The Riddle of the Labyrinth

It’s all in the details.

Linear B

I read a book recently called The Riddle of the Labyrinth. It was written by Martha Fox. In 1900 tablets were unearthed with a language etched into the clay. This might as well have been an alien language. It resembled no alphabet that was ever seen – a list of swords, chariots and horse’s heads and assorted symbols composed an ancient language. If deciphered, if figured out, it would open up a society that flourished a 1000 years before the rise of Classical Greece.

This book is for the kid that lies below the surface. This is for the dreamer. Have you ever created your own code as a kid? Have you ever learned the Klingon language? Don’t laugh, there is a wonderful production of The Christmas Carol ( in the original Klingon) presented in Chicago every year. Have you ever wanted to jump through the Time Portal as in City on the Edge of Forever? If you’re a Star Trek fan you don’t have to ask. This book is for you.

You might think that deciphering an ancient language is the task for adventurers, but much more likely such things are solved by logical, precise and dogmatic individuals. Men and women with book jacket dust in their lungs, blackboard chalk on their fingers and probably more than a few cigarettes puffed late at night. In fact, I see no difference between those decoding an ancient language, and those that created the first computer language.   Which seems to me an amazing similar endeavor.

The heroes of this story are Arthur Evans, a charismatic Victorian Archaeologist, the bookish, college professor Alice Elizabeth Kober, and Michael Ventris, a young and dashing British architect. Ventris, considered an amateur, would be the one to break the code. Kober and Ventris each approached the task with almost systematic precision that has similarities to the mapping out of computer logic.

Take a look on page 35 and tell me that the “Man” tablet from Knossos does not bear an uncanny similarity to a print-out of Hexadecimal code. A language is a language, spoken or processed.

Just a thought.

This herculean task (forgive me…could not resist a classical reference) was completed in the age of pencil and paper, with no computer assistance available. I should point out that computers in the time of Kober and Ventris were just being developed and neither had the funds to build such a device to assist. The British government could afford it (the computer known as Colossus) but they weren’t lending it out to a part time code breaker named Ventris or a teacher of Latin in Brooklyn, New York. The only tools available were: chalk boards, memory, paper, and the ever popular spreadsheet.  Note – Alice Kober scissored 180,000 index cards from odd scraps of paper.

In addition what Ventris and Kober had were a strong familiarity of languages (ancient and modern) and what I consider the most important shared characteristic; they were human like the culture that created Linear B.

Linear B did not unearth some Pre-Homerian epic. However, to know something of these people can be surmised from 1,574 litres of barley, 14 ½ litres of cypreus, 115 litres of flour, 307 litres of olives, 19 litres of honey, 96 litres of fig, 1 ox, 26 rams 6 ewes. We can tell what they ate, who they were, what they harvesting and grew from the land. Gods were mentioned (not creations out of the imagination of Homer and Hesiod, but set down and documented generations before), and preparations for war (lists of armor, weapons and chariots).  The past opens up, we now know what they ate, who they worshipped, and what they stockpiled to do battle.

And sometimes there is a small spark, something to make you raise an eyebrow and think, “Wow, could it be?” Though it’s not mentioned in the Riddle of the Labyrinth (searched for it, couldn’t find it), it is mentioned in other texts.  It is said in the Pylos Linear-B tablets there was mentioned a very special commodity. La-Wi-ai-ai, ‘captives’. They are listed as ‘bath-pourers’, ‘ attendants’, and ‘textile workers’ raided and taken from islands south of Troy. Homer mentioned these islands as being raided by the Archeans: Lesbos, Kyros and Tenados (Illiad 9, 128-30, 270-72, 664-65, 11.625-270).

Could this be a confirmation of Troy itself? A confirmation by a royal scribe just having another day of copying lists? I’d like to think so. The kid in me likes to believe that a few strokes in the clay has confirmed that it all was true.

It’s all in the details.

 

A modern hero with a classical ilk

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A man named William H. Meredeth shot down a drone flying over his property.  He was charged with violating city ordinances.  One of them being ‘reckless endangerment.’ I would like all of you to consider that Mr. Meredeth is not only a hero, but one of the first to shoot the opening ‘salvo’ against the continuous chipping away at our right to privacy.

I am not a fan of guns, but after years in the Army I have developed an interest and a healthy respect for them. If Mr. Meredeth offered me a chance to shoot one of his shotguns on the range, I would happily accept.

Mr. Meredeth’s has few faults as far as I’m concerned.   He is a ‘man of action’ if there ever was one. For one thing, he cut through the legal morass that he would have had to suffer to stop the intruder on his property. How do you prove ownership of a drone? How do you prove its intentions when it hovers anywhere from 50 to 100 feet over your property? How do you stop a drone from flying over your property? How do you stop it from peeking in through your window?

