Tuesday, August 28, 2012

 

All about History

Fritz gave me a wonderful little book for Christmas that's full of fun facts about European royalty, listed chronologically from AD800 to the present.  And by fun, I mean really around the bend in some cases.  So I thought that for a while, I'll open each post with an example or two of the more colorful high jinks of those who used to rule as absolute monarchs on the basis that they'd been put on their thrones directly by god.

-------------------From Timeline of Kings & Queens from Charlemagne to Elizabeth II by Gordon Kerr -----------------------

AD885  Byzantine Empire: Emperor Basil I dies in a hunting accident; his belt is caught in the antlers of a deer and he is dragged 16 miles.

AD 897  Rome: The remains of Pope Formosus are exhumed and put on trial in the notorious trial known as the Cadaver Synod -- he is found to have been unworthy of the pontificate; Pope Stephen VI is imprisoned and strangled following the Cadaver Trial; Romanus is elected pope but is deposed`three months later; Theodore II is elected pope.
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The book I just finished, Londinium: London in the Roman Empire, is the work of the late, eminent British historian John Morris.  He died just short of the final edit which was completed by a student of his who also included the latest archaeological findings to keep the book as current as possible.

A study of the founding of London, its rise to become the grandest of the provincial capitals and its decline in the two centuries following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire would be interesting enough.  Morris goes further and weaves throughout London's early story a remarkably clear, concise and detailed history of the Roman Empire itself, as well as its institutions that became the basis of British law and social organization.  London, he declares, was unique from the beginning; other Roman provincial capitals developed from existing towns or cities but London was founded and planned specifically to be a great capital in a land that had never seen anything like it.

Morris begins by laying out the geography of Britain, where agriculture and hunting were possible or not, where early people traded and the routes they established to do so.  When Augustus decreed the founding of London, those trade routes and fertile lands dictated the location of London, down to the placement of the first London Bridge across the Thames.  Roman architects and engineers worked with their customary speed to build government buildings, water supply, temples, residential areas and military bases. 

Just about all of it was destroyed in the amazingly successful rebellion led by Queen Boudicca in AD60.  Roman London rose again, in stone rather than burnable timber and kept expanding and growing richer over the centuries.

Morris reveals in detail the workings of Roman law to set fair wages, for example compensating teachers, depending on their rank within the educational system, up to 80 times the wage for day laborers.  A lot of the narrative is devoted to the Roman system of assimilating originally subject peoples and within a generation turning them into loyal Roman citizens.  Of the books on the Empire that I have read, none has brought home the immensity of the loss in national security, economic prosperity, international peace, or advancement in arts and sciences that occurred when the Empire fell.

I had no idea, for example, that the Romans had developed the technology for steam power.  This enormous advance, and the invention by a Roman engineer of a construction crane that was stronger and easier to operate than anything else in existence, were rewarded handsomely by the Emperor -- and were then forbidden by him to be used on the basis that they would throw thousands of day laborers out of work.

As Rome was divided into Western and Eastern Empires, London was protected by a strong city wall (above) and prospered as never before.  The western Emperors depended on Britannia to supply the Legions of the Rhine River valley with timber, grain, housewares, fabric, weaponry, wine and other goods.  As Rome began to become depopulated, the countryside beyond London's city wall filled with massive, stunningly luxurious villas of the increasingly prosperous mercantile class.  Some of these buildings covered an area of an acre or more and their residents established a lifestyle that influenced English upper class customs for centuries to come.

One of many Roman villas excavated in England, all of which featured elegant mosaic floors that provided central heating by a hypocaust system underneath.

Morris closes with a brief but informative chapter on King Arthur and his reign after the final withdrawal of Roman government and military from Britannia.  Unlike others who speculate on which tribal leader Arthur might have been, Morris presents Artorius, a Romanized Brit who made a great success, against considerable opposition, of reuniting Britannia and reestablishing Roman law.  It all ended with his death in battle and the gradual fragmentation of Britannia into separate kingdoms that were prey to invasion and migration from Ireland, Francia and Denmark.  But London survived and remained THE city in Great Britain to this day.

Londinium: London in the Roman Empire by John Morris (revised by Sarah Macready).  © 1982 Paperback 2005 by Phoenix Books, London

Comments:
I want that book of fun facts! And your post also made me want to read "Londinium" again; it´s been a long time.
 
Interesting details on a part of English history I know little about.

The second fun fact proves what I have always said; being Pope is a tough gig. It's not all brocade robes and smoking purses.
 
It's good to be Pope
I am interested in hearing more on Miss Boudicca; she sounds like a fascinating lady.
 
Thank you.
 
Poor Emperor Basil. Not a very regal way to go.

I also loved "Londinium." I read it quite a while back and am inspired to read it again after this post.
 
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