THE ADVERTISEMENT PLACED by Mlle Uzanne, purveyor of fine fashions for ramparts and barricades, provoked much discussion of the battle of Bull Run, or Manassas from the Southern point of view, which was a great disappointment to the crowd of Unionist picnickers who had gathered to watch the entertainment. Frequent correspondent “Martin the Mess” wondered whether Mlle Uzanne might have a boutique in Manassas, explaining later, “I was trying to reference the First Battle of Bull Run, which took place near Manassas (and thus is called as such by certain ornery historians), and at which fine ladies and gentlemen from the Capital brought picnic lunches so as to observe the rebels get a right good thrashing, but were quickly forced to flee with much soiling of petticoats when the Confederates proved unexpectedly victorious. I figured, that was a good place to find gentlewomen in need of battle-observing fashions. If only to replace the soiled petticoats.”

It is a strange fact that the mostly rural Southerners tended to name Civil War battles after nearby towns and cities, whereas the much more urbanized North named many of the same battles after streams and rivers. To this day, Bull Run marks the traditional boundary between what southern Virginians would consider the real Virginia and Yankee Virginia, the part that was occupied by the North in the Civil War and is still regarded as Union-occupied territory by true sons of the South. The area of Northern occupation is expanding, however, and commuter trains now reach out like kraken arms from the wicked Union capital of Washington to Manassas and even as far south as Fredericksburg, which proves that thousands of traitors to the Lost Cause have infiltrated the real Virginia. 

The real Virginia has, however, made use of its nominal administrative control over Yankee Virginia to exact its own cunning revenge by naming all the highways after Confederate war criminals.

Published in: on August 29, 2012 at 9:31 am  Comments (1)  


ON THIS DAY in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution became part of the fundamental law of the land. In honor of this momentous anniversary, we offer this photograph of Susan B. Anthony doing Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s hair.

Published in: on August 26, 2012 at 9:24 pm  Comments (1)  


Dear Dr. Boli: I gather that botany is one of your many interests and areas of expertise, so I turn to you with this question. The prophet Amos claimed to be “a dresser of sycamores.” Can you explain this profession? It’s about the most bizarre way of making a living I’ve ever heard of. —Sincerely, Regina Terrae.

Dear Madam: The dressing of sycamores strikes us as odd; yet, in our own country, the trackless suburbs of the Middle West nourish a vast industry devoted to dressing concrete geese. The fashions of bygone ages invariably seem ridiculous, while those of our own era seem quite ordinary and rational. If the ladies of suburban Samaria and Jerusalem liked their sycamore trees with a bit of crinoline and lace, we modern Americans ought not to judge them, lest our concrete geese be judged. We read of vine-dressers in the Bible as well, so the fad for horticultural costuming was evidently quite popular among hobbyists. It was not popular enough, however, for Amos to make a living at it; he had to keep a bunch of grubby sheep around for his primary income.

It should be noted that the sycamore of the Bible is a species of fig (Ficus sycomorus), not the common sycamore tree of our American forests (Platanus occidentalis). The American sycamore, with its chronically flaking bark, would make a poor subject for dress-up games.

Published in: on August 22, 2012 at 7:07 pm  Comments (5)  


ON THIS DAY in 30 B.C., Cleopatra pressed an asp to her bosom, bringing Egyptian history to an end until 1952. In honor of this solemn anniversary, we reprint the Asp’s Aria from Irving Vanderblock-Wheedle’s libretto to the Ruthven Mophandle Heyser opera The Death of Cleopatra:

It was not generally made public until recently that the libretto to Heyser’s well-received new opera, The Death of Cleopatrawas written by the eminent novelist and poet Irving Vanderblock-Wheedle. The Asp’s Aria, sung by Julietta della Fripperia to Heyser’s haunting cacophony of bassoons and kazoos, has been singled out for especial praise.

[Lento arigato.]

