“Cultural appropriation” is a leading contender for the most overused phrase of 2017. Originally employed by academics in postcolonial studies to describe the adoption of one culture’s creative expressions by another, the term has evolved to mean the theft or exploitation of an ethnic culture or history by persons of white European heritage. Continue reading…
In 2009, a graduate student working in a chemistry lab at Oregon State University accidentally created a new, brilliantly blue pigment while experimenting with manganese oxide and other materials. Dubbed “YInMn blue” after its chemical makeup, the pigment quickly spurred a research paper and a patent application. And soon the gorgeous new color will be available to all of us: Crayola recently announced that it would introduce a blue crayon “inspired” by YInMn and kicked off a contest to name it. Continue reading…
“Genius,” a new National Geographic miniseries on Albert Einstein starring Geoffrey Rush, tries to peel back the great physicist’s eccentric public persona and examine the human being underneath, warts and all. But even if we could discover everything about Einstein’s life and character, would that tell us anything about the nature of genius?
People have been puzzling over the concept for more than 2,000 years, as Darrin M. McMahon points out in his comprehensive history of genius, “Divine Fury.” In classical antiquity, genius wasn’t considered a talent or the result of effort but a divine spirit. The ancient Greeks believed that every individual was born with a daimon, an innate spiritual power bestowed by the gods that guided a person’s actions and ultimately decided his fate. The Romans shared this basic belief in a heavenly spirit that resides in us. Continue reading…
Despite nearly a half-dozen elections in as many years, the Greeks are still no closer to solving their debt crisis. The newly re-elected government under Alexis Tsipras must fix a country that has over 25% unemployment, an economy that has shrunk by about 30% since 2008 and a national debt that amounts to almost 200% of gross domestic product.
One issue stands out: tax evasion. Nearly a quarter of the country’s GDP is off the books. State revenue for 2015 is already $4.5 billion below target. This is nothing new for the Greeks, who have been dodging taxes for centuries, nonpayment having been a sign of patriotism during Ottoman rule (1453-1821).
Tax evasion has been around since ancient Mesopotamia, when the Sumerians were cheerfully working the black market. A 19th-century B.C. Sumerian cuneiform tablet warns that a trader named Pushuken has been imprisoned for receiving smuggled goods. “The guards are strong,” continues the writer of the tablet, “please don’t smuggle anything else.”
Breaking up, as Lord Byron wrote in “When We Two Parted,” is devastating: “If I should meet thee/ After long years, / How should I greet thee?— / With silence and tears.” But there is something uniquely tragic about lovers separated by cruel circumstance. Their stories reappear in literature as a warning about fate, a celebration of idealism or a lament for lost love.
One of the oldest examples to come down to us is the thwarted union between the Roman emperor Titus (A.D. 40-81) and Berenice, princess of Judea and queen of Chalcis (A.D. 28-sometime after 81). Like Romeo and Juliet, their relationship was doomed from the outset. Berenice risked her life trying to preserve the peace between Romans and Jews in the period leading up to the First Jewish-Roman War, A.D. 66-73. Titus was the Roman general whose army was besieging Jerusalem. Nevertheless, the two fell passionately in love.
Their relationship survived Titus’ destruction of the Second Temple in 70 and the subsequent Roman slaughter of almost a million Jews. But when he inherited the throne in 79, Rome balked at the idea of a Jewish empress. Forced to choose between love and duty, Titus reluctantly chose duty, establishing a tradition of royal self-sacrifice that would continue untilEdward VIII abdicated in order to marry Wallis Simpson. Titus died—killed, possibly—two years into his reign. Berenice disappeared around the same time, her fate unknown.
The British officially abolished slavery throughout their empire on Aug. 1, 1834, freeing some 800,000 Africans from bondage. The date should be forever commemorated—but so should slavery’s own history of resistance and rebellion.
That slaves have always found ways to rebel is reflected in the earliest surviving legal texts. In the 21st century B.C., King Ur-Nammu of Ur, an ancient city in what is now Iraq, proclaimed that “if a slave escapes from the city limits and someone returns him, the owner shall pay two shekels to the one who returned him.”
