A House Divided

In the first century, Pliny the Younger wrote from Rome to his buddy Calvisius in order to defend himself. Apparently Calvisius had previously questioned Pliny about his determination to stay inside and study his books while living in the most exciting city in the world. Pliny’s response, roughly translated into modern English, was: “Ew. Sportsball.”

The Younger Pliny Reproved, colorized copperplate print by Thomas Burke (1749–1815) after Angelica Kauffmann; c. 39 x 45 cm, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

I admit that may not be my finest translation work, as he did go into a little bit more detail than that. In the letter (9.6), Pliny expressed his complete failure to understand how grown men could be so obsessed with athletes standing up in their chariots and being dragged around by horses. But what was even more perplexing to him than that was the dedication of these same grown men to a particular color of uniform, to the point that, he claimed, if the charioteers were to trade colors mid-race, they would also end up trading fans.

He probably wasn’t wrong. Chariot racing was big business in Ancient Rome and had been for hundreds of years. The sport was organized into different stables or factions that competed to obtain the best charioteers, who then often coordinated to help one another win. There are references in historical writings to at least six different factions that existed at one time or another, each represented by a color. The main four seem to have been Red, White, Blue, and Green, with Blue and Green eventually having become the most dominant and even serving as a flashpoint in the bloodiest riot in history.

Charioteers in the red tunics of their faction from the Charioteer Papyrus (c. 500), Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Fans of the races, which was pretty much every Roman except for Pliny the Nerd, were exceptionally dedicated to their faction, and I kind of get it. I mean, I’ve never watched a chariot race and I don’t consider myself a huge fan of sportsball in general, but any baseball player who wears a Cardinals jersey is my favorite baseball player until he’s traded to another team and becomes more or less dead to me.

The human desire to rally around and lift up a team seems pretty ingrained to me. I’m sure I could do a deep dive into the history and psychology of that phenomenon, but I don’t really have the time. My life just got a whole lot busier, because suddenly it’s sports season at my house.

My sons are now both in high school (a freshman and a junior) and for the first time this spring, both will be participating in high school sports. Both are on the track & field teams for their schools, which because of the complications of rapid community growth and district expansion, are completely different schools. Fortunately, my sons do different events so they will not be in direct individual competition with one another, but because track meets tend to be large, regional events, their schools will often be competing at the same meets.

I have tried to explain to my children that running is stupid, but here we are. 12019 via Pixabay.

Of course, there is a friendly rivalry between both my sons and their schools. One school has well established sports programs with a history of successes. The other has a shiny new facility in which to train the very first athletes that will ever wear the jersey. And of course, each school has its own mascot and school colors. The question is: how is a mother to show her support for each of her children when her house is divided?

It turns out I have a friend who has a gift for creating custom tee shirts. We’ve gone back and forth a couple of times about the design, with my children weighing in when they thought one school was getting more emphasis than the other. I think we’ve figured out something that will work. I don’t have it yet, but it will include the names of each school in that school’s colors, a heart, and the words: “A House Divided.”

I’m not sure the average Ancient Roman sportsball enthusiast would approve, but perhaps Pliny the Younger would. He’d probably also approve of my plan to take a book for the hours and hours of track meet time in between cheering at my sons’ events. But he still probably wouldn’t come to watch.

Speaking of boring track meets and books: March 6th is the first day of “Read an Ebook Week,” which I recently discovered is a thing. To celebrate, I’m giving away five ebooks. If you sign up by midnight (CST) on March 12th to receive my email newsletter (which I promise will not clog your inbox), you will be entered to win the ebook of your choice. Well, as long as it is one of the four written by me.

Sign up at this link: http://eepurl.com/b3olY1

Or if you are one of the handful of wonderful people already receiving my infrequent newsletter, you can still enter. Just drop me an email at s_angleton@charter.net to let me know you’d like to participate.

What to Do in the Meantime

In 1912, rare books dealer Wilfrid Voynich added to his collection of his London shop the strangest book he never read. It’s not entirely clear how the manuscript came into Voynich’s possession, but it most likely came from the Jesuit Order, which around that time, sold some of its holdings from the library of the Roman College (by then Pontifical Gregorian University) to the Vatican and apparently to a few others as well.

Voynich2
Ohhhh… so that’s what it says. Excerpt from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The Jesuits didn’t read it either, not even the scholar Athanasius Kircher, who was likely responsible for the inclusion of the manuscript in the collection.

Before him, the two hundred-plus-page manuscript probably belonged to a physician by the name of Johannes Marcus Marci, who likely received it from alchemist and antique collector George Baresch, who may have gotten it from Jacobus Horcicky de Tepenecz, who served as the personal physician to Emperor Rudolph II of Germany. Emperor Rudolf assumed the manuscript was the work of 13th century philosopher Roger Bacon and purchased it for a fairly large sum.

But none of these men ever read the book.

Because they couldn’t. What came to be known in the 20th century as the Voynich Manuscript is an enduring puzzle. Its vellum pages have been carbon-dated to the early fifteenth century, which means Bacon didn’t write it. They are filled with an unknown language or code, written by a single, careful hand, and accompanied by lots of strange pictures of unidentifiable plants, weird symbols, and plenty of naked ladies.

Voynich1
I chose not to highlight one of the pages with naked ladies, as this is a family-friendly blog. Illustration from the Voynich Manuscript. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Housed today in Yale’s Beinecke Library, and available to view online if you want to take a stab at it, the Voynich Manuscript has been defying translators for pretty much as long as it has existed. Recent attempts at translation by television writer Nicholas Gibbs and University of Bristol research assistant Gerard Cheshire have been pretty quickly shot down by Voynich scholars and enthusiasts. And in 2016, even AI failed to convince those in the know that it could crack the code.

It’s been suggested that the book is a medical guide of some sort, that it’s written in Hebrew anagrams, that it’s nothing more than an elaborate hoax, or that it’s of otherworldly origin. All we know for certain is that it’s weird, oddly fascinating, and unreadable. Perhaps it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe.

But as frustrating as it is that there’s this one book that has remained unread by everyone except, presumably, its author, I can’t help but think there are probably a lot of books no one has ever been able to read. Most languish on hard drives or exist only as scribbles in tattered notebooks. Others have been locked up in contracts with defunct presses, trapped away from the public by copyright law.

Hopefully that last possibility doesn’t apply to too many books. Very soon it will apply to one fewer, as the copyright of my first historical novel, Smoke Rose to Heaven, will be returning to me in the coming weeks. What this means is that very soon (February 4th to be exact), I will be releasing it finally into the world for anyone to read.

SmokeFrontCover
Coming soon!

I can’t promise that it contains the answers to the greatest mysteries of the universe, but it’ll be fairly easy to read because it’s written in English without anagrams, strange symbols, or unidentifiable plants. For better or worse, it doesn’t have any pictures of naked ladies, either.

I’ll have a lot more to share about this most elusive of my books in the coming weeks. You can’t read it just yet,* but maybe while you’re waiting, you can decipher the Voynich Manuscript.

 

 

*Okay, you can actually get a sneak peek if you would like to commit to giving Smoke Rose to Heaven an honest review. If that’s something that interests you, drop me a line at s_angleton@charter.net before the publication date and I’ll happily send you a complimentary e-book. You can check out the back cover blurb and read a sample here.