Ben Jonson’s alchemist Subtle in his famous Elizabethan play ‘The Alchemist’ is a knave quack intent upon doing a lucrative occult business by luring the gullible, rich or poor, learned or general. But John Dee, Queen Elizabeth I’s English-Welsh astrologer, was anything but. He was a highly educated man graduating from Cambridge University with a penchant for esoteric knowledge beyond the realm of the physical world, and brilliant engineering feat contributed to his epithet as the queen’s occultist to the eyes of those who regarded him as something of Rasputin in the queen’s retinue. To me, Dee was a curious figure of science and magic, fact and mystery dissolving into one another.
From the cradle to the grave, John Dee’s life appears to be starlit with mystical numbers and stars that govern his destiny to pursue the knowledge of the beyond. Born in the household of a well-to-do textile merchant on July 13th, 1527, Dee’s fate was already revealed in the combination of the lucky number 7 and the ominous 13. He was endowed with intellect and heart, which is not typical for an astute scholar with a high education degree. Also, an ingenious engineer in stage productions of plays, Dee created the modern-day equivalent of special effects employing a man-powered crane and other apparatuses used as a counterweight fly system. He was fascinated with the science behind mathematics and used it to know astrology and celestial navigation in understanding human lives. He chose the coronation date for Elizabeth when Jupiter juxtaposed alone with Venus, opposing Saturn, and conjecturing Mars. The astrological interpretation betrays the virgin queen’s reign with the beauty of the goddesses and the power of the god of gods. Methinks, Dee’s interpretation must have attributed to the queen’s famous Tilbury Address in which she described herself as possessing “the body of a weak, feeble woman but the heart and stomach of a king.” Furthermore, the famous secret code of “007” was an invention of Dee used between Dee and the queen meaning “For your eyes only” as in “00” as a symbol of eyes and “7” Dee’s favorite lucky number.
Dee had a bona fide intention to use his knowledge to benefit people of all classes. During his post as royal astrologer under Queen Mary’s reign, Dee proposed to the queen that she establish a national library accessible to all for the universal education of the minds. This revolutionary idea was unprecedented and rejected. Dee was a man of books and used his learning from reading for the welfare of England. He propelled England into the Age of Exploration. He legitimized the British expansion of territories, including America, to which, according to Dee’s certification, a Welsh prince sailed in 1170, which was three centuries before Columbus’ voyage. Patriotic stargazer elucidated further that it was Grate Britain’s destiny to gain all of the territories supposedly appropriated by King Arthur by coining the term “The British Empire.”
After the death of his beloved Queen Elizabeth, Dee dwindled in his career and fell into obscurity, not least because he lost favor with the successor King James I, the scourge of god against witchcraft and magic as deviltry. We don’t know whether he was secretly in league with the devil in his once magnificent personal library. The opinions on John Dee are still debatable, if not controversial. Some might say he was a would-be Merlin or Gandalf. Some might call him a Rasputin who tricked the virgin queen into believing superstitions with his mephistophelean pact for the souls to populate the circles of hell. I want to say Dee was akin to Atlas, one of the Titans who was also fascinated with astrology and astronomy and generous with munificent generosity in the form of divine fire to mortals, for which he was condemned to bear the weight of the celestial globe.
The role of intellectuals is to see the corrupt at the heart of society and stand furious with the mass and constantly monitor the conditions of ill-effects and actively work on the improvement of living conditions. For books can never teach the use of books. Otherwise, they are no more than armchair academics complacent with their impressive scholastic achievements and high social esteem as elites of society, proudly distanced themselves from the general. But Voltaire wasn’t, nor was he a demagogic writer grandstanding with the ire of the have-nots.
Born as Francois-Marie Arouet on November 21, 1694, when the discovery of the New World and religious turmoil swept Europe, Voltaire was destined to become a cavalier of new thoughts, the Enlightenment of Thoughts, which the Catholic Church regarded as a dangerous school of ideas to the mass. Yet, Voltaire wasn’t hell-bent on destroying the Catholic Church as a freemason but pilloried the corruption of the ecclesiastical members and the duplicities of their teachings and acts in practice. Religion is also a social institution made and governed by people and therefore subject to corruption and dysfunction. Before the French Revolution, the Catholic Church controlled people’s ways of thinking and exerted its authority over political and cultural spheres. That was why Voltaire’s lifelong resistance against the Catholic Church arose, not from blindly malicious intention to sabotage belief of the religion.
