The Fate of Rome (and Russian Trolls): A Very, Very Short Book Review

As I write this, that annual scourge of winter, flu season, is in full flower. Flu requires a seasonal vaccination to provide temporary immunity, so the cycle of projecting the strain and concocting an annual vaccine will continue with mixed results for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, in the United States there are regional outbreaks of measles. Unlike the flu, long-term immunity to measles has been possible by vaccination for decades. But in recent years, an anti-vaccination movement has taken hold and . . . yep; the outbreaks are in areas with high percentages of un-vaccinated persons.

This is an odd intro to a book-review blog, but I think relevant. In my first “Very, Very Short Book Review”, I expressed my desire of “recommending some books with Ancient Dan-type subject matter, but with connections to current events.” Kyle Harper’s The Fate of Rome fits the bill on both counts and triggers the second of this (obviously, very occasional) series.

Kyle Harper, The Fate of Rome: Climate, Disease, & the End of an Empire (Princeton: University Press, 2017); ISBN: 978-0-691-16683-4.

My copy of Harper, The Fate of Rome (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

Harper treats the oft-discussed subject of the Fall of Rome from a different angle than most, focusing on the role of persistent disease morbidity and mortality, unexpected climate change, and three decisive pandemics. With acute rhetorical and story-telling skill, Harper has fashioned a page-turner as he builds his case that decades of exceptionally good climate, resulting population growth, and the extensive connectivity of the Roman world created prime conditions for the three pandemics. The triggers, he argues, are unforeseen climate interruptions from volcanic activity and a normal cooling cycle.

Some have challenged parts of Harper’s arguments and data, and perhaps with good reason. The thing that makes the book such a good read—its engaging style and vivid description—also creates an opening for the charge that Harper uses his rhetorical skill to cover weaknesses in the data. This objection is aided by the book’s awkward reference style.[1] Yes, as is charged, there are a few claims for which it is impossible to find Harper’s sources; but with this crazy system oversights are practically invited. Footnotes are better. That criticism notwithstanding, The Fate of Rome is a marvel of research across a range of specialties in ancient history, climate science, and biology. The beauty and value of the volume, for me, is its attention to the workings and dynamics of systems and human behavior. Here, study of the past is quite relevant for the present.

I feel certain that Princeton University Press’ dust jacket design for Harper, The Fate of Rome, was inspired by my door at The Compound . . . complete with falling leaves (couldn’t locate the fallen leaves for this impromptu pic; photo © Daniel C Browning Jr )

What does all this have to do with the current outbreaks of measles? The three pandemic “plagues” were catastrophic, killing unprecedented percentages of the population. But everyone did not die. The pathogens lost their overwhelming effect when the population was dominated by survivors who gained immunity. Community wide immunity is what keeps pandemic-capable pathogens at bay. Happily, in our modern world, we have easy immunity to some threats through vaccination programs. Yet, movements have developed and persist that decry and resist such programs. This is not the place to argue the science—but the anti-vaccination people rely on disproved studies, pseudoscience, rumor, distrust of government (perhaps understandable), and disinformation planted by Russian trolls. I did not make this up and it is not “fake news!” (check the study published in the American Journal of Public Health here).[2] Indeed, in the wake of the recent measles outbreaks, Facebook is reportedly considering ways to limit anti-vaccine disinformation.

The compulsory vaccination issue is complicated by concerns for individual choice, privacy, and especially religious freedom. I get that and don’t want to presume to have arguments for all angles. But a read of Harper, The Fate of Rome might bring a dose of reality about the way systems can surprise the complacent and potentially change the Fate of Us.

One of Harper’s observations is that the second Roman pandemic, the “Plague of Cyprian” in the mid-third century, is responsible for elevating Christianity to a prominent position in the Empire and paved the way for its dominance in the next centuries. This view is shared by other scholars of the late Empire. Ironically, elements of the faith that once benefited from the fear of rampant infectious disease now may be a factor in allowing one such disease to return (Rule 4).

Anti-vaxxers: the pathogen community thanks you very much (with a special shout-out to Russian trolls for their part in the Collusion).

