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Thinking in terms of millennia

Reading Pantheon: A New History of Roman Religion has me thinking about the Pantheon. I visited Rome and stood outside (and inside) the Pantheon in 2010. I still remember the feeling of being in such an ancient and pristine building. It’s pretty awesome. That is, literally awe-inspiring.

How did this building persist? In 609 Emperor Phocas donated it to the Roman Church, which transformed it into a church (it is still used for some religious purposes). This did not prevent total despoilation and parts of the Pantheon were removed or destroyed. But, on the whole co-option by Christianity, a persistent institution, allowed for this monument from deep antiquity to come down to the present in relatively intact form.

I think this gets at something deep in terms of how we can preserve artifacts and ideas long after we are gone.


9 thoughts on “Thinking in terms of millennia

  1. More or less on topic, tsunamis caused by large magnitude earthquakes on the subduction zones of tectonic plate boundaries (as opposed to those caused by large submarine landslides or large rockfalls from coastal cliffs into the sea) are cyclic, and typically occur at a frequency of hundreds or even thousands of years. The Indian Ocean tsunami that occurred on December 26 2004 was such an event. It killed about 230,000 people in 14 countries, including in eastern Africa. It was Sweden’s worst ever natural disaster and it occurred in southern Thailand, because so many Swedes were holidaying there to get away from the Swedish winter. I talked to professional colleagues from Sri Lanka who told me that people were running *towards* the coast to see the incoming waves, and died. (I heard similar stories from colleagues in Hawaii about when there have been tsunami alerts there – people rushing towards the coast to witness the event, when they should have been racing in the opposite direction and seeking high ground.)

    These megathrust earthquakes occur because, as adjacent tectonic plates try to move against each other, with one moving down beneath the other, but are restrained by friction, the stress builds up until it becomes large enough to overcome the friction, and a rapid movement then takes place, vertically displacing a huge amount of seawater, which then has to flow somewhere as a translational wave with a great deal of kinetic energy, which is why tsunami waves are so destructive. (I’m trying to keep this short. And failing.)

    Immediately after such an event, the risk of it occurring again is obviously zero, because the stress has been released, but with the passage of time, the stress progressively builds up again, and the risk progressively increases, until it becomes large enough to cause another such event, hence the cyclic nature of the events. In the case of the Indian Ocean tsunami, the period is about 600 – 650 years.

    Lisbon in Portugal is going to get another very damaging event at some time in the future – nothing is more certain. They show no evidence of awareness of this, that I have ever seen, but I could be wrong. Maybe they have a plan. I hope so. I hope it is nothing like the plan that Napoli has for when another major eruption of Mt Vesuvius occurs, which is simply not going to work, but I digress – that is not a tsunami problem.

    So the problem is this. How do you warn people living hundreds of years in the future that such an event definitely will occur, and that they must be prepared for it? You can’t predict exactly when, but you can predict approximately when. How do you warn them? How do you tell them what will occur, and what they need to do to protect themselves?

    One thing you can do is build long-lasting monuments. Massive concrete pyramids engraved with warning messages, preferably using images, not language. And these can double as a means for people to save themselves, if you build multiple staircases up the sides of the pyramids. You need lots of pyramids and lots of staircases because, particularly in SE Asia, people will stand back to let the elderly ascend first, and they will slow down everyone else who is trying to climb up above maximum wave height. Wait for the elderly to get up there first, and everyone will die. After the 2004 event, the Thai government employed the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute to study and advise on what to do about this problem, and that is what colleagues at NGI came up with – concrete stepped pyramids, bearing graphic warning messages. They would work, but they have not subsequently been built.

    No one in the regions most badly affected has done this. Big ugly, scary things, not good for tourism, and people trying to forget the horrors of what occurred. (We have one Thai friend in Phuket who we have known since our daughter was a baby, and who only barely escaped with her life. She now suffers terribly with PTSD – when I hold her hands and tell her that everything is OK, that such an event will not happen again within her lifetime or within the lifetime of her son, she becomes calm because she trusts me, but after we go away again, she starts getting the terrors again, endlessly reliving in her mind racing up a staircase with the water rushing up the stairs behind her, and then afterwards seeing all of the corpses laid out and decaying, thousands of them, while the authorities frantically tried to identify the bodies of people damaged beyond recognition. She can no longer hold down a job. And I can’t keep going back to Phuket often enough to hug her and tell that it is OK now, and that she and her son will be safe. I also know an Australian nurse who was on holiday in Phuket when it happened, and she was trying to treat people who were badly injured – she had to walk past the lines of decaying corpses every day for weeks; she also has PTSD very badly as a result, and has never worked as a nurse again.)