Voltaire was very human with his volatile temper but also with passionate munificence. He was fluent in English and his years of stay in England, the country he regarded as a model country of liberty of thoughts and religions. During his visit, he met John Locke, Jonathan Swift, and Alexander Pope, to whom Voltaire was said to be very rude for reasons clandestine. Methinks that for a person as at once passionate and sensitive as Voltaire, the anecdotal vignette sounds true, but who can blame him for his temper and let it eclipse his wholesale brilliance as an unbridled thinker and writer unafraid of speaking against the social injustice against the unprivileged? Rousseau, a fellow freethinker, abandoned his child at an orphanage and berated the illiterate. Isaac Newton, whom Voltaire respected for his scientific findings and logical mind, mistreated his servants with whacks and beatings. But, on the contrary, Voltaire paid off all the tax debts of his tenants on his properties. Also, he published ‘Candide,’ which is an allegorical book about the absurdities of the teachings of the Church and a man’s search for a God in this world, in 1759 at a meager price accessible to poor readers yearning for a taste of Enlightenment.
The absence of God’s presence in the deeds of the clergy and religious people and the presence of injustice in the name of elusive God were the questions Voltaire had in mind, and yet he wasn’t blasphemous about the God they believed. On the contrary, Voltaire’s belief was ecumenical in the principle of syncretism founded on a universal belief system according to Natural Law, a conscience. He was liberal in ideas but responsible in acts by accommodating his knowledge to practice for ordinary life. Samuel Johnson’s definition of an imperiously sullen scholar who loses his days in unsocial silence and lives in the crowd of life without a companion was the opposite of Voltaire. Indeed, Voltaire had no morals, yet he was a very moral person for sure.
Forty years on our evolutionary scale amounts to a microsecond on our twenty-four biological clock. The millennium years, even Before Christ, feel so alienly anachronistic from our modern sensibility. The sense of time builds upon a fundamental element of consciousness as molded into a collective emotional experience as contemporary citizens of the world, just as the peoples of the misty pasts we tend to overlook felt the same for the civilizations before them. They were the titans of the pre-ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman cultures. They, like the evening sun in its full declination, vanished in the hazy horizons of the time, still dazzling with its scarlet hues of radiating halo lingering on the remnants of human civilization to this date.
Forgotten peoples of the Ancient World is an anthology of the peoples whose feeling of permanence and importance in their time of the world betrayed their fates buried in the tires of cities beneath the earth and returned to the dust in the winds. To illustrate, Akkadians were the first builders of the empire who elevated the Akkadian language to the cultural and political lingua franca of the late Bronze Age. The Hyksos were outstanding charioteers, and their military prowess benefitted their Egyptian subjects. The Bactrian culture was a delightful mixture of Greek and Indian heritages, while the Vandals gave a final, fatal blow to the already destabilized Roman Empire. These peoples affected the celebrity civilizations we are automatically associated with the ancient civilizations. As to why the forgotten peoples became peripheral in our realm of ancient history, it is a question of the immanence of the supreme being in the universe. However, what is certain is that they were the torch-bearers of the first civilizations passing the torch of society they had ignited and encouraged to the next in a relay run of collective humanity.
The book is an excellent anthology of these ancient peoples in chronological order from east to west, showing how civilizations expanded from the cradle across the plains, mountains, deserts, and seas to the Isles of Britons. Divided into the eras marking the epochal changes of history, Matyszak succinctly elucidates the peoples of the misty past with his trademark witty ways of describing historical contexts. Moreover, the exciting historical trivia resurrects the eras in a phantasmagorical display of faces and places.
To conclude, the stories about the forgotten peoples attest to the objectivity of truth applicable to any time of history that that which is here was there, has been, and will be. All things must pass, and there is nothing new under the sun. Our sense of time and culture is a likeness of truth, a matrix-like reality, because our facility is rather instinctive than reasoning, rather physical than metaphysical. Who would have known that people 100 years later now would think our time and us in this time anachronistic and antediluvian? Herodotus felt the same when he arrived in Egypt and saw the wondrous pyramids in awe that the people before his generations had built. So did the Babylonian king, who dug and discovered artifacts from centuries ago. We have seen the hungry ocean gain advantage of the kingdom of the shore, and the firm soil win of the watery main, increase with loss and loss with increase. The forgotten peoples and we are time’s subjects, and time bids are gone.
Edgar Allan Poe once declared that the great was Greece, and the grandeur was Rome. Rome was not built a day, and it lasted from Before Christ to His After for one thousand years. All roads led to Rome, and foreigners, colonials, and slaves from the foes all wanted to become the proud citizens of the Roman Empire. So, what then was it like living in Rome at its glorious prime? 24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of People Who Lived There by Philip Matyszak comes and carries off the reader in a time coach to Rome’s grandeur and invites to the daily lives of people there with magic of words.
