The Romans always win until they don’t

One of the most fascinating inscriptions from ancient Rome is the so-called ‘Hisma inscription’. Written in Greek by someone named ‘Lauricius’ in probably the late 2nd century AD, it proclaims that: ‘The Romans always win’. The sandstone slab was found in South Jordan, in Roman Arabia, on the edge of the Empire.

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The Hisma Greek inscription (G. Tanner
‘Greek Epigraphy in South Jordan’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, 83 (1990), p. 194)

The Romans kept winning until they stopped winning, and then the empire collapses into successor states. In the East, it became the Byzantine state centred around Constantinople. In less than 400 years, Lauricius’ statement became a museum piece. Roman Arabia was lost to the Sasanian Empire of Iran in the 610s.

Lauricius’ optimism is a historical constant. Every tribe, city, state, kingdom and empire at every point in history asserted its permanence and its ability to conquer the future tense. Always is a big word, but its never too big for those who believe tomorrow will be a reiteration of today. In retrospect, we smile, but we rush to make the same mistake. Past performance is not a guarantee of future success. This is true of school grades, economic estimates as well as political statements.

No amount of historical precedent will mitigate our enthusiasm for our world’s imperium sine fine, empire without end, as another epic optimist put it, the perdurability of the world as we know it. It is unlikely the world of the 2010s will survive the current crisis unscathed, yet most of us profess a belief in a ‘return to normality’, understood as a reversion to the status quo ante, the world as ‘before’. ‘We always win’ are words which seem to resound on the tongue of millions of modern-day Lauriciuses. But history doesn’t really care about our sandstone slabs, hopeful op-eds or dinner table optimism. Nothing is ever written in stone even if may be carved in stone. The museums are there to prove it.

A catalogue of Cassandras

Cassandra praying in a temple, Lille, Bibliothèque Municipale, 391 (c 1460 AD)

Do you remember Cassandra, the prophetess of the ancient sad countenance who possessed the gift of true prophecy but could never be believed? She was reportedly murdered by Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra along with her husband, but the truth is that she’s still alive. The rumour has it that she married the boy who cried wolf and that their powers, as well as their curse, increased twofold.

Cassandra is certainly not dead. Every crisis has a Cassandra, every impending disaster calls for a Cassandra, or rather Cassandra calls out to us, who fail to acknowledge her gift and our own incredulity. She is a post-factual figure, honoured after the fact, when it matters least, after the event consumes itself. Her prophecy bears its own destruction but also points to our own, to our inability to learn from our mistakes, to close the vicious circle and jump onto a different orbit.

As far as I know, nobody has ever attempted to track Cassandra through the centuries, to outline the meanderings of this wandering Greek priestess, and classify her failures. For she always fails. Hers is the voice of the one who whispers: ‘I told you so’. She’s the one who doesn’t shout anymore because all she did was shout but you didn’t listen anyway. Now she gloats over her proud ruin seeing that the greatest of powers is always misunderstood. That the future is always closed onto itself, and that our ears are tuned for the present. A present blind to the lessons of the past and deaf to the warnings of the future.



Have you ever tried Dante-dating?

Let’s be clear about this. I’m talking about Dante-dating, not dating Dante. However brilliant the poet was, I have my doubts the average man would have liked him – or that the average woman would have dated him. Yes, he’d write you some beautiful sonnets, he’d even make you famous for 700 years (and counting), but whether you’d have a good time with him on a date, I’m not too sure. Beatrice may have missed on a lot because of her untimely death, but at least she was spared what could only have been the poet’s rollercoaster temperament, the ups of heaven and the downs of hell, seasoned with overdose resentment and a larger-than-life personality. If we can’t imagine Date smiling for a second, there’s a good reason why.

But as I said, I’m not here to talk to you about dating Dante, but about a new form of dating, which I call Dante-dating, following an unsuspecting suggestion from a good friend recently.

Dante-dating is all about confinements, so the time has come for this kind of activity. Under this dispensation, two eager individuals may get together in the underworld for a nice chat. It’s not against the rules, and social distancing may be observed – there’s plenty of space where the light never shines. There are rooms of all shapes and sizes there, and users may choose the level they want to set the date in. This should not be chosen lightly, as it will impact the kind of conversation one is to have with their date: about lust or anger or dishonesty. If there is a place where two people who hardly know each other may broach the subject of cheating and jealousy, then this is it. If you’re looking for a lifetime partner, you’ve come to the right party.

There’s no need for virtual backgrounds in the underground. The conical shape of this dating environment is conducive to a channeling of strong emotions, culminating in all sorts of fascinating syndromes and complexes going all the way down. Nevertheless, there is no risk of judgment, as that needs to be completed before logging in. Everyone’s too busy thinking about their dates in there that they don’t have time to pass judgment on others. It is a safe space complete with triggers and signposts, so you won’t get lost or offended.

