Pax Romana, Caligula: Fiend, Monster, or Baddie?

Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, København's photo: A marble bust of Caligula (right) with traces of original paint and a plaster replica (left) approximating the polychrome traditions of ancient sculpture.
Caligula: marble bust (right), plaster reproduction (right), with original colors approximated.

Caligula is currently famous, or infamous, for being a stark-raving-mad monster with no redeeming qualities. Although scholars have been acknowledging that we don’t actually know much about him.

I’m not about to try rehabilitating Caligula’s image. But I’ve got suspicions about what the third Roman emperor was really like. I’ll get back to that.

But first, I’ll take a brisk slog through some of what Tacitus and Suetonius had to say about Caligula; followed by a bit about statues, art and post-Renaissance preferences.

And finally, what folks like Caligula and Nero were doing in the Pax Romana.

That’s the idea, at any rate.


Caligula: Little Boots and Rumors

Unknown photographer's photo: Part of the Ara Pacis, showing members of the Imperial household. Germanicus is the toddler (left) holding Antonia Minor's hand. (photo probably taken 20th century) uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by MM, used w/o permission.
Family portrait on the Ara Pacis. Germanicus is the toddler holding holding Antonia Minor’s hand.

Roman naming conventions were far from simple. But that’s not why we’ve been calling Rome’s third emperor “Caligula”, instead of Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

Young Gaius et cetera was named, partly, after Gaius Julius Caesar.

Gaius/Caligula spent part of his childhood at the front lines, in northern Germania, with his mother and father, Agrippina the Elder and Germanicus.

Bear with me, this connects to his “Caligula” nickname; and, I think, says something about his family of origin.

His mother had Caligula wear a scaled-down version of a “common soldier’s uniform”, and encouraged the troops to call him Cæsar Caligula. “Caligula” means “little boot”. Caligae were general-issue hobnail sandal-boots for Roman soldiers.

An unknown artist's bust of Germanicus (ca. 14-19 A.D.) Found at Béziers, currently at Musée Saint-Raymond via Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.Germanicus — that’s a portrait bust of him, from what’s now southern France — must have had a praenomen, what I’d call his first name. But we don’t know what it was.

Germanicus was his second cognomen, or agnomen, or nickname — again, Roman names were complicated.

He became part of the Gens Julia when Tiberius adopted him.

Finally, getting back to Caligula.

Whether or not Agrippina and young Caligula being at the front lines was good news depends on who’s talking.

“…Meanwhile a rumour had spread that our army was cut off, and that a furious German host was marching on Gaul. And had not Agrippina prevented the bridge over the Rhine from being destroyed, some in their cowardice would have dared that base act. A woman of heroic spirit, she assumed during those days the duties of a general, and distributed clothes or medicine among the soldiers, as they were destitute or wounded. According to Caius Plinius, the historian of the German wars, she stood at the extremity of the bridge, and bestowed praise and thanks on the returning legions. This made a deep impression on the mind of Tiberius. ‘Such zeal,’ he thought, ‘could not be guileless; it was not against a foreign foe that she was thus courting the soldiers. Generals had nothing left them when a woman went among the companies, attended the standards, ventured on bribery, as though it showed but slight ambition to parade her son [Caligula] in a common soldier’s uniform, and wish him to be called Cæsar Caligula. Agrippina had now more power with the armies than officers, than generals. A woman had quelled a mutiny which the sovereign’s name could not check.’ All this was inflamed and aggravated by Sejanus, who, with his thorough comprehension of the character of Tiberius, sowed for a distant future hatreds which the emperor might treasure up and might exhibit when fully matured….”
(“The Annals”, Tacitus Book 1, 69 (68 A.D.) translation based on Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (1876) via Wikisource) [emphasis mine]

A few years later Germanicus got sick and died. He was only 33 years old, and involved in the usual Roman politics, including trouble with someone named Piso. Which may have sparked rumors starring Piso as a poisoner.

Rome’s emperor at the time was Tiberius, who died a bit shy of two decades later. Probably from natural causes.

But Suetonius, writing nearly a century later, said that “some think” Caligula offed Tiberius with poison, starvation, or suffocation.

“…Some think that Gaius [Caligula] gave him a slow and wasting poison; others that during convalescence from an attack of fever food was refused him when he asked for it. Some say that a pillow was thrown upon his face, when he came to and asked for a ring which had been taken from him during a fainting fit. Seneca writes that conscious of his approaching end, he took off the ring, as if to give it to someone, but held fast to it for a time; then he put it back on his finger, and clenching his left hand, lay for a long time motionless; suddenly he called for his attendants, and on receiving no response, got up; but his strength failed him and he fell dead near the couch….”
(“Lives of the Twelve Caesars”, Tiberius, 73; Suetonius, (Written during or after 120 A.D.))

At any rate, Caligula became Rome’s third emperor. And survived for not quite another four years.1


Ancient Sculptures: In Living Color

Anna-Marie Kellen/Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York's photo: galleries in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, with familiar all-white ancient statuary and pieces reconstructed with close approximations to their original colors. (early 21st century)
Familiar ancient ‘cleaned’ statuary and accurate reconstructions. (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)

Up until a few years ago, ancient Greek and Roman statues displayed in museums were very, very white. Literally white: not the pinkish-beige skin tone some northwestern Europeans get after a long winter.

That’s not how they looked, back in the day. And, recently, some museums have started looking at ancient sculptures before putting them on display: instead of scrubbing them.

And we’re getting a more colorful look at familiar historical figures.

Analysis of a Caligula Bust

The Fitzwilliam Museum's photo: '...small, corroded bronze head has been identified as a rare surviving image of Caligula, one of only a few that escaped destruction or re-cutting after the hated Emperor’s assassination in 41 BCE....'We knew what Caligula looked like, thanks to a few of his statues and busts getting missed during the post-assassination purge.

Granted, we’re looking at official portraiture: so these bits and pieces had been metaphorically airbrushed.

But surviving Caligula sculptures each look like the same individual: what the J. Paul Getty Museum, describes as “…a young man with a high forehead, small mouth, and thin lips….”