In terms of residential mode, there were more apartment buildings than villas and detached houses in Rome. Apartments called Insulas had 3 or 4 floors with no bathrooms, which means the residents dumped their bodily wastes in buckets out of their windows to the ground any time of day or night when unfortunate passer-byes would have unpleasant surprise showers from above. The apartment residents were city dwellers whose livelihood was arranged from a fish-stroll attendant to a nightguard, an unlicensed independent prostitute, and primarily others diligent and savvy waiting their time and luck to come.
Rome was a practical society with shrewd politicians and powerful merchants/tradespeople. For instance, baking was a highly respectful and lucrative trade because not many people had well-equipped kitchens to cook or bake at home. Bakers had their representatives in the Senate who would lobby for the increase in the price of bread. Still, the Senate often rejected the proposal because the Senate knew that keeping the price low would maintain social stability lest the mass should not cause riots for a change of living cost.
On the other hand, unless they were aristocratic or wealthy mercantile families, women had not many choices of working with desirable pay or respect. They worked in shops or stalls densely concentrated outside the walls of Circus Maximus for long, arduous hours, wrestling between the demands placed upon their tasks at work and home without due respect. Slave women’s employment was mainly hairdressing and doing domestic chores. It was less rewarding and more demanding, contingent upon the mercy of their lustful masters and the whims and caprice of their mistresses, who often inflicted cruel punishment on their slaves if they irked their temper and nerves on a bad day.
Rome was undoubtedly splendid in its dominance and influence consummate with the longevity, but only a few privileged basked in the sunshine of grandeur. Matyszak puts together tesserae in the mosaic of ordinary Ancient Roman lives in this leisurely entertaining and academically stimulating narrative of his part-fictional and part-actual characters. It becomes each vignette comprising a collective story of human life that still rings true to our modern life. Matyszak is an unlikely, uncommon historian whose erudition and humor put him on the same pedestal as renowned historians, such as Tacitus, Plutarch, Herodotus, and Paul Johnson. His narrative styles are engagingly knowledgeable but surprisingly personable, collapsing a great divide of time between the people of the past and the present reader.
Rome was no fun when you had none. Nevertheless, for all that’s worth, Rome was a great city rich in ethnic and cultural diversity. The energy of urbanity made Rome all the more vivacious and vibrant, bustling with businesses and people, and created opportunities for better lives. It is no surprise that Poe thought highly of Rome.
Going to mass every Sunday morning has become a mechanical reflex of programmed biological locomotion ever since I realized that my beliefs were abstract ideals hard to fit in the real world. All those sacraments of the church I learned by rote as a child has become the artifacts of ancient esoteric religion that has turned into institutional paganism itself. In a word, I am on the verge of losing my faith altogether, if not already, still tempted to recourse to the fragments of the belief that I try to reason on my own terms, which I often find hard to win because something such as the message supposedly from the Holy Spirit I randomly picked up yesterday after a mass permanently binds me to the old religion.
I didn’t care much less about Pentecost Sunday when the Holy Spirit descended from heaven filled the hearts of the faithful with messages from God to each different individual. The little bookmark-like cards containing each of Seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit were randomly distributed to the attendants after the Eucharist. The priest said they were blessings from God curtailed to individual needs, never coincidental and ever mysterious. I picked up one that was not what I would like, but that what I had denied. It was not Wisdom, Understanding, or Knowledge that I still crave the most. But it was Piety instead, that not so wonderfully mysterious or romantically awe-inspiring banal word for showing respect for God, the church, and the religious people. St. Thomas Aquinas would rebuke me for my low regard for Piety, but it is rather clerical and prosaic virtue that even the most unlearned would have. After all, absolute obedience to God and the Church was what drew Luther’s bow of the Reformation.
But how could it be possible that my gift from God was Piety amid my own religious turmoil in soul’s dilemma? Indeed, there must be more than a respect for priests whom I think as presumptuous elitists inured to be respected, not accustomed to respect. Piety encompasses dutifulness, fidelity, allegiance, and loyalty, giving the impression of militaristic steadfastness. In my own words, I interpret this augury as indicating patience to endure and fulfill obligations till the ripe time and chance happen to me during my journey to a preordained end. My loyalty then requires fidelity of my consistent devotion to a job, filial duty, and the church by not falling wayside to the current instigation of a rebellious spirit. Am I not being an Oracle of the Holy Spirit?
I keep the card and wonder if it is a manifestation of synchronicity. Whatever and from whom it may be, one thing is sure that reverence for obligations arising from a sense of duty helps your ship’s sailing across life’s undreamed shores and unpathed seas against the thunderous maelstroms in nature’s whimsical and capricious temper. It might be just a random message, but then there is nothing as coincidence because we are made of such wonderful stuff of fire, dew, and spirit. What’s more, if I can use the message as a divine oracle to guide my journey into the unknown tomorrows, then it will be all the more beneficial, just as the people of the ancient civilizations did the same. And I think that is why religion exists.