Pisidian Antioch: Genesis of the Accepting Church

This post is the result of my being asked to teach a special combined Sunday School session for University Baptist Church’s 60th anniversary, 5 May 2019. I decided to cover the Acts 13 passage in which the Apostle Paul established the first Christian church in Antiochia Pisidia, “Antioch of Pisidia.” And, I’ll take any opportunity to put pictures of a place to a story. Hence this “Pic of the (special) Day” entry.

The mountainous backdrop of Antiocha Pisidia in the Anatolian highlands; with the platform and remains of a Temple of Augustus, cut from the living rock in an apsidal recess at the end of a long courtyard (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Antiochia Pisidia is one of several cities named “Antioch” in the Greco-Roman world, and distinct from the Antioch for which so many rural protestant churches are named in the American Bible Belt region. That earlier Antioch is often called “Antioch on the Orontes” or “Antioch of Syria,” and it is where the early Christian church made its breakout in the Hellenistic world (Acts 11:19-26). It is also the “home church” for the so-called “Missionary Journeys of Paul—the first of which brings the Apostle to the Antioch of Pisidia.

Ancient Dan’s daughter, Rachel, inside the well-preserved baths at Antiocha Pisidia; note the aqueduct visible through the back door (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Paul had assumed leadership of the First Journey, originally led by Barnabas, it seems (Acts 13:1-4), as the group left Cyprus and arrived in at Perga Asia Minor (Acts 13:13). No work is described at Perga and, for reasons unexplained by the biblical text, Paul continued inland an appreciable distance to Antioch of Pisidia. Antioch was made a Roman colony by the Emperor Augustus, to whom an impressive temple was built. Augustus also established the Via Sebaste, a major road that connected Antioch with Perga to the southwest and Iconium and Lystra to the east, all cities visited by Paul on that First Journey.

Antiocha Pisidia; Aqueduct above the city (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Antioch of Pisidia was a typical Roman-Hellenistic city, with the usual institutions and structures: the Temple of Augustus, public fountains and baths powered by an aqueduct, and a minority community of Jews with a synagogue. As in many Roman cities, some number of non-Jews (Gentiles) attended the synagogue because of their interest and belief in the one God of Judaism. Such Gentiles were called “God Fearers” and were part of the synagogue community, but not considered Proselytes (converts)—no doubt because of the difficult requirement of circumcision for full conversion.

Antiocha Pisidia: the large basilica known as the St. Paul Church; claimed by one archaeologist who worked at the site to be built over the synagogue, but this view is not widely held (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Paul and his company went to the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia on the sabbath day (Acts 13:14). This is the first city to which the missionary group arrived with Paul in the full leadership position, and the author (traditionally Luke) gives a rather complete outline of what occurred. The account provides an outline of Paul’s procedure/experience in each succeeding city with only minor variations. Because of his rabbinical training under Gamaliel, the most respected Rabbi of the period, Paul would automatically be asked to deliver a homily after the Torah and other biblical readings in the synagogue service. This is what is described (Acts 13:15-16), and Paul delivered a sermon (vss 16-41) that was well-received by some Jews and God Fearers alike (42-43). The next sabbath many more people appeared at the synagogue (44). These were no doubt other Gentiles who came because of reports from the God Fearers who had heard Paul the previous week. The unbelieving Jews were “filled with jealousy” when they saw the crowds—people different from them, from which the synagogue was something of a refuge. They contradicted Paul, which is to be expected as theological debate and argumentation over the Law is a well-established Jewish tradition. But more alarmingly they “reviled him” (45), leading me to the conclusion that this was not just about theology: they used theology as an excuse and a tool for exclusion of those who were different—in this case the Gentiles; especially those not in conformance with the Jewish Law.