Excuse me, please, but did I overhear
A queen’s lament, with many a bitter tear?
You’ll find a true friend lurking very near:
I am (and please try not to gasp)
An asp.

Has it occurred to you what quick relief
Would comfort you and silence all your grief—
How short your cares would be, your tears how brief,
If to your bosom you should clasp
An asp?

I happen to have made my little nest
Right here, in this bejeweled little chest
(For you’ll agree that little chests are best):
Now just pull out the bolt and grasp
The hasp.

I’ll be your passp-
Ort to eternity and lasting fame:
Soon girls from Glassp-
Ort to Sewickley will usurp your name,
If you will lift the hasp
And just reach in and grasp
And to your bosom clasp
(Forgive my vocal rasp)
An asp.

Published in: on August 12, 2012 at 1:07 pm  Comments (2)  


Dear Dr. Boli: I was talking to some guy who said he was a professor of history at some university in Georgia (the name escapes me at the moment), and he was saying that the Civil War was never about slavery. What did he mean by that? —Sincerely, A Woman Who Thought the Civil War Was About Slavery.

Dear Madam: The average ill-informed yokel often supposes that the American Civil War was fought mostly on account of slavery, but such risible ignorance would be unpardonable in a serious historian. In fact there were many questions that divided North and South, of which the existence of slavery was actually one of the least important.

Foremost among these questions was the question of states’ rights. Did the Southern states have the right to take their ball and go home like a bunch of whiny spoilsport crybabies the first time the country elected a president who publicly opposed slavery? On this question the North and South could not agree. The Southerners insisted that the individual states had the absolute right to withdraw from the Union whenever they desired to do so, and in general took an uncompromisingly strong stance on states’ rights.

There was also the question of enforcement of federal laws. Did the Northern states have the right to pass laws that hindered the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act? Here again there could be no agreement: the Southerners insisted that the federal law must be supreme, and in general took an uncompromisingly strong stance against states’ rights.

Then there was the question of the territories. Should slavery be allowed in them or not? Should they be admitted to the Union as slave states or free states? Many Southerners vehemently opposed the Missouri Compromise, which roughly divided the territories between free in the North and slave in the South, on the grounds that each newly admitted state should be allowed to decide the question of slavery for itself. Likewise, Southerners were appalled when California, at its own request, was admitted to the Union as a free state, on the grounds that the admission violated the Missouri Compromise.

So you can see that slavery was in fact the least of the difficulties dividing North and South.

Published in: on August 11, 2012 at 9:10 pm  Comments (3)  


Second Series.

Mrs. Richard Brinsley Sheridan, by Gainsborough.

Gainsborough, Thomas. Even at the height of his fame, Thomas Gainsborough, the great portrait and landscape artist, and perhaps the most talented English painter of his generation, could not draw a tree to save his life.

Published in: on August 1, 2012 at 1:19 pm  Leave a Comment  


Second Series.

Mikado. The term “Mikado,” once used in English to refer to the Emperor of Japan, comes from a Japanese phrase meaning “I said ‘Emperor,’ you stupid foreigner.”

Published in: on July 28, 2012 at 10:56 pm  Comments (1)  


WHEN EDWARD GIBBON published the first volume of his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he expected a fair number of literary attacks. He read them all, and responded to none, until he came to a furious 284-page scribble by one Mr. Davis, who “styles himself a Bachelor of Arts, and a Member of Balliol College in the University of Oxford,” and who accused Gibbon of every species of incompetence and mendacity. Mr. Davis ought to have known that, if he made a personal attack on Gibbon, he was wielding a blunt stick against well-placed field artillery. In beginning his reply, Gibbon manages the remarkable feat of excusing himself for replying while simultaneously portraying his adversary as a contemptible insect unworthy of his notice.

