WSJ Historically Speaking: Resolved to Lose Weight in ’16? Join a Venerable Club

English Romantic poet George Gordon Noel Byron (from around 1810). To keep his weight down, he subsisted on a diet of flattened potatoes drenched in vinegar. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

English Romantic poet George Gordon Noel Byron (from around 1810). To keep his weight down, he subsisted on a diet of flattened potatoes drenched in vinegar. PHOTO: HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Resolutions and Jan. 1 have a fatal attraction for one another—much like beer and pizza. The vow most often cited, “to go on a diet,” also happens to be the one most quickly abandoned. According to a 2013 British study, two out of five dieters don’t make it beyond the first week.

The problem isn’t that people are lazy or spoiled. It’s that the purpose of a diet has become divorced from its original intentions. The ancient Greeks were largely responsible for the concept. “Diatia” means “way of life” or “regimen.” How a person approached the business of eating was as important as what entered his stomach. Balance, self-control and proper order were thought to be three key aspects to living the good life. Only barbarians, such as the Persians, gorged on luxuries.

The two greatest doctors of the classical world, Hippocrates (around 460 to 375 B.C.) and Galen (A.D. 129 to about 216) had strong ideas about the kind of diatia everyone should follow. They argued that the mind and body were controlled by four humors: blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. The goal was to keep them in equilibrium. A surplus of phlegm, for example, could make a patient lethargic, requiring more citrus in the diet. Too much black bile, on the other hand, made a person melancholic—which, Galen thought, required bloodletting or purging to remove the noxious humors from the body.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Comets Chill and Cheer Throughout History

Halley’s Comet in 1997. In 1304 the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone created a controversy when he painted the star of Bethlehem as a comet flying over the stable PHOTO: F. CARTER SMITH/SYGMA/CORBIS

Halley’s Comet in 1997. In 1304 the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone created a controversy when he painted the star of Bethlehem as a comet flying over the stable PHOTO: F. CARTER SMITH/SYGMA/CORBIS

“O star of wonder. Star of night. Star with royal beauty bright.” But what star, exactly, were the Magi, the three wise men, following as they traveled east in search of baby Jesus? The question has intrigued astronomers, theologians and philosophers for two millennia.

In 1304 the Florentine artist Giotto di Bondone (1267–1337) started a minirevolution when he painted the star of Bethlehem as a comet flying over the stable. It is thought that the appearance of Halley’s comet in 1301 inspired Giotto to make the connection. It seems to have been the first time that anyone—in art at least—had dared to associate the Nativity with a comet. Rather than being a cause for rejoicing, comets had long been considered an omen of death, disaster and disease. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: How Autocrats Failed to Stop Vices and Revolution

Alcohol is dumped into a New York sewer during the prohibition era, circa 1920. PHOTO: FPG/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

Alcohol is dumped into a New York sewer during the prohibition era, circa 1920. PHOTO: FPG/HULTON ARCHIVE/GETTY IMAGES

It’s been 82 years since the repeal of Prohibition on Dec. 5, 1933, signaled the end of America’s experiment with teetotalism. Though the ban looks like an exercise in futility now, in 1920 many temperance campaigners hailed it as the beginning of a new era. “Prohibition is won, now for tobacco!” went the cry.

Although the U.S. is indelibly associated with Prohibition, authorities the world over have long regarded the pleasures (or vices) of alcohol, tobacco and coffee with deep suspicion. Concerns about these habit-forming substances’ potential health hazards didn’t provoke the official hostility. Instead it often came from paranoia over what the masses might get up to if allowed to let off a little steam without supervision.

The Chinese emperors were among the first to regard the convivial nature of alcohol as a threat to political control. Their attempts to restrict its consumption, according to Chinese legend, began around 2070 B.C. with Yu the Great, founder of the Xia, China’s earliest dynasty. He declared an outright alcohol ban. Subsequent emperors balked at being quite so drastic, but they tried almost everything else, from forbidding three or more people to drink together “for no reason” to making it a capital crime for courtesans to be caught drinking. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: How America’s Writers Loved and Hated Thanksgiving

Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

Despite its young age—a mere 152 years—Thanksgiving has deep roots in the American psyche. It was already popular when President Lincoln first established the holiday on the fourth Thursday of every November. In 1842, two decades before Lincoln’s decree, Nathaniel Hawthorne declared Thanksgiving Day “a good old festival; and my wife and I have kept it with our hearts, and besides have made good cheer upon our turkey, and pudding, and pies, and custards.”

