Monday, November 27, 2017

"Thou art just, O Lord, and thy judgments are righteous" ~ The deposition and execution of the Roman emperor Maurice and his family

Bronze follis showing the likeness of Maurice.
November 27 marks the anniversary of one of the most cruel and lamentable acts in all of human history -- the execution of the Eastern Roman Emperor Maurice, and five of his six sons, at the hands of the usurper Phocas in AD 602. Having been proclaimed as emperor by the Balkan army who had numerous grievances against Maurice, Phocas entered Constantinople with the assent of the people, and Maurice and the imperial family fled. Their ship was forced ashore by a storm, however, and they sought sanctuary in a church near Chalcedon across the strait from Constantinople.

According to Gibbon, whose account of the events are based largely on the History of Theophylact Simocatta and the Chronographia of Theophanes, Maurice resigned himself to prayer: 
"He patiently awaited the event of the revolution, and addressed a fervent and public prayer to the Almighty, that the punishment of his sins might be inflicted in this world rather than in a future life."
Far from comfortable on his new throne, Phocas was soon reminded of his insecurity by the factions in the Hippodrome. Gibbon continues:
"On the third day, amidst the acclamations of a thoughtless people, Phocas made his public entry in a chariot drawn by four white horses. The revolt of the troops was rewarded by a lavish donative, and the new sovereign, after visiting the palace, beheld from his throne the games of the hippodrome. In a dispute of precedency between the two factions, his partial judgment inclined in favor of the greens. 'Remember that Maurice is still alive,' resounded from the opposite side, and the indiscreet clamor of the blues admonished and stimulated the cruelty of the tyrant."
With this explicit threat offered by the fickle factions echoing in his ears, Phocas wasted no more time:
"The ministers of death were dispatched to Chalcedon. They dragged the emperor from his sanctuary, and the five sons of Maurice were successively murdered before the eyes of their agonizing parent. At each stroke, which he felt in his heart, he found strength to rehearse a pious ejaculation: 'Thou art just, O Lord! and thy judgments are righteous.'...
...The tragic scene was finally closed by the execution of the emperor himself, in the twentieth year of his reign, and the sixty-third of his age. 
The bodies of the father and his five sons were cast into the sea. Their heads were exposed at Constantinople to the insults or pity of the multitude, and it was not till some signs of putrefaction had appeared, that Phocas connived at the private burial of these venerable remains. In that grave, the faults and errors of Maurice were kindly interred. His fate alone was remembered, and at the end of twenty years, in the recital of the history of Theophylact, the mournful tale was interrupted by the tears of the audience. [Gibbon: HDFRE, Chapter XLVI. 
In total, Maurice had six sons and three daughters. His younger sons—Tiberius, Petrus, Paulus, Justin, and Justinian—were all killed in front of him at the waterfront in Chalcedon, immediately prior to his own execution. Most of them were mere children at the time of their deaths.

Maurice's wife, Constantina, and their three daughters—Anastasia, Theoctista, and Cleopatra—were allowed to live, confined to a monastery. Three years later, Constantina would attempt a conspiracy against Phocas. Unfortunately, she was betrayed and as a result, she and her three daughters were slain on the same jetty where her husband and sons were previously executed.

Bronze follis showing Maurice and Constantina, obverse with Theodosius on the reverse.
Maurice's eldest son, Theodosius, was co-Augustus from AD 590. At the time of Phocas's rebellion in 602, Theodosius was sent to Persia to beg the assistance of Chosroes II. History says that Theodosius was apprehended by the minions of Phocas and executed a few days after his father and brothers. However, a legend relates that he survived and went into hiding. Later, someone calling himself "Theodosius" re-emerged at the side of Chosroes II who used this imposter as a pretext to invade the Roman Empire, eventually leading to the downfall of Phocas.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

USS Baltimore heading for home from Yokohama in 1895.

USS Baltimore flying the "Homeward Bounder" from the
foremast from Three Years Behind the Guns.
For Thanksgiving, here is an excerpt from the excellent memoir of US navy life near the turn of the 20th century, Three Years Behind the Guns. In this passage, we catch a glimpse of how landsman John B. Tisdale spent his first holidays abroad aboard USS Olympia. There is a tinge of melancholy to his words as he and his fellows watch the joyous departure of their companion, USS Baltimore, from Yokohama, flying the "homeward bounder." 

