Carnival Races

I was reading John Glassie’s “A Man of Misconceptions” and stumbled across a curious passage.  The book is about a priest/scientist from the Galileo era who was on the wrong side of history.  Athanius Kircher believed, among other things, that most things on earth could be explained by magnetism.  Why was the moon so close?  Magnets.  Why do plants grow upwards?  Magnets (plants would be repelled by the natural magnetism of the earth, forcing them away from the ground).  Why does medicine work?  Magnets (it would draw the harmful humors out of the bloodstream through divine magnetism).

On page 207, the striking passage happened:

The new pope, Giulio Rospigliosi, took the name Clement IX.  He wrote comic opera liberettos and enjoyed evenings out.  To the job of secretary of state, he appointed the cardinal who was said to be Queen Christina’s lover.  Christina [the ex-queen of Sweden], who had been on tours of Paris and Hamburg, returned to Rome and accepted a stipend.  She helped Clement establish the first public opera house in the city, and helped persuade him to prohibit the racing of Jews during Carnival.  (The prostitute races continued.)

My reaction: Hold the phone, “helped persuade him to prohibit the Racing of Jews during Carnival.

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A little bit of research and history sleuthing led to this revelation:

The racing of the Jews originally began in 1466, and was thought to have been received somewhat positively at the time.  During Carnival, Italians would race horses, donkeys, and bulls, then children would have footraces, as would the elderly, the women, the prostitutes, the Jews and so on and so forth.  Winners would be awarded a fancy robe and everything was hunky-dory.  The Jews were evidently levied with a 1,100 florin tax to pay for their involvement in the races.  However, over the next hundred years of Carnivals, things turned on their head.  According to the “Jewish Encyclopedia” entry from “Berliner, Gesch. der Juden in Rom, ii., part 1” a Jew died during the races in 1547 and the Jewish community stopped participating in the races.  Other sources are less forgiving to the Romans and the 17th century Roman art historian Cassiano del Pozzo is cited saying that the Jews would be stripped to loincloths, have SPQR painted on their foreheads (the abbreviation for the name of the Roman government), and would have the runners gorge themselves on food.  The hapless runners would then sprint through the cold and mud, puking their guts out from overexertion on a full stomach, and pelted with everything from rotten fruit to cats (Glassie’s book describes someone getting hit with a cat during a race).  According to Cassiano, the winner would “return with his fellows to the smelly theater of the circumcised.”  Some authors say that Clement’s decision to ban the racing was not so much out of a humanitarian effort to improve Rome, rather because of “the little convenience that comes from seeing these Jews run.”  Instead of being forced to take part in the races, Clement simply added another 300 florins to the yearly Carnival tax, raising the sum to around 1,400 florins.

Racing of prostitutes during Carnival was quite normal because the pre-Lent festivities were meant to flip the society on its head.  According to some sources, Italian armies would occasionally race prostitutes in front of besieged cities to denigrate the city, but during Carnival the prostitutes were sort of celebrated in a twilight-zone way.  Some sources have argued, that rather than be pressured to the margins of society, on this one day during the race, prostitutes were allowed to be in the limelight of Italian society.  Perhaps the oddest thing is how relatively unknown these events are.  Very little has been written on the Racing of the Jews or the Racing of Prostitutes in Italy or Rome, and the information that is available on the internet is evidently oftentimes at odds in how it describes the races.  Some sources talk about it like it was a fun pastime that all involved enjoyed until it ended, whereas others talk about it as a degrading and obscene action of an insensitive Rome and an unfeeling Church.  Without more research into the topic, the accuracy of either claim is up in the air.