Suetonius, who emphatically hadn’t been a Caligula fan, gave us a much juicier description:

“…He was very tall and extremely pale, with an unshapely body, but very thin neck and legs. His eyes and temples were hollow, his forehead broad and grim, his hair thin and entirely gone on the top of his head, though his body was hairy. Because of this to look upon him from a higher place as he passed by, or for any reason whatever to mention a goat, was treated as a capital offence. While his face was naturally forbidding and ugly, he purposely made it even more savage, practising all kinds of terrible and fearsome expressions before a mirror….”
(“The Lives of the Twelve Caesars”, “The Life of Caligula“, 50, C. Suetonius Tranquillus (ca. 121 A.D.) Maximilian Ihm in the Teubner edition of 1907, Loeb Classical Library (1913-1914) via Greek and Roman Authors on LacusCurtius, University of Chicago)

Since many of the few surviving Caligula sculptures had been scrubbed clean, guessing how pale or tan, blond or otherwise, Rome’s third emperor had been — was guesswork.

Happily, some ancient sculptures hadn’t been thoroughly cleaned. Like the one I put at the start of this week’s post. (From the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, København / New Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen.)

Folks at the Copenhagen museum worked out their Caligula bust’s original colors through visual examination, what they called technical imaging, and very careful sampling.

A resource I ran across asserted that Caligula had blue eyes. At the time I’d dismissed it as just another alternatively-accurate opinion piece. And partly because by the time I realized citing it might be interesting, I’d forgotten the URL and couldn’t re-locate it.

Maybe the author glanced at a report of the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek work. And gotten the wrong idea about “…a strong luminescence of Egyptian blue in the right eye….”

There had been blue particles in the eye pigments: as well as in the hair and face. But they were part of complex pigment mixes.

So I figure the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek folks got it right. Their Caligula bust had originally had brown hair and eyes and a medium-tan complexion. And so, very likely, had Caligula.2

Scrubbing Statues, Chromophobia, Beeldenstorm

Iconoclastic incident at the Cathedral of Our Lady, Antwerp; August 21, 1566. From 'Histoire de la guerre des Païs-Bas....' (1727)The good news is that the metaphorical cat is out of the bag.

Many scholars acknowledge that ancient Greece and Rome hadn’t been decorated with blank white sculptures.

The frustrating angle, for me, is that contemporary ethnic politics has been coloring some of the literature. My opinion.

But again, good news: we’re finally past the post-Renaissance obsession with whitewashing color out of European culture.

Leonardo da Vinci apparently helped scrub our perceptions of ancient sculpture.

Partly, maybe, because paint on ancient statues had mostly weathered away by the time he saw them. But Leonardo’s motives very likely also involved commercial concerns, and that’s another topic.

Like pretty much everything involving humans, it’s complicated.

Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768) apparently deserves credit our tidily scrubbed ancient statuary. He also got the ball rolling on sorting out Greek, Greco-Roman and Roman art.

His motives for promoting the purely pristine were — pure.

“…Some of the pigment was scrubbed off by restorers whose acts, while well intentioned, were tantamount to vandalism. In the 18th century, the pioneering archaeologist and art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann chose to view the bare stone figures as pure—if you will, Platonic—forms, all the loftier for their austerity. ‘The whiter the body is, the more beautiful it is as well,’ he wrote. ‘Color contributes to beauty, but it is not beauty. Color should have a minor part in the consideration of beauty, because it is not [color] but structure that constitutes its essence.’ Against growing evidence to the contrary, Winckelmann’s view prevailed. For centuries to come, antiquarians who envisioned the statues in color were dismissed as eccentrics, and such challenges as they mounted went ignored….”
(“True Colors“, Matthew Gurewitsch, Smithsonian Magazine (July 2008))

Again, anything involving humans gets complicated: fast.

But I’ve suspected that there’s a link between so much color draining out of northern European visual culture and religious spasms like Beeldenstorm. I see it as part of a mess that’s been boiling over since around the 1500s,

And, while researching this week, I learned that I’m not the only one who’s noticed how bland my branch of civilization had become:

Chromophobia
David Batchelor (2000) via Google Books

“The central argument of Chromophobia is that a chromophobic impulse — a fear of corruption or contamination through color — lurks within much Western cultural and intellectual thought. This is apparent in the many and varied attempts to purge color, either by making it the property of some ‘foreign body’ — the oriental, the feminine, the infantile, the vulgar, or the pathological — or by relegating it to the realm of the superficial, the supplementary, the inessential, or the cosmetic.
“Chromophobia has been a cultural phenomenon since ancient Greek times; this book is concerned with forms of resistance to it….”

I haven’t read Batchelor’s book, but I’m guessing that “since ancient Greek times” refers at least partly to old-school gnosticism.3 And that’s yet another topic.


Tiberius Gracchus and Caligula: Enemies of the Status Quo

Jan Luyken's 'Emperor Caligula Attacked in a Vault by an Armed Gang'. (1704)
Caligula’s assassination, as imagined by Jan Luyken.

These days, when U.S. senators or representatives feel like they’ve had enough of a president, they form committees, have press conferences, and make speeches.

The Roman Republic had a very similar system, but an arguably more energetic one.

Take Tiberius Gracchus, for example. He was a clear and present threat to what in my youth would have been called “national security”. T. G. had been transferring ownership of land from the Roman state and wealthy Romans to the folks who were working the land.

I’m oversimplifying everything in this post something fearful, by the way.

Anyway, Tiberius Gracchus had reasons for doing what he did.

And Scipio Nasica had reasons for doing what he did: forming a posse/mob/strike force and killing Tiberius Gracchus.

So Cassius Chaerea, I’m back to Caligula’s assassination now, was following a well-established tradition in 41 A.D., when he and other members of the Praetorian Guard killed Caligula.

And you thought American politics was bad, which is yet again another topic. Almost.

Details of Caligula’s assassination/execution/whatever vary with who’s retelling the tale.

And we’ve got pretty much no documentation of what Caligula actually did during his stint as emperor. Documentation that’s not hearsay, written years, decades, or about a century after the fact, that is.4

I gather that Caligula had been a ‘threat to national security’ partly because he spent money on large-scale construction projects.

