Shrine of Vacuna

31 December 2009

Artist's conception: after all, no one knows what Vacuna looked like.

Now I know that some of you thought that Vacuna was a somewhat bewildered-looking furry pack animal grazing the high Andes, but I’ll have to burst your bubble: it’s something I’m good at. The very obscure Sabine goddess Vacuna, you see, happens to have been worshipped in an even more obscure shrine somewhere in what is now Rieti province or maybe across the border in my beloved Umbria, in Terni province. Now scholars will argue about anything, even when there is so little information that there’s nothing really to argue about; human nature is amazing. So in the year of grace 1923 Mary Grant, disagreeing with other scholars of course, wrote a little paper about it, with a map and grammatical commentary, that doesn’t really convince me one way or the other, but it’s a good thing to have on an Umbrian site: The Location of a Shrine of Vacuna (CJ 18:220‑224); enjoy.


Access to the Forum Romanum

31 December 2009

The Curia Julia and the central part of the Roman Forum, seen from the Palatine

There used to be a time when a visitor to the Roman Forum went to one of the entrances, bought a ticket, and could roam across the ancient ruins wherever you liked. I fondly remember how my girlfriend and I once had lunch, sitting in the grass, somewhere within the ruin of the Basilica Julia.

This changed in 1997. From then on, the Forum was accessible for free, which was -above all- practical. If you were staying in the Via Cavour, as I sometimes did, and needed to be at the Foro Boario, you could make a shortcut and did not have to make a detour around the Capitol. At the same time, many momuments were no longer accessible, like the House of the Vestal Virgins, the Basilica Aemilia, and the Basilica Julia. This was unpleasant, but it made sense. The number of visitors had increased and it was impossible to guard everything properly.

This year, I discovered that you have to buy tickets again. I would have expected that they would now reopen the closed monuments, but they haven’t. In fact, they closed things that used to be accessible, like the Horrea Vespasiana.

I do not like this at all. In an ideal world, everything is free and you can see everything. I understand that this is not possible and I realize that we have to live with one of the systems described above: either you pay for a ticket and can see everything, or you get free access but will find some monuments closed. What I find outrageous, is that they have managed to combine the disadvantages of the two systems: we now have to pay to see closed monuments.


Commemorating the dead (or not)

27 December 2009

The Colosseum

I already blogged on the Christian martyrs venerated in the Colosseum, and pointed out that there is no evidence that Christians were killed on that terrible place. The evidence, in fact, suggests the opposite. No Medieval list of martyrdom sites mentions the Colosseum. There is actually more evidence of Jewish martyrdoms: the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 39a) mentions an emperor ordering a rabbi to be thrown into an arena full of wild animals. It’s not much, but more than we can say about Christian martyrs.

Yet, you will not find a Jewish memorial in the Colosseum, and not because our Talmudic scene deals with an amphitheater, not the amphitheater of Rome. The reason is much more profound.

Christians will go to the places where people have been killed and say their prayers, believing that God will hear them. The Omnipresent is also present where atrocities have taken place. To some extent, secular people share this idea: even though they will not say a prayer, they erect monuments on crime scenes. In Rome, the memorial of the Fosse Ardeatine massacre is a case in point.

This is not the way Jews look at things. Places like the Colosseum are somehow outside the realm of God’s goodness. This means that there are better places to say your prayers, and even if we had absolute certainty that out rabbi faced martyrdom in the Colosseum, there would still not be a Jewish monument. The locations of the horrors are not the place of worship, and are best abandoned.

I am not saying that this view is better than the Christian/secular view. Nor do I think that we should abandon the Colosseum altogether. Yet, the Roman archaeological authorities, who have always been able to present their many treasures in an often beautiful fashion, ought to be capable of creating a more dignified atmosphere at the Colosseum – without shouting tourist guides, without exceptionally amateurish reenactors, without souvenir shops. Unfortunately, the only thing I’ve heard from the tourist authorities, a proposal to organize gladiatorial contests in the Colosseum again, was singularly revolting. Rome should be capable of inventing something better.


Cleopatra’s Pearls

25 December 2009

Cleopatra VII

Now that we’ve had our Christmas dinner – nasi goreng in my case – LacusCurtius’ Bill Thayer serves us something to read and help you digest it: Cleopatra’s Pearls, an article that originally appeared in the Classical Journal 52 (1957).

