Tag Archives: Roman Empire

On the Virtues of Beards.

Villainy or Liberty?

Today a bearded man is often the villain, a malevolent force in a Disney movie, a Machiavellian character in a TV show, the man quietly asked to step aside for a detailed search in an airport. Facial hair has become a relative oddity in most professions outside of education, and has almost become synonymous with a hedonistic student life, extreme religious ideologies, or fringe cultures in society. Yet this was not always the way…

The Mark of a Man.

The Ancient Egyptian elite wove gold into their beards, the Mesopotamians and Persians admired well-groomed facial hair, for the Indians it was a sign of wisdom, and for the Greeks it was a sign of virility and was almost sacrosanct. Alexander the Great demanded that his soldiers cut their facial hair as their opponents frequently seized it to better kill them. And even though Aristotle adopted this new fashion, a bearded man was generally accepted as being a philosopher. The Romans really enjoyed shaving, having little or no hair on their body, except for a neat haircut. For them beards became either a symbol of achieving manhood, mourning, or squalor. The Romans may have seen the beard as barbaric, since they were the rulers of the ‘civilised’ world, and many of their enemies wore beards, and grew their hair long.

The Long-haired Kings.

The so-called ‘Barbarian’ kingdoms which replaced the Western Roman Empire were often ruled by dynasties which embrace facial hair. The Ostrogoths and Visigoths, which dominated Italy and Spain respectively, enjoyed long hair and moustaches. The Frankish royal family, the Merovingians, were commonly refered to as ‘the long-haired kings’. They even had strict rules about how long a man could wear his hair and beard depending on his social status. Indeed if a rebellious lord was captured, he was not killed, but made to shave his face and scalp, and cast into a monastery. Often such rebels would reappear several years later at the head of a new army, but only once their hair had grown back. The Carolingians maintained this hairy fashion, but their successors, the Capetians, had abandoned facial hair by the 12th century, and, with only a few exceptions, beards and moustaches were no longer grown by the monarchs of France. The Holy Roman Emperors also abandoned beards in the 12th century, by they were revived briefly in the 16th, but again went out of fashion. The rulers of the various Spanish kingdoms often wore beards, almost as often as they didn’t. In England, the Anglo-Saxons had a proud tradition of hairiness, which became a symbol of defiance when the short-haired Normans conquered the country, as it did in Scotland and Ireland. Even during the English Civil War, the shaven were godly puritan Parliamentarians, know as the Roundheads for their short hair, though they soon began to grow their hair long in defiance of the rulings of the Church of England. Peter the Great of Russia even tried to force the men of his empire, who have had an ancient and flamboyant love affair with facial hair, to become clean-shaven as a mark of civilisation, though many maintained a beard or moustache in defiance.

Catholicism and the Beard.

Why, you might wonder, was there a hiatus of facial hair between the 12th and 16th centuries, possibly the most religious period of European history? It may have been due to the fact that the Church began to threaten their wearers of beards with excommunication. Anselm of Canterbury encouraged the preaching of clean-shaveness and short hair throughout England, even though the king was fond of long curly hair, and punished Canterbury after the death of Anselm by allowing the see to remain vacant for several years. When the bearded Richard the Lionheart returned from the Crusades, he found his kingdom clean-shaven due to the influence of the clergy, which had filled the void of authority due to his absence. This clerical disgust of the beard is made deeply ironic by the fact that Jesus and his apostles are more often than not portrayed as being long of hair and beard, and that many popes followed this tradition.

The Modern Beard.

The beard appears to be fashionable, but not in fashion, in this era. The Presidents of the USA often wore beards, though none have done so since 1913. The beard vanished after 1914 due to the popularity of the clean-cut military look, a style which dominated the media of the English-speaking world until the 1960’s and the rise of counter-culture. This disdain for militarism brought on by the Vietnam War encouraged rebellion and civil disobedience, one aspect of which was a revival of long hair and beards. This trend has been maintained by students, musician, actors, and such, but the beard has yet to make a popular return to the Western world, probably due to its association with explosive anti-Western extremism.

The wearing of facial hair has become correspondent to immorality, and the clean-shaven has become the paradigm of virtue. In the past, facial hair has been a symbol of impiety, wisdom, defiance, and liberty, and as such it is to be embraced.

