Diary and Commentary

Page 20


Not Quite the Gangs of New York

Honduras has a gang problem. Groups of young males band together and rob and kill and generally wreak havoc in the urban areas. They are called mareros, which translates as "gang members". A gang is a mara. It seems that everyone has a favorite gang story. Mine was on the front page of La Prensa this morning as I ate donuts and drank coffee. Some mareros crashed a local circus to rob the till. To distract attention from their crime they opened one of the lion cages to good effect. One of the beasts escaped and severely mauled a woman who was selling food. The mara made good its escape, but the lion was not so fortunate: a group of locals pulled out pistols and blasted away, leaving the king of the jungle in pieces and at room temperature. It made for a great newspaper cover---and in full color. (That is one thing I like about Central American newspapers, they publish any photo no matter how gruesome.) Right next to the dead lion was the mauled woman, bloody tissue hanging off her face and all. And on the next page was another gang story. There had been a gang war, and the two fellows on that page had had their 15 minutes (actually more like two seconds) of fame. There they were laying in liters of blood, shot full of holes, and very dead. Great photos.

I have been warned about Honduran gangs since my arrival here. According to locals they are omnipresent: Every part of the nation is subject to them. They control streets and districts and entire barrios, or so it is said. In fact, these mareros are really bastard off-shoot punks from a variety of US movie criminals shown on every Honduran TV and movie screen. Think of a rather slip-shod, crude and ill-organized Bloods or Crips. All Capone they are not. But they do have their own gang fashion by which the police can easily recognize them---not a very bright move one would think. They wear their hair long in back and short in front, fancy earings and piercings, tatoos and a rather tight-jeaned look. They look to me like short and out-of-work San Francisco bartenders.

Anyway, as kids will do, some Honduran youth try to dress cool and hip-like in marero-style, sometimes with fatal results. The police here do not read Miranda rights, and anyone picked up in gang attire is assumed to be a gang member. Once picked up it is off to the slammer on a one-way ride. The locals favor this tough attitude on the part of Honduran law enforcement, as they are usually the targets of mara activity.

All things being equal, I plan on spending much time in Honduras and would rather avoid running into any stray mareros. I feel safer in the jungles here, where the predators are different.


I read Saint Augustine's City of God. Without a doubt it is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read; read, not fully understood. (See here for a full list of the chapter headings.) It is at times very difficult theology, a discipline that will train the mind if engaged in regularly. I would not recommend City of God to anyone who did not already have a fair grasp of Scripture.

Augustine (354 - 430) lived a youth far from God, but converted to Christianity by 386 and then devoted the rest of his long life to the Church. His energy and output astonishes. He lived at a time when it seemed that the world was ending. The Roman Empire was everywhere threatened. Goths, Vandals and Huns pressed upon the frontiers. In 410 the unthinkable happened: Rome, the Eternal City herself, was sacked by a group of barbarians under Alaric. People demanded to know how this could have happened. Some said that Rome had abandoned her gods and so they had abandoned her. The new Christian faith was blamed. City of God was written in response to this charge.

Augustine wrote that Rome had suffered much more severely in her past when she had worshipped Jupiter, Apollo and the rest of that shabby lot. The ravages of her Italian conquests, the depredations of the Punic Wars, the horrors of 100 years of civil wars---all had occured before Christ. Augustine said that if the ancient gods of Rome protected her, this protection was difficult to see.

St. Augustine

by Sandro Botticelli (1445 - 1510)

But his book is more than just an apologia for Christianity, for Augustine brings in his great classical learning, especially of the philosophers Plato, Plotinus and Porphyry. He compares the knowledge of Greece and Rome with the Christian faith. Augustine believed that there was much to admire in the ancient world even as it whithered away. He was not one to toss out pagan learning simply because it was pagan. He said that whatever was true in the pagan thinkers was because they had somehow received enlightenment, however brief, of the one Truth---that of Christ. Augustine believed also that the gods of paganism were really demons. As such, they had certain demonic powers which they used to work miracles of a sort that would lead people to follow them. We know of course in Exodus where the magicians of pharaoh are able to turn two staffs into serpents. Augustine claims similar powers for all the gods in all the world before the coming of Christ. So then, many of the tales of Odin and Zeus and Hera and Mercury and Ishtar and Moloch and Mithra and Huitzilopochtli would have had a certain historical element. In other words, much of what we call mythology actually happened. Augustine writes that if these gods---these demons---had no power, then no one would have followed them. Would anyone have followed Christ if He had worked no miracles?

