The Course of Honor

by Steve Hartshorne on December 29, 2013

vespasian

Vespasian

I’ve been having great fun reading ‘The Course of Honor’ by Lindsey Davis about the Roman Emperor Vespasian and his girlfriend Antonia Caenis.

Davis is the author of the murder mystery series set in Rome that features Marcus Didius Falco. ‘The Course of Honor’ is not a mystery, but rather a novel about the relationship between two historic figures whom Davis brings to life by a skillful telling of their stories which intertwine, then separate, and then come together again.

It was Davis’ first (and favorite) book, but it wasn’t published until the Falco series became popular. It is told from the point of view of Caenis, who begins life as a palace slave with an aptitude for secretarial work. She later becomes the slave of Antonia Minor, the daughter of Marc Antony and Augustus’ sister Octavia. When Antonia frees her, she becomes Anonia Caenis.

The title refers to the series of offices a respectable Roman of the senatorial class is expected to attain during the course of his career. Because of laws passed by Rome’s first emperor, Augustus, Vespasian was prevented from marrying Caenis, a fact they both have to accept during their initial love affair.

He winds up marrying Flavia Domitilla and having two  sons, Titus (the good one) and Domitian (the bad one), both of whom ultimately succeed Vespasian as emperor — but that’s getting ahead of the story.

The story of Vespasian and Caenis is set against the backdrop of the murders and poisonings of the Julian emperors who succeeded Augustus: Tiberius the pedophile, Caligula the madman, Caludius the well-intentioned nitwit, and finally Nero who famously fiddled while Rome burned, and is also known for murdering his mother and kicking his pregnant wife to death.

In an era when none of the members of the imperial family could trust any of the others, the emperors turned the running of the empire over to their personal slaves and freedmen (and freedwomen). Antonia Caenis becomes one of the most influential people in Rome, and she helps Vespasian’s career along, even though they seldom see one another.

The rest, as they say, is history: Vespasian becomes a general and conquers Britain and Judaea. After Nero commits suicide we enter  the year of the four emperors. Galba, Otho, and Vitellius quickly come and go, and Vespasian — now a widower — assumes the purple and resumes his love affair with Antonia Caenis.

With the spoils from the sack of Jerusalem, he builds the famous Flavian amphitheatre, better known as the Colosseum, probably the best known symbol of ancient Rome.

It’s a great story, beautifully told, and it’s all true. We get a glimpse of Vespasian’s wit on his deathbed, but it needs a bit of explanation: Julius Caesar and Augustus were both deified after they died, so just as Vespasian is giving up the ghost, he exclaims, “I think I’m becoming a god.”

 

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Fifty Years Later

by Steve Hartshorne on November 23, 2013

john-john

I’ve been watching a lot of the programs about John F. Kennedy, and I really enjoyed the stories about his presidency, especially the PBS special. The hope and promise of this bright, articulate, principled man and his wonderful family brought back lots of happy childhood memories. I don’t care if he fooled around with lots of beautiful women. So what?

His careful judgment during the Cuban Missile Crisis — and, let’s face it, that of Nikita Krushchev —  prevented a nuclear war that would have destroyed human civilization. And I think it’s important to note that all the advice he got from all his learned advisors was terrible. Every one of them was in favor of destroying the world just to avoid appearing weak. JFK didn’t have to worry about that. He was a war hero.

In the matter of civil rights, it’s clear that JFK came late to the party, but I think he planned to join it all along. He just couldn’t do it too soon or he would no longer be president, just as Franklin Roosevelt could not pass a federal law against lynching. Then JFK saw George Wallace spewing his hateful, pompous vitriol and decided he could wait no longer.

But the assassination — the motorcade, the Zapruder film, the bugler who missed a note, the shock and sorrow on the faces of RFK and Jackie Kennedy, little John John saluting — a lot of it I just couldn’t watch because it was all too painful. Fifty  years later, I can’t stop weeping.

I’ve been wondering why it was we all loved JFK so much, and I think it was because he asked all of us to join  in and help him. “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.” I was just a little boy in Dedham, Massachusetts, and all I was asked to do was to do sit-ups and jumping jacks in the basement of Ames School, but I felt I was doing my part, I was a part of something very big and very important.

Much later I was doing research for some Memorial Day speeches for state senators in New Hampshire, and I came upon an address by Oliver Wendell Holmes senior, the novelist and father of the Civil War hero and chief justice. Holmes said something like: “In these times it is not appropriate for a man to ask what his country can do for him. He ought, rather, to ask what he can do for his country.”

