Book Review: R. A. Lafferty’s The Fall of Rome

First off, thanks go out to Mike Flynn for recommending The Fall of Rome. Rarely have I enjoyed a book more, and suspect the stories and personalities in it will linger for years to come. Vivid hardly describes it.

Short & sweet: Stop what you’re doing, and read this book. Lafferty mentions in passing that the machinations of Olympius in the court of the Eastern Empire were far too complex for a modern mind to grasp. That passage pokes fun at the larger issue, that we are enslaved by our age unless we make the effort to learn about other ages. There are few more enlightening ages to learn about than that of the Roman Empire. It is a small, enslaved mind indeed that is not fired, humbled and saddened at the story of the Fall of Rome and the epics and, ultimately, tragedies of Alaric, Stilicho, Stairnon, Sarus, Singerich, Theodosius and the Empire itself.

IMG_3834Lafferty I knew of only from his unclassifiable SFF-ish short stories. Are they myth? Legend? Parody? They’ve been called tall tales, which seems about right, but hardly does them justice. The casual brilliance of stories such as the Narrow Valley make it clear we’re dealing with a really smart guy.

In the Fall of Rome, Lafferty applies his brilliant story telling talents to Roman history, which he clearly knows and loves deeply. Instead of a dry list of kings being born, fighting battles and dying only to hand power over to other kings who do the same ad infinitum, Lafferty starts with chapters dedicated to helping us learn who the Goths were and how they were ripe to produce so many tragic heroes. He disabuses us (well, me) from any lingering thoughts that the Goths were barbarians in the sense of uncivilized. True, there were more wild elements on the northern fringes largely outside the influence of Rome, but huge swaths of Goths, Vandals and Huns were members of highly sophisticated cultures with ancient traditions and technology as good or better than that of the Romans. (1) These ‘border peoples’ had been trading with and working in and for the Empire for centuries – and enriching it. The ideals of the Empire, especially in its post-Constantine form that embraced of Christianity, held a strong grip on their imaginations. Lafferty’s book is about the consequences of a lapse in that grip among a few key people, and how that brought about the End of the World.

Laferty also makes the point that we of European descent have inherited our foundational emotional relationship to the world from these border people, and not from the Romans. (2) He emphasizes the point in his telling of Alaric’s first invasion of Italy. While a battle raged, Stilicho – wiley doesn’t begin to describe him – sent a team to round up the women and families of the Gothic leadership who were, according to Gothic practice, accompanying the men at arms. Stilicho treated his hostages well – Alaric’s wife Stairnon was sent to live with Stilicho’s own family – but made it clear that the fighting needed to end and the Goths withdraw from Italy if the Gothic leaders ever wanted to see them again.

A true Roman would expect his wife and children to die noble deaths rather than be used as bargaining chips against the Res Romana, and carry on the fight. Stories, generally horrifying, of the sacrifices Romans were willing to make for the Republic and Empire make this assertion about their families easy to accept. But a Goth could not imagine a Gothic Thing that was fundamentally different from his family, making the very idea that you’d willingly sacrifice your family for an Empire, however conceived, incomprehensible. Thus, the Gothic leaders quickly retreated to Illyricum, and within a few months were reunited with their families. Alaric held out for a year, but even he eventually retreated and Stilicho sent his wife to him.

We understand Alaric and the Gothic leaders in a way we will never understand the Romans.

Aside: Before reading this, I would have argued that our emotional foundations were laid by Greek-flavored Hebrews via the New Testament and subsequent interpretation of the Old in light of the New. Much of the emotional landscape of the Pentateuch is very foreign, so that to get the emotional impact of many of the stories requires some effort, an effort we don’t generally have to make with, say, a Grimm’s fairytale. But once Greeks culture was sown by Alexander across the Levant, and once the Greek-speaking followers of Jesus converted the Greek-speaking world, the emotional landscape changed – gradually, imperfectly. The Romans – and the pre-Christian Greeks and nearly everybody else down to this day – would have expected the beggar Lazarus to crawl off and die, and would not have thought any less of Dives for having not cared for him. But the Jews got it. The Christians got it. And so now the world gets it, or pretends to. Likewise, Christians are troubled by Joshua putting conquered peoples under the ban – a notion that would have bothered no one previous, the only question being prudence.