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[1] Endnote numbers appear only at the end of paragraphs and the corresponding notes (at the end of the book) contain multiple references, sometimes keyed by a short quote from the paragraph to guide the reader to the right source. As I spend at least half of my time in reading a book like this in the notes, this is a maddening system.

[2] David A. Broniatowski, et al, “Weaponized Health Communication: Twitter Botsand Russian Trolls Amplify the Vaccine Debate,” American Journal of Public Health. 108(10): 1378–1384. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2018.304567.


Pic of the Day (2019-02-05): Δημήτριος (Dimitrios); the Shipwreck of State, 2

My previous “Shipwreck of State” post bemoaned the chaos and unrest in Venezuela by featuring Aruba shipwrecks and Plato’s use of the Ship of State analogy to comment on proper leadership for democracies (Republic 6. 488a–489d). This got me nostalgic about shipwrecks I have known and resulted in the this brief follow up Pic Of The Day.

The southern part of mainland Greece is the large and important Peloponnese peninsula. The Peloponnese, in turn, terminates in three finger-like peninsulas pointing south into the Aegean/Mediterranean Sea. The central one is the Mani, whose tip is the southernmost point of mainland Greece. On the east side of the uppermost part of the Mani, there are two very nice straight beaches near Githio. As you come north over the hill from Selinitsa Beach, Valtaki comes into view, with an unusual feature — a semi-beached shipwreck. It is the Dimitrios (Greek Δημήτριος).

View of Valtaki (Βαλτάκι) Beach near Githio, Greece; obviously featuring a shipwreck—the ill-fated Dimitrios (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-05-23)

There are other and better-known shipwrecks around Greece, notably the spectacularly-situated MV Panagiotis, wrecked in 1980 on the island of Zakinthos at now-dubbed Navagio (“shipwreck”) Beach. I’ve noted its appearance in several commercials of late. Not accessible by land, the MV Panagiotis and its small cove is nevertheless mobbed by thousands of bathers a year, brought by tour boats in crowded masses.

The seldom-visited Dimitrios, on the other hand, is well-preserved and quite accessible if you know how to get there. And, best of all, You Don’t Get This On The Bus Tour (or the boat tour). I find it picturesque and eerily enchanting.

The wreck of the Dimitrios (Δημήτριος) on Valtaki Beach near Githio, Greece (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-05-23)

It is tempting to further my Shipwreck of State theme by noting that the Dimitrios looks as though its captain made a wrong turn and ended up aground. One could also compliment Plato’s Ship of State analogy with the biblical warning:

Look at the ships also; though they are so great and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire!

James 3:4-5

It turns out, however, that the Dimitrios’ story is more mundane and apparently lacks a boastfully inept pilot (Wikipedia has a good overview here). In late 1980 Dimitrios made an emergency stop at Githio, because the captain had a medical emergency. The crew was fired after financial disagreements shut down operations and the ship languished unattended. A year later it broke loose from the dock in severe weather and eventually washed up on Valtaki Beach. There Dimitrios was abandoned.

The Dimitrios under a cloud of uncertainty on Valtaki Beach near Githio, Greece (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-05-23)

Come to think of it, the Dimitrios still offers a poignant object-lesson.

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Pic of the Day 2019-02-03: Stadiums with a Past

I am pretty unexcited about this evening’s “big game” between the bandwagon team of dubious integrity and the other guys that rammed their way in via an egregious no-call. Perhaps you, dear reader, need a diversion from the endless-but-not-timeless hype of the afternoon.

This week, the question came up in conversation (I don’t even remember with who), “what happened to the Georgia Dome?” [For the uninformed, Super Bowl LIII will be played in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium which has replaced the former as Atlanta’s main sports venue.] The answer: it was “blowed up” (video here) and removed from existence to make way for the great hood ornament stadium (here is a time lapse of the transition). Apparently Atlanta has some recycling issues (as here). Rather than go on about our “throw-away society,” I offer the contrast of stadiums that have endured to tell about their culture in a way the Georgia Dome never will. Today’s Pic(s) Of The Day:

The stadium at Aphrodisias, in Turkey; looking west (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012-05-21)

We begin with the well-preserved stadium at Aphrodisias, in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey). It is fairly typical in construction, but has semi-circles of seats at both ends, creating a closed oblong shape.