I should have consulted my own ease, and perhaps I should have acted in stricter conformity to the rules of prudence, if I had still persevered in patient silence. But Mr. Davis may, if he pleases, assume the merit of extorting from me the notice which I had refused to more honourable foes. I had declined the consideration of their literary Objections; but he has compelled me to give an answer to his criminal Accusations. Had he confined himself to the ordinary, and indeed obsolete charges of impious principles, and mischievous intentions, I should have acknowledged with readiness and pleasure that the religion of Mr, Davis appeared to be very different from mine. Had he contented himself with the use of that style which decency and politeness have banished from the more liberal part of mankind, I should have smiled, perhaps with some contempt, but without the least mixture of anger or resentment. Every animal employs the note, or cry, or howl, which is peculiar to its species; every man expresses himself in the dialect the most congenial to his temper and inclination, the most familiar to the company in which he has lived, and to the authors with whom he is conversant; and while I was disposed to allow that Mr. Davis had made some proficiency in Ecclesiastical Studies, I should have considered the difference of our language and manners as an unsurmountable bar of separation between us. Mr. Davis has overleaped that bar, and forces me to contend with him on the very dirty ground which he has chosen for the scene of our combat. He has judged, I know not with how much propriety, that the support of a cause, which would disclaim such unworthy assistance, depended on the ruin of my moral and literary character. The different misrepresentations of which he has drawn out the ignominious catalogue, would materially affect my credit as an historian, my reputation as a scholar, and even my honour and veracity as a gentleman.  If I am indeed incapable of understanding what I read, I can no longer claim a place among those writers who merit the esteem and confidence of the Public. If I am capable of wilfully perverting what I understand, I no longer deserve to live in the Society of those men, who consider a strict and inviolable adherence to truth, as the foundation of every thing that is virtuous or honourable in human nature. At the same time, I am not insensible that his mode of attack has given a transient pleasure to my enemies, and a transient uneasiness to my friends. The size of his volume, the boldness of his assertions, the acrimony of his style, are contrived with tolerable skill to confound the ignorance and candour of his readers. There are few who will examine the truth or justice of his accusations; and of those persons who have been directed by their education to the study of ecclesiastical antiquity, many will believe, or will affect to believe, that the success of their champion has been equal to his zeal, and that the serpent pierced with an hundred wounds lies expiring at his feet. Mr. Davis’s book will cease to be read (perhaps the grammarians may already reproach me for the use of an improper tense); but the oblivion towards which it seems to be hastening, will afford the more ample scope for the artful practices of those, who may not scruple to affirm, or rather to insinuate, that Mr. Gibbon was publickly convicted of falsehood and misrepresentation; that the evidence produced against him was unanswerable; and that his silence was the effect and the proof of conscious guilt. Under the hands of a malicious surgeon, the sting of a wasp may continue to fester and inflame, long after the vexatious little insect has left its venom and its life in the wound.

Published in: on July 26, 2012 at 2:13 pm  Comments (1)  



“Now it came to pass in those days, there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled.” So writes a first-century historian, and doubtless his first-century audience knew what he was talking about. But what was this “enrollment”? Modern historians believe it may have been a loyalty oath that every resident of the Empire was required to take, because if there was one thing Roman history had shown, it was that, if you make a man swear loyalty to you, he will never betray you as long as he lives. (This is a literary device known as “sarcasm.” How do you like it?) But whatever it was, it was carried out in typical bureaucratic fashion, with the maximum possible inconvenience to the ordinary citizen. You could not just report to the local district loyalty office, fill out the form, and pick up your loyalty card. No, you were required to report to the city of your birth and swear the oath there. Doubtless some sound administrative reason was alleged for this requirement, but one suspects that the innkeepers’ lobby may have had a good deal to do with it.

One of the many inconvenienced citizens frantically making travel plans was Joseph of Nazareth, a town in Galilee that was proverbially backward. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” was the favorite sitcom catchphrase throughout Palestine. Joseph had been born in Bethlehem, also a small town, but one with a more distinguished history. “Birthplace of King David” was written prominently on the city-limits sign donated by the Lions Club.

