Maxentius’ head, an update, and Billy Budd–my gosh, Billy Budd

So wonderful friend David Levinson forwarded my query about Maxentius’s head to an actual classicist, who had an answer:

Most likely North Africa was nominally under Maxentius’s control up to Milvian Bridge.  The deterrant of seeing his head would discourage any partisan and any usurper from trying to break Africa away from Constantine.   It does not matter if Constantine does not know the person’s name yet – it is any potential usurper.  Also the head proves Maxentius is dead as long as it is partly recognizable.  A boat trip might take only 4 days to get to the biggest port city where the word spreads.   One need not bring the head everywhere.

I’m very glad of that.

Guys, Melville. What the hell? I really hated Hawthorne in high school, and thus I chalked up all early American writers as “bleh” for years and years, and I had so many people tell me that Moby Dick was an awful reading experience that I just didn’t do it. Last year, I loaded Moby up on the iPad, and spent a month reading it in absolute bliss. What a glorious book. I even loved the technical details about whaling.

As usual with an author whom I love at first read, I looked at the rest of Melville’s corpus with a raised eyebrow. When I have had such a wonderful reading experience, it is very likely that the author’s other work will disappoint in some way. There is, thus, a push-pull: you love the author, so you seek him out, but you don’t want that first taste spoiled, and thus you also procrastinate.

I finally got around to reading Billy Budd this past week. I am just as devastated as I was at the end of Moby Dick, with Ishmael holding onto Queequig’s coffin. Billy! Vere! Oh my heavens.

I think I am going to use the novella in my justice class next time out.

Why did Constantine send Maxentius’ head to north Africa?

I have been reading about Constantine. Mostly, I’ve been reading John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium: The Early Centuries for the prose. A wonderful writer. I’m a Roman nerd so as I was reading along, I really wasn’t paying close attention to Norwich’s discussion of the battle of Milvian Bridge–for Rome nerds, it’s pretty standard fare. Nerds know the intrigues, but for non-nerds, some short background: Maxentius contested Constantine’s ascension to the purple. It did not end well for Maxentius.

This bit caught my eye:

Among the last was the usurper’s himself, whose body was later found washed up on the bank. His severed head, stuck on a lance, was carried aloft before Constantine as he entered Rome in triumph the following day. Later it was sent on to North Africa as a warning.

You have to feel for the courier who wound up having to schlepp that baby to north Africa, don’t you? Bound to be a rather niffy endeavor. The battle took place I believe in October, if I remember my reading properly. Milvian Bridge is still there, so they only had to go 10 miles to Rome to go head-brandish there.

The average temperature is 82 degrees F in south Italy during October, according the various travel websites I perused. I’m pretty sure back then they didn’t have any Tupperware. Maybe a clay pot with a seal on the top, but a severed head sealed away in a clay pot isn’t going to impress anybody. You can’t walk around and say to people to take you on your word, you have the severed head of a pretender to the purple in this here clay pot so don’t get any ideas about challenging Constantine. One would have to brandish the actual head, wouldn’t one? And one wonders how recognizable Maxentius would be after all that travel in 80 degree weather.

And, notably, whom was the deterrent supposed to be for? I know of nobody there in north Africa who was a particularly worrisome rival; I don’t think Maxentius would have had any power base there (unless I am confused) as I thought he was from the areas in what are now Serbia and Bulgaria.

Anybody know?

LaCour’s mess v. Zissner on finding his writing voice in his 50s

William Zissner’s book, On Writing Well, was important to me when I was just starting out as an academic. I still send it to my younger colleagues if they are struggling with writing. If there is a kinder, clearer book on learning to edit your own work, I’ve yet to find it.

Mr. Zissner passed recently. Here is his obit from the NYT. This bit made me smile:

In an autobiography, “Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past” (2004), Mr. Zinsser said he did not find his writer’s voice until he was in his 50s, when he wrote “On Writing Well.” He had hoped to be perceived as “the urbane essayist or columnist or humorist,” he said, but realized that his most basic desire was to be a helpful instructor, “to pass along what I knew.”

This particular bit struck me as very touching as I have been reflecting on the allegations surrounding Mike LaCour. It’s clear that he falsified what he did in the study. That’s it. The “hero’s journey, celebrity, man-against-the-odds” narratives of the other young guy, Broockman, who exposed the problems illustrates exactly why young scholars (and older ones) like LaCour become tempted to do what LaCour did: now Broockman is the junior celeb, coming out on top. It comes through in that article: to be at Stanford! So young! Oh my!

LaCour lied to get his dissertation into Science because he was responding to the academy’s obsession with clever young things.

Craft honed over the long haul, such as Zissner’s voice at age 50, is booooooooring. Experiments like the one LaCour described, take years, years that nobody wants to give you in graduate school (“How long, exactly, did it take you to finish?” and “Are you finished yet?”) or later. Work that has depth takes time, and nobody is supposed to need time. Hurry up, be a star! What’s taking you so long, again? This other guy here, he’s a star already! What are you doing? There are no long-term investment in young scholars even though they spend a long time investing themselves.

I’m not trying to make excuses for LaCour; I am, however, not willing to pile on the schadenfreude of gawking at his wrongdoing and pretending to be mystified— utterly mystified!—at how somebody could do what he did. I get it. The incentives in the academy are not to seek and craft knowledge, particularly for somebody like LaCour who craves status, earned or unearned. (Either fortunately or unfortunately for me, if I were interested in status, I sure as hell wouldn’t have gotten a PhD in urban planning, so falsifying findings wouldn’t help me much there, so the temptation, even if understandable, doesn’t hold much power over me. Now, ice cream and cigarettes, those are another story when it comes to temptation.)