The stadium at Aphrodisias, in Turkey; view to the east in late afternoon light (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012-05-21)

There are several nicely-preserved stadia in Turkey, including the recently-exposed huge example at Magnesia-on-the-Meander. It is difficult to capture without a panoramic view:

Panorama of the large recently-exposed stadium at Magnesia-on-the-Meander, in Turkey (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-27)

This example is open on one end, which is more typical. It also has some trappings found in other ancient stadiums that we would find familiar, such as reserved sections (as the regular bench seats with inscribed group names at left).

The Magnesia-on-the-Meander stadium also sports some luxury features that, coupled with its huge size, make it something of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium of Roman Asia. Premium seating is found down low, in a ring pictured below, and in apparent box-seat sections at the end. No retractable roof, though, but with a view and weather like this who cares?

Premium seating ring in the stadium at Magnesia-on-the-Meander, in Turkey (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-18)

Finally, a couple of views of the best-preserved stadium in Greece; the one at the high point of the remains of ancient Delphi; home of the famous Oracle of Apollo:

The stadium at Delphi, site of the great Oracle of Apollo; view to east from the closed end, taken before an earthquake made it unsafe (and not allowed) to enter the stadium (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 1985)
View to west from the open end of the stadium at Delphi, from behind the nicely-preserved starting line and judges boxes(?) (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 1985)

As you can see, the Delphi stadium is on the side of a mountain (Mt Parnassus), and the lower (south) side has a significant retaining wall. In that wall, on the east end, is an inscription also having a modern echo. It places limitations on wine brought in or out of the stadium:

Delphi stadium: inscription on east end of southern retaining wall, with regulations on wine brought in or out (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-05-14)

You may be wondering why I have not included famous structures like the Colosseum in Rome. That is because the Colosseum is actually an amphitheater, not a stadium. An amphitheater is like a theater in structure, but the seats go all the way around in an oval. Our modern “stadiums” are actually built more like Roman amphitheaters than Greek or Roman stadiums. Modern structures that many people call amphitheaters are really just theaters . . . confusing; but amphitheaters will have to wait for a different post.

View of Delphi theater and Temple of Apollo just below (site of the Oracle) and other remains further downslope (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-05-14)

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P.S.: Go Rams!


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Pic of the Day 2019-01-28: the Shipwreck of State

I try to make my posts as relevant as possible to current events or special days. Yesterday was a fail,[1] and today is a bit of a stretch. Venezuela is in crisis. I have never been there, but have been close . . .  so this POTD features Aruba, a few miles to the north. In addition to the subtle nod to Venezuelan chaos, it is also part of my rebellion against winter this year.

Shipwreck on N Coast of Aruba
Mrs Ancient Dan contemplates a grounded shipwreck and sailboat against a sunset backdrop on the North coast of Aruba (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2005-06-27)

There are several wrecks around Aruba, including the beached ship pictured here.

The daughters of Ancient Dan snorkel near a shipwreck off Aruba, south of Malmok Beach (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2005-06-23)

Several submerged wrecks make Aruba a good diving destination. The largest ship is the SS Antilla, a German merchant ship scuttled by her captain to avoid capture just after the outbreak of WWII in 1940. The SS California was a wooden steamship that wrecked off the N coast of Aruba in 1891. A lighthouse built two decades later to avoid similar outcomes is named for that ill-fated ship.

The California Lighthouse, built in 1914 and named for a nearby wrecked ship off the North coast of Aruba (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2005-06-24)

Plato relates Socrates’ use of the Ship of State analogy (Republic6. 488a–489d) to comment on selection of and qualifications for leaders of democracies. Here’s hoping that Venezuela can put a man at the helm who understands the winds of change and looks for the guiding light.

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[1] 27 January is International Holocaust Remembrance Day; observed on the anniversary of the “liberation” of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp by the Soviet army in 1945. Sadly, I was unable to locate my pictures of Auschwitz and Birkenau for a somber POTD post.

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The Talking Heads of Rapa Nui: Take Me to the River . . .