John Glassie, A Man of Misconceptions (Riverhead Books, 2012) pg. 207
Stephen D. Bowd, Venice’s Most Loyal City (Harvard University Press, 2010) pg. 100

Human Nature and Economics

In the textbook “Principles of Microeconomics” (sixth edition, by Eugene Silberberg and Gregory Ellis, with the pretty Seattle skyline on the cover) there is a chapter on exchange and supply with a subheading “Formation of Markets” that includes a story from a British P.O.W. in World War II.  The soldier, R. A. Radford, wrote:

     “We reached a transit camp in Italy about a fortnight after capture and recieved 1/4 of a Red Cross parcel each a week later.  At once exchanges, already established, multiplied in volume.  Starting with simple direct barter, such as a non-smoker giving a smoker friend his cigarette issue in exchange for a chocolate ration, more complex exchanges soon became an accepted custom.  Stories circulated of a padre who started off round the camp with a tin of cheese and five cigarettes and returned to his bed with a complete parcel in addition to his original cheese and cigarettes; the market was not yet perfect.  Within a week or two, as the volume of trade grew, rough scales of exchange values came into existence.  Sikhs, who had at first exchanged tinned beef for practically any other foodstuff, began to insist on jam and margarine.  It was realised that a tin of jam was worth 1/2 lb. of margarine plus something else; that a cigarette issue was worth several chocolates issues, and a tin of diced carrots worth practically nothing.
In this camp we did not visit other bungalows very much and prices varied from place to place; hence the germ of truth in the story of the itinerant priest.  By the end of a month, when we reached our permanent camp, there was a lively trade in all commodities and their relative values were all well known, and expressed in terms of one another -one didn’t quote bully [canned beef] in terms of sugar- but in terms of cigarettes.  The cigarette became the standard of value… The unity of the market and the prevalence of a single price varied directly with the general level of organisation and comfort in the camp. A transit camp was always chaotic and uncomfortable… a transit camp was not one market but many.  The price of a tin of salmon is known to have varied by two cigarettes in twenty between one end of a hut and the other…
The permanent camps in Germany saw the highest level of commercial organisation.  In addition to the Exchange and Mart notice boards, a shop was organised as a public utility, controlled by representatives of the Senior British Officer, on a no profit basis.  People left their surplus clothing toilet requisites and food there until they sold at a fixed price in cigarettes.  Only sales in cigarettes were accepted -there was no barter- and there was no higgling…
An influx of new prisoners, proverbially hungry, raised [the general price level].  Heavy air raids in the vicinity of the camp probably increased the non-monetary demand for cigarettes and accentuated deflation…”

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To simplify the story, essentially a soldier found that within a few months of arriving at a Prisoner of War camp, barter based economies arose organically and rapidly morphed into a currency-esque system utilizing their smokes as the fixed unit of trade.  Now, conceptually this is both fascinating and prosaic.  Early on, simple human desire to get something out of any deal means that a non-smoking soldier would trade his cigarettes for something that the smoker/tradee needed less than cigarettes, like a stick of gum or something.  By trading cigarettes for gum, both parties win and come away from the trade feeling like they won something.  That’s the prosaic part of the story, that people trade stuff they don’t want for things they want.  The fascinating part is that commerce comes rocketing onto the stage so quickly.  The philosopher in me wants to ask, did the soldiers create a barter/soft-currency based economy because it was what they knew, or do people simply gravitate towards economics and merchant based trade as a part of human nature?  In a way it is a question about Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious”, a theory that posits that people are born with layers and layers of knowledge already rattling around in their brains as a result of their ancestors. (Jung would argue that if one took a caveman that was born in the world of today and raised in the exact same way as a modern child, that the cavechild would be considered supremely less intelligent than a modern child.  Jung argues that we are born with generations of more trial and error under our belts.)  In that regard, does a person of today quickly pivot towards bartering with a single form of currency because it is our comfort zone, or do we do so because it is purely more efficient in an economic sense and thereby more efficient on a human level?