    In Aceh, the region most badly affected, they have just rebuilt in exactly the same place and in the same way, as if the tsunami had never occurred, and there is nothing to remind people of what happened, let alone warn generations 600 years in the future.

    The Japanese know more about tsunamis than anyone because they get more than anyone, and understood the connection between offshore earthquakes and tsunamis. (The Chinese have excellent earthquake records going back at least 2,000 years, but they never figured out the connection between offshore earthquakes and tsunamis, although they have had some – the most severe that I could find a record for hit the coast of Fujian near the end of the 18th Century, which was attributed to storm surge from a typhoon, but which coincided very closely with a large offshore earthquake for which they had a record – that event killed more than 100,000 people).

    Various Japanese communities have come up with ways to deal with this problem. One very famous educator in the late 19th Century got it written into the primary school textbooks, aimed at ‘tweeners’, who are very receptive to learning about this kind of thing – the 10 to 12 year age group, and it is a permanent fixture in the school curriculum. One seismologist from the British Geological Survey taught me his ‘triangular’ rule: 1. Adults ignore experts. 2. Children listen to experts. 3. Adults listen to children. So teach the children, and they will impart the knowledge to their parents when they need to. The case of Tilly Smith is illustrative:

    In one Japanese town they built a statue to commemorate a local hero who warned the townspeople that a tsunami was coming and that they should move to higher ground, and every year all of the school children are taken on a pilgrimage to visit his statue, where the story is recounted to them. In another Japanese town, they planted thick groves of trees along the shoreline, which help to dissipate the energy of tsunami waves, and maintaining the groves of trees is a reminder.

    It seems to me that what we need are beautiful, long lasting monuments like the Pantheon, that people will want to have around them, that tell the stories of what happened and when it will happen again, and build it into the local cultures to take the children to see them and teach them the stories, almost as a form of religion, or heritage. Some adults express concern about teaching children as young as 10 about such horrors and think that kids that age should be shielded from such things until they are older, but they are wrong – the kids can take it. Tweeners are very ‘rules driven’ and love to learn this stuff, they lap it up, they don’t forget it, and they will perpetuate it. We just need to build the temples for them, and write it all into the school curriculum, and they will do the rest.

  2. The last 3 paragraphs can be read as an argument for not removing statues of Confederate villains, even Nathan Bedford Forrest or of Nazis or Lenin et al. further east, so long as the appropriate lessons are taught stories are recounted.

    Despite this bit of snark, I found this comment very informative. Thank you for taking the time to make it.

  3. I love the Pantheon. Visiting churches (mosques, synagogues etc) I always feel a bit like an intruder. In the Pantheon I feel the Christians are.
    You might consider The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. By Catherine Nixey
    Haven’t finished it yet, so I can’t comment the whole of its narrative, reviews are a bit mixed, but it is clear that the “preservation of Antique Wisdom” trope is overworked.

  4. One of the things I love about Pantheon is that Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (a/k/a Raphael) is buried there, at his own request. It connects the Classical world with the other period of Rome’s greatness, the Renaissance.

    The building is the type of a large portion of the domed public buildings of Europe, Asia, and the Americas. In Rome, there is St Peter’s. Paris has its own Panthéon. And there is St. Paul’s in London.

    It is echoed by Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Taj Mahal in Agra.

    It inspired the Villa Rotonda in Vicenza which inspired Jefferson’s design of Monticello. Most importantly the US Capitol in Washington, which is imitated by many state capitols.

  5. @JK M
    “Visiting churches (mosques, synagogues etc) I always feel a bit like an intruder”

    Don’t project a narrative onto yourself. Enjoy the buildings for what they are, and not what you think that you are.

  6. Rome would have been a special case, in that many factors that would contribute to what was done about the Pantheon…. are peculiar to Rome.

