A solemn formal reception at the imperial court usually dazzled a foreign ruler or envoy, even a sophisticated Western bishop like Liudprand of Cremona (d. 972), ambassador of the king in Italy, who has left us his account from the year 948:
The Written Record
The emperor Theophilus (r. 829-842) appeared every week on horseback at a given church and handed down judgments so fair and equitable that they have passed into legend:
A Christian prelate, Theodore, drafted a set of rules pertaining to male and female slaves in seventh-century England. The following is from the second penitential book—that is, a book on penances arising from the failure to adhere to discipline—of Theodore at Canterbury, section XIII:
1. If he is compelled by necessity, a father has the power to
sell his son of seven years of age into slavery; after that,
he had not the right to sell him without his consent.
2. A person of fourteen [years] can make himself a slave.
Beowulf begins in Denmark, where it tells of the founding of the Danish royal line and the building of a great hall by King Hrothgar. The hall is repeatedly raided by a savage monster, Grendel, who seizes and eats the Danish warriors as they lie asleep after dinner, until from over the sea in southern Sweden comes a hero, Beowulf.
The Benedictine rule blended Roman law with the new Christian view to produce the most enduring form of monasticism in Western society. Consider the concepts of authority, rule, and equality contained in the following portions of the rule of St. Benedict:
The great Roman historian Tacitus said that the emperor Nero was using the Christians as a scapegoat for the great fire of A.D.. 64:
In 1663 in Dalmatia portions of a manuscript known as The Satyricon were found. This bawdy satire is attributed to Petronius (d. A.D. 65), one of Nero’s court officials. Though undoubtedly exaggerated, the work tells us much about contemporary attitudes and practices among the most wealthy and leisured. One of the longest sections is an account of a lavish banquet given by the newly rich and ultra-vulgar Trimalchio.
At its height, the Roman Empire put great emphasis on dining well—at least for the rich. A Roman chef, Apicius, produced the first surviving cookbook. Apicius’s menu for one Roman banquet, which would begin in the late evening and run through the night to the accompaniment of musicians, dancers, acrobats, and poets, follows. The meals also tells us something about the extent of Roman trade, for the ostrich and flamingo came from Africa, the dates from Judea, and the spices from throughout the Empire.
Jellyfish and eggs
Pliny the Elder (A.D.. 23-79) was a Roman naturalist who died of asphyxiation near Mount Vesuvius, having gone personally to investigate the eruption. In a letter to Tacitus, his nephew Pliny the Younger (A.D. c. 62—c. 113), described the eruption. His description humanized the death of an entire city, relating how the people of Pompeii fell in the streets where gas and molten lava overcame them. Pompeii disappeared under thirty feet of ash.
Scholars argue over how fundamental slavery has been to different cultures. Perhaps half of all societies have owned legal slaves. But if we define a slave society as one in which slaves play a significant role in production and constitute, say, 20 percent of the total population, then there have been only five slave societies in known history: classical Athens, Roman Italy (though not the remainder of the Empire), the West Indies under the British and French, the southern portion of the United States before 1865, and Brazil. This does not, of course, include other forms of forced labor.
Aristophanes’ The Frogs was first produced in 405 B.C., the twenty-sixth year of the Second Peloponnesian War, shortly before the surrender of Athens to Sparta. Euripides had died in 406, and in The Frogs Aristophanes has Dionysus, the god of theater, go to Hades to bring Euripides back to Athens. The search for Euripides is comic and bawdy, and it features a contest between Euripides and Aeschylus, which the latter wins, so that he returns to Dionysus, since he is judged to be more able to remind Athenians of the principles by which they might yet achieve victory.
From the hand of Thucydides, the historian of the Peloponnesian War, we have an account of Pericles’ famous speech, delivered in the winter of 431 B.C., exhorting the Athenians to greater efforts by describing the ideal of an imperial democracy:
Mayest thou never exist, may thy body never exist.
May thy limbs never exist. May thy bones never exist. May thy words of power never exist.
May thy form never exist. May thy attributes never exist.
May that which springs from thee never exist.
May thy hair never exist.
May thy possessions never exist. May thy emissions never exist.
May the material of thy body never exist.
May thy place never exist. May thy tomb never exist. May thy cavern never exist. May thy funeral chamber never exist.
May thy paths never exist. May thy seasons never exist.
Set down about 1750 B.C., the Code of Hammurabi incorporated many earlier laws. While the code is, first and foremost, a legal statement about stern justice, it also reveals much about life at the time, since laws are a reflection of society and of the breaches against its decorum that are most common or most feared.
1 If a man weave a spell and bring a charge of murder against another man and has not justified himself, the accuser shall be put to death.
Many similarities to the Biblical account of Noah’s ark and the great flood are found in the epic of Gilgamesh, the king of Uruk. This epic predates the epics of Homer by 1500 years and is, in the eyes of many scholars, the first major contribution to world literature. Composed about 2000 B.C., the epic tells of the Great Flood in the following words:
The mention of Uruk provides an opportunity to discuss a special problem in history, namely that places change their names. In the Bible the city called Uruk, its ancient Sumerian name, was referred to as Erech, one of the cities of Nimrod. Today the same location appears on the map as Warka. Geographically each of the three names designates the same place; historically the names indicate different times, just as the name of the czarist capital of St. Petersburg was changed to Leningrad, and then changed back to St. Petersburg in recent years.