Tuesday, 19 February 2019

The Roman Republican System in a Nutshell

Senatus Populus Que Romanus
The Roman Republican system was a rather complex mix of judiciaries, assemblies, legislative bodies, major, minor magistracies and patronage. This system reinforced and influenced the various governmental processes in ways that are difficult to put forth in a post of under 1,000 words (actually 1016). This my modest attempt as a non-historian.  
Rome was originally ruled by their neighbours, the Etruscans. The last Etruscan king (Tarquin the Proud) was expelled by the Romans in 509BC. [As an aside, the Etruscans are a most fascinating people worthy of a post by themselves]. Thereafter, and until the autocratic rule of Caesar (48 BC), the Romans instigated the Republican system of government. The Romans observed the political institutions of their neighbours i.e. the Greeks and Carthaginians and noted inherent drawbacks in the systems especially considering their susceptibility to the usurpation of power by a single individual or small clique. The Roman resolution was characteristically ingenious and practical and involved a tiered system of government, legislative and judicial assemblies.
First off, the Roman republic inherited a system called the ‘Centurate Assembly’ from their previous Etruscan rulers. The Assembly was composed of citizen soldiers who came together to vote outside the walls of Rome at a place called Mars field. The citizens were divided into centuries and voting was directed to military matters such as war and peace and the election of magistrates holding military office. The weight of the vote was not equal and members of the wealthier centuries exerted greater voting influence than their poorer brethren. In 241BC the system was reorganised to give more weight to the less well-off centuries and this trend would continue until the end of the Republic
The development of the Roman Republican Constitution can be seen, particularly in its early years, as a partial resolution of the conflict between the numerically few, but politically rich and powerful patricians, and the more numerous and initially disenfranchised plebeian population.
The Roman constitution evolved over several hundreds of years and most of the changes were unwritten but enshrined in custom if not empowered in law. Originally power rested with the patrician, noble class and the common folk or plebeians had no say in the run of the Republic. Thus, the legislative body of the Senate (300 senators) were recruited solely from the patrician class. The Senate decided national and international policy indirectly, as they exerted no direct power, and elected two officials, or consuls, to guide state policy for a single year. In this way, they had a powerful influence on State and international policy as mediated through the consuls. The consuls held executive power and were also expected to command armies in the field. The presence of two high officials was designed to provide a balance of power and a check on ambitious men desiring total control of the State. Each consul was invested with the power of veto. Thus, State action required sanction by both chief magistrates. A senator was not elected by the people but chosen by the consuls. Once chosen the senators were ‘elected’ for life. In times of grave peril, a dictator could be elected with supreme power to ensure swift and decisive policy. However, a dictator could only serve for a period of 6 months. 
Time would show that the incumbent political system was flawed due to social inequalities.  This represented an unstable political system for an agrarian society constantly at war. In 494BC, the plebeians under arms left the city and refused to fight. Under external military threat, the patricians were forced to create the office of ‘Plebeian Tribune’ with the power of veto over matters affecting the rights of plebeians. In 451BC the ‘Twelve Tables’ were formulated. It provided a code of law to work out issues between the patricians and the plebeians and formed the basis of civil law. However, the patricians were unwilling to relinquish their privileged status of power and wealth, just yet. Over the next two centuries civil strife continued and in 279BC the plebeians left the city for the final time. Further concessions inevitably followed allowing plebeians to be elected to high office and even to intermarry with members of the patrician class. 
Over time patrician dominance waned and wealthy plebeians became politically influential. Toward the later years of the Republic, the distinction between patrician families and wealthy plebeian families became eroded giving rise to a patrician-plebeian aristocracy.  
The middle years of the 1st century BC were marked/marred by civil unrest and conflict in Rome. With the coming of Empire, Rome underwent great internal change due to the great influx of wealth from conquered territories but this wealth remained closeted/cosseted with the few. Furthermore, there was a need to maintain a large professional army. The old middle-class militia had gone to be replaced by masses of poor soldiers who had little allegiance to the State. The consuls acted as generals and led armies in the field. Once a campaign had been completed it was incumbent upon the general to settle his soldiers with a portion of arable land. Successful generals fostered successful ex-soldiers and consequently, soldiers became highly devoted to their general. A consul commanding large bodies of soldiers developed an inordinate amount of power not traditionally invested in the office of consul. In 82BC the consul Sulla, backed by his large army, placed himself as dictator. Normally the office of dictator was to be held for a maximum of 6 months but he stretched the term to two years. This turn of events represented a dangerous precedent culminating in the seizure of power, after a civil war, by Caesar in 48BC. Caesar became dictator for life but was assassinated in the Senate by senators wanting to restore the ‘Old Republic’.  But the ‘die had been cast’ and the Republic was no more. What followed was a decade of civil war. Ultimately, Caesar’s nephew, Octavian, become triumphant. The subsequent rule of Octavian (later Augustus) initiated the ‘Roman Empire’ system of autocratic rule, initially at least, based on dynastic lines, which would last until the final destruction of the Eastern Roman Empire by the Turks, in 1453 AD.    