One cannot grow a beard in a moment of passion – G.K. Chesterton.

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Il Papa di Tutti i Papi.

The Rock

The  apostle Peter went to Rome, died and was buried there. Or not, depending on whom you talk to. In any event, the people who went on to invent the Papacy thought that Peter did die in Rome, so that’s what is most relevant at the moment. He was known the ‘Rock’ of the Church, the earliest known reference to professional wrestling in Western Europe. Rome was the centre of the Roman Empire and therefore probably the best place to try to convince the Romans to stop killing your mates because they believed in one god, not one for every day of the week, every event and every place; that’s what saints are for. But the Church in Jerusalem probably held precedence over Rome because of its connection to the person they thought to be most important, Jesus, not the Emperors, of which they may have been more than one depending on the whims of the army. Over time Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople all rose in importance, the last one particularly as the seat of the Empire moved there under Constantine, but there was no real organised Church until the second century. These five Churches held councils, organised picnics, and chastised heretics and scolded schismatics. Clearly this disunity and lack of organisation would not appeal to a people fond of building roads with no bends, rivers with no bends and empires with no bends. They were not a bendy people. They probably never had a law that said it was okay to steal food for a pregnant woman because she craved it, which the early Irish did because they were more enlightened about women’s issues. A woman could even divorce her husband under Irish law if he was too fat or old to have sex. Anyway, the Emperor Constantine decided he didn’t like the idea of a myriad different doctrines and discussions and arguments and bibles and such. Council of NicaeaSo he gathered all the bishops together in the city so good he named it after himself (actually he called it Nova Roma, but everyone else thought Constantinople was catchier) and told them to come up with one Church or else he’d introduce them to some pointy bits of steel, or maybe some playful felines.

Musical Chairs

What with Nova Roma being the new seat of the Empire old Rome was suddenly not the place to be on Friday nights. So the bishops of Nova Roma thought that they should be the primary Church in the land, but so did Rome since they held the seat of the Empire first and for far longer and sure they were ‘old’ but that doesn’t mean they still couldn’t be a useful participant in society and shouldn’t be ignored just because they are kind of forgetful and leave the lights on from time to time…. For the sake of convenience the Empire was divided in twain and a short while later a bunch of Germans decided to move in to the Western half. You’d imagine all the new barbarian kingdoms would bow to Rome and the East would follow Constantinople, but they were barbarians and didn’t know that’s how things worked and so made a mess of the very neat and unbendy empire. The men who would be Pope had to contend with the very independent Visigoths, Franks and Germans who generally didn’t like being to what to do at the best of times. The best example of that is of course when a Roman guard said ‘No, you can’t come in, sure aren’t ye fine where ye are?’ The Churches of North Africa and Spain considered Rome to be an intellectual backwater and so largely ignored it for a long time but then the Umayyad came to show them how wrong they were. On their way to Spain they also cut off Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem from the rest of Christendom until some men encased in steel decided they wanted it back. This left Constantinople and Rome as top dogs of the Christian world, or so they liked to believe at an any rate. Rome made a concentrated effort to become dominant in the West, often in collusion with powerful kings, like Charlemagne. Conveniently named people like Gregory the Great instilled strange notions like morality on the clergy at large because the reality was in the Middle Ages that a substantial amount of clerical appointments were due to politics and money and who you knew rather than how pious you were. Monks, abbots and bishops were often expected to not only pray for but fight in the king’s army, which one would imagine ran contrary to the whole Christian experiment. For a time the Popes lived in France under the control of the king, but eventually they moved back to Rome, because let’s face it Rome is a wicked cool city, where they ruled the Papal States as a secular prince, expanding their domains through conquest and diplomacy, which might seem strange to modern eyes but was the done thing in those days. There were Popes and Anti-Popes, a special type of Pope made in a particle accelerator at CERN, and splits and schisms and then a man nailed a note to a door which caused more wars. And now the priest faces the congregation and doesn’t speak in Latin anymore, which is useful because neither does anyone else.

Reality Check:

The evolution of the papacy from being one of the many leaders of Christianity to being the dominant voice in Western Christendom is a long a complex history involving the interplay between religion and politics, personal gain and true piety. This is over one thousand years of history in less than one thousand words so clearly the reality is far more intricate with many nuances.