The real good thing about Dante-dating is that you can’t get stood up. That’s because the passage of time is impossible to perceive in the underworld. But that’s a bit like life above ground these days, isn’t it?

It’s surprising that Dante-dating hasn’t gone viral yet. The area is hot, humid (on some circles, at least), and there is enough activity to draw the keenest viruses in. But that shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. The terms and conditions of this arrangement make it very clear that once a match has been made in hell, the party moves to the heavens: Why would you want the moon, darling, if we can be there tonight? And for a fee, you may take a detour across the mountain for a hand-in-hand alpine hike to purge whatever you want to purge.

Say yes to Dante-dating! Hell, yeah!

Wooden myths last forever

The Trojan Horse being led into the city in a 14th-century Venetian manuscript (London, British Library, Additional 15477)

I just love it when myths come back to bite us (in the ass), like Sartre’s annoying flies. Most cultural artefacts do not originate in fact, but in mythology, which is not to say fiction. And myths keep coming back, they are more resilient than any stone foundations. Long after the last ruins have faded in the undergrowth, the myths will still be with us, if we’re still around.

Take the Trojan horse, one of the most enduring ancient myths, which despite being made of wood, was designed to withstand all types of cultural weather. From the height of European myth-making, the Horse is still being built and deployed, the soldiers are still in, the city still gullible and on the brink of destruction. Whether Homer invented it, or whether there was a Homer at all, or whether the horse was first enlisted for the annihilation of the city of Troy and its people is absolutely irrelevant. Whoever built it – the myth, not the horse – was one of the creative minds the world has ever seen.

Thousands of years later, the Trojan Horse is still Trojan and it’s still a horse. Metonymically or literally, the Horse has been galloping freely through the European fields, rolled down into new situations, proving as effective now as it’s ever been. Like a fisherman’s rod tricking one amnesic fish after another. You’d think myths lost traction over time, people would outgrow them, become wise and start seeing the helmeted soldiers hidden in the wooden horse’s underbelly. Think again.

What I find most fascinating about the myth of the Trojan Horse is that it seems to be the foundational gesture towards the invention of fake news. The lesson which Homer teaches us – in the Odyssey, since the horse is strategically not mentioned (though arguably alluded to) in the Iliad, where any modern novelist would have inserted it – is that the power of deception seasoned with the illusion of service (i.e. gift-giving) is stronger than the strongest army. And the mythological charge of this is that this truth is as terrifyingly true now as 2,700 years ago.

Judging a book by its covers

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A 10th-century treasure binding of a Gospel Book, Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Latin 9393

Don’t judge a book by its covers, they say. The inside is what counts, they say. The advertising community is not so sure. The cover design is said to increase the marketability of a book by 50%, by a conservative estimate, and by as much as 80% in some cases. Which means that while we profess that a book is not about the covers, we behave otherwise. We may not judge a books by its covers, but we fall for books with cool covers.

The consolation from this distressing truth is that we’re not the first to be cover-gullible. The medieval Christian missionaries understood this over a millenium before any creative director. The treasure book bindings of some early medieval manuscripts illustrate the ‘marketing’ strategy of those who, in the centuries before the year 1000, brought the Gospel to the pagan West. For them, the Word of God was to be judged by the covers. Many manuscript covers adorned with ivory work, gold and precious stones were designed for what can only be called the Holy Elevator Pitch. Such books were displayed in churches and other places where the early missionaries encountered a pagan audience: crowds of faith customers sensitive who, like us, were sensitive to the charm of book covers.

The modern assumption of cover design marketing is that if the covers are appealing, the book must also be attractive. The corresponding medieval assumption was that if the covers are like nothing you’ve ever seen, then the book must be from another world and the truth contained in it must be trustworthy. Many were won to/sold the new faith through the fascination aroused when in contact with these books.

The practice of producing deluxe bindings didn’t end with the evangelising project. The marketing strategy continued throughout the Middle Ages in those churches which could afford such costly items. Their charm renewed the faithful’s devotion when they saw them on the altar, and by this the congregation were constantly being ‘sold’ the books, even though few read them and even fewer could afford to purchase anything like them.

The enduring charm of hybridity


In at least one respect, we’re not too far away from the Middle Ages, and that’s in our cultural bend towards hybridity.

I’m not taking about hybrid cars, or maybe I am.

One question historians very rarely ask is: what’s in a hybrid? Sure, the word is familiar enough, and it conjures up images ranging from the hybrid cars I mentioned to creatures of fantasy and science fiction.

But I insist, what is a hybrid? Anyone will say that it’s anything made up of two different types of elements. A hybrid vehicle is part combustion part electric. A sci-fi hybrid is part human part machine. And so on.