It’s a highly amusing piece that contains parallel stories, tricks to dissolve your own pearls (“a small pearl is dissolved in boiling vinegar in 8‑15 minutes” – or perhaps not), an apt quote from Hamlet, a relevant comparison to the use of Coca Cola, and a good joke at the end. Enjoy!


Polybius’ Portrait

25 December 2009

Cast of Polybius' lost portrait

Kleitor was a major town in Arcadia, not far from a river named Aroanios. Pausanias complains that, even though he waited until sunset, he did not hear the singing spotted fish for which Kleitor used to be famous. There are a few remains, and perhaps even that is an overstatement: one of the most interesting remains, the portrait of the historian Polybius (200-118), is now lost.

It appears to have been found in the 1920s and was reportedly kept “in the schoolhouse of Mazeika”, a town that has in the meantime been renamed Kato Kleitora. After the discovery, a cast was made that was sent to Berlin, but ended up in Rome, in the Museo nazionale della civiltà romana. The original is now lost, and the cast in Italy is all we have.

The slab was erected by one Titus Flavius Polybius, who claimed to be a descendant of the great historian and lived in the second century CE. In that age, many Greeks and Romans were deeply interested in their past. When they wrote, they tried to imitate classical models (the “Second Sophistic”); an author like Pausanias was interested in the oldest religious cults; and the sculptor tried to represent Polybius as historically accurate as possible. Unfortunately, he exaggerated it a bit: Polybius’ military equipment was common in the fifth century BCE, not in the second.


Roman Holiday

24 December 2009

"Rome, by all means Rome"

In 58 CE, two people from the Low Countries, Frisian leaders named Malorix and Verritus, arrived in Rome. While waiting for Nero, who “had other cares to occupy him” (as Tacitus writes, full of innuendo), the two men visited the Theater of Pompey and caused a stir because they did not know how to act properly. To ancient Frisians, the city of the seven hills must have been an impressive place, with people living in buildings with four floors, with temples reaching unto heaven itself, and with the palace of the emperor lived, a man who needed only a single word to mobilize an army. Visiting Rome must have been a life-changing experience.

I can sympathize with my ancestors, and not just because I must over the years have broken every rule of polite Roman behavior. It is also because Rome has been a life-changer for me as well. My first visit in 1982, although overshadowed by a PLO assault on the synagogue, felt like some kind of spiritual homecoming. I was here again in ’84, and – after my service in the army – I decided to study history and archaeology. Always, there was a longing to return to what Livy somewhere calls the urbs ipsa, the “city itself”. In fact, I have often returned, sometimes twice a year.

Rome is, like the objects of every other love affair, not perfect and Romans are not always nice. I also think that, once a love affair has lasted some time, you realize that under different circumstances, you might have met and loved someone else. Mutatis mutandis, I know I might have loved other civilizations, and I do not sympathize with those historians who focus on Greece and Rome only, ignoring Egypt, Babylonia, and Persia. I also think that western historians consistently understimate the contribution of Islam to the rise of European civilization.

I have acted accordingly, visiting other countries, trying to broaden my scope. There’s much that is fascinating in the Sahara. I wrote a book about Islam. The interaction between Persia and Greece is an interesting subject, and I put the Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions online. I have had the privilege to travel extensively.

Yet, at the risk of sounding pretentious, it is only now that I can compare several cities, that I realize how special Rome actually is. The only answer to the question which city I love most is the classic one from Roman Holiday, when the princess realizes that Rome has to her been a life-changing experience: “each city is in its own way unforgettable, and it would be difficult to… – Rome, by all means, Rome. I will cherish my visit here in memory as long as I live.”


Common Errors (27): Christians in the Colosseum

24 December 2009

The Colosseum

During the reign of Marcus Aurelius (r.161-180), the Roman Empire started to experience increased pressure on its frontiers. Germanic tribes started to organize themselves better and in the East, the Parthians were replaced by the Sasanian Empire, which was more aggressive than its predecessors had been. The Roman emperors took countermeasures and tried to gain divine support by persecuting religious minorities, like the Manichaeans, the Jews, and the Christians. By ancient standards, this was a logical decision: the fact that they did not worship the gods of the state, offered sufficient explanation for Roman military defeats.

The Persecutions were very serious, and you do not need to be a Christian to abhor from the state’s violence against its own citizens. It is always fitting and proper to commemorate the slaughtered innocents. For this reason, pope Benedict XIV (r.1740-1758) dedicated the Colosseum to the memory of the Christian martyrs killed in the arena. The problem is that this is probably not a historical fact.