Wandering People Are Dangerous

The Fall of Rome and of Barbarians

This title is somewhat misleading as historians still debate whether the Empire of Rome actually fell or if it just went on a weight-loss program, or if it just even changed its name to hide from people it owed money to. What really didn’t help was the fact that a bunch of Germans wanted to get into the Empire because it had super cool things like civilisation and toilets. Except they weren’t called Germans yet, they had much more fun names like Vandals and Visigoths, and the Romans didn’t really want them around. Modern Germans refer to the way these people entered the Empire as ‘Völkerwanderung‘,Volkerwanderung which means ‘the wandering of people’, which sounds very pleasant and friendly. Like having interesting new neighbours move in next door. Everyone else calls it ‘the Barbarian Invasions’. Which sounds like neighbours moving in next door who own loudly barking dogs, frequently steal the washing off your clothes-line and invite all their friends over for a party and let them sleep anywhere they want, even in your house. And then kill you and wear your head as a hat. To be nice though, most historians now call it ‘the Migration Period’ which makes it sound like it is some natural process. Like herds of zebra peacefully running around the Serengeti and building aqueducts. Which are then savagely attacked by vicious smelly dirty lions.

Vandering Vandals Und Visigoths

So these wandering folk quite literally wandered around the Empire for quite some time. The Vandals started off by traipsing through France before settling down in Spain and North Africa and then being a nuisance to Rome by invading every now and then. The Visigoths followed the Vandals around for a bit, decided Spain was far too nice for them and took it. Sadly, or happily depending on whose side you are on, the Vandals had more bad luck when they were wiped out by the Romans who had changed their name to avoid debt, the Byzantines. The Visigoths used to be part of the people known as the Goths but wanted to see more of the world and so left home at an early age. The rest of the Goths became known as the Ostrogoths. Very imaginative names, East and West Goths.Visigoth Kingdom The Visigoths were very happy in Spain and ignored everyone else for centuries because, in all fairness, they were only rivalled by the Irish for their high level of learning, culture and saintliness. They were even fond of making up their own versions of Christianity, just like the Irish. But they never had laws about bees and are thus less awesome than the Irish. They too were attacked by sneaky name-changing Romans, and the consistently aggressive Franks, before being wiped out by the Umayyad Caliphate. The other Goths fared a little better…

Goth-erdammerung

… Well, no they didn’t really. They had one phenomenal, and aptly named, leader, Theodoric the Great.Theodoric The Roman Empire which hadn’t changed its name hadn’t really been ruled by Romans in a while, but nobody really knew about that until Odoacer, a Hun, killed the last emperor and proclaimed himself king. Theodoric thought he could do a better job. He invited Odoacer to dinner and killed him. With his bare hands. Nobody really argued with him after that. Theodoric then basically re-established the Roman Empire to a certain degree, made treaties with everyone who was worth making treaties with and became top dog of Western Europe. For about twenty minutes. The Ostrogoths had basically been very annoying tenants in the Byzantine Empire who were told to go live somewhere else. When they did go and find somewhere else to live they were expected to be subservient to the Byzantine Emperor. This would be like buying a new house and still having to pay rent to your former landlord. Actually it would be more like your landlord telling you to kill his neighbour and take his house and then paying him to keep quiet about the whole thing because you want your neighbours to think you are actually very nice and that they should all listen to you because your sitting-room has a tv with the best shows. Of course here ‘sitting-room’ and ‘tv’ are metaphors for ‘Rome’ and ‘the hypothetical centre of the western Christian Church’. He built himself a fairly decent empire and then died as it all started falling apart, which is handy because the old landlord came looking for rent. The Byzantines went about taking half of everything the Ostrogoths had, and then realising that half of everything wasn’t actually that much took the rest.

These unfortunate barbarians had cousins. Ones who were very good at keeping what they had killed for. It helped that they were relatively far away from the heirs of Rome, the Byzantines, who kept asking for rent from people who occupied what used to be their empire. These peoples could happily ignore the Eastern Empire as they went about killing the locals and setting themselves up as kings. These would be the Anglo-Saxons and the Franks.