But a hybrid is culturally so much more than a blend of two irreconcilable elements. Here, the Middle Ages may educate us because the medieval period is really the elevation of hybridity to the status of a reality to be reckoned with.

In the Middle Ages, there were many hybrids. The Western medieval culture was itself hybrid, a blend of classical and Christian parts knocked together to work together. The fact that we had a Renaissance, a revival of the classical part, proves that the Middle Ages didn’t resolve its hybridity into a monolithic whole. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Medieval hybridity is responsible for so much cultural development. The medieval imagination was populated with hybrids, many of them inherited from the classical past: centaurs, satyrs, fauns, harpies, sphinxes. Others were purely medieval coinages, though most don’t have a name, such as the countless figures in the margin of manuscripts: half- human half-pig half-fish half-whatever. Don’t be fooled by the apparent randomness of all this monsterdom. The medieval hybrid was symptomatic of an inner cultural tension: the unpredictability of the unknown.

It is no wonder that the medieval hybrid lies on the edge of things. The edge of the manuscript, the edge of the world. The farther one moved from the centre – the central text, the known, familiar world – the more likely was one to encounter hybrids. The hybrid embodied the fear of the unknown, though not every hybrid was potentially deadly or dangerous. The East, which for the medieval mind was akin to the great beyond (=the great unimaginable) was littered with hybrids, with the so-called ‘monstrous races’: people with eyes on their chests, with large lower lips, the sciopods (having one leg with two feet), or the cynocephalae (half human, half dog).

The hybrid belongs to the future, to the unknown liminal space which only the imagination may conquer. In that respect, the modern world hasn’t budged from that existential stance.

The post-industrial imagination is replete with hybrid visions of transhumanity: half human, half-machine. The augmented human, too, belongs to the edges of the known world, captured by a vision of a future half-desired, half-feared.

The enduring charm of hybridity points to an enduring feature of our humanity and of our shared culture: the fear of the unknown, the desire to go beyond the mark, the spectacle of endless possibility.

To put the pan in the demic

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A 15th-century manuscript of Ammianus Marcellinus’ Histories (Vatican, BAV, Arch.Cap.S.Pietro.E.27)

I’ve noticed that the words ‘pandemic’ and ‘epidemic’ have recently been used interchangeably in the media and in everyday speech. Any extensive outburst of a contagious disease is a pandemic or an epidemic, depending on which prefix you prefer or comes to mind first. Pandemic sounds a bit more catastrophic, while epidemic has a scientific, even clinical, ring to it.

To do justice to the roots of the two words, it should be said that in an epidemic, the disease is in the process of spreading among the people, from the Greek epi- (among) and demos (people). A pandemic is when the disease has affected and infected everyone (from pan– meaning all). The myth of herd immunity can only work in a pandemic, when everyone’s infected, and then fingers crossed.

So a pandemic is not only far more catastrophic than an epidemic, but it’s also a point of no return – since everyone’s got the disease, there’s not much one can do in terms of prevention.

In the 4th century AD, a different classification was in use. The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus describes three types of outbreaks, what he calls endemic, epidemic and loemodemic or pestilential. The pandemic is absent from his triad, because Ammianus focused on the severity, not the contagion factor (what we now call the R0), of a disease.

Now the first kind of plague is called endemic, and causes those who live in places that are too dry to be cut off by frequent fevers. The second is epidemic, which breaks out at certain seasons of the year, dimming the sight of the eyes and causing a dangerous flow of moisture. The third is loemodes, which is also periodic, but deadly from its winged speed. (History, I, 489 (Rolfe edition))

By the 14th century, all plagues were referred to as pestilences. The Black Death was a pestilentia, as were countless other instances of outbreaks of smallpox, malaria and Yersinia Pestis-related plagues.

The only prefix which doesn’t come to mind yet is hypo- as in hypodemic, which describes a disease with a reproductive rate of less than 1. The day will come when Covid-19 goes into hypo-drive.

A different kind of tourism

It is often said that the origins of modern tourism go back to the medieval European pilgrimage. Many people travelled in the Middle Ages, but out of all the eligible categories, the pilgrim is often singled out as the ancestor of the tourist and holidaymaker. Not the warrior, not the merchant, not the itinerant student, nor the preaching friar, though they often travelled long distances and for long periods of time. The merchants and friars, not pilgrims, ended up in Asia. Marco Polo was no pilgrim, and neither was William of Rubruck, the Franciscan friar who travelled to Karakorum to see the Great Kahn. Perhaps no other Europeans toured the known world more than these two people, and yet they, and other members of their group, are never counted among the early tourists.