Thus, 2000 years later, we are nearly as horrified by the cruel heroism of the Romans as by the treachery and casual bloodthirstiness sometimes evident among the border peoples. But now that Lafferty raises the issue, it clears up something I’ve often wondered about: the border peoples and other ‘barbarians’ were unable to set up anything like a Res Romana, but instead invented feudalism, which extends family obligations formally to what might be called the state. The problem is that the state is hardly distinguishable from the family, at least formally, so that lords are now fathers. A Roman could have fierce, self-sacrificing loyalty to a state he might not have any direct family interests in – he’s not related to any of the people in charge who might order him to his death. A feudal citizen? Subject? Family member?  is sworn into a ‘family’ so that his lord is his ‘father’ – his ‘Sire’.

The Patriarchal structure of the Romans might appear to contradict this, but it seems more of an along-side rather than an in-place-of arrangement: the local patriarch might be the ‘Big Daddy’ locally, but a Roman would see his obligations to the Res Romana as something only accidentally effected by his local patriarch. I think, I’m a good bit in over my head here. End Aside.

But some just wanted to see the World burn. Olympius, a master at manipulation and court intrigue, finally managed to bring down Stilicho. Then, in an event that makes Olympius into a Joker-like madman, at the peak of his power, having defeated Stilicho and seized the reigns of the greatest Empire on earth, he orders, or encourages, or allows the slaughter of the families of the tens of thousands of Gothic soldiers in Italy, by a Roman is for Romans faction. 30,000 Gothic troops defect to Alaric and Athaulf – soldiers who would have died under Stilicho or Alaric to defend Rome are now hell-bent on sacking it. And when Rome the unifying, civilizing idea was no more, and the dust settled, the new Emperor Constantius had Olympius clubbed to death.

I can hardly recommend this book enough if you have any interest in history at all.

Final aside: while much of what I learned from this book fit passing well into what I thought I already knew, I think I either accepted much less flattering descriptions of Alaric (who, BTW, I’ve admired for years) or, perhaps, confounded his story with parts of Atilla’s. Either way, Lafferty’s portrayal of the Great King of the Goths as an ultimately tragic hero is dazzling and convincing.

  1. From years ago, I had the impression that Rome came to be technologically backward, at least comparatively, by the time of the Empire. They seemed uninterested in technology as a culture. But I had not realized they were surrounded by peoples who were not uninterested, and had largely passed them by.
  2. A glance at a map of the migrations and invasions of these border peoples shows that we also almost certainly ARE Goths, Vandals, etc. in large part. Europeans were the muttiest of mutts even before they got to America.

Interlude of Updateitude

A. Man, Lafferty’s Fall of Rome is just so awesome and fun.  A few pages left, just – wow. Will review in a day or two. When I get back to writing The Novel That Shall Not Be Named (let’s go TNTSNBN, shall we?), I am so going to throw this book up on blocks and strip it down to the frame for parts – everything from names, relationships, character motivation are just so dramatic and involved, and the stakes are so high – Stilicho & Co are trying to Save the World!

So far, I’d modeled the relationships and motivations in TNTSNBN on the Medici, the Fords,  and other historical families, because just as all politics is local, all history is family.  But man, Stilicho is now just about my favorite historical character of all time. In an Empire of 75,000,000 people, Lafferty compellingly contends that the decisions of a handful of men and women determined the course of history, pushing the virile, civilized world of Rome over the edge when it could have been otherwise. You are left to speculate on what kind of a world – a better world, Lafferty leaves little doubt – would have ensued had only Rome persisted for another couple of centuries and further civilized and assimilated the peoples on the borders.

