Friday, March 20, 2015

Twelve Reasons Why Romans Didn’t Live in Glass Houses

Anyone who has tried a hand at fiction [I’ve made a few stabs at it – see my other two blogspot sites] has had the experience of a story going off in in an unplanned direction and finishing in an unexpected place. This is usually because a character acquires a personality that refuses to cooperate; he or she demands to speak and behave in a way that differs from whatever is in your initial outline. It is at least somewhat comforting to know that this happens to first-rate authors as well as to those further down the scale. Mark Twain, for example, tells us that Pudd’nhead Wilson was supposed to be a minor character in a story featuring the Capello twins, but he kept butting in front until Mark finally gave up, handed the plot over to him, consigned the twins to a supporting role, and titled the novel Pudd’nhead Wilson. He explains this in an introduction to the short story Those Extraordinary Twins which he gave to the shortchanged twins in compensation. This kind of divergence from plan doesn’t usually happen in nonfiction blogs though, but it did today, thereby prompting me to double back and write this introductory paragraph. No strong-willed fictional character took command, but a strongly opinionated historical one beckoned down a side road. You’ll see what I mean. Maybe I can’t blame him though; perhaps I just lost focus from a lack of sleep.

As that may be, last week’s musings on concrete brought to mind another material so common we don’t think much about it: glass. There is a direct connection, albeit a minor one, to concrete. One of the less important methods of recycling glass is to grind it into pebble-size pieces and use it as aggregate in concrete or asphalt (“glassphalt”). The primary uses for glass weigh more heavily in the scheme of things of course.

Glassmaking goes back to Sumeria. The process is pretty straightforward. Heat up a silicate (SiO2) rock (typically quartz) to 1200 degrees C and its crystalline structure will break; the rock will turn into a sticky liquid. Cool it fairly rapidly and the crystals won’t have time to reform; the molecules will retain an amorphous pattern – or rather nonpattern – which is to say the material will be glass. By adding a flux, such as potash, you can lower the temperature at which this happens. Occasionally, but only occasionally, glass forms naturally as in the case of obsidian. Perhaps the most fun natural glass (assuming you are not there at the moment of formation) is fulgerite, tubes or filaments of glass ranging from several centimeters to several meters long that can form when lightning strikes desert sand. You have to make glass on purpose, though, if you want industrial quantities of it.

While making glass is uncomplicated in principle, giving it the properties you want is more difficult; just figuring out how to make it transparent took centuries. To work it into something useful takes art and skill. Glass production didn’t really go into high gear until the Roman Empire. Romans not only made cheap everyday glass bowls and drinking vessels, but elaborate cut glasses that we still would have trouble duplicating. The Romans also were the first to make common use of glass windows. An ancient Roman window typically had a lot of small panes set in lead mullions. Making large panes was still a problem for them. Glass windows are easy to underrate until you don’t have them; they let in the light and they keep out the bugs. Before glass people used fabrics or shutters – or they just left the hole in the wall open. None of those is very satisfactory.

It occurs to me – in the way that one thought leads to another – that the Romans by the first century already were so accustomed to glass that they scarcely bothered to mention it in surviving texts. The only reference that comes immediately to mind is by the boorish nouveau riche character Trimalchio in Petronius’ first century novel Satyricon. Google churns up the quote swiftly: “But I prefer glass, if you don't mind my saying so; it doesn't stink, and if it didn't break, I'd rather have it than gold, but it's cheap and common now.” A quick look inside a Penguin translation from my shelf of Suetonius' The Twelve Caesars to see if windows are mentioned in the description of Nero’s Golden House turns up nothing, but I’m afraid that in the pages of the book I’ve gotten distracted from glass. Repeated shattering of something far more fragile is on display: elementary human decency. The Twelve Caesars is an engrossing read even if you’ve read it more than once before.