Reality Check:

While some ‘barbarians’ did arrive into the Empire in arms, a substantial amount were probably refugees from conflict, plague or famine. ‘Barbarian’ was a pejorative term used by the ‘civilised’ Romans to distinguish what they were from what they were not. These ‘barbarian’ people had a rich and vibrant culture of their own that had simply developed in a manner different to that of the Mediterranean cultures.

My Problem with Your God 5 – The Burden of History

The Bible was written down over a long period of time from a variety of oral sources, sources which a hardly the most reliable foundation for history at the best of times. But God did not begin with the Bible, Old or New Testament. Primitive man may have been monotheistic, believing in a simplistic and solitary sky-god rather than a pantheon of promiscuous phantasms. As humans grew more complex they required a more nuanced understanding of reality, which became fused with ancestral tales passed from one generation to the next, becoming ever more fantastic, provided early cultures and civilisations with a rich tapestry of spirits, demi-gods, city deities, and entire economies of faith. Judaism came from out the deserts of the Near East, bequeathing to Western Civilisation the ‘One True God’, a title which every spurious schismatic sect slaps on its derivative deified delusion. But even in this, even in faith and religion, through the discipline of history, we can perceive an evolution of the illusion of god.

By the time the Jews and their strange theology became a spotlight in the Roman Empire every other culture worshiped many, many gods. The Romans, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, and Celtic peoples possessed pantheons which fitted every niche of society; the Romans had spirits for everything from doorways to docks, from wine to winter. Some monotheistic sects did exist in this world, such as the cult of Atun in Egypt, Zoroastrians in Persia, and the cult of Zeus. The word ‘Zeus’ itself (in Latin rendered as ‘Deus’) literally means ‘god’. The Jews did not invent the one-god concept, and may even have had more than one over the course of their history. The Bible itself suggests that the early Israelites had several gods, one of which was the ‘God’ god. YWHW, the purposefully unpronounceable name of the god that became God, was the son of El, and the patron god of Israel. Going out and meeting the world the people of that particular god met other people with many gods. They may have borrowed the one-god idea from the Atun-cultists during their time in Egypt (where they were probably not slaves but skilled workers). On their way home to the promised land they lost faith in the one-god, and switched it for another while they wandered through the desert, which Moses was rather upset with. Later one group of Israelites would attack another for worshipping ‘Baal’, which was just a title (Lord) for the same god, in a war which essentially extinguish all other branches of the fait; imagine, if you will, if one of the Christian Churches declared was on all the others, and succeeded in annihilating them, and then wrote the history of the world describing themselves as the only true Christians. This monotheistic cult was reinforced when Babylonians and Assyrians kept conquering the people who were supposedly chosen by the one-god. In spite of having had the crap kicked out of them twice by non-believers, it seems that the Israelites decided that their god was not just their god, but also the supreme god of everything. Their reasoning may have been that since their god loved them and they were chosen by ‘Him’, clearly ‘He’ was using the invaders to punish the faithful; it wasn’t that the gods of the invaders were better or that the Israelites couldn’t form a united front to defend themselves. This is an innovation of a conquered people who seek to aggrandise themselves through faith and divide their identity from that of their conqueror. It wasn’t their fault that they lost, nor was it due to the victors’ prowess in battle, it was all part of ‘God’s Plan’. The whole formation of the one-god concept is very complicated and largely lost to time, but at its core it is the ideal that an exclusive club of people are the only ones who know the Truth, and that even though they are not in charge right now, given time, and enough homage to their peculiar fantasy, they will rule and all who oppressed them will be punished. An empty threat that would only work on those who believed in the first place.