As slavery became more deeply ingrained in society, so did the nature of the resistance. The Greeks were severe toward rebellious slaves. But no society was as cruel or inventive as Sparta. Having subjugated the neighboring Messenians into helotry in the seventh century B.C. (helots were the property of the state), the Spartans inflicted a reign of terror on them: During annual culls, young warriors were encouraged to hunt and kill the strongest helots.
A catastrophic earthquake in 464 B.C. prompted a short-lived rebellion, but the helots remained trapped in their wretched existence for another century. Finally, another opportunity to revolt came in 371 B.C. after the city-state of Thebes defeated Sparta at the Battle of Leuctra. Aided by the victorious Thebans, the Messenians rose up and drove the Spartans from their land.
News of the latest theft of sensitive American information— this time of some 4 million records from the federal government’s Office of Personnel Management, allegedly by Chinese hackers—highlights the unfortunate truth about defensive walls. They may offer great psychological comfort, whether as firewalls in the online world or stone walls and natural barriers in the real one, but they rarely work.
In the Book of Joshua, the Israelites engineered a brilliant victory by stamping their feet for seven days and blasting the walls of Jericho with their trumpets. In “The Aeneid,” Virgil described how the Trojans brought about their own downfall by bringing the famous wooden horse inside their gates. In his monumental “The Histories,” Herodotuslauded the courageous but futile last stand of the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae (480 B.C.) after they were betrayed by Ephialtes of Malis, who showed the Persians a secret route through the mountains that led to the back of the Greek lines. But these striking failures didn’t deter subsequent generations from believing that walls could keep them safe.
The Magi, the three wise men, famously offered the baby Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. We can still understand why they brought gold, but what Mary and Joseph were meant to do with the frankincense and myrrh—resins derived from the Boswellia and Commiphora trees—has become less obvious.
The usual explanation for the Magi’s gifts is that they symbolized the trajectory of Jesus’ life: gold to announce his divine origins and kingship, frankincense (which was burned in religious ceremonies) to declare his future role as a priest, and myrrh (which was used in burials) to represent his suffering and death.
But to the ancients, the significance of frankincense and myrrh went far beyond their spiritual symbolism. Both commodities had played a central role in daily life since the dawn of civilization. The resins were introduced to Egypt in the third millennium B.C. from the Land of Punt (thought to have been somewhere between Ethiopia and Eritrea).
Wildfire season officially began in September, but the long drought in parts of the U.S. has made the idea of a specific season seem almost redundant. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, the U.S. has already suffered 41,000 wildfires this year, resulting in the loss of 3.1 million acres.
Although fire remains one of the greatest dangers to human life, throughout history, its devastating power has been a source of both inspiration and innovation.
In 24 B.C., the constant threat of city fires led the Roman Emperor Augustus to institute the Cohortes Vigilum, the first municipal fire department. Its 7,000 freedmen acted as watchmen, day and night. Although Rome’s six-story wooden buildings and narrow streets made actual firefighting all but impossible, the Cohortes Vigilum helped make the city a safer place. If necessary, it had the authority to knock down whole streets—a crude but effective form of fighting fires.
Abdication fever is sweeping the royal palaces of Europe. Recently, Spain’s King Juan Carlos became the third monarch in just over a year to renounce his crown. In January 2013, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands declared that she was stepping down in favor of her son, Prince Willem-Alexander. King Albert II of Belgium followed six months later.
Abdication in the old days was usually a prelude to execution. Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, or Tarquin the Proud (who ruled from 534 to 509 B.C.), is one of the earliest recorded examples of a monarch who was forced to abdicate and still lived to tell the tale. Tarquin was the seventh and last king of the Romans. Burdened by heavy taxes, the aristocracy was already wishing to be rid of Tarquin when his son raped the pious Lucretia. The crime proved to be the catalyst for the birth of the Roman republic.
Tarquin eventually retired to the court of a neighboring tyrant. There, bored and angry, he plotted endlessly to reconquer Rome. Today, if Tarquin is remembered at all, it is by the generations of British schoolchildren who grew up learning to recite “Horatius at the Bridge,” Thomas Babington Macaulay’s stirring ballad on Tarquin’s defeat: “Lars Porsena of Clusium, / by the Nine Gods he swore, / That the great house of Tarquin / Should suffer wrong no more…And how can man die better/ Than facing fearful odds / For the ashes of his fathers / And the temples of his gods.”