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Inspirational Reads

Friday Morning Latin Lesson, Vol. CIV

August 24, 2012

August 23rd was not a good day in the history of the Roman Empire.

In a positive light, August 23rd was the day the Romans celebrated Vulcanalia, which honored the God Vulcan (associated with Hephaestus in Greek) because late August was the height of the hot and dry season.  Ask someone in the American west about fire risk or in the American Midwest about drought and you can understand why the Romans associated August with a deity who worked a forge and was generally symbolized by fire.  Though Vulcan was associated with Hephaestus, he was more of a fire god and was generally invoked--especially during this time of year--to prevent destructive fires from ruining crops, destroying forests and ravaging cities.

In the year 476, Rome was failing horribly.  On the throne was a sixteen-year-old boy who had been propped up by his father and seated as Emperor, an ineffectual lad named Romulus Augustulus (or just Romulus Augustus).  You might notice that his name is awfully precious:  Romulus being the twin brother who beat Remus over the head with a shovel and staked his claim as "founder" of Rome and Augustus (Augustulus means "least Augustus") being the first Emperor of Rome.  This kid was fated to do great things with a name like that!

Except, no.  Rome had already split at the time into East and West, the East thriving rather well in Byzantium/Constantinople/Istanbul.  The West had already seen the Franks, Vandals and various Goths sweep through and carve up large chunks of its territory for their petty kingdoms (all of this because they were running from the terror of the Huns, which forced all of the other "germanic" peoples west).  By the time Little Romulus' pappy had rebelled against the "rightful" western emperor--a bloke named Julius Nepos who fled to the East to save his skin--the Western Empire was in tatters.

Nepos was considered the proper Emperor by the rulers of the East--generals Zeno and Basiliscus who were fighting for the Eastern throne--but that didn't phase Little Romulus nor his father, Orestes.  However, neither Zeno nor Basiliscus were willing to commit any resources to ousting Romulus since they were busy fighting each other.  This left Nepos with no army to support his claim, and in Rome, when you had no army backing you, you really had no power.

Which is why the head of the foederati (soldiers who were not Roman citizens but who fought for Rome) decided to make his move.  Odoacer was a clever man and, seeing that the Eastern troops were busy, moved against the callow youth sitting on the Western throne.  His troops moved down into Italy and, as they began to capture more territory and exert more influence on the locals, his soldiers declared Odoacer Rex Italiae on August 23rd, 476.  This essentially sapped all of Romulus Augustulus' power as he no longer had the backing of any army, plus his now chief political rival did have troops willing to fight and die for him.

As the King of Italy, Odoacer moved to unite the disjointed bands of tribes living on the peninsula and, as a sign of his newfound power, began laying siege to the city of Ravenna.  Rome the city had been abandoned for some time by the rulers, who in stead had set up shop in Ravenna.  When the city fell, Romulus Augustulus was captured and the ruling power in the West all but collapsed.

At this same time Zeno was wrapping up conquest of the East.  After having fought a civil war in order to be named Emperor, Zeno was loathe to send troops into the West, especially not the save the hide of a child whom he did not particularly like, anyway.  With no army and no aid coming, Romulus Augustulus had no choice but to give up.

He did have one thing going for him:  youth and beauty.  Odoacer felt something akin to sorrow for the lad and must have liked his spunk enough because, rather than simply beheading him and being done with the whole ordeal, Odoacer allowed Romulus Augustulus to abdicate the throne.  As he did so, Romulus named Odoacer King of Italy.  Ever the polite politician, Odoacer allowed Romulus Augustulus to retire to the countryside with a hefty pension where Romulus Augustulus sort of...disappeared.  It's assumed that he lived at least another twenty five years or so since his name pops up on a legal document sometime around 500, but generally nothing else is ever heard from him since.  Hell, he could still be kicking around the hills of Campania for all we know.

The other thing that popped up on August 23rd--and this one is almost too coincidental to be anything other than ironic--is that Mount Vesuvius began its earthly rumbling and grumbling on August 23rd, 79 AD.  The people of Rome, who were in the midst of celebrating Vulcanalia to appease the god Vulcan who lived in a volcano (feel free to draw the connecting dots there) thought that Vulcan either wanted more lusty celebrations in his name or that he had decided to get in on the act himself.

And party hardy he did, too.  A day later, August 24th, 79 AD, Vesuvius erupted, destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum as it did so.  Noble, fat Pliny the Elder watched the whole thing and then died while trying to save people from the eruption.  If you want more story on that, feel free to read about it here.

I can't help but think that, during the orgy of wine and ass-sex that would have gone on in the depths of Vulcanalia, the forbidding orange glow of the volcano lighting the night, someone would have had some misgivings about the fiery mountain rumbling away in the background.  Pompeii was, at the time, the Roman equivalent of Las Vegas:  a place for the rich to go to fuck and party it up without guilt.  The brothels of Pompeii were some of the best-known in the Empire, and Pompeii was also one of the chief ports for the Italian peninsula, bringing in drink, whores and other narcotics from around the known world.  Despite all this, you'd think that someone would have looked up while they were plowing one of the choicest lupae (the Romans had lots of words for whore; "she-wolf" was one of them), seen the ominous fires of Vesuvius and thought to themselves, "that isn't right."

Or perhaps they'd turn to her and ask:

Sicut calidum est, neque hic est?
Pronounced:  "See-coot cah-lee-doom est, nay-kway hic est?"
Extremely hot translation in the hovertext
Fortunately for us in this part of the country, things haven't been as hot as it has been over the other parts of the summer.  In fact, they are forecasting that the Carolinas will be colder and snowier (dare to dream, fellaz) over the coming months.  I'm giddy with anticipation.  
Not so for other parts of the country, including the rain-starved midwest and the western regions which are mostly ablaze.  Take heart in one thing, friends, at least it's a dry heat.

4 comments:

SkylersDad said...

While the earth was moving under them, the guy was probably thinking he was just doing pretty damn well.

MJenks said...

Oh, good point! I hadn't thought of that! I'm sure Roman men were just as...clueless...about how good they were in bed as we modern fellas.

Wait...

Scope said...

I love learning these little history lessons. And for sure if there was a mountain glowing and rumbling, don't care how good she is, I'm in a boat heading out of town.

Eric said...

The Odoacerty of that guy...