Julius Caesar, Caligula and Nero: a Possible Pattern

Chris 73's photo: the Aqua Claudia (ca. 2009) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
The Aqua Claudia aqueduct, one of Caligula’s construction projects.

That may be why Romans who weren’t wealthy and aristocratic liked him, at least early on.

Those big construction projects employed a great many workers. I see that as a good thing, partly because the ancient Roman economy wasn’t all that much unlike ours.

Folks working on construction projects got paid. And, with pay coming from their employment, those non-upper-crust Romans were less dependent on their betters.

In a way, it’s a wonder Caligula lasted as long as he did.

Maybe he really did go crazy after a few years in office.

Or maybe the overwhelming anti-Caligula sentiment was the result of effective public relations campaigns, bankrolled by Roman bigwigs who were inspired by patriotism, self-interest, or some combination of motives.

On the other hand, maybe Rome’s blue-collar set figured that the powers that be were exercising their traditional rights. And that they might go after suspected Caligula sympathizers next.

I could be wrong about this, but I see a pattern in the leadership and deaths of Julius Caesar, Caligula and Nero.

In each case, we’re looking at someone we could call a populist. And who, once in office, acted as if non-upper-crust folks mattered.

Again in each case, Rome’s top official actively changed rules and policies that had defended the rich and powerful from the poor and weak.

Julius Caesar, Caligula and Nero each died violently.

Nero’s death was, we’re told, a suicide.

It’s a plausible explanation for his abrupt death in 68 A.D. — the Roman Senate had declared him a public enemy. But historical records describing Nero’s death and term as emperor were written after his day. And many were, at best, imaginatively lurid.5

Good Intentions: Julius Caesar and Caligula

Jean-Léon Gérôme's 'The Death of Caesar', in the Theatre of Pompey, as imagined by Jean-Léon Gérôme. (ca. 1859-1867) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.The Roman patriots who killed Julius Caesar very likely thought they had saved the Roman Republic from a would-be king.

And they succeeded, sort of.

After Julius Caesar, a triumvirate ruled the Roman Republic. Then the Second Triumvirate split the Republic’s administrative functions, and territory, three ways.

That more or less directly led to what I still think should be called the Last War of the Roman Republic. But nowadays, I gather we’re supposed to call it the War of Actium. Sounds nicer, I suppose.

Nero’s death, assuming it was an assassination/execution, might have had similarly noble motives: or not.

Caligula’s death, again, is thoroughly but not reliably documented.

It could have been payback for Caligula’s alleged insults aimed at the chief assassin.

But Caligula had pretty much ignored the Principate, which made the emperor “first amongst the senators” / “first amongst the citizens”: on paper.

In practical terms, under the Principate the emperor was number one and everyone else a distant second. But the Senate could still pretend they were running things.

Ignoring the Principate may have been the last straw for Senators who had been getting increasingly anxious about their status and personal finances. Or who earnestly sought a return to the glorious Roman Republic.

Either way: Caligula died, Claudius became the next Emperor, and after that came Nero.6


Pax Romana: A Durable Dream

Joseph Turner's 'Caligula's Palace and Bridge' (1831) via Wikimedia Commons, in public domain except in Tate Britain, this low-rez copy used w/o permission.
‘Caligula’s Palace and Bridge’, as imagined by Joseph Turner. (1831)

Eduardo Barrón's sculpture: 'Nero and Seneca' from Eduardo Barrón/Museo de Zamora (E.Barrón: 1858-1911) via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.And that brings me to the Pax Romana, Caligula and Nero.

I still haven’t learned when Seneca the Younger’s “Romanae pacis” became “Pax Romana”, or “Roman Peace”.

Seneca’s phrase came from a ‘how to be an emperor’ book he wrote for Nero. I talked about that, Augustus, the Principate, and the Senate last year. (October 29, 2022)

I might write off “Pax Romana” as first-century political propaganda.

But I won’t, partly because Philo wrote that a great many folks in the Roman Empire saw the first part of Caligula’s term in office as a golden age. Or, more literally, “age of Saturn”.

Philo was a Hellenistic Jewish philosopher who was and still is controversial.7 But I don’t see him as a Palatine Hill insider, or political wannabe flattering whoever’s in charge.

It’s late Friday afternoon, so I don’t have time to summarize the Philo files.

Instead, I’ll quote from his “On the Embassy to Gaius”, which may have been written within months of Caligula’s murder/assassination/death. Philo, by the way, refers to Caligula by the emperor’s name, Gaius.

This edited-down excerpt — ancient authors seemed chatty, even by my standards — at least hints at what went wrong with Caligula.

