Tag Archives: Italy

Biological warfare

Let’s zoom in on the western chunk of the Mongolian Empire—where the Ukraine is now. Caffa was a trading port on the northern shore of the Black Sea used by merchants from Genoa, Italy. The Khan allowed them to build the port. It was protected by 2 walls, one inside the other. The Genovese traded with people throughout the Mongolian Empire who came to Caffa by the Silk Road. They made a nice living.

Caffa was a cosmopolitan city, full of people of different religions and cultures. I suppose it was bound to happen that religions and cultures would clash; sure enough there was a brawl between 2 disagreeing factions that escalated into a riot. The Khan decided to settle the riot with his army but somebody had barred the city gates and he couldn’t get in. So he put Caffa under siege. A siege is when you use an army to trap your enemy inside a walled town. You don’t let them out and they eventually run out of food and water. The Mongols were on the outside and the Genovese were on the inside. The Mongols decided to use a never-tried-before secret weapon. They had cartloads of dead bodies infected with bubonic plague. The Mongols catapulted the infected bodies over the walls and into Caffa where no one was wearing masks or social-distancing or sneezing into their elbows. Soon after that, people in Caffa started to drop dead. The Genovese traders took a look around, said “arrivederci” and jumped onto their ships headed back to Sicily and Italy. Of course, they were already infected and took the plague with them. From there, rats and fleas and the plague spread throughout Europe. This was the Black Death. An estimated 25-30 million people in Europe died from bubonic plague.

I’ve recommended Justinian’s Flea before and I’ll do it again: http://www.justiniansflea.com/
The plague came back more than once—people got reinfected because no one figured out where it came from. I read DeFoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year (1665) in my youth during subway commutes in New York City. It was summertime, and every time the subway doors opened a blast of hot hobo-pee-smelling air whooshed into the car. It was the perfect accompaniment for reading about the plague. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/376/376-h/376-h.htm
Rats (my buddy Pastor Trip recommended this one to me) zeroes in on rats living in New York City right now: https://www.amazon.com/Rats-Observations-History-Unwanted-Inhabitants/dp/1582344779

Measuring distance in Rome

The Romans borrowed religion, art, architecture and literature from the people they conquered to make a hodge-podge, eclectic culture for themselves. Mostly they borrowed from the Greeks—the Greek gods got Latin names. Ares (the god of war) became Mars. Zeus became Jupiter, Hera became Juno, Poseidon became Neptune, Aphrodite became Venus.

The Romans also borrowed technology. They measured distance the same way the Egyptians and Greeks did, by using parts of a typical grown man for standardized units.

finger—digitus (1/16 of a pes)
thumb-joint—uncia (inch, 1/12 of a pes)
four fingers—palmus (1/4 of a pes)
foot—pes (plural: pedes)
one step—gradus (2.5 pedes)
pace—passus (5 pedes)

For longer distances, a mile (mille passus) was 1000 passus or 5000 pedes. (I hope I’m getting the plurals right—https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/passus)

Back to the beginning of The Western Civ User’s Guide to Time & Space

A Servant to Two Masters

A Servant to Two Masters opens at the O’Reilly Theater in Pittsburgh, PA this Thursday. It’s an old commedia dell’arte-style farce updated to modern-day Venice. “Our hilarious hero, Truffaldino, will stop at nothing to stuff his face, even if it means working for two bosses at the same time. Laughs pile on top of laughs as he tries to keep both masters happy, hook up with the delectable Smeraldina, and have his fill of fettuccini.”

To celebrate, here is the art I was commissioned to create for the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s promotional materials. The design is by my brilliant pal, Paul Schifino. We’re looking at the first rough ideas through tight sketches to final art.