Posted by: ken98 | March 22, 2010

Barbarian Homeowners, Martian Festivals, and the Price Of Pepper

Day 192 – Ken here (M)(3-22-2010)
(DEF II, v.3, ch.31 pp.190-200)(pages read: 1290)

We are approaching the end of the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire in the West here in chapter 31. I take this chance to write a short essay on the ephemeral nature of things human. Which is my right as a blogger, although I realize it is in your rights not to have to read it. But there it is, if you have the desire/time/interest in seeing why a random act of violence in the summer of 409 is like a Martian and Earthling meeting on Mars in 2037.

The Story
 
Alaric Accepts Ransom, raises Siege
 
  • Alaric alternately scares the Romans, and is congenial to them. Gradually he softens up their arrogance (they have no army after all) (you have to wonder, why is Alaric even negotiating? it must be because he’s acting as a king working WITH his recalcitrant subjects already, not acting as a sacking barbarian)
  • He accepts a ransom – which is high, but not shocking. – later the ransom of one senator alone was about 1/10 of the total Imperial ransom. Alaric is already intercepting all the monies coming in from the provinces. He is a very wealthy man
  • All the barbarians held as slaves who were Goths are freed and are allowed to join up with Alaric – an estimated 100,000 men! – truly Late Antique Rome was a slave economy – like the antebellum South in the U.S.
  • More Negotiations – Rome whining, Alaric wheedling through 409
  •  

    Olympius is executed, Rome Flails About
     
  • The fundamentalist minister Olympius (responsible for Stilicho’s death) is killed in a palace coup of eunuchs and disappointed noble generals
  • The generals themselves are later killed, the eunuchs exiled
  • The Western Empire is flailing about, the Eastern is being held by an infant. The current barbarian holding Italy is acting more like he owns the place than like a renter. The outlook does not look good.
  •  

    Second Siege of Rome, a New Puppet Emperor is Made (Attalus) by Alaric (and killed) (409-410)
     
  • Second Siege of Rome. Alaric demands the election of Attalus as emperor. Rome agrees. He parades him about Italy
  • Jovius and other courtiers are now in control, but defer to Alaric
  • Alaric demands Honorius step down, moves with an army to Ravenna to push it – an unexpected troop of 5000 African legions (with money) disembark in Ravenna, causing Honorius to refuse. Roman senators and courtiers begin to intimate that they were only pretending to follow Alaric, in order to undermine him and prepare the way for Honorius’s return.
  • Honorius refuses to allow any African veterans of Gothic descent to disembark, and then sends the remainder out to do battle with a host numbering in the hundreds of thousands – they are cut to shreds
  • In a very strange turn of events – Alaric tires of his game, strips Attalus of his imperial regalia in public and sends it to Ravenna, sickened by the racism still among the Roman nobles (the anti-Goth arrogance – even tho the Romans are helpless as babies at this point), and bewildered by an imperial administration that would send 4000 men out to certain death for no apparent purpose – he deals again with Honorius and Honorius’s court
  •  
     

     

    Photo of the road to Ostia.  Travellers on this road were assaulted by Goths in the summer of 409.  The barbarian chief, Alaric, punished the Goths, instead of allowing his victorious tribesmen looting and plunder.  These were the actions of a resident king of a land, rather than a temporary war-band looking to enrich themselves.  Defenseless Western Rome had already changed into a barbarian kingdom, its just no one except Alaric knew about it yet

    Photo of the road to Ostia. Travellers on this road were assaulted by Goths in the summer of 409. The barbarian chief, Alaric, punished the Goths, instead of allowing his victorious tribesmen looting and plunder. These were the actions of a resident king of a land, rather than a temporary war-band looking to enrich themselves. Defenseless Western Rome had already changed into a barbarian kingdom, only no one except Alaric knew about it yet

    On The Road To Ostia
     

    This is the story of two chance meetings. If you’ll bear with me, I was just reminded of all this as I was reading Gibbon, and suddenly thought of one of my favorite authors and another road, and another chance meeting. Both were inconsequential, both were (probably) almost immediately forgotten, except for a few sentences in an obscure history. But both are emblematic of their age and changes that had become permanent, although the parties involved hadn’t realized it yet, and both