I’ve long suspected that, had Islam arisen and pursued its campaign of conquest against an even semi-coherent Rome instead of riding out of the desert to loot the wreckage of an empire, history would have been very different. Stilicho, one imagines, would have put a stop to that nonsense in short order. But we’ll never know.

Image result for orkney islandsB. Younger daughter just spent a week in on a farm in Orkney, on her way home from her semester in Rome. She’s caught Lourdes, Paris, Ireland (Limerick, I think) on her way to Orkney, and is now in London for a couple weeks with her aunt, uncle and a half-dozen cousins. From there, she and some friends are planning day trips to Oxford and goodness knows what else. I’d tell her my preferences – York, Salisbury, a day or two walking London – but I think she’s got plenty of people to advise her.

Image result for harrison clocks
Harrison 1. C’mon, it doesn’t get any cooler than this!

Wait – Uncle Paul’s house is within walking distance of the Prime Meridian, the Royal Observatory, and the Harrison clocks! Text message going out.

Then, from London back to New Hampshire to attend graduation at her college (she has friends among the seniors) and then, finally, home.

When I was 19, my entire experience with planes was taking a roughly 2 hour flight from Albuquerque to LA once, coming home from school. At the same age, my daughter has got to be pushing 100,000 miles of air travel, between cross country back and forth to school flights, a couple trips to Europe, and a few up and down the coast visits to family and friends.

She lives in a different world than me.

C. 93 drafts for this blog. It’s not getting better. 2 short stories *this* close to being done. One NTSNBN on temporary hold. One book on education history I’m going to feel guilty about neglecting for the last couple years any day now.

Maybe I have some issues with, I don’t know, letting go? Discipline? Success?

On the plus side, got a million words easy on this blog, and, after years of not even starting stories, I’ve got some that I really, truly could finish in a few hours if I can a) find the hours; and b) make myself do it. This week – 2 stories wrapped up. You heard it here.

D. Home Improvement Project proceed at their own very slow pace. After middle son tore out the concrete path to the front door, I’ve been sloooowly cleaning up and prepping for a small concrete pour to create the stable slab onto which I’ll set bricks to make a fancy-dan brick walk with a gentle slope up to the porch to make it easier on old people.

Got the frame and rebar in. Had to drill some holes and epoxy in some bars to make sure the porch slab, existing slab under already laid bricks and the new soon to be poured slab act as one as much as possible, and don’t settle unevenly, which would be a disaster. We’ll see.

Did you know that running a hammer drill at awkward angles to put in some rebar connectors is really tiring and hard on your arms? Who’da thunk it?

E. I’m just not a very good consumer of pop culture. I watch a piece of gorgeously pure pop nonsense, and am I taken out of the mood by preposterous fantasy fights and explosions? By tech that hardly even rises to handwavium status? By people routinely surviving falls, punches and explosions that are fatal times 10? Nope, that’s what you sign up for, as long as it’s cool. But Guardians of the Galaxy II, (review here) hardly alone in this, assumes people’s psyches are a hundred times more resilient as their bodies, so that no amount of abuse delivered over any amount of time does any really serious damage – well, you lost me.

It’s like arguing that things would have been all right if only someone had given Pol Pot a hug; that Che was just misunderstood; that Mao had a few issues a little family therapy could have solved.

The backstories of Nebula and Gamora are that, as little girls, they watched their parents murdered by Thanos, who then modified and trained them to be killing machines and set them to fighting each other every day. So they don’t get along. Now, after spending years as killing machines – after having killed many people, one presumes – Gamora just wakes up one day and turns on her fake father Thanos and becomes almost normal, while Nebula still has a few anger issues. But, when the time comes, these two hug each other and make up, and it’s all good.

