Nonfiction is the New Black
French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937) was a scholar of ancient Greece. With the sting of France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 in his mind, he believed that strong young men were better able to fight wars. He especially admired the English school system, in which academic learning and physical fitness worked side by side. His studies convinced him that this harmony of mind and body originated in the gymnasia of ancient Greece.
This harmony reached its highest level in the Olympics, which originated in the Greek village of Olympia in 776 BCE. They continued every four years until being suppressed in 393 CE as a pagan ritual. The Games began with a single event—a sprint of about 200 yards—and eventually encompassed a wide variety of sports. The Games were so prestigious among the Greeks that winners were set up for the rest of their lives.
To reintroduce this sporting ideal into the modern world, de Coubertin proposed reviving the Olympics. Olympia was too small and too remote to serve as the site, so de Coubertin and his associates chose Athens, the Greek capital and largest city, instead.
Two hundred forty one athletes from 14 nations descended on Athens in April 1896 to compete in nine sports: track and field, cycling, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, swimming, tennis, weightlifting, and wrestling. Only track and wrestling had been part of the ancient Olympics.
Another event not in the original Games was the marathon run. Organizers wanted a signature event to recall the glory of ancient Greece. In 490 BCE, a messenger supposedly ran from the plain of Marathon to Athens to announce a stunning victory over a much larger invading Persian army. So the route of the first-ever “marathon race” was about 22 miles, from the battlefield to the Olympic Stadium. The winner, Spiridon Loues, had done no formal training. His occupation of water carrier in the hills overlooking Athens gave him considerable stamina and he became an instant national hero. A prominent Greek industrialist reportedly offered his daughter in marriage. Loues was already engaged. He settled for a horse and cart for his business instead.
Today the Olympics are regarded as the premier sporting event in the world. In the 2012 Olympics in London, England, 10,768 athletes from 204 nations competed in 26 sports. Nearly 4,800 were women—something that never happened in the original Olympics. All the entrants then were men.
Jim Whiting has written a book on the ancient Greek writer Herodotus, who is known as the father of history. Herodotus provides most of what is known about one of the most important periods in world history. It began in 490 BCE. An invading Persian army was defeated at the Battle of Marathon. It concluded just over ten years later with Greek victories at Salamis and Plataea. The triumph allowed the Greeks to develop ideas and institutions in politics, economics, science, and even sports. These are the bases for how the Western world thinks and acts today. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Reviving the Olympics." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20
Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
The Renaissance began in Europe in the 15th century and marked the change from the medieval period to the modern world. Towering figures such as Michelangelo, Galileo, and especially Leonardo da Vinci were known as Renaissance men because of their talents and lasting achievements in several important areas of knowledge. They were also accomplished musicians, public speakers, athletes, poets, and so forth. And they were expected to do all this stuff without breaking a sweat.
You could give the same title to an ancient Egyptian named Imhotep, who lived about 2600 BCE. He was the vizier, the most important government official, during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser. He served as the high priest of the god Ra and was an expert astronomer.
Imhotep designed and oversaw the building of the first major pyramid in Egypt. Located at Saqqara, at the time it was the world’s tallest structure. He innovated the use of stones rather than mud bricks to build it, and it was that added strength that enabled the pyramid to rise so high. He is also credited with the invention of several devices that facilitated the construction.
Many people believe that Imhotep, rather than the Greek Hippocrates who lived more than 2,000 years later, is the real “Father of Medicine.” In an era when most physicians relied on magic spells and appeals to the gods, Imhotep prescribed dozens of effective down-to-earth treatments for illnesses and injuries.
He is credited with ending a seven-year famine in Egypt. He advised the pharaoh to make sacrifices to Khnum, the god of the annual flooding of the Nile River, and thereby provide desperately needed water to farmers. On a more practical level, he invented an improved irrigation system to carry water to the crops even if the river level was abnormally low.
In addition to these accomplishments, an inscription at the base of one of his statues notes that he was “Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief.” In his little spare time, he wrote poetry and dispensed philosophical advice.
Imhotep can also boast of two accomplishments that eluded even Leonardo da Vinci. He was deified after his death and worshipped for many centuries, an honor accorded to hardly anyone besides the pharaohs. And today the comic book community gives him the credit for founding S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel Comics espionage and crime-fighting agency that became the basis for blockbuster movies such as Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.