And so, on to Boccaccio's Decameron. Or at least a short look at it, for it remains mostly unread. Why? Simple: it is little more than short pornographic vignettes masquerading as literature. The Decameron is filled with fornicating friars, masturbating nuns, adulterous wives, priapic and pedophilic priests, lecherous husbands, lust-animated youth---and on and dismally on, a truly vulgar triviality, a non-stop celebration of mortal sin and perversion. Reading this piece of nonsense one would think that the only thing worth doing and talking about and thinking about and writing about during the Renaissance was...well, you know. Boccaccio`s work comprises 100 stories. The setting is the Black Death. A group of ten ladies and gentlemen (so-called) flee the plague to a villa where they while away their time by telling ten stories each---a decameron. Thus, the Decameron has been compared to Dante`s Divine Comedy, which is preposterous in the extreme. Though the Divine Comedy is also made up of 100 `stories,' or cantos, it is a secular and theological masterpiece, compared to which the Decameron is lightweight fluff that relies upon man`s natural concupiscence for its attraction. True, it is clever---but so is Hugh Hefner.

I also read The Count of Monte Cristo which is of course quite a different thing from both City of God and Decameron. As a novel it is full of nonsense, impossibilitites, florid dialogue, implausabilities---in short, it is ridiculous. We all know the plot: Edmond Dantes (the Count of Monte Cristo) is thrown into prison for life due to the envy of his companions. He remains there 14 years, during which time he meets a priest who teaches him all that he knows. Dantes escapes, locates an astounding fortune and swears eternal vengeance upon his foes. As a man Monte Cristo is too perfect: all-knowing, omni-competent, almost like a god, always appearing at the appropriate time. As a character he is unbelievable. But then, so are the other characters. They always speak as if on stage reciting Shakespeare. The plot is full of sub-plots and confusions and highly unlikely circumstances. It was a chore to get through---and even though I had the abridged edition, the thing was too long.

Dumas (1802 - 1870) fancied himself a bit of a Monte Cristo. After the success of this novel (1844) he built his own Chateau de Monte Cristo and lived a lavish and well-spent lifestyle. Interestingly, the The Count of Monte Cristo is based on a true story, from a crime case in France (1838) that gave Dumas his ideas. The facts of this case are almost as fabulous as those of the novel---but they really happened.

The movie was much better than the novel. The characters were believable and spoke as humans rather than as over-the-top dramatic actors. The plot actually made sense, though it differed considerably from Dumas' book, which I think a good thing. And Dantes gets his girl in the end---and of course gets his revenge as well.

By the way, the actor who played Dantes in the movie, James Caviezel, also plays Christ in Mel Gibson's  Passion. Thought you would like to know.

Update January 26: Hugh Hewitt saw Passion, and says that

The actor who portrayed Christ, James Caviezel, made a brief appearance after the film concluded,

and spoke quietly about his Catholic faith preparing him to make this film, and about the rigors of its production.

  I have interviewed a lot of actors over the years, and watched hundreds of interviews more of the men

 and women who play other people, and I have never heard such quiet and sincere intensity

 come from any of them as came from Caviezel.  It will be interesting to watch his career from this film forward,

as it deserves to flourish given this performance.


Random Thoughts

Howard Dean thinks that Iraqis were better off under Saddam. The little fool should have asked some Iraqis before making himself yet again appear jack-ass stupid in front of the entire world---or at least that part of it that has interest in the primary race in the US. For the first time in years Iraqis are able to make the annual haj to Mecca.