I got a tingle up my spine. “Someone,” I thought, “has been here before me.”

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Name That Baby

by Steve Hartshorne on November 21, 2013

maude-humphrey-baby

In 1901, a portrait of this two-year-old was used in an advertisement for Mellin baby food. The portrait was painted by his mother, a magazine illustrator named Maude Humphrey.

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A Great Time in Virginia

by Steve Hartshorne on November 14, 2013

sdh-jefferson

I just got back from a wonderful trip to the Commonwealth of Virginia, highlighted by a visit to the Hollywood Costume Exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, great movies at the Virginia Film Festival in Charlottesville, a tour of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, and wine tastings at the vineyards of Albemarle County.

wizard-of-oz

I’ll be writing more about the costume exhibit, which originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and will be open  in Richmond until February, when it moves on to Phoenix. This exhibit includes magnificent costumes from Hollywood’s greatest movies including the Wizard of Oz, Gone With The Wind, My Fair Lady, Some Like It Hot, Terminator, Spiderman, Raiders of  the Lost Ark, Titanic, Gangs of New York, and many, many others.

subway-dress

Marilyn Monroe’s famous subway dress

Besides the beautiful historic costumes there are videos and exhibits about the art of costuming explaining how the costume director helps create the look of the movie and establish the characters. You can see interviews with movie greats like Meryl Streep, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro talking about the importance of costumes and see the historic materials that costume directors worked  with to get the right look.

sharon-stone

Remember this dress from Basic Instinct?

And the VMFA has a magnificent collection of art from the classical era to the modern day.

We had a tour of the monuments and architecture  of Richmond and visited the Virginia State Capitol, where Spielberg’s Lincoln was filmed. It’s a dead ringer for the US Capitol in Washington because both buildings were designed by Thomas Jefferson, the author  of the Declaration of Independence and our second president.

bygones

Bygones Vintage Clothing

We visited the beautiful historic Byrd Theater, which is located in the heart of Carytown, a street lined with all kinds of cool shops and cafes and restaurants, including Bygones Vintage Clothing and The Daily Kitchen and Bar, where I enjoyed a memorable plate of seared scall0ps with pomegranate and sweet potato puree.

scallops

Memorable scallops at the Daily Kitchen and Bar in Richmond

From there it was  off to Charlottesville for the Virginia Film Festival, highlighted by a screening of a great new movie called Nebraska with Bruce Dern and Matt Forte. Forte was on hand  to meet the press and answer questions. Another highlight was a screening of Hitchcock’s 1963 film The Birds, a real trip down memory lane, followed by a Q & A with none other than Tippi Hedren!

vineyards

We also had time for  wine tastings at the scenic vineyards of Albermarle County: the Trump Winery and Blenheim Vineyards, which is owned by Dave Matthews, as well as a trip to Monticello, the mountaintop home of Thomas Jefferson, the author  of liberty, not just in the US, but around  the world.

monticello

I’ll be writing a lot more about this magnificent international landmark, the only private home to be listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but suffice it to say, it gives more than 500,000 visitors a year a glimpse into the life and times of this  remarkable man.

monticello-dome

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains from the dome of Monticello

 

They screen a short film about Jefferson in the visitors’ center, and at end they show excerpts from the many declarations of basic human  rights from countries all over the world, dozens and dozens of them, representing liberty for millions and millions of people, all modeled on the document this extraordinary man drafted back in 1776. I have to think that Jefferson would be pleased.

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Benjamin Franklin by Edmund Sears Morgan

by Steve Hartshorne on October 21, 2013

ben-franklin-morganI don’t know why it took me so long to pick up Professor Edmund Sears Morgan’s biography of Benjamin Franklin. It was a Christmas present from my mother, who had it signed by Professor Morgan. He was a family acquaintance because he had a cabin on the shores of Conway Lake.

I took his course when I was at Yale, and the summer before senior year I paddled over to his house on a Sunday morning and asked him about sources for my senior paper on the Burr Conspiracy. He was very helpful.

Professor Morgan was what we now call a national treasure who shed an insightful light on many facets of American history. He passed away in July of this year at the age of 97. At 86, when he published the book, he was still going strong, and attributed its success to “the geezer factor.”

Professor Morgan and I both worked on the editing of the Franklin papers at Sterling Library, compiling all his letters and writings, which are still being collected from all over the world. When I was there, back in 1974, it was up to 17 volumes. In 2002, it was up to 56 volumes, and Professor Morgan read them all, and he was just the guy to give us all kinds of insights about this remarkable man, who discovered the conductivity of electricity, invented the lightning rod, bifocals, and the Franklin stove, devised the glass armonica, for which Beethoven and Mozart both composed music, obtained the French alliance that won the American Revolution, charted the Gulf Stream, and started the first public library in America.

