The view from my window, with the Lakeshore Limited passing by.
Above: This is what happens when women wear silk dresses! The Romans attempted to ban the wearing of silk, as being too revealing and therefore immoral, not to mention a drain on the economy. Illustration by Edith Follet for Ovide, l'Amour, l'Art d'Aimer, Paris, Éditions Nilsson, 1920's. Top:White mulberry leaves, the favorite food of the silkworm, illustration by Mrs. Ellis Rowan for Alice Lounsberry, A Guide to the Trees,, 1900.
Trade between the West and China: an ancient network of routes
Trade between Western nations and China, economic imbalances, and ways of guarding proprietary technology are much in the news. Today the concerns are about soybeans in the Midwest and cybersecurity. But trade with China and the issues it raises are in fact thousands of years old. This month's Quotation of the Month is inspired by the ancient Silk Road, known to the Greeks and Romans, as well as to the people of Persia, India, and Egypt.
The Classical Silk Road was not just a single route, it was a network of routes that tied together the flow of all kinds of products between the Mediterranean and the Far East. It had both a land component and a maritime route that sent ships from China and southeast Asia around the Indian peninsula into Egypt and the Near East. Just so, today, the new Chinese Belt and Road Initiative sends freight by rail across Asia and over the sea by ship.
Predecessors of the Silk Road
The Silk road had many predecessors, proceeding from the Near East to India and from China westward. One of these predecessors was the famous Persian Royal Road, reorganized and rebuilt by Darius I (Darius the Great) in the 5th century B.C. The desciption of this service by Herodotus serves as a motto for the U.S. Post Office:
Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.By employing fresh riders and fresh horses at each relay (like the Pony Express), the couriers could deliver the royal mail from Susa, in Persia, to Sardis, in today's Turkey, 1677 miles (2699 km) in nine days, a journey that took ninety days on foot.
Alexander the Great and the Han Dynasty
Alexander the Great (356-325 B.C.) was one of the earliest Western travelers on the Silk Road, penetrating into Asia as far as India. In August 329 B.C. he founded the city of Alexandria Eschate ("Farthest Alexandria") in what is now Tajikistan. These were the first Greeks known to the Chinese, whose historical writings refer to them as the Dayuan ("Great Ionians"). The Chinese were known to the Greeks as the Seres ("Silk People") because that was their most famous and sought-after product. Strabo (63 B.C. - 23 A.D.) wrote that "The Greeks extended their empire even as far as the Seres and the Phryni."
The Silk Road proper was established during the Han Dynasty (207 B.C.-220 A.D.), being opened from China to the West in 130 B.C.
Misinformation about silk: does it grow on trees?
Just as today, nations have always attempted to keep secret their technological processes. The Greeks and Romans did not know exactly what silk was or what it came from. Weavers on the island of Cos imported raw (unprocessed) silk and wove it into a slightly inferior grade of cloth, but the finer quality material had to be imported from China.
A common misconception was that silk was a vegetable product, combed or scraped from trees. Nor were Westerners even sure where the "Seres" were located. There was an impression that they were somewhere to the east of the known lands, perhaps on the shore of some far eastern ocean. Horace, in his Odes, speaks of the Seres and Indians as a metaphorical reference to "way out there somewhere" (Horace Carmina 1.12.56, 3.29.27, 4.15.23).
Some understood that a little caterpillar was involved in the production of silk. It does indeed live on trees. Its favorite food is the leaves of the white mulberry. Silk is made of fibers from its cocoons. Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) wrote in the chapter on insects in his Natural Histories (11.22.25 par.75 ff.) of the bombyx or silkworm that "These insects weave webs similar to those of the spider, the material of which is used for making the more costly and luxurious garments of females, known as 'bombycina'." He credits a woman of Cos, named Pamphile, with discovering the art of spinning this material.
In the reign of the Emperor Justinian, in the 6th century A.D., two monks, who had been preaching Christianity in India, were finally able to smuggle silkworms out of China, hidden in bamboo canes, and bring them back to the Byzantine Empire.
A ban on the wearing of silk at Rome
Silk became immensely popular during the Roman Empire. Its diaphanous nature, revealing the body in all its splendor, was seen as scandalous by some conservatives. There were several attempts by the Roman Senate to ban its wearing. Seneca the Younger (ca. 3 B.C.- 65 A.D.) proclaimed in one of his Declamations:
I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes. ... Wretched flocks of maids labor so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body.
There was also an economic reason for the ban. A tremendous amount of gold flowed out of the the Roman Empire to buy all that silk. This was a threat to the balance of payments!