Iraq Pilgrims in Saudi Thank God for Saddam's Fall

Joyful Iraqi pilgrims arriving in Saudi Arabia on Sunday said they would thank God

 for ending the rule of Saddam Hussein in prayers during haj pilgrimage...


"I hope God will give Iraq strength and make it strong and united after all these years of

pain, sickness and war," said Thabet Karim Jassem of Baghdad, part of 300 Iraqis who

arrived at a haj terminal in the port city of Jeddah, near Mecca.


"I and many people are thankful toward the United States because they were able to release us

 and we will definitely never forget. I don't think any Muslim can forget this," he said,

standing by Kurdish and Iraqi flags beside the Iraqi pilgrims.


Mr. Dean, please go away. (But you will anyway after New Hampshire.)



One thing I had not thought much of before I took off last June was how much time I would spend sitting at a computer terminal in foreign lands. Keeping up this site has taken a lot of time---and also money, as internet fees are easily the biggest part of my travel budget outside of hotels. I am not complaining, mind you. Doing this is fun. It is a work of art and of the heart, of mind and of soul.


I saw a John Grisham movie, Runaway Jury,  here in Tegucigalpa the other day. It was typical Grisham filler: Powerful special interests versus an unknown, and the unknown not only wins but destroys the powerful. This was the background of The Firm, Testament as well as other Grisham books. Well how likely is this? Consider The Firm, where a bright 25 year-old straight out of law school manages to outsmart the FBI, the Chicago mob and an old and influential law firm. He not only gets away but is clever enough to insure that he will never be pursued by any of them. But tell me, how does a 25 year-old get so smart? In the movie I saw two Generation X'ers seduce an entire jury from the inside while at the same time outwitting a cagey old lawyer and a bunch of special interests. How did these two get such knowledge? They must be unusually clever---like all of Grisham`s favorites. Let us just say that Grisham's books sell well, and leave it at that. He has a winning formula for sure. (And I thought the The Count of Monte Cristo was implausable!)


Being the leader of an Islamic nation carries---shall we say---unusual hazards. Consider Pakistan's Pervez Musharraf. Here is what he said about his own job description:

Consider the situation I face. I fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban on our western border.

 I deal with Kashmir and extremism on our eastern border.

And I'm fighting extremism and terrorists within my country as a whole.

 I step on a lot of toes.

As for the assassins, I consider them occupational hazards.

 Fortunately, I have nine lives and I haven't used them all up yet.


His position is not unique, just a bit terrifying since Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Recent calls have been made as well for the assassination of Egypt's Mubarrak. In fact, Islamic history from Mohammed to the present  is full of assassinations, both failed ones and successful ones. These guys live in one tough neighborhood.




Come to think of it, most Roman emperors were assassinated too. For an example, from 235 AD - 284 there were 37 emperors, only one of whom died in bed. And of all the caesars from Julius (d. 44 BC) until Severus Alexander (d. 235 AD) 15 died violently. And truth be known, most of those after 284 were murdered. Still, the job never lacked for applicants.




There is a danger in Bush attempting to steal away all of the Democrat's issues and make them Republican ones. Given the choice, a real Democrat will vote for the real thing every time. Of course, with a war on our genuine Democrat might just vote for security over, let us say, more health care benefits. That is what the Republicans count on anyway.




Why I have to get back to the guitar:


Artistic talent is a gift from God and whoever discovers it in himself has a certain obligation:

 to know that he cannot waste this talent, but must develop it.


---Pope John Paul II

I will obey.


Political Economy Goes to the Lab

In Microbiology, Virology and Pathology there is something called 'Koch's postulates.' They were formulated by German doctor Robert Koch in 1890. He wanted some method to prove (or disprove) whether a given bacteria caused a given disease. They are:

1. The bacterium must be present in every case of the disease.

2. The bacterium must be isolated from the diseased host and grown in pure culture.                                           

3. The specific disease must be reproduced when a pure culture of the bacterium is inoculated  into a healthy susceptible host.                             

