2010-07-17 / Columnists

Mackinac Island Looks Back to Julius Caesar and His Time

A Look at History

This column is to be published in the month of July on Mackinac Island. The 31-day period we call “July” is named after Julius Caesar, a long-dead consul (elected leader) and then dictator of the Roman Republic. After conquering the chunk of Europe that he called “Gaul” and we today call “France,” Caesar returned to Rome and, to justify his ambitions and protect himself from his enemies, he threw over the old republican government of Rome and made himself the unelected leader or, in the word he himself used, the “Dictator.” Caesar is famous, or infamous, for being the first imperial leader of Rome, the founder of its first dynasty of emperors, and the inspiration for two royal titles that lived on into Mackinac Island’s Victorian era: “Kaiser” and “Czar.”

Caesar’s personality influenced people who would live for many centuries after him, in corners of the earth he could not have imagined. After he conquered Gaul and made it into a piece of the new Roman Empire, the new province was politically open to a religion that would crop up soon after Caesar’s death in a small province on the opposite end of the empire – the new faith in Jesus Christ. The French, in turn, would bring this faith to the Great Lakes and, eventually, to Mackinac Island. Dictator Julius Caesar was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 B.C., and around that year an infant Jewish girl, Hannah, was born somewhere in Israel. In the Greek language, used widely in the Roman Empire, “Hannah” comes out as “Anne,” and Christian history affirms that Anne was to be the mother of the woman known to Christianity as the Virgin Mary. Mackinac Island’s church of Ste. Anne is named after this humble subject of Caesar’s empire.

Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar (Stamp courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar (Stamp courtesy of Tom Pfeiffelmann) Many of the features that are familiar to us in today’s day-today life on Mackinac Island would have been familiar to Julius Caesar and the Romans who lived in his time; others would not be. Let’s take a look at some of them:

The humble manure shovel is almost identical to flat-edged spades used by the Romans; they had blacksmiths who could forge iron into sharpedged weapons and tools. Although the Romans did not have the mild steel seen at the Benjamin Blacksmith Shop today, and their iron tools might well have gotten nicked or dull with use, they had shovels and they used them. In a vivid section of his book “The Gallic War,” Caesar describes how he ordered his men to dig trenches around a Gallic fortress-town whose capture would be the climax of the war. Back in Italy, careful farmers shoveled and spread manure onto fields where crops were grown, in a familiar technology described by Caesar’s contemporary, the poet Vergil, in his poem “The Georgics.”

On the other hand, the Romans would have looked with puzzlement upon the typical Mackinac Island draft horse and horse harness of today. The heaviest and most important single component of a horse harness is the collar, the padded round of leather or synthetics that anchors the harness traces and distributes the pressure of the horse’s work away from its throat and breathing tube. The Romans did not know how to make a horse collar, and forced their horses to pull chariots and wagons with leather straps that compressed the horse’s neck. Their horses could not, therefore, have pulled with the strength that a draft horse has on Mackinac Island, and so the Romans did not breed strong draft horses. Barbarians from the East, who entered Europe at the time of the fall of the Roman Empire, brought the horse collar with them; and as the centuries of the Middle Ages wore on, farmers in the fertile lands that Caesar’s army had conquered, notably Belgium and the French province of Perche, began to breed strong European horses. Our Belgian and Percheron breeds are descended from this effort.

One of the most important inventions of the Romans was the self-draining gravel road with ditches on each side. Caesar and his engineers thoroughly understood the value of these roads, and in his time new all-weather pathways snaked up into Gaul from Italy to supply his army and enable reinforcements. Our traditional Mackinac Island road with a slight “crown,” a hump in the center to enable water to drain off toward either ditch, is directly descended from Roman roadbuilding technology. If no heavy motor vehicles drive on these roads, they will be surprisingly durable and long-lived.

Chocolate fudge, on the other hand, would have been completely unknown in Roman times. The tasty cocoa bean was already being grown by the Olmec people of Mexico and the early Maya of Central America, but Europeans could not have tasted them. Their closest equivalent was a confection made with vegetable starch, sweetened with honey, and widely consumed throughout the Mediterranean and Middle East. It was easily as sweet and sticky as the fudge we eat today. Descendants of this confection are still eaten in these countries under the name of “Turkish delight.”

One of the greatest achievements of Caesar’s army were the two wooden bridges that his men built over the Rhine River. His engineers had learned how to drive heavy wooden posts into the swirling water, and to raise durable planks that span the distance from post to post. Caesar did not conquer Germany, but his bridges were meant to serve as a demonstration to the German tribal people of that day that he could do so if he wished. The demonstration was successful, and during his lifetime the warlike Germans were peaceful and even paid tribute to Rome. Our Union Terminal Piers, the Arnold Dock, and the adjacent Coal Dock, both built in the 19th century, are based upon engineering principles and skills that would have been familiar to Caesar and his men.

The light cannon and percussion cap shoulder arms of Fort Mackinac would, of course, been completely unfamiliar to Caesar’s army and to their Gallic adversaries. At the time of the dawn of the Roman empire, Taoist chemists in China appear to have been beginning to perform experiments that would lead to the invention of what we call “black powder,” the propellant used in cannon and shoulder arms during the time of Fort Mackinac’s active service, but Europe would not see gunpowder for many centuries to come.

By contrast, Caesar’s men often used slingshots, primitive weapons that could be used, in the hands of expert warriors, to injure or even kill an enemy at a surprising distance. The story of the future king David and his enemy, Goliath, is a familiar slingshot story that dates back to well before Caesar’s time; the Roman army lethally improved their army’s power to stop an adversary with a sharp improvement to this traditional weapon. David would have slung a shot chiseled from stone or hard-fired from clay; but by mining ingots of Spanish lead, the Romans were able to cast a new kind of shot that was much deadlier to their enemies. When we see a percussion-cap rifle demonstration at Fort Mackinac, the black powder that we hear going off has nothing to do with Caesar’s Roman army, but the lead bullets that would have been in these guns in combat are directly descended from the ammunition that the Roman general used in his day.

Additional research will show many other parallels and differences between the life and technology of the Roman Empire, and the patterns of Victorian life celebrated on today’s Mackinac Island.

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