    Firstly, Rome went from a population of 1 million at it’s height to about 12,000 at the bottom during the dark ages. There is a legend that there was one night in the 700’s when it was completely empty of humans. Rome in the 700’s was a forest of empty unused buildings. It was an eerie place.

    So, many, or even most of the buildings were unused. The Romans occasionally did build new buildings, but when they did, they didn’t make bricks or quarry stone, there was plenty of that lying around from old unused buildings. Rome was a huge architectural building junkyard that if you wanted to build something could be looted for ‘parts’.

    To keep this or that building from being mined for parts, converting it to a church was a common way of doing it. The Colosseum was a church for a while too. If it wasn’t it might not be there, well it would be, if it’s bricks being all over Rome in other buildings counted as ‘there’.

    So, though I might agree that something might be done to preserve civilization from the woke, the present day invasion of ignorant primitive barbarian savages, I don’t think that using how the Pantheon was preserved is going to work. It’s a different problem.

  7. I wrote in a couple occasions about Romans (and Greeks) and pointed that this part of world history was the most falsified. It seems that my writings have not persuaded Razib, who likes to read (and write) about this period, but I blame my persuasive skills instead of his common-sense comprehension. We can write books but let see few things which we can associate with this intro text.

    There is a reference on the book Pantheon – A New History of Roman Religion.
    There is a segment A history of Mediterranean religion, which suppose should give some ‘sources’ or predecessors of ‘Roman’ religion’. I read the ‘free reading’ part of the book and this is enough for me. I found the info about first ‘Olympic games’ (776BC) what is an absolute joke so as Greek references from ‘Dark Ages’. We still do not know anything about Illyrians/Thracians who gave 40+ emperors, we do not know, nor we are interested about their language, history, origins, religion. We don’t know how Rome was founded, what is the meaning of its name, when Rome transformed from Republic to Empire after the joint triumph by Emperor Tiberius and Illyrian Bato (have a look his statue –, who is he comparing to modern people?) whose name is one of the most comic loses in Greek translations – the meaning of (little) brother became in various languages: father, pater, padre, etc. We don’t know and do not care that the centre of Roman Empire was moved to Sirmium, where was the mint and the Colosseum larger than this in Rome, that Diocletian only spent couple weeks of his life in Rome and the rest in Sirmium, etc.

    And the book says: “What is the religion in this house? We adjust our focus, but still we do not yet see religion. No domestic altar, no statuettes, no sacrifice pit. A woman enters our field of view. She is perhaps in her mid-twenties, so she does not have so very much longer to live. She will probably die in childbirth. For us she has no name: of course, she has a name, but we do know it. Without writing, history remains nameless: and in this region it will remain so far, another two hundred years. But, as we speak of the woman, she begins to take a form, feelings, actions, a will of her own; so, why not also give her a name, one that she could have borne here in the hills of the west coast of central Italy? Let us call her Rhea.”

    Who was Rhea?
    A bit earlier Greek called her Gaia (Gea, Earth). And both names and origins were related to indigenous people who lived there before Romans and Greeks appear in history. Where are they in the books and its chapter – A history of Mediterranean religion? Both names are Serbian and related to Serbian people. Rhea (or Rheasa) is the name of Serbian goddess. She was a protector of agriculture and her followers were Rashans (or Rasians) what is the alternative name for Serbs. This is a root name for ‘race’ which has the same meaning as ‘serb’ (=relative, cousin). This is the later name for Russians and Prussians (who were germanised Serbs).

    What about the god Serbon and his divine counterpart, goddess Serbona?
    They also have a part in previous story. Serbon (known in Mesopotamia as Assur) was one of the supreme gods among Serbs and a deity protector of the ruling and warrior class. He is known later as SER in Serapis (some other time about this). Just to say – ‘Christians come from the ranks of Alexandrian worshipers of Serapis… even official Christian science says that the first Christians in Alexandria were called – serapists! 129.g. Roman emperor Hadrian comes to Alexandria, and for the first time officially a Roman emperor has contact with Christians – Hadrian’s conclusion is that he sees nothing special in these Christians, he believes that it is just a branch of the Serapists…. The most famous Temple of Serapis was Serapeon, burned by Christians in 391, together with a good part of the Library of Alexandria, on which he leaned…. “

    What about Serbona?
    SERBONA was the greatest goddess of the ancient world, she was most widely celebrated by Serbs, Greeks and Romans. It had several names, and each of these peoples celebrated under its own special name.
    This divine couple represented the main features of day and night, Serbon is the representative of the Sun, and Serbona is the representative of the Moon.