4. The bacterium must be recoverable from the experimentally infected host.

In other words, if you believe that bacterium X causes disease Y, then anytime Y was present X would also have to be present; and anytime you found X you would also find Y. And if you isolated pure X and inserted it into an area without Y, Y would then appear. If a case of Y occured without X being also present, then it was not the case that bacterium X caused disease Y. So back to the drawing board.

(This is a summation of postulates 1, 2 and 3. Number 4 only applies in the laboratory.)

I came across these some years ago while reading a controversial book on HIV, the name and author of which escape me. I thought at the time that these would be a handy way to point out some difficulties in theorizing in politics and economics.

We have all heard statments such as:

Capitalism causes unemployment.

Overpopulation causes poverty.

Fast food causes obesity.

The internal combustion engine causes global warming.

The existence of Israel causes Palestinian suffering.

And so on. (I am sure you can think of your own.) Subjecting the above to Koch's postulates leads to interesting conclusions. Take the first, that capitalism---X---causes unemployment---Y. This is standard third-world diatribe. For it to be true and not just propaganda ala Castro it would be impossible to find a case of unemployment---Y---without also capitalism---X---being present as well. Alas for all those capitalism haters, this is manifestly not the case. In fact, the most serious cases of unemployment occur not in the capitalist nations, but in the socialist ones---Cuba, for example---and in the Arab world where there is no capitalism at all.

Or take the 2nd statement. If it were true that overpopulation---X---causes poverty---Y (this is standard environmentalist dogma)---then those parts of the globe with the greatest population density would also be the poorest. Is this true? No, the opposite seems to be true. Or are Tokyo-Osaka, Hong Kong and Manhattan poor? Sure, you could reply, "OK smart a**, what about Mexico City? It is both packed and broke!" All too true, but then does that disprove the original statement about population and poverty? No. True, you have found the disease Y---poverty---and bacterium X---high population density. But you have also found X without the presence of Y. Koch's postulates hold.

You see where I am going with this. All of those statements fail to hold up under scrutiny. They are all false and easily proved to be so. There are fat vegetarians with cancer and skinny burgerholics who live to be 80; there was no internal combustion engine when the various ice ages ended and the polar caps shrank; Arab nations themselves persecute Palestinians. And so on.

How about playing around a bit with those statements---or even coming up with others? For example:

Capitalism---X---causes wide-spread wealth---Y.

What would our friend Koch say? He would isolate those nations that most vocally advertise their capitalist inclinations---the US, Japan, Taiwan, and so on. What would he find? He would find two things: In only those manifestly capitalist nations---X---would wealth---Y---be spread around a large percentage of the population; and in those nations that were manifestly not capitalist---most of Latin America and Africa---he would find that most of the wealth was concentrated among a small elite. Again, the postulates hold.

Or you could take postulate 3. Isolate capitalism---X---and insert it into a place where it had never existed. Think of Japan in 1945, certainly a nation that has a good claim to being the most devastated in history---millions killed, nuclear war inflicted upon it, then a foreign invasion---and all of this is a couple of years! After the insertion of capitalism---X---what happened? Y---wide-spread wealth--- later appeared. Koch holds still. (And now I have a headache: Writing about Koch---X---caused my problem---Y.)

So play around with these to your heart's content. And keep some aspirin handy.


I was in the jungle a few weeks ago and...

Call Me Nostradamus

The US is going into Pakistan. Why?

The Bush administration, deeply concerned about recent assassination attempts against

Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and a resurgence of Taliban forces in neighboring

 Afghanistan, is preparing a U.S. military offensive that would reach inside Pakistan

 with the goal of destroying Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, military sources said.


As now envisioned, the offensive would involve Special Operations forces, Army Rangers and

 Army ground troops, sources said. A Navy aircraft carrier would be deployed in the Arabian Sea.


The war widens. (And no, the US has not forgotten Syria.) Please do not forget that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Something interesting is going on over there with the full conivance of President Musharraf. Stay tuned...


Those Iranian mullahs simply beg destruction. Besides being the most terrifyingly misogynist regime in history---throwing acid on girls who dare to wear Western-type clothing, for example---they have gone beyond anything even I could imagine:

the fundamentalists have added another way to dehumanize women and girls:

 buying and selling them for prostitution...


