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.

I Just Thought You Should Know

On January 13, in the year AD 532 Byzantine Emperor Justinian attended a tense chariot race in Constantinople’s Hippodrome. The competing chariot teams were known simply as the Blues and the Greens, the colors they wore. But these were more than sports teams. They had become important political factions with which the people of Constantinople and the Eastern Roman Empire identified. They had become the face which the people wore to interact with their leaders.

And on this particular January day, the people were angry. Three days earlier, some of the leaders of both the Blues and the Greens organizations were arrested and sentenced to death by Justinian for hooliganism gone too far. When two of the hangings were botched and a surviving representative from each of the Blues and the Greens was carried off to a church to seek asylum, the supporters of both groups united to petition for a pardon for the two men.

Mosaic of Emperor Justinian with a model of the Hagia Sophia which he had rebuilt after it burned in the Nika Riots. By Byzantine mosaicist, ca. 1000 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mosaic of Emperor Justinian with a model of the Hagia Sophia which he had rebuilt after it burned in the Nika Riots. By Byzantine mosaicist, ca. 1000 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The pardon was denied, but Justinian did graciously plan a new chariot race for everyone to enjoy three days later. That may have been a mistake. From the start of the first race to the end of the twenty-second (of twenty-four), the crowd chanted quests for mercy for their leaders. And then, according to contemporary accounts, the chant shifted to “Long live the merciful Blues and Greens.”

Anyone who has ever been swept up in a sports rivalry will understand that when rival fans find common ground in a sports stadium, it’s time to get nervous. Evidently Justinian knew that. He took off, barricading himself in his palace.

That very night, to the cry of “Nika!” (victory or conquer), the rioting began. Large parts of the city burned and five days later the exhausted Justinian called on his loyal military leaders who successfully herded the rioting mob into the Hippodrome and slaughtered them. The Nika riots were over. Nothing positive had been accomplished. And 30,000 people were dead.

This is not a lighthearted story from history. And I apologize that this is not my typical lighthearted post, but I’ve had riots and the devastation they can cause on my mind lately. You see, I live in the greater St. Louis area. I don’t live in the suburb of Ferguson, but like its citizens, St. Louis is the city I call home and the residents of Ferguson are my neighbors. And I think I can safely speak for a lot of us who live in the area when I say that these past almost two weeks now, have been a terrible emotional strain.

My heart breaks for the family and friends of Michael Brown, who in their eyes was a gentle giant whose possible actions on the day of his death were very out of character. My heart also breaks for the family, friends, and coworkers of Officer Darren Wilson who are struggling to cope with the repercussions of what they see as an atypical action of a good cop. And my prayers are with the investigators charged with figuring out how this all went down to begin with.

But above all, my heart cries out for the people of Ferguson, the Greater St. Louis community, and this multi-colored nation of equals where there is still enough pain and mistrust bubbling beneath the surface that one tragic event can cause us to lash out at each other.

Because the Nika riots weren’t about chariot racing. They weren’t really even about seeking pardon for political leaders. They were about a people who felt they were being unfairly burdened by a government that wouldn’t hear them. They were scared for their futures and spurred on by an opportunistic movement to depose the sitting emperor.

I don’t think the Ferguson riots are entirely about the shooting of Michael Brown. If they were, then the media could move on while the very careful investigation stretches out and the crowds could return home (for many, many of them that’s not Ferguson, or St. Louis, or even Missouri) and await the findings. They could stop tearing apart the streets and keeping the children who should have started school last week, at home and scared.

The riots in Ferguson continue not because a white police officer shot a young black man, but because no matter what the investigation shows were the causes of that incident, and no matter where the blame lands, we live in a nation in which it still isn’t so hard to believe that our racial differences divide us to the point of senseless violence.

I’m choosing to write about this not just because it’s difficult to focus on much else in my corner of the world right now and certainly not because I have answers. But I write because I have been disturbed by the way the media has portrayed the Ferguson situation. In most instances the news has been negative and misleading.

Members of the media have been guilty of rushing to draw erroneous conclusions that have served to inflame passions. Coverage has focused on the unforgivable actions of a militarized police force that in reality has gone out of its way to minimize injuries to protestors even while sustaining injuries itself, often backing down when it seemed safe to do so, clearing streets and business areas where violence appears likely to spread, and, yes, occasionally asking members of the media to (gasp) comply with its instructions.

St. Louis Gateway Arch on a calm summer evening. By Blueberoo1987 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
St. Louis Gateway Arch on a calm summer evening. By Blueberoo1987 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
What we haven’t seen much of, and I think, because I live in the area, I hear more of it than the national and international media lets out to the world, is the number of area clergy walking through the crowds to be a calming presence encouraging peaceful protest and discouraging violence.  The media hasn’t focused much on the African American business professionals who mingle with the crowd to spread calm and sense in the midst of anger and fear.

What you may not have seen is the groups of peaceful protestors coming together with police to identify violent and criminal opportunists among the crowd, nor have you been shown the members of MIZZOU’s Phi Alpha Phi black fraternity cleaning up the streets and going door to door in Ferguson to register voters so that its citizens can bring about the change in leadership that will give them a louder voice in their community.

I write because I want you to know that I am proud of this community and of the people in it who understand that further violent or criminal actions only cause more harm. I have hope for Ferguson. It’s going to be a long road, but I believe that when the dust settles and the outside protestors, media, and opportunists go home, it will pull itself up again and stand together as a stronger community with citizens who understand each other a little better. Because I think the people of Ferguson see the damage this continuous rioting is doing and I think bit by bit, they are beginning take their town back from the riots. And bit by bit, they will find more effective ways to heal their wounds.

And I just thought you should know.