Building on this religion of desert nomads and oppressed peoples, the words of a man executed, ironically, by the tools of his trade began a new schismatic cult. Where the Jews of the Roman Empire believed that they would be rewarded on Earth, and that the Messiah was a military leader cast in the mould of King David, the followers of Christ believed in the promise of an afterlife. This is an innovation of capitulation. Many of the early converts were from the lower classes, the poor, and slaves, and so the idea of a reward for their suffering in the kingdom of fantasy was very appealing. These early masochists revelled in the persecutions of Rome; it only proved their worthiness to their chosen fiction. And then Paul of Tarsus opened the gates of heaven to the gentiles and all of a sudden wealthy and decadent Romans could join in on this ‘eternal reward’ gimmick. Jesus’ hippie-esque peaceful protests and sermons of love were soon happily ignore as the One God of the Judeo-Christians found itself a new home in the armies of Rome. The popular cult figure worshipped by Roman soldiers prior to this was that of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun, which may have influenced the newly militarised faith of peace. Soon Christ became the official brand of the Empire, and an official doctrine was needed. So a bunch of supposedly pious men got together and decided, with some encouragement from the business end of a Roman sword, what everyone else should believe in. From this we get the Bible, and the Council of Nicaea. This Creed was designed to be, and is seen by the Church as being, a legal document which binds you to the one True Faith. It is not a prayer; it is a contract with God and its representatives on Earth.

Before long the Empire split in half, divided by subsequent emperors between the Greek- and Latin-speaking parts, which also caused a division in the faith. This eventually resulted in the Great Schism, leading to the establishment of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches. These two branches of the faith were imperilled by the rise of Islam. Roman Catholicism only really took off with the discovery of America, where it did a very good job of converting the entire population to its version of God’s Word by following the teachings of Jesus and living in his example, by which I mean sycophants and soldiers committed acts of genocide which rivalled the Holocaust. The Catholic Church may not had condoned such actions, nor did it condemn them, a rather ambiguous position for an establishment which sees itself as the arbiter of all morality.

Soon, a new schism arose offering whole new flavours of faith, ranging from the sour and super-strict to the laid-back and lemony. Many of these new Protestant religions were connected intimately with a state or king, so that not paying taxes became a sin, or were based around small independent, quasi-communist communities. Bringing Christianity to Africa became the fashionable thing to do, as Protestants and Catholics fought for the souls of those they would enslave. Christian faith fused with racial theory allowed European and American society to subjugate vast numbers of people it deemed to be in need of guidance and care, in a token of ‘Christian charity’. The teachings of the carpenter found their true home once more in the downtrodden underclass which dreamed of freedom in the afterlife. Not much has changed since then; Rome still dooms Catholic Africa to grotesque torture by allowing the HIV/AIDS pandemic to endure despite the proven effectiveness of prophylactics. Many Christian faiths rabidly oppose homosexuality, a lifestyle which is older that the teachings of Christ, among many other perfectly reasonable ideas, such as evolution, logic, and reason.

If the word of God was True and Immutable surely it wouldn’t have changed much in the last few thousand years. Except that we clearly have several competing versions of this ‘Immutable Truth’. Add to this the fact that the Bible, the container of Truth, comes to us not as a pure source, but as a text which has been copied, amended, edited and altered for the best part of two thousand years. Large parts of it are based on oral accounts, hearsay, and dreams, which is hardly the basis for historical accuracy. Compounding this algal bloom of confusion are the claims of each new version of Christianity which claim a novel interpretation of the teachings of Christ. Each makes claim to the past, espousing a nuanced version of history to prove their validity, or simply ignore reality entirely and accept the Bible as history. ‘The Lord of the Rings’ provides a far more convincing history of the world before the Age of Reason than the Bible, and it’s far less self-contradictory, though much less people die in it, and it was written by one man! Evangelical and Charismatic Churches are a new red tide which threaten to expunge all intelligent life, leaving only stupid life in their wake. Is this all part of God’s plan? Inventing new versions of belief in himself every twenty minutes? If so, does he suffer from ADHD, and can we give him some pills to make him calm down? No, of course not, that would be silly; you wouldn’t give Bambi grief counselling, nor demand Shiva attend therapy for it’s destructive tendencies, nor suggest to Santa that he has some kind of benevolent OCD because, and I cannot stress this enough, they do not exist. And neither does the Judeo-Christian God.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam

My Problem with Your God 2 – Morality

God is generally accepted by Jews, Christians, and Muslims Mosesto be the ultimate source and judge of morality. Some people of faith often look upon we who do not hold their God close to our hearts as being somehow inherently immoral, since we reject that from which morality flows. Many more see our rejection itself as being immoral; we reject that which is intrinsically ‘Good’ therefore we reject ‘Goodness’. I find this particular conviction of the faithful to be morally abhorrent.