  In Tehran, there are an estimated 84,000 women and girls in prostitution, many of them are on the streets,

 others are in the 250 brothels that reportedly operate in the city. The trade is also international:

 thousands of Iranian women and girls have been sold into sexual slavery abroad.

The head of Iran’s Interpol bureau believes that the sex slave trade is one of the most profitable

 activities in Iran today. This criminal trade is not conducted outside the knowledge and

participation of the ruling fundamentalists. Government officials themselves are

 involved in buying, selling, and sexually abusing women and girls.


Let us end this despicable regime using every method we have at our disposal. These mullahs must be sent to God.


Iran delenda est.


But this seems to run in the family:


The attack took place just a few months ago, and it was nasty, brutish and short.

The three young men brandished axes as they forced their way through the apartment door,

hacking to death two women who cowered in terror against the rear wall of their flat.


And what did the victims do to warrant such a fate? Well, it is reported that both of these women,

aged in their 20s, had previously spurned their family's attempts to force them into arranged marriages.

The more traditional segments of Arab society demand that women must serve, above all else,

as the subservient repositories of their familial honour. Any hint of sexual impropriety, or act of insubordination

 by a female family member marks the entire household with a badge of disgrace

that can only be expunged through the shedding of blood.


This happened in Jordan, a nation that claims to be more Western-oriented than its more Medieval bretheren. I wonder then what they are like? (I wrote more here on such woman-hatred.)


Man, this stuff just gets better and better:

A few days ago, a jury in Barcelona returned a verdict of guilty against a Muslim cleric

who had written a book advising men how to beat their wives without leaving marks.

Mohamed Kamal Mustafa, who is the iman of a mosque in a small southern resort town,

was sentenced to 15 months in prison and fined around $2,200. 


 He wrote that, to discipline a wife,

 “The blows should be concentrated on the hands and feet

 using a rod that is thin and light so that it does not leave scars or bruises on the body.”

Mustafa protested that he was opposed to violence against women.

Since this charming Muslim cleric lives in Spain I cannot blame it on the water in the Middle East. But then what is the root of such hatred toward women? A rhetorical question perhaps.


France's postion toward the war in Iraq in general and Saddam in particular was purely from reasonable and humanitarian motives. Well...

Iraqi govt. papers:

Saddam bribed Chirac

BAGHDAD, Iraq, Jan. 28 (UPI) -- Documents from Saddam Hussein's oil ministry reveal he used oil

 to bribe top French officials into opposing the imminent U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The oil ministry papers, described by the independent Baghdad newspaper al-Mada,

are apparently authentic and will become the basis of an official investigation by the

new Iraqi Governing Council, the Independent reported Wednesday.


Such evidence would undermine the French position before the war when President

 Jacques Chirac sought to couch his opposition to the invasion on a moral high ground.

I wrote about this way back in April. Nice to see the media catching up. Good job guys!

Bu there are more culprits:

Al-Mada's list cites a total of 46 individuals, companies and organizations inside and outside Iraq

 as receiving Saddam's oil bribes, including officials in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates,

 Turkey, Sudan, China, Austria and France, as well as the Russian Orthodox Church,

 the Russian Communist Party, India's Congress Party and the Palestine Liberation Organization.


I also wrote about some of these these folks here---also way back in April. And here is how I described Iraq on April 27:


All this is only the beginning, the revelation of a few documents out of millions.

What it shows is that the regime of Saddam Hussein was the largest criminal enterprise in the world

and one of the largest in history. It was indeed evil---just as Mr. Bush said it was.


Saddam ran Iraq the same way that Al Capone ran Cicero, Illinois---as a criminal enterprise. Like Al, he ended up in an American jail. Al died of syphilis after his release, but our friend Saddam will surely hang.