The same textbook (with the pretty Seattle skyline) has a quote from Booker T. Washington earlier in the chapter, quoting him writing:

     “The making of these bricks taught me an important lesson in regard to the relations of the two races in the South.  Many white people who had no contact with the school [Tuskegee], and perhaps no sympathy with it, came to us to buy bricks because they found that ours were good bricks… As the people of the neighborhood came to us to buy bricks, we got acquainted with them; they traded with us and we with them.  Our business interests became intermingled.  We had something they wanted; they had something we wanted… In this way pleasant relations between the races have been stimulated.
My experience is that there is something in human nature which always makes an individual recognize and reward merit… The man who learns at Tuskegee to build and repair wagons and carts is regarded as a benefactor by both races in the community where he goes.  The people with whom he lives and works are going to think twice before they part with such a  man.”
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Washington’s approach to the basics of economics was that through crossing the wires of individual desire and individual needs, race relations could be created in a place where none had existed prior.  Tuskegee’s bricks were superior to all other bricks around, so builders came to the school to purchase the bricks.  Essentially, that simple economic invisible forces pressured Southerners who would normally have leaned away from purchasing bricks from a Black school.  Over time, the ties that bind become ingrained and people are valued based on content and quality.

Both of the short quotes are thought provoking and likely very able to be refuted through reasoned and critical discussion, but they provide a wonderful springboard for a curious mind beginning to think about the interplay between economics and human nature.

Principles of Microeconomics, Eugene Silberberg and Gregory M. Ellis, (Pearson Learning Solutions, Updated Sixth Edition, 2010).

Hannibal’s Strategy

The Carthaginian general Hannibal Barca is widely regarded as one of the greatest generals that mankind has ever produced.  Much of his storied success comes from his victory over the Roman consul Caius Terentius Varro at the Battle of Cannae.  To give some background to the importance of a battle from 216 BCE, the German strategic maestro of World War I, Count Alfred von Schlieffen, used Cannae as the baseline of his encirclement plans on the Western Front.  Over two thousand years after Hannibal fought the battle of Cannae, the battle was being used as the template for a grand strategy in a global combat.  Generals have idolized and attempted to imitate Hannibal’s success ever since the battle ended, and for good reason.
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The Schlieffen plan, basically a plan to hold the French and allies at the border between Germany and France, then roll the German military who was not fighting on the front through Belgium and take the French from behind, completing an encirclement and effectively eradicating the Allied resistance in the West, allowing Germany to deal with the East and South unmolested.

Before Cannae even begins, more background information needs to be provided: Hannibal had crossed the Alps into Italy and was slowly encroaching further and further South and East into the Roman sphere of influence.  Hannibal had beaten most of the Roman generals in head on combat with his superior cavalry (horses, mostly Numidian riders from Africa) and hardened infantry.  The Romans elected a dictator to guide them through the war, selecting a cautious general named Fabius as the commander.  Fabius chose to not meet Hannibal on the Carthaginian’s terms, instead Fabius kept his troops at a distance, safely able to check Hannibal’s actions, but not meeting him in open combat.  Fabius was one of the last forces between Hannibal and Rome’s capital.

Hannibal’s army was like a swarm of locust, everything they crossed over was pillaged and eaten.  Hannibal was running low on supplies, especially food, and there was little more that could be taken from the Roman land.  Perhaps the greatest instance of Hannibal’s genius happened at the Battle of Ager Falernus.  Fabius held the high ground in a rocky patch of Italy, and behind him lay the material wealth of Rome.  Hannibal could not retreat back over the lands he had come through because they were barren, but he only had two options to get past Fabius.  Either to fight Fabius on the high ground, or to slip around him on the one other mountain pass and attempt to ford a large river with his massive army and baggage train without being caught by the Romans.  Fabius was in the most perfect position he could ever have wanted to be.  If Hannibal charged him, Rome would score a monumental victory; if Hannibal ran for the river, the Romans could take the Carthaginians from the rear and crush them against the river.  By all accounts, it was a victory assured.
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Never fight a guy with the high ground.  It’s a bad plan.