See? Parenting, a stable home, consistent love – none of these are needed to be a good person! You just are! And no amount of neglect, abuse bordering on torture, or use as a tool by those who should love you can change that! Or, in the case of Thanos and the hundreds of Ravagers Yondu killed during his escape, you’re not a good person, and are therefore acceptable cannon fodder one needn’t trouble one’s conscience over murdering. No reason, just the way it is.

I’d love to believe that the writers were trying to emphasize the sacred primacy of human free will and just kind of over did it. But I can’t – in this world, today, the wreckage of families, the human debris of unrepentant and frankly unconscious egomania  has created hordes of Gamoras and Nebulas – and Peter Quills, Yondus, Rockets, and Mantises – who dream of saving the galaxy of their own families, or harden themselves to believe that they don’t need them.

It’s also telling that Drax the Destroyer is the one character who, in his digressions, mentions a father and a mother fondly, a wife and daughter with affection – and he’s the comic relief, and a bloodthirsty madman.

In general, however, GG II is scary. Psychologically, its target audience are people who, in their suffering, would really like to blow things up and kill people. I say this not from some lofty perch – I, too, sometimes think of things in my life that make me want to just beat the hell out of people, and I take vicarious thrill in watching comic book characters act that fantasy out. But at least I know that’s wrong.

Link & Roundup: Um, Yea.

A. Wesley Smith at First Things is hammering on the point I’m trying to make here about Science! in its capitalized and exclamatory expression.  I got into philosophy and the Great Books second – science was my first love. After a few years spent thumbing through every science book (we’re counting the Time-Life rah-rah Science! series as science for the purposes of this discussion – hey, I was in 4th grade) in St. Mary’s Whittier’s tiny library, I’d already more or less dimly reached the conclusion that science just can’t tell us the answers to most of the really interesting questions. (This also explains the brevity of my fling with Plato – the ‘I only know that I don’t know’ schtick gets old fast.) By the time I’d reached college, I’d honed my eye to a fine gimlet, science-claims wise.

Under the Science! category here are numerous examples of science either done or used wrongly, and most egregiously, claims made in the name of science that are not possible to make on scientific grounds even in theory – moral claims, for example. Smith’s fine essay provides the general context.

Janez Vajkard Valvasor - Bitka med Teodozijem in Evgenijem.jpg
Battle of the Fridgius River, By Johann Weikhard von Valvasor – https://share.upr.si/fhs/PUBLIC/mag-bolon/Glavan-Batagelj-Katarina.pdf, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30204617

B. Stilicho was not only more Roman than the Emperor and more Catholic than the Pope – he was evidently Klingon. Making my happy way through Lafferty’s Fall of Rome, came across a scene where Alaric, age 17, commanding about 14,000 crack Gothic troops in defence of the Emperor Theodosius from the usurper Eugenius, has spent a day fighting his bloody way through a narrow valley. He has lost 10,000 men, and reached the plains near sundown only to see a huge army in front of him. He sends a message to Stilicho, Master General of the Empire and his commander, asking if he should proceed into almost certain death, or retreat and rendezvous with the other forces.

It takes time for messengers to ride.  Alaric – 17 years old, remember – decides that in lieu of countermanding orders, he will lead his men into the fight and die. Just then, the messenger returns with Stilicho’s orders: Where Alaric stood “is as good a graveyard as any.”

Perhaps it is a good day to die.  These were manly men. Gik’tal!

(Grandfather: She doesn’t get eaten by the eels at this time.

Grandson: What?

Grandfather: The eel doesn’t get her. Now, I’m explaining to you
because you look nervous.

Grandson: I wasn’t nervous. Well, maybe I was a little bit
concerned, but that’s not the same thing.)

3. As requested by absolutely no one, I’ll be doing a final California Weather 2016-2017: That was the Rain Year that Was post as soon as I’m really sure we’re done. They’re predicting more rain in a week, so – not yet. The rule, as I understand it, is that over 3 days out, the forecast strongly converges with the almanac – if you bet season average, you’d be as close as any prediction. Exceptions include the conditions we had this year, where those atmospheric rivers could be spotted a week in advance out over the Pacific, and had nowhere to go but the West Coast. With those things, the only variable seems to be timing: when, not if.