Joseph was even more inconvenienced than most of the other travelers because his young wife, Mary, was pregnant and really in no condition to travel. Since the child she was carrying was the long-prophesied Messiah, Joseph expected that he could at least get a discount on hotels; but instead the Holiday Inn Bethlehem lost his reservation, and every other hotel was booked up solid. It was late at night when Joseph finally found one innkeeper who was willing to let him and Mary sleep in the stable out back, billing his MasterCard at the regular room rate, plus the 20% convention surcharge.

The birth of this child, under such inauspicious circumstances, came very near to undoing everything that civilization had so carefully built up over more than three millennia; indeed, it would have done so, if civilization had not fought back vigorously and for the most part successfully. For this child would grow up to be the most dangerous revolutionary the world has ever known, and it would take all the wisdom, all the courage, and all the chutzpah of the forces of civilization to stand up to his revolution and destroy it before it could do irreparable damage.

Jesus Christ first came to the notice of the civilized powers when he began drawing big crowds of shiftless riffraff to hear his anarchic and superficially appealing ideas. “Love your enemies,” he told the crowds, planting a stick of dynamite at the very base of civilization. If we do not hate our enemies, how can there be war? And if there is no war, how can there be government? “Blessed are the merciful,” he said, threatening the entire basis of the criminal-justice system that keeps government in power; for if there is mercy, how can there be justice? “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” What does “rich” mean if not “materially rewarded in accordance with one’s virtue”?

For three years the wily street-preacher eluded the authorities, but at last he was captured and publicly executed by crucifixion. And that would have been the end of his revolutionary movement, except that he very inconsiderately refused to stay dead.

Now the followers of Christ began to multiply at a truly alarming rate, especially when a strange little man named Saul or Paul began holding revival meetings all over the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Paul took the implications of Christ’s revolution to even more absurd extremes, actually telling his followers that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither male nor female, there is neither slave nor free.” How were responsible citizens to keep Jews, women, and slaves in their place if Paul was running around spouting such dangerous gibberish?

Soon the “Christian” movement had infested the big cities in the east; then it spread to Rome itself, where it caught the attention of the wise and prudent emperor Nero. Casting about for a solution to the Christian problem, Nero discovered that, if you coat a Christian with pitch and set him on a pole, he makes an excellent torch for a refined garden party. Here was yet another full-employment program that was misunderstood and resented by its chief beneficiaries.

In spite of the best efforts of enlightened and artistic emperors like Nero, the Christians would not be discouraged; on the contrary, the strange and dangerous cult grew by leaps, and in some cases by bounds. Most of the new Christians were slaves and women and other worthless detritus, but an alarming number of citizens and intellectuals were seduced into the underground Christian movement as well. And once they were Christian, they seemed to lose all ability to reason. For example, they refused to worship the emperor Domitian as a god. One of the fundamental principles of imperial law was that, if the emperor says he is a god, you believe him. After all, who would know better than the emperor himself whether he was a god or not? Yet the Christians were stuck on this idea of a single deity that they had inherited from the theology of Abraham, which was already two thousand years out of date. Not even for emperors would they make an exception, even when the alternative was death. That was not just unreasonable: it was rude.

For a while the imperial government tried rooting out the Christians by means of paid informers, who would receive the property of the Christians they turned in. It soon became apparent, however, that the Christians, who were mostly poor, slipped through this net easily, whereas rich citizens of unimpeachable paganism were in constant danger of being denounced as Christians. Informing was a profitable business, and like any well-run business it had to put the interests of the stockholders above other considerations.