Antiocha Pisidia: the distinctive Byzantine basilica apse of the St Paul Church (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012-05-23)

Paul’s reaction at Antioch of Pisidia, as in every other city save one, was to leave the synagogue and form a new faith community—a church—with the believing Jews and God Fearers (46). It was successful and grew (48-49). Its eventual persecution by the synagogue Jews underlines the latter’s attitude and my conclusion that, here and in many similar situations (ancient and modern), theology divides while inclusion builds community.

Paul went on to repeat the same basic sequence at other cities of the First Journey, all of them (with Antioch of Pisidia) in the Roman province called Galatia. There is considerable debate but, for purely logical reasons, I maintain that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written to those churches founded on the First Journey about the time of the “Judaizing Controversy” (Acts 15), in which the “Judaizers” attempted to force Gentile Christians to keep the Jewish Law as a condition of salvation. The letter to the Galatians is clearly in the context of this controversy and lays out the case that Gentiles are not required to keep the Jewish Law (of which circumcision is the most painful prescription). In that letter occurs the “focal verse” of University Baptist Church, Galatians 2:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is worth noting that “Greeks” (Gentiles/God Fearers) were separated from full Jewish males in the synagogue, as were women of any persuasion. The verse focuses on the elimination of distinctions—distinctions which continue to arise through Christian history. It is refreshing to belong to a congregation that understands this foundational tenet of building truly Christian communion.

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“Is Paris Burning?” Pics for Notre Dame

“Is Paris Burning?” Hitler reportedly asked the question on 25 August 1944. He had given orders for the French capital to be torched as Nazi forces retreated in order to spite the Allies. The Wehrmacht commanders defied Der Fuhrer’s order and Paris was preserved.* Today, however, one of the great monuments saved from insanity in 1944 is in flames.

As Notre Dame burns, I—like anyone that has experienced the magnificent cathedral—am filled with sadness and reflection. Many others are already holding forth on the cultural loss and meaning of the church. Rather than presume to add meaningfully to that dialogue, I’ll share some of my pictures of the monument in happier times.

Boobah, the Princess, and Mrs Ancient Dan across the Seine from Notre Dame, 12 March 1999 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr)

I am very thankful that Mrs. Ancient Dan and I decided to invest in giving our children the experience of travel and, hopefully, an appreciation of cultural treasures and a global outlook. One of the things they enjoyed in person was Notre Dame.

Many of my visits to the cathedral were during long layovers at Paris’ CDG airport while leading student study-travel programs to Mediterranean countries. If I had six hours, I felt it was possible to take a train into the city (about 40 minutes), see a couple of sites, and make it back and through security to catch the flight on to Turkey, Greece, Jordan, or Israel. Notre Dame was always on the itinerary. Some thought I was crazy to try it; but in retrospect the risk was rather worth the reward—especially now that the cathedral is un-visitable (at least for the near future).

The 2015 STEP Greece trip group outside the iconic facade of Notre Dame during a blitz-tour on a layover in Paris (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, )
Notre Dame from the Pont de l’Archevêché, a “Love Lock” bridge, with students on a layover blitz-tour in 2014 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-10-31)
Students at a votive candle stand inside Notre Dame with one of the rose windows behind (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-05-28)
The rose window; irreplaceable, I expect (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-05-28)
The rose windows get all the glory, but I really like the ones around the apse at the E end (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-10-31)

So . . . I have not named the General who defied Hitler’s order to burn Paris. This is intentional, because he did carry out other orders from on high and liquidated the Jews of the city during his tenure as occupying commander. That certainly stains his memory. But I am thankful to him for preserving the city and thus Notre Dame to be appreciated for nearly an additional 75 years.

Notre Dame in happier times (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-05-28)

* The story is well told in: Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre, Is Paris Burning? Penguin Books, 1966. This engaging book was later made into a motion picture.

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The Hazards of Tax Day (Pic Of The Day, 2019-03-24)

I was considering some sort of “seasonal” post relating to that hazard of early Spring in the USA: the looming April 15 tax deadline. I have not dealt with my complicated tax situation for 2018 yet and need to get on it. Anyhow, my consideration of a tax theme turned to resolve at University Baptist Church this morning; a result of the New Testament passage (Matthew 22) and related sermon on the question posed to Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. More about the connection below, but stay with me . . .