The bliss of home life combined with the culinary delights of turkey, pudding and pies also featured in the writings of Harriet Beecher Stowe (“The Old New England Thanksgiving”) and Louisa May Alcott (“An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving”). Such paeans were in perfect accord with the original intentions behind the holiday. Sarah Hale, the journalist who led the campaign to have Thanksgiving accorded federal status, wrote in 1868: “The enjoyments are social, the feastings are domestic, therefore this annual festival is really the exponent of family happiness and household piety. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: Secret Agents, From Babylonian Tablets to James Bond

Daniel Craig in the latest James Bond film, ‘Spectre’ PHOTO: COLUMBIA PICTURES

Daniel Craig in the latest James Bond film, ‘Spectre’ PHOTO: COLUMBIA PICTURES

James Bond may have won the hearts and wallets of audiences world-wide—“Spectre,” the latest movie in the series, opens Friday after shattering box-office records in the U.K.—but armchair experts have always grumbled that Ian Fleming’s world of spies is too exciting to have any relationship to reality or history.

The critics are wrong. Fleming, who died in 1964, packed his books and plots with real historical allusions, beginning with the secrecy classification “for your eyes only.” The origins of the term go back to the Mesopotamians.

The oldest known classified document is a report made by a spy disguised as a diplomatic envoy at the court of King Hammurabi, who died around 1750 B.C. in Babylon. The spy smuggled the object—marked “This is a secret tablet” on the front—to his handlers in the Kingdom of Mari. Shortly after being found in the 20th century, the tablet and its translation went missing, vaulting it to the top rank of wanted secret files. Continue reading…

WSJ Historically Speaking: The World-Changing Power of the Flu

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

Getting a flu vaccine is a dreary annual chore, made worse by the fact that the serum often doesn’t work against the current strain of the virus. But good news seems to be on the horizon. Scientists now report that they have successfully adjusted a viral protein to teach immune systems to fight groups of viruses—an important step toward creating a universal vaccine.

The breakthrough is long overdue. The flu is an ancient disease—at least 2,000 years old—and one of the deadliest, with 10 pandemics in just the past three centuries.

Such is the flu’s power that it should be added to the list of history-altering diseases like typhoid, malaria and smallpox. The first wiped out almost a third of the Athenian population in 430 B.C., a year into the Peloponnesian War against the Spartans. Sixteen hundred years later, in 1167, a malaria-like epidemic forced the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I to abandon Rome and retreat with his army to Germany.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Tax Evasion’s Bite, From the Ancient World to Modern Days

PHOTO: ANDREAS SOLARO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

PHOTO: ANDREAS SOLARO/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

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.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: Gold That Glitters—and Kills

PHOTO: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

PHOTO: JANEK SKARZYNSKI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Since ancient times, the desire for gold has had a way of turning human beings into monsters of greed. The Greek god Dionysus granted the mythical King Midas the golden touch, but only after the king had inadvertently turned his daughter into gold—and realized that he himself would starve to death—did he see his wish as a curse. The Roman poet Virgil wrote in “The Aeneid,” “Accursed thirst for gold! What dost thou not compel mortals to do?”

The alleged discovery last month in Poland of one of the lost Nazi “gold trains” is a case in point. Missing from the excitement over the train—supposedly dispatched at the end of the war (and buried since then), with millions of dollars worth of stolen loot, gold bars and armaments—is acknowledgment that this so-called treasure is the effluence of evil.

Prospectors have flooded the area where the train is said to be. Last week, regional authorities sought the help of the Polish army, as if to prove the famous line in John Huston’s 1948 film “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”: “When the piles of gold begin to grow…that’s when the trouble starts.”

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A History of Star-Crossed Lovers

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

ILLUSTRATION: THOMAS FUCHS

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.

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WSJ Historically Speaking: A Short History of Surfing

Photo: UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

Photo: UNDERWOOD ARCHIVES/GETTY IMAGES

One of the great sights of the dog days of summer is a surfer riding the perfect wave. In those instants of frothy flight, athleticism and grace combine in pure harmony with the rhythms of the sea. It’s no wonder that the sport inspired its own musical genre, epitomized by the happy-go-lucky melodies of the Beach Boys. Indeed, “everybody’s gone surfin’. Surfin’ U.S.A.”

Perhaps because of its popularity as an escape, surfing is often mischaracterized as the refuge of the eternal beach bum, not the sport of kings (and queens)—which it is.

For the Hawaiians, who invented the sport, surfing was no mere pastime but a profound expression of their religion and culture. They called it “he’e nalu,” or “wave-sliding,” because it was about communing with the sea, not dominating it.

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