Thus the emperor Trajan instituted a don’t-ask, don’t-tell policy to take the profit out of the informing business. It seemed eminently reasonable to any unbiased observer, but the problem was that the stubborn Christians could not keep themselves from telling. The government simply couldn’t win with these people: if it left the Christians alone, the cult grew exponentially; but if it went after the Christians with the full force of the law, the public executions only brought the disreputable cult the attention it craved, and it still grew exponentially. The Roman government was learning by experience the truth of that ancient maxim, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” What was worse was that some of the most public trials and executions involved women and slaves, whose examples encouraged others like them to think for themselves when they had no business thinking at all.

Meanwhile, the Christians, who had seemed so naive and ignorant, had actually been plotting a devilishly clever demographic conspiracy against the very basis of Roman society.

Pagan families naturally wanted sons. A son would carry on the family name and honor; a daughter, on the other hand, was worse than useless. You would have to feed a daughter until she was eleven years old or so; then you would have to pay an enormous dowry to some cretin just for taking her off your hands. Most girl children, therefore, were discarded like the rubbish they were. It was not necessary to resort to infanticide (not that there was anything wrong, in the very rational Roman view, with infanticide); one could simply “expose” the child, leaving it on the rubbish heap, where its fate was in the hands of the gods—who could, after all, send a she-wolf to take care of it if they wanted to. Most of the time, the gods did not send she-wolves, but theoretically it could happen.

The Christians, however, told their followers that it was murder to leave a child to die, so they refused to do the socially responsible thing and kill off their girl children. Worse than that, they would actually pick up the baby girls the decent pagan citizens had discarded and raise them as their own.

At first, this apparently irrational behavior of the Christians seemed like a harmless peccadillo, one that brought them all the inconvenience of raising multiple daughters without any compensating reward other than cultish smugness. But in a few generations, the peccadillo revealed itself as nothing less than a fiendish plot. Pagans had all the sons they wanted, but whom would those sons marry? The Christians had all the women! A young man looking for a wife would find he had two choices: he could marry a girl raised by Christians, or he could marry a girl raised by wolves. Either way, she would probably raise their children in the same way she herself had been raised.

As the Christian threat grew ever more dire, the beleaguered pagan government attacked the problem on a larger scale. The one thing you could count on with the Christians was that the truly fanatical ones would not offer sacrifice to any god but their own. The mandate went out, therefore, that every good Roman must demonstrate his loyalty by making an offering to the genius of the emperor. It was not a burdensome requirement: you could offer as little as you liked. You could offer a tiny pinch of incense, incense in homeopathic quantities, and the government would even provide it for you. Yet thousands of the fanatical Christians refused and were executed in entertaining and picturesque ways. Even so, the cult still grew, until it was very possible that the Christians were the single biggest religious group in the whole empire.

Meanwhile, the government was having a few minor troubles of its own, the sort of troubles that always lead to half a dozen emperors with enormous armies beating each other up all over the landscape. Under such conditions, each one of the rivals was naturally on the lookout for anything that would give him the slightest advantage over the others; and finally it occurred to one, who had been declared emperor by his soldiers in the mythical land of Britain, that everyone else was ignoring the Christian demographic. In the year 312, just before moving in to take the city of Rome, Constantine declared himself a Christian.

Was this the end of everything civilization had so laboriously built up over the past three or four millennia? Would the Christian revolution succeed in eliminating greed, hatred, violence, and all the other things that make civilization possible?

Well, fortunately, civilization proved to be a lot more resilient than that.

It should be noted that Dr. Boli is indebted to Mr. Rodney Stark for his very clever demographic analysis of the rise of Christianity. Mr. Stark, however, is not in any way responsible for what Dr. Boli has done with that analysis.

Published in: on July 21, 2012 at 8:20 pm  Comments (7)  


ON THIS DAY in 1779, Tekle Giyorgis I became Emperor of Ethiopia. He became Emperor of Ethiopia again in 1788, in 1794, in 1795, and in 1800. To have become an emperor once may be regarded as a significant accomplishment, but to become an emperor five times is mere tasteless ostentation.

Published in: on July 20, 2012 at 9:05 pm  Comments (2)