Would it surprise you to learn that Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations after a year of close collaboration with Ben Franklin?

One of Morgan’s greatest gifts was the ability to use seemingly mundane facts to give his readers and his students a new perspective on the people they were studying. The Puritans of New England, for example. What color did they paint their houses? Every historic district I’ve ever seen is full of houses painted white. Morgan studied the ships’ manifests from the period and found their favorite colors for house paint were red and blue.

He does the same with Franklin, leading off with Franklin’s love of swimming. Franklin crossed the Atlantic many times, and when the seas were calm he used to swim laps around the ship. He loved swimming long distances and continued well into his seventies.

Everyone should read Franklin’s Autobiography; besides the teachings of Jesus, it’s probably the best guide we have about how to be a better person. Poor Richard’s Almanac has a lot of wisdom, too. For those who love and admire Benjamin Franklin, here is a work that tells us even more about this remarkable man by one of the world’s greatest scholars.

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Orestes Pursued by the Furies

by Steve Hartshorne on October 19, 2013

I went to the unveiling of John Sendelbach’s sculpture “Brookie” on Deerfield Street in Greenfield, made from cutlery. It inspired me to create a sculpture of my own: “Orestes Pursued by the Furies.”

brookie

brookie-unveiling

orestes-furies

orestes-two

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Zerkon the Moorish Dwarf

by Steve Hartshorne on October 10, 2013

attila-feast

 

Ever wonder what it was like to have dinner with Attila the Hun? An ambassador named Priscus from the Byzantine Empire dined with Attila and left an account of it, which I found in a book called “The Mammoth Book of Eyewitness: Ancient Rome” edited by John E, Lewis. The painting is by Hungarian painter Mór Than.

“A luxurious meal, served on silver plate, had been made ready for us and the barbarian guests, but Attila ate nothing but meat on a wooden trencher. In everything else, too, he showed himself temperate; his cup was of wood, while to the guests were given goblets of gold and silver.

“His dress, too, was quite simple, affecting only to be clean. The sword he carried by his side, the latchets of his Scythian shoes, the bridle of his horse were not adorned, like those of other Scythians, with gold or gems or anything costly…

“When evening fell, torches were lit, and two barbarians coming forward in front of Attila, sang songs they had composed, celebrating his victories and deeds of valor in war. And of the guests, as they looked at the singers, some were pleased with the verses, others reminded of wars were excited in their souls, while yet others, whose bodies were feeble with age and their spirits compelled to rest, shed tears.

“After the songs a Scythian, whose mind was deranged, appeared, and by uttering outlandish and senseless words forced the company to laugh.”

But those are just the opening acts. Now comes the headliner:

“After him Zerkon, the Moorish dwarf entered and threw all except Attila into fits of unquenchable laughter by his appearance, his dress, his voice, and his words, which were a confused jumble of Latin, Hunnic, and Gothic.

“Attila, however. remained immovable and of unchanging countenance, nor by word or act did he betray anything approaching to a smile of merriment, except at the entry of Ernas, his youngest son, whom he pulled by the cheek, and gazed on with a calm look of satisfaction.”

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Why the Fire Chief Always Wore a Hat After That

by Steve Hartshorne on October 2, 2013

anita-hinckleyMy sincere apologies to the readers of this blog, if indeed there are any left, for the recent dearth of entries. I just had that feeling that I had nothing to say to the world. And yet, all this time, I have been reading, and have learned lots of interesting things and, truth be told, was just too lazy to set them down.

I’m hoping to start blogging seriously again, getting back to the first principle of Armchair Travel: great reads for a quarter.

I’ve taken some great trips for GoNOMAD, but the one thing I don’t like about traveling is that I miss the tag sales and barn sales and flea markets.

The other day I went through this enormous tobacco barn on Stockbridge Road chock-a-block full of interesting stuff, but badly stacked, so it was unsafe to rummage. If you were to topple one of the irregular pyramids of crates and boxes, you know the guy has a wildly inflated view of the value of his stuff, so he’d sue you for ten thousand dollars.

I had been there in previous years, and I noticed he’d been sorting through the stuff and a lot more of it was safely accessible, so I’m looking forward to going back next year. This year, though, I got a great score: a whole box of American Heritage.