There are several texts about the martyrdom of Roman Christians. We know that Sebastian was executed on the Palatine and that Agnes suffered in the Stadium of Domitian. But no one is mentioned as being killed in the Flavian Amphitheater, as the execution theater was officially called. In the Acts of Justin, Chariton, Charito, Euelpistus, Hierax, Paeon, Liberian, and their Company, we read that these people were led “to the usual place”, which has been taken as a reference to the Colosseum, because we do not know which alternatives exist. However, this is poor evidence, and the fact that the Colosseum is not mentioned in Medieval catalogs of martyr shrines can mean only two things: if Christians were killed in the Colosseum, it was forgotten in the Middle Ages, or there were no Christians killed over there.

Of course, this does not mean that Benedict’s cross must be removed. It is part of the history of the Colosseum, and besides, it is never wrong to spend a thought about the terrible things that happened on this terrible place.

<Overview of Common Errors>


Difficile est saturam non scribere

16 December 2009

Simple comme bonjour

It’s early in the morning, but this article has already completely spoiled my day: “Burial cloth found in Jerusalem cave casts doubt on authenticity of Turin Shroud“.

No, it does not cast doubt, because we know that the Turin Shroud is a medieval forgery. So why does this archaeologist answer questions about it? There are quite a lot of people who understand the basic principle of radiocarbon dating. Many people have had chemistry classes at high school, and even more people understand the gaussian curve that explains why it is so bloody unlikely that an object dated to 1325±35 can actually be from the first century.

The article illustrates a mistake many academicians make when they are asked to explain something to the press: underestimating that there are many people who are pretty well-educated. When talking to the press, academicians consistently ignore that in developed countries, up to 50% of the population at some time in their lives enter higher education.

My favorite example is an ancient historian from Cambridge who explained something about Constantine‘s conversion on TV, causing my girlfriend to say that she already knew this from her history classes long time ago. If this was the level of Cambridge historians, she added, she could only despise them. It was a bit exaggerated, but when you see a historian, a classicist, or an archaeologist on TV, it is hard not to start writing satire.

Now there are of course also people who do not understand radiocarbon dating. I do not think they will read the article that spoiled my day, but if they do, they will be left with the impression that the authenticity of the Turin Shroud is still contested. I am aware that our archaeologist intended to achieve the opposite, but he would have been more successful if he had said something like “that is not an issue anymore and it is a waste of time to discuss it – especially because I have something more interesting to tell”.

Because that is what is really sad about this article: our archaeologist has discovered something truly interesting. So you must read the story, after all, and try to ignore the crap. Good luck.


Platner items

15 December 2009

Long overdue (tedious): the articles of Platner & Ashby’s Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome entitled Castra and especially Domus.


Quirinius’ Census

13 December 2009

Ostracon, recording a part of Quirinius' census. Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

The ostracon to the right can be seen in the National Library of Austria. It was found in Elephantine in southern Egypt, and was written by someone who was obviously accustomed to writing many texts. A man named Amonios son of Amonios, tax gatherer, declares that a man named Soros, son of Pachompos, had paid the head tax in the fifth regnal year of the emperor Claudius (i.e., 45 CE). The man had paid sixteen drachms, for himself and seven relatives.

Nobody likes to pay taxes, and two drachms per person was a substantial amount (about two daily wages for a skilled worker). Before the taxes could be gathered, however, the Romans needed to know how many people lived in a province, which is why they organized censuses. So, when the Roman emperor Augustus decided to dethrone the Judaean ruler Archelaus and add his realm to the province of Syria, in 6 CE, governor Publius Sulpicius Quirinius had to count the people. Many Jews tried to obstruct the census; their leader was Judas.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus suggests that there were disturbances (Jewish Antiquities 18.4-6, 23), and this can also be deduced from a remark in the Acts of the Apostles, where it is implied that Judas’ band of followers was dispersed and Judas was killed (5.37). However, the revolt is absent from the catalog of armed interventions by Syrian governors included in the Histories of the Roman historian Tacitus (5.9). This means that it was not necessary to send the legions, which in turn means that the rebellion cannot have been widespread.

Yet, the Jews remembered Quirinius’ census as a national disaster. Writing two or three generations after the events, Luke could assume that every reader knew Quirinius’ governorship, realized what calamity had befallen the nation, and how bad the situation had been (Luke 2.2). It is the background, black as the night, for the spectacle he is about to present: the coming of the Messiah. When Judas’ bandits and the Roman soldiers were fighting, when things were at their worst, God had shown Himself to be nearest.