    The port of Ostia was built largely by the much-maligned emperor Claudius in the early part of the 1st century. Rome had, in the last century, become addicted to the produce of North Africa to feed itself. The city’s very inadequate port facilities and poor navigability (up the Tiber into Rome – Rome is an inland city) made importing and storing vast amounts of foodstuffs both stupidly expensive, (over-land – and towing up-river) and inconvenient and dangerous (docking and storing in a shallow harbor on a stormy coast). A new harbor was called for. Claudius gave it to them, and for the next four centuries (longer than the history of the English colonists in the U.S.) it had been an integral part of city-life. If there were a safe road in the empire to traverse, or better, a most-Roman road in the empire to travel, it would be the road from Rome to Ostia – like travelling from New York City through New Jersey possibly, or Chicago to Milwaukee – veritable slices of Americana, and in Rome’s case, a piece of pure Pax Romana. It wouldn’t be a pretty journey, or an exciting journey, but it would be Roman to its core.

    Ray Bradbury's - The Martian Chronicles (cover of the 1st edition).  Ray Bradbury wrote a story 'Night Meeting' about a chance encounter between two people from radically different times suddenly confronted with the true transient, ever-changing nature of the solid-looking world they see around them every day.  Rome was having similar experiences in the early 400's.  Strongly and often.

    Ray Bradbury's - The Martian Chronicles (cover of the 1st edition). Ray Bradbury wrote a story 'Night Meeting' about a chance encounter between two people from radically different times suddenly confronted with the true transient, ever-changing nature of the solid-looking world they see around them every day. Rome was having similar experiences in the early 400's. Strongly and often.

    In Ray bradbury’s short story “Night Meeting” in The Martian Chronicles tells the story of a settler on Mars (it is martian summer, 2037 – or so the settler believes) after all the martians have died of a plague brought by the Earth settlers, and one man is returning home late one night on a lonely road when he encounters one of the old martians, slender and golden-eyed in bright colors returning down the road in the opposite direction. Both stop and puzzle out what is going on. The Martian points out the festival city in the valley on the shores of the peaceful Martian sea under the bright burning stars and says in effect “I am the real one, not the dream – can’t you see the colored lights, the people dancing, or hear the music drifting up on the summer breeze?” The settler looks and describes the dry ocean, the (New England-like) rough, new settler’s town and the flaking, silent ruins on the hill. They part, both leaving and believing in the strength of their own lives and secure in their own beliefs, but realizing that what looks solid and unchangeable is actually changing into something else every minute of every day. Eventually it changes so much it is unrecognizable.

    After the first siege of Rome (408), during the summer of 409, when Alaric (the Goth) had been paid large sums of money to leave Rome alone, Alaric ruled Italy (except for Ravenna and Rome) in principle, but not in law. In Roman eyes, Alaric was just another barbarian who was camping uncomfortably close to the Eternal City and they were anxious to pay him off and get him back north above the alps and behind the limes (wherever those were – most people who lived in Rome (noble and poor) had as good a feel for geography outside of the suburbs of Rome as New Yorkers do about the Western States (ie – almost none) – Johnny Carson once said New York is really just a small town, no one really travels outside of it much – the same could be said of Rome). The emperor was holed up behind the swamps of Ravenna and was probably mad, the Master Generals were mostly jockeying for position and looking to line their pockets (as it often was in the later 300’s, early 400’s). Alaric was (in the very-near future, late 409 and early 410) going to besiege Rome again and eventually (in a year and a half) be the first to sack her in 600+ years.