I just returned from a whirlwind trip to Santiago de Chile. It was one of the highlights of my sabbatical---but about which more in due course. I traveled with Grupo Taca, a consortium of Central and South American airlines. They combined to compete with United, Delta and all the rest of that ferociously capitalist gang. They have done well. Not only do they fly to some of the more out-of-the-way places that I ventue to, but they are inexpensive, offer fine food and have prettier stewardesses than the USA companies---not too difficult to arrange, truth be told.


I should mention that I took only a small bag which I put in the overhead bins in the airplanes. It was a revelation to travel so lightly. Solo backpacking through Latin America demands equipment---lots of it in fact---and much of it is bulky and heavy. I normally have two big duffel bags, which are always an amusing site to the locals. Most travelers have a backpack and not much more, whereas I can usually be seen lugging those damn heavy bags here and there. Thank God that there are always hordes of kids at bus stops who will help me carry those things---for a price, of course. Fine with me. (I wrote 'damn heavy bags'---but actually once I get walking all that gear allows me to accomplish what I set out to accomplish. I use it all, and some of it has saved my life. So perhaps I should write 'blessed heavy bags'---or something like that---as their contents have been loyal friends.)


Flying into Tegucigalpa was like returning home, oddly enough. There is much I have to do in Honduras, and I am anxious to get going and climb some mountains---OK, what passes for them here---and spend night after night in my tent. The two mountains upon which I have set my heart are Celaque and Babilonia. Almost time to go...but first: spend hours writing on my site, schedule transportation to Gracias (the entry point for Celaque), shop for food, pick up some fuel and load my gear. Monte Celaque is in Western Honduras; Monte Babilonia is to the north near Catacamas and Juticalpa. This one will actually serve as a reconnaissance for the main adventure of this part of my sabbatical, the journey into the jungles of the Mosquito Coast---known as Miskitia.


Sometime around April 1st I will return from Costa Rica and again travel to Catacamas. From here begins a tough overland route through Dulce Nombre de Culmi and on to a mule track that leads to Paya. From here it will be a five to six day's walk through mountains and jungles to Sico, a village I have visited before. If I am to perish during my 'year of living dangerously' it will be somewhere along this route. Trust me, this is tough country and completely free of any sort of law enforcement. I had some trouble near here six years ago with some locals. Christ will guide me, and His will be done. I need to be---I will be---in the best physical and spiritual condition of my life.


Sico is on a river that connects with the Rivers Platano and Paulaya. These are in the heart of Miskitia---the largest jungle area north of the Amazon---and where the Golden Monkey God of the Chorotegas and the Lost White City of the Maya are believed to be hidden. We will see. From Sico there is a jungle route to the coast, along which one can literally walk 300 kilometers east or west if he be an idiot. Anyway, I do not mean to imply that all of this journey is worked out---far from it. As always, there will be surprises---some good, some very unpleasant. I have been dreaming of this for 15 years, and I will not be deterred save by Christ Himself. Stay tuned.


You should know that in most of Central America, as in the Andean nations of South America, one can walk literally anywhere. The locals do all the time---but of course they have no real choice. There are footpaths and mule trails wherever one wants to go. Purify all water, carry all of your food, be overly friendly, camp away from villages, cover as much of your body as you can against ticks, scorpions, spiders and mosquitos, watch where you place your hands as it is best not to grab hold of a snake, take good care when crossing rivers---they tend to be alligator infested--- and keep your wits about you. If you travel without a machete and a very good and long and sharp hunting knife, you are a fool and deserve what comes your way. Oh, and do not wander about at night unless you want a close encounter with a cat. But then, these felines might track you during the day as well. As I said, keep your wits about you.





When Russell Crowe as Maximus killed Joaquin Phoenix as Commodus, it seemed as if all would be right with Rome again. Actually, in the real world of Roman history about all went downhill after that. Historians speak of the period from Nerva to Marcus Aurelius (AD 96 - 180) as a 'golden age' of Rome. Emperors, following the precedent set by Nerva, adopted their successors, usually the best man available for the job. Before then  emperors had come from a few families---the Julio-Claudians and the Flavians in the main---although this did not prevent palace murders and attempted coups. During the golden age---also known as the age of the 'Five Good Emperors'---Rome was remarkable for its political stability, and she enjoyed a lack of serious foreign policy challenges.