Bishapur

8 December 2009

The statue in Shapur's cave

Today, I moved the pages of Bishapur, one of the places I like most in Iran. During my first visit, we were especially interested in locations that were Alexander-related, so we visited a lot of Achaemenid sites; yet, we all agreed that Sasanian Bishapur, for which we had not been prepared, was among the highlights of our trip. The six rock reliefs and the city are really spectacular. I already blogged about the recently reopened museum.

I’ve returned several times, and on each occasion, I discovered something new or met someone interesting. But the best memories belong to the climb to the cave with Shapur’s statue, one of the most splendid places in the world – not the cave with the statue, which is interesting but not very special, but the valley. It is the most beautiful place of Fars. You’ve just not been in Iran if you haven’t climbed that rock and enjoyed the scenery.

The Bishapur pages are something of a jubilee: Livius.org has now reached its 3500th page. I also added a very brief article on the Persepolis Treasury Tablets, and a third page of Amsterdam stone tablets, which brings the grand total to 3502.

And because there’s something to celebrate, here is the last version of my Google Earth markers (1437 sites).


Nicholas of Myra

5 December 2009

Nicholas strikes his opponent. Fresco from Soumela

Nicholas was bishop of the Lycian port of Myra, and died on December 6. The year of his death has not been recorded, although a late tradition suggests that it may have been 342 or 343. The stories about him usually have parallels in Anatolian folklore (although I am unaware of another saint who, as a baby, refused his mother’s breast on Friday). If Nicholas published theological treatises, they have not survived. His first hagiography was written at least three centuries after his death by an obscure author known as Michael the Archimandrite. The most famous story about Nicholas, how he hit a heretic during the Council of Nicaea, is mentioned in a very late source and may be fiction.

To sum up: we know next to nothing about Nicholas of Myra, and I would not have written this brief blog entry if he hadn’t been the patron saint of my city, Amsterdam. Read more about him here – I promise you that it’s an interesting story.


Speed under sail

3 December 2009

Jason, a Jewish archer on the prow of a pirate ship

A couple of months ago, Lionel Casson died, the author of important works on ancient ships and navigation. The subject is quite important, because naval transport was (and is) cheap, and the Mediterranean world could become integrated into one Hellenistic culture and one Roman Empire because the sea was, in the summers, friendly towards sailors. The flowering of Greece and Rome was only possible because transport and the exchange of ideas was easy. No ships, no classics.

Bill just made available a nice article by Casson, dealing with speed under sail. It’s from 1951, and if you like it, you may like to read Richard Duncan-Jones’ article “Communication Speed and Contact by the Sea in the Roman Empire” in Structure and Scale in the Roman Economy (1990).


Good news for modern man

2 December 2009

The four evangelists

Neither Livius nor Lacus, but the occasional exception: on Kevin Knight’s New Advent site (home of the Catholic Encyclopedia and other stuff) his much-improved Bible, open for business as of three or four days ago, which really is the Best Bible Online. Three parallel columns: Greek Septuagint, Latin Vulgate, an English translation. The books of the Bible are webpaged in chapters, so the pages are short and easy. The verses are marked, of course, but also each one has its local link, so that linking to any Scripture verse is simple and easy. Key words in the text of the Bible are linked to the appropriate articles of the Encyclopedia (and maybe elsewhere, I didn’t read the whole Bible today….). Occasionally, special exegetical notes and links. The format is uncluttered, streamlined. The server loads fast. I’m sure I’m failing to praise something; but until now, linking to Bible passages had been unintuitive and slow, and even finding them wasn’t always that easy: to say nothing of the instant trilingual view. Origen would be proud; I’ve spent a chunk of the afternoon switching over all my links.


Common Errors (26): Et tu, Brute?

2 December 2009

Daggers on a coin of Brutus (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Wien)

The last words of Julius Caesar are often quoted as Et tu Brute?, “You too, Brutus?” They are also quoted as Tu quoque, Brute?, which means the same. The second variant has been sufficiently popular to make logicians apply these words to a well-known logical fallacy (“pot calling the kettle black“).

That those famous last words are quoted in two versions, already suggests that something’s gone wrong. They cannot both be correct. As it turns out, the expression “Et tu Brute” has been coined by Shakespeare (Julius Caesar, act 3, scene 1); they are not the dictator’s final words, though, because he reflects upon his own death in characteristic third-person, “Then fall, Caesar”.