Morality is a system of rules for correct conduct. The followers of the Abrahamic divinity point to the Ten Commandments as their exemplar for morality, built upon by Jesus and Mohammed (depending on the faith). George Carlin dismissed with these fabled tablets in an excellent and concise fashion, but for the purposes of this article, in short, the first three are nonsense about fearing the deity, next we have respect for one’s elders, which has little to do with morality, and the rest boil down to fidelity, honesty and murder, which do. These do not require divine inspiration; any society will arrive at some form of this system almost naturally.

An orderly society can only be built if people respect each other’s right to have and maintain property, and the right to live. Without these Commandments are we to believe that everyone would go about their lives arbitrarily stealing and killing? This would be anarchy, and yet the great cities of Mesopotamia, the civilisations of the Yellow River Valley, the Nile, and the Aegean were able to survive and flourish without God telling them how to behave. They may also have invoked the wrath of their gods on those who were immoral and broke laws, but that does not mean that God or gods were the source of their morality. God is merely the guarantor of this particular social contract.

We do not need Commandments. If these were wiped from history the social contract would survive, morality would endure. We would know that it is wrong to murder or to steal, as we can imagine how it would to be to have these things done to us. Quite simply “Do unto to others…” In a civilised, secular world the enforcement of this does not require a deity, simply a justice system, or even a strong sense of societal norms. People often point to, for example, the brutality, use of slavery, and corruption of Roman Empire, the Crusades, or Medieval Europe as being times of great immorality. This is an anachronistic assumption. The brutality of these people was perfectly coherent within their moral structure, and often affirmed by their faith. The sacking of cities, the execution of prisoners or the killing of religious zealots is looked back on with disgust, but were generally socially acceptable at the time. These people were not more primitive than we; they lived in a harsh world and acted in accordance with their traditions, social norms, and often with their faith. They were a moral people, no more than people of today, they just had different morals.

Morality is then a set of rules, largely accepted by a particular society at a specific time, which can evolve as the society or culture develops. It does not require God, or faith. And even then, the morality they preach is a corrupt and repugnant version of morality. To be moral is, basically, to be able to distinguish from right and wrong. Catholicism teaches that in doing ‘Good’, in doing God’s work, the faithful will be rewarded in heaven. This work is taken generally to mean being a loyal subject of the illusory king, converting more souls to join his army of faithful, and expounding his peculiar brand of truth. This is seen to be a morally good life. It is a betrayal. A truly moral or virtuous act is only such if done without the prerequisite stipulation of reward. In effect, you do the Right Thing because it is the right thing to do, not for riches and glory, here or in the ‘afterlife’. The faithful expect, even demand as an article of faith, to be rewarded for their deeds. This might lead one to believe that it is the faithful, not we atheists, who would descend into anarchic and bloody kleptomania without the promise of heaven. To do Good Things, virtuous and moral acts, are rewards in themselves. As Kant said, “Always recognize that human individuals are ends, and do not use them as means to your end.” Converting people, and doing good things for them as a means to your own salvation is a very cynical morality. This is the condition for entrance to heaven: use your fellow man. The ultimate commandment of the Christian God is ‘Fear me, obey me, abuse your fellow man, and I will reward you’.

Heaven

Stairway: Denied.

Atheism and secularism are then exceptionally more moral than any system of faith based on reward. They make no promises of ‘eternal reward’, or for the kind judgement of a fairy-tale king, but ask that we behave towards one another in a civilised fashion, with mutual respect and understanding, and without reference to capricious deities. They exist in the here and now, where actions have permanent and tangible consequences.

Children have to be taught what is right and wrong, and, depending on the time of year, an ultimate sanction, such as the dreaded Santa Claus, may be used to guarantee good behaviour. Fear is an excellent means of controlling the credulous. Adults (should) know what is right and wrong, yet the ultimate sanction still exists in popular culture. Bad people will go to Hell for eternal punishment, and the good will ascend into Heaven for eternal reward. Fear is an excellent means of controlling the credulous.

Grow up. Be moral for your own sake and that of your fellow human individuals, not for Santa Claus, the Bogeyman, or any other such fiction.

Ceterum autem censeo, religionem esse delendam