    Painting of Ostia - The Embarkation of St. Paula at Ostia (1630's) - showing the very urban, busy, built-up Roman port of Claudius's - the center of Roman shipping into the City - soon to be sacked, silted up, and dis-used

    Painting of Ostia - The Embarkation of St. Paula at Ostia (1630's) - showing the very urban, busy, built-up Roman port of Claudius's - the center of Roman shipping into the City - soon to be sacked, silted up, and dis-used

    On a summer’s day in 409, a group of Romans were tramping the road to Ostia, and were assaulted by a group of Goths. Gibbon records (quoting from Zosimus apparently) that Alaric punished the guilty Goths. This chance meeting, and its outcome alone are not notable. But the Romans were still blinded by their daily lives, their careers, their bank accounts, their marriages, their inheritances from dying uncles, etc to realize a great sea-change had taken place. Alaric, moving about Italy on the superhighways of the Roman Republic and Empire, was policing his own state now. He wasn’t sacking, he was nurturing. You don’t wreck your own house as you’re moving in, you put down paper on the carpet so it doesn’t get soiled, you move the furniture carefully so you don’t scratch and dent up the walls, you start to notice the little things that are in need of repair, and make a mental not to fix them. Alaric was acting like a home-owner, not a thief. And Rome wasn’t noticing. Rome was still acting on the old script – the barbarian at the gates script, but everything had changed. Eventually it would change so much as to be unrecognizable.

    In a hundred and fifty years (approx 550) Rome would be empty, literally. After Rome had been through a couple of barbarian king’s hands and settled into being the capital of an Italian kingdom, and after the Eastern Rome (and Justinian) had conquered, and re-conquered, and re-conquered Italy for Constantinople, Rome (the city) was sacked repeatedly – changing hands in 548-550 four times. There wasn’t much left. The busy road to Ostia was more than a dim memory – it was unrecognizable. Had some of the last straggler, refugee, citizens of Rome, limping down the road to Ostia come upon a group of merchants returning from a successful maritime trading deal in Claudius’ time, there reaction would have been no different than that of the Ray Bradbury’s Earth settler and the Martian Festival-goer – disbelief and disquietude prompted by the inevitability of change.

    Map of the road to Ostia - the walking/travelling of which was a very urban, very Roman experience.  Even such a mundane trip as the road to Ostia highlighted (in the early 5th century, early 400's) the vast changes in store in the near future for the large peninsula jutting off of Asia called Europe

    Map of the road to Ostia - the walking/travelling of which was a very urban, very Roman experience. Even such a mundane trip as the road to Ostia highlighted (in the early 5th century, early 400's) the vast changes in store in the near future for the large peninsula jutting off of Asia called Europe

     
     
     

    Photo of pepper - a surprising delight and interest in this spice/commodity crops up in Gibbon's footnotes while he narrates the end of an empire

    Photo of pepper - a surprising delight and interest in this spice/commodity crops up in Gibbon's footnotes while he narrates the end of an empire

    Last Word…
    Gibbon Waxes Eloquent on Pepper
     

    Every so often you catch Gibbon smiling, rubbing his hands and showing an un-Gibbon-like enthusiasm for an unlikely subject.

    This from Gibbon (commenting on the ransom Alaric demanded of Rome to raise his siege of Rome, stop the embarge, and allow Romans to import food again):

    The stern features of Alaric were insensibly relaxed; he abated much of the rigour of his terms; and at length consented to raise the siege, on the immediate payment of five thousand pounds of gold, of thirty thousand pounds of silver, of four thousand robes of silk, of three thousand pieces of fine scarlet cloth, and of three thousand pounds weight of pepper [79].

    and this from the footnote:

    Note 079
    Pepper was a favourite ingredient of the most expensive Roman cookery, and the best sort commonly sold for fifteen ‘denarii’, or ten shillings, the pound. See Pliny, Hist. Natur. xii. 14. It was brought from India; and the same country, the coast of Malabar, still affords the greatest plenty; but the improvement of trade and navigation has multiplied the quantity and reduced the price. See Histoire Politique et Philosophique, etc., tom. i. p. 457.

    (DEF II, v.3 p.191, fn.79)

    Note: The Roman price above is about 800/lb $US (2008). Today’s price wholesale – price on the Commodity Exchange in India (here) is 7.7 cents per pound. Today’s price – purchasing online retail, pepper is about $40 per pound. (slightly less than the Roman prices).

    CALCULATIONS:
    ROMAN PRICE – at 10 shillings (1780), (20 shillings per lb sterling), makes it in 2008 $US 800.00 per lb of pepper (see Currency Conversion Page above)
    TODAY’s PRICE (wholesale) 1654$US/ton = about 7.7 cents per pound. Online pepper sells for about $10 per 4 ounces.

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