“…For who-when he saw Gaius [Caligula], after the death of Tiberius Caesar, assuming the sovereignty of the whole world in a condition free from all sedition, and regulated by and obedient to admirable laws, and adapted to unanimity and harmony in all its parts, east and west, south and north; the barbarian nations being in harmony with the Greeks, and the Greeks with the barbarians, and the soldiers with the body of private citizens, and the citizens with the military; so that they all partook of and enjoyed one common universal peace-could fail to marvel at and be amazed at his extraordinary and unspeakable good fortune, since he had thus succeeded to a ready-made inheritance of all good things, … For as they had never yet all together admired any emperor who had ever existed at that time, not expecting to have in future the possession, and use, and enjoyment of all private and public good things, but thinking that they actually had them already as a sort of superfluity of prosperity which happiness was waiting to fill to the brim: … On this occasion the rich were not better off than the poor, nor the men of high rank than the lowly, nor the creditors than the debtors, nor the masters than the slaves, since the occasion gave equal privileges and communities to all men, so that the age of Saturn, which is so celebrated by the poets was no longer looked upon as a fiction and a fable, {2}{the golden age was said to have existed during the reign of Saturn upon earth. So Tibullus and Virgil.} on account of the universal prosperity and happiness which reigned every where, and the absence of all grief and fear, and the daily and nightly exhibitions of joy and festivity throughout every house and throughout the whole people, which lasted continually without any interruption during the first seven months of his reign. But in the eighth month a severe disease attacked Gaius who had changed the manner of his living which was a little while before, while Tiberius was alive, very simple and on that account more wholesome than one of great sumptuousness and luxury; for he began to indulge in abundance of strong wine and eating of rich dishes, and in the abundant license of insatiable desires and great insolence, and in the unseasonable use of hot baths, and emetics, and then again in winebibbing and drunkenness, and returning gluttony, and in lust after boys and women, and in everything else which tends to destroy both soul and body, and all the bonds which unite and strengthen the two; for the rewards of temperance are health and strength, and the wages of intemperance are weakness and disease which bring a man near to death.
“Accordingly, when the news was spread abroad that he was sick while the weather was still suitable for navigation (for it was the beginning of the autumn, which is the last season during which nautical men can safely take voyages, and during which in consequence they all return from the foreign marts in every quarter to their own native ports and harbours of refuge, especially all who exercise a prudent care not to be compelled to pass the winter in a foreign country); they, forsaking their former life of delicateness and luxury, now wore mournful faces, and every house and every city became full of depression and melancholy, their grief being now equal to and counterbalancing the joy which they experienced a short time before. For every portion of the habitable world was diseased in his sickness, feeling affected with a more terrible disease than that which was oppressing Gaius; for his sickness was that of the body alone, but the universal malady which was oppressing all men every where was one which attacked the vigour of their souls, their peace, their hopes, their participation in and enjoyment of all good things; for men began to remember how numerous and how great are the evils which spring from anarchy, famine, and war, and the destruction of trees, and devastations, and deprivation of lands, and plundering of money, and the intolerable fear of slavery and death, which no one can relieve, all which evils appeared to admit of but one remedy, namely the recovery of Gaius. Accordingly when his disease began to abate, in a very short time even the men who were living on the very confines of the empire heard of it and rejoiced, for nothing is swifter than report….”
(“On the Embassy to Gaius“, II, III; Philo (maybe as early as 41 A.D.) translated by Charles Duke Yonge)

I don’t think that life in the Roman Empire was quite as blissfully ideal as Philo outlines.

But what I do know about the era — comparatively uniform laws, well-trafficked and patrolled roads, a degree of prosperity among non-aristocrats that apparently inspired near-panic in the upper crust — strongly suggests that living inside the Roman Empire was a great deal better than alternatives.

Whoosh. That was a long sentence. Moving along.

“…The Rivalries Between Leading Men and the Rapacity of the Officials….”

Henryk Siemiradzki's 'Nero's Torches.' (1876) From Henryk Siemiradzki, via The National Museum in Kraków Digital Collection and Wikipedia, used w/o permission.Even Tacitus, who was apparently no fan of either Caligula or Augustus, shows why folks might reasonably prefer life in Imperial Rome to the Republic’s “violence, intrigue, and … corruption.”

“…Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets of repose, and so grew greater by degrees, while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the laws. He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandised by revolution, they preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past. Nor did the provinces dislike that condition of affairs, for they distrusted the government of the Senate and the people, because of the rivalries between the leading men and the rapacity of the officials, while the protection of the laws was unavailing, as they were continually deranged by violence, intrigue, and finally by corruption.…”
(“The Annals”, Book 1 (2); Tacitus (68 A.D.) translation based on Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (1876)) [emphasis mine]

A Slogan, Stories and Hope

Cesare Maccari's 'Cicerone denuncia Catilina' 'Cicero Denounces Catiline.' (1889)
Cesare Maccari’s “Cicero Denounces Catiline” — a 19th century view of Roman grandeur. (1889)

If Romanae pacis/Pax Romana had been a first-century slogan, like America’s “chicken in every pot” and “better dead than red” — or the other way around, depending on viewpoint — I might not be spending so much time with the phrase.

But academics are, the last I checked, still debating when the Pax Romana began and ended. My preference is from Augustus to the death of Marcus Aurelius. Commodus — that’s a can of worms I’ll leave for another time.

Thomas Cole's 'The Consummation of Empire.' (1836) From Thomas Cole's Thomas Cole's 'The Course of Empire' series, via New York Historical Society and Wikimedia Commons, used w/o permission.And Pax Romana, either as a slogan or as an idea, has been a top-drawer cultural item, ever since the Roman Empire transitioned from current events to nostalgic memory.

Starting at least with Charlemagne, European warlords with regional ambitions claimed that they were restoring Roman imperial values and stability.

I strongly suspect that invoking memories of the Roman Empire worked because a fair number of folks had grown up with stories of Imperial days.

And that many hoped for a day when — as in days of old — commerce flowed along the Roman roads, Roman law brought a measure of security, and the aqueducts worked.8

Aristocratic Angst and Provincial Appeal

Thomas Cole's 'Aqueduct Near Rome.' (1832) fFrom Middlebury College Museum of Art, via Wikipedia, used w/o permission.
Thomas Cole’s ‘Aqueduct Near Rome.’ (1832)

Then there were Roman-era ruins, structures which even after centuries of neglect dwarfed anything built more recently.

Those might inspire hopes that Roman peace, prosperity and technology could be restored. Or at least serve as a symbol for what the current champion of Roman values promised.

Even stories about dubiously-sane emperors like Caligula and Nero haven’t out-shone memories of the Pax Romana. Or would that be out-shouted? Never mind.

I don’t think Caligula, Nero or even Augustus were paragons of virtue.

But I’m not at all convinced that Caligula and Nero were quite as monstrous as my culture’s folklore makes them.

And I suspect that surviving records say at least as much about the fears of old-school aristocrats, as they do about the allegedly-deranged duo.

Looks like I’m not the only one:

“…In many respects, the complaints of Roman sources against the Julio-Claudians ring hollow. Effective administrators such as Tiberius and Claudius appear to have been disliked primarily because they made the aristocracy pay its fair share of taxes and because they treated the lower orders of Roman society with greater equity. Even the least effective emperors, Caligula and Nero, were wildly popular with the Roman people and the provincials. This suggests that the Roman aristocracy alone suffered as a direct result of its close proximity to the seat of power. The further removed one was from the power struggles of the imperial dynasty, the better life became. This development stands in the inverse proportion to that of the Late Republic. One could even argue that the Roman aristocracy was merely receiving its just dessert after years of abuse and the misuse of power.…”
(Classics 280: Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic World, Classical World Civilizations, Chapter 18: The Pax Romana: Life in the Roman Empire; Chris Rowan, maintained by Nick Rauh) [emphasis mine]

And now I’ve run out of time this week. My next Golden Ages post will still be about the Pax Romana, but from another angle. That’s giving a lot of attention to one era. But I think those two centuries of comparative good times are worth it.

