Stuff from Way Back #1 Redux: Happy New Year, Q. Fulvius Nobilior

(A slightly different version of this piece was published more than two years ago, my first Stuff from Way Back.  It is perhaps my favorite anecdote from antiquity.  I am reposting it for the New Year and because I am a bit short of time.  It makes an excellent New Year’s Eve party anecdote, at least before everyone is gasolinoed.  Happy New Year, though I expect it will just see our country slide further into silliness and stupidity.)

 

Ever wonder why the year begins on January 1?  Probably not.  It is the sort of thing that is such an established facet of life that it never occurs to one to ask why:  “Because that’s when the calendar begins,” which is of course not much of an explanation.  That’s akin to saying because the previous year ends on December 31.  But consider: why should we begin our year in the middle of the winter and on a day that has absolutely no significance, except that somehow it has become the first day of the year.  Why not on a day that has some significance in nature, such as the equinoxes and solstices.  Or considering the importance of agriculture, why not in the spring, when life returns, or fall, when the harvest is in?

 

In fact, in antiquity states typically began their calendar years in the spring or in the fall with the harvest.  So, what happened?  Well, it’s because of the Romans and an otherwise relatively trivial event in their history.  It begins with the defeat of Hannibal.

 

Part of Rome’s booty in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC) was the Mediterranean coast of Spain, formerly territory of the now defunct Carthaginian empire.  The Romans of course had no intention of allowing this area to go free, but neither were they moved to any campaign of conquest in the Iberian peninsula.  Italian capital and manpower were exhausted by  the long and costly struggle against Carthage,  and the first half of the second century BC was filled with major conflicts in the Greek east.  The result was that the Roman occupation of Spain was haphazard and slow, driven by the desire to exploit the natural resources and to protect the coastal communities from the natives of the interior.

 

The Roman Senate was loathe to create provinces; they had to be administered and garrisoned, which was expensive.  Nevertheless, there were in Spain no potential client kingdoms ready at hand, and consequently the Spanish possessions were organized into two provinces in 197 BC.  But poor Roman administration led in that same year to the first serious insurrection, and crushing it triggered the First Celtiberian War (181-179 BC).  Relative peace then lasted until the outbreak of the Lusitanian War (154-138 BC), during which occurred also the Second Celtiberian War (153-151 BC) and the Third Celtiberian (or Numantine) War (143-133 BC).  Thus it was that three quarters of a century of cruel and bloody counterinsurgency warfare were necessary to pacify the peninsula, and the job was not actually completed until the reign of Augustus, the first emperor, at the end of the first century BC.  The Spanish provinces then went on to become the most peaceful and Romanized in the empire.

 

When in late 154 BC a number of Celtiberian tribes, encouraged by the Lusitanians, revolted, Rome appointed Q. Fulvius Nobilior commander of four legions about to be sent to quell the revolt.  Nobilior had just been elected consul, one of the two annual magistrates who were the executive heads of the Roman state.  The consulship, like the subordinate praetorship, conferred upon its holder imperium, the superior form of official power, one element of which was the all-important power to command troops.  The consuls (and to a lesser degree the praetors) were thus Rome’s generals.

 

The consuls and most of the other important magistrates began their terms of office on  the Ides of Martius, that is, March 15, which consequently placed the beginning of the Roman civil year at roughly the vernal equinox (March 21) and the beginning of the seasonal year.  The Senate was anxious to get Nobilior to Spain as early as possible in order to extend his campaigning season, but until he actually took office some three months hence the consul-elect had no authority to command troops.  Preeminently pragmatic, the Romans solved the problem and avoided any constitutional crisis by simply moving the beginning of the civil year, and thus Nobilior’s term, to the Kalends of Januarius, that is January 1.

 

When the new year began had never been of much importance in the generally sloppy and conflicting calendars of the ancient Mediterranean, and the Romans, seeing no compelling reason to move the beginning of the civil year back again, left it on 1 January.  (Coincidentally, Januarius was named after the god Janus, who as the god of gateways and transitions looked both ways, making the month of January very apt as the first of the year.)  This day was thus enshrined as the beginning of the year in the Julian calendar, which was passed on to Europe and much of the rest of the world.  Because of the Roman Senate and an obscure Iberian war, the vast majority of the human race celebrates New Year’s in the middle of the winter.