But there is no river on Rapa Nui. Indeed, Easter Island has no perennial watercourse of any kind. Perhaps there were streams prior to deforestation but, by any estimation, water resources were and are a major issue for inhabitants of this small remote island with irregular rainfall. That and other environmental limitations make the erection of the famous statues (moai) on their even larger platforms (ahu) all the more impressive and mysterious.

Ahu and Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), with inset of location in the South Pacific (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

An interesting new study highlighted by CNN in this linked story claims to have solved “the mystery” of why Rapa Nui (Easter Island)’s ahu and moai were built where they were. In the technical article (online version here for the academically interested),[1] a team of scholars concludes that the island’s famous structures were built at locations where fresh water was available. In some ways this seems like an obvious solution, but the study employs GIS and statistics to solidify the case. The authors include Terry Lipo and Carl Hunt, who acknowledge the environmental stress and deforestation realities but rightly emphasize the ingenuity of the Rapanui people in their excellent 2011 book.[2]

This addition to my series on Rapa Nui/Easter Island is to call attention to this important study and allow me to add a related personal anecdote.

Ahu Tongariki, Rapi Nui (Easter Island, Chile): guardians of fresh water? (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-13)

As an archaeologist with a desire to see everything everywhere, I naturally sought to visit as many of the 200-300 ahu as possible on a 5-day visit to Rapa Nui. Most tourists and bus tours concentrate on the well-known sites with restored ahu and re-erected moai, or the half-buried “heads” of moai at the Rano Raraku quarry. We saw those, but I dragged my long-suffering wife to many other ruins that appear to be “piles of rocks.”

Ahu Hanga Tetenga, SE coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island); note two fallen and broken moai, one fallen to the left of the ahu and a fractured one on top (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-10)

At the relatively unimpressive and little-visited Ahu Hanga Tetenga on the SE coast, I noticed a fenced cattle pasture across the road as I turned down the trail to the site. Exiting our rental “jeep” (a 4×4 Suzuki Jimny) I anoticed a pronounced droning noise mixed with the sound of the surf. But attracted by the ruins, I ignored all this and headed for the pile of rocks that once was a proud ahu with two toppled and broken moai.

Ahu Hanga Tetenga, SE coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) with two fallen moai; the water pump referenced in the text is at the water line out of frame below and to right (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-10)

I gawked and photographed as Felicia admired the South Pacific. Suddenly the droning noise ceased and, within a minute, a lone motor scooter careened down the slope from the cattle yard above and beyond the road — headed straight for my wife! The rider dismounted as I walked swiftly and warily that direction. He passed Felicia without a word and bounded down the short cliff to the water, where I was able to crane and see a gas-powered water pump that had quit. He retrieved a hidden gas can, added fuel, and restarted it. Passing us without comment, he jumped on the scooter and bounced away over the rocky landscape to tend his cattle. Unbelievably, it did not occur to me to photograph the pump system or the rancher who was there less than two minutes. His water pipe is faintly visible here:

Ahu Hanga Tetenga, SE coast of Rapa Nui (Easter Island): a mostly-buried and barely perceptible water pipe, highlighted slightly in this pic, runs from the short cliff behind the sign, under a line of stones, and off to the left (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2018-03-10)

I remembered commenting to Felicia as we turned down the path, “I wonder how they get enough water for those cattle in this desolate place?” Now we knew. The rancher was pumping from a “seep,” where the fresh water aquifer of the island invisibly spills out of the submerged rocks into the ocean. Such seeps are common and long-utilized on Rapa Nui. The location of Ahu Hanga Tetenga, just above this source, vividly demonstrates the study’s conclusions.

Ahu and Moai of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), showing water sources in the cited study area (map © Daniel C Browning Jr)

The article, just published last week (10 January 2019) not only presents a reasonable and well-defended case, but it is also a model of “open access” publishing (meaning that it is available to anyone without subscription). The authors even provide links to shapefiles (GIS data) used in the research. I happily downloaded and incorporated them to improve my own data and map of Rapa Nui (above). Now I have a need to go back to get a pic of that pump . . .

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[1] R. J. DiNapoli, C. P. Lipo, T. Brosnan, T. L. Hunt, S. Hixon, et al. 2019. Rapa Nui (Easter Island) monument (ahu) locations explained by freshwater sources. PLOS ONE 14(1): e0210409. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210409.