Answer: You don’t.

As far as I’m concerned the owner and operator of the drone, was equal to any ‘Peeping Tom.’ Mr. Meredeth is a parent with two daughters.  How is he suppose to know the drone’s intentions?

Mr. Meredeth is brave. He cut right through any type of wrangling he would have to go through to get satisfaction and ‘shot’ right to the center of the problem. He brought it down with some buckshot. When the owners showed up and asked if he had shot down their ‘toy’ he confessed.  The owner was angry, and brought some friends.  Meredeth escorted them off his property with a well-placed threat, and with the fact he was armed.  However, Meredeth found himself facing charges in court.  By the way, the drone cost a whopping $1,800.

Part of the definition of the ancient definition of ‘hero’ is that the ‘hero’ has a flaw. Mr. Meredeth’s only flaw I can see is that he is ‘honest.’ Others would have said, “I don’t know how your contraption got shot.” Mr. Meredith is a modern representation of what it means to be a hero.

He is Achilles.

He is Hector.

He is Paris.

He is a private citizen protecting his privacy.

If a drone ever hangs outside my window, I’m taking a bat to it. If it’s too high, I’ll just borrow Mr. Meredeth’s shot gun.

The classical hero still lives.

The Blog lives!

The Ancient Rome Refocused Blog has now opened its gates.  Fresh troops have been placed at the walls.  As governor I welcome travelers and members of the Senate to partake of the podcasts and to join wholeheartedly in discussions and commentary on the Ancient World.  Please go the Facebook Group Page as well.  Fires have been put out.  Barbarians have been torn from the battlements, the shops are opening once more.   Notice our brave lads below demonstrating close order drill in the streets.

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Hafiz and Horace

From Conan Doyle’s A Case of Identity is a quote by Sherlock Holmes:

There is as much sense in Hafiz as in Horace, and as much knowledge of the world.”

Ali and mythos

mccrorie-iliad-oct-2012At first glance, I did a double take on this choice of photograph for another edition of The Illiad.  However, once I read Jonathan Gottschall’s book The Professor in the Cage, it made perfect sense.  Prof. Gottschall particpated in two years of training to be a cage fighter, which concluded with his own fight.  This is as close as your going to get to studying the psychology of gladiators.  Ali, then Cassius Clay is nothing short of Achilles himself.  As Homer sang his poetry of the ‘fleet-footed Achilles’, Ali sang his own praises.  Maybe when  you are alone in the ring, you have to do it yourself. 

 

 

Better far from all I see

To die fighting to be free

What more fitting end could be?

Better surely than in some bed

Where in broken health I’m led

Lingering until I’m dead

Better than with prayers and pleas

Or in the clutch of some disease

Wasting slowly by degrees

Better than of heart attack

Or some dose of drug I lack

Let me die by being Black

Better far that I should go

Standing here against the foe

Is the sweeter death to know

Better than the bloody stain

On some highway where I’m lain

Torn by flying glass and pane

Better calling death to come

Than to die another dumb

Muted victim in the slum

Better than of this prison rot

If there’s any choice I’ve got

Kill me here on the spot

Better far my fight to wage

Now while my blood boils with rage

Lest it cool with ancient age

Better vowing for us to die

Than to Uncle Tom and try

Making peace just to live a lie

Better now that I say my sooth

I’m gonna die demanding truth

While I’m still akin to youth

Better now than later on

Now that fear of death is gone

Never mind another dawn.

 

Note*  Forgot FIGHTCLUB!  Get a copy of The Professor in the Cage by Jonathan Gottschall.

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An audienceThe title of this photo is ‘An Audience in Athens During Agamemnon by Aeschylus. It was painted by Sir William Blake Richmond in 1884, and resides at the Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery/Bridgeman Art Library. The priest of Dionysus, judging the play, sits in a special throne in the middle of the front row of the theater. Note* I have to admit this painting makes me nervous, for it puts the viewer center stage.  I personally want to see this painting in person, for I have a feeling it is even more powerful when you stand before it.

Strategy by Lawrence Freedman

A title of a chapter catches my eye.

The Ten Plagues of Strategic Coercion.

StrategyAgain I dived into the stacks of my local Barnes and Noble. In the Ancient History section I found a book that I am not sure if it was intended to be there or not, but brings an interesting view: Strategy: A History by Lawrence Freedman.   You can imagine why it was there, for on the cover was a photo of the Trojan Horse from the recent Brad Pitt movie. Strategy has been with us for a long time.

