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Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

Methuselah and More

Among the many books Hubby left on his shelves was a well-reviewed one published in 2015 called "SPOR."  The reasons for that name (and the name of the author, too) are complicated, so I'm going to skip that.  You can look it up yourself if you are so inclined.  It is a history of ancient Rome that ends at the beginning of the Christian era, and it was very slow going at first.  Indeed, I was at about page 300 of the 600-page tome before it picked up enough to stop being an insomnia cure.  Nonetheless, I made a few notes that I want to share, things that I'd not known or really grasped before.


Apparently most cultures have legendary heroes who lived to extreme old age, and their proponents have to struggle to explain the implausibility.  What I particularly liked about one of the early Roman kings, however, was his name:  Superbus.  He lived a super life, allegedly dying at about 150 years.  It prompted me to look up the Judeo/Christian Methuselah:  he lived to age 969, so the Jewish tradition is one up on the Roman with this. 


I wonder, though, if any woman lived that long?  I also wonder why storytellers felt compelled to invent such "facts."  I suppose that some people think that history is required be framed as the good old days, but we all know that because of uncontrolled diseases, the average life span then was much shorter than now.  No one today is going to accept Methuselah's age as anything other than fiction.


I often wished the British author had followed up on points she raises.  For instance, in talking about the 61 BCE victory parade of early emperor Pompey, she says that someone carried a "globe" with the inscription:  "This is a trophy of the whole world."  There's no further explanation, and I'm left to speculate whether Romans had a clue that the world was round -- more than 1500 years prior to Columbus.  And it is sad to note how far backward it is possible to go:  more than a millennium after this globe, Christian Rome persecuted scientists who ventured to say that the world was not flat.  Some theologians probably would today if they could get away with it.


The book needed editing, especially for chronology, but there's lots of original research, both archeological and translations of contemporary documents.  We have many letters from the famed Cicero, and I like this description of his busy life.  He shifted his loyalties during a complicated civil war, and while planning attacks for his private army to carry out, he also took on "troublesome locals.  Alongside these political and military crises, he was worrying about money, dowries, and marriages (his daughter's and his own), grieving the death of loved ones, divorcing his wife, complaining about an upset stomach, attempting to track down runaway slaves, and trying to acquire some nice statues to decorate one of his many houses."




Without addressing Asian and African potentates who sometimes claimed divine rights, the first European to do so probably was Julius Cesar:  he allegedly was descended from the god Aeneas.   Although the book tells us something about Cesar's earthly father, nothing is said about his mother.  Again, Christianity is more plausible, as it explains Joseph, Jesus' earthly father, and acknowledges the great role of the Virgin May in bringing the god into the world. 


Omitting Cesar's mother is odd.  It's not as if the ancient world didn't have powerful women, and Cesar himself famously connected with one of them, Egypt's Cleopatra.  Indeed, I was surprised to realize how much of an international figure he was:  "Between crossing the Rubicon [in 49 BCE] and his death in March 44 BCE, Caesar made only fleeting visits to Rome; the longest was a five-month stretch…  From the point of view of the city, he became a largely absent dictator." 


I want to add:  What a PR team the guy had!  He remained dictator, even though he was out of Rome much of the time.  On second thought, it probably is easier to convince people that you are divine if they don't see you every day.  Christian Science founder Mary Baker Eddy understood this.  She isolated herself for years, making pronouncements to her adherents only through interpreters.  Some politicians also have used this method.  Republican William McKinley spoke only from his Ohio front porch during the 1896 presidential campaign, while Democrat William Jennings Bryan took trains to meet people all over the country – and lost.