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Mugshots of Doom III

Gratuitus Alpaca image

Tis been noted that the posts of late have erred on the side of the ‘sensible’. My serious persona is in the ascendant. But like all things that soar into the blue yonder there comes a time when they must fall; hurtle and plummet downward toward the Earth. Gravity, the weakest of the four forces, must be appeased and placated or at least obeyed. Not even the mighty Flaxen can deny the gravitas of the situation. And so, and with veritable aplomb, and characteristic savage wit, I will plummet and scavenge the bottom dregs and detritus which coats and consumes this bounteous land.
Anyway, I thought I’d put forth, for general amusement, a sorry assortment of felonious (sadly a real word) mugshots. The folk represented are definitely the bottom feeders of society. Don’t feel sorry for their predicament and castigate my temerity for parading their visages in a freak sideshow. The gods that rule the fates have judged them and found them wanting. Watch, ingest and ponder deeply on their misfortune while contemplating the gifts bestowed upon your fair and favoured noddles.  

I suppose we can all have a bad hair day. But there is something about the 1,000-yard stare that screams METH!

He seems a happy, jolly person. The stare in this instance denotes a non-parallel gaze of no fixed abode. No doubt he is happy because of his incapacity to contemplate his predicament or anything else for that matter. Where there is no sense there is no pain. He has just enough intelligence to open his mouth when he wants to eat, but certainly no more.   

Dat man got a small jaw and a big head! Otherwise known as micrognathia and macrocephaly, respectively.  One wonders if this is a case of excessive inbreeding. Out breeding is recommended to obtain/maintain genetic variety and phenotypic vigour. If marriage between first cousins is the societal norm, within a few generations you end up with the typical specimen above. I suspect the IQ of this individual is matched only by his shoe size.  

Not sure whether said felon is the prostitute or the 'client'. Either way, this represents a most disturbing proposition. If the above is the perveyor for gain then the clientele are highly undiscerning, mad or drunk. I wouldn't rule out the possibility of all three. 

Old 'bleb head' is back in town after cranial trauma. That must have been a helluva mighty blow. How could he not resist bursting dat lump of serous fluid? Mayhap he didn't want egg on his face? This brings to mind a personal anecdote. Tis buried in this post, somewhere. Just occurred to my fevered imagination that the lump is medically induced and replete with surgical grade, sterile, isotonic saline. Often times when additional skin is required for grafting, the patient's skin is stretched in this manner to provide sufficient tissue for the procedure. Nuff said.

Strains of 'Achy breaky heart' insinuate in my brain. For some reason, which I find difficult to articulate, the image of the Emperor Nero Cladius Divi Claudius filius Caesar Augustus Germanicus comes to mind. Either way that monstrous mullet will one day take over the world. Or not, whichever the case may be.

Who's a pretty boy den? I am willing to believe that zombies are walking the earth. If you look like this then legitimate ways to obtain employment are strictly limited and a life of larceny is the only possibility. Nice blond hair though.

He seems a bit of a piratical cove. Polly da parrot may just be out of sight. Or perhaps she is preening her feathers in an adjacent cubicle and screeching "Pieces of eight". Once out on bail, he will be off to seek booty by robbing the local liquor store. Methinks I've exhausted the buccaneer sayings, at least for now. How quaint.  

The illustrated man. They say a picture paints 1,000 words. In this case, I'm guessing illiteracy. I'm also guessing prison tattoos probably executed during long periods of incarceration. What else is there to do, but desecrate/desiccate your body? It is not as if he can sit down and read a good book, is it?

Gentle reader, do you think I have been a tad harsh with my uncompromising commentary? Do I come across as unfeeling, brutal and elitist? Take heed, for I am guilty on all counts, me Lord, and rightfully judged and convicted. Arse akimbo.

Friday, 8 February 2019


Brave new world

I recently retired from my profession as a human geneticist. Mayhap I left a little too soon as very exciting developments are about to descend unto the world of genetics as new techniques unfold and revolutionise biology and medicine as we know it. One technique in particular, with the uninspiring acronym, CRSIPR, will play a major role in this revolution. Alas, I shall not be part of this revolution and it is fitting that I take my bow and decamp stage left to leave the intellectual arena for sharper and younger minds.

Before looking at how CRSIPR will be utilised in a practical way, it will be necessary to review a little bacterial genetics and biology. I will keep this to a bare minimum and try not to introduce too many concepts unfamiliar to the none geneticist.