Vergil contrasts the varying products of different countries — none as good as Italy
Vergil was among those Romans who believed that silk was a vegetable product, combed from the leaves of trees, In Book II of the Georgics, which is devoted to the culture of trees and vines, he speaks of how each kind of land, and hence each nation, is fitted to grow one kind of product. He ends by comparing all of them unfavorably with Italy! Our Quotation of the Month excerpts Vergil's catalog of foreign products — ebony from India, frankincense from the Sabaeans (Arabia), etc. When he gets to the Chinese he speaks of "how the Seres comb from leaves their fine fleeces."
Below, in Latin and English, is Vergil's catalog of products, in Georgic II.109-139. The text is from the Loeb edition, 1916, revised in 1999. Verse 129 perhaps does not belong here, as it is repeated in Georgic III.283.
Illustration by Edith Follet for Ovide, l'Amour, l'Art d'Aimer, Paris, Éditions Nilsson, 1920's.
The Chicago River, from the Michigan Avenue Bridge, January, 2008. (Photo by C.A. Sowa.)
CHICAGO COLLOQUIA ON DIGITAL HUMANITIES AND COMPUTER SCIENCE
Since their inception in the fall of 2006, I have been attending the Chicago Colloquia on Digital Humanities and Computer Science (DHCS), held at a rotating group of universities around Chicago. These Colloquia now draw participants from all over the world, who present projects covering many fields, including such interests as visual arts, archaeological reconstruction, musical composition, literary criticism, social trends, popular culture, history, and many fields yet to be discovered. Of the projects I have submitted under the name of Minerva Systems, a couple have been presented as poster exhibits. Others I have informally circulated among the participants. But whether one is presenting a paper or simply taking part in discussions, the Colloquia offer an opportunity to exchange a wealth of ideas. Workshops and smaller discussion groups, too, are well worth while.
For information about the Colloquia, visit the DHCS Web site at "http://chicagocolloquium.org". Information about all previous Colloquia (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011) can also be accessed from there.
The Reliance Building, at State and Washington Streets in Chicago, January, 2008. (Photo by C.A. Sowa.) The Reliance Building, like the MINERVA System, was built on principles of modularity and extensibility.
Read about it!
My thanks to all those who have reviewed and used my self-study CD course on using computers and quantitative methods in the study of literature, The Loom of Minerva: An Introduction to Computer Projects for the Literary Scholar, and my thanks to those who continue to give me comments.
You can read Chapter 1, "A Guide to the Labyrinth: The Problem and Its Solution" on this Web site. (Note: this chapter now describes a greater variety of ways to structure a project, e.g., top-down, bottom-up, etc. It will continue to be revised.) You can also see images from two demonstrations of the MINERVA System, from 2006 (emphasizing individual applications programs), given at the First Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities at the University of Chicago and 2007 (emphasizing new project planning programs) given at the Second Chicago Colloquium on Digital Humanities at the Northwestern University.
The MINERVA System
The MINERVA System for Study of Literary Texts is a set of tools, some automated, some not automated, for planning and carrying out a project in literary study. Methods of Systems Analysis, borrowed from the scientific and commercial world, are adapted to the study of literature. This methodology emphasizes the use of diagramming techniques and modular design, offering a way to construct a project as a set of units or modules that can be worked on separately and moved around without disturbing the whole. A project is defined as an enterprise that has a goal and an organized way of achieving that goal.
The Loom of Minerva combines the methods of Systems Analysis with the insights of traditional belles-lettres literary criticism. All analysis takes as its point of departure the value of the piece of literature itself to the critic and the reader, as well as the historic, social, or aesthetic qualities attached to it. These alone confer significance on any work of scholarship. Examples grow directly from study of various works of literature, from Vergil to Coleridge to Baudelaire to Victor Hugo to Edna St. Vincent Millay and Gertrude Stein, and works of criticism from Sainte-Beuve to Swinburne to Gertrude Stein (criticizing her own work).
Emphasis is placed on analyzing the language of criticism itself, analyzing exactly what we mean by such terms as "beautiful," "ugly," "pompous," "like a spring garden," etc. By defining our terms with an exactness that can be quantified, we learn to give precision to our thoughts, whether using a computer or not.
What is in The Loom of Minerva
The CD contains both a set of narrative chapters and a set of programs, called the MINERVA System for Study of Literary Texts. The narrative chapters explain and amplify the programs, and the programs illustrate the chapters. The programs are provided in both executable form and source code, to satisfy both non-programmer scholars and programmers who want to play with the code.
MINERVA stands for Model INteractive Engine for Recognizing Verbal Artifice.
Advantages of the MINERVA System
The MINERVA programs do not require the use of data that is in a proprietary format. They use plain ASCII text, such as that downloaded from the Internet. The OwlData programs can be used to put downloaded or scanned text in the correct format for the MINERVA programs. The mathematics and statistics used are fairly elementary, such as can be understood as an introduction to basic concepts of what the computer and quantified methods can do. The programs are open-source, as they are intended to be extensible.