Panorama of the Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the subject of this post is at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

In the heart of Rome one can visit the preserved remains of the ancient Forum.  Near the center of the Roman Forum lie an often overlooked and nondescript ruin. It is the foundations of the Temple of Divus Julius; that is, the Temple to the deified Julius Caesar.

The central Roman Forum from the Palatine Hill; the Temple of Divus Julius is the ugly brown mass at lower center with idlers milling about in front, as usual (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC, while exiting the Senate Chamber. At his public funeral in the Forum, Marc Anthony’s famous speech incited the crowd who then took over. Instead of the planned pyre on the Campus Martius, Caesar was cremated by the crowd across from his office as pontifex maximus (chief priest) at the Regia. A monument was hastily constructed there with an altar, but this was removed by the anti-dictator Liberator party. But two years later Caesar’s heirs (Antony, Octavian, and Lepidus) decreed that a temple would be built on the spot. Thus, Julius Caesar was officially deified and a cult established in the name Divus Julius.

The remains of the Temple to Divus Julius (foreground) in the Roman Forum; it is hard to get a pic clear of people because the railing in front of the nondescript ruins make a convenient spot for groups to wait around (as you can see here, unaware of the significance); note the later Temple of Antoninus Pius and Faustina (converted to a church) in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

The Temple’s size (with 40-foot columns on a high platform) is belied by the meager ruins today. Like other Forum monuments, it suffered from robbing and spoilage by the building programs of later holders of the title pontifex maximus (the popes). The entire superstructure and almost all original cut stones of the podium are now missing. A round altar (perhaps a rebuilding of the original crowd-sourced altar) in a recess of the podium is now closed in by a later wall, through which you must pass to view it. Despite its obscurity to the average tourist and somewhat hidden nature, however, I have never seen the altar without fresh floral offerings on top. Caesar was, and remains, a popular figure.

Altar associated with the Temple to Divus Julius, concealed from the crowds by the wall on the right; note the floral offerings on top, and many coins wherein folks apparently “rendered unto Caesar” (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-02-21)

What does all of this have to do with tax season? Above, I note that Caesar was assassinated in 44 BC. Most people don’t know that date, but many can answer the question “when was Caesar killed?” with the well-known day, “the Ides of March.” The Romans counted days of months differently than we do. The “Ides” was the middle day of the month; so, the Ides of March was March 15. The Romans also generally specified due dates for financial obligations by the Ides and, since they allowed a quarter to get previous years’ corporate debts to the government, March 15 was the day such debts were due. It was, essentially, “tax day.” Ironically, this became true under Julius Caesar as he instituted the “Julian Calendar,” which moved the traditional New Year’s celebration to January 1 from—even more ironically—March 15! While it is true that Caesar was supposed to depart Rome on the 18th and the Liberators had to act before then, what better day to choose than the one on which former happy celebrations were now replaced by debts due to the victim? The day very well may have been planned to minimize public retaliation (somewhat akin to issuing unpopular notices at work on Friday afternoons). Certainly the days after the assassination were used by both sides to curry public opinion, as in Antony’s speech and—on the other side—in a coin issued by the famous Liberator Brutus extolling the day’s act.

Silver denarius issued by Brutus (on obverse); with (reverse) “Ides of March” under Pileus (freedom cap) and two daggers (photo: British Museum)

While the Liberator conspirators’ act ultimately backfired and resulted in the deification of the one they wanted to eliminate, the whole affair highlights the political business of public perception. For more on that, and the connection to Jesus’ answer to the question posed to him on paying taxes to Caesar, stay tuned for the next post. For now, I have to go work on my taxes . . .

BTW; “tax day” in the USA used to be March 15 (from 1918 to 1954), but was extended to the “Ides of April”—April 15—two years before my birth. At this moment I am glad.