Jim Whiting has written a book on another great Egyptian leader -- Ramses the Great who lived about 1350 years after Imhotep. He fully lived up to the "Great" part of his name. His reign lasted for 67 years, the second longest in Egypt’s 3,000-year history. He had dozens of wives and more than 100 children, outliving many of them. He was a military leader who expanded the borders of his country. That resulted in decades of peace and prosperity for his people. He ordered huge statues of himself to be erected all over Egypt. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "A Renaissance Man - 4,000 Years before the Renaissance."
Nonfiction Minute`, iNK Think Tank, 8 Feb. 2018,
The onset of spring, summer, fall, and winter every year is precisely measured, depending on the sun’s position. But there’s no similar astronomical or scientific reason for celebrating New Years on January 1.
Many people don’t. The Chinese New Year occurs on the second new moon after the winter solstice, between late January and mid-February. Muslims mark the occasion on the first day of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar. That calendar is based on the lunar cycle, 11 or 12 days shorter than the solar calendar. So their New Year comes a little earlier every year. Rosh Hashanah, the start of the Jewish New Year, is a two-day observance that begins 163 days after Passover and varies between September 5 and October 5. Unlike other New Year’s celebrations, Rosh Hashanah is holy, a time for piety rather than parties.
There was just as much variation in ancient times. In Babylon, the first new moon after the vernal equinox marked the New Year. Egyptians celebrated it in early August, when the annual Nile River flooding began. In Greece, Athens and Sparta couldn’t get along, so their respective new years didn’t occur at the same time. In Athens, it was the first new moon after the summer solstice, while the Spartans waited until early fall.
So how did January 1 become the most widely accepted start of the New Year? The answer: Julius Caesar. For centuries, the Roman calendar was in a state of chaos, with the number of days in the year fluctuating widely. In 46 BCE, Caesar worked with the brightest Egyptian astronomers to retool the calendar. He wanted the year to begin on the first of January, a month named after the god Janus. Janus had two faces: one looking backward (at the year just ending) and the other facing forward. For the Romans, it was party time!
Caesar didn’t stick around very long after his innovation. On the Ides of March—March 15, 44 BCE—he went to the Roman Senate as usual. While one senator distracted him, others swarmed around him with knives they’d hidden inside their togas, hacking and gashing. He collapsed and died.
His calendar proved more durable. When Roman legions conquered new territories, the natives had to adopt the Roman calendar. Every day, especially at the start of the new year, it was a reminder of Roman power.
You've been hearing from Jim Whiting almost weekly, so we thought you might want to know more about him. He's an interesting fellow:
Children's book author. Acclaimed multi-genre freelance editor. Entertaining and informative classroom visitor. Middle school running coach. Award-winning magazine publisher. Workshop presenter. Sportswriter. Light versifier. E-commerce and e-book writer. Teacher. Runner. World traveler. Sailor. Scuba diver. Photographer. Actor. Patron of the arts. Hometown Hero. And of course Voracious Reader.
For more about Jim, read his biography and background.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Happy New Year--in August?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 2 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/Happy-New-Year-in-August.
When the Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV came to power in 175 BCE after his brother was assassinated, he insisted on being called Antiochus Epiphanes (“Antiochus the Visible God”). To the Jews who had the misfortune to be among his subjects, he was Antiochus Epimanes (“Antiochus the lunatic”).
No matter his name, he was definitely bad news to the Jews. Because of his Greek background, Antiochus believed in many gods. The Jews, on the other hand, were monotheistic. Antiochus soon began imposing his beliefs on the Jews and making it much more difficult for them to practice their religion. For example, anyone caught circumcising their newborn children would be put to death.
In 168 he sacked Jerusalem. His forces cut down thousands of defenseless Jews of all ages, looted and desecrated the Second Temple, and erected a massive statue of the chief Greek god Zeus (using himself as a model for the sculptor who created the statue). Soon the altar ran red with the blood of swine that were slaughtered as sacrifices. For good measure, Antiochus also outlawed the Hebrew religion.