Suetonius (c. 69 – 122 AD) was a reactionary, which in the context of his time meant he favored a return to governance by the Republican institutions which Julius and his nephew Octavius had turned into rubber stamps. (Roman emperors were surprisingly unperturbed by Republican-leaning historians; they don’t seem to have bothered to suppress them so long as the writings were about their predecessors.) Accordingly, he is happy to trot out the vices of the first twelve Caesars. It therefore is tempting to dismiss his account of imperial depravity as propaganda; yet, so much of it is backed by multiple sources and evidence that we have to take it seriously. When he is unfair he still tells enough of the facts for us to decide this for ourselves. For example, he quotes the fatally ill emperor Vespasian as saying, “I feel I shall soon be a god.” This is presented and often regarded as jaw-dropping arrogance, yet Suetonius’ own biographical account shows Vespasian to have been down-to-earth (rare for a Caesar) and to have had a taste for sarcastic humor. This looks to me to be an instance of it: a reference to the Senate’s habit of voting divinity status for dead emperors, something the hardheaded non-superstitious former general was unlikely to have taken seriously. Besides, the imperial vices Suetonius recounts are, under the circumstances, all too credible.

Several of the Caesars were reasonably good imperial administrators – or at least had the wisdom to delegate the task to unsung freedmen who were – but in their private lives their behavior broke all bounds. In fact, there were no bounds. How do people behave – how would you behave – when there literally are no restrictions? When there are no legal consequences? When your word is law? The answer pretty clearly is that they behave badly. One of the milder passages about Nero:

“Besides the abuse of free-born lads, and the debauch of married women, he committed a rape upon Rubria, a Vestal Virgin. He was upon the point of marrying Acte, his freedwoman, having suborned some men of consular rank to swear that she was of royal descent. He gelded the boy Sporus, and endeavoured to transform him into a woman. He even went so far as to marry him, with all the usual formalities of a marriage settlement, the rose-coloured nuptial veil, and a numerous company at the wedding... It was jocularly observed by some person, ‘that it would have been well for mankind, had such a wife fallen to the lot of his father Domitius.’”

In accordance with Freud and Kinsey rather than 21st century sensibilities, one might note, the Romans didn’t define their sexuality in narrow or divisive terms such as straight or gay – they accepted that a person had a range rather than a niche. An apparently disquieted Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire nonetheless comments that of the first fifteen emperors, “Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct."

The issue, of course, is not what is “correct” but what is assault – whether the object of physical affection had any choice in the matter. Yet Nero wasn’t so very unusual in this regard: his depravity didn’t hold a candle to that of the pedophile Tiberius, never mind the outright insanity of Caligula.

Suetonius remains a convincing warning about the hazards of absolute power. The hazard also applies to the tyrant himself who may discover the hard way that power is never entirely absolute after all: eight (maybe nine) of those twelve Caesars were murdered.

Suetonius wrote numerous other books on everything from grammar to timekeeping to natural history to fashion. (The titles are listed in other sources.) Snippets from a few survive, but most have been lost completely. Among the lost works (I kid you not) is another biographical work, Lives of Famous Whores. Pity.

Heart of Glass


  1. Yeah, the bi-sexuality? of the Romans and other earlier races baffles me. By today's standards you tend to think, well you like one or the other, though even today, some still fall somewhere in the middle. Oddly in politics today, we tend to think of this as a "current" topic. And when (I'd guess with the advent of monotheism) did it change? And when it did change, it certainly went with seemingly definite results. It might make for an interesting SF story about such bi-sexual, bi-alien species if you can think of the right angle or story for such an idea. I can't off the top of my head think of any stories like that in SF or SF TV either, perhaps Star Trek address that in some fashion.

    But yeah, I've heard Stephen King say some characters tend to write themselves or take over the story. He admits he doesn't outline, which I can see that freeing up the story to many degrees. I just wonder if he has an idea and starts writing, or if he has an end already planned that he shoots for ie. we're going on a journey until it ends here.

    1. Almost everything in the 21st century is overloaded with political agenda, very much including arguments over whether sex is a matter of choice or nature. But why not defend the legitimacy of choice even (especially) when a choice is not mainstream? Why deny nature at any time? The truth more likely is a mixture of both anyway when it comes to sexual predilections: we inherit a range, which may differ in size from that of someone else, but may choose, for whatever reasons, to roam only a portion of it. On the 0-6 Kinsey scale (0 exclusively heterosexual 6 exclusively homosexual) developed in the ‘40s and which measures attraction (not behavior), only a minority scores 0 or 6.

      The pagan ancients just didn’t fuss as much over such things, though the Romans sniggered a bit more than the Hellenes. Things changed by the time of the Christian emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) though. He outlawed homosexuality because it causes earthquakes. This begs the response, “only if you do it right.”