In case you haven’t had enough of my writing, here’s the usual more-or-less-related stuff:


1 Folks from first century Rome:

2 Art and color:

3 More color and culture:

4 Caligula in context:

5 Remembering Rome:

6 Rome, becoming an Empire:

7 First century Rome, viewpoints:

8 Rome, reviewed and remembered:

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Stars, Galaxies, XBONGs and Me

JWST's image; processing by J.Higdon, C.Struck, P.Appleton, K.Borne, R.Lucas; NASA's text: 'In yesterday's episode our hero, the Cartwheel galaxy, had survived a chance cosmic collision with a small intruder galaxy - triggering an expanding ring of star formation. Hot on the intruder's trail, a team of multiwavelength sleuths have compiled evidence tracking the reckless galaxy fleeing the scene. Presented for your consideration: a composite showing a visual image of the Cartwheel galaxy (at left) and smaller galaxies of the Cartwheel group, superposed with high resolution radio observations of neutral hydrogen (traced by the green contours). The neutral hydrogen trail suggestively leads to the culprit galaxy at the far right, presently about 250,000 light years distant from the Cartwheel!'
“The Trail of the Intruder”; J. Higdon, C. Struck, P. Appleton, K. Borne, R. Lucas (1997)

As I write this, scientists have not made contact with an extraterrestrial civilization, cured the common cold, or developed a process for using pocket lint as a pollution-free sustainable energy resource.

So I’ll be looking at galaxies, black holes, and a place where stars are forming. Scientists figure that last item will help them work out how the earliest stars formed.

But first, NASA’s APOD (Astronomy Picture of the Day), almost five years back. Make that pictures: of the Cartwheel Galaxy Region and HST WFPC2.

(HST WFPC2? I talked about star names and designations in “A Star by Any Other Name, and a Galilean Interlude” (November 13, 2021))

Getting back to the Cartwheel Galaxy and NASA’s APOD; I think the authors and editors, Robert Nemiroff (MTU) and Jerry Bonnell (USRA), were having fun with the text.

The Trail of the Intruder
J. Higdon (NRAO), C. Struck, P.Appleton (ISU), K. Borne (Hughes STX), R. Lucas (STScI), NASA (February 24, 1997)

“In yesterday’s episode our hero, the Cartwheel galaxy, had survived a chance cosmic collision with a small intruder galaxy – triggering an expanding ring of star formation. Hot on the intruder’s trail, a team of multiwavelength sleuths have compiled evidence tracking the reckless galaxy fleeing the scene. … a composite showing a visual image of the Cartwheel galaxy (at left) and smaller galaxies of the Cartwheel group, superposed with high resolution radio observations of neutral hydrogen (traced by the green contours)….”

The next “episode” after “The Trail of the Intruder” was “Star Wars in NGC 664” — two supernovae in a galaxy some 300,000,000 light-years out, in the constellation Pisces.1

Now, a quick look around our cosmic neighborhood.

“Every Known Nearby Galaxy”, Appreciating a Cosmic Scale

NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope's image: the LEDA 48062 galaxy (the faint, sparse, amorphous galaxy on the right) in the constellation Perseus. The large, disk-like lenticular galaxy on the left is UGC 8603. Other, more distant galaxies litter the background.
LEDA 48062 and other galaxies in the Constellation Perseus. (ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Tully (2023))

The SNAP 15922 campaign has a catchier name: “Every Known Nearby Galaxy”.

Hubble Visits Galactic Neighbors
Claire Andreoli, Andrea Gianopoulos; European Space Agency (ESA) (last updated January 13, 2023) via NASA

“This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope features the galaxy LEDA 48062 in the constellation Perseus. LEDA 48062 is the faint, sparse, amorphous galaxy on the right side of the image, and it is accompanied by a more sharply defined neighbor on the left – the large, disk-like lenticular galaxy UGC 8603. A smattering of more distant galaxies litter the background while a handful of foreground stars shine brightly throughout the image.

Hubble recently spent some time studying our galactic neighbors….”

Andrew Z. Colvin's illustration: local group of galaxies. (2011) via Wikimedia CommonsThe “Every Known Nearby Galaxy” campaign is complete, so now we’ve mapped “our galactic neighbors”.

In this case, our neighborhood is every known galaxy within 10 megaparsecs: roughly 33,000,000 light-years.

Putting it another way, light from the most distant galaxies they’ve been studying has been heading our way since around the time Antarctica’s ice sheets began forming.

That’s way before 4004 B.C.; so maybe an explanation is in order, for why cosmic scales don’t bother me.

Even if it’s not, here goes —

It’s been some time, well over a year, since I’ve read “Christians believe”, followed by references to the Ussher Chronology,2 in some science-themed article.

Maybe word’s getting around that we’re not all trying desperately to deny what we’ve been learning about this universe. But it’s also been a while since I’ve explained why living in a vast and ancient creation doesn’t offend me.

Basically, I figure that God is large and in charge. Which is hardly a new idea.

“Terrible and awesome are you,
stronger than the ancient mountains.”
(Psalms 76:5)

“Yours are the heavens, yours the earth;
you founded the world and everything in it.”
(Psalms 89:12)

Getting upset because the “ancient mountains” are older than folks thought they were seems silly. Admiring what God’s been doing, on the other hand, makes sense.

Next, finding black holes by cross-indexing two catalogs.