The outraged Jews fought back. An elderly priest named Mattathias and some of his men killed a group of Seleucid soldiers. That ignited a revolt against Antiochus’s rule. When Mattathias died, his son Judah assumed the leadership role. Judah soon acquired the surname of Maccabee (“the hammer”) for his skill in battle. After a series of successful guerrilla operations, he led his vastly outnumbered forces to two decisive victories that resulted in the recapture of Jerusalem in 165.
The first order of business was cleansing the temple so it could be rededicated. The ceremony began on the 25th day of the Hebrew month of Kislev. According to legend, the small amount of purified oil that was readily available for the rites was expected to burn just a single night. Instead it burned for eight nights, when a new supply became available. That miracle gave rise to the ceremony of lighting one candle for each of the eight nights of Hanukkah, which means “dedication.”
Because the Hebrew calendar is lunar-based, the dates of Hanukkah change each year. This year Hanukkah begins [December 12] at sunset and lasts until sunset on December .
To the Jewish families who celebrate the holiday, Happy Hanukkah!
The holidays are approaching and millions of people will be listening to Handel’s Messiah. Read all about the composer in Jim Whiting’s Masters of Music biography.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "The Story of Hanukkah." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 11 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-story-of-hanukkah.
When Julius Caesar took control of the Roman government, he decided to reform the calendar. Because it was a lunar calendar—based on complete cycles of the moon—it had fluctuated widely for centuries. Some years had as few as 355 days while others nudged 380, often seemingly by whim. After lengthy consultations with the Egyptian astronomer Sosigenes, Caesar established a calendar that is virtually the same one we use today. The lengths of the months alternated between 30 and 31 days, except February which had 29. The new calendar came into effect on January 1, 45 BCE (Before the Common Era). A grateful Roman Senate immediately changed the name of the month of Quintilis—Julius Caesar’s birth month—to July in his honor. As is the case today, it had 31 days. Caesar had only one year to enjoy “his” month, as he was assassinated the following March.
His successor was his grand-nephew Octavian, who took the name of Augustus Caesar when he officially became the first Roman emperor. In 8 BCE the Senate decided that he also deserved a month. Because several noteworthy events during Augustus’s reign had occurred in Sextilis, the month following July, they chose it. Big problem. Sextillis had only 30 days. No way would the Senate allow Augustus to be “inferior” to his great-uncle in any way. So it took a day from February and tacked it on at the end of August. That created another problem. Three consecutive months—July, August, and September—were now 31 days long. The fix was simple: the Senate simply flipped the lengths of the remaining four months. September and November went from 31 days to 30, while October and December bulked up to 31.
The Senate wasn’t finished with its tinkering. Nearly 70 years later, it honored the notorious emperor Nero by changing Aprilis to Neronius. The new name never gained traction. Nero. who had murdered his brother, mother, and wife, committed suicide in 68 CE (Common Era). The Senate—undoubtedly relieved at his demise—hastily returned Neronius to its original name.
Here is Jim's biography of Julius Caesar, who became a very successful military commander who added more than 200,000 square miles to the territories under Rome’s control. But his triumphs created powerful enemies in Rome. Eventually he was assassinated in the Roman Senate.
MLA 8 CItation
Whiting, Jim. "July, August and Neronius." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 14 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/july-august-and-neronius.
By Sarah Albee
Celebrating the History of Science and the Science behind History
Do you like ketchup? Maybe relish is your favorite condiment. Well, people in the ancient world had a favorite condiment, too. It was called garum. The ancient Greeks couldn’t get enough of it. Later, the Byzantines loved it, too. But garum was most popular during ancient Roman times. (The Roman Empire lasted from 27 BC to AD 476, so they must have gobbled down a lot of garum.)
The problem with garum was that making it could be an extremely stinky process. Garum makers were told to move their factories to the outskirts of the city, although probably no one enforced this.
The Romans dumped garum onto practically everything they ate. Should you be curious to try garum yourself, I’ve written out the recipe for you. You’re welcome.
Garum is actually quite nutritious—full of amino acids, proteins, and vitamin D from all that time in the sun. And the rotten sludge left at the bottom is also highly nutritious, so you can save that for another use. Try spreading it on toast!
(c) Sarah Albee, 2014
A Roman banquet
Sarah Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions and Murderous Medicines. You can read a review that gives you a dose of what's in this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Something's Rotten in Rome." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/somethings-rotten-in-rome.
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