For more information:
If you are interested in finding out more about the Loom of Minerva or the MINERVA System, contact me at email@example.com.
Reconstruction of one of Babbage's engines at the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California. Click on the picture to watch it in action. (Photo by J.F. Sowa).
Charles Babbage's Difference Engine and Analytical Engine
Charles Babbage, prolific Victorian inventor, is most famous for two of his inventions, the Difference Engine (1812) and the Analytical Engine (1833), which are perhaps the truest forerunners of the modern computer. The Difference Engine, a mechanical device of rotating gears, was designed to automatically generate mathemetical tables. It was called the Difference Engine because it was based on the principle of computing the differences between successive values of an expression, then the difference between the differences. Versions of the Difference Engine were eventually built and used, but Babbage himself dropped work on it to pursue his real dream, the Analytical Engine. The Analytical Engine was, or would have been, the first "real" computer, capable of performing any kind of mathematical operation, and able to be "programmed," that is, to perform a sequence of operations without human intervention, and to choose, when necessary, between alternative paths of action. It was to be powered by steam, and programs were to be entered into the machine by means of punched cards, an idea borrowed from the then-new Jacquard power looms. Babbage, sad to say, was never able to complete the Analytical Engine.
Ada, Lady Lovelace, "the world's first programmer"
Babbage's collaborator on his Engines was one of history's most remarkable women, Ada, Lady Lovelace, daughter of the poet Lord Byron. These lines from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage are thought to be addressed to her:
A gifted mathematician in her own right, Ada worked with Babbage until her untimely death in 1852 at the age of 36. In 1842, the Italian engineer Luigi F. Menabrea published a description, in French, of Babbage's Analytical Engine. Lady Lovelace translated Menabrea's article into English, expanding it with commentary so extensive that her "Notes upon the Memoir" are virtually an original work. She provides detailed directions for using the machine to calculate answers to mathematical problems, leading modern writers to call her "the world's first programmer." Her words relate computing to other artistic endeavors:
We may say most aptly that [Babbage's] Analytical Engine weaves algebraical patterns just as the Jacquard-loom weaves flowers and leaves.
A Babbage Engine in London and California
In 1985, the Science Museum in London set out to build a working Difference Engine No. 2, based on Babbage's original designs. It was completed in 2002, and is on public display at the Science Museum. An identical Engine, completed in 2008, is presently on loan to the Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California, where it is on display until May, 2009. Read more about this recreated machine at the Computer History Museum Web site.
Click here or on the picture below to watch the Babbage engine in action, in a video taken by John F. Sowa.
Reconstruction of one of Babbage's engines, detail view. Click on the picture to watch it in action. (Photo by J.F. Sowa).
Read about the 1845 Eureka Machine for Composing Hexameter Latin Verse
Another Victorian machine which could be called an early special-purpose
computer was the Eureka machine designed by John Clark in 1845 for automatically
composing Latin hexameter poetry. It still survives, in a museum in Somerset,
England. Click here to read about it.
Book: Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns
The book, out of print for a while, is again available by "on-demand" production. Contact the publisher for information.
New selections are available on this Web site for free reading. You can read Chapters 1 ("Introduction") and 10 ("Conclusion: the Place of the Hymns in the Ancient Greek Oral Tradition"), Appendix I ("Outlines of Themes Identified in the Hymns"). You can also see diagrams of the themes as they appear in the Hymns.
Article: "Thought Clusters in Early Greek Oral Poetry"
An article, by Cora Angier Sowa and John Sowa, describes in detail the quantitative and mathematical methods used on the computer to identify thematic elements in Hesiod and the Homeric Hymns. Material from this study was later integrated into into the more comprehensive Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns. Click on "Thought Clusters in Early Greek Oral Poetry". A version of the CLUMP cluster analysis program used to identify thematic repetitions is now also being integrated into the MINERVA suite of programs in the self-study CD The Loom of Minerva.
In orally composed poetry like Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and Hesiod's Theogony and Works and Days, there was no written text (the alphabet being barely known at the time, around 750 B.C.). The bard, like a jazz musician, recomposed his story each time (to a melody now lost to us), using stock phrases or "formulas" and repeated scenes. Since the story was enjoyed not by reading but by hearing it, there were no punctuation marks or chapter headings to tell listeners where they were in the narrative or its episodes. The skilled singer used, instead, repeated words and phrases to serve as "oral punctuation" to articulate the story and provide emphasis for important themes and concepts.
Reissued here is my article Verbal Patterns in Hesiod's Theogony, which explores the use of verbal repetition in Hesiod's tale of the origins of the gods.
We think of computers as being very modern, although calculating machines and computer-like devices have been around for a long time. In particular, we think of using such a machine to do such non-scientific tasks as composing poetry as a modern concept. But in 1845, John Clark built the Eureka Machine for Composing Hexameter Latin Verse. It still exists in a museum in England. Read about the Eureka Machine and read the original description of it from the Illustrated London News of July, 1845.
