Walking Through History

The Nice Lady from the Legio X Fretensis

The Nice Lady from the Legio X Fretensis

Martine and I love attending the large military re-enactment encampment at Old Fort MacArthur in San Pedro. Last year we missed it because I was still in Iceland, but today we spent the whole day at the Old Fort MacArthur Days event. It’s not that we were interested in the shooting events with all their noise and smoke: It’s just that it feels like walking through history.

The Legio X Fretensis (“of the sea strait”) actually existed. It was established by Augustus (then called Octavius) Caesar around 40 or 41 B.C. to fight during the Roman civil war. It lasted almost 500 years, fighting in the civil war that saw the end of the Roman Republic, plus two of the Roman-Jewish wars in Palestine. Some elements of it fought with Marcus Aurelius.

In San Pedro, the members we saw belong to a group that calls itself an “educational service organization” whose purpose is to instruct people about the Roman army, particularly in the First Century A.D. I enjoyed stopping by their tent for a few minutes to talk to the well-informed lady pictured above. As you may or may note know, I am a Roman history nut who has read all the works of Tacitus and many of his contemporaries. I am always delighted to find people who not only are well read in the subject, but can add to my knowledge.

During the next few days, you will see a few more postings about some of the things we saw during the re-enactment. By the way, Old Fort MacArthur is not named after General Douglas MacArthur, but after his father, General Arthur MacArthur, Jr., who was Governor-General of the Philippines after the Spanish American War. It seems to me his son also had some dealings with that particular archipelago….


The More Things Change …

Roman Graffiti from Pompeii

Roman Graffiti from Pompeii

Let us say we were seated across the table from an ancient Roman and, say, a Viking. Aside from the obvious language problem, would there be enough commonality to allow for a spirited discussion? I think there would be, primarily because I have read enough Roman and Viking (I should say Icelandic and Norse) literature to vouch for the fact that, when all is said and done, we are not all that different from one another.

Let me take as a case in point graffiti that has been discovered from the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum. You can probably find the equivalent in any nightclub’s restroom wall:

  • Philiros spado – “Philiros is a eunuch”
  • Apollinaris, medicus Titi Imperatoris hic cacavit bene – “Apollinaris, physician to the Emperor Titud, had a good crap here”
  • Oppi, emboliari, fur, furuncle – “Oppius, you’re a clown, a thief, and a cheap crook”
  • Miximus in lecto. Faetor, peccavimus, hospes. Si dices: quare? Nulla matella fuit –
    This one was found in an inn: “We have wet the bed. I admit we were wrong, my host, but if you ask why, it is because there was no chamber pot.”
  • Virgula Tertio su: Indecens esVirgula to Tertius: You are a nasty boy.“
  • Suspirium puellam Celadus thraex – “Celadus makes the girls moan”

Now I have not seen the graffiti of Ancient Rome, but I saw the viking graffiti in the tomb at Maes Howe in the Orkneys. Built over 5,000 years ago, Maes Howe was frequently visited by Viking raiders in the hopes that some buried treasure could be found there. They found none, but left such observations as the following in their Futharc runes:

  • “Thorni fucked. Helgi carved.”
  • “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women” next to a picture of a slobbering dog.
  • “These runes were carved by the man most skilled in runes in the Western Ocean.”

You can find more about the Pompeiian graffiti by clicking here. The runes at Maes Howe are explained here.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Exit David Petraeus

David Petraeus

I am curiously torn about David Petraeus, who just resigned his post as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after admitting to an affair with another woman. This is not standard operating procedure in American political life. Usually, it is preceded by a sleazy denial, which nobody believes. And then there is an onslaught from the media, who troll for salacious details damaging to everyone involved, their families and friends.

No, either the General is a compulsive truth-teller or he is afraid of being blackmailed. Let me see, are there any compulsive truth-tellers in the military or political arenas? I suspect not. It’s too radical an idea for now.

As I said at the outset, I am of two minds about Petraeus. On one hand, he was appointed by George W. Bush, which immediately made me suspect him at the outset. At the same time, he is probably the most effective U.S. military leader since World War II. He reminds me of another general, some sixteen hundred years ago, who administered a decisive defeat to Attila the Hun at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains in A.D. 451. Flavius Aetius (396-454) was called “The Last of the Romans” for his victory.

Could Petraeus have won in Iraq and Afghanistan? I doubt it, because the enemy is hydra-headed. There are so many warlords and involved parties that, when one was beheaded, others would spring up. Remember when we killed the head of Al Qaida in Iraq? That didn’t accomplish anything in the long run. He was simply replaced. There are plenty more cockroaches-in-waiting to assume the job.

Edward Gibbon called Aetius “the man universally celebrated as the terror of Barbarians and the support of the Republic.”

In general, our times keep reminding me of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Today’s Los Angeles Times predicted that the Chinese economy would overtake us within four years. Oh horrors! (Not that it matters: By then China will be a polluted, smoking ruin from ignoring certain simple responsibilities of governance.) What with global climate change and the staggering world economy, there is an end-times feel to the decade. Not that we won’t somehow prevail in the end by dumb luck or changing our behavior.

Men like David Petraeus are rare in our society. Too bad.