one of the most remarkable revolts in world history– 3/18/14

Delanceyplace is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context.  There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came. 



Today’s selection — from The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everitt. In 494 BCE, the people of Rome staged one of the most remarkable and imaginative protests in world history. Though this protest brought some reform, it underscored the seemingly never-ending struggle of the plebs against the major landowners and ruling elite:

“It was the strangest spectacle seen since the foundation of Rome. A long stream of families could be observed leaving the city in what looked like a general evacuation. They walked southward and climbed a sparsely populated hill, the Aventine, which stands across a valley from the Palatine, the site of Romulus’s first settlement. They were, broadly speaking, the poor and the disadvantaged — artisans and farmers, peasants and urban workers. They carried with them a few days’ worth of food. On arrival they set up camp, building a stockade and a trench. There they stayed quietly, like a weaponless army, offering no provocation or violence. They waited, doing nothing.

“This was a mass protest, one of the most remarkable and imaginative in world history. It was like a modern general strike, but with an added dimension. The workers were not simply withdrawing their labor; they were withdrawing themselves. …

The Secession of the People to the Mons Sacer, engraving by B. Barloccini, 1849.Image

“What, then, was their complaint? … The poor were burdened with debt and arbitrary treatment by those in authority; they sought redress. Many had reached a point where the only thing they owned with which to repay their debts was themselves — their labor, their bodies. In that case, they were able to enter into a system of debt bondage, known as nexum, literally an interlacing or binding together. In the presence of five witnesses, a lender weighed out the money or copper to be lent. The debtor could now settle what he owed. In return he handed himself over — his person and his services (although he retained his civic rights). The lender recited a formula: ‘For such and such a sum of money you are now nexus, my bondsman.’ He then chained the debtor, to dramatize his side of the bargain.

“This brutal arrangement did not in itself attract disapproval, for it did provide a solution, however rough-and-ready, to extreme indebtedness. What really aroused anger was the oppressive or unfair treatment of a bonded slave. The creditor-owner even had the right to put him to death, at least in theory. Livy tells the story of a victim, an old man, who suddenly appeared one day in the Forum. Pale and emaciated, he wore soiled and threadbare clothes. His hair and beard were unkempt. Altogether, he was a pitiable sight. A crowd gathered, and learned that he had once been a soldier who commanded a company and served his country with distinction. How had he come to this pass? He replied:

While I was on service during the Sabine war, my crops were ruined by enemy raids, and my cottage was burnt. Everything I had was taken, including my cattle. Then, when I was least able to do so, I was expected to pay taxes, and the result was I fell into debt. Interest on the borrowed money increased my burden; I lost the land which my father and grandfather had owned before me, and then my other possessions. Ruin spread like an infection through all I had. Even my body wasn’t exempt, for I was finally seized by my creditor and reduced to slavery — no, worse, I was hauled away to prison and the torture chamber …


“In 326, a scandal led to the reform of debt bondage, the nexum. An attractive youth sold himself into bondage to a creditor of his father. The creditor regarded the youth’s charms as an additional bonus to sweeten the loan and tried to seduce his new acquisition. Meeting resistance, he had the boy stripped naked and flogged. Bleeding from the lash, the boy rushed out into the street. An angry crowd gathered and marched on the Senate House for general redress.


“The consuls, taken aback conceded the point. They won the People’s approval of a law limiting the nexum to extreme cases, which, in addition, had to be adjudicated by a court. As a rule, to repay money lent him, a debtor’s property could be seized, but not his person.”


Where did I go wrong?
And yet so much else is right
On faith alone I took a step
And nothing but love has followed
It has shown me pains
That which make past mistakes
Almost seem joyous
But still I feel guilt
That I don’t do more
That I can’t do more
Or if I ever will do more
What then can I say?
I love deeply and it is returned
No luxury in the world is worth more

our political nature — 3/5/14

Today’s selection — from Our Political Nature by Avi Tuschman. Universally around the world, most people can identify themselves as politically conservative or liberal, with roughly similar numbers on both sides of the spectrum. Recent research suggests that there is a neurological basis for the difference — with a majority of conservatives showing a larger right amygdala (the center for certain emotions, especially fear) and a majority of liberals showing a larger anterior cingulate cortex (which regulates sympathetic activity):

“When we talk about our specific political convictions, we think of them as lying somewhere on a spectrum between a ‘left’ and a ‘right.’ These terms come from the 1791 French Legislative Assembly, where monarchists sat on the right and antimonarchists sat on the left. But exactly how far do these concepts transcend their origin? Are notions of left and right more relevant to Californians than they are to Tunisians? Does everyone have a left-right orientation?

“The National Election Studies, which are the leading survey of voters in US presidential polls, have found that over three quarters of Americans feel comfortable pinpointing their views on a two-dimensional political spectrum. … Collecting people’s liberal-conservative self-placements is useful because they correlate very strongly with their actual voting habits.