In addition to being very wet, it’s also been cooler in general. The atmospheric river thing  does draw in tropical moisture and therefore lingering tropical warmth.  But that tends more toward mitigating lows than actually pushing highs much higher, it seems – I’ll look over the data to confirm. It’s only in the last few days that temperatures reached the 80F for the first time this calendar year – we sometimes get 80 degree days even in late February and certainly in March and April, but not this year until the last days of April. Now the forecast says 90s for the next couple days – not at all unheard of for May, but high. Then, it’s back down into the 80s and 70s. 85F is the average high for summers here, with 105F and 75F not being unusual highs.

Boooooring! The only point of interest is just how variable weather really is. From year to year, California weather can be dramatically different. The climate – weather over time – is perhaps generally dry and warm, but within that generalization there’s very dry, very warm, very wet and so on. ‘Normal’ is a fairly broad range.

4. Back to the Fall of Rome: Lafferty’s asides are both edifying and hilarious. At one point, he mentions that the political and palace intrigue conducted upon Theodosius’s death was too complicated to be understood in these simpler times. He mentions that, while we have assurances that the Church will endure, that doesn’t mean all its worldly furniture can’t be made to disappear.  And so on – laugh a minute, with the fate of the world in the balance and men killing each other left and right. Read an historian once who quipped that, by modern standards, all ancient peoples were sociopathic – slaughtering each other just didn’t seem to bug them as much as one would hope.

I worry that rising above that baseline human behavior is quite anti-entropic, and as people enthusiastically kick away the cultural props from under our modern restraint, social gravity, as it were, will bring us right back down to ambient. The experiences of the 20th century, even and especially in supposedly civilized Europe, are not encouraging.

 

Fall of Rome & Schooling

One may ask: is there nothing this dude cannot link to schooling?

No, there is not.

Reading the totally excellent and highly recommended Fall of Rome by R. A. Lafferty – maybe 25% through. Gripping as any novel and elegantly and wittily written, it’s how history should be written if historians want regular people to care about history. Just reached the part where Alaric, at age 17, is called from his schooling under the Emperor Theodosius in order to raise and provision 10,000 men and rendezvous with other troops in defence of the Empire – to a location over 1,000 miles away. He is given 6 weeks.

He pulls it off. (He had help, but still – 17 year old kid? Impressive.)

Alaric, leader of the Visigoths
Big Al. Not sure how historically accurate this is – probably not very.

But today let’s take a brief look at the school he was attending. Theodosius wanted to ensure the future of the Empire, and knew such a thing would take strong skilled leadership. So, he recruited boys from among the leaders of the barbarian tribes, and brought them together to learn, among other things, half a dozen languages, civil engineering, military strategy, and all the requisite martial arts – use of the various weapons and horses – as well as instilling in them the idea that the Empire was a good and holy thing worthy of a man’s life and efforts. These boys were told that any one of them might be called upon to lead the Empire, and so must be prepared for war, peace, diplomacy and intrigue.

Alaric was 12. He spent 5 years traveling from place to place to see first hand how all this worked in practice. He and the other boys were instructed by a number of experts, including the Emperor himself, and well as Stilicho, the great Master General of the Empire. They were introduced to and made a part of the Imperial court and family.

It worked, at least to the extend of creating a cohort of extremely competent leaders. Alaric was himself the most outstanding of the group, but the others were no slouches.

I’ll do a review of the book when I get done with it. What I want to do now is point out that what Theodosius did in setting up his school is both amazing and obvious. His foresight and thoroughness is amazing. Once he had a goal in mind, he chose the obvious way to educate those boys, indeed, the only way to truly educate people for a particular role: immerse them among the experts in that role. This is how we today teach such things as musical instruments and car repair: learn to play or to repair by actually playing and repairing in the presence of experts.