 

Reconstruction of Numantia's fortifications

Reconstruction of Numantia’s fortifications

Ruins of Numantia

Ruins of Numantia

Incidentally, in August Nobilior’s army was ambushed by the Belli and Arevaci on its way to capture the city of Numantia in north central Spain and lost 6000 men, and it was only saved from complete annihilation by his Roman cavalry.  He never did take the city and was replaced the following year.  The war went on.

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Stuff from Way Back #24: Jesus, Jews and Romans

Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus, falls of course on December 25, but this is simply a tradition, inasmuch as no one has the vaguest idea on what day of the year he actually first saw the light – or in exactly what year for that matter. From the meager evidence in the New Testament the year of his birth most likely fell in the period 6 to 4 BC. Dionysius Exiguus was apparently the first to date from the birth of Christ in 525, though the practice did not become widespread until the eighth century. The Romans traditionally dated from the presumed founding of the city (753 BC in our system), while the Greeks dated in four year Olympiads from the presumed first Olympic games (776 BC), and it may be that confusion with the latter resulted in a four year error. So it is currently between 2017 and 2019.

Sol Invictus on a date

Sol Invictus on a date

The birth date in December might be calculated as nine months from the spring equinox, when Jesus was believed to have been conceived, but there is no way to confirm the date of conception. Astronomy does not help since the star of Bethlehem, like the three kings, was clearly later added, in this case to fulfill a prophecy. More likely the December date was determined by two Roman holidays, the Saturnalia and celebration of Sol Invictus, both of which occurred around the winter solstice. Placing the birth at this time would provide Christians with an alternative to the pagan holidays, especially as a contrast to the celebration of the birth of the “unconquered sun god.” This latter idea dates back to a 12th century bishop but is challenged by many scholars. If he was born in December, it would have been mighty cold in that manger.

 
Despite the fact that all our knowledge of Jesus comes from the New Testament and sources derived from it, there is little question that he actually existed. It is simply impossible to believe that the religion could possibly have the impact and ultimate success it enjoyed were it all based on an elaborate hoax. On the other hand, we can be certain of very little of his life: he was an immensely charismatic and successful preacher, probably in the Galilee, almost certainly challenged the authority of the Temple and priesthood and was executed as a criminal. All other details of his life preserved in the Christian testament are at the very best suspicious and in most cases clearly false, added by his disciples and later writers to enhance the story. Religion works like that.

 

Jesus as Sol Invictus

Jesus as Sol Invictus

the Aryan Jesus

the Aryan Jesus

Regarding Christmas, for example, the Roman census for taxation was based on residence, not place of birth, which would be an incredibly stupid way to do it. Jesus’ birthplace was probably Nazareth in the Galilee, where his ministry was, certainly not in Bethlehem, which as the birthplace of David (whose own existence is now doubted) conveniently fulfills a number of Hebrew prophecies. The value of associating Jesus with predictions in Hebrew sacred writings regarding the coming of the messiah/king is obvious, since such supports his status as the chosen of the one god, the anointed one. In the gospels he enters Jerusalem seated on an ass, exactly as had been prophesied in Zechariah.

 
Jesus follows a pattern typical of the Hebrew prophets. Communing with god, the man realizes the corruption of the ancestral religion by the authority in the state, the king and/or priests (the fusion of secular and religious authority is a commonplace), and challenges it. He usually comes to a sad end but is remembered as a holy man and an agent of god. The difference in the case of Jesus is that this sad end will become part of the core belief of an entirely new religion, one which will bring a new understanding of the one god. That core belief, incidentally, the death and resurrection that serves as a beacon of hope for man, derives to a great degree from the Greek mystery cult. Christianity might in fact be considered something of a product of the encounter of Judaism and Hellenism.
We of course will never know, but it seems highly unlikely that Jesus believed himself to be the son of god. He was after all a Jew, and the rigorous monotheism of his inherited religion would not likely allow him to consider a divisible deity, a Yahweh with offspring, or for that matter the triune god of the religion he gave birth to. He might in his last years, swayed by the adoring crowds, have thought himself the promised messiah, the man sent by god, but it is difficult to believe that even on the cross he thought himself actually divine.

 
Jesus died because he was in the eyes of the priesthood a heretic and thus a threat to the established order and their authority. In the same way more than a millennium later the Church felt compelled to take action to suppress the Albigensian and Waldensian heresies not just because they were an affront to god but also a challenge to the authority of the Church. The story of Jesus scourging the moneychangers in the Temple is a vivid demonstration of his challenge.
In the interest of ecumenical harmony the Catholic Church has in the last century declared that the Romans and not the Jews were responsible for the death of the Christ, there of course being no advocacy group for the Romans. The Roman procurator of Judea did in fact have to sign off on the execution and was thus complicit, but his motivations would have nothing to do with the religious mission of Jesus. While the Romans found the exclusiveness of Hebrew monotheism offensive, imperial provincial policy was generally tolerant of local customs, so long as the taxes were paid and order was maintained; the Druids were a focal point of Gallic nationalism and resistance to Rome and thus had to go.