Other interesting things from early Rome: 


  • The word "liberal" originated from "liberty."  We should remind those who use it as a pejorative.
  • "Roman marriage was a simple and private business.  Unlike in the modern world, the state played little part…  A man and a woman were assumed to be married if they if they claimed they were, and they ceased to be married if they (or one of them) claimed they no longer were…  Brides traditionally wore yellow."
  • "Caesarian sections, which despite the modern myth had no connection with Julius Caesar, were used simply to cut a live fetus out of the body of a dead or dying woman." 
  • "Et tu, Brutus?" has no contemporary evidence.  Apparently Shakespeare invented the famous phrase.  And by the way, it is spelled not as "Brutus," but as "Brute."
  • "All across the empire, local trade associations flourished, with members who were both slave and free."  They were called "collegia," the root of our "college" and "colleague."
  • In a papyrus letter from Roman Egypt, a man wrote to his pregnant wife "instructing her to raise the child if it is a boy, but 'if it is a girl, discard it.'"  Abandonment was so real that garbage dumps were known to be a source of no-cost child slaves.




One positive result of climate change:  as polar ice melts, we are finding many more prehistoric artifacts.  The New York Times showed some, and one archeologist added, "We have regenerated tissue from unripe fruits freeze-dried under the tundra for 32,000 years.  A farsighted artic ground squirrel had stored the fruit in its burrow."  Such discoveries are the result of a mindset that itches to explore, to think, and not to accept a static worldview limited to Genesis.  


I have a coffee mug with a quote from Albert Einstein:  "Imagination is greater than knowledge."  He's absolutely right, and we make progress only if people drop the memorized catechisms they know and bend their minds to new ideas.  I thought of this again with a letter to the editor, once more in the New York Times, from a retired math professor.  He responded to the most recent criticism of school curriculum, from someone who declared that "math is math."


The professor used his imagination to reject the frozen mindset of the critic, who proclaimed that "two plus two equals four."  Instead, the professor explained that "two plus two also equals five minus one or two times two and numerous other combinations.  Knowing how to add," he wrote, "should not limit…wonder, creativity, practically, and even the humor of math."  It reminds me of a "Calvin and Hobbes" cartoon, in which Hobbes says -- quite reasonably -- that seven and three is 73.




Did you notice that the Florida Chamber of Commerce recently gave a cool reception to Governor Ron DeSantis?  The applause lines that work with his redneck supporters apparently did not go over well with these guys who have the money and who really run things.


You probably noticed that, assuming that Republicans keep their strong majority, Kathleen Passidomo will become the next president of the Florida Senate.  She is not a crazed Trumpster, but instead a Naples businesswoman with a cool head and warm heart; she was helpful when the Florida Commission on the Status of Women wanted me to write a history of our women.  Passidomo will be the third female Senate president, following Republican Toni Jennings and the late Democratic Gwen Margolis, who set the precedent in 1990.  The Florida House, in contrast, never has elected a female Speaker.  We are one of relatively few states to have this disgraceful record.


Speaking of the Margolis era reminds me of the current controversy about splitting the state Senate district that now links Tampa with St. Petersburg.  Some people seem to assume that this always has been the case, but oldsters like me still haven't accepted this combination of parts of two counties.  Once upon a time, our Hillsborough delegation had three senators – Malcolm Beard, Betty Castor, and Pat Frank – and nine House members, who were neatly divided between the three Senate districts.  It was pretty easy to understand who represented you.


That changed with the 1990 census, when Republicans increased their power by gerrymandering districts throughout the state – with the help of African Americans who abandoned their Democratic supporters to join Republicans in packing their districts with unnecessarily high numbers of minorities.  The result was another kind of racism, as these districts reduced competitiveness everywhere.  Many white liberals went along with this because they didn't want to offend African Americans.


The worst result of the 1992 redistricting, however, was that the only incumbents who had to run against each other were the late Jeanne Malcoln of St. Petersburg and the late Helen Gordon Davis of Tampa.  In a forty-member Senate, these two women were the only people forced into this unfortunate situation.  Both were scandal-free white progressives with backgrounds in the League of Women Voters.  They lost to a Republican man, and we have been living with the result ever since.


Redistricting is complicated, but I am glad that so many ordinary citizens have discovered it.  If you search on the net, you will see that dozens of Florida volunteers have spent time to imagine what fair representation would look like.  I don't have a lot of confidence that the legislature will pay attention to them, but it is an excellent omen for democracy and the future.




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