Alaric was by all accounts a very intelligent and driven boy. By 17, he had achieved a level of mastery of languages, engineering, diplomacy, warfare, and so on very probably out of reach of most of us – but we’ll rarely find out, since teaching such mastery is almost never tried.

A modern exception did spring to mind: the Russian School of Mathematics

Rifkin trains her teachers to expect challenging questions from students at every level, even from pupils as young as 5, so lessons toggle back and forth between the obvious and the mind-bendingly abstract. “The youngest ones, very naturally, their minds see math differently,” she told me. “It is common that they can ask simple questions and then, in the next minute, a very complicated one. But if the teacher doesn’t know enough mathematics, she will answer the simple question and shut down the other, more difficult one. We want children to ask difficult questions, to engage so it is not boring, to be able to do algebra at an early age, sure, but also to see it for what it is: a tool for critical thinking. If their teachers can’t help them do this, well—” Rifkin searched for the word that expressed her level of dismay. “It is a betrayal.”

Rifkin doesn’t have an Empire to preserve, so I’d imagine there’s less pressure in her schools. Yet notice the key feature: students are having direct personal contact and even relationships with stone experts in what they are supposed to be learning.

Imagine that.

These kids, and others educated in similar ways, then go on to dominate the world Math Olympiads for their age groups. Recap: math is awful, horrible, and hard, and we’re WAY behind the rest of the world – except for those taught it in a manner that is related to how people actually learn, who seem to both enjoy it and do it exceedingly well.

While math talent varies greatly among individuals, our school’s failure to produce many graduates competent in even basic math is not, I think, due to the nature of math itself. Rather, to see how it is taught in the standard schools, one would imagine the goal is to turn off as many students as possible to math. That’s how it works, at any rate.

Plato taught that true education can only take place between friends. We today lack not only the most basic understanding about how children and all people truly learn, the sort of intense, even passionate, friendship that has characterized great men and women through the ages is rare, denigrated when it does appear, and mocked as somehow unclean.  Thus, it seems, even the more restrained friendships that should be characteristic of the relationships between teachers and students is rendered almost unimaginable.

Aside: another great thing about St. John’s Great Books program: a whole bunch of kids with widely varying degrees of math training and talent are all thrown together to study Euclid. In small classes (12-15 people) lead by a ‘tutor’ (professor) everybody has to grapple with math from an angle almost certainly completely foreign to how they’ve ever been taught math before. (Among people who have the hardest time are often those good in analytic geometry – the beauty of the non-numeric, non-algebraic proofs is hard for them to see.)

Even the least mathematically gifted student will have that ‘a ha!’ moment, when it all clicks. They discover that it’s not math they hate, but the way they’ve been taught.

Books: Today’s Haul & Writing Update

(Working on that How Airlines Finance Their Planes essay, but, in the meantime…)

Yes, I know I’ve got piles of books still to read cluttering up my desk, my Kindle and the floor near my bed. Yes, I have even more books that I’d really like to reread.  But how could one pass these beauties up?

Books

From right to left: The Forest of Time had been in my Amazon cart for a while, couldn’t put it off any longer; speaking of Mike Flynn, he quoted from and recommended R. A. Lafferty’s Fall of Rome here, and it sounded so good I had to; and finally, I don’t remember who recommended the Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, but most likely it was that Flynn guy again. It, too, had been sitting in the cart for ages. Once you order one book, the next ones get much easier…

Meanwhile, I am so close to finishing this short story I started about a month ago! For the last week or so, I’ve tried the whenever-you-get-bogged-skip-ahead-and-keep-writing approach, and it has proved very helpful. Last night, couldn’t sleep, so sat up until I’d written the ending. Massive relief – I now know where everything is heading, and so, filling in the spots I’ve skipped and doing one and only one quick revision is proving much easier so far (woke up early and put another hour into it).