First off, the acronym CRSIPR refers to the bemusing and beguiling: Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats. Effectively this describes a genetic system present in certain bacterial species and is the basis of an anti-viral defence mechanism. Bacteria fall prey to bacteria specific viruses called ’bacteriophages’. These viral particles inject their genetic material into the bacterial cell. The inserted viral DNA then directs the bacterial genome to construct intact viral particles. Eventually, the bacterial cell lyses releasing the virus to infect anew. The CRSIPR bacterial system is an evolutionary response to viral predation and is concerned with the detection of viral DNA and its destruction, thus preventing infection. In a way, it is analogous to the complex cascade of the immune system present in higher animals, but it is nowhere near as sophisticated or as diverse. The importance of the CRSIPR system for genetic engineering revolves around its ability to cut, add, remove and edit DNA at precise locations with wonderful fidelity. I don’t want to turn this post into a biology textbook. I merely wanted to provide a simple outline of the biological process. There are plenty of resources on the internet for those interested in delving deeper into the basic genetics. This precise biological tool enables geneticists to permanently modify important genes in organisms or introduce genes. In this way, harmful genetic mutations can be corrected allowing for the treatment of disease at the cellular level.  

I can’t emphasise enough the myriad of uses this technology can be applied to. Here is but a slight meander into some of its most important applications.

The technology has the ability to treat and even cure single gene disorders. For instance, cystic fibrosis is a relatively common genetic disorder affecting lung and pancreatic function. Although conventional treatments have improved life expectancy over the past 50 years, few sufferers make it past their 40th birthday. CRISPR technology can be utilised to correct the harmful mutation in lung cells, in vitro (ie in the test tube), thus resulting in a fully functioning protein. The next stage involves human trials to assess the protocol’s efficacy. in vivo.

Modern cancer treatment is a medical success story and sadly, medicine’s greatest failure. While it is true that modern treatments are able to drive certain cancers into remission, it is also true that many cancers remain intractable to treatment. In the Western world, 1 in 4 will ultimately succumb to a malignant disorder.  Chinese researchers are utilising CRISPR to combat oesophageal cancer. Immune cells are extracted from the patient (T lymphocytes) and genetically modified by the CRISPR system. A particular gene, which encodes a tumour specific receptor, is switched off and consequently, tumour cells are no longer able to bind to the receptor. Normally, binding of the tumour cell to the receptor prevents the immune system cells from rallying and attacking the tumour. The genetically modified cells are then reintroduced into the patients allowing the invigorated immune cells to attack the cancer, unfettered. 

Furthermore, and in regard to other cancer applications, the technique has the ability to turn off cancer driving genes (oncogenes) and to activate genes involved in cancer suppression thereby preventing the initiation of the malignant event or curtailing cancer progression.      

The ultimate goal is to introduce ‘working genes’ into early embryos with an existing genetic condition (subject to ethical caveat below). In this way, a cure for the condition is possible as the rectified gene will be introduced into all the cells, including the cells responsible for producing the cells of reproduction (sperm and ova). 

The above is just a few of the applications and possibilities available to this extremely powerful technology. It all sounds a bit too dandy and rosy, doesn’t it? But there is always risks and pitfalls afoot when we try to artificially modify our genetic material. Although the technique appears to be remarkably specific, targeted and accurate, there is always the possibility that none target genes may become modified (? collateral damage). If this occurs, and depending on the gene or genes involved, there could be unintended consequences. For instance, the inactivation, or deletion of a tumour suppressor gene in a cell may direct that cell down a pathway ultimately resulting in cancer. Further research is required to weigh up the relative advantages and risks of the methodology- watch this space cadet. 

Safety is not the only concern to contend with and ethical considerations doth raise their weary head, once more. There is a worry that the technology could be used for purposes not originally intended. Currently CRISPR technology is limited, by government strictures, to alteration within somatic cells and thus consequent changes can’t be passed on through the generations. But as I’ve already mentioned, germline modification is technologically feasible. In such instances, none medical changes could be introduced into sperm, eggs or early embryo to enhance ‘desirable’ characteristics such as intelligence and height. Due to concerns about ethics and safety, germline and embryo genomic modification is currently illegal in many countries. However, not all nations abide by the rules.  

By necessity, this is but a brief exposition of a highly complex topic but I’ve hoped I’ve covered the salient issues albeit superficially. Nuff said, for now.

Brave new world

Monday, 4 February 2019

Lisbon Earthquake of 1755

Did the earth move for you? Tis no good asking Mrs S as she is firm a sleep when I come to a shuddering end…. Anyway, and moving on, the earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in 1755 certainly had ramifications which shuddered throughout Portuguese society and transformed aspects of Western European society at a particularly vibrant and intellectually progressive time.