The box was covered with dust, there was no one else in the world who was going to buy it, at least in this particular part of the word, so he had to let it go for ten bucks. I could have got it for five, but I’m not that kind of guy. I understand how hard it is for this guy to part with his stuff, and I didn’t want to insult him, and a box of American Heritage is worth a lot more than ten bucks.

Getting back to that theme of great reads for a quarter, in the first issue I picked up there’s a first-person account of the Battle of Bull Run (the first one), facsimile copies letters from George Washington, Ben Franklin and Lord Cornwallis, a series of sketches by a German artist who toured the West in the 1840s, a description of life in Mississippi after the Civil War, and a reprint of Wickford Tales by Anita Hinckley.

Wickford Tales is one of the funniest books I have ever read, and I just got through the First Railroad Station Fire, which I will sum up as fast as I possibly can, in order to explain why the fire chief always wore a hat after that.

“I was always glad to get back from Europe, to Wickford, where things were happening,” Hinckley writes.

The First Railroad Station Fire took place the night before a “squirt” — a competition among fire companies to shoot a stream of water the farthest, which was accomplished by teams of men pumping rails on two sides of the engine.

At the time of the fire, several engines stood on flat cars next to the station and were destroyed in the fire. The other engines that had been gathered for the next day’s competition, were completely ineffective in quelling the blaze.

Amidst the tangle of ineffective fire equipment was Wickford Fire Chief George Cranston, who was dashing close to the blaze to save whatever could be saved from the station. Unfortunately, one thing he saved was a spitoon from the men’s section.

As he battled the blaze, he put it on his head to protect it from the sparks — one of those things which seems like a good idea at the time, like getting the whole family together in a cabin in Maine.

Unfortunately, the sweat of his brow, and the expansion of the well-built bronze cuspidor, due to the searing heat, caused it to slip down over his head, and when he withdrew from the blaze, naturally, it contracted again and he couldn’t get it off.

Eventually the town’s plumber had to be called, who used a torch to remove it, but the fire chief always wore a hat after that.

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Precisely to the Brim

by Steve Hartshorne on October 1, 2013

Precisely to the Brim

I don’t know whether this is a poem. Or not.

I don’t know why it has taken me more than half a century to figure out that measuring the water you put in the teapot when you’re making tea or coffee saves a lot of time and electricity (or gas).

I used to have a pint or two left over in the kettle that I heated up and didn’t use every time I made tea, which tends to be a lot if you give up beer and soda.

A cup of water takes about five minutes to boil on my electric stove, and there’s two cups to a pint, so that’s ten or twenty kilowatt minutes that I can save by measuring. Plus ten to twenty minutes of my precious time.

And you can amaze your friends when you empty the kettle into the teapot, and fill it precisely to the brim.

Okay, okay, some of it burns off, but not enough so they’d notice. It helps to choose friends who are easily amazed.

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Picking a Loser in 2016

by Steve Hartshorne on September 13, 2013

As the Democratic Party chooses a candidate for the presidency in 2016, we should remember the party’s commitment to losing candidates, dating back to the great William Jennings Bryan, who lost not one, not two, but three presidential elections.

We should remember the example of Eleanor Roosevelt, who refused to support John F. Kennedy in 1960 because she supported Adlai Stevenson, who had lost only twice, and deserved a chance to equal Bryan’s record.

With all the demographic forces working in favor of the Democrats — every obituary improves their chances –we’re going to have to work hard to lose this one, but there’s one candidate who can do it!

I’m talking about a member of the board of directors of WalMart, a lawyer who worked for Monsanto, just like Clarence Thomas! A candidate who voted FOR the war in Iraq. A candidate that 51 percent of Americans do not like, whose only apparent qualification is that she really wants to be president.

I’m talking about Hillary Clinton. She has shown no passion for defending ordinary people. She prolonged the primary fight in ’08 long after she had clearly lost, tried mightily to subvert the so-called “super delegates,” and finally demanded that Obama pay off her campaign debts in return for her support.

Her campaign was marked by enormous expenditures on private planes and luxury hotels, with thousands of dollars spent on flowers, and her morning conference call included ten people, every one of whom had tried to stab the others in the back.

This candidate embodies everything we all detest.

Democrats lose when they nominate the person who is next in line. They win when Kennedy cuts in ahead of Johnson and Stevenson, when Obama cuts in ahead of Clinton.

We cannot win with Hillary in 2016. Like John Kerry, she has no passion for defending ordinary people. She disdains them. I say we nominate Kirsten Gillibrand — or, even better, Elizabeth Warren!

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