Hannibal had his men tie torches to the horns of oxen, and set the horde of cattle stampeding off towards the river by cover of night.  Roman guards saw a giant slithering line of torches and a huge cloud of dust charging towards the river and assumed Hannibal had decided to run.  The Roman garrison on the high ground charged down the mountain towards the river, at which point Hannibal’s men slipped behind them and passed Fabius’ forces with minimal distress, pushing deeper into Italy after sidestepping the Romans again.
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One of the first instances of “Battle Cattle”

According to historian Theodore Dodge, after passing Fabius at Ager Falernus, Hannibal and his men moved towards the Italian city of Cannae because it was laden with breads and grains.  Out of interest in food for his forces, Hannibal turned to Cannae, where he was met by the Roman forces led by two consuls, Lucius Aemilius Paulus and Caius Terentius Varro.  Hannibal had roughly 50,000 men at his disposal, whereas the Romans were attacking with nearly 86,000; Dodge reminds readers that the armies of Carthage were hardened veterans, while the armies of Rome at this time were populated with green recruits and slaves.  Hannibal met the Romans on the plains of Cannae, keeping his left side to a river, perhaps to prevent flanking from that side.

The above image shows the basic plans of the battle.  The Romans wished to use the tactics from the battle of Marathon, where crushing the center of the enemy’s army would split forces in two and make it easier to flank and crush the two halves.  Hannibal had sufferend huge losses to the Romans earlier in the Second Punic War from a similar tactic.  In anticipation of this, Hannibal arranged his troops in a convex arrangement and slowly had the line retreat from the center to pull the Roman forces in.  All the while, Hannibal’s cavalry forces faced the Roman cavalry on the right flank.

The Roman troops were drawn into the bowl of Carthaginians, just as Hannibal had planned.  At the same time, the Numidian cavalry crushed the Romans, then wheeled and struck the Roman infantry from behind.  There was nowhere to run, there was no room to fight.  Men piled deeper into the bowl away from the cavalry as they swiped in, while men shied away from the spears of the Carthaginian infantry.
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Much of this scene in the most recent season of Game of Thrones took cues from the Battle of Cannae.  The crush of men running from certain death, oftentimes getting so jammed in that the soldiers couldn’t even raise their weapons or arms to defend themselves.
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Classic encirclement tactics, first used by Hannibal to grand success.

Theodore Dodge writes that at this point, the battle was over, but the slaughter had just begun.  Hannibal lost 6,000 men in the fighting, but the Romans lost upwards of 70,000.  The Romans in the senate of Rome were utterly stunned by the loss, and generals for all of history since then have tried to replicate the tactic because of the monumental and brutally efficient victory that it had gained Hannibal.  There are however, several factors to consider that could take away from Hannibal’s success.  Varro, the Roman general, over-packed his troops in the center.  He wanted to have more men to throw at the center of Hannibal’s armies, so he doubled the number of men per square foot, reducing the space between legionaries from five feet to two and a half feet.  Roman legions were largely successful because of their mobility and versatility, but Varro undid the benefits of the formations in favor of pressing more flesh into the front lines.  Secondly, the prudent general would oftentimes keep a reserve of troops who would wait on the wings and assist any troops who were flagging or struggling.  This reserve could have broken the encirclement or delayed the cavalry enough to have turned the tide of battle in Rome’s favor.  Thirdly, Hannibal’s cavalry was the greatest on the field, but most of the success of the battle relied on the Numidians winning the day.  If the cavalry of Rome had held or inflicted heavy losses on the Africans, the flank of the horses would not necessarily have been as severe.  That is not to say that Hannibal was a poor general, by all accounts he planned this battle to perfection, but much of the success was predicated upon the failures of the Roman armies as much as it was on the successes of Carthage.  Hannibal was either exceptionally lucky in his predictions or preternaturally skilled at reading his opposing commander.  That was the Genius of Hannibal.

Theodore Ayrault Dodge, Hannibal, (Barnes & Noble, 2005) originally published in 1889.