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Ephemera (II)

Published on 27 March 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

(Some reflections are not worth a full-throated blog, yet they contain small kernels for reflection – like plum kernels one rolls in one’s mouth while climbing a steep mountain on a hot day. I’ll post ephemera from time to time)

A multi-ethnic Roman Empire We have internalized the (invented) idea of Europe consisting of “nations” settled on their ancestral lands since time out of time. We forget how multi-ethnic and multi-cultural the Roman Empire was. Rome started as a gaggle of hamlets at a key river crossing. Romans developed a unmatched skill in balancing ethnic groups – the Sabines, the Etruscans, the Latin peoples, and many more. Reading Rome’s early history is instructive: kings were elected; kings’ sons could not follow in their fathers’ shoes. A dynasty would have favored just one side and disrupted the ever-changing equilibria. Romans were pragmatists from the very beginning. It did not matter to the people that Servius Tullius, the 6th king of Rome, was of servile origins (in the sense that his mother was probably a slave concubine of the reigning king), they elevated Servius to the throne. He was clearly a shrewd politician and a superior statesman; he reigned a long time, and gave the city laws and walls (we can still see then). As a republic, Romans honed their military skills in the century-long struggle against Gallic invasions. Collaterally, they developed their ability to mobilize the many peoples south of the Apennines to a defense of their lands. This ability to “get along” with elites in conquered territories was Rome’s signature style – though it could be ruthless when needed (Cartago, Judea).

Image (Paul Jamin, Brennus and His Share of the Spoils, 1893)

Once their empire was established, Romans allowed worthy individuals to rise to positions of considerable power (occasionally including the Principate) irrespective of geographic or social origin. An example, third son of a landowner from Algeria served throughout the empire, became Consul, and at life’s end became Governor of Britannia. The Romans favored movement of people around their empire. Soldiers (in the professional army) were posted away from their country of origin, and mostly settled there after serving. Traders preceded and accompanied the armies, and many slaves moved more or less involuntarily. In IInd century AD, a trader from Palmyra settled in South Shields, close to Newcastle, in upper England, and married a local slave. We get an idea of how “multi-ethnic” populations in the Roman Empire were by a study of the University of Reading. Of the individuals buried in the large urban cemeteries of Britain, up to 30% were not native to the area. The “civilian migration” – be it from larger Britain or abroad –was not much different from today’s levels. The movements of people within the empire brought about a multi-cultural society. While I do not think that religion defines “culture,” religious artifacts are an indicator of cultural diversity. The number of religions moving through the Roman Empire (under the more or less benign gaze of the authorities) is astounding. Christianity, Mithras, Isis, and many more trans-regional cults overlaid the abundance of local divinities. It is sobering to consider this diversity. Christianity, for instance, seem to have been a accidental success. Most of these religions borrowed heavily from one another, so unitary tradition and descent are a legend.

Worth a visit: Chinaware radiating inner harmony I visited the Rietberg Museum in Zurich, the other day, or better its new China section, which hosts (on permanent loan) ceramics of the Meiyingtang Collection. The story of the collection is in itself extraordinary. Two Swiss brothers living in the Far East collected (from the 50es onward) what was arguably one of the best collections of Chinese ceramics ever assembled outside China. It is regrettable that only part of the collection is now (admirably) stored in Zurich. The rest was dispersed at auction.


This is a small Tang period piece of pure delicacy. I’ve chosen it here for sheer perfection in the craft. I was quite taken in by the sheer simplicity and beauty of the first collection of pieces, covering a period from the Neolithic to the end of Qing. Most striking, in my view, is the inner spiritual coherence of the many millennia ending with the arrival of the Mongols. These pieces were all made to bring harmony to the person holding or observing them. These were not just elite “things; ” one senses the same vibrancy also in “popular” pieces. This is the only place I know, where time flows inward, giving a sense of unending permanence. Masks in the Ivory Coast as “closure” At the same museum, I picked up a short monograph on “The functions of the mask in the Dan society of Sipilou” – a Western district of the Ivory Coast. Here is the story, much abridged. The mask Kla was kept hidden in a “sacred grove” near the Sipilou village. It was called upon to bring rain, bring wayward sons home, and assist women in childbirth. Kla’s role went much farther than being a benign provider: “Kla was about all-powerful in his striving to secure harmonious cooperation within the village.” Kla was a figment of secret men societies, who used this metaphor to impose their will upon the non-initiated – women and children. As one reads the instances of Kla’s interventions, one comes to realize that Kla was both perceived by the villagers as an omnipotent energy and illusion. Women were “kept away” from Kla. Most of them knew that one of the men impersonated it. They only had to check who of the men was missing while Kla performed prances. The “spiritual” power of Kla was not beyond challenge among villagers. Why was Kla accepted, then? My guess is that, in the limited and uncertain world of the village, Kla yielded unassailable closure. This suited everyone in the long run. It was akin to flipping coins, reading hexagrams, or studying bird’s flight or goat’s entrails. It brought a discussion to an end. I feel the need for a Kla in modern society. We worship the God of Truth. Either in axiomatic versions – religiously dogmatic all (be they secular or spiritual) – or we entangle ourselves in a process of induction without end. When truth is uncertain, what we need is simply closure – Kla.

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