There is more about early computers and their mechanical ancestors in the self-study CD The Loom of Minerva: An Introduction to Computer Projects for the Literary Scholar, described above.
"Minerva" has long been a popular name for ships. There are cruise ships named "Minerva," including Greek vessels whose owners chose that name as a synonym for their own city patroness Athena. Warships named "Minerva" have graced the navies of Europe from the time of Nelson and Napoleon to the present, whether British "Minerva" or French "Minerve."
It is an interesting choice, considering that Athena, with her gift of the olive, defeated Poseidon, lord of the sea, with his gift of the horse, in the contest to be patron deity of Athens. (See the depiction of Athena and Poseidon below.)
The name "Minerva" for a British warship belongs in the splendid tradition of naming vessels after names from Classical history and mythology. Along with names like "Invincible," "Audacious," "Irresistible," "Insolent," "Victory," and "Dreadnought," we find "Gorgon," "Phoenix," "Achilles," "Apollo," "Dryad," "Endymion," "Hector," "Helicon," "Medusa," "Meleager," and, famously, "Arethusa." The most famous ship named for the Sicilian nymph Arethusa was known for her victory over the French "Belle Poulle" in 1778. Training ships for over a century inherited the name, one after the other.
A frigate "Minerva" participated in the Battle of Cape St. Vincent against the navy of Napoleon on February 14, 1797. The marine painter Thomas Buttersworth (the elder) painted a portrait of "Minerva" in 1810, and the "Minerva" Pub in Hull, England (built in 1831) uses the frigate's symbol, the owl, on its sign. Of course, some ships have been named "Athena" and "Poseidon," too; there was a movie about such a ship called The Poseidon Adventure.
There is a further connection between ships and this Minerva Systems site. In the self-study CD The Loom of Minerva (described above), an analysis of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is used as a case study to demonstrate methods of Systems Analysis and computer techniques.
A feminist note on the gender of ships: Because of the living qualities of ships, I like to refer to a ship as "she" rather than "it." While some may compare a vessel to a woman because of the supposedly capricious nature of both (although there seems nothing wrong with an occasional playful moment), I think that this view overlooks other qualities. Ships, like women, are beautiful, swift, intelligent, and powerful. I am glad to acclaim them as my sisters!
Signed vase painting by the Athenian potter/painter Amasis (6th cent.
B.C.), depicting Athena and Poseidon. The two figures are labeled
ATHENAIA and POSEIDON. The inscription down the middle reads
AMASIS MEPOIESEN ("Amasis made me"). Amasis may well have been
African. (Illustration from a lithograph by Kaeppelin et Cie., ca. 1840.
The actual vase is in the Cabinet des Médailles, Bibliothèque
Nationale de France, Paris.)
Essays and reviews on building and architecture
Among the selections on this site is the previously published "Holy Places", a study of myths of landmarks. In addition, there is an epilogue to that essay, on "The World Trade Center as a Mythic Place". This piece continues the author's interest in relating ancient ideas to things that we care about in the modern world.
Cora Angier Sowa has combined humanities and technology for many years. She has a BA in Latin and an MA in Classics from the University of California, Los Angeles, and a PhD in Classical Philology from Harvard University. She spent a year studying archaeology at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. She taught Greek and Roman literature and history at Mt. Holyoke, Vassar, and Brooklyn Colleges. For a number of years, she was a programmer/analyst at Chemical (now Chase) Bank in New York. She has taught classes in computers and humanities at the College of Staten Island and at St. John's University in Queens, New York. She served twice on the Committee on Computer Activities of the American Philological Association, once as chairperson of the committee. She was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship (for study in Greece) and of a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies (for work on computers and ancient Greek literature).
In addition to the book Traditional Themes and the Homeric Hymns (described above), Dr. Sowa has published articles and reviews on Classics and on the mythology of architecture and motion pictures. A harp player, she is also on the board of trustees of the International Percy Grainger Society , an organization dedicated to preserving the home and archives in White Plains, New York of Percy Grainger -- composer, piano virtuoso, collector of folk songs, and inventor of an early mechanical music synthesizer. Dr. Sowa is Webmaster for the Grainger web site.
A lifelong railfan, Dr. Sowa is a member of the New York Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and is on its Board of Directors. She is National Representative for the New York Chapter and is on the Advisory Council of the national organization. She is also a member of the New York Railroad Enthusiasts.
Dr. Sowa lives in Croton-on-Hudson NY, and in New York City, with her husband, Dr. John F. Sowa, an expert in Artificial Intelligence and computer design, and several cats.
All selections on this site, unless otherwise identified, are copyright by Cora Angier Sowa.
Send e-mail to Cora Angier Sowa.
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