While reading, we should spare a prayer for our good and honorable service men who are spending this Thanksgiving encamped in hostile lands. May all of them be protected by the hand of Almighty God and brought safely home to their loved ones in America.
All night long, unceasingly, in feathery flakes the snow had fallen. At daybreak I should have thought the magic of the night had transplanted us to the Arctic, only there was the undeniable outline of the sacred mountain. It seemed that the old volcano had belched in the night, for the white of his crest had run down over his sides even to the water edge, while on the shore not a red tile remained. The steps of the hettabas and the roofs of our turrets were alike upholstered in ermine. From sky to sea it was one great undulating drift of snow. Specks of emerald breaking through told where the dwarf pines were buried, while streaks of crimson and gold pricked out the outline of temple and towers. I had never thought to realize the beauty of Bret Harte's snow picture in "The Outcasts of Poker Flat"—I cannot write about it; but I have seen snow.
The crisp air is invigorating, but the shoveling of snow from the decks has a tendency to take the poetry out of things, and I am bothered about the poor naked devils who live on the water. How is a handful of charcoal burning in a tea cup going to keep them from freezing to death?  
"When Music, heavenly maid, was young," she took no more joy into early Greece than the brass band that came with other belongings of a flagship, to us from the Baltimore. It plays twice a day, and in the evening it is a full orchestra, to whose strains we while away the dog watch in waltz, hornpipe, or cake walk, as the tune invites.
Last Thursday, November 28, was Thanksgiving. We had turkey on board and behaved like the Americans that we are.  
Click here for more info.
Yesterday, the Baltimore signaled to us for permission to get under way. Granted the bo's'n piped, "A-l-l  h-a-n-d-s on deck to cheer ship!" From the captain and the bandmaster, down we came. The Jackies on both ships stood on the rails or went into the rigging. From the main truck of the Baltimore streamed a "homeward bounder." It is a pennant two hundred and fifty feet long. At its tip a bladder is attached to keep it afloat when it dips to the sea. The homeward bounder has its superstitions too sacred to write, but it is the talisman that will carry the ship through wind and storm until "Safe, safe, at last, the harbor passed," she will anchor in San Francisco Bay. 
I do not quite retain the picture, for "Auld Lang Syne" from the quarter deck sounded so startlingly new to me that everything else became subdued to my wondering where and when I had ever heard it before. But my memory could muster nothing but my first night in a little white alcove, where I cried myself to sleep after mother had left me at Tyler Hall, and when the last note of the blessed song climbed the masts and the Baltimore rode alongside, the band struck up "Home Sweet Home." It was a signal for every man on the Baltimore. Their cheering drowned every other sound, while, from excess of joy, they swung their caps and threw them overboard. It was said that the bay was blue with them. I do not know. There was a mist came in just then, that made everything uncertain except that the men of the Baltimore were going home, while we are anchored here for three long, long years.
If you enjoy antique seafaring lore with a sense of humor, order a copy of Three Years Behind the Guns. It's a fun, entertaining read for powder monkeys and old sea dogs alike.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

"The imperial majesty should be armed with laws" ~ Justinian publishes the Institutes, November 21, AD 533

Renaissance depiction of Justinian receiving the law books
from Tribonian from the Vatican Museum.
In November of AD 533, Justinian was truly in his glory. He had just heard news of his general Belisarius's victory over the Vandals at the battle of Ad Decimum outside of Carthage, and was expecting additional good tidings from the expedition to reconquer Africa. To this triumph over barbarism, Justinian would add another victory over the confusion and chaos gnawing away at the foundations of his empire by officially publishing his Institutes on November 21, AD 533.

Meant to simplify and codify the morass which the Roman legal code had become, the Institutes were to be the basic textbook of Roman law, suitable for beginning students. We can get a sense of Justinian's pride in his epochal accomplishment by reading his own words as recorded in the preface of the work:
In the name of Our Lord, Jesus Christ.
The Emperor Caesar Flavius Justinian, conqueror of the Alamanni, the Goths, the Franks, the Germans, the Antes, the Alani, the Vandals, the Africans, pious, prosperous, renowned, victorious, and triumphant, ever august,
To the youth desirous of studying the law: 
The imperial majesty should be armed with laws as well as glorified with arms, that there may be good government in times both of war and of peace, and the ruler of Rome may not only be victorious over his enemies, but may show himself as scrupulously regardful of justice as triumphant over his conquered foes. 
Justinian, relief from the
U.S. Supreme Court. 
With deepest application and forethought, and by the blessing of God, we have attained both of these objects. The barbarian nations which we have subjugated know our valor, Africa and other provinces without number being once more, after so long an interval, reduced beneath the sway of Rome by victories granted by Heaven, and themselves bearing witness to our dominion. All peoples too are ruled by laws which we have either enacted or arranged.
Having removed every inconsistency from the sacred constitutions, hitherto inharmonious and confused, we extended our care to the immense volumes of the older jurisprudence; and, like sailors crossing the mid-ocean, by the favor of Heaven have now completed a work of which we once despaired. When this, with God's blessing, had been done, we called together that distinguished man Tribonian, master and exquaestor of our sacred palace, and the illustrious Theophilus and Dorotheus, professors of law, of whose ability, legal knowledge, and trusty observance of our orders we have received many and genuine proofs, and especially commissioned them to compose by our authority and advice a book of Institutes, whereby you may be enabled to learn your first lessons in law no longer from ancient fables, but to grasp them by the brilliant light of imperial learning, and that your ears and minds may receive nothing useless or incorrect, but only what holds good in actual fact.
And thus whereas in past time even the foremost of you were unable to read the imperial constitutions until after four years, you, who have been so honored and fortunate as to receive both the beginning and the end of your legal teaching from the mouth of the Emperor, can now enter on the study of them without delay. After the completion therefore of the fifty books of the Digest or Pandects, in which all the earlier law has been collected by the aid of the said distinguished Tribonian and other illustrious and most able men, we directed the division of these same Institutes into four books, comprising the first elements of the whole science of law. In these the law previously obtaining has been briefly stated, as well as that which after becoming disused has been again brought to light by our imperial aid. Compiled from all the Institutes of our ancient jurists, and in particular from the commentaries of our Gaius on both the Institutes and the common cases, and from many other legal works, these Institutes were submitted to us by the three learned men aforesaid, and after reading and examining them we have given them the fullest force of our constitutions.
Receive then these laws with your best powers and with the eagerness of study, and show yourselves so learned as to be encouraged to hope that when you have compassed the whole field of law you may have ability to govern such portion of the state as may be entrusted to you. 
Given at Constantinople the 21st day of November, in the third consulate of the Emperor Justinian, Father of his Country, ever august.
Taken from: The Institutes of Justinian, 5th edition, 1913, translated by J. B. Moyle.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Legalizing Marijuana is a Terrible Idea