Galaxies, XBONGs and Comparing Catalogs

NASA/CXC/SAO/D. Kim et al.'s images: 'A survey has revealed hundreds of previously unidentified black holes using data from the Chandra Source Catalog and the Sloan Digitized Sky Survey (SDSS). Researchers compared the X-ray and optical data for a class of objects known as “XBONGs” (X-ray bright, optically normal galaxies) to reveal about 400 supermassive black holes. These graphics show these XBONGs in X-rays from Chandra and optical light from SDSS.' Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/D. Kim et al.; Optical/IR: Legacy Surveys/D. Lang (Perimeter Institute)
LEDA 48062 and other galaxies in the Constellation Perseus. (ESA/Hubble & NASA, R. Tully (2023))

Astronomers Dig Out Buried Black Holes with NASA’s Chandra
Megan Watzke, Chandra X-ray Center, Cambridge, Massachusetts; Molly Porter, NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (last updated January 12, 2023)

“Hundreds of black holes previously hidden, or buried, have been found using NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. This result helps give astronomers a more accurate census of black holes in the universe.

“The black holes in this new study are the supermassive variety that contain millions or even billions of times the mass of the Sun. While astronomers think that almost all large galaxies harbor giant black holes in their centers, only some of the black holes will be actively pulling in material that produces radiation, and some will be buried underneath dust and gas….”

As far as I know, these scientists haven’t described comparing X-ray data from the Chandra Source Catalog (CSC) and optical data from the Catalog (CSC) and Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) as cross-indexing.

But my academic background includes library science — which isn’t actually a science the way physics is. And that’s another topic.

Anyway, between a little library science training and a lot of research done over the years, I think of what they’re doing as “cross indexing”.

For about four decades now, scientists have known about galaxies that don’t look like quasars (quasi-stellar objects) in visible light, but shine brightly in X-rays.

Since labeling things makes discussing them easier, they dubbed them “X-ray bright optically normal galaxies.” That’s an awkward mouthful, so they shortened it to XBONGs.

So far, they’ve found that about one out of every two XBONGs host previously-unknown supermassive black holes.

A supermassive black hole is an object with a mass 100,000 times that of our sun.

Black holes are what happens when oversize stars collapse, leaving a roughly-spherical region of space where stuff goes in but (almost) nothing gets out. Sort of like cosmic roach hotels, although I doubt that anyone’s going to use that phrase in a research paper.

I gather that black holes are in that class of phenomena where we have at least as many questions as we’ve got answers. So far.

That’s why finding 817 XBONG candidates is exciting.3 That’s 817 more weird and wonderful things that may give scientists enough data to answer some current questions.

And, likely enough, raise even more questions in the process.

NGC 346: Reliving the Cosmic Noon

(Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, O. Jones (UK ATC), G. De Marchi (ESTEC), and M. Meixner (USRA). Image processing: A. Pagan (STScI), N. Habel (USRA), L. Lenkic (USRA) and L. Chu (NASA/Ames))
NGC 346, a star-forming region in the Small Magellanic Cloud. (ESA/Hubble/CSA/ESTEC/…) (2023))

NASA’s Webb Uncovers Star Formation in Cluster’s Dusty Ribbons
Laura Betz, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; Christine Pulliam, Hannah Braun, Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Maryland (last updated January 12, 2023) via NASA

“Astronomers probed this region because the conditions and amount of metals within the SMC resemble those seen in galaxies billions of years ago, during an era in the universe known as ‘cosmic noon,’ when star formation was at its peak. Some 2 to 3 billion years after the big bang, galaxies were forming stars at a furious rate. The fireworks of star formation happening then still shape the galaxies we see around us today.

“A galaxy during cosmic noon wouldn’t have one NGC 346 like the Small Magellanic Cloud does; it would have thousands’ of star-forming regions like this one, said Margaret Meixner, an astronomer at the Universities Space Research Association and principal investigator of the research team. ‘But even if NGC 346 is now the one and only massive cluster furiously forming stars in its galaxy, it offers us a great opportunity to probe conditions that were in place at cosmic noon.’

“By observing protostars still in the process of forming, researchers can learn if the star formation process in the SMC is different from what we observe in our own Milky Way. Previous infrared studies of NGC 346 have focused on protostars heavier than about 5 to 8 times the mass of our Sun. ‘With Webb, we can probe down to lighter-weight protostars, as small as one tenth of our Sun, to see if their formation process is affected by the lower metal content,’ said Olivia Jones of the United Kingdom Astronomy Technology Centre, Royal Observatory Edinburgh, a co-investigator on the program….”

Compared to the galaxies LEDA 48062 and UGC 8603, NGC 346 is in our back yard.

NGC 346 is a nebula and open star cluster in what the article called the SMC. That’s the Small Magellanic Cloud: a dwarf galaxy orbiting the one we’re in: the Milky Way.

The Large and Small Magellanic Clouds got their name, I gather, because they look sort of like clouds.

And the Milky Way’s name comes from my branch of Western civilization’s obsession with all things Greek and Roman, back in the day.

I wouldn’t mind seeing the Milky Way re-named Bealach na Bó Finne, Mór-Chuing Argait, Smir Find Fedlimthi, or Earball na Lárach Báine. But that’s not going to happen. I rather like Earball na Lárach Báine, White Mare’s Tail. And I’m wandering off-topic.

I’m also missing something.

Metals! Right. When an astronomer talks about metals, it’s any stuff that’s not hydrogen or helium: the two most common elements.

“Cosmic noon” is defined in that article as the time, two or three billion years after this universe began, when star formation was happening faster than ever before or since.4

Studying a star-forming region that’s a bit like most places during the cosmic noon should help scientists learn more about how stars, galaxies and we came to where we are now.

“…Bright Immensities….”

NASA/ESA's image, detail: LH 95 stellar nursery in the Large Magellanic Cloud. (December 2006)

Howard Chandler Robbins’ “And Have the Bright Immensities” was in our hymnal, back when I was a Methodist. Since then I’ve learned that it’s an Episcopalian song, and I’ve decided that being Catholic makes sense.

The words come from a poem written, probably, in 1931.5

“And have the bright immensities received our risen Lord,
Where light years frame the Pleiades, and point Orion’s sword?
Do flaming suns his footsteps trace through corridors sublime,
The Lord of interstellar space and Conqueror of time?
The heaven that hides him from our sight knows neither near nor far;
An altar candle sheds its light as surely as a star:
And where his loving people meet to share the gift divine,
There stands he with unhurrying feet; there heavenly splendors shine.
(“And Have the Bright Immensities”, Howard Chandler Robbins (1876-1952); first printed in “The Living Church” (1931), later included in H.C.R.’s “Way of Light” (New York, 1933))

I liked “And Have the Bright Immensities” when I first sang it. I still do.