This began to change during the reign of Marcus Aurelius (161 - 180). He had the misfortune to father a son, the notorious Commodus. But there was trouble brewing on the frontiers as well. For reasons not well understood the German tribes across the Rhine and Danube---the Marcomani, Jazges, Alemanni and Quadi---began a volkerwanderung of immense proportions. Hundreds of thousands of Germans began to press upon the Roman world, a flood of barbarous humanity that eventually was to overwhelm the empire. But not just yet, for Marcus Aurelius---who preferred philosophy and books to war---took the field. Those Germanic Wars lasted almost his entire reign, and were wars of extermination. The Romans killed as many as they could, sometimes by lining captives up and cutting off their heads by the tens of thousands. When Marcus died, the wars were nearing their end, with Rome almost everywhere victorious. But Commodus came to power, and this 18 year-old son of Marcus signed a treaty with the Germans. Commodus wanted little more than to enjoy his power, and not from some frozen battlefield but in the city of Rome herself.


The time from Commodus until Rome's fall in the west (476) witnessed a drastic chage in the political and cultural make-up of the empire. What eventually emerged after two centuries of invasions, civil wars, incompetent leaders, assassinations, economic dislocation and barbarian inroads would have been unrecognizable to Augustus or Nerva. The empire changed into a frank military despotism, and her caesars adopted the ruling habits of the East: gaudy diadems, flowing robes of purple, a eunuch-infested palace full of intrigue and treachery, a horde of obsequious and sycophantic coutiers always at hand, and an army composed mainly of barbarians in various states of Romanization.


This is the world that Ammianus Marcellinus writes about in his History of the Later Roman Empire. He was himself a participant in the eevnts he relates. A Greek by birth, a soldier by trade, and a historian by inclination, he covers the time from the Emperor Constantius II until the Emperor Valens, from 354 - 378, and is almost  our only source for this turbulent era. The 'grandeur that was Rome' still shows her head from time to time, especially in military affairs, as she is still nearly invincible---until the disaster of Adrianople (378). What happened in Ammianus' time was another great movement of Germanic peoples, and this time we know the reasons for it. Around 221 BC the Chinese had built a wall to keep out the barbarous Huns and other horse peoples. It was more or less successful, but these peoples simply traveled West and pushed against a number of other peoples who inhabited the regions toward the borders of Rome 5000  miles away. By the  mid-4th century the peoples closest to Rome---Goths, Vandals, Alans---were hard pressed by the Huns. Ammianus describes them as terrifylingly uncivilized:

The people called Huns...are a race savage beyond all parallel. At the very moment of birth the cheeks of their infant children are deeply marked by an iron, in order that the hair instead of growing at the proper season on their faces, may be hindered by the scars; accordingly the Huns grow up without beards, and without any beauty. They all have closely knit and strong limbs and plump necks; they are of great size, and low legged, so that you might fancy them two-legged beasts...

They are certainly in the shape of men, however uncouth, and are so hardy that they neither require fire nor well flavored food, but live on the roots of such herbs as they get in the fields, or on the half-raw flesh of any animal, which they merely warm rapidly by placing it between their own thighs and the backs of their horses.

They never shelter themselves under roofed houses, but avoid them, as people ordinarily avoid sepulchers as things not fit for common use. Nor is there even to be found among them a cabin thatched with reeds; but they wander about, roaming over the mountains and the woods, and accustom themselves to bear frost and hunger and thirst from their very cradles....

It was the fate of all the emperors in Ammianus' work to deal with the tremendous dislocations on the frontiers of Rome caused by the Huns. A disproportionate amount of writing is devoted to Julian (361 - 363), known to us as the Apostate. Julian was competent but a hater of things Christian. He fantasized that he could reanimate the dead pagan religion, and to that end reintroduced pagan sacrifice of animals, the worship of dead gods and the searching for future events in entrails and the movements of birds. When Julian died at the end of a Persian spear few mourned. His reign was truly the last gasp of paganism until our modern era.