“How does the United States compare to the rest of the world? [According to] a colossal report called the World Values Survey … nearly eight out of ten people in the world identified with a particular political orientation. …

“Of the great majority of people around the world who will express an ideology to a surveyor, we find an intriguing pattern in their responses. The World Values Survey always asks: ‘In political matters, people talk of ‘the left’ and ‘the right.’ How would you place your views on this [ten-point] scale, generally speaking?’ [There answers show a fairly even distribution over] a bell-shaped curve. Measures of our bodies (such as height, weight, and blood pressure) frequently form a similar, natural shape; graphs of income distribution, however, seldom do. …

“The important point … is this: ordinary people everywhere use the concepts of ‘left’ and ‘right’ to describe their political orientations. So the left-right political spectrum is universal. It forms a natural, bell-shaped curve….

“Is there any concrete, physiological evidence that could explain the apparent differences in our political personalities? …

“Researchers at University College London recruited ninety students, and had them confidentially place themselves on a five-point political spectrum. … Their choices could range from ‘very conservative’ to ‘very liberal.’ Then neuroscientist Geraint Rees used magnetic resonance imaging (MRls) to scan each of their brains.

“The results were stunning. From the MRls, the scientists were able to accurately predict which of those individuals was more likely to be a liberal or a conservative. The more conservative students had a larger right amygdala; greater liberalism, on the other hand, was associated with a larger anterior cingulate. …


“Someone who only had the measurements of these two brain regions would be able to correctly guess whether an individual was ‘conservative’ or ‘very liberal’ about 72 percent of the time (no student identified as ‘very conservative’). Aside from the right amygdala and the anterior cingulate, no other regions showed a significant and independent correlation with political orientation. An additional study later replicated the same findings.”

the marooned man of haiti — 3/14/14

Delanceyplace is a brief daily email with an excerpt or quote we view as interesting or noteworthy, offered with commentary to provide context.  There is no theme, except that most excerpts will come from a non-fiction work, mainly works of history, are occasionally controversial, and we hope will have a more universal relevance than simply the subject of the book from which they came.

Today’s selection — from Haiti After the Earthquake by Paul Farmer. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, and one of the poorest in the world. Haiti was part of one of the largest expansions of slavery in world history — the explosion of slavery in the Caribbean in the 1600s and 1700s to support the new European craving for sugar. And harvesting and refining sugar was one of the deadliest and most backbreaking occupations in the New World — perhaps topped only by the silver mining done deep within the earth in places like Potosi, Bolivia. It was the revolt of Haiti slaves against their French masters (1791-1804) that helped persuade Napoleon to sell Louisiana to the United States:

“Haiti was founded by a righteous revolution in 1804 and became the first black republic. It was the first country to break the chains of slavery, the first to force Emperor Napoleon to retreat, and the only to aid Simon Bolivar in his struggle to liberate the indigenous people and slaves of Latin America from their colonial oppressors. Tragically, this history of liberty and self determination has drawn two centuries of political and economic ire from powerful countries resulting in policies which have served to impoverish the people of Haiti.

“Feared by Thomas Jefferson for their successful uprising; extorted by France in 1825 for 150 million francs to compensate the loss of the Empire’s ‘property’ — both slaves and land — (a debt the Haitian people completed paying, with interest, more than a century later); occupied by the U.S. military between 1915 and 1934 to stifle European influence in the Western Hemisphere; and disrespected in their quest for democracy by an unrelenting series of dictators and coup d’ etats backed by Western countries: the free people of Haiti have been continually re-shackled politically and economically.

“In the wake of the January 12, 2010, earthquake … amidst the rubble of the houses, buildings and schools and in front of the once grand National Palace stands Neg Mawon — the symbol of Haiti. Neg Mawon at once embodies the marooned man, the runaway slave, and the free man. He symbolizes the complex history of the Haitian people: stolen from Africa, marooned on an island and liberated through a brave and radical revolution. Shackles broken, machete in hand, the free man does not hide; rather he blows a conch to gather others to fight for the freedom and dignity of all people. … Neg Mawon is the indefatigable spirit of Haiti’s people, a people profoundly and proudly woven to their history.

“When I arrived in Haiti on Thursday January 14, 2010, I asked my friend who was driving, ‘Kote Neg Mawon’ — where is the free man? ‘Li la’ he said — he is here. And as we rounded the corner behind Champs Mars, the plaza in front of the devastated palace where thousands had already made their homes — and remain today — there, rising from the dust of the still trembling earth, stood the statue of Neg Mawon. I was drawn by the image out of the car and as I stood, weeping, an old woman put her arm around me, she too was crying. I said, ‘Neg Mawon toujou kanpell’ — the free man is still standing!! And she replied, powerfully, ‘Cheri, Neg Mawon pap jamn kraze’ my dear, the free man will never be broken.  …”