It seems that many states, my home state of New Jersey included, are hell-bent on legalizing recreational use of cannabis. The arguments in favor of this, though loud and dominant in the media, are not particularly convincing.

Most of the advocates tout the desire to legalize the drug so that the state can raise additional tax revenue off of the sales. Enhancing the ability of an over-bearing confiscatory high-tax state like New Jersey to extract even more revenue from its citizens is never going to be a compelling argument for me.

Slightly better is the argument that legalizing the drug will result in fewer individuals in prison for usage. While I agree that we have far too many individuals in jail for such petty crimes, full-scale legalization of recreational usage seems like an over-reaction to a problem which may be fixed by simply reducing the penalties involved.

But the absolute worst argument in favor of legalization is that cannabis is harmless or somehow beneficial to users. You will find these types of claims all over websites which market marijuana-related products, and they are absolutely false and extremely dangerous. If there are any mild benefits for a healthy person using cannabis, they are far outweighed by the negatives. Sadly, the proponents of marijuana usage will often laugh off any suggestion that using their drug of choice can do harm as a return to "Reefer Madness," a supposedly comical early 20th century belief that using cannabis can cause you to go crazy.

The sad facts are these: the more research that's done, the more science has realized that cannabis usage for healthy people is detrimental, both on a personal neuro-cognitive level, and on a societal level. It is particularly bad for youth as the impact of the active ingredient in cannabis--tetrahydrocannabinol or TCH--on the developing brain can be profound and long-lasting. Here is a list of articles detailing some of these findings. I would encourage anyone interested in this issue to at least skim over these studies:

Cannabis as a Neuro-Toxin:
  • Does Cannabis Cause Lasting Brain Damage? (2012)
    "Recent studies using high-resolution imaging techniques, combined with more robust delineations of specific brain regions in very heavy cannabis users, have revealed evidence of dose-related alterations, mostly in the hippocampal and parahippocampal regions."
  • Is Cannabis Neurotoxic for the Healthy Brain? (2013)
    "Our results suggest that in the healthy brain, chronic and long-term cannabis exposure may exert significant effects in brain areas enriched with cannabinoid receptors, such as the hippocampus, which could be related to a neurotoxic action."
Impact of Cannabis on Memory
Impact of Cannabis on Executive Function
(Note: Executive function is the set of mental skills that govern time management, attention, planning and the ability to cope with multiple tasks at the same time.)
Impact of Cannabis Usage on the Developing Brain
  • Effects of Cannabis on the Adolescent Brain (2014)
    "Teens who engage in heavy marijuana use often show disadvantages in neurocognitive performance, macrostructural and microstructural brain development, and alterations in brain functioning."
  • Cannabis and Adolescent Brain Development (2014)
    "Accumulating evidence from both animal and human studies suggests that regular heavy use during this period is associated with more severe and persistent negative outcomes than use during adulthood, suggesting that the adolescent brain may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of cannabis exposure."
  • Adverse Effects of Cannabis on Adolescent Brain Development (2016)
    "These data provide compelling longitudinal evidence suggesting that repeated exposure to cannabis during adolescence may have detrimental effects on brain resting functional connectivity, intelligence, and cognitive function."
Societal Impact of Cannabis Legalization
While the above articles are mostly from scholarly journals, here are some news stories on the impact of cannabis legalization is having on society, largely from mainstream media sources that are otherwise favorable toward legalization:
The message here is that even if voters and state legislatures are stupid enough to legalize this substance, if you care about the health of your brain, you would do well to avoid smoking weed. Fears of "reefer madness" may be overblown, but the conventional wisdom regarding the degraded behavior and reduced prospects of "pot heads" is pretty much on the money.

And let's not forget the ulterior motives of politicians and businesses who are looking to reap the benefits of legalization. Do they really care about the health and safety of the people they supposedly serve? Or are they simply looking for a way to make society more docile, stupid and ultimately easier to rule, while raking in big money? On this question, history is instructive:

A Disgraceful Little War -- The Opium War and Commissioner Lin