But it is the battle of Adrianople (378) that brings Ammianus' descriptive power to bear. The Goths asked permission of the emperor Valens (364  - 378) to settle in Roman territory to escape the depredations of the Huns. The Goths promised to enroll in the Roman army and to assist in any way the empire in its struggles against other barbarian tribes. Valens agreed, but the Roman officials sent to supervise the gradual absorbtion of the Goths into Roman territory abused without mercy these Goths. After one year the Goths rose up against the Romans in an orgy of rapine and bloodshed. Valens himself went to destroy them, but was woefully unprepared and entirely overconfident. It was a Roman defeat not seen since the battle of Cannae (216 BC). Rome lost 20,000 troops and Valens himself was killed, a thing almost without precedent. But let Ammianus speak at length:

And while arms and missiles of all kinds were meeting in fierce conflict, and Bellona, blowing her mournful trumpet, was raging more fiercely than usual, to inflict disaster on the Romans, our men began to retreat; but presently, roused by the reproaches of their officers, they made a fresh stand, and the battle increased like a conflagration, terrifying our soldiers, numbers of whom were pierced by strokes from the javelins hurled at them, and from arrows. Then the two lines of battle dashed against each other, like the beaks of ships, and thrusting with all their might, were tossed to and fro, like the waves of the sea. Our left wing had advanced actually up to the wagons, with the intent to push on still further if they were properly supported; but they were deserted by the rest of the cavalry, and so pressed upon by the superior numbers of the enemy, that they were overwhelmed and beaten down, like the ruin of a vast rampart. Presently our infantry also was left unsupported, while the different companies became so huddled together that a soldier could hardly draw his sword, or withdraw his hand after he had once stretched it out. And by this time such clouds of dust arose that it was scarcely possible to see the sky, which resounded with horrible cries; and in consequence, the darts, which were bearing death on every side, reached their mark, and fell with deadly effect, because no one could see them beforehand so as to guard against them.

But when the barbarians, rushing on with their enormous host, beat down our horses and men, and left no spot to which our ranks could fall back to deploy, while they were so closely packed that it was impossible to escape by forcing a way through them, our men at last began to despise death, and again took to their swords and slew all they encountered, while with mutual blows of battle-axes, helmets and breastplates were dashed in pieces. Then you might see the barbarian towering in his fierceness, hissing or shouting, fall with his legs pierced through, or his right hand cut off, sword and all, or his side transfixed, and still, in the last gasp of life, casting round him defiant glances. The plain was covered with carcasses, strewing the mutual ruin of the combatants; while the groans of the dying, or of men fearfully wounded, were intense, and caused great dismay all around.

Amidst all this great tumult and confusion our infantry were exhausted by toil and danger, until at last they had neither strength left to fight, nor spirits to plan anything; their spears were broken by the frequent collisions, so that they were forced to content themselves with their drawn swords, which they thrust into the dense battalions of the enemy, disregarding their own safety, and seeing that every possibility of escape was cut off from them. The ground, covered with streams of blood, made their feet slip, so that all they endeavored to do was to sell their lives as dearly as possible; and with such vehemence did they resist their enemies who pressed on them, that some were even killed by their own weapons. At last one black pool of blood disfigured everything, and wherever the eye turned, it could see nothing but piled up heaps of dead, and lifeless corpses trampled on without mercy.

After Adrianople the reputation of the invincibility of Roman arms suffered an irreversible decline. There were fewer and fewer victories as the barbarians poured into the empire. The Eternal City herself was sacked in 410 and 455, and by 476 Rome was so thoroughly barbarized that scarcely anyone could tell the difference when the last Roman emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed by the Ostrogoth Odoacer in 476.

As Ammianus tells it,

In this way, through the turbulent zeal of violent people, the ruin of the Roman Empire was brought about.


But Rome in the east at Constantinople continued for another 1000 years---which will be the subject of my next review of books, those of Michael Psellus and Anna Comnena. Stay tuned.


Romans and Germans engaged in mutual slaughter.

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