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Pics of St. Patrick’s Day: How the Irish Saved Civility*

Mrs. Ancient Dan had always wanted to visit Ireland, mainly because her dad had related accounts of his Irish ancestry. I was raised with a Protestant British distaste for the Irish, but with a suppressed knowledge of some Irish blood (revealed by the scattered red hairs visible when I allow my beard to grow). But I, too, wanted to see the place. So, we planned a trip for May of 2016.

Totally unexpected and traumatic things happened 9 days before the planned journey—events that completely disrupted our life and, perhaps worse, seemingly confirmed my cynicism about humanity. Our world was shattered. Nevertheless we decided to go to Ireland anyway, now more for escape from reality than anything else . . . and with dour hearts.

What we found there was a people of considerable politeness, kindness, and civility; just what we needed for encouragement. Mrs. A.D. and I had debated over what the “prototypical” Irish person would be (I argued for a red-headed girl). We were both right . . . and both wrong. I now think of the Irish in terms of temperament rather than outward appearance. And I thank them for challenging me to examine the way I treat others.

Oh, and Ireland itself is pretty nice too. We also “argued” over the “prototypical” Irish scene. We were both right, again. I’ll let pictures tell the story for the rest of this post.

First, the pic-out to St. Patrick: he gestures to Station Island in Lough Derg, site of St Patrick’s Purgatory. On the island, Patrick was shown a cave leading to Purgatory. The island became a center of Christian pilgrimage with penitential stations for preparation to visit that waystation of the Underworld! Those who know me well are aware that I am fascinated with ancient spots considered entrances to the Netherworld . . . but, sadly, the cave has been sealed and covered since 1632 and only genuine pilgrims are allowed out the island today on multi-day visits (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-17)
My pre-trip image of Ireland: abandoned churches with lichen-encrusted tombstones; this is the Hill of Slane (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-09)
Mrs A.D.’s pre-trip image of Ireland: super-green pastures with livestock in the distance; like this scene with the Drombeg Stone Circle in the foreground, one of the many megalithic monuments in the country (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-15)
The Cliffs of Moher on Ireland’s west coast, one of the many natural beauty wonders of the country (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-14)
Ardmore: Church Cemetery and Tower; another of the many ruined churches surrounded by graves in the country (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-10)
Carrigafoyle Castle, one of the many monumental medieval ruins in the country (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-13)
More green pastures and livestock . . . and another of the many megalithic monuments: Parknabinnia Wedge Tomb (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-14)
The Devil’s Causeway, another of the many natural wonders of [Northern] Ireland; sadly, the Korean Tour group and the gaggle of OU fans would neither help me recreate the “Houses of the Holy” Led Zeppelin album cover, nor get out of the way for my pics . . . (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-18)
On of my favorite pics of Mrs A.D. and me: together on the rocks of life, but taking it one step at a time (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2016-05-18)

Ireland is a great place to see things and think about life. So, I left there glad to have visited in troubling times and resolved to be conscious of how I treat people and react to circumstances.

BTW, we did DNA tests for Christmas and it turns out . . . I am more Irish than Mrs A.D., much to her chagrin (and my surprise)!
Perhaps that is why , for the first time ever, I wore green for St. Patrick’s Day today.


*A reference to the excellent book by Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1995).

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The Road Between Jerusalem and Jericho and the Road Between Discrimination and Acceptance (Pic Of The Day, 2019-03-10)

I was asked to give the “spoken reflection” at tonight’s Celtic Worship Service at University Baptist Church, and thought I would post my reflection here with a couple of pics. The focal passage is the famous “Good Samaritan” story in Luke 10, which I find very thought-provoking in light of the increased divisiveness and media focus on racism of late in our society. I have done a great deal of introspection on these topics in recent months and even thought of making an Ancient Dan blog post entitled “Confessions of a former Racist.” But my wife and daughter wisely advised against it. The “Good Samaritan” story, I think, provides a way to express my thoughts in a better way.