I’m going to put it aside for a few days once finished, give it another once over, then inflict it on my poor family. Hey, anybody want to read a story and give me feedback? It’s only maybe 6,000 words, not too big a deal…

Also, found the latest partial draft of a story I started a couple decades ago, which I liked enough to write it twice so far, each time deciding I didn’t like the draft, start a third time, and – it’s been there for a couple years now. Sheesh. But I really like the story, so, as soon as this one is done, I’m going to finish that other one. The good news is that I know exactly where it goes, lack of which knowledge has been the source of my petrification on many, many occasions.

THEN it’s back to the Novel That Shall Not Be Named, which – you’ll be shocked to hear – I don’t know exactly where it’s going, and so have become frozen in place. AND I’ve got to get back to Hegel and all that education reading I started.

Sure hope I live, and keep my eyesight and mind (such as it is), to at least 80 – because I’m booked (ha!) through then at least.

Creatures of Progress – 1

I’ve sometimes wondered if the relief the English Protestant leadership felt at the failure of the Gunpowder Plot was any greater than the relief they felt finally getting the enemy that they needed.  Guy Fawkes could very easily be portrayed as the murderous wild-eyed radical Catholic bent on the destruction of England – because he in many ways was. Not the ways, exactly, he was portrayed, but he was willing to blow up Parliament, the king and much of the nobility if that’s what it took to end the violent persecution of Catholics.

Image result for guy fawkes maskAnd that is pretty violent and extreme. Before Fawkes and his conspirators, the English Protestants had to content themselves with torturing and murdering the likes of Thomas More, John Fisher and Margaret Clitherow – the one honest politician and the one faithful bishop in all of England, and a young, charming mother. They also did unpleasant things like torture and murder aging abbots and nail their heads to the monastery doors, and torture and murder people who were known to their neighbors as solid Englishmen who meant none harm. These kinds of executions could backfire – people could get sympathetic, start wondering what side they were really on in this.

But after Fawkes, the game changed. Sure, the people getting hanged, drawn and quartered after Fawkes were still pretty much without exception much like More, Fisher and Clitherow and not much like Fawkes, but that hardly mattered. The type had been cast, and every Catholic who refused to go along was made to fit the mold, no matter how outlandish the Procrustean exercise required.

This is how capital P Progress progresses. As the self-appointed agents of change keep ratcheting up the rhetoric, then the violence, then the murder, eventually they end up creating the enemy they need.  All that is required is for some small number of people to decide one might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, and start acting out what they are accused of being. You don’t need many, just a few high-profile cases, and you can get back to murdering young moms, people who don’t hand over their priests fast enough, and the priests themselves.

Geats

On Thursday evenings, we have a little gathering at the local parish where, over the course of an hour, I attempt to go over the feasts and saints of the upcoming week. About 20-25 people show up, which I can only explain by mentioning that there are snacks, often prepared by my beloved wife or some other good cook.

 Figure 3 The landscape of 350 million years ago—Illinois under water.
Like the seas that covered the fly-over states 350 million years ago, my knowledge of history is broad and shallow, and infested with monstrosities.

These little presentations do tend to lead me off into philosophy, history, art, music, architecture and so on. Like the prehistoric seas, my knowledge in these areas is, at best, broad and shallow.

Hey! I spent most of a year at an art school! Been to the Uffizi – twice! I’ve read Tacitus! And Herodotus! More than once, even! And a bookcase or two full of pretty much random history, art and philosophy books. And – I got nothin’.

Even more surprising than there being 20-25 people willing to show up for this is that, repeatedly, I’ve been told by these dear souls that they *like* the digressions into art and history and such.

The snacks must figure into this, somehow, but it’s tricky to see how.

Image result for Late Silurian sea life
Monstrosities, such as lurk in the broad shallow sea of my mind.

The danger here is that – you, my 12.5 regular readers, will be shocked – I *like* rambling on about things I kinda maybe understand a little. There are dangers in encouraging me to blather, similar to the dangers associated with throwing gasoline on a flame, as observed by Dr. Lazarus.