[2] Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo, Carl. The Statues that Walked: Unraveling the Mystery of Easter Island (New York: Free Press, 2011).


The full “Talking Heads of Rapa Nui” series (best read in order)
Part 1: Easter Island and the End of the World
Part 2: Easter Island Moai and Ahu
Part 3: The Making of a Moai
Part 4: The Mystery of Moai Moving
Part 5: Hats Make the Moai?
Part 6: The Fall of the Moai
Part 7: What Happened on Easter Island and Why Should We Care?
Part 8: A Warning to Us All

Pic of the Day 2019-01-14: Dolmens in Spain

Having got on a roll with dolmen Pic(s) Of The Days, I decided to put some little-known examples from Spain into the mix (also, I wanted to get something there on the Pic Of The Day Map).

The Gorafe depression, a canyon carved by Rio Gor in the “Bad Lands” of Spain; Parque Megalítico de Gorafe with many dolmens extends along the ridge on the right; with some larger ones downslope, as the one with a tumulus at lower left, and others on the opposite ridge—240 in all (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2017-03-17)

Spain is rich in Neolithic remains. Here I present dolmens in the Parque Megalítico de Gorafe. The “Gorafe Megalithic Park” and surrounding area is home to 240 dolmens. Most are rather un-sensational, but they preserve a range of types in the development of megalithic tombs. And the open-access park itself is a model of cultural heritage preservation for an isolated collection of easily destroyed monuments, and for presentation with durable, unintrusive signage.

One of many visually unimpressive but well-conserved dolmens in Parque Megalítico de Gorafe: number 111, near the canyon cliff edge (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2017-03-17)

The most impressive dolmen in the park is number 134, some 40 m below the canyon cliff edge, but still about 100 m above the Rio Gor.

View of the back side of Gorafe 134 (Parque Megalítico de Gorafe), on a ridge about a third of the way down into the canyon (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2017-03-17)

Number 134 combines elements of various megalithic tombs. It appears to be a mashup of dolmen, wedge tomb, and passage tomb features.

Gorafe 134; Parque Megalítico de Gorafe, Grenada Province, Spain (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2017-03-17)

I don’t think you get this on the bus tour; but there is a nice dirt road along the canyon top, and a car pull-off below with a trail up to number 134 (along with 132, 133, 135, and 239).

Gorafe 134; Parque Megalítico de Gorafe, Grenada Province, Spain [Ancient Dan added for scale] (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2017-03-17)

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Pic of the Day 2019-01-13: Dolmens [sic] you might get on the bus tour

Because I am about to attend the “Celtic Worship” service at University Baptist Church, I decided to make an additional brief POTD post of domens in Ireland, as a continuance to what has now become a short series of dolmen pics. But are they dolmens? North European megalith-admirers have a lot to work with and have created an array of categories, such as the “portal tombs” featured in yesterday’s post.

Poulnabrone Portal Tomb; County Clare, Ireland (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-14)

Perhaps the most wide-photographed “dolmen” in Ireland is more officially known as Poulnabrone Portal Tomb. Resembling the form of most Middle Eastern dolmens, it stands majestically in the weird landscape of The Burren, in County Clare. Portal tombs have entrances flanked by tall megaliths supporting the roof, and Poulnabrone fits that description. The parallel sides of the chamber, however, are constructed of multiple megaliths while Jordanian examples usually have a single stone on each side.

Parknabinnia Wedge Tomb; County Clare, Ireland (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-14)

You might well see Poulnabrone Portal Tomb on a bus tour, but off the main road over the hills but not far away are other “dolmens” even more evocative of the ones in Jordan. An example is the Parkanbinnia tomb (above). These are called “wedge tombs” because the sides generally converge slightly away from the entrance—which is too low to enter standing and, presumably, thus does not rate the designation “portal.”

Meggagh Wedge Tomb; County Clare, Ireland (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-14)

Finally, moving to the east side of Ireland, the Brownshill Dolmen has the largest capstone known. It is also officially a portal tomb.

Ancient Dan stands in the portal of the Brownshill Dolmen, Ireland (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-10)

Brownsville Portal Tomb is also easily reached by passing bus tours. But you should still get a car . . .

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