04 March 2009
"Octavian's accession to power prepared the ground for the two centuries of Pax Romana, the environment of stability in which ancient long-range trade blossomed. It would not be long before Indian ambassadors appeared in Rome bearing exotic gifts. These new luxuries - Chinese silk and Indian wildlife borne on the trade winds - electrified the empire's affluent. Monkeys, tigers, cockatoos, and rhinoceroses were not uncommon sights in the capital; Latin-speaking parrots became all the rage..."
A variety of birds are of course superb mimics (go here to hear a Somerset blackbird mimic an ambulance siren, here for Johnny Carson's classic conversation with a Mynah bird, but most of all HERE to hear the South Australian Superb Lyrebird; I consider this last one to be one of the Hundred Things You Must Do Before Dying).
But... Latin-speaking parrots! It's curious that no matter how much education or common-sense one has, there are certain unspoken assumptions one subconsciously holds. Before I saw that sentence, it never occurred to me that a parrot in ancient Rome might learn to say:
"Fac ut gaudeam." ("Make my day!")
"Mellita, domi adsum." ("Honey, I'm home."), or
"Di! Ecce hora! Uxor mea me necabit!" ("God, look at the time! My wife will kill me!")
The passage which prompted this post (and my other post below on the invention of teacup handles) is from the book illustrated above - A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, by William J. Bernstein, Atlantic Monthly Press, N.Y., 2008. I've included it as one of my recommended books, but it's not for everyone; it's a scholarly work detailing several millennia of worldwide trade and the effect such transactions had on the development of civilization. It begins with Sumer, and Rome as noted above, then reviews the incense/perfume trade, the Silk Road to China, the relation to the Black Death and slavery, the Spice Islands and their influence on the invention of the corporation, and finishes with modern food, steel, oil etc. It's an excellent introduction to the subject matter for those interested in world history, and especially world economic history.
The author's comments re his book are here. A review by the New York Times is here. And an excellent review by Foreign Affairs is here.