 
The issue in Judea was maintaining order. The priesthood was telling Pilate that with his growing mobs of followers and more important, his threat to the established Jewish authority Jesus was leading the province into disorder. The empire was maintained by alliances with the local elites, who with Roman support actually governed at the grassroots level. Pilate would certainly have been more than willing to sacrifice a seeming rabble-rousing preacher in order to placate the real power in Judea. And if indeed the crowds began calling Jesus “King of the Jews,” the procurator’s attention would certainly be caught, since that sounded like a nationalist movement and a direct threat to Roman rule.

 
So Jesus died, and for two millennia the Jews were blamed, further stoking the flames of anti-Semitism in Europe. What was forgotten was that he had to die. That was the whole point of his stay on earth, to die and be resurrected, to carry away the sins of man and provide hope for rebirth. As Bobby Zimmerman astutely observed: “Even Judas Iscariot had god on his side.”

 
A final element in the story, Paul. Were it not for Saul of Tarsus, the new religion would certainly have died, just another Jewish heresy. Stripping the new beliefs of their encrustation of Jewish ritual practices, he made Christianity palatable for the gentile world, and the easy movement of people and ideas facilitated by the Roman Empire allowed it to spread across the Mediterranean and European world. Paul was, after Jesus himself, far and away the most important figure in the history of Christianity.

photo of the conversion of Saul

photo of the conversion of Saul

Whatever one thinks of the historicity of his life, the message of the Galilean preacher is a good one, urging humans to eschew anger and violence and treat one another with compassion.  Unfortunately, it seems the inevitable fate of a successful ideology is to betray its principles, and Christianity triumphant would become an instrument of intolerance and violence and bring centuries of suffering to the human race.  Nevertheless, Jesus had given the ancient god of the Hebrews now a smiling face.  And Mohammed would wipe off that smile and resurrect the Lord of Hosts.

…And Equal Justice for All

(I normally do not write pieces like this, and I expect most Americans will have heard about this case, but it is such an outrage that I must say something.)

 

That money can buy one better justice is a commonplace in our society.  If you are poor and accused of a crime, you will be assigned a public defender, who is almost by definition not a top notch attorney and is probably overwhelmed by his case load.  Even a middle income defendant can find his family bankrupted by attorney’s fees in a long or complex trial.  But if you are wealthy, you can hire teams of high profile lawyers and pay for exhaustive research and expert witnesses.  The Simpson trial immediately springs to mind, though the incompetence of the chief prosecutor played a role in his acquittal.

affluenza victim

affluenza victim

But the case of Ethan Couch is simply beyond belief in its mobilization of wealth.  Couch is a sixteen year old (fifteen at the time of the crime, I believe) directly responsible for the deaths of four people.  He and some friends stole beer from a convenience store and took off in a pickup truck for a drunken joy ride.  Speeding along a road in what can only be called a drunken stupor, Couch smashed into a disabled car on the shoulder.   The car owner, Breanna Mitchell, Hollie Boyles and her daughter Shelby, who had come to help, and Brian Jennings, a passerby who had stopped, were instantly killed.  The parked car was driven into another vehicle, injuring more people, and two drunken friends were thrown from the truck bed and severely injured.

Brian Jennings

Brian Jennings

Couch’s family is wealthy, which meant they could hire a high powered legal team, which is hardly atypical.  What is certainly not typical is the argument offered by the defense, which could not deny that their client was an underage thief with three times the legal limit of alcohol in his bloodstream and the blood of four innocents on his hands.  They argued that the boy’s parents were in fact to blame because they had indulged their son and never set any limits on his behavior, and raised in such an environment he could not really be held responsible for his behavior.  A psychiatrist, the sort of expert witness money could find and purchase, supported this incredible idea, even supplying a cute little name: “affluenza.”

Hollie and Shelby Boyles

Hollie and Shelby Boyles

Desperate attorneys are known for coming up with outlandish defenses, but this one boggles the mind.  But even more mind boggling is the fact that juvenile court judge Jean Boyd accepted this nonsense.  Couch was of course found guilty, but the judge sentenced him to ten years of probation and rehabilitation for alcohol abuse.  He would be kept from his family and thus treated for affluenza, and she was careful to point out that the probation would be very strict and any misstep would lead to jail time.  I expect she is already getting death threats.