That leaves us with Tu quoque, Brute. But Caesar probably did not even say that. According to Suetonius, he just sighed, or said something in Greek:

When he saw that he was beset on every side by drawn daggers, he muffled his head in his robe, and at the same time drew down its lap to his feet with his left hand, in order to fall more decently, with the lower part of his body also covered. And in this wise he was stabbed with three and twenty wounds, uttering not a word, but merely a groan at the first stroke, though some have written that when Marcus Brutus rushed at him, he said in Greek, “You too, my child?” (καὶ σὺ τέκνον;)

[Suetonius, Life of Caesar, 82.2]

<Overview of Common Errors>


Wickham, The Inheritance of Rome

1 December 2009
The Inheritance of Rome

The Inheritance of Rome

It used to be so easy, dividing history. First, Antiquity; then, the Middle Ages; and after that, the history of our own civilization, starting in the Renaissance. But in the course of the nineteenth century, Antiquity doubled its length and expanded to Egypt and the Near East, and in the twentieth century, it became increasingly clear that the caesura between the Late Roman Empire and the Dark Ages was not what it once had seemed.

I fondly remember reading Mahomet et Charlemagne (1937), the book in which Henri Pirenne proved that the “barbarians” had quickly been assimilated by Roman civilization. He went on to suggest that the real break had been the rise of Islam, which had divided the Mediterranean, and had been an obstacle to interregional trade. End of trade – end of cities – end of monetary taxes – end of schools – end of classical civilization. Pirenne wrote this before the rise of archaeology proved that the economic collapse in fact antedated the Arabian conquests, but even in his error, Pirenne showed the road ahead: the transformation from Antiquity to European Middle Ages must not be studied in isolation, but together with the rise of Islam.

Just as thought-provoking was an essay by Chris Wickham, called “The Other Transformation” (Past and Present 103 [1984]), in which the Oxford historian described how the Roman Empire delegated itself into oblivion. I must have read it in 1992 or so and was impressed, and even though I increasingly turned to ancient history and archaeology as my own field, I always remembered the name of the author. So when, earlier this year, he published The Inheritance of Rome. A History of Europe from 400 to 1000, I could not resist it. There has been a lot of debate about the Early Middle Ages, and this book – essentially the new synthesis – offered a chance to be updated again.

I was not disappointed. The book starts with a historiographical introduction that evoked so much of the excitement of a scholarly revolution that it made me envious. There are parts on the break-up of the Roman Empire, the creation of its successor states in the West, Byzantium and the Caliphate, and finally the rise of Carolingian Europe. It is hard to summarize The Inheritance of Rome, because to me, much was new, and even where Wickham dealt with subjects I think I know something about, he managed to phrase it in such a way that I often had the feeling I was learning new things.

One of the most important things is that he presents a full history of the age between Theodosius I and Otto III, Augustine of Hippo and al-Mansur of al-Andalus, Synesius of Cyrene and king Cnut. We read not just about Caesars, kings, and caliphs, but also about philosophers, clerics, and peasants. Wickham so consistently focuses on the way wealth is obtained and redistributed, that it would not be exaggerated to say that access to capital is the most important structural principle of the book, and not historical chronology. This may make the book a bit less accessible to the unimaginative reader, but I think Wickham has made the right decision; The Inheritance of Rome is a great read, precisely because it does not offer the standard chronological account that many of us already know.

Wickham’s professed aim is not to tell the standard story about, say, the rise of national identities, or to analyze the Middle Ages à la Burckhardt as the ages after Antiquity in which everything of value was lost until it was rediscovered in the Renaissance. Instead, he tries to present the events and facts without attempt to create a misleading grand narrative. For more than 500 pages, Wickham stresses differences and avoids generalizations (another reason why it is hard to summarize). It is only in the final chapter that he tries to create his own grand narrative: the break-up of the Roman Empire in the West and the Arab conquests in the East, the creation of an explicitly moralized political practice, the almost synchronous failure of the structures of public power in the West and the end of the Abbasid Caliphate, and the spread of stable hierarchies to northern and eastern Europe.

Specialists may find grounds for complaint about details, but I found the book very convincing, and hope that in the future, more historians will present their subject matter in this fashion. History is more than a story about kings and grand narratives should be dealt with skeptically.


From the Asclepium (2)

1 December 2009

Asclepius (Antiquarium of the Palatine, Rome)

I’ve now been in the hospital for several days. It is amazing to witness how swiftly you adapt to being a patient. Because I am here for intravenous therapy only and remain for a great part capable of doing other things, I have been frequently telling myself that I am not ill, and had merely changed the site of my office. As a matter of fact, I have been able to revise about half of the book I am now writing with my Livius colleague Arjen Bosman.