    The main role of the goddess Serbona is to protect the life and fertility of everything in nature. The people called by the name of mother, midwife and nanny. It regulates wildlife hunting. To protect the game, she shoots the hunter god Arion (Aryans got the name after him) with her arrows.
    The characteristics of the goddess Serbona is a cross with four “points” (ocilii) which are in fact four young moons as a feature of her cosmic role. This sign of hers remained as the main feature of the Serbian coat of arms up to today. It was also a letter in Vinca’s ‘alphabet’.
    Serbona often has a symbol of the movement of the Sun, the swastika, as a sign of her role as a parade of the god Serbona, the representative of the Sun. This symbol literally means the movement of the Sun and Moon.
    The New Moon is a symbol of fertility, and Serbona as the Moon deity has a special role in protecting women and giving birth. That’s why they called her a midwife. Herodotus says that women from Thrace and Peonia brought the need to the Imperial Serbona.

    The oldest statue of Serbona ever found is made of baked clay from the Danube region, and dates from the third millennium BC. Arthur Evans found in Crete a statue of Serbona, which, like its parade, has two lions, and dates from the second millennium BC.

    In Greek, Serbona is called Artemis, which is actually her nickname. In Hezihius, one form of her name is Sarbima. There is no dispute in science that Artema is a pre-Greek deity who was named and adopted by the Greeks in the spirit of their language, like many other deities. All scholars agree that the name is not of Greek origin. Guthrie says that Artema the hunter was celebrated on the Helm (Balkan) peninsula long before the arrival of the Greeks.

    The most famous and most famous temple of Serbona was in Ephesus in Asia Minor (,

    which according to tradition was built by the Amazons (who were they?), from where her figure was transferred to Rome. Her temple was built on the Aventine during the reign of Serbius Tulius who was a Rashan (Etruscan). The temple of goddess Serbona (i.e. Dianna Serbona) which parts still exist, but the name is slightly changed. Instead od Diana Serbona (=goddess Serbona), the name Serbona was removed and remained only ‘goddess Diana’, i.e. “goddess-goddess” (!!!) All previous is missing from this book.

  8. PS. There are few typos above and the usage of the archaic word ‘pareda’ which means a female divine counterpart (like Hera to Zeus). Obviously, there are many shortcomings of the book. By writing about goddess Rhea, the writer missed to link it with one of its derivative – Thracians, what is a Greek reading of Rashans or Raseni, how also Etruscans, the founders of Rome, called themselves.

    Another word or two about Serbona… Because of her multiple roles, she was given various names. As the goddess of fertility and goddess, the mother in Phrygia was called Keva (Cybele) whose chariot was pulled by lions. Guthrie says that Artem was named for the first time in Ephesus, although she had nothing Hellenic. She was a distinctly Great Mother in Ephesus. Serbona is often identified as Brito-marta, the great mother goddess from Crete.

    Serbona’s origin, or Artemis in the Greeks edition, is presented as follows. Her father was Div (Greek: Dios or Zeus), and her mother was the goddess Leto. It is literally the Summer in the Serbian language.
    In the summer she gave birth to Serbona and Apollo. Although designated as Apollo’s sister, she had nothing in common with him. Apollo is the representative of the Sun, and the sister of the Moon, so it can be seen that here Serbon is replaced by Apollo. The place of birth was the island of Delos.

    The goddess Leto was named Latona in Italy, and the Latins got their name from her. In old Latium, one city was named Serbonovo, or Serbona’s name. Never-ending story…

  9. Walter mentions Hagia Sophia for its architecture, and it’s also a parallel story, where the conquering religion adopts the conquered religious monument for its own. Great for the rest of us who like historical preservation.

    Kind of like how conquering peoples, even genocidal ones, will sometimes preserve the place names from the peoples they replaced. A faint historical echo gets preserved, sometimes, when everything else is rejected by the conquerors.

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