Breanna Mitchel

Breanna Mitchel

What a beginning to his cure!  He has now learned in the most dramatic way imaginable that there are indeed no limits, and he is free to kill people with no meaningful consequences.  Society of course learns nothing new, but we are reminded that money can in fact buy almost anything and that you had better pray that your wife and daughter are killed by a poor drunk.  Poor people of course have a natural immunity to affluenza.  If there ever was an occasion to use the word “travesty” in connection with our justice system, this is certainly it.

 

I abhor vigilantism, but were the victims my family members, I would seriously consider finding the little creep and causing him a great deal of pain.  I would then be sentenced to jail time.  That’s how justice is supposed to work.

Apartheid Old and New

A great man has died.

 
Nelson Mandela towered over his contemporaries, not just in South Africa but across a continent filled with brutal dictators, power-hungry rebels and religious fanatics. Mandela was the very rare successful revolutionary leader who was able to make the transition to peaceful democratic politics and lead his nation rather than dominate it. He participated in the peaceful dismantling of the worst racist structure of the second half of the twentieth century, urging reconciliation rather than revenge, astonishing for a man who had been imprisoned by the previous regime for 27 years. That Mandela was something less than a saint at times in his career does not detract from his accomplishments, and the failures of the current government of South Africa serve to increase his stature.

 
The celebration of his life and struggle against apartheid may also serve as a reminder that apartheid is still with us, though perhaps not on the grand scale of the Afrikaners, who relegated the entire native population of southern Africa to a second class status institutionalized by the state. This apartheid of the twenty-first century is not yet formally institutionalized nor so blatantly racist, but it is just as real and oppressive for those living under it. The new Afrikaners in fact cooperated in the 1970s with a virtually completely isolated South Africa in the development of nuclear weapons.

old apartheid

old apartheid

old apartheid

old apartheid

 
The new apartheid is being established of course by Israel in the West Bank, that is, occupied Palestine. Growing discrimination in the state of Israel against the 20% of the citizen body that is Palestinian is easily documented, but the discriminatory laws, the unofficial segregation and the sporadic violence are not part of any organized government instituted system. Instead, the developing official system of exclusion and imposed economic and social inferiority is found in what is internationally recognized as Palestinian land, making the Israelis more like the Nazis than the Afrikaners, surely an ironic turn. That this is all done in the name of military necessity makes it no less apartheid, especially considering that virtually none of the measures have anything at all to do with real security demands.

 
With seemingly randomly chosen exclusionary zones, Jewish only roads and residential enclaves and the total absence of any civic rights on the part of the Palestinians the Israeli occupation certainly looks like pre-liberation South Africa. The only real difference is that the land suffering under this system is not actually part of the state of Israel. It appears, however, that this is changing, inasmuch as there are now a half million Israeli colonists settled in Palestine, and there is not the slightest sign that they will ever leave. Rather, more and more Israelis are pouring in, despite the blatant violation of basic and well established international law and the opposition of almost all the international community. Israel is rapidly becoming the international pariah that South Africa once was.

new apartheid

new apartheid

new apartheid

new apartheid

 
Unfortunately, the Palestinians have no Nelson Mandela. Their iconic leader, Yasser Arafat, was a more typical revolutionary, excessively violent and utterly inept as a head of state. Not that it would make any difference. South Africa faced worldwide condemnation and sanctions, which played a major role in bringing down the apartheid regime. Israel has the virtually unqualified support of the United States, despite its constant violation of international covenants this country has pledged to uphold. There will be no international sanctions.

 
The colonization and the oppression must go on because there is no obvious way out. What Israeli government would attempt to evacuate five hundred thousand settlers when many of them would need to be forced, as was the case with the handful removed from Gaza. Will the Israeli army fight Israelis? Would these people ever agree to become a Jewish minority in a Palestinian state? And if Israel decides to annex “Judea and Samaria,” as many extremists desire, would it grant citizenship to the Palestinians, thus making Jews a minority in the Jewish state? The only answer is continuing apartheid.

 
The only hope is that the situation will become so unpleasant and injurious to American interests that it must act. One would think that even the American Congress could not stomach the forcible annexation of a conquered country. On the other hand, America no longer seems to care at all what the rest of the world thinks or how hypocritical it appears. The Palestinians can hope for nothing from the one time light of liberty to the world.