, while the ISS was docked Space Shuttle Endeavor. It is the largest human-made body in low Earth orbit and can often be seen with the naked eye from Earth, making close to sixteen rotations around Earth daily.

First sent into low Earth orbit in 1998, the space station has been continuously inhabited since 2000; though the last component was fitted in 2011, the station continues to be expanded and developed, with more additions planned for next year. The ISS operated jointly by the American, Russian, Japanese, European, and Canadian space agencies, and has been visited by personnel from seventeen nations. Its ownership and use is governed by various treaties and agreements.

The station is divided primarily between the Russian Orbital Segment (ROS) and the U.S. Orbital Segment (USOS). It also consists of pressurized modules, external trusses, solar arrays, and a microgravity and space environment research lab where crew members conduct experiments in biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology, and many other fields. It is also suited for testing spacecraft and equipment required for lunar and Martian missions.

The ISS has been serviced by a variety of spacecraft, including the Russian Soyuz and Progress, the American Dragon and Cygnus, the Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle, and formerly the American Space Shuttle and the European Automated Transfer Vehicle. Since 2011, the Soyuz has been the sole means to transfer personnel, while the Dragon is the only provider of bulk cargo return to Earth.

The ISS is the ninth space station to be inhabited by crews, and only the second not to be Russian, following the Soviet / Russian Salyut, Almaz, and Mir stations and the American Skylab. It also surpassed the record for longest continuous human presence in low Earth orbit, having surpassed Mir’s record of nine years and 357 days.

The station is expected to operate until at least 2028, with the American portion being funded until 2025 and the Russian portion until 2024. Both Russia and America have discussed developing an ISS replacement, although NASA has yet to confirm for certain if this will happen; for their part, the Russians have proposed using elements of their section for a new Russian space station, OPSEK.

The ISS is an enduring, if limited, demonstration of the fruits of global cooperation in space exploration. Various other rising space powers, including Brazil, China, and India have also discussed joining the project, or devising their own space stations.

The Martyr of Palmyra

Three years ago on August 18th, Syrian archaeologist Khaleed al-Assad—no relation to the Syrian dictator—was publicly beheaded by ISIS for refusing to betray the location of ancient artifacts he had hidden. He was 83 years old.

Al-Assad was the head of antiquities for the ancient city of Palmyra, which was founded in the third millennium B.C.E. During his over forty-year career, he engaged in the excavations and restoration of the site, serving as its primary custodian and protector. He worked with archaeological missions around the world, and helped elevate Palmyra to a UNESCO World Heritage Site. He was so dedicated to his profession that he learned the ancient extinct language of Aramaic, helping to translate texts.

When ISIS took control of the Palmyra region, al-Asaad helped evacuate the museum and hide most of its artifacts, knowing that the fanatics would destroy them for being idolatrous, as they had done to so many others. After resisting torture intended to get him to reveal the hidden items, he was executed, and his decapitated body was strung up first in the town square, then in the ancient site. Among the list of “crimes” posted on his body was serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran”, and attending “infidel” conferences.

Al-Assad willingly paid for this dedication with his life, considering the ancient heritage of humanity—and standing up to thugs and zealots seeks to destroy it—to be worth the cost. He is survived by eleven children; six sons and five daughters, one of whom was named Zenobia after a famous queen of Palmyra.

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Wikimedia Commons

 

As Rich as Croesus

The Iron Age Kingdom of Lydia, located in what is today western Turkey, is hardly a household name, especially compared to its neighboring Greek and Persian contemporaries. Yet as far as we know, the Lydians were the first and only people to invent money as we know it: a standard, universally-accepted medium of exchange whose value is backed by a recognized authority.

Invented sometime in the seventh or sixth centuries B.C.E., Lydian coins were of high quality and stamped with the sigil or image of their ruler, allowing even the illiterate to recognize them as legitimate legal tender. They facilitated commerce between strangers by allowing them to make transactions without needing to barter goods or weigh some commodity like gold. Coins also made it far easier to travel long distances to buy things, rather than lug around cattle, gold, wheat, or some other valuable commodity. Continue reading