Travelling was not among the essential features of a merchant or friar, even though many did travel. And travelling is not everything to a tourist, even though tourism as a concept comes from the activity of touring or travelling.

Just like a merchant, a soldier or a friar on a diplomatic mission like William, the medieval pilgrim travelled to get somewhere. The point of a pilgrimage was and still is devotional, the desire to reach a sacred place, to accomplish a vow, to do penance, or immerse oneself in the reality of a transcendental past or reality.

The first and last motivations still characterise many tourist projects today. When upper-class northern European men and women embarked on what was to become the Grand Tour of the 17th and 18th centuries, they also wanted to partake of the sacrality of Florence and Rome, even if for them the illustrious ancient past was enough grounds for revering those places with a devotion similar to that of a medieval pilgrim on her way to Rome or Jerusalem.

Maps, sights to see, places to stay at, things to know were common features of pilgrim guides and early-modern grand-tour travelbooks just as they are permanent fixtures of our Michelin and Lonely Planet travel guide books. The fridge magnet, hacky as it may be, is a distant relative of the pilgrim badge, perhaps as hacky then, which pilgrims brought back from the places they visited.

The medieval pilgrim in you or me may not be too hard to find next time we go to an exotic location and we marvel before a ruin, a statue, a building or even a landscape. Unlike the medieval pilgrim however, we wouldn’t think it’s ok to die on the way and to accomplish the journey in the afterlife. After all, we need that selfie, don’t we?

Dea Febris

Every age and every culture has its own way to respond to viral diseases, plagues and epidemics. While we have medicine, technology and social services, the ancient Romans had Dea Febris, the goddess of fever, the protector against malaria and other infectious diseases, though by no means the only one. According to one theory, Febris evolved from the god Februus after whom the month of February is named. If feverish conditions must happen, then February is the right time. The irony of this wild speculation won’t be lost on anyone.

If Febris was the tutelary deity against the destructive effects of fever, Februus was the god of purification, possibly connected with the salutary (this time) effect of fever, since fever led to sweating, which then as now, is considered the body’s way of ejecting the disease and purifying itself. If this is correct, then Februus and Febris are an ideal pair, the reflection of an insightful theory of pyrexia, the human body’s ability to increase its temperature – both as symptom of an infection and as protection against it.

So I’m submitting Dea Febris to anyone who needs a patron saint for these feverish times, anyone who is not happy with the historical performance of Saints Adrian of Nicomedia (patron saint of plagues), Bernardino of Siena (same), Edmund of East Anglia (of pandemics), the Fourteen Holy Helpers (same), Hugh of Cluny or even latter-day Saint Corona.

Pseudonyms and fake news

Despite speculation and hard-headed scrutiny, nobody knows who the person behind the hyper-famous name ‘Elena Ferrante’ is. We might never find out. The French writer Romain Gary received the Goncourt Prize twice, once for a book written under his own name, the other for a book written under the pseudonym ‘Emile Ajar’. Nobody suspected anything and perhaps he would have taken the secret to his grave, if he hadn’t revealed it himself just before committing suicide.

We don’t seem to mind pseudonyms, even though the word actually means ‘fake name’ in Greek. Names may be fake, but stories have to be true. No tolerance for ‘pseudangelia’, the Greek word for fake news. The Ancient Greeks didn’t know fake news in the sense we do. I coined pseudangelia for the occasion. It’s all fake.

There’s a great deal of ‘fakery’, or pseudepigrapha in the European literary history. These are writings claiming to be something else they are. Authors purported to be someone else, stories alleged to have been written in a different century, a different context, a different place. For nearly every writer from classical antiquity there is a host of pseudo-writers adopting false names or seen to have been the same as those they claim to be. The 6th-century Christian philosopher known today as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite was long held to be the same Dionysius mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles in the 1st century AD, who may have never written anything. Some medieval writers of erotic poetry attempted to pass as the Roman poet Ovid. There was always someone usurping identity and more than one person ready to support the identity theft. The positive reception of pseudonymity is always more visible than the forging agent. In other words, those who fake it get less publicity than those who welcome the fake.

From our age of fake news, what history will remember won’t be so much those who faked it (besides, do we know now who they are?), but those who fell for them, those who clicked and passed on, who spread the pseudangelia like wonky half-angels.

The interesting thing about medieval pseudonyms is that the true authors are only rarely identified. Most pseudonyms stay pseudonymous. Even when historians and philologists call the pseudonymous author’s bluff, the real person behind the fake name remains anonymous, that is, nameless. There is a huge body of authors’ names from the medieval period, but an even longer list of nameless names: Pseudo-X, Pseudo-Y, faute de mieux. After all, what are we to call those who wrote books under pseudonym? And what are we to do when we have a Pseudo-Horace writing in the 9th century and another one trying to pass as Horace in the 12th century?