Books: “1493”

December 17, 2011


One of my chores at Paolino’s Market when I was a kid was to open up fifty-pound bags of potatoes and divide the spuds into ten- and five-pound bags. “Packing potatoes,” as we called it, was a frequent part of the routine in our store, and that was appropriate in its way, because what could be more routine than a potato — one of the most plain, most simple, and least consequential of vegetables.

Or so I thought until I read 1493 by Charles C. Mann, author of 1491.

In this substantial and exhaustively researched volume, Mann describes the impact of the voyages of Christopher Columbus, whom he calls Cristóbal Colón, the name the explorer answered to in Spain. Overall, Mann explains, the impact of those voyages was to globalize life on earth, sending folks traveling to hemispheres they had perhaps only dreamed about and distributing other forms of life, ranging from mosquitoes to horses, from tobacco plants to rubber trees, to spots where they had never existed before — a phenomenon known as the Columbian Exchange.  Simultaneously, languages and cultural traditions and man-made products were scattered across the planet. So were doleful phenomena such as malaria and potato blight.

The process that Columbus launched, and personally participated on his first trips across the Atlantic Ocean and back, is so complex and far-reaching, as Mann describes it, that I can’t adequately summarize it here. But the potato is a good example of the upheaval Columbus touched off.

Little did I know last June, when I was watching my cousins hoeing potatoes in their massive garden in Il Valle di Sessa Cilento, that potatoes, which were first domesticated in the Andes, weren’t exported to Europe in quantity until the second half of the 16th century, when some species of them were being cultivated in the Canary Islands and shipped off to the mainland.

Irish mother and her children during the potato famine in 1849

The consequences of this, Mann writes, were enormous for a continent that was accustomed to frequent food shortages. In fact:

“Many scholars believe that the introduction of S. tuberosum to Europe was a key moment in history. This is because their widespread consumption largely coincided with the end of famine in northern Europe. (Maize, another American crop, played a similar but smaller role in southern Europe.) More than that, the celebrated historian William H. McNeill has argued, S. tuberosum led to empire: ‘[P]otatoes, by feeding rapidly growing populations, permitted a handful of European nations to assert dominion over most of the world between 1750 and 1950.’ Hunger’s end helped create the political stability that allowed European nations to take advantage of American silver. The potato fueled the rise of the West.”

There is much, much more just to the potato story, including the fact that a blight that also originated in the Andes migrated first to North America and then to Europe in the mid 19th century, causing almost incomprehensible hunger and illness, especially but not solely in Ireland.

Mann discusses the potato itself and its geographical history in minute detail, and he does the same with a broad range of subjects including slavery, the mixing of races in the “new world,” and the impact of world economies — most notably that of China — of the Spanish trade of silver from South America. His discussions frequently extend down to the present day, and this book in general is a valuable aid in understanding how the world evolved from the 15th century to the 21st.



In a post last December, I mentioned in passing the widely held fiction that when Christopher Columbus set off on his first voyage, many if not most Europeans thought he would sail his ship off the edge of a flat earth and into oblivion. I was taught this in elementary school, and I have spoken to many people my age who remember being taught the same thing. More recently, I questioned my college students about this, and many of them said they had the same impression about Columbus.

The fact is that it was common knowledge among Columbus’ contemporaries in Europe that the world was round — a point that Nancy Marie Brown makes in her book, The Abacus and the Cross.

This book is not about Columbus; it’s about Gerbert of Aurillac, a French monk who lived in the 10th century. Gerbert had a thirst for knowledge and he became thoroughly schooled in the humanities and in the sciences.


His scholarship carried him to Spain, where he came in contact with a thriving Arab Muslim culture which had preserved enormous amounts of philosophical and scientific knowledge that had been lost to Europe. Gerbert seems to have had both the curiosity and the capacity of a Leonardo or Michelangelo, and he devoured as much learning as he could. He was engrossed in both mathematics and in music, for example, and in the relationship between the two disciplines. He scrutinized the properties of organ pipes, and he eventually designed a built a prototypical organ that was not driven by water — the common technique of his time — but by forced air.

He didn’t only strive to satisfy his own curiosity. He was an influential teacher whose students included royalty. In the process of carrying out this vocation he introduced Europe to the place system of arithmetic — vertical rows for the ones, tens, hundreds, and so forth — which was much more efficient than the clumsy Roman system and which the western world has been using ever since. In this connection, he also carried back from Spain numerals that had originated in India and that had been adapted by the Muslims — the forerunners of the so-called Arabic numbers we use today. As the title of the book suggests, he learned in Spain to use an abacus board to calculate, and he later designed his own versions and taught others how to use them.


Also among Gerbert’s interests was astronomy. He learned all about astrolabes, overlaid disks that were used to trace the positions of the sun and the moon and the stars and the planets — and tell time — and about celestial globes, which were three dimensional representations of the apparent paths of the heavenly bodies. He made his own models of these instruments, too, sometimes taking as much as a year to finish one.

As Brown points out, it is clear not only that Gerber, in the 10th century, knew that the world was round, but that Pythagoras determined that around 530 BC, and Erastosthenes figured out how to calculate the circumference of the globe by 240 BC. Some flat-earthers persisted, but by the time of Columbus the point was moot in western Europe. Columbus knew the world was round; his mistake was in underestimating the circumference.