On the 1st November 1755 at approximately 9.40 am (local time) a massive earthquake rocked the Portuguese city of Lisbon. It has been estimated that the earthquake was the most severe to hit Europe in 10,000 years. The earthquake, together with the subsequent fire storm and tsunami, completely devastated the city. A total of 90,000 people died out of Lisbon’s 275,000 population and the disaster had grave knock on effects for Portugal’s economic and political stability. The earthquake also caused significant damage elsewhere in Portugal, in parts of Europe and in parts of North Africa.

The prime minister, Sebastiao de Melo, (aka Marquis of Pombal) acted vigorously and the army was called in to fight the fires that raged for five days and to dispose of the dead. Contrary to Catholic religious practice and against the wishes of religious leaders, thousands of bodies were loaded onto barges and sunk out at sea at the mouth of the Tagus river. Gallows were erected at prominent sites and 33 people were publicly executed for looting. Within a month plans had been submitted for a complete rebuild of the city and reconstruction began soon after.

It is likely that the Lisbon earthquake resulted in the birth of Seismology. Objective surveys were conducted throughout Portugal to gain information about the earthquake. Experimentation was conducted and structural earthquake proofing of buildings was undertaken. Economically the quake was devastating to the economy. It has been estimated that 40% of Portugal’s GDP was squandered during and immediately after the event. And in spite of attempts at control, the economy and wages remained volatile for years. In addition, Portugal’s further colonial ambitions were thwarted and largely curtailed resulting in the loss of the Brazilian colony. Politically, tensions mounted between the king and various noble families culminating in the attempted assassination of the king in 1758. Investigations implicated the wealthy and politically influential Tavora family culminating in the confiscation of the families’ wealth and land. The men of the family were publicly tortured and executed.  Whether the family was actually involved is a matter of debate and the controversy continues to this day. However, and regardless, the king took the opportunity to rid this highly influential family from the political arena.The money extracted must have come as a most welcome addition to the royal coffers; political expediency is a great social leveller.    

The disaster occurred on ‘Feast of All Saint’s’, a major religious Catholic festival. Many of the cities’ inhabitants were attending church and were killed when the church walls collapsed. Those of a superstitious nature considered the earthquake retribution and a manifest sign of the ‘Wrath of God’. The Jesuits were particularly vocal in this regard. It was noted that while all the churches had been destroyed the cities’ brothels had been spared. Mayhap God was expressing his genuine love for sinners. Or perhaps he had a sense of humour, after all. I’ll leave my gentle readers to judge.

The earthquake occurred during Europe’s period of enlightenment. A time of great intellectual advance and a time where great minds were probing for natural, not supernatural explanations for world phenomenon. The event was widely discussed among the Savants of the time resulting in a great out pouring of written material questioning God’s providence and even the very existence of supernatural deities. The philosophical concept of theodicy was further developed after the quake. Thinkers invented convoluted theories to explain how an all-powerful and loving God could allow such an event. This is not something new as the Ancient Greeks had also pondered deeply on the subject. Theodicy, as theology, has always been a doomed project as intellectually and morally it is impossible to reconcile the traditional concept of the Christian deity with evil (natural and man made) which patently exists in this world. The promise of redress in the ‘next world’ is a particularly repellent and a futile attempt to justify divine evil in our organic existence. I have dealt with theodicy in a previous post.

Emanuel Kant, the great German philosopher, wrote several tracts on the subject. He put forward a theory of earthquakes based on the accumulation of gases in the earth’s crust. Subsequent research has shown Kant’s hypothesis to be in error. However, as a first attempt at an objective scientific explanation it was a credible attempt and represents a faltering step into the science of seismology.
Prominent academics and philosophers of the time wrote about the moral and theological dilemma posed by the quake resulting in a great surge of mental anguish and hand wringing amongst thoughtful, educated Europeans. Voltaire waxed lyrical and composed a poem, "Poème sur le désastre de Lisbonne,". Here is a direct quote from the poem (perhaps):   

“The shaking comes and the earth trembles a bit,
And all the houses fall down a bit,
And people get squished a bit.
Except Signor Filipe Mugumbo,
As he was abed with a whore in a bawdy house having a bit,
He escaped unscathed except for a nasty case of the brothel sprouts.”

Is dat Candide enough for you?   

I suspect that something becomes lost in translation from the original French, but I’m sure ya get da drift. Here is a more sensible passage from the dramatic work:

“What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother's breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
In these men dance; at Lisbon yawns the abyss.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers' wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death,
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Your tears will mingle freely with the flood”.

Methinks my interpretation has more poetic ambiance/licence. Tis just a matter of autistic taste, after all?    

A ponce in repose