I think it was prudent to cling to my normal life as much as possible, but it also made me a bit of a foreigner over here, and I suddenly realized how much of everyday talk in the hospital is just topical. The nurses have a great assortment of reassuring remarks, which really make you feel comfortable and are, at the same time, suited for any patient on any occasion. They often have a sixth sense, feeling what the patient needs to hear to feel better.

Then I realized that the ancient priests of Asclepius must have had this same ability. They must have sensed what the visitors liked to hear and give them the impression that the god was actually there. It may explain why even intelligent people like Aelius Aristides had the idea that their dreams in the Asclepium somehow predicted their futures.


Ancient Warfare III.5

1 December 2009

Cover of Ancient Warfare

“The Imperial Nemesis” is a stock phrase and you’d be forgiven if you decided to ignore the latest issue of Ancient Warfare, but that would be a mistake. The articles on the conflict between Rome and Parthia are actually more interesting than the title suggests.

Pawel Grysztar’s historical introduction consists of three parts: a slightly predictable overview of the major campaigns, and extremely illuminating sections on the theaters of operation and the asymmetrical nature of the conflict. After all, the Parthians retained many nomadic traits, while the Romans were essentially sedentary agriculturalists. This aspect is also stressed by Glenn Barnett and Arnold Blumberg, in an article on asymmetrical warfare that I found excellent. Duncan Campbell focuses on the relation between warfare and diplomacy – a theme that Ancient Warfare ought to explore more often.

Joaquín Montero describes the historiographical tradition of Trajan’s campaigns: the notes by the emperor himself, Arrian’s Parthica, Cassius Dio’s rendering of these notes (all quoted), and the survival of this part of Dio’s Roman History. The Parthian bow is the subject of a contribution by Paul McDonnell-Staff, while legionary equipment is dealt with by Raffaele D’Amato. Ross Cowan, finally, describes the Battle of Nisibis in 217, and gives more credit to Macrinus than is common.

As always, Ancient Warfare has some articles that are not directly related to the main theme. In this case, Fred Eugene Ray deals with the Athenian general Myronides and the land empire that Athens created in the mid-fifth century; Murray Dahm continues his entertaining series of articles on ancient military handbooks with an article on Festus’ Breviarium.

My summary would be incomplete if I didn’t mention the fine cover by Johnny Shumate, the maps by Andrew Brozyna and Carlos de la Rocha, the reconstructions of two Iranian warriors by Giorgio Albertini and two Romans by Graham Sumner, and the drawing of Tiridates’ surrender of his diadem to a statue of Nero by Angel Garcia Pinto. The highlight is Igor Dzis’ painting of the battle of Nisibis, which is a work of art, not just an illustration in a journal.

All in all, I liked this issue, and bought five copies for friends in Iran. I you want your own copy, go here.


From the Asclepium (1)

1 December 2009

Asclepius (Antiquarium of the Palatine, Rome)

I had already been suffering from a mild bursitis for a week, and I believed it was almost over, when my GP unexpectedly sent me to the hospital. She did not like a reddish spot that I believed to be innocent, and she was of course right: the hospital physicians discovered that a bacteria had sort of invaded my skin and had decided to stay in it. I can’t blame the little creature; I’ve lived inside that same skin for forty-five years and it suits me perfectly.

So now I am in a hospital, feeling better than you’d expect. I’m even enjoying it. In a country where it’s pure coincidence if the trains are running on time, where the banks are run by incompetents, and where the mail delivery cannot be relied upon, it is sincerely uplifting to witness an organization that actually functions. (I am not ironical.)

But there’s more to be glad about: I realize how lucky I am to live in a postindustrial society. Under natural circumstances, the species known as Homo sapiens lives to an average age of twenty. Those who survive infancy and childhood, however, have a fair chance of becoming forty, and incidentally, humans can reach old age. Human bodies, however, are not suited for becoming older than thirty.

If westerners are now surpassing this limit and reach the age of seventy-five, they owe this for 60% to sanitation, 30% to GPs, and 10% to medical specialists. Sanitation was something the Greeks and Romans knew, but to be honest: if I had met the same bacteria two thousand years ago, I would not have survived the encounter. In all likelihood, our meeting would not even have taken place, because my chance to reach the age of forty-five would have been less than 15%.


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