Being a churchman in that era, and one who enjoyed consorting with powerful people, Gerbert inevitably got drawn into the constant political turmoil in Europe, and his fortunes rose and fell along with those of his patrons.

He almost ended on a high note when he was elected Pope Sylvester II in 999 AD.


Even that didn’t turn out so well, because he had to flee Rome for a while along with his patron of the moment, the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III. Sylvester died in 1003.

During his lifetime and for a long time after his death he was the subject of rumors that he consorted with the devil or engaged in sorcery. Ironically, this was because of his pursuit of knowledge in astronomy and mathematics, which in some ignorant minds were associated with the occult.


When I was a kid, I was led to believe by adults, who I assume meant well, that his contemporaries discouraged Christopher Columbus from undertaking his first voyage to “the Indies” on the grounds that he and his ships would drop off the edge of a flat earth. I didn’t imagine this. I have asked at least a dozen folks of my vintage — which grows increasingly rare, by the way — and they have recalled being told the same thing, even by teachers. I was well into middle age when I learned that the Europeans Columbus was likely to have encountered knew that the Earth was a sphere, and that the argument current at the time had to do with the planet’s size, not its shape. I now know that the idea of a spherical Earth, dates from the sixth century BC, although it wasn’t until much later that there was practical proof of what had been generally accepted as the fact. Columbus was one who helped to demonstrate it. The Admiral of the Ocean Sea, it turns out, wasn’t wrong about the globe; he was simply wrong about its dimensions.


It wasn’t until more recently — the past few weeks, in fact — that I learned the truth about the Roman emperor Nero, namely that he couldn’t have fiddled while Rome burned, because the violin didn’t appear in Europe until hundreds of years after his death. That came up in a new biography of Nero written by Stephen Dando-Collins, who also casts doubt on the widely accepted ideas that Nero ordered the burning of Rome in 64 AD and that he initiated the Roman persecution of Christians in order to deflect blame for the fire from himself. (The writer points out that there were so few Christians in Rome during Nero’s reign that it’s even likely that the emperor knew nothing about them.)

Nero was 16 years old when he succeeded his uncle Claudius, becoming the fifth Roman emperor and the last who shared a bloodline with Julius Caesar. Among his interests were singing and chariot racing, and he wasn’t content just to be a spectator of either. Dando-Collins explains that Nero repeatedly entered amateur singing contests, which were all the rage at the time, much to the enjoyment of the hoi polloi and much to the dismay of the Roman nobility.

Nero: The boy emperor

Besides sponsoring and reveling in races, he also took the reins at times, once narrowly missing death when he was thrown from the chariot. He first entered a singing competition in Neapolis, what is now Naples. On the occasion of the fire in Rome, he was in his  birthplace, Antium — present day Anzio — to participate in another contest. The fire evidently started in the food concessions under the stands of the Circus Maximus, which was the largest wooden structure of any kind and the largest sports arena ever built. The capacity was about 300,000 spectators.

Rumors that Nero was responsible for the fire and that he had ordered his agents to impede the firefighting — such as it was — began while the city was still in flames. The rumors were the results of a complex of jealousies and intrigues that were common to life in the corridors of Roman power. They were encouraged, ironically, by Nero’s seemingly efficient response to the fire, which some said he caused so he could remake the city in his own image. He did build an enormous new residence for himself, but he also rebuilt the devastated part of the city with broader streets and a better water supply and — of all things — building codes to prevent some of the shoddy construction that had contributed to the losses in the fire.


Nero did a great deal to assist those whose homes and belongings were wiped out in the fire, but he was no angel. He irritated powerful people with what they considered his coarse behavior — including his bi-sexual adventures — and with his choices for appointments, favoring freedmen to blue bloods. He led the kind of uneasy life that went with being emperor  of Rome, and his insecurities — some of them well founded — resulted in the suicides and executions of many a noble figure, not the least of whom were his mother, Agrippina the Younger, and his stepbrother. Dando-Collins describes in some detail the political dynamics and the bloody outcomes that both solidified Nero’s power and eventually led to his own downfall a few years after the fire, when he was only 30 years old.

Many of us, who have no reason to be students of ancient Roman history, carry around a cartoonish notion of Nero as a crazy tyrant. But while Dando-Collins doesn’t try to disguise the extreme measures the emperor would take to keep himself on the throne — and his head  on his shoulders — the writer does present Nero in context. He points out that contemporary accounts of Nero’s life were written in most cases by men who disliked him, that his manner of dealing with political enemies and criminals was not out of line with the practices of the time — in fact, was more lenient — and that he was remarkably patient with people who ridiculed him. The author also regards Nero as a “visionary” with respect to public works and points out that the empire was prosperous under his administration — at least until he started collecting and spending money to rebuild the ruined capital.

As much as we’d like to know the whole truth about people like Nero, they make history more interesting in their own way by flitting in and out of the shadows.

Nero agonizes over the death of his mother, whose constant interference caused the emperor to order her execution. Painting by John William Waterhouse