That’s partly because it’s among the best descriptions I’ve seen, of cosmic scale in the context of God’s presence.

First off, God isn’t so much in Heaven as Heaven is where God is. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 32, 326, 1023-1029 …)

And God is: God. I don’t understand God. Not fully. Nobody can. If I thoroughly understood someone or something, it wouldn’t be God. (Catechism, 230)

The visible world, this universe, is big. It’s impressive. It’s got a ‘wow factor.’

But impressive as what we see — with or without instruments that let us “see” light that’s not in the visible spectrum — God is, like I said, God: almighty, infinite, eternal. Ineffable, beyond what can be expressed in words. (Catechism, 202, 206-209)

And, big and old as this universe is, tiny and ephemeral as might I feel in comparison, I can’t get lost in the shuffle. Looking at it another way, there’s no place I could go where I could hide from God. I see that as comforting, but that’s not the only possible response.

God is the Almighty, the great I AM. God is beyond this universe and God is “here”, in each place that was, is, and can be: immediately present at all times, past, present and future. (Catechism, 205-214, 268-274, 300, 600)

Lovecraft’s “Terrifying Vistas” and Wisdom

NGC 4848 and other galaxies, image by Hubble/ESA.

'Biblical' cosmologies: Babylonian and Aristotelian.H. P. Lovecraft had issues, and that’s yet another topic. But at least he didn’t try pretending that this universe is just a few thousand years old.

On the other hand, Lovecraft apparently didn’t see the beauty, order and harmony (Catechism, 32, 341) of this universe. Instead, he wrote about “terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein”, with madness or ignorance as our only options:

“…The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. … The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age….”
(“The Call of Cthulhu,” H. P. Lovecraft (1929); via WikiQuote)

If anything, those “terrifying vistas” are even bigger and weirder than they were back in 1929; but I think this bit from Wisdom still makes sense:

“Indeed, before you the whole universe is like a grain from a balance,
or a drop of morning dew come down upon the earth.
“But you have mercy on all, because you can do all things;
and you overlook sins for the sake of repentance.”
(Wisdom 11:2223)

And that’s all I’ve got for this week.

Apart, of course, from the usual links:


1 A constellation, stars and galaxies:

2 It’s an old world:

3 A quick look at some of the weird stuff:

4 Myth, metals and the Milky Way:

5 Bright Immensities:

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Euthanasia for the Mentally Ill: Not a Good Idea?

 Cole Burston/BBC's photo: 'Dr Madeline Li has helped hundreds of patients die. Now she has doubts about Canada's assisted dying programme.' (January 14, 2022)
“Dr Madeline Li has helped hundreds of patients die. Now she has doubts about Canada’s assisted dying programme.” (BBC News)

Suicide was in the news, briefly, this weekend.

Euthanasia, actually. Or assisted death.

Whatever folks call the process, it’s arranging for someone to die. Or, being impolite in my choice of words, killing someone. For thoroughly nice motives.

Who can die? Canada wrestles with euthanasia for the mentally ill
Holly Honderich, BBC News (January 14, 2023)

As Canada prepares to expand its euthanasia law to include those with mental illness, some Canadians – including many of the country’s doctors – question whether the country’s assisted death programme has already moved too far, too fast.

“Dr Madeline Li can recall the first patient she helped die, about one month after Canada first legalised euthanasia in 2016. ‘I remember just how surreal it was,’ she said.

“A psychiatrist at Toronto’s Princess Margaret Hospital, she recalled checking on her patient that day, asking if she had the right music and final meal, and if she was sure she wanted to go ahead. The patient, in her mid-60s and suffering from ovarian cancer, said she was….”

I don’t doubt that the 60-something woman with ovarian cancer agreed that she was better off dead. At the time, and probably for the five minutes it took for her to stop living.

It Could be Worse

Suicide risk factors. (2015) From Wikipedia, used w/o permission.News from Canada is not, as I see it, all bad.

“…Dr Li stressed repeatedly that a physician’s personal opinions should not influence how they assess a patient for assisted death. But she has significant concerns about the expansion of Canada’s euthanasia and assisted dying programme beyond the terminally ill. She is not alone.

“Since 2016, Canada’s medical assistance in dying programme – known by its acronym ‘Maid’ – has been available for adults with terminal illness. In 2021, the law was changed to include those with serious and chronic physical conditions, even if that condition was non-life threatening.
(Holly Honderich, BBC News (January 14, 2023))

“This year, it is expected to change again to include some Canadians with mental illness….”

Eugenics law historical marker, Indiana.Euthanizing the infirm could have been a decision for qualified experts: who’d set up standards for healthy Canadians, and remove those who don’t qualify for life.

Leaving the ‘die now’ decision in the hands of the person who will be killed seems like a nice idea.

And since the Canadian government “…says that the expanded law protects vulnerable Canadians while respecting patient autonomy…” — like I said, this isn’t entirely bad news. The new rules apparently let folks have a say in whether or not they’ll be killed.

Another ‘it could be worse’ item in the BBC News article is that a fair number of the qualified experts aren’t entirely comfortable about their new responsibilities. Two of them must sign off on a Canadian’s ‘kill me now’ request before the patient’s life is terminated.

And that is the sort-of-good news from Canada.

Decisions, Depression, Death and Me

Illustration of 'icepick' lobotomy, from Dr. Walter Freenan II's 'Psychosurgery in the Treatment of Mental Disorders and Intractable Pain.' (1950)I’m not a Canadian citizen, and I don’t live in Canada, so why do I care about helping distraught Canadians kill themselves?

Partly because if I was a Canadian, I might be eligible for a government-sanction death. I’ve mentioned this before.

I’ve been living with depression and something (probably) on the autism spectrum for most or all my life.

My first suicidal impulse happened in my teens. At the time, I decided to keep living.

A half-century later, I still think that was a good decision. Even though I’ve felt suicidal off and on ever since. Mostly off, now, but I’d be surprised if I don’t get the impulse again.

