Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Dio Chrysostom - Letters

In the nymphaeum of the great city, Calpurnia kicked off her sandals and sat on the edge of the fountains.

Tacitus grumbled once more about the summer heat.

Calpurnia splashed at him but doused Pliny instead. Their escort grimly smothered laughter and held the burning torch a little further away from her.

Pliny rolled his eyes at the escort and said, "See what I have to put up with."

Calpurnia asked, "And where are the nymphs?"

Dio Chrysostom sighed, "The divine moves around us according to its design, not our demands. Or perhaps the Emperor has sent you to be this city's nymph for today."

Pliny held up his hands, "Thank you for showing us the tragedy that has befallen this city. And thank you for bringing us to this refuge, away from the ruins of the fire and the heat of the day."

Pliny turned to watch the water as Dio talked about the fire that had destroyed part of the city. His voice started to rise until his face twisted in anguish, "Governor, with respect, the people here watched those buildings burn. They watched the Emperor's House perish without..."

Pliny interrupted, "The Gerusia was not the Emperor's House. It was a gymnasium maintained by those who think highly of the Emperor and who have taken it upon themselves to mediate the feast days and sacred events of the city."

Dio shook his head, "Their inaction was a calculated insult to the Emperor. It must be rebuilt, and the risk of another fire put beyond doubt."

Pliny let his voice fade into the sound of running water. "The fire was fanned by strong winds. The Gerusia was not the only public building to burn. The Temple of Isis also suffered."

Tacitus coughed quietly, "As did the houses of nearby residents, despite a wide and well maintained avenue, the fire jumped the road and burnt deep into the city."

Calpurnia reached out and caught water cascading from one of the fountain statutes. Dio sat, watching the torch light flicker over the falling water.

Calpurnia smiled, "In the torch light, even the water seems to burn. But it is simply an illusion. Why have you brought the Governor here?"



When Pliny took up his appointment in Bythinia, Dio Chrysostom had been living there for some time, basing his reputation on a supposed relationship with the Emperor that seems unlikely. Nevertheless, on the edge of the world, Dio Chrysostom left us intellectual legacy (based on Greek and, surprisingly, Cathage thought) that is hard to deny and harder to fathom.

The destruction of the Gerusia (a meeting hall and gymnasium) at Nicomedia marks one of the possible meeting places between Pliny's team and the philosopher. It is clear that Dio did not shrink from dealing with the Governor (despite the risk of his pretended association being discovered) and actively pursued plans of civic improvement.

The fire itself led to an instructive exchange between the Emperor and Pliny, concerning the protection of cities from fire (and other catastrophic events).

The fire experienced at Nicomedia was a recurring risk in ancient and medieval cities. We become poorer each time a library is destroyed (the destruction of the great libraries at Alexandria and Constantinople had devastating effects on both the past but also our own future). Despite our science, we are not free of it today. I saw 500 houses burn in Canberra. In 1986 the Los Angeles Public Library was destroyed.

After the great fire of London 1666 (also beset by the violence of the wind and the apathy of the inhabitants), urban planning has factored in separation of monumental buildings by wide public avenues (at one stage this extended to residential buildings). Separation seems to have been thrown away in more recent times.

The policy debate in the exchange of formal letters between Pliny and the Emperor may seem simplistic, but remains a sharp and concise examination of the many issues involved in urban fires. That these letters were made public at the time throws them open to other considerations, and the involvement of Dio Chrysostom.

Pliny To Trajan
While I was making a tour through the opposite side of the province, an immense conflagration at Nicomedia consumed a number of private houses and two public edifices — though separated by a road — the Gerusia and Temple of Isis. It spread the wider first through violence of the wind and next through the apathy of the inhabitants, who, it is quite clear, remained idle and motionless spectators of the sad calamity : and, independently of this, there was nowhere any fire-engines for public use, no water-bucket, in short, no implement for keeping down conflagrations. As for these, indeed, in accordance with my orders already given, they will be provided.
Do you, sir, consider whether you think a guild of firemen should be instituted, limited to one hundred and fifty men. I will see to it that no one shall be admitted except he be a fireman, and that they shall not use the rights accorded them for any other purpose. Nor will it be difficult to watch such a small number of men.

Trajan to Pliny
It has come into your head, I see, in accordance with a common precedent, that a guild of firemen might be constituted among the inhabitants of Nicomedia. But I bear in mind that that province of yours, and particularly those cities, are subject to trouble from associations of this description.
Whatever name, for whatever reason, we give to these reunions they will shortly become . . . and
secret societies. It is better, then, to procure what may be of assistance in restraining fires, and to admonish owners of property to be themselves ready to keep them down ; moreover, if the circumstances require it, to employ the concourse of spectators for the same object.

(This is part of a novel under construction based on Pliny the Younger's Letters. (Book 10, 43/44))

Image: Wadbilliga Cascades, near the Cauldrons

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