And as for the ten plagues, strategy is simply using “current actions as part of a long term plan, grasping the potential of situations.” Who can say the plagues sent against the Egyptians was not an effective instrument of that long term plan of “…let my people go.”

The book covers many long term strategies from many eras, and is not limited to Jewish, Greek and Roman Epochs, and is a very interesting read.

Any one want to discuss the Fabian Strategy and how this may have assisted in the War of Independence?

Professor Freedman teaches War Studies at King’s College, and was the official historian of the Falklands War.   His book is the type of work you dive into, reread, underline, and ponder.

AND I did just that, making copious notes while being watched by the guy sitting next to me. He leaned over and pointed at the book. “Excellent choice, sir. Couldn’t pick a better book.”

He was gentlemen in his 50s, slightly gray, African American, and casually dressed like anyone else on a Sunday.   I said back…curious: “What drew you to the book? What’s your interest?”

He smiled and said, “Marine Officer, Infantry, 3 wars.”

“Thanks for the tip,” I said.

He graciously said back, “Well, you had the good insight to pick it up.”

Looking down at the book I noticed a reference to another book: Strategemata by Frontinus.   It seems strategy has been a subject of discussion for a long time. Written towards the end of the first century, this work seems to be connected to a lost work on military theory.

A daydream. 

Am I replaying something that has happened already in the past? Why not? The Romans had libraries. Little nooks contained scrolls of various works, and I am sure that Strategmata sat on such a shelf.

The myopic scribe was sitting on a bench reading by lamp light. He was scribbling his notes on papyrus, his stylus black with octopi ink.

“An outstanding work. An excellent choice,” The gray-haired gentlemen in toga said as he leaned over the scribe’s shoulder.

The scribe nodded and stopped writing. He was grateful the interruption. “What is your interest, sir?”

“Tribune of the Minervia Legion.”

“Oh.” 220px-Teubner_Frontinus_1888

Like I said, a long time.

John Chick, where are you man?

MythsToLiveByI am a fan of Joseph Campbell. Around a year ago I was at the Newberry Library in Chicago. This is a private library with unique collections just a few blocks off of Michigan Avenue.   I picked up MYTHS TO LIVE BY by Joseph Campbell. I had read HERO OF A THOUSAND FACES while I was in D.C. By the way, if you are a Star Wars fan reading HERO OF A THOUSAND FACES will seem very, very familiar.  It is any wonder that George Lucas was at an award dinner for Campbell, and is very clear his script for Star Wars takes Luke on a hero’s journey which is very clearly laid out in Campbell’s book.

MYTHS TO LIVE BY I have to admit the book is kind of mind-blowing. It seems to a study of mythology, religion and provides many modern comparisons. It is the type of book that you have to read over and over again, and may have to read a few other books to get the gist, unless you have a degree in Theology and are into Sanskrit, Kant, and quotes by Walt Whitman. However, for your classical scholars it starts for me on page 179: “The two greatest of war mythology in the West are, accordingly, the Iliad, and the Old Testament.”

When it comes to books, there is an added value that can never be experienced with a Kindle.  I am always thrilled to get a look into who may have read the book before. Welcome to the world of book archeology.  Clues are obtained by what people leave inside the book. This can come in the form of news articles dated and carefully folded to act as bookmarks, and those people who love to write in the margins.

Lets get our shovels out and let’s see what we can find. Ready?

Let’s check the copyright date: 1972.

It had three printings ending in 1973.   Note* I’m sure its been republished several times beyond that.

On the first page is a name: JOHN CHICK, 910 SOUTH MICHIGAN. Now I’m not quite sure what the following means, “6th

Does this mean 6th floor of the apartment building? If this means he was in the sixth grade, I would say that John Chick was very advanced for his age.

Note* There is also a post card stuffed in the pages. It was there when I bought the book for a dollar. Postmark is: Chicago, Il, 6 Dec 1972. It is address to Flip Myers at 2571 E. 71st Street in Chicago, Illinois. Could this be a 2nd reader after John Chick? Lisa sent it to Flip. Next to her name is a tiny flower drawn with pen. The text of the post car reads: “Flip: hey!! Lisa (flower drawing) P.S. (Having a good time; wish you were here.) The post card on the front has the MIRO painting titled Femme devant la fencire (Woman in front of a window). It is a definite abstraction by Miro.

It’s impossible for me to make this stuff up.