First, a quick look at the “Good Samaritan” account as I see it. Jesus tells the story in response to the question, “and who is my neighbor?” in the context of discussing the Jewish Law. In it, a man is assaulted by bandits and left for dead along the road between Jerusalem and Jericho. The geography is important here, as it is a desolate road through unoccupied desert, where there were no neighbors.

The Wadi Qelt, along the path of the road between Jerusalem and Jericho in the Judean Desert; the area was only inhabited by those seeking to get away—either from the authorities or for religious isolation (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-11-06)

As Jesus narrates, a priest came along the road and we expect that this religious man will help our unfortunate victim. But, alas, on this road a priest would be headed up to Jerusalem where he would serve his week-long rotation in the Temple. It was the highest religious duty in the Jewish Law and could not be compromised by uncleanness imputed by blood from the victim or—worse—contamination by his corpse should the man be found dead or die whilst receiving aid. The priest crossed to the other side and passed by. And the hearers of this story—all Jews—were not in the least surprised or judgmental. All the same logic was true for the Levite that happened along next. None of those listening expected that he would stop either. What crummy luck; our victim was having a really bad day. But then in Jesus’ telling there is another who appears and nears—a Samaritan! While we now think of “Good Samaritans” or even just “Samaritans” as helpers, this notion destroys the gist of the story. To the Jew, a Samaritan was the worst of rivals. Jesus’ listeners no doubt expected this “bad” (by their definition) Samaritan to stomp on the victim’s head and finish the job. The bad day, they thought, was now the worst of days. He of course, as we know, demonstrated the proper action of kindness.

Wadi Qelt: the monastery of St. George (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2015-11-06)

But this story is not about how to treat others; it is really about how we perceive them. I have been doing a lot of thinking lately about how I perceive others. I am a white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant heterosexual man. I was raised in a “middle-class” American home which, by any world-wide standard, was a life of privilege. So I am a potential poster-boy for racist and intolerant views. Nevertheless, I’ve always denied that I was bigoted or intolerant. In my extended family, I cannot ever recall having heard the “N” word used or any other racial or discriminatory epithet. BUT, that is a poor gauge on how I have perceived others. Like most folks, I learned from my youth to categorize people with labels like, “the black guy,” “the Mexican woman,” “the gay dude” or “the Alabama Crimson Tide sidewalk fan.” So this is not so much the confession of a former racist, but the admission of an unconscious tribalist.

I am convinced that human beings have an innate tendency for group identification, like the herd or pack instincts of other mammals. Unfortunately, in “civilized” human society it is somehow easier to identify one’s group by isolating those who are not part of it—through creation of the “other.” This is easiest with obvious differences like skin color, but the principle is the same for all discriminations.

Back to the “Good Samaritan.” The key for me is realization that the lesson is not in the story itself, but in the question asked by Jesus at the end, to the one who asked him “and who is my neighbor?” Jesus asked, “which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among robbers?”

It is sometimes observed that when the “lawyer” responded to Jesus, he was unwilling to use the designation “Samaritan” because of his disdain for that group. He responded, “the one who showed mercy on him.” The Jewish-Samaritan divide was severe, to be sure, but it was not due to physical difference. The Samaritans were—as an ethnic group—half Israelite. They were the other monotheistic minority in the early Roman Empire period, worshipping the same God as Israel and practicing circumcision like the Jews. The Romans could not tell the difference between Samaritans and Jews that were naked and talking about God. Tribalism and details of theology had created the schism.

It is true that the Samaritan demonstrates that all are our potential neighbors. But I wonder if the lawyer really got it right with his generic description. The main point may be how we perceive others upon first glance or knowledge. Do I continue using categories and labels for people, or can I see them generically, all capable of good and mercy. This is the challenge, and Jesus consistently points me—and all of us—in the direction of acceptance.