Now, my situation wasn’t like the woman with ovarian cancer. Being crazy, the way I am, isn’t a terminal condition. And I don’t particularly want to die, even when I feel like it.

But I remember feeling suicidal, know what being mentally ill is like from the inside, and remember when lobotomies were going out of fashion.

Even if I wasn’t a Catholic, I’d be unenthusiastic about an irreversible medical procedure: particularly one that could be marketed to folks like me.

And, since I am a Catholic, I can’t see killing myself — or “helping” someone else die — as a good idea. Even when it feels like a nice thing to do.

I’ve been over how I see life, death and decisions, before; but not recently.

Valuing Life and Health: Within Reason

Pieter Claesz's 'Vanitas Still Life.' (1630)Here’s why I think killing myself is a bad idea: even if I’m not healthy.

Human life, including mine, is precious, sacred; and so is yours. It’s a gift from God. Health is a gift from God, too. Trying to stay alive and healthy, within reason, is a good idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2288-2289)

Being healthy is okay. But being sick is okay, too. Both are part of being alive. Getting well, and helping others get well, is a good idea. The same goes for scientific research: which is a basically good idea and involves ethics, same as anything else we do. (Catechism, 1410, 1500-1510, 2288-2296)

So, staying or getting healthy is a good idea. But being healthy shouldn’t be my top priority. Putting anything or anyone where God belongs would be idolatry. And a bad idea. (Catechism, 2112-2113)

Another result of seeing human life as precious is thinking that murder is a bad idea. (Catechism, 2268-2269)

Man! That makes it sound like being Catholic is no fun at all! And that’s another topic. Topics, actually.

Death Happens

Gustave Doré's illustration for Poe's 'The Raven.' (1884) via Library of Congress, used w/o permission.Okay. Getting back on track: like it or not, sooner or later each of us deals with death.

Moping around, brooding on the sadness of it all, emulating the student who got upstaged by a bird in Poe’s “The Raven”: that doesn’t make sense, not to me.

Again, human life is precious.

But death happens. (Catechism, 1006-1007)

Death is not, however, permanent — which is good news or bad news, depending on what I’ve done with my life. And whether or not I accept God’s love and mercy at my particular judgment. (Catechism, 991, 997, 1020-1029, 1033-1037, 1042-1050)

That last item is a sort of postmortem performance review.

Consequences and Painkillers

Philippe de Champaigne's 'Still-Life with a Skull', a vanitas painting. (c. 1671) left to right: life, death, and time.Basically, I think suicide is a bad idea because I’d be committing murder: with myself as the victim.

And since I’d be dead immediately after committing a serious offense, I’d have zero time to repent before that final performance review.

My rap sheet is long enough as it is, and I emphatically do not want to be saying “I can explain everything” during my particular judgment.

But let’s say I’m sick, terminally ill, and in pain: lots of pain. Wouldn’t that make it okay for me to kill myself? Or have someone else do the job?

Briefly, no.

Deliberately killing myself, or having someone else kill me, is a bad idea. It’s among the few things I could do that are wrong, no mater what. My intention, sparing myself pain, doesn’t turn a bad idea into a good one. Not even if I’m hurting really, really bad.

It’d be a matter of the object I’m choosing, my intent and circumstances. (Catechism, 1750-1754)

This is a happily-hypothetical situation, but let’s say I’m dying and in pain.

I could use the pain as part of an interior penance, getting a little more work done on my salvation while there’s still time. (Philippians 2:12; Catechism, 1430-1431)

Or I could decide that the pain is getting in my way as I deal with end-of-life actions.

Since I’m a Catholic, the same goes for unreasonably zealous medical procedures. If I know I’m going to die, foregoing treatments that don’t make sense is an option. So is taking painkillers. Again, within reason. (Catechism, 2278-2279)

Remembering Dinsdale Piranha

One of the clearest discussions of suicide as a form of homicide that I’ve run across was in a Monty Python’s Flying Circus skit:

“It’s easy for us to judge Dinsdale Piranha too harshly. After all, he simply did what most of us only dream of doing . . . (tic . . . controls himself) I’m sorry. After all a murderer is only an extroverted suicide. Dinsdale was a loony, but he was a happy loony. Lucky bastard.”
(Criminologist in a Monty Python skit ca. 1969 (“The Complete Monty Python’s Flying Circus: All the Words. Volume one, Volume 1,” edited by Graham Chapman, Monty Python))

The Dinsdale Piranha skit was funny. At least for folks with a taste for dark humor.

Living in a society where relabeled forms of homicide have official approval? Or living just across the border from one of those ‘compassionate’ places? Maybe not so funny.

Hope, Trust and Prayer

Vincent van Gogh's Sorrowing Old Man' or 'At Eternity's Gate.' (1890)This isn’t what I’d planned for this week’s ‘Saturday’ post, so I’d better wrap it up.

Recapping, I’m not a Canadian citizen and don’t live in Canada, so the new-and-improved rules making suicide easier for Canadians don’t directly affect me.

But since a woman who meant a great deal to me killed herself, I’m more than intellectually aware of suicide. Having experienced suicidal impulses has been a factor, too.

My first adolescent suicidal impulse and the “meant a great deal to me” suicide aren’t connected, by the way. Apart from my having experienced both. There was an interval of about a decade between them.

I can’t see killing myself, or someone else, as a good idea. Even if I meant well. And I think there are long-term consequences to homicide. But I also think hope is a good idea.

I’d better explain that.

John Martin's 'Pandemonium'. (1841) Department of Paintings of the Louvre, Room 713I haven’t, happily, experienced some enthusiastic Christian telling me that my friend who killed herself is roasting in Hell.

Maybe you have endured that sort of ‘reassurance’, or whatever the motive is.

Now, remember: suicide is a bad idea and I shouldn’t do it.

But, and this is important: despair is also a bad idea. And hope is an obligation.

“We should not despair of the eternal salvation of persons who have taken their own lives. By ways known to him alone, God can provide the opportunity for salutary repentance. The Church prays for persons who have taken their own lives.”
(Catechism, 2283)

So is prayer. And that’s yet another topic.

An image from Brian H. Gill's brain scans in 2018.I’ve talked about life, death, and making sense before:

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