Thursday, July 9, 2009

Crossing the Rubicon

I discovered early in my career that images complement numbers and numbers strengthen images. I used to assemble data in tables and stare at them with a sense of vague dissatisfaction—then I’d reach for graph paper and start charting the numbers “to see what they looked like.” In like manner often I’d encounter a curve or bar-graph in some source, and if the image conveyed knowledge I needed, the same unease would also rise sooner or later; in those cases the search was on to find the numbers behind the graphic. In my later work—if free to do as I wished, anyway—I’ve always tried to give people like me both aspects of phenomena. Graphics draw the reader, but “people like us” would want the numbers too. I knew that then and know it still, hence I try to give at least a link to the data.

I’m not entirely sure that everyone has the same two-pronged approach to reality. If all shared my way of being, history books would feature lots of maps. They don’t. The authors are presumably masters of the maps and assume that what they know is widely shared. But I rather suspect that with exceptions (as always) most people are pretty ignorant about geography; I certainly am, flunking simple tests all the time. A good case perhaps is that famous river, Rubicon. Caesar wasn’t supposed to cross it, not in the company of troops, on his return from Gaul. But he did. In doing so he broke the Roman Republic for ever. But the question then arises, where is the Rubicon? I confess that, until this morning, I had only a vague notion (shame on me!). I put it in Northern Italy, somewhere south of Milan, intersecting some highway leading straight to Rome down the western edge of the country. Wrong!

The Rubicon turns out to be on the East coast of Italy. It’s a relatively small river; it originates in the Apennine Mountains and runs into the Adriatic. It is only 29 km in length. The Apennines run the whole length of the country (a map is here), forming Italy’s spine. The easy way of getting to Northern Italy from Rome, then as now, is to travel along the east coast of Italy, the Adriatic to your right. On the way towards Bologna, between today’s Rimini to the south and Cesena to the north flows the Rubicon still. In Caesar’s time it was the boundary between Cisalpine Gaul and Rome. What we call France was then Gaul; and Cisalpine Gaul was the “France on this side of the Alps,” thus on the Roman side. The map shown here, rudely annotated using Paint, gives the situation roughly. One can see the topography plainly by using Google maps, particularly its wonderful “Terrain” feature, which shows you the mountains as they are. The road system—and surely it still tracks the viae the Romans used—provides an easy crossing of the Apennines, going east to west, beginning in today’s Pescara on the Adriatic.

Some years back when circumstances (read Brigitte’s nudgings) pointed me at Thucydides, I began reading that great historian using our stand-by resource, the Great Books of the Western World. I rapidly threw in the towel, lost in a chaos of geographical references I couldn’t trace. But the text was compelling. As a consequence I discovered the best edition, and perhaps the ultimate model of how to publish history, in The Landmark Thucydides, subtitled A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War, edited by Robert B. Strassler and published by The Free Press, 1996. Little maps illustrate the entire book so that, reading it, one is never lost, always oriented, and therefore the meaning is greatly enhanced.

Some people say, “I’m a visual sort of person.” I belong to that tribe. And not. Or both. As Goethe had it, “Two souls, alas! reside within my breast.” Or, perhaps, two brains mediate my understanding of the world—and one is based on pattern, picture, image, the other on the sublimely abstract and universal concept. The two, together, form one reality. It’s easy to find one or the other, difficult to find both together. Bless those who make the effort to accommodate the challenged.

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