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Pic of the Day (2019-02-20): The Rachel

To round out my “shipwrecks” POTD posts—of which this may be last, because I think I have run out of shipwrecks—I give you “The Rachel.” After Hurricane Camille in 1969, a mysterious shipwreck appeared on the Alabama coast five miles east of Fort Morgan. Reclaimed by the sea and sand, it reappeared temporarily after Hurricanes Ivan in 2004, Ike in 2008, and Tropical Storm Ida in 2009. Hurricane Isaac then exposed the wreck more than ever in 2012.[1] Apparently, tropical cyclones with “I” names have a thing for this ship.

The Rachel; exposed by Hurricane Isaac in 2012, here shown in 2013 (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-08-16)

Despite speculation that the wooden ship might be a Confederate blockade runner from the Civil War, Fort Morgan historian Mike Bailey is now certain that the wreck is the Rachel, lost to . . . you guessed it, a tropical storm in 1923.[2] Since the practice of naming storms by sequential alphabet letters had not yet begun, we don’t know if that hurricane would have had a moniker beginning with “I” (but I wouldn’t bet against it).

The Daughters and Granddaughter of Ancient Dan (Sarah, Amelia [11 mos], and The Rachel) watch for trouble from the charred bow of the schooner Rachel, near Fort Morgan, AL (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-08-16)

The Rachel has an odd backstory. A Mississippian, Captain John Riley Bless McIntosh, was never able to achieve his goal of owning a ship prior to his death. His daughter and heir, Rachel McIntosh McInnis, took her $100,000 inheritance to the De Angelo Shipyard in Moss Point, MS, to commission a ship in an attempt to fulfill her father’s dream. John De Angelo at first refused to take Rachel’s money, knowing that it was a futile investment.  But with hard times for business at the end of World War I, his sons accepted the job and built a 155 foot 3-masted schooner named Rachel for Mrs. McInnis. It remained docked at her expense from its completion in 1919 until her death in 1922. After that, the De Angelo brothers claimed the ship for unpaid dock fees and sold it at auction.[3]

Amelia revisits the wreck of the Rachel, near Fort Morgan, AL, a year later; a finely-preserved brass rudder hinge, visible when the ship emerged following the 2008 hurricane, has now been cut away from the stern (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-08-15)

The Rachel’s buyer hired a crew out of Mobile to operate the schooner for hauling lumber (big business in South Mississippi at the time). The first run successfully delivered a load to Cuba, but ran into trouble—the storm, classified as a hurricane—on the return journey. The Rachel was driven aground near Fort Morgan, with no loss of life. The crew emptied the unnamed light cargo and guards were posted to protect the impossibly beached ship until an insurance settlement could be obtained. Unknown parties burned the Rachel down to near the keel after that, presumably to salvage metal parts.[4] Thereafter, the charred hulk was lost to the sand and tide, to sporadically resurface by the same forces that doomed her.

The Rachel with the Rachel (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2013-08-16)

The Rachel was an odd and pleasant diversion on the Fort Morgan beach for a few years after 2012. It rests on private beach property, but was quite accessible from the beach. I have not seen the Rachel since August of 2014. A quick check of Google Earth reveals that the eroded beach has “recovered”—itself and the Rachel. So if you want to visit her, it seems you will have to wait for an I-named tropical storm to turn back the sands of time.

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[1] Erin McLaughlin, “Mystery of Shipwreck Uncovered by Hurricane Isaac Solved,” ABC News, Sept. 5, 2012, https://abcnews.go.com/US/mystery-ship-washed-hurricane-isaac-solved/story?id=17152464#.UEel0VQZxjl; Brian Kelly, “Wreck of sailing ship reappears at Fort Morgan beach after Hurricane Isaac,” AL.com, September 05, 2012, http://blog.al.com/live/2012/09/mystery_shipwreck_at_fort_morg.html.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Sledge, “The True Story of the ‘Rachel’,” Mobile Bay Magazine, July 25, 2016, https://mobilebaymag.com/the-true-story-of-the-rachel/.

[4] Ibid.


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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.