Dr. LazarusThe other danger: I’ll be having a thought, know that I don’t know, hit the interwebs, and come up for air an hour or two later, my head full of half-understood, poorly contextualized (is that a word? Probably shouldn’t be.) FACTS.

Oh, boy. This is how I came to be thinking about Geats. Actually, not Geats, per se, but all those scary Germanic tribes that ended up strongly represented in the gene pools of just about anybody with European ancestry.

Image result for galaxy quest gasoline

And how, one might ask, did I get to thinking about Geats in a presentation on feasts and saints? St. Isidore of Seville, naturally. He was more or less a Visigoth – a Western Goth, as opposed to Ostrogoth, an Eastern Goth. The words Goth and Geat are closely related, along with a number of other similar terms.  Jutes might be Geats, too. There is no end to speculation, invariably the case when the topic is interesting and the facts few. Doubly so when smart guys are involved.

Anyway, dipping a toe into the shallow sea: in 410, when Alaric the Visigoth sacked Rome, the The Romans cut some sort of a deal where the Visigoths got a nice chunk of Gaul, the central western part, in exchange for going away.

The funny thing: the Romans could not have been sacked by a nicer, as it were, bunch of barbarians. The Visigoths had for a long time been mercenary partners with the Empire, fighting its wars and defending its frontiers. The Visigoths, especially Alaric, had understandably begun to think of themselves as Romans for all practical purposes. They didn’t just want the money, although they certainly did want to be paid. They wanted respect.

Alaric’s beef with the Empire was that they were happy to treat him like a Roman when they needed his army to save their necks, but treated him like, well, a barbarian mercenary when they didn’t. This did not go over well with Alaric, a proud Germanic king. After a series of insults and having to threaten the Empire to get paid, he started in getting even. He couldn’t sack Constantinople, which was well defended. Not that he didn’t try. So he went after Rome, by then certainly a second-class target but symbolically still the heart of the Empire.

But, as a Roman wannabe, he didn’t want to burn it to the ground and slaughter everybody, and so Rome came through the sack with surprisingly little damage.

And then Alaric died, and his troops move on to Gaul, from which they were fairly promptly driven south into Spain – by other Germanic tribes, who, in turn, were under pressure in the East from yet other Barbarians – Huns, I think, but don’t make me look it up! I’ll be gone for hours!!!

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Orange is the color of the Kingdom of the Visigoths – dark orange where they settled after sacking Rome; light orange for the greatest extent of the Kingdom; middle orange for the kingdom circa 500 – a half century before Isidore was born.  Also note the green area – the Suevi (except those that stayed in Germany and became the Swabians) were a scary but less sophisticated Germanic tribe that the Goths eventually conquered; the Vandals in yellow are yet another – they persisted until wiped out by the Islamic invasion.

So the oddity here is that the Visigoths were the high class barbarians by the standards of the other German tribes. They proved this by settling down in Spain and putting together a nice Kingdom, comprising most of what is now Spain and a good piece of France. Into which Kingdom of the Visigoths St. Isidore was born. And so on and so forth.

(The Ostrogoths ended up settling in – Italy. Along with the Lombards, the Germanic tribe from which St. Thomas Aquinas is descended. The Ostrogoths conquered Italy by defeating Odoacer, King of Italy, who was Scirian, the Scirii being yet another Germanic tribe. This stuff never ends!)

Geats, on the other hand, were Swedes – sort of. Beowulf was a Geat, probably. Their neighbors  along the shores of the Baltic and North Seas included the Jutes (Jutland being pretty much modern Denmark) , the Angles and the Saxons – who ended up in the British Isles, partly, displacing to some extent the Celts, who seem to come from Bohemia, who no doubt displaced the Picts or somebody.

It. Never. Ends.  This of course occasioned a search for a quotation from Will Rogers (I’m almost sure) about how there’s not a man in the world living on land he has any real right to. But I couldn’t find it.