John Chick, who I assume is the last owner of the book, is an avid margin note taker. A very special breed that likes to put their thoughts in the margins. Chick underlines, and puts his thoughts down in the book using a blue pen. They range from:

“Utter concentration” next to a paragraph that mentions “…angelic skills….” of the craftsman of ancient Japan and China. To “How is society to function if all reach nirvana?” next to a paragraph on “…the extinguishing of ego”

On a paragraph on the lack of fatherly parenting he writes in a corner: “DEFINED A BOGUS PREJUDICED RAP”

John Chick then again makes his comments know by writing on top of page 243: “How can he say that coming out of a schizo trip would be good for all?”

I’m not sure what John Chick was thinking. The page is talking about circling the moon and is referencing the earth as an oasis.

I have to say John Chick LIKED THE BOOK. How do I know? On the last page is written the following.

“Does he (Campbell) know, that his book is a ‘trip’ in itself?”  In 1970s parlance…high praise.

I once read that history is defined as a “a note in the margin.”    

John…what are you up to now?  It’s nice to know that I’m not the first to be on this ‘dig.’   Some leave a shovel.  Some leave a footprint.  You left your thoughts.

Why did Paganism die?

I’m the type of guy that tears out an article out of the newspaper, folds it up, and carries it about in my wallet. It has to be special. The subject has to be something that pricks on some unexplainable level. The Wall Street Journal’s Weekend edition, Saturday/Sunday, March 21-22 2015 had a fascinating book review on two recently published works: Coming Out Christian in the Roman World by Douglas Boin and Pagans by James J. O’Donnell.   I fully intend to find these books and crack them open – however it’s really ‘something’ to find a newspaper review that provokes the same thoughts and sense of awe that I am sure the books will provide once I get a copy.   I just want to say that Peter Thonemann’s book review was outstanding, well-written, well-researched, and the article itself was a joy to read like remembering a college class that really opened your eyes to the nature of the world.

The title reads: Rome at the Crossroads. The article reviews two books that study a fascinating point. Why did Rome choose the path of Christianity? Was it sudden? Was it a gradual awakening? What are the crossroads where a society chooses or discovers another path?

How many of us can claim that we ever witnessed a societal crossroad in the first place? There’s only a couple I can think of.  The Digital Age?  The Civil Rights Movement?

According to the article large Christian communities rose up only 150 years after the death of Jesus. ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY YEARS! This is nothing on the calendar of human endeavor. What is 150 years, really? This is two to three generations at the most.

So Boin and O’Donnell have to answer a very big question. What made paganism “roll over” in a very short space of time?

No. I am not forgetting the persecutions.   However, even an emperor or two would eventually find a trusted advisor to be Christian, even as high as the corridors of the imperial house.

What made paganism die? Was paganism already on its way out? Was there something in the pagan thought that made it ready for something new?

This quote by Gibbon is at the top of the page of the article: “According to the maxims of universal tolerance, the Romans protected a superstition which they despised.”  Meaning…the Romans did not believe in the Pantheon of Gods but continued with it as a matter of course…tradition dies hard some say.

However, as Christians were being rounded up, what happened to those that escaped the net?  There had to be some missed, who hid, who denied their faith when confronted, who lived under the radar and were careful of any misspoken word that might give them away.

Were there Romans perfunctory ‘burning the incense to the Emperor’ as we pay our taxes today? The article brings up that many Romans were quite happy to serve the Emperor, pay their taxes, serve in the Army, and keep a secret Christian altar in the basement. Can man serve two masters? Short answer: Yes, but not very long. Maybe the pagans served two masters long enough until it was ‘safe’ to serve one.

Was paganism weak? The article poses this question. I don’t believe they were weak at all. For thousands of years they conquered, explored, went adventuring, pillaged and dared the gods, and lived on to build empires. It certainly provided a basis to explain the world. It provided an explanation of the changing of the seasons, of man, of a world filled with unanswered questions.

A pagan philosopher exclaimed upon witnessing the properties of a magnetic rock: “There are gods in everything.”

Maybe all that man needed at that time was one. Maybe there were just too many sacrifices (burning incense, and animal sacrifice) to be made to a list of gods that covered anything and everything. Maybe there were just too many ‘masters’ too serve in that ‘pagan’’ world when you have a god for anything you can name (the door, the heavens, the stoop, the harvest, the hymen and the wind, etc, etc).

Maybe Matthew 6:24 is correct: “No man can serve two masters.” Maybe Judeo/Christian thought provided the one religion needed at the right time to cut down the confusion. Was Christianity more flexible (i.e. turning Saturnalia into Christmas)?   I leave that one to the scholars.

These are too many questions for me, and already my head hurts.  I had coffee with a good friend Dr. Vincent Guss in hopes of a cureI showed him the article.  He is a clincial Ethicist and Board Certfied Chaplain. He had different take on my explanation of the article: “The Roman religion lacked spirituality.”  I sent him the article later and he sent back this email.

Quote.

Thanks so much for the article and the good conversation about how and why “Paganism” was so easily replaced by “Christianity”.  The article and our conversation gave me the opportunity to pause, consider and reflect on that important topic for our culture as it developed in ancient times.  I am honored that you valued my perspective regarding the lack of spirituality (by the time of the “common era”) that so-called Roman paganism had as compared to Christianity at that time, and was the most likely reason that Paganism all but disappeared by the 4th Century. I fully agree with the author of the article in his final words: “…it is dispiriting  to [say] ‘novelty intervened to distract people'” as the reason that “…the implausible triumph of Christianity” replaced paganism so easily.  I believe that regardless of philosophical or religious orientation (or the lack of either), humankind as a deep need for spirituality.  When the “religion of the day” (such as what “passes: as Christianity for many) does not meet that need, people will search and find it elsewhere.  (I have a thesis that today the State Religion of America is Professional and Collegiate football, the Church is the NFL, the Cathedrals are the massive stadiums, the choir/vestal virgins are the cheerleaders and the players are the gladiators performing to the glory of their god–money, fame and applause!–if you are a football fan, pardon my opinionated sarcasim).

End  quote.

Saw Vincent for coffee later in the week  (followup appointment…ha, ha) and he had just one additional comment: “Maybe paganism was already dead when Christianity came about.”

As for Thonemann, the book reviewer, he has achieved something rare.  He made me discuss religion and philosophy, something I rarely do.  Considering Peter Thonemann is a lecturer at All Souls College at Oxford University it should come to no surprise that he can inspire and raise the level of discussion in as little as twelve paragraphs.

CARTHAGE MUST DIE! Coming soon!

v3_08_09112014_jh_11794 OK, I admit it. I am a total Vikings fan. “NO, I AM NOT TALKING FOOTBALL!” I am have been swept up by History Channel’s Vikings. I am a  Roman History geek, and Vikings is the closest thing I’m going to get to out and out pillaging, and razing towns on a mass scale. The latest episode has our Hero Ragnar Lodbrok attacking the city of Paris with his Viking host. What is amazing about the show is how the camera sweeps in to highlight characters, and this episode gives you some outstanding ‘breaching the walls’ and ‘burning of scaling ladders.’   I have to say if anything, this show should give you an appreciation of what it means to be an actor in such a production. Not only is it to your advantage to be ‘buff’ (of course I am referring to Rollo), but to be versed on sword play, and KNOW how to fall. To be ‘fit’ is important , expecially when you have to hang high in the air, battle French soldiers, and fall 20 feet to the water below. Acting is a tough business, but I have to say I admire the actors that are closer to my own physique that still climbed the ladder – what a guy will do to be on television.

I have a friend named Art Lynch that if you dressed him in skins and handed him an ax – pure Viking marauder.

Heck, with science fiction or fantasy…history is where it’s at. In the scene where Ragnar is on the wall and looks for a moment at Paris while grabbling with the wall defenders, you see a city from another time. It is lush, oddly attractive, and obviously wealthy…especially seen from the eyes of a Viking who knows only mountains and small villages. And don’t tell me that Rollo when he gazes upon the French Princess he does not see the face of Siggy (who died in a frozen lake). What man would not love a woman that will throw ice water on you when your sleeping off a bender and come to see you while your awaiting execution by your brother Ragnar for fighting in alliance with the dreaded Jarl Borg. Let’s hear it, “Hisss, Booo…” Family. We do forgive brothers and sisters for all types of transgressions.  

I think the most terrifying thing about the episode was ‘the bolt.’ An assembly mounted on a stock, seems to be a miniaturized version of the Roman Scorpio or Scorpion. It was larger, and (just found this out) went by another name of trigger fish. The episode shows the devastation of this instrument of war, where Vikings face a continuous barrage from the defenders on the wall. It is not till later in the episode that Lagertha (Ragnar’s ex wife) faces a medieval version of a scorpion which must have terrified enemies facing a legion.  There is nothing sexier than a shield maiden.

OK, I am MGM deprived. I am starving from few showings of lavish productions of ancient/medieval battles. They don’t make that stuff much anymore. I will take it wherever I can get it.   The heck with Game of Thrones (don’t tell anyone I said that…I LOVE THAT SHOW!), there is a wealth of drama on the page of ancient history. It’s all in the telling.  

Does anyone want to see a TV show about the taking of Carthage?

Carthage Must Die.

Coming in